Billy Strayhorn

Billy StrayhornOn this day in 1915, the great jazz composer and arranger Billy Strayhorn was born. He is best remembered for his work with Duke Ellington. Of course, he largely isn’t remembered at all. Even people who don’t like jazz at all know who Ellington was. But Strayhorn worked in the shadows, and he seemed to have liked it that way.

He was a phenomenon at an early age. While still in high school, he wrote a musical. He also formed his own trio that played on local radio every day. And he wrote a number of great songs, including “Lush Life.” Here he is in 1964, performing it live:

Strayhorn wanted to be a classical composer, but he had the wrong skin color. His introduction to Art Tatum — a classical composer in his own way — pushed Strayhorn into jazz. And at the age of 23, he met and began collaborating with Duke Ellington. It is hard to say where one starts and the other ends. Ellington said, “Billy Strayhorn was my right arm, my left arm, all the eyes in the back of my head, my brain waves in his head, and his in mine.” But being the established great man, Ellington took credit for much of Strayhorn’s work. Generally speaking, if you see a tune composed by Strayhorn and Ellington, it is Strayhorn’s. And Strayhorn is probably even more important as an arranger in creating what we now think of as the Duke Ellington sound.

That’s not to say that Ellington took advantage of the younger man. They had a symbiotic relationship. It is doubtful that Strayhorn would have accomplished so much without the protection and encouragement of Ellington. And Strayhorn got sole writing credit for the most famous song of the Duke Ellington orchestra, “Take the ‘A’ Train.” Here he is performing the song on piano with the orchestra. At the end, Ellington lists some of Strayhorn’s other compositions.

Sadly, in 1964 — at the same time he recorded “Lush Life” above, he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, which seemed to ended his career. He died three years later.

Happy birthday Billy Strayhorn!

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Stimulative Effects of Environmental Regulations

Paul KrugmanPaul Krugman wrote about the current partisan nature of environmental laws and how it wasn’t always this way, Pollution and Politics.

I think it is important to understand why doing something about pollution is good for the economy — at least when economic demand is low as it is now. As you have no doubt seen, since the economy crashed in 2008, corporate profits are at an all time high. Because there are so many more people looking for jobs than there are jobs, there is no pressure to raise wages, so the the owners of capital can keep more of the profits of productivity gains to themselves. It’s funny that conservatives think that in this environment, businesses need incentives in the form of lower taxes and fewer regulations in order to “create” jobs.

The problem with this situation is that the rich — the owners of capital — end up just sitting on the money. There is no incentive for them to invest the extra money, because demand is low in the economy and they are likely to lose on the investments — in the short term at least. But by requiring that the owners of capital invest to improve their infrastructure, this money that would be sitting around in the pockets of the rich doing nothing would be cycling in the economy. (Say’s Law is a myth!)

It is understandable why corporations would not want to be forced to upgrade their physical plant. But the effect on the macroeconomy is win-win: there is less pollution and the economy is stimulated. And given that the corporations are sitting around harming the economy with a kind of paradox of thrift, there is no reasonable political complaint against environmental regulations in a depressed economy.

Of course, what we hear from conservatives is that a depressed economy is a bad time to enact environmental regulations because it will kill jobs. To start with, this is a disingenuous argument because they would make the same argument in a booming economy: we can’t harm the good economy! This second claim actually has a theoretical basis. But environmental regulations in a depressed economy is a jobs program. It takes money that the rich are refusing to spend and makes them spend it to create jobs. And meanwhile, we get a better economy and become more competitive compared to other countries.

Marketplace Magic: And Then a Miracle OccursConservatives always argue for their policies of letting the business community do whatever it wants because this will somehow create jobs. It is similar to their healthcare logic, “High cost healthcare; then a miracle occurs; low cost healthcare.” But in this case it is: cut taxes and regulations on corporations; then a micacle occurs; jobs are created.

Krugman suggested that the issue is primarily rising income inequality. But I really think it is mostly ideology. Environmentalism poses a huge problem for conservatives and that is especially true when it comes to global issues. Conservatives cannot accept that collective action is sometimes needed. This is actually quite a typical conservative-liberal divide. Liberals have no problem with individual action. In fact, if we could have a good society without government, liberals would have no problem with it. As I note a lot around here: liberalism is a very practical ideology. But conservatives are not okay with collective action. To them, the need for any collective action other than getting together occasionally and killing hundreds of thousands of people would prove that the government isn’t always the problem. Ronald Reagan would be wrong about, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.’”

