California Dreaming

My wife visited family in California last week.


The Argument That Will Never End

At Financial Times Oren Cass wonders whether Republicans are winning the national argument over immigration:

Conservatives in the GOP have pushed border enforcement for years, but have always run into two political problems, which seem increasingly surmountable. One is the challenge of telling a positive story about the aspiration for a secure border. “Making the case for why we should control immigration,” observes former senator and Trump’s attorney-general Jeff Sessions, “will be essential to achieving an immigration policy Americans can be proud of.” 

Highlighting the depravities of the status quo — the human and drug trafficking, the abuse and exploitation — is important, but that is not enough. Conservatives also have to make the case that they, too, want a generous and humanitarian immigration system, as do most Americans, but that an emphasis on enforcement is the only way to ever achieve it. This has been a hard sell in the past, but now conservatives can expect to win the argument that border security enforcement is both non-negotiable and achievable. 

The other problem for conservatives has been the business lobby, which covets the deep pool of cheap and exploitable labour that illegal immigration provides. On no other issue does it leverage its power within the Republican party so aggressively, both to undermine genuine efforts at enforcement and to demand a range of politically unpopular expansions in legal immigration that dilute any bill’s message and appeal. Conservatives often lose the battle just to mandate that employers use E-Verify, a government system for confirming that new hires are authorised to work — a modest measure and an absolute necessity for any effective enforcement regime. 

I think he’s wrong and as an illustration of that I will point out that President Trump resisted enforceable protections against the exploitation of workers in the country illegally on the grounds that it would discomfit employers. Where is Mr. Cass’s evidence to the contrary? It doesn’t exist.

What I think is actually happening is that nobody wants to pay for the millions of entry-level workers coming into the country. The difference between what those workers are paying in taxes and what they require in terms of local, state, and federal services is a subsidy being paid to import those workers and it must be paid by someone. Presently, that’s some combination of taxpayers (by which I mean people who actually pay taxes on net), the previous cadre of immigrants (who are least able to afford it), and putting those subsidies on the national credit card. That can never make sense.

What makes sense is a head tax which businesses would pay on a per employee basis. That would destroy the business models of many businesses including farms, fast food, and hospitality.

The argument about immigration is one that has been going on since the beginnings of the republic. I see no signs of anyone winning the argument. There may be a slight present political advantage for those arguing for enforcing the laws but the argument won’t end.


There Has Never Been a Rules-Based International Order

I think that Walter Russell Mead exhibits confusion in his latest Wall Street Journal column. In it he laments the “quiet disintegration”: of the rules-based international order:

Even as the global geopolitical crisis becomes more acute, the core institutions and initiatives of the American-led world order and the governments that back them are growing progressively weaker and less relevant.

He goes on to illustrate the futility of the United Nations General Assembly, the G20, and the WTO. He’s mistaken. The “rules-based international order” is and always has been a pious fantasy. What existed in the past was U. S. hegemony in which the U. S. ignored the rules while insisting that other countries comply.

The U. S. dictated the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The permanent members of the UN Security Council are the World War II Allies. The World Trade Organization and its predecessor, General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), were largely created as attack vehicles against a weakeningly hegemonic United States, The G20 began as an instrument of the hegemonic United States and evolved into an attack vehicle against it.

Our notional allies in Europe like to imagine a rules-based international order that restrains the United States but are disinterested in one that promotes U. S. interests. If we wanted a rules-based international order we would feel restrained by its rules. We don’t.

All countries have national interests. The United States has national interests. France has national interests. China has national interests. Russia has national interests. Ukraine has national interests. These interests are not necessarily compatible, indeed, they are frequently incompatible as illustrated by the ongoing war between Ukraine and Russia. China embraced the WTO when it was in its national interests to do so and ignored it when it was not. We do the same thing. We shouldn’t be surprised or outraged at these differences.

Contrariwise, if we wish to maintain the rules-based order that we are free to ignore, we need to have an economy that supports the sort of hegemony we experienced from 1945 to 1975 or thereabouts. I don’t think we’re prepared for the policy implications of such an economy and such hegemony which is why I think that Dr. Mead’s knickers are in a twist.


Reviewing Menendez

If you’re looking for a briefing on the circumstances surrounding New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, you could do worse than David Dayen’s piece at The American Prospect. Here’s a snippet:

Democrats allowed Menendez to climb back to his ranking membership despite the fact that the bipartisan Senate Ethics Committee found that he “violated Senate Rules, federal law, and applicable standards of conduct” in the Melgen case by failing to disclose the gifts. If the indictment is correct, Menendez went right back to using that perch to favor-trade with his new girlfriend’s wealthy associates.

