Orwell on the Central Dilemma of Leftism in a Globalizing World

All left-wing parties in the highly industrialized countries are at bottom a sham, because they make it their business to fight against something which they do not really wish to destroy. They have internationalist aims, and at the same time they struggle to keep up a standard of life with which those aims are incompatible. We all live by robbing Asiatic coolies, and those of us who are ‘enlightened’ all maintain that those coolies ought to be set free; but our standard of living, and hence our ‘enlightenment’, demands that the robbery shall continue.

George Orwell, “Rudyard Kipling” 


Paradise Terrestre, Six Years On…

Somewhere among the notebooks of Gideon I once found a list of diseases as yet unclassified by medical science, and among these there occurred the word Islomania, which was described as a rare but by no means unknown affliction of spirit. There are people, as Gideon used to say, by way of explanation, who find islands somehow irresistible. The mere knowledge that they are on an island, a little world surrounded by the sea, fills them with an indescribable intoxication….But like all Gideon’s theories it was an ingenious one. I recall how it was debated by candlelight in the Villa Cleobolus until the moon went down on the debate, and Gideon’s contentions were muffed in his yawns; until Hoyle began to tap his spectacles upon his thumbnail of his left hand, which was his way of starting to say goodnight….Yet the word stuck; and though Hoyle refused its application to any but Aegean islands….we all of us, by tacit admission, knew ourselves to be ‘islomanes.’ (Lawrence Durrell, Reflections on a Marine Venus)

Six years ago today, after a whirlwind search for houses in the San Juan Islands, a short courtship with a restaurant in Friday Harbor (and the acquisition of a dear friend), various excuses to obligations in Seattle, and lots of packing, I piloted north onto the ferry and took possession of my house on Rocky Bay, at the northeastern end of San Juan Island.  I’ve recounted that story before, many times, so I’ll spare everyone the details tonight.  

In past retrospectives, which I re-read tonight over a glass of Bandol rose while coals heated and the oven baked away, I’ve recounted the travails of “becoming” an islander, and my various joys and misgivings along the way.  This year, I have less to say, because while I no longer come home and jump and cackle in glee at where I find myself living (as happened so often in the earliest days), I also don’t take for granted my island home.  It takes less than two days in Seattle before I get frustrated with traffic and crowds and lines, and wish I was home where we have no traffic lights, only a handful of stop signs, and where crowds are a feature of a few short weeks in deep summer.  

My social connections on the island continue to both winnow and deepen, as one expects.  In early days I went to parties, often facilitated by my good friend Madden, and hosted parties where I often didn’t know three quarters of the people who came to my house.  Today, I am more comfortable, and more selective about how I spend my time, since I know how fleeting the good weather is, how fleeting the evenings alone on the deck reading can be, and who I really connect with.  That is proper, and a sign of settling in to a community, although in the last year or two I interpreted it (wrongly, as it turned out) as a sign of possible pulling away or disaffection.  It is, instead, a sign that I understand what my community has to offer and what I value the most.  

Whether I return to the island by car, feeling the steel gangplank of the ferry under my wheels, or by plane, feeling the Kenmore Cessnas twist and then settle onto the runway after wheeling and looping over my island home, I still feel a surge of excitement and energy knowing that I’ve returned to someplace that definitely feels like home.  For all its challenges, travails, and frustrations, my days here are still wonderful and precious and there have been precious few days in the last six years when I’ve wondered whether this was the right decision. 

I am, and remain, an “islomane,” and a member of the subspecies which finds our coldish, moss-and-fog infested, whale-visited islands in the middle of the Salish Sea, continually enchanting and alluring.  I raise my glass to the next six years.  

Simple Ways to Address Debt, Create Jobs, and Improve U.S. Financial Credibility

When the debt ceiling discussions began, months ago, the country appeared to be split between two contrary opinions.  Most conservatives had become convinced that the U.S. was “broke,” and that only immediate and titanic cuts in spending could possibly save us.  Most liberals were convinced that “debt and deficit” problems were not real, and were simply a ploy for conservatives to cut spending.

