Monday, October 09, 2006

In Which I Announce the Temporary Suspension of Blogging

I’m going on an extended trip. I won’t be taking my laptop. I assume I’ll have access to computers here and there, but I don’t know whether I will want to spend time at the keyboard. So don’t look for any new postings until after November 13.

As a (temporary) farewell, allow me to offer a few thoughts on blogging:

  • It's fun.
  • It helps to keep you on your toes, and to keep your mind focused.
  • Yes, it does take time. But for the most part, I suspect it is time that I would have frittered away on something or other no more (and quite likely less) productive.
  • It gives me new respect for the serious bloggers: the Carpetbaggers, Glenn Greewalds, Patrick Kurps, etc., who engage not just in mindless yapping but actual bona fide constructive dialogue. Makes me feel like a bit of a sap, but it does tease me on to do better than I might otherwise.
  • It’s a way of keeping in touch. I suspect I have, at a liberal estimate, perhaps a dozen regular readers. No matter. If there are 55 million blogs in the world, I suspect that puts me in the top 27.5 million—nearly as good as my ranking the last time I ran the Bay to Breakers. And aside from the regulars, I do hear a surprising amount from various casuals—it has led, at least in part, to the rediscovery of at least one long-lost friend. And I am fascinated by that visitor map.

In my absence, may I invite you to browse through the archives for some of my priceless but forgotten posts. Meanwhile, stay out of trouble and I will be typing again in November.

Too Good Not to Steal

Too good not to steal:

So the Bush approach to NK is all blustery talk and very little delivery department. The NK approach to weapons research is very little bang for all the bluff.

Do these two deserve each other or what?

In Karl’s grand quest to dumb down expectations, we are left with two miserable failures hell bent on World War III. The only thing saving the planet is the only thing they succeed at—being incompetent.

Reader TR at Talking Points Memo (link)

Edmund Who?

Evidently the granters of the Nobel Prize for Economics do not listen to the smart people; instead, they gave the prize to this guy. Smart person Tyler Cowen offers a gracious summary. The Nobelists’ own account is here. Greg Mankiw calls it “a wonderful choice,” without elaboration, but a commentator points out that Phelps does not occupy a prominent place in Mankiw’s own textbook. Brad DeLong (channeling Cowen) is uncharacteristically muted. Linda at Deeareemess is less impressed:

Elmer Fudd's claim to fame? Trivial modifications and applications of existing theory.. .. Phelps took the simple idea of the Phillips curve and extended it into the expectations-augmented Phillips curve.

I wasn't joking when I said (one year ago today) that the Bank of Sweden (a.k.a. Sveriges Riskbank) was a bigger threat to the long term well-being of the United States than al quaeda.

Barkley Rosser, commenting at MR, adds:

[T]he big joke here is that what they seem to be giving it to him for is an idea that looks more and more incorrect, even if his version of it is a bit more sophisticated than the alternative put forth by Milton Friedman: the natural rate of unemployment. That this is a core idea of the New Keynesians is one of the problems with the that group, a problem that they share with the New Classicals (and some of the Old ones as well, see Uncle Miltie). Frankly, it is a good thing that the Fed under Greenspan decided to downgrade this idea back in the 90s. It would seem that the Committee is giving prizes for ideas that are past their prime

Then for no apparent reason, he closes: “...although Phelps is certainly a worthy and deserving individual for his work.”

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Philosopher, With Stones

A few years back at as “parents’ day,” one of the philosophy professors at my school dressed up in a toga (I guess he thought Socrates wore a toga) and took questions from the multitude. One questioner asked:

Are there any questions that are regarded by philosophers as answered and if so, what are the answers?

I can’t remember my colleague’s exact words, but I think you could book it under (embarrassed silence). Perhaps what he meant to say was something along the lines of this from the great Jerry Fodor:

…[T]he problems philosophers work on have turned out to be much more subtle than we used to suppose them, and much more idiosyncratic. You have to do them one at a time, and the progress you make is generally inch by inch. For better or worse … almost nobody has ‘a philosophy’ any more. What one has, if one is lucky, is a glimpse of an insight into (as it might be) the semantics of intentional contexts; or the behaviour of modals in obligation ascriptions; or the way natural laws support counterfactuals; or whether knowledge is warranted true belief—and what, while we’re at it, does ‘warranted’ mean? After what seems in retrospect to have been a very extended adolescence, philosophy hs settled into workaday middle age. It comes to all of us sooner or later.

Almost nobody has ‘a philosophy’ any more. Of course, when Fodor says “nobody,” he doesn’t mean “nobody.” He means “none of my friends,” or, if we include his enemies, then “nobody I take seriously.” The more general crowd of lay preachers, football coaches, and assorted nobodies at the bar would be surprised to learn that they were living a lie, or at least a colossal mistake, like Donald Duck who runs off the diving board and only later discovers he is in mid-air.

Fodor makes this offering in opening a review (in the London Review of Books, 21 September, page 9-10) of Michael Frayne’s The Human Touch, and you are correct to infer that it ain’t gonna be pleasant. Fodor predictably chews him up and spits him out, but he does it in a particularly fiendish way: Fodor takes Frayne seriously as a philosopher and then (with a flick of the pinky?) demonstrates that it is all just a post-adolescent mishmash (“Piffle,” Fodor says, dismissively).

