Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Off to India

--You've been to India? So, how did you like the Taj Mahal?

--Actually, I've never seen the Taj Mahal.

It's not the kind of exchange that inspires confidence in the questioner. So I'm off to India again, this time including the Taj Mahal. We'll be traveling in the US for about a week, thence to Delhi and thence in and around (Indian) Northwest for about a month. So, when Hillary nominates me for ambassador, it least I won't make a fool of myself at the confirmation hearings.

We'll be mostly tromping around ancient ruins--Mr. and Mrs. B have a taste for that sort of thing. It would be fun to blog it, but blogging can get in the way of life and I don't intend to spend the month trying to find functional WiFi connections. So, I'll be back around December 3 with, I assume, a backup of loose ends. Meanwhile, here is a list of some of the stuff I read in preparation, As with last week’s East Europe, this isn’t meant to be remotely comprehensive—just some stuff that interested or engaged me (and in two cases, that I want to crab about).

Nirad C. Chaudhari, The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian. For 533 pages about another culture, by someone from that other culture, this was a remarkably easy read. Chaudhari has a kind of Dostoevskian incandescence—you feel like you are stepping into a conversation that started long before you got here, and will continue long after you are gone. He gives you a particularly wonderful feel for the ambivalence of thinking Indians under British rule—rage and resentment at their arrogance and presumption, coupled with admiration for British culture: how could you do this to us? You are the people of Burke and Mill!

Upamanyu Chatterjee, English, August. Entertaining as a novel, and shrewdly observed. Probably more about “bureaucracy and the failures thereof,” than about India per se—but then, an awful lot of India is bureaucracy. Affecting also as story of bewildered young manhood, although heaven knows, the universe of novels has no shortage of that subset (particularly good on loneliness). Rather more fecal matter than I found to my taste, but I suppose that is part of the comedy, and maybe it is part of India, too.

G.V. Desenai, All About H. Hatter. My friend Madhavi gave me this one on my way out to India for my first trip five years ago. I think it may have been a kind of a dare; I suspect she thought I wouldn’t read it. I can hardly blame her; it’s one of those books that plays a kind of language-game (Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker is another), and either you will bear with this sort of thing, or you will not. In the end, I did bear with it; I can’t say yet that I have figured it out, but I must say it leaves a tang or a buzz in your head that makes you know that it has to be recognized and respected. I see NYRB paperbacks is bringing out a new edition.

E.. M. Forster, Passage to India. Sorry, no. I got drunk on Forster when I was 19 or so; I no regard it as something of a youthful indiscretion, though I guess I can still save a soft spot for what you might call “the home-county novels”—Howard’s End,, that sort of stuff. But I think Passage to India is a total misfire. Forster may understand something about intimacy, about tenderness—but I don’t think he understands the first thing about the subcontinent, and he embarrasses himself by trying.

David Gilmour, The Ruling Caste. I believe I said earlier that this would be a good pairing with English, August, supra—Gilmour seems to have a novelistic feel for life under the late Raj. He also did the superb big biography of Lord Curzon (“superior person”), the great viceroy and great not-prime-minister.

John Keay, The Honorable Company. Sometimes a bit disjointed, but a readable narrative overview of the pre-Raj period—more precisely 1600-1820, the time during which the Brits took India in (as the saying goes) “a fit of absent-mindedness.”

Rudyard Kipling, Kim. I guess it is okay to admit to a taste for Kipling, as long as you recognize that it is a kind of guilty pleasure (Orwell endorsed him, after all). I plead guilty. I’m a total sucker for the big, booming ballads (“Plucky lot she cared for idols when I kissed 'er where she stud!") Kim is a more complicated affair—surely one of the most unclassifiable “novels” (if that is what it is) in the English language. But it is hard to imagine a better window into the mind of the old Colonials—what it is they loved and admired about the country they so meanly abused.

Edward Luce, In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India. The conventional wisdom is that The Economist has become an outlet for conventional wisdom, and that shrewd people have moved on to the Financial Times. But isn’t this an infinite regress? Meanwhile, Luce seems to have put his feet on a lot of ground all over India—not just in places with air conditioning and warm baths. He’s got a keen sense of detail, and shows great eagerness to share his insights into a country and culture where he has clearly enjoyed spending his time.

Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children. I put this in here to get my card punched. I suppose it is instructive in its way and I am impressed by some of the technical tricks—and in a different way, by some of Rushdie’s enthusiasms and disappointments. But I can’t say I enjoyed it a whole lot: the magic is not that magical, the enchantment is not at all enchanting, and the humor is more tendentious than funny.

Stanley Wolpert, India. Some 247 pages of intro-to-everything by a leading academic. I must admit, I found this dry when I read it before my first trip to India five years ago. No, strike that, I still find it dry. But he covers a lot; he seems fair-minded and judicious. Handy to have him around.

Oh, and one more—not read yet, but it goes in the backpack for the plane trip, if there is room: Ramachandra Guha, India After Gandhi, just out this year, subtitled he History of the World’s Largest Democracy.

Another "Somethiing I Don't Understand"

I suppose this one is tricky, but it still doesn't sound right. This morning's San Francisco Chronicle (scrounged in the coffee shop) reports that more than 70,000 children are growing up in gay and lesbian households in California. No surprise so far, but I am intrigued by the particulars for the SFO Bay Area:
Parent's Education--59.1% College
Median Household Income--$83,060
But then:
Parent's employment--22.6 % unemployed
Whoa--60 percent college, $83 thou income, and 22.6 percent unemployed? There is something about this world I don't understand.

[Yes, I know, these are medians, not means, and medians can be tricky. Example: suppose there are 100 people. Two have incomes of $83 thou. Forty-nine have incomes of a zillion each and 49 have incomes of zero. The median is $83 thou. Now, suppose all 49 of the zeros get jobs paying $82 thou a year. The median is still $83 thou (I have seen this as the "Bill Gates walks into the room" principle and I guess I follow). But it still doesn't sound right.]

Afterthought: You say it is available on line? Yes, probably so, am just too lazy to look.

RIP Robert Goulet

And I suppose editorial cartoonists all over America are sharpening their quill pens to show him at the Pearly Gates singing "C'est moi! C'est moi!"

Gender Politics in India

Edward Luce marvels on the differences between North India (Orissa) and South India (Cuddalre, Tamil Nadu).

Cuddalore ... is about a hundred miles south of Chennai. The district had suffered several hundred deaths from tsunami, and tens of thousands of people had been made homeless. Within a year of the disaster, the government had rehabilitated almost all of Cuddalore's displaced people in pukka accomodation. By contrast, in Orissa there were still people living in camps in 2006, people who had been made homeless seven years earlier by the cyclone. Mosts of the victims I met in Cuddalore were lower caste. But they were fully aware of their rights. "In Orissa the women were too afraid to come out of their huts and talk to me," said Joseph Williams, a Tamil doctor who had asissted in both disasters. "In Tamil Nadu it is difficult to get the women to stop talking."

--Edward Luce, In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India 139 (2007)

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Riderhood Gives Evidence

Riderhood says that Gaffer Hexam killed the man he found in the river.

“Tell us on what grounds you make this accusation,” said Mortimer Lightwood.

“On the grounds,” answered Riderhood, wiping his face with his sleeve, “that I was Gaffer’s pardner, and suspected of him many a long day and many a dark night. On the grounds that I knowed his ways. On the grounds that I broke the pardnership because I see the danger; which I warn you his daughter may tell you another story about that, for anythink I can say, but you know what it’ll be worth, for she’d tell lies, the world round and heavens broad, to save her father. On the grounds that it’s well understood along the cause’ays and the stairs that he done it. On the grounds that he’s fell off from, because he done it. On the grounds that I will swear he done it. On the grounds that you may take me where you will, and get me sworn to it. I don’t want to back out of the consequences. I have made up my mind. Take me anywheres.”

