¿Quién paga el costo de la emergencia?
Por: Enrique Szewach
Argentina inicia un nuevo año fiscal, el séptimo consecutivo, bajo el paraguas de la Ley de Emergencia Pública. La señal de la «emergencia permanente» marca un «estilo» de enfrentar los problemas que, claramente, incrementa el riesgo de operar económicamente en la Argentina. Y ya se sabe que, a mayor riesgo percibido, menos son los proyectos que califican, o mayor el «premio» que se les exige.
Un país que, simultáneamente, le anuncia al mundo récords de crecimiento, consumo, reservas monetarias y superávit fiscal y se declara «en emergencia» por ley es, por lo menos, poco serio. Así lo están reconociendo los fallos de diversos tribunales en Europa, Estados Unidos y en el CIADI del Banco Mundial, en donde se tramitan el cobro de deudas varias contra el Estado argentino. En dichos fallos se hace mención, con diversas prosas, de lo contradictorio que resulta una declaración « unilateral» de emergencia, en especial, a la luz de la performance exitosa de los últimos años. La interpretación general de estos tribunales y cuerpos colegiados es que, si bien se justificó la emergencia y sus consecuencias sobre contratos, deudas y pagos, en 2002 y posiblemente durante 2003, el tiempo transcurrido y los resultados exitosos alcanzados indican que, al menos macroeconómicamente, la emergencia ha terminado. En otras palabras, la interpretación de estos tribunales es que la Argentina declara unilateralmente una injustificada situación de emergencia, sencillamente, para no hacer frente a sus compromisos.
Internamente, a su vez, el «estilo emergencia» ha generado cambios bruscos en reglas impositivas, prohibiciones de exportar, preciosdiferenciales, subsidios cruzados, etcétera.
Ni que hablar de los efectos de la «emergencia» sobre las mediciones estadísticas del INDEC y la destrucción de una unidad de cuenta de largo plazo en pesos.
La falta de normalización en la relación con las empresas privatizadas ha afectado, claramente, la tasa de inversión de éstas y la expansión, no sólo del servicio eléctrico, sino de todos los servicios de infraestructura sujetos a contratos que hoy siguen sin regularizarse totalmente, o mantienen una regularización precaria y sujeta a arbitrariedades y discrecionalidades varias.
El deterioro creciente de la infraestructura básica, o al menos su dispar evolución con lo observado en el resto de la economía, se hace evidente. Es cierto que resulta difícil hacer historia contrafáctica. Sin embargo, algunos indicadores permiten «estimar» el costo de este escenario.
En medio de la bonanza regional, gracias al boom de los commodities, según datos de la ONU al año pasado, mientras Brasil, Chile y Uruguay muestran un fuerte aumento de la Inversión Extranjera Directa con tasas anuales de 25, 14 y 62% respectivamente, la Argentina presenta un estancamiento en este flujo, por no decir una caída. Una parte de esta disminución se observa en la tasa de inversión global, en donde las empresas grandes y las privatizadas presentan un déficit de inversión de, al menos, 2% del PBI unos 5.600 millones de dólares. Otro indicador importante que refleja el «estilo» argentino ha sido el «despegue» del riesgo local, comparado con el de la región, desde el estallido de la crisis financiera global a mitad de año.
En efecto, mientras el riesgo argentino implícito en el retorno de los bonos en dólares creció casi 600 puntos básicos en el período, Brasil apenas sufrió un castigo adicional de 150 puntos, mientras Colombia y Perú prácticamente mantuvieron el mismo riesgo, pese a plazos de duración de sus instrumentos, muy superiores al bono argentino de referencia. Es decir que la sobretasa implícita en la «emergencia argentina» es de más de 4% anual en dólares. Esto sobre deuda soberana a cinco años. Lo que implica una sobretasa aún mayor para la deuda privada. Otro indicador importante sobre el «costo» argentino ha sido el castigo que sufrieron los precios de venta de empresas argentinas, comparadas con similares operaciones en otros países de la región. Hay poca información, pero se puede estimar en no menos de 25% el diferencial de precio, en contra del valor de las compañías locales.
Asimismo, todos los datos de remuneraciones a ejecutivos, mandos medios y trabajo calificado en la región muestran también el rezago de los ingresos argentinos en puestos comparables. En síntesis, respecto de pagos externos pendientes, la emergencia permanente no sirve, porque los tribunales internacionales ya la desconocen. Internamente, la mayoría absoluta del oficialismo en el Congreso hubiera permitido una normalización institucional sin afectar el poder de negociación del Ejecutivo. Las ventajas, entonces, no se perciben.
En cambio, aunque difíciles de cuantificar, «el estilo emergencia» genera costos importantes, con menor inversión, mayores tasas de interés, menor valor de los activos argentinos y, fundamentalmente, la necesidad de «compensar» estos mayores costos, con un precio bajo, comparado regionalmente, de la inteligencia y el trabajo privado locales.
Monday, December 31, 2007
¿Quién paga el costo de la emergencia?
Posted by Louis Cyphre at 8:44 AM
Thursday, December 27, 2007
Bienvenidos a la alta inflación
Por: Juan Luis Bour
La negociación salarial de 2008 presenta condiciones iniciales que permiten prever un alto nivel de conflictividad y un fuerte impulso a costos laborales. Esas condiciones iniciales incluyen tres elementos novedosos: el primero y más importante es la aceleración de la inflación, mientras que los otros dos -la eliminación del sistema de vales y el aumento de los aportes personales para jubilación- incrementan en forma permanente los impuestos sobre el salario y reducen el neto o salario de bolsillo, y por lo tanto aumentan la brecha o cuña salarial. Son todos factores que alejan a las partes en la negociación, como veremos a continuación.
La primera cuestión es la de la inflación, y el índice que se va a utilizar. Más allá de las grotescas manipulaciones del INDEC, que mide menos de 8,4% estimado para fin de año en GBA, mientras que los índices provinciales medían hasta hace un mes entre 17,3% (IPC6) y 23% (IPC11), la mayoría de los indicadores que no pasan por el edificio de Diagonal Sur se encuentran en un entorno de 20%.
El aumento de la inflación tiene tres dimensiones que hay que considerar en una discusión salarial. La primera es simplemente el nivel: no se discute sobre la base de la pauta oficial de inflación, sino en torno a 20%. De allí que para una economía que discute salarios en forma centralizada como en la Argentina (en lugar de hacerlo por empresa), todos miran la «verdadera» inflación, o lo que crean que ella sea.
El segundo elemento es que si la inflación se acelera, la discusión puede trasladarse ya no a cuál fue la inflación pasada, sino la del año que viene, que puede ser mayor y establece una segunda fuente de discusión.
Con acuerdos salariales que toman como base el concepto de la verdadera inflación, tenemos instalada la indexación. Esta puede ser anticipada ( cuando los salarios se ajustan por la inflación esperada), o rezagada, pero en cualquier caso se establece la indexación de salarios a precios como criterio básico de ajuste. El pedido de los sindicatos de un bono de fin de año (UOM), ajustes de viáticos ( camioneros), pagos por única vez (pero no tanto), etc., no hace más que confirmar que se instaló entre nosotros la indexación salarial.
El tercer elemento se deriva de la aceleración de la inflación: los ajustes de salarios deben hacerse cada vez en forma más frecuente. En efecto, no basta con indexar los salarios para evitar la pérdida del poder de compra: cuando el ajuste es sobre la base de la inflación pasada, siempre se llega tarde. Pero el tema es un poco más complicado. Si se pretende estabilizar el poder de compra de los salarios, se debe tener en cuenta la pérdida que se produce no sólo entre períodos (de un trimestre o de un mes a otro), sino durante el período entre dos pagos (normalmente, dentro del mes). Los asalariados gastan su ingreso a lo largo de un determinado mes, período durante el cual la inflación deteriora el stock monetario (salario) disponible a comienzos de él. Este deterioro intraperiódico está asociado al nivel de inflación, y por lo tanto es relativamente bajo cuando la tasa de inflación también lo es (menos de 1% mensual, por ejemplo). En los casos en que la inflación se acelera, el deterioro del poder de compra crece, y con tasas de inflación altas la única forma de preservar el poder de compra es con pagos salariales cada vez más frecuentes (quincenales, semanales o diarios). Este fue un proceso bien conocido en los episodios de alta inflación de la Argentina entre 1975 y 1990, documentado por FIEL. Aún no estamos en este contexto, pero es claro que el primer elemento que nos acerca a este escenario es que los ajustes ya no se realizan una vez al año, sino que enfrentamos negociaciones con ajustes y reajustes periódicos. ¡Bienvenidos al mundo de la indexación!
Nos queda por considerar cómo influyen en la negociación salarial la eliminación de los vales como sumas no remunerativas, y el aumento de la tasa personal de aportes. La eliminación de los vales (lo que no implica eliminar las sumas no remunerativas, que siguen siendo homologadas por el Ministerio de Trabajo e increíblemente toleradas por la AFIP) aumenta directamente los costos laborales en promedio 4,3%, cuando esos pagos representan actualmente 10% del salario. Este aumento tributario eleva la cuña salarial (tax wedge), lo mismo que la pérdida que recibe el asalariado (4,6%) por aumentar su contribución desde 7% a 11% para jubilación. Si bien se trata de salario diferido en el tiempo, es notorio que la mayoría de los asalariados le aplican una elevada tasa de descuento a un fondo jubilatorio que ha estado sujeto a decisiones discrecionales del gobierno que determinaron pérdidas de valor esperado. Por la eliminación de vales se retraerá la oferta salarial de los empleadores en alrededor de 4%; por la pérdida de salarios por el aumento de aportes, se incrementaráen casi 5% la demanda de aumentos salariales.
Hasta aquí no hemos mencionado una eventual demanda de aumento del salario real, ya sea por aumento de la productividad o por cualquier otro factor, puesto que con alta inflación el tema que domina es el de no perder la carrera con los precios. Por otro lado, en condiciones de inflación alta, los números de productividad agregada poco dicen de lo que pasa en un sector particular de la economía, y suelen ser una excusa para ajustar los salarios por arriba o por debajo de la pauta de inflación, de acuerdo con las necesidades de la política macroeconómica.
