Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Parable of the Jackal

There was once a very simple king who, hearing the jackals howl constantly outside his palace,said to his minister, “What are they crying for—those poor animals?” “They are cold,” said the resourceful minister, “and are crying for warm clothing. Poor brutes! They have nothing to put on at all, not even a loincloth no matter how cold the weather is.” “How much will it cost to clothe all the jackals in my kingdom?” asked the sovereign “At least ten thousand rupees,” said the resourceful minister. “See that it is done,” said the simple king. But a few days later he herd them wailing again. “Are the jackals not yet clothed?” he asked. “Yes, sire.” “Then why do they still cry?” “They are thanking you for your charity towards them, said the astute minister.”

--J.R. Ackerley, Hindoo Holiday 106
(1932; NYRB Paperback ed. 2000)

Monday, April 28, 2008

Going to Ground

I'm going to ground for a few days. Taking my new mini laptop with me, not sure whether I will have the facilities to post, or the inclination. More next week, maybe earlier.

From the Bin: Piety and Conformity

I suppose I loved this when I was a teen-ager. It holds up pretty well today. And it is oddly apt in its specifity: Lake Ontario can indeed be blue, and bracing:

Piety and conformity to them that like,
Peace, obesity, allegiance to them that like …

I am he who walks the States with a barb’d tongue, questioning everyone I meet,
Who are you that wanted only to be told what you knew before?
Who are you that wanted only a book to join you in your nonsense?

--Walt Whitman, “By Blue Ontario’s Shore.”

From the Bin: Mill on Coleridge on the State


Cleaning up some old notes, I stumble on this from the exemplar of all individualist/utilitarians, on a great individualist/utilitarian shortcoming: its failure to grasp the importance of the state as teacher. John Stuart Mill argues that this blindness is rooted in the attitude of the radical philosophers of the 18th Century, who saw the world as governed by malign and restrictive forces. Mill speaks rather for a realm in which

…the habitual submission to law and government has been firmly and durably established, and yet the vigour and manliness of character which resisted its establishment has been … preserved. (121)

He says all this requires “a system of education, beginning with infancy and continued through life, of which, whatever else it might include, one main and incessant ingredient was restraining discipline. (121)

A second requisite is “the existence, in some form or other, of the feeling of allegiance, or loyalty,” which may include loyalty to god or gods, to persons, to laws, ancient liberties, etc., or even “it may attach itself to the principles of individual freedom and political and social equality, as realized in institutions which as yet exist nowhere, or exist only in a rudimentary state.” (122-3)

A third requisite is “a strong and active principle of cohesion among the members of the same community or state.” (124)

Mill credits Samuel Taylor Coleridge with having rescued ideas of this sort form the corruptions of the 18th Century.

My notes don’t list an exact source. I believe it is John Stuart Mill, Mill on Benthan and Coleridge, reprinted by Greenwood Press in 1980, though my edition was earlier.

Life is Complicated

Lots of distractions today, but just to keep active:

I have been hanging people for years, but I have never had all this fuss before.

--Edward 'Lofty' Milton, Rhodesia's part-time executioner
on the occasion of demonstrations against the death penalty
Time Magazine, March 15, 1968

I think this echoes the line from the old Kingston Trio record where the judge says: "I don't know whether to hang your or not, but this sher shootin' of deputy sheriff's just naturally gonna hafta stop."

Sunday, April 27, 2008

"My Heart in Hiding Stirred for a Bird"

I don’t read a lot of nature-observation books, but I’ve always been intrigued with hawks (we have quite a few around Palookaville) so I found myself drawn into J. A. Baker’s The Peregrine. I’m glad I did it, but what a strange book it is! For just over six months—from October 1 to April 3 (1966?), Baker trekked over the swamps and fens of the Norfolk coastline, observing and recording the behavior of a hawk (or hawks?) in flight.at rest and taking their kill—observed and yes (as Robert Macfarlane says in an empathetic introduction) near becoming a hawk himself, or at any rate longing to become one and regretting that he cannot.

The observation of nature in the raw is luminescent, but their obsessiveness is almost too much too take except in small doses: Baker writes at a pitch of awareness that cannot be sustained for long. Adding to the urgency of it all, as Macfarlane points out, he tells us almost nothing about the rest of his life—where did he sleep? Who did the laundry? What did he pack for lunch? Nothing but the passionate scrutiny and the detailed observation of the bird and its prey.

Under a blackthorn, beside the brook, I found a freshly killed woodpigeon. Blossom was drifting down into the drying blood. A footpath runs between the two woods, and is separated from them by small thorn-hedged fields and a scattering of oak and elm. There is a dead tree to the south of the path: twenty feet of ruined elm, branchless, jagged at the top like a broken tooth. On this mossy fang of the lighter, golden-coloured tiercel was resting. He flew east when I approached, circled, then drifted down towards me in a series of steep glides and stalls. I stood near the dead tree and watched his descent. The big rounded head, suspended between the rigid wings, grew larger, and the staring eyes appeared, looking boldly through the dark visor of the eye mask. There was no widening of the eyes in fear, no convulsive leap aside; he just came steadily down and glided past me, twenty yards away. His eyes were fixed on my face, and his head turned as he went past, so that he could keep me in view. He was not afraid, nor was he disturbed when I lowered and raised my binoculars or shifted my position. He was either indifferent or mildly curious. I think he regarded me now as part hawk, part man; worth flying over to look at from time to time, but never wholly to be trusted; a crippled hawk, perhaps, unable to fly or to kill cleanly, uncertain and sour of temper.

—J.A. Baker, The Peregrine, 162 (NYRB Paperback ed. 2005)

An introductory note says that Baker wrote one other book, ´an exploration of the natural history of [his] native region.” It adds: “[H]e seems to have worked as a librarian for the remainder of his life. Little else, including the exact year of his death, is known of this singularly private man.”

Hm, A Little Salty

The Wichita bureau is planning our next trip (link):

A Visit to Beijing's Exclusive Penis Restaurant

By Stephan Orth in Beijing

Whole yak penis or sheep testicles on a bed of curry, anyone? A Beijing restaurant serves painstakingly decorated gourmet dishes for the fearless. They're supposed to increase male potency, but women should try a bite, too: Eating penis is good for the skin, apparently.

"Here, try it," says Zhaoran, a business student, as she places a beige-colored ox urethra onto her friend's plate. He's in the middle of wolfing down a piece of chewy dog penis. ...

Also brings to mind the old Spanish-restuarant joke that ends: sometimes, ze bool wins.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Juan and Natalie Play Palookaville

Juan Diego Flórez took a near-unprecedented encore at the Met last week, in Daughter of the Regiment (nine high C’s). Mr. and Mrs. Buce caught up with the show today at the Palookaville multiplex and we can see what the excitement is about. Flórez indeed puts on a remarkable show, but it was also a good lesson in the unfortunate side effects of this kind of promotion. That is: the Met’s Daughter is a remarkable show all round, and the Flórez bravura number is only one, and maybe not the greatest, of its virtues.

