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Bush Bails Out Mortgage Industry

Oh, that great populist, George W. Bush.

Bush outlines aid for mortgage holders
By Deb Riechmann, Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON - President Bush outlined ways the federal government can help troubled borrowers keep their homes Friday in an effort to address rising foreclosures fueled by the mortgage crisis.

The administration's first attempt at dealing with a wave of defaults is not aimed at bailing out lenders, however.

"It's not the government's job to bail out speculators or those who made the decision to buy a home they knew they could never afford," Bush said in the Rose Garden. "Yet there are many American homeowners who could get through this difficult time with a little flexibility from their lenders or a little help from their government."

...

Bush said the Federal Housing Administration, a government agency that provides mortgage insurance to borrowers through lenders in the private sector, would launch in coming days a program called FHA Secure. The program would let homeowners who have good credit histories but can't afford their current mortgage payments to refinance into mortgages insured by the FHA.

You can spin this however you like, but this is indeed a bailout for the mortgage industry - for those "speculators" who foolishly kept selling bad mortgages and betting that defaults and foreclosures could be avoided by interest rates staying low and house values staying high. And now, after so many loans have gone bad, instead of having to write off the loans, record losses and incur the costs of foreclosure and resale of houses, those lenders will see those bad loans refinanced - that is, paid in full by some other lender. The original lender is bailed out, and incurs no penalty for making a bad loan. And the new lender, who apparently was previously unwilling to incur the risk of refinancing a bad mortgage, will now be glad to - but only because of the FHA guaranty. And if that mortgage goes bad, the FHA - the federal government and, ultimately, taxpayers - will have to pay up.

If you want to bail out the mortgage industry, George, that's fine. Just don't pretend that's not precisely what you're doing. Be forthright, as difficult as that may be for you. The mortgage industry employs a lot of people, and our economy relies heavily on the health of the housing market - so intervention isn't necessarily a bad thing. But call a bailout a bailout, and be honest about your motivations.

I rarely, if ever, agree with the neoconservatives at the American Enterprise Institute, but this guy is dead on:

"If you're going to help someone to refinance, you're going to bail out the person who financed him in the first place," Peter Wallison of the American Enterprise Institute said Thursday night. "This will only cause the problem to arise again."

Precisely. And the problem will arise again, as long as profit-hungry lenders know they can keep making questionable loans, because if things get bad enough they can always lobby the government for a bailout. Businesses that don't pay the price for bad business decisions will inevitably make those decisions again in the future. Lenders who recorded fat profits during the good times but don't have to face the consequences during the bad times will never learn their lesson, and will do it all over again once the dust settles from this most recent debacle.

Funny how a free market zealot like Bush suddenly caves in when the free market fails, at which point it's time for the government intervention which he supposedly abhores.

August 31, 2007 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (1)

Cellos in Rock

The Christian Science Monitor posts an article about the increasing acceptance of cellos in "jazz, popular, and avant-garde music."

Friedlander points out that rock musicians are becoming more aware of the cello's range and see it as an alternative to the violin, with its folk fiddling or jazz associations. "Because it's not saddled with bluegrass, 'le jazz hot,' or any of those things the violin has, you can put the cello into an indie-rock situation and it doesn't have baggage," says Friedlander, who has performed with indie-rockers such as the Mountain Goats and John Vanderslice.

I quite like cellos in indie rock, where they often fill a void between bass chords and higher-register guitar notes, giving the music a fuller, richer sound. Coincidentally, during my drive to the train station this morning I was thoroughly enjoying Built To Spill's "I Would Hurt a Fly" (from Perfect From Now On), which features a lovely cello part by guest musician John McMahon, whose efforts here provide even greater depth to Built to Spill's already epic work.

(Via Largehearted Boy.)

August 31, 2007 in Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

Writing in Progress

New to the list:
I've just started to mentally sketch out a novella called The Engine Driver, which will be set in the Wisconsin wilderness near the end of the Civil War. The story is inspired by steampunk without actually being steampunk per se - it will be very much grounded in realism, with little or no sci-fi/fantasy elements. I just finished reading the second issue of SteamPunk Magazine, which I greatly enjoyed (more on this soon) and which is really stoking (pun intended) my imagination. And I just bought a new composition book to write my first draft in, which is always a sign that I'm getting serious.

Still on the list:
I'm halfway through the second draft of The Wheatyard Chronicles, and am already foreseeing the need to refine the narrative to focus even more on the title character and less on the first-person narrator (which is loosely based on myself).

I've kind of set aside the story "The Fable of the Small 'Suburb' Which Aspired to Be More Than It Was", and might have to remove the story from the list for a while. I'm not really sure where I'm going with this one. I've pretty much been writing it on the fly, without any definite idea of how the story will be resolved, or even which characters to focus on. This might be one of those story ideas that collapses and is swept into the Dustbin of Good Intentions.

Removed from the list:
I finished a flash fiction story called "One Evening in St. Paul" for this contest at Eximious Press. Alas, the story just missed being shortlisted, garnering a special Honorable Mention. (The editor really liked the story, but I'm guessing it was too long, at more than twice the requested word count.) I'll post the story here over the weekend. The story is nothing earth-shattering, but it's a gentle little piece that I really enjoyed writing.