I have no particular purpose to defend Frayne who, I suspect, isn’t all that interested in Fodor’s opinion anyway. My purpose rather is to kick the can downfield a bit, onto the topic of “specialization” more generally. It certainly isn’t news to anybody in academic life that every discipline has become specialized. I wonder who was the last mathematician to know all of mathematics? Or economist, economics, or (fill in pet discipline here)?

But it is not only a matter of specialized knowledge. Stanley Fish (to name just one) has dined out for a generation on the idea that knowledge is a social enterprise—no, strike that, a set of social enterprises—no, strike that, a set of sandboxes, each with its own bullies and serfs. What counts as literature, economics, and, yes, I suspect even mathematics and philosophy, is what counts for the club.

Still nothing new here, but I am at last getting to my point: we expect something different out of philosophy. None of us expects to know all of mathematics, and not too many of us go to sleep fretting that we can’t parse Derrida. But we feel we have a right to a philosophy. We aren’t really happy when one of the poo-bahs tells us that it is all much, much, more complicated than we thought. We feel perfectly happy to go on philosophizing, either oblivious to the lions in the center ring or (as Frayne?) deliberately trying to catch the attention of the gawkers to our own little side show.

Remarkably, I have reason to suspect that Fodor understands this point, and feels a bit sheepish about the chasm that he may seen as widening. In the author blurb at the front of the LRB, he says “Everyone wonders why he is writing still another book about the language of thought.” Again, “everyone” is a word that perhaps needs nuance (I hadn't wondered). But I do think I can pick up a note of sheepishness about the way he and his colleagues appear to have kidnapped what we think of as our common inheritance. Except the riffraff will perhaps continue to philosophize whether he wants us to our not. Remember Carla from Cheers, Jerry, who used to say: Of course I’m a philosopher—I’m a Red Sox fan!

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Three of a Kind

I used to be intrigued by the fact that Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich seemed to share the same suit size: two big, beefy press-the-flesh in-your-face-type of guys, each infatuated with the sound of his own voice.

Lately, I’ve given some thought to a threesome: Dick Cheney, Vladimir Putin, Pervez Musharraf. Okay, the thing about the suits doesn’t work, but there are other similarities: wonky, charmless, macho in a dweeb sort of way, not too interested in what anybody else thinks.

Some differences: last I heard, Putin was running 75 percent in the polls (link). And Musharraf appeared on Jon Stewart (here and here). Musharraf was there to hype his book. Stewart served him green tea. David Wallechinsky is not impressed.

A couple of tentative generalizations:

  • Putin is the most effective leader.
  • Musharraf is the most comfortable with democratic values.


I have long maintained that I have about the same chance of winning the lottery whether I enter or not.'

My friend Steve reformulates: my chances of finding a winning lottery ticket are about the same as my chances of buying a winning lottery ticket.

Thanks, Steve. Now, to go and scan the sidewalk...

Everybody Shut Up and Listen to Me

I must say that I did not get into the blogging game to talk about Mark Foley. But, yes, there are aspects of the case that interest me a lot. And since even the best of them—even Carpetbagger and Matt Yglesias and Glenn Greenwald—seem to get it not exactly right, I feel impelled to offer one more effort at clarification (for their latest, see CB here, MY here and GG here). Let me see if I can be brief and to the point:

  • For starters, I will go out on a limb, and say that no, I’m not terribly disturbed a about 16-year-olds having sex. Were it my own kids, I would worry the heck out of matters of disease and pregnancy, and the more elusive question of whether they were making constructive choices—which, with a 16-year-old, might very well include the choice of not having sex at all. But as Glenn Greenwald was so careful to note, 16 is, after all, the age of consent in many (most?) places, and I am not on the bandwagon to raise it. Oh, and I almost forgot—no, actually, I don’t really care whether it’s boys or girls.
  • If a person ran for Congress in my district on the platform that “I want to go to Congress because it will give me sexual access to a horde of cute kids,” I would vote against him. I probably can’t count all the reasons why, but let’s start with one: it is an abuse of office, an abuse of power.
  • If a person ran for Congress in my district as a member of the party of the sex police—and in fact turned out to be seeking office because it would give him sexual access to a horde of cute kids—I would vote against him early and often. Piling hypocrisy onto abuse of power does not mitigate the offense.

  • So Foley is a contemptible creep and a jerk, but possibly not a criminal. Let me turn now to the House leadership, and in general, to the whole wagons-into-circle pushback. I guess I can believe the manipulative cynicism of this crowd—this is, after all, politics—but the naked, arrant, unapologetic manipulative cynicism: that part just pushes me beyond belief. This is the values party we’re talking about here. They’ve lost a round on values. Fine, stuff happens. The gobsmacking part is that they are making clear that they really do not care about the values part, and never did. They are interested in this business only insofar as it clutters up the election agenda.

So my dominant instinct is to say—migawd, do they really think we are that stupid? And a little voice in me says—ah, watch it. I tried to spell out a few days ago why voters can act stupider than they are. And of course, I have no guarantee that they won’t continue to act in ways that I wish they would not act. Democrats, as others have said, have an almost unerring knack for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

A secondary instinct says: migawd is the GOP leadership really that stupid? And here is a speculative guess: maybe they are that stupid. Others have said that the William Kristols, etc., are just being beastly when they vulgarize or trivialize or otherwise seem to distort this issue. For myself, I am more inclined to take them at their word. Maybe they are not distorting anything at all: maybe they just do not get it.

