Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Historic highs in new homes

Take a look at the chart below from Northern Trust, via Barry Ritholtz's Big Picture. The fact that the real estate market has been a major driver of the US economy recently is not news, or shouldn't be. But I did not appreciate before how much of the market was for new homes, not just homes. As you can see from the chart, which tracks new 1-family homes for sale since 1965, the number on the market today is just extraordinary. Although the numbers by themselves do not say anythingHome_inventoryabout where these new houses are located, I wonder if that steep climb after 2001 marked a steep rise in urban sprawl as well, showing that the GOP's and Greenspan's loose money and deregulation policies will have harmful long-term environmental as well as financial effects.

But what about home sales, you might ask? Well, go to the Big Picture for better coverage, and you will see that with inventories of new homes at record highs, prices, sales and mortgage applications are all falling.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Shakedown at High Honest Plaza: Mobocracy update II

Well, our favorite restaurant has finally given up. They, along with every other business in the plaza that used to be home to the High Honesty Supermarket, have closed and are looking for new locations.

The small businesses had shown some fight against the attempts of the landlord to close them down so the plaza could be renovated. The landlord wired shut all the gates to the plaza, but the businesses opened them again. The landlord shut off their electricity and water, so they pooled their money and bought a generator. They also hired a lawyer to contest their case, and hung protest banners on their storefronts. But they had made a crucial mistake in not insisting that their rental contracts include the landlord's oral assurances that the property would not be redeveloped until the end of 2008. They also felt that they could not count on help from the government because the plaza is owned by the Railroad Bureau, which the High Honesty Supermarket group is a subsidiary of. Still, they were determined to fight it out.

legal noticeBut their fight didn't last very long. Little more than a week after our last update, we found that all but one of the gates to the plaza had been closed again, this time with chains accompanied by a notice from the Public Security Bureau. The notice did not say anything more than that everyone should obey the law and settle disputes peacefully, but it seemed like the police's stamp of approval on the gate closings. Some parts of the buildings attached to the former supermarket and the old warehouse have already been reduced to rubble and picked over by recyclers. Some stubborn business owners had not yet emptied their shops of their inventory, and protest banners still hung from many storefronts, but none of the shops were open. A few vegetable sellers remained in the old warehouse, where they sleep as well as vend, so we went there to buy something to cook for dinner. They seemed surprised to see a customer. 'How'd you find us?', one woman asked.

A few days ago we went back for some vegetables, and found not much changed from our previous visit. The vegetable sellers were still there in the warehouse, sleeping and selling amidst broken walls and piles of bricks. The business were still closed, though demolition had not proceeded much. A new notice was pasted on the doors of some of the businesses. It was from the manager of the High Honesty Supermarket, inviting the owners to one last meeting in an attempt to resolve the dispute. If they did not come, said the notice, then the manager was not responsible for anything that happened after that.

demolition at High HonestyIn my first post on this topic, I linked this local dispute to one involving a Western magazine entrepreneur and used them both to characterize the current political and economic situation as neither capitalism nor socialism, but rather a 'mobocracy,' where political connections were paramount in determining business success, and where any profitable private concern, especially a small business, was vulnerable to poaching by government officials or those well-connected with them. China Law Blog wrote in the comments on Lumpenlogocracy posts (here, here and here) to correct that view, saying that in his experience the courts in China are more fair than unfair to private litigants, and that though Chinese law is needlessly complicated, it can be safely navigated through with a good lawyer as a guide, making businesses in China not as insecure against the state or bands of stick-wielding thugs than I had suggested. Reason binds me to privilege his interpretation of the situation in China over my own, as I lack knowledge of and experience with the law, though I am not as bullish on China as he.

I could not resist the overblown rhetoric of the title, but it might be more accurate to describe this situation as a legal dispute settled peacefully more-or-less within the confines of the law: if the restauranteurs are to be believed, the landlord did not have the legal right to shut the gates and turn off the power, but because of their poor contract negotiating, the business owners did not have much recourse beyond their protest banners. It's not a fair that the landlord misled them about when the demolition would begin, but it appears to be legal. It is their perception that the cards were stacked against them, regardless of the contract, because of the landlord's connections to the government. Whether this was a factor in determining their case I cannot say.

