Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Cartel Puzzle

Here's a homework assignment to occupy your minds while I'm away.*  In the winter/spring of 1901, J. P. Morgan and his minions assembled what became if not the first, then certainly one of the greatest, of industrial cartels.  The venture  made millionaires out of countless plodding managers who had surely never dreamt of wealth on anything like so grand a scale.  During its first year of operation (per Wiki) it comprised something like 67 percent of the nation's steel production.

It would be fascinating to look inside the mind of Morgan as he orchestrated this great edifice.  Money of course; Morgan clearly loved money.  Yet even more than money, he seems to have loved power, and together with power, good order.  Morgan clearly found competition anarchic and, worse, wasteful A part of him very likely believed that by creating US Steel, he had built an enterprise that would make a better life for it workers and its customers as well as its owners.

Perhaps he did.  Yet it is clear that he also created a virtual showcase for the economic vices of the cartel: a company almost Ottoman in its sluggish complacency--a company which, in after the miracle of its creation, seems never to have done anything innovative or ground-breaking in industrial history ever again.  You could see all this, if not before, then in the post-World-War-II period when the great behemoth painfully lurched towards irrelevance.  As upstarts around the world began to devise new ways to do an old business, USS (and, yes, its unions) slowly choked on a virtual edema of excuses and evasions.

Now compare US Steel with ATT, "the telephone company," another and even more explicit monopoly/cartel, created just six years later.  It's easy to forget in the mist of time that ATT did not begin life as the "natural monopoly" as so many people may age were long habituated to regard it.  No: it took unction  and guile and a lot of hard work to clothe  the original telephone idea with the garment of universality that gaze the system its sanctity.

But here's the fascinating parallel.  As I say, USS (would anybody argue with this?) never innovated anything.  Meanwhile ATT in 1925, still just at the beginning of its ascent to dominance, spun off what may well be the most enduringly creative research institution in the history of the United States, maybe the world.

For valuable prizes, why did one company become USS and the other become ATT?

*Oh, didn't I mention?   We're off to Europe for some summertime opera.  No, not Wagner, we don't do Wagner.

Ending the Great Stagnation: Some Practical Issues

I don't know if it's just happenstance or just me but the flavor du jour of a lot of my reading lately has been how we've just got to do something to dig ourselves out from under this debt mountain.   Public, maybe, okay, maybe not, but certainly private--the great ice cornice of mortgage debt that still hangs over our head from the aughts, and the.  Also maybe the fiery implacable demon of student loan debt whose menace is, I suspect, still only beginning to sink in on us.

Yes, well, right, sure.  But as to mortgage debt in particular--just exactly how would you do it?  As a matter of simple politics, we've  observed from the beginning  that there's large  and well-disciplined        view that any effort to assist these deadbeats  borrowers would be about as unpopular as it was to      succor the cigar-chomping gluttons perched atop the mountains of gold merde in the vaults of  Wall Street.

Yes well again.  But suppose we overrode the moral objections and soothed the instrumental fears, just exactly should we do?   Leave debtors in  possession of their homes with lower liabilities?    Write down a whole bunch of principal?  Have a jubilee?

I know the standard way to stick it to the man in creditor's rights is inflation: pay off the expensive debts with inflated confetti money.  Even if that were a good idea, it doesn't seem to be in the offing, so set it aside. I gather also that in the 30s, the Feds did engage in a kind of mortgage relief program where they bought up debt on the cheap, then refinanced with the magic of triple tax free, leaving the debtors in possession under a more tolerable burden (do I have this right?).   I know (this time I'm more sure) that the Supreme Court invalidated a farm bankruptcy law, only to to pirouette around and endorse an almost-indistinguishable statute a couple of years later. Good stories both, but do they matter to us now?

Oh, and there's that little matter of who takes the fall here--who owns those bond we want to write down?  I haven't seen or constructed a comprehensive flow of funds statement here, but I'm thinking of all those pension funds, grotesquely underfunded, scrambling for yield to meet their magical-thinking projections, happy to price as "safe" any borrower with a pulse. The pensions funds. Oh. Right. That would be me.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Kazan and the Conventions of Ethnic Casting

A bit of a followup on that last, only tangentially familial.  Main point: I'm amused to note that the family in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is named "Nolan," and  if I heard right, they are identified as "Irish."  I also I think I once heard mama say "dhrink," as in "the dhrink," supposed to kill so many Irishmen.  But if so, that was the only bit of Irish dialect among the main characters in the whole show. There was a bit of an Irish accent on the cop and the bartender--as in, I guess, how could a cop or a bartender in early-1900s New York not be Irish?