En suma, ¿cómo se inicia el año 2008 en salarios? Las demandas suman por un lado la inflación verdadera estimada para ese año (igual o mayor que la de 2007), alguna recuperación por los ajustes del año anterior, el pedido de compensar de alguna forma los aumentos de aportes personales, y el aumento de la frecuencia con que se revisan los ajustes. En términos de números, muchos estarán preocupados por el aumento que establece un piso de 25% a los reclamos, pero del otro lado pensarán en que dicho ajuste tendrá un costo cercano a 30%, y que los sindicatos estarán atentos a acelerar las negociaciones al paso de la inflación. ¿Tenemos un problema con los salarios? En absoluto, tenemos un problema con la inflación.
Posted by Louis Cyphre at 11:46 AM
Wednesday, December 26, 2007
A Bagman's Tale
Did Hugo Chávez purchase the allegiance of Argentina's new president?
Wednesday, December 26, 2007; Page A20
IT'S LONG been well known that the close relations between Venezuela and Argentina are not the result of mere ideological affinity: Under President Hugo Chávez, Venezuela has purchased some $4 billion in Argentine bonds, bailing out a government whose paper is widely shunned in international financial markets.
Now it's emerging that Mr. Chávez's personal ties to Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner also may have been fueled with petrodollars. According to a U.S. prosecutor in Florida, Venezuela's self-styled socialist revolutionary dispatched a bagman to Buenos Aires last August with $800,000 for Ms. Kirchner's election campaign. When police seized the cash-filled suitcase, assistant U.S. attorney Thomas Mulvihill said last week, Venezuelan and Argentine authorities conspired to cover up the matter by offering the intermediary $2 million in hush money.
This seamy story is coming to light because the alleged bagman, Guido Alejandro Antonini Wilson, happens to be a dual U.S.-Venezuelan citizen with a home in Florida. After his bag was discovered at a Buenos Aires military airport on Aug. 4, Mr. Antonini began cooperating with U.S. law enforcement. Mr. Mulvihill said at a court hearing that numerous recorded conversations document the attempt by Venezuela and Argentina to silence Mr. Antonini, working through businessmen close to the Venezuelan government and a Venezuelan intelligence agent. Three Venezuelans and a Uruguayan were arrested in Florida on Dec. 12 and charged with being unregistered agents of the Venezuelan government; a fifth suspect is at large.
Ms. Fernández de Kirchner, who took office days before the arrests were made, replaced her husband, Néstor Kirchner, a populist who allowed Mr. Chávez to use Argentina as a staging point for anti-American demonstrations. Argentines and Americans who hoped the change of presidents would lead to an improvement in U.S.-Argentine relations are disappointed; some, demonstrating their ignorance of the U.S. legal system, blame the Bush administration for the results of a criminal investigation. The Kirchners' reaction shows that hopes for a change in Argentina's foreign policy were probably misplaced. Rather than distancing themselves from the scandal, both have joined Mr. Chávez in making wild charges about White House "dirty tricks" and a supposed Bush administration plot to subjugate Argentina.
"Relations with the United States are not good, and Argentina isn't a colony" of the United States, Mr. Kirchner declared last Tuesday, shortly after his wife conferred privately with Mr. Chávez. That, of course, doesn't answer the question many Argentines are asking -- which is whether Argentina is becoming a colony of Venezuela.
Posted by Louis Cyphre at 7:40 AM
No hay "eficiencia" energética sin señales de precios razonables
Por: Fernando Navajas
El reciente llamado del gobierno a un uso racional de la energía por la vía de un equipamiento y un comportamiento más propenso al ahorro no puede sino ser bienvenido. En especial por todos aquellos que tenemos preocupación por el manejo de los recursos escasos del planeta y nos comportamos de manera austera al definir nuestro patrón cotidiano de consumo de recursos no renovables.
Sin embargo, molesta tanta arrogancia intelectual de quererapropiarse del término «eficiencia», cuando las señales de precios, que son la quintaesencia de los incentivos para ahorrar (o dilapidar) recursos escasos, están tan mal alineadas con una verdadera política de «uso racional». En economía, que para todo el mundo menos para el gobierno argentino es la ciencia que estudia la asignación y distribución de recursosescasos, la palabra eficienciatiene un significado muy preciso en cuanto a la relación estrecha de los precios con los verdaderos costos económicos.
No hay que ser experto para saber o haber oído que los precios de la energía en la Argentina se quedaron atrasados en términos reales. Seis años de congelamiento a nivel de usuario residencial de las tarifas de electricidad en Capital y Gran Buenos Aires y del gas natural a nivel de todo el país dan cuenta de una imagen que es muy clara al respecto. Algún movimiento reciente de las tarifas de los transportes prende la luz indicando que el gobierno se puso las pilas para reconocer que atrasos muy grandes llevan a «facturas» que se pagan tarde o temprano. Pero confrontando con la racionalidad económica en materia de servicios públicos el gobierno es muy cerrado, en cuanto a ideas se refiere. Si con semejante sacudón o «crunch» energético en 2007 no apareció ninguna idea, más allá de cambiar el uso horario y repartir bombitas a domicilio, es porque el gobierno está paralizado frente a las disyuntivas que debe enfrentar para arreglar el desastre o alimentar la inflación. Tarde o temprano no se puede escapar a las disyuntivas, que son la esencia del manejo de la economía.
Los números tarifarios del país en cuanto a lo que pagan de energía amplios segmentos de la demanda no da para más congelamiento en una economía con una inflación de 20%. Con el precio del petróleo alto y estable, llegó la «hora nona» del populismo energético, versión post-2002. Disfrácenlo de lo que quieran, apelen a palabras motivadoras, organicen campañas a beneficio del ahorro de energía. Mientras sigan jugando con la energía a estos precios las cosas no van a terminar bien.
Vamos a la electricidad. Para tener una idea simple y comparativa,hoy un consumidor residencial de la zona metropolitana de Buenos Aires paga -sin importar su nivel de ingreso- una tarifa final de electricidad de aproximadamente 1,5 centavo de dólar por kw/h consumido. Esto es algo así como un cuarto de lo que se paga en países vecinos. Para hacer la comparación algo más dramática, la tarifa social (es decir con descuentos para los pobres) en algunos países de Centroamérica, que están forzados a usar combustibles líquidos para generar electricidad, es superior a los 10 centavos de dólar el kw/h. Si se pusieran los verdaderos costos marginales de generación con gas natural doméstico en las tarifas argentinas, éstas deberían saltar a no menos de 5 centavos de dólar el kw/h o, el doble o más, si se realiza con combustibles líquidos.
Aún cuando el gobierno decidiera que estos ajustes son inmanejables, una recomposición más tímida hacia, por ejemplo, un reconocimiento de los valores de generación eléctrica similar al promedio de los años 90 -cuando los costos económicos eran mucho más bajos que los que hoy enfrenta la región y el mundo- implicaría un aumento de la tarifa final de no menos de 30%. Esto claro está, dejando afuera los ajustes requeridos para compensar los desajustes de costos de la transmisión y la distribución (en esta última hoy la caja se está cerrando con transferencias ad-hoc de fondos del programa de uso racional de la energía).
Supongamos que tal aumento de 30% fuera decidido por el gobierno, al igual que en el reciente caso del transporte público urbano. El impacto sobre los ingresos de las familias sería muy diferente, dada la desigual distribución del ingreso del país. Simulando tal aumento con los datos de las encuestas de los hogares más recientes, para por ejemplo el caso del Gran Buenos Aires, resultaría que los deciles 1 a 3 de la distribución del ingreso familiar per cápita (esto es, de 10% al 30% más pobre de las familias) sufrirían un aumento equivalente de hasta 1,7% de sus ingresos. En el otro extremo, el impacto para los deciles 8 a 10 (esto es el 30% más rico) se diluiría hasta 0.2% de los ingresos familiares. Esta evidencia llama por sí misma a la necesidad de diferenciar aumentos a través de algún mecanismo de tarifa social que puede ser financiado por los mayores impuestos que cobran los distintos niveles de gobierno, luego del aumento de 30% de la tarifa sobre aquellos que pueden pagarla. Dado que 34% de la factura final son impuestos ad-valorem (es decir que suben con el valor de la energía vendida), la capacidad fiscal de armar un presupuesto ad-hoc para financiar la tarifa social es muy fácil de pensar e implementar. El único detalle es cómo elegir los beneficiarios.
Recomponer los precios de la energía a valores razonables en relación con los verdaderos costos económicos es una necesidad para la sostenibilidad energética de la Argentina. Hacerlo de modo tal que el impacto sobre los grupos de bajos ingresos se diluya es un desafío para la política económica. Precios más altos, esquemas de tarifa social, ese es el camino. Mientras tanto, llamar a que la gente lleve adelante una vida sana «sin cigarrillos» y al mismo tiempo bajar a cero los impuestos y regalar cigarrillos por las calles es tan consistente como estos anuncios de política energética que se acaban de realizar. El problema no está en los anuncios; enhorabuena la mayor conciencia a ahorrar. El problema está en casi todo lo demás, empezando por los precios y por regalar la energía en domicilios donde la palabra escasez no existe.
Posted by Louis Cyphre at 7:23 AM
Sunday, December 23, 2007
by Bill Whittle
When I was nine I saw a leprechaun!
I’m not kidding. I was in the back seat of our car driving up the hill from the hotel my dad managed, back in Bermuda. I’d ridden up that hill, in that seat, hundreds of times. I knew every rock and clump of grass by heart.
Anyway, there he sat, up against a familiar rock: little green pants, little green vest, little green top hat, small little bone-white pipe. Captain Ahab beard – white, no moustache. I screamed like we had just run over Lassie.
Stop the car!
What is it?
Stop the car! Stop the car!
Dad stopped the car, and I nearly broke Mom’s nose on the dashboard as I flew out of the back seat and ran for the rock.
Gone! The little bastard had ducked into one of his tunnels. This didn’t surprise me much: it’s tough enough to actually see a leprechaun, but to catch one – that was the real bitch. And by the way, I wasn’t interested in Learning About His Little Customs or Making a Wee Friend for Life by letting him go. I wanted his pot of gold so I could buy a dolphin to go snorkeling with.
My parents had to restrain me with ropes to get me to leave. The second I got home, I got on my bike and dashed directly back to the spot. I searched there every day for weeks. I never saw him again. If you had told me that having just seen Finian’s Rainbow the week before might have influenced my nine-year-old imagination, I would have said, Yeah, okay, but I SAW him! And I did see him. I saw him with my own two eyes.
