Sunday, March 11, 2012

Snark du Soleil

Don't misinterpret that title.  The Memsahib and a grandson and I went to "Quidam" last night and enjoyed it very, very, much.  If you have a chance to see Cirque du Soleil, grab it. Take the kids, if you don't mind exposing them to some pretty skin-tight costumes in some of the routines, and here and there a fairly mild sexual reference.

This will have been my third – or is it fourth? – Cirque show, and was by far the best. But I came away from it with a slightly jaundiced view that I'll get to in a minute. In the meantime, let me recount some of its virtues:

Although one attends Cirque for the acrobatics, I must begin with the highest praise for the music in this show. I am not entirely sure how to describe it. First thing to say about it is that it was live, and strongly interactive with what was going on onstage. The musicians provided sound effects which had to be precisely aligned with certain stage business, and it was extremely effective. However, the real revelation was the beauty of the songs and the orchestration. There is probably a name for music that sounds like this, and I guess "New Age" comes about as close as anything, but there was a (tasteful) orchestral bombast about the whole thing that I found quite moving. Moving enough to shell out twenty bucks for the CD of the score, recorded when the show was new in 1996.

Here are some of the highlights, each one a delight:

     --  Rolling Guy:  An acrobat rolls around the stage in a device known as a German wheel, weaving in and out of it as he rolls and manages not to roll right off the stage.

     -- Asian Yo-Yo Women:  four of them manipulate a device called a diabolos, which is a spool spinning on a string suspended between two sticks that they manipulate. Amazing and a delight to watch.

     -- Naked Skintight Costume Guy on Floor-to-Ceiling Red Sash:   How strong do you have to be to wrap yourself up in a couple of silk streamers way above the floor and more-or-less hang around in different contortive positions for 10 or 15 minutes?

     -- Group Jump-Roping:   You have to see it to believe it.  In and out, over under, and not a single trip or misstep.  This isn't so much acrobatics as it is phenomenal sensitivity to rhythm. I suspect that the music plays a large part in getting this one right onstage.

     -- Slo-Mo Human Sculpture:  A man and a woman engaged in a very close-order floor routine at molasses speed that must require incredible strength. You may have seen similar exhibitions at the halftime of Maverick's games. The last Cirque show I saw featured two men doing the same thing. You can feel parents sucking in their breath all over the arena.

And there's lots more.  Maybe a little too much more -- I thought the show dragged in places and could have done without a couple of what seemed more standard circus-y items.  Not that they weren't good and even astounding, but the show is nearly three hours long, with an intermission.

Highlights -- much needed to break up the routine of the threatening-to-become-routine acrobatics -- were the clowns, and I don't mean pancake makeup, red noses, and fright wigs.  There were a couple of guys who were the jokers of the troupe, and they would come out and do improvised routines with people they would call out of the crowd.  The best was the clown's attempt to direct a movie scene with an attractive young (each of whom had arrived with other dates), a schlubby suitor to the woman, and an overweight director's assistant, each selected from the audience and each of whom hammed it up most amusingly.  All of this, by the way, is without speech, the action carried solely by stage business and the music and sound effects.  Very funny.

As I say, a great evening of  .  .  . 

Well, of what?  Is it a circus?  Is it theater?  Is it an old-fashioned happening?  Does it make a difference what we call it?    Herewith a few general Cirqueular observations:

There are moments in the show when you get a flavor the the French obsession with mime and Jerry Lewis.  And not in an altogether good way.  The whole show is in mime, with a very few and brief shouted exceptions, and it's sometimes difficult to know what story they're trying to tell.

Ah  .  .  .  the story.  The  .  .  .  philosophy of the whole thing.

When you get right down to it, this is a fairly straightforward bunch of acrobatic acts – amazing and fun to watch, but conventional acrobatics all the same -- embedded in a very thin narrative, and I mean very thin, with some choreography thrown in that doesn’t bear any discernible relationship to that thin narrative, exotic costuming, and lots of people on stage (or sometimes hanging from the rafters) who don’t do much except observe mutely or dance around or behave oddly.

So while these guys (and gals) are risking their lives and dignity in doing these amazing stunts, there’s liable to be a woman twirling around in a hoop skirt off to the side, or a cadre of androgynous hooded figures marching about. This show features a pale devilish figure with boxing gloves, and a large headless figure carrying an umbrella, evoking Magritte.  And the little girl and her mother and father wander on and offstage.

