Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Brass Icons and the Foo Bird

After an extended bout with bronchitis in the fall, I was left with "fluid" (that's the nice word) stuck in my middle ears, and it stuck around, literally, for months. It definitely affected my hearing; I said "Eh?" so often, I began getting threatening letters from the Canadian Anti-Defamation League. It also kept me from doing any trombone playing, as the stuff would vibrate when I played and cause pain. Not to mention, it was a scary sensation. My family doctor had me try this, then that, and then the other thing, but nothing seemed to work.

Finally, she referred me to an ENT specialist about four weeks ago. The problem was the earlier bout with bronchitis, and the ears were innocent bystanders. The bronchitis created a lot of "fluid", and it sort of migrated into the ears via the Eustachian tubes. (Discovered by some dude named Eustace, asks the wandering mind?) Once in there, however, the tubes swelled shut; anyone who has ever had a toilet overflow knows what that's all about. The ENT doc prescribed Prednisone, a steroid used for its anti-inflammatory properties. (Prednisone also robs your sleep and makes you hungry all the time, two conditions I definitely don't need.) It worked, knock on wood, and the ears are clear, for now. But we don't know whether they will fill back up again. I have a sore throat right now, so we're probably about to test the limits of this fix.

After any extended lay-off on the trombone, one always tends to approach the instrument a bit gingerly, as it can be dismaying, even heartbreaking, to play through the lip flabbiness and diaphragm wheeziness until top form has been achieved once again. It's like re-living one's entire career, starting from scratch at the seventh-grade level. You set your embouchure, close your eyes, and blow, and what comes out of the other end is to your former best what Alpo is to a filet mignon at Ruth's Chris's Steak House. Everything sounds like "foo." Pick out your favorite etude, pour your heart and soul into it, and you are rewarded for your efforts with, "Foo foo foo foo foo. FOO! FOO! f-f-f-f-f-foo-f-foo!"

Reminds me of an old joke, which I'll clean up just a little bit: A man was on a safari in the African jungle, and all at once heard a deafening bird call, "Foo! Foo!" And then, a big ugly wad of something foul hit him right on the head. The native guide said, "Uh oh! That was the evil foo bird. You must never wash off what the foo bird has dumped on you, or you will die." "Nonsense," replied our intrepid traveler, "Superstitions do not impress me." So he sat down on a log, took some water and a kerchief, and proceeded to wipe the gunk from his head... and then promptly died. The moral of the story? When the foo s---s, wear it.

Well, the foo bird is definitely taking it out on my trombone playing, and I guess I'm just going to have to wear it until he gives up and starts dive-bombing the economy again.

My pastor, Wally, says that my entire identity is a little too wrapped up in my trombone playing. I don't do it for a living, at least not anymore, so sometimes I wonder why it's so important to me. I'm in my mid-fifties, so there really isn't any hope any longer of getting into a professional orchestra. And to be honest, it's a dying art form. Symphonies all over the country are flirting with bankruptcy. Audiences are dwindling. The symphony orchestra has become, except for movie music (which I do enjoy), a museum. Likewise, the opera. Everyone knows that wind and brass instruments are no longer as popular as they used to be; school band programs are slowly dying. But not many people have commented on why that happens to be.

I could venture a theory: not very many people have the patience anymore to mess around with instruments on which it can take years of study and practice simply to acquire a decent sound. Kids don't want to start on trumpet when they're in seventh grade just so, by the time they're seniors, they can play a serviceable melody. They want to go from zero to recording studio in six months. You can't do that on oboe, or clarinet, or trombone; but if you have any musical ability at all, you can learn to bang out a few chords on the guitar and join a garage band in short order. I'm not saying the guitar is an easy instrument to master, and I'm not denigrating the accomplishments of some of our greatest guitar players -- Chet Atkins, Leo Kottke, Earl Klugh, Les Paul, Glen Campbell, Eric Clapton, B.B. King, and the list goes on. Great players, all. Great musicians, even. All I'm saying is if you want to get up and running as quickly as possible in music, you should probably learn to play guitar.

And today kids are so impatient, they don't even want to learn guitar. They just want to play "Guitar Hero."

The truly odd thing about this profession is that, as the opportunities grow fewer and further between, the players seem to be getting greater and greater. It's an old trend, but still a live one. If you want to hear some amazing playing, pick up some of the albums from the Fifties and Sixties -- when the writing was already on the wall for big band music -- featuring some old crooner with a backup band led by Nelson Riddle or Billy May. For example, Nat King Cole singing Vaughn Monroe's old chestnut, "Ballerina", or the under-appreciated Keely Smith belting out "When Your Lover Has Gone." Pay attention to the accompanying musicians, particularly the brass. These guys were great, and played every song as if they were desperate for a gig. I'm thinking they probably were.

And you should hear the kids coming out of the conservatories these days. Each generation picks up where the previous generation left off.

I never had that ability to concentrate on one thing for hours at a time which separates the great musician from the rabble of okay players. Whatever I have on the trombone, as a player, came to me pretty naturally and intuitively. It wasn't enough. I could probably have earned a living doing this back in the Twenties, or Thirties, or Forties, maybe even the Fifties. But as the big bands folded, I probably would have been forced to sell insurance or tend bar -- those were the days before computer nerds. I admit, it's a source of sadness for me that I was not good enough to make it.

I love it. I really do. I can stare at pictures of trombones for hours -- "horn porn", as one of my friends describes it. It scares me how close to idolatry our obsessions can take us, which is foolish: I love my trombones, but they certainly don't love me back -- and take every opportunity to point this out. And regarding the talent to succeed at music: if the Lord didn't put it in there, it isn't in there. Since He's the one in charge, it makes sense to be happy with whereever He puts us, and with whatever opportunities that come our way. And the moral of that story is, never fear the foo bird.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Merry Christmas 2008

Our favorite season is here again, the time of year when carbohydrate becomes flesh. Generally speaking, I don’t churn out these yearly holiday missives as promptly as Debbie would like, as there are times when the Greek muse for Christmas letters just doesn’t show up on schedule. Anyhow, we are having our sun room redone, and it’s hard to focus on linguistic precision just after the electrician’s bill, which gives a new meaning to the phrase, “electric shock treatment.” I would say, other than the “current” surprise, the construction is going very well. The work is being done by a friend of ours, Steve, whom we met at church, and I pay the bills with my computer skills, so it seems he and I both spend a lot of time installing Windows. I think Steve’s windows work better than Bill Gates’, though.

It’s nearing the end of football season, and Steeler-mania has wrapped its coils around my conscious mind once more. They’re good this year and perhaps could even go to the Super Bowl. In general, Debbie is a good sport about my passion, but the gulf between X and Y chromosome manifests itself occasionally. Understand: Debbie is a complete Sci-Fi freak. You name it, she loves it: Star Trek, all the shows, all the spinoffs, all the movies; Babylon Five, when it was on; Star Wars, at least until Jar-Jar Binks emerged from tadpole to irritating adult form; StarGate, the movie and all ten seasons on DVD; StarGate Atlantis, where the plots take on even more water than the lost continent itself. She knows every show, every co-star, every director’s commentary. So one day, she happened to stroll into the living room while I was watching a Steeler game recorded the day before. She looked at me, flashed her most indulgent grin, and remarked, “You just never get tired of watching that stuff, do you?”

This year, I spent a fair amount of time on the road. This past March, I played bass trombone at the Eastern Tennessee State University Jazz Festival, traveling to Johnson City with Jon, an old Air Force Band buddy. Once upon a time, I knew Jon as a friendly, gimlet-eyed young airman with a sharp sense of humor. Now, Jon is a Chief Master Sergeant -- a phrase right up there with some of the scariest in the English language. (Somewhere between “In space, no one can hear you scream,” and “The precincts have closed and the results are in...”) Also, my buddy Ray Crenshaw and I attended the Eastern Trombone Workshop in Arlington, VA, and we had the privilege of hearing legendary jazz trombone phenomenon Bill Watrous perform live. “Live” is the operative word, as Watrous almost died two years ago from a massive stroke. He said that, during recovery, he could play trombone before he could talk again. “I was so far out of it,” Watrous said, “Clint Eastwood [a huge fan of jazz] visited me in the hospital, and I didn’t even know it.” Ray and I also took in a trip to Pittsburgh in May, where we met up with my old college musician buddies and watched the Pirates take on the Phillies, seated right behind home plate. Pittsburgh is like a peasant girl who, on a glorious spring evening, turns out to be Cinderella. You wouldn’t look twice at her if she were lined up next to Miss San Francisco in the swimsuit competition. But her profile is strong, her warmth is genuine, and soon you forget all about the vapid smiles of the self-styled sophisticated cities. At least, that’s how things looked after about four Iron City beers (the only beer that, before you can work up the nerve to drink it, you have to already be drunk).

