The Stone City

Words Made to Last

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Discovery Process

It is not often that the perspicacious Tom Maguire is naive, but his surprise at a Washington Post editorial is just that:

The WaPo offered a laugher of an editorial Sunday, as they tried to figure out Obama's true political leanings... if the answer is not clear it is because the WaPo is in denial of the evidence in front of their eyes.

McCain is the extremist, and his bipartisan efforts will be forgotten now that his opponent is a Democrat. Obama is the centrist, and the fact that he never moves rightward will be ignored. That's the narrative; get used to it.

Though the Powerline title, "A Centrist with No One to His Left", is well said.

Monday, February 25, 2008


James Poulos on the possible future of the European Union:
Eventually the sub-states that will appear in Europe will be as contingent as anything else, mostly decorative arrangements without any real power. Oh, except extralegal gangs of enforcers will prowl around stabbing filmmakers and kicking in heads, as 'marginalized' youths of every stripe from suicide bomber to skinhead will band together in small but extremely annoying clumpets to enforce the 'law' of their cliques on those who presume to transcend them. Politics as we once knew it will thus in effect be criminalized. Everyday life will be unprecedentedly commodious and choice-glutted but also at an unprecedented level of crisis, anxiety, and gnawing nihilism. The need for security -- personal, physical, communitarian, psychological, economic -- will become an obsession. Cameras will be everywhere. Gendarmes, almost entirely undercover, will silently prowl every street and restaurant, secretly bristling with networked technological surveillance and protection enhancements. Bombing will be the new mugging, but bombing will also be as rare as mugging in secure areas.

Kevin Drum gets outside himself:
Not "Would you like the power of invisibility?" Rather, "Would you like other people to have the power of invisibility?" Well, would you?

And Mr. Drum again, on the New York Times:
Times reader aren't children. We all know what this means, and we all know perfectly well that the Times piece loudly insinuated some kind of inappropriate romantic involvement between McCain and Iseman. So far, though, the Q&A has addressed only the peripheral subjects of what "Long Run" pieces are like, what the Times' policy on anonymous sources is, and the Chinese wall between the newsroom and the editorial page staff. Riveting stuff.

And a British brain drain:
Record numbers of Britons are leaving - many of them doctors, teachers and engineers - in the biggest exodus for almost 50 years.

Over a quarter of qualified professionals who have moved abroad had health or education qualifications. There are now 3.247 million British-born people living abroad, of whom more than 1.1 million are highly-skilled university graduates.

Thursday, February 21, 2008


In the Kansas City Star:
Local Sailor Blasts Dead Spy Satellite
In the Tampa Tribune:
Military Plane with Iraqi Markings Lands in Venus
Anyone, it seems, can go to space.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008


The aim of maximizing transparency points toward a possible solution to the problem of spam. The enablers of spam are the companies that sell customer data, which brings them a little extra income at no financial or reputational cost.

Possible solutions to this problem generally involve either forbidding some data exchanges, sometimes with the precarious justification that publicly available data nonetheless somehow "belongs to" those to whom it refers; or taxing the spam itself by taxing all emails, which would be a pervasive nuisance and an intractable enforcement problem. In either case, the value of an individual's privacy is fixed at an essentially uniform level by fiat, rather than chosen by the subject himself.

A better solution would be for the government, in its role as guarantor of transparency, to mandate that sellers of contact information must themselves contact the subject, using the same information that they are selling, and inform the subject of the sale and of the price they received. This would empower individuals by informing them about the paths by which their personal details diffuse about, and would then let data-sellers decide whether the gain was worth the likely affront.

[Cross-posted to Chequer-Board.]

For Example

This is a story about transparency:
Google refuses to reveal who sent the complaint against Inner City Press, citing privacy concerns.

By placing its emphasis on "privacy", Google has given the activity of suppressing information equal protection with that of providing information. The value of transparency explains why this is wrong: suppressing information should require a public commitment, not just a whisper into Google's ear.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008


Fidel Castro's retirement seems like a good occasion to refer to my earlier post on how to kill with kindness.