This is apparently all in aid of the story, which is this: A young girl has parents who are kind of dull. She tries to engage them but they remain dull. She conjures up this fantasy life which takes place in this imaginary place named Quidam (or maybe Quidam is the name of the headless figure), and she becomes enchanted with all of these acrobatic acts. And if you read about what this story is supposed to be about, there’s a lot of talk about everyone being “everyman,” or “any man,” or perhaps that’s what the headless guy is supposed to be.  I'm not making this up.  Here's what Wikipedia has to say:

"The entire show is imagined by a bored young girl named ZoƩ who is alienated and ignored by her parents. She dreams up the whimsical world of Quidam as a means of escaping the monotony of her life

"The show's title refers to the feature character, a man without a head, carrying an umbrella and a bowler hat. Quidam is said to be the embodiment of both everyone and no one at the same time. According to Cirque du Soleil literature "Quidam: a nameless passer-by, a solitary figure lingering on a street corner, a person rushing past. ... One who cries out, sings and dreams within us all."

I mean – that’s it. That’s really all there is.  There isn't even any magic in the show, nothing that really moves all this great circus stuff into the realm of the spiritual, or even the trippy -- just great, stunty, stylish acrobatics.  That's enough, it's terrific, but what's all this other mute carrying on?

Now maybe the costumes and the random entrances and exits of these various symbolic characters enhance your enjoyment of the acrobatics and clowning. Myself, I found some of the dancing and random movement at the margins of the stage distracting. I do confess to having enjoyed the music, and the lighting was effective – but regular old circuses have music and lights, too.

So I don’t want to be too snarky about something I did enjoy immensely. I’ll leave it at this: It was a great evening of entertainment, and I was entertained.   But not particularly enchanted by the vaporous story line and the oddly-clad guys who mainly just walked around.

Do go see it.  And tell the kids that the guy wrapping himself around the red sashes really does have something on.

NPR's Subtle Bias

National Public Radio is biased.  There doesn't seem to be much question on that score.  Oh, by the way, it's biased to the left.  It would like to be America's news source of choice, but its obvious slant and that of its left-of-center colleagues the networks, CNN, MS-NBC, and the major metropolitan daily newspapers (and their websites) has sent folks flocking to Fox News and the Drudge Report.

Sometimes the bias is overt.  Sometimes, it's a little harder to see. 

I used to listen to it frequently, but hardly at all anymore.  I happened to be in my car early this morning and with nothing on KTCK SportsRadio 1310 AM The Ticket here in the DFW area, I punched over to 90.1 FM KERA to catch some news and maybe a fun story or two.

What I heard was a report on yesterday's Republican primaries.   Kansas and Wyoming, mainly, and Guam and the Northern Marianas and other South Pacific entities. 

If you get your news from NPR, you would think that Rick Santorum was the big winner yesterday with his 51% Kansas victory.  NRP led with that angle and played it up big.   Near the end of the report, it was mentioned that Romney won Wyoming and those others, but it came across as an incidental news item second thought and was very noticeably brushed off.  And it was followed with a report that Romney is in big trouble in the South because he's a Mormon.

But Rick Santorum was not the big winner yesterday.  Romney won the delegate battle yesterday, increasing his lead.  Not a lot, just a handful of convention votes, since not a lot of delegates were at stake in the aggregate, but he increased his lead with his victories everywhere except Kansas.  And, as one observer did manage to note in the overall negative piece about Romney in the South -- if he's the candidate, he'll sweep it in the general election because of the large distaste the region has developed for President Obama.

Why would NPR pitch its reporting this way, and why do I say that it is biased since we're only talking about feuding Republicans here?

Because Romney is electable, Santorum is not, NPR knows it, and a Romney candidacy has them terrified that Obama will be booted come November.  So it is in NPR's (and all the others') ideological best interest to take the nutty Rick Santorum seriously, and you end up with skewed reporting such as I heard this morning, just before I switched back to bad syndicated sports talk.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

A Minor Legend Passes

Oh, we were all so sophisticated and cool in those days, all out of college and law school, some getting other advanced degrees, some real money in out pockets for the first time, living in the big city -- Chicago, in this particular case -- girls even showing some interest from time to time, for awhile.  Young men out on the town, oh, we were something to see.  Men of the world.