Fast forward six long, dry, magic-free years. Miami, 1975. It’s Friday night and I’m on the roof of the Southern Cross Observatory at the Museum of Science and Space Transit Planetarium. I’ve just been made, as far as I know, the World’s Youngest Planetarium Console Operator, an honor so monumental in the Great Halls of Geekdom as to ensure that I would not get a date for at least three years.
So there I was, trying to convince a group of about twenty people that the image of Saturn they were looking at was not a slide taped to the eyepiece, when all of a sudden, someone screams: My God! Look! UFO’s!
And sure enough, there they were: A V-shaped formation of dully glowing ovals flying pretty much right for us! People were screaming, crying, hugging each other. One of our Junior Birdmen ran for the phones to scramble the interceptors. And they kept coming: no running lights, no sound at all, just weird, slowly moving grey ovals.
I had waited for this moment since I saw the leprechaun six years before. I grabbed the binoculars, and--.
What?! Are they charging their Death Rays?
Nah. They’re just birds.
How could they be birds? But they were. They were geese, with dark necks and wings, but white bellies. These white oval bellies were reflecting the city lights, but if you looked carefully as they got closer, even without the binoculars, you could see the long necks and thin, flapping wings.
It was a flock of geese.
And then something happened that I will never forget: that crowd wasn’t relieved; they weren’t even disappointed. They were angry. They were angry at me. Not dogs and pitchforks and torches angry, but they were surly enough to burn the moment into my young brain.
I had taken away their magic.
There’s a strange cloud that’s settled over our modern society. It’s a pervasive sort of bland contempt for an ingenious collection of lenses and mirrors that can reveal a giant ball of hydrogen, helium, methane and ammonia, billions of miles away, surrounded by untold millions of ice fragments in delicate orbit, yet one which will ascribe to the most banal unknown, a life-changing, quit-your-insurance-job-and-live-in-a-tree status.
For our entire history, right up until a hundred years ago, the idea of flying carpets and magic lanterns held people’s imaginations in thrall. Now that we have everyday miracles like jet aircraft and electric lights, all some people want is to return to a time when the belief in magic was common, but the everyday blessings of magic – telephones, computers, antibiotics – didn’t exist. Back in the anti-nuclear 80’s lots of folks drove around with SPLIT WOOD NOT ATOMS bumper stickers, and I often asked myself, how much wood have these people actually split? I’ve done an hour in my 20’s and I thought I was going to die.
It’s sad, frankly – at least to people like me. I find it terribly, tragically sad that the more successful and comfortable we become, the more people pine for a time when none of these everyday miracles existed. Outdoor bathrooms on January nights and miserable coal stoves that need to be tended hourly just to heat a pathetic half-gallon of tepid water need to be experienced to be believed – and not just in a 24 hour adventure, but continuously. Death, hunger, cold, disease, infant mortality – we have fought them tooth and nail for millennia, for what? Apparently in order to so insulate people that they can long for “ancient wisdom,” return to the “holistic tribal remedies” of the past, and hold up the most primitive and achingly poor cultures on earth as being the sole repository of “authenticity,” while scorning every advance that they take completely for granted.
Magical thinking is everywhere today, and it is growing. It threatens the foundations of reason, individualism, science and objectivity that have delivered this success so well and for so long. It is dangerous. If we are to continue to thrive and progress, then we need to sharpen some sticks and drive a stake through the heart of this monster, and right quick.
I’ll use the term Magical Thinking as a pretty big umbrella to cover a whole host of creeping intellectual chicanery: superstition, wishful thinking, pseudoscience, unsubstantiated claims, assertion, mysticism and anti-science.
Like so many of our other destructive tendencies, this whole mess really started in the latter part of the 1960’s. It’s a sad comment to make, because we were the first nation founded after the Enlightenment, and reason and clarity thunder so triumphantly throughout the Constitution that, in the immortal words of P.J. O’Rourke, the operating manual for an unruly nation of 300 million people is about one-quarter the length of the one for a Toyota Camry.
Of course, superstition and magical thinking have been with us since the dawn of time, but up until very recently, we Americans have prided ourselves on our scientific bent, our Yankee ingenuity – which is nothing less than applying common sense, reason, and hard work to find new ways to solve age-old problems. For most of our history, our public schools were the envy of the world. The very idea that a whole nation could educate their entire population was so radical that scholars from around the world flocked to the United States in the nineteenth century to see such a bold miracle for themselves.
Even before the late 1950’s, when Sputnik lit a fire under science and technical education, US public schools performed magnificently. Now I’m not a professional educator, but I suspect this might have had something to do with the fact that we were more interested in teaching history, science, writing, literature and math than we were about raising self-esteem, discussing birth control and indoctrinating political and environmental beliefs. There were specialized people who taught these things way back then, and they were called “parents.” The only “soft science” taught in those days was “citizenship,” a class that sounds so dated and quaint today that we can only lament how far we have fallen. The idea that we would teach people how the system works, rather than telling them what to think about it, has long gone. And we continue to pay the price for it.
Anyway, some time in the late 1960’s, Sauron gets the Ring and along comes the Hippie movement. Their entire philosophy was summed up succinctly in a slogan from the times: if it feels good, do it.
As a life philosophy, it simplistic and childlike. It is also extremely subtle and pervasive, and as a personal philosophy it has enormous seductive power. It frees you from the constraints of discipline, study, responsibility and ethics, not to mention relieving you of the burden of making choices based on evidence, reason, logic or fact.
Now those Hippies are college professors, and post-modernism is their Graille.
You know the drill: No objective reality. All truth is relative. You can believe whatever you want, when you want. You can be descended from Atlantean Priests! You can have Mental Powers to move objects, read the future, and speak to dead people! Even better, you can save six billion trillion tons of silicon, nickel and iron in the third orbit around the sun –- a sphere that has endured 5 billion years of asteroid impacts, volcanoes, ice ages, and having its core knocked out and into orbit -- by holding up a piece of wood with some lettered cardboard on one end and by marching down the street chanting two-line political philosophies!
What’s not to like!
Let’s go kill some vampires…
Because it is so susceptible to fact and logic, the very best way to fight magical thinking is to simply grant the premise and look at the consequences. This is a silver-tipped, hardened oak stake dipped in garlic paste made from holy water when it comes to demolishing some of these ideas.
Let's start with those geese bellies…
UFOs, proponents tell us, are physical vehicles from other solar systems carrying large-eyed, small bodied beings who are so technologically and spiritually advanced that they can wing through the light years at will, carry objects aloft on beams of light, move through walls, dispense advice for cultural survival and administer anal probes.
The constancy of the speed of light as a natural speed limit has been so thoroughly and completely tested and vindicated, that these aliens must have learned to harness the power of entire galaxies to bore wormholes through spacetime, which would be necessary to have these infinitely fast, staggeringly maneuverable, gravity-defying, super-hardened space-metal saucers in the skies over our planet.
Well, turns out that in 1946 one of these antigravity, faster than light, space-metal disks…uh…ran into a hill. The ultra-classified alien voice data recorder yielded a single sound: zzrrzzrrrD’oh!rrzzzrr!)
Yes, in 1946 one of these ultra-advanced beings was arguing with the little podlings in the back seat, took his eye off the Iludium Q-36 Explosive Space Modulator, and then came the Earth-Shattering Ka-Boom! right outside of Roswell, New Mexico.
They – The Government – recovered a few strips of crumpled aluminum. UFOlogists point to the picture of the Air Force officer holding up a couple of Jiffy-Pop fragments as “hard evidence” – but as for me, I’d like my anti-gravity, faster-than-light intergalactic hyper-dimensional space-metal saucer to produce something more than one-fifth the wreckage you’d expect from a Cessna 150 hitting the ground at 40 mph flown by some teenager experimenting with The Weed.
Apparently, Area 51 has at least one, if not several of these accident-prone vehicles. They are being ‘reverse-engineered’ by the CIA and other Black organizations.
I have on a cheap digital wristwatch. Don’t ask why. Now presumably these masters of gravity, wormholes and anal probes are far, far ahead of us in science and technology – hundreds, or more likely thousands of years more advanced. But let’s take my cheapo, simple, everyday wristwatch back to a watchmaker of only 100 years ago – the finest Swiss watchmaker of 1903. What could he reasonably expect to reverse engineer?
Upon opening the back, he would find – what? No gears, no jeweled movements. No springs or hands. Completely silent, not a hint of ticking. The case – what is that? Not wood, not metal – more of that smooth, curved stuff. And what about that tiny green square wafer with the strange markings on it? Forget about making one that worked for himself – what the hell is that? What does it do? And the numerals – just a piece of clear plastic – only he has no idea what plastic is, let alone the liquid crystal matrix.
He pushes a button. The thing beeps. Where the hell did that come from! There are no visible bellows or acoustic horns to make such a sound. And the accuracy! And – my god! It lights up in the dark! No gas lines, no wicks, no flame of any kind!
Even the nylon strap and Velcro would be completely beyond him.
If the smartest man on earth of 100 years ago would be baffled and driven to madness by a $15 dollar watch, how are we expected to believe that NASA is reverse engineering a faster than light, anti-gravity Spaceship? The ancient Egyptians would have a far easier time reverse-engineering the Space Shuttle.
Why is it that every certified, approved, authorized and official UFO photo has been revealed by experts – or the perpetrators – to be a hoax? That can’t be good. What does it say for the credulity of these people when you can see video reporting of three UFO’s flying in rigid formation at night: a bright white light in the middle, and a red light on one side and a green one on the other? Startling footage shows a string of lights over Phoenix one evening, and thousands call the police reporting the alien armada. Looking at the video, it’s clear that these are either a string of parachute flares or a sinister invasion battlefleet of slowly descending anti-gravity flying disks populated by super-intelligent alien creatures from another solar system. The military response was a deafening yawn. The news media, on the other hand, rushed to welcome our new Insect Overlords and began rounding up humans to work in their underground sugar caves.
But why bother with questions like this? If it feels good to believe that we are being watched over by advanced beings, then none of this will stop you.
More likely, you believe that you are nothing more than an impotent, faceless cog in a vast conspiracy of silence and oppression, a victim of government cover-ups and hidden agendas, of dark metallic disks under canvas in subterranean hangars. If that’s what makes you feel better about your failures and frustrations, then, hey – asking questions like this won’t even slow you down.
But realize this: if your worldview requires all sorts of secret kingdoms, unknowable motives, and unseen forces moving behind the veil of normal human experience, then you have taken yourself from the realm of a free citizen responsible for his own destiny and that of his nation, to a frightened caveman quivering in fear of distant Thunder Gods: immobilized, helpless and in a state of abject surrender. You have thrown away the hard work of millions and millions of your fellow human beings who have worked and studied their entire lives to raise you from those very depths.