This is why distinguishing between different economic situations is anathema to conservatives. Monetary stimulus is always inflationary. Deficit spending never creates jobs. And environmental regulations always kill jobs. My atheist friends rightly mock fundamentalist Christians who are immune to proof. But perhaps they should spend more time looking at political conservatives who seem to be no less immune to proof.

Afterword

Note that in practice, conservatives are not for a small government. But because they hate government, they simply turn it into a corrupt system that enriches their already rich friends. And the one area where they think the government absolutely much be small is in its role to help the weak.

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Anarchist: Brown Family Shoulda Hired Prosecutor

Center for a Stateless SocietyI came upon an article by Chad Nelson, The Inherent Flaw of the Criminal Justice System. It is from the Center for a Stateless Society. Their slogan is, “A left market anarchist think tank & media center.” I just want to give them a big wet kiss and pat them on the head. They are so adorable! They are also deeply pernicious. These are the kind of guys that I was when I was a libertarian. And just as I was then, they are now fooling themselves. Who thinks that if you get rid of government all will be well? It takes studied ignorance to think that absence of government wouldn’t create a power vacuum filled by organized business interests that would be totally unaccountable. Neo-feudalism, here we come!

The article at hand is about how there is a conflict of interest when police officers are being prosecuted because the prosecutor’s office works so closely with the police. This is true. It is hardly the biggest problem with prosecutors in this country, but it is definitely a troubling issue that we should give serious thought to. But according to Nelson, this is just a sign that the government is out of control. The different branches of government don’t keep each other honest because they are all dedicated to the same government. Did you catch that?

Because there is a problem inside one branch of government, the different branches of government can’t work to limit power grabs. That’s kind of like saying, “My home network is down; the internet doesn’t work!” But what Nelson is really saying is that he hates the government and any part of the government will understandably support the idea of government and so this is bad. But he doesn’t come right out and say it because it sounds stupid. Because it is. Basically: the government is bad because I think the government is bad.

What Nelson thinks should have happened is that Michael Brown’s parents should have hired their own attorney to prosecute Darren Wilson. But where exactly the court for such a case would come from is not clear. Would the Brown family have to purchase a legal system on the free market? And if that was the case, why would Darren Wilson feel that he was bound by its findings? So that can’t be what Nelson thinks. Instead, it must be that like most libertarians, he thinks that the legal system is one proper governmental function. But given that he thinks that the government is completely useless in all other ways, why should we accept that collective action would work in terms of the courts?

As with all things libertarian, it only takes the slightest scratching to find gaping holes. If we can work with a government court system, we can certainly make the different parts of the larger court system work. In this case, it is hardly necessary for the Brown family to have their own lawyer (especially since in Nelson’s utopia, they would have to pay for it). What the Brown family actually asked for would have been far better: a special prosecutor. The problem in this case was that democracy didn’t work. It wasn’t that government didn’t work.

The problem here is that Chad Nelson, and I’m sure everyone at the Center for a Stateless Society, thinks that government is always the problem. Like voters in a general election, he really ought to grow up. The question is not between government and his utopia. It is between this government and the other that we would necessarily get. And history shows us that we are a whole lot more free than we would be under the rule of Walmart.


See also: There Are No Libertarian Republicans

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Don’t Mistake “Friends” for Friends

Facebook SucksJenée Desmond-Harris writes a kind of advice column at The Root, Race Matters. And this week, she wrote an interesting article, How to Deal With Friends’ Racist Reactions to Ferguson. It is about people on Facebook, who find that many of their “friends” are, in fact, bigots. The whole thing is kind of new to me because I don’t use Facebook. I use Twitter and there I “follow” people. And on Google+, I also “follow,” but the people can be subdivided into friends. On Facebook I guess you “like,” which implies friendship.

Desmond-Harris gives the advice to just block such people. There are a few reasons for this including the fact that the stress is just not good for you and that life is too short to deal with awful people. I agree with that. It’s not to say that I require that all my friends agree with me. In fact, I would have no friends if that were the case because they seem to disagree with me far more than they agree with me. But they don’t disagree with me about the most basic humanity. For example, I can’t imagine being friends with someone who did not value empathy. (Of course, I would empathize with the fact that they are basically psychopaths, but I wouldn’t want them in my life.)

