North Pond Hermit

Christopher KnightMeet Christopher Knight. He disappeared in the wilderness of Maine 27 years ago as a 20 year old. And he just came back out.

Well, perhaps that will give you the wrong idea. He has been living alone in the woods all these years, but he would go to one of the 300 camps around North Pond and steal the supplies that he needed: mostly food, but also clothes, propane, batteries. Finally, the police caught him last Thursday according to the Morning Sentinel.

Knight is a fascinating man. He isn’t mentally ill, and by all accounts he seems to be very intelligent and well spoken. Why he decided to become a hermit 27 years ago is a mystery even to him. He says he was always interested in hermits and loved the book Robinson Crusoe. I figure it is like all of us: you start doing something (like being married or writing a blog) and you just stay with it until there is a really compelling reason to stop.

For years and years, Knight was something of a legend. No one really knew if the North Pond Hermit was a real thing or not. But now that he’s been captured, the story is more amazing than the myth. One detail of his capture that struck me: he was clean shaven with short hair and in clean cloths. If you go to the Sentinel story, you can see many pictures of his campground. He has clothes lines, a tent, even a makeshift shower.

You really should go over and read the whole story. I was riveted. And what’s more, I don’t see how this story doesn’t manage to go viral. It’s just too great.

Matt Yglesias Is Confused About Songwriting

Taylor Swift 22Matt Yglesias is upset that Taylor Swift’s new Diet Coke commercial perpetuates unfortunate stereotypes about songwriting. He doesn’t like that the video shows Swift scribbling lyrics in a notebook. According to Yglesias, that’s just not the way it’s done in the modern world. He claims that songwriting is collaborative. Well, it often is. But that’s not really what he’s getting at. When he gets down to it, he quite properly writes, “The unfortunate reality is that [Swift’s] operating in a world that’s oddly averse to celebrating the virtues of collaboration and division of labor when it comes to music.” And here I thought we were talking about songwriting!

I love songwriting. And nothing shows off a good song like simple production just as nothing fixes a weak song like great production. Production is very much a team sport. Sure, the geniuses can sit alone and do great work all by themselves. But even they benefit from collaboration. But production is something you do to a song. The song just is. And most songs to this day are written by individuals.

Personally, when I write a song, there is a process to it. I do not pick up a guitar or a notebook. Melodies just come to me. I play with them in my head. I try different lyrics with them. And most of the time it just stops there. But if I think it has potential, I’ll store it in my phone or write it down. Later, I will craft what is usually just a line or two into a song. That’s pretty much it. The whole process can take an hour or years. A lot of times, I’ve finished a song but have never felt that I really did justice to it. Not that any of this really matters. All my songs just sit in notebooks and on tapes (and increasingly in bytes). But my approach is entirely typical of how songs get written.

I’m not against attacking Taylor Swift. Unlike Matt Yglesias, I think she’s a talentless singer and a so-so songwriter. But I have no doubt that the commercial is more or less how most of her songs are written. Now the song “22”? I don’t know. My guess is that Swift wrote the base of the song and then Max Martin and Shellback fixed it. Like I said: she’s a so-so songwriter. Also, they are the producers and maybe they did so much work on the song, it was considered fair to give them songwriting credit. Or maybe it was in their contracts. Or maybe they wrote the song and just added Swift’s name. All of these things happen. But nothing in the commercial is particularly incorrect about how a song gets written.

Inside Obama’s Budget

Obama CopeIn Jonathan Bernstein’s Happy Hour Roundup at The Plum Line last night, he provided links to three articles that argue in different ways that there is much to like in Obama’s new budget. I’ve never argued otherwise, but I have been too focused on the entitlement cuts. Let’s be clear though: Obama’s offer of these cuts is very bad. Even if nothing happens in the next four years, Republicans will go on to accuse Democrats of intransigence. “Even that socialist Obama thought we needed to cut entitlements!”

Annie Lowrey over at the Economix Blog argued that Obama’s entire focus, not just his budgets, have been about reducing income inequality. She rightly noted that the ACA (Obamacare) will help the issue. Just on the face, giving people healthcare who didn’t have it before makes them richer; it doesn’t matter that you aren’t giving them cash. But perhaps as important, it will make medical bankruptcies far less common. (Remember the big push by the feds to make bankruptcy harder because all of these spendthrifts were abusing the poor bankers? It was mostly bankruptcies because of our broken healthcare system.)