Shame on you.
There is a lake in Scotland inhabited by a giant, long-necked creature, a plesiosaur that we thought went extinct fifty million years before man came down from the trees. This gigantic, air-breathing reptile inhabits the cold, dark, murky depths of Loch Ness.
Got it. Granting the premise…
What have we got? Some stories from eyewitnesses. Like the one by the British naturalist who took the most famous picture of the Monster, the famed “surgeon photo.” You’ve all seen it.
Only the son of the photographer has admitted that this single most compelling piece of evidence was a fake. He made a recreation of the model – it’s about the size of a large rubber ducky (and if you look at the picture again, you realize just how small and out of scale it looks relative to the waves).
Divers and automated remote cameras have scoured the Loch. There’s a picture of a fin – only the picture has been enhanced, rotated, and ‘dodged’ – the original shows an unremarkable -- and tiny -- bit of debris on the bottom. No sign of Nessie. What is much more damaging is that there is no sign of much of anything – especially fish. This ten-ton ancient dinosaur presumably does not order out for pizza. What the hell does it eat?
And this is most damning: plesiosaurs were air-breathing. Why is it that the best evidence for the Loch Ness Monster is a distant, grainy video of an ‘unexplained’ wake, shot in the far distance. This creature has to come up for air several times an hour. If we grant that there is a breeding population of aquatic dinosaurs surviving in Loch Ness, they should be sticking their heads out of the water like a giant whack-a-mole game, 24/7. If air-breathing dinosaurs really inhabited these lakes in Europe, and Africa and the US, then the best evidence would be the body hauled ashore by a shotgun-toting British Marine after Nessie ate a busload of tourists in full view of the world press.
Think about it. What if there really is an air-breathing dinosaur in this lake. How many HDTV recordings would there be in a single day. Fifty? A hundred?
Divers did find many sunken logs on the bottom of these peaty, dismal waters. Some of these will, on occasion, float to the surface as the gases from their decay increases their buoyancy. From a distance, they look like a dark, humped shape breaking the water. They eventually sink again.
So which is more likely? A log floats loose, maybe a boat wake propagates across a glassy lake for ten or twenty minutes? Or that a ten ton air-breathing dinosaur the size of a city bus, extinct for 50 million years, escapes detection in a fish-free lake scoured by dozens of cameras every day for the past fifty years?
But people swear they saw it! Same with the UFO’s. many of these people are lying -- convincingly lying, as they did with Nessie's "surgeon photo." Some of them, though, are undoubtedly telling the truth. Like I said, I saw a Leprechaun when I was nine. Saw him clearly enough to stop the car. Saw him clearly enough to go back looking for him every day, for weeks, until my parents took such pity on me they put a few leprechaun dolls around the house in the middle of the night and swore up and down they had nothing to do with it – just so that I could find something.
I saw it. That doesn’t mean it was there.
The immediate, knee-jerk reaction to such hard-headed looks at magical events is to state that rationalists are shuffling grey automatons gloomily dissecting flowers and bunnies through thick lenses and tightly-pursed lips, relentlessly crushing wonder and awe.
What a bunch of crap.
I don’t have a problem with UFO’s, Bermuda Triangles, Sea Monsters, Ghosts, Crystals, Crop Circles and Atlantis because I think they are silly. Silly Things, like the Ministry of Silly Walks, are a prime ingredient of sanity.
I object to these things not because they are silly, but because they are lazy. They are just, in the final analysis, so incredibly boring, mundane and unimaginative, compared to the real wonders, the authentic magic. Look! A Leprechaun! It's like a man! Only smaller than most men you normally see!
We ooh and ahh at some circles stamped out in a wheat field, but completely ignore pillars of gas and dust so beautiful and so enormous that if you drove fast enough to cross the US in a second, your great–grandchildren would grow old before they reached the end of it. We, a species that can make things from individual atoms, who can decode the history of every living thing on earth, draw maps of the world of a billion years ago, take pictures of the far side of Neptune’s moons, puzzle out virtual particles in a bubbling quantum soup, look into space and time back to the first .0000000000000001 second of the Big Bang and who can conceive of and live their lives by concepts such as honor and justice and freedom, can find enough REAL magic, enough authentic, verifiable wonders to keep us busy for as long as we live. Yet this species stands in line to buy books about a face on Mars and how to keep razor blades sharp by storing them in a pyramid made from popsicle sticks.
We are failing our children if we let a two-dollar piece of particle board obscure the view of the redwood forest just beyond it. Give me half an hour in an observatory with anyone and I will introduce them to wonders they will think about for the rest of their lives.
They are more challenging than flying saucers, sea serpents, or wee people with their pots of gold. To understand them enough to be floored by their magnificence requires a little patience, a little imagination. It does, in fact, require some work.
But these wonders have one powerful advantage. They have the advantage of being real.
We all have people who have influenced our thinking – more, for in a very real sense they have made us into who we are. For me, one of the pillars of who I have become was the late Dr. Carl Sagan.
Sagan was not only a great writer, he was a scientist of the first order. When I first read The Dragons of Eden I could see, at last, some basis for why we act the way we do. And Broca’s Brain is nothing less than a brilliant tour de force of how to weigh evidence and build a worldview based upon what is real. It is refined genius of the highest degree.
One of Carl’s last works was The Demon-Haunted World. If you have any interest at all in learning how to tell what is real and what isn’t then this book is indispensable. Carl Sagan fought a lifelong battle to teach people how to think critically, how to challenge assumptions, and how to marry the wonder and awe of an open mind with the tough, disciplined skepticism needed to stop your brains from falling out. In one chapter, called The Dragon in My Garage, he gives an example so eloquent I have to quote it in full here before we go on to slay bigger monsters:
‘A fire-breathing dragon lives in my garage.'
Suppose I seriously make such an assertion to you. Surely you’d want to check it out, see for yourself. There have been innumerable stories of dragons over the centuries, but no real evidence. What an opportunity!
‘Show me,’ you say. I lead you to my garage. You look inside and see a ladder, some empty paint cans, an old tricycle – but no dragon.
‘Where’s the dragon?’ you ask.
‘Oh, she’s right here,’ I reply, waving vaguely. ‘I neglected to mention that she’s an invisible dragon.’
You propose spreading flour on the floor of the garage to capture the dragon’s footprints.
‘Good idea,’ I say, ‘but this dragon floats in the air.’
Then you’ll use an infrared sensor to detect the invisible fire.
‘Good idea, but the invisible fire is also heatless.’
You’ll spray paint the dragon to make her visible.
‘Good idea, except she’s an incorporeal dragon and the paint won’t stick.’
And so on. I counter every physical test you propose with a special explanation of why it won’t work.
Now, what’s the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire, and no dragon at all? If there’s no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my dragon exists? Claims that cannot be tested, assertions immune to disproof are veridically worthless, whatever value they may have in inspiring our sense of wonder. What I’m asking you to do comes down to believing, in the absence of evidence, on my say-so.
[Emphasis mine -- BW]
When a person wants to believe something, no amount of skeptical questioning, logical contradictions or contrary evidence will move them. Couple that with the example of the dragon – the constant moving of the goalposts of proof and verification, and you have the basis for modern magical thinking. And if UFO’s, Loch Ness Monsters and Bermuda Triangles can draw so many believers, how many more can we recruit with more nuanced sleight of hand?
Look around. In the months leading up to the Iraq war, how many people were saying we should hold out and let diplomacy work to remove Saddam? Had diplomacy worked in the previous 12 years? No. Had anything changed since then? It had not. So how will it work this time? Magic! That’s how.
And so to believe that diplomacy, and not force, would remove Saddam from power was a case of deeply magical thinking. Plus, you get to come out against killing people! That feels good! Let’s do it!
If you claim that capitalism is evil, and that a better society can be built from common ownership of everything, administered by a benevolent state – well, this is identical to saying that you have a dragon in your garage. Now I’m an open-minded fellow. Let’s take a look at your claim. Haven’t they tried this before, in Russia. Wasn’t it a disaster? They didn’t do it right. Okay. What’s different this time?
But see, sharing is nice. Being nice feels good! It’s a twofer! Everybody works together. Everybody gets along. The community cow is sick at 3:30 in the morning in February in Minnesota, and all the communal farmers fight each other to be the first out of bed to attend to the livestock that no one owns and no one is responsible for! Could work! Mnnnnn…sharing…
There are still many people who cling to the magical notion that George W. Bush did not legally win the Presidency. Challenge their contention with evidence and watch them move the goalpost:
Bush stole the election. No, he had the majority of electoral votes. Yeah, but Gore won the popular vote. The President is not elected by popular votes. He’s elected by electoral votes. The electoral college is outdated. Well, maybe it is and maybe it isn’t, but you don’t get to change the rules after you lost the game. Gore really won Florida. Not according to three recounts he didn’t. The recounts don’t matter because the Supreme Court selected him. The Supreme Court only told the Florida Court to play by the rules. Bush stole the election because I say so! Ahhh. At last. Now we get down to brass tacks.
People believe that adapting the Kyoto treaty will save the earth. If you only do one thing today that will raise your self-esteem and promote diversity, then saving the planet and all of its species cannot be oversold. If you think building the perfect society feels good, just wait till you get a taste for saving an entire planet and everything on it! What a rush that is!
Think of the arrogance of that statement, the sheer magic involved in a belief such as that. The earth will be here for five billion more years regardless of what you or I do. What are these people really saying? The Earth’s environment has been far hotter, and far colder, than it is today. Which environment are we to save? Human industry may -- in fact, likely does -- have some impact on global temperatures. How significant is this relative to massive factors like solar output? We don’t know. The one thing we do know, with certainty, is that the more technologically advanced and wealthy the society, the cleaner all of its industries become. Want a clean planet? Fill it with rich people.
Even the proponents of Kyoto admit that if fully ratified, it would only delay their own worst-case model’s warming by two or three years over the next century. And all we have to do is wreck the world’s economy. Then we can all go back to that magical time when a few million humans lived in villages and drank herbal teas and sang songs around the campfire and poet-kings ruled lands without warfare and sacred crystals kept everybody healthy just as they did in Atlantis.
