While I Was Away

Here are a few things from the past week or so I wanted to share:

From Paul Krugman at the New York Times:

Wonking Out: The Tax Cut Zombie Attacks Britain

I’ve written a lot over the years about zombie economic ideas — ideas that have failed repeatedly in practice, and should be dead, but somehow are still shambling around, eating policymakers’ brains. The pre-eminent zombie in American economic discourse has long been the belief that cutting taxes on the rich will create an economic miracle.

That belief is still out there: Even as its infrastructure was collapsing to the point that its largest city no longer had running water, Mississippi tried to raise its economic fortunes with … a tax cut….

The important point to understand is that there isn’t a serious debate about the proposition that tax cuts for the rich strongly increase economic growth. The truth is that there is no evidence — none — for that proposition….

Of course, people on the right, raised on the legend of Saint Reagan, believe that his tax cuts did wonders for the U.S. economy. But the data don’t agree [he has charts, etc.]

From Jamelle Bouie, also at the New York Times:

In political writing about the federal judiciary, there is a convention to treat the partisan affiliation of a judge or justice as a mere curiosity, to pretend that it does not matter that much whether a jurist was nominated by Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton or George W. Bush or Barack Obama so long as he or she can faithfully uphold the law.

The issue with this convention, as we’ve seen in the legal drama over the classified materials found … at Mar-a-Lago, is that it isn’t equipped to deal with the problem of hyperpartisan, ideological judges who are less committed to the rule of law than to their presidential patron….

Thankfully, there is a solution, and it takes only a simple vote of Congress: expand and reorganize the federal court system [well, actually it would only be a partial solution and important votes in Congress are rarely simple].

The practical reason to increase the number of courts and judges is that the country is much larger than it was in 1990, when Congress made its last expansion….

In the 32 years since 1990, the United States has grown from a population of roughly 250 million to a population of over 330 million….. And the federal judiciary is swamped. Last year, the Judicial Conference of the United States, a nonpartisan policymaking body for the federal courts, recommended that Congress create 79 new judgeships across existing district and appeals courts.

Congress, and here I mean Democrats, should go further with a court expansion to rival [Jimmy Carter’s in 1978]…. The goal is simple: to account for growth and to deal with the problem of a cohort of hyperpartisan and ideological judges whose loyalty to [the orange-ish ex-president] may outweigh their commitment to the law.

Would it be a partisan move? Yes. But it is a truth of American politics going back to the early days of the Republic that partisan problems — like the one engineered by Mitch McConnell … and the Federalist Society — demand partisan solutions.

From Charles Pierce for Esquire:

In the End, Climate Change Is the Only Story That Matters

To pretend otherwise is just to build the walls of your sandcastle higher.

While we watch the disembowelment of various lawyers in the employ of a former president* and wrap ourselves in the momentum of the upcoming midterm elections, the climate crisis—its time and tides—waits for no one. Every other story in our politics is a sideshow now. Every other issue, no matter how large it looms in the immediate present, is secondary to the accumulating evidence that the planet itself (or at least large parts of it) may be edging toward uninhabitability….

To stand on the bluffs above the Chukchi Sea [between Siberia and Alaska], looking down at a series of broken and ruined seawalls that have already failed to hold back the power of the ocean, and to consider that there are politicians in this country who are unwilling to do anything about the climate crisis, or who even deny it exists, is to wish they all could come and stand on these bluffs and look out at the relentless, devouring sea.

It probably doesn’t matter, but:

From Verlyn Klinkenborg for the New York Review of Books:

Endless Summer [not a great title]

Brian Wilson’s songs still have the power to astonish on their own terms, from their own time….

I have trouble accepting that Smile—the album he abandoned in 1967—was finally finished in 2004, because I question the continuity of the creative mind that “finished” it nearly forty years after it was begun. My skepticism makes me wonder whether I’m simply clinging to the memory of my own experience of the Beach Boys when I was young. But I don’t think so. They’re the same doubts that apply, say, to Wordsworth’s late revisions to The Prelude.

The joy I experience listening to those early Beach Boys records—through “Good Vibrations” and “Heroes and Villains” and slightly beyond—has nothing to do with nostalgia, with memories of where I was or who I was when I heard them. They don’t evoke for me an idealized California or even my adolescent yearnings. I don’t hear them from [Iowa] or Sacramento. I hear them from now. Wilson’s songs still have the power to astonish on their own terms, from their own time. What makes them so remarkable isn’t just the artistic fulfillment they achieve. It’s the artistic promise they embody. You can feel the explosive, disruptive, but ultimately controlled power of Wilson’s musical imagination—usually in three minutes or less….

Wilson marvels, in one of the documentaries I’ve mentioned, how quickly he wrote the melody of a song like “Caroline, No.” To me, that’s a sign that he’s allowed himself to misunderstand—in wholly conventional terms—what’s most remarkable about his work. It isn’t the melodic line or the speed with which it was written that stuns me now and stunned me then. It’s the shape of the mind in which the intricate shapes of his music entangled and resolved themselves. That mind has only ever been captured in one place: in the music as Brian Wilson recorded it long ago. 

Finally, two conclusions about France:

Louis XIV’s Versailles estate is too damn big. Did any of those 18th century aristocrats walk great distances in their 18th century shoes? The “gardens” are not somewhere to stroll around. They’re somewhere to hike or ride around.

