Mediocre Fred's Mediocre Blog
Friday, October 31, 2003
  Today's Musical Selection: "Spooky" by Dennis Yost and the Classics IV


Boo, all! Happy Halloween to all you fine folks out there in reader-land, and here's hoping you get all the candy you want and/or need. Hammerin' Hank suggested that there should be a Halloween for adults, wherein you go from house to house and receive booze. I replied, "Isn't that the purpose of Halloween parties?" He said it's showing up uninvited at strangers' houses that really makes Halloween special for him. I said nothing, but made a mental note to change my locks.

The Smart Lady will be at a Halloween party tonight, but I won't, since her party is in Atlanta, where I am not likely to be. Sigh. I suppose I'll sit around and throw Molotov cocktails at the little children who walk by my apartment, in accordance with the scare-inducing spirit of the holiday. Actually, I'm more interested in celebrating All Saints Day, November 1st, which Halloween is actually supposed to be the lead-up for. (Halloween is short for "All Hallows Eve".) Anyone who has a line on any All Saints festivals in the Fedroplex area, let me know.

On a more serious note, many thanks to loyal reader Tripp, who chimed in with a couple thoughtful comments on my "dialogue" with Papa Shaft yesterday. Anyone else who wants to join the fray, post your remarks and I'll revisit the issue on Tuesday. At this rate, I may never have to have an original thought again. Here's hoping!

I was skimming the headlines in the Post this morning, and came across an item entitled "Democrats Could Be History in Kentucky." At first I thought they might be onto a real scoop here. The Democratic Party goes inactive in Kentucky! The first signs of a major party realignment! Stop the presses! But upon actually reading the story, it turned out to be a disappointment. The "big news" is that the Democrats could lose the governorship in Kentucky, now a reliably Republican state, after a 30-year run. Big deal. There's some interesting stuff here, though. The article notes the phenomenon of Southern states that have gone stedily Republican, but cling to Democrats in statewide offices, Kentucky being a prime example. If the Dems do lose their hold on state offices in the South, it's hard to see how they will remain competitive, long-term, without some sort fo realignment. Also worth noting is the remarks by Ben Chandler, the Democratic candidate, who's been tied by his opponent to scandal-plagued incumbent Paul Patton. Chandler said that given his baggage, Patton would be "a drag on Jesus Christ." That's one of my favorite political quotes so far this year.

For Virginia voters, here's a guide for you to figure out who's running in your elections. You know, the elections that are happening on Tuesday. You heard about those. Right?

Speaking of Virginia politics, I always thought that being redistricted into Jim Moran's constituency was a stroke of bad luck. Up to that point I'd been represented by Tom Davis, who's hardly exciting but is respectable and unembarrassing. Well, now I have cause to reconsider. An article in yesterday's Post examines Davis's tenure as head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, a group designed to channel money to Republican candidates for the U.S. House. Well, while Davis was in charge, he funneled $5 million to local races in Virginia, establishing a network of grateful cronies who will surely support him if he chooses to run for governor or senator some day. One Republican pollster calls it the "Davis machine." More interesting still is that the top recipient of the Davis largesse is Jeannemarie Devolites, who is currently in the Virginia House of Delegates and is now running for the State Senate. Davis and Devolites, who are both divorced, have attended social events together and say they are "close friends." Hmm. Well, I give Davis credit. Why run a national fundraising machine if you can't help out your girlfriend? I don't feel quite so bad about being written out of Davis's district anymore.

Special note to Loudoun County voters in the Sterling area: Your incumbent supervisor, Eugene Delgaudio, is a complete jackass. Delgaudio is running against an openly gay man, Douglas Reimel. A few highlights from the article:

"The Democratic Party of Virginia and the Virginia Partisans Gay and Lesbian Club have even put out a call for statewide activists to invade Sterling on Election Day to take away our seat on the Board of Supervisors," Delgaudio (R-Sterling) wrote in one letter [to voters] -- part of his campaign for reelection on Tuesday.

Another letter, sent under the signature of Delgaudio's wife, Sheila, called Reimel a "hatemonger" bent on tearing down "a moral and truly accountable man."

"It's the sick personal attacks and outright lies about me and the kids that hurt," read the letter, marked as being authorized by the candidate. "What kind of man goes after a seven-year-old boy? That's just sick."

(For the record, Reimel claims to have no idea what Mrs. Delgaudio is talking about, and no public record exists of Reimel saying anything about the Delgaudio family.)

The campaign letters resemble fundraising appeals Delgaudio has sent out since becoming head of the lobbying group Public Advocate of the United States in 1981. Delgaudio has spent millions of dollars on a nationwide campaign that vilifies and ridicules gays as pedophiles and deviants.

One year before his success the 1999 election, in which he faced no opponent, Delgaudio sent a letter seeking funds to fight gay adoption. "You'll see men hand-in-hand skipping down to adoption centers to 'pick out' a little boy for themselves," he wrote.

Shortly after the beginning of the war in Iraq in March, Delgaudio stood in front of the Supreme Court building holding a sign that read "Saddamy Free Zone" after the justices heard arguments in the Lawrence v. Texas sodomy case.

Also, in an e-mail to supporters, Delgaudio referred to his opponent as "her," which the supervisor claims was a typo. Right. I'm sure Delgaudio is a likeable enough guy, and he's probably done a decent job as supervisor, but really. A man who could say and do these sorts of ugly things has no place in public office. Please, Sterling voters, do the right thing and send Delgaudio to a well-deserved retirement.

One of the fun things about Halloween is the lame kiddie jokes that adorn the candy wrappers. I'm currently contemplating a piece of Laffy Taffy, which features jokes sent in (presumably) by actual kids. I will reproduce them, verbatim.

(From Lydia F., Urbana, Ill.)
What does a bee sit on?
His bee-hind (behind)
[Note: The parenthetical comment was included on the actual wrapper, in case you missed the joke.]

(From Melissa C., Oakley, Kan.)
Why did the baker rob the bank?
He needed the dough!

Whew! Let me pause while I wipe tears of helpless laughter from my eyes. Despite Lydia and Melissa's best efforts, I still felt somehow unfulfilled by those knee-slappers. So I tried my hand and rewriting the punch lines. Here were mine:

What does a bee sit on?
If he's anything like me, a beer-stained Barcalounger in front of the television.

Why did the baker rob the bank?
Because he has a deep-seated psychological need for attention, which periodically manifests itself in wanton criminal acts!

Looking it over, I think we can all safely agree that I'm no match for Lydia and Melissa in the humor department. You win, ladies!

(Incidentally, the Laffy Taffy, which is allegedly banana-flavored, looks and tastes like a pencil eraser. So the humor is clearly the high point of the Laffy Taffy experience.)

Remember Don Zimmer? The beloved, pug-ugly old coach who tussled with Pedro Martinez in the playoffs? The coach who told George Steinbrenner where he could stick it and quit at the end of the World Series? Well, old Zim got the last laugh. He's reportedly secured unemployment with the.... Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Yes, I am serious. Insert your own "early-bird special" jokes here.

Well, I'm clearly rolling downhill without any brakes here, so I think it's time to give up and surrender to the weekend. Have a fine Halloween, everyone! Be sure to check for razors in your candy! And in you come by my house, be prepared to run. See you Monday. 
Thursday, October 30, 2003
  Today's Musical Selection: "King of the Road" by Roger Miller


Greetings, all. It's a fine day in the Fedroplex... the rain that plagues the first half of the week appears to have moved off, and now we have a chance to enjoy pure, crisp autumn. The weather's so nice I was having a hard time getting worked up about something in order to write today. Fortunately, I was bailed out by a particularly thoughtful commenter.

If you asked most bloggers who allow comments why they do so, they'd probably say something sweet about "creating a dialogue" and "giving the readers their say." Bull. (Note: There are a few bloggers who do use their comments to establish a dialogue, The Smart Lady being one. Consider yourselves exempted from the folllowing diatribe.) As a rule, bloggers are terminally addicted to the sound of their own opinions, or else they wouldn't feel the need to publish them for everyone to read. No, comments are primarily useful to the blogger as a tool. For one thing, positive comments are a helpful ego booster. There's something a little absurd about posting your thoughts into a sort of public void, and it's nice to get an attaboy for your trouble every so often. If the comments are negative, on the other hand, the blogger has a chance to establish moral superiority through ridicule. Thoughtfully, negative commenters tend to assist in the ridicule process by phrasing their criticism in little bon mots such as "u suck" or "your blog sucks donkey ballz" or something similarly erudite. Good or bad, comments allow the blogger to feel a little more secure in his or her place in the world.

And if the commenters does try to follow up on the discussion... gold mine! Assuming the comments are reasonably thoughtful, the blogger need only post them, write a little response and bingo, the responsibility of coming up with an original subject is relieved. If the commenter points out something the blogger forgot, just throw it up and embarrassment is averted. And if the commenter's opinions are more thoughtful than the blogger's... just post and bask in the reflected glory of the commenter's wisdom. It's very convenient, actually.

I mention all this as a preface to revisiting my column last week on popularity and quality. The revisit is occasioned by some exceptionally thoughtful remarks by loyal reader Papa Shaft, which I intend to quote at length. I'll put him in italics, with my responses to his thoughts in regular script. Papa, thanks for saving me a day's work. Readers, strap in and enjoy the ride.

Let's start with Papa's first comment, to which I posted a fuller response which you can see in the comments section.

You're dead-on about the fact that the free-market economy tends to flatten tastes. I think our generation is probably the first (depending on where you draw the line on Gen-Xers) to really grow up in an America where pop culture rules nearly every aspect of our lives. We type on brand-name computers, wear brand-name jeans, eat at branded restaurants, rent movies from name-brand stores, etc. etc. And what do all of these products have in common? They're mass-produced with an eye towards pleasing the majority of the population.

I think you're right... chain stores have really exploded in the last couple decades. When I was a kid, a lot of the local stores were breathing their last, and the chains were ruling the day. The homogeneity of our culture has really accelerated in our generation's lifetime.

Of course, I wouldn't say that our parents' generation didn't have to deal with this - they did, to an extent. But back then, there weren't as many say, chain restaurants like Applebee's and Outback. You could still find "Eat At Joe's" and mom-and-pop stores a lot more readily back then than now. And, of course, there were more smaller producers of other specialty products out there, too.