Now, ask any professional magician how they pull off their illusions and every last one will tell you it’s all about misdirection. Sadly, those boring, insensitive, dead-white-male laws of physics don’t allow for quarters to disappear into thin air. So to make someone believe that precisely this has happened, we need to physically make that coin go someplace where it is not expected. And the way to do that is to make everyone look somewhere else for a moment.
Humans have retained several reflexes, and for good reason too – they keep us alive. All of today’s animals are reflexively attracted to fast motion in their field of vision. There were undoubtedly many animals that did not have this brain wiring, and these extinct animals are known by the scientific name, breakfast. Whether you’re a two-ounce tree shrew or a one-ton wildebeest, if something moves fast in the bushes, it would behoove you to give it your undivided attention.
This is hard-wired, and there’s not a damn thing we can do about it. So watch a magician carefully next time he makes a coin disappear. You’ll see one hand move quickly – and that is the hand you will watch. Coin’s in the other hand.
Now to show you how this works in the real world, I need to tell you a story about a real man named Robert Wayne Jernigan. I guarantee you this story will make you very angry, but this is the kind of world we live in today.
Robert Wayne Jernigan is now 28 years old. People who knew him said he was quiet, somewhat stand-offish. He was not widely liked in high school.
Four years ago, a witness reported seeing Jernigan enter a building in a remote suburb of Dallas with an axe. Four people were found dead at the scene, including a nine year old girl. No charges were filed. Less than two days later, Jernigan turned up again, this time at the scene of a suspicious fire in a day care center. Miraculously, no one was injured. But it was just a matter of time.
During the next several weeks, it is possible to place Jernigan at the scene of no less than thirteen suspicious fires. Eleven people died. Eyewitnesses were unshakable in their determination that Jernigan had been on the scene. And yet the police did nothing.
Jernigan had long been fascinated with fire. A search of his apartment revealed fireman-related magazines, posters and memorabilia. Despite the deaths of fifteen people, despite repeated eyewitness accounts and photographic evidence placing Jernigan at these fires, no criminal charges were ever filed against Robert Wayne Jernigan. He remains a free man to this day.
And rightfully so. Because Robert Wayne Jernigan is an ordinary fireman for the Dallas Fire Department.* He is not a serial arsonist at all.
Now re-read the previous paragraphs and tell me where I lied.
Everything I told you was factually true. But the spin, the context, the misdirection… The press always reports serial killers with all three names – Robert Wayne Jernigan sounds a hell of a lot more ominous than Bobby Jernigan. Quiet, stand-offish, not widely liked – instant psychopath, if you read the papers. Entered the building with an axe – oooh! That ought to get the blood boiling. That the people had died from smoke inhalation I decided was irrelevant to the story…
And so on. And so on.
This is how you lie by telling the truth. You tell the big lie by carefully selecting only the small, isolated truths, linking them in such a way that they advance the bigger lie by painting a picture inside the viewer’s head. The Ascended High Master of this Dark Art is Noam Chomsky.
I have long admired Noam Chomsky. It must be absolutely intoxicating to be able to write so free of any ethical constraints. Chomsky flitters and darts through the vast expanse of human experience, unerringly searching out those few, isolated data points that run contrary to the unimaginably vast ocean of facts crashing ashore in the opposite direction.
Here’s a Noam Chomsky moment for those of you without enough duct tape to wrap around your heads to keep your brains from exploding while you actually read his works:
Let’s say we stand overlooking the ocean along Pacific Coast Highway. From high atop the cliffs, we look down to the waves and the sand below. I ask you what color the beach is. You reply, reasonably enough, that it is sandy white. And you are exactly right.
However, there are people who cannot see the beach for themselves because they are not standing with us on this very spot. This is where Noam earns his liberal sainthood. Noam takes a small pail to the beach and sits down in the sand.
If you’ve ever run sand through your fingers, you know that for all of the thousands upon thousands of white or clear grains, there are a few dark ones here and there, falling through your fingers. With a jewelers loupe and an EXCEEDINGLY fine pair of tweezers, you carefully and methodically pluck all of the dark grains you can find – and only the dark grains – and carefully place them, one by one, into your trusty bucket.
It will take you a long time – it has taken Chomsky decades – to fill this bucket, but with enough sand and enough time, you will eventually do so. And then, when you do, you can make a career touring colleges through the world, giving speeches about the ebony-black beaches of Malibu, and you can pour your black sand onto the lectern and state, without fear of contradiction, that this sand was taken from those very beaches.
And what you say will be accurate, it will be factually based, and you will be lying like the most pernicious son of a bitch that ever lived.
Why do so many people take this hocus-pocus at face value? Because, like any audience at a Magic show, they want to believe.
Do this long enough, and you will become an Icon –- no more hours spent sorting sand for you! No sir! And finally, after a few decades as Icon, you may manufacture whatever data you need to make your case, and not one of your followers will call you on it.
Shortly after 9/11, and somewhat before the “Taliban forces did finally succumb, after astonishing endurance” St. Noam thundered that America’s “Silent Genocide” in Afghanistan would kill – pick a number, any number -- somewhere between 3 to 4 million civilians. At one point, he intimated that up to 10 million could die.
The real number was around 500.
Being Noam Chomsky means you get a pass for being wrong not by a factor of ten to one, or even a hundred to one. In Afghanistan, Chomsky was wrong by a factor of 20,000 to one. Being that wrong on a regular basis means going for a $2.99 Happy meal at McDonald’s and paying $59,800 for it. It means frugally walking out of a Nothing Over 99 Cents! store with the seven most expensive items, having just put $138,600 on your credit card. That’s how wrong Noam Chomsky is.
Misdirection. Unsubstantiated allegations. Undocumented assertions. Counting a few scattered hits and ignoring millions of misses. You can prove anything in this manner, if your audience is a willing accomplice and refuses to challenge you.
Michael Moore used exactly this technique to make people believe that America is a land of terrified, racist murderers who are armed to the teeth solely because of their fear of black people. For this he was given an Academy Award, and Bowling for Columbine has been called “the best documentary film ever made.”
I told you this story would make you angry.
I saw Bowling for Columbine in a small art house in Santa Monica, attended by what I think was a small knot of NPR movie club pass holders. This is like watching Triumph of the Will in Nuremburg stadium seated between Goebbels and Himmler. You know before the lights go down that they’re gonna love it.
We’re used to the willing suspension of disbelief when the lights go down. This agreement between the audience and the filmmaker, the magician, is what allows us to watch a kid get bitten by a ‘radioactive spider’ and believe that this will give him the power to climb the side of a skyscraper and shoot webs from his wrists. This is good magic. This is what art is all about.
It takes a particularly badly-made and clumsy film to become so unbelievable that you find yourself muttering, Oh, come on! at the screen, and Bowling for Columbine is nothing like that badly made. It is a lie so carefully and meticulously crafted that you find yourself sitting there in the dark thinking, I have to admit, he’s got a point there.
It’s only later, when the magic is over and you’re walking to your car, only when the narrative flow has released you to swim to the shore of reason, that some people begin to ask some questions. Let me take a few examples from the movie to show you how this lie is constructed on a brick-by-brick basis.
Moore’s thesis – near as I can follow it – is that America commits vastly more handgun murders than the rest of the world. Well, there’s no disputing that. You would think Moore would make the point that it’s because we have such easy access to handguns. He does not. He claims that there are plenty of guns in Canada, but they don’t have our murder rate. The movie’s premise is that we kill people with guns because we Americans are terrified all the time, and the one thing we are most terrified of is Black people. But cross 10 feet over the border into Canada and that terror instantly -- you might say magically -- disappears.
Hope I didn’t wreck the movie for you.
The title comes from Moore’s assertion that Harris and Klebold, the Columbine murderers, were so immune to violence that they went bowling in the morning before they shot up the school. It is a chilling thought. Didn’t happen. But that shouldn’t get in the way of a chilling thought, especially when it’s your opening thesis.
The opening scene features Michael Moore in the North Country Bank & Trust in Traverse City, Michigan, which was running a promotion saying that for every account opened, they would give away not a toaster or a walkman, but a gun. We see Moore filling out the paperwork to open a new account. This done, the teller hands him a rifle. Moore exits the bank, thrusts the rifle into the air like some well-fed Sandinista, and over the freeze-frame says “maybe it’s not such a good idea to give people a gun…in a bank!” Oh, how the NPR film club tittered at that line!
This isn’t just misdirection. This is, pure and simple, a goddam lie. The bank did offer this promotion, and when Moore heard about it, he found out that when you open the new account, they give you a certificate. You then have to go to a gun shop to pick up the gun.
This wasn’t damning enough. So Moore convinced the poor, decent, gullible people who ran that bank that it would be much better publicity for them if they could hand him the gun right there in the bank. Uh, well, um…okay. If it will help you with your movie. But the bank did not hand out guns on the premises. Moore created this scene to advance his premise. It’s a funny scene. It is most emphatically not a documentary scene.
Not wanting to appear one-sided, Moore interviews a few randomly selected gun owners. And who could be a more random handgun owner than John Nichols, brother of Terry Nichols, co-conspirator of Oklahoma City lunatic Timothy McVeigh?
In the interview, John Nichols seems on the verge of total emotional collapse. He makes off-color comments and has a spooky, lithium-deficient smirk that appears at awkward and inappropriate times. After a few moments, this completely random and therefore totally typical American gun owner takes Moore into the back room to ‘show him something.’ He does not allow the camera to enter. A subtitle tells us that John Nichols has put a gun barrel in his mouth. We can hear Michael Moore gently begging him to stop, to put the gun down. Not only a fair man, but gentle, too. When it comes to misdirection, Master Moore has the strongest kung-fu.
Littleton, Colorado is a nice, safe, upper-middle class neighborhood. It’s the kind of place you’d want to raise your kids. It is also home to a Lockheed plant, and Moore goes on the make the assertion that this ‘climate of death’ from these ‘weapons of mass destruction’ is responsible for the Columbine killing spree. Presumably the school shooters in other communities had to settle for magazines and websites of missiles to work up their Death Culture madness.
This would be a stretch – a real stretch – if the ‘entire community’ was indeed wrapped up in ‘America’s Defense Industry Culture of Death.’ But the Lockheed plant in Littleton, the one using ominous missiles as a backdrop for an interview in the film, builds launch vehicles for communications satellites – you know, the ones used by HBO to broadcast Bowling for Columbine across the nation. This little detail was left out of the movie. Keep your eye on the flick of the wrist; pay no attention to the slow palming of the coin.