I had heard about the encore, but I hadn’t read any of the reviews or commentary, so I didn’t know what a complete, fully-formed, well-intergrated morticed-at-the-joints production we have here. Also, how it succeeds in taking a big risk.

Daughter is, of course, a total war horse, but the production is nearly new. The most notable feature is a lot of new spoken dialogue—surely a tremendous risk with any classic, although perhaps a little less risky with a free-floating comedy than it would be with something solemn and marmoreal like, say Otello. Anyway, the dialogue works, and “works” not just in the sense of “not failing” but in the sense of actually adding something to the show. In its original form, Dialog is an extremely good-natured boy-meets-girl romance (if built on the silliest possible premise). The dialogue adds a layer of acerb comedy—comedy that is good enough in its own right, but also sufficient ot add a texture of complexity and irony to the whole stew. So, a much better opera (to my taste) with than without.

This is one of the operas that made Luciano Pavarotti famous, in company with Joan Sutherland (it’s also the opera that ended Kathleen Battle’s Met career when Joe Volpe canned her sorry soprano ass after some backstage misbehavior back in 1984). I’d say Flórez is at least a fit successor to Pavarotti—maybe not quite as marvelous a piece of machinery, but more thoughtful and reflective, with a more precise sense of what he is doing. And the guy is buff, equal to all kinds of acrobatics and capable of hoisting his leading lady into mid-air. Compare Pavarotti who you suspected of scarfing down an extra plate of pasta between scenes.

Thing is though, for all Flórez’ high C’s & stuff, Natalie Dessay as his lady is at once his match and a necessary complement. She didn’t sing so much as shout her way through the performance, with a lot of her own areobatic stage play—but with voice enough of her own to keep up with her co-star. Indeed, just after Flórez belts out his high notes in “Ah, Mes Ami,” Dessay presents herself as his foil with her farewell song, “Il faut partier,” made not a bit less touching by the fact that she’s wearing pants and an undershirt, and tugging a rope line of laundry. More: Flórez himself said that he found his second-act aria (which is less flashy) more difficult than the first, and he certainly did it credit. Dessay, by the way, comes across as just as physically fit in as her co-star. When we saw her at Santa Fe a couple of years ago, we remarked on how tiny she seemed. She is pretty small; but arms like those betray that she spends not much more time at the conservatory than she does at the gym.

And the encore: actually, Flórez didn’t do it for us, which was fine with me. He took a long, long ovation and you could see him working his throat; we actually thought he was going to. But just as well: this encore stuff shouldn’t get to be a habit. Indeed I have to say I suspect there was a good deal of marketing in it to begin with: I think I read somewhere that Peter Gelb, the major domo, asked him several weeks ago if he thought he might be up to it if, you know, the need arose. The need arose and so did Flórez rose to the need, and Gelb got one of those unbuyable rounds of pulibicity he seems to be good at.

Fn.: My friend Toni offers an Amazon review of the London version of this rendering here, and of an earlier Flórez performance here.

Friday, April 25, 2008

I've Been Foreclosed

I’m being foreclosed. The powers have advised me that they’re taking my faculty office; the goon squad will show up with a dumpster some time before the first of June.

Okay, I exaggerate, but only a little. I am being kicked out of the office that I’ve occupied for 39 years.

I suppose the record should show that I have no quarrel with this decision, and I’m not in the least surprised. When I retired, they promised to let me keep my office for three years, and I’ve had five. And I’ve known for months that this change was in the wind.

Still, I must say it came as a shock. Like I say, 39 years, since I came here as a pup in the fall of ’69. Which makes it about the most stable reference point in my life, ever. Well--I guess I was 49 when my mother died, but we had lived on opposite coasts for more than half that time (my father had died much earlier). In the years since 1969, I’ve had two wives, two houses and a condo, countless apartments (I go away on visits a lot); two children outgrew their childhood and presented me with four grandchildren (and the grandchildren seem to grow up at a lightning pace themselves). But there is stuff in that office that has barely moved the whole time.

I have to admit, I don’t even need an office all that much. I do my class prep (I double dip) in the coffee shop. I talk to students wherever convenient. The office serves, aside from being a point of reference, as storage for a bunch of books I don’t have room for at home.

I repeat, no complaints: they are even providing a “substitute” of sorts--digs in an academic/Stalinist cellblock a half a mile away. I strolled by there to get acquainted yesterday. Right now, it is pretty forlorn: lots of deferred maintenance and a long corridor of empty and open little cribs. They must have been occupied by mathematicians: they all have blackboards, and the blackboards have lots of integrals (also a few giant penises, but I don’t suppose you can blame that on the mathematicians). Still, nothing wrong here that a little domesticity won't cure (along with an industrial-strength blackboard eraser).

The powers that be go further: they say they’ll even help me move. Well, that’s a blessing: I’m certainly too old & sick & stupid & lazy & tired to schlep all these books across campus myself (and if I did, I suppose my cardiologist’s beeper would go off). Another solution would be just to leave them all behind. I tell myself I need to bring them all along, but then I told my buddy that he could go into my current office and take just about anything he might want. Which must tell me something.

Once more, this was no surprise, and it strikes me as entirely fair. But the night after I got the news, I couldn’t sleep. And I still feel a bit like I’m in a room that has just recently been struck by lightning. I tell you, foreclosure is not for sissies.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Bankers and the Walking Cure

After 40 years, I’m rereading Stephen Birmingham’s “Our Crowd: The Great Jewish Families of New York (1967). In this era, a history book that old begins to show its age. I’m sure a battalion of eager young doctoral candidates could tear it to shreds and indeed I can spot a few shortcomings myself (we know a lot more today, for example, about Jay Gould, and about August Belmont’s relationship to the Rothschilds). But Birmingham has an ease and fluency, and I think he captures a flavor that should survive any revision in the footnotes. No wonder he is in print still (or is it again?).

One thing I’d forgotten is how modest were the beginnings of this lot. I had talked myself into believing that they began what they later became: respectable and well-connected bourgeoisie. No such thing: for the most part they came steerage and lived by their wits, as small shopkeepers or peddlers. But they were clever and enterprising and it was only a moment before they found themselves in Manhattan, as bankers:

Walking was becoming a tradition among the Jewish bankers. They all had wives who believed in feeding their husbands hearty breakfasts, enormous midday meals, and Lucullan dinners. Walking countered some of the effects of these. There was a point of dignity, too. Carriages were for lazy men and men of little consequence. The splendor of the conveyance could dim the splendor of the passenger folded up within. Walking toughened the physical and moral fiber, but it was also a social form of locomotion. Walking, a man could meet his friends. Afoot, he could keep abreast of what the competition was doing. One did business while one walked, and one walked even when one sailed. … Of course it also may have been true that the bankers walked out of habit. The grandiose phrase for men like Marcus Goldman, Solomon Loeb, and the Seligmans, was “merchant bankers.” But they were, in many ways, still peddlers covering their routes, only now they were peddling IOU’s.