There, everything clear now?



Friday, October 06, 2006

The Phenomenology of Involuntary Shark-Jumping

Years ago in London, I saw a production of Romeo and Juliet where Juliet was about 14 and Romeo looked 29. A month later I saw another. This time, Romeo was about 19 and Juliet was pretty close to 40. The common theme here is Predator v Bambi-in-the-headlights. But the odd thing is, in each case it kind of worked. Okay, maybe it was unintentional. But in each case, the wild miscasting offered a criticism or commentary on the play as it was meant to be. Of course you had to keep your eyes open, but if you stayed on the alert, you got to see the whole play in a kind of 3-D.

I thought of these miscast Veronesi this week when we watched a DVD performance of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, with Placido Domingo and Tiri Te Kanawa. Manon, as you may know, stands at the head of the tradition that culminates with Bridget Jones’ Diaries: a great soppy soap opera of a novel, beloved of courtesans and wanton shop-girls either. Manon the character has a prominent place in the rogues’s gallery of bad-news girls. De Grieux, the boyfriend, is just as much of a twit as you would expect him to be. Domingo and Te Kanawa do a fine job with the music, but because this is disc, we have close-ups, and so they have to act, too.

Manon and De Grieux must be not a lot older than Romeo and Juliet. Domingo and Te Kanawa are just about 40 (it’s an old performance). At first it looks silly, but on a thought, you can see the Romeo and Juliet principle at work: the grownup performance of the children’s parts operates as a criticism of the parts they pretend to play.

Actors have probably known this all along, but this echo-chamber effect is just now beginning to catch my attention. It amuses me that Faye Dunaway plays the wise old shrink on the remake of The Thomas Crown Affair as a sly riff on her performance as the romantic lead in the original (the remake was clearly superior, not so?). And that half the cast of Branagh’s Hamlet had played the prince before themselves (sample here). And I loved it when Marlon Brando parodied Marlon Brando (in The Freshmanbut come to think of it, maybe in every performance he ever played). And yes, I am the guy who always looks for cameos.

I suppose what I’m learning here is that there is no such thing as a performance in a vacuum—every one is a criticism of a criticism, or worse. It would explain, inter alia, the insight that every TV show, after the first season, is in competition with itself. It seems that one way or another, we are all trying to jump the shark.

Some of my Best Friends are Bankruptcy Lawyers…

…and we dined out together last night. Explaining to my friend Holly, I said:

  • BK lawyers have great war stories;
  • They actually listen to each other’s war stories;
  • They drink, but they don’t get blotto.

Translating me, Holly said: so they don’t think there will be a tomorrow, but if there is, they want to be sober?

I must think about that.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

What It Is About "Antony and Cleopatra"

W.H. Auden on what is special about Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra:

We see malice and ambition in Richard III, ignorance in Romeo and Juliet, melancholia in Hamlet, ambition in Macbeth, paternalism and the demand for love in Lear, pride in Coriolanus, the desire to be loved in Timon, and jealousy in Othello. These are pure states of being that have a certain amount of police court cases or psychiatric clinics in them, but we are not likely to imitate them. … Antony and Cleopatra’s flaw, however, is general and common to all of us all of the time: worldliness, the love of pleasure, success, art, ourselves, and conversely, the fear of boredom, failure, being ridiculous, being on the wrong side, dying. … We all reach a time when the god Hercules leaves us.

W.H. Auden, Lectures on Shakespeare 241 (Paperback ed. 2002)

Note to self, make time to say more about this remarkable book.

The Velveeta Mafia

Still rules...

What Does Shakespeare Say About Duct Tape?

Since brass, not stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,
But sad mortality o'ersways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?

O how shall summer's honey breath hold out
Against the wreckful siege of battering days,
When rocks impregnable are not so stout
Nor gates of steel so strong, but Time decays?

William Shakespeare, Sonnet 65

Now this.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

To My Public

Just so you know:
  • I am not an alcoholic.
  • I was not molested as a child.
  • I will not be checking into rehab.
I'm just a jerk, okay? Deal with it.

World's Dumbest Criminals (Blame it on the Velvet Mafia Division)

One senior House Republican tells CBS that there's a lot of anger at what he describes as "a network of gay staffers and gay members who protect each other and did the speaker a disservice."

--CBS News, as reported by Kevin Drum

Dear Palookaville Voter:

Thank you for your recent phone call. And don’t worry about melting the telephone receiver; these days we mostly use IM.

I can understand your concern about the former Congressman from South Florida.

I am pleased to inform you that after exhaustive investigation, we have uncovered the source of the problem. It appears that we turned over our government to a cabal of gay staff members who conspired to conceal his activities from us.

We promise it won’t happen again. By the way, election day is coming. Don’t forget to vote.

And don’t forget the checkie weckie.

Impeach Cheney?

Impeach Bush? I’m against it. Maybe he deserves it, but I really don’t want this sort of thing to get to be a habit (I assume an “Impeach Hillary” committee is already waiting in the wings). And as they say, look who is next.

