November 2008

Rags and Bones

by Jonathan Wallace

The Vice Presidential Debate

Usually I dont watch debates. I am rarely undecided; I dont need to watch my candidate spout a lot of ridiculous, vague verbiage. Because of the extreme vagueness and dishonesty of political language, debate-watching is not much of a spectator sport. Since I am the kind of person who cant watch a play without being terrified an actor will fumble a line, and suffers for him if he does, the prospect that one of the debaters will come completely unglued, rather than providing the entertainment value, is another reason not to watch.

That said, I watched most of the vice presidential debate with great interest. Sarah Palin, about whom I wrote last month, had made such an embarrassment of herself during the Gibson and Couric interviews that I was curious to see if she did any better. And Biden, whom I still regard as a poor VP choice, has such a reputation for tripping over his own tongue, I wanted to see if he could avoid it.

Both of them, as the media consensus held, performed better than expected. Biden actually had some gravitas, spoke with calm and dignity. And Palin demonstrated she can utter a grammatical English sentence.

As an Op Ed columnist in the Times said the next day, a debate is a really forgiving environment for anyone with a memory and a slight bit of acting ability. Palin was uttering canned sound-bites she had been taught in the previous thirty-six hours, often as a complete nonsequitur to the question just asked. Her studied folksiness, her perkiness--Joe Six Pack, and darn and drill baby drill, made a Stepford Wives/Invasion of the Bodysnatchers/Hare Krishna kind of impression. I sort of expect one day her face will come off and be replaced by some sort of reptilian mug with fangs.

This is probably brought about by the knowledge of her over-weening ambition, her malice in dealing with the people she doesnt like, and the intense smiling insincerity of the performance, completely different from the odious low key hypocrisy of your average politician (including Joe Biden).

I persist in thinking that she does not have the throw weight to be president, not in the same sense that Hilary Clinton does. A little modesty wouldnt hurt, either. (Barack Obama doesnt have much humility, either; but he has a lot more to be arrogant about than Palin.)

Chinchilla correction

In thirteen years of the Spectacle, this may be the first time I have published a correction.

This weeks wooden toy arrow imbroglio brought back a memory of the fabled government chinchilla subsidy from World War I. The problem was that when I googled it, the only two references were mine, in the Spectacle.

In Congress Amusing Antics, a very brief piece published in August 1995, the first year of the Spectacle, I said:

Can't wait to see the House take on grazing fees, or my personal favorite, the World War One-era chinchilla subsidy, next.

The following year, in an article entitled Who Owns Bob Dole?, I wrote :

In a grant of corporate welfare as shameful as the equally famous chinchilla subsidy, Congress created and supports a market for gasohol that would not otherwise exist.

Imagine my surprise to discover that I am the sole Internet source for the famed chinchilla subsidy. I remember basing my two references on some article I had seen (undoubtedly in the Times, the Nation or The New York Review of Books, back then my source for everything). I even have a vague recollection of an explanation: in wartime the nations entire wool production was needed for military uses, so chinchilla production was subsidized to provide substitute material for civilian clothing.

What I may have been thinking of was an alpaca subsidy, which at least has a slight internet trail which does not lead back to me:

NPR isnt just some minute pork barrel Alpaca subsidy.

However, the paucity of references even to a World War I era alpaca subsidy make me wonder if this is not also an urban legend. (A search of, the urban legend site, produced no results for chinchilla, alpaca, or even llama.)

If I had stopped to think about it when writing, the story wouldnt have made sense. Chinchillas are furred creatures suitable for making fur coats. Alpacas produce wool suitable for other garments. Chinchillas sure are cuter, though.

I did find that there was a World War II era subsidy for wool and mohair (goat hair) production, passed for exactly the reasons I had heard (importance to military uniforms). Declared superfluous in 1960 because of the introduction of synthetic fibers, the subsidy was not phased out until 1993, and made a surreptitious come-back in 2001, according to a a New York Times op ed article.

It appears that alpacas are being used widely today as part of a semi-fraudulent tax shelter under which people buy them, let them graze the back-yard, take substantial tax deductions for them and in some cases, sell neither the wool nor the meat. Therefore a tax break for a large, annoying pet. (There also seem to be people who genuinely make a living farming alpacas; no disrespect intended to them. Almost every fraudulent tax shelter imitates a real business, after all.)