She went on to mention a number of good things that are in the new budget. It includes a rise in the minimum wage, universal preschool, and of course, slightly higher taxes for rich people. One thing that is in there really surprised me: the earned income tax credit (EITC). The budget would make it permanent. I thought it already was, especially since traditionally, that is one form of welfare conservatives agree with. Well, it is only in effect until 2017. That’s a big deal. The idea that President Paul Ryan would end the program is very troubling.

In the great Wonk Blog fashion, Brad Plumer presented Winners and Losers in the White House Budget. The winners (at least in terms of programs) are primarily the poor. As Lowrey pointed out, there is the EITC and the minimum wage. But in addition, although Medicare is cut, Medicaid is not. To some extent, this defines Obama’s economic policies. I can see that he truly does care about the poor. It is when you move up the income ladder to the middle class, that he thinks things are fine. But they aren’t fine. And helping the middle class thrive is really important to all of the classes.

I disagree with Plumer on his biggest loser, “Wealthy taxpayers and the finance industry.” The amount of money that he is talking about taking from them is very small. An argument can certainly be made that hedge fund managers and others who use the carried interest loophole are losers. But I would counter that taxing someone 15 percentage points more who makes many millions of dollars per year does not qualify as a loser. Regardless, the vast majority of the rich will see little change at all. People like Mitt Romney and Warren Buffett will still get to pay less than 15% in taxes on their income. And, of course, there is not a peep about taxing financial transactions. (If you don’t know why that is, just look at Obama’s Wall Street pals.)

Matt Yglesias does something different: he contrasts the Obama budget with the Paul Ryan budget. It ain’t pretty. He makes three points. First, Ryan balances the entire budget on the backs of the poorer classes; Obama avoids this primarily by taxing the rich. Second, Ryan balances the budget without hurting today’s seniors by screwing tomorrow’s seniors; Obama, as we know, cuts entitlements marginally on everyone. And third, Ryan believes that all we have to do is destroy most of the government and that our economy will boom; Obama actually proposes a small amount of well targeted stimulus spending.

As usual, when you dig down into Obama’s policies, they look a lot better. But that isn’t what I have a problem with. I know that politics is the art of the possible. I know that in real life, I am not going to get policies that I am even close to being completely happy with. My problem is that my side doesn’t even try to push for liberal policies. We can’t talk about single payer healthcare. We can’t talk about raising the payroll tax cap. We can’t talk about adding new tax brackets to make the filthy rich pay for all that they get from a stable country.

And then there is the whole question of how well our team is playing the game. This morning, Jonathan Chait wrote an article in which he argued that Obama wants a Grand Bargain in order to solidify his presidential legacy. The problem, he notes, is that the Republicans don’t want to give him that. And hidden in his argument is my more fundamental argument that Obama really does want Chained-CPI. But the fact remains that the Republicans won’t give him a deal because the optics are terrible. What would people say if the man they claimed was a socialist managed to actually improve the country?

Afterword

I’m not saying that Obama necessarily would have improved the country if he got what he wanted. But I don’t think the Republicans have any idea of what they actually want to do. Whenever asked, they talk around the margins. Healthcare reform? Allow people to buy insurance across state lines! Yeah, that’ll fix the whole problem.

Poker, Fraud, and Computer Science

Chris FergusonCartoonist Dale Messick was born on this day back in 1906. The first African-American woman to graduate from Yale Law School, Jane Bolin was born in 1908. The founder of the Church of Satan Anton LaVey was born in 1930. And Stuart Adamson of the band Big Country was born in 1958.

Actor Joel Grey, who I still can’t believe isn’t gay, is 81. Louise Lasser is 74. Idiot filmmaker John Milius is 69. And Peter Riegert is 66.

Today is terrible for birthdays. That’s why I have to give it to Chris Ferguson who is 50 today. He’s the famous poker player with the the cowboy hat and long hair. Plus he has a PhD in computer science. Best of all, the Justice Department is accusing Ferguson of running a Ponzi scheme that defrauded a number of people out of over $400 million. But compared to other famous poker players, Ferguson seems rather nice.

Afterword

If I had gotten any sleep last night, I think I’d go with Messick, Bolin, or even Adamson. Here’s some music: