Saturday, April 19, 2014

Can't Anybody Play This Game?

I read Rick Perlstein's Goldwater book a few years back with pleasure and profit.  I picked up a copy of Nixonland but it has been languishing on the shelf.  Seeing that he has another on the way, I figured it was time I played catchup.

Short take: I'm sorry I waited. It's superb.    Perlstein has Nixon's number.  Which is to say, he captures not only the subject;s own creepy-crawly self-pitying, vindictive, resentful self, but he puts him into the context of his times: Nixon with his base.   Perlstein shows--I wouldn't say exactly how Nixon and his base "created" each other, because they were both fully formed when they met. Perhaps better to say "discovered" each other and nurtured each other's grievances into a political revolution.

Perlstein tells me a lot of things I had forgotten, or perhaps never knew (and some I would be glad to forget) about Nixon and his history: how he was the only marquee Republican who actually campaigned for Goldwater in '64; how the CEO of Pepsi muscled Nixon into his interim job at (what had been) Mudge, Rose, Guthrie and Alexander that sort of thing. Re "the base" in particular:  The Reagan fanbase (to draw a contrast) is well remembered, partly because they're still with us, and they love to talk about it.  Nixon's--I think we may have forgotten that Nixon didn't do it on his own. He had his own cadres, playing out their own game--not perhaps with the Reaganite buoyancy but with a sullen kind of devotion that stayed with him to the end.

Perlstein is also first-rate in showing how skilfully Nixon wrong-footed his adversaries--not Kennedy, of course (whom Nixon seems in a way to have admired).   But the comfortable and (dare one say) clueless Democratic establishment who were just never able to get it straight in their mind what Nixon was, nor the depth of the currents that he excited.

I want to extend the point, but I need to go forward carefully. I want to say something about our own times, but I want not to be read as saying "it's all just the same."  It's not the same and to pretend that it is would be to sacrifice indispensable nuance.  But there are lots of echoes: we certainly have an army of the insulted and the injured--some really so, some in their mind's eye, some perhaps both. And we have--perhaps this is where I was heading--we still have that barrier of incomprehension. Also, not to put too fine a point on it, those legions of the serious and the well-intentioned who 
still can't get their mind round reality of the legions of the resentful.

So it is we've come up with that parade of appalling mediocrities who have carried the banner in so many Presidential campaigns.  Yes, yes, they too are serious and well-intentioned--Kerry, Gore, Mondale, Carter, the little guy in the tank and of course.the great Adlai himself, once the very cynosure of liberalism, yet now (for anybody under, say, 60) almost as forgotten as Alton B. Parker himself (oh, Google it).  [

It's a selective list.  I don't know quite what to do with Hubert H. Humphrey (but who he?).  Clinton is almost everybody's special case, but he did have the capacity to connect so lacking in almost all the others. Kennedy and Johnson--for all their differences, I'd say they held in common the kind of toughness and meanness so lacking in so many of the others.  Indeed I've often thought it was precisely because of this toughness and meanness that they almost get a bye from their Republican adversaries--the adversaries who hold so much of the rest of the list in such contempt.

Still at the risk of oversimplifying, it's a shame to see the old resentments still there in the baggage. And it's even more dismaying that we don't seem to have figured out any better way to respond to them.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Ingham's The Nature of Money

Geoffrey Ingham, The Nature of Money,  I think this is a remarkable book.  I'm a little out of my depth here (and actually, I haven't finished it) but it's the most useful thing I ever read on the topic.  Put narrowly, it is just what its title says it is: an attempt to probe beneath the surface of a subject so manifestly cloaked in opacity.  It's written by a non-economist, which is good.  It's written by a self-admitted sociologist* which is better.  And perhaps even more remarkable: non-economist academics who stray into the field often stumble into a bog of abstract fulmination which suggests that after all, they really don't know much of what they are talking about.  Ingham by contrast sounds like a sociologist who has been locked up with economists for a decade or so and lived to tell about it (from what I read somewhere, I think this last guess is more or less correct, but I can't put my finger on the source just now).

