Sad Stories of the Death of Kings

And nothing can we call our own but death
And that small model of the barren earth
Which serves as paste and cover to our bones.
For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d;
All murder’d: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be fear’d and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnable, and humour’d thus
Comes at the last and with a little pin
Bores through his castle wall, and farewell king!                                                                                                 –Richard II

There are many things to say as we watch the collapse of one of the world’s great political parties play out in real time. Let’s begin by going back to the last time the U.S. of A. experienced a party realignment comparable to this one. The realignment, like most other relatively recent big social changes in this country, took place in the 1960s.

In the year 1960, the presidential election pitted the incumbent Republican Vice President – Richard Nixon – against a young, handsome, articulate son of one of the nation’s wealthiest families. This particular son was not supposed to be the family’s political standard-bearer (that role belonged to the eldest), but World War II changed a lot of things for a lot of families. The Kennedy’s, even with their great wealth and prestige, were no different.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy was optimistic, energetic, and beautiful on screen. Richard Milhous Nixon was unattractive, somewhat creepy, but highly qualified. The result of the contest was one of the closest and most controversial presidential elections in U.S. history. Kennedy won, barely, and to this day many are convinced that votes, especially in Chicago, were bought or stolen.

Kennedy’s presidency is a strange one to describe. The beautiful man with his beautiful wife and beautiful children captivated the sentiments of many, but accomplished little tangible domestic reform. Abroad, there was the peaceful resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but also the Bay of Pigs debacle. His administration is remembered more for its captivating rhetoric and great dreams deferred than any legislative or diplomatic accomplishment.

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Bezos Tries the Washington Post

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has been in charge of the Washington Post for almost 10 months now and some of the first reports on his leadership have come in. The longest and most comprehensive is from the Columbia Journalism Review (their editor-in-chief was a Post executive editor for some time, no doubt ensuring their access for this piece). The acquisition was huge news in the media industry, for good reason. The Post had experienced dramatic declines in revenue and circulation for decades. It also seemed like its cultural presence had diminished in the face of the New York Times – the U.S. national paper of record.

Bezos brings with him enormous expertise at navigating the digital world. Amazon.com is a ubiquitous thing and has taken on the biggest conglomerates, from Wal-Mart to the big five book publishers. It was also one of the first non-porn websites to make a lot of money and not just generate hype. It’s hard to know what the future is for large news organizations, but it’s harder to imagine a strong digital operation not being a key component of whatever model proves successful. But creating this model is a tremendous challenge for Bezos. It’s not as if large, powerful organizations haven’t tried to adapt to changing news norms. Advertising is so much less potent in the digital world than in print. Someone who clicks on a story on washingtonpost.com is far less likely to spend the time on it or browse as many other stories as someone reading that same story in print. This is coupled with the initial (and current) reluctance of many news agencies to charge for online content. The bottom line is that web traffic doesn’t generate enough money to maintain the same kind of news-gathering operations these companies had gotten used to.

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Our Prison State, Ctd.

The NYT reports today that approximately 50,000 prisoners serving time for drug violations will be eligible to seek early release next year. This is following the United States Sentencing Commission’s April vote to reduce penalties for drug offenses across the board. It represents continued pressure from both parties to scale back efforts made in the 80s to tackle crime (previously discussed in this space here). Money quote:

The Sentencing Commission said the move would help ease prison overcrowding and reduce prison spending, which makes up about a third of the Justice Department’s budget. The change comes amid a bipartisan effort to roll back the harshest penalties set during the height of the drug war.

Let’s give credit where it’s due and hope there’s more to come.

A Disastrous Election

The Mississippi Republican senate primary race was a disaster. It pitted Tea Party challenger Chris McDaniel against 36 year incumbent Senator Thad Cochran and featured not just the typical ugly rhetoric, but accusations of voter fraud and a break-in at a nursing home. Senator Cochran lost the initial vote, but because Mr. McDaniel did not achieve the proper margin of victory, by state party rules a runoff was conducted. Runoffs following a general election with only two significant candidates rarely produce a different result, but this one did. Senator Cochran won his party’s nomination and will in all likelihood return to Washington for another term.

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Our Prison State

Here’s an arresting statistic, courtesy of Vox.com: from 1811 and 1979, state and federal governments built 711 prisons in the U.S. Between 1980 and 2004, they built 936. Granted, the U.S. population grew quite a bit during that time so it’s natural to assume we may have needed to increase the rate of prison construction. Furthermore, increased population density generally correlates with a disproportionate increase in crime rate. But goodness.

The 1980s were a huge turning point in U.S. crime-fighting strategy. We adopted many different “tough-on-crime” policies at the state and federal level in an effort to solve what was a significant public problem. While they were publicly credited with the dramatic decreases in crime we’ve seen since the mid-90s, sociologists disagree on the actual cause(s). Theories range from the Donohue-Levitt abortion hypothesis to Kevin Drum’s report that lead exposure corrupted so many brains. Whatever the causal mechanisms, one of the consequences of many 80s crime laws is a gigantic prison population. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (B.J.S.) in 2011, almost one percent of the nation is behind bars, a total of nearly 2.3 million people. Including those on probation and parole, nearly seven million Americans are caught up in the penal system. This is a massive number that dwarfs those of our international peers. Incarceration has become a one-size-fits-all solution to a very complex problem, despite studies that show it has very little ability to rehabilitate offenders.

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RIP Charlie Haden

Last Friday a great jazz bassists died in Los Angeles. Charlie Haden was born in Shenandoah, Iowa, a humble beginning for a man who played with a lot of edge. In the 1950s and 60s he was a member of Ornette Coleman’s group, touring the country playing a new avant-garde style known as free jazz. This great description of his own style comes from David A. Graham at the Atlantic.

His playing isn’t elaborately virtuosic, in the style of a Paul Chambers; and it isn’t irresistibly swinging, like Ray Brown. Like a country or blues bassist, Haden often stayed close to the root note of each chord.

And:

Haden is able to fill a huge musical space without using a huge number of notes, [sic] his bass maintains harmony and rhythm in the absence of a full band, and [sic] he brings out the best in his partners.

That link also includes plenty of Haden’s tracks. Enjoy!

China Bubble?

Much of China’s economic miracle is here to stay. The country is a manufacturing powerhouse and is fast becoming a ubiquitous presence on the international financial stage. Overall this is a net positive. Millions of Chinese people have been lifted out of dire poverty, Americans are made wealthier from a more affluent China, and the possibility of war is greatly reduced by the volume of trade between us. However, we shouldn’t live under any illusions. China is a brutal, repressive society with minimal political freedom (best seen in their blatant refusal to even acknowledge that the atrocities of Tiananmen Square ever happened). There is also some doubt as to the veracity of China’s claims of economic expansion and concern over its increased reliance on credit to finance its growth. All of this fuels worries about a potential bust across the Pacific. This article from Friday is a perfect example of the kind of results that stem from the misguided planning Chinese leaders have engaged in for some time now.

The skyline of Yujiapu in the Chinese city of Tianjin looks more like an expensive, abandoned movie set than it does “China’s new Manhattan,” as the financial district was once billed. A patina of dust covers the glass doors of the 47 office buildings and hotels that still sit empty, and in come cases unfinished.

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