Also true. It's not that our parents' generation knew nothing of mass-produced products, to be sure. But a lot of the chains that they did visit were local or regional, and thus better able to tailor themselves to the tastes and preferences of a given region. But with nationalized chains with nationalized inventories, and nationalized communication so that kids in, say, Omaha can see what people in New York and LA are wearing, then go buy it... this generation saw the nationalization of culture. (And, increasingly, the global spread.)

The question to be answered, though, is if that's a good or a bad thing. On one hand, we see the decay of local culture as it gives way to a more universal, national culture. One where the goods and services that can be obtained in one city are either the same or very similar to those that can be obtained in another city. In other words, there's a Starbucks in Detroit that's virtually the same as the Starbucks in New York, or the one in Houston, or the one in Los Angeles. You could argue that this decay in local culture is a bad thing (I probably would), but on the other hand, an economist might argue that the universal access to a standard product (a goal of most service- or good-based large corporations) is a good thing. After all, if you travel from your home in Washington, DC to, say, Miami, you can still rely on being able to get the same pizza at Pizza Hut as in DC, fill up your tank with the same Mobil gas as in DC, and tune your radio to the same kind of smooth jazz radio station as in DC. It's like you never left home, and one might argue that this leads people to consume in the same way (or at least a more similar way) no matter where they are in the country. Economies of scale will prevail, and that's good for business, and for the economy as a whole.

Indisputably, this is true. From an economic standpoint, a nationalized culture is more efficient. Big nationalized corporations are able to serve mass audiences quickly and cheaply, and the flatter tastes are, the easier this can be accomplished.

But should economic efficiency be our prime social concern? Don't we gain something, as a culture, by having that theoretical "melting pot" of diverse tastes and experiences? Doesn't the sacrifice of local and regional uniqueness lead to a decline in quality of life? Our culture loses out if New York and Houston and Milwaukee and Seattle are all essentially the same, save for variation in local geography and weather.

Great art and literature depends, in my view, on people who have different experiences and perspectives to bring to the party. But if everyone grows up the same, and the bulk of our children lead contented, pasteurized, mass-consumption lives, where are the different perspectives going to come from? Will we have to rely on the outcasts, the misfits, and those beyond our borders to create quality art? What sort of great art is there to be created in a new-wave history-free town like Charlotte, North Carolina or Phoenix, Arizona? Apart from the tired overused tropes of suburban isolation and disaffection, what is there?

Papa later posted a response to my response:

You're dead-on in questioning whether economic efficiency should be our primary concern in society. In fact, it's an argument that few people these days would ordinarily be willing to recognize - or even that there *is* a choice to be made between economic efficiency and quality of living. These days, it's a deceptive argument because one choice is vastly more obvious than the other.

Americans today are used to buying from large businesses like Wal-Mart and Target as a matter of course - largely because buying from the big stores (with standardized products) means cheaper goods for everyone. Cheaper goods (of an acceptable quality) means more consumption, which benefits the economy in the long run. This is not only obvious, but something that's easily quantifiable. You can run up lots of studies that point out how many billion dollars can be created through greater economic efficiency, which instantly legitimizes the point.

On the other hand, quality of living is not easily quantifiable. How can you put a constant, common value on diversity, local flavor, and uniqueness? In the first place, the worth of all that is entirely subjective, depending on who you talked to. A city person probably wouldn't care about living where you knew the names of all the store owners in town. On the other hand, a country person probably couldn't
deal with *not* knowing that. On top of that, there's no real number that you can put on a qualitative category like this. So, in the end, it's harder for people to even *see* quality of living as a serious choice, when compared to economic efficiency.

You really hit the nail on the head here, Papa. This is precisely the problem. Those who would argue in favor of economic efficiency uber alles have reams of statistics, charts and facts to point to. It's cheaper and faster to get a hamburger from McDonald's than from Mom and Pop's Corner Shoppe. It's cheaper and more covenient to get everything at Wal-Mart or Costco or Target than to go to a bunch of family-run shops for various things. These are the facts, as Smilin' Jack Ross said, and they are indisputable.

On the other hand, those of us who would argue in favor of local variety don't have numbers to point to or charts to pull up. We can only argue that local variation is somehow "better" than chain sameness. And, as you point out, that's a matter of opinion. Those who have slept in a bug-infested bed at a family-run motel or eaten a rotten meal at a locally-owned restaurant may well be grateful that there are Holiday Inns and Burger Kings to fall back on. And there are those who think regional musical forms like polka and bluegrass aren't really worth saving.

Also, the longer we exist in a chain-run society, the harder those arguments are to make. Those who never had locally-owned shops, locally-owned restaurants and local music groups don't have any idea what the world would be like without them. Singing the praises of localism gets marked down as stodgy, meaningless nostalgia or creeping Ludditism. The further we go down the chain road, the harder it is to go back.

In fact, some - especially in this area - might argue that economic efficiency *equals* quality of life. After all, given that the D.C. area is built around earning money to consume, buying a twenty-pack of batteries from Wal-Mart for $1.98 means more bang for the buck, and thus more consumption. If you asked someone from around here what they thought of that scenario, they'd probably say that everyone wins. Who needs flavor and uniqueness when you can save money and use it to buy more stuff later on?

A reasonably good point, although I don't think it's fair to limit the criticism to the Fedroplex. I'd say that any place that's full of transplants with little or no sense of local history is liable to sacrifice uniqueness for convenience and cost savings. After all, what's the point of preserving a local store if you don't know anything about it, don't know the family that runs it, but do know that everything costs more than it does at Wal-Mart? Washington is a notably career-driven town, but I don't know that I'd say people here are particularly more consumption-oriented than people in other areas. They're just, on average, able to afford more stuff.

So given that, how do you convince people that there is a trade-off to be made between economic efficiency, standardized products and pop culture, and quality of living, variety, and a sense of community? Particularly when the people you're trying to convince primarily live in pre-fab communities, shop at Wal-Mart, eat at Applebees, and watch network TV. That's the tough part. Any ideas?

That is the tough part, Papa, and it's certainly not something that we can snap our fingers and change. A lot of people like the convenience, standardization and lower prices of your Wal-Marts, your Applebee's and your Starbucks. A lot of people listen to Britney Spears and her ilk and seem to enjoy it. A lot of people live in charmless Stepford communities with manicured lawns and zero connection to the past. A lot of people like that, and a lot of people just can't imagine it any other way.

How do we change things? Well, it would help a lot if people studied history better. America is, and always has been, focused on the now. The past is a trap, a boring and moldy old tome for other countries to sift through. Optimists that we are, Americans tend to look toward the endlessly improvable future rather than learning lessons from the discarded past. If people knew, or cared to know, something about the places they live in, perhaps they wouldn't be so quick to toss the old ways overboard in the name of value and convenience.

Modern life has its advantages, to be sure. We live well materially, live longer and healthier and more comfortably. We have virtually instant access to an amazing array of information, information that our forefathers spent lifetimes accumulating. The democratizing effects of better transportation and communication mean that we have a national community.

But why does that community feel so cold and empty? Why do we spend so much time desperately trying to find a sense of connection with the world? Why are we so tired when we are in the lap of such luxury? Why is it that, though we are more alike than ever as a nation in so many ways, we don't really feel a part of an extended family any more? And does anyone care?

This probably sounds like I'm ducking the question, and in some ways I am. The truth is, there's no magic-bullet solution. All the forces of modern life trend one way, and it sometimes feels like people like you and I are walking into the wind, for all practical purposes. What I'd like to do is throw it open to the rest of you readers out there. What can we do to get back what we've lost? Is there a way to retain our modern adantages and marry them to the best of the old life? Post your comments here, and I'll reproduce the best of them the next time I revisit this subject. You, too, can save me from thinking for a day. My undying gratitude awaits.

Marc Fisher took aim at the candidates for the chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors in Suday's Post. For those who don't live in the suburbs, the Board of Supervisors is sort of like City Council, and the chairman's position is roughly akin to that of mayor. Fisher doesn't like either candidate, Democrat Gerry Connolly or Republican Mychele Brickner, calling it "a choice between an ethically challenged veteran of county government [Connolly] and a poorly informed extremist [Brickner] who won't even say how she voted on one of the biggest issues to face the county in the past decade [the tax hike for transportation that I mentioned yesterday]." Personally, I'm a fanatic for competence in government, so I imagine I'll be voting for Connolly. But I understand Fisher's frustration.

That's all for now. Tomorrow being Friday, don't expect much, and I'm heading out of town, so the bar's likely to be even lower than usual. Look out below! See you tomorrow. 
Wednesday, October 29, 2003
  Today's Musical Selection: "We Built This City" by Starship


Greetings, all. Yesterday I promised I'd comment on the Montgomery County Council's vote to lift the moratorium on new-home construction in parts of the county. This vote is just the latest move in the game that the Fedroplex has been playing for over a decade: how to manage the area's growth. The D.C. area has really exploded in recent years, and anyone who's spent any time here knows the consequences: traffic-choked roads, overcrowded schools, overburdened services, and ever-dwindling green space. Today I want to look at the roots of the problem, the Montgomery County solution, other solutions that have been tried and my prescription for easing the crisis.

The easiest part to understand is the problem. Beginning in the mid-to-late '70s, there was a dramatic swelling of population in the suburbs. The first wave was an outflow of residents from the urban core, for the reasons common to most American cities: crime and violence, changes in the racial makeup of the city, declines in service, and so on. The funk group Parliament dubbed Washington "Chocolate City" on the cover of a 1975 album, and by that time a lot of whites had decided to decamp for the suburbs. (A few years earlier, Washington had become the first majority-black city in the Northern Hemisphere.) The new pioneers set up nice little low-density "Wonder Years"-ish communities, mandated good services and schools, and became adjusted to taking longer drives to work.

As the '70s passed into the '80s, suburbanites grew tired of driving into the city and decided, "Let's being the city to us!" Shopping centers sprung up and offices began locating in the suburbs, where land was cheap and labor was plentiful. Local governments, with visions of dollar signs dancing in their heads, enthusiastically welcomed any and all comers. Developers like Virginia's Til Hazel, taking advantage of the aforementioned cheap land, began throwiong up housing developments as fast as they could. With increasing speed, the suburbs began to fill in and creep outward, paving over pastures and putting up office buildings and single-family homes. The roads and schools were getting more crowded, but hey, that's the price of progress, right? Building new roads and schools costs money, money that suburban governments didn't care to spend.