But what about impeaching Cheney? My own knowledge of con law is near zero, perhaps negative. But my friend Fensterwald, who has the brain the size of a suitcase, responds to my inquiry:

I can't think of any reason why not. Article II, Section 4 provides for the impeachment of "the President, the Vice-President and all civil officers of the United States" for treason, bribery, and other high crimes and misdemeanors. Surely if the Vice-President committed treason or was bribed he should be able to be impeached without also impeaching the President. And it won't always be the case that the President and the VP are of the same party. An election that went to the House and Senate because of failure of any candidate to get a majority in the electoral college could result in Presidents and Vice-Presidents of different parties. This would suggest further reason to doubt that Presidents and Vice-Presidents must stand or fall together. Indeed, impeaching Bush and Cheney for only crimes Cheney committed would seem to be a constitutonal violation itself, because in that view Bush himself would not have committed an impeachable offense.

Hello, Speaker Pelosi...

Poetic License

Stop babbling man, how much?

--Yeats on winning the Nobel Prize 1923

(per BBC)

"I ... did ... not ... have sex ... with ... that boy."

There’s a wonderful passage in Balzac’s The Black Sheep where the lawyer Desroches counsels his client Philippe as Philippe leaves prison and undertakes his nw life on parole:

…the young attorney gave this horrifying soldier one of those incontrovertible sermons in which lawyers assess everything at its true value, using plain words to assess people's conduct, and analysing and reducing to their simplest form the feelings of clients in whom they are interested enough to lecture them at all.

Honoré de Balzac, The Black Sheep 257 (paperback ed. 1970)

I thought of Deroches yesterday as I listened to David Roth speak for Mark Foley: “There was absolutely no inappropriate sexual contact with any minor ... and any suggestion that Mark Foley is a pedophile is false."

I’ll leave it for others to parse the meaning of “pedophile.” What I’d love to know is what kind of conversation lay behind “absolutely no inappropriate sexual contact.” A lot of lawyers would not stick their neck out that way—not as a matter of principle, but purely for reasons of tactics. If it turns out to be false (and I can barely imagine the hordes of investigators and reporters that must be crawling all over this one already [Cf. update fn infra)—if it turns out to be false, then he emerges not just as a pedophile, but as a lying pedophile to boot.

Under the circumstances, a lot of good lawyers would have tried not to know anything about Foley’s past. “I just ask them—what is your defense?” an old-time criminal lawyer told me when I was young. It’s primitive and often unsound, but I know what he was driving at.

Roth sounds like a pro. He knows all this. One can only imagine:

Foley: I want you to know that I never…

Roth: Wait a minute, Mark, I am your lawyer and I am bound to keep your confidences, but there are some matters on which, if I am fully informed, I may find I have lost my freedom have motion…

Foley: No, no, I really want you to know. I have never, absolutely never, had actual sex with a boy…

Roth: Fine, Mark, luckily that is not our issue today…

Foley: …and I want you to go out there to that press conference and say so to the whole world. Go on, say it: I have never had sex with a boy.

Roth (sighing, and remembering his Balzac): Mark, you are the client and I am only the lawyer. But have you any idea what you are committing yourself to? I mean, there are a million snoops out there poring over every last detail of your life. If there is ever the slightest hint that you are not telling the truth here…

Foley: And let me tell you about how I was molested when I was 14. ...

Roth: Mark, you already told me you were molested. But the details are not before us. I don’t want to know. I don’t want to know whether it was a priest, or a minister, or a rabbi, or an imam.

Foley: Anyway, I was an altar boy…

Roth: Sorry, Mark, time for the press conference.

Might be a good time to review the coverage of “I … did not … have sex … with … that woman.” (For anybody who happened to go through the Clinton years with a paper bag over his head, there’s a refresher here).

Update fn: ABC is skeptical.

The Dog Ate Mark Foley's Homework

Mark: I’m sorry, teacher, the dog ate my homework.

Teacher: Now, Mark, you never told me you had a dog before. Are you sure you have a dog?

Mark: Oh, yes. Or a cat. Or a at least a very large rat. Anyway, the neighbor has a dog. Well, he moved, but he still has a dog.

Teacher: Well, this is a surprise. But now that I think of it, I believe the dog did eat your homework before?

Mark: Never. Well. Six times, really.

Teacher: Ah. And where was the homework when the dog ate it?

Mark: Well, it was in his dish. …

I must say I feel a certain professional admiration (even a grudging sympathy) for Mark Foley’s lawyer as he assures us that Mark “takes full responsibility” for his conduct in the pagegate, and then goes on to catalogue all the reasons why it isn’t really his fault at all: Mark will have plenty to talk about when and if he gets his hour of contrition on Larry King.

Still, I wonder—I have no reason to doubt that he was in fact molested by “a priest or minister or rabbi or imam,” as his attorney said (did I just a smidgen of skeptical asperity here?). But Mark is 52. And in most human situations, he seems to show pretty good capacity for impulse control. Assuming he is in fact still the captive of his early misfortune (near 40 years on)—did he warn anybody about his dangerous tendencies? Will we soon see the speech where he told the voters of South Florida:

You need to know that if you send me to Congress, you will be reposing your trust in a dangerously sick man: victim of curse that I have lived with for near a half a century. I try to deal with my curse—for example, by putting myself in situations where I will be tempted to impose the same kind of curse on others in the new generation. But I can assure you that, for all my dangerous risk-taking flirtations, I have never actually engaged in the misconduct that we all find so appalling and that I find so beguiling.

No, I thought not. Well, if not to the voters, did he tell it to the Republican pooh-bahs in his district before they signed him on as a candidate?