“All this is nothing,” said Lightwood.

“Nothing?” repeated Riderhood, indignantly and amazedly.

--Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend 146 (Modern Library Paperback, 2002)

Verdi Responds to Shakespeare:
A Note on Macbeth

We spent some time we didn’t have this evening, watching a Glyndbourne production of Verdi’s Macbeth. Some quick thoughts;

Verdi did three Shakespeare Operas—Macbeth, Otello and Falstaff, of which Macbeth is, by any measure, the weakest. But that is more a testimony to the strength of the others than it is to any intrinsic deficiency on the part of Macbeth. Granted, Verdi can’t do all the leaps and swoops now that he learned to do later—when you get right down to it, he is rather a slow starter. But that sets the bar unacceptably high: by most measures, nothing exceeds the later Verdi. Meanwhile of the early Verdis that remain in performance-Macbeth is far more polished than Nabucco, far more arresting than Luisa Miller (which I can swear we saw just a couple of years back—but Mrs. B says she can’t even remember it).

What’s really interesting is the way Verdi deals with Shakespeare. I embrace the notion that to make a good movie, you need a mediocre book which is why Gone with the Wind (say) or Bridges of Madison County are so much more fun to watch than the yawners from Merchant-Ivory.

It’s hard to make that theory fit here. Granted, maybe you could say that Falstaff is a great opera based on a weak play (Merry Wives of Windsor—but even here, I would want to insist that the play isn’t as bad as people seem to think it is). Otello takes a great play and makes it into a great opera. Some would say a greater opera. I wouldn’t go so far; I’d rather just regard them as a pair of twin peaks, each astonishing in its own way (and, bye the bye, rather different, one from another).

Macbeth draws on a much stronger play than Merry Wives, and it never achieves the heights of Otello. But Macbeth honors its source: it’s not an insult, and it’s not just a visual aid. Over and over, watching the opera, I found myself thinking—you know, this really is a glorious play. That’s a compliment to Verdi. He knew it was glorious, and even if he did not transcend his source, still he knew how to convey has own sense of awe and wonder.

Afterthought re slow starter: By the age of 46, Shakespeare had pretty much closed up shop. After the age of 46, Verdi still had Otello and Falstaff ahead of him –and also La Forza del Destino, Don Carlos and Aida. He may have been a late starter, but I can’t think of anyone comparable who lasted longer, except Sophocles (who, as it is said, was still going at 90).

Afterthought on sources: Aside from Shakespeare, Verdi also drew heaviliy on Schiller, about whom I know almost nothing (except as filtered through opera). I wonder if Verdi’s relation to Schiller is anything like his relation to Shakespeare?

I Tried to Resist but I'm Weak

I tried not to post this (link):

Man placed on sex offenders register for sex with bike

[The Telegraph, via Boing Boing.] But then the question arose: was it a boy's bike, or a girl's?

Larry responds: Girl's of course. Carrothers ain't queer.

The Dangers of Blogging

Greg Mankiw is worrying that blogging might keep "extaordinarily talented individuals" like, e.g., Greg Mankiw, from doing important work in the world (link).

I have to admit, I have not hitherto worried about that problem myself. I do, however remember Molière (link):
Writing is like prostitution. First you do it for love, then you do it for a few friends, the next thing you know, you are doing it for money.

This One Really Bugs Me

Seinfeld on NPR this morning hyping his new flic,"Bee Movie," said that the project "made him realy antsy," and that they did some of it "on the fly."

I don't think he was being cute, but I guess I am. Or am trying to be.

Fn.: I see from IMDB (link) that he meets the florist, Vanessa Bloom, and "their relationship blossoms."

Monday, October 29, 2007

There, That Gets It Nicely

Keep this one in mind (link):

Rudy's lead is perfectly consistent with only a tiny number of actual "values voters" actually deciding that perpetual war is more important to them than banning abortion of persecuting gays and lesbians.

Italics added. Ought to be a good index of how the battle goes over the next few months.

I've Been Trying to Tell You...

Do a Google search for "all men are bastards."

(Thanks anon).

All Things Hungarian

Hey, it’s here—my copy of Istvan Bart, Hungary and the Hungarians: The Keywords, fresh from the Primrose Hill Bookshop in London: they promised me 20-45 days and it got here in three (there must be a Microtrend here somewhere) (oh, and thanks again for the tip, Larry). With great elegance, Bart explains:

And bilingual dictionaries, constructed on the principle of equivalence, do not help … because they do not try to invoke the thoughts, concepts and images that are invoked for the native speaker upon hearing the name of a town or a region, a festival, a form of address, a dish peculiar to his country, or the lines of a song. For languages are made up of popular memories, myths and beliefs, customs and ever changing usage, words ring bells—and if our ears don’t hear their roll, life is merely a silent movie.

So, an attempt to understand a culture through words. Not a dictionary, strictly (I still can’t say I know any Hungarian). Only incidentally a guide to the people and institutions (a short entry for Janos Kadar but none for Imre Nagy; an entry for Lajos Kussoth but none for Ferenc Molnar (though Nagy and Molnar does get mentioned elsewhere). There is, by contrast, a remarkable entry on the Szomorú Vasárnap—“Gloomy Sunday,” aka the “Hungarian suicide song,” and its composer Rezső Seress, who himself, it is said, committed suicide.

Consider also, for example:

Kovács űr Mr. Smith (lit.); the journalistic name for the average Hungarian, which in real life is also spelled “Kováts” and even “Kovách”, the latter being considered more aristocratic because it is older; it’s [sic] American variant is “Coufax”; the name for the average Hungarian could just as easily be “Nagy” (big), or “Kis” (small), after all, these are equally common surnames.

Szerelem love; the Hungarian language has a separate word for loving a friend or fellow man (which is also used when someone loves a certain type of food), and another for the passion of a man and a woman feel for each other; this latter is denoted by the word ‘szerelem’, and which →Petöfi calls “a dark pit”, or “sötét verem” (possibly because it rhymes).

"Petöfi" would be the 19th-Century poet Sándor Petöfi, "in whose oeuvre," per Bart, "romanticism, patriotism and revolutionary fervor are admirably and perfctly mixed." Bart says he was "a driving force" behind the Revolution of 1848; he died a year and a half later at the age of 26.

And, at a more ambitious level:

Andrássy űt 60. 60 Andrássy Avenue; the infamous building situated on Budapest’s loveliest tree-lined boulevard which during WW II served as the fascist Arrow Cross ( →nulas [keresztes] mozgalom) headquarters, then as the headquarters of the dreaded communist secret police ( →ÁVO). Those who survived the tortures and interrogations in its subterranean the prison cells were usually taken to prison camp at →Recsk. In the sixties ( →hatvanas evek), the street, formerly named after Count Andrássy, Minister of Foreign Affairs during the Monarchy ( →Monarchia), then rechristened first in honor of Stalin, then in honor of the Hungarian Peoples’ Republic (Népköztársaság utja), was given new house numbers in a futile attempt to obliterate the past. It is now once again Andrássy űt.

Sunday, October 28, 2007


Priceless comment from the NYT, saying goodbye to E. Stanley O'Neal as he hurtles toward the door at Merrill (link):

He ... has the ability to be at the center of major financial disruptions without taking on significant blame. He was a senior banker in the junk bond division when the firm had a $470 million write-down; he was a co-head of Merrill’s institutional business in 1997, a few months before the Asian financial crisis hurt the markets. He was chief financial officer in 1998 when the firm had a quarterly loss because of bond trading and exposure to the troubled hedge fund Long Term Capital Management.

