Friday, September 5, 2008


So I've been listening to back episodes of Jon Stewart and Colbert while I've been working and something really struck me when I got to about 11:15 in this Colbert episode.

Colbert is talking about all the statements about how "the GOP is the party of change in this election", and it made me think: that's REALLY saying something if the Republicans are trying to claim Obama's slogan.

They're also saying "Obama isn't really a 'change'" - and that's expected. It's expected that your opponents will try to debunk your own slogan. But they've been trying to adopt it. Kind of interesting.

Most interesting label put on Sarah Pallin yet...

George Meyerson has called Sarah Pallin's style "maternalized Nixonism". I really like that - it's catchy.

Meyerson does a great job distinguishing between Reaganesque Republicanism and Nixonian Republicanism, and argues that the convention has been all Nixon.
On Pallin in general: I don't think this "teenage mother" stuff should matter. And I'm convinced that nobody else does either. It's a little disturbing that the McCain campaign is trying to paint the media as ganging up on Pallin. He's able to do this by lumping together tabloid-style sources that talk about Trig being Pallin's grandson together with major news media who are legitimately questioning her qualifications and reformist credentials. So when someone asks "have you vetted her?" McCain get's all huffy and pretends they were implying something about her daughter, when really it's a very legitimate question.
Anyway - I think she's a very odd choice, but not a bad one necessarily. They're putting her up as a superlative, just like Obama. A "first woman" to match the Dems' "first black man". But of all the women to chose, Pallin seems to be a funny choice. She's no Hillary, in other words (I'm saying this and I didn't even LIKE Hillary that much). So it's all a little strange.
Jon Stewart has a really funny piece on this, where he's looking at people's criticism of Hillary and others a couple months ago and their reaction to Pallin now and how it's contradictory (this part of the show starts at around 10:45).

Fresh, Juicy Numbers!

OK, so there's a contingent of economists out there that salivate over the monthly release of some statistic or index by the federal government. I am usually not in this crowd. Nevertheless, two important statistics have come out on the cusp of this particular summer that I thought merited mention.

Today, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released the most recent unemployment data. No surprise - we hit a five year high for unemployment: 6.1%. Paul Krugman has an interesting, quizzical perspective on this figure in his blog this morning. To summarize: 6.1% is bad, but for some reason we're still not in a recession... as Krugman says, the economy is being "ground down" rather than crashing - and this may be what recessions start to look like in the relatively inflation-free early twenty first century.

The second bit of data is the annual Census release of the poverty figures. The Post reports that these figures show an unchanged poverty rate from last year - hanging at 12.5% (no statistically significant difference from last year's 12.3%). Median incomes have climbed slightly. The big story out of these Census numbers surrounds health insurance. The number of people without health insurance has declined by 1 million since last year, from 47 million to 45.7 million. This is unlikely to deflate the momentum behind national health care, but hopefully it will at least moderate some of the positions and move the emphasis away from "coverage" per se, and onto costs - which I think is the real problem.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

New Work on the Panic of 1819

So I've been inspired by my brother's lit-review style blog posts to publicize some new research on a seemingly trivial topic that actually has quite a bit of importance in the field of economics: the panic of 1819.

1819 is memorialized by economic historians as the first modern boom-bust cycle experienced in America. Unlike previous depressions, which were clearly attributable to events such as wartime blockades or specific disastrous policy decisions, 1819 seemed to come out of nowhere - a confluence of causes that did not emerge from a single source. This "natural" emergence of crisis was a rude awakening for Americans (who always like to hold someone accountable for problems... we're too damn optimistic to accept the idea that life just sucks sometimes), and it marked the beginning of a new era of economic volatility and state management of the national economy.

For a long time, the panic of 1819 was realtively neglected. It was actually the Austrian School of economics that first brought substantial attention to 1819. Murray Rothbard's book "The Panic of 1819" is probably the most important book written on the crisis, and it is conveniently provided in it's entirety as a pdf by the Ludwig von Mises Institute, an excellent scholarly community based in Auburn, Alabama, and dedicated to the propogation of Austrian economics. Rothbard takes a unique, and thoroughly Austrian approach to 1819: his investigation is primarily concerned with the policy reactions to the crisis, rather than the causes of the crisis itself. From what I've read of the preface and conclusion, Rothbard is quite even handed with the monetary expansionists who clamored for the suspension of specie payment in the early 1820s. Nevertheless, it's clear that he sides with then President Monroe, who resisted the expansionist pressure and relied on tight monetary policy.