Then came the tech boom. Suddenly, Virginia's Dulles region and Maryland's I-270 corridor were red-hot. People came pouring into the area, demanding housing, schools for their kids and roads to get around on. The whole region was staggered by the demand, which they clearly hadn't expected. The Metrorail system was overwhelmed, and the old hub-and-spoke system, designed to get people in and out of the city efficiently, was poorly designed for the new suburb-to-suburb travel. Existing roads were no match for demand, as former country byways like Virginia's Route 7 suddenly became major commuter routes. Unable to put up enough schools to serve the influx of children, counties were forced to bring in trailers, designed to be temporary but in many cases having remained for a decade or more, which is "temporary" to no one except geologists.

Suburban governments found themselves on the horns of a very sticky dilemma. Having enthusiastically welcomed the developers in during the '80s, it was too late to kick them out. The people were here, with more coming every day, and they had to go somewhere. Suburban governments have little power to collect taxes themselves, so they were forced to turn to state governments for help. Assistance was not exactly forthcoming, which is no surprise considering the relations between the Washington suburbs and their respective state governments. (The Maryland suburbs have long had an iffy relationship with the legislators in Annapolis, which Virginia's capitol, Richmond, has been openly hostile to Northern Virginia for years.) So local governments were pretty much reduced to wringing their hands and hoping for a miracle.

Meanwhile, the huge demand for housing sent real-estate prices shooting sky-high. Those who were riding the wave of high-paying tech jobs did fine, but working-class residents were in a bind. Teachers and firefighters in Montgomery County and Fairfax County often couldn't afford to live in the jurisdictions they served. Either they were forced to settle for tiny, overpriced apartments, or they had to live in the distant outlands, facing hour-plus commutes and far removed from the city core. And the outlying communities are even less well-equipped to handle the poulation surge than the inner ring of suburbs.

Now that local governments are belatedly drawing up plans to manage growth, the recession has caused revenue sources to dry up. Even if there's agreement that a road or school or police station needs to be built, the money isn't there. Also looming is DC's threat to impose a commuter tax on those who travel into the city for work, an eminently fair measure that threatens to put an even tighter squeeze on suburban budgets. (The money which goes to DC would be a diverted portion of the income taxes of the commuters, and every dollar that goes to Washington is one less dollar for Fairfax and Bethesda.)

Meanwhile, the split of the metro area into three states makes coordinated planning a nightmare. The Woodrow Wilson Bridge, one of the major spans connecting Virginia and Maryland, has been in need of replacement for some time. But the reconstruction plan got tied up in an interstate squabble, and the bridge practically had to crumble into the Potomac River before the states finally agreed to a deal. Meanwhile, there's been a need for a bridge connecting the western edges of the suburbs, between Loudoun County in Virginia and Frederick County in Maryland. (The only current span in that area is a two-lane bridge which is no match for commuter traffic.) However, the respective state governments spent so much time arguing over where the bridge should start and end that the project did. (Each side claimed the other's desired location would require paving over precious farmland, which is a good joke considering their lack of hesitation to pave over farmland in the past.) All things considered, the state of regional growth planning is a disaster.

To their credit, local governments have made efforts to deal with the problem in recent years. Let's examine some of the attempted solutions before we look at Montgomery County's latest effort.

One popular solution has been a "slow growth" policy, wherein the local government sets limits on the amount of development that can be done in their jurisdiction every year. On paper, this looks like a good response: after all, isn't rampant and uncontrolled development what got us into this trouble in the first place? However, there are three major problems with the plan, which prevent it from being a viable solution.

First, slow growth only works if it's coordinated. Think of the local population as a balloon. If you implement a slow growth policy in one county, that's like squeezing one end of the balloon. The air simply redistrbutes, and the rest of the balloon gets fatter. So if, say, Prince William County passes a slow growth plan, but neighboring counties don't, it's only going to end up making the problem worse for the other counties. Also, even if you limit growth in your county, residents from other counties will still have to pass through yours, so refusing to widen your little country roads isn't going to do you much good -- you'll still have nasty traffic jams in your county every day.

Second, slow growth is really only effective in counties that aren't already overburdened. So it's one thing for semi-rural Stafford County to limit development, quite another for Fairfax County to do the same. Now, one might argue that a slow-growth policy in Fairfax County would at least give the infrastructure a chance to catch up to the population. This argument has some merit, but still, slow-growth in Fairfax or Montgomery honestly amounts to locking the barn door after the horse has been stolen. Those counties are so close to built out already that slow-growth policies would be more symbolic than effective.

Third, and most importantly, even if the whole region did coordinate on a slow-growth plan, it's not going to stop the population explosion. Unless the region can find some way to put a limit on population growth, there's still going to be a demand for more houses, more schools, more roads. And if those demands go unfilled, traffic will get worse, real-estate prices will continue to soar, and the quality of schools will continue to weaken. The employment picture in the Fedroplex is pretty steady; the federal government isn't going anywhere. So this demand will continue to exist for the foreseeable future, and slow growth isn't going to solve it. At best, it will allow outlying areas to preserve their pristine undeveloped state, which isn't helping anyone other than the people who already live there.

There's an offshoot of "slow growth" which has been gaining currency lately in some areas. Let's call it "no growth," or its more popular name, "NIMBYism," which stands for "Not In My Back Yard." The key to this strategy is to mobilize against any form of development or growth, no matter how inevitable or desperately needed. Is there a road that needs widening? Oppose it! A shopping center that needs to be built? Oppose it! Because governments are appropriately reluctant to use the right of eminent domain or to cram projects down the throats of angry, well-heeled, voting citizens, this sort of obstructionism usually works. Inevitably, though, when some project does come through, it's likely worse than the project that was initially rejected. Also, as with slow growth, it does't actually solve anything.

A solution more oriented toward solving the problem is "smart growth." Smart growth aims to get more bang for the buck, so to speak, out of the remaining parcels of land. When land was cheap and plentiful back in the '70s and '80s, it made sense to build big, sprawling, low-rise developments. Everyone wants a lawn, and low-rise is easier on the eyes. But now that land is at a premium, smart-growth advocates look to maximize the value and minimize the footprint of new development. Rather than build a few single-family homes in a small patch, build a comdominium complex. Demolish the old Wonder Years neighborhoods and build townhouses or apartments. Demolish old one-story office buildings and replace them with high-rises. By maximizing the remaining available space, smart growth at least makes a stab at solving the housing crunch.

There are a couple problems, naturally. Maximizing housing density means that schools and other services get filled up all the faster, at least in theory. If the old low-density houses around a school are replaced with high-density apartments, that school is going to be overwhelmed in short order. Also, demolishing old sprawling houses isn't as easy as it may sound. The people who live in those older neighborhoods are often particularly loath to give their houses up. (And wisely so; in order to get that kind of space elsewhere in the area they'll have to move much farther away from the city.) If done poorly, smart growth can smack of government coercion, as local leaders and developers try to shove longtime residents out into the cold in order to solve the numbers crunch. Still, if pursued wisely and accompanied with an equally smart infrastructure plan, smart growth at least has the potential to be a viable solution.

Northern Virginia tried a fairly innovative solution to get around the funding problem. Since Northern Virginia is by far the wealthiest area in the state, much of its tax revenue goes toward funding projects elsewhere. So the tech baron's tax dollar from Reston goes to buy school books for some kid in Bristol or Salem. This is fair, and the primary point of a progressive tax policy. But when Northern Virginia needs roads or schools, it can't count on Richmond to distribute the needed funds. So what Northern Virginia's leaders proposed was a half-cent hike in the sales tax (from 4 1/2 cents on the dollar to 5; by comparison, DC's is 10 cents on the dollar) that would be diverted to Northern Virginia specifically for transportation funding. Not bad, huh? If Northern Virginia wants roads, let them pay for it. The diversion ensures that the money isn't dumped into the general revenue pool and scattered to the four winds. Only one problem: the tax increase required public approval, and despite bipartisan support from local legislators, the tax went down to defeat by a healthy margin. As usual, the anti-tax forces had the advantage of a simpler slogan: "NO TAX HIKE" beats "Vote Yes! 1/2 cent to get Northern Virginia moving again" every time. Once again, the voters dumb themselves out of a reasonable solution.

And now we have the latest plan, Montgomery's moratorium lift. This plan is more clever than it sounds at first blush, as the end of the building ban comes with a stiff tax hike on developers, with the money going to infrastructure improvements. This puts suitable responsibility on the developers: We'll let you make your profits, fine, but since you were a big part of the problem, you're going to have to be part of the solution. The developers, who are at least marginally less short-sighted than the residents, will cough up the extra money in order to get a crack at that coveted building opportunity. On the face of it, everybody wins: The residents get more affordable housing (if for no other reason than that expanded housing supply will drive prices down), the county gets revenue for infrastructure improvements without having to request a sales-tax hike or beg Annapolis for more, and the developers get a tidy profit opportunity.

On the other hand, as with most moderate solutions, the plan is catching fire from both ends. Slow-growth advocates say that the plan is essentially a license for unfettered growth, while pro-business types say the steep impact taxes are going to keep businesses out of the county. Which goes to show that there's no pleasing everyone.

So what is the solution? Well, here's mine:

1. Create a Regional Growth Council, and give it real authority. So long as the region continues to make growth decision in such a disjointed and fragmented manner, we're never going to come up with a viable solution. We'll be faced with the same crazy-quilt pattern that we face now. So let's convene a council, with representatives from each metropolitan county and the District, and empower them to deal specifically with growth-related issues. Transportation and housing issues affect the whole region, and they need to be dealt with regionally. Ideally, this council would coordinate growth strategies among counties and towns, negotiate interstate transportation issues (like the Wilson Bridge) and seek long-term solutions, rather than short-term fixes that look good at the ballot box.

In my ideal vision, this council would have at least some taxing authority, so that it could actually implement solutions, rather than just passing recommendations to states and localities. It would have been nice if, rather than having to submit the half-cent hike to the public for a straight up-or-down vote, the council could simply pass it and start collecting it. Since any revenue collected by the council would go directly to growth-related programs, there's no risk of the tax money being carried off to subsidize tobacco farmers or something equally meaningless to the region.

2. Make developers pay part of the freight. Montgomery County has the right idea. Land is a scarce resource in this region; being able to build on it is a privilege, not a right. Increased impact fees are a great way to raise revenue, and a proper one. While one could argue (at least in theory) that sales taxes aren't directly related to growth issues, developing is directly related, and should be treated accordingly. Alternatively, you could require developers to build, say, one school for a certain number of housing units. Developers can argue that they're not creating the demand, merely serving it. But they are profiting from it, and that shouldn't be free.

