2011 - %3, December

Quote of the Day: Newt Gingrich is Disillusioned With Politics

| Sat Dec. 31, 2011 10:26 AM PST

From Newt Gringrich. Yes, that Newt Gingrich:

Politics has become a really nasty, vicious, negative business and I think it's disgusting and I think it's dishonest.

I realize that keen self-awareness is probably a handicap for a big-time politician, but seriously? Newt Gingrich is complaining about how vicious politics has gotten? Newt Effing Gingrich? Jesus.

In other news, Politico reports that Ron Paul has suddenly become media shy now that he too faces questions about his past positions — positions that he's lying about and doesn't want to answer for. Imagine that. He's just another garden-variety politician after all.

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Santorum Interrupts Football in Iowa to Eat Wings for the Media

| Fri Dec. 30, 2011 6:24 PM PST
Rick Santorum chomps a wing and catches a glimpse of the Pinstripe Bowl game.

Rick Santorum visited a crowded Buffalo Wild Wings in Ames, Iowa, Friday afternoon as the Pinstripe Bowl game between Iowa State University and Rutgers played on bigscreen TVs. Most of the restaurant's patrons paid no mind to the GOP candidate, who has shot to third place in recent caucus polls after a key endorsement from anti-gay activist Bob Vander Plaats and the implosion of rival Michele Bachmann's campaign. But his sudden relevance won him the attention of dozens of members of the press, who swarmed him as he snaked his way through the crowd to the only open tables in the room.

Between cheers from beer-guzzling football fans, Santorum slammed front-runners Mitt Romney as a liberal Republican with "better hair" and Ron Paul for being in the "Dennis Kucinich wing of the Democratic Party on national security." The family values right-winger pandered to tea partiers to safeguard his status as social conservative du jour, though members of an anti-abortion group calling itself The Iowans for Life stuck flyers denouncing Santorum as a "Pro-Life FRAUD!!" with a "long and storied history of campaigning for radical pro-abortion candidates for political office" on every car in the lot.

"Get out of the way, there's a game on!" irritated Iowa State football fans yelled as Santorum, swarmed by the media, blocked their views.: Joe Scott"Get out of the way, there's a game on!" irritated Iowa State football fans yelled as Rick Santorum, swarmed by the media, blocked their views. Joe Scott

"[Santorum's rise in the polls] does not reflect well upon us" as a state, Anders Dovre told me as the candidate stood just a few feet away. Dovre, who lives in the town of Slater just a few minutes outside Ames, came to watch the game and didn't know Santorum would show up, but said he follows politics closely. He voted for Barack Obama in 2008, but plans to caucus for Jon Huntsman on January 3 and said he could maybe support Romney too, but no other Republican. "We're smarter than this," he said. "We admitted the first woman to the bar. We have gay marriage in this state. But what are we portrayed as in the national media now? A bunch of bumpkins, meth addicts, and gay bashers."

Spox: Rick Perry Still Opposes Supreme Court Ruling on Gay Sex

| Fri Dec. 30, 2011 12:54 PM PST

Rick Perry stumbled on Thursday when he asked by a voter whether he still opposed the 2003 Supreme Court's ruling in Lawrence v. Texas, which struck down his state’s statute prohibiting homosexual conduct—gay sex, in other words. At the time of the ruling, Perry had defended the law, telling reports, "I think our law is appropriate that we have on the books." In his 2010 book Fed Up!, Perry included Lawrence in a list of cases he believes were wrongly decided.

But when the topic came up in Iowa, he drew a blank, and instead segued into a very broad answer about states' rights:

He ultimately admitted that he couldn't remember what Lawrence was about, telling reporters, "I'm not taking the bar exam." That drew a swift response from Perry's biggest rival in Iowa, Rick Santorum, whose passionate opposition to the Lawrence decision inspired sex columnist Dan Savage to redefine his name. As Santorum put it: "Rulings like Lawrence v. Texas would be a good thing to know if you are running for president."

But if Perry's memory failed, he hasn't changed his views any. Pressed on Thursday in Marshalltown on why he opposed hospital visitation rights for gay couples, Perry explained, in a blunt ending to a roundabout answer: "Listen, I love the sinner, I hate the sin." I asked his spokeswoman, Catherine Frazier on Friday whether, given his foggy response the day before, the Governor still opposed Lawrence. Answer: Absolutely. "The remarks in his book are still the case," Frazier said. As for Thursday's slip-up: "It was part of a point about the 10th Amendment."