August 31, 2007 in Fiction, Wheatyard | Permalink | Comments (0)

"The Lovely Miss Underwood"

The always invigorating Coudal Partners recently ran a contest called "Missed Connections" which they described as follows:

You: A reader of these mailings, sitting at your desk or in your cubicle or perhaps with your laptop in a bookstore or coffee shop. Me: A writer of these mailings, doing same. What: Write a "missed connections" entry about you and an inanimate object.

It could be about a book you should have read, a concert you missed or even a papaya you should have bought or a flight you shouldn't have been late for. Anything really, so long as it's creative.

Long story short, I entered but failed to win. (Winners are here.) Here was my entry, to which I have added the title "The Lovely Miss Underwood":

The Lovely Miss Underwood
YOU: Gorgeous, dark, well-built, old-fashioned beauty, Wednesday afternoon at the thrift store in Andersonville on Clark St. I know your name is Underwood - those big, bold letters really caught my eye. ME: Skinny, pale, sad-eyed guy with the Kerouac t-shirt and Apple messenger bag who gawked at you but then wimped out and walked away. Sorry! I know gawking wasn't polite, but I've never seen anyone quite like you. WHAT: A connection, I thought, maybe even a long-term relationship. I could see right away you were special and unique, even though you've obviously been around, and I almost went back to look for you before I realized it just wouldn't work out. I need something else - faster, more modern, easier to go out with, one that will sit on my lap for hours and take me wherever I want to go. But you deserve better than me, anyway - someone older, more patient, who thinks ideas through instead of spewing them out and who prefers staying at home. So we'll never be together, but I just wanted you to know you really got my attention. Have a good life.

(In case you're wondering, the story was inspired by this.)

August 29, 2007 in Fiction | Permalink | Comments (0)

Chicagopedia

I just discovered a relatively new feature in the Chicago Sun-Times called Chicagopedia, which provides useful definitions of Chicagoese words, or English words which have unique meanings in Chicago. I particularly enjoyed daboddause, gratchki and couple two tree, plus I always enjoy linguistic discussions of pop. And the synonym listed for gangways is absolutely perfect.

(One quibble: I know they're trying to be all trendy and invoke Wikipedia here, but this feature actually follows the format of a dictionary, not an encyclopedia. I'll be nice and just assume they know the difference.)

August 29, 2007 in Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (1)

A Messinger to You, Rudy

Chicago literary entrepreneur Jonathan Messinger (writer, editor, publisher, master of ceremonies) is interviewed at Chicagoist. His debut story collection Hiding Out is forthcoming from Featherproof Books, of which he's also a co-owner. I'll admit that arrangement raised my eyebrows at first, but his explanation certainly makes sense.

The assumption in the literary world is that if you are putting out your book yourself or on your own press, it’s not good enough to have been put out by another press.

I just think that there’s this weird status mania in the literary world. Depending on what press puts out your book, who your agent is, what credits you have going into putting out your book, what magazines have published your work before that: it’s all about building status. And I just have no interest in that. I never asked any other press if they wanted to put this book out, because I never thought it would be as fun to do it with another press. And, to me, the whole point of doing this was to get the work out and to have fun doing it.

DIY and having fun - that rationale is more than sufficient for me. And as a bonus, everyone who pre-orders the book will also receive a letter from Messinger himself, on the subject of their choice. I've bought all of Featherproof's fiction offerings so far, so I see no reason not to take up this unique offer. I hope he's thoroughly brushed up on his knowledge of sanitation technology in 16th Century Holland.

August 29, 2007 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

Block 37: Before

Block37before

Chicago's infamous Block 37 has been empty for so long - since 1989 - that recently I've begun wondering what it looked like before its ill-fated demolition. Well, reading Lynn Becker's post on the deterioration of the Uptown Theater and recent demolition of the Nortown Theater lead me to this listing for the old United Artists Theatre which was located on Block 37, at the northwest corner of Dearborn and Randolph. And reading the comments there ultimately brought me to the photo you see above. (Full-size image here; several more images here.) This view is from the corner of Dearborn and Randolph, looking southeast, with the building in the immediate foreground being the United Artists Theatre. The big white building at the left rear is Marshall Field's.

True, the block appeared to have been a hodgepodge of non-aesthetic buildings - and I could be very wrong; maybe there were some real treasures there - but even an unsightly mess still would surely have contributed more to city life than eighteen years of a vacant lot. Even if all of these buildings weren't worth saving, surely a few gems could have been restored and the vacant spaces between tastefully in-filled with new development.

Oh, wait. Gems restored? Tasteful new development? Sorry, I must have been thinking of another city.

August 27, 2007 in Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (1)

"In Search of the World's Most Boring Book Title"

Oooh, this looks interesting. My vote on this matchup is for When Mother Lets Us Make Paper Box Furniture. The subject of paper box furniture is dull enough (even though I'm not even sure what such furniture is) but the title also gives me the impression that these kids' mother is so strict that even as innocuous an activity as "paper box furniture" requires special permission. That household must be so grim and devoid of joy that I certainly have no interest in reading anything about it.

Though certainly not a barn-burner of a title, either, I'd much rather read 75 Exciting Vegetables for Your Garden - not that gardening fascinates me at all, but I wasn't even aware there are 75 vegetables for your garden IN TOTAL, let alone 75 EXCITING ones. This title would prompt me to read the book for no other reason that to see how far the author is able to stretch the definition of "exciting" or "vegetable." This book also gets the nod for the lovely cover design, unlike the "Dick and Jane Are Emotionally Repressed" illustration of the first one.