But meanwhile--if they are so Irish, how come Grandma has a German accent?  Did they bring the wrong person home from Eldercare?  I haven't any idea because, so far as I can tell, neither cast nor director ever troubled to wonder.

I know I know--we're going back to a world where, e.g., two white guys could surf through their careers  as the showpiece of a family comedy about black folks?  And Mrs. Nussbaum ("Pansy")  in "Allen's Alley" could regale her host with stories about  "meine husband Pierre"?  I loved Mrs. Nussbaum when I was young but as I guess I've said, and I had only the dimmest notion of what might be funny about such an absurdist name--heck, I scarcely knew what a Jew was.

Which brings me to another example from my mothers library.  My mother was a great fan of Angela Thirkell, the author (though I'll bet she preferred to be called "authoress") of half a dozen potboilers
 novels about life in her beloved Barsetshire--any comparison to Trollope's original is actionable.  In adulthood I read one, mainly because I was curious to get acquaint with my mother's taste and for all my smart mouth remarks, I suppose they are okay a what they are, but not to my taste.  Might just be a generational thing.

In the one I read--it must have been Cheerfulness Breaks In (
1940)--our protagonist takes in a bunch of refugees from pre-war (or early-war) Europe.   The refugees turn out to be prickly, contentious, demanding, all round a damn nuisance.  In response to which our protagonist maintains a stoic British decorum.

The modern reader will be excused for saying "right, Jewish."  I mean, who else would have  irritated a proper Englishwoman at just this time in just this way?  Fine.  but the  question is: did Thirkell know and want to conceal her knowledge from the readers, and if so, for what reason?  Bad for business?  Active malice?  Just doesn't give a damn?  Or was Thirkell simply ignorant of what she was saying, as I suspect my mother, as one of Thirkell's readers, would have been ignorant herself?

Afterthought: I suppose this kind of blindness never ends.  In 1982, producer-director Wayne Wang served up the film Chan is Missing, supposed to provide a liberated view of San Francisco's Chinatown. The lead actor was Japanese.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

My Mother and Betty Smith and Elia Kazan.

"You can skip this one if you like, that's fine."  So Mrs. Buce, the keeper of the Netflix queue.  The topic was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn from 1945, Elia Kazan's first, which she remembers* as a favorite of her childhood.--"No, actually, I'd like to.  It was a favorite of my mother's.  I remember it myself."

Turns out my memory is a bit sideways here.  On careful examination, I don't think I ever did see the movie before, although I'm reasonably sure I read the book--the Betty Smith novel which I see was the a Book-of-the-Month club selection in 1943.  I doubt very much that I actually read it at the age of seven but those charmers did tend to hang around, and even though I wasn't that great a reader in those days, I can imagine I did idle away a few hours with it around, say maybe 1948.

Whatever.  It certainly is a watchable movie, put together, it seems, by a guy who knew from the beginning how to make things happen on the screen.  I suppose it's excusable to indulge in a furtive smirk at the sheer gauzy niceness of it all:  life on the ragged edge of nothing in a world where nobody--not even papa--is anything other than decent and honorable and brimming with good will.

I suppose this is the way my mother liked to remember her own childhood, but here we're getting to the interesting part: my mother's own childhood must have been, in its own way, pretty tough.   In the movie, Dorothy McGuire had only two, then three, children.  My own mother was one of eight, then seven.  McGuire's husband is a feckless charmer, fatally given to "the thrink," as they call it in one of the few perfunctory attempts at an Irish accent.   He dies, leaving mama to pick up after him.  My mother's father also died early.  I never heard a hint that he was subject to any comparable vice; indeed, I never heard anybody say an unkind word about him at all.

Yet it must be that he left a merry old mess behind him.   And however kind the memories, the word "feckless" might not be too far off the mark. I know he left Sweden to go to sea, and later fetched up in the United States--I suppose he just overstayed his liberty.  I know he farmed for a while--if you can call it farming, in Southern New Hampshire where the principal crop, then and now, would be rocks.  I have no reason to suppose he had any experience on the farm--or knack for it either, seeing as how he carted his family out there in 1901 and back in 1907 (my mother would have been born there, in 1902).     Beyond that, I don't know much.  I had had it in my mind that he worked as a milkman--a good job, I suppose, for a likable guy who knows how to get  up early.  Lately I was told that there's a death certificate saying that he was working in a tea room. Say again, a tea room?  The milkman who came and stayed?

Anyway, here we have the widow left with eight, then seven, children (the youngest died, so my memory tells me, the same week).  If I have my dates right, the oldest would have been 16.   My grandmother succeeded in holding this family together--a fact which astonishes me more with each passing year.