In June, we hooked up again with Ray and his wife Sonja and took a cruise right here out of Norfolk to the Atlantic Northeast. The seas were eerily calm for almost the entire week, and to judge by what we saw, pilot whales and dolphins are not on the endangered species list –- they were everywhere. We took in all the sights. E.g., we looked at T-shirts (my favorite: “Irish Yoga”, a kelly-green T-shirt showing caricatures of drunks lying in various poses of inebriation), and then we stopped in at the Bar Harbor Brewing Company and drank some strange and wonderful beer. Anyone else ever have a blueberry beer? Or want one? But does it really make sense to travel all that way just to shop for T-shirts and drink beer? Of course not, so I revised the strategy: from then on, we concentrated mainly on the beer. Okay, the food, too. At a tavern in Saint John, the manager showed us a twenty-five-pound lobster, “Claude”, who was being saved for a customer with a lot of money and a healthy appetite. (If that’s you, just make sure you’re the one holding the fork -- as, with a lobster that size, there might be some question about just who winds up getting dipped in butter.) You know you’re rapidly approaching creaking “Old Fartdom” when you set your cruise schedule around competing in every bar trivia contest on board –- and then sulk when you lose. (Luckily, you’re not officially an O.F. until you earn your merit badge in shuffleboard.) But Debbie is not ready for assisted living just yet: she actually climbed the recreational rock wall on the ship’s deck. We learned that Halifax was the site of the largest explosion in the pre-nuclear world -- in 1917, a munitions ship blew up in the harbor and wiped out the entire town. In Boston, we met up with old college buds, Kevin and Ann Schmalz and their son Derek, and took a walking tour of South Boston, meeting some of the friendliest people on the planet along the way. Royal Caribbean was dependable as usual –- except for the entertainment, which seemed uncharacteristically ill-suited to the clientele demographic. I mean, nothing gets a bunch of sexagenarians into a party mood better than... a Madonna medley? But there were no mishaps, no uniform malfunctions. The old folks politely applauded the forgettable tunes, and the pointy metal toothpicks mounted on “Madonna’s” bodice did not pierce the ship’s hull.

I’ve done much less trombone-playing this year. After the summer band stint in July, I decided to take the year off from the local orchestra, the Virginia Beach “Not Ready For Primetime” Symphony –- even though I did play an extra trombone part in the first concert (for Janacek’s “Sinfonietta”, one of the great pieces in the orchestral repertoire). I caught bronchitis in September, and it took two months to shake it. I coughed more than a year’s worth of military recruits in the doctor’s line. Then, after that, my inner ears filled up with fluid, and it’s been a slow recovery from that. My hearing was almost completely gone; I kept dreaming that Bill Cosby was pouring melted Jello pudding pops into my ears and smirking about it. (Hey hey hey.) I haven’t played bone since early October. (There’s always been some debate among musicians about whether trombone players actually need to hear -– but it’s one thing to hurt one’s own ears, and quite another to lay waste to the entire viola section.) The current treatment seems to be working, gradually; they put me on steroids (Prednisone), and now but I won’t be eligible to compete in any Olympic track meets for a while. Too bad if they need someone to be the shot in the shot put. I’m not very athletic, but I can do shots.

Debbie’s biggest gain this year is actually her biggest loss -- she joined Weight Watchers and has trimmed off over forty-five pounds, and is now within five pounds of her goal. She looks fantastic, or so says one particularly serious critic of the female form who happens to know her pretty well. She is still teaching orchestra at four different elementary schools, and still serving as music director at our church –- and still taking piano lessons for those times when she needs to fill in. Her Christmas present this year is a sleek new wardrobe to fit her new sleek physique. This past April, we celebrated our twenty-fifth anniversary! Wow. Sometimes it feels like time pounds on us like a mesomorphic Russian pianist jack-hammering a Prokofiev concerto. But then Debbie breezes by like a light Chopin arpeggio, and all of a sudden the years vanish and it’s your first date again.

We lead blessed lives, and recognizing that fact seems to be related to being able to see the things that we have been too blind most of our lives to notice. Every day, in big and little ways, the Lord works on our attitudes to cure of us that nagging, offended sense of entitlement that we, as humans, are naturally prone toward. Once you realize you’re not entitled to anything, it becomes clear just how much you have been given. By the standards of the world, a child was born who would preach in vain and die in a most shameful manner. But the world’s perspective is not the eternal one, and so thanks be to Him whose birth, life, and death has given us the hope of even imagining an eternal perspective at all, or ourselves as part of it. Take some time this Christmas season to think about the One from whom all blessings flow. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Creative Reasoning

Follow the link on the title of this post to an article by Associated Press' Seth Borenstein, billed humorously as AP's Science Writer.

Science has changed a lot since I was in school. It used to look like, well, evidence and reasoning. Today, it looks like opinion journalism -- dishonest political journalism at that, since it is not labeled as opinion, but as news.

The article itself is yet another mainstream media doomsday trope, this one about the horrors that await us due to "global warming." In a year where record cold temperatures are being set, you would think just a little bit of circumspection would be in order about the cataclysm that awaits. But you would be wrong.

Get a load of this:

Borenstein: "Ironically, 2008 is on pace to be a slightly cooler year in a steadily rising temperature trend line. Experts say it's thanks to a La Nina weather variation. While skeptics are already using it as evidence of some kind of cooling trend, it actually illustrates how fast the world is warming."

So, in the adjustable physics of global warming alarmists, here's how things work:
  • Rising temperatures are evidence of global warming.
  • Cooling temperatures are evidence of global warming.
When would it be fair to ask: what could possibly be construed as evidence against global warming?

Leave it to "right-wing" Fox News to present both sides of this debate, unlike the fair, balanced, objective, impartial, and completely unbiased AP.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Ayers is the Bomb

Of all the defenses offered by the Obama camp for his association with Bill Ayers -- co-founder of the terrorist Weather Underground back in the hippie-dippie days of the Sixties and Seventies -- perhaps the lamest of all is that, as the Anointed One himself protested, Obama was only eight years old when Ayers bombed the Pentagon.

Your typical professional Republican may not be the sharpest set of false teeth in the Polident commercial, but even Republicans aren't dumb enough to suggest that Obama used to stop by Ayer's headquarters after school and assemble bombs when his paper route was finished, and still manage to get home in time to watch Scoobie Doo.

Nor should it necessarily be suggested that Obama shares Ayers' erstwhile desire to blow things up. (Let's extend to Ayers the benefit of the doubt that when he states that he now abhors all forms of terrorism, he means it, at least at some level.) So if we remove those perspectives from consideration, what can possibly be the problem?

Quite simply, there are some forms of invidiousness that, once committed, forever strip away any right to be considered morally eligible for public discourse.

Take the example of David Duke, former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, another terrorist organization. I remember seeing him on CNN's "Crossfire" when running for office in Louisiana as a Republican. He looked nice and gentlemanly, in a nice suit, and tried to present an image congruent with the idea that his days as a white supremacist were over. I don't think anyone bought it. But it was really beside the point. Someone with a past like Duke's should be atoning for it, not running for political office and trying to direct the body politic. To me, it's the political equivalent of the Rev. Jimmy Swaggart's struggles with frequenting prostitutes. "None of us are without sin," one could say in his defense. Absolutely. "That means he is still a Christian." That's a distinct possibility. "Let's allow him to continue his ministry." Bzzzzt. Wrong answer. Mr. Swaggart's career as a minister should have been over for good. He should not be preaching to the pews. He should be sitting in one.

Hypothetical situation: imagine for just a minute that John McCain had been introduced as a political candidate at a gathering held at David Duke's house. Do you think the mainstream news media would give McCain a free ride on that? I don't think so, Tim. But the mainstream media, and even Wikipedia, wear that well-known, disdainful "Who farted?" expression when conservatives bring up the fact that Ayers hosted such an event for Obama.

The proper objection to McCain associating in any way with David Duke would not be that McCain necessarily hates black people, or that McCain participated in lynchings when he was eight years old. The objection would be that, to be qualified to lead this country, you are simply required to know who the bad guys are, and to abhor them. And even if the bad guys have repented to some degree, you still can't publicly dishonor the folks whose lives they damaged. A presidential candidate needs to be revulsed by Duke's past and should refuse even to grant an audience to him. The candidate needs to show that the things that ought to repulse any civilized man also repulse him. The proper response to a David Duke is to pray for him and help him in any way that Christ would approve, but never to clink ceremonial coffee cups with him at a political soiree.

Same with Ayers and Obama. Ayers did some despicable things when he was younger. Maybe he's sorry. Maybe not. That's between him and God. But either way, Ayers has no business participating in any activity with any political candidate, and Obama had no business allowing himself to be promoted in such a manner. It showed, at best, a surpassing moral obtuseness -- as if, in the circles where Obama hangs out, having been a domestic terrorist and bomber is no big deal.

Democrats may not like it that Republicans are always trying to portray them as unpatriotic, but that don't have to light the fuse on that particular bomb.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

I Always Knew...

...someday America would become a socialist country.

What I didn't know is that it would be forced upon us by a Republican president.

The ostensible reason why we "needed" to bail out incontinent mortage lenders and Wall Street investors is that not to do so would precipitate chaos on Wall Street.

So we did pass a law to bail them out, to the tune of a trillion dollars.