The indictment says that Menendez explicitly secured military support for and weapons sales to Egypt, which he was in a position to influence as Foreign Relations Committee ranking member and then chair. “I am going to sign off on this sale to Egypt today,” Menendez texts his wife at one point. Incredibly, the indictment supplies evidence of Menendez ghostwriting a letter on behalf of the Egyptian government to persuade his Senate colleagues to lift a hold on $300 million in foreign aid. Nadine Menendez is placed at the meetings with Egyptian officials, including some in Menendez’s Senate office, where these activities were being plotted.

Menendez also made calls to the Trump administration to pressure them into facilitating talks aimed at getting a dam built over the Nile River, a priority of the Egyptian government. He sent what was described as “highly sensitive” nonpublic information about American embassy personnel in Cairo to Nadine, who then passed it directly to an Egyptian government official. And he pressured the Department of Agriculture to lift its opposition to Hana’s halal certification monopoly, which the Justice Department says is where Hana acquired the funds to finance the bribes.

I see any number of problems with the New Jersey Democratic Party’s strategy of primarying him. For one thing what if he wins? For another when you’re trying to disqualify a former president not disqualifying a pretty obviously guilty senator is really a bridge too far.


Aid to Ukraine

I agree with the thrust of Daniel Runde’s argument in his op-ed at Newsweek to the extent that we should continue to provide aid to Ukraine. Here’s his peroration:

On its own, Ukraine will run out of weapons, and the morale of the soldiers will plummet. The government will struggle to finance both its operations and the war effort, leading to more Ukrainians leaving the country.

but I believe that I disagree with his supporting arguments which appear to be the aid we will have provided to Ukraine to date will have been wasted (it’s a sunk cost—that’s a fallacious argument) and that it will encourage China to invade Taiwan. I think that China will decide when and if to invade Taiwan on its own calendar and for its own reasons. They will do so or decline to do so regardless of what befalls Ukraine.

Here’s a counter-argument from Leighton Woodhouse:

If the counteroffensive fails and Russia maintains control of Crimea, the only way Ukraine could prevail over the long term would be with NATO troops directly in combat — a suicidal situation that would invite a global nuclear confrontation. And even then, a victory for Ukraine that comes years rather than weeks from now could come at the price of the total destruction of the entire country.

In interviews, Ukrainians have characterized the counteroffensive as a “disappointment.”

“I want the price they paid to be reasonable,” the wife of a combat veteran told the Washington Post in August. “Otherwise it’s just useless, what they went through.”

Her husband, who lost a leg to a landmine, told the Post that soldiers on the frontline are unprepared and unmotivated. Another Kyiv resident said that new soldiers last just two to three days on the front.

And yet, the Biden administration is pushing for another $24 billion aid package for Ukraine. “There’s no alternative,” President Biden said about continued financing of the war.

Ukraine is turning into the proxy version of Afghanistan or Iraq: an endless conflict in which victory is always around the corner, in which the Pentagon and the defense industry push for escalation after escalation regardless of the reality on the ground, in which deaths mount and a country is destroyed only to end in defeat or a Pyrrhic victory years later, once enough American voters have had their fill of war.

My view is that Crimea is lost and, possibly, Donetsk and Luhansk as well. Mr. Runde’s claim that Ukrainian elections have been democratic depends on your definition. They were democratic if you exclude most of those who might have voted against the present government, an interesting and inconsistently applied definition. Nonetheless we should continue to support Ukraine, using whatever leverage that provides us to encourage Ukraine to settle for less than its stated objectives. I also think we need to provide more oversight in how what we are providing to Ukraine is used but that’s a different topic.

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Johnson’s Proposal for City-Run Grocery Stores

The editors of the Wall Street Journal scoff at Chicago Mayor Johnson’s proposal for ending “food deserts” on the South and West Sides:

Has Mr. Johnson considered why the stores are closing? In 2016 then-mayor Rahm Emanuel stood beside Whole Foods Co. CEO Walter Robb to celebrate the opening of the new store in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood. The two cheered greater access to fresh fruit and vegetables and a healthy anchor for the community. By 2022 it had closed.

The city had subsidized the store with $11 million in tax financing, according to local PBS news station WTTW. But that wasn’t enough. After the closing in 2022, Whole Foods said the company “regularly evaluate(s) the performance and growth potential of each of our stores” in order to “position Whole Foods Market for long-term success.”