The Transparent Society

After Glenn Reynolds called David Brin's The Transparent Society "superb" [2001] and "prophetic" [2006], but before he got around to "excellent" [2007], I was moved to actually read it. Mr. Reynolds is, if anything, understating the case.

One of my earliest posts was about the race for power between individuals wishing to be free, and the governments and corporations wishing to coerce or manipulate them. Mr. Brin begins from similar premises, but develops his arguments much further and more concretely.

A specific point which Mr. Brin addresses in detail is the realistic case against "strong privacy" [the idea that electronic communication can provide complete anonymity]. He points out that against the time-honored methods by which governments have subjugated their citizens -- such as torture of a suspect's associates -- an encryption-based defense would be no defense at all. He also discusses the impact of the technological imbalance, for example the likelihood that governments will obtain housefly-sized surveillance devices [to watch your keystrokes] before individuals obtain defenses against them. His argument is compelling: strong privacy is feasible only when it is not truly needed.

I would like to focus on a related issue: strong privacy is also destructive to the society that attempts to support it. Its advocates see themselves, with some justification, as an elite vanguard who are taking special measures to protect their own privacy; thus they do not consider the effects of truly widespread anonymity. But anonymity is a short step from anarchy, or at best from a weak and unstable form of anarcho-capitalism.

Society is held together by trust; trust requires knowledge of True Names. If I deal only with temporary personas, which can be cast aside by the wearer if they lose their credibility, there is a hard upper limit on the trust I will ever be able to muster. ["Sammler", for example, is disposable and thus less deserving of trust.]

We live by trust; but the structures that support trust can be used for coercion. Transparency, letting us watch those who are watching us and expose those who wish to control us, is the only way to let trust and freedom coexist.

[Cross-posted to Chequer-Board.]

Friday, February 15, 2008

A Quibble

Glenn Reynolds laments:
Too bad stooges for Big Oil managed to monkeywrench nuclear power for several decades in the 20th century.
This is not strictly accurate: nuclear power competes, on the margin, not with Big Oil but with King Coal.

Thursday, February 14, 2008


James Surowiecki reviews Ha-Joon Chang's Bad Samaritans, and notices:
What Chang does in Bad Samaritans is assume that the interests of the nation trump those of its citizens. Protectionism of the kind Chang advocates is bad for a country’s consumers—they have to pay more for less, the quality and variety of what they can buy goes down, and so on. Yet Chang is essentially indifferent to this problem.
It's the "Nations Are People Too" fallacy.

[HT: Arts and Letters Daily, via Belmont Club.]

Pull to Par

I explained last week why John McCain is going to be crushed in the general election. However, conservative dissatisfaction with Mr. McCain has led some people -- not just the execrable Ann Coulter -- to seriously suggest "sitting this one out". Daniel Henninger has a reasoned explanation of why this is a stupid idea, but he is insufficiently blunt.

What do political parties do when they find themselves in the minority? They move to the center.

What lesson will anyone outside the conservative cocoon draw if Mr. McCain runs far to the right -- as he will be forced to -- and is crushed by a huge margin? This will prove the non-viability of conservative ideas, and force the party leftward. True believers will try to attribute Mr. McCain's loss to his lack of conservatism, but they will convince no one.

Barack Obama's supporters have the privilege of sitting this one out, or of casting protest votes for the Green party to show a constituency on the far left. Conservatives are like contestants in a tug-of-war who find themselves pulling uphill, and are now debating dropping the rope and walking up the hill alone to lead by example.

[Cross-posted to Chequer-Board.]