Although there still seems to be widespread confusion about the issues at hand, it seems like the general public has learned a good deal in the runup to the Aug. 2nd deadline (if not as much as one would hope).  We’ve learned, for example, that sovereign debt ratings, not just our ability to borrow, are important — and at stake.  We’ve learned a good deal about the sources of our deficits and debt — even if we still disagree about how to handle them.

I find, in talking to liberals and conservatives on this issue, that certain simple — but effective — ideas can appeal to both sides, without being caught up in the “grand narratives” that characterize each side in our Congressional stalemate. One of them, the idea of tying job creation to overseas tax repatriation holidays, I discussed in a previous post (and will simply list here).  But there are others, and I would like to suggest that implementing even one or two would radically change the game, by changing the confidence level of citizens, companies, and the world in our ability to address our issues.

I would further suggest that our largest problem today is not a crisis of confidence about U.S. indebtedness.  Americans and the world at large lack confidence in the ability of Americans to govern their way out of the problem.  The global markets, and the bond market in particular, want U.S. sovereign debt to remain the risk-free benchmark, and despite occasional posturing, nobody is eager to displace the U.S. dollar as reserve currency, given the uncertainty and dislocation that would inevitably create, during a time of sluggish economic growth.

What we need to demonstrate is not, I would suggest, a complete solution to our deficit and debt problems, but a credible start and follow-through.  President Obama has been talking about “significant downpayments” on deficit reduction for precisely this reason.  It’s not a new idea.  It’s also the strategy of every consumer with significant debt — you can’t simply tell the credit card company you’re trying to make payments, you have to establish a track record of actually doing it.

There are reasons, of course, that the party “out of power” would try to block even simple, common-sensical ideas.  Winning the next election means not giving up points to the other side, if possible.  But I hope we’re close to the point where Americans start demanding progress and solutions — not the ultimatum-style “solutions” we’ve seen daily in the debt ceiling “negotiations,” but concrete steps.

Here are a few that seem to have bipartisan appeal, in my discussions with folks lately.

A common sense idea about “tax holidays”

We appear to be on the verge of a deal to raise the debt ceiling, and there seems to be a chance that it’ll contain some things that will horrify many working people and most Democrats.  One of these is a “tax repatriation holiday,” in which corporations who have profits “stashed” overseas, can bring those profits back into the U.S. tax free.

In the last few days, I’ve had conversations with conservatives, and I think there’s a compromise position that appeals to both sides, appeals to patriotism, but “gets something in exchange” for the tax holiday.  Which would be a good thing, because despite the rhetoric, we all know that American companies are not going to automatically turn around and use the profits to hire Americans.

The reason we know this is that they have plenty of profits onshore, and they haven’t used those profits to hire many people, either.  For a simple reason — the economy lacks sufficient demand to require new hiring.  This has been exhaustively covered elsewhere, so I won’t bore you by repeating the evidence.

So, if we want jobs in exchange for a tax repatriation holiday, here’s how we do it.

Under a program which automatically sunsets (say, 5 years, but that’s negotiable), American companies are allowed to repatriate profits tax-free, for each new job created in the United States.  In order to create incentives for full-time jobs, capable of supporting a wage earner and their family:

  1. For each new job created, a company would be allowed to repatriate a multiple (M) of the fully burdened cost of the employee.  ”Fully burdened” means wages and benefits — the total cost of having someone on staff.
  2. Each job would be eligible for the repatriation credit in each year the program existed, perhaps at a declining modifier.  This creates incentives to keep the jobs created, and not lay them off on Day 366.
  3. Attaching the credit to the fully burdened cost, rather than the salary alone, creates incentives for companies to create full-time jobs that carry benefits, which are essential to ensuring that jobs can support families.  Indeed, the better the benefits a company provides, the more profits it can repatriate.
  4. Also, using the fully burdened cost allows the plan to work easily in those industries with union contracts, since it does not specify anything about the structure of compensation.