Walmart closed four stores in Chicago because they were losing tens of millions of dollars a year, and CEO Doug McMillon said annual losses had doubled in the past five years.

The problem isn’t corporate racism. It’s crime. In 2022 Chicago reported 54,000 thefts and a mere 4% resulted in an arrest. Of the 8,730 retail thefts, there were 1,450 arrests, or less than 17%, according to Wirepoints and the Chicago city data portal.

Chicago’s arrest rate for retail theft fell to 16.6% in 2022 from 42.5% in 2019. Retailers say there is little they can do when groups of people walk into their stores, grab arm-loads of merchandise and walk out with impunity.

No doubt Chicago’s government will bring its legendary efficiency to the grocery business, though we hope it does better than it does running the failure factories that are its public schools. But we wonder what Mr. Johnson will do to prevent theft at his government grocery chain. Will he consider the losses to be merely the cost of doing good socialist business?

The answer, of course, is in the statistics they produce above. When the city’s crime resolution rate is as low as it is, it isn’t providing the security that is its most basic mission. Mayor Johnson’s stores won’t be stores at all. They’ll be empty shelves with occasional deliveries that are bought and/or looted quicker than they can be replaced.


Shocked at Menendez (Updated)

On the talking heads programs this morning nearly every individual interviewed on every network to which I listened was asked whether New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez should resign in the wake of his having been charged with illegal corruption. Nearly every one regardless of political party said he should resign. The more discreet said something along the lines of “he should consider very carefully…” which I interpreted as a way of saying he should resign without actually saying as much.

I found it amusing in a perverse sort of way. They all knew he was corrupt. Now they’re just doing damage control for a simple reason: if every corrupt senator were convicted or otherwise left office, you couldn’t get a bridge game together let alone do what is laughingly referred to as “the people’s business”. Sen. Menendez just violated what is called the “Goldilocks rule”.

My own preference would be that only constituents should be able to lobby senators and representatives. Foreign governments and companies are by definition not constituents. Violation of that rule should be grounds for removal.


In the interest of fairness I think that what Justice Thomas has been doing may not be illegal or technically unethical but it is corrupt. If Supreme Court Justices want to lead “lifestyles of the rich and famous”, they should resign from the court and get jobs working for big law firms.


Where Did the Money Go?

I’m going to confess that I do not have the time, ambition, or patience to read the annual reports of General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis. The profits of those three companies are being reported as having been $250 billion. When you dig a little deeper, as here at the Economic Policy Institute, that turns out to have been the profits over 10 years or $25 billion/year. When you take into count the capitalization of the three companies (Ford $50 billion, GM $45 billion, Stellantis $57 billion) which is $152 billion, that doesn’t seem quite so outrageous.

I’m not sure how they’re defining profits but let’s take them at face value. Ford’s cash on hand is $43 billion, GM’s $33 billion, Stellantis’s $54 billion. Where did the rest of the money go? It wasn’t paid out in dividends, especially not at GM. Executive compensation?

I sympathize with the hourly workers. I can understand how they think they’ve been screwed. And I think that top management is being paid too much. The Big Three are not thriving companies as their declining market shares illustrate. But I really don’t see how the companies can afford to spend twice as much to their hourly employees as they’re paying now. That’s how much the union’s demands come to. Perhaps someone can explain it to me.

Are they just preparing for a greatly reduced membership?


Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman, Lyric Opera 2023

At Chicago’s Lyric Opera season tickets come in series. The various series differ somewhat in the operas included and the day of the week on which they are performed. Since I began subscribing to season tickets to Lyric Opera, now more than 40 years ago, I have subscribed to the same series. As it works out the series to which I’ve subscribed typically includes the opening night of the season.

Forty years ago the season opening of Lyric Opera was much different than it is now. Men wore suits or tuxedos. Women wore formal gowns, frequently having their hair and even makeup done for the occasion. Some wore full length furs. Last night I saw one man wearing a tuxedo (other than those playing in the orchestra) and perhaps half a dozen women wearing formal gowns, a few others wearing eveningwear. Last night garb ranged from the formal to completely informal—jeans and T-shirts. Fortunately, I saw no gym shorts and hoodies.

I won’t attribute any explanations to the change. It does seem less important and even less festive now.