One of the most widely-quoted sequences, one that drew squeals and applause for the Santa Monica Art House Crowd, was a cartoon series showing Moore’s history of the United States. Terrified white people in England get on a ship, sail to the New World, meet dark, friendly, all-around swell dark-skinned people, and kill them all out of paralyzing, abject fear. Slaves are imported to maintain an excuse for us to stay armed. The black people are then summarily killed to the last man. And so on, with the screaming, yelping, frozen-with-fear white people shooting everything in sight.
Oh, how true. When the box office attendant, who was black, handed me back my change a little too quickly for comfort, I had to drop him with 23 rounds from my trusty 9mm. The snack bar attendant – a mulatto if ever there was one – asked me if I wanted butter on my popcorn in a really threatening way, so it was a shotgun blast to the head for him. And the usher, who was Mexican, took a hostile step towards me as he opened the theater door. Not being completely dark-skinned, I decided it was safe to just stab him in the eyes with my ballpoint pen.
This is what he wants you to believe. His European audience, generally salivating at the chance to hear an American describe his country as a bunch of idiotic, murdering, terrified racists, howls with approval.
Moore then recounts the story of a 6 year old boy who went to school with a handgun and murdered a little girl. We meet his mother, a young African-American woman, in the courtroom, crying and terrified, handcuffed, orange jumpsuit, the whole nine yards. This woman, says Moore, was forced by welfare cuts by those evil bastard Republicans, to leave her child with relatives, get up before dawn, and ride a bus, for hours, so that she could go to a shopping mall and serve biscuits to rich white people.
Moore rides the bus in the pre-dawn hours. It’s depressing. I was watching this, and I thought to myself, you know, maybe we have gone too far.
But when I got to the car, I realized, hey, wait a second. I’ve had to get up in the predawn hours and take a bus to go to work. Millions of people do this every day in America. It’s society’s fault that this woman has to get up and take a bus to work? And the relatives she left her kids with? It was a crack house. Guns and drugs were everywhere. And the fact that she is a black woman standing handcuffed in a courtroom has precisely nothing to do with this. It is much more likely that this would have happened to an equally unskilled white mother.
And furthermore, if you had a six year old child, and you absolutely had to leave him in a place like that, would your kid take a gun to school and shoot someone? Or do you think that maybe, perhaps, just possibly, this tragedy had more to do with this individual’s parenting skills than the fact that she has to take a bus to go to work in the morning? Is this an indictment of a heartless society, or an insult to the millions and millions and millions of Americans, black and white, rich and poor, who get up every morning and go to work without their children murdering a classmate during the course of the day?
Bowling for Columbine is not a documentary. It is propaganda, created in many cases from whole cloth, and in others by selective interviewing, biased editing and false assumptions. Much of it is, in fact, downright lies. That it was awarded an Oscar only reveals that the Academy Awards have suffered as much ethical rot as the Nobel Peace Prize, in that it was awarded by faceless voters who wanted nothing more than to take a swipe at the Bush administration.
As for his assertion that Americans kill because they are nothing but terrified white people, a quick look at the murder statistics will show any dispassionate reader that this is, in fact, nearly the exact opposite of the truth. Black-on-Black violence is many, many times greater than White-on-Black violence
Michael Moore claims to be the Conscience of America and the Champion of the Common Man. As my friend James Lileks points out, he is neither.
If Michael Moore was only interested in saving innocent lives, he would have done better to have tackled a subject that kills many hundreds of times the number taken by handguns, namely, obesity-related diseases. Is that a cheap shot? It is. It is a factually-based cheap shot, which is more than can be said about Bowling for Columbine.
We find ourselves living in a time when people grow increasingly unwilling or unable to determine fact from assertion. In a society ruled by the people, this is a fatal condition. Where magical claims go unchallenged, where feeling good about something is the measure of its truth, public policy plummets into the same disconnect from reality that has doomed entire civilizations.
As always, we face a choice: we can live our lives by fantasy ideologies and wait for the train wreck called reality, or we can learn not what to think, but how to think. How to test and compare the barrage of information and statements we receive on a daily basis.
Howard Zinn has a theory of American History. Victor Davis Hanson has another. Which one is right? How do we know?
A few nights ago, during one of my regular visits to the main sensor screen at USS Clueless, I read something that absolutely bored a hole in my brain. You always have to pay attention when you read Steven Den Beste, but this was something else again. I could feel the veins in my temples throbbing like I was a Talosian trying to keep Captain Pike from seeing that the top of the mountain had been blown off. My hands and feet went cold, then numb, as the blood rushed to my head. I staggered into the kitchen, ripped open a five-pound bag of sugar, and washed it down with Hershey’s syrup: brain needs more glucose! Brain must have more glucose!
Steven was talking about how people think – no, more than that. He was talking about what thought is. He talked about thought as a series of heuristics.
I liked the American Heritage Dictionary entry best: Relating to or using a problem-solving technique in which the most appropriate solution of several found by alternative methods is selected at successive stages of a program for use in the next step of the program.
Now remember, I’m fresh from the Krell Mind Machine myself, but as I understand it, what we know and what we believe are a series of heuristics, which basically means we use models – little index cards – when we deal with problems. A simple heuristic might be touching a red-hot stove burns. We don’t have to keep touching the stove every time to find this out. All we have to do is touch it once – I remember doing it and so do you – and now we emphatically know red hot burners bad.
This is a simple heuristic, and a damn good one. But as Steven points out, a heuristic doesn’t have to be true all the time – just enough of the time for it to be a useful mental shortcut.
Now I’ll be the first to admit that the right-wing raving lunatics meet the left-wing barking moonbats somewhere off the map where There Be Dragons. So how useful is a complex heuristic like Democrats can’t be trusted with national security?
Hot stove burns is right pretty much every time: it is an effective heuristic, certainly useful, but pretty damn narrow and limited. That is, its predictive power is good, but the things it accurately predicts are pretty limited. Democrats can’t be trusted with national security is far more complex, open to infinitely more variables and exceptions, and therefore will be less accurate. It will be proven wrong more often. Roosevelt and Truman were Democrats, and they could hardly be improved upon.
But if you think about how you think, you may realize that everything we see in the world is colored by our enormous pyramid of ever-more-complex heuristics, our personalized set of index cards on how the world works.
When we have discussions, like this one, what we are essentially doing is trading cards; I’ll try to give you a Democrats can’t be trusted with national security, but you may respond with Republicans don’t care about anything beyond their own wallet.
We nod when we read or hear something new that makes sense to us, but that’s only because, while new, it is a conclusion that makes sense based on the heuristics we already hold. It is a new assumption based upon less complex assumptions, based on still less complex assumptions, all the way down.
Big fleas have little fleas
Upon their backs to bite ‘em
And little fleas have lesser fleas
And so ad infinitum
(and these small fleas
of course, in turn
have larger fleas to go on
and larger still, and larger still,
and larger still, and so on)
Post-modernists will look at this and come to the conclusion that because we all have these internal clichés, all truth is relative, there is no objective reality, and a nineteen-year-old English Lit student knows the true meaning of Hamlet better than Shakespeare does.
Here, in my experience, is a very reliable heuristic: All Post-modernists are idiots. Of course, your mileage may vary.
As usual, they have gotten it exactly wrong. It is true that no one can re-learn every lesson they have learned throughout their entire lives every day. To build on knowledge, to grow smarter, to become educated, is to add layers based on the existing foundations.
Science works because each layer is inspected – by science itself – and checked for accuracy. Entire theories, entire skyscrapers of ideas, have been demolished because new experiments proved that a single, simple piece of foundation data was in error. As new experiments provide new information – repeatedly, reliably, independently and in the expected quantities – these then become the steel and concrete with which we build newer, taller and stronger theories, stronger heuristics.
And the end result is cell phones, antibiotics, MRI scanners, 747s, weather satellites and the internet.
This process is the exact opposite of magical thinking. It is disciplined. It is rigorous. It is determined to follow the evidence that reality provides when we question it through experiment. It does not have a destination in mind – it follows the path wherever it may lead. Its results are not always comforting, which means it requires courage to walk that path.
And wherever it has been applied, the results have been absolutely magical. Miraculous. Astonishing. Awe-inspiring.
It is also a way of thinking that we Americans formerly tried to apply to politics with pride. Show me. I'm listening. We abandon it at our mortal peril.
Because of this rational, disciplined, skeptical, hopeful and ultimately joyous way of looking at the world, we have been able to behold wonders that no poor human imagination could begin to predict. It is the mirror-image of seeing the world as the drab, lifeless, mechanical thing that mystics accuse rationalists of. Rather, it is driven by the elation that we can do difficult things well, see layers upon layers of the infinitely large or infinitesimally small being peeled back, generation after generation, to reveal an entirely new stage and cast of wonders and miracles. Big fleas have little fleas…and so, ad infinitum.
If someone chooses to run their lives through the horoscope printed next to the comics, that is their business. They certainly have the freedom to do so. But when magical ideologies are put forward as political positions of equal weight and value, as a chart to sail the ship of state, when assertion carries the same weight as proof, we will surely lose our way. And then we will have nothing left to save us but all the luck we can wring from whatever leprechauns we can get our hands on.
*I made up Robert Wayne Jernigan only because I do not have, at hand, a real fireman with real stories to tell. If I had, I could have sold the story even better by adding the real-world details such an interview would have provided. The more data points I have to choose from, the better I can build the lie.
Saturday, December 22, 2007
The Gift Of Doing Very Little
By George F. Will
Sunday, December 23, 2007; Page B07
Hellbent on driving its approval rating into single digits, Congress adjourned after passing an omnibus spending bill larded with at least 8,993 earmarks costing at least $7.4 billion -- the precise number and amount will be unclear until implications of some obscure provisions are deciphered. The gusher of earmarks was a triumph of bipartisanship, which often is a synonym for kleptocracy.
This was the first year since 1994 that Democrats controlled both houses. Consider Congress's agreeably meager record:
It raised the hourly minimum wage from $5.15 to $5.85 -- less than the $7 entry wage at McDonald's -- thereby increasing the wages of less than 0.5 percent of the workforce. Rebuffing George W. Bush, who advocates halting farm subsidies to those with adjusted gross incomes of more than $200,000, the Senate also rejected -- more bipartisanship -- a cap at $750,000. This, in spite of the fact that farm income has soared to record levels, partly because Congress shares the president's loopy enthusiasm for ethanol and wants more corn and other agricultural matter turned into fuel.