3. Work on developing mass-transit solutions. Let's face it; build all the roads you want, and there will still be too much traffic. There simply isn't enough space for everyone to travel one-to-a-car around here. Building carpool-only lanes is a start, but that will only get you so far. We need a much-improved mass-transit system. Metrorail does pretty well, if you happen to work in the city and live at least reasonably close. The rail system should be expanded, but rail is expensive and relies on fixed tracks. If development patterns change, we're stuck with the tracks. So we need a mixed strategy, with additional heavy rail combined with light rail and improved bus service. One idea that's gained traction lately are "dedicated bus lanes," which are much cheaper and faster to build than rail, and more adaptable to changing population patterns. The new council should put mass-transit options at the top of its agenda.

4. Increase incentives for telework and flex-time. Even mass transit can only go so far. The best solution to reducing traffic is to keep people off the roads altogether, at least during peak traffic hours. Many jobs these days could be done from home or on a flexible schedule. The 9-to-5 office-job model is unnecessary for many positions. And by encouraging businesses and employees to shift away from the traditional model (through tax credits, perhaps), the crunch on the roads during peak hours might ease up a bit.

5. Make people realize that there are tradeoffs to be had. I know, I know, all the upper-income yuppies want to enjoy their nice big houses with oversize lawns and pretend to be country squires on the weekends. but it's just not feasible. Demand for housing in the region is just too great for that. Residents of other big cities know and accept this, but we in the Fedroplex still cling to the fantasy that we can have our cake and eat it too. So I think the new council should say to the squire-wannabes: If you want your huge house and oversize lawn, fine. Move to central Virginia. New developments in the region should have to be at least some minimum density, such that residents might at least see their neighbors on occasion. If you want to live in a high-demand area, that's fine. But you must realize that high-demand will mean high-density. In Tokyo, they could house armies in what we think of as small townhouses.

Is it a perfect solution? No. But it's a start. Everyone has to give a little in order to keep the Fedroplex livable. It's the price of progress.

I grew up in Dot-Com Canyon, which was a little out-of-the-way planned community when I was born. When my parents moved in a couple years before I came along, everyone thought they were nuts. "Why do you want to live out in the sticks?" But move they did, and I got to watch the city come to me as I grew up. Over time, my town became a hub of business and commerce. The two-lane road that was our main drag is now at six lanes and growing. Where once there was woods and open fields, now there are strip malls and office buildings. Possibly as a result, I've developed a curious attitude: I feel confined by cityscapes and bored to tears in the country. The denser my town gets, the less comfortable I feel. But it's my choice to stay, and so far I've not had cause to regret my decision. It's a trade I'm willing to make to live somewhere so lively, intelligent and connected. And it's a livable bargain, I think, once we realize that it's a bargain that needs to be made.

Hey, look, the Redskins are making a bold move! Today they signed defensive tackle Darrell Russell, a talented young man who just got off a suspension for ecstasy abuse and has been in legal scrapes, most notably a case in which he was accused of videotaping a woman being raped by two of his friends (the charges were dropped). Russell was too morally leprous even for the Oakland Raiders, who dropped him like a stone after his suspension was lifted. But Oakland, dead in the water at 2-5 and with no real hope of a playoff berth, can afford to have a conscience. Washington, 3-4 and facing a key game against rival Dallas on Sunday, has no time for such qualms. Swell.

And congratulations to former Tigers pitching great Denny McLain, who was just released from a prison term for embezzlement, fraud and other wonderful thing. McLain, a former radio talk-show host, has expressed a desire to go back to the airwaves again, and I personally think he'd make a great color commentator for someone. Detroit seems most probable, but McLain did pitch a season in Washington, and if we do land a team some day... Good luck, Denny.

That's all for now. Thursday up next, by my reckoning, and I'm sure I'll have something then. See you tomorrow. 
Tuesday, October 28, 2003
  Today's Musical Selection: "I've Got a Rock and Roll Heart" by Eric Clapton


Good afternoon, all. In case you haven't noticed, the NBA season gets underway again tonight. Oh, sure, there will probably be basketball involved, but who cares about that? There's a story far more interesting than any on-court action tonight, and that is -- as usual -- the Lakers. The Lakers have, for several years now, been a team of bloated payroll and outsized egos, fronted by the Dynamic Duo of Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant, two of the game's best players. O'Neal is an unstoppable force in the paint, a gifted scorer for whom few teams have found an answer. (It helps that the referees allow him to manhandle smaller players at will, but let's not quibble.) Bryant is a top-notch outside shooter, whose speed and moves make him a nightmare to defend. With Shaq and Kobe leading the way, the Lakers have been the schoolyard bullies of the NBA for several seasons running.

Meanwhile, the two megawatt stars behind the Lakers' success have gotten along about as well as you'd expect. Which is to say, not well at all. Rumors of the pair's tumultuous relations have been flying for some time, although they usually have had the good grace to keep their sniping out of the press. Until now, that is. O'Neal fired the first shot, saying Friday night that Bryant, who is nursing a gimpy knee, should focus on passing, rather than shooting, until the knee improves. This sounds like an innocuous-enough comment, but we must remember that we're dealing with a pair of prima donnas here. When one prima donna tells another to play second banana, prima donna #2 won't likely appreciate it.

Prima donna #2 responded that he didn't need advice on how to play the game. Which is, of course, a reasonable statement from a multiple-time All-Star. But it also sends a message to prima donna #1: "I'm not letting you hog the spotlight. I have every intention of hogging it right along with you." A dynamic has now been established. Two stars, one stage, and no one's showing signs of standing down.

Apprised of Bryant's remarks, O'Neal reacted a bit harshly. Quoth the Shaq: "As we start this new season, we want [expletive] done right. If you don't like it, then you can opt out next year. As long as it's my team, then I'll voice my opinion. If you don't like it, then opt out." Pressed to clarify, O'Neal cheerfully elaborated: "Everybody knows that [it's my team]. You [media] guys may give it to [Bryant] like you've given him everything else his whole lifetime, but this is the Diesel's ship." Okay, so O'Neal is staking out his territory. With all the subtlety of a wolf peeing on the floor, but so be it. But did you catch that other jab? "Like you've given him everything else his whole lifetime." Ouch. That's a sharp blow. See, Kobe Bryant is the child of privilege. He's the son of former NBA player "Jellybean" Joe Bryant, was educated in Italy and was anointed The Next Big Thing out of his upscale prep school in the Philly suburbs. Bryant is polished and classy and sophisticated, terms which are rarely applied to O'Neal. In the NBA, where "street cred" is often the currency of the realm, Bryant's legitimacy has always been questioned. So, in the name of getting his point across that he and only he is the star here, O'Neal raises the specter of Bryant's posh upbringing and suggests that Kobe was anointed, handed his fame on a silver platter, while O'Neal had to work for his. It's a harsh suggestion to throw at anyone, but leveling that charge against a teammate seems like an invitation for open warfare.

So in an interview yesterday with ESPN's Jim Gray, Bryant picked up the gauntlet. He accused Shaq of shirking his responsibility when the team struggled, of being hung up on his contract and his own numbers at the team's expense, and of exaggerating the seriousness of his injured toe, which caused him to miss the first 15 games last season. He added, "If leaving the Lakers at the end of the season is what I decide, a major reason for that will be Shaq's childlike selfishness and jealousy... [S]omebody in this organization had to speak up, because his unprofessionalism hurt us last year, and I don't want it to hurt us this year." Again, there's some serious bomb-throwing here. Bryant picks up the challenge implied in Shaq's statement that the media handed Kobe everything. You call me inauthentic, I'll call you unprofessional and childlike. Bryant makes an even more serious charge, however, when he accuses O'Neal of overstating his injury. In the world of professional athletics, few accusations are more severe than softness. Sometimes called "jaking," the practice of babying injuries usually earns an athlete the unmitigated scorn of his teammates. O'Neal toe had bothered him the previous season, but he had chosen not to undergo surgery immediately. By delaying the surgery, he wound up missing a big chunk of the season. Kobe not only charges that Shaq's decision was selfish, he implies that the injury was never that serious to begin with. At bottom, Bryant is questioning Shaq's heart, which is a grave charge to level at any pro athlete, and especially a teammate.

The kicker to this little tete-a-tete is that the viability of the Lakers' team spirit was in question before Bryant and O'Neal began squabbling. After last year's upset defeat, Lakers owner Jerry Buss decided to outfit his star twosome with a high-powered supporting cast. So he signed Karl Malone and Gary Payton, All-Stars in their own right but both near the end of their careers and both without championships. Malone and Payton are used to being stars, getting prime shot opportunities and being the go-to guys for their clubs. Many observers wondered whether they could handled being reduced to role players, essentially turning over the limelight to O'Neal and Bryant and being content with Best Supporting Actor nominations. (And pity poor Derek Fisher, who is going to have four people screaming "Over here!" every time he touches the ball.) The Lakers were threatening to turn into the modern version of the ABA's old Carolina Cougars, where players would refuse to take the ball for the out-of-bounds throw-in for fear that, once it left their hands, they'd never see it again. Malone and Payton, both of whom took significantly less money to come to LA than they could have received elsewhere, have got to be shaking their heads at all this.

Incidentally, those who believed that this year's Lakers weren't going to degenerate into an ego-driven freak show generally pointed to the calming influence of coach Phil Jackson, the Zen-inspired peacemaker with nine championship rings to back him up. If anyone could keep the egos in balance around the Lakers, it was assumed Jackson could. But Bryant called out his coach for failing to mediate his dispute with O'Neal. "I asked Phil on Sunday to say something to calm this situation down before it boiled over. But he backed away, so now here we are." This is very interesting. First of all, it suggests that Jackson either doesn't know how to handle this spat or doesn't want any part of it. Neither speaks well for his reputation as conciliator. In order for the Lakers to function effective, Jackson must be in charge. Bryant's going public with his dissatisfaction suggests that the coach has already lost at least one of his stars. Even appearing to lose control of the ship could be dangerous on a team full of me-first stars like the Lakers. If this team gets off to a slow start, watch out. And why should Jackson, a man who's scaled every mountain available to him in this league, stick around to watch this mess? If Jackson resigns in disgust halfway through the season, who could the Lakers possibly find to replace him?