The estimable Paul Collins has no comment function set up on his blog, so feel free to leave your comments here. I hope this is the first of a long-running series.

August 26, 2007 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)

Edgar Lee Masters

Given that I'm currently working my way through Spoon River Anthology (which is a bit over-long, I'm beginning to believe), yesterday's note from The Writer's Almanac was particularly timely:

It's the birthday of poet and novelist Edgar Lee Masters, born in Garnett, Kansas (1869). He was one of the first writers to portray the American small town as a place full of secrets, lies, and shocking scandals in his book Spoon River Anthology (1915), a series of poems in the voices of the dead citizens in a fictional graveyard. He published Spoon River Anthology in 1915 under a pseudonym, because he thought it would be controversial, and he was right. The book was hugely scandalous, full of more frank detail about sexual matters than any other book published in America at the time. The critic Amy Lowell wrote, "Spoon River is one long chronicle of rapes, seductions, liaisons, and perversions. One wonders, if life in our little Western cities is as bad as this, why everyone does not commit suicide."

But the scandal made the book a best seller. Spoon River Anthology went through 70 printings, and it allowed Masters to retire from his law practice. It changed the way Americans thought about small towns, which had been considered merely innocent or boring places. American writers had focused almost exclusively on big cities. But Edgar Lee Masters turned small towns into places of intrigue, and American writers have been exploring the closets and bedrooms of small towns ever since.

The people in Masters's hometown were angry for decades about the slanderous things Masters had written about their citizens. It took more than 50 years before the town where Masters went to high school stocked Spoon River Anthology in its library.

Masters based most of his poems' narrators on real people, but didn't make much of an effort to conceal their identities - for example, he might have changed the subject's last name slightly while retaining its first name and occupation. And few of the poems are at all flattering to their subjects, with many being downright cruel. Fortunately for Masters, he didn't publish the book until long after leaving his boyhood home. Good thing, too - had he still lived in "Spoon River" when the book came out, he would likely have been greeted at his door by an angry mob armed with torches and pitchforks. (Not unlike this guy.)

August 24, 2007 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

The Epitaphs of P.D.Q. Bach

All these epitaphs and elegies of Edgar Lee Masters I've been reading remind me of two considerably more light-hearted epitaphs of P.D.Q. Bach, the fictional, "last and certainly least" child of Johan Sebastian Bach, as imagined by the wonderfully satirical mind of Peter Schickele in The Definitive Biography of P.D.Q. Bach. P.D.Q. was, to put it kindly, a ne'er-do-well, a drunkard, a lecher, a sloth who would rather exploit his family's vast musical legacy by creating a highly dubious - but of course very hilarious - body of "musical" works than earn an honest living. When P.D.Q. finally died of some deplorable causes I can't quite recall, his drunken friends buried him in a makeshift grave, beneath the following words:

Here lies a man with sundry flaws
And num'rous sins upon his head.
We buried him today because
As far as we can tell, he's dead.
The Bach family, despite what (deservedly) little they thought of this most prodigal of sons, soon had him disinterred and relocated to an audacious, marble-pillared mausoleum, memorializing him with this comparatively flowery inscription:
He lies in death, as lie he did in life;
Oblivious to worldly cares and strife.
No base ambitions rile his sodden brain,
And odious ambition waits in vain
For him to rise. Sweet Gabriel, play on!
You'll nothing rouse, except perhaps a yawn.
For P.D.Q. will waken when he will.
And even God must wait that day until.

As much as I like that one, I think I like the guttural simplicity of the first one best.

August 23, 2007 in Books, Music | Permalink | Comments (1)

Nick Hornby...

...now has a blog. Among other amusements, he's recently been invited, by Eric Spitznagel, to sketch his own a***hole. Invited politely, I presume.

(Via Bookslut.)

August 21, 2007 in Books | Permalink | Comments (4)

Masters on Ambition

Many of Edgar Lee Masters' poems in Spoon River Anthology (nearly all of them self-elegies delivered by the denizens of a small town cemetary) deal with various forms of ambition - ambition which successfully produces material wealth and societal prestige but not happiness, ambition thwarted and ambition avoided with either satisfaction or regret. Two great examples of the latter are "Fiddler Jones" and "George Gray":

Fiddler Jones
The earth keeps some vibration going
There in your heart, and that is you.
And if the people find you can fiddle,
Why, fiddle you must, for all your life.
What do you see, a harvest of clover?
Or a meadow to walk through to the river?
The wind’s in the corn; you rub your hands
For beeves hereafter ready for market;
Or else you hear the rustle of skirts
Like the girls when dancing at Little Grove.
To Cooney Potter a pillar of dust
Or whirling leaves meant ruinous drouth;
They looked to me like Red-Head Sammy
Stepping it off, to “Toor-a-Loor.”
How could I till my forty acres
Not to speak of getting more,
With a medley of horns, bassoons and piccolos
Stirred in my brain by crows and robins
And the creak of a wind-mill—only these?
And I never started to plow in my life
That some one did not stop in the road
And take me away to a dance or picnic.
I ended up with forty acres;
I ended up with a broken fiddle—
And a broken laugh, and a thousand memories,
And not a single regret.