A new and long-awaited book on the panic of 1819 has been published by Dr. Clyde Haulman, professor and former chair in the economics department at the College of William and Mary. Haulman's book, "Virginia and the Panic of 1819", emphasizes the origins of the crisis, with particular emphasis on Virginia. He highlights two factors that make Virginia's experience: (1.) the agricultural boom the state experienced as a result of the strong demand for food following the Napoleonic Wars, and (2.) the pivotal role that Virginia played in early westward expansion, and the land speculation that came with it. High commodity prices and land speculation created a formidable bubble that hit the Commonwealth hard when it popped in 1819.

One last note on Virginia and westward expansion. I think this is a facet of American history that few people know about but that is very very important. Did you know, for example, that Abraham Lincoln was born in Kentucky, and not Illinois? And that Lincoln's father was not born in Kentucky - he was a Virginian in the early 1800's? Can you imagine how history would have been different if Lincoln's father had stayed in Virginia - if Lincoln was a partisan for the Old Dominion? In her book, "Dominion of Memories: Jefferson, Madison, and the Decline of Virginia", Susan Dunn emphasizes this period as a huge "brain drain" on the Commonwealth. As elder statesmen such as Monroe and Madison resisted reform into the 1820s and 1830s, Virginia's best and brightest struck out for Kentucky and the Ohio country, leaving the Commonwealth in the hands of less qualified statesmen. It took a huge toll on the Virginian polity and economy.

Vernon Parington's monumental work "Main Currents in American Thought" puts a slightly rosier spin on this development. He calls Virginia "the mother of the agrarian West" (read: "the mother of the reformers and populists of what we now call the Midwest"). He also speaks of the "Virginia Renaissance", but acknowledges the slip from what he calls "middle class ideals" to "plantation ideals" during this period. Nevertheless, Parington is far more severe with South Carolina; he contrasts "Virginia humanitarianism" in the Virginia expansion into the Ohio country with "Carolina imperialism" and South Carolinians' expansion into Mississippi, Alabama, etc.

Now that I've used two paragraphs to diverge from the panic of 1819, I think it's time to end this post. Suffice it to say that westward expansion was going on long before cowboys and gold miners - and Virginia played a huge role in this process. In doing so, it reshaped itself (probably for the worse), and reshaped the nation (probably for the better). Congratulations on your new book Clyde! I've been waiting for this since I heard you were working on it my sophomore year!

Rally for the Republic

Clips from Ron Paul's "Rally for the Republic" in Minneapolis.

I like these strains in American politics. I think they're very important. I also think that if we downplayed the two-party system, a lot of the things that Ron Paul is concerned about wouldn't be an issue.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

H.P. Lovecraft

So while we were at the beach, we played a game that my future brother in law had, called "Arkham Horror", a cooperative board/role playing game based on the horror stories of H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft wrote short stories in the early twentieth century about otherwordly horrors and monsters that the protagonists would have to defeat (although they often failed). Central to Lovecraft's stories was the theme of the horror that would overcome humans if they really comprehended how alien and dangerous the universe is. Anyway, I'm really excited to read some of his short stories. Sounds like a very pessimistic, futuristic, existential Edgar Allen Poe. There was one neat quote on his Wikipedia page that I thought I'd share:

"The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents... some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new Dark Age."

Heady stuff... and a not altogether unreasonable assessment of where science untempered by ethics may bring us some day. I'm excited to read more, but thought this was all very interesting and worth posting.
In other horror news, I saw "Sweeny Todd" (with Johnny Depp, that creepy lady from Fight Club, and Sacha Cohen, aka Borat) the other day. It's the story of the "demon barber of Fleet Street", a man who was robbed of his wife and daughter and takes revenge on unsuspecting customers. Very bloody. Very whimsical. Very Tim Burton.
I don't know, the whole aesthetic of these scary stories and ghost stories is very appealing to me right now. It's because of the advent of Autumn or something , I don't know.