Time-Saver Reading Note

The best part of Valerie Plame Wilson’s memoir, Fair Game (2007) is the 80-page “Afterword” by Laura Rozen, added (apparently) to trump the CIA’s fairly heavy-handed censorship of Wilson’s own manuscript. By laying out in some detail the chronicle of Wilson’s career, Rozen makes it clear just how calamitous it was for her to be outed. It also, perhaps ironically, casts the CIA in a rather more attractive light than the censors may have realized--as hard-working true believers who do their job (more or less) well.

Report from the auto de fé

How many religions are there in the world, do you suppose? I have heard 10,000, or 32,000, with two-three-four new ones every day. Now this, from a report by a confidential agent in Seville, back to the headquarters of the Fugger bank in Antwerp:

From Seville, the 13th day of May 1569

The auto de fé of which I have already written took place here to-day. Seventy persons were brought forth, of which have been burned two Burgundians, one Frenchman and one Dutchman. The others were for the most part Spanish, rabble of poor mien, namely blasphemers of the name of God, and such as had been married twice or more. There were also among them such as did not hold fornication as sin. Likewise were there some of Jewish and Mohammedan faith.

The Fugger Newsletter 36 (G. Matthews ed.) (Capricorn Paperback 1970)

Moses said:

—The good news is, I got him down to ten.

—The bad news is, adultery is still in.

Tyler Cowen on Blackwater: It's More than "Perception"

Tyler Cowen has tackled (or should I simply say “molested”) a favorite topic of mine—the question of when, exactly, “the market” yields a better solution than “the government.” Tyler’s opening shot is a New York Times op-ed in which he argues that if Blackwater is misbehaving in Iraq, why then blame it on the government that hired them (link).

In a blog entry today, he characterizes his own argument as saying that “perception and accountability are important enough in contemporary Iraq that we should be using contractors less in these capacities (link). I suspect the problem goes as god deal deeper than “perception.” “Accountability” is surely part of it, but I suspect there are deeper issues here that we (= at least Tyler, and I) haven’t yet begun to articulate. We’re all inured to the point of tedium with the notion that “the government,” aka “the mess in Washington,” aka “the pointy-headed bureaucrats,” aka “the commissars,” can’t get anything right. We’re not nearly so well schooled in the proposition that a lot of the problems of “the government” may be endemic to any large organization, public or private. And I suspect we haven’t done nearly well enough in identifying those vices/defects that are endemic to private (as distinct from public) enterprise.

Fifty years ago, we were all accustomed to the proposition that any evil was a problem of “capitalism,” and that come the revolution, we would all have egg in our beer. Most of us now understand the rhetorical deficiency of comparing an actual capitalism to a hypothetical socialism. We don’t seem to be so alert yet to the insight that it works the other way round: nothing to be gained by comparing an actual public entity with a hypothetical market.

Here and elsewhere, Tyler uses a quaint and affecting rhetorical strategy. Skim his piece the first time and you think you are reading the George Mason mantra—markets in tooth and claw. On second look, he says: hey, I didn’t really mean that, I know that things are complicated, and I’m wide open to exploring and discussing the complications.

Well, pin a rose on him for that. I’ll even give him an A for effort (okay, maybe a B plus). But there’s a lot more to be done and (lacking the talent and/or energy to do it myself), I look forward to his forthcoming, more ambitious and insightful forays.

Afterthought: Somewhere, perhaps tucked away in a cubical-office at Cal State Pimento, an untenured political science professor is crying—“hey, I know the answer to that question! Call on me! Call on me!" He just might be right.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Penn's Miscellany

It’s easy to make fun of Mark Penn’s Microtrends (if you doubt it, go here). It’s glib, superficial, way too heavy on whiz-bang hubba hubba. On bankruptcy, one subject I actually know a little about, it is just laughably off base. It’s more of a quaint miscellany than a coherent presentation—the title“Microtrends” is perhaps most charitably translated as “hey, look, folks, the world is a complicated place!”

But when you stop to think about it—actuall, yes, the world is a complicated place and Penn’s presentation, however accidentally, helps to drive the point home (and the fact that he annoyed Maureen Dowd is no evidence of anything—doesn’t everything annoy Maureen Dowd?).

Some of it pretty much restates the obvious: I don’t think I need to be told, for example, that the Russians are reverting away from democracy. Some is really pretty trivial: I don’t think I need to be told that seventh-grade girls are interested in knitting. But even granted the obvious and the trivial, the result is a therapeutic reminder of just how complicated our world can be.

Eye-opening as it may be, I am amused (and I guess a little surprised) to find out how much of it applies to me. Over 65 and still working? At least part time, check. Long commute? 90 miles, check. Living together apart? Not quite, but over 28 years of domestic bliss, I’ve been away from “home” about a third of the time. We miss “met through the internet” only because we are too old: we met in the want ads, before the internet was invented.

But enough about me. Rather, allow me to cherry-pick, not his showcase findings, but some odd particular points that might spice up the picture. For example:

  • Internet daters: I’m not surprised to find out that they are somewhat more urban, up-scale and (big-D) Democratic than the control group. It is intriguing to learn that they are somewhat more likely to go to church.
  • Interethnic dating: not surprising to find that it is most common on the west coast. Intriguing that it is actually more accepted in the east. Boswash talks the talk; LA/Seattle walks the walk.
  • The Hispanic shift to Bush in ’04—it all came from Hispanic Protestants. And BTW one reason for the rise of Protestantism among Hispanics: faith healing. Helps when you don’t have medical insurance.
  • Support for gun control among American Muslims: 81 percent (v. about half for the population as a whole).
  • Released prisoners. I guess I knew that a lot of mid-d-30s guys are getting out of prison (mostly with unabated drug issues). Hadn’t occurred to me that “home” is concentrated in some very particular urban neighborhoods.
  • The “Disorder Divide”: “While regular folks may still see a stigma in kids’ disabilities related in any way to the brain the affluent wear them like a badge of honor, aggressively explaioning why their children undercompete.”

Oh, and one good final irony. Here’s something that is not diverse: the laptop computer. World around, it is a commodity product. Nearly every one of them is pretty much like any other. And, he might have added, mostly made in one little corner of Taiwan.

Brownback: Not a Lunatic

I used to think Sam Brownback was a lunatic. Now, I see he is just a whore (link). I liked him better as a lunatic.

Afterthought: And here goes another one.

Rememering Werner (and my friend John)

Mrs. Buce is watching some guy on C-span flog his new book about Werner von Braun. Makes me remember a story told by my old friend John (God rest) about his early days in the news biz, covering one of the very first (attempted) space shots down at Huntsville. The reporters were gathered around the launch pad when a battered station wagon rolled up. A guy emerged with a morose look on his face, holding his coat collars together and sucking on his pipe.

The countdown completed, the rocket touched off—in a tremendous flash and fizzle. The guy climbed back into his car and started to pull away. The reporters rushed over:

“Dr Von Braun! Dr. Von Braun! What happened?”

“Vot happened! Der God tamn thing blew up on der pad, dot’s vot happened.”

And whooshed off (more effectively than the rocket) over the horizon.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Note on Economic Imperialism
(Alternate Title: Barbarians at the Gates)

There’s a remarkable post up today at Marginal Revolution on the general theme of what you might call the “alleged imperialism of economics” (link)—remarkable in that it gives some high-saliency opportunities to explore this (perhaps shopworn?) topic. Let me quote at length:

1. I cherish my consumer surplus. I value most of the stuff I buy way more than what I have to pay for them; vanilla ice cream makes me happy beyond belief, and the same is true for the music of Dream Theater and the (soon to be purchased) Apple iphone. And what am I asked to pay for them? Peanuts.