And Wall Street proceeded to melt down anyway.

So our choices were either we get a financial meltdown, or we get a financial meltdown and owe an extra trillion dollars -- earmarked for the idiots who got us in this mess to begin with.

Wow, don't I feel better.

So what's the difference...

...between a conductor and foot pads?

Foot pads buck up the feet.

I know, that's mean. But funny.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Evil and Stupid

M. Stanton Evans once quipped that the Democratic Party is the Evil Party, while the Republican Party is the Stupid Party. Whenever they agree on legislation, therefore, it must include something evil to interest the Democrats, and something stupid to get the Republicans to go along.

Okay, maybe it's not quite that simple. Close, though.

But to understand politics in America, you have to realize that while the Democratic Party is a liberal party, the Republican Party is not a conservative party. Theirs is not a symmetrical relationship.

The Republican Party is not even the party of free enterprise. It is merely the party of established big business, which often has a decidedly anti-free-market bent and is more interested in maintaining the status quo than in freeing up the economy.

This gives Democrats a tremendous advantage, in that the ideology of liberalism is cohesive. They are the party of "change". Let's say it another way: they exist to tear down established institutions. It doesn't matter what the institution is, they are happy to hit it with a wrecking ball.

But what is the ideology of the Republicans? It's hard to dress up "we like to look out for our rich friends" as a philosophy. So they bang the drum of "conservatism" if they think it will win elections. But there really is no such thing as a conservative ideology -- not now, nor ever. William Buckley and many others strove to create one, but the sad fact is what we see as conservatism is simply a loose and quarreling coalition of people who are in conflict with liberalism. Those who fight liberalism tend to congregate around the Republican Party more or less by default -- there's nowhere else to go.

So the Republicans are glad to accept their votes and their money, but more often than not have no intention to further any other agenda but that of taking care of their rich buddies. In fact, on an issue such as the Great Bailout, there's something in it for Democrats and Republicans. For the Democrats, there's the taking down of Wall Street; for the Republicans, there's power-brokering and cronyism.

This leaves out conservatives: those who want smaller government, those who like economic freedom, those who want a smaller tax bite.

Not in the cards, guys. You may have won this round. But the fight's not over. God bless them, a few Republicans stood up for economic freedom today. All that means is, in round two, Bush will have to promise the liberals something a little more evil to get more Democratic votes on board.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Eastern Trombone Workshop

Been a while since I've posted anything, been busy and got out of the habit.

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of going to the Eastern Trombone Workshop, hosted every year by the U.S. Army Band at Ft. Myer in Arlington, VA. This year, among many other fine artists, they featured legendary jazz trombonist Bill Watrous and also the Pittsburgh Symphony low brass section. My French horn-playing buddy Ray from South Carolina went along, so he could hear what a real musical instrument sounds like. (Of course, he could argue he'd just never before heard a trombone played correctly.)

Bill Watrous played a set of solos with the U.S. Army Blues Jazz Band, and I must say, if the trombone section with that band is not the greatest trombone section I have ever heard, they certainly don't miss it by much. Harry Watters is the jazz solo "star" of the section, but Jeff Cortazo's incredible sounds on bass trombone added the real excitement. I think Stan Kenton would have been proud to call them his bone section. Watrous has had some serious health issues in recent years, but seeing him at ETW seemed like reliving the 1970s. Maybe he's lost half a step, but he had plenty of steps to lose anyway. With his economical style of playing, he's liable to remain a major player for years yet to come.

The Pittsburgh trombone section has turned over completely since I was a student in the Burg. My teacher, Bob Hamrick, just retired, and the rest -- Carl Wilhelm, Harold Steiman, and Byron McCulloh, have moved on or passed on. The sound has changed, but the playing is still first-rate. When I was in Pittsburgh, it was Conn territory -- the Conn 88H reigned supreme, and I think Byron McCulloh played a 71H. I get them confused, but it was a double-trigger bass rig with a red brass bell. Now, two out of three in the section play Yamahas -- Peter Sullivan (the principal) and Murray Crewe (bass). (Co-principal Becky Cherian plays a Shires.) Sullivan is quite the virtuouso. I had never heard him play before, and was quite impressed. You should hear them -- they have released this album, and I think lots of people should buy it.

Events like this are at once inspirational and depressing to me. It makes me want to practice harder and be as good as I can be, but it also informs me that there's obviously a world of difference between where I want to be, and where I am as a player. At this point in life, I simply have to concede that folks at that level understand something about playing that I simply don't get. Oh well. If God didn't put it in there, it ain't in there. It's quite possible if not probable that God thinks my playing in church is more important than playing in a major orchestra. Lining one's own perspective up with God's, however, is the work of a lifetime. I suppose the key is to be content with what you have and use what you do as an opportunity to give Him praise.

Anyhow, I was quite impressed by the Yamahas. At the exhibits, I tried out a great number of trombones, and liked the Yamaha large-bore tenors quite a bit -- they were smooth, like butter on pancakes. I tried the bass bone as well, and I found it a bit on the stuffy side, but it sounded good. (Doug Yeo of the Boston Symphony plays this horn too, in addition to Murray Crewe.) At just a little more than half the price of an Edwards, it would be hard not to give them serious consideration if looking for a new instrument. (I'm already pretty well stocked in Edwards equipment, and I love my Edwards bones, but these Yamahas are real contenders.) At the other end of the economic scale, Greenhoe has introduced his own line of trombones, but still offers the custom-assembled Bachs and Conns with Greenhoe valves. Their valves are smooth as silk, and their horns are wonderful, but we're looking at $7 grand or more for some of their specimens. Shires just introduced a new line-up of less expensive trombones; they play great. Of course, I spent a lot of time at the Edwards booth, bugging Ron (the Edwards dude) and trying out some of their new stuff. I really like the dependent dual-trigger bass rig, which is a fairly new design -- mine is the independent dual-trigger, and it's been a good horn, but I never use the second valve by itself, and would prefer not to have to blow through two valves until I need to do so.

Ray and I really enjoyed Rob Stoneback's lecture-demonstration on the art of ballad-playing on the trombone. He gave us a mini-history tour of ballad-playing all the way back to Tommy Dorsey ("fast, narrow, constant slide vibrato"), then Urbie Green ("delayed vibrato"), and so on. He demonstrated his ideas with a beautiful, sweet sound. (Looks like he might have been playing an Olds trombone from the 1950s or 1960s, but I couldn't tell for sure.) I liked his analogy that ballad-playing on trombone is the flipside of vocalists like Ella Fitzgerald and Mel Torme singing scat -- one is an instrumentalist imitating a singer, the other is a singer imitating an instrumentalist. I'd never thought of it that way before.

Really, that's the job of a trombone player -- of any instrumentalist. That is, to sing through your horn. If you can bring a tear to someone's eyes (I mean a tear of joy or nostalgia, not pain), you've done your job.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Conducting as Spectator Sport

I probably don't spend enough time poking fun at conductors. It's a rich subject area for exploring all the right ingredients for your basic chuckle-fest. As comic actors and cartoon characters throughout the ages have shown us, from the Three Stooges and Elmer Fudd, to Inspector Clouseau and Homer Simpson, the humor lies in this equation: self-importance plus incompetence equals funny. One of my favorite jokes goes something like this:

Q: What's the difference between an orchestra and a bull?
A: On a bull, the horns are in front and the a**hole is in back.

But you have to be careful, because there are just enough good conductors out there to keep you humble. Good conductors can be a wonderful thing. Whatever else they add to the art of making music, mainly they save time. There is never much time to rehearse, typically ten hours for a professional orchestra per concert series, so you can't afford to waste any of it. Furthermore, musical scores and parts are only somewhat specific about the composer's intentions. The notes and articulations are pretty much all there, but when it comes to the tempo (speed) and dynamic (loudness) markings, most composers don't bother to overspecify -- typically tagging each section with a few terse words of instruction. The conductor must make decisions about how far to carry them.

Why can't the individual musicians make their own decisions? By themselves, they are no more than a very talented rabble. Without a conductor, all of the decisions would tend be to made by the most persistent and opinionated players. In other words, chaos. You may not like the way the man with the stick is interpreting a symphony, but somebody has to be the authority. A good conductor can turn this talented rabble into a united instrument that makes music possible.

{Opinion mode ON} I do think music critics tend to make way too much of the variable known as "interpretation." Okay, fine, so Zubin Mehta performs the finale of Sibelius's Second Symphony faster than Carlo Maria Giulini did it thirty years ago. So what? There can be more than one "correct" interpretation. It's really the basics that matter the most. Is everyone playing together? Is it in tune? Does it sound good? Are the most dramatic moments well-showcased rather than dismissively glossed over? If a conductor can make these things happen, the performance will probably be a success -- and we'll just leave all that jibber jabber about a conductor's "faithfulness to the score" and "depth of interpretation" to the critics, who have to pretend something is there even if it is not.