"Fiddler Jones" speaks beautifully to the worthiness of pursuing one's artistic inclinations, even at the expense of material gains. Jones suggests that he had only forty acres of land to farm, with no time (someone is always dragging him off to fiddle somewhere) nor presumably the inclination to increase his acreage and thus raise his social standing amongst the sort of people who value such things. Jones clearly wasn't one of those people, and preferred to spend his time in fiddling and celebration, with "not a single regret" for what might have been. Charming.

This positive message sharply contrasts with that of "George Gray", in which the narrator rues having never pursued any opportunity during his life, instead pulling back from love and sorrow and ambition, sacrificing the meaning and significance each experience would have otherwise brought to him.

George Gray
I have studied many times
The marble which was chiseled for me—
A boat with a furled sail at rest in a harbor.
In truth it pictures not my destination
But my life.
For love was offered me and I shrank from its disillusionment;
Sorrow knocked at my door, but I was afraid;
Ambition called to me, but I dreaded the chances.
Yet all the while I hungered for meaning in my life.
And now I know that we must lift the sail
And catch the winds of destiny
Wherever they drive the boat.
To put meaning in one’s life may end in madness,
But life without meaning is the torture
Of restlessness and vague desire—
It is a boat longing for the sea and yet afraid.

The image of the boat sitting in a harbor - not only not sailing away for distant shores, but also not even docking at the pier and experiencing whatever the port had to offer - is particularly lovely, and fits perfectly as a metaphor for a life wasted in timid inaction and indecisiveness. I'm taking the messages of both poems very much to heart.

August 21, 2007 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

DailyLit.com

DailyLit.com is a wonderful little service which delivers novels (mostly old public domain material, but also a few current works by Cory Doctorow and other generous types) in daily installments, right to your email account or RSS reader. I first tried it a few months ago, with Kate Chopin's The Awakening, but found that novel a bit of a trudge and gave up after just a few installments.

Now, as my Summer of Classics draws to a close, I've given it another try, this time with Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. I'm a quarter of the way through this one and am enjoying it quite a bit, so much so that I'm ordering several installments each day. (At the bottom of each installment, there's a link to click on if you want the next one delivered immediately.) I've decided that reading in this format is already enough of a challenge that if you're not totally taken with the story (as I was with Chopin) it will be very difficult to see it through to the end, so you might have to hunt around a bit to find a piece that really grabs you. Although I already have Heart of Darkness at home, in an old Norton Anthology, I'm going to resist the temptation to read it the old-fashioned way and stick with the high-tech method. I'm using the email option for this one, but will probably try reading my next title via RSS.

Oh, and best of all, DailyLit is completely free. So there's really no good reason for you to not check it out.

August 21, 2007 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Weekend Multimedia

Due to system restrictions, I'm not able to view streaming media at the office, so throughout the week I'll usually accumulate various links which I finally check out on Saturday morning at home. Here's this week's highlights:

+ Crain's Chicago Business profiles Jeff Dreyfuss of Chicago's Metropolis Coffee Company, which we visited last year and enjoyed a great deal. Any place that commissions poster art from the great Jay Ryan is already good enough for me (we own a framed copy of that one), but their coffee is excellent and their store is a very comfy hangout.

+ My old hero Bob Mould has licensed one of his best songs, "See a Little Light", to the pension fund TIAA/CREF. Check out the commercial spots here. On his blog, Bob wondered what his fans might think of such a decision, if they'd think he's selling out.

What would you think if one of my songs was used in a TV commercial? Would the product be of concern? Would it change the meaning of the song?

No concerns here, Bob. It's your art, so you're entitled to do whatever you wish with it, and it's a great song whose message generally fits with that of the sponsor. And besides, TIAA is selling retirement security and financial peace of mind - it's not like your song is helping to shill artery-clogging cheeseburgers or anything similarly egregious. Nicely done.

+ Ben Tanzer (yeah, him again) is charmingly interviewed by his five-year-old son, primarily (but not entirely) about his novel Lucky Man. I say "not entirely", because among several other bold queries, the kid has the audacity to ask the burning question that's on everyone's lips: "Why do you wear your hat backwards?" Clearly, the softball-tossing Larry King is thankfully not an influence on the kid.

+ And the multimedia gods at WFMU unearthed these two timeless gems which should bring a smile to any Midwesterner of a certain age: the Heileman's Old Style beer song and waltz. Prosit!

August 18, 2007 in Books, Chicago Observations, Music | Permalink | Comments (0)

Cheers!

Hemingway_2

(Via the Guardian.)

August 17, 2007 in Books | Permalink | Comments (2)

Masters on Dreiser

In his classic poetry collection Spoon River Anthology, Edgar Lee Masters immortalized (or, in his charming vernacular, "pickled") the novelist Theodore Dreiser, his good friend and literary influence.

Theodore the Poet
As a boy, Theodore, you sat for long hours
On the shore of the turbid Spoon
With deep-set eye staring at the door of the crawfish’s burrow,
Waiting for him to appear, pushing ahead,
First his waving antennæ, like straws of hay,
And soon his body, colored like soap-stone,
Gemmed with eyes of jet.
And you wondered in a trance of thought
What he knew, what he desired, and why he lived at all.
But later your vision watched for men and women
Hiding in burrows of fate amid great cities,
Looking for the souls of them to come out,
So that you could see
How they lived, and for what,
And why they kept crawling so busily
Along the sandy way where water fails
As the summer wanes.