2. I cherish my producer surplus. I am getting paid way, way more than the salary that would make me indifferent between supplying labour and staying at home.

3. I never have regrets: I did the best I could given the information available to me at the time. Judging I could have done better using information I acquired at a later date makes as much sense as regretting the existence of gravity. On a related topic, I understand the irrelevance of sunk costs.

4. While I do care for my welfare in relative terms, my welfare in absolute terms looms large in my utility function - and, boy, look how its value has been growing.

5. The selfishness of my fellow human beings does not make me anxious or depressed. Adam Smith (or was it Mandeville?) taught me that humans, selfish as they are, can make happy societies. And perhaps more to the point, they can make me happy.

Note that these are offered not just as “general” propositions, or even as “economic” propositions, but as evidence of why “economics” should make us “happier” (bear with me on all those quotation marks).

There are so many ways you could go with this, but let me see if I can limit myself to two. First, the question whether and to what extent the knowledge (wisdom? Insight?) here imparted is “economics” and to what extent it is “just stuff.” Example: I agree that I enjoy a lot of “consumer surplus.” But I learned years ago that one should always be more alert to what fate has granted than what it has denied (I have heard it attributed to Gratian, but I can’t pin it down). Similar with “producer surplus.” I thank heaven every day that I don’t get paid what I’m worth—or more generally, thank heaven there is no justice in the world. Somewhat similar with selfishness. Over a long and not very corrupt life, I have indeed learned that people are not quite as nice as I thought they were when I basked in the benign Christian socialism of my childhood. Mandeville (and Smith) may have given particular bite to the idea—but recall that neither Mandeville nor Smith was an “economist,” in that economics had not been invented yet.

So much for ## 1, 2 and 5. ## 3 and 4 are a bit more complicated. First, three:

3. I never have regrets: I did the best I could given the information available to me at the time. Judging I could have done better using information I acquired at a later date makes as much sense as regretting the existence of gravity. On a related topic, I understand the irrelevance of sunk costs.

Well—sure. This is perhaps a sensible way to behave. The interesting fact is that there are many people – economists and others—who believe it in a general way, and yet have regrets. The really interesting question is what triggers people to sustain those regrets even when they, ahem, “know better.”

Similar with #4:

4. While I do care for my welfare in relative terms, my welfare in absolute terms looms large in my utility function - and, boy, look how its value has been growing.

Sure, fine. But how hard (apparently) it is for people to think that way, and how persistent (apparently) they are in thinking otherwise. The interesting task is not simply to declare the proposition more loudly, but to inquire into the source of the resistance.

Which brings me, perhaps, back for a second swipe at #5: “The selfishness of my fellow human beings does not make me anxious or depressed.” As others wiser than I have noted, this is not, strictly speaking, an empirical proposition. If I believe it is okay to be selfish, then I may become more selfish—which my foreclose any inquiry into a world where selfishness does not prevail.

I don’t know where all this leaves me except to say that the outer marches of economic imperialism are a poorly charted and mysterious frontier. Let me end with two quick offerings, perhaps the same offering in two different forms.

· One, I was having lunch with my friend Emma when she was talking about the “non-economic” content of social theory. I remarked that the economists were beginning to believe that there is no non-economic content; that it is all explainable in terms of their models.

“No, no,” said Emma, “you’ve got it backwards. It is the economics that is being swallowed by everything else.

· And two, a line I remember reading somewhere in the work of Jean Piaget: it may be that psychology will someday come to look like mathematics, but if so, then both psychology and mathematics will look different from what they look like today.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Sincerity of Money: Iraq Bonds

Dan Shaviro showcases (link) Michael Greenstone on evidence that the surge is not "working." Hint: follow the money.

Product Differentiation

Looking for an internet date site? You might try--

Wonder how many people qualify for both

Prosser and Alchian on Good Fruit

George Stigler says somewhere that the guy who gets credit for a discovery is not the first person to make it, but the last.

I just stumbled on a Wiki article on “the Alchian-Allen theorem” (link). Per Wiki:

It states that when the prices of two substitute goods, such as high and low grades of the same product, are both increased by a fixed per-unit amount such as a transportation cost or a lump-sum tax, consumption will shift toward the higher-grade product. This is true because the added per-unit amount decreases the relative price of the higher-grade product.

Wiki says the theorem was “developed in 1964,” but goes on to add that it “is also known as the ‘shipping the good apples out’” theorem, with a ref (but not a link?) to this guy.

Hmph. I can’t seem to find a link at the moment but there is a law review article by the late, great William L. Prosser, once dean of the law school at Berkeley, if not of the entire law teaching profession—an article on why you should not bother trying to get a job at Berkeley. The article was called “We Ship All the Good Fruit East.”

Prosser died in 1972. No idea whether he ever heard of Alchian, or Alchian of him.

Bookkeeping Problem

Leaving his provincial his boondocks training station for a Delhi holiday, Agastya, somewhat unwillingly, has to share the train trip with Kumar, the district Superintendent of Police. Kumar buys the ticket, but Agastya thinks it is the course of prudence to pay him back:

Agastya took out the 450 rupees. “For the train ticket, sir.”

Kumar beamed, and took from Agastya’s hand one 100-rupee note, “when you begin service you don’t get paid so well yaar, I know. You cannot afford more than second class, so I’ll take from you only the money for second class.” His face added, What a darling am I, no? Then more small talk.

Walking away from the police office, Agastya wasn’t sure whether Kumar had been unnecessarily generous or incredibly base. Kumar would have sent a police menial to buy those tickets, and given his style of functioning, would not have paid the menial any money in advance. And after buying the tickets the menial would not have had the guts to ask someone like Kumar for the money. If he was going to pay the menial 900 for two train tickets, he would hardly pay more than 300 for Agastya’s ticket out of his own pocket. Perhaps Kumar would repay the menial with a favour (a desired posting, or the stoppage of a transfer), and had smoothly pocketed for himself Agastya’s 100. In his place, smiled Agastya, I’d have taken much more.

—Upamanyu Chatterjee, English, August 242 (NYRB Paperback 2006)

I have no idea how to do the bookkeeping on this one.

Fn.: A glossary says thqt “yaar” means “friend.”

Shout-out for Haaretz (and for Laura Rozen)

This is interesting in itself, but there's a meta story worth noticing. That is: you get a more diverse view of Israeli politics inside Israel than you do in the United States. I admit, I had never really heard of Haaretz until I was traveling in Israel last fall. Now it is on my IGoogle homepage and I look at it more often than several others. For stuff like this (link):

Livni behind closed doors: Iran nukes pose little threat to Israel
By Gidi Weitz and Na'ama Lanski, Haaretz Correspondents

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said a few months ago in a series of closed discussions that in her opinion that Iranian nuclear weapons do not pose an existential threat to Israel, Haaretz magazine reveals in an article on Livni to be published Friday.

Livni also criticized the exaggerated use that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is making of the issue of the Iranian bomb, claiming that he is attempting to rally the public around him by playing on its most basic fears. Last week, former Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy said similar things about Iran.

The article also reveals for the first time a document Livni prepared and sent to Olmert a few months after the Second Lebanon War proposing a new division of labor between the two. "Enclosed is a proposal for work procedures between us, with the aim of providing an answer to Israel's strategic needs and facilitating early planning and the formulation of coordinated Israeli positions ... within the framework of cooperative relations, full transparency and continuous mutual updates," wrote Livni.