Okay, heavy-handed, but this last question is not quite rhetorical. Local politics is a small, intimate, not to say incestuous, world. It’s hard for me to believe that the local pooh-bahs did not know exactly what sort of unexploded bomb they were dealing with here—figuring that it wasn’t really their problem, except insofar as it was it was a political risk, and that they could manage the political risk.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

How Edith Died

Sylvie tells how Edith died:

Sylvie knew an old woman named Edith who came to her rest crossing the mountains in a boxcar, in December. She was wearing, besides her rubbers and her hunting jacket, two dresses and seven flannel shirts, not to keep off the cold, Sylvie said, but to show herself a woman of substance. She sailed feet first and as solemn as Lincoln from Butte to Wenatchee, where she was buried at public expense. It was such a winter, Sylvie said, so cold, that the snow was as light as chaff. Any wind would blow a hill bare and send the snow drifting as placeless as smoke. In the face of such hard weather the old woman had grown formal and acquiescent. She had crept off to the freight yard one night in the dark, leaving no word but a pearl ring which had never before been known to leave her hand. The pearl ring was brown as a horse’s tooth and very small. Sylvie kept the ring in a little box with her hairpins.

Edith found her boxcar and composed herself in it, while the trainmen went about the jamming and conjoining of cold metal parts. In such weather one steps on fossils. The snow is too slight to conceal the ribs and welts, the hollows and sockets of the earth, fixed in its last extreme. But in the mountains the earth is most ceremoniously buried, with all its relics, against its next rising, in hillock and tumulus. In Butte the old woman had lain on her back and laced her fingers, and her breath had stood above her. When she arrived in Wenatchee, the ghost was gone, the exorcism accomplished.

Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping 88

(paperback ed. 1981)

The Real W

Ten feet behind my right shoulder, W is on CNN marveling over a new George W. Bush elementary school. He’s rattling on about how wonderful it is to see children learn, how proud he is to see his name in such a context, how much he looks forward to telling Laura blah blah.

All over America right thinking liberals are saying: boy what a lying weasely creep.

I offer an alternate theory: I think he means it. Recall that aside from being a lying, weasely creep (and a rich one, at that), he is a deeply flawed human being. He’s not very bright. He may have some kind of learning disability. He got into Yale on fake papers. He’s had to put up with years of humiliation knowing that he’s a doofus and a fraud.

He has developed some, shall we say, unwholesome, devices for acting out his despair (and our grandchildren will be paying the bills). But this is also a guy who married the school librarian. I think at a moment like this, you just may be seeing him at his most vulnerable and exposed.

Fn.: Back in the Pleistocene when I was in college, my girlfriend gave me a copy of an essay called, I think, “Nightmares of Eminent People,” by, I believe, Bertrand Russell. Stalin’s nightmare is that he dies and goes to hell and is committed to the company of Quakers who feed him cocoa and read him tracts…

The Purgated Edition

Roger Price once proposed to publish a book in a purgated edition. That’s the one where the publisher goes through and underlines the dirty words in blue pencil.

I long ago made myself a promise that I would not waste any time reading anything by the court stenographer Bob Woodward. Kevin Drum rattled my resolve the other day by pointing out that Woodward is, at least, an infallible guide to establishment thinking.

Fortunately, FP lets me sidestep my dilemma by furnishing me with a purgated edition. Like this. And this.

Looking for Iraqi weapons in Lebanon reminds me of an old Bulwinkle episode (I quote from memory):

Bullwinkle: So this is Washington!

Rocky: No, you fool, it’s McKeesport, Pennsylvania. We couldn’t afford the full fare.

Fn: kudos to the first guy who saw that Woodward was an empty suit. Link here.

Where Are the South Americans?

Popping over to my Geo Visitors map, it occurred to me I never seem to have any visitors from South America. Don't the internet pipes extend that far yet?

[There are a bunch of funny things about that map. For example, how come Russia gets to use its own alphabet, while everybody else--including The Ukraine--has to settle for the Latin alphabet? How come it is "Deutschland," but not "Brasilia?" How come "Finland" is both "Finland" and "Suomi?"]

A few days back I had a visitor from just over the "r" in "Madagascar." Now, let's see, check the old address book here...

Monday, October 02, 2006

Anybody Remember This Guy?

Nobody reads Karl Jaspers any more. Certainly I don’t, and so I was surprised, cleaning out some old books, that I actually own—in particular, two slim Harvest/HBJ paperbacks—selections from Jaspers’ (surely forgotten) masterwork, Die Grossen Philosophers. Well, maybe not forgotten: an Amazon author search churns up 168 Jaspers titles. One of my two--Socrates, Buddha, Confucius, Jesus (1966) comes in 44,442 in the Amazon readings; the other—Plato and Augustine (1966) lags at 159,454 (though each has one decent non-lunatic Amazon review).

And you know what? They’re pretty good. Inevitably they date in style. And they bespeak a set of tastes and enthusiasms that nobody in particular would embrace today. But they are straightforward, fair-minded, non-technical and a pleasure to read. Here’s a sample (from Socrates etc., p. 94):

Let us compare Jesus and Buddha: Jesus’ message is part of a history wrought by God. Those who go with Jesus are caught up in a passion that has its source in the moment of the most critical decision. Buddha proclaims his doctrine in aimless wanderings, in aristocratic serenity, without insistence, indifferent to a world that is forever the same. Jesus builds on the Old Testament, Buddha on Hindu philosophy. Jesus demands faith, Buddha demands insight.

