Matt Yglesias Is Right: Outdoors Sucks

Timber Cove Inn

Sometimes, Matt Yglesias makes me proud to be a nerd. That was the case last week when he wrote, The Case Against Eating Lunch Outside. (Note: I believe his original title was, “Eating Lunch Outside Sucks; Stay Inside.”) He’s completely right, of course. I am definitely an inside person.

There are rare occasions when eating outside is not bad. It has to be a warm day; you have to be under a tree or otherwise shielded from direct sunlight (clouds work); there can’t be any wind; and you need a table and chair. This confluence of necessities happens less often than I get married. And the case that Yglesias is talking about—a group lunch—makes it rarer still because you add greatly to the table and chair arrangements.

I would take the whole thing further than Yglesias, although that is probably only because he is better adjusted than I am. If I made more money so that I could have all of my groceries delivered, I’m not sure I would ever leave the house. I like inside a lot, but I like my inside even more. Still, he certainly does show signs of some of my neuroses. For example, he spends a whole paragraph explaining that grass really is just dirt. Hey: I agree! In fact, plain dirt is better because there are no hidden surprises like water or scorpions. It strikes me as an unnatural obsession. (Note: it is also true that he just doesn’t like lawns.)

What’s more, this article is 8 paragraphs long. This is from a writer who normally provides only two when discussing SNAP benefit cuts. However, this all goes along with Yglesias’ interest in urban planning. And he’s right that humans have spent the last few thousand years trying to find ways to spend more time indoors. It’s all about controlling one’s environment and the best way to do that is to be inside.

One of my favorite places on earth is the Timber Cove Inn. I don’t get to go there much because the rooms start at about $200 per night. But it is beautiful. And you can enjoy all of that beauty from your room with the fireplace and jacuzzi without ever going outside. And that really is key, because the weather is always terrible there. It is right on the edge of a cliff on the Pacific Ocean. In fact, if you will forgive me, I wrote this poem when I was there:

I still have
that picture

of you

in your safari shoes
(the ones that say
you know

Africa)
sitting on the

Pacific Ocean.

That day
its name
seemed not quite so

ironic.

The Pacific Ocean really is badly named. In fact, it’s name is an offense to naming. It reminds me of this:

The truth is that ever since I was a child, lying on my back looking up into the blue sky brings on a panic attack. Strangely, I have no such problem at night. Regardless, the great outdoors is no friend of mine. So even if it is the case that Matt Yglesias likes inside because he’s studied urban planning and he thinks indoor spaces are the best places to be, we are still allies. Because outside sucks. Except when viewed from behind glass while sitting in a nice climate controlled room—preferably with a jacuzzi.

Stalin, Not the Bomb, Defeated Japan

Hiroshima BombAll Americans know this story: World War II ended as a result of us dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Some argue that the bombing of Nagasaki was not necessary, but pretty much everyone thinks that if it weren’t for Hiroshima, an American invasion of Japan would have killed hundreds of thousands on both sides. We humans do love our myths. And that is all that “Hiroshima defeated Japan” is: a myth.

Ward Wilson wrote an amazing article over at Foreign Policy, The Bomb Didn’t Beat Japan… Stalin Did. Even before reading the article, I figured it had important things to say. Because here’s the thing: the one mistake that Americans compulsively make regarding World War II is to dismiss the enormous contributions that the Soviet Union made to winning. And look: I’m not exactly a fan of the Soviet Union. In particular, Stalin was—in an absolute sense—a greater villain than Hitler. But it is plain wrong to continue to apply Cold War mentality to the heroic sacrifice that the Soviet people performed for all of us.

The story Wilson tells is really interesting and I recommend that you read the whole thing. I’ve often wondered why the United States decided to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki and not larger cities. The reason is very clear: there were basically no other cities left standing in Japan. The two atomic bombs came after months of city carpet bombing. This campaign was highly effective.