Afterthought:Also a shout-out for Laura Rozen at WarandPiecewhere I found this. She might be the best foreign policy journalist going.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Meta Interlude

Allow me a bit of reflexivity here: I just stumbled on Felix Salmon’s discussion of blog rankings among economists. Turns out there is a first tier comprising Marginal Revolution (Tyler Cowen) and Freakonomics (Steve Levitt) with 70,000-plus Google subscribers each. Then there’s nothing, then there’s nothing, then there’s nothing, then you come to a second tier including Brad DeLong, Paul Krugman, Greg Mankiw, Mark Thoma and Econlog, between 1,000 and 2,000.

I subscribe to all of these except Freakonomics and Krugman. I don’t read Freakonomics for the same reason that I don’t read Harry Potter—everybody else does, and the marginal return of my adding my own eyes is just too small (I’ve heard Levitt do one academic presentation and he seems to be a personable and interesting guy). I don’t read Krugman because I get all I want of him from the apoplexy beat—the range of Neanderthal critics who scrape themselves off the ceiling every time he opens his mouth (reading the critics alone, I’d say that Krugman has the better of it most of the time).

I like Cowen well enough but I wouldn’t say he is 75, or even 37.5, times as good as the second tier. Indeed if I had to choose just one, I’d take Thoma—more limited, more discriminating, and therefore altogether more indispensable than any of the others.

As the comments to Salmon suggest, there may be accidental reasons why Cowen and Levitt flash across the night sky. But what intrigues me is that the numbers for DeLong and Mankiw (and, I guess, the others in the second tier) are so low. Their readers—including me—tend to treat them as if they are movers and shakers in public debate. Can you do that with a subscriber roll no bigger than a mid-sized high school? This blog stuff is all very bewildering.

And Underbelly? Oh, we are still down in the high-school-sorority dear-diary sector. I am not sure I understand the data, but the last time I looked I think I had something like 40 subscribers. My Buzzflash Mapstats give me 50-70 hits a day. Both of these numbers are big enough to make my head spin—hell, I’m not on speaking terms with 40 people, let alone 70. If they start getting any higher, I may have to do something really disgusting to cut down traffic (no, wait—disgusting might be just what it takes to raise traffic. Oh dear…).

Alright, as you were. I will resume fubsy literary chitchat shortly.

Followup: Brad (brad?) in the comments stresses that those numbers are Google subscribers only, not hits. Point taken, but they still strike me as pretty low.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Can This Really Be True?

John Lanchester says:

Postmderinism, or, The Culural Logic of Late Capitalism [is] a difficult book, but, it seems increasingly clear, the most important critical work of the last twenty years ... .

John Lanchester, "Good Day, Comrade Shtrum," London Review of Books 10
(18 October 2007)
I ask for two reasons:
  • I hate to think any book so inflated with pretentious jargon can possibly demand respect; and

  • I am tinctured with the suspicion that Lanchester is scrambling for a place in the treehouse.

I admit, I can't think of any other book that deserves to be called "the most important critical work of the last twenty years ... .

Latke-Hamantashen Debate

This is the first I ever heard of the great Chicago latke-hamantashen debate (link), but a friend of mine back in the 50s did introduce me to the war of the noodleites and the farfelites:

  • If you eat noodle soup, you get not only what is in the spoon, but all that hangs over the edge of the spoon as well!

  • Ah, but if you eat farfel soup, you get whatever is in the spoon. If you eat noodle soup, there is always a risk that the noodles will slip out of the spoon, and then what do you got, soup?

[Remember that one, Peter?]

Remembering Peg Bracken

My friend Jim's first principle of feminism: if you can't stand the heat, stay in the kitchen. Peg Bracken didn't much like the heat, but she certainly did not like not like the kitchen, at least not as traditionally defined. I never met her, but I do remember her I Hate to Cook Cookbook, which I saw on the shelves of more than one of my friends' homes back in the 50s. There was another called I Hate to Housekeep and others, one with the oddly unfeminist title of I Didn't Come Here to Argue.

Peg Bracken died today. Commentary is remarking on the fact that she preceded Betty Friedan, but perhaps an even closer comparison is the columnist Erma Bombeck--earthy, unpompous, not ill-natured, but cheerfully dismissive of the received pieties. The cooking advice was mostly god-awful but so was most cooking advice in those days--unless you were willing to undertake the decidedly unfeminist task of The Dinner--the full-bore home presentation, on the model of the two-volume Gourmet Cookbook, in faux cordovan, or latermthe more good-natured (but hardly less demanding) Julia Child. Peg Bracken's point was to show that didn't need to live or die by The Dinner, and indeed, that you could damn well live without it. In a museum of feminist heroines, Peg Bracken probably does not deserve a statue in the center of the rotunda, but a discreet bust (oh tee hee) might be in order, probably back near the kitchen.

Fn.: Is it any wonder that Peg Bracken is, like so many remarkable characters of that generation, a graduate of Antioch College?

Update: A salute to lb whose comment, unfortunately misposted under the Huckabee rant infra, points out that Bracken checked out hand in hand with the guy who invented Rice-a-roni.

Why Huckabee (With a Rant on Looters)

Carpetbagger tries to rally the troops against the Huckabee surge (link) and who can blame him—Huckabee could well be a disaster as a president, and not entirely because of his Bible-thumping Christianity. But I think Carpetbagger still misses the point in his conclusion:

I’m not quite sure [says Carpetbagger—ed.] why the media has all of a sudden decided to swoon; it probably has something to do with the fact that the most competitive Republican candidates are pretty awful. But let’s not forget that Huckabee isn’t quite the moderate every-man his fans are making him out to be.

Well, I’m pretty sure I know why, and it has nothing to do with “moderation.” The reason is, rather, that that Huckabee is –I was about to say “likeable.” But not quite. Okay, it is true that “likeability” is at the core of the Huckabee persona, but it’s not the real point here. The real point is his capacity to make a powerful emotional connection.

Democrats persistently underrate the importance of emotional connection in a political leader—ironic, when you recall that they had their greatest success with Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose connective power knows no peer. It’s a mistake that leads them candidates with so little connective power—John Kerry, Michael Dukakis, Al Gore (at least the pre-green Al Gore; the new model may be different). It leads to the (mistaken) belief that the secret of Bill Clinton’s success was his powerful academic record—whereas in truth, the real secret was his capacity to make them forget his academic record, and to meet them as one of their own.

This “connection” stuff can get complicated. In drafting this note, I made four points in order: that Huckabee is likeable; that he is comfortable in his own skin; that he’s not particularly mad at anybody; and that he can connect. I think all of these points are correct. But the way I wrote it, I made it sound as if the fourth point (connection) followed as a consequence of the other three. And this is patently absurd. Hitler, after all, was the greatest connector of the 20th Century, and he was about as likeable as an unspayed adolescent alligator. I’d take Huckabee over Hitler, but this connectivity bit seems oddly fickle in its affections.

A year ago, when Huckabee was nowhere, it amused me to predict that he would be the candidate. Now that he seems to be getting some traction, I’m beginning to have my doubts. But the point has little or nothing to do with likeability. The point would be that Huckabee will not pass muster with the real power in the Republican party—the looters who regard the government as a giant honey pot for their own enrichment. The looters can never carry an election on their own so they have to make deals with other constituencies with more pervasive passions as, for example, the Christian right. But if these “other constituencies” ever start getting the illusion they really control anything, they are in for a cruel awakening.