Lety us compare Jesus with Socrates: Jesus teaches by proclaiming the glad tidings, Socrates by compelling men to think. Jesus demands faith, Socrates an exchange of thought. Jesus speaks with direct earnestness, Socrates indirectly, even by irony. Jesus knows of the kingdom of heaven and eternal life, Socrates has no definite knowledge of these matters and leaves the question open. But neither will let men rest. Jesus proclaims the only way; Socrates leaves men free, but keeps reminding him of his responsibility rooted in freedom. Both raise supreme claims. Jesus confers salvation. Socrates provokes men to look for it.

Interestingly, Jaspers addresses and rejects the possibility that any or all of these four was imaginary. At least I think he does. The passage is a bit elliptical, as if he doesn’t want to face the question head on. But he concludes:

Our sense of reality rejects such a thesis. Can accident make something enduring out of nothing? In political affairs, perhaps, a man insignificant in himself may be enabled by fortuitous circumstances to produce an important effect asnd thus gain for a time a considerable outward power. But such a man cannot move the depths of men’s souls. His power over men cannot endure.

No, these two do not get thrown away.

How Could They Have Been So Stupid? A Suggested Reply

As one who has never been very good at concealing his vices, I have always envied hypocrites. The capacity say one thing loudly and insistently and repeatedly while doing more or less the opposite: why there is a life skill sufficient to carry you all the way to – well you know where it can carry you, and you can infer why I have been enjoying with almost indecent glee the spectacle of the GOP leadership chasing its tail trying to explain why they didn’t do something about Mark Foley.

How could they have been so stupid? I have a suggestion: they were so stupid because they forgot that what Foley was doing might be wrong—or worse, might be perceived as wrong. They fell victim to the peril of all hypocrites: they forgot that somebody might take them at their word.

It’s understandable, really. People go into politics for a lot of reasons. “A duty to help my fellow man,” may be on the list, though I doubt that it is on top. Money is an obvious reason. “Power,” sure, although as a concept, it is somewhat more evanescent.

But through history, I suspect the main reason seek political achievement (Winston Churchill and Richard Nixon excepted) is sex. Washington has always been jam packed with sexual predators (and a fair number of people who come to be predated upon, but that’s another story). The GOP leadership knows it—how could they not? They just forgot that they’ve spent their whole career trying to tell a different story.

Take it from a different angle. The House is a kind of bureaucracy. If you know what you want in a bureaucracy, the chances are that you will get it, because there are so many other people who have no idea what they want. It is also, correspondingly, a fine place to look for prey.

Foley's friends say that Foley was fighting his demons. Maybe, although chairing the House Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children may seem an odd way to do it. Maybe also he came to Washington well knowing that it was a happy hunting ground and that he enhanced his chances of getting his way if he wrapped himself in the mantle of virtue.

None of this would have been surprising to the House leadership. That was why it never occurred to them to treat it as anything other than a political problem. But even as they tried to cabin it as a political problem, they seem to have forgotten what makes it a political problem—the fact that a good chunk of their electorate took them at their word, thought they were acting in good faith, and believed that they meant what they said. It’s touching, actually, like the Hungarians getting mad when they find that their prime minister is a liar—touching to find that some considerable portion of the public still expects its government to behave.

[Fn.: but aren't you concerned with the children? Sure I am. But I won't panic. So far as what know now, there were no train wrecks: careful parents and (perhaps more important) level-headed kids seem to have saved Foley from his own worst instincts. So we end where we began: with an (apparently shameless) abuse of power and a (clearly cynical) attempt to manipulate the electorate.]

We Still Rule, Maybe

I just popped over to the Food Network to refresh my memory on Alton Brown's unbeatable recipe for roast duck. I find there two ads for:

Duck Ringtones

Duck ringtones? You bet, every chance I get. Oh, no, wait, they are ... selling ... duck ringtones.

You know, in all the fuss over the decline of manufacturing, nobody has ever considered the possibility that we still lead the world in the production of telephone ringtones. And two, yet, so competition thrives.

Afterthought: A friend points out that they are probably all manufactured by underaged Bangladeshi ducks. And it's not competition, it's a two-firm monopoly. (obligatory quacking noise omitted).

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Street Arab/Arab Street

My friend John and I have been carrying on an amiable and pointless discussion about the terms “Street Arab” and “Arab Street.” They aren’t they same. Are they somehow related?

Hm. My 1971 Oxford English Dictionary dodes recognize “street arab” as a “Special comb.” Under “Street:” “street Arab (also written with a small a), a homeless vagrant (usually a child).” Returning the compliment, the third substantive definition of “Arab” reads: “(Orig. Arab of the City, City Arab, street Arab) A homeless little wanderer; a child of the street.” defaults to Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives (1890), the great chronicle of life among the New York poor. Riis says (inter alia):

The Street Arab is as much of an institution in New York as Newspaper Row, to which he gravitates naturally, following his Bohemian instinct. Crowded out of the tenements to shift for himself, and quite ready to do it, he meets there the host of adventurous runaways from every State in the Union and from across the sea, whom New York attracts with a queer fascination, as it attracts the older emigrants from all parts of the world. … The Street Arab has all the faults and all the virtues of the lawless life he leads. Vagabond that he is, acknowledging no authority and owing no allegiance to anybody or anything, with his grimy fist raised against society whenever it tries to coerce him, he is as bright ‘and sharp as the weasel, which, among all the predatory beasts, he most resembles His sturdy independence, love of freedom and absolute self-reliance, together with his rude sense of justice that enables him to govern his little community, not always in accordance with municipal law or city ordinances, but often a good deal closer to the saving line of “doing to others as one would be done by”—these are strong handles by which those who know how can catch the boy and make him useful.