What does it take to be a great conductor? Well, if I understood the answer to that question, I'd probably be a great conductor. But let's try anyway. When done correctly, there is probably no more demanding job on the planet. Being a conductor requires essential talent, thousands of hours of study, and first-rate musical instincts. He must possess an invincible sense of rhythm; nothing is worse than having to battle the conductor about where the beat is. He must have a reliable ear for hearing discrepancies in pitch. He must possess an in-depth knowledge of the musical score; conductors who manage to get lost tend to drag their musicians down with them. (And in the music reviews, guess who gets blamed?) He also needs the ability to communicate to the orchestra how he wants them to play. A good stick technique doesn't hurt, but a lot of the great ones never did anything more than wave their arms around as if they were standing at ground zero of a hornet attack. It doesn't matter how the communication happens, so long as it happens. Suffice to say, in a perfect world, the conductor would be the best musician on the stage -- even though he adds nothing directly to the sound.

However, the sad truth is that it is far easier to look like a great conductor than to be one. So for many who enter the profession, the question becomes, who do you have to fool? You certainly can't fool your players, but fortunately nobody cares what the musicians think. You really only need to make sure you're keeping the people who sign your paycheck happy, and most orchestra boards don't know how things are supposed to be. Furthermore, if they selected you, they're already on your side and will be reluctant to admit an error. That's a relief. And the real irony is that the better a musical ensemble is, the less pressing is the need for a competent conductor. An amateur orchestra needs a skilled, sensitive conductor if it ever hopes to pull off a Brahms or Mahler symphony, whereas the Chicago Symphony Orchestra could polish off Mahler's Ninth in its sleep even if Jerry Lewis were the one waving the baton. Hey lady, could you please follow the beat? Haahhhh!!!!!

This opens the door to charlatans.

And that probably sounds mean. Problem is, it is not me who gives the game away, but rather the good conductors themselves who set the standard.

For example, a couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to perform under the baton of Col. Arnald Gabriel, who conducted our group (the Virginia Wind Symphony) in what can only be called an inspired performance. Col. Gabriel was the commander of the United States Air Force Band for many years, and in terms of his conducting prowess, he is the real deal. One of his trademarks is his ability to memorize musical scores, and he performed our concert without using any of the scores. When Col. Gabriel memorizes a score, he memorizes every single note and marking, so that if you were to ask him what note the second horn should be playing at measure 119, he will think for a minute and then be able to tell you the correct note.

Well, (I heard this from one of my former Air Force band commanders) the USAF band was once auditioning Air Force field band conductors, and one of the auditionees performed, from memory, Verdi's Overture to "La Forza del Destino" (i.e., "The Forceps of Destiny", or something close). When he was done, Col. Gabriel stood up and said, "Very nice. I just have one question: in what key does the overture open up?" The auditioner's facial expression went from zero to outraged in about four seconds, and, livid with anger and embarrassment, glowered at Gabriel and spat, "You... Animal!!!!" He stormed off the stage, needless to say, to the great amusement of the players. Finally, Col. Gabriel announced, "If anyone needs me, I'll be in my cage." Hopefully the word was spread that Col. Gabriel expected prospective conductors to know the music, not just be able to beat time convincingly.

Ultimately, conducting shares a certain trait with other managerial endeavors, and that can be summed up by the phrase, "An ounce of image is worth a pound of performance." If you look good in a tailcoat and can strike a convincing pose with a baton, and especially if you're young and presentable, you'll at least have the local newspaper on your side, and that's half the battle. But there's more. It may take a great genius to master the art of conducting, but it certainly doesn't take a genius to cop an attitude. Arrogance is a tool of the trade. It can serve to disguise incompetence as well as to make others reluctant to question you.

Now, I certainly don't mean to imply that all conductors are arrogant. I remember how fond the Pittsburgh Symphony players were of Andre Previn, when he was their music director, and by all accounts Maestro Previn was not an arrogant man, but rather a helpful, pleasant man. But there has certainly been enough arrogance at that position. Arturo Toscanini was a screaming tyrant who once put out a musician's eye by throwing his baton at him in a rage. Fritz Reiner was quietly sadistic and enjoyed putting his players through the crucible. A notorious number of concert band conductors have fallen into that category as well; I once watched a college band conductor reduce an oboe player to tears because she did not have a good reed. Now, in none of the above examples was it a question of using arrogance to hide incompetence -- all were good conductors -- and in the case of college band conductors, their abusive tactics did not prevent many of their students from worshiping them. I have even heard such tactics defended as just another way to inspire students to perform better. Fine, if you enjoy playing for such conductors, then you play for them.

Incompetent conducting can manifest itself in a variety of ways, and even the best can display rare bouts of it. Or, as Connie Francis observed, "Everybody's somebody's fool." Usually, the more secure a conductor is, the less he will mind admitting a mistake. And vice versa. It can get painful, sometimes, when a conductor keeps making the same mistake at the same place in the music, and then pretends like he stopped on purpose because the oboe needed to bring out the melody more, or the brass were too loud. They think we're too dumb to notice. Dropping beats in a mixed-meter passage is always a great way to discover what else you were doing wrong that happened to coincide with the conductor's brain farting. Irregular beat patterns (e.g., 5/8, 7/8) reveal whether your conductor has a solid sense of rhythm. Other times, your conductor may have great skills but still lose the vision. There was a conductor back in college -- I swear, he really could hear the grass grow. Exceptional technique, fantastic musicality, what could possibly be wrong? Well, this fellow loved to spend an entire hour of rehearsal on one or two measures of music, beating the same players up over and over because they just could not produce what he wanted to hear. Groan. It was not unusual to get to the concert and never have played any of the pieces all the way through without stopping. Needless to say, the concerts were white-knuckle affairs.

But there's nothing like sticking it (so to speak) to the incompetent and arrogant. Just one example, heard this one from a professional trumpet player in a large midwest orchestra. A friend of his auditioned for another orchestra, and had to perform the offstage trumpet call in Beethoven's Leonore No. 3 Overture. The first time he played it, the Maestro asked him, "That was nice; do you think you could play it again, but this time, more sudden?"

More sudden?

"Yes, more sudden."

The trumpet player had no idea what the Maestro was trying to communicate, so he played it again, but this time a little louder. "That was louder," said the Maestro, "But I want it to be more sudden."

So the trumpet player thought for a minute. Then he put the horn up to his lips and took a deep breath... but did not play. He just held it there and made eye contact with the Maestro. Finally, the Maestro looked away quickly, and that's when they trumpet player pounced, playing louder even than before.

"That's it!" the Maestro beamed triumphantly.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

William F. Buckley, Jr. -- Rest in Peace

The death yesterday of William F. Buckley, Jr. was unwelcome news, indeed. It would be hard to overestimate the intellectual impact of his ideas on modern America, or to point to anyone else within the journalistic profession whose contributions have borne such significant fruit. It is no exaggeration to say that, without Buckley, the Reagan Presidency could have never happened.

In the years following World War II, we found that we had vanquished the threat of national socialism only to replace that threat with another, no less formidable threat in the form of Soviet communism. The narrative of communism -- its appeal to economic justice and its drumbeat of deterministic inevitability -- had won a lot of converts within American journalism, academia, and even within the government itself. As Soviet communism bore down on us from a strategic and military perspective, many of its fellow-traveling "progressive" ideals also infected America's public policy, dragging us inexorably toward socialism. Social security, laws to protect labor unions, minimum wage laws, and finally (since there is no logical stopping point for such thinking) welfare, housing, and millions of other policy directives all seemed to point to the inevitable arrival of the Nanny State.

Enter William Buckley, World War II vet, son of a wealthy oil man, educated in an English boarding school, and eventually at Yale University, where he ran head on into the liberalism which serves as the sieve through which all ideas in the academic world are strained . Where most of us might just try to grin and bear the liberal indoctrination for four years, Buckley's response was to grin and refuse to bear it, hitting back with his first book, God and Man at Yale , in 1951, a witty expose of the techniques and pervasiveness of liberal indoctrination within the hallowed halls of academia. Liberals reacted to the book with a heaping of shock and disgust, garnished with a soupcon of hysteria. E.g., the Saturday Review's reasoned, dispassionate reaction:

"The book is one which has the glow and appeal of a fiery cross on a hillside at night. There will undoubtedly be robed figures who gather to it, but the hoods will not be academic. They will cover the face."

(Nothing like a tolerant liberal, I always say.)

And ever since, Buckley has been the scourge of liberalism and liberal pretensions. In 1955, he assembled a distinguished cast of ex-communists and conservative academics looking for a venue for their ideas, and launched National Review magazine, whose job it was to "stand athwart history, yelling, 'Stop!'" In addition to being NR's editor-in-chief for over forty years, and writing a syndicated newspaper column, he was also the author of numerous books (inclusing several novels) and host of PBS's talk show The Firing Line for over thirty years. He engaged in many public debates on a variety of subjects, and somehow found time to be an avid amateur musician (piano and harpsichord) as well as an accomplished sailboat skipper (and wrote two or three books on that subject).