Four Degrees of Separation

Best I can figure, the Olivia Newton-John is a great-granddaughter of Rudolph von Jhering; cf link and link and link and link. One point if you know who Olivia Newton-John is. Two points for Rudolph von Jhering. Five points if you know who both are, but if you can honestly say you never heard of either one, you get the prize.

The Abdallah Higazy Cock-up

Here's another on which I have nothing to add (I guess I am too busy thinking about Weird Al) but which deserves all the exposure it can get (link).

What It Is To Be Rich

In case you were wondering:

Every human nose instantly smells the subtle scent of independence, the habit of command, the habit of always choosing the best of everything for oneself, the whiff of misanthropy, and the unwavering sense of responsibility that goes with power, that rises up, in short, from a large and secure income. Everyone can see at a glance that such a person is nourished and daily renewed by quintessential cosmic forces. Money circulates visibly just under his skin like the sap in a blossom. Here there is no such thing as conferred traits, acquired habits; nothing indirect or secondhand! Destroy his bank account and his credit, and the rich man has not merely lost his money but has come, on the very day he realizes what has happened, a withered flower. With the same immediacy with which his riches were once seen as one of his personal qualities, the indescribable quality of his nothingness is now perceived, smelling like a smoldering cloud of uncertainty, irresponsibility, incapacity, and poverty. Riches are simply a personal, primary quality that cannot be analyzed without being destroyed.

Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities I 456 (Vintage International ed. 1996)

Happy Four-Eighth,Weird Al

Guilty, your honor. I still think this is funny:

And happy 48th Birthday, Weird Al. For plenty more, go here

Fun fact: Weird Al got his start at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, when he found that he was only mediocre at architecture. His original sponsor, Dr. Demento, got a degree at Reed College with a thesis on Berg's Wozzeck and Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Not-so-Magic Flute

For no particularly obvious reason, we have seen four Magic Flutes in the last couple of years, the latest yesterday at the SFO Opera. My guess is that this is an opera just impossible to screw up completely: there is too much glorious (and accessible) music; at least some of it is bound to come through. In many ways, it is an ideal “first opera” for newbies—easily reworked for kids, and I’ve seen one fetching version with puppets. The only qualification would be that it isn’t quite an “opera” at all—more of a barrel-house frolic with an overlay of transcendence.

We shared our outing yesterday with a gang of relative newbies—three guys with good taste & good ears but not a lot of first-hand opera experience. In a word, I’d describe the experience as “unfortunate.” Not bad, precisely; as I just suggested, I’m not sure Magic Flute can be altogether bad. Anyway, the singing was passable, the clowns got a few laughs, and the staging (more infra) is good fun.

But it lacked viscera: the kind of power and energy that can kick it all into outer space. There are a lot of suspects here, but I’d say the main culprit here was size: the SFO stage proved just too big for the job—it allowed singers to spread out and wander way (from each other, and themselves). The result was no challenge, no engagement, no drama.

Size alone isn’t a necessary disability; the Julie Taymor Met production, on an even bigger stage, somehow seems to rise to the occasion (maybe just because you spend so much time worrying that the set will fall down). Last year’s Santa Fe production (thanks in no small part to Natalie Dessay), kept up the pace even though spread out in front of an entire mountain range. But in SFO, the whole production veered somewhere close to marmorial—perhaps the kind of thing you have to put up with in La Clemenza di Tito, but not what you want from.

I’m left then, with an odd irony. Of all the productions I’ve seen in the last couple of years, maybe the best was that glorified pocket opera I saw earlier this month in Budapest, with the chorus singing from faux audience boxes and grownups doing voice-overs for the three blessed children. Technically it was the least polished, and in terms of raw singing talent probably the weakest. On a tight budget, they even skipped the monster: he lived and died offstage, and thus did not have to draw equity wages. But as the least cluttered and least ambitious of the four, it was the one that most allowed Mozart to show through.

Note re staging: San Francisco is recycling a 15-year-old production, first conceived by the late Peter Hall, with designs by the sometimes cartoonist, Gerald Scarfe. I’m a big Scarfe fan, and he did produce a few lovely touches—e.g., a set of stage animals that are as sweetly funny as anything this side of the original Sesame Street. But I wonder if the staging itself (along with the size of the stage) might have been part of the problem. I’m not enough of a theatre person to pass judgment, but it seemed to me there were a lot of times might have been simply pushing people into the wrong place, as if conspiring to make it harder for them to do their job.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Test: Treo Blogging

Playing with the new wireless keyboard for my Treo. Pretty big nuisance to get it configured, but maybe this will work.

This mobile text message is brought to you by AT&T

Postmortem: Hm. Seems pretty tacky to me. No headlines, and that mobile text message message. And no labels. We'll need to work on this.

Good News for Cardiologists

I showed up in Manhattan on January 5, 2006, for a six-month stay. One of the things I looked forward to was the chance to harden my arteries at the Second Avenue Deli.

Imagine my chagrin to learn that the Deli, with an exquisite sense of timing, had closed its doors just four days before.

But looky, looky, folks (link).

The Colony and the Nation

Here’s a good pairing: The Ruling Caste (link), by David Gilmour, and English, August (link) by Upamanyu Chatterjee.

Gilmour’s subtitle is : Imperial Lives in the Victorian Raj, Chatterjee’s is An Indian Story, but it could be called “governing lives in the Indian republic”—governing through the Indian Administrative Service, the successor to Gilmour’s Raj. So, parallel stories, joined and separated by time, as in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia.

The parallel isn’t quite exact. Gilmour is retailing—and trying to generalize from—a welter of anecdotes that he culled from diaries, family records, and suchlike sources. There’s a great deal of “the personal” in this tapestry. But Chatterjee offers a more conventionally structured novel. You get the general context of misgovernment and squalor, but you also get the piercing particular isolation of one very lonely young man.

Neither Gilmour nor Chatterjee purports to offer a full-scale appraisal, but Gilmour makes his general perspective clear. In a New York Times, William Grimes offers a just summary (link):

Mr. Gilmour concedes that the British ruled by force, not consent. At the same time, the civilians, as members of the Indian Civil Service were known, took a high-minded view of their mission. The duty of the British was, they believed, to rule firmly but fairly, to improve living conditions wherever they were posted and to maintain high standards of integrity. It is a measure of their success that both India and Pakistan adopted the British model for their own civil services after independence.

Chatterjee is less explicit, but it is hard to find much solace in his world of dust, mud and careerism, where nothing much seems to work right (except, perhaps, the hero’s scabrous sense of humor). We are left, then, with a cruel paradox: British rule may have been arrogant and presumptious—but in many respects it may have been better than what followed.

There is the occasional convergence between the two books Example: one thing about the Brits is that they weren’t there to stay: unlike the Brits who went to Canada, to Australia, even to East Africa, the Brits in India all intended to (and most in fact did) return to their little cottage in Surrey. Perhaps surprisingly, a century or more later, one of Chatterjee’s characters finds that in this respect not much has changed. We’re considering “the Club”—the local social club, maintained as an island of solace in a hurricane. The District Collector has lately made an important decision, unaccountable to at least one of the locals:

“Idiot” said Sathe … “He’s messed up the Club. Once it was a good place to have a drink, play billiards and waste time. But he’s cancelled the license—did he tell you that? He wants all the families to come to the Club and chat with him or something. I can’t understand it, this move of his to keep what he calls the non-officials out of the club. It’s like the Raj, natives not allowed. … And in this case the natives of Madna not allowed. You officers are birds of passage, anyway … We are the ones who stay here with the Club. If we want to drink here we should be allowed to.”