Although Congress trembles for the future of the planet, it was unwilling to eliminate the 54-cent-a-gallon tariff on Brazilian ethanol. But our polymath Congress continued designing automobiles to make them less safe (smaller) and more expensive. It did this by mandating new fuel efficiency -- a 35-mpg fleet average by 2020 -- lest the automotive industry design cars people want. And Congress mandated a 12-year phaseout of incandescent light bulbs.
Bruce Raynor, president of the union Unite Here, expressed organized labor's compassionate liberalism when he urged sparing workers the burden of democracy: "There's no reason to subject workers to an election." The House agreed, voting for "card check" organizing that strips workers of their right to a secret ballot when deciding for or against unionization of their workplace. Unions, increasingly unable to argue that they add more value than they subtract from workers' lives, crave the "card check" system. Under it, once a majority of workers, pressured one at a time by labor organizers, sign a card, the union is automatically certified as the bargaining agent for all the workers. Senate Republicans blocked this, but the Senate Democrats voted to cripple the Labor Department agency that requires union bosses to explain how they spend their members' money.
To improve Americans' health, Congress hopes that by 2017, 22 million more people will begin smoking, enough to pay the increased cigarette taxes that purportedly would finance an expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program. The program, supposedly for low-income children, would have been expanded to cover many children -- and adults -- from households with incomes far above the nation's median income. The president vetoed the expansion.
Having vowed to end the war in Iraq, House liberals ended the year in a minuet of moral evasion. Representatives passed a bill containing money for the war in Afghanistan but not for the one in Iraq. The Senate added money for Iraq. House Democrats then voted 141 to 78 against final passage, but House Republicans and moderate Democrats passed it and liberals headed home to brag about having voted against funding the war.
In January, with much preening, House Democrats embraced "pay-go," the pay-as-you-go rule that any tax cut must be "paid for" by compensatory tax increases or spending cuts. In December, Democrats abandoned it because of the alternative minimum tax.
The AMT was enacted in 1969 as an indignation gesture aimed at fewer than 200 rich people who managed, legally, to owe no taxes. But the enactors neglected to index the AMT against inflation, so this year it would have been a $50 billion bite out of 23 million taxpayers. The House voted to suspend the AMT for almost all who would have had to pay it and fund that with a $50 billion tax increase. Senate Republicans argued that no Congress ever intended the AMT to collect, or ever will allow it to collect, such large sums from such a large number of Americans. Therefore, pay-go would siphon $50 billion to compensate for a fictitious $50 billion. The Senate voted 88 to 5 to not collect the AMT this year, the House acquiesced and pay-go evaporated.
Rep. John Campbell, a California Republican, notes that this year the House took many more votes (1,186) than ever but that only 146 bills became laws, and most of those named buildings or other things or extended existing laws. Congress, and especially the Democratic majority, should be congratulated for this because a decrease in the quantity of legislation generally means an increase in the quality of life.
Posted by Louis Cyphre at 5:51 PM
Friday, December 21, 2007
By JOHN STEELE GORDON
WSJ, December 21, 2007 - WSJ
Christmas famously "comes but once a year." In fact, however, it comes twice. The Christmas of the Nativity, the manger and Christ child, the wise men and the star of Bethlehem, "Silent Night" and "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" is one holiday. The Christmas of parties, Santa Claus, evergreens, presents, "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "Jingle Bells" is quite another.
But because both celebrations fall on Dec. 25, the two are constantly confused. Religious Christians condemn taking "the Christ out of Christmas," while First Amendment absolutists see a threat to the separation of church and state in every poinsettia on public property and school dramatization of "A Christmas Carol."
A little history can clear things up.
The Christmas of parties and presents is far older than the Nativity. Most ancient cultures celebrated the winter solstice, when the sun reaches its lowest point and begins to climb once more in the sky. In ancient Rome, this festival was called the Saturnalia and ran from Dec. 17 to Dec. 24. During that week, no work was done, and the time was spent in parties, games, gift giving and decorating the houses with evergreens. (Sound familiar?) It was, needless to say, a very popular holiday.
In its earliest days, Christianity did not celebrate the Nativity at all. Only two of the four Gospels even mention it. Instead, the Church calendar was centered on Easter, still by far the most important day in the Christian year. The Last Supper was a Seder, celebrating Passover, which falls on the day of the full moon in the first month of spring in the Hebrew calendar. So in A.D. 325, the Council of Nicea decided that Easter should fall on the Sunday following the first full moon of spring. That's why Easter and its associated days, such as Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, are "moveable feasts," moving about the calendar at the whim of the moon.
It is a mark of how late Christmas came to the Christian calendar that it is not a moveable feast, but a fixed one, determined by the solar calendar established by Julius Caesar and still in use today (although slightly tweaked in the 16th century).
By the time of the Council of Nicea, the Christian Church was making converts by the thousands and, in hopes of still more converts, in 354 Pope Liberius decided to add the Nativity to the church calendar. He also decided to celebrate it on Dec. 25. It was, frankly, a marketing ploy with a little political savvy thrown in.
History does not tell us exactly when in the year Christ was born, but according to the Gospel of St. Luke, "shepherds were abiding in the field and keeping watch over their flocks by night." This would imply a date in the spring or summer when the flocks were up in the hills and needed to be guarded. In winter they were kept safely in corrals.
So Dec. 25 must have been chosen for other reasons. It is hard to escape the idea that by making Christmas fall immediately after the Saturnalia, the Pope invited converts to still enjoy the fun and games of the ancient holiday and just call it Christmas. Also, Dec. 25 was the day of the sun god, Sol Invictus, associated with the emperor. By using that date, the church tied itself to the imperial system.
By the high Middle Ages, Christmas was a rowdy, bawdy time, often inside the church as well as outside it. In France, many parishes celebrated the Feast of the Ass, supposedly honoring the donkey that had brought Mary to Bethlehem. Donkeys were brought into the church and the mass ended with priests and parishioners alike making donkey noises. In the so-called Feast of Fools, the lower clergy would elect a "bishop of fools" to temporarily run the diocese and make fun of church ceremonial and discipline. With this sort of thing going on inside the church to celebrate the Nativity, one can easily imagine the drunken and sexual revelries going on outside it to celebrate what was in all but name the Saturnalia.
With the Reformation, Protestants tried to rid the church of practices unknown in its earliest days and get back to Christian roots. Most Protestant sects abolished priestly celibacy (and often the priesthood itself), the cult of the Virgin Mary, relics, confession and . . . Christmas.
In the English-speaking world, Christmas was abolished in Scotland in 1563 and in England after the Puritans took power in the 1640s. It returned with the Restoration in 1660, but the celebrations never regained their medieval and Elizabethan abandon.
There was still no Christmas in Puritan New England, where Dec. 25 was just another working day. In the South, where the Church of England predominated, Christmas was celebrated as in England. In the middle colonies, matters were mixed. In polyglot New York, the Dutch Reformed Church did not celebrate Christmas. The Anglicans and Catholics did.
It was New York and its early 19th century literary establishment that created the modern American form of the old Saturnalia. It was a much more family -- and especially child -- centered holiday than the community-wide celebrations of earlier times.
St. Nicolas is the patron saint of New York (the first church built in the city was named for him), and Washington Irving wrote in his "Diedrich Knickerbocker's History of New York" how Sinterklaes, soon anglicized to Santa Claus, rode through the sky in a horse and wagon and went down chimneys to deliver presents to children.
The writer George Pintard added the idea that only good children got presents, and a book dating to 1821 changed the horse and wagon to reindeer and sleigh. Clement Clarke Moore in 1823 made the number of reindeer eight and gave them their names. Moore's famous poem, "A Visit from St. Nicholas," is entirely secular. It is about "visions of sugar plums" with nary a wise man or a Christ child in sight. In 1828, the American Ambassador Joel Roberts Poinsett, brought the poinsettia back from Mexico. It became associated with Christmas because that's the time of year when it blooms.
In the 1840s, Dickens wrote "A Christmas Carol," which does not even mention the religious holiday (the word church appears in the story just twice, in passing, the word Nativity never). Prince Albert introduced the German custom of the Christmas tree to the English-speaking world.
In the 1860s, the great American cartoonist Thomas Nast set the modern image of Santa Claus as a jolly, bearded fat man in a fur-trimmed cap. (The color red became standard only in the 20th century, thanks to Coca-Cola ads showing Santa Claus that way.)
Merchants began to emphasize Christmas, decorating stores and pushing the idea of Christmas presents for reasons having nothing whatever to do with religion, except, perhaps, the worship of mammon.
With the increased mobility provided by railroads and increasing immigration from Europe, people who celebrated Christmas began settling near those who did not. It was not long before the children of the latter began putting pressure on their parents to celebrate Christmas as well. "The O'Reilly kids down the street are getting presents, why aren't we?!" is not an argument parents have much defense against.
By the middle of the 19th century, most Protestant churches were, once again, celebrating Christmas as a religious holiday. The reason, again, had more to do with marketing than theology: They were afraid of losing congregants to other Christmas-celebrating denominations.
In 1870, President Ulysses S. Grant signed into law a bill making the secular Christmas a civil holiday because its celebration had become universal in this country. It is now celebrated in countries all over the world, including many where Christians are few, such as Japan.
So for those worried about the First Amendment, there's a very easy way to distinguish between the two Christmases. If it isn't mentioned in the Gospels of Luke and Mark, then it is not part of the Christian holiday. Or we could just change the name of the secular holiday back to what it was 2000 years ago.
Merry Saturnalia, everyone!
Mr. Gordon is the author of "An Empire of Wealth: The Epic History of American Economic Power" (HarperCollins, 2004).
Posted by Ramiro at 10:09 PM
Thursday, December 20, 2007
Con inflación de 20%, es tiempo de macro, no micro
Por: Enrique Szewach
En su discurso inaugural, la Presidente hizo una ratificación explícita de la continuidad de la política económica, al resaltar «que no se puede estar cambiando todo cada cuatro años». Por supuesto que marcó la continuidad desde la «fundación de la patria», en 2003, mientras todo lo anterior fue explícitamente demonizado.
Pero esto no podría sorprendernos. Cada revolución, para refirmarse, necesita una nueva fundación y denostar el pasado. Es cierto que en este caso particular, los revolucionarios de hoy también tuvieron protagonismo importante en las revoluciones de ayer. En otras palabras, ni el círculo más reducido del kirchnerismo, ni el más amplio del peronismo-radicalismo K estuvieron en los 80 y los 90 escondidos en las sierras luchando por la liberación. Al contrario, fueron defensores, protagonistas importantes y claros beneficiarios de las «revoluciones pasadas».