The rise of conservatism as a political force followed from Buckley's creation of an intellectual infrastructure, borrowing from traditionalists like Edmund Burke, libertarians like Albert Jay Nock, and the free-marker ideas of Adam Smith and Milton Friedman. Barry Goldwater was the first presidential candidate who put the sparkle in the eyes of National Review, and though his candidacy went down in flames, the ideas surrounding Goldwater's conservative platform did not. It took Ronald Reagan to bring these ideas forcefully into the presidential arena, and though conservatives can complain that the Reagan Revolution wasn't complete, there is no denying Reagan's contribution toward vanquishing the Soviet Union as well as re-establishing the respectability of free-market economics. Buckley and Ronald Reagan became close personal friends, and Reagan was always quick to point out the impact that National Review had on his political thinking.

As a practitioner of the polemical arts, Buckley was second to none. Yet, he always did his job with a playful flair, often disarming his opponents with his rapier wit -- or enraging them, take your pick. He avoided the bitterness and rancor rampant in today's political punditry, always keeping his wits and good cheer. And his rhetorical skills were widely acknowledged and feared. In one debate, Buckley led a team of conservatives against a team of liberals led by Gary Hart, the former U.S. Senator from Colorado who had (by this time) run a bid to become the Democratic presidential candidate -- a bid that was derailed by an extramarital affair he had been having with a young woman named Donna Rice. (It seems almost quaint that, in the days before the unhousebroken Clintons left their unique stain on the national conscience, we used to hold political candidates up to some level of moral standard higher than zero degrees Kelvin.) During one of the cross-examinations, Buckley asked Hart whether it embarrassed him that one of Hart's own team members had once disagreed with the viewpoint Hart was putting forth. Hart replied, "Not in the slightest." Then came the famous Buckley grin -- sly, almost leering -- and his understated retort: "Does anything embarrass you?" The audience exploded in mirth, and if looks could kill, Hart probably would have spent his remaining days on death row.

Though Buckley's books tend to be timely and topical -- and thus now dated -- anyone not familiar with the power and grace of his writing ought to consider picking out a few of them and treating himself to some of the best, most luminous prose the English language has to offer. Many of his books are collections of his syndicated columns, and what you find is a fifty-year historical refresher course, dealing with controversies which are today mostly forgotten. The Hiss-Chambers case. The rise and fall of Joe McCarthy. The Warren Court, and the Warren Report. The "Great Society." Vietnam. Affirmative Action. Watergate. Khomeini. The Reagan years. However, some of his books were conceived as books, such as McCarthy and His Enemies (co-written with Brent Bozell) and Up From Liberalism, both books about the McCarthy era; The Unmaking of a Mayor, about his spirited but doomed bid to become mayor of New York (his first act of office would be "to demand a re-count"); and numerous others.

Buckley lost his beloved wife, Pat, last year, and in a recent appearance on Charlie Rose's show, admitted he had no longer any desire to continue life -- these weren't the words of a bitter man, but of a man who knew his life's work had been accomplished and there was nothing pressing here to keep him from God's presence. A devout Catholic, he was asked during a Playboy interview if he thought all dogmas, secular and theological, must inevitably fade. The response was pure Buckley: "Some, but not all. I know that my Redeemer liveth." He is survived by their son, Christopher, humorist and author of Thank You For Smoking. Once in an interview, Christopher said that his father was "the nicest person I know." No doubt you'll be hearing a lot of that kind of talk, from all who knew him.

He raised the standard. He fought the good fight. I will miss him. Rest in peace, Mr. Buckley.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Say It Isn't So!

Well, color me shocked and amazed.

On Feb 10, I posted the following about Mr. McCain and his smoochy-smoochy relationship with the mainstream liberal news media:

...McCain's strategy has been to play to the mainstream news media, who reward his solicitousness by throwing flower petals in his path as he runs against other Republicans. (Expect this to change once he starts running against Democrats.)

That was written before McCain had the Republican nomination locked up. Once he did, it didn't take long for his media buddies to turn from lap dogs to wolves. On Feb 21, the New York Times did a hit piece on McCain that was described by one prominent newspaper editor as "pretty thin beer." Personally, I don't care about the particulars (if you do, check out the always entertaining James Taranto's take).

I don't claim a lot of credit for predicting this, simply because it was so predictable in the first place. Republican "maverick" plays to liberal news outlets; liberal news outlets (including the New York Times) endorse McCain over his Republican rivals; McCain secures nomination, leaving the Democrats as his primary opposition; the pantheon of liberal news media outlets comes out with a thinly veiled smear on McCain. Wow. I knew it was going to happen, I just didn't realize it was going to happen so quickly.

Look for more of the same. Much more of the same.

Republicans will never be the first choice of liberal news folks. McCain apparently wasn't bright enough to see the two-by-four coming at his head. Now that he's been hit by it, maybe it's not too much to hope that he will figure out where the blow came from.

McCain is eventually going to wish he had spent some time cultivating a few friends on the right.

The mainstream media has switched parades (from Hillary to Obama), but not its m.o. Expect them to continue throwing flower petals before the Democratic candidate, and plopping down flaming bags of dog poo in front of the Republican. I've watched them now for over forty years. It's what they do.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

The McCain Mutiny

Now that the nomination of John McCain as the Republican candidate for president is all but certain, his long history of riling conservatives must somehow be reconciled with his now pressing need for conservative support in the general election. From McCain's perspective, garnering that support must seem to be a simple matter of showing conservatives they have nowhere else to go. The conservative situation, on the other hand, is analogous to last call at the bar: eyeing the homely barfly so unceremoniously dismissed at 10 PM, but now trying desperately to find some comeliness in that craggy, bellicose exterior. Desire tends to trump reality.

In fact, to some types of conservatives, McCain might be a centerfold. As I pointed out in an earlier post, conservatism is not a monolith, but only a loose coalition of various anti-liberal sentiments that seems to be getting looser all the time. Conservatives who place national defense above all else might look at McCain's personal bio and Congressional record and see something exciting. There are also those conservatives who prefer McCain's open-borders immigration sentiments, particularly those among the country-club Republicans who make a lot of money from cheap labor.

Certainly, the prospects of a Democratic administration is galvanizing at least those conservatives McCain has not already irretrievably alienated. For example, the Wall Street Journal's Daniel Henninger is taking the line that conservatives need to grow up and get in line for McCain. (Another way to grow up, by the way, would be to quit patronizing unhappy conservatives by using adolescent insults, but those who write bylines for the Wall Street Journal might have to sacrifice some of their catchiest phrases.)

So, exactly what grievances do (many) conservatives have toward McCain? Here's a summary compiled by National Review's Mark Levin. For starters, there was McCain-Feingold, the famous bill for campaign finance "reform" (a liberal worship-word which implies that change is by definition always for the better), which many conservatives believe is a direct (and successful) attack on the First Amendment. Even McCain's highly-touted pro-life positions have been compromised in order to defend McCain-Feingold's clammy grasp: he filed an amicus brief on behalf of the prosecution against Wisconsin Right-to-Life when he didn't need to get involved at all. I mean, what's a child's life next to his pet legislative achievement?

Then there was McCain-Kennedy, the immigration bill designed to make legals out illegals. Then there was McCain-Lieberman, a ham-fisted response to the dubious science of global warmism. The general rule is that if a piece of legislation has McCain's name attached to it, it's probably a calculated thumb in the eye against conservatives. And I use the word "calculated" to stipulate that McCain's strategy has been to play to the mainstream news media, who reward his solicitousness by throwing flower petals in his path as he runs against other Republicans. (Expect this to change once he starts running against Democrats.)

I could go on, but the gist is clear: McCain deserves conservative accolades the same way Benedict Arnold deserves a Congressional Medal of Honor.

The argument that McCain deserves our support because he is still more conservative than either Obama or Clinton may have merit, but it's hardly as simple as that. Let's stipulate that McCain's record is basically conservative but getting less and less so (as measured by American Conservative Union, who keeps track of such things). Let's grant that he is more conservative than any Democrat likely to run against him. Problem is, that's only part of the story. What is the desired goal of an election, from a conservative point of view? If it were just to elect the more conservative candidate, then it's easy: vote for McCain, quick, while he's still more conservative than not.

But it isn't that easy. You have to keep your eye on the ball: the desired goal is to get conservative policies enacted and to consign liberal policies to the municipal treatment plant. If liberal policies are championed by a Republican president, will other Republicans oppose them? Or will they instead roll over and play dead? Recent history suggests the latter. Particularly on federal spending and the growth of big government, but on other issues as well, George W. Bush has betrayed conservative ideals over and over again, while his party has stood by largely mute and powerless to stop him. The issue, then, is whether conservative policies are more or less likely to be enacted under a President McCain, or whether Republicans will be more effectively conservative in opposition to a Democratic president.

Ultimately, it doesn't matter how conservative a president happens to be. What matters is his willingness to fight for conservative principles when the going gets tough. McCain is tough indeed, but at this point it's more reasonable to conclude that this toughness will be employed not against liberals, but against the conservatives whose support he needs today. McCain likes to play to the liberal media. He seems to enjoy it. What makes anyone think that being president will change this?