There are obviously details that need to be worked out.  What is the multiplier?  How long does the program or credit last?  Should we simply keep a program like this in perpetuity as a means of allowing global trade to be “open” but still incentivize domestic job creation?  Should the repatriation by completely tax-free in year one, and at a steep discount off normal tax rates in future years?

The main outlines sound fair, and even patriotic.  And it’s a mix of liberal and conservative ideas.  From my initial discussions with folks, the idea seems to appeal to both sides, and sounds “fair” both to companies and to the country.

Kick it around a bit, share it with friends, and tell your Congressperson about it.

The dynamics of the debt ceiling endgame

I’m still sort of amazed at the amount of commentary that seems to skirt the basic issue here. The hardliners in the House are, dominantly speaking, the House freshman. The class of 2010, that were driven by the “Tea Party” insurgency, and won their seats by beating incumbents in primary elections.

They’re not afraid of criticism from the left — even when that “left” is an organization as staunchly business-oriented and traditionally Republican as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

They’re afraid that later this year, their local base, and local Tea Party organizations, will “primary them from the right.” They’re afraid, in other words, that someone else will repeat the process on them. Paint them as going to Washington and selling out. So the “Class of 2010″ will probably remain largely intransigent in this process.

What seems to mystify everyone is why Boehner seems to keep courting them. He knows this. Every political strategist in the country knows this.

The problem is, Boehner will only pass a bill by working around, not with, the Class of 2010, by and large. And the calculus on this is simple. He needs House Democrats to vote for the final bill, and more moderate, longer-term House Republicans. Folks that are slightly less afraid of being reverse-primaried.

But this means making a deal with Democrats involved. Which is almost as bad as agreeing to raise taxes willingly. Which means that the final deal, if indeed one happens, puts Speaker Boehner at risk of losing the Speakership — great risk — and equally great risk of being primaried from the right himself and losing his seat in 2012.

And he knows this. So he’s going to wait until the last possible second. Because he’s got to make the worst decision a politician can make. He’s either going to be an ex-Congressman who saved the U.S. credit rating and helped avoid an even greater Depression, or he’s going to be sitting Speaker who presided over further economic collapse, credit downgrade, and a host of other catastrophes.

And that’s a terrible place to be. If he makes the former choice, I would suggest that we all give him the props he deserves, because he will have committed career suicide, in order to do what’s right for the country. And whether I like Boehner and his beliefs, someone who’s willing to do that deserves our respect.

And if he decides to walk off the cliff with the Class of 2010, then he, and they, will deserve their place in history. And it won’t be a good one.

Modernist Dinner, a post-mortem

Last night, I made dinner for a group of friends, in lieu of my usual July party celebrating moving to the island.  The change in format was stimulated, primarily, by the publication of Nathan Myhrvold’s magnum opus, Modernist Cuisine.  I was an enthusiastic early adopter, preordering the book last winter, and Myhrvold and his team really delivered.  It’s a rich vein of modern culinary knowledge — the Escoffier of the early 21st century, without a doubt.  My friend (and superb chef) Madden Surbaugh described it as “a post-graduate degree” in the culinary arts, and he’s right.

My goal in planning this dinner was really to try techniques.  I had no preconceived notions about what I’d make, but I started making lists of recipes about two months ago, after Nicole and I went to Napa and did Three Nights of Keller, and later when Scott, Nicole, and I made the pilgrimage to Chicago for Alinea and Aviary.  My method in planning the dinner was suitably nerdy on several fronts:  I treated it like a research project, and had a lab notebook, and being a software guy, the lab notebook was in the form of a wiki.  I kept notes on recipes, techniques, ingredients, possible menus, and so on.  It was fun to see how things evolved.