This whole thing is a reminder that friendship is truly a dying art in our culture. In fact, it is so bad that most people don’t even realize that friendship is an art. Most friendships exist only because they are convenient. “Out of sight, out of mind.” That’s the status of most friendships. And this kind of facile friendship is made all the easier with Facebook. Even e-mail seems to be too much of a hassle for most people. Instead, they just puts their trivial thoughts out into the ether and maybe someone will respond. Maybe someone will “like” the fact that you had a burrito for lunch!

Because I have a very small amount of fame (infamy is probably more accurate), I get e-mail from people I once knew. But I’ve learned to be extremely short with these people. Such e-mail is almost always a kind of emotional drive-by shooting. I’m not at all interested in having a superficial relationship with these people, much less acting as a kind of circus freak to spice up their sad, paint-by-numbers lives. The other side of this is that I’ve developed some fairly deep relationships with people I’ve never met that have involved tens of thousands of words in correspondence. The internet really can act as a way to facilitate true friendships. It is just that it rarely is used that way.

So if I were on Facebook, I have little doubt that the majority of the people I went to high school would be sending out the most vile of comments about the death of Michael Brown now that all conservatives “know” that what Darren Wilson said is The Truth™: officer friendly was brutally attacked and got vewy vewy scawed. But such people show their true colors long before an event like this occurs to make it obvious. But I’m trained. I know what to look for. And regardless, I never mistake someone giving me a +1 on Google+ with friendship.

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What Black People Know Cannot Be Said

Ta-Nehisi CoatesBlack people know what cannot be said. What clearly cannot be said is that the events of Ferguson do not begin with Michael Brown lying dead in the street, but with policies set forth by government at every level. What clearly cannot be said is that the people of Ferguson are regularly plundered, as their grandparents were plundered, and generally regarded as a slush-fund for the government that has pledged to protect them. What clearly cannot be said is the idea of superhuman black men who “bulk up” to run through bullets is not an invention of Darren Wilson, but a staple of American racism.

What clearly cannot be said is that American society’s affection for nonviolence is notional. What can not be said is that American society’s admiration for Martin Luther King Jr increases with distance, that the movement he led was bugged, smeared, harassed, and attacked by the same country that now celebrates him. King had the courage to condemn not merely the violence of blacks, nor the violence of the Klan, but the violence of the American state itself.

What clearly cannot be said is that violence and nonviolence are tools, and that violence — like nonviolence — sometimes works. “Property damage and looting impede social progress,” Jonathan Chait wrote Tuesday. He delivered this sentence with unearned authority. Taken together, property damage and looting have been the most effective tools of social progress for white people in America. It describes everything from enslavement to Jim Crow laws to lynching to red-lining…

What cannot be said is that America does not really believe in nonviolence — Barack Obama has said as much — so much as it believes in order. What cannot be said is that there are very convincing reasons for black people in Ferguson to be nonviolent. But those reasons emanate from an intelligent fear of the law, not a benevolent respect for the law.

—Ta-Nehisi Coates
Barack Obama, Ferguson, and the Evidence of Things Unsaid

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Randy Newman

Randy NewmanThe great singer-songwriter Randy Newman is 71 today. He’s also an acceptable film composer. But let’s say no more about that. And to be honest, I’m not terribly fond of his more recent songwriting. He’s become something of a hack — a really successful and wealthy hack — but a hack nonetheless.

So instead of talking about his work, I’m just going to present some of my favorite of his songs. Let’s start with one of his trademark offensive songs, “Yellow Man.” Yes, it is about what you think it is about:

Next up is probably my favorite of his songs, “Political Science.” It is such a perfect rendering of a very common conservative outlook when I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s. Now it is a bit out of date because people don’t talk so much about the bomb. Although you still hear the same reasoning, “The only reason we lost the Vietnam War was that we didn’t use nukes!” But more than that, there is the naive idea that our foreign policy is just about helping everyone. The first lyrics are perfect, “No one likes us; I don’t know why.” American conservatives still don’t know why. It reminds me of those great bumper stickers, “Be nice to America, or we’ll bring democracy to your country.”

Actually, there are a lot of songs during this period that I really like. He supposedly wrote this song for Frank Sinatra, “Lonely at the Top.” It is sad that Sinatra did not have enough of a sense of humor to do it. It would have been fantastic:

Wow, I’ve only made it to 1972, and I’ve passed by a whole bunch of songs that I love. So let’s finish up with a later song (1983!), “My Life Is Good.” When I saw Newman live around that time, he introduced it by noting, “I’m sorry to say that this song is autobiographical.” I believe him. He does not seem like a very nice guy.

