Review: NSO at the Kennedy Center

Last night I went to hear the National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Lorin Maazel play a selection of pieces by Romantic composers: the Overture to Benvenuto Cellini, by Berlioz; Ravel's orchestration of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition; and, in between, the Grieg A minor piano concerto, played by one Simon Trpçeski, who is apparently Macedonian and whose name has an entirely different mark on the c (ˇ) but I can't manage to reproduce it and anyway it would probably still be unpronounceable. I mean, four consonants in a row? Seriously?

Ahem. Where was I? Right. The NSO was fantastic. "The Great Gate of Kiev" – finale to the Exhibition – was worth the price of admission by itself. The Berlioz was handled beautifully as well. On a side-note, however: the program informed me that a critic once said Berlioz' music contained no melody. While this is an exaggeration, I think it is a very insightful comment. Berlioz' music contains many themes, but few seem, to me, to reach a successful conclusion: instead they get lost in fantastic harmonies and variations. One moment is beautiful and the next is excellent and the motion is from brilliant moment to beautiful glimpse – but the melody is overwhelmed by the attention. His phrases are memorable; themes as wholes less so.

But mainly I want to talk about the pianist. The musical performance was superb. My impression is that his interpretation was noticeably slower than my recording of the piece (Phillip Entremont, with Ormandy's Philadelphia Orchestra), and the rests and ritards often seemed dramatically exaggerated.

However, his presentation was noteworthy. At first I thought he was a showman type, but I revised that opinion: he simply seemed to be lost in the music: during the orchestral sections, he nodded and motioned along with the most avid fans, with apparently no compunctions from self-consciousness whatsoever. At the same time, it was clear that he took a very personal approach to the music and his interaction with the orchestra. While the program notes said this was his debut with the NSO, Trpceski appeared on familiar terms with the orchestra – and especially maestro Maazel – during the performance. While I thought at times that Trpceski seemed to be deliberately exaggerating some sections to get a reaction from the conductor, I was most sure of it at the end of the second movement, when he repeated the final highest ornament three times: certainly twice. Although, I could be wrong that this was unusual – my only concrete reference is my recording and I can't find a professional review.

All in all, a highly satisfactory night – I also came away with Trpceski's recordings of Rachmaninov's four piano concertos, with the Liverpool Symphony Orchestra.


More Tax Math

Assume for the moment that we cut out all tax deductions and loopholes so that tax rates are actually tax rates, not approximations. Now let's assume for the sake of argument that I make $50,000 a year and pay 10% in taxes, and Mr. Joe "the government calls me a millionaire" Smith makes ten times as much – $500,000 a year – and pays 20% in taxes. If you said the tax ratio is 1 to 2, you're wrong. Mr. Smith, in this scenario, pays $100,000 a year in taxes, twenty times as much as my $5,000. There is a 1 to 2 ratio: Mr. Smith pays twice as much more in taxes than he makes in income compared to me. Bonus information: the facts are that IRS data supports this thought-experiment's point: even with the loopholes that actually exist top earners pay more tax than they "deserve", at least in terms of percentages.

I want to consider another facet of the problem. The fact that I made $50,000 this year and Mr. Smith made $500,000 leaves him with more money to start the next year. How much more? While I tend to spend more than this, I can live fairly comfortably – in the DC area! – for about $1,500 a month. In the above scenario, I would still have $27,000 saved at the end of the year. (I actually make less money than this, and if I did make that much money, I might spend more of it. On the other hand the tax bill would actually be about three times higher, but the point is I'd still end up saving, say, $10,000 that I "don't need".)

Mr. Smith, even if he lives much larger or has a good-sized family (or both) would have about $300,000 left at the end of the year. (Again, in reality I am guessing he would be lucky to have $200,000, unless either taxes are higher than I think they are or he had a chicanerous tax agent.) And I do not really have a problem with that. I think the more fortunate – and so far I have mostly been in that category – have a duty to provide a "fair share" of public money, one that cannot really be more than approximated mathematically. In ancient Athens, you had to bring a horse to the battle: now you have to pay 27% instead of %17. Fine, great, whatever.