A Few New Wineries

So I've been in the Outer Banks for the last week, but on the way we attended a few tastings at some wineries that I wanted to share.

The first was a return visit to the Williamsbug Winery, where our wedding reception was held. Williamsburg has a great selection of wines at very good prices. It was startling for us to go there and remember that a high quality, Virginia winery has bottles for sale at $7, $8, and $9. I think Williamsburg is especially notable for some wonderful blends and table wines. "Two Shilling Red" is still one of my favorite reds, and we got some "Governor's White" as a nice, crisp, fruity white to have at the beach. These are all on the lower end of the price range, but taste great. Kate and I picked up a Henings Statute Cabernet Sauvingon - named after the 1769 law passed by the House of Burgesses, authorizing 100 acres of public land in Williamsburg to be used for growing grapes for wine. We've been really attracted to the Cabernet's lately, and I think you'll notice that throughout the post.

The next stop was Sanctuary Vineyards, in Currituck County, NC. Sanctuary was a real treat, because they also had wines from two other North Carolina wineries (Martin's Vineyards and Moonrise Bay) for tasting and purchase. These two wineries are located on Knott's Island, which we would have had to take a ferry to get to.

The wines at Sanctuary were classic North Carolina - with the muscadine grape front and center. Muscadine wines are a singular experience, scoffed at by European wine aficionados who think that only dry wines should be taken seriously, and ignored by California vinters who are secretly just jealous that they can't grow the grape. The Muscadine grape thrives in the hot, humid climate of the Carolinas. The wine-maker (who also gave us our tasting) at Sanctuary told me that they won't grow north of Norfolk, VA. Another interesting factoid is that the Muscadine grape is a grape that is native to America, like the Norton grape. If it is growing at all in Europe (which seems doubtful), it is because it was transported there from the United States. These wines are exceptionally sweet, but they have an interesting honey/tangy sweetness to them. There is no way to confuse a muscadine wine with a sweet Riesling or Petit Manseng. It's very hard to describe for me, but its hard to forget after you've tried one. Normally I don't like wines that are too sweet either, but I do like fruity wines, and I had to appreciate these for their uniqueness. However, we didn't pick up any Muscadines here. There was a Cabernet we liked, and two different red blends (one was called "Atlantis", and the other "Coastal Collage").

After a couple days at the beach, we visited Native Vine Cellars and Tasting Room, which was just off of Caratoke Highway, which runs down the Outer Banks. Native Vine also provided tastes of wines from all of North Carolina. Some of the most impressive wines came from Biltmore Estates, the winery on the Vanderbilt property in western North Carolina. These were classic wines: a lusciously buttery Chardonnay; a dry, surprisingly smooth Cabernet; a fruitful, peppery Syrah. Excellent, excellent fines wines. These were clearly not the products of a small, start-up winery.

We did end up buying a Muscadine wine at Native Vines, specifically a Scuppernong wine. I'm no expert in the Muscadine family of grapes yet, so I couldn't tell you the difference between a Scuppernong and another type of grape, but this particular white was delicious and sweet - with enough fruitiness so that the sweetness wasn't overpowering. An interesting bit of trivia is that the oldest continuously producing grape vine in the world is actually a Scuppernong vine, growing at the site of the oldest (non-continuously existing) English settlement in North America: Roanoke Island, North Carolina (a picture of this vine heads this post). We learned that from our tasting, but from the Scuppernong Wikipedia page I also came across a nice little poem dedicated to the grape:

"The winter will be short, the summer long,
The autumn amber-hued, sunny and hot,
Tasting of cider and of scuppernong;"

by Elinor Wylie

There were also several fruit wines at this tasting: Blackberry, Strawberry, Peach, and Raspberry. Now, once again - while I like fruity wines made from grapes, I'm usually not too big a fan of deserty fruit wines. The same holds here - we didn't end up getting any of these. But lets face it - a glass full of blackberries is incredible to drink, however you cut it. It just wasn't what made it into our collection.

Before we leave Native Vine, I also want mention a beer that I got there. I asked the winemaker what of the many North Carolina beers he carried he would suggest, and eventually I settled on Fest Beer from Weeping Radish Farm Brewery, in Jarvisburg North Carolina (just north of Sanctuary Vineyard). This beer was really great - it was a hoppy ale with a really full malty/yeast character to it. It almost tasted a little sour from the yeast - but I mean that in a good way. It was interesting. I'm trying to think of a beer that it's comparable to so I can communicate that better - I'll update this if I think of one.