Happy birthday Randy Newman!

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BuzzFeed Britain Names the States!

British CountiesYou may remember back a couple of years, I introduced you to the Know Your States game at Jim’s Pages. I call it a game, but it is also a great tool to learn your states and where they are. And that’s a good thing, because Americans are hopeless when it comes to geography. I know I am! But I’ve gotten a whole lot better. And by playing the game obsessively for a while, I’ve actually gotten to the point that I know all the states. (The game itself is a lot harder than that; you have to be able to place them pretty accurately on a blank map.)

Bearing this in mind, I was pleased to see that BuzzFeed does a fun thing, We Asked Brits to Label the United States Again, Because It’s A Thanksgiving Tradition. Yes, it is a tradition: this is the second year that they’ve done it. And the main thing that comes across is that the people working in the London office of BuzzFeed are very clever, even if they don’t know much about the geography of the United States.

Most of them are very funny, but you really need to click over to BuzzFeed to see them because they would be too small to read here. But this one makes a serious point:

Brits Draw America

I would go further. I think these Brits actually do a whole lot better a job than the vast majority of Americans. That’s why you should play Know Your States. We’ve got to beat the Brits!

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Thanksgiving Poetry

Thanksgiving TurkeyI figured there must be some fun Thanksgiving poetry out in the big world. And I was sadly disappointed. That’s not to say there isn’t such poetry. It is just that the vast majority of what I found was pretty lame. But I did find a decent amount of stuff that tickled me — at least a little.

One website, You Can Be Funny, had Funny Thanksgiving Poems. There are basically just two things that the poems discuss. One is the fact that people eat a lot on Thanksgiving. The other — and main — category consists of those that discuss the fate of the turkey. Here is a typical, but better than average, example:

Turkey, Turkey, look at you
Please be careful what you do.
Thanksgiving day is almost here.
We eat turkey every year.
Go and hide out in the woods.
We’ll eat pizza like we should.

Better is a poem by Jane-Ann Heitmueller, “Reprieve.” It is the turkey equivalent of Poe’s “The Raven.” It is a little funny, but mostly it is profound. Thanksgiving is always a good time to think about death:

While sauntering down an oak filled lane one bright, crisp autumn day,
I sensed a quiet, hidden gaze directed in my way.
With searching eyes I scanned the limbs to find the Peeping Tom,
And sure enough, though well concealed, the turkey sat… so calm.

Apparently, ’twas in his heart approaching Turkey Day,
So he was hidden with the hope to be nobody’s prey.
I couldn’t help but sympathize, as I went strolling by,
And know I too would be in fear thinking I soon might die!

Striking a pose of nonchalance, my pace, I kept it steady,
Deciding this Thanksgiving Day—
My meal would be spaghetti.

Will and Guy’s Humor (“Funny Clean Jokes”!) provides some very sentimental poems, but we must have one poem about food in general:

May your stuffing be tasty
May your turkey plump,
May your potatoes and gravy
Have nary a lump.
May your yams be delicious
And your pies take the prize,
And may your Thanksgiving dinner
Stay off your thighs!

Let’s end with a couple of more sophisticated poems from MadKane. This first one is from one of her limerick competitions. She asked people to write one about eating. And as always, she provided her own example:

A man was attempting to eat
When he spotted a mouse near his seat.
So he smashed down his foot,
And the mouse went kaput,
As his kid cried, “You killed little Pete!”

And then there is this Thanksgiving limerick from 2012 when Washington was approaching the “Fiscal Cliff”:

It’s time for some serious talk.
Please don’t bitch or complain, and don’t balk.
Our issues are great—
Act before it’s too late.
So kindly talk turkey. Don’t squawk.

Just to show you how beneficent I am, I have decided to not leave you with a poem. But I could totally create a poem using turkey, perky, quirky, murky, and beef jerky.

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Capitalism, Productivity, and Thanksgiving

Peanuts ThanksgivingHappy Thanksgiving everyone! It is actually a holiday that I kind of like. That’s because it is just about eating. I think we could use more holidays like this. In fact, as time has gone on, I’ve become more fond of holidays. The reason is simple: the oligarchs are trying to destroy the very idea of holidays. Americans work far too much. We need to take more time off. Part of our economic problems come from the fact that those who do have jobs work a lot, leaving an unreasonable number of people with no work at all.