Wednesday, February 13, 2008


Melanie Scarborough argues that colleges are sufficiently well-endowed that Congress should reduce tuition assistance:

The demand for more college seats creates a demand for more financial aid, and Congress blithely complies. Last week, the House passed a measure to spend an additional $20 billion on financial aid to students — the biggest boost since the G.I. bill of 1944. It did so not only without asking whether all the students eligible for financial aid need to be in college, but whether the colleges they will be attending need the additional money.
Last year, the average college endowment increased by 17 percent. Dozens of schools now have endowments of more than $1 billion — and it isn’t just the heavy hitters such as
Harvard University, which has an endowment of $35 billion. The University of Maryland’s Great Expectations campaign set a goal of $1 billion.

Even the University of Delaware’s endowment tops $1 billion. Spending just 1 percent of that money on financial aid would free $10 million for scholarships. When so many schools are flush with money, why does Congress continue to soak taxpayers?

Throwing money at schools that don’t need it to spend on students who don’t deserve it defines government waste.

One question is never asked, because too many people have a vested interest in not hearing the answer. To wit: To what extent is college education a public good?

I maintain that a supply of engineers, doctors, and other Sons of Martha, above what the free market would provide, is indeed a public good: precisely because these are the professions whose successes -- for example, a successful surgical operation, or a bridge that remains standing -- are unalloyed gains, rather than transfers.

This is in contrast to the competitive professions, notably law and investing, which produce social goods only in a very indirect way: better lawyers on average mean more predictable and faithful execution of the law, but in any specific case they attempt only to gain advantage for themselves. In any case, it is generally recognized that these highly compensated professions are their own reward.

The answer everyone knows, but no one wishes to say, related instead to the nation's legions of "fuzzies": media studies, art history and comparative literature majors. Here, rather than defend the dubious proposition that education in these subjects (in the minority of cases where that education is completed and used) adds social value, the backers of universal college education emphasize "personal growth" and "exposure to different ideas".

These concepts are not just profoundly selfish -- why should taxpayers fund your "personal growth" just because you happen to be 18-22 years old? -- but also insulting to anyone who actually works for a living. It implies that working, unlike sitting in lecture halls and attending afternoon keg parties, does not lead to any growth. But of course the truth is the opposite: that's why they call it growing up.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Use of Weapons

The men get tired of their wives. Or bored. Or maybe the wife objects to her daughter being forced into a marriage she doesn't want. Or maybe she starts wearing western clothes. There can be many reasons. The women are sent for asssessment to a hospital. The GP referring them is Muslim. The psychiatrist assessing them is Muslim and male. I have sat in these assessments where the psychiatrist will not look the woman patient in the eye because she is a woman. Can you imagine! A psychiatrist refusing to look his patient in the eye? The woman speaks little or no English. She is sectioned. She is divorced. There are lots of these women in there, locked up in these hospitals. Why don't you people write about this?
Government is coercion. More precisely, government delegates to its functionaries power over its subjects. This is what power looks like.

[Context here; via Ross Douthat. Cross-posted to Chequer-Board.]

None So Blind

In a Fox News editorial, professor Susan Estrich writes:

That was, according to the pollsters, the problem: about 10 percent of the electorate claimed that they were going to vote for [Tom Bradley, who is black], and in many cases even told pollsters that they did, but they lied.

Shocking. Racism in America. Who’d a thunk it?

Doug Wilder, who wasn’t elected to the Senate from Virginia, faced the same problem. We who are Democrats would like to believe that race is not a factor in the polling of our party members, but maybe we’re wrong.

No one doubts, or at least no one who is honest does, that both racism and sexism come into play as people decide between Clinton and Obama, but could it be that people are more willing to admit that they won’t vote for the woman than that they won’t vote for the black?

The problem with this analysis is that it assumes exactly what it purports to prove: that any difference between exit polls and actual ballots is due to secret anti-black animus which emerges only in the privacy of the ballot box.

It is equally possible that the difference arises in precisely the opposite fashion: that voters are eager to tell pollsters how they're going to vote for the black. Perhaps they are not hiding truly anti-black feelings, but are pretending to pro-black feelings they do not actually possess. Steve Sailer calls this "status seeking", which seems partly true.