— Upamanyu Chatterjee, English, August 131
(NYRB Paperback, 2006)

“You officrs are birds of passage … we are the ones who stay…” It’s a complaint uttered at other times and other places by anybody who has to suffer under the ambiguous glories of “administration.”

Friday, October 19, 2007

Kafka on Alienation

I wrote (link):

I remember reading somewhere—Walker Percy?—that Kafka’s first readers (listeners?) in Prague used to collapse in helpless hilarity.

Yep, here it is: it's part of Percy's argument that "there is no such thing, strictly speaking, as a literature of alienation:"

The reading [person] rejoices in the speakability of his alienation and in the new triple alliance of himself, the alienated character, and the author. His mood is affirmatory and glad. Yes! that is how it is!--which is an aesthetic reversal of alienation. It is related that when Kafka read his work aloud to his friends, they would all roar with laughter until tears came to their eyes. [Emphasis added-ed.] ... To picture a truly alienated man, picture a Kafka to whom it had never occurred to write a word."

--Reynolds Price, "The Man on the Train,"
in The Message Found in the Bottle 83 (1975)
Now, if I could find the one about Chekhov...

Tak Tic

Our friend Grethe is a Dane. For "many thanks," she writes "1000 TAK."

Takes me back to the 70s, when I used to ride the red double-decker London bus (#68, Camden Town to Aldwych). The conductor would punch your ticket and say "tak."

The conductors were "Pakistani" (or so I was told; they were brown-skinned, apparently Asian). But the story was that they had taken the jobs in succession to North Britons--i.e., descendants of the Danish invasions.

Old habits die hard

You Said You Were Going to Minsk...

In his bibliography of the works of Pierre Menard, Borges includes this item:

An invective against Paul Valery in the Journal for the Suppression of Reality of Jacques Reboul. (This invective, it should be stated parenthetically, is the exact reverse of his true opinion of Valery).

--Jorge Luis Borges, Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote
Let's see: "Suppression of Reality" -- "exact reverse of his true opinion." Oh, ah, I get it. Cute.

Now this:

Although the forces of cant and triviality are legion in our culture, it is not every day that one encounters a book as foolish, misguided, and supremely irrelevant as this one. Within its torturous pages, [the author] succeeds in gathering together the whole bouquet of human stupidity. By an incredible feat, [he] manages to be both glib and ponderous, simplistic and opaque, lumpen and condescending. .

That's from a review (by Giles Harvey) in the Village Voice (link). The subject (or better, "target") is R. Jay Magill Jr.'s new book. The book is entitled Chic Ironic Bitterness (2007).

Let's see: you say you are going to Minsk so I will think you are going to Pinsk, but I know you are really going to Minsk...

Dear Giles: love ya, baby, Jay.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Hello Assault Rifle

Just linking to Boing Boing is a pretty stupid way to run a blog, but this one is too good to overlook (link).

Music: Music? Music!

My friend Larry is still reading the NYT obits:

The elfin Ms. Brewer achieved teenage stardom as a spunky novelty act; its catchy song, “Music! Music! Music!,” became a jukebox fixture, earned a gold record and became her signature song. She recorded it again several times, using different punctuation.

"Okay, take it from the top, and this time with semicolons..."

Eastern European Booklist

I’ve been drawing together some notes on Eastern Europe (Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Austria). I find myself with this list of books who have no common theme other than the fact that I liked them and they made a dent on me. This isn’t all that I’ve read on the subject—nor even all that I’ve learned from—but they are they ones that I most want to hang onto.

Istvan Bart, Hungary and the Hungarians (ISBN-10 9631348482; ISBN-13: 978-9631348484). Okay, this one is pretty obscure (why I’ve included the ISBNs). I found it in French (apparently the original language); Amazon lists an English version, but marks it “unavailable.” If anybody knows where I can get a copy, give me a headsup (update: thanks, Larry!). Meanwhile, it is the kind of thing the language-proud French do really well: a kind of “keyword encyclopedias” of Hungarian culture, via Hungarian language. I know zilch Hungarian and I haven’t the slightest intention of learning any. But this book is a wonderful browser and gives you at least the illusion that you are learning to penetrate a cultural fog.

Brigitte Hamman, Hitler’s Vienna. It’s a trip to go to the Vienna StaatsOper and to remember Hitler in attendance there (standing room) back when he was a rootless young nobody.

Jaroslav Hašek. The Good Soldier Švejk. Not a novel, really, but more a succession of sketches, like a Sunday funny paper, with the same character getting into predictably comical scrapes. Two interesting things about this book: one, it’s that rare novel that really tries to tell you something about “just people,” rather than sensitive, artistic types. The other is how popular it appears to remain among the Czechs. How many countries make a national hero out of a simpleton? I sometimes think that the Czech republic, tucked away in the remnants of the old Austrian Empire, on the edge of the old German Empire, can claim the appellation sometimes attributed to North Carolina—a vale of humility between two mountains of conceit.

Franz Kafka, The Castle. I remember reading somewhere—Walker Percy?—that Kafka’s first readers (listeners?) in Prague used to collapse in helpless hilarity. Oh my God, they would say, he’s got us to the life (I’ve heard the same thing about Russians and Chekov). You can make sense out of Kafka anywhere, but somehow he makes more sense in Prague, once you understand a bit about his position as a German Jew in a Slav culture (for details, go here). And Prague actually has a castle. Bet they never told you that in your college lit class.

Heda Margolius Kovaly, Under a Cruel Star. I’ve written about this before as one of the great holocaust survival memoirs. It’s also important for getting a sense of the past that Czechs still bear.

Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. I am never quite sure whether to count Kundera as a Czech writer or a Parisian expat. I nominate this if for no other reason, then because of the film version—one of the best upscale blue movies ever. Man, the things that girl can do with a bowler hat …

John Lukacs, Budapest 1900. Still a fine book for getting a feel of Budapest itself, and more generally for the souring of nationalism at the end of the 19th Century.

Joseph Roth, The Radetzky March. For my money, Roth is the go-to guy for the look and feel of the declining Austro-Hungarian Empire. It’s amazing how fully realized a world he builds into this not-very-long novel, and how much it sticks with you.

Karl Tschuppik, The Reign of Emperor Francis Joseph, 1848-1916. Okay, another obscure entry. Tschuppik is hardly state-of-the-art history, but he gives you the feel of the old empire from the standpoint of someone who remembers it with wry nostalgia.

Stefan Zweig, Beware of Pity. Others might suggest his non-fiction account, The World of Yesterday¸ which has its merits, but I think this novel does a better job of conveying the tang of the years leading up to World War I.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Agastya and Srivastav Discuss the English Major

If you don’t study economics in college, you could always study English. Here, Agastya Sen, in the boondocks on his first assignment as a trainee in the Indian Administrative Service, reviews curriculum with his boss, Srivastav:

“What was your discipline, Sen, in college?”

“English, sir,” said Agastya, and wished that it had been something more respectable, Physics or Economics or Mathematics or Law, a subject that at least sounded as though one had to study for its exams. Many times in those months, in myriad forms, he was to feel embarrassed about his past, and wish that it had been something else. Sitting in Srivastav’s drawing room, he remembered Pultukaku’s objecting to his choice of subject in college, just as he had earlier, and for the much the same reasons, objected to Agastya’s schooling: “Chaucer and Swift, what are you going to do with these irrelevancies? Your father doesn’t seem to think that your education should touch the life around you?”