Im a little disappointed. I was ready to write a feature article about the chinchilla subsidy. And theres nothing there.

Toy wooden arrows

It was this weeks blow-up about the toy wooden arrow provision in the bail out bill which got me thinking about the (supposed) chinchilla subsidy.

The basic outlines are as follows. The House rejected a $700 billion bail out bill, which most politicians and pundits regard as necessary in some form to rescue us from an event similar to the Great Depression of 1929. (Typical statement is: There are a lot of problems but we have to do something. ) The same bill was brought back before Congress days later, with $150 billion in pork tacked on. A number of congressfolk changed their votes and the bail out bill passed. The perception was that some if not all of them were effectively bribed to change their votes by the inclusion of pork provisions benefiting their districts. The pundits pored over the pork and discovered to their delight a provision revoking a federal excise tax on toy wooden arrows.

Toy arrows are admittedly a great sound bite, meme and metaphor. The problem is, as with a lot of initially great sounding news stories, the closer you look, the less there is to support the outrage. Some years ago, an excise tax was levied on the arrows used by hunters. Due to an ambiguity in the defining language in the original law, the tax has also been assessed on the much less expensive wooden arrows used by children in summer camps, Boy Scout troops and the like. The tax as applied to these arrows is arguably excessive, forty-two cents of tax on a thirty cent item. If all this is true, correcting the problem was fair and reasonable and wouldn?t have attracted any attention if it hadnt been tacked on to the bail out bill.

Crying people

In the nineties, I lived in Brooklyn Heights. At the foot of Clinton Street there was a basement store set a few steps down from the street, that did shoe repairs, sold accessories and umbrellas, and traded in whatever other kind of small personal stuff such stores sell to eke out a living.

It was owned by an elderly immigrant couple, I never knew from what country, who ran it together. In the course of a few months, I began to notice that their hours had become irregular; whenever I tried to visit for a lace or a shine, the store was closed.

One night I was walking by, hurrying to the subway, and in the dusk I could see the brightly lit interior of the shop. Husband and wife were sitting close to one another, not touching, in postures of abject helplessness, both weeping uncontrollably.

For a moment, I considered going in and asking what was the matter and if I could help. But I was rushing off somewhere, to meet someone, and I ran for the subway instead. A few days later, they closed the business and a month or so after that, the place was purchased and re-opened, still the same kind of store, by a vital Eastern European man in his forties. He was still there fifteen years later, when I left the neighborhood.

I dont know if I could have helped, but I wish I had obeyed my own first impulse, gone in and asked what was the matter.

Otherwise, we get a little too easy with the idea that some people are born to float, and others to sink beneath the waves, so completely and inexorably that not even a memory of them remains behind.

The man in the ice

Apropos of some of us being born to sink, I was fascinated by the story of the 4,000 year old corpse found in the ice in the Alps, particularly by the original reconstruction of his lonely, anonymous death. He had broken his bow, the story went, and was traversing the mountain to a forest on the other side where he could cut another one. I had an intense, poignant vision of a death simultaneously unwelcome and cozy, as he began to feel warm in the snow.

A few years later, they scanned the body with some improved technology, and found something missed earlier: an arrow in his ribs. The narrative rapidly changed, from a noble, unique story (of the quest over the mountaintop for a bow, the unexpected snowstorm) to a very dreary one: just another random human with a sharp object in him.

The one remaining unusual element: that there was just one body, not a heap of them.

The rain

In my twenties, I went to see a revival of Singing in the Rain at a Manhattan theatre. When I went in, it was sunny, and when I came out it was sunny again but had rained. There were puddles everywhere and the people leaving the theatre were singing and tentatively jumping into the puddles and dancing in them, or at l;east on the edge of them so as not to get splashed too badly. It was in the time of my life when everything was more vivid and novel, and even a short movie felt like it took you out of the world a long time. But a movie could send you back into the world feeling different about your life, which enlivemned the discovery that the world was still there and very bright and new.