But being mid-twenties males, there would come times -- rather more frequent than some of us would like to admit -- that we would settle in some private place with our drug of our choice (alcohol, in that particular group), put on the headphones, and listen to some screaming-guitar, heavy-chord, metal rock, and, roll.

And even though we're talking about the late Seventies and early Eighties here, one of the choicest slabs of vinyl we would spin -- and it was an early CD purchase when that technology took over -- was an album released in 1973:

"Montrose" featured guitarist Ronnie Montrose, who played for the Edgar Winter Group on the smash album "They Only Come Out at Night" ("Free Ride," "Frankenstein").   "Montrose" was also notable as the vocal debut of Sammy (then Sam) Hagar, later of Van Halen and a solo career ("I Can't Drive 55").  Drummer Denny Carmassi is still a fixture on the music scene. 

Ronnie Montrose
But it's Ronnie Montrose's guitar that cuts through the phlegm, even after all these years.  He was not extremely "fast," that most prized of guitar-playing qualities in those days, but he got this big, fat, searing, soaring solo tone out of his Les Paul, and an extremely satisfying industrial crunch out of his power chords.  And there wasn't a weak cut or sudsy ballad on the whole album.  The lyrics (many by Hagar) aren't going to make you forget Johnny Mercer or even Kurt Cobain, but spinning those tracks still puts a big smile on my face.  Sometimes, you simply had to hear "Rock Candy" or especially "Bad Motor Scooter," and nothing else would do.

Come to think of it, nothing else will do these days, either.  I'm going to go listen to them right now.

Ah.  Most satisfying. 

Ronnie Montrose died a few days ago at 64.  He had continued to play, but after "Montrose" he lost interest in hard-rockin' metal rock-and-roll and his subsequent albums under the "Montrose" band name ("Paper Money," "Jump On It") weren't very good.  He had one more moment in the sun:  He recorded a luscious solo guitar version of Gene Pitney's "Town Without Pity" from the old Kirk Douglas movie.   You can find it on You Tube.

He was an influence not only on guitarists, most notably Eddie Van Halen, but on record producers who worked to get the sound of that first "Montrose" album.  Van Halen's first album (1) was named after the band, just like "Monstrose," and (2) laid out its tracks in the same way, the same number, and approximately the same length. 

Somewhere along the line, he seems to have turned into another person altogether:

There were rumors that he and Sammy Hagar were going to get the band back together and tour, but it didn't happen before he died on March 3 at his home in Brisbane, California. 

Ronnie, thanks for the tunes and the memories, and rest in peace.

My Pal Lou, Looking for ET

One of my best friends from childhood was a kid named Lou Nigra.  Mrs. Cooke's class, fifth grade, Belleaire Elementary School, Bellevue, Nebraska.  He remained my friend when we both became guys, and I'm proud to say that we have remained friends as men. 

Lou has had a varied career, but he finally realized a dream that many boys of a certain generation had -- I know it was on my short list of dream professions when I was in my early adolescence.  Lou and I and our buds all grew up during the space race and the excitement of the early years of space travel and unmanned deeper-space exploration.  And, speaking now only for myself, I was a science/nature nerd.  (Was?, I can hear you asking.) 

And so there was a period of time when I was certain I was going to be an astronomer.  One day I realized it involved calculus and hard physics and almost no actually looking up at the sky through the eyepiece of a big honkin' telescope, and that was the end of that.  (Also, I noticed that it was cold at night.)   But not for Lou, who got his Ph.D. in the subject a few months ago from the University of Wisconsin.

Not only that, but he landed an extremely cool job:  He's Project Scientist for SETI Live (SETI = Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) based at the very cool Adler Planetarium in super cool Chicago, right by the fabulously cool Lakefront.   I mean, it's a damned cool life for my pal.  You can read his first blog here:

       Science in the Moment

Here's an even cooler thing -- the citizenry (that's you) can participate in the search for ET by devoting some of your computer processing power -- and, more importantly your own powers of observation -- to analyzing radio signals from outer space collected by the Allen Telescope Array.  I think you can get instructions on how to do this at the main site,  (Note that you will need a recent version of one of the popular web browsers to access this site and participate.  You can download one for free from the intro screen.)   You can get additional information by clicking on the SETILive banner and reading a couple of earlier posts by project head Jill Tarter. 