Although these conventional bombing attacks were somewhat less in total explosive capacity than the atomic bombs, they were about as effective. According to Wilson:

A B-29 bomber flying from the Mariana Islands could carry—depending on the location of the target and the altitude of attack—somewhere between 16,000 and 20,000 pounds of bombs. A typical raid consisted of 500 bombers. This means that the typical conventional raid was dropping 4 to 5 kilotons of bombs on each city.

The Hiroshima bomb released a total of 16.5 kilotons. But that overstates the difference. Because the atomic bomb was a single explosion, it didn’t do as much damage as thousands of individual conventional bombs. To the Japanese leaders, the atomic bomb did not particularly stand out:

If you were one of the key members of Japan’s government in late July and early August, your experience of city bombing would have been something like this: On the morning of July 17, you would have been greeted by reports that during the night four cities had been attacked: Oita, Hiratsuka, Numazu, and Kuwana. Of these, Oita and Hiratsuka were more than 50 percent destroyed. Kuwana was more than 75 percent destroyed and Numazu was hit even more severely, with something like 90 percent of the city burned to the ground.

Three days later you have woken to find that three more cities had been attacked. Fukui was more than 80 percent destroyed. A week later and three more cities have been attacked during the night. Two days later and six more cities were attacked in one night, including Ichinomiya, which was 75 percent destroyed. On August 2, you would have arrived at the office to reports that four more cities have been attacked. And the reports would have included the information that Toyama (roughly the size of Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1945), had been 99.5 percent destroyed. Virtually the entire city had been leveled. Four days later and four more cities have been attacked. On August 6, only one city, Hiroshima, was attacked but reports say that the damage was great and a new type bomb was used. How much would this one new attack have stood out against the background of city destruction that had been going on for weeks?

Clearly, I can’t go into the the whole story here, but there are lots of problems with the claim that the atomic bomb or bombs causes the Japanese to surrender. Another big point is that the timing is all wrong. After the Hiroshima bomb on 6 August 1945, the Japanese leaders didn’t even meet for three days. And although they surrendered on that day of the Nagasaki bombing, that wasn’t the reason.

One of the main things I never knew was that although the Japanese civilian population was being decimated, the Japanese army was doing pretty well. Up to that time, they thought they could do reasonably well against a United States invasion. At that point, they didn’t think they would win the war. They were more interested in getting decent terms for a surrender. There were two things they were concerned about. One was that the emperor would be eliminated. The other was that the military leadership would be tried for war crimes. Already at that point the Nazis were being tried. Their hope was that they could get the Soviet Union to broker a deal with the United States. The Soviets were not at war with the Japanese and it was thought that the antagonism between the two super powers would lead to more pleasant surrender terms.

That all changed on 9 August 1945, but not because Nagasaki was bombed. On that day, the Soviets declared war on Japan. That totally screwed the Japanese. To begin with, it meant that they couldn’t use Stalin and company to help broker a deal. Even more important, it meant that the Japanese could not counter an invasion because it would now be coming from all sides from two great armies. When Stalin announced the new war, the Japanese caved. It is as simple as that.

I think it is pretty clear why the United States tells itself that the bomb won the war. We don’t want to give the Soviets any credit. What’s more, the whole thing is part of a larger American myth: the rugged individualist who through his wit and ingenuity conquers all. From our perspective, the fact that the Japanese have latched onto this myth is harder to understand. But there isn’t any magic to it. The Japanese had been at war for 14 years at that point. All along, they’d been telling their people that the war was going great. And now they had lost. It is much easier to say that the country lost because of some amazing new war technology. That goes over a hell of a lot better than, “We totally blew it!”