It's not the first time the Governor—who leans heavily on notecards when he's on the stump—has done a faceplant. (Perry, for his part, acknowledges that "I'm not good at Jeopardy or encyclopedia.") But it's worth taking a step back and pointing out that, in 2011, two top contenders in the Iowa caucuses believe states should have the right to criminalize homosexual conduct.

My Four Best Road Meals of 2011

| Fri Dec. 30, 2011 12:45 PM PST
Just another strip mall—that, and so much more.

I travel quite a bit for my job. Honestly, long hours in airports and hotels weigh on me, as do the rigors of the conference room and the speaker's lectern. Sigh. Salvation lies in city streets, where I go hounding for good, relatively inexpensivce chow. In no particular order, here are my most memorable road meals of 2011.

Lou Wine Bar
724 Vine Street
Los Angeles, CA

It's really just another strip mall amid a galaxy of them in L.A. It offers a laundromat, a Thai massage parlor, a discount store, a burger joint, a "nail spa," … and what might be the greatest wine bar in America. OK, so not every strip mall in L.A. has a Lou Wine Bar. But they should! Lou delivers what you want from a wine bar: low lighting, zero pretension among the waitstaff, the murmur of animated conversation, "small plates" containing big flavors, and, most importantly, a terrific list of off-the-beaten-path bottles. Lou is a temple of what has become known as "natural wine"—wine made without the homogenizing manipulations of industrial technology (here's the house manifesto). Both the menu and the wine list change frequently. The food savors of the Santa Monica farmers market; and the wines offer flavors as idiosyncratic and welcome as a great bar in a nondescript strip mall. I remember well a particularly gruelling day in L.A. last February; Lou made it all better that night with a glass of Cabernet Franc from France's hallowed Loire Valley and a plate of wicked-fresh arugula with glorious cheese and charcuterie.

Northern Spy
511 East 12th Street
New York, New York

I have but six words for this intimate, farm-focused restaurant tucked into the East Village: lamb burger with duck-fat fries. Order it next time you're skulking around Manhattan at lunchtime and feeling dented. Or go for the raw-kale salad featuring a market basket's worth of veggies and a couple of baked eggs. Either will set you right—as will will the terrific list of regional brews.

Green Table
75 9th Ave (Chelsea Market)
New York, NY

The name sounds earnest and a little precious, but the food at this small Chelsea Market restaurant is anything but. Any doubters will be silenced by the "GT Burger," which plays perfectly cooked organic beef against the sting of house-made kimchi. The local-seafood cevichRight up my alley. Right up my alley. e is also terrific, as is, come to think of it, everything else I've tried. Bonus: Right outside of Green Table in Chelsea Market, there's an outpost of 9th Street Espresso, one of the city's shrines to great coffee.

Green Goddess
307 Exchange Alley
New Orleans, LA.

In New Orleans, it's no secret that people sometimes get stuck in a bar and end up having too many Sazeracs. Not that I have any such first-hand experience! But I do know where to go the morning after. Step gingerly through the French Quarter and find the quiet alley graced by Green Goddess. When I did so, they sat my friends and I at an outdoor table and poured us cups of coffee so strong we had to nurse them through an entire leisurely brunch (not our standard practice). Then they started bringing out amazing and even radical food. First up: sliced heirloom tomatoes topped with a mat of molten manchego cheese and then caramelized sugar: a bizarre and scrumptious spin on crème brûlée. Then French toast, stuffed with sauteed apples and  finished exactly the same way as the tomatoes. All to myself, I had the ultimate hangover platter (strictly for research purposes): two fried eggs with strips of fried pork belly, all sitting on a bed of collards. And my friend had the greatest Cuban sandwich I've ever had a bite of. All the while, the gentle autumn sun of the greatest US city fell upon us, and all was well.