I should add that this is not related to some earlier citizen SETI efforts, like SETI@Home, where one just lent part of one's home computer to processing signals.  This one actually asks you to attempt to see patterns that might stand out from the "background noise" of the universe and call them to SETILive's attention.  I don't know exactly how it works, but it sounds like a very fun way to get involved in something we're all curious about -- who's out there broadcasting (and, we hope, listening -- unless, of course, they're murderous monsters from beyond).

Allen Telescope Array, Listening to the Universe
And keep an eye on The Science Channel, which has a sponsorship role in SETILive and will be reporting on it.  So you might see Lou himself on your TV screen holding forth on this project, with images of the Trifid Nebula or the Andromeda Galaxy in the background.  Can't miss his handsome mug (he was absolutely the fifth grade throb), he looks just like this:

Dr. Louis M. Nigra
(Can't you see him in one of the early scenes to those old-timey alien invasion movies gazing through his refractor and trying to warn the countryside of an approaching UFO?  I don't think he smokes a pipe, though.)  

It's making news elsewhere as well:
       SETI Website to Crowdsource Alien Life.

So if you want to personally join the search for ET, Lou and SETILive have what you're looking for.  If you find anything Out There, let Lou know immediately!  And then drop me a line so I can scoop the Journal of Astrophysics, not to mention Sky & Telescope.

I'll have updates as the project progresses.

*     *     *

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Monday, March 5, 2012

Super Tuesday's Eve

I suppose I should know what the polls are saying about what's going to happen tomorrow, but my mind has been elsewhere recently.  I've been shaking my head over the Republican contest. 

I'm a right-of-center guy.  (Surprise!)  Not a Tea Party enthusiast.  But I would say that Rick Santorum and I would agree on a lot of things.  Never mind on which things we disagree, but suffice it to say that I got no major beef with his positions on a number of things. 

But  .  .  .  .

Let's assume that I'm a Republican primary voter.

Let's assume that I really, really think that Barack Obama has been a poor President and must be defeated for the good of the Republic.

Let's further assume that I'm a mainstream conservative voter, right of people one might generally think of as politically "moderate."

And let's say that I've decided, based on the laceratingly astute analysis I read in The Cool Hot Center ("Advice for Republicans: Scratch that Itch, and Then Move On"), that Newt is not the guy. 

But hey, there's Rick Santorum.

Assume that I trust Rick Santorum to advocate forcefully for mainstream conservative principles based on (most of) his record and his utterances during the campaign.

But maybe I view Mitt Romney, on the other hand, as a straight-down-the-middle moderate.  Forget about whether he is correctly so characterized, just assume that I believe that he's to the left of Santorum.  And maybe I don't trust him to be as conservative as he claims.  and in general I don't like moderates because some of their views are immoderately to the left of center.

But now let's say that absolutely no one in his right mind thinks that Rick Santorum can defeat Barack Obama, but that many of those same people think that Mitt Romney might.  It will be tough, that POTUS is a smooth and crafty deceiver, but Mitt would at least have a colorable chance.  And I've heard these opinions, and seen these polls, and I more or less think it's true.

So why in God's name would I vote for Rick Santorum if, assuming my position were shared by enough like-minded people, it would guarantee the re-election of Barack Obama?  What possible satisfaction could there be in gloating in 2015 over my vote in 2012 while my health care deteriorates, my retirement funds erode in value, the only vehicles allowed in the HOV lanes are EPA-approved GM electric vehicles praying they get where they're going before their batteries die or asplode, my house is entirely lit by miserable curly light bulbs that I hope don't break and poison the dog, I can't buy replacement parts for my Colt Python, and I watch John Roberts swear in new Justice Alec Baldwin?  I exaggerrate, a little.

Let's review:

Obama v. Santorum = Obama, for a dead-bang certainty and even fewer constraints on his statist agenda through 2016.

Obama v. Romney =  Maybe Romney, who may be at worst moderate, which at worst is better than Obama at Obama's best, and probably a whole lot better because Romney will know who got him elected.