Masters took a few liberties with reality here, as Dreiser didn't grow up in "Spoon River" (the Petersburg/Lewiston vicinity in western Illinois where Masters grew up) nor did he even visit there until he was well into adulthood. But given that Dreiser was also a Midwesterner, from Terre Haute, Indiana (two hundred miles to the east) it seems likely that he had similar boyhood experiences. Regardless, I love the imagery of a small-town boy closely watching crawfish, thus developing a talent for observation and reflection which would later, when the boy became a man, be so effectively applied to urban dwellers ("hiding in burrows of fate amid great cities") as the grist for Dreiser's many great novels. Masters clearly shared Dreiser's gift of observation, which combined with each writer's love of narrative realism undoubtedly solidified the bond between the two.

In his extensive introduction to this edition of Spoon River Anthology, John Hallwas nicely expands on the relationship between Masters and Dreiser.

By the spring of 1914 Masters's plans to write a realistic novel of small-town life had changed, and he had embarked on the Anthology, a series of poetic character sketches. One of them, which appeared the following July, was inspired by Dreiser, and it was apparently Masters's way of paying tribute to the writer who had influenced him. In an August 20 letter to the famous novelist he commented, "I have you pickled in my Anthology as 'Theodore the Poet,'" and he sent the poem along. "Theodore the Poet" is not a monologue, and there is no indication that the man who sat and examined life "On the shore of the turbid Spoon" is dead, so the poem violates the epitaphic conventions of the Anthology. Nevertheless, Masters was by then writing poetry that was specific, based on people he knew, and related to his downstate Illinois background - and he undoubtedly hoped to become the Dreiser of "the turbid Spoon." Hence, "Theodore the Poet" testifies to the influence of the great American novelist, who prompted Masters's poetic realism.

August 17, 2007 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Be still, my writer-geek heart!

Behold, the springback manuscript binder.

The entire spine of this binder is a steel spring clip (the big brother of those binder clips everyone uses nowadays for papers.) The boards and spine are covered with black leatherette, good for years of use.

I already have a serious weakness for binder clips, and since I currently keep my novel manuscripts in Wilson Jones report covers (which are very cumbersome to take pages in and out of) this seems like a greatly satisfying solution. Sure, the springbacks are expensive, but I'd like to think my writing is worth it - or will be worth it, eventually. In the meantime, just think how stylish I'll look. After all, as Billy Crystal-as-Fernando Lamas once said, if you caaaan't look good, you caaaan't feel good.

(Via NewPages.)

August 16, 2007 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

New Beer in Town

There's a new brewing company in Chicago: Half Acre Beer Company. I say "brewing company" instead of "brewery" since, while it's based on the West Side, the actual brewing is handled by a contract brewer in Black River Falls, Wisconsin - which is certainly the smart way to go for a startup. I heartily welcome Half Acre's arrival, and am looking forward to sampling their wares. The website currently lists only two bars where the beer is carried (and no stores yet) but I'm hoping they'll quickly add more.

Obligatory book-related comment: Black River Falls just so happens to be the setting for Michael Lesy's infamous Wisconsin Death Trip, which I've been hearing about for years but still haven't read. I hope to rectify this oversight soon, perhaps accompanied by a Half Acre Lager.

(Via Gapers Block.)

August 16, 2007 in Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

"That’s the price of doing business."

Accepting dangerous goods, from lead-painted toys to toxic pet food, is a price of doing business, the trade-off we must absorb for enjoying affordable merchandise? Funny, but that was the same argument made by the meatpacking industry a hundred years ago against having sanitary standards and worker safeguards imposed by a suddenly activist federal government. Yet the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed into law, and grudgingly absorbed by the industry, and we've long since come to expect our domestic food supply to be safe. Similar standards must now be enacted for imported goods. From today's New York Times:

It is definitely not in America’s interest — economic, political or strategic — to erect a barricade against Chinese imports, which could spark a mutually destructive trade war. American businesses and the Bush administration must send a clear message to Beijing that it has to clean up its act or its export-led boom will falter.

What China needs is an effective and transparent regulatory system to enforce product safety standards. The United States and other countries can help with technical advice and warnings about what would happen if Beijing refuses to take it. But the dangers are too immediate to wait.

These days, many of our goods come not from avaricious domestic manufacturers, but from equally avaricious overseas producers, including China, who are so hellbent on achieving profit and economic growth - not unlike the Swifts and Armours of a hundred years ago - that they will cut any corner to do so, including endangering the lives of their own customers.

Regulatory action, on both the part of the Chinese and American governments, is clearly warranted. But the Times editorial cuts to the heart of the problem:

Unfortunately, the Bush administration, which disdains America’s regulatory system, has cut personnel and squeezed budgets at both the Food and Drug Administration and the Consumer Product Safety Commission, impairing their ability to monitor the quality of products made in China or, indeed, anywhere else.

