Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Vox

Vox -- the self-indulgent site founded by Ezra Klein and some other bright 30-somethings -- is out of control. It seems determined to write itself into irrelevance with self-referential news judgement that totally bypasses the concerns of ordinary people.

Unless I'm missing something. But I think they will burn through their venture capital funding and then fold. Who is interested in anything they write?

Then there is the case of Matt Yglesias, a super-bright guy who used to come up with really interesting ideas. He is now on the way to becoming a parody of himself. His latest posting on Vox is a plea to do away with time zones and put everyone on Greenwich Mean Time, so we can go to work at 1400 and knock off at 2200. Wow, that's appealing.

Really? Really?? C'mon Matt,there's a lot of important stuff going on in the world. This is not thought leadership. This is outer space.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Atlanta serendipity

Our trip to Atlanta for a graduation turned out to be more fun than I anticipated. While Atlanta may not offer much of a destination for tourists, it appears to have a relatively high quality of life that we benefited from as visitors.

More by luck than anything else, we landed in a hotel within walking distance of the High Museum. We were surprised to see long lines and found out it was the final days of a big exhibit of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. So we braved the line -- which, as much else in Atlanta, was handled with great efficiency -- and went through the exhibit. I had seen the big Frida Kahlo exhibit here in Washington and actually visited the Casa Azul in Mexico City, but this exhibit had a number of her self-portraits as well as the less well-known still lifes. Other highlights were some early paintings by Rivera, showing how he cut his teeth as a painter by mimicking the cubist lights in Paris, and several photographs of the two of them which were works of art in themselves. We dashed through some of the standing collection and were impressed by the number of well-known contemporary artists.

On Sunday, we walked up Peachtree Street from our brunch and wandered into Piedmont Park, a wonderful urban playground that was being put to good use. Our goal was the Botanical Garden, simply because it was a beautiful spring day. To our surprise, we once again stumbled into a rare exhibit -- the first ever in this country of some monumental plant sculptures -- mosaiculture -- that were truly phenomenal. There were two large butterflies made up of various plants as we entered the grounds, which we thought was just some ornamentation. But then we ran into two monstrous cobras, and an ogre, and some bunny rabbits, and dancing berries and realized this was not an everyday occurrence. So we sought out the fabulous Earth Mother and the shaggy dog.

The garden itself was quite nice, with spring blooms. The hothouse was too crowded and, well, too hot to enjoy and the edible garden was in the very early stages after spring planting, but the canopy walk, the fountains and the well-placed benches made it a very enjoyable visit.

We also had great luck with the food and saw much in the department to explore if we ever do go back. You never know.

Monday, May 6, 2013

The next American revolution?

I went to a talk at Politics & Prose yesterday with Gar Alperovitz, the historian and economist who teaches at Maryland, who was plugging his new book What Then Must We Do? Straight Talk About the Next American Revolution.

I like Alperovitz and quoted him once in a column. He's a radical progressive and drew a crowd to P&P much like Howard Zinn did. Most of what he said made a lot of sense.

He says we're in the midst of a systemic crisis, not a political crisis, because things don't change regardless of which party is in power. This is enlightening because it is obviously true that Democrats Clinton and Obama have been no more successful in changing the Reagan juggernaut than the Bushes, who weren't trying to change it. It explains why the elections in 2014 and 2016 offer little hope of improvement.

Alperovitz says we need to "put a couple of decades on the table" to get the systemic change he thinks we need. There's no guarantee we will get the change, he says, and we could just continue on the road to decay that we have been on for three decades. In any case, a couple of decades sounds optimistic to me.

The system that is in crisis is corporate capitalism. Part of the problem is that many of us think that the period from the 40s to the 60s, when labor unions were an effective countervailing force against corporate power, is the norm, when in fact that was the temporary aberration. What we've had since then -- the untrammeled power of corporations to avoid taxes, enrich the wealthy and impoverish the middle class -- is the real norm for corporate capitalism.

Alperovitz says we are in a pre-history of transformation, like the pre-history that preceded the Great Depression, creating the bases for change. He says the revolution will be the democratization of wealth, and he sees the beginnings of it in coops and credit unions, worker-owned businesses in Cleveland and elsewhere, state banks in North Dakota and elsewhere, and so on. He did not talk about crowdfunding or other forms of locavesting but perhaps this is in his book.