John said he was sure "street arab" was in Sherlock Holmes and sure enough, Google confirms. I said I bet I could find it in Balzac and I did, but wait—Balzac wrote French, and a check of my French edition of Le père Goriot suggests that the original French is “gamin.” But for English “gamin,” (WordNet) gives: “a homeless child who has been abandoned and roams the streets. Synonyms: street arab,” so we are pretty much back where we started.

Arab street” turns out to be a bit more elusive. Google “dict arab street” and you get with a page on “Arab Street” in Singapore (link). My 1971 OED doesn’t have "Arab street," but the 1987 supp speaks of “the street” as “regarded loosely as the realm of the common people and esp. as the source of popular political support. [see *Nazi sb.].” Flip to “Nazi” and we find: "The Democrats have not been able to deal with the Nazi because of his mastery of the Street. From W. Lewis Hitler 57 (1931).”

Now that I think of it, “street” seems more promising than “Arab.” Think “on the street” as dead broke (cf. “Grub Street,” as not quite dead broke). Or “on the street” versus “in prison”= “free.” Or Easy Street, Queer Street, and certainly I suppose there is some resonance between “Street Arab” and “Arab Street,” but it seems to be the “street” that is a noisy, busy, froward and alluring place all on its own.

Report from the Real Amerca

My long-lost friend Ivan did not say I could not print this, so I will give it a try.

I first met Ivan back in the Plesitocene when he was a canny young political reporter for the (long since defunct) Louisville Times. He went on to work for many years tweendecks in the Washington political substructure. Now he's back on the farm in Alabama. Evidently he has been reading Underbelly:
couple of nights ago, exhausted after a rough day slaving on the plantation, i watched the nationals (my new favorite baseball team) play the Braves, always on the tube in the lower south, or at least in alabama via direct TV (No cable on farm roads and if it were it would cost a fortune to run wire to my house about 1,300 feet from the road.) I was shelling just picked by me pinto beans, purple hull peas, yellow eye peas, green beans, xmas limas, henderson limas -- filled a hugw bowl full. fresh out of the garden -- no e coli. reading the restaurant comments i thought about them field peas and beans. i like them with chunks of raw onion -- got some real sweet onions at costco but had a fairly good bunch out of the garden earlier this year.

i only drink wine on sunday or holidays (sometimes i declare a holiday)-- always concha y toro, except when i treat myself to a jug of yellowtail sirah. aint et meat in years but do eat sallmon (in alabama they pronounce the l) -- got some wild caught filets also at costco.

still getting from the garden lots of okra and turnip greens. picked a few dozen green tomatoes sunday to ripen in the house so i wouldnt have to spray bug killer on them. got a few broccoli, brussel sprouts and cauliflower plants coming along as a fall crop, plus a row of lettuce and radish. got onions planted just to see what i get.
cant remember the last time i et in a restaurant.
No meat? Yo Ivan, I thought it was a cattle ranch? Aren't you supposed to consume a bit of the corpse?

And it looks like when he left Washington, they confiscated his shift key.

C-Span Dreams (Mark Foley Edition)

Honest, I really am not such a loser as to spend my Sundays watching old Congressional hearings on C-Span. Especially not one that is so much blatant grandstanding as the House publicity-fest over “pretexting” (=electronic lying) at Hewlett-Packard. But I was working in the kitchen, okay? And it was on in the background, right?

And did occur to me: remember, sex sells. If you really want to bring out the nerds and moles on a Sunday morning, how about a day on Mark Foley and his fascination with Congressional pages? Now that would be TV worth watching.

(Wait a minute, whoa--doesn’t Congress have the obligation to consider whether we need new laws to prevent internet spying? –ed. Sure, but the chances that we actually need them are just about zilch. On the other hand, the chance for tut-tutting and oh-my-starsing is never to be passed by.)

Complicating Afterthought: I’ll stick by what I just said, but I must say the Foley story is proving to be far more interesting and complicated than it appeared at first blush (Why is this a surprise? Isn’t that all most always true?---ed. Well, um, yes, it is almost always true). Anyway, hand the mike to Glenn Greenwald:

For now, I will just note what seems to be the bizarre and incoherent contradiction in the law, noted by Atrios yesterday, that in-person, actual sex between Foley and a 16-year-old page would be perfectly legal in D.C. and in most places in the U.S. …, but it seems that it is a criminal act for Foley to discuss or solicit sexual acts with the same page over the Internet. Despite all the irritatingly righteous (and overheated) "pedophile" language being tossed around, in the overwhelming majority of states, and in Washington DC, the legal age of consent for sex is 16 years old. That means that actual, in-person sex between Foley and a 16-year-old page in D.C. would not be criminal at all (though it likely could have other legal implications).

But under the so-called "Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006" (of which Foley was a co-sponsor), along with 18 U.S.C. 2251, discussion or solicitation of sexual acts between Foley and any "minor" under the age of 18 would appear to be a criminal offense (see Adam Walsh Act, Sec. 111(14) ("MINOR.--The term 'minor' means an individual who has not attained the age of 18 years") and 18 U.S.C. Sec. 2256 (1) (“'minor' means any person under the age of eighteen years").