Ese «pequeño detalle» no empaña la clara manifestación de Cristina a favor de la continuidad de la revolución de quien estaba «sentado a su izquierda». Sin embargo, lo que sorprendió del discurso de Cristina, además del cambio extraordinario en el tema educativo (por primera vez, en un discurso público, un gobernante argentino reconoce que no es sólo con plata que se arregla el problema educativo y que los docentes tienen que saber más que los alumnos), es el hecho de que haya renunciado, explícitamente, a los mecanismos de control de precios y a establecer pautas salariales indicativas. Fue cuando planteó, con todas las letras, que no fue votada para ser «gendarme de la rentabilidad empresaria» o «mediar en una interna sindical». Creo, respetuosamente, que se equivoca. Su marido le deja, entre otras cosas, una inflación alta y expectativas de aceleración junto con la necesidad de cambiar precios del sector energético, dramáticamente atrasados. En ese contexto, o se modifica la política cambiaria, revaluando el peso, o se camina hacia un superávit fiscal y una moderación en el crecimiento del gasto, muy superior a lo anunciado. O no queda más remedio, si se insiste con «la revolución K», que complementar las medidas fiscales, el «anclaje» del tipo de cambio y los ajustes de precios energéticos, con la « coordinación de expectativas» que surge de algún tipo de «control de la rentabilidad empresaria» y freno a las aspiraciones salariales sindicales.
Quizá resulte exagerado comparar a Cristina con un personaje de Edgar Allan Poe. Pero después de todo, cualquier crónica de la historia de la política económica argentina es siempre exuberante. Si la Presidente imaginaba que podía ofrecer como «cambio modesto de estilo dentro de la continuidad», la «libertad de precios y salarios» y la sustitución del acuerdo social que anunció en la campaña por planes de competitividad sectoriales, es probable que, como un personaje de Poe, se vea obligada una y otra vez a hacer lo que no quiere, ni le gusta.
De la misma manera que aceptó, con cierto cinismo, gobernar con la Ley de Emergencia Pública que nunca votó. El kirchnerismo considera que los mercados en la Argentina son poco transparentes, concentrados y que unos pocos «formadores de precios» deciden arbitrariamente sus rentabilidades. En estos años, lejos de diseñar políticas para generar más competencia y transparencia en los mercados,se dedicó sistemáticamentea concentrarlos aun más y a «sentarse a la mesa de los formadores» a negociar cada precio, cada salario, cada subsidio, cada impuesto.
Eso está en el «corazón» del modelo K y no es algo que se puede abandonar fácilmente sin tener que cambiar toda la estructura del modelo productivo. Entre fines de 2005 y principios de 2007 sólo hubo acuerdos y controles de precios, mientras se aceleraba el gasto público y con ello las presiones inflacionarias. En 2007, esas presiones obligaron a abandonar la política de acuerdos y controles, y a trampear en el índice, mientras el gasto se aceleraba aun más y el peso atado a un dólar débil magnificaba la expansión local y aceleraba más la tasa de inflación. Ahora se intenta desacelerar sólo con política fiscal y el anclaje del peso a un dólar que se sigue devaluando contra los commodities más importantes.
Podemos tener una economía que se desacelera y una inflación que sigue alta. Cuando la inflación es de 20% anual, no es «tiempo de la micro». Es tiempo de la macro adecuada.
Posted by Louis Cyphre at 1:10 PM
Argentina Answers To the Crazy Call Of Dr. Tangalanga
Phone Prankster Spouting Nonsense Delights Crowds; The Perplexed Handyman
By MATT MOFFETT
December 15, 2007; Page A1
BUENOS AIRES -- Last month, 700 people turned out at a nightclub to celebrate Julio de Rizio's 91st birthday. Mr. de Rizio himself provided the entertainment, using a telephone hooked up to the audio system.
He dialed a convenience store and, in a tone that was civility itself, inquired about closing time. "I'm asking because I'm going to rob you at 3 a.m.," he told the startled clerk.
Mr. de Rizio then made harassing calls to a middle-aged comic-book collector and to a fellow who was offering his services as pop vocalist. He got him to belt out a few bars -- badly off-key. Finally, he called a handyman who had advertised that he would take care of "everything your husband doesn't have time to fix." Mr. de Rizio went off on a bawdy riff about not having time to satisfy his wife. He asked the flustered handyman whether he could fix that.
Mr. de Rizio, known by his stage name, Dr. Tangalanga, has won fame and fans throughout Latin America for making prank phone calls. His devotees call him "the telephone avenger" for the verbal pummeling he inflicts on inept or unscrupulous service providers -- quack healers, tarot card charlatans, butchers with heavy thumbs and builders who misfire their caulk-guns.
But no Argentine telephone owner is safe, not even the medical student who had obtained some skeletal remains from a cemetery. Tangalanga called her and told her that the bones were those of his cousin. "Couldn't you put him back together so I could bring him some flowers?" he asked.
Mr. de Rizio, who labored anonymously for decades as an account executive at Colgate-Palmolive Co. in Argentina, made his first comic calls in the early 1960s to cheer up a friend who was dying. He started working the phones in earnest some years later when he himself was bedridden with hepatitis. Homemade tapes of the calls began circulating informally around Buenos Aires, creating a sizable fan base. Eventually, he was signed by a publisher and record companies, which collected his oeuvre in three books and 41 cassettes or CDs. He has performed in Mexico, Chile and Uruguay in recent years and still works private parties in Argentina.
Mr. de Rizio's deadpan delivery and gravitas prompt victims to take him seriously, never mind the nonsense he spouts. Posing as a reporter for the mythical Peruvian magazine Angustia, or Anguish, he once called a collector of tango records looking for a bogus recording titled, "How Deep Can the Ravine Be if the Frog Climbs It at a Trot?" Neither the collector nor his wife, who also came to the phone, could place the song. They promised to take it up with other tango buffs, though. "Yes," Mr. de Rizio said, "all of them will have to come together and asphyxiate themselves." "Of course, of course," replied the collector's wife.
DR. TANGALANGA CALLING
Mr. de Rizio's best pranks border on the surreal. He once asked a wig-repair specialist to make a house call because his wife's hairpiece had burst into flames while she was wearing it.
A prominent Argentine philosopher, Alejandro Rozitchner, wrote that Tangalanga is "an artist" and likened him to "the boy who satisfies himself participating in the world of grown-ups, acting out the role of one of them." An Argentine rock star sampled Tangalanga on an album, and a cabinet minister had him tape a message for his answering machine.
When not performing, Mr. de Rizio isn't anything like the profane and politically incorrect Tangalanga. For many years, he spent two or three days a week as a volunteer visiting people in hospitals. Mr. de Rizio has been married for 66 years to the girl who grew up next door to him in Buenos Aires. He credits the telephone tricks with keeping him healthy and lucid after all these years.
Throughout the world, prank calls have an extensive comic pedigree. From Steve Allen on the original "Tonight Show" in the 1950s, to Bart Simpson today, the telephone hoax has been a durable source of laughs.
Mr. de Rizio enlivens his jokes with an earthy Buenos Aires argot called Lunfardo, which was born in the immigrant underworld in the late 19th century and became the language of tango. Even when he has taken his act abroad, Mr. de Rizio has often found himself dialing back to Buenos Aires to find comic foils. Argentines have no peers in their irascibility and the language they use to express it, he says.
When Tangalanga made a nuisance call to a Buenos Aires woman who sold statues used in the Santeria religion, she spent nine minutes cursing him. She insulted his mother and his sister -- and then she insulted his mother's sister. When he called back, she cussed him out for another 13 minutes. Later he and the woman became friends, and she appeared as a guest at one of his shows.
But some people never get over their anger at being the butt of Tangalanga's jokes. A couple of years ago, Mr. de Rizio had a pair of off-duty police officers accompany him to a performance because he had been threatened by a man whose yoga-instructor wife had fallen for a Tangalanga prank. Concerns about reprisals are the reason Mr. de Rizio assumed the Tangalanga alias and performs with his face concealed behind a baseball cap and a fake beard.
In defense of what he does, Mr. de Rizio notes that his calls provide comic relief to thousands of fans. Ex-president Carlos Menem said Tangalanga tapes were one of the things that helped him cope with his grief after his son died in a helicopter crash in 1995.
Mr. de Rizio has taken aim at some prominent targets, including another ex-president, Fernando de la Rua. He called Mr. de la Rua pretending to offer legal services and gave him a spurious return phone number with 10-digits rather than the customary eight. Why so many numbers? asked the ex-president. "Divided by two," Dr. Tangalanga replied. "Ah," Mr. de la Rua said.
Among his other distinctions, Mr. de Rizio has probably left some of the most baffling phone messages ever to find their way onto Post-it Notes. He told one message taker to look for him on "1614 Cochabamba St., second floor, fourth corridor, row 17, on the shady side."
Besides working wedding or anniversary parties, Mr. de Rizio now usually confines himself to one big live show a year for his birthday. Last month, Carlos Marcarian, a 38-year-old dental assistant, rode the early morning ferry from his home in Uruguay to see his idol in action. "It is amazing that a man his age can think so fast," he says. Most audience members were in their twenties or thirties and many sported tattoos and piercings. During the birthday show, Mr. de Rizio was assisted by his friend and manager, Roberto Fasano, who provided numbers of prospective victims culled from the classifieds or suggested by fans.
It's a risky brand of comedy, though. Some would-be targets -- a singer who claimed to be a dead ringer for Joe Cocker and a wart-removal specialist -- weren't home when he rang up. And when Mr. de Rizio phoned a restaurant, the manager started laughing uncontrollably and replied "Si, Tangalanga." One downside of Tangalanga's fame is that about one in three people he calls now recognizes him.
Still, there are more hits than misses. The biggest laughs came during Mr. de Rizio's conversation with a magician calling himself Alex White, an Anglicized version of his real name, Alejandro Blanco. Tangalanga said he wanted to hire him to saw Mrs. Tangalanga in half -- only he didn't want any magic tricks. "You've got to kill her well," Tangalanga said. There was a pause and then a palpable quiver of concern in the magician's voice. "You seem like you need another type of service," he said.
Write to Matt Moffett at firstname.lastname@example.org
Posted by Louis Cyphre at 9:43 AM