And here is where life and movie begin to merge in a puzzling way,  My mother never made the slightest effort to conceal her humble provenance.   She liked to tell the story, a least in outline as I  have done year.  Yet it can't have been that smooth.  It can't have been, like the movie,  a life in which the rough places are all made so smooth.   Was she kidding herself?   I doubt it not her style.  Was she concealing stuff?  Possibly--she did keep back a couple of gnarly stories until I was an adult, but not enough to break this thread.  My best guess is that she just preferred the gauzier version and let it be.

*Not to put too fine a point on it, if I was too young for the first showing, I can't imagine how she could have seen it at all. --"Are you holding back on me about this age thing?" I asked. You think after 35 years I'd know. --"No, no, I must have seen it in some kind of rerun."  Rerun?  Did we have reruns in those days?

Fun Fact:  I see a scriptwriting credit goes to Tess Slesinger, whose novel The Unposessed, about Greenwich Village, is witty and acerb, not gauzy in the least.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Bach Log: The Leper

Our sixth night on the Bach Cantatas, this one comprising BWVs 72, Alles nur nach Gottes Willen (Everything following God's will alone);  73, Herr, wie du willt, so schicks mit mir (Lord, do with me as You will);  111, Was mein Gott will, das g'scheh allzeit (What my God wants, may it always happen); and 156, Ich steh mit einem Fuß im Grabe (I am standing with one foot in the grave).*   The common theme here is submission and stoic (yes?) acceptance of some pretty grim stuff--a pervasive theme is the healing of the leper.  Makes you wonder what the audience had experienced during the week which they are now encouraged to interpret through music and Biblical text.   There is always, of course, the promise of succor from God; or more precisely, Jesus: he will remember you, he will provide.  Mrs. B, who grew up Catholic in a German-American household, remarks on how much the theology reminds her of her own beginnings and wonders whether the Lutherans and the Catholics were closer on points of doctrine than the Great and Good in her own life instructed her to believe.

But for solace, forget about Jesus and consider the oboe: so frequently we find it called into service to take the rough edges off the text.  I wonder did Bach invent this use of the oboe, or is he merely deploying a still devised by his predecessors?

The selection does include the  most dramatic and dynamic chorus we've heard so far--from BWV 72, "Alles nur nach Gottes Willen:"  Here's the whole of BWV 72, from the Bach Collegium Japan:

*And yes, I see I really do need to standardize my form of citation. If I'm conscientious, I'll go back and try to make the earlier entries consistent this format.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Woll on Bank Bailouts

Props to Henry Farrell for putting me onto the imperfect-but-still-superb account by Cornelia Woll, offering a comparative analysis of bank bailouts.   It's the only thing that I know of that so much as tackles this ambitious line of inquiry and the fact that it might have been better is only a quibble.

Woll analyses six cases: USA, Britain, France, Germany, Ireland and Denmark (with some useful side comments on Iceland).  The takeaway: it's complicated.  Every case is different, thanks to chance and the alchemy of local circumstance.  Still, she offers a valuable framework: how far (and how) did any individual nation solve its problem through the collective action of bankers, how far via taxpayer intervention.   The "collective action" prize pretty clearly goes to France where a small gaggle of insiders who went to the same schools and built the same resumes (I'll bet they lunch at the same restaurant) were able to come up with a package that seems to have worked with efficiency and at relatively low cost.  Apparently some say the sovereign could have squeezed the bankers to pay a bit more but so far as I can tell, the political backlash has been only modest.  Oak leaf cluster to Denmark where a smaller country with an (apparently) tougher problem seemed to be able to deploy a tradition of collective effort and cut through problems that prove insoluble elsewhere (or wait a minute--maybe I just said that Denmark did better even than France).

On the "collective action: continuum, perhaps the extreme opposite may be the United States, where the possibility of solving the problem within the banking community seems never to have gotten much thought.  Odd, perhaps, when you recall that New York bankers did an impressive job of pulling together in the Long Term Capital Management fiasco just 21 years before.  Perhaps inevitably, the US wins also in terms of number of dollars pumped into the system--though in percentage terms, it seems to me they score fairly well (returns still aren't all in on how much it actually cost).    Germany and Britain seem to me to have performed in a somewhat similar manner: aggressive public intervention once it became clear that private collective action was going nowhere.  

Which leaves Ireland. By Wolls' account--and so far as I know, just about everybody else's, Ireland's response seems to have been the most amateurish and ham-handed: panicky response to individual crises with not so much as hint of an overall strategy.  Woll seems to sure the common view that Ireland's response proved costly to the state. She also argues for the less obvious proposition that it didn't help bankers much either: individual bankers may have come off worse in Ireland than in any of the others.