He asked the audience to abandon their practice of looking in the rearview mirror to figure out what lies ahead and also to drop their cynicism and pessimism and figure out what they can do to contribute to this pre-history of the revolution.

It's a great challenge and applying it to myself I realized that my foray into self-publishing and my devotion to blogging are part of the democratization of wealth. At least a dozen times, Alperovitz said "you won't read about this in the press," and if I'd had more patience I would have been curious to ask him why thought that was so. But the answer is obvious, because the press is part of corporate capitalism and that goes for book publishing, too.

I bought his book, though I'm not sure there's much more in it than was in his talk. I found it all quite validating. My own feeling of liberation from being able to self-publish my novel and put my blogs out there I can now see as part of a more generalized movement. My immediate fascination with Amy Cortese's Locavesting and my efforts to get these kinds of stories in the short-lived Sustainable Money all fit into the pattern described by Alperovitz.

Friday, March 15, 2013

A Jesuit pope

Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, wanted to shield the members of his new order from the ambition and corruption he saw in the Renaissance church and wrote into the rules that, unlike in other religious orders, Jesuits would not be allowed to accept appointments as bishops or other high church posts. This led to the perception of Jesuits as behind-the-scenes manipulators and earned the superior general of the order the title "black pope," because he would be whispering instructions into the ear of the man in the white cassock.

Exceptions were made for bishops in "mission" countries, and that is probably the rationalization for Bergoglio becoming archbishop of Buenos Aires, though a country that is predominantly Catholic and which once enjoyed a standard of living comparable to many countries in Europe can hardly be described as a "mission" country. Once a bishop gets the cardinal's hat, of course, it's out of the hands of the order, and the college of cardinals, if so moved, is free to choose that member of their select group as pope.

In any case, a Jesuit pope is something of an anomaly, because one of the distinctive characteristics of the order is a special vow of obedience to the pope. Again, in the context of the 16th century when the order was founded, the idea was to ensure a loyal shock troop to stem the tide of Reformation sweeping down from Germany. Unwavering loyalty to the pope in Rome was seen as the way to do that.

It was perhaps inevitable, though, that eventually one of these highly qualified, highly motivated priests would become pope. What's interesting is that Pope John Paul II, who feuded with the Jesuits off and on, would select the head of the order in Argentina first as bishop, then as cardinal. John Paul was so enamored of Opus Dei, the secretive order engaged in an intense rivalry with the Jesuits for influence in the church, that it was rumored he was himself a member of the secular order. It is ironic, then, that a Jesuit is now pope and will by his very presence on the throne of St. Peter tilt the playing field in favor of his order.

Not only will his election now give Jesuits the upper hand throughout the church, it is likely to revitalize the order, which has shrunk to half the size it was when I entered the novitiate in 1966 -- to 17,500 members from 35,000 then. It is no stretch to imagine that young men around the world, especially in Latin America, will discover they have a vocation to join the Society of Jesus.

I left the order after only six years and no longer practice my religion, but the church continues to fascinate me as an institution. Argentine President Cristina Fernandez got it exactly right when she called Bergoglio "medieval" for his opposition to same-sex marriage. But it may be his equally medieval devotion to St. Francis will counterbalance this reactionary tendency as he brings a new attitude of humility to the papacy. I thought it was disappointing when Benedict said he would continue to wear a white cassock and live in a palatial setting in the Vatican, styling himself pope emeritus. It seemed to me more appropriate for the first pope to retire in several centuries to retreat to a monastery in Bavaria and wear a simple black cassock. So Bergoglio is immediately refreshing in forgoing the red slippers and instructing the cardinals to come to their first audience with him in black cassocks instead of scarlet and lace.

Friday, January 18, 2013

More Mackey idiocy

Whole Foods CEO John Mackey called Obamacare fascist. To which I say, takes one to know one. In fact, Mackey's vision of corporatist control and the way he runs his supermarket chain are much closer to any "dictionary definition" of fascism than Obamacare.

He's treading on thin ice because, again by definition, most of the people who shop at Whole Foods are going to be progressive and they don't like the idea of supporting a bigoted reactionary.