Ms. Estrich does not appear to have any plan for disambiguating these two complementary effects. She thinks she has found racism: but she has seen only her own expectations. We should all get used to this cheap substitute for analysis, because we are going to see a whole lot more of it.

[HT: Glenn Reynolds. Cross-posted to Chequer-Board.]

Monday, February 11, 2008

Black Ops

Intermittently, some self-styled "progressive" will attack an opposing viewpoint by claiming that it shows the repressed homosexuality of its advocate. Most of the left is not happy with these tactics, and of course the right greets them with contempt.

Despite their lack of apparent impact, these appear frequently enough that it is worth understanding them. The posters imagine that they are saying something which, if widely known, would be devastating: they cannot accurately gauge what the reaction of real conservatives would be, but they can gleefully imagine the reaction of the straw-man conservatives they simulate internally.

These accusations are meant to be a kind of information warfare, making conservatives turn against their own. This shows the perils of undertaking this kind of operation without at least some understanding of the enemy.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Vengeance Is Mine

[Contains spoilers for several Iain Banks novels, particularly The Crow Road and Complicity.]

Scottish novelist Iain Banks is a prolific writer of both science fiction and realistic novels. His science fiction is centered in the "Culture Universe", so named for a group of humans, and their benevolent posthuman masters, called "The Culture".

A couple of Mr. Banks's earlier novels, particularly Consider Phlebas and The Crow Road, show an intellectual opposition to religion: the former takes place during the Culture's war against the religiously motivated "Idirans", while the latter is largely a coming-of-age story, leading to protagonist and narrator Prentice MacHoan's willingness to accept the absence of God and resolve always to vote for Labour.

A slight digression is needed here. The Crow Road is presented as a mystery; what happened to Prentice's Uncle Rory, who has not been seen for eight years? Are other accidental deaths somehow involved? Well, it turns out that The Tory Did It. The narrator never makes this connection, but it is clearly in the author's mind; The Crow Road is a political polemic disguised as a character novel disguised as a mystery.

Soon afterward, Mr. Banks wrote Complicity, this time a mystery about a sadistic vigilante killer and the slacker journalist who is wrongly suspected. Complicity is striking, in an ugly way, in that the killings are given their own chapters and told in the second person. I was about halfway through when I realized that The Tory Did It. With a sigh of relief, I skipped a hundred or so pages and three second-person murders, scanning for the denouement. But I was wrong; the Tory did not do it. However, the real killer, as part of his tell-all-before-slaying-the-narrator confessional, mentioned that [ta-daaa!] he had voted Tory in the last election. Support Margaret Thatcher's economic reforms; kill old bureaucrats on weekends; it's all the same, really.

Thus Mr. Banks's novels must be understood, at least in part, as arguments against those who do not share his vision of a kind, egalitarian, godless society. But he is not so singleminded as that might suggest. For example, the murderees in Complicity are chosen for their involvement in an obscure scandal; they have covered up some risks associated with nuclear power, with possibly fatal consequences. Thus in some indirect way, they have proven themselves evil, and their destruction becomes meritorious. This is the meaning of the title: the reader is indeed complicit, and the "you" who kills is a highly sympathetic character. The first killing ends with:
You feel suddenly elated. You're glad you didn't have to hurt the women.

Now we turn to the science fiction. Probably the best of these space operas is the grim and unremittingly violent Use of Weapons; again, the theme is revenge and punishment. The protagonist, Zakalwe, is sent by the Culture to various backward civilizations to set things right, and a large part of the book details his fabulously unpleasant adventures. When the Culture restricts his latitude to righteously smite the wrongdoers, he goes "freelance" -- assassinating a genocidal ruler in his bedchamber, for instance. Even when he is off duty, the pattern recurs: the book's most memorable scene is when Zakalwe exposes and defeats a sex murderer, but leaves him alive (for a change) to face the rough justice of his society.