All this is wonderful but I can identify at least to respects in which she might have done better.  One, for all her superb general analysis, her individual narrative chronologies.   It's often quite unclear just why she is telling you what and when.  And I don't see any point at all to laundry-lists of individual names.  Perhaps the point is to show you just how individual each case is. Perhaps, but a lot gets lost in the shuffle. For example, I can believe the Irish case was an expensive shamble, although I'm not sure ever specifies just where the expense came about and how it could have been avoided.

A larger point: Woll presents her cases in the frame of a power play between banks and "government," perhaps better "the public."  She seems to take it as a given that a bailout/solution is good to the degree that it dumps costs on banks and not on the public.  My instincts tell me this is true. But as I read on, I realized that she never told me just why this is true: is there a clear moral or functional reason why banks instead of the public ought to be the payer-of-first-resort?  To my surprise, I realize that I am not so sure. I suppose the very fact that I am thinking about the issue is some testimony to her acuity in laying out the issues.  

The New Panhandlers

I'm not sure quite why, but I'm pretty sure we are experiencing an increase in the number of panhandlers on the streets of Palookaville this summer, walking the sidewalks or perhaps positioned with their dogs and tin cups,  holding up "Help Me!" signs outside (say) the supermarket.  And in particular, what I think is a novelty: the number who are  pretty,  or at least personable, young women.  

My guess is that these  are not actually hookers--no dimple-length short shorts, no garish lipstick, no Swedish-housemaid wigs.  And to be fair, I don't think they are getting much hooker traffic: we're talkin' full daylight here, in the ordinary humdrum shopping strip.  It would take a particular kind of raw  courage or blind lust to try to leverage this offer into an opportunity.  As to the girls themselves, I suspect the thought has never crossed their mind and that they would be shocked and horrified if did.  Indeed my next guess is that at least some of these are fairly ordinary middle class kids, temporarily short perhaps but not well schooled  in the exigencies of street survival.    And I hate to think of the crashing revelation that settles on them the first time some lizard rolls up and says "hi sweetie, $20 for a #$%@ &^$?"

Monday, June 30, 2014

Opera Note: Edita

If the Lord is willing' and the Rhine don't flood, then in a couple of weeks we'll have a chance to see Edita Gruberová singing the title role in Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia in Munich.   Our evidence base is thin here but it seems like something to look forward to.  We saw her once before back in 1998 at La Scala in Milan--one of only two times we've actually made it here to Opera's mother church.   It's not what you would have called careful planning: we walked up to the box office at 545p and asked if they had anything for 730p.  Well, yes. So we got to see Gruberová  of whom we had not heard, singing Linda Chamonex, of which we knew nothing.   It was well worth the effort: even without clues, you could tell she was a talent to be reckoned with.

So far as we can recall, that was the only time we've ever seen her live, though we are the proud possessors of a superb rendition of Così fan tutte where she sings Fiordiligi under the baton of Nikolaus Harnoncourt. I used to say I was no Harnoncourt fan, but this is one I could play again and again.

And that is that.  Or was until last night, when the domestic Netflix goddess conjured up a DVD of--here it is, folks, La Gruberová herself, doing the selfsame Lucrezia Borgia, in the selfsame Munich, five years ago.  As I say, we'd never seen her in it: actually we hadn't even seen the opera; we just wanted to do our homework.

We count it as well spent but for the moment, I want to set the opera aside and focus on the bonus DVD: a film, The Art of Bel Canto, built on Gruberová s career.  It was entertaining and rewarding for many reasons but here is one for the moment: your attention is called to the fact that the Diva is 67 years old--per Wiki, born December, 1946.   That's right, folks, 67 years old, and for an exercise class, how many singers can you name either male or female who are still ticking along at this stage in life?  Men, maybe a few--Placido Domingo (73) of course and I forget who else.  Women.  Hm.  Well, maybe in an earlier generation: I see that Ernestine Schumann-Heink sang Erda in Der Ring des Nibelungen, aged 71.  And that Nellie Melba staged a farewell at Covent Garden at 65.  I suppose there are others.

I haven't any idea how Gruberová  does it.  I'm sure good genes help.  But another guess is that she leads a quiet life: she seems to do most of her performing in Vienna, less than an hour's drive from Bratislava from where she was born.  Also Munich, Linz, Salzburg, Zurich: the neighborhood.  Barcelona and Madrid, but little or no Berlin or Paris.  New York, just a bit: I bet it didn't agree with her (an odd outlier: Tokyo).  About the only role that seems to bend the curve is Zerbinetta from Ariadne auf Naxos which, I gather, she performed some 200 times over 36 years.  And the DVD--it's a charming presentation but tells us almost nothing about the diva herself. She mentions in passing that she has a couple of children and we see her in what might be her country place, but none of the chummy details that are the stuff of celebrity (a Google search does turn up a husband but he doesn't make it to the Wiki).    Sounds like a well-ordered life, but a life well lived.