The whole thing makes me feel even worse about this than I did before. I’ve always kind of thought that maybe Hiroshima could be justified. True, I thought that the bomb could have been demonstrated diplomatically without killing hundreds of thousands. But maybe that wasn’t reasonable. Regardless, the Nagasaki bombing was not necessary and was probably used to send a message to the Soviet Union. Now it looks like all of that is nonsense. We had already been on a relentless campaign to destroy the Japanese civilian population. What’s more, we had built two bombs and so we were going to drop two bombs. On the other side, the Japanese government really didn’t seem to care that their civilian population was being destroyed. So other than our self-righteousness, I don’t especially blame America. It is the whole species that I’m disappointed in. Reading history tends to do that to me.

The Next Fed Chair Should Be Good at Golf

Larry SummersThere is more pushing from the White House to make Obama’s golfing buddy Larry Summers the next Federal Reserve chair. Dean Baker wrote a very interesting article over at the Chinese content provider (sort of like the Associated Press, as far as I can tell) Caixin Online, Will Obama Rewrite History with Fed Pick? It all has to do with two new possible Fed chiefs that the White House has put forward: Roger Ferguson and Donald Kohn. Baker’s point is that these guys were major Fed players under Greenspan. So of the four people under consideration by Obama, three of them are directly implicated in the housing bubble and the resulting financial crisis.

Baker isn’t primarily concerned with what any of these three guys might do if they actually got the position. Rather, it is about what the whole thing says regarding what the Obama administration thinks about recent economic history. He wrote:

In this context, the idea of giving the country’s top economic position to one of the people most directly responsible for the downturn is effectively rewriting history. It implies that the Fed did a good job in allowing a housing bubble to grow unchecked and letting banks run wild issuing and securitizing bad mortgage loans.

I’m not sure if the administration is effectively rewriting history. I think it is more that, as he also wrote, the economic debate is “distorted by deference to those in power.” And in this way, the Obama administration is no different from any other administration. Or for that matter, any other part of our culture. This is one of the things that’s so maddening about the idea of us having a meritocracy. People give jobs to their friends. Regardless of all the other stuff that the White House is saying, Obama appears to want Summers to head the Fed because they are buds. This really is how our whole society is run. It’s shocking that Nike manages to produce both left and right shoes.

What Baker didn’t discuss is that this is almost certainly an attempt by the White House to make Summers look better. It effectively lowers the curve. Instead of Summers being the bad choice, now he’s the middle choice. In fact, they might even say he’s the consensus choice. Sure, liberals want Yellen, but the politically viable choice is Summers. Plus, Obama seems to get off on offending liberals; I assume it makes him feel Serious and Centrist.

This is a very troubling notion. The last few months I’ve been amazed at just how much the White House has pressed the Summers nomination. It seems like they think that having him become Fed chair is really important to the future of United States. But that can’t really be true. My assumption is that it is just that Obama’s good bud deserves this job as the crown on his career. And I can see why that is. He stands a decent chance of being an okay Fed chair. But if he doesn’t get the job, what will people remember him for? The financial crisis and being a terrible Harvard president? I can see why his people are pushing so hard. But the White House is supposed to be doing the people’s business—not the president’s golfing buddies’ business.

Gene Kelly and Marian McPartland

Gene KellyBefore we get to birthdays, I want to discuss a death. On Tuesday, jazz musician Marian McPartland died at the fine old age of 95. She is best known as the host of Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz, an NPR show she hosted for almost three and a half decades. The thing about her was that she wasn’t just someone who appreciated jazz. She was the real thing and the show demonstrated that. She only stepped down from hosting the show less than two years ago when she was 93.

One doesn’t normally think of the Brits being able to play jazz. (The French, yes; see below.) But she is really good. Here she is performing her own tune “Afterglow” back in 1975 at the Monterey Jazz Festival. That’s almost 40 years ago! She is already missed, but you can find an enormous amount of her work online.

