The Magazine

A Letter from the Beach

From the Scrapbook

Jul 30, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 43 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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Scrapbook correspondent James W. Ceaser, the distinguished University of Virginia professor of politics, emails a charming note from the beach, which we excerpt here:

Feelin' Crabby

***

In a mid-June ritual equivalent to a New Year’s resolution, I annually peruse The Weekly Standard’s Summer Reading issue, listing the alluring books I promise to read while tucked away on some remote beach. There is only one rule I impose on this exercise: No book may have anything to do with my own field of politics. In obedience to an earnest but now fading aspiration of becoming a Renaissance man, the selections must be historical, or literary, or artistic​—​the sorts of works reviewed by Joseph Bottum or Algis Valiunas. Of course, all this being part of a resolution, it is rare that a book order ever gets placed or, if it does, a box opened. And oh yes, I never get to the beach. 

Until this summer. With a few days having carefully been blocked out, I arrive at North Carolina’s Outer Banks with my stack of “books,” hastily downloaded at the last minute on a Kindle. At the appointed hour, I make my way over the dune, and take in the azure sky and undulating surf. Leaving my cell phone at the lifeguard chair​—​no interruptions, please!​—​I station myself equidistant between two pairs of responsible-looking adults and begin to remove the Kindle from its case. 

But to my great surprise, I discover that I am being watched. On the cusp of a small hole a few feet in front of me, a mid-sized crab, his two black eyes like jewels of onyx mounted on little posts, has me directly in his sights. Intent on holding my ground, I stare him down. After a few seconds, he raises his body like a platform on hydraulic stilts, executes a full pirouette, and slides into his underground fortress. Relieved, I return to unpacking my apparatus. 

Only that’s not the end of it. A half a minute or so later he reappears. Now he is at work, oblivious to me, excavating from his hole a full scoop of sand, which he carries in his larger claw and deposits, with the action of a back hoe, on a little mound that he is forming at the edges. Nor is he alone. My eye spots a yard or so down to my left another redoubt, with another crab at work, and likewise in the opposite direction. 

The Kindle back in its zipped case, I am by now fully absorbed in another world, privy to all of its operations. Continued observation reveals new details. These fellows are not exactly the same. And why should they be? One, closer to the moms who have been discussing their kids’ college preferences, is more energetic than the others, disappearing and reappearing more frequently. But his mound hardly seems to grow. Another, nearer to the stockbrokers, is more deliberate, but his wall gets higher and higher.

If ever there was a time for what one German philosopher called Gelassenheit (or letting things be), this should be it. Yet unable to control my scientific impulse to master and control, I wait until Mr. Efficiency is down under, and with a small piece of paper shave off a tiny portion of his mound, what he has built in the last hour, which I estimate to weigh two ounces. I scurry back to the lifeguard chair and pick up my cell for some calculations. In my little area of 27 square feet, there are three crabs moving (roughly) 6 ounces of sand in a single hour. With the Outer Banks being 200 miles in length, and if we assume the same density of crab populations, then in a single month .  .  . the number begins to approach the national debt.

And just when you think nature is in harmony and these creatures content with their lot​—​each crab in his hole, all’s right with the world​—​you find you are in for some further surprises. After some time, one of the crabs abruptly ceases his labor and goes on the move. I am distressed, the old complaint of Carole King—doesn’t anybody stay in one place anymore?​—​coming to mind. But oh how they move, up on tipclaws, sliding with equal ease, without breaking stride, from right to left and then left to right. Whither? There are empty holes, tough times, no doubt​—​say I from my perch on the beach​—​of foreclosures and abandonments. 

And then the drama. OMG, one goes down the same hole as another. I wait for what seems like an eternity. Suddenly, they are both above ground, staring menacingly at one another from opposite sides of the hole. A few seconds, and one​—​the intruder​—​goes sliding off, past the stockbrokers.

It’s getting windy now, folks are packing up ready to return to their other world. I call my wife, who has been spending time with friends a couple of towns up the beach, affording me the time to pursue (supposedly) those long-talked-about literary and aesthetic refinements. The subject now is dinner. I think I hear her say something about Dirty Dick’s Crab House. “Ready to go?” she asks. “Funny thing,” I said, “I had my heart set on that little steakhouse around the corner.” 

***

In appreciation of so thoughtful a correspondence, we hereby dub Ceaser The Scrapbook’s Carcinologist in Chief (Google it yourself). ♦

Marshal Kim

The Scrapbook felt a certain satisfaction last week when we learned that Kim Jong Eun had been named a marshal of the Korean People’s Army. 

This promotion to the highest rank in the North Korean armed forces seemed, to The Scrapbook, only fitting: At 29, Kim is the world’s youngest head of state, and his sloping shoulders bear an awesome burden of responsibility. The Great Successor, as he is popularly called, has been first secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea, chairman of the Central Military Commission, first chairman of the National Defense Commission of North Korea, supreme commander of the Korean People’s Army, and a member of the presidium of the Central Politburo of the Workers’ Party of Korea. At his father’s funeral last year, he was described as “our party, military, and country’s supreme leader who inherits Great Comrade Kim Jong Il’s ideology, leadership, character, virtues, grit, and courage.” 

For “grit” alone, in The Scrapbook’s view, Kim deserves this boost to marshal. 