I'm sorry.  I'm really sorry, friends of mine on the Right. 

It's just got to be Romney.


Returning very briefly to the non-hypothetical world of the Cool Hot Center: 

I think Rick Santorum shows a lot of signs of kookiness (forcing the teaching of intelligent design -- don't get me started), and he's the Leonardo di Caprio of this campaign.  Directors are always trying to cast Leo in old-man roles (Howard Hughes, J. Edgar Hoover) and romancing beautiful women of prime age (Sharon Stone, in "The Quick and the Dead"), but it never works because he still looks and sounds like he's 14.   Santorum is unimpressive, he's way too far from the mainstream, he's devoted to social positions that the Right has already lost and are not going to be reversed, and he's peevish.  He got absolutely killed in his 2006 Senate re-election bid, 41%-59%, and part of the reason (only part) was that he was perceived as something of an arrogant jerk. 

Mitt Romney looks and sounds good (perhaps a little less pomade), he's flip-flopped in the direction of conservatism, he'll more than hold his own with Obama, and he'll have a first-rate campaign organization.  His Mormonism is a nothingburger.  It means less to voters than John Kennedy's Catholicism did in 1960, and less than Obama's race and affiliation with Jeremiah Wright did in 2008.  I would be far less concerned about religion influencing his governance than I would Santorum's, who's no friend of church-state separation.  He looks like a President and I'll bet he'll find a hard copy of his birth certificate somewhere.

And he's got a sense of humor.

He's welcome to the slogan I have composed for him:

"Mitt is It."

I urge all seven of you who will read this before your state votes tomorrow to keep this in mind as you reach out towards that touch-screen at your local polling emporium.

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Sunday, March 4, 2012

When Will the Rockies Blow?

A few years ago the Memsahib and I and her kids and their kids took a vacation to Estes Park, portal to Rocky Mountain National Park.  Had a great time.  A couple of times we drove into the Park.  We saw things the casual visitor hardly ever sees from the road -- a badger (probably not a honey badger) and a bear, along with the stuff you can frequently see (a herd of elk in the upper elevations).  A rainbow ending in a meadow.  Great trip.

I was shocked by one thing that I saw there:   Enormous stands of lodgepole pine, dying tree by tree.  I could hardly believe how serious the attack was in this area of protected natural beauty:

An ill-placed lightning bolt would take out huge swaths of piney mountainside, I thought.  Surely, I thought, someone must be worried about this. 

The reason for this massive dying is well-known:  It's the depredations of the Mountain Pine Beetle.  Actually, there are a dozen or so species of this pest that have moved up from Mexico over the years.  Their activities strip the bark from the trees, water cannot move up to the branches from the roots, and the tree dies.

Turns out, of course, that a lot of people are worried about this.  I have seen it written that global warming is responsible, allowing the beetles to live through winters that would otherwise keep their numbers down.  That theory has been replaced more recently by pointing the finger at the droughts of 2002 and 2003.  The trees would defend themselves by releasing more sap in the areas of the initial attack, something they are not equipped to do in times of very low precipitation. 

But despite the staggering loss of timber, I was very surprised to see that, aesthetic considerations aside, some authorities are not terribly worried about fire.  Here's a clip from an article from a University of Miami School of Communication site quoting experts on "Our National Parks":

"The effects that the mountain pine beetle has had on the park are debatable. It was widely believed that the increased number of dead trees made the park much more susceptible to fires, but this belief is fading as recent studies show that there is only a one-year period where the dead trees are in a "red" phase (the color of the pine needles on the tree) where they add to the fuel load of the park. After that, the dead trees enter into a "gray" phase, where the chances of catching on fire are slimmer."

Really?  A dry grey tree won't burn like a dry gray one?  OK, they're the experts.  More interesting studies:

"But according to preliminary research results from NASA and University of Wisconsin forest ecologists, large fires do not appear to occur more often or with greater severity in forest tracts with beetle damage. In fact, the researchers find that in some cases, swaths of beetle-killed forest may actually be less likely to burn than those without."   (Fourmile Canyon Fire: Perhaps Not a Sign of Things to Come)

There is about this view a flavor of new thinking about forest fires in general -- that they're inevitable and even desirable to clear out old dead growth and start a vital new cycle of vegetation, including pines.  Witness the comeback of Yellowstone following the fires in 1988  (This view -- that this attack is "natural" and, at least as far as fire is concerned, not as dire as it appears -- is seriously irritating to the global warming folks.  Google "North America's Mountain Pine Beetle Pandemic" and click on that PDF that should be first on the list.) 