—Stephen Birmingham, Our Crowd 88-9 (1967).

Birmingham includes a wonderful picture of Jacob Schiff who, he says, “often walked more than sixty blocks before taking a cab to his downtown office.” Birmingham says that Schiff was “a believer in physical exercise.” Dickens and Dostoevsky were both great walkers, who could get drunk on the sheer variousness of their cities. I shouldn’t be surprised if a good 19th-Century banker had some of the same spirit and imagination.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Price Discrimination in Russia, etc.

Carpe Diem has a cute picture up suggesting that you can get into one of Russia's most popular tourist sites more cheaply if you can read Russian (link). But this is actually pretty familiar stuff, not so? I remember trying to buy stuff in Russian shops in the 90s (I don't speak more than 10 sentences of Russian, but I can dope out the alphabet). As long as I stayed silent and pointed, I got Russian prices; once I opened my mouth--even if to say "spaseba"--the price went up. And I remember watching a guest at an upscale hotel in Goa raising holy hell with the desk clerk because he, as an Overseas Indian, was not getting the Indian price.

And come to think of it, haven't we been told that the Chinese side of the restaurant menu is always cheaper? Not that I would have any idea about that one...

Meta Notes: Who My Friends Are

For the last couple of years I've been getting invites from students (and the occasional lawyer) who want me to join LinkedIn, the "professional networking service." At first I pretty much ignored them. I'm certainly not in a life-plan that requires networking, and anyway I'm just ornery or paranoid enough that it seemed easier to do nothing.

Lately I've thought--oh, what's the big deal, go ahead. So I've been accepting the invites.

Sunday afternoon, on impulse, I sent an invite of my own, to my address book.

Results so far: three people (all older than I) have sent me messages saying: what's this all about! Is this a trick? One--who pretty clearly doesn't think highly of me (and the feeling is mutual)-barked: can you give me one good reason why I should accept this (answer: actually, no)?

Some 20-odd people have accepted. But here's the thing: I sent the invite out about 3 o'clock on a Sunday afternoon. Of those who accepted, the vast majority accepted within an hour of my first mailing.

Conclusion: I've got a lot of friends who have nothing better to do on Sunday afternoon than sit around at the computer waiting for email from me.

Not Enough

Stolen from Kedrosky:


So, good, but not good enough. I was going to say "jut like Hillary." But no: I know what's going to happen to Yahoo (Microsoft will win). Right now, I haven't any idea what will happen to the Democrats. Clinton and Obama do, indeed, look more and more like two aging plug-uglies who can bloody each other up but can't land a knockout punch.

They say John McCain is smiling and well he may. But if he has anything to smile about, it is not so much that they are bloodying each other up as it is that by lengthening the primary they are shortening the fall campaign. I've long thought that the biggest for of my age-mate McCain is fatigue--guys like us like to go to bed at 9 o'clock. When we don't get plenty of rest, we get cranky and say stupid things. McCain missed that round before because of the weirdly discontinuous Republican primary story. But it may happen yet.

Fn.: Friend of a friend says that McCain is stuck in 1968. Ha! Yes, that too.

A Booklist for Shakespeare's Birthday

For Shakespeare’s birthday (which may or may not be today), Ron Rosenbaum has a “reading list” up at Slate, but for a guy who did a book on Shakespeare, it’s oddly perfunctory (link). As a well-wisher’s to the world, the editorial board at Underbelly, herewith offers its own guide to Shakespeare reading.

First, some points of departure: Shakespeare is not that hard—an author whose big lines include “Never, Never, Never, Never, Never” (link) can hardly qualify as abstruse. But he’s not that easy, either: there is a threshold, well worth climbing and richly rewarding once you get over, but a threshold still.

Second: Shakespeare is a playwright, not a poet, and he’s best seen where he belongs. The trouble is, there is an awful lot of mediocre Shakespeare around: most often over-respectful and therefore flat and pompous. We’ve had the good luck to see some glorious Shakespeare these last few years, but if choose at random, you are likely to come up with something not so hot.

But here’s a tactic: for starters, stick with the amateurs. There will be rough spots, but often they will not die from the vice of solemnity, and they will compensate for their rough edges with brio. Bone up a little in advance: read at least a synopsis, maybe the whole thing, and maybe aloud--a couple of years back we worked our way through The Tempest with four adolescents. We didn’t do every word, but there is lots of horseplay to keep inquiring minds happy. By all reports, it was a big success.

What play? Oh, I guess any one will do, but perhaps Macbeth is the safest bet. There’s a reason why theatre companies play it when they are on the edge of going broke: it’s short, it’s fairly straightforward, and plenty bloody. Truth is, I’ve never seen a really good Macbeth, but never saw a really bad one either: it seems to survive even the worst of presentations. Midsummer Night’s Dream is another good choice: young love, betrayal, fairies, clowns, something for every taste. That Tempest we saw with the young folks—it was a company of Palookaville amateurs and it worked quite nicely, thanks.

Oddly enough, some of the most performed are less ideal. Taming of the Shrew is good fun, but it is about the least typical of all Shakespeare plays. Romeo and Juliet—yes, it’s about young love, but some of the languages goes near to the top, and the plot kind of unravels after Mercutio dies (but don’t misunderstand, there is some glorious stuff in Romeo and Juliet). But on the flip side, the very best Shakespeare plays—Hamlet, Antony & Cleopatra—come damn near to being unperformable (but I still love the Branagh Hamlet movie, no matter what they say).

Beyond that—for short intros to the individual plays, I think you still can’t beat Mark Van Doren’s Shakespeare (2005), newly back in print after half a century. Deceptively straightforward and modest, his introductions almost always say something worthwhile. Andrew Dickinson’s The Rough Guide to Shakespeare (2005) is amazingly rich: good straightforward introductions to the plays, with lots of stuff on performance history, and recommendations for editions and movies (sometimes pretty quirky, but hey).

Of the zillion biographies, I’d choose one of two—neither, so far as I can tell, in print. One is Peter Levi, The Life and Times of William Shakespeare (1988)—a poet’s appreciation of a poet (okay, I said he wasn’t a poet, but still…) The other is Russell Fraser, a two-volume jobby, Young Shakespeare (1988) and Shakespeare: The Later Years (2002)—winners at the very dangerous game of trying to relate “the art” and “the life “ But maybe the best overall text introduction is not a “ biography” per se, but more of an “appreciation”—Jonathan Bate, The Genius of Shakespeare (1988). Of the very recent books, I’ve read some, not others. Of the ones I’ve read, the most fun was James Shapiro, 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare (2006).