Which reminds us of the reliable rule that the more preposterous the tyrant, the more likely he is to indulge himself with titles, nifty uniforms, and (self-awarded) honors. Take the late Idi Amin, for example, the Ugandan dictator of the 1970s who is estimated to have murdered as many as a half-million of his countrymen. By the time this onetime private in the British colonial army was finally toppled from power, he had risen to the status of His Excellency President for Life Al Hadji Dr. Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas, and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular.

Or Jean-Bédel Bokassa of the Central African Republic. This former enlisted man in the French colonial forces was not content just to be president of the newly independent republic west of Sudan; in 1976 he transformed his landlocked homeland into the Central African Empire, and was thereafter addressed by members of his court as Sa Majesté Impériale Bokassa 1er. 

By way of contrast, The Scrapbook offers up the late Muammar Qaddafi in evidence. True to his ascetic Bedouin origins, Qaddafi​—​who was a lieutenant and just three years out of the Libyan military academy when he overthrew King Idris in 1969​—​never promoted himself beyond the modest rank of colonel. He also tended to avoid superfluous titles and honors, and as early as 1977 resigned his post as chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council of Libya, opting instead to be described as a “symbolic figurehead” in the government.

But while Qaddafi showed a certain bureaucratic restraint, he clearly let loose on the sartorial front, decking himself out in sumptuous desert robes or a variety of Ruritanian-style military uniforms. The Scrapbook’s favorite is the quasi-naval costume he tended to wear on ceremonial occasions, complete with War of 1812-style epaulettes and a mop of greasy, voluminous hair under an elaborate hat.

The Great Successor is clearly in touch with his inner North Koreanness: He is usually seen in public in the standard Mao-style tunic with a modest flag pin attached to his breast. But “Marshal Kim” has a certain ring to it, and The Scrapbook expects to see him sometime soon in more martial attire, watching his starving subjects march past.

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Low Voltage

I

t turns out that not many people are inclined to purchase a Chevy Volt. Only 7,671 of them were sold last year, and GM has suspended production multiple times despite plans to expand production to 60,000. But suddenly The Scrapbook has a powerful urge to buy one​—​and you may too once you learn what we found out last week.

The automaker has introduced a “ ‘Chevy Confidence’ program that allows buyers to return any model they’ve purchased within 30 or 60 days with less than 4,000 miles on the clock and no damage. GM calls it the ‘Love It Or Return It’ program,” reports the autoblog website. Now recall that one of the chief enticements to purchasing a Volt is that the government softens the blow of the car’s $41,000 price tag by offering a $7,500 tax credit to any purchaser. In March, President Obama was actually pushing to raise the Volt tax credit to $10,000.

However, Mark Modica of the National Center for Legal and Policy Analysis points out the “IRS tax form 8936, for plug-in motor vehicle credit, does not have any minimum time requirement for buyers to own their qualified vehicles. The vehicle only has to be new and purchased during the tax year being claimed.” That means you can buy a Volt, return it to get your money back, and still claim the tax credit the following April 15. Last year, Modica questioned whether some Chevy dealers were claiming the tax credit for themselves and then reselling the vehicles. According to Automobilemag.com, a Chevy spokesman “said there’s no real issue with the practice so long as dealerships are honest with customers” and point out “that the cars are technically used, and are therefore ineligible for the tax credit.” Modica also pointed out that last year’s IRS form didn’t even require those claiming the tax credit to list the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) of the car in question, so there was no way of telling whether the tax credit for a given Volt was being claimed multiple times. This year the tax form has been altered to require you include the VIN of your Volt. 

As for whether Chevy’s new return policy will result in people abusing the tax credit, well, that seems pretty likely. The angel on The Scrapbook’s shoulder tells us that taxpayers should refrain from abusing these tax credits. Then again, a study last year by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy found that each Chevy Volt might have as much as $250,000 in state and federal subsidies behind it. It’s hard to tell people to refrain from gaming the IRS when it can be argued that they’re just getting their own tax dollars back.

Bias? You Betcha!

A conceit of political reporting is that bias occurs least in the coverage of presidential campaigns. Both candidates are savaged equally. This hasn’t been true for years. It wasn’t in 2008 when Barack Obama was pampered. And it’s not true this year. A glaring example is the contrast between coverage of the date of Mitt Romney’s departure from Bain Capital and President Obama’s memorable gaffe: “If you’ve got a business​—​you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”

Obama uttered his remark on July 13 while campaigning in Roanoke. ABC, CBS, and NBC ​broadcast exactly one segment on their morning and evening news shows over the next five days. That segment was on the NBC Nightly News on July 17. CNN waited four days before reporting the Obama statement and then only after Romney had jumped on it.

But the networks were all over Romney on the matter of when he left Bain Capital. From July 12 through July 19, there were 17 stories on the flap over whether he really quit Bain in 1999 when he moved to Utah to run the Winter Olympics. (Thanks to Brent Baker and the Media Research Center for compiling these numbers.)

Is there any question which story was more significant? The Obama gaffe was enormously revealing of his dim view of business and high regard for government. The Romney exit from Bain? Barely a story at all. He was physically gone from the company and there’s no evidence he took part in any financial decisions at Bain after that.

To underline the bias, let’s have Romney and Obama change places. If Romney had suggested government is the key to the success of a business, the media would have run with the story​—​it would be news. Had a question arisen of precisely when Obama left his job as a community organizer, the media would have yawned.

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