We went out for drinks after dinner on Wednesday night to the Outer Banks Brew Station, in Kill Devil Hills. I got a sampler of four of their beers - I liked the Mutiny Pale Ale best, but I also liked the Olsch (their signature Pilsner). They had an interesting oatmeal stout too - and I also like their wheat ale. The wheat ale reminded me a lot of Sam Adam's Summer Ale. It didn't have the lemon zest of the summer ale, but the wheat flavor was relatively muted much like that classic Sam Adams brew, which I appreciated.

FINALLY - on the return trip, after stopping for lunch in Colonial Williamsburg, we went to the brand new New Kent Winery, off of interstate 64, right before you hit Richmond. This place is younger than my new niece Sophia (although obviously it has been gestating a little longer than she has). You heard it first here - New Kent will be a powerhouse in the Virginia wine industry. These guys were on the mark. First of all, they had a gorgeous tasting room and winery, "built from materials reclaimed from buildings and structures well over a century old", according to their website. Their wines reminded me more of the wines from the Williamsburg Winery or Biltmore Estates, rather than the other wineries we've tasted that opened in the last decade or so. They produce only six wines right now - all of which we tried. The Chardonnay and Chardonnay Reserve (2004) were smooth and buttery - like a good Chardonnay should be. The Vidal Blanc was a little sweet for my tastes, but it wasn't overpowering. It tasted just like a Riesling, and had that crisp, green apple taste at the front that made it more drinkable than other wines of that sweetness. The Merlot was good, but not exceptional. I was very impressed with the Meritage (a Meritage is a blend - basically an American Bordeaux, because the damned French wouldn't let us use that word... just like they won't let us use "Champagne" anymore). Strong, bold, smooth - fruit forward. And finally, their "White Norton". It looks like a rose, but oh no - don't be fooled by its appearance. When the taster described it as a "bold, lighter wine" I didn't have very high hopes. Everyone that makes a rose wants to try to tell you that it's "bolder" than other roses... and who can blame them? You don't want to just make another white wine that has a pink color to it. Usually, in my mind, they fail to live up to their talk. This was different. The Norton grapes, which are big, flavorful, earthy grapes, really gave it a grape-jam kick. It was also surprisingly peppery - sort of like a Cabernet. This taste doesn't stand out as much for Nortons, which made the White Norton notable. Most of all, I think this rose had body - it coated your mouth and really hammered back at the white bread we offered with the tasting. It is not just a sipping/brunch wine. It can stand up to a lot of substantial food.

WOW - that was a marathon post. It must seem like we went on a wine tour rather than a beach vacation. But that brings me to the final point that I want to make: if you live in a wine growing region, get outside and do some wine tastings. As glamorous as these excursions were, they cost five bucks a pop in most cases (Sanctuary was free), and didn't take up too much of our beach time. We came home with six free wine glasses on top of that. It supports small, local businesses and it also contributes to an industry that is millenia old, and that has been practiced on these shores since settlements first started sprouting up. You aren't throwing away money on some stupid item that's mass produced in China, or some pop sensation that we won't even remember a year from now. In a year, the reserve Cabernet we picked up might still be in our wine rack, and it will be even better than when we got it. The simple Two Shilling Red or Governor's White of Williamsburg Winery will never go out of style because they're classic blends for that establishment, and for us because they were featured at our wedding reception.

And if you have the time, money, and inclination I also encourage you to start a wine collection. Think of it as an investment - these wines are an appreciating asset because they get better with time. Even if they're not a wine that's meant to age - and you only open it a month or two later, they appreciate in value simply because when you pop that cork you relive the memory of visiting that winery, or the first time you tried that wine (if you didn't get it from a winery).

OK - I'm going to stop here, but I'm serious about this. Support the place that you call home - there are wineries all over the country. Support these farmer-manufacturers and the winery tradition. Don't forfeit your tastes to what is in vogue in the south of France right now. If you're in Virginia - try to fall in love with the Norton, or the Muscadine if you're south of here. Learn to appreciate our own wine heritage.