I once boycotted the corner bakery in Paris because they were rude at one point. I discovered that the bakery continued to prosper but I had to walk twice as far for my morning croissants, so I gave it up and came to the conclusion that personal boycotts are by and large pointless.

Even an organized boycott in this case would achieve what exactly? Mackey has preemptively apologized, so would the goal be to change this leopard's spots or get a new leopard? Neither is likely to happen.

I have other beefs with Whole Foods, as readers of my food blog know (no pun intended, because beef is not one of them). I do try to shop alternatively where possible but convenience often wins out and WF remains the best one-stop shopping for high-quality food in my little neck of the woods. But WF is vulnerable to competition. Other premium-quality supermarkets are unlikely to move into Chevy Chase just because they see a disaffection with Mackey among progressive shoppers. But once they do move in, disaffected shoppers like myself will rush to the competition.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Jon Stewart is just a comedian

So now liberals are upset because Jon Stewart is making fun of the trillion-dollar platinum coin. Of course that's what comedians do -- make fun of idiotic ideas, and even its backers acknowledge it is idiotic. Paul Krugman is upset because Stewart's humor, he feels, is good because it is anchored in reality and based on solid research.

Sometimes it is. But sometimes it isn't. Jon Stewart is a funny guy but I pretty much stopped watching him when he took himself way too seriously and staged this "unify the country" rally on the National Mall with Stephen Colbert.

The problem here is not that Jon Stewart doesn't understand economics -- he clearly doesn't but neither does Michael Bloomberg and many other people who matter more -- but that anyone takes his jokes about platinum coins seriously. Lighten up. It really is just a comedy show.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Italy fever

For some reason, I've been in the grip of Italy fever lately. I'm liking Italian food, looking for places in Italy to visit, and last week I even started an intensive Italian language course.

I've always wanted to learn Italian just because I like the language, the culture, the place. It always seemed a bit impractical since I don't really need it for short visits and there's really not much prospect of ever living there for an extended period of time. Spanish always seemed more practical because it is so widespread in this country.

But what the heck. I'm not getting any younger and I might enjoy learning a new language just for the fun of it. The Italian Culture Institute in Bethesda offers an accelerated course for people who already speak another Romance language (French, Spanish or Portuguese). The class is small, the teacher is Italian, from Liguria, so it's a fairly ideal situation. We'll see whether I go beyond this initial course of 10 sessions once a week.

I've been to Italy often but it never seems to be enough. I went to Rome and Frascati for a week or so two or three times in my early trips to Europe as a Jesuit seminarian. I spent a couple days in Genoa waiting to board the Michelangelo for my voyage home after my Fulbright year. I traveled for business and pleasure when I moved back to Europe as a journalist, working on stories in Milan and Rome, visiting Venice and Florence. During my time at Institutional Investor, I went to Turin for a bank conference and had a spectacular dinner with white truffles; attended a three-day conference at the Villa d'Este on Lake Como with its glorious scenery and food; and most fun of all spent a few days with a Belgian banker at his villa outside Siena to write a story about his project of doing the ultimate guidebook on Tuscany. I spent a wonderful week over Christmas with American friends in Rome. Finally, to spend more time in Italy I rented a farmhouse outside Perugia for a month, taking day trips to Rome, Florence, Assisi, Spoleto, Ravenna and stopping in Venice and the Alto Adige on the way home. At Bloomberg, I headed the European team covering the G-7 summit in Naples. We stayed across the bay in Sorrento at the Grand Hotel and visited Pompeii. My last trip there was to Venice during my two-month stay in Munich working on a supplement for the Washington Times.

I've never been to the Amalfi coast or Capri, to Sicily or Bari, and I've spent too little time in Bologna and Emilia Romagna in general. But right now we are looking at a rental house in Umbria, this time near Todi. There is this great line in La Dolce Vita when Marcello drives outside Rome and stops at a country restaurant. The setting is so idyllic that as he's watching the waitress he exclaims, "You are like an Umbrian angel." Umbria does not have the best wine or cuisine in Italy, but it has wonderful scenery, Etruscan ruins, the incredible cultural richness that seeps out of Italy, and it's midway between Rome and Tuscany. We'll see.