Obama and McCain

Barack Obama is the coolest man I have ever seen. Nothing fazes him; he is always in total control, never angry, never annoyed. I think he will make an excellent president, brilliant, detail oriented, decisive and calm. Yet there were moments during the last debate with McCain that I found myself wishing he would show a flash of emotion. But he may have been thinking: You dont get to see me, John McCain. You are not worth it.

I always admired John McCain, but he has been a big disappointment. For years, as he stood up to the Republican party and fought them on earmarks, campaign finance and torture, I believed he was that rare thing, an honest man in Congress, smart and plain-spoken.

In the interim, he has been warped by ambition: he knows he is behind but wants to win this at any cost. One of the by-products of his ambition and vanity was of course the appointment of Sarah Palin as his running-mate. His approval of attack ads, use of some of the same aides and advisors who slimed him so badly during the 2000 race, is quite shameful. Every time he says the name Bill Ayers, I remember the allegation that his adopted Bangladeshi daughter was a black child he fathered out of wedlock. And of course in order to hold the base, he has warped to the right on abortion and other key issues, betraying his own previously strong beliefs. That self important expression, the there are questions approach, the petulance and anger during debates, the constant promises to forego attacks followed only by their immediate renewal, all consign him to that sad huge category, the querulous loser. Even if he manages somehow to win the election, there will still have been a long moment when he knew he was behind and got pissy about it.

I feel a small, dwindling compassion for him, that he was smart and decisive enough to be president but not popular enough, that he didnt understand for years that he needed to truckle, lie, suck up, that he was passed over for that idiot George Bush in 2000 (McCain would have been a great president to have in office 9/11); that he never had a good shot at it til he was really too old to run for it; that life doesnt always hand you the things you so badly want or even think you deserve.

I have been reading that John McCain was well liked when he hit the Senate--he was an authentic, lively war hero, quick with a story or a joke. When he left his first wife Carol, who was faithful to him during five years of captivity, for the younger, richer, thinner, blonder Cindy, people didnt like that.

Ross Perot said, if you lie to your wife youll lie to me. I think its true that rather than being a separate, unrelated zone of morality with no cross-connection, the way people behave in private life and in their marital life in particular is a pretty good predictor of their public morality. So maybe McCains betrayal of most of what he stood for in order to get elected was predicted many years ago by his betrayal of Carol.


Someone said that if Thomas Jefferson was alive today, he would be an obscure university professor and never dare run for president. I dont think thats accurate, because Jefferson as recent biographers have established, was much more of a liar, hypocrite and rogue (therefore a politician) than is indicated by the persona he (and earlier writers) so carefully constructed and preserved.

Obama may be the closest thing we have seen in a long time not to the real Jefferson (who was more of a Bill Clinton) but to the dream-Jefferson the real man aspired to be: a philosophical policy aficionado who wants to do stuff and see if it works, who has the actual ability to take the long view and the over-view and to remember what Locke, Kant or Rouseeau said while really understanding how things work on the ground.

My money

My life savings are managed by a professional money guy who charges me a small monthly fee. Since the present crisis became acute, I have spoken to him a couple times and he repeated the trite but unassailable wisdom that you havent lost money til you sell. So Ive hung in there, knowing that cash or gold bars under the bed are not really a safe alternative, and trying not to look too closely or too often at my assets.

The other day, I checked the total balance of the money this individual manages and discovered that I was down thirty percent in a matter of a month or so. One component of it was some 401k dollars which I rolled over when I left a job in 1999 and which had almost doubled since then. A few more months of losses and I will be right back to the 1998 amount, or below.

Other than inspiring thoughts about fishing to put food on the table and combing the beach looking for valuable jetsam in the mornings, this experience has me thinking about the net of trust which is our society, the butterfly defect of social relations (yes, we are all connected). I did everything right, had no debt, credit card or mortgage, invested very conservatively, and I am still screwed because other people were greedy, dishonest and over-leveraged. There are people out there who I never met, to whom I never entrusted money or gave them any access to or purchase upon my affairs, and yet they have still brought me and everyone else down. Its enough to make you long for four or five fertile planted acres in the back-woods, a good deer rifle and ponds full of bass and carp. Even then of course you need your neighbors sometime, for something. Or are endangered by them. Life is a tragedy of the commons.