What I can say is that the perception of unfairness in the Chinese economy is widespread among the Chinese I have discussed the issue with. Our social circle is mainly among university students and professors, but also includes some working in private business and the law. One young computer programmer had his own business close some years ago, and still bitterly resents the interference of government officials that he blames for the failure. A Chinese law student I met with recently said the law was changing slowly, but that still, money and connections to the state mattered a great deal in business matters. A Chinese lawyer I spoke with had recently lost his Chinese investments, and blamed the inadequate regulation of companies in China for his losses. He wanted to invest in foreign markets from now on because, he said, 'there is no security here.' I don't know anything about the details of these cases. It could be that the government, an inadequate legal system and an unfair system of connections make a convenient scapegoat for personal or professional mistakes. Taken together, though, I think these individual perceptions indicate that though China is improving its legal and economic structures, it has a way to go.

Our former favorite restaurant

Monday, May 29, 2006

Class autobiography

Via Mark Thoma at Economist's View, via Bryan Caplan at EconLog, I have learned that a group known as Class Action is asking visitors to write a Class Autobiography. It is, says Class Action, "A powerful way to reflect on class is to take an hour and write the story of your upbringing in relation to money and class." Prof. Caplan says he will write his soon, and Prof. Thoma has his up already (and it's quite interesting).

So I will hop on the bandwagon soon, too, I promise. Anyone else out there want to give it a try?

UPDATE: Prof. Caplan has his autobiography up now, and it's an interesting contrast to Prof. Thoma's. Caplan seems a little naive about the effects of class, if you ask me, but judge for yourself:
From what I've seen, the standard function of class autobiography is to make middle- and upper-class authors feel guilty, and the lower- and working-class authors feel resentful. But reflecting on my class history doesn't make me feel guilty. Rather, it confirms the common-sense view that in the long-run, differences in ability and character are the cause of class differences, and not the other way around.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Masculinity, the Military, and the Massacre of Civilians

Continuing with the theme of modern hyper-masculinity and its ill effects in society, I was pleased this afternoon to discover the website of Stan Goff (blog name: Feral Scholar). His sharp and critical recent post entitled "Rogue Apple" on the now-disclosed massacre of civilians in Iraq--finding its roots in the military culture of masculinity--is just one of many provocative posts by this ex-Special Forces member and commentator on gender, imperialism, and the military, among other things.

I was first drawn to Stan Goff's site by the re-posting of his blog on Huffington Post, although it seems to have fallen off the front page by now. Some of Feral Scholar's posts are a bit more refreshingly radical than what one usually finds on HP, so check it out if you want something a little different than what you hear from the talking heads of the mainstream media (or even the more mainstream left-wing blogosphere).

Saturday, May 27, 2006

So Kerry's still at it. How about the press?

It's nice to read in this New York Times story this morning that Sen. John Kerry is finally fighting back against the 'Swifties,' those tools of Rove who attacked his military record during the 2004 campaign. A little late, I guess, but a good idea nevertheless. Still, that he would have to work so hard to disprove charges that no one outside the rapid reaches of the right give any credit to is absurd. And the Times article has an infuriatingly snarky tone about it, but one that's sadly typical of the US media. Kerry just can't move on, it suggests. Clearly the Times has already moved on, not mentioning once in the article that perhaps major media outlets, like, oh, I don't know, THE NEW YORK TIMES lapped up all that Swiftboat crap during the election like hungry little puppies. But hey, people--that's all in the past.

In related, but much better, rant, see Jamison Foser's Media Matter piece on media treatment of Bush compared to its treatment of the Clintons. Jeesh.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

More on Manliness (or the lack thereof)

My colleague, Christian_Left, shows himself to be ahead of theWHO'S MACHO NOW?Zeitgeist in his previous post on manliness, and how hyper-masculinity has polluted American politics. The recent issue of the American Prospect has a cover story on the same topic, complete with a roughed-up G.W. standing next to a flaccid missle. Subtle, huh?

The cover article, by (Mr.) Francis Wilkinson, is not a critique of the idea of manliness so much as an account of the demise of GOP dominance of testosterone politics. Live by the sword, die by the sword, I guess. But the final paragraph does hint at a different model of American manliness that might be more useful for a progressive political movement:

But after having wallowed in our fear these last five years, maybe what we need next are leaders who will raise us above it. The one man who taught us better than any other to conquer fear was no Governor Terminator. His muscles were unimpressive. He had no physical swagger to him at all. His military experience was a desk job. He wore no cowboy gear. He smoked cigarettes not like a Marlboro Man but filtered through a slender, feminine holder that could have been a prop from the Follies Bergere. He didn’t promise to protect us. He made us believe we could protect ourselves -- from the violence of fascism and the vicissitudes of capitalism alike. And he handed us the tools to do the job. We built the better part of the American century on the back of an aristocratic, polio-addled cripple. Now that was a man.