The opera starting the Lyric season this year was Richard Wagner’s Der Fliegende Höllander, The Flying Dutchman. The title role was sung by Polish bass-baritone Tomasz Konieczny, Senta was sung by Tamara Wilson. The libretto is based on a superstition dating from the 18th or, possibly, the 17th century of a phantom ship sighted by sailors from the North Atlantic all the way to Borneo. The last sighting of the Dutchman was during World War II. It is viewed as an omen of impending doom.

Although I was not initially impressed by either principal’s voice, they did grow on me as the opera went on. BTW Dutchman is, mercifully, one of Wagner’s shorter operas, a mere two hours and twenty minutes, frequently performed as last night without intermission. I was less impressed by the supporting singers but the chorus was fantastic.

Wagner’s music is, of course, stupendous.

I detested the physical production. It consists of a single very drab set which, according to the director’s notes, is intended to remind us of a German prison camp. The same was true of the costumes. They were apparently projecting Naziism on Wagner which seems like a reach for me. I can only attribute the production as an ultimately vain attempt to appeal to modern audiences if such things exist. Remember that the opera dates from 1843. Tragic, romantic heroes had dominated literature, basically, in living memory then and the notion of such a hero who could only be saved from damnation in the form of being forced to sail the world’s oceans endlessly by the faithful love of a woman had considerable appeal for audiences 180 years ago but, apparently not now. Although she’s not saved by the hero (it’s the other way around—she saves him), representing Senta as a girl-boss is impossible. Therefore, she’s represented as a prisoner of the society and conventions of her time. Or something.

I will add reviews of the production and performances as they become available.

This is the first opera I have attended since early 2020.


Chicago Sun-Times
At the Sun-Times Nancy Malitz was more favorably impressed by the production than I was:

Lyric Opera has assembled one of the finest casts in recent history to perform this saga of a doomed sea captain, known only as the mysterious “Dutchman,” who must sail the seas for seven years until he is given just 24 hours to land and win a woman’s love, or be tempest-tossed for another seven years (until he can try again).

But it’s director Christopher Alden’s production design that makes the first impression. Its vertigo-inspiring sets and creepy costumes by Allen Moyer, coupled with lighting by Anne Militello, literally rock the senses as if in a haunting dream. I sympathized with the audience member who grabbed the armrest near me as the show began.

The playing area is off-axis, a narrow shoebox shape that seems to float above the stage, tilted top left to lower right, like a bottle in a bad sea. It gives the alarming sense of the ship itself, the Flying Dutchman, being buffeted by a storm as the story begins. Although the floor doesn’t really rock, it certainly seems to, as the remarkable cast of sailors and citizens mimics the action of being rocked back and forth, up and down, by traumatic events of meteorological, and increasingly hallucinogenic, nature.

The role of the Dutchman seems custom-made for Polish bass-baritone Tomasz Konieczny, a brilliant veteran with a dark voice and gleaming, almost trumpet-like top, renowned for such complex characters as Wagner’s Wotan, Verdi’s Scarpia, and Berg’s Wozzeck. (He is well-remembered for his Wozzeck at the Lyric a few years back.)

Konieczny is joined by the thrilling American dramatic soprano Tamara Wilson as Senta, the woman on whom the hurried and desperate Dutchman sets his sights this time ashore. Wilson grew up in Chicago and has sung at the Lyric twice before; she is in her prime, with a huge voice capable of profound intensity and torment.

Chicago Classical Review

Lawrence A. Johnson pretty clearly saw the same opera I did:

One entered the Civic Opera House Saturday night hoping that, similar to the haunted captain of the Flying Dutchman, the curse of the company’s past 13 years may have finally been lifted.

That didn’t happen. The company’s season-opening performance of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman was yet another shining exemplar of the leitmotif of the Anthony Freud era—first-class singing thoroughly undermined by a revisionist and execrable production.

The malefactor in this case is director Christopher Alden. In his last Lyric outing in 2000, Alden staged a Rigoletto that put the title jester in a large chair center stage where he sat and glowered at the audience throughout the opera with little interaction with Gilda or the other characters. That production was so widely reviled that Alden was effectively banned from the company roster for 23 years. Naturally it took Freud to bring back this spectacularly giftless hack.


Saturday night’s performance began well with superb singing and a striking unit set that evocatively depicted the deck of Daland’s vessel. Things begin to go seriously awry in Act 2. Instead of happy young girls working at their spinning wheels, the women’s chorus are unsmiling, proletarians in peasant scarves who move their arms in automaton-like, chopping motions (and not very well coordinated). Senta spends most of her time with her back to the audience staring at a Munch-like portrait of the Dutchman. All the male principals wear dark eye makeup like silent-film villains.