But Zakalwe, for all his training and skill, is only human, and there is a limit to the justice he can mete out. The Minds that rule the Culture are not so restricted.

In Excession, a Mind called Grey Area (but nicknamed by its colleagues Meatfcuker) makes a personal mission to bring vengeance to living creatures who have oppressed or slaughtered others; and, unlike Zakalwe, it uses its power to make them relive the thousands of deaths they have visited on others. One might wonder whether Grey Area is Mr. Banks's parody of God; but at the end of the book it is absorbed by a still more advanced being from another universe -- an ascension into Heaven if ever there was one.

Mr. Banks's own emotional involvement is best shown in the later novel Look to Windward. The majority of this book is painfully adult, mentioning physical pleasure or pain only as informers to the tortured psyche; just once, after the main action is over and the Dastardly Plot foiled, does the author cut loose. The two main perpetrators of the plot are brought to justice by "a Culture terror weapon" -- they are tortured to death, in coruscating prose that stands out from the dryness of this novel like Denali about the foothills.

Mr. Banks has given up on God, but cannot bear to let go of Hell: and, in the Culture Minds, he finds his road there.

[Postscript: it could be argued that my own perceptions, rather than a change in Mr. Banks's writings, are responsible for my perceiving some passages as being extraordinarily vivid. Those who have read Use of Weapons or Look to Windward are invited to comment on whether the two scenes I have mentioned are, in fact, distinctive in themselves.]

[Cross-posted to Chequer-Board.]

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Ghost Brigades

[Contains mild spoilers for Old Man's War and its sequels.]

A couple of years ago, when I read John Scalzi's Old Man's War, I couldn't find anything nice to say about it. This was extremely uncharitable of me, because it is a fine and entertaining book: not really as good as The Forever War, against which it is measured, but good enough to deserve the comparison. Instead of noting this, I said:
In Old Man's War, as in David Brin's sequence of space operas beginning with Startide Rising, humanity attains interstellar travel only to find itself in a universe crowded with largely hostile aliens... the aliens are irrational because they're all crazy religious freaks!
Mr. Scalzi not only noticed, but responded with a comment longer and better written than the original post, saying in part:

I don't think it's inappropriate to show alien cultures influenced by their religions, as among other things our cultures so clearly are. I also don't think it's inappropriate to show humans having biases or misunderstandings of the religions and cultures of those they fight, since (again) that's something that's not unknown here in reality. I do agree that in the narration the aliens are seen as incomprehensible and irrational, but the question to ask is: Is that because they are (and, additionally, that it is due to their religion), or because the humans in the story are working from bad premises? Are the humans in the book taking seriously the tenets of faith of those whom they fight against?

I have my own personal opinion on the matter, of course. Yours may (or may not) vary from this. There's a lot that's left ambiguous in the text partly so I could expand on it in future books (and partly because the book has to end sometime) but also because I think it has the potential to engender discussion and debate (like this).

I will say this: There's a character in the OMW sequel The Ghost Brigades who is both alien and religious; I also think he's the most morally-engaged person in the story, and his moral point of view ends up being -- in my opinion -- the heart of the story.

Unfortunately, by this point one of the Good Little Capitalists had sequestered my copy of The Ghost Brigades, so it was some time before I was able to evaluate Mr. Scalzi's claims. As the reader may already have noticed, they reduce to pointing out that the humans are unreliable narrators, and the aliens need not appear rational from their viewpoint.

This is a valid defense, though it may be post hoc. It is clear in The Last Colony (the third book of the series) that humans have no special moral advantage in Mr. Scalzi's universe; and, at the time of the above exchange, Mr. Scalzi was already writing that book. This ambiguity is not manifest in Old Man's War.