At a time of ever-rising imports, the F.D.A. has lost hundreds of food scientists and field inspectors. And the White House is proposing cutting the agency’s budget next year, in real terms. The C.P.S.C., which sets safety standards for toys and many other consumer products, must inspect tens of billions of dollars worth of goods sold every year with only about 100 field investigators and compliance personnel. And it has suffered a 10 percent cut in its budget in the last two years.

The corporation-loving Bush Administration is relentlessly obsessed with relying on market-based solutions to many problems which would better be solved with government regulation. "Leave it alone; the market will weed out the bad apples," the administration says again and again. "People can just stop buying products from irresponsible companies, thus giving those companies incentive to do the right thing." We don't need costly inspectors and compliance standards, we are told; the market will take care of it.

If it were only that simple. In the particular instance of toys, decades of conservative economic policies have driven most toy manufacturing overseas, most of it to China, where the industry operates beyond the reach of even our enfeebled regulatory mechanisms. If American parents want to buy toys for their children, particularly those character-emblazoned items that kids so love, they really have no choice but to buy China-made toys, and accept any accompanying health risks.

And there will be health risks, as long as China values economic growth, and Chinese corporations value escalating profits, over safety. For all corporations, whether in China, America or elsewhere, are driven by one thing: the profit motive. They will do whatever they can to boost their profits, even if it means exploiting workers, destroying local economies, or ruining the environment. For too long, corporations have been given too much slack in conducting their affairs by those who blindly believe in free markets; those corporations have proven, time and again, that they are either incapable or uniterested in being responsible corporate citizens. They have proven that they believe profit is paramount, and that once a reasonable profit can be guaranteed then, and only then, can other issues - worker safety, environmental standards - be considered.

I'm not here to bash China. Chinese corporations are no better or worse than their American counterparts; it's just that American corporations operate under regulatory constraints, while Chinese corporations, in terms of dealing with the American consumer, do not. We need regulation of all corporations, regardless of location. And, no, I'm not some wild-eyed socialist. I fully believe in capitalism, but not the unfettered, laissez-faire brand of capitalism. Instead, I believe in controlled capitalism, in which companies may operate and compete as they please, given that they adhere to a specific set of standards and playing rules. Companies should be free to pursue profit, just as long as they don't trample society and the common good in doing so.

Like children, companies often have to be told what to do rather than freely deciding for themselves, or otherwise they will recklessly pursue their own selfish needs. Fortunately, unsupervised children are rarely capable of inflicting significant damage when allowed to do whatever they please; unfortunately, the same cannot be said of corporations.

August 15, 2007 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (2)

"Writing in Progress"

I've added a new section to my sidebar, called "Writing in Progress." This will give you a hint of what writing I'm currently working on - or should be working on. Though I probably won't formally announce any periods of slackness, if I don't update that section for a few weeks you'll know that I've been irresponsibly neglecting my writing. Currently underway:

The Wheatyard Chronicles: My novella in progress, which I started writing during NaNoWriMo 2005 but didn't finish the first draft of until a few months ago. I'm about one-third of the way through the second draft.

"The Fable of the Small 'Suburb' Which Aspired to Be More Than It Was": A satirical short story inspired by the antic writings of George Ade and, as I've only just realized after re-reading Babbitt, by Sinclair Lewis as well.

As-yet-untitled flash fiction for Eximious Press: The story, tentatively called "One Evening in St. Paul", is the latest in a series of stories I've written which were inspired by old photographs or ephemera. I finished the first draft on the train this morning, and am pretty happy with it so far.

If you notice that this section of the sidebar hasn't changed for weeks or months, do me a big favor and send me a nasty email, telling me to get the lead out, get cracking, etc.

August 15, 2007 in Fiction, Wheatyard | Permalink | Comments (1)

Quote

"Literature is the question minus the answer."
-Roland Barthes

(Via Josh Maday.)

August 13, 2007 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saying Goodbye to George Babbitt

I'm about to finish Sinclair Lewis' Babbitt, and I'm a bit saddened to have to say goodbye once again to the book's wondrous protagonist, George Babbitt. To me, he's one of the greatest characters of American literature, every bit the equal of Captain Ahab, Huck Finn, Sal Paradise, Holden Caulfield and others in that pantheon. Sure, he's a cartoonish, bigoted, hypocritical buffoon - all qualities which I'd like to believe that I don't share - but I've thoroughly enjoyed his company and savored living in his little world for the past several weeks. For all his negatives, deep down he's a regular guy, not unlike most of us: he doesn't know where all his money goes or why he over-indulged so much the night before; he's vaguely dissatisfied with his career, his friends and his family life but doesn't know how to make a real change; he settles for the familiar comforts of conformity instead of boldly and unreservedly embracing the unknown.

Once I read that final page and close the book on George Babbitt, I'm really going to miss the old blowhard. But I'll take great comfort in knowing that he'll always be there for me, on my bookshelf - ready at any time to transport me back to 1920 and the fictional city of Zenith, to the funny but sad life of a real estate agent who's thoroughly established yet still trying to find his place in the world, to a lost era of hand-cranked motor cars and bathtub gin - whenever I'm ready for him again. And for that I'm grateful.

August 13, 2007 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Books, thankfully, are here to stay.

One consideration I never see mentioned in the discussion of reading books versus reading online: when you take one of those old-fashioned, low-tech books off the shelf, you can read it immediately and free from interruption, as you remain entirely independent of erratic Internet connectivity.