There's a bigger issue involved, as well. As I have pointed out, the Republican Party leadership is too often tempted to come to its own terms with Democrats on issue after issue, leaving the rest of the conservative coalition out in the rain. After all, they smugly ask, where will the conservatives go? That's a practical question, and deserves a practical answer. Conservatives have three weapons: their voices, their money, and their votes. If you want to motivate Republicans to act like conservatives, rewarding them when they act like liberals just might be the wrong approach. Let's try denying them our money and votes and see if that works.

Reasonable folks may differ. My good friend at Griffin Trek takes a different tack. Read what he has to say, and come to your own conclusion. As for me, McCain will not be getting my vote this fall; I will probably vote for the Constitutional Party's candidate. I think the Republican Party needs help this year, and the best way to provide it is a little tough love.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Ramblings of a Musical Nature

When you have been playing trombone in ensembles around the country as long as I have, you start noticing certain patterns. Let's put a few of them in print.

If an ensemble (orchestra or band) has 105 players and 101 music stands, the low brass players go without.

If there are four bad music stands, or chairs, in the entire rehearsal or performance hall, the low brass players will get them, week in, week out.

The instrumentalists who need the most room for their instruments get the least, and vice versa. It is not uncommon to see the two oboe players lounging in splendor in the center of the stage, their little shot glasses filled with water and bamboo arrayed around them, with more elbow room than a '36 Packard -- while the trombone players are carefully guiding their slides through the uprights (music stands, mike stands, trumpet player heads) while their tuning slides in the back are whacking the timpanist.

If the brass section is up on platforms, the two trumpet players get the big one, while the three trombone players get the small one, and the tuba player has to phone it in on his cell.

Stage hands think nothing of putting the timpani right next to the trombone player's ear.

Stage hands also think nothing of putting the low brass section, seated of course, behind the string bass section, standing of course, and give you a dumb look if you mention it. Maybe they don't believe you really want to see the conductor. Maybe I don't either, but that's beside the point.

Speaking of conductors... There are good conductors, bad conductors, nice conductors, mean conductors, and pretty much conductors of every other kind. Almost all conductors, however, like to talk more than conduct. They could show you what they want with their stick, but they would rather share their wisdom with you verbally. Very few believe you can pick it up from their stick. So they talk. The worst are the ones who do what in baseball they would call a balk. Up goes the stick, up goes the trombone, ready to blow, then he starts talking and down goes the stick. Just a little more wisdom to impart verbally. Relax. You must need it.

The best conductor I have ever played for is Robert Page, who was the head of the music department at Carnegie-Mellon University in the late 1970s. He conducted a performance there in 1977 of the Bartok opera, Bluebeard's Castle, which was one of the best concerts of my entire life. Today, he is still active in music as the conductor of the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh -- the greatest choir I've ever heard. Not only is Mr. Page a consummate musician, but he is a gentleman who is extremely respectful of his players -- so much so that he absolutely refuses to waste a musician's time. Somehow, he manages to convey his advice to you while he's actually conducting. And he organizes his rehearsals in such a way that, if you play in only a couple of the movements, he will do those movements first and then let you go, all while he is still waving his arms, without stopping the music. I have played for hundreds of conductors, and Mr. Page is one of a kind. He doesn't tell you how considerate he is going to be, he just does it.

General rule of thumb: the ones who tell you how considerate they are, happen to be the least considerate.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Drumming Up Business

In the preceding post ("Taking Dictation"), I wrote:

Trust me on this: if the federal government starts bailing out bad real estate investments, at least three things will happen. One is, the rules governing the bailout will be written in such a way that most of the largesse will go to folks who are already better off than the typical taxpayer, turning it into a subsidy for the better-off by the worse-off....
That was a week ago. And as if on cue, we have the following, posted by Michelle Malkin, from a property attorney in Florida:

I’m a property attorney in Northwest Florida, the epicenter of the real estate “boom” and “bust” and from my ringside seat I can tell you predatory lending was not a factor. Buyers and Lenders were equally at fault for reasons you have already written about. But that’s not the why I am writing.

A large number of the foreclosures involve investment properties such as second home, beach condos, vacation cottages, raw land, residences for rent, etc. In the past year I have learned the details of some fifty or so foreclosures from prospective clients. Of these 50 or so foreclosures, only two involved a primary residence and one of those involves a genuine and unforseeable hardship…

From where I sit, most of the foreclosures are not the horrible tragedy portrayed in the press. People are not always losing their primary home. I admit that I live in the middle of a tourist destination so my local perspective may not match that of the rest of the nation. But my point is that many of the foreclosure statistics are significantly inflated by the large number of foreclosures on investment properties. 48 of those 50 or so foreclosures I mentioned are investment properties and they are counted in the state and national foreclosure statistics bandied about in the press.

I am only a small lawyer with a small practice. If this is what I see, imagine what is going on in the rest of Florida. Florida is a leading foreclosure state right now and many, if not most, of these foreclosures do not involve primary residences yet these foreclosures inflate the doom and gloom numbers used to justify a political solution to an artificial crisis.
Let's stipulate that the vast majority of folks who invest in second homes are better off than the typical taxpayer. Not everyone can afford a mortgage payment, let alone two of them. When we're bailing out real estate investors, it's about redistributing money from those who have less of it, to those who have more. Remember that it's your money that Congress is being generous with, and it means that you now have less money with which to meet your other obligations.

Liberals in the media and academia love to point at the "greed" that underlies free enterprise, implicitly portraying government programs as untainted by that very human condition. Last I heard, however, there is only one species of human, and all are fallen from grace, not just the ones who work for private industry. The truth is that, regardless whether they work for Wal*Mart or the U.S. Senate, people tend to make decisions that enhance their own lives. Politicians have every incentive to sell voters on the idea that government can solve their problems. This is marketing, pure and simple; GM does it when they show you their shiny Malibus with babes driving them; Hillary Clinton does it when she insists before a stacked audience that the government can do a better job of managing health care.

The reason big-government liberals are so scornful of free enterprise is the same reason that Miller is so scornful of Bud -- nobody likes competition. And like most sales campaigns, there is a certain amount of snake oil. Drink Miller and be surrounded by gorgeous babes. Chew Wrigley's gum and pretty girls will want to kiss you. Fund our new government program and we will save America from financial ruin. It's essentially the same thing as those annoying spam offers to act now if you want to enhance your male. The difference is just a matter of scale, not plausibility.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Taking Dictation

Thomas Sowell, the illustrious economist and social commentator, has observed that we can never dictate results, but can only initiate processes. This is true for everything we do.

Take weight loss, for example. If you want to lose fifty pounds, unfortunately, it is not as easy as snapping your fingers and decreeing the weight loss. You must initiate a process that, in some form or another, results in burning more calories than you consume over a sustained period of time, perhaps years. Generally, and superficially, the process consists of adding exercise to your daily routine, and saying no to many tasty foods that are high in fat, carbs, and calories. But more fundamentally, it involves changing the way you see food. You may need to learn why it is that you depend on food to bring joy into your life -- otherwise, all your dieting and exercising may be nullified when the joylessness becomes too much to endure. Justice plays a miniscule role in all this. A lot of people are beautifully proportioned who certainly don't deserve it, while a lot of people who are obese might deserve to be better proportioned. Maybe some day, a pill will change all that. But in the meantime, for the deserving and undeserving alike, diet and exercise is the process, and a better-looking body is the desired result -- fairly or not, it must be achieved, not decreed.

Personal wealth, for those of us who aren't born into it, is another such achievement. A process of being indigent probably won't make you rich; you'll have to start by selling your time and labor to someone willing to purchase it. This is called working. To get a good job, the ticket is to learn enough to demonstrate potential to an employer. This is called learning. Gradually, you will acquire experience, and hence the ability to get better and better jobs. And finally, you will have to accumulate a certain amount of capital, and then find a vehicle for it that earns value at a faster rate than the countervailing efforts of inflation and the IRS. This is called saving and investing. Learning, working, saving, and investing are nothing more than processes, however, and they are not guaranteed to make you rich. But if you are to become rich, some combination of these processes will be essential to your success. Again, justice is only a bit player, if that. Not everyone is smart enough to go far in school. Not everyone is psychologically equipped for the workplace. Not everyone has the discipline to save nor the insight to invest effectively. Many of us will someday achieve some degree of financial success, but few will become rich.

Regarding wealth, most folks in our society do not like where these processes, unbound, would tend to take us. Many would at least try to ensure that others aren't allowed to take away by force or fraud what you've worked so hard to acquire. This modest role for justice has been the prevailing one for centuries in Anglo-American history, but it is only justice with a small "j" -- justice as a member of the supporting cast. It does nothing to address the unfairness of life, but only tries to see to it that public policy will not add to whatever injustices one may already suffer. That's not a small thing, by the way, as our history of slavery and Jim Crow would attest. To do good, first do no harm.