And almost every French waiter was extremely nice, even the one who spilled the orange juice. Aren’t they supposed to be mean and snooty? Or is that only at the more exclusive establishments?

The Best Album? (and a Reason Many Think So)

Musically speaking, some albums are better than others. But is being better than another album simply a matter of personal taste? I’m not going to try to answer that question, but philosophers tend to say it’s more complicated than that.

It’s not a matter of personal taste that some albums are more popular than others. But even here, you have to decide how to identify popularity. Is it by total sales? The issue of sales can get murky, since not all sales figures are equally accurate. Wikipedia’s “List of Best Selling Albums” goes into some detail about methodology and ends up saying Michael Jackson’s Thriller from 1982 is the best-selling album of all time.

Another way to identify popularity is to ask people. But that’s not simple either. Who gets to vote? How is the voting done? A site called PopVortex has a list they call “The 100 Greatest Albums of All Time”, but it comes with an explanation:

There have been plenty list available that rank the top 100 greatest albums of all time. What makes this list different is that it compiles and aggregates data from other best of lists, including both critics lists such as Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums books and fan polls such as Q magazine’s 100 Greatest Albums Ever poll. The goal of this list to find not only the greatest albums of all time but also the most influential and culturally significant albums as well, so in addition to just the opinions of critics and fans to compile the list other metrics where used as well such as Billboard chart statistics, RIAA sales figures and several others to help determine the final rankings of the best albums.

However they did it, they have The Beatles (also known as “The White Album”) at #1.

A Swedish statistician came up with his own list (and lists). Henrik Franzon is on LinkedIn:

I am a statistician/analyst with long experience of predictive modeling, surveys/user research, effect measuring, among other things. Team leader for election results at the Swedish Election Authority (Valmyndigheten) since September 2020. I have also worked 8 years in the pharmaceutical industry and 14 years at the Swedish Tax Agency.

My primary analytic strength is data interpretation, to see and understand patterns.

Mr. Franzon’s interesting site is called “Acclaimed Music”. I won’t quote any of his methodology, which you can find on his site, but he says his list of the “most acclaimed” albums is mainly based on lists from music critics, with some other lists (from musicians, for example) thrown in. These are his results for the most acclaimed albums of the 1940s through the 2010:

1940s:  Woody Guthrie, Dust Bowl Ballads (#2 is the Broadway cast recording from “Kiss Me, Kate”)

1950s:  Miles Davis, Kind of Blue

1960s:  The Beach Boys, Pet Sounds (The White Album is #7)

1970s:  Marvin Gaye, What’s Going On

1980s:   Public Enemy, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (Thriller is #2)

1990s:   Nirvana, Nevermind

2000s:   Arcade Fire, Funeral

2010s:   Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly

This leads me to what got me thinking about quality, popularity and lists. I was driving along and something related to Pet Sounds came up on random play. It wasn’t one of the 13 tracks from that album, which, according to Mr. Franzon, is the most acclaimed album of all time (followed by Nirvana’s Nevermind and the Beatles’ Revolver). It was the instrumental track for “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, the first song on the album, performed by the studio musicians known as “The Wrecking Crew”. This was the instrumental background Brian Wilson recorded in the studio before he added the vocals sung by himself and the other Beach Boys.

It’s remarkable that Wilson created this music without intending for anyone to clearly hear it. He knew the vocals on the finished song would hide a lot of it. It’s also remarkable that he made this music before anybody did any singing. Did he know what the finished song would sound like once the instruments and vocals were mixed together? Looking back, people say he had it “all in his head”.

Capitol Records issued The Pet Sounds Sessions, a 4-CD box set, in 1997. It has the instrumentals, the vocals and the finished product. You can find the 13 instrumental tracks on YouTube and Spotify. I’ll leave you with a few of my favorite instrumental backgrounds from what many consider the best album of all time.

Wouldn’t It Be Nice

That’s Not Me

Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)

Here Today

I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times

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Crazy Times with a Dose of Humor

It continues to be a noteworthy phenomenon: how the Right ignores real threats (e.g. the climate crisis) while publicizing imaginary ones (e.g. Critical Race Theory). Words fail me, but Tom Tomorrow devoted his last two comic strips to this lunacy. 

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Let Her Dance

The Bobby Fuller Four was a Texas rock band in the 60s who had one big hit. “I Fought the Law” (and the law won!) made the Top Ten in 1965. It was never a favorite of mine but I wouldn’t change the station when it came on.

Earlier that year, they released “Let Her Dance”. It only reached #133 on the national chart, but it was a minor hit in Los Angeles (#23 on KRLA, #19 on KFWB). I turned 14 when it was on the radio in Southern California, but if I heard it, it made no lasting impression.

Bobby Fuller died under mysterious circumstances a few months after “I Fought the Law”. That was the end of the Bobby Fuller Four.

Wes Anderson used “Let Her Dance” in his Fantastic Mr. Fox animated movie in 2009. I saw the movie but took no notice of the song.

Then, five years ago, I heard “Let Her Dance” on Brian Wilson’s site. (I know it was five years ago because it’s on the internet.) It’s not much of a song — it’s repetitious to say the least — but it immediately became a favorite. I’m still playing it five years later. I’m even writing about it.

Why do some songs appeal to us so much? Why do some songs we love not appeal to other people at all? I have no idea. Just let her dance.

From The Guardian: “The Short Life and Mysterious Death of Bobby Fuller, Rock ‘n Roll King of Texas”.