Movie Log: Different, or Maybe Not

Two items on the Netflix calendar.  They're different, but perhaps I can identify a common thread.

One: the legendary production of King Lear with James Earl Jones, given at Joe Papp's New York Shakespeare-in-the-Park in 1973.   It's a delight, although you have to get used to the fact that the actors are declaiming the way they need to for an outdoor audience on a summer evening. Not an easy job: I've joined the Shakespeare-in-the-Park audience exactly once in my life--this in 1996--and I sat in the back row from which, for all their apparent declamation, I couldn't hear a thing.  But then, the play was Timon of Athens (only time I ever saw it) and perhaps it was just as well that I did not hear a thing.

Lear is different on that score: this was actually our third Lear within a year and I haven't any idea how many I might have seen over a lifetime (actually not that many, but more than three).  We are at the point where (unless silenced) we can chime in with our own interpretation of favorite lines--never fun for anybody, I suspect, except the utterer.  We're also at the point where any performance is going to live in the shadow of previous performances, perhaps for good, more often for ill.   Is Raúl Juliá really okay for Edmund the Bastard?  Well, yes, actually, though it took a few minutes' getting used to.  But that guy who played Edmund's father, Duke of Gloucester--he of the old-pro résumé, should be dependable for anything. Grant that he had to shout, but can't he do anything but shout?

And Jones himself?  I quite liked him.  By our time he comes so close to self-caricature, you wonder if he can ever actually get out from behind the glaze.  But you got the sense that he'd given thought to every line, that he had a purpose and was determined to get it across.  Mrs. B did spot one problem--he seemed to get younger as the evening went on, or perhaps better, to forget how old he was (in life, 42; in character "fourscore and upward").  It was almost as if he was telling himself: hey, it's working, I'm bringing this off!  No matter, well worth the time and the attention.

Second item: Street of Shame, an account by the extraordinary Kenji Mizoguchi of intertwined lives in a Tokyo brothel.  It's filmed with all of Mizoguchi's legendary patient compassion.    You can't call it "realistic" exactly: I double-dare anybody to watch 87 straight  minutes of what life is really like in a brothel (though perhaps Boardwalk Empire comes close).  But it is unblinking in its own way. And you think--wait a minute, this is 1956. Say again, 1956?   Tokyo?  A compassionate film about the lives of sex workers?  Who exactly was watching?  Would anybody have done (did anybody do) anything in America even remotely close?

I've already conceded that there isn't much of a common thread here, although I suppose you can add both to your "unblinking compassion" file.  And here is one more: in both cases, I found my selves thinking about the film itself but also about the context--context(s) which seem so far away.  New York in the 70s: not a happy place, but there is something joyous about seeing Juliá and Jones and several other minority theater folks on on display in such a desirable venue.   I'd been telling myself it was some kind of a breakthrough, but now: a glance at the old cast list shows me that both Jones and Juliá had performed in the Park before.  Still in both cases, that in both cases, the content seems so long ago and so far away. From 1973, or 1956.  Long ago and far away: how did that happen?

Thursday, June 26, 2014

They Could Have Saved Us All Two Hours ...

Last night for the first time I saw The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and I can only wish I had waited longer.  How this steam in' heap of bloated confusion ever made it to the top of anybody's movie list, except perhaps as a Guantanamo torture film.

For starters, nothing about the setup makes any sense.  This guy has been in the Senate for 25 years and nobody back in Tinytown remembers how he got his start?   Not the editor?  Not even the old marshal?  And who made that lunkhead marshal to begin with?  And why did they let him stay in the job? And wouldn't somebody have wanted to clean up the debris of the incinerated old house?

But I guess my real problem is the prating busybody bullyboy John Wayne who reminds me of so many of the guys who used to make my life so miserable when I was a kid.    I guess I'm glad that he did (so it seems) indigent and alone. But if he was such a law and  order guy, why didn't he just take out Lee Marvin in the same reel and save the whole town its heartache?   Surely "looking like the Joker in a bad Batman remake"ought to be a capital offense even in the most raucous frontier town.

None of this, I admit, has anything much to do with the larger political message, supposed to give the film its heft and dignity. So just remember children: your nation is run by apron-wearing pantywaists who are the helpless pawns of gun-toting thugs.