The Ghost Brigades is the most interesting book of the series. It shows both Mr. Scalzi's improvement as a writer, and also the loss of innocence in his -- and America's -- thinking about war. [This is not to say that these novels are in any way allegorical: they are not. Nor that Old Man's War disregards the pain and loss of war: it does not.] The Old Man's War is reminiscent of the Pacific campaign of World War II: cruel and slaughterous, but according to terms agreed by both sides, allowing combat with honor. The Ghost Brigades is informed by the spirit of Vietnam and Afghanistan: it shows special forces soldiers, not striving in combat, but kidnapping, murdering and being murdered.

Mr. Scalzi is a thoughtful guide through this new moral maze: his writing, more mature and confident than before, brings his not-quite-human characters to realistic life, and shows their dilemmas, and often their deaths, in heart-wrenching detail. My only criticism of The Ghost Brigades is that it simply isn't fun in the way Old Man's War was; and, given the nature of the story being told, it seems callous even to notice this.

[I thank Mr. Scalzi for responding to my earlier post, and for two really excellent books; and I apologize to anyone who noticed the two-year delay in this response. Cross-posted to Chequer-Board.]

Tales from Reality

The following have leaked in from my First Life:

Antiwar Protests
No to Contempt Religion
My Argument with the Pig

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

My Argument with the Pig


I attended a Roger Waters concert last year; I even persuaded my wife to come along. I had a cold at the time, but it turns out that beer is an excellent cough suppressant.

The Man

Mr. Waters, whom we remember as the tall, horse-faced fellow looming in the back of old Pink Floyd group photos, is now startlingly muscled. His demeanor has also changed; no longer a poet of gloom and angst, he is now clearly a man of the world, visibly enjoying his stardom.


A trio of black women supplied the wailing background vocals for such songs as "Great Gig in the Sky" [which, despite cleaving faithfully to the album version, somehow seemed even longer than usual]. One also sang the part of "Mother" -- a weirdly naturalistic touch, given how accustomed we are to David Gilmour's puissant ersatz Mother. The effect was a less dramatic, more ordinary sound; it was not helped by the singer's inability to reach the lowest notes of the song.

Mama's gonna make all of your nightmares come true
Mama's gonna put all of her fears into you


David Kilminster played an excellent lead guitar. He also showed a physical resemblance to Mr. Gilmour, even to the point of showing the same jowliness.

The Pig Wins

The reputedly terrifying Pink Floyd Pig has been replaced by a relative of the helium-filled indoor blimps sold at hobby shops. Presumably under remote control, it drifted slowly out of the shadows in stage left. It appeared to be about twelve feet long.

As the pig emerged into the stage lights, it became apparent that it had been vandalized: various anti-war and anti-American slogans were crudely daubed onto its pink hide. It bobbed gently near the front of the stage for some time, not looking like a formidable debating opponent. But after fifteen minutes or so, it turned to moon the audience and showed one haunch saying "Habeas Corpus Matters". And the pig was right.

Leaving Something, Anyway

Mr. Waters performed only two solo songs, but one of them was the album-length Leaving Beirut. The song is long but not varied: this is not "Atom Heart Mother Suite". I believe it is subtitled "This would be a good time to get a beer". Those willing to read the linked lyrics will recall the apostrophe used so powerfully in The Final Cut:

What have we done? Maggie, what have we done?
Here the trick is repeated, but the effect is quite different. I could not resist some malicious good cheer at the thought of earnest leftists, predisposed to agree with the song's political points, trying against all odds to enjoy the song itself. This cannot be accomplished. It makes "The Fletcher Memorial Home" sound like "Comfortably Numb".


Nick Mason arrived on stage, to fanfare, after the intermission. Weirdly, when "The Happiest Days of Our Lives" was played as an encore, he sat passively through its climax, as if drums were not needed for that bit.

"Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun" was a nice nod to back-catalog fanatics, though the elegiac video displays of the middle-class English youngsters at play were a distraction; presumably they have some personal resonance for Mr. Waters.

To my amazement, the set included "Southampton Dock", the best antiwar song ever.

[Other Tales from Reality.]