You don't read many pages of Ingham without thinking that this is the kind of book that David Graeber thought he was writing, or perhaps should have written.  It isn't really; Graeber is must much more scattershot richer in detail, far more intent upon testifying to his disaffection with the current system.    I don't remember Graeber citing Ingham, but god bless Kindle search, it takes just a moment to determine that--there he is, some 15-plus citations text and footnotes together.  It's none too few: I can hardly accuse Graeber of ripping off Ingham but on the whole I'd say the most arresting and/or engaging parts of Graber's book are the parts he gets from Ingham.  I see that Ingham reviews Graeber here; I  haven't read beyond the ungated first page. But I see he wants to  "focus particularly on what I take to be the underlying threads--his analysis of the nature of money, its relationship to debt, and the moral basis of economic life."  Exactly. Although actually I haven't seen that much in Ingham yet about "the moral basis of economic life;" but as I say, I'm not finished.

Continuing what I guess you could call this chartalist bent, I've lain my hands on a copy of Keynes' Treatise on Money.  Eeuw, do I really need to read all of it?
*Did I just compliment a sociologist on his writing style?  Yes, I believe I did.

And BTW:  Pardon the even-more-than-usual array of typos.  I should not blog after 9 pm.  Or wear white after Labor Day.

One More: One hundred and seven dollars? You gotta be kidding.

Monday, April 14, 2014

No Time like the Present

   "October: This is one of the particularly dangerous months to invest in stocks. Other dangerous months are July, January, September, April, November, May, March, June, December, August and February."

So Mark Twain, or so it is said.   Compare:
Black Monday
Black Tuesday
Black Wednesday
Black Thursday
Black Friday
Black Saturday
Black Sunday
One event makes the list twice. That would be Black Monday/Tuesday, the occasion of the world's largest stock market decline, which straddled the International Date Line. Thursday seems particularly bad for investors.  Blame it for the collapse of Jay Cooke & Co. Investment House on Sept. 18, 1873 (setting off the "great depression," i.e., the one that preceded the  "great depression"). Also October 29, 1929, the mother of all stock market crashes.  And the Moscow interbank crisis of August 24, 1995.  Oh, and the "flash crash" of May 6, 2010.  And if you like, also Sept. 30, 2010, when the Irish learned the truth about their banking crisis, causing their deficit to spike to 32 percent of GDP.    

But Sunday, unless I misread, is the one that has no connection with activity in the market.  On the other hand, there's this:

Sunday, April 13, 2014

DeLong on Piketty; Economist on Banks

Two can't miss weekend reads:  One. the  "Economist Essay" on the history of financial crises; and two, DeLong on Piketty--i.e., P's magisterial new study of inequality.  The Economist piece explains itself and I stand ready to offer it to anybody who needs an updated analysis of why banks ye have always with you and why they are such a damn nuisance. DeLong is a bit more technical and abstract, but he makes a couple of thoroughly accessible points that I hadn't seen elsewhere. One, that Piketty (this isy) seems to assume that “wealth” in a society = concentration. Perhaps it does, but it need not; we can imagine a society that piles up wealth and spreads it around so everyone becomes a rentier. Likewise I suppose we could imagine one where wealth concentrates even as it declines.

Two, DeLong points out that Piketty is shaky on what means by “return.” DeLong suggests four candidate-meanings and I think I get the drift although I'll admit I'm a little unclear on just how he draws his lines (hey, I was a little drunk last night and I didn't get to class until half an hour late—can I come by your office hours?).

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Cowen's Sicily and Mine

Tyler rolls his eyes at an NYT account of prodigal misspending at the Italian Tourist Board, particularly in respect to the South and Sicily.     He's right of course, but here's a guilty secret: hang the Tourist Board, I'd list Sicily as one of my own favorite tourist destinations.  I first stumbled on it alone back in 1985, diverting myself with a long weekend away from a work assignment in Rome.    I told Mrs. Buce we had to get back there together and indeed we've traveled the island a couple of times since.  In all, I've pretty well scoured the place by car bus and train and I'll go again tonight if you are offering.  

There are tourists in Sicily and facilities sufficient to care for them--Taormina is the first place where I ever stayed in a hotel with a rack rate of 800 Euros, though happily I was not paying rack rate.   Things do seem to have gotten busier with time: in '85 I had the sere, spooky unfinished temple at Segesta all to myself; two years ago we found it equipped with full tourist array.    One thing Sicily mostly does without:  the walls of high-rises one finds blazoned along the Costa del Sol.  Too bad for Sicilians who want to make a few coins, but I say thank heavens for waste and sloth at the Tourist Board.