By that point, you will know what you want, and it won’t be more advice for me. Oh, but one important afterthought: don’t get sidetracked into the “who was Shakespeare?” caper. It’s a mug’s game, and will do nothing more than get in the way of the real fun (Bate explains why).

And a final item: the only “excerpts” or “quotations” book that I know of worth the price is George Rylands, The Ages of Man—reweaves quotations from most or all of the plays into their own coherent story (out of print and not easy to find; there was a stage/TV version with John Gielgud).

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Oh, That Guy!

I first ran across Will Eisner in a bookstore in Greenwich Village a couple of years ago, and it was love at first sight. I've long been fascinated by mid-20th Century "history" (if you can call it that), and here is Eisner (link) laying out a vision that is as compelling as, say, the short stories of Bernard Malamud, or Shadow on the Hudson by Isaac Bashevis Singer. How come I'd never heard of this guy before?

Turns out I had. At Fort Leonard Wood, MO, in 1958. My, those were the days...

[For clarification--no, I was never a mechanic. If anyone ever handed me a wrench, you'd be reading about it in the agony section of your local newspaper under "mayhem." But I had a lot of time to kill around the headquarters of the infantry battalion where I beguiled away the hours as an underemployed and desperately bored clerk.]

Monday, April 21, 2008

The McCain Platform

Elizabeth Edwards asked Join McCain a question about health care and “preexisting conditions.” She also made the point that he’d had pretty good government health care, i.e., through the U. S. Navy. McCain called it a “cheap shot.” Carpetbagger did a serviceable job of taking him apart on that one (link), but I want to look more closely at the precise language of the response: He said:

“MCCAIN: It’s a cheap shot, but I did have a period of time where I didn’t have very good government health care. I had it from another government.”

So, this is going to be the all-purpose answer, is it? Senator, where is your wife’s tax return. I was a prisoner of war. Senator, do you want to privatize social security. I was a prisoner of war. Blah blah.

I know: it’s early in the campaign yet, but I say, if this is his approach, then bring it on. I assume everyone admires John McCain for the courage and grace with which he sustained his experience as a POW. But even on this one, I suspect that voters are likely to get bored after a while. Recall Bob Kerry, who lost a leg in Vietnam (link). Hi, I’m Bob Kerry and I lost a leg in Vietnam” – may be a conversation-starter, but as a campaign program, it got nowhere.

Aside from becoming a bore, I’m not at all persuaded that McCain’s perspective as a former pilot and POW is good prep for the Oval office. As others have pointed out, his Senate colleague, Chuck Hagel, might have gotten a far better understanding of the war from his role as an infantry grunt.

But set that aside. The immediate point is that McCain seems to be angling for some sort of affirmative action card here. McCain no more “deserves’ to be president because he was a POW than Clinton “deserves” to be president because she is a woman, or Obama “deserves” to be president because he’s black. Oh and by the way, I assume he McCain is getting VA care now, too. Again, I think he is welcome to it, but he’s living testimony to the fact that government health care can achieve a high degree of consumer satisfaction.

Blackacre as an Out-of-the-Money Option

Just got through explaining to my students how equity is an option on the assets, where the exercise price is the payoff cost of the debt. Made the point that it might be rational to pay a positive sum for equity on an upside-down/underwater balance sheet (that would be you, BS) as lottery ticket value against the prospect that Something May Turn Up. (“Maybe I die! Maybe the king dies! Maybe a horse learns to talk!"). In the jargon, it’s not valueless, it is just “out of the money.” Out of the money options trade all the time.

I also make the point that in a place like here in California, where most of our mortgage debt is “nonrecourse”—the creditor can look to the property only, no deficiency right against the debtor—then the real estate is just another option play.

Then back to the aggregator, where I read more about default rates, foreclosure epidemics, blah blah, and this fascinating thread at Kevin Drum that leads from arson to cannibalism (link).

And it occurs to me—wait a minute, whoa. A lot of these owners are underwater now, in the respect that the loan value exceeds the market value. And a lot of them simply can never expect to get current on their obligations; might as well walk. But for some unknown percentage—but it can’t be that small—for some unknown percentage here, what we are talking about is an out-of-the-money option. Shouldn’t we/they be giving some value to the possibility that “something might turn up?”

For Extra Credit: Felix Salmon’s instructive piece on an effort by the Ohio attorney general to force workouts on lenders, against their will and for their own good (link).

Sunday, April 20, 2008

War is Peace! Truth is Poetry!
If My Mother had Wheels, She'd Be a Trolley Car!

Actually, I'm still not one of the impeachment party (link), but I do marvel at all those guys who had no problem with trying to remove Bill Clinton for, well you know what for, but who can swallow the whole array of high crimes & misdemeanors that we have seen since 2001.

TigerHawk calls it "lowering the bar."

Ho ho thats rich.

Three of a Kind

What do these guys have in common: Charles Tilly and Dani Rodrik? Okay, maybe a lot of things, but what's the answer I'm looking for? Here's a hint: throw in a third name--A. O. Hirschman? Answer: Tilly and Rodrik are the first two winners of the Hirschman Prize, awarded by the Social Science Research Council (link). But it's more than that: the extra fillip is that I really can't think of a major award where the award and the recipients have so much in common--in common, that is, not so much in terms of content as of style. They're all original and creative, but so are a lot of other people. What's interesting about these three is that they seem to have an extraordinary openness to possibilities from more or less obvious ideas that don't seem to have been obvious (until they wrote) to anyone else--a kind of Mozartean ease in making the hitherto unnoticed appear inevitable. No point in detailing the entire record, but let me commend one of the best economics books I ever read--Hirschman's Exit, Voice and Loyalty; and one of the best books about politics--Tilly's Coercion, Capital and European States (1992); and about the best economics book I've read in the past year-Rodrik's One Economics, Many Recipes (2007).

The SSRC blurb on Hirschman says he wrote "some of the most provocative books in the social sciences, on recurring themes of economic development, political democracy, and the surprising relationships between the two" (link). That's a pretty good capsule summary of all three.

H/T: Crooked Timber.

Aftethought: Oh, and here's a nominee for next year (link).

What David Shaviro Said

...about the McCain tax plan (link):

...McCain's insane, almost criminally irresponsible, plans to cut taxes by $3.3 trillion over the next 8 years - to be financed, of course, by eliminating waste and abuse. When you look at the U.S. fiscal gap and McCain's expensive foreign policy plans plus the zero prospect that he will be able to take on entitlements issues (even in the unlikely event that he wants to), supporting such a plan is almost akin to saying that you want the U.S. to face a catastrophic fiscal meltdown within the next 10 to 15 years.