On this day in 1829, historian of mathematics Moritz Cantor was born. American sculptor Alexander Milne Calder was born in 1846. Astronomer Sarah Frances Whiting was born in 1847. Poet William Ernest Henley was born in 1849. Romantic composer Moritz Moszkowski was born in 1854. Here is his Piano Concerto in E:

Biographer Edgar Lee Masters was born in 1868. Russian sculptor Eugene Lanceray was born in 1875. Satirist Will Cuppy was born in 1884. Modern composer Ernst Krenek was born in 1900. I can almost guarantee that you won’t like his work. Folk singer Malvina Reynolds was born the same year. And I think you will like this, which sums up a good deal of my personal philosophy:

Creator of Nancy, cartoonist Ernie Bushmiller was born in 1905. And no, I’m not a fan, but I do like the visual style. Graphic artist Hannah Frank was born in 1908. The great film director Robert Mulligan was born in 1925. He is best known for directing one of my favorite films, To Kill a Mockingbird. Here is one of my (Everyone’s?) favorite scenes. Crahan Denton as Mr. Cunningham is particularly great:

Drummer Keith Moon was born in 1946. And River Phoenix was born in 1970.

Economist Robert Solow 89 today. Jazz pianist and composer Martial Solal is 86. Here he is with his band in 1965 doing a hell of a version of “On Green Dolphin Street”:

Political humorist Mark Russell is 81. Actor Barbara Eden is 79. Playwright Willy Russell is 66. Christian apologist William Lane Craig is 64. He’s pretty much an idiot. Actor Shelley Long is also 64. And so is musician Rick Springfield. His song “Jessie’s Girl” is a good pop song:

The day, however, belongs to the great dancer Gene Kelly who was born in 1912. I’m not that big a fan of the man. I much prefer Fred Astaire’s style. But Kelly is quite good and was in a lot of good movies. Still, the only reason he’s here is that it’s kind of a slow day for birthdays. But this is very nice:

Happy birthday Gene Kelly!

The Racism of Reverse Racism

Fox News - Not NewsWhenever my father mentions news to me, red flags go up. It usually means that Fox News is pushing something hard. I assume this not just because he watches the network. He generally only watches Shepard Smith. There’s always one or more outrages on Bill O’Reilly each night, but Smith can often be mistaken for an actual journalist. The story was about the murder of the college student Christopher Lane. To him it was another outrageous example of cultural decline. “What is wrong with people?” he asked. I have a few ideas about what is wrong with people, but I took the rhetorical question for what it is and left it there. Anyway, I had a different question in my mind.

“Why did you even hear about this vile tragedy?” Make no mistake: the story is horrible. Lane was out running, I assume to stay in shape because he’s an athlete. The three teens were bored so they killed him. There is something about the casualness of the crime that makes it particularly awful. But what’s even more awful is that this kind of sociopathic behavior is fairly common. It’s the kind of thing that makes the local news, but nationally it is “dog bites man.” There are about 40 murders every day in the United States. There was nothing especially notable about this one.

Soon the information started coming in. Fox News was pushing the story as a counter to the coverage of the murder of Trayvon Martin. You see, these were young black men who killed a white man. What does the president have to say about that? Huh? Why is he silent about this?! I don’t know if the conservatives pushing this story are stupid or just disingenuous. But it is definitely one or the other. The only reason that the Martin case got any traction—the only reason that President Obama talked about it—is that the perpetrator wasn’t arrested. Sure, there were racial aspects to it. But in the end, the outrage was over the fact that an adult could kill a teen and not even be arrested. In fact, the police not only didn’t do a background check on Zimmerman, they did do one of the dead Martin. The police handling of the murder was horrible. And that’s why it became a big story.

So how does this new horrible crime relate to the Trayvon Martin case? As far as I can tell, it doesn’t. It is just an excuse to complain that Obama talked about the Martin case, as if that compels him to comment on every new trumped up story that Fox News focuses on. But as Chris Hayes discussed on last night’s All In, Fox News didn’t even get the facts right. Of the three teens who were arrested, one is black, one is mixed race, and one is white. What’s more, they then went to kill a schoolmate who was black.