Even if fire isn't the threat it appears, the aesthetics are appalling and, of course, the death of entire mountainsides has an affect on the ecosystem of the area in many other ways. 

One of the charms of blogging -- you learn a little something you didn't expect all the time.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Blame the Poor

            Got your attention? 

            For the past couple of years I’ve been reading about the growing gap between the wealthy and the – well, everyone else, I guess.  I never paid it much mind.  My first thought was that this is the kind of talk that, when you look behind the generalities, has its origin in definitional chicanery and ginned-up studies.  And it was mostly coming from The New York Times and other ideologically-motivated organs.  And, of course, now we have the “Occupy” folks with their 1% v. 99% mantra.  

            I also thought – and still think, although this is not the point of this particular entry – that after a certain point of material prosperity that starts somewhere in the lower-middle-class, financial and social-status inequality doesn’t matter much to those above that point.  I’m not saying it’s “right,” I’m saying it’s just not a huge deal to those folks.   People who have air-conditioning, flat-screen TVs with cable or satellite, Internet access, and three meals a day don’t feel oppressed by truly wealthy people, much less by the people just next up the social ladder where they would someday like to be themselves.   They may feel oppressed by the tax man, or illegal immigrants, and sometimes by the oil companies, but they’re not a fertile ground for revolutionary agitation.  Witness the petering out of that very Occupy movement.

            I don’t propose to get into the debate of whether certain people are overcompensated – thinking mainly here of certain financial executives, whose risk/reward seems out of whack and who appear immune to shareholder democracy.   (Even there:    We must have some kind of answer for why shareholders continue to elect directors who vote colossal salaries and bonuses and truly incomprehensible severance packages – no one’s bribing them or threatening them to do so.)  I don’t think these guys are the main problem, at least as it is defined by the people who worry about this issue.

            When I thought about this issue at all, I thought that there must be something going on that is reducing the supply of people who perform the functions in society that create the rewards that send them upwards on the food chain, or increasing the numbers of those who can’t or won’t perform those functions:  Education; welfare; structural changes in the economy wrought by the digital revolution; revulsion to learning about math and science – any number of things that could change the incentives toward a distribution of wealth that looks different than it has looked in the middle-past and beyond. 

            These causes could be either pernicious or benign, but didn’t seem to me to be reasons to blame those who benefited from whatever it was that was increasing social and financial inequality.   Even tax policy:  We read of companies and persons who seem not to pay their “fair share” – but is anyone proposing that they should pay more than they owe after they take advantage of tax laws and regulations?   (If the left argues that the government is corruptly influenced by these same entities to enact legislation favoring them, what makes the left believe that giving the government greater authority to regulate – greater even than taxation, the forcible taking of cash money from the population – is going to solve anything?)    My point to myself, I guess, is that if inequality was increasing, it was not only in some sense “natural,” but perceived as natural by those not at the top of the pile, or at least as not resulting from the tyranny of unelected elites.  Witness:  Obama’s efforts at stirring up class resentment isn’t getting much traction, other than among his media acolytes and the usual suspects among his upper-middle-class college-educated supporters. 

            Still, there’s enough in me of the Nebraska egalitarian to worry about these numbers.  Equality – of opportunity, if not of result – is something we all favor.   And enough in me of the devotee of classic capitalism to wonder whether this is something that the theory needs to take account of, and correct if it can be corrected while maintaining capitalism’s heartbeat of freedom.  (Capitalism presumes some kinds of inequality – there are winners and losers even where opportunity is equal.)

            So it was with great interest that I read recent accounts of studies that seem to point the finger here in an unexpected direction.