Repeating: unfunded tax cuts are not tax cuts: they are taxes on draft choices to be named later.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

What Would Warren Do? A Valediction

Here's a farewell message to the students in my law school basic finance class:

A backward-glance reflection, as the semester winds down. I've enjoyed teaching this class this year (I usually do), but there is one systematic problem. That is: some students come in here every year hoping they'll find out how to get rich investing. And I always have to tell them: look, I don't really know how to get rich investing. Getting rich investing is hard work. Unless you are willing to be disciplined and systematic and pretty much full time (and it probably helps to have a knack), you are better off not trying. Stick to low-cost mutual funds--maybe index funds--with diversified portfolios. This is a game for professionals, and in a game for professionals, amateurs are going to get beat up. Just think of the "outsiders" who win poker championships: they don't just drop through the transom, they have worked and worked and worked to polish their skills. Tastes differ, but my mortgage is paid, and my retirement is (more or less!) secure--I'd rather read a book, or go to the opera.

You don't believe me? Okay, believe Warren Buffett. There's a wonderful new interview with Warren in the current Fortune. Here's the takeaway paragraph (link):

What advice would you give to someone who is not a professional investor? Where should they put their money?

Well, if they're not going to be an active investor - and very few should try to do that - then they should just stay with index funds. Any low-cost index fund. And they should buy it over time. They're not going to be able to pick the right price and the right time. What they want to do is avoid the wrong price and wrong stock. You just make sure you own a piece of American business, and you don't buy all at one time.

Footnote: I see that Warren thinks "we've got three unusually good candidates this time." Hm, maybe I ought to pay attention (link).

Friday, April 18, 2008

More Laptop

Due solely to my own indolence and inattention, I dropped my laptop on a concrete floor. Amazingly, it still does its laptop thing (Toshiba Satellite M105-S322)--I think I even jarred loose some dirt from under a refractory Y key. But the disk drive popped out and disconnected from its ribbony link.

Let me show you what an old fashioned guy I am: my first thought was--oh, I've got to take it to a repair shop. And I thought: yeh, right, 60 bucks just to look at it, and then? My next thought was no better: send it back to Toshiba.

It finally dawned on me--wait, do i really need a disk drive? And the answer is: not really. Can't remember the last time I loaded software from a disk. I do watch the odd opera CD--but hey, I do have another (and more heavy duty) laptop, with a working drive. And it finally finally dawned on me--if I really need a disk drive, wouldn't it be cheaper just to buy a portable for, oh, I don't know, apparently as little as 20 bucks.

Still mulling the options, I came home to find my newest computer toy: an Eee Subcompact, less than kilo, responsive right out of the box. An upside: it's Linux and OpenOffice, so I can experiment with life off the Redmond grid. Another upside: a memory slot, so I can finally liberate all those photos on my Treo. A downside: it won't read my high-powered flash drive; guess I will have to hang onto the old steam-powered variety.

Oh and did I mention? No hard drive. But three USB ports, so welcome to the new world.

Oh, and did I mention? I'm writing this on the tiny keyboard. Not really fun for every day, but just fine for travel, which was the whole point anyway.

Teaching to the Laptop Generation

Apparently the teaching types are all in a flutter over an initiative at the University of Chicago Law School to ban the internet in the classroom (link).

Perhaps because I am an internet junkie myself, I have never been much bothered by internet connections in the classroom. Last year I was riffing an off-the-cuff account of the career of Michael Milken when I remarked on how Ted Turner had paid him a “tip” of (as I said) “something like two million.” A voice in the back said “that’s not what Wiki says!” And of course, the correct number is fifty million. Well, fair enough. Wiki was right and I was wrong, and the instant correction added just a tiny frisson of electricity to the moment.

What perplexes me is not the internet but the laptop itself. We are training a generation of lightning typists. I teach my finance course out of a file of spreadsheets. I send the file to students. For a while I would also flash the spreadsheet on the screen. But I realized that the students were all typing the whole damn spreadsheet, even though they already had it in their file. I still give them the spreadsheets. But these days, I try to limit what I put on the board, so they won’t have as much to copy.

This is a technical problem and I don’t think I (or anybody else) have solved it just yet. But hey, big deal. The occasion is piled high with difficulties, and we must rise to the occasion. We’ll just have to figure out different and better ways to teach.

Fn.: Evidently my student was cleverer than I realized. In five minutes of trying, I haven’t been able to come up with the Wiki page to which he would have been referring. But look here.

Coming Soon: The Truth about Markets!

Back in the 70s, we used to make jokes about all those unemployed PhDs standing around in the unemployment lines chatting about Sartre and Derrida. Reading more news of mass layoffs in banking (link), it occurs to me that we face one distinctive consequence from the new unemployed: lots of people with time on their hands who actually know a bit of something about how an economy works. Up to now, of course, they have been cheerleaders and true believers, but I wouldn’t be surprised if their formerly benign views of their former profession will be at least open to reevaluationl. Moreover, while a few of these may actually jump out of windows and sell apples on street corners, I wouldn’t be surprised if a few others have actually salted away some of that obscene wealth that rained on them, giving them leisure and wherewithal (along with the new opportunity) to tell their story. Look for a wave of tell-all memoirs-- a bacteria’s-eye view of the dark intestines of capitalism, as these former Ayn Randians discover their inner Karl Marx.

Self-Serving "Rules are for Other People"
Quote of the Day

"I have always reacted negatively to those who with their snotty noses and erotic fantasies prowl into others' lives."

(Link). That would be the former head of what may be the world's largest, and perhaps also most effective, snoop agency, telling reporters to stuff it when they inquired into his plans to take a new wife. Evidently the old one was not double jointed.

Everything's a Bargain at the Right Price

You know, I’d been wondering about this: for all the uproar about banks at the abyss, a point that seems to get overlooked is that somebody is buying this stuff. For every (successful) seller, there has to be a buyer, and if banks are getting capital infusions, somebody must have the dollars money to infuse.

One perfectly good reason why there are buyers: this stuff is cheap. Basket-case banks are trading at numbers that their healthier competitors can scrape up with petty cash. And at least one guy gets it —that would be Peter Moreira at Dealscape (link):

The banking market looks fairly healthy [!—ed.], and you've got to wonder if an opportunistic bank is going to make a move on a player that was beaten up in the recent volatility.

Who could the targets be? Well, the wounded are littering the battlefield, and a few of them could be tempted into a deal. National City Corp. is already reviewing its (somewhat limited) options. Retail-oriented Washington Mutual Inc. and business-oriented CIT Group Inc. have both lost 70%-plus of their value, and might be worth a phone call. Regions Financial Corp., KeyCorp and Comerica Inc. are all worth one-third to one-half less than they were a year ago but would still offer a buyer strong regional platforms.

Who would the possible buyers be? Sadly, some of the best candidates -- J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., Bank of America Corp. and Toronto-Dominion Bank -- are all closing or digesting multibillion-dollar deals. HSBC Holdings plc has always had an opportunistic outlook and has been quiet for a long time. Royal Bank of Canada and Wells Fargo & Co. might also be emerging from their hibernation with a bear-like appetite.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Today's Quote

Wish I'd said it (link):

"...a tall blonde with remarkable skills at organizing herself into a visual event..."