But... don't me and my paltry twenty-seven grand deserve some of Mr. Smith's huge pile of extra money? I mean, I worked hard and I cannot even buy a fancy new car at the end of the year, and this guy can go buy a beach house (well, probably not a beach house, but a normal house or a cottage-up-north or a boat, anyway).

I am fairly certain – or at least sincerely hopeful – that we all agree that argument is ludicrous.

However, there is an inherent emotional appeal if we keep the scale but reduce the numbers. If I am still making $50,000, but some unfortunate can only find $5,000 worth of work to do in a year – for the record, this is less than 20 weeks – 5 months – worth of work at a minimum wage of $6 an hour (which is low) – doesn't he deserve some of my money? Surely from that $27,000 I am not going to use I can spare $13,000 to bring him up to a "decent standard of living" – I wind up keeping almost as much as he is getting. That would be "fair", right?

The answer, as far as I can see it, is no. What has this guy done for me? He is not even working most of the year, so he has been unproductive. He has not done anything particular for me. His existence has no effect on mine – except now, to take my money. Since I am not a murderous materialist, the mind rebels at the thought of just ordering any adults who cannot care for themselves shot, but it is an equally "rational" way to solve the problem apart from the minor issues of morality and sustainability as a policy, and it does not take my stuff.

I would say I do have a duty to take care of less fortunate people, as I can. Maybe I should even stop living "comfortably" and scrape by on $12,000 a year instead and throw that extra $3,000 into my own charitable efforts. What I am not sold on at all is the idea that it is any government's role – and, because I like federalism, especially not Big Government's role – to make sure I perform that charitable duty, any more than I want to government trying to make sure I don't cheat on my (hypothetical) girlfriend or do buy a sufficient number of things made in the USA or stop swimming in perfectly good water.

There is a place for what we used to call (maybe we still do) "public works programs" – roads, a competent post service, etc. – and some distribution of welfare payments may be among them. But the important word is "public". What I believe needs to be consciously and vocally rejected is the idea of "wealth redistribution" as some sort of right. It is no such thing. There is no just reason to take what one person has earned and give it to a person who has earned relatively nothing, specifically because they have earned nothing. The mind boggles. The phrase is nothing more than an entirely colorless description of what happens with any tax money. Of course wealth is being redistributed. Wealth is redistributed when it is taken from me and given to my brother because he is a Marine and on the public payroll (though at least there he has earned the paycheck) or paid to Mr. Obama because he serves as our president. The justification for welfare payments also cannot be some nonsense about individual charity. Public money is not individual, and government involvement means at least the threat of coercion, making it strictly not charitable. The only plausible justification is the public good: that such and such a policy benefits the town, or state, or nation as a whole. I think this argument can be made; I suspect it can also be denied; I am not sure who is right, and to what extent.


Science and the Fine Art (of Making Distinctions)

A friend on facebook linked this article today. Like most articles, it has its good and bad points. To the good, it points out that a Christian rejection of reason and science is a bad idea – unfortunately, I am naturally a critic, so I want to talk more about its bad points.

And the bad point is basically this: most Christians don't reject science, and are of all religions the most especially relation on rational arguments. True the premises we accept may differ from the secular mainstream, but premises have to be false to invalidate an argument. The question of falsehood is most notoriously not settled.

Anyway, Dr. Giberson makes a striking error when he offers up as evidence that "fundamentalists" refuse to believe in evolution and global warming. We'll take the latter first, because it's an easier target. To deny global warming is not to in any way disregard science: the peer pressure applied and lies perpetrated to keep up the climate change 'hype' are well-documented, if conveniently forgotten: Forbes (the magazine) on the subject; FOX on a fraudulent experiment; the BBC on how models don't match reality. And then there's the bit where thirty or forty years ago the whole "little ice age" theory was the new big thing. Man-made climate change could be true anyway, of course, but it's not like there's no debate.