Frigging Comcast.

Update: Make that "frigging squirrels." Comcast came out to our house, and the technician discovered that the incoming cable that's strung over our backyard (we have an old house, hence no underground wiring) had apparently been clawed up/gnawed on by squirrels, thus resulting in intermittent outages. He replaced the chewed-up cable with a brand-new one, and things seem to be working fine again. I'm still no fan of the company, but this time they don't appear to have been at fault. Unless they hired the squirrels, that is.

August 11, 2007 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

Quite True!

From this week's fortune cookie:

"A man (sic) best possession is a sympathetic wife."

And, in my case, a very patient one, too.

August 10, 2007 in Personal | Permalink | Comments (1)

Take that, Tancredo!

A public library goes out of its way to stock its shelves with Spanish, Polish and Hindi titles, among others.

The library uses a national cooperative that recommends sets of books in different languages, including cataloguing -- which is one of the main hindrances to collecting books in foreign languages. "I can't read Hindi. I don't even know what a popular Hindi title would be," said Michelle Roubal, head of reference and reader services.

"It's not that easy when you're a smaller library to order in foreign languages, because you may not have people on staff who speak those languages and the books have to be cataloged," she said.

Roubal coordinates purchases with area libraries so foreign language titles aren't duplicated. The Homer Township Public Library and Lemont Public Library also collect books in Polish, she said.

The library started its Spanish collection a couple years ago, said Library Administrator Julie Milavec.

"Six, seven years ago (the local Spanish population) was still a tiny percentage, according to our demographics," she said. "It's taken a huge leap over the last five or seven years."

There are more than 1,500 titles for children through adults in Spanish at the library now, and about 100 titles in other foreign languages.

Serving one's constituents regardless of their native language. Why, it's enough to make GOP presidential candidate Tom Tancredo - who once lead a push to purge Denver's libraries of Spanish-language material - absolutely livid. Which to me is a good thing.

August 10, 2007 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Writer Friends, Old and New

My friend Richard Grayson's story collection Highly Irregular Stories gets a glowing review at Hipster Book Club. The book is a compilation of four story chapbooks from very early in Richard's career. I enjoyed Richard's newest collection, And To Think That He Kissed Him On Lorimer Street, so much that I think I'll finally pick up Irregular as well.

Yesterday I had the pleasure of lunching with Ben Tanzer, whom I first met at last month's RAGAD reading at MoJoes Hothouse. He's the author of Lucky Man, a debut novel that's gotten some very good online press so far. I haven't read the book yet, but if it's anywhere near as energetic, entertaining and thought-provoking as Ben is in person, it should be a very good one. Our backgrounds are very similar - we're both working stiffs and family guys, we're both hovering around the 40 year old milepost, we both got into serious writing fairly late, and neither of us harbors any unrealistic fantasies about writing for a living but will keep at it for the simple love of the craft. Good guy and, I strongly suspect, good writer.

By the way, in no way should the title of this blog post imply that Richard Grayson is old. (Mature, perhaps, but not old.) Instead, I meant it in the sense of "I've known Richard for a while, but only met Ben recently." Believe me, I'm the last person who should be calling anybody else "old."

August 9, 2007 in Books | Permalink | Comments (6)

Into the Wild

Wow. Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild, a fantastic book which is one of my absolute all-time favorites, has now been made into a film by Sean Penn. Here's the trailer. It looks terrific, and I'm really looking forward to seeing it. (While I'll allow Mr. Penn a great deal of artistic latitude in bringing Krakauer's story to film, I urgently hope he resisted the urge to give it a happy ending, which would be a betrayal to Chris McCandless' legacy.)

(Via Coudal.)

August 7, 2007 in Books, Film | Permalink | Comments (1)

Remind me, once again...

...why was the Democrats' retaking of Congress in 2006 such a big deal? Wasn't it the restoration of the system of checks and balances that keeps the President under control? Wasn't it recovering many of the civil liberties which were taken away by the Bush Administration with the help of a compliant Republican Congress? Yeah, that's what I thought, too.

Meet the new boss - same as the old boss.

The Democratic-led Congress, more concerned with protecting its political backside than with safeguarding the privacy of American citizens, left town early yesterday after caving in to administration demands that it allow warrantless surveillance of the phone calls and e-mails of American citizens, with scant judicial supervision and no reporting to Congress about how many communications are being intercepted. To call this legislation ill-considered is to give it too much credit: It was scarcely considered at all.

In case you're wondering, here's the Democrats who voted in favor:

Senate (16 total):
Bayh, Carper, Casey, Conrad, Feinstein, Inouye, Klobuchar, Landrieu, Lincoln, McCaskill, Mikulski, Nelson, Nelson, Pryor, Salazar, Webb.

House (41 total):
Altmire, Barrow, Bean, Boren, Boswell, Boyd, Carney, Chandler, Cooper, Costa, Cramer, Cuellar, Davis, Davis, Donnelly, Edwards, Ellsworth, Etheridge, Gordon, Herseth Sandlin, Higgins, Hill, Lampson, Lipinski, Marshall, Matheson, McIntyre, Melancon, Mitchell, Peterson, Pomeroy, Rodriguez, Ross, Salazar, Shuler, Snyder, Space, Tanner, Taylor, Walz, Wilson.