In other countries, the people have chosen to exchange increasing productivity for more leisure time. This makes sense. But Americans have not in general made that decision. They’ve taken all of the increased productivity in a higher standard of living. I think that is likely not an actual choice. In the United States, not “living to work” is seen as a moral failing. But at some point, the “family values” crowd might consider what is better: being able to afford a better television and iPhone or being able to spend more time with their kids?

Of course, for the last four decades, American workers haven’t traded their productivity gains for either more leisure or a higher standard of living. All those productivity gains have gone to the owners of capital. The whole social contract in America has broken down. And I’ve been waiting for decades for the people to do something about it. But they seem too busy just trying to make ends meet to do anything else.

In addition to this, conservatives have gotten really good at defining as “normal” and “moral” the current system that enriches the powerful at the expense of the weak. It reminds me of Newspeak in 1984. The idea of the language was to make it so that people weren’t even able to think heretical thoughts. The very idea of freedom would be gone from people’s minds. I run into people all the time who are poor but somehow think that the capitalist system is God given. We have embraced capitalism in the past because it worked — for both owners and workers. Now it has stopped working for the vast majority of people. But capitalism is embraced for ideological reasons rather than practical ones. And that is evident in the fact that most workers don’t think that capitalism has to prove itself. Capitalism never fails — it is only failed.

So on this Thanksgiving, I hope that you did not have to work. What’s more, I hope that you took care of all your shopping before today so that you don’t have to go down to Safeway to pick something up. All that does is convince our corporate masters that everything must be open on Thanksgiving. But most of all, I hope you don’t sneak down to one of those horrible pre-Black-Friday sales. Trust me: you don’t need all that crap anyway.

Enjoy Thanksgiving! We may not have it much longer.

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Why All the Uncle Bashing?

Drunk UncleThe fine people at Vox have put together, How to Survive Your Family’s Thanksgiving Arguments. It deals with everything from football to Common Core to Bill Cosby. And it is really good — as usual. But I couldn’t help but notice a whole lot of avuncularism — or uncle bashing. Why is it always the drunk, Fox News watching uncle who everyone is protecting themselves from at the family gathering? As an uncle, I am sort of offended.

Do you know what I’m doing on today? I’m at my sister’s place cooking dinner. And do you know what I did yesterday? I spent all day cooking in preparation for today. Now you may think you have me, “If you are doing this, how is it that you are writing this article?! Hmm?” Well, I’m actually writing this on Tuesday and I started this article on Monday. Such is the commitment that I have to you, gentle reader, that I write like a madman before holidays so that you are constantly informed and entertained. Speaking of which, look: cool motorcycle dog:

Cool Motorcycle Dog

Let’s consider the Midterm Elections. Brother says voting is pointless. Sister-in-law has read her Thomas Frank. And Uncle says:

It’s over for Democrats. Since they got destroyed this year, they’re doomed in 2016, too.

Because you know Uncle: he’s stupid and drunk. But on this one issue, he’s surprisingly reasonable. Here he is in all his glory on Ferguson:

I’m angry that Americans aren’t standing behind Darren Wilson. He’s a standup cop who was just trying to do his job. I’m outraged that anyone would criticize a law enforcement officer.

I guess I should be pleased that it wasn’t, “Those goddamned n*****s deserve to die!” But really, it’s still bad: totally predictable and lacking any empathy. Uncle is an authoritarian, who doesn’t even have reasonable things to say about The Hunger Games:

These books are trash, because kids read trash, and kids read The Hunger Games.

Translation: “I’m a bitter and hateful man!” But this isn’t me! I’ll admit, by the end of Thanksgiving, I’ll probably be modestly drunk. But that is much more likely to cause me to bring out the puppets than it is to even rant about how conservatives are destroying the nation. (Which they are.)

I think I understand why the uncle has become associated with the bigoted conservative who annoys everyone at family gatherings. First, the person who does this is almost always a man. Second, it probably isn’t your father or your brother. That’s not to say that they aren’t also bigoted conservatives. But you are used to them. They probably won’t say much because everyone knows what they think. Third, “uncle” has become a catchall for “that guy we don’t know very well.” So I’m not really offended.

But if you want to know how to deal with drunken uncles, my suggestion: deliver a puppet with every drink.

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