And evolution? At least there pretty much is a scientific consensus here. And yes, most people who disagree are religiously motivated – though most of them take good care to find some sort of scientific basis as well (e.g. Ham and ICR's positing that much of the upheaval credited to several million years of existence could also be explained by global flood conditions). At the same time, I'm automatically suspicious of anybody claiming to know what happened 17 million years ago, especially when it might actually be 3 million or 50 million depending what the current "evidence" suggests. I don't say these conclusions are necessarily wrong: but I don't care much, not least because I don't have the expertise to evaluate the claims myself. At the same time, we don't have much but circumstantial evidence on the question. To be facetious, "God said so" seems like just as good a reason to me as "these little rocks say so" when we're talking about things I'll never actually experience myself.

Which is all to say, rejection of evolution or global warming (or other dangerously accepted idea that may not have sufficient backing) is not a rejection of reason. In fact, if anything, it's not much more than a hyper-skepticism, which I thought was supposed to be a good thing. Imagine a conversation: "This skeleton is 250,000 years old." "How do you know?" "Well the carbon here decays..." "How do you know?" "Well we've determined in a lab that..." "Okay, but this wasn't in a lab. What if something changed?" "Well we're assuming nothing major changed." "...For two hundred fifty thousand years? NOTHING major changed in two hundred fifty thousand years?" "...uh, yeah?" (Off the top of my head, wouldn't industrialization over the last two hundred years or so have changed "natural" carbon levels and stuff? Again, I'm not making a decision here on the validity of current scientific research, and I'm well aware that I'm oversimplifying drastically – I'm just pointing out that skepticism may not be entirely out of order.)

Finally, if "everyone knows" something's true... Galileo was wrong. Even if the YECs are off their collective rockers, they're at least a challenge to the scientific establishment, and answering them ought to both prove a valuable exercise and solidify the evidence further, right? Ignoring them does nothing except create ideological martyrs (if they ever get noticed at all, at least).

In other words, the worst you can accuse a Christian skeptic of, say, abiogenesis of is hypocrisy. "So you trust a book you've been told by 'experts' is divine, but you won't trust a bone 'experts' say is a million years old." But you always have to choose which authorities to trust: Hayek or Keynes? Your dad or your friends?


The Ethics of Jobs' Creations

I had somehow not managed to listen to the late Steve Jobs' Stanford Commencement speech before, but as it's been circulating again right after the man's death (RIP), I thought I would do that finally.  He said a number of good things, but one point he made stuck with me.  Paraphrasing, he said that the important thing to him wasn't the money he made; rather, it was making something better for our children.

As it happens, I don't have children of my own, nor am likely to any time soon – but I both am a teacher and have three younger siblings, and so it still resonates with me.  And not only in the realm of private activity: I thought almost immediately that this would be a great measure for almost any political proposal as well: will it make the world a better place in 20 years?  25?  50?  Too often political – and business – decisions are merely made on the basis of, "What can this do for me, right now?"


Thought Experiment: Country Singers and Politics

So ESPN dumped Hank Williams Jr. from his Monday Night Football intro music video spot thing because the singer said that President Obama inviting Rep. Boehner golfing was like Hitler going out with Israeli president Netanyahu.

It was a dumb thing to say.  At the very least it was a farcical exaggeration (which also happened to break Godwin's Law in style).  At worst it was indefensible disrespect to the sitting President.  I lean towards the latter, although I think there was no disrespect intended toward the office, which means I'm not comfortable with just hammering the guy, no matter how much I can't think of a time it would be appropriate to say.

Of course it created a small furor on the mainstream news and on the interwebs.

So I want to take a step back and pose a question.

Suppose some liberal (or African-American, or both) highly public entertainment figure, say somebody on Glee, had said something like:

"It's ridiculous, Obama inviting Boehner to go out for a round of golf is like Sarkozy inviting Hitler to hit the links."

That's almost equally indefensible, and only less so in that Boehner's a Congressman, not our head of state.  Still, you don't compare people to Hitler unless they're actually people like Hitler - looking at you, Joe.  Stalin, that is, not Biden.  In case that wasn't clear.

Would the reaction have been the same?  I'd like to think so, but I'm not comfortable actually predicting it – mainly because we have way too many loonies running around saying almost equally dumb things about the last president without a mass reaction calling them to account.