Friday Cat Blogging - 30 December 2011

| Fri Dec. 30, 2011 12:29 PM PST

I have pretty much managed to blog this entire week without mentioning Iowa. True, there was that one joking reference to orcs yesterday. And that RomneyBot post on Wednesday. Still, not bad! Especially considering the dearth of news on any other subject, which forced me instead to write about pickles and the ellipsis. I even gave up (mostly) on baiting the PaulBots, who just don't seem to have the same ALL CAPS magic that they used to, possibly because their hero is now so obviously lying about his past that even they're embarrassed for him. Plus he's still a lunatic crank.

So how about we call it a year before I'm tempted to ruin my record and actually say something substantive about Iowa, which, if we're being honest, we all know we don't really care about? Consider it done. But first, some year-end thanks. First, to my copy editor, SS, who keeps my subjects and predicates matched and my hyphens on the straight and narrow. Second, to my editor, MB, who I fear because she badgers me into writing pieces for the magazine but who I love because she badgers me into writing pieces for the magazine. Third, to my regular correspondents, who actually make it worth my while to read my email in the morning. You know who you are. Finally, and preeminently, to Marian, who keeps me ticking away, and to Inkblot and Domino, who we all know are the real stars of this blog. You can see them all on the right in this year-ending commemorative photo, with Marian, as usual, buried under a pile o' cats.

Happy New Year, everyone.

America's 20-Year Investment Drought

| Fri Dec. 30, 2011 11:34 AM PST

This year has been the year of the Chart of the Year. Seriously. Charts on blogs, especially economic charts, have become such a big deal that I counted at least half a dozen year-end roundups of the "Best Charts of 2011." Despite my love of charts, though, I haven't chosen a chart of the year myself. There's just no single chart that explains everything.

But if there were, this one from Michael Mandel comes pretty close:

Ben Bernanke's "savings glut" got a lot of attention a few years ago as a macro-level explanation for the housing/credit bubble of the aughts: huge pools of money flowed into America, and that money flowed into housing, producing a bubble. But the flip side of that is an investment drought. After all, that tsunami of cash didn't have to flow into housing, but it did. The problem was that people with money increasingly didn't feel like they had very many productive, real-world alternatives for their investment dollars. Here's Mandel:

This chart, which runs through the third quarter of 2011, displays several disturbing patterns:

  • Despite rebounding from its recession valley, net business investment as a share of net national product is still far below historical levels.
  • Household and institutional net investment as a share of net national product is at a 40-year low.
  • And perhaps most disturbing, government net investment is only 1% of net national product, a 40-year low.

Let me repeat that: Government net investment as a share of net national product is at a 40-year low. I had to check this last one a couple of times to make sure it was really true. This is a true failure of national economic policy. Government is punking out, just at the time when a public investment surge is needed to make up for the private investment drought. As a country, we should be investing more, not less.

There are lots of things happening in the economy besides this, and if you want to, you can even convince yourself that there's not much going on in this chart except a steep drop in construction that's making the overall investment picture look worse than it is. There's a little bit to that, I think, but only a little bit. Household investment was obviously heavily impacted by the housing bust, but business investment and government investment have been on a secular decline for more than two decades now.

Is this because we're entering an era that's fundamentally less capital intensive than it used to be? After all, Facebook has built up a multi-billion dollar business with only a few thousand employees and a level of investment in plants and equipment that Andrew Carnegie would have laughed at. That may be part of it, but it's hardly comforting regardless. One way or another, American capital needs to be marshaled for use in the real world, but increasingly the real world simply doesn't look like a great investment opportunity. Recovery is going to be mighty tough as long as that remains the case.

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LA Times Chart Proves That Movies Are Getting Worse and Worse

| Fri Dec. 30, 2011 10:29 AM PST

The LA Times treats us today to the charts on the right, which show the declining fortunes of the movie industry. The first chart is self-explanatory: total attendance has been on a steady downward trajectory since 2002. The second chart shows the parallel decline of "multiple," which is a film's total gross compared to its opening weekend gross. In 2002, the average film ultimately grossed four times its opening weekend. By 2011 that had dropped to about three times. Here's the explanation:

Average opening weekend ticket sales have stayed fairly constant over the last decade, when adjusted for inflation. Avid moviegoers excited to see a new picture as soon as possible (think "Twihards" or "Harry Potter" fanatics) still flock to theaters as eagerly as ever in the first few days of release.