When Jerry Buss assembled this cavalcade of stars, he knew that the league's eyes would be on his traveling road show. But he never expected this. He never imagined that Bryant would be facing rape charges that threaten to consume his season. He never imagined that Bryant and O'Neal would have such a public rift. And he never imagined that his coach's effectiveness would be called into question so early in the season. Early in the offseason, the primary question was whether so many stars could co-exist with just one ball, and whether the single-season victory record was in jeopardy. Now, the Lakers become a fascinating character study, and the primary question, unfortunately for the team, is whether the star-studded cast will self-destruct before opening tipoff. I, for one, plan to stay tuned.

For more on the Bryant-O'Neal feud, I highly recommend Michael Wilbon's column, which is excellent as usual. Also in today's Post, E.J. Dionne has a thoughtful editorial on the meaning of religious freedom as applied to the General Bykin flap, and Colbert King pens a fine appreciation of Walter Washington.

A moment of silence for Rod Roddy, the longtime "Price is Right" announcer who died of cancer at age 66. Actually, for a man who made a career of being loud, as Roddy did, a moment of silence isn't really appropriate. So Rod, come on down!

And for those in Montgomery County, get ready for even more development, as the county council voted to lift the moratorium on new housing construction. I'll have more to say about this tomorrow.

For now, though, it's back to work. Stay warm and see you Wednesday. 
Monday, October 27, 2003
  Today's Musical Selection: "Everybody's Doing the Fish" by Reel Big Fish


So, did you see it? Did you see it?

And if you think I'm talking about the Chiefs-Bills game, you are hereby banished from this blog. I am, of course, referring to the Marlins' dramatic 2-0 victory in Game 6 to capture the 2003 World Series. Did you think they could do it? Did you think they could slam the door on the Yankees? But slam it they did, on the Yankees' home turf, with Josh Beckett leading the way with a complete-game 5-hit shutout. (Note to Jack McKeon: You were right and I was wrong. Beckett was ready, and you knew it, while I hid behind statistics and advocated the safe choice. Serves me right for questioning the baseball judgment of a man who's forgotten more about the game than I'll ever know. You can manage my team any time.)

And the celebration! All along I've noted that the Marlins celebrate victories with a schoolyard exuberance that's fun to watch. Well, this celebration takes the cake as the most enthusiastic, genuine celebration I've ever seen on a sports field. They jump up and down, pig-piled on the mound, screamed like lunatics, hugged and high-fived and let it all out, right there on the hallowed ground of Yankee Stadium. Pudge kissed people again. And they actually lifted Josh Beckett on their shoulders and carried him around the field! When was the last time you saw that, outside of the movies? It sounds cliche, and it probably would look cliche with any other team. But these Marlins made it look real. They wanted to celebrate their hero, and a shoulder-ride was the best way to do it. Even Jeffrey Loria, the reviled owner, got in his own genuine celebration, circling the bases and sliding into home. (As for McKeon, I swear he grabbed Jeanne Zelasko's rear during their post-game interview. Anyone else who was watching care to confirm or deny?)

And Commissioner Selig did us proud, in my opinion. While he did not take my advice and hit Loria over the head with the World Series trophy, he did just about everything he could in his speech to pretend that Loria had nothing to do with the Marlins. Selig praised the Marlin players, their fans, McKeon, the Marlin executives standing behind Loria, the clubhouse man, the batboys, the South Beach party scene, Cuban food, pretty much everything about the Marlins and South Florida in general... except for Loria himself. Nice job, Commissioner.

This being Monday, it's time for Uncle Millie and Aunt Beatrice to serve up their latest round of love advice. Having returned from their island vacation, our favorite couple is currently helping the Marlins celebrate their win in Miami. From my rainy vantage point here in the Fedroplex, that doesn't sound like a bad idea at all. Anyhow, here they are, Uncle Millie and Aunt Beatrice!

- - - - -

All You Need is Love, and Money, and Alcoholic Beverages, by Uncle Millie (with Aunt Beatrice)

UM: Welcome, lads! We're here in Miami, at Calle Ocho. I don't know what that actually means, since I don't speak Spanish, but right now it seems to mean "Party Central." There are hundreds of thousands of diehard Marlins fans out in the streets today, several hundred of whom may actually have attended a regular-season Marlins game at some point in their lives. Not that I am bitter. Even though my beloved Cubbies lost, I'm always able to enjoy a good time, and Miami knows how to put on a show.

AB: I like this much better than Chicago. It's not so smoky and the music's better! Plus it's much warmer.

UM: You have the right of that, my dear. It is much warmer. People aren't wearing so many clothes. Especially the young women. The Cubs' loss does have its compensations...

AB: If a single one of those women would even give you the time of day, I might find that statement bothersome.

UM: Let's not quibble. Here, have a mojito and let's get to this week's letters.

AB: Very well.

Dear Uncle Millie,

I'm 37 years old, and about a year ago, I lost my beloved wife in a car accident. I miss her very much, and it has been hard for me to go about my life, but I am managing better now. The problem is that my friends are starting to suggest that it's time for me to start seeing other women. Some of them are even trying to set me up on dates. Though I appreciate their concern, I don't feel ready to start dating. I'm not sure I'll ever want another woman. No other woman could ever mean as much as my wife did to me. Are my friends right? Should I start going out again?

Gerry in Toledo

AB: Gerry, I'm so sorry about what happened to your wife. To have someone you've shared so much with, someone you care so much about, and to have that person pass on suddenly...

UM: Oh, my, my. There's a lovely young lass. Pardon me, miss, would you like to learn the mambo?

AB:...well, I can imagine how terrible it must be. For you. For some, it might be a dream come true, a blessed release, a way out of a terrible mistake...

UM: Darling, why are you staring off in the distance like that? All you all right?

AB: Oh. Sorry. Anyhow, only you can decide when you're ready to date again. A year, though, is a bit of a long time to still be mourning this much.

UM: At least eleven and a half months too long, if you ask me.

AB: My point is that you should consider putting yourself back out there a little. But don't start out with a full-blown date, with all the trappings. That's putting too much pressure on yourself. Surely there must be another woman whose company you enjoy. Ask her to lunch. Just a friendly sort of thing. It's not dishonoring or disrespecting your wife's memory. If she were here now, she'd want you to be happy. And you're not letting yourself be happy now.

UM: Oh, poppycock. Wives never want you to be happy. She'd probably get a thrill out of you making yourself a monk for her. Women are like that.

AB: Gerry, how would you feel about having lunch with a soon-to-be-widow?

UM: Lad, I don't know how you've managed to go a whole year womanless. It strikes me as unfathomable, like those who manage to go their whole lives without alcohol. Your behavior runs you a significant risk. You know how they recommend that you run the water every so often at your summer cottage, just to avoid the pipes corroding from disuse? I think you're running the list of your pipes falling victim to disuse.

AB: As always, if you want romance, ask Uncle Millie.

UM: So while I agree with my better half that you don't want to leap right into another relationship at once, her prescription of a friendly lunch is a bunch of hooey. What you need, lad, is a good quick lay. An affirmation of your manhood. A celebration of your virility.

AB: I think I'm going to be sick.

UM: What's the matter, were the carnitas bad? No matter. I prescribe for you a visit to the local "massage parlor," if you catch my drift, post-haste. The fine women there will be more than happy to help you shake off the rust. Once you've got your confidence back, why, the women will be taking numbers to get a piece of you, lad.

AB: Gerry, remember the soon-to-be-widow's lunch offer? She should be free soon. Very soon.

Dear Uncle Millie,

I've got a delicate situation here. I'm 20, and I'm seeing a girl I really like. I'll call her "Mary" Recently we became sexually active, and so we had a brief chat about our past histories. I told her (truthfully) that I'd only been with a couple partners, and she told me (seemingly truthfully) that she'd had only one before me. All was well and good until I happened to mention casually to a friend that I was seeing Mary, and he started snickering and said, "So it's your turn, huh?" I asked him what he meant, and he indicated that Mary was famous for being... well, a little loose. I've talked to a few other people, and they all came back with the same report: Mary gets around. There are even rumors of three-ways and other such things. I'm more than a little bothered by this, but especially that she didn't tell me about it. How do I bring it up with her? Can I possibly keep seeing her?

Brett in Dallas

UM: Threesomes, you say? And other such things? Lad, this one sounds like a keeper.

AB: Whoa, whoa, wait a minute. How do you know your friends are telling the truth, Brett?

UM: Oh, come now, my dear. If they all say she's a whore, it must be true.

AB: That's a terrible thing to say. Rumors can get started up for any number of reasons.

UM: The lady is a tramp, my dear. That's all there is to it.

AB: Whatever. Anyhow, assuming you have these reports on unimpeachable authority, you need to talk to Mary.

UM: Aye, that you do, lad.

AB: Wait a second. You... agree with me?

UM: Yes, my dear.

AB: Well, I'm not going to advise him to say, "You're the Whore of Babylon, and we're history."

UM: Neither would I.

AB: Well. This is a little unsettling, but all right. You need to talk to her directly, and tell her that you're concerned by what you've heard, but not because she has a past. Rather, you're concerned that she doesn't feel she can be honest with you.

UM: She has the right of it, lad. She was quite wrong not to tell you.

AB: This is eerie. But all right. She needs to understand that you need to know this sort of information if you're going to be intimate with each other.

UM: Indeed. She needs to share this.

AB: And then you need to ask her one simple question.

UM: Just so. Specifically, "How would you feel about a threesome on Saturday night?"

AB: I knew it was too good to be true.

UM: So does that mean a threesome is out of the question?

AB: At this point, a twosome is looking doubtful.

Dear Uncle Millie,

Had a blast in Chicago... you really showed me a good time! I never even thought of using cream cheese that way before. Will you be passing through again soon? I want to try that trick with the Chinese handcuffs you showed me. Call me!


AB: Jessica, hm? This is very interesting. Dear.

UM: You're not understanding this correctly.

AB: Oh, really? Well, by all means, explain.

UM: Jessica was a young lass who was interested in cooking. That's the bit about the cream cheese. I taught her my recipe for crab dip. That's all it was.

AB: Mm-hmm. And what about the Chinese handcuffs?

UM: That's what I use to make my cannolis in. They come out perfect every time.

AB: So it was all about... cooking?

UM: Yes! That's absolutely what is was. Cooking.

AB: I'm sure you were really cooking.

UM: Absolutely, my dear. It was an innocent and harmless thing.

AB: You're lucky I finished my mojito already.

UM: Perhaps so. But, uh, why are you clenching your salad fork that way?