And then there is that group of folks who believe Justice, with a capital "J", should be the star of the show. We call these folks liberals. If life is unfair, public policy should help to even things out. And it's hard to argue that it never should. Here's a family struggling hard to make it, and whatever the parents may have done to make things hard on themselves, the children certainly aren't to blame, are they? Don't we want to feed, clothe, and educate those poor kids? And over here is a fellow who has a physical handicap that makes it hard for him to find gainful employment; can't we find something for him to do? Or subsidize his efforts to better himself? It takes a heart of stone to say no, or so the liberals think.

Even so, there are problems with this viewpoint. For one thing, it's gloriously open-ended. Justice must be perfect, or else it isn't justice at all. Public policy becomes everyone's personal deus ex machina. Before you know it, whenever anyone suffers any sort of calamity, we expect government to kiss it and make it better. Another problem is that perfect justice requires perfect knowledge and perfectly pure intentions. Does anyone know a judge, a senator, or a president with perfect knowledge and intentions? Anyone? Anyone? Anyone? Buehler?

But the basic problem is that justice is a result, and, as previously discussed, results cannot be dictated. We can only initiate processes which may, or may not, help us secure a little more justice. But such processes are never free. They necessarily require taking money, resources, and opportunities from other folks, so that at best justice comes attached with a litany of trade-offs, the most obvious trade-off being the bill at tax time. The typical American taxpayer each year works from January to May before he has paid that fee. Does anyone think he gets his money's worth? Anyone?

But monetary cost is hardly the end of it. With each new process comes a change in the incentives, and so gaming the revised system becomes an intrinsic part of the process of getting ahead. Oddly enough, the folks who were already smart enough to get ahead without government largesse are the same folks who are better at gaming the system. And where's the justice in that?

An example: the federal government passed a law to give minority-owned businesses a leg up when competing for government contracts -- ostensibly, to partially mitigate all the years when minorities were prohibited from competing. But then, the government added women to the list of the oppressed classes, and who can argue with that? The result: all it takes for a business to take advantage of those laws is to place its ownership in the hands of a woman. Maybe she's the wife of the fellow who really started and understands the business. Maybe she's even white. That's okay with the law. Noting that the results weren't what the law's proponents may have originally had in mind, Thomas Sowell has asked, is there anything that was ever done to black people in America that justifies giving special preferences to upper middle-class white women?

Today, certain politicians are proposing that it is government's duty to protect not just our right to invest, but the investments themselves -- at least, those made by homeowners who bit off more than they can chew. As an economic class, homeowners are far better off than non-homeowners, but not to worry: politicians can always tell whenever an injustice has happened just by asking their pollsters. Once we have established that government has the power to pursue perfect justice, it's way too late to complain that now it pretty much has the power to do anything its decision-makers want. And what they want is to buy votes.

Once again, where is the justice? Such homeowners have certainly been unfortunate, but it's not like they didn't make the bad decisions that put them in their current pickle. I'm sympathetic. Really, I am. I have certainly lost a few chunks of change myself in bad investments, and it isn't a pleasant thing. Funny thing, though, is that nobody ever comes to us before buying an expensive house, promising to share its appreciation with us. They only come when it's clear that we will be sharing their losses.

Trust me on this: if the federal government starts bailing out bad real estate investments, at least three things will happen. One is, the rules governing the bailout will be written in such a way that most of the largesse will go to folks who are already better off than the typical taxpayer, turning it into a subsidy for the better-off by the worse-off. Secondly, the bill for all this largesse will be staggering. But thirdly, and most importantly, our economic incentives will have been dramatically altered. One thing about making bad investments, under normal circumstances, is that the incentive to quit making them is immediate and painful. Not allowing these investments to fail will, as a nation, make us more reckless about what we invest in, and thus will weaken the economy for everyone.

And that's just the start. We don't know where the ramifications will stop. That's the problem with instituting processes. They keep going and going. You can determine they are counterproductive long before you can determine how to kill them.

I am old enough to remember when we had a Republican Party that could be counted on to point out all these things whenever Democrats wanted to add another client class to the government teat. Let's close out this discussion with a quote from P. J. O'Rourke, made back during those halcyon days (see Parliament of Whores):

"God is a Republican and Santa Claus is a Democrat. God is an elderly or, at any rate, middle-aged male, a stern fellow, patriarchal rather than paternal and a great believer in rules and regulations. He holds men strictly accountable for their actions. He has little apparent concern for the material well-being of the disadvantaged. He is politically connected, socially powerful and holds the mortgage on literally everything in the world. God is difficult. God is unsentimental. It is very hard to get into God's heavenly country club.

"Santa Claus is another matter. He's cute. He's nonthreatening. He's always cheerful. And he loves animals. He may know who's been naughty and who's been nice, but he never does anything about it. He gives everyone everything they want without thought of a quid pro quo. He works hard for charities, and he's famously generous to the poor. Santa Claus is preferable to God in every way but one: There is no such thing as Santa Claus."

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Conservatives, Republicans, and Cheating Hearts

If you want to understand what's going on today in the Republican Party (it's an ugly business but somebody has to do it), you have to understand that politics, like marriage, thrives on faithfulness and founders on betrayal.

The Democratic and Republican parties are (generally) on opposing sides, but they are not symmetrical, and nothing makes that fact more apparent than an election year. The Democratic Party is reliably liberal. They talk liberal, they think liberal, and when elected they act liberal. If you find a room full of Democrats, shake up your Pepsi bottle, and start spraying, you are certain to get a bunch of liberals wet. But if you shake your Pepsi in a convention full of Republicans, your odds of splashing a conservative are only about one in three -- if that. Electing a liberal is therefore easy; you vote for the Democrat. Electing a conservative is harder; voting Republican is no guarantee.

This assymetry reflects a more basic assymetry between liberalism and conservatism. Liberalism is a cohesive philosophy; conservatism is not.

Liberalism is all about creating the brave new world. It is a religion in the form of a political movement. Christianity believes Heaven exists someday for the faithful, but liberals ask, what's wrong with the here and now? Human beings are basically good, and all that's holding them back are the flawed institutions which have turned them away from the path of righteousness. It is the liberal's greatest desire to dynamite those institutions into oblivion and clear the way for changing society through educating the ignorant -- "the ignorant" being defined as those who aren't liberal. Yet.

Despite the best efforts of conservatives like William F. Buckley, Jr. and the stalwarts at National Review magazine, conservatism has no such unifying set of philosophical principles. As a political movement, conservatism is simply a loose coalition of various factions, each of which has its own philosophical reasons for opposing the liberal agenda. That's why we refer to "the Reagan Coalition", rather than "the Reagan Movement". If there is a unifying principle, it is the reactionary impulse -- a reaction to liberalism.

Some of these factions are:

  • Establishment, or "Country Club", Republicans -- electorally the weakest part of the coalition, but financially and politically the strongest part. These folks resent it when liberalism's bill comes due, and they are expected to be the ones who pay for it. Put lower taxes down as their biggest concern, followed closely by less regulation, and anything else that stands between them and their second home in the Hamptons.

  • Religious conservatives, or the "Religious Right" -- they resent the challenges presented to the sanctity and authority of the family by the intrusions of liberalism, and prefer to educate their children in the ways of scripture rather than the gospels of political correctness.

  • "Traditional" conservatives -- they distrust the desire to destroy institutions that lies at the heart of liberalism, and are afraid of what might happen if things change too quickly.

  • "Small government" conservatives believe that large liberal-style government is too expensive, too ineffective, and too inefficient to trust with their hard-earned tax money.

  • "Law and order" conservatives are fearful of liberal permissiveness and want violent criminals off the streets.

  • Libertarians have a genuine ideology and everything, and even have their own magazine (which is modestly and self-deprecatingly known as Reason magazine). They are handicapped by the fact that they make a lot of sense most of the time, and thus serve no one's political interests. As a species, they are suspicious of the consequences of too much power focused in the hands of a few in Washington.

  • "Working class" conservatives or "Reagan Democrats" -- these folks resent paying high taxes and the exporting of jobs overseas, as well the inroads made here in the U.S. by illegal aliens, which they (rightly) blame for the stagnation of the wages of skilled labor.

  • "National defense" conservatives find liberals to be strangely sympathetic to our nation's enemies.

  • And so forth.

    These erstwhile allies often have serious bones to pick with each other. E.g., libertarians are as spooked by religious conservatives as they are by big-government liberals. Working-class conservatives distrust the country-clubbers, convinced that they are determined to keep the working man down. Libertarians and small-government conservatives see the war on drugs as expensive in terms of money and constitutional freedoms, but it is worth every penny to religious and law and order conservatives. These factions are not discrete; for example, many religious conservatives are working-class conservatives at the same time. Nevertheless, the ideas motivating these factions are distinct, and thus friction between the groups can and does exist. So, Republicans must often exhort their unruly supporters to focus on the common enemy -- and they often do. But the point stands: this is an alliance which needs to be maintained.