Christian_Left wants us to go a few steps beyond this, of course, to a masculine-less politics rather than just a different version of masculinity. If that can be done, then our politics and our society will be better, but I don't see such archetypes going away any time soon. A useful short-term strategy, then, is to look for other archetypes of masculinity, ones that fit better with a sane and progressive foreign and social policies.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

In Philadelphia, ex-SEALS 'hunt' future Christian warriors

I'm very late on posting this, but it's just too weird to pass up. Via DailyKos diarist lapin comes this account of a rally for Christian youth in Philadelphia:
After Franklin "Islam is a Wicked Religion" Graham came out to thunder against the evils of homosexuality and the Iraqi people (whom he considers to be exactly the same people as the ancient Babylonians who enslaved the tribes of Israel and deserving, one would assume, the exact same fate) we heard an explosion. Flames shot out on stage and a team of Navy Seals was shown on the big TV monitors in full camouflage creeping forward down the hallway from the locker room with their M16s.
I can't think of anything to say about this--it's just too amazingly bizzare. And in Philadelphia? Be sure to check out Lapin's diary for pictures. The diary also links to a first-hand account by another Kos diarist, WorldCantWait, and more thorough coverage of BattleCry by Sunsara Taylor at Truthdig.

And in other news related to the death of satire, the stalwart supporters of Tom Delay have found a new, powerfull ally in their battle against the liberal media: Stephen Colbert.

Friday, May 19, 2006

New CD Recommendation: Bruce Springsteen's Seeger Sessions

I don't think I've ever used this blog to recommend a music CD, although I have plugged books. At the risk of seeming to contradict my previous post, however, I would like to urge everyone to try out the latest offering from one of the enduring icons of (less harmful?) masculinity in the entertainment industry: Bruce Springsteen. In his new album, "We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions," Bruce teams up with several other talented musicians in covers of a dozen or so traditional American songs recorded at one time or another by folk legend Pete Seeger. It is a hybrid album of Springsteen-ized roots music: part blues, bluegrass, gospel, old time folk, and social movement folk. All the songs were recorded over a few days, most of them apparently in Bruce's living room. The result is an exceptionally enjoyable and lively re-interpretation of the American folk tradition.

Even though it only took a few days to record (by design), this is a well-crafted album. Its basis is a kind of grassroots populist sensibility--evident in so much of Bruce's music--with just a few brief but unmistakable touches of direct political commentary. Mostly, the album is just a pure listening pleasure and celebration of the old American musical traditions. There's a lot of New Orleans sound on the album, a timely and fitting statement, I think, of solidarity with the city's vibrant musical tradition. Moreover there are some GREAT gospel and spiritual numbers on this album (maybe not a surprise since Bruce is one of the best putatively secular revival preachers out there!) While this may not be the album to satisfy the purists of any particular musical tradition--acoustic folk, gospel, or even E-street band style rock--it is one of the best American roots music compilations ever produced, in my opinion. It's hard to classify this album as anything other than simply "great music"--or maybe "solid-gold Bruce!"

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The Case Against Manliness

I try to keep up with the sharp and often boldly unconventional writings of Robert Jensen, who is a journalism professor in Austin, Texas. I'm sure that I've linked to his essays before on this blog. Recently I came across another one of his thoughtful writings, an op-ed piece co-authored with Gail Dines for my old hometown's leading newspaper, the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Dines and Jensen offer a nice, brief synopsis of the case against manliness, arguing that the pursuit of "masculinity" harms both men and women. This perspective is certainly nothing new, but in a period when belief in hard and pervasive biological and psychological differences seems on the rebound, it seems a good idea to re-open the subject.

My friend Tess over at Arch Words often posts thoughtful blog entries on parenthood, gender, and child development, especially at it relates to how she and her partner Tom struggle to raise their young son in a more gender neutral way. (See, for example, her recent posting on toy kitchens.) Parenting well is a strongly counter-cultural activity, and I certainly admire anyone who tries to avoid the modern-day corruptions of childhood such as commercialism and reinforced masculinity.

However out of 1970s it may seem, I think Dines and Jensen are right to identify the pursuit of manliness and the modern conception of "masculinity" as fundamental problems that we must continue to struggle to overcome. I say this as someone who was a young boy in the 1980s, when G.I. Joe and confident superheroes came roaring into mainstream culture. Who can look at our last U.S. presidential election--with a reckless GOP cowboy squaring off against a tough Democrat war fighter--and not sense the crippling hold that manliness continues to hold on our society and its political options. I realize that it is tempting to look around the world and see men being aggressive and violent against women, children, and each other, and to conclude that boys will always be boys, and nothing more. But I, for one, still believe that another world is still possible, and confronting modern masculinity is an important part of it.