Alden’s artistic arrogance is on pretentious display in his “Director’s note” (always an ominous sign) where he has the audacity to wrap himself in the flag of a crusader against anti-Semitism. Alden says his misbegotten staging reflects “my desire to confront head-on the unholy connection between Wagner’s art and the spectres of Fascism and Antisemitism.” Right. That few audience members would get that without reading the note tells you how successful is this inspiration. If you prefer Wagner’s version of The Flying Dutchman you’re probably on the side of the forces of darkness and maybe even a Republican.

Alden’s patented shtick is to take all the humanity and naturalness out of every opera he touches. So characters constantly face walls or away from the audience, emotions are either absent or exaggerated and parodied. Characters become quasi-zombies (like Senta) or caricatures like Erik, her suitor, who is depicted here as a cringing neurotic, menacing himself and others with a long hunting rifle.

The director’s other brainstorm is to elevate minor roles into annoying omnipresent figures silently doing ridiculous things that detract from the principals. So the Steersman instead of disappearing after his opening aria, remains onstage as Daland’s confidante throughout the first act. The tiny role of Mary, who has told Senta of the Dutchman tale, is elevated into a constant irritating and unhinged presence—either hugging or brandishing the Dutchman’s portrait, or taking it off the wall and putting it back on a different wall over and over again. Will you please just get off the stage and go get a job at The Great Frame Up?

Alden saves his worst conceits for the final act. Unlike Wagner’s opera, as Alden’s says of his redo, “Our Senta is a rebel against her closed community identifying with the plight of the outcast.” Of course this is manufactured rubbish and has nothing to do with the actual opera or Senta’s character motivation as envisioned by the composer. So instead of Senta’s sacrificial suicide and a concluding vision of her and the Dutchman transfigured in death, Psycho Erik merely shoots her with his long gun. What an inspiring coda. Too bad tenor Robert Watson didn’t pull an Alec Baldwin and shoot the director in rehearsal instead.

What a waste of a first-class cast.


Dennis Polkow’s review, too, was consistent with my experience:

On opening night right from the familiar overture, there were issues of balance, an early entrance of the strings and a tentative “Dutchman” horn leitmotiv. When the curtain opened, the sailors were shouting so loudly that it was actually hard to hear the orchestra underneath them. Tempos were plodding all evening, an effect exaggerated by the decision to present the original one-act version, running nearly two-and-a-half hours without intermission.

Vocally, it was a rarity and a pleasure to hear a Daland (Finnish bass Mika Kares) and a Dutchman (Polish bass-baritone Tomasz Konieczny) that are vocally distinct in terms of color.

Chicago soprano Tamara Wilson certainly has the volume and the range for Senta; what was missing was the tenderness. Tenor Robert Watson was straining as Erik early on but grew more comfortable as the evening went on.

The decision to bring back controversial director Christopher Alden after a twenty-three year company absence is puzzling. With Alden, there is the tendency to superimpose ideas that work against the libretto’s intentions and distract from what the music itself sonically directs. To make the Dutchman a Holocaust survivor forgets or ignores the fact that he is doomed to the seas because of his own actions. For Senta not to jump into the sea to redeem the Dutchman obliterates the work’s message of love unto death and self sacrifice.


The WGA Strike

In 2019, the last “normal” year, new scripted television series for ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox began debuting on September 23, 2019. This year “normal” will not happen because of the ongoing strike of the Writers Guild of America.

The WGA has a lengthy history—it’s 90 years old, going back to the early days of talkies. A summary history of WGA strikes since 1960 would be:

Dates Length (days) Outcome
Started May 2 142 Ongoing
2007-2008 100 Higher residuals;more unscripted shows
1988 154 Residuals for shows sold to foreign markets
1981 96 Increased base pay; share of revenues from home video and cable markets
1973 111 Salary hikes; residuals for cassettes and cable
1960 163 Salary hikes; residuals on post-1960 films;health, pension, and welfare benefits


Recently, rather than relying on negotiators CEOs of Disney, Netflix, etc. have been meeting with union representatives.

While I think it’s likely that higher pay will result from the strike it’s hard for me to see how the union’s demands for residuals from streaming can be met. That segment simply doesn’t work that way. There will be no fall television season. If the strike goes on for another couple of months, which based on history it might, there won’t be January midseason, either.