Unoriginal impressions of Brasilia

by Chris Bertram on June 2, 2013

I’m in Brasilia for two nights, which is a little bit unexpected. I’ve travelled here for a Rousseau Colloquium in nearby Pirenopolis but it turns out I’m not going there until tomorrow, hence this opportunity to explore Brazil’s capital city.

I say, “opportunity”, but that is a bit misleading since the pedestrian here has to find the few footpaths that have been grudgingly placed along six-lane highways and then, when necessary, seize the chance to run across said highways in order to get from A to B.

As a new city, built on the red highland earth in the 1950s, Brasilia incorporates all the best town-planning theory of that era. It is rigidly divided into different zones or sectors, each dedicated to a particular function or activity. Commerce and government have their designated zones, and so do hotels. Apparently, nobody had the idea that the people staying in hotels might want to see anything other than more hotels …

Having said that, there is something magnificent about the fading modernism of the place, particularly the Congress Building and the Praca dos Tres Poderes. Oscar Niemeyer had a good eye for form and structure; pity the poor humans. On a bus tour this afternoon we whizzed past some government building, all clean and pure, but it seemed to be guarded by people dressed in something like Swiss Guards’ uniform: two different notions of how to project the state’s majesty, incongruously juxtaposed. But the strongest clash with the modernist ideal comes from nature, from the cracked concrete, the uneven surfaces, the red earth and plant life pushing through. A city of two million people where nobody lived before; a triumph of bureaucratic will, but for how long?

When I made some remarks along these lines on Facebook, Michael Rosen directed me to a clip from Robert Hughes’s The Shock of the New. As he puts it, “miles of jerry-built Platonic nowhere infested with Volkswagens.” Needless to say the film is followed by angry comments saying that Hughes doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Well 48 hours in a place hardly gives me the right to an opinion either, and, as a fan of James C. Scott’s critique of high modernism, I’m already ideologically predisposed. But Hughes seems broadly correct to me. Enjoy

Why Aren’t You Two Ponies?

by John Holbo on June 2, 2013

All this stuff about conservative reformers – the lack thereof – is right up my alley! But I’m too busy. But here’s something. I was thinking back to good old ‘and a pony‘ days. Almost 10 years on, it’s time for a new pony joke.

Conservative reformers are such Charlie Brown figures. Lucy and the ball and all that. But that’s a bit too obvious. And it lacks ponies:


I suppose Charlie Brown is David Frum and Josh Barro and co., and Snoopy is the Republican Party, and the Little Red-Haired Girl is America. If you chop off the final panel, then Charlie Brown is Ross Douthat and David Brooks. Admittedly, the joke needs a bit of explaining – always a bad sign. Fortunately for all of us, I don’t have the time.

I’ve been reading a lot of Peanuts lately (so maybe I was lying about not having time, but it felt like I was telling the truth.) My 9-year old daughter just loves it, and the 11-year old likes it, too, which makes me so happy. (Blessed is the parent whose children actually like the old pop culture things he wants them to like, thereby feeding his adult nostalgia craving for childhood to be a certain way. You are supposed to read Peanuts! They like those old Rankin Bass holiday specials, too. Belle doesn’t really like them.) We check the fat, Fantagraphics volumes out of the library. We’re in 1967-1970 now. I think that was a particularly good period for the strip.

Outrage, schmoutrage

by Henry Farrell on June 2, 2013

The “Washington Post has a story”: with politicians expressing outrage about the recurring scandal of federal employees going to conferences with training videos and food and stuff.

bq. The Internal Revenue Service spent an estimated $49 million on at least 220 conferences for employees over a three-year span beginning in fiscal 2010, according to a forthcoming report that will prompt fresh scrutiny of the already embattled agency. … The report focuses especially on an August 2010 conference held in Anaheim, Calif., for roughly 2,600 agency employees in the IRS’s small business and self-employed division, a unit that assists small business owners with tax preparation and is based in Lanham. … The conference cost roughly $4.1 million and was paid for in part with about $3.2 million in unused funds from the IRS’s enforcement budget, a decision that didn’t violate IRS guidelines, according to aides briefed on the audit. … During the conference, employees watched two training videos starring division employees that cost at least $60,000 to produce, according to the audit’s estimates.

bq. Charles W. Boustany Jr. (R-La.), who had learned about it and a television production studio at the division’s offices in New Carrollton. Boustany chairs the House Ways and Means Committee’s oversight subcommittee and also fielded some of the first allegations that tea-party-affiliated groups were being inappropriately targeted as they sought tax-exempt status. “The outrage toward the IRS is only growing stronger,” Boustany said in a statement Friday. “Clearly this is an agency where abuse and waste is the norm and not the exception.”

When _much_ more lavish conferences are held by private sector US corporations or professional associations (including academic associations, if your university doesn’t pay for it), they cost the US government lots of money too. Within various rules and strictures, they’re considered legitimate tax deductible expenses which people and (as best as I understand it) businesses can declare against earnings. You can make the case, obviously, that these conferences and events are mostly useless boondoggles. You can equally well make the case, if you want to, that they’re useful opportunities for social networking, building up esprit de corps and all of that good stuff. What you can’t make the case for, unless there’s some very subtle argument which escapes me, is a distinction under which conferences (for government employees) that cost the US government lots of money are obvious cases of abuse and waste, while more lavish conferences (for non-government employees) that cost the US government lots of money, are perfectly legitimate business expenses that we shouldn’t be bothering our pretty little heads with.