AB: Oh, no reason. Just feeling a little... tense.

UM: Well, perhaps it would be a good time to wrap things up then.

AB: Yes.

UM: Thanks again to all who wrote in.

AB: Yes, it was very... informative. Gerry, I'll be calling you soon.

- - - - -

Well, that was... something. Thank you, Uncle Millie and Aunt Beatrice. They'll be back again next Moday. Barring any complications. If anyone in the Miami area happens to spot a middle-aged Irishman lying face-down with a salad fork in his back, please call the police. Thank you.

Returning again to the Marlins' championship, ESPN's Jim Caple weighed in with an article describing the elation of Florida fans at finally snapping their epic 6-year World Series drought. Very funny; I recommend it to anyone. Unless you are a Red Sox or Cubs fan who has not quite let go of the anger yet.

A moment of silence for Walter Washington, who was D.C.'s first elected mayor and passed away today at age 88. Washington did a marvelous job legitimizing home rule in D.C., increasing minority representation in the government and impressing both residents and outsiders with the quality of his stewardship. He stabilized the city after the '68 riots and led the city through a difficult decade, before his defeat in 1978 at the hands of the now-infamous Marion Barry. Depite the struggles and challenges inherent in running a city as complex as D.C., Mayor Washington acquitted himself well, and did well by the city. The Fedroplex is a little poorer today.

Even when she's in the midst of a fun diverting weekend, The Smart Lady still finds time to be smart. In this piece, she expressed a conception of poverty, as contrasted to a professor whose article she's critiquing, that I found quite thoughtful. She's definitely worth a read on this, as usual. For those interested in legal matters, check out her article for the new law blog EN Banc, which discusses the concept of the "gay gene." Again, she makes excellent points in a thoughtful way.

That's all from here for now. Tomorrow I'll be back with something. God only knows what. And even He's probably shrugging His shoulders. See you tomorrow. 
Friday, October 24, 2003
  Today's Musical Selection: "Splish Splash" by Bobby Darin


Greetings, all. I hope you had the opportunity to watch Game 5 last night. The Marlins won, to seize the advantage with the Series shifting back to the Bronx this weekend, but it was more than that. The Yankees looked... human. More than anything, they resemble an aging, creaky team trying to make a go of it one more time on heart and guile and memory. If they weren't the Yankees, their sudden vulnerability might make them appealing.

Let's start with the obvious. David Wells almost certainly punched his ticket out of the Big Apple last night. The proud party animal with the couch-potato physique departed after one inning with back spasms. George Steinbrenner seems to have a soft spot in his cold little heart for Wells, but he has no spot for losers, and Wells came up empty when the Yanks needed him most. Last year, Wells "wrote" an autobiography, "Perfect I'm Not!", in which he claimed to have thrown a no-hitter while hung over. ESPN's Jim Baker acerbically suggested that Wells' book might better have been titled "Fat, Drunk and Stupid is No Way to Go Through Life" or "Boozing, Belching, Binging and Barfing: My Life on Planet Excess." Wells never believed in training, physical fitness or self-control, and he bounced through a mediocre career until he found the Yankees, a Odd-Couple sort of marriage that has proven beneficial to both. Yankees fans loved the scruffy, irrepressible "Boomer," the perfect antidote to the button-down team image, and Wells loved the New York life, the media spotlight, and the Yankee tradition. For the high-living lefty to fail now, on the biggest stage possible... well, it's the end of something. You could almost feel the curtain dropping as Wells departed the scene.

And apart from being the end of an era, Wells' early exit created a major problem for New York. It's not at all clear that, right now, the Yankees are any better of a team than the Marlins. Sure, they're better-known and more expensive, but on a strict competitive basis the team look pretty even. The Yankees' primary asset, now as always, is their champions' aura, the sense of invincibility that 26 world titles will get you. The Yankees are supposed to win, even if the other team is actually better, and so they usually do. Few if any current Yankees personify that historical confidence better than Wells. Wells is a student of Yankee lore and history; he once tried to wear one of Babe Ruth's old caps during a game he pitched. Wells may not be the most talented Yankee, and he certainly isn't the hardest-working Yankee, but he's the one most in touch with the heritage, the legacy of winning, the regal sense of entitlement. With Wells out of the game, Joe Torre was forced to put his team's fate in the hands of merely ordinary pitchers. Jose Contreras and Chris Hammond are average players. Neither one has been with the team long. They're both entirely adequate, and most teams would be happy to have either. But they have none of that Yankee magic about them. They're just... pitchers. Pitchers, in this case, who weren't having a good night. The Marlins pounded both, and the Yankees suddenly find themselves on the brink.

Meanwhile, the Marlins just keep on keepin' on. Crusty old Jack McKeon still acts like he's coaching a Little League game, rather than the biggest stage baseball has to offer. Pressure? What pressure? We ain't feelin' no pressure. Pudge kissed Urbina again, an act which caught the attention of ESPN's Eric Neel, who wrote a nice little column about it. Florida seems admirably unfazed by the whole thing, by the harrowing nature of their victories, by the Yankee reputation. They're just out there to have a good time.

I notice that McKeon has decided to go with his hot hand, Josh Beckett, in Game 6, which strikes me as a mistake. Statistically, pitchers on short rest (Beckett will have only had three days, instead of his usual four) generally don't pitch well in the postseason. But perhaps more importantly, it seems contrary to McKeon's hakuna-matata managing style so far. By rushing Beckett back out there, McKeon issues a vote of no confidence in Mark Redman, Dontrelle Willis and Rick Helling, his other available starters. Granted, none of the three has set the world afire so far. But one of them will presumably have to start Game 7 if Beckett loses. McKeon's move suggests that he doesn't think the Marlins can win Game 7, if it comes to that, even if they had Beckett on regular rest. I think he'd have done better to start Redman or Willis, ride them as far as possible, and hope for the best. At worst, you have a tie series and a rested Beckett ready to go in the deciding game. I just hope McKeon's move doesn't backfire.

In other news, there's supposedly some football happening this weekend, but who cares? The NFL season is meaningless, especially now, when the Series is going on and, frankly, any team could beat any other team at any time. Really, what's the point? Really, why is this sport the nation's most popular? Is the sight of people slamming into each other really that appealing? And now we don't even have Gregg Easterbrook to make it interesting.

Back in baseball, my Milwaukee Brewers are making waves: they declined the options of shortstop Royce Clayton and pitcher Glendon Rusch. Bold moves! Electing not to bring back a .228-hitting shortstop with a bad glove and a pitcher who went 1-12 with a 6.42 ERA... this is the stuff of rebuilding. Now we just have to figure out if we actually have someone better to replace them.

Not much else happening today, so I'll wrap up. Uncle Millie and Aunt Beatrice will be back Monday, and I'll be off this weekend, which I plan to spend pining for The Smart Lady, who is away. Hope the rest of you will get to spend the weekend with the ones you love. See you Monday. 
Thursday, October 23, 2003
  Today's Musical Selection: "Blowin' in the Wind" by Bob Dylan


Greetings, all. Today I'm going to take aim at a discussion I've followed a bit, a quasi-dialogue between James Lileks and the folks at Fraters Libertas about popularity and quality. Lileks took the position (more or less) that the food at chain restaurants is lousy, and JB Doubtless at Fraters Libertas responded that the food can't be that lousy, since the resutaurants are so popular. I've heard versions of the "popularity = quality" argument before, and I've never bought it. But let's examine the JB Doubtless argument (as well as Lileks' response), and then figure out whether popularity really does say anything about quality.

The Doubtless argument, in skeletal form, goes like this: The free market is a wonderful thing, in that consumers get to make the call on what stays and goes. If a chain (Applebee's, for instance, or TGI Friday's) really did serve bad food and give bad service, customers would vote with their feet. There are enough choices out there that customers could go somewhere else. And yet, millions of customers flock to the chains every year. Ergo, the chains must be good.

Lileks' response, again in skeletal form, is as follows: People decide where to eat based on a lot of factors, many of them having nothing to do with quality. Just because millions of people go somewhere doesnt mean they all think it's good. It just means that, for whatever reason, that restaurant is the best option at that time.

My primary beef with Doubtless' argument is that it reflects a poor understanding of the role of the market. No thoughtful economist would say that the market is an accurate reflector of quality. In fact, the market does not make any value judgments at all. The "popularity = quality" argument rests on a curious sort of free-market idolatry. The free market is very good at what it does, namely ensuring an efficent distribution of goods and services. But this argument assumes that, because the market is good at one thing, it's good at other things, such as being an arbiter of quality.

Imagine that you and I are the only two purveyors of candy bars in Springfield. Your candy bars are $3. My candy bars are $2. If Springfield residents are primarily concerned about price when they shop for candy bars, mine are going to sell a lot better than yours. Does that mean mine are better? Or course not. It just means they're better suited to the desires of our market.

Now, one thing a competitive free market does is to drive out truly low-quality products. If I made my candy bars out of chocolate-coated iron filings, sooner or later mine would stop selling, now matter how cheap they are. So Doubtless has a point when he argues that the chains can't be too terrible. If the food was really inedible, people would stop going. So yes, competition does impose some minimal quality standard.

But it's a tricky leap to go from there to saying that the chains must be good. As Lileks points out, people make dining decisions for a lot of reasons, including price. Even if there are better restaurants than Applebee's or Friday's out there, a lot of people may not be able to afford them, at least not on any kind of regular basis. Their only quality criterion is that the food at the chain be better than what they could make at home, or at least not sufficiently worse to justify the time investment necessary to cook a meal (a big consideration for a lot of families these days).

Even where price is not concerned, there may be other factors. Lileks uses fast food as an example. Wendy's hamburgers may be much better than McDonald's, but if he's out with his young daughter and the McDonald's is the only restaurant with a play area, then the Golden Arches it is. Once again, quality takes a back seat.

And let's not forget the role of advertising. Chain restaurants advertise pretty heavily on television, as your high-class restaurants usually do not. So if you're driving around after work, trying to decide where to go for dinner, and the Outback commercial pops into your head, that might do it for you. There may be many better places to get a steak than Outback, but the Palm doesn't have clever TV ads to put their name in your head.