“A useless subject,” said Srivastav, “unless it helps you to master the language, which in most cases it doesn’t. “ He scowled mysteriously … “The English we speak is the English we read in English books, and, anyway, those are two different things. Our English should be just a vehicle of communication, other people find it funny, but how we speak shouldn’t matter as long as we get the idea across. My own English is quite funny too, but then I had to learn it on my own.” Agastya began to like Srivastav then; he was honest, intelligent and satisfied with life; he was rare. “In Azamganj, where I come from, I studied in a Hindi-medium school. Now people with no experience of these schools say that that’s a good thing, because we should throw English out of India. Rubbish, I say… When I went to College in Lucknow I felt completely stupid. So I began to read English on my own. I had to, because English was compulsory for the Civil Service exam. So I read Shakespeare and Wordsworth and people like that, very difficult. It’s still important to know English. It gives one,” he fisted his hand, “confidence.”

Srivastav had the pride of a self-made man. … [Agastya] could picture Srivastav too, an obscure and mediocre college student, sweating with incomprehension but determinedly wading through The Prelude because he wanted to get on. …

—Upamanyu Chatterjee, English, August 69-71 (NYRB ed. 2006)

This I Believe

I believe the following to be true:

  • Men are toast. There is nothing the world needs from men that can’t be done by a turkey baster. Old men are cranks and bores. Young men are a threat to public order. Any day now we’ll breed ‘em out, except for a few kept alive in zoos. The only thing that keeps them around now is sheer force of habit.

  • Men rule, and will rule tomorrow more than today. States are disintegrating; civil society is breaking down. We’ll be left with warring clans governed by principles of retribution on a structure of polygamy and patriarchy.

Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.

Dierdre McCloskey on the Impossibility of Doing Her Job

I’ve been trying to talk a young (=18 yrs old) friend into studying some economics. But I’m up against a barrier here: the great Dierdre McCloskey, who teaches economics to 18-year-olds, thinks it can’t be done. Economics, she argues, is a philosophical subject, and you can’t teach a philosophical subject to a kid that age:

The trouble with teaching economics philosophically is that a 16- or a 19-year-old does not have the experience of life to make the philosophy speak to her. It’s just words, not wise reflections on her life. Economically speaking, she hasn’t had a life. She has lived mainly in a socialist economy, namely, her birth household, centrally planned by her parents, depending on loyalty rather than exit. She therefore has no conception of how markets organize production. Though she probably works at a market job (too may of our students do, mainly to pay for their silly automobiles), she does so without that sense of urgency that comes over a person with a child to support. She does not have any economic history under her belt –no experience of the Reagan Recession or the Carter Inflation or even much of the Clinton Boom, not to speak of the Great Depression or the German Hyperinflation [she seems to have written this in 1991-ed.]. Elder hostellers make better learners of economics.

—Dierdre McCloskey, How to be Human though an Economist 185 (2000)

Elsewhere McCloskey elaborates, at least by indirection, on what it means to be an economist:

When I was 25, having studied economics for 6 years, I grasped suddenly that prices are for allocation, not fairness. When I was 28,m an assistant professor with Steve Cheung as an office mate, I grasped that p[rices are onlyh one possible system of allocation (violence and queuing are others) but socially the cheapest. When I was in my thirties I could spot this stuff for myself in actual markets.

Id. 181

McCloskey does allow herself an out:

One can teach economics, on the other hand, politically. As long as it draws on the extreme passions that young people can feel, as in my own self-education, the program works. But because it has to be radical to be attractive it is impossible to do in a high school and not easy to do in a college. Most parents do not thrill to seeing their pleasantly quiescent teenagers turned into radicals of Left or Right, no matter how much insight into society comes along with it. They get the school board or the board of regents to stop it.

Id. 185

(But quaere, are there any radical students left?) McCloskey also recounts how she got her own kick-start into economics by what must be the most durably successful “academic” book of modern times—Robert Heilbroner’s Worldly Philosophers, which was standard reading back in the Pleistocene when I went to school, and remains a staple today.

Charlie Cook is Not Just Bewildered, He's Mad

Charlie Cook works hard to keep his political newsletter detached and objective. But today, he's mad. Or rather, he starts off with straight reporting:

This must be a tremendously frustrating time for Republican members of Congress, particularly those in potentially competitive re-election fights next fall.

There is so much happening outside of their control: the direction of Iraq, the current softness of the economy, flat retail sales and the free fall in the housing sector.

They can't do anything about President Bush's near-record low approval ratings either.

Then he is bewildered:

But that is exactly why it is inexplicable that almost two dozen Republican House members sitting in potentially competitive districts -- ones with a Republican advantage in the Cook Political Report Partisan Voting Index (PVI) of 4 points or less -- voted against the State Children's Health Insurance Program legislation and appear likely to vote this week to sustain the president's veto of the SCHIP expansion.

Currently, most states offer SCHIP coverage to families of four with incomes up to $41,000 (two times the poverty level), but the expansion would extendeligibility to families making up to three times the poverty level at $62,000.

In high-cost states, the least expensive health maintenance organization option can run as high as $20,000 a year for a family of four and $30,000 for a point-of-service plan, clearly out of reach for most families in that income range.

Then he gets mad:

Some argue that Republicans have turned their backs on one of their party's core values -- restraining government spending -- and have turned the balanced budget they received in 2000 into ugly deficits.

That's absolutely true.

But given some of the dubious spending approved during the period Republicans controlled the House and the Senate and the years they controlled both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, is an expansion of a health care program for children, the working poor and lower-middle-class families really the place to draw the line?

For more Charlie Cook, go here.

Paul Waldman on the Gaffe Wars

There is hardly anybody in public life that gives me the creeps more than Mitt Romney does, but I have to say Paul Waldman is onto something in this account of Romney as a victim of "the gaffe wars." That's "gaffe" = the moment "in which a candidate violates the rules the press has established to separate acceptable from unacceptable behavior." Waldman elaboraters (link):

This week's ["gaffe"] perpetrator was Mitt Romney, who when asked in a debate whether military action against Iran's nuclear facilities would require authorization from Congress, quite sensibly said, "You sit down with your attorneys and tell you what you have to do, but obviously, the president of the United States has to do what's in the best interest of the United States to protect us against a potential threat." The response from his chief opponent, Rudy Giuliani, was predictable: Anyone mentioning "attorneys" must be some kind of sissy.

The press swung into action. "Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney's new smackdown," said Wolf Blitzer excitedly on CNN. "This time, the Republican presidential rivals are fighting over a so-called lawyers' test for national security." The rest of the journalistic village elders quickly made clear their contempt for Romney's impulse to at least consider the legality of a potential military action. "What are these, the Miranda rights for Iran?" asked Chris Matthews. "It sounded equivocal," said David Gregory of NBC News. "It makes him look weak." Margaret Carlson agreed: "You can't be too bellicose. That's why it was a gaffe." Asked by Matthews whether "we expect our future commander-in-chief to have a gut response as to presidential authority in wartime," Dan Balz of the Washington Post said, "We certainly expect him to have a different kind of response than Governor Romney gave last night." Indeed, because if the last seven years have taught us anything, it's that what we need in the Oval Office is less consideration for law and more "gut response."

No one can doubt that had Romney said something like, "If we need to attack Iran, we'll do so, and Congress isn't going to tell me how to defend America," the likes of Gregory, Carlson and Balz would have cheered enthusiastically, marveling at his manly willingness to ignore the Constitution.
Vide Gratiano in Merchant of Venice:

There are a sort of men, whose visages
Do cream and mantle like a standing pond,
And do a willful stillness entertain,
With purpose to be dressed in an opinion
Of wisdom, gravity, profound conceit,
As who should say, "I am Sir Oracle,
And when I ope my lips, let no dog bark!"

--William Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice I, i