If your "representative" happens to be on either of these lists, be sure to call them up and give them an earful. Oh, and that also goes for any of them who didn't bother to vote, John Kerry and Barbara Boxer the most prominent among them.

More power for Alberto Gonzales. My, that certainly is comforting. Sweet dreams, America.

August 6, 2007 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Obama and Pakistan

Barack Obama has been taking a lot of heat from liberals (and, in what must be particularly distressing for him, praise from the right-wing Wall Street Journal) for his recent speech about fighting terrorism, in particular his vow to attack al Qaeda targets in Pakistan. The media, not surprisingly, has zeroed in on a single sentence: "If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won't act, we will." But that sentence really has to be read in context. I encourage you to read the entire speech, but here's the specific passage regarding Pakistan:

Above all, I will send a clear message: we will not repeat the mistake of the past, when we turned our back on Afghanistan following Soviet withdrawal. As 9/11 showed us, the security of Afghanistan and America is shared. And today, that security is most threatened by the al Qaeda and Taliban sanctuary in the tribal regions of northwest Pakistan.

Al Qaeda terrorists train, travel, and maintain global communications in this safe-haven. The Taliban pursues a hit and run strategy, striking in Afghanistan, then skulking across the border to safety.

This is the wild frontier of our globalized world. There are wind-swept deserts and cave-dotted mountains. There are tribes that see borders as nothing more than lines on a map, and governments as forces that come and go. There are blood ties deeper than alliances of convenience, and pockets of extremism that follow religion to violence. It's a tough place.

But that is no excuse. There must be no safe-haven for terrorists who threaten America. We cannot fail to act because action is hard.

As President, I would make the hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. military aid to Pakistan conditional, and I would make our conditions clear: Pakistan must make substantial progress in closing down the training camps, evicting foreign fighters, and preventing the Taliban from using Pakistan as a staging area for attacks in Afghanistan.

I understand that President Musharraf has his own challenges. But let me make this clear. There are terrorists holed up in those mountains who murdered 3,000 Americans. They are plotting to strike again. It was a terrible mistake to fail to act when we had a chance to take out an al Qaeda leadership meeting in 2005. If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won't act, we will.

And Pakistan needs more than F-16s to combat extremism. As the Pakistani government increases investment in secular education to counter radical madrasas, my Administration will increase America's commitment. We must help Pakistan invest in the provinces along the Afghan border, so that the extremists' program of hate is met with one of hope. And we must not turn a blind eye to elections that are neither free nor fair -- our goal is not simply an ally in Pakistan, it is a democratic ally.

Reading that, it's obvious that Obama isn't exactly saying "We will invade Pakistan in January 2009, as soon as I take office." Instead, he's putting Musharraf on notice that the Pakistani president has to tighten up control of the country's border regions and root out al Qaeda from its safe havens, and if he doesn't make every effort to do so, the United States reserves the right to take military action on its own. Which is not, of course, the same as saying we're absolutely, positively going to invade - just that it's one of our options.

Taking in the broader context of that passage above, it's clear that Obama is willing to work with Pakistan in combating terrorist extremists. He's willing to continue providing military aid so that Musharraf can tighten up on the border regions with Pakistan's own forces, as well as social aid aimed at reducing the extremists' influence on the people of those regions - although both forms of aid will quite sensibly be conditional on seeing Musharraf make legitimate efforts on his own. Obama would neither hand Pakistan a blank check, nor would he impetuously order an invasion. Obama is all about open dialogue, compromise, negotiation and finding common ground, unlike what we've seen of the either-you're-with-us-or-you're-against-us stance of the Bush Administration during the past seven years.

Despite what the WSJ simplistically insists, Barack Obama has not suddenly become a neocon hawk. I remain confident that as president he will do everything he can to find a peaceful solution to the scourge of terrorism, without mindlessly resorting to militarism.

August 3, 2007 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

The public reaps...

...what political conservatives sow.

Minnesota's Republican governor, Tim Pawlenty, reacted to the disaster by calling a press conference and, with a steely determination worthy of Rudy Guiliani, lying to the American people. Pawlenty insisted that inspections in 2005 and 2006 had found no structural problems with the bridge. But the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported that the bridge "was rated as 'structurally deficient' two years ago and possibly in need of replacement." The bridge was borderline -- with a 50 sufficiency rating; if a bridge scores less than 50, it needs to be replaced.

According to the Pioneer Press, the bridge's suspension system was supposed to receive extra attention with inspections every two years, but the last one had been performed in 2003.

The governor had every reason to obfuscate; in 2005, he vetoed a bipartisan transportation package that would have "put more than $8 billion into highways, city and county roads, and transit over the next decade." At the time, he was applauded by many Republicans for his staunch fiscal "conservatism."

Our infrastructure may be collapsing around us but, well, at least we have slightly lower taxes and freedom from "big government."

August 3, 2007 in Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Bob Mould, Author?

Does Bob Mould have a book inside of him, eager to emerge? Maybe, he tantalizingly suggests...

There’s a saying I often think about: Never let your memories be greater than your dreams. Corny, perhaps, but it’s the main reason I have not seriously addressed the book offers. But, yes, at some quiet point in the far future, I will likely dust off the memory boxes and start writing.

Count me in for a pre-order.

August 2, 2007 in Books, Music | Permalink | Comments (1)