    Which brings us to another fact about the Republican Party: it is, and has always been, controlled by the country-club Republicans, who have done a miserable job of maintaining the coalition. The country-clubbers too often succumb to temptation -- they are easily beguiled into coming to their own terms with the liberal Democratic machine. After all, it's easier than fighting, especially when it's a fight about other's people's concerns. Basically, the country-clubbers couldn't care less about any grievances held by the religious conservatives against the education establishment or the popular culture -- their money insulates their own kids. It might bother other conservatives that illegal aliens are driving down the wages of skilled labor, but this actually makes money for the country-clubbers. Big government may be anathema to traditional conservatives, but it's just fine with a Republican Congressman if it means more pork for his own district and a more prestigious role in governing. As long as country-clubbers are allowed to exploit loopholes in tax policy and business regulations, they can all too often be seduced into betraying their fellow conservatives. Some of them do it reluctantly, some do it eagerly, but they do it.

    The unfaithfulness of elected Republicans toward their political allies often litters the headlines, but (I think) is seldom understood as unfaithfulness, least of all by the Republicans themselves -- they are, after all, "the stupid party", in the words of conservative pundit M. Stanton Evans. There have been at least three big moments during the current Bush administration that have showcased the wandering eye of Republican office-holders:

  • The first moment was the education bill, shaking hands with a smiling Sen. Kennedy. (Note to Republicans: if you care at all about maintaining the Reagan coalition, you will never be caught in a photo op with Sen. Kennedy unless you're giving him the finger.)

  • The second moment was the Harriet Miers fiasco. Conservatives had stuck with Bush through an unpopular war and through such liberalesque lapses as the aforementioned education bill, believing they would be rewarded for their faithfulness someday with conservative Supreme Court appointees. And so what did Bush do? He picked a crony of his, from a list of "acceptable" nominees handed to him by Democratic Senator Reid. It was like watching a train crash. There were more unbelieving stares and mouths agape in horror and disgust than at the opening night of "Springtime For Hitler" (in the movie, "The Producers"). Bush saw it as a chance to avoid a fight with the Democrats. Problem is, religious, traditional, and law and order conservatives alike have been spoiling for this particular fight for years. The fight needed to happen, and it needed to be loud, raucous, brutal, and decisive. And, with a president, a vice president, and 55 Republican Senators in their corner, they fully expected to win it. When would the odds ever be better? If you can't win a fight with all that -- even worse, if you turn away from it -- conservatives had to conclude (rightly) that the Republicans' hearts just weren't in it.

  • The third moment was the immigration "reform" bill this past summer. This is one of those issues where the liberal agenda squares nicely with the interests of country-club Republicans. Liberals see illegal immigrants as more clients for their social programs and ultimately more Democratic votes, while country-club Republicans see them as cheap labor. As for the remaining portions of the conservative coalition, there was something to offend almost everyone. For the law and order conservatives, this rewarded lawlessness. For the working-class conservatives, it steals their employment opportunities and adds to their tax bill. For the traditional conservatives, unrestrained immigration raises doubts about the long-term viability of our institutions. And Bush made matters not one little bit better when he accused his critics of bigotry. Charming, George, way to go, you really won them over with that one. Every president likes to pick a moment when he can be ostentatiously tough, but it takes a rare breed of politician to shake his fist at the folks who actually voted for him. That'll show 'em.

  • Political coalitions are quid pro quo arrangements. You do something for me, I do something for you. You scratch my back, I scratch yours. You want my vote, what do I get for it? This is the part of leading a coalition that the country-club Republicans have never quite figured out. They think it ought to be enough for everyone else that they're not liberals, exactly. "Vote for me, instead of {fill in the blank} -- he's (or she's) a liberal!" That this feeble gambit appears so often during campaigns is a tacit admission by country-club Republicans that not being liberal is the only thing they have in common with their irritated constituents.

    So far, the story of the 2008 Republican presidential campaign is that the coalition is restive. The Huckabee phenomenon is a (doomed, I think) bid for a hostile takeover of the Republican Party by perhaps its most aggrieved faction, namely religious conservatives. Ron Paul is trying to win votes by making sense, in that doctrinaire style prevalent among the more intellectually rigorous libertarians. Candidates like Romney, who try to say all the right things to everyone, face a jaded base that has had it up to here with mere pandering.

    What is needed is a candidate who understands that the liberals win if the coalition does not stand. And also that, for the coalition to continue standing, elected Republicans must be true to their base. No more sell-outs.

    Sunday, January 6, 2008

    Agents of C.H.A.N.G.E.

    The Democratic candidates had yet another debate last night, in the wake of the Iowa caucuses and on the eve of the New Hampshire primary, and it appears Hillary got into a snit over something John Edwards said regarding the "agents of change" vs. the "forces of the status quo".

    The first video sets up some of the context:

    The second video provides Hillary's somewhat agitated response:

    It made me flash back to Maxwell Smart, agent of C.O.N.T.R.O.L., in the old TV show, "Get Smart" -- which would actually not be a bad subtitle for this particular Democratic spat.

    As in, "Gentlemen, and lady: would you please get smart?"

    But of course they know what they're doing, because they know their customer base.

    Democrats are inordinately fond of the idea of "change". They love this sort of rhetoric, and if you want to play to the Democratic gallery, you're going to interlard all of your points with encomiums to "change". In fact, you can leave the points out entirely; you don't have to specify what kinds of "change" for which you want to serve as the "agent". The word "change" itself will accomplish everything you need. The liberal audience will swoon. You'll feel like a stud. It's the Democratic equivalent of porn.

    The less pruriently-minded political observer, meanwhile, might be forgiven if he were to ask, "Excuse me, but what kind of 'change' are you looking for?" Is all change good? Is any change to be embraced? Freedom of the press is part of the status quo -- anyone think we should change that? Throw away habeas corpus, anyone? What about turning our economy into a cheap imitation of Zimbabwe's, where the typical yearly wage is $30? Hey, it's change! What are we waiting for?

    What if we all just decided to deed all of our property to the federal governnment and do whatever they tell us? That would be change, wouldn't it? What if we were to decide that Jews, or blacks, or (for that matter) Presbyterians all need to be rounded up and kept in work camps, where they will be starved and eventually gassed? That would certainly be a change. Or what if we started incarcerating people who write liberal Op-Eds in the New York Times? Or conservative Op-Eds in the Washington Times? Have show trials? Mandate adding DDT to the water supply? Institute child sacrifice to Baal in public school assemblies? Require lettuce growers to add e. coli to their shipments?

    All of these things would constitute "change", but I certainly hope that, contained in these suggestions, there is at least one that would make a liberal burp up his latte.

    It is best to view change with a gimlet eye, even at the personal level. I had always hoped to age like a movie star, and I have -- except I was hoping for Paul Newman and instead got Ned Beatty. I look in the mirror sometimes, when I can't avoid it. I'm in my fifties now, and what I see looking back at me is not the thin young kid of twenty-five I used to see. Ugh, look at that gut. I like beer, and it shows. Man, I'd like to change that. But you know, one way to change it would be to gain another hundred pounds. Does that sound like heading in the right direction? No, it doesn't sound good at all. Fatter is not better. In fact, if I were to go about it all wrong, thinner isn't necessarily better, either, not if it meant starving my body of necessary nutrients and weakening my heart in the process, or making myself more susceptible to illness -- we refer to such things as unintended consequences. Change is always accompanied by unintended consequences. Sometimes, they are benevolent, or at least neutral. Sometimes they are neither.

    Look at the trap a lot of folks -- especially Hollywood starlets -- fall into as they age and feel the pressure to look younger than they are. They visit the plastic surgeon, and oops, sometimes the results make them look even worse. Change isn't necessarily for the better. Part of being a good citizen -- same as being a good Christian -- is remembering to count one's blessings. It's learning to be thankful for what one has, and reluctant to throw it away. It's knowing that one must be careful about change.

    Now, back to the national level. There may even be some little-regarded and unappreciated aspect about the status quo that has an importance we cannot even dimly comprehend, but upon which nonetheless we desperately depend. Anyone who works (as I do) with complex systems knows that you can completely ruin something just by changing a couple of variables, and it's hard to predict what could go wrong, or even to diagnose after the fact what did go wrong.

    Liberals exist to wreck institutions. They live for it. It's what they do, and they're very good at it. This means, when you find an institution that desperately needs to come down, you should call a liberal. He'll call all of his liberal buddies, and they'll show up at your doorstep, along with the 10 o'clock new folks, armed with placards, petitions, and indignant facial expressions. And sometimes that's a good thing. You want to abolish slavery? No problem. Jim Crow? Gone. Police brutality? Not on their watch. Problem is, they are just as eager to tear down any institution. Marriage, the family, religious belief, private property -- all of these institutions, and more, have been on the wrong side of the liberal wrecking ball in recent years. With each swing, something cracks. Sure hope it wasn't something we needed.

    We in the U.S. have a lot of things for which gratitude is the appropriate response. Saying we should "change", without specification, is to show very little respect for the blessings we already have. So, I wish all this breathless exaltation of "change" would just stop. Democrats: from now on, please specify what kind of change you want, and please show some sign that you have devoted sufficient thought to the unintended consequences. Then we can decide whether the appropriate response is to cheer you, or throw rotten tomatoes.

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