It is 97 degrees in Dallas, headed for 101 if the forecasts are right. And it's not even June. At least it is, as they say, a dry heat. I pity the poor fools in Houston.
There's another reason why this story won't get much play: it involves the LA Times. No offense meant to those who labor there; I'm sure there are fine talents at the paper, as there are at any paper. But no one cares about the LA Times. The NYT, the WaPo and the WSJ set the the agenda and shape the discussion. The very phrase "The Los Angeles Times reports . . ." has the same impact as "Cheryl Crow remarked."
I used to write regularly for the LAT op-ed page, and I know from experience that no one cares about the LA Times. Even the LAT gets its mattering map from 3,000 miles to the east. (Lileks also has some substantive comments on the Carroll memo.)
My friend and former colleague Jacob Sullum, the coolest and most rational person ever to appear on television, went on "The O'Reilly Factor" the other night to talk about his new book, Saying Yes. I haven't yet read the book (which is no reason for you not to buy it), but I know what it's about. Jacob essentially argues for treating all drugs the we treat alcohol--acknowledging that human beings have a natural desire to alter their consciousness and that taking drugs can be either responsible or not responsible, depending on the user's behavior. Being a model of journalistic temperance as well as other forms, he makes this argument using lots of scientific research as well as interviews with drug users.
Needless to say, Bill O'Reilly doesn't like that argument. More to the point, he didn't actually let Jacob make it. Contrary to his image as some kind of conservative ideologue, O'Reilly is just a long-winded cab driver with a TV show and no real interest in policy, ideas, or facts. (At one point he declared that the government statistics everyone in the drug policy world relies on, regardless of their policy preferences, are "just your opinion.) Now Sam Smith of The Progressive Review has used Jacob's appearance to produce a Mathematical Model of Bill O'Reilly, graphing exactly how many words each person got to say. "In the first mathematical analysis of Bill O'Reilly ever done, the Review has incontrovertibly proved what was previously believed only anecdotally: O'Reilly is a bully and a jerk," he writes. Take a look. (Thanks to Mike Snell for the tip.)
Speaking of Jacob, he has a good op-ed in today's NYT, explaining why the new anti-Rave act is likely to result in more fatalities. Jacob would never make this point, but this law, a gift to the nation from Joe Biden and Pat Leahy, is the sort of thing that explains why libertarians who engage in politics lean toward the Republican party. We all know the problems of the social right, but Democrats are largely useless, and often awful, on the issues where their supposed respect for tolerance and civil liberties might make a difference.
Erich Stein, an industrial design student at the Art Institute of Colorado has put together a fun online quiz with a serious purpose: to see whether there's any systematic correlation between individuals' temperaments, as classified by the Meyers-Briggs typology, and aesthetic preferences. Help Erich with his undergraduate-thesis research by taking the quiz and maybe you'll even advance the state of industrial design.
In case you Meyers-Briggs fans are wondering, I am a classic ENTJ.
In addition to my column on the stinkier aspects of urban living, the new issue of D Magazine has a pictorial feature on the unusual sculpture garden of local real estate mogul Harlan Crow. He collects the images of fallen dictators. Check it out; the pictures are great. Shelley could have been writing about Stalin, Lenin, and Ceaucescu.
My latest D Magazine column, which I'm afraid is on the same general subject as Lileks's NYT feature parody below, is here. Dog poop isn't the kind of issue that gets you respect in the punditocracy, but it makes a big difference to the quality of urban life, especially in my neighborhood.
I'll let Mickey Kaus, Andrew Sullivan, and, of course, Romensko flood the zone with all the charges, countercharges, and ongoing angst roiling the NYT. I write for the Times, so I have a sort of conflict of interest, and, more important, I haven't got any more clue than you do what's going on. I just know what I read on the Internet (that, and the fact that Times staffers are having a very hard time getting any work done these days).
I'll just add a strategic point, the kind of thing they teach in business school. If you are going to adopt a strategy to be a national newspaper, you must add the capabilities to be a national newspaper. That doesn't mean parachuting in reporters from Manhattan to interview a few natives and report back on their peculiar habits. It means having lots of well-staffed bureaus and, if necessary, credited stringers. It also means breaking out of a worldview that considers Manhattan normal and every other place weird.
The truth is that the NYT is not a national newspaper. It is the New York Times (more accurately, The Manhattan South of Harlem Times). It assumes its readers have the prejudices of well-educated, affluent Manhattanites, and it staffs, writes, and edits accordingly. To take an apolitical example, from a national perspective, the Times business pages grossly overcover the media business. From a Manhattan perspective, that makes perfect sense.
There is nothing wrong with this strategy, but it is a different strategy from the stated one of being a national paper. The mismatch between strategy and capabilities seems to account for many of the paper's current managerial problems, including the seeming inability of editors to keep track of exactly when and where reporters travel.