            The first is from, of all places, The Washington Post, and is by noted American political scientist James Q. Wilson (who, I am stunned to discover, died the day I wrote this).   The title tells you where he’s going (link): 

You may remember him from his “broken windows” theory of neighborhood deterioration and restoration, a theory explicitly adopted by Mayor Giuliani in New York City that is widely regarded as having measurably improved things there.   The second is by iconoclastic scholar – generally regarded as conservative, but not always – Charles Murray in The Wall Street Journal, describing the results of his recent study from his new book Coming Apart:  The State of White America, 1960–2010 (link):

            The Great Divide

Murray you may recall from his controversial work The Bell Curve.   

            I commend both of these articles to you; they’re eye-openers.  Here’s a summary of their surprising findings, very different in some respects but with a fascinating similarity:

            Wilson (RIP) first notes that the “rich,” the 1% as it were, are not a monolithic group.  People move in and out of the upper tier of the wealthy with some fluidity:  "A study by Thomas A Garrett, economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, found that less than half of people in the top 1 percent in 1996 were still there in 2005.”  Moreover:

Mobility is not limited to the top-earning households.  A study by economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis found that nearly half of the families in the lowest fifth of income earners in 2001 had moved up within six years. Over the same period, more than a third of those in the highest fifth of income-earners had moved down. Certainly, there are people such as Warren Buffett and Bill Gates who are ensconced in the top tier, but far more common are people who are rich for short periods.

He then cites studies that note that the wages of people with college educations have climbed, while those without have declined.  The growing number of double-income families is also quite significant; the growing number of working women greatly influences these numbers. 

            And then he says something that is a different version with what I’d been thinking:  “We could reduce income inequality by trying to curtail the financial returns of education and the number of women in the workforce — but who would want to do that?”   Who indeed?  Not even the Left.

James Q. Wilson (d. March 2, 2012)
             He notes that European countries are also showing a growing trend in income inequality.  Can you guess the one exception, where there has been a greater leveling of the rich and poor? 


Soaking the rich, he argues, won’t help and actually isn’t necessary:

The real income problem in this country is not a question of who is rich, but rather of who is poor. Among the bottom fifth of income earners, many people, especially men, stay there their whole lives. Low education and unwed motherhood only exacerbate poverty, which is particularly acute among racial minorities.  *   *   *

Making the poor more economically mobile has nothing to do with taxing the rich and everything to do with finding and implementing ways to encourage parental marriage, teach the poor marketable skills and induce them to join the legitimate workforce. It is easy to suppose that raising taxes on the rich would provide more money to help the poor. But the problem facing the poor is not too little money, but too few skills and opportunities to advance themselves.

He also supports another one of my suspicions – that, in general, even the poor are becoming better off. 

Poverty in America is certainly a serious problem, but the plight of the poor has been moderated by advances in the economy. Between 1970 and 2010, the net worth of American households more than doubled, as did the number of television sets and air-conditioning units per home. In his book "The Poverty of the Poverty Rate," Nicholas Eberstadt shows that over the past 30 or so years, the percentage of low-income children in the United States who are underweight has gone down, the share of low-income households lacking complete plumbing facilities has declined, and the area of their homes adequately heated has gone up. The fraction of poor households with a telephone, a television set and a clothes dryer has risen sharply.

In other words, the country has become more prosperous, as measured not by income but by consumption: In constant dollars, consumption by people in the lowest quintile rose by more than 40 percent over the past four decades.

So it is not so terribly surprising that there has not been an outbreak of class warfare, the efforts of the President and the Occupy guys notwithstanding.  And that government income figures are misleading. 

           Wilson would not “blame the poor,” of course, but he does insist that if we want to reduce financial inequality we must find a way to improve the education along with training and employment opportunities for the truly poor.  Wilson does not say it out loud, but it is apparent from his analysis that the poor themselves have a role in creating the conditions for their own advancement.

            Murray is gloomier; he thinks America is “coming apart,” but the divide he’s worried about isn’t financial – it’s cultural.  And he’s not even considering blacks and Latinos, focusing instead solely on whites, a population where one might expect to find a narrowing of cultural gaps.   And he is also focusing solely on “prime-age adults,” ages 30-49.   Up through the Sixties, he writes, the “American way of life” denoted “a civic culture that swept an extremely large proportion of Americans of all classes into its embrace,” encompassing “shared experiences of daily life and shared assumptions about central American values involving marriage, honesty, hard work and religiosity.”  However:

Over the past 50 years, that common civic culture has unraveled. We have developed a new upper class with advanced educations, often obtained at elite schools, sharing tastes and preferences that set them apart from mainstream America. At the same time, we have developed a new lower class, characterized not by poverty but by withdrawal from America's core cultural institutions.