Bibliography:plenty of good stuff to read by Sicilians or about Sicily but I have a nostalgic soft spot for Goethe's Italian Journey, my companion on that solo first foray 29 years ago, and still the only bit of Goethe that I can say I unreservedly enjoyed.  Here's a brief appreciation of the Sicilian chapters.

Friday, April 11, 2014

An Homage to More or Less Everything

Somewhat against my better judgment, I  trekked off behind Mrs. Buce to the Plookaville Multiplex this afternoon for a screening of Wes Anderson's Grand Budapest Hotel.  I was probably being too fussy. Ir's a good-natured entertainment with lots of comic side effects.  But I'll sign on with others and say I just don't get this hat tip to Stephan Zweig.  It's not that the movie is not derivative.  No: it's a virtual tropical rain forest of homages: Laurel and Hardy, Dudley Moore and Peter Cook, Holmes and Moriarty, Alfred Hitchcock, I'd say even a little of the early Disney: Pinocchio for sure, maybe a little Fantasia and I think I even sniff a little Lady and the Tramp.   If there is a hotel in the background, I suppose it would be the Hotel Savoy of Joseph Roth.  If on a mountain top, then Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain.  Or if he is just trying to make a buck on the hotel theme, then I suppose it would be The Best Exotic Marigold.  But Zweig, oy.  My guess is that he's never so much as read him.  And it doesn't have much of nothing to do with Budapest, either.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Larry on La Différence

Larry the Barefoot Bum takes me to task for my suggestion that some disparities in male-female payscales might be "justified."  He says:
When we are talking about establishing differences between classes of human beings (which seem, quelle surprise, to usually be construed as inferiority), our null hypothesis should be that there are no differences, until evidence compels us to reject the null. I do not believe that we have anywhere nearly enough evidence to conclude that that women are substantively inferior... oops... different in capabilities than men.
I'd agree 95 percent, maybe 97, maybe 94, whatever.  Assessing differences is a perilous business at best, and turns invidious at the flick of an eyebrow.  It's  very like (but perhaps not quite like) the Hegelian insight that we can't know what "man (sic) in the abstract" looks like because nobody has ever seen man in the abstract, nor women neither, for what it is worth.

But there is a dangerous slippage underfoot here.  Back in the 60s (say) we all learned (or were taught) that we shouldn't assert differences between men and women.  We subtly tramsmogrified that mandate into the proposition that there are no differences between men and women.  Narrowly interpreted, this little two-step is incoherent: if we cannot know that any categorization of men versus women is empirically based, how can we know that it is not?

Actually (one reason Hegel doesn't apply here) my take is that there are a few--perhaps very few--differences that we simply cannot explain away as matters of culture.  My pet is the fetal damage through drug use.  So far as I know, there is no dispute on the proposition that the male fetus is more vulnerable to such the risk of such damage than the female. I first ran across that one about 20 years ago.  I haven't yet run across any possible basis on which this variation could be cultural.   It's small potatoes I suppose; I suspect there are others but for the moment I only need one to make my point.

Larry is quite right that we have a long history of using this kind of stereotyping in ways that are adverse to women (Does Senator Dianne Feinstein fail to understand torture because she is "too emotional?"  No, I think not.)  But Larry might be overlooking an important cultural shift: these days, it's at least as likely that the stereotyping is used in ways that are invidious to men.    On that latter point, FWIW, I'd have to confess that I am a culprit.  I do tend to think that men are on the whole idiots. their minds clouded by sexuality and a tendency towards violence.  I suspect (though  certainly can't prove) that traits like this are hard-wired.  I think we'd make a mistake to say that of course it can't be so when the fact is we don't know at all (nb, I think I have just said that I'm not sold on Larry's "null hypothesis," supra).

By the way, does anybody remember Ashley Montagu's Natural Superiority of Women?  It was published in 1952, i.e., when I was just starting my senior  year in high school; when I was, in other words, obsessively alert to the question of the truth or falsity of just that proposition.  I see there's an Amazon review saying that "Most men will not care for [the book] at all."  I'm not at all sure that that is true: I suspect that most men know they are oafs and are not pleased with themselves for being so.  Stereotyping again.