This last factor, advertising and marketing, also goes to debunking the "popular = good" theory for other areas, such as music. CDs all cost roughly the same, there's no service factor involved (the guy who sells you a Britney Spears album also sells the Three Tenors), and it's just as easy to buy a good-quality CD as a bad one. So if Ms. Spears sells zillions of CDs, she must be good, right? No, of course not. It means that she has a quality marketing apparatus and an act that appeals to the teenage crowd, who form the bulk of the music market. By comparison, the Three Tenors' virtuousity is not so immediately accessible to your average 16-year-old. To be appreciated properly, the Tenors require at least some appreciation of opera. By contrast, Ms. Spears is very easy to understand: she wears skimpy costumes and jiggles her assets and grinds her hips and sings songs full of lots of easy-to-understand words with thumping, danceable backbeats. Her songs are full of energy and love and other concepts that resonate with the younger set. Of course she's popular. Doesn't mean she can sing.

This is a good point to step back and examine a larger question: What does it take to be popular in the marketplace? Well, for one thing, it helps to be backed by a major marketing campaign. You can't be popular unless a lot of people know about you, and the best way to make people know about you is publicity in the media, either through ads or "free media" such as talk shows and so on.

Beyond that, you need to be able to appeal to a wide range of tastes. Simply because there are so many people out there with so many different tastes and desires, you can't have a mass success without reaching out to a wide variety of people. Problem is, "marketing to the masses" usually means "bland and unadventurous." Take television as an example. The general consensus is that HBO's sitcoms are far better than most of what the broadcast networks are putting out. Some attribute this to the "creative freedom" inherent in the fact that HBO can show naked people and doesn't have to bleep the naughty words, but it's more than that. HBO's audience is much smaller than the networks', and they've all chosen to get HBO, by paying for premium cable. Therefore, HBO is able to focus on a narrower market, which means it can produce a more specifically-targeted program.

The same theory applies to chain restaurants. The Smart Lady is a big fan of spicy food. So whenever we go out, she looks for the hottest items on the menu. At the chains, she almost always comes away disappointed with the spice level. This isn't a surprise; The Smart Lady likes her food spicier than most Americans. And because a place like Applebee's serves the same food all over the country, the spicy food can't be too spicy. That's the chain primary problem: the food's likely to be okay, but because it has to cater to so many tastes, it can't cater to any one taste in particular. (Also, because the food is supposed to taste the same nationwide, it has that mass-produced quality; a great chef invests a lot of time and effort into each individual dish, and the chains have no time for that.)

So what does this tell us about the relationship between popularity and quality? Primarily that there isn't one, except that it exerts a mild pressure to the middle. The mass market tends to drive out the lowest end of quality, but it also exerts pressure on the high end. Popularity says nothing inherent about quality, but it is likely to mean that the restaurant or artist in question is neither as good or bad as possible.

Is the mass market, the chain restaurants and the popular entertainment, good for our culture? That's a difficult question, and the answer depends on what you value. Is widespread mediocrity better than the highs and lows of ? Let's look at a concrete example and assess the impact.

Let's start by examining the spread of popular music. The rise of nationwide marketing and communication technologies has had quite an impact, to be sure. But what sort of impact? Well, for one thing, it's diminished the opportunities for local bands. After all, if you can just play a Beatles record at your party, or put in a Destiny's Child CD, why hire a band? And the Beatles and Destiny's Child are almost certainly better than most of the bands they're displacing. But at what cost? The more prevalent the national music scene gets, the worse the future looks for regional musicians and musical styles. Take polka and bluegrass. Both are musical styles with strong ties to certain communities in the country. Neither has a particular national following. (I happen to be a fan of both, but that's not relevant here.) In a regionalized market structure, bluegrass and polka could thrive in their areas and it didn't matter a damn whether it played in Peoria. My mother hails from Scranton, Pennsylvania, and she tells me of her childhood days, when polka dominated the airwaves all over northeastern Pennsylvania. Nowadays, they may have a polka station or two, but I'll bet you dollars to doughnuts that most of the radio stations are playing the same pop and country and hip-hop that you hear in every other city in the country. Kids in Scranton grow up listening to Ms. Spears, the Backstreet Boys and Destiny's Child instead of Frankie Yankovic. When they form bands, they try to sound like the pop acts they hear on the radio. And so, slowly but surely, polka fades away into history.

So, is that a good thing? If you're not a polka fan, and especially if you're one of those snide hipsters who only knows polka as a punch line, you're probably thinking, "Hell yes it is." But look past polka's unhip reputation and think about it. Polka is the theme music of a distinct culture, a culture that's dying in America. Kids in places like Scranton are becoming more and more like kids anywhere else. The cultural differences that make it so interesting to travel to different parts of the country are vanishing. That's the legacy of a national pop culture. Sure, Destiny's Child may be better than 99% of the polka bands in Scranton. But is that a good thing, if it means that it kills polka off entirely? Supply and demand, say the free-market worshippers. The market knows what's good for us. But America is a rich tapestry, full of diverse influences, and the more the mainstream culture dominates, the less interesting our tapestry is. So go ahead and put your Brintey Spears CD on during the drive to TGI Friday. Me, I'll be in my kitchen, cooking a pot of brats and kraut and listening to Frankie Yankovic.

How 'bout those Marlins! After Ruben Sierra and the Yankees unleashed the late-inning rally that seems specially designed to break an opponent's spirit, the Marlins brushed it off, held on, and took a 4-3 victory in 12 tense innings. That's the great things about this Florida team; they never know when they're supposed to give up. And God bless them for it. This Series has potential after all! Game 5 is tonight.

A moment of silence, please, for Fred Berry, aka Rerun from "What's Happening," who died yesterday at the age of 52. Berry's life story is pretty sad, as he was plagued with drug abuse and financial troubles, never found a happy marriage, and seems to have relied on his character for an identity, rather than developing one of his own. But he was by all accounts a nice, sweet-natured man, and I hope he's found happiness in the great beyond. Hey hey hey!

Finally, I wanted to take a moment to point out that The Smart Lady is a terrific, wonderful person. Am I bringing this up for any special reason? Did she do something in particular to prompt this sentiment? No, no more than usual. But she remains just as smart, charming and beautiful as ever, and I thought everyone should know that she's still the tops. Who says there's no good news to be had?

That's all for now. Tomorrow's Friday, which means that disjointed semi-coherent rambling is probable, but we'll see what I can cook up. See you tomorrow. 
Wednesday, October 22, 2003
  Today's Musical Selection: "Fooled Around and Fell In Love" by Elvin Bishop


Greetings, all. For those of you who saw the end of last night's disaster in Miami, we need say no more about it. For those of you who missed it, well... suffice to say ESPN's "Bambi vs. Godzilla" quip was accurate. I'm entirely prepared to say the whole thing never happened.

The actual game outcome was the bad news (at least for non-Yankee fans). The good news is that, since the game was not held in Miami, we were not "treated" to Ronan Tynan's interminable epic rendition of "God Bless America." Let's be frank here: "God Bless America" is a terrible ballpark song, and the fact that they're still playing it at ballparks calls to mind the people who kept their "Spirit of '76" banners up well into the Reagan years. To take that song and turn it into "Aida" for the sake of icing the other team's pitcher strikes me as appalling. If the Yankees are so deeply into patriotism, why don't we ask them to do "God Bless America" at the end of the seventh, instead of the middle? If that happened, you'd see them bring Tynan out onto the field to lead a 30-second "U-S-A! U-S-A!" chant, then scurry off as fast as his legs could carry him.

Speaking of the World Series, I've noticed that some commentators, such as ESPN's Rob Neyer, have a hard time pulling for the Marlins, despite their appealing qualities. The anti-Marlin argument goes roughly as follows:

1. The Marlins are owned by Jeffrey Loria, who ran the Expos franchise into the ground and was inexplicably rewarded for his stewardship by being handed the Marlins to ruin. A Marlins win means we'll be subjected to the sight of Loria clutching the Commissioner's Trophy on national television, unless Bud Selig suddenly decides to become the fans' commissioner and takes said trophy and bashes Loria over the head with it. (The last part is usually implied.)

2. Since the Marlins have a bunch of players at the end of their contracts, who's to say Loria won't gut the team... just like in 1997, after the Marlins won the Series and owner Wayne Huizenga decided to bail out after failing to get the new stadium he wanted?

3. Speaking of that new stadium, they still haven't got one. Why root for a team that could be in Portland or offered up for contraction in a couple years?

4. The Marlins' "fans" always seem to discover the team at World Series time, after ostentatiously ignoring it through most of the regular season. The Marlins have been one of the league's worst draws for several years.

And everything in the argument is true. Loria is one of the league's worst owners (though, to be fair, his tenure in South Florida has been decent so far), and he could well bust up the team or threaten to move it or kill it unless he gets a stadium. And yes, the notoriously fickle Miami sports fans don't support the Marlins during the season. It can't be easy for Red Sox and Cubs fans to watch the born-again Marlins "die-hards" trying to pretend they really care.

But there's more to teams than owners and stadiums and fans. When I watch the Marlins, I don't think of Loria or oceans of empty seats. I think of speedsters like Pierre and Castillo. I think of Ivan Rodriguez, a great player who's carried this team on his broad back at times, getting his first shot at World Series play. I think of old Jack McKeon, who looks as relaxed and at home in the dugout as he would fishing off a pier back in North Carolina. And I think of the way this team savors its victories, celebrates gleefully and unashamedly, though not arrogantly.

Meanwhile, I look at the Yankees, and I see a team of jaded professionals, who seem to derive nothing from the World Series experience but tension. George Steinbrenner has drained all of the fun out of the postseason for his team with his win-it-all-or-else dictates. Even if there are some Yankees who still get excited for the Series, the pressure from the top has killed whatever buzz they had. Look back at the dramatic Yankees rally in ALCS Game 7. When the Yanks tied the game, they piled out of the dugout to celebrate. But what was the expression on their faces? Joy? No, it was more like relief. "We saved our manager from being fired! Whoopee!" The Yankees are a quality team, yes, but they should be, considering their payroll. Their grim professionalism doesn't give the neutral fan much to root for. Even David Wells, one of the button-down Yanks' few free spirits, seems strangely subdued this time around. And Jason Giambi, who was a fun-loving motorcycle-riding bad boy in Oakland, has got the wealthy-and-handsome New York marquee-idol thing down pat. But I haven't seen a smile on his face since he donned the pinstripes. The Yankees have been at this so long, they don't even have their usual arrogance any more. Instead of saying "Of course we'll win" as they did in the past, it's more like "we have to win." As these Yankees have shown, you can win so much that winning loses its value. The economist's theory of "diminishing marginal returns" applies here. If you eat 12 ice-cream sundaes in a row, the twelfth one is going to be a lot less enjoyable than the first. Especially if your dad says you have to keep eating sundaes, or else.