There is plenty of racism wherever you go. No one is immune. But I think most people try to keep any racist thoughts they have out of the public sphere of life. But the conservative claim that whites are the real victims of racism is a very public declaration of racism. When Ed Henry asked the White House about the “three African American young men” he wasn’t just misinformed. If he had known they weren’t all black, he never would have asked the question. He wasn’t interested in the crime. His only interest was in pushing this tired racist meme. In the 1970s, the National Review did a lot of damage control, walking back their pro-Jim Crow racist opinions from only a decade earlier. Eventually, Fox News (or at least its reporters) will have to do the same thing.

Collectivist Pro Sports in Land of the Free

Johnny ManzielI’m not much of a sports fan. I rather like baseball, but even with that I’m just as happy watching the minor leagues or little league. And given this, I don’t claim to speak for anyone. But Jonathan Chait wrote something this morning that really needs to be addressed. He is pushing back against the wave of articles defending Johnny Manziel’s autograph scandal. According to him, college sports should not become more professionalized. And that’s a fair point. But his argument makes some invalid economic assumptions about professional sports.

The key to his argument is that people only watch college football because it is amateur. He even says, “The top 500 college players could drop out and form their own league, but, like the NBA Developmental League, nobody would watch it, even if the quality of play was higher than college football.” This totally misunderstands why people watch college sports—why they watch any sports at all. People have certain connections to teams, they become fans, they watch. If it were simply about who the best players are, why would anyone watch games in the Big Sky Conference? After all, the Pac-12 has better teams.

The reason that the United States is stuck with its pathetic single league monopolies is because the owners have gotten the government (with great help from the media) to institutionalize it. Sure, occasionally a bunch of billionaires will try to start a competing league like the USFL or the ABA. But that’s hardly a free market. Major League Baseball has explicit protections against anti-trust lawsuits. If a bunch of players want to start a semipro regional league, they just can’t.

The whole situation reeks of privilege. Fundamentally, the NFL and NCAA are hugely popular because they are hugely popular. It isn’t because those players are the best—even at their own level. The truth is that a game between two well matched teams is pretty much the same regardless of how good the teams are. Amazing bits of athletics might make for great commercials, but it isn’t what people get out of watching a game.

Or think about it like this. I live in the Bay Area. Most people around here are Giants and As fans. They would still be Giants and As fans if they were only in the Northern California League. That’s what attracts people to sports: their personal connection. And that personal connection is mostly just proximity. They care about it because it is on TV. They care about it because they live near the team or they went to the school. They care about it because they like a particular player. Whatever. Chait is totally wrong that people care about NCAA football because it is amateur. Or that people care about NFL because the players are the best there are.

Another point is that the NFL is itself parochial. It is an American league. Why doesn’t that make the NFL less viable given that it isn’t global? America seems to have the best basketball players in the world, but if you watch the Olympics, you will see that the rest of the world does pretty damned well. To me a better model is soccer. That is truly a universal sport. But look at the system in the United Kingdom which, unlike the big pro sports leagues in the United States, is a mess of democracy.

America is supposedly the land of the free market. And when it comes to people on the bottom of the economic ladder, it is certainly is. If you are a manufacturing worker, you know that you are in direct competition with workers in Bangladesh. But for people at the top, there is no competition. If you are a billionaire sports team owner, you know that your billionaire friends will not allow you to face direct competition. So it’s dog-eat-dog, social Darwinism for the poor and collectivist nirvana for the rich. Welcome to the land of the free!

Update (23 August 2013 4:47 pm)

At The American Prospect, Scott Lemieux wrote a devastating response to Chait, Stop Defending the NCAA. He brings up some of the same economic issues that I did here, but goes into far more detail about the NCAA system. Also, he brilliantly points out that Chait simply has a blind spot when it comes to this stuff; Chait would never make these kinds of arguments for any other workers. Check it out!