A "national" newspaper written for Manhattanites inevitably has blindspots, which show up particularly in its feature coverage. The great Lileks put it oh-so-well in yesterday's must-read Bleat:
Right before I woke up I dreamed I had an assignment: write a bad feature story in the style of the New York Times. When I woke I had the last sentence still in my head; I stumbled next door to the studio, woke up the Mac, and typed this sentence:
Over in the field, a hound was hunched over excreting a "striver," the local's [sic] term for the hard, elegantly tapered stools for which the wild dogs are renowned.
It has it all! It has a field, which is always a sign that the urban reporter is braving the flat & empty lands of America. It has a word known only to the locals, and the locals are always the real subject of the piece. Every East Coast story on Midwestern people feels like they're writing about pygmies. Doesn't matter if the story's about clothing, or music, or nose-bones; beneath it all is the writer's underlying inability to forget that these are pygmies, for God's sake. And they're so cute!
As a friend of mine said when serving as a southern bureau chief for a real national newspaper, New York editors tend to want only stories about "racism or eating dirt." Out of L.A., they want wacky California stories and Hollywood. Out of the Midwest, they apparently want Heartland nostalgia.
Which brings me to the mostly unrelated question of why so many Times watchers are harping on Rick Bragg's relation to Howell Raines as a "fellow southerner." Are there really only two southerners at the Times? If so, there's something wrong with the paper. (Southerners have, if anything, a disproportionate tendency to pursue journalism careers.) If not, there's something wrong with the people who harp on that connection. Would they have written "fellow Jew" or "fellow Irish Catholic," or "fellow Harvard grad"? Ethnicity can be a common bond, but only to a limited degree. There are millions of people in the South. They don't all know each other or even get along.
In a lucid exchange with Bill McKibben, Ron Bailey addresses the common charge (made also by conservatives like Dinesh D'Souza) that parents will deprive their children of freedom if they alter their kids' genes. The exchange is short and everyone should read it in full. That way, I can justify commenting on a side issue. Ron writes:
The mechanism for genetic tyranny, according to McKibben, is cells pumping out proteins specified by the genes selected by a child's parents. As an example, he asks us to imagine "duplicating the effects of Prozac but permanently, by altering the serotonin balance in the brain with DNA alteration." Does a person who is "naturally" serotonin deficient choose to be depressed? Does a high-serotonin person choose to be happy?
Given that all human brains have some level of serotonin that influences their moods and outlook on life, the question is what balance a reasonable child would want. Applying our reasonable person standard, would a child consent to being endowed with a gene that prevents her from becoming morbidly depressed? I think yes. This is no more tyrannical than a randomly conferred gene that boosts the production of serotonin, giving a person a naturally sunny outlook on life. Again, freedom cannot consist of random genes.
With all due respect to Ron, it is possible to have "a naturally sunny outlook on life" and nonetheless become "morbidly depressed." In fact, that's me. Would I have been a different person if I'd never been depressed? Sure. And I would have been a different person if I'd never been near-sighted or suffered from migraines or had a serious case of the mumps in first grade.
But as far as I'm concerned, the "real" me is the sunny one, not the depressed one, just as the "real" me is the one without a fever or blurred vision or a sharp pain through my left eye. Prozac (or, to be precise, its cheaper generic equivalent, fluoxetine) does not, to use McKibben's words, nag at my sense of identity. Prozac doesn't make me happy. Steve makes me happy. Writing makes me happy. Walking in the sunshine makes me happy. Prozac simply makes it easier to remember that I am happy and to continue to do the things that make me happy rather than becoming paralyzed with despair.
That people who are supposedly criticizing genetic alterations constantly bring up Prozac suggests that their objection isn't to genetic medicine at all. What really creeps them out--and this is particularly true among conservatives--is the notion that human consciousness emerges from the complex interplay of chemicals in the brain. They want a humunculus, an authentic self we alter only at the peril of losing our identity.
This is an oddly modern desire, Freudian perhaps. Back in the days of the four humors, people had no problem believing that temperaments emerged from the balance, or imbalance, of chemicals in the body. The people who gave us Hamlet and the Reformation believed that melancholy came from too much black bile. That belief didn't stop them from having identities.
My apologies for the week-long absence. I've been on deadline. Lots and lots of deadlines. Then more deadlines, for rewrites. I should emerge sometime early next week but will try to post a bit more before then. And for those who've inquired, I'll be doing something on Buffy for Reason.
Should we worry about deflation? I think it's worth concern. Indeed, the one time I ever met George W. Bush, at a small meeting of people to talk about "new economy" issues, I told him that deflation was a possibility.
But a lot of the recent babble about "deflation," especially that coming from Wall Street types, isn't about deflation at all. It's about tough price competition in some industries. I take up the issue in my latest NYT column. There are many complicated and contentious aspects to macro policy, but I tried to stick to the issues where the division is between ignorance and knowledge, not, say, monetarists and neo-Keynesians.
For more on fighting deflation, Ben Bernanke's November speech is well worth reading.