So why not root for the Marlins? Another popular economic theory is "utility maximization," which states that an efficient market delivers goods to those who value them the most, thus maximizing the value to society of those goods. This championship would mean a lot more to the Marlins than to the Yankees. Yes, it would mean more to the Cubs or Sawx. But it would mean plenty to these Marlins too. And when Loria steps up to claim the trophy, root for Selig to do the right thing and thump him. A fan can dream, can't he?

Not much else in the news, so I'll wrap up here for now. Back tomorrow with something cogent, perhaps, if we're lucky. See you tomorrow.

Quote of the Day
"Unless a new stadium is built, where luxury suite and all other revenue go directly to the team, I do not believe the Marlins will ever be in the World Series again."
- Former Marlins owner Wayne Huizenga, November 6, 1997 
Tuesday, October 21, 2003
  Today's Musical Selection: "Little Pink Houses" by John Cougar Mellencamp


Good day, all. I begin today by posing this philosophical query: How does one know that one is a political dork? Here's a hint: take a look at this Washington Post article, which features prominent Republicans theorizing about which member of the Democratic field might have the best shot at knocking off President Bush. What is your reaction to this article? If your reaction is to look at the calendar, realize that it is more than a year before the election and several months before a single soul will even cast a primary ballot, and say, "I have better things to do with my life than read about this political circle jerk," then you are normal. If, on the other hand, you think, "Hmm, this could be interesting," you may be a political dork.

Notice that I said "may." If you go on to read the article and dismiss it as pointless partisan puffery, or something similarly alliterative, you are not a dork. (But you do show early signs of burgeoning dorkhood, so watch yourself.) If you read the article and find yourself engaging with it, mentally debating with Ray LaHood and Frank Luntz, then congratulations, you've reached dorkhood! And if you feel compelled to run to your blog and write a post weighing the relative merits of the arguments presented, why, you're the dork to end all dorks! And so here I am. All hail King Dork.

To summarize for you non-dorks out there, the general Republican consensus is that Dick Gephardt would be the toughest challenger to the president. You may be skeptical about this. Lord knows that I am. I am on record as saying "Time to hang it up, Dick" after his performance in the Arizona debate. He's a low-wattage candidate, he doesn't make anyone's heart flutter (except possibly Mrs. Gephardt's), and he's not even winning in Iowa, the state he has to win and the place he's spent most of his time campaigning thus far. Casting Gephardt as a political juggernaut seems about as credible as casting me to star in the next Indiana Jones movie.

But the Republicans cite legitimate reasons for their choice. To wit: "Gephardt consistently supported the Iraq war, enjoys unrivaled support among union leaders and hails from the Midwest, where many Republicans believe the presidential election will be decided. They also cited his health care plan, experience and discipline as key factors." Notwithstanding the fact that the AFL-CIO elected not to endorse him, there's a lot of truth here.

Gephardt, to his credit, has laid more policy proposals out there than any of his rivals (almost to the point of self-parody at times; I made fun of him after the Arizona debate for running through a laundry list of programs in his usual monotone). None of his proposals (save perhaps for health care) provide any grand, sweeping vision, but they are substantive. A candidate who can mobilize organized labor could go a long way toward solving the Democrats' problem with working-class America, and Gephardt has long been a union favorite. (Also, Gephardt comes from a working-class background, unlike Dean, Kerry or Clark.)

And the Republicans are right in figuring that the key electoral battleground will be the Midwest. The Democrats have a firm grip on most of the Northeast and West Coast, and the Republicans are equally secure in the South and the Rocky Mountain states. The states that are up for grabs, and the states that will decide the '04 election, are largely in the heartland: Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Missouri and Iowa. Many of these states are planted thick with blue-collar workers, struggling economically and more than ready to listen to the anti-Bush case. If Gephardt could capture five or more of those battleground states, the election would be practically sewn up.

Looking at all those factors, and noting the number of Democrats who seem entirely willing to be pragmatic and back whoever has the best shot at knocking off Bush, you wonder why Gephardt isn't doing better. Why isn't he ahead in any of the key battleground states except his own Missouri? Why aren't the Democrats falling in behind the might-have-been Speaker of the House? Have the Democrats really fallen into the thrall of the eggheads and elitists who flock to Dean meetups and think of Clark as a "dream candidate"? Are the Democrats kicking away their best shot at the White House?

I would say no. The Republican analysis is flawed, and Gephardt is no one's ideal candidate. So where did the Republicans go wrong? There are two possible explanations: the innocent one, and the sly one. Since the Republicans have proven to be rather politically adept over the last decade or so, it seems more likely that the sly explanation is correct.

We'll start, though, with the innocent explanation. It's possible that the Republican chieftains, who aren't actually hanging out in Iowa watching everyone campaign, are swayed by Gephardt's credentials on paper. (In this reading, they're the flip side of the Democratic Clark backers, who think the general's resume will carry the day.) Gephardt does have a lot of experience, and he certainly knows how to work with Congress and get things accomplished. His proposals don't have the fuzziness of someone like Dean's, because Gephardt knows what he can accomplish and knows how to get it accomplished. Gephardt's credibility is unimpeachable, and he certainly couldn't be tarred as a wild-eyed liberal wacko, a threat to democracy, or a pawn of the Clintons. He's a safe, steady choice, a known quantity (at least to those who've heard of him), and on paper, he seems the least susceptible to any sort of McGovern/Goldwater flame-out defeat.

But that's all on paper. These people haven't had to watch Gephardt on the stump. He has no color and no charisma. Whatever benefit his humble origins might bring him is squandered by the fact that he looks and talks like an old Washington hand. Whatever his other flaws, at least John Edwards sounds reasonably credible claiming the "man of the people" label. Gephardt sounds like what he is: a veteran politician. Whatever ability he may have had to rouse people on the stump is long since gone -- he sounds like a man who hasn't faced a close race in years. Interestingly, the pollster Frank Luntz, who is probably the only one interviewed who's spent much time talking to potential voters, is the one who dismissed Gephardt because he "falls absolutely flat" with the public.

So it's possible that the GOP just doesn't understand that Gephardt's utter lack of charisma is likely to doom him. But perhaps they do. This is where the sly explanation comes in, or what I like to call the Don Mattingly Defense.

Don Mattingly played first base for the Yankees throughout the '80s and '90s. He was a good first baseman, but his career is perhaps most notable for falling entirely during a Yankee dry spell, beginning the year after the Yankees' 1981 World Series appearing, and ending the year before the current run of championships began in 1996. But Mattingly was a bright player, and always looking for an edge, even when it came to interviews.

He was often asked who was the hardest pitcher for him to hit, and what pitch was toughest for him. He always answered the same way. "John Candelaria, and fastballs on the inner half. Write that down." This was a lie. Or at least half of one. Candelaria did always give Mattingly fits, but he ate fastballs on the inner half for breakfast.

The brilliance of this deception is that it sounded plausible. If, instead of Candelaria, he said the hardest pitcher to face was Walt Terrell, everyone would have spotted his answer as false. But by giving an honest answer in Candelaria, perhaps some young pitcher might read the interview and think, "A-ha! Now I know how to beat Mattingly." He'd try to blow an inside heater by Mattingly, and Mattingly would swat it into the upper deck, trying to suppress a snicker all the way around the bases.

I think the same mentality is at work here. If these Republicans had been asked which Democrat they feared the most and responded, "Dennis Kucinich," no one would be fooled. They might as well accompany the article with a laugh track. But Gephardt is a legitimate candidate, one for whom a legitimate case can be made, but possibly the least threatening of the top-tier candidates due to his complete inability to connect with the people (he makes John Kerry look relaxed and personable). Since the Democrats don't seem to have settled on a candidate, why not take a shot and see if they might coalesce behind Mr. No-Personality? And if they pick someone else and still lose, the Republicans can always giggle and say, "We told you you should have picked Gephardt." Talk about a win-win situation! (Assuming, of course, that Bush wins next year. But the Republicans all assume that.)

Does all this mean that Gephardt would make a bad president? No. Gephardt would, if nothing else, actually be effective in working with Congress, something a lot of those who come straight to the White House from the governor's chair struggle with.

But Gephardt is an administrator at heart. Like a lot of long-term congressmen, he tends to think in terms of winning votes by promising things to voters. But people don't just want a president who gives them things. They want a president who gives them hope, who inspires them to feel optimistic about the future. And Gephardt fails that test. He can't address the anxieties of the blue-collar worker. He can't offer a larger sense of hope, just a bushel of programs. And that's why, despite his appeal on paper, Dick Gephardt will never be president.

So, who's up for National Novel Writing Month? I don't know whether to try it or not. On the one hand, I've been wanting to get back into fiction writing, which I haven't done in a while, and I like a good challenge. On the other hand, despite what the general quality of my blog posts may suggest, I consider myself a craftsman. If this is just going to turn into a blizzard of crap, simply for the sake of proving I can write 50,000 words in a month, then I'm not interested. But if it can later be polished into something worthwhile... hmm...

This just in: Christopher Hitchens moons Mother Teresa again, on the occasion of her beatification. This is just tiresome. Even if you accept, as The Smart Lady argues reasonably, that Mother Teresa was more show than substance, it is nonetheless true that she dedicated her life to helping people. Even if her help wasn't always in the form that we might choose, and even if we disagree with her about some things, attacking Mother Teresa as "a fanatic, a fundamentalist, and a fraud" strikes me as blatant contrarian showboating on Hitchens' part.

This being Tuesday, I'd love to link to this week's Tuesday Morning Quarterback, anticipating another typically witty and erudite look at the distinctly un-erudite NFL. But there isn't a Tuesday Morning Quarterback this week, because author Gregg Easterbrook was fired by ESPN for some stupid anti-Semitic-sounding stuff he wrote in his blog for The New Republic. I have yet to read anyone who thinks ESPN was right to can Easterbrook, so I see no special need to add to the chorus, but the decision makes ESPN look far worse than Easterbrook. Here's hoping we'll see TMQ again some day, on or some other venue.

That's all for now. Tune in tonight as Josh Beckett tries to put the Marlins up 2-1 tonight. Go Fish! See you tomorrow. 
Valium for the soul. Don't worry, none of those pesky strong opinions here. All are welcome. No shirt, no shoes, no service.

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