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Feels Like Up To Me

Al Meyerhoff, Huffington Post blogger, has a rather coy by-line on a recent editorial in the Los Angeles Times: it says merely that he "is of counsel in a law firm specializing in securities fraud cases." [Sic.] In reading the editorial, "Financial forces run amok", this demonstrates substantial explanatory power. But it is not the full story; Mr. Meyerhoff is not merely of counsel, but a partner; and a partner at Lerach Coughlin, no less. One admires his humility in not advertising this fact. If I had helped to extract $45 billion from publicly owned companies -- in the name of protecting their shareholders, no less -- my pride would know no bounds.

I would have contented myself with a mere unpleasantry to this effect, but then I read the article more closely. It is a marvelous window into a looking-glass world... but let's let Mr. Meyerhoff describe it.

For about the last 30 years, our nation has been traveling the deregulation highway, a road with no rules or direction. We have let enterprise be free, business go unfettered, the good times roll. And roll they have, but to where? One stopping point: the current mortgage crisis.
The good times have indeed rolled; Mr. Meyerhoff has at least that much contact with reality. Thus we will refrain from criticizing his implicit denigration of freedom.

Recently, however, there has been a slight regulatory bump in the road. After its chairman acknowledged that "market discipline has in some cases broken down," the Federal Reserve released new mortgage lending rules "to protect consumers against fraud [and] deception." Banks making sub-prime loans will be required to actually consider the borrower's ability to pay and confirm a borrower's income before handing over the money. Now there's a radical notion.

Disclosure also will be required of those nasty little (actually not so little) "bonuses" that brokers receive for writing loans at rates higher than a poor, unwitting consumer can afford.

So "poor, unwitting" consumers will be protected by not being allowed to borrow.

To some, they may not be much, but the absence of such rules encouraged the predatory lending practices that have left millions of Americans facing foreclosure.

Let's take a look at how we got here before the deregulation highway takes us over a cliff.

The Reagan revolution was the beginning, when we started seeing rollbacks in government safeguards, such as those protecting food, drinking water and the environment. Then came the savings and loan crash in the 1980s, a pit stop that cost taxpayers $150 billion. President Clinton added the "bridge to the 21st century," along with his proclamation that the "era of big government was over." During his administration, Congress repealed a Depression-era law called Glass-Steagall, which kept banking and investment separate. Henceforth, banks could offer investment advice as well as loans -- one-stop shopping on the road to disaster.

I must grant that food, drinking water, and even an environment are good things, which is why Mr. Meyerhoff is attempting to associate his cause with them. The last two sentences, however, are the meat of the argument: like a dancer's arms circling to gain torque for the forthcoming pirouette. It should be noted that banks do not need investment banks to get into financial difficulties. Mr. Meyerhoff's long and distinguished career stretches back not only to the near-collapse of Manufacturers Hanover [dented in 1984, scrapped in 1992] but to the de facto government bailout of banks with substantial emerging-markets exposure [by lowering short-term interest rates, permitting them to ride the carry trade back to health] in 1982.

Let's also spare a thought for the liquidity crisis triggered by the collapse of Long-Term Capital Management. This was a trading, not a retail banking, crisis: at no point were Mom-and-Pop depositors threatened. Indeed, the deep pockets of the new universal banks, which Glass-Steagall had outlawed until its repeal, were crucial in preventing the downfall of the trading system. But where other observers might see triumph, Mr. Meyerhoff sees "disaster".

Next we have the pirouette itself: it seems that the real victims were not the "poor, unwitting" consumers of oversized houses, but the shareholders of immensely profitable banks:
However, deregulation of the markets really took hold in 1994 with the GOP's "Contract with America." The first to go were the nation's securities laws. Over a Clinton veto, Congress enacted the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act, making it far more difficult to prove securities fraud. Said to be necessary to free the markets of red tape and trial lawyers, it gave the green light to corporate chiefs such as Ken Lay and Dennis Kozlowski and led to the Enron, WorldCom, Tyco and HealthSouth fraud debacles. As a result, shareholders lost hundreds of billions of dollars from a wave of fraud unseen since the Roaring '20s -- and maybe not even then.