So, wheels within wheels, and hypocrisies inside hypocrisies. One fact seems to remain clear, though: the GOP leadership seemed to have zilch interest in this, except the possibility that it might become a political embarrassment.

Update: Mon AM, Greenwald published a revision/clarification of earlier stuff, including the stuff I quote here. Find his Mon remarks here.

Puncturing a Pet Peeve: Gas Taxes

Here’s a nice riff on a pet peeve. Anytime anybody tries to tax a transction, you get carpet-bombed with the response that the tax “will just be passed on to the consumer.”

Wrong. Depends on the shape of the curves. May go to consumers, in the form of higher costs, or to suppliers, in the form of lower returns. Today, Mark Thoma hoiks up a useful example (from Hal Varian—actually from Theodore Bergstrom) of how this works in practice, with a provocative result (link). The example: gas taxes. The result: a good deal of it will fall on producers.

Greg Mankiw gives it a showcase here. Robert Frank works out the graphs for a related example here.

None of this is news, or even new, but it looks (at least) like a neat classroom example. Don’t expect to see it on CNN anytime soon, though.

Peering Over Rami's Wall

Sometimes I write about Sweden (economics) and I’m getting set for a trip to Jordan (Roman ruins), so naturally I was intrigued to find this link to the weblog of a young Jordanian living in Sweden:

I do miss the desert, the dry weather, the beautiful scenery, the magical starry night skies, petra, dana, aqaba, the woods in ajlun, taking a walk in old amman, cruising down the king's highway, camping in wadi rum, escaping to dahab/sharm, how amman looks like its candle lit at night, the breeze in the evening moving the olive trees... But, dear mother, please understand there's a whole wide world to explore. I've been travelling in 32 countries and lived in 3 continents and I dont feel like settling down yet, I think its the nomad genes I have from my father's side, topped with the stubbornness of circassians that you passed on to me.

I have too much to brag about living in Jordan, but on the other hand, I have alot more to enjoy and experience in Sweden, where people are very civilised, very peaceful, very simple, and very open-minded and the nature is breath-takingly picturestic everywhere you look.

"Picturestic" is good, we need that. Sounds like a decent kid. I wish him well.

Why The Swedes Again--This Time, With An Answer

I made some not-quite flip remarks a few weeks ago about the conservative obsession with –and repeated attempts to demonize—Sweden (link). I followed up with a link to the World Economic Forum rankings on global competitiveness, with particular attention to Sweden, and the invidious contrast with the United States (link). Turns out (not surprisingly) that someone out there has been taking this issue more seriously than I. Tyler Cowen links to a remarkable new study undertaking to find out exactly why the Swedish economy (well, okay, Scandinavian economies) perform so well.

Tyler’s link to the study seems to be broken at the moment so the best I can do for now is to quote Tyler:

First, if we look at measures of economic freedom, especially those measures which track freedom independent from the size of government expenditures, the Scandinavian countries have become much freer. (Note that the Netherlands, which until very recently was outperforming the other European welfare states, experienced the greatest gains in this category.)

Second, the Scandinavian economies have become much more globalized. The old story was that globalization rendered welfare state expenditures unsupportable; it is more likely that the opposite is true, at least provided trade is open, credibility is high, and business regulation is light.

Note to self: keep looking for a link fix: it’s interesting and important. And while waiting for the link to be fixed, note some of the byplay in the comments, suggesting that Tyler is not really as snarky and simplistic as the term “libertarian” might suggest.

Intellectual history footnote: Aside from the surface issue, there is at least one important subtext here. Recall the great libertarian icon, Friedrich von Hayek, and his conviction that state meddling must inevitably lead to totalitarianism (see, e.g., link). On its face, this study counts as one (further) piece of evidence that in macro, Hayek was flat wrong.

This doesn’t necessarily discredit Hayek. I suspect the more interesting point is how often great economists can be flat wrong: think Schumpeter on how we must all congeal into bureaucratic entropy or (inevitably?) Marx on proletarian revolution. The point would be that a seer can be flat wrong on the big issue and still be worth reading and understanding. As Hayek certainly is. And Schumpeter, and Marx.

Cultural footnote on Swedes: My friend Paul is a Jewish lawyer; he used to represent a Swedish firm—I think it was pharmaceuticals. Pardon me if I garble the details, Paul, but I think the broad outline goes like this. Management at the Swedish client firm would fight hammer and tongs, tooth and toenail, among themselves over pricing. The goal was to set a price that was “fair.” After they had chosen a “fair,” price, they would not budge. No bargaining, nada, none—unless, by chance, you could show them that their price was not “fair.” In which case, they would reopen the issue.

I'm In Good Company

I don't suppose I've ever posted an entry here that does not have a typo. I correct them when I find them (diligent readers will have noticed that I do so without comment).

It turns out I'm in good company. Today's Wx Post reports that the Colin Powell didn't quit, he was fired. And:

For two days, the only person at the State Department Powell told about it was his deputy and friend of decades, Richard Armitage. Powell dropped off his resignation letter, as instructed, after typing it himself on his home computer. (The White House later pointed out a typo and sent it back to be redone.) Loath to reveal either surprise or insult, he used the letter to claim the decision to leave as his own.

Maybe I should send my stuff to them for proofing.