It's the more casual audiences, the type of people who read reviews and wait to hear what their friends say, that are becoming increasingly difficult to lure to the multiplex.

"The primary culprit for declining box office is that people who are unsure at first if they want to see a movie are now more likely to wait to see it on DVD or video on demand," said Vincent Bruzzeze, motion picture group president for research firm Ipsos MediaCT. "There's no reason to believe that the problem is movie quality or distraction from other activities like video games."

Hmmm. Teenagers who are eager for something to do on Friday night and don't really care much about subtleties like theme and character development, have continued to see as many movies as they ever have. Conversely, people who "read reviews and wait to hear what their friends say" are staying away in droves. So how does this point away from declining movie quality as a problem? It sounds to me like that's exactly what the problem is. If you devote yourself almost completely to shallow dreck and high-octane stunts, then teenagers with unformed tastes and a desperate need to get out of the house will still flock to the theaters. But the rest of us, the ones who wait a few days to see if a movie actually has anything going for it beyond being filmed at the world's highest building, are less and less likely to bother.

In other words, Hollywood is making pictures that callow teens like but mature adults increasingly don't. That's about as good a definition of declining quality as you could ask for, no?

Photo of the Day: Mitt Romney's Chair Holder

| Fri Dec. 30, 2011 9:29 AM PST

This young man has snagged a coveted entry-level job on the Iowa campaign trail: chair holder-upper for Mitt Romney. If he does his job well and Mitt doesn't fall over too many times, he can expect to be promoted to door holder-opener. Who says social mobility is dead in America?

UPDATE: Turns out this is a real person! It's Garrett Jackson, Romney's body man for the past year. More here.

Germany on the Couch

| Fri Dec. 30, 2011 9:01 AM PST

What accounts for the German attitude toward finance? A few months ago, Michael Lewis explained their weakness for buying up toxic assets in a long article that compared those toxic assets to a shit sandwich and suggested that Germans snapped them up because of their longstanding fascination with shit and excretion. Seriously. But what about Germany's equally longstanding and uncompromising angst over debt? That's all down to Weimar-era hyperinflation, right? Not so, says John Plender:

The fear of currency debasement was entrenched long before the 20th century. Frederick the Great in the Seven Years War debauched the currency several times to fund the fighting. Note, too, that Goethe’s Faust Part II brilliantly describes the perils of inflation. Mephistopheles urges the emperor to use undiscovered gold beneath his lands as putative collateral for promissory notes to pay the army. When the emperor and his court find they can print money without restraint, their wild spending leads to an inflationary spiral and civil chaos.

Poor Germany! First they're slaves of excrement and now they're slaves of Faust. I wonder if anyone will ever bother taking the time to figure out what really motivates German attitudes toward financial probity?

What Taliban Ringtones Tell Us About The Afghan War

| Fri Dec. 30, 2011 5:06 AM PST

"Taliban ringtones."

Right off the bat it sounds like a laughable rumor, perhaps on par with urban legends involving Hello Kitty cocaine. Sadly, the reality of Taliban cellphone jingles isn't a joke at all to the people of Afghanistan—and can sometimes mean the difference between life and death. The Wall Street Journal reports:

Afghan shopkeeper Nasratullah Niazai has developed a brisk new business over the past year. For about $2 a pop, he uploads into customers' cellphones a collection of Taliban songs and ringtones...[T]he songs and ringtones romanticizing the insurgents' jihad against the infidel invaders serve as potentially lifesaving travel insurance for Kabulis who brave increasingly perilous countryside roads.

Sentries at improvised Taliban checkpoints, some only an hour's drive away from central Kabul, routinely check travelers' cellphones. As a result, government officials, police, soldiers, security guards, university students, translators for Western companies, construction workers and scores of others go to extraordinary lengths to scrub their phones of any evidence of links to the coalition and the Afghan government—and to masquerade as Taliban sympathizers.

The WSJ report cites the expanding industry of Taliban songs, chants, and ringtones—a Taliban spokesman claims that insurgents manage dozens of singers "each of whom produces on average of one 12-song album every month" to help "ensure that people don't turn to ungodly secular music." Much of the lyrical content focuses on lessons in Islamism and "bravery, manliness and protecting the country from the invaders," and many of the top-selling tunes are sung by kids with "beautiful and attractive voices."