I tried a number of dishes that never saw the light of day.  I was taken with a “shrimp terrine” dish by Ideas in Food, but since several guests were allergic to shrimp, I turned it into lobster.  But I was also taken with Chang’s ramen from Momofuku, and ended up trying to make lobster meat “noodles” by tossing lobster tail chunks with Old Bay and Activa RM, vacuum sealing, and rolling it into a flat sheet.  After an overnight chill, I cooked the sheets at 55C and chilled, before cutting into fettucine.  This worked fairly well, although the noodles were definitely fragile (I didn’t want to use enough Activa to ruin the flavor or texture).  The noodles, served in an english pea dashi (kombu, shittake, english pea pods, bonito flakes), absolutely sucked.  They had the texture and feel of bad imitation crab.  The moral of the story is don’t do this!.

I won’t bore everyone with the full list of failures, partial successes, or things that “worked” in a technical sense but simply yielded nothing terribly interesting.  I will say, do not bother coring out and stuffing asparagus spears.  It’s not worth it.  Unless you have asparagus with a serious obesity problem, you can’t get enough tasty stuffing inside before they split and explode for anybody to really notice.  It’s an interesting idea, and if it had worked out would have elicited that “wow, cool” surprise noise that every chef is hoping to hear from their diners….but it didn’t.

What works:  tapioca maltodextrin.  Make dry caramel.  Now.  Make parmesan nuggets, or bacon powder, or….hell, grab a tasty dairy or fat and spin it with TM and serve it in some interesting way.  I happened to have a sheet of apple cider sea-salt caramel that had gone all brittle because I’d prepped it too far in advance, so I needed a new presentation than what I’d originally planned, and I remembered that Grant Achatz had done a “dry caramel” powder, and it worked.  Boy, did it work.  It wasn’t what I’d planned, but it was a happy accident, and something I’ll be doing again, especially early in a meal with savory and smoky elements, like the dehydrated double-smoked (house-cured) bacon I paired it with.  Get some TM and start screwing around.  Seriously.

Also:  low-acyl gellan.  After some futzing with other gelification agents, I was wary.  I clearly need more practice with methocels, for example, before I’m ready to unleash something on unsuspecting diners.  But low-acyl gellan:  brilliant.  Sherry vinegar gel cubes to serve with oysters were a breeze.  Measure carefully but then, it just works.  It exhibits a first-order phase transition when the liquid cools below the magic temperature — one second it’s a liquid, the next, it’s a semi-brittle gel, boom.  Stable and still tasty after storage in the fridge, it’s forgiving and completely within reach of cooking at home.  Highly recommended.

What I hated:  working with transglutaminase.  I did the “Checkerboard Sushi” from Myhrvold.  Twice.  The first time, I destroyed way too much nice maguro and hamachi from Mutual Fish when the “slurry” got gloopy (which it does in about ten seconds), and I ended up with blobs between the fish slabs.  You have to work fast with Activa.  What they don’t tell you, is that “fast” means “superhumanly fast.”  The second time, I dusted the slabs through a tea strainer.  It didn’t bond nearly as well and the resulting slabs were fragile, but they looked great and tasted great, and that’s what counts.  It just limited me on presentation possibilites, where a full bond would have been more robust for draping or whatever.  But I hated working with the Activa.  I have a full bag of it, and will probably do it again, but it’s certainly not something I’ll whip out for my own pleasure and use in the kitchen.  Too much hassle and fuss.

Silica gel packets and a food dehydrator — wonderful tools.  A food dehydrator that isn’t circular and takes a rectangular tray would be even better. I sense one in my future.

And if you don’t have an iSi cream whipper, stop reading now and go to Amazon and buy one.  I used this dozens of times in the course of a couple of days, it’s perhaps the handiest tool I have for doing modernist dishes.

I’ll probably have more notes in the days to come, especially as I review my lab notes.  But get in the kitchen and play around!