Charles Murray

            Focusing solely on prime-age whites, Murray finds dramatically increasing divergence between the educated, professional (which he calls “Belmont”) and the high-school only, blue-collar workers (“Fishtown) in marriage rates; single parenthood (“[o]n just about any measure of development you can think of, children who are born to unmarried women fare worse than the children of divorce and far worse than children raised in intact families”); “industriousness” (measured by males who say they are unavailable for work or who are settling for part-time work); crime;  and religiosity.

            He further notes that formerly, the upper-middle-class executive and the blue-collar worker shared many of the same cultural experiences – watched the same TV shows, took the same vacations, homes equipped with the same type of equipment and rooms.   Now, however, the upper-middle class have pools, eat different kinds of foods, appoint their homes differently, take longer and ritzier vacations, read different books, watch different TV shows, raise their children differently, maintain their health more avidly, embrace different trends.  And these divergences are even more dramatic in recent years among the “SuperZIPS,” those ZIP codes where the truly affluent live, usually remote suburban areas near major cities. 

            It made my heart glad to see Murray write that “the reforms of the 1960’s jump-started the deterioration.”  The Sixties, in my view, were a miserable ten years for the long run, and I agree entirely with Murray that:

Changes in social policy during the 1960s made it economically more feasible to have a child without having a husband if you were a woman or to get along without a job if you were a man; safer to commit crimes without suffering consequences; and easier to let the government deal with problems in your community that you and your neighbors formerly had to take care of.

Like Wilson, Murray believes it is fruitless to rein in the better-to-do:

 The economic value of brains in the marketplace will continue to increase no matter what, and the most successful of each generation will tend to marry each other no matter what. As a result, the most successful Americans will continue to trend toward consolidation and isolation as a class. Changes in marginal tax rates on the wealthy won't make a difference. Increasing scholarships for working-class children won't make a difference.

            His remedies for this are desirable, but would be difficult to implement.  He believes that the upper-middle class needs to stop being “nonjudgmental,” and to have the courage of its convictions about hard work, marriage, and the like, and stop acting like behaviors that lead to a life of hardship don’t make any difference.  Bravo that.

            His next suggestion, however, strikes me as quite improbable:  He believes that the better-off should try to involve themselves more in the lives of the less-well-off by the choice of where they live, where they go to church, where they send their kids to school.  “America outside the enclaves of the new upper class is still a wonderful place, filled with smart, interesting, entertaining people,” he writes.  “If you're not part of that America, you've stripped yourself of much of what makes being American special.”

            Well, Charlie, good luck with that.  I moved into a “changing neighborhood” once, not for altruistic reasons, and once was enough.  Well-off parents are not ever, no never, going to send their kids to schools where a noticeable percentage of the kids are unmotivated, haven’t been read to, and raise hell.  They are not going to buy homes in neighborhoods where the residents tend to party late into the night.   And when the well-off do venture into neighborhoods successfully, what happens?  Property values go up, the existing residents can’t afford it, and there you have it – gentrification.   What Murray advocates simply does not happen – diversity inevitably gives way to homogeneity.      And you think developers are going to build new suburban neighborhoods with some “affordable” homes and some high-end?  Who is going to buy high-end housing, where a large percentage of the buyer’s wealth is tied up in a home whose value is anchored to the value of less-desirable housing? 

            No, I think Murray’s own work and instinct about values gives us the, or at least an answer.  It starts with an end to governmental paternalism.   It continues with permitting the creators of capital to “discriminate” between people who will work, and competently, and those who will not or cannot.  It allows employers to hire or not depending on factors which include their workers’ “lifestyle” choices, and allows educators to exclude from the classroom – leave behind, as it were – those children whose presence consumes enormous resources and retards the progress of those who are there to learn. 

            So, my title notwithstanding, no one is proposing to “blame the poor.”  But resentment of and attempts to level the “1%,” or the 25%, or whatever cutoff the equalitarians would force on us, or punishing those who have developed the skills (or even inherited the brains) to prosper in the modern world, won't get us to equality.  It will eventually get us – Greece.

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