That explains why those foolish enough to buy shares in 1994 were so much poorer in 2000! Also, I am relieved to find out that Lay's and Kozlowski's actions were government-approved: I had been under the impression that something bad might have happened to them.
A declawed Securities and Exchange Commission, a neutered plaintiffs' bar and missing congressional oversight empowered Wall Street to push as far as it could. Facts were hidden, self-dealing was rampant and deceit rewarded. Congress finally intervened in 2002 by passing the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, imposing strict new accounting rules and other controls on business. That law is now under siege.
Emphasis mine.

The current sub-prime mortgage mess is simply the latest wreck on the highway. Banks have been left to their own devices, unchecked by government watchdogs or pesky regulations. Interest rates on millions of mortgages are set -- like time bombs -- to accelerate in 2008. Defaults of $1 trillion are predicted -- affecting not only large institutions such as pension funds, hedge funds and universities but also countless average Americans. Hand-wringing time? Just consider these recent events:

* Moody's and other such agencies have threatened to downgrade the ratings of securities that are based on mortgages that allow accelerated payment -- with far more bad paper still out there.

* To avoid bankruptcy after its stock plummeted because of record high foreclosures, Countrywide Financial is being acquired by Bank of America.

* Money managers including Bear Stearns and investment bankers Citigroup, Merrill Lynch and Washington Mutual are under investigation for fraud and allegedly making Enron-like off-balance-sheet transactions.

* Of the nearly 3 million sub-prime adjustable-rate loans surveyed by the Mortgage Bankers Assn., a record 18.81% are already past due.

What clearer evidence do we need that markets do not regulate themselves? Yet the government response has been mostly timid.

Let's review the bidding. Companies that made bad loans might lose money. Ratings agencies might change their ratings. Weak companies can be acquired cheaply by stronger ones able to buy during market downturns. Other lawyers, perhaps unlike Mr. Meyerhoff, allege that some losses were due to fraud -- not exactly an admission against interest. And yes, some bad loans are being repaid behind schedule; some far lesser fraction will actually default. Somehow we are meant to see this as evidence that we should have government intervention, modeled on the Sarbanes-Oxley act that costs shareholders $5,000,000,000 yearly.

The Fed's recent rules allow action against predatory lenders only on showing a "pattern and practice" of unlawful conduct; disclosures of "yield-spread premiums" -- kickbacks -- can still remain buried in a mountain of loan documents. Prepayment penalties make it nearly impossible for good-faith borrowers to get out from under bad loans. The Bush administration's voluntary mortgage rate "freeze" will reach less than 25% of borrowers.

Politicians of every stripe are running scared -- and for cover. Yet Republicans and some Democrats (lining up at the Wall Street trough) are actually still calling for less regulation of U.S. markets.

It is time -- it is past time -- to get off this deregulation highway. We need more government, not less, to protect us against banks and conglomerates and the sheer concentration of power they portend.

Calling for the heavy hand of government as an antidote to "concentration of power" is a feat of willful blindness.

We need the SEC to change from Wall Street lap dog to aggressive advocate for the public interest. Instead of holding round-tables with corporate lawyers to find ways to prevent shareholder lawsuits, it should act, for example, on an investors petition to require polluters to disclose their multibillion-dollar liability for climate change. And the Justice Department needs to be the people's law firm again -- not house counsel for big banks and corporations, as has been the case in every major fraud and antitrust lawsuit before the Supreme Court of late. And Congress needs to enact and send to the White House the proposed Mortgage Reform and Anti-Predatory Lending Act to strengthen consumer safeguards against rapacious bankers and their Wall Street enablers.

Change, it is said, is in the wind. There is no better place to start than reining in the robber barons of the 21st century.

Erm, Mr. Meyerhoff: that would be you.