[And I probably will say it.]

The Other Shoe Drops with a Sickening Thud

Had dinner with a bunch of bankruptcy lawyers last night. They're talking to lots of airline pilots and (former) real estate professionals. And now Underbelly's London watcher weighs in with the financial equivalent of a polar ice cap melting (link):

Bloody day in the City: 1,300 jobs axed
Simon English and Nick Goodway

17.04.08

The City bloodbath began today as two financial giants axed 1,300 jobs.

Bankers suffering in the credit crunch were also prepared for the figure to double tomorrow.

UBS announced it would cut 900 staff at its Liverpool Street headquarters by June and Merrill Lynch said it would shed 4,000 jobs worldwide. Sources said that up to 400 of its 4,500 London staff would go.

Employees of Citigroup, the world's biggest bank, are now preparing for the axe as sources said it was likely to lay off 1,000 London staff when its first quarter results are published tomorrow. The cuts are the first confirmation of the scale of the job losses facing the City, estimated this week at 40,000 by JP Morgan - more than one in 10 of all workers.

It will fuel mounting fears of a recession, led by a City downturn. Commentator David Buik of BGC Partners said: "The job cuts were inevitable and more banks will follow suit, starting with Citigroup tomorrow.

"Merrill's figures were worse than expected. People are now immune to the numbers because they know there is worse to come." ...

Reader comments here and elsewhere in the London press. In a word, schadenfreude (for extra credit, count the number of "crash" metaphors in this posting.

Afterthought: My friend Holly points out that it isn't really fair to compare them to an iceberg falling off unless they all run into the ocean like lemmings and raise the world sea level.

Act Quickly, Only One in Stock!

Underbelly's Teutonic Frontier bureau spots a buying opportunity (link):

NAZI ALBATROSS

What to Do with Hitler's Submarine Bunker?

By Michael Fröhlingsdorf

The submarine bunker is gigantic -- and expensive. A World War II-era military facility is slowly succumbing to the elements, and nobody seems willing to pay for its upkeep. In fact, the German armed forces has offered it up for sale.

By far the largest object in the rather odd real estate catalogue carries the number 220039 on the Web site of Germany's armed forces, the Bundeswehr. It is nestled about midway down the long list of property bargains, part of the Bundeswehr's project of shutting down hundreds of unneeded facilities. One can make offers on storage tanks, training camps, barracks and former weapons depots.

But number 220039 is different. The "Materiel Depot Wilhelmshaven -- TE Bremen" is a dark gray cement colossus -- 426 meters (1,398 feet) long, 97 meters wide and 25 meters high. The ceilings are up to 7 meters thick. Indeed, the structure is so cavernous that even an institution as large as the German armed forces is only able to occupy a third of it. The rest lies empty -- as it has since the end of World War II. The structure is left over from one of the most megalomaniacal projects of Adolf Hitler's Nazi dictatorship: the submarine bunker named "Valentin."

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

"Boy"

I really didn't intend this to be an all-Kentucky day, but here my friend Ivan, impeccably liberal Obama supporter and Alabama cattle rancher, weighs in on "boy:"

Rep. Geoff Davis (R-Ky) used the word "boy" to refer to Obama, but it may not have been with racial intent. I checked his bio out because I was curious about what part of Kentucky he's from. Kentucky is a "funny" state -- folks from SW Kentucky are nothing like those from Louisville, and Appalachian mountaineers are nothing like people from either of those two sections.

His bio says Davis served as a volunteer mentor in inner city Cincinnati schools -- heavily minority schools across the Ohio River from Kentucky. A fellow who is a racist is not likely to volunteer to spend time in ghetto schools helping black kids.

He was a West Point career army officer and helicopter pilot. If you learn anything in Army service its that some blacks and other minorities are just as unqualified as some whites, and some are just just as qualified as some whites. It has nothing to do with color, it has everything to do with the individual himself or herself.

He's from an area of Kentucky that really isnt "southern" like southern Kentucky is -- like hopkinsville, Bowling Green, towns like that. His area is more like Ohio, but on the south side of the river. Does that mean no bigots in that area, no bigots in Ashland or Louisville exurbs? No, but as a former Kentuckian with a long connection to the state -- especially the appalachian mountain area, it's been my experience that the area east of louisville along the ohio river was the least bigoted.

Referring to blacks as "boy" is bigoted -- a throwback to the old days when so many whites felt as though they were maintaining their own dignity and status by denying blacks any designation of dignity. Whites who werent around in the old segregation days may know of thrm only from photos and film, but if you were here in the south and alive back then, you saw it in the raw.

So, Davis may have used the word colloquially, not racially. unfortunately, to me, as an obama supporter, it moves the focus off obama's qualifications, where it should be, and onto his race, which may or may not help in the fight for the nomination. and i want to see him nominated.

Update: Apparently not everyone is persuaded. Ivan says he's heard from a "local African American woman, good friend, fighter, said even if it was not intended as an insult, it's an insult."

I think Ivan's approach is interesting, but I'm unpersuaded. Davis is also a smart and experienced pol, and he knows how to make "a mistake." Cf. Obama/Osama. But somehow I can't get away from the Kentucky theme myself, nor from Wilson Wyatt (cf. previous post (link)). I remember Wyatt in that same '61-'62 campaign season, telling a very upscale audience at a Louisville fundraiser about "the guy who was so rich he bought his dog a boy." As I remember, the, um, joke fell flat. I don't suppose this bunch was all models of racial understanding, but I suspect that at least they knew bad taste when they saw it. And I suspect Geoff Davis understood his audience better than Wyatt did.

Remembering Newport

Readers are urged not to overlook the New York Crank's nostalgic retrospective on the good times in a Newport, Ky., whorehouse, back in 1961 when gas was 35 cents a gallon (link) and relief of lust was not much dearer. I triggered his memory with a reference to George Ratterman, former Notre Dame football player who became Newport's reform sheriff after a comically botched attempt to frame him with a hooker (link).

It may have been a great time to be a 19-year-old in a bordello; it was also a glorious moment to be a newspaper reporter. I was in the city room of the old Louisville Times when the story of the set-up broke. The lady in the case traded under the name of "April Flowers;" inquiry quickly revealed the more drab monicker of Juanita Jean Hodges (fame is fleeting; I find only six Google refs (link)).

But the plot thickens. It quickly emerged that Ms. Flowers-Hodges was a Kentucky Colonel, the possessor of a certificate signed by the Lieutenant Governor, the estimable Wilson W. Wyatt.

Wyatt was a good guy in his way; he was an Adlai Stevenson liberal, and also a tough (and highly successful) corporate lawyer. But he took second place to no one in pomposity and it was easy to make a fool of him, especially, as then, when he was seeking higher office--he was gearing up for a US Senate race, which he ultimately lost to Thruston Morton.

No; you didn't have to make Wyatt look like a fool; he did it all for himself. No sooner had the hilarity shifted in his direction than Wyatt tried (as he thought) to wriggle out of trouble by revoking his writ. Some people just don't know what is funny; in particular, some people don't understand the concept of "second-day story." It was left to Richard Harwood, then the Times' political reporter, to announce that he'd researched the case, and that a Kentucky colonelcy cannot be revoked; it's an achievement that stays with you, like once a rabbi, always a rabbi. So Ms. Flowers-Hodges exits history, with her commission intact.

Reference: Ron Goldfarb puts the story in the context of the career of Robert Kennedy, in this Google book.

Trivia upon trivia: Dick Harwood was the father of John Harwood, a celebrated political reporter in his own right.

Howell Raines the Columnist

Howell Raines (remember?) is back, and maybe he's found his niche. As a swashbuckling bully at the New York Times, he was pretty much of a fizzle. But as an online columnist for Portfolio, he's off to a promising start. Here (link), using the Philadelphia story as a hook, he does a superb job of explaining everything that is wrong with "legacy newspapers" (he explains the term, too). E.g.:

The advertising whammy has squeezed the cadre of prominent newspaper buyers in the past few years: William Dean Singleton and his privately held Media News Group, with 57 daily papers; the McClatchy family group, with 31 dailies; and most flamboyant, the eccentric Chicago real estate tycoon Sam Zell. In December, he paid $8.2 billion for Tribune Co., which owns the Baltimore Sun, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, and some smaller papers. Of course, Rupert Murdoch, who shook the temples of journalism by taking over the Wall Street Journal, is no newcomer. Neither is Mort Zuckerman, who bought the ailing New York Daily News in 1992 and earned a profit quickly thereafter, as well as a measure of journalistic credibility, a rare thing in this group.

And here's a point I hadn't thought of before:

“There is a dearth of talent on the business side of this industry that is shocking to me,” [the Philadelphia publishser] says. “No one goes to Wharton and says, ‘I want to run circulation at Knight-Ridder.’ ” In general, he adds, “the business side has let down the journalistic side of newspapers.”

But I don't know quite what to do with this:

“The worst part of this experience has been the culture of the business side, particularly in advertising sales,” he says. “I’ve got some salesmen who make $100,000 a year and have no interest in making $120,000.”

Two thoughts: one, is this a newspaper thing, or a Philly thing? And two--there are ad men who make one hundred thousand dollars a year? Don't tell that to the reporters. No, actually, they already know.


The Vice Minister and the Brothel: A Setup?

These stories about an Iran vice chief being caught in a a brothel (link)—they’re good fun, but they lack a sense of history. Long ago it was Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards (and probably a few dozen other cheerful philanderers) who said the only way he could lose the election is if he were caught in bed with a dead woman or a live boy (link). But the corollary is that the charge is likely as not to be a fake. If this happened in, a civilized place like, oh, say, Kentucky, would assume the poor man was just set up (link). Should we assume any different about Iran?


Update: Well, this is no joking matter.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Did I Mention that the Publication Date
Was October 25, 2003?

From Amazon:
The Bush Boom
by Jerry Bowyer*
Forward by Lawrence Kudlow

Copies Available for a penny (link).

H/T: Big Picture.

* Apparently this guy.

Buce Explains Health Care
(But it Won’t Make You Happy)

Getting ready for tonight's PBS special on health care (cf. link)--somebody must have thought of this, but I haven’t seen it elsewhere so I will make the point now. That is: when we talk about “health care,” we are talking about two rather different problems, not solvable in the same way (if solvable at all).

One is the problem of catastrophic loss. Only the unlucky few of us will run up hundreds of thousands of dollars of health care bills. It’s the kind of risk that can (and should) be “socialized”—spreading the loss over the lucky and the unlucky.

But quite apart from catastrophic loss, there is the general problem that we just think health care is too damned expensive and that somebody else—well, call it “the government” should pay. It is far from clear to me where “the government” gets that kind of money, except from us. We send the money out in a boomerang and get it back encumbered, as George Stigler liked to remind us, with the price of a round-trip ticket.

There probably is a distributional issue here: some people are “too poor” to pay for health care. Okay, make some wealth transfers (and yes, I am perfectly willing to stump up a share). Maybe "welfare stamps," like "food stamps"--one fairly successful, effective public program. But it can’t be that 100 percent of us are “too poor”—kind of a reverse Lake Wobegon, where all the residents are below average.

I'm all for finding ways to make health care cheap, or at least cheaper. There's got to be a reason why we pay, relatively, so much for our health care--and the reason cannot be our great results, because we don't have great results.

Oh, and another thing. “We”—a lot of us—want “open borders,” and we want government provided health care. Assume for the moment that both are worthy goals. Still, you can’t have both at once: you can’t at the same time offer everyone government health care and make it open to the whole world. Either you have to cut down on the level of government support or you have to limit immigration, legal and illegal. There’s no third way.

There. Everything clear now?

Happy Tax Day!

I'm perusing yesterday's USA Today story (I picked it up in a restaurant! Honest!) about tax delinquents. A former treasurer of the United States, oh cool Dick Morris, ha! But hey, politicians are all animals... Anyway, two thoughts:
  • My, how times have changed. Used to be that the IRS found a way to roll out some humongous tax penalty against some well-deserving deadbeat, just in time to scare the bejabbers out of all those of us who were thinking of listing our new hot tub as a business expense. Now we are reminded of how cheap and easy it is (or seems to be) for some people. Hey, if Dionne Warwick can stiff the tax collector, why can't I?

  • But by contrast, I am surprised to find that public humiliation still works. Or so it seems, from a couple of paragraphs about the 15 states which have started publishing the names of tax deadbeats, apparently to some good effect. Maybe it is time to bring back the pillory. Might be a good use for all our surplus rotten vegetables.

Tax Farming: Not as Easy as it Looks

I wrote a bit last year about privatizing tax collection as a long step down the road to tax farming (link). So naturally I am amused by this.

Monday, April 14, 2008

A Note on Vocational Education

It’s late and I have other things to do, but I need to take a moment to scotch* a durable error. From RBC (via DeLong) (link):

Professor [John] Yoo is employed to teach a vocational subject, law. This isn't a prestige issue. Particle physics, cultural studies and remedial English fall on one side of the vocational/non-vocational distinction; law, medicine, nursing, flying training and plumbing school on the other.

I have nothing to add to the commentary about John Yoo. I do want to say a word about law school, or more generally, about legal education. RBC says law is a “vocational subject” on the other side of a “vocational/non-vocational distinction,” in contrast to, say “cultural studies.”

He has it backwards. “Vocational studies” work by apprenticeship; the student submits to direction from a master in the craft, and learns by example. That’s what they do in “cultural studies:” a teacher of cultural studies prepares students to teach other students of cultural studies (or, more precisely, to occupy a tenured position where he presents himself as if teaching studies, which may or may not be the same thing). The student learns by imitation; at the end, he is fit for nothing else. So also, I suspect, is the case with particle physics; it surely is the case with political science, sociology, economics and other kindred disciplines which lie perhaps closest to law (what on earth “remedial English” is doing on this list, I have no idea).

Law education is an entirely different matter. Law professors are enjoined to train students to be lawyers, which is one thing law professors are not. It is true that over the years law schools have been impelled (often by methods that leave them howling, although perhaps not actual torture) into offering instruction by apprenticeship. Of course l;aw professors aren’t in the least way qualified to teach law by apprenticeship, so we hire others to do it for us: these people are called “lawyers,” and while we allow them space in our institutions, it is often a grudging concession: for the most part we regard them with bewilderment and distrust, and we certainly don’t allow them a place at the head table.

So, what do law professors do, when they are not teaching by apprenticeship? They do a great variety of things. Economics is popular, or has been; it seems to be losing some of its vogue. Sociology had a heyday, and may be coming back into fashion. Sometimes, we do “cultural studies.” Our students complain in a perfunctory sort of way, but they’re really just going through the motions. They know perfectly well that we are gobsmackingly unequipped to teach them how to be lawyers. Besides, if the truth be known, they had more fun as undergraduates anyway. They expect to be lawyers sooner or later, but they aren’t particularly crazy about the idea, and they’re happy to put it off as long as possible. And sometimes they put it off all together: some of them learn by imitation, and go on to be professors.

Afterthought: I remember hearing a couple of years back that students at a major cooking school put up a rumpus when the faculty cut down on the number of hands-on classes and increased the offerings in "culinary arts." I wonder what happens in the schools of plumbing?

--

*Scotch: cf. “We have scotch'd the snake, not killed it (Macbeth; Act 3, Scene ii).” So, to put down or thwart or confound a particular adversary, leaving it free to rise again.

What I Learned Today II

The Hymn "How Great Thou Art" (link), once voted Britain's favorite hymn, has the same chord structure, etc. as "Horst-Wessel Lied," (link) the Nazi anthem. But it's not what you think. As reported in the fountainhead of all truth and all knowledge (link) , the hymn was originally Swedish--the text "O Store Gud," set to a Scandinavian folk song. And:

Numerous musicologists (see, e.g., http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horst-Wessel-Lied) have pointed out that the metrical pattern and chord progressions of "O Store Gud" are similar to those of the "Horst Wessel Lied" (first line "Die Fahne hoch"), which the Nazis customarily appended to "Deutschland über Alles" (the German national anthem). Informed opinion overwhelmingly denies that Horst Wessel composed that tune, the view which Dr Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propagandist, made legally exclusive in Nazi Germany. A likely explanation is that Wessel heard the tune from World War I veterans of the German Imperial Navy, where numerous such melodies had circulated in the fleet. In metrical pattern and chord progressions "O Store Gud" is similar to scores of tunes prevalent in the folk traditions of Scandinavia and the Baltic region during the decades preceding World War I. Although "O Store Gud" and "Horst Wessel Lied" both have an 11.10.11.10 metrical pattern in the verses, "O Store Gud" switches to 10.8.10.8 in the refrain, but "Horst Wessel Lied" either repeats the 11.10 of the last two lines of the verse as the refrain or (optionally) ends without refrain. Subject to specific caveats respecting scholarship and artistry, "Horst Wessel Lied" has been censored in Germany since the end of World War II, but "How Great Thou Art" ("Wie groß bist Du") is sung there freely.

So, a devilish (tee hee) trick of fate.

Afterthought: This may be the coolest thing I learned since I learned that "Cherokee" has the same chord structure as "Salt Peanuts"--a fact curiously overlooked by Wiki.

Two More Afterthoughts: Actually, what I was told was that if I didn't know that "Cherokee" and "Salt Peanuts" had the same chord structure, then I couldn't call myself a jazz fan. Meanwhile, my friend Carlton reports that "Amazing Grace" is the only major hymn that is pentatonic, i.e., can be played only on the black keys. I wonder, is this somehow related to all those exotic "modal" tricks that Jean Ritchie plays with the mountain dulcimer?

Gak

Will Smith? Will bleeping Smith?

Thanks, Kalen, I guess.

What I Learned Today

I just caught up with Bill Cosby's pound cake speech, which has its own Wiki(link; cf. link).

H/T to Ta-Nehisi Coates (link) who parses:

Driving Cosby’s tough talk about values and responsibility is a vision starkly different from Martin Luther King’s gauzy, all-inclusive dream: it’s an America of competing powers, and a black America that is no longer content to be the weakest of the lot.

Still Trying to Get the Bugs Out

Tyler Cowen ruminates on the Coasean dimensions of a male contraceptive pill. He doesn't think it will be popular.

Right enough. But wait till we see the male morning-after pill.

Today's Factoid

Buyers this year have already closed on 71 Manhattan apartments that each cost more than $10 million, compared with 17 apartments in that price range during all of 2007.

--New York Times (link).

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Wiki Cheats? No Kidding?

I think I'd probably have to have this one explained to me.

The Underbelly Tax Simplification Program of 2008

Via TigerHawk, I stumbled on this realization of an idea whose time had to come--liveblogging tax preparation (link). The author is in a suitably poisonous mood; when she gets tired of beating up on the feckless and the vulnerable, she falls back on one of the venerable warhorses of the tax protester set--cancel withholding, make people stump up the whole amount on tax day. Make 'em howl, she says. Make 'em really howl. Then they'll understand.

She's right, it would inflct a lot of pain, but it's not clear that it would succeed in revolutionizing the tax system, as she so dearly hopes. She seems not to have noticed that she herself is already right in the midst of our greatest national migraine--the costs, and inconvenience, and general chazurai of tax preparation itself. Slemrod and Bakija estimate that tax prep costs us something like $135 billion a year which, for comparison, is pretty near twice that package of subsidies the Bush administration voted for farmers a couple of years back.

She says she had to fork over about $11,000 which, she says, is about 23 percent of taxable income, about 30 percent of gross. This is remarkable: it suggests a taxable income in the range of $48,000. Per S&B, the average personal income tax rate is about 8.5 percent overall and for the top one percent of all taxpayers, it is abougt 15.2 percent.* For comparison, I see that I'm paying about 21.73 percent and George W. Bush, about 23.99 percent.

So either I'm missing something, or all three of us are overtaxed. But I would have to say she seems most overtaxed of the three--I can see that I earn more than she does, and I can absolutely assure you that W. earns more than either of us (a lot more).

But it does impel me to my tax bright idea of the moment: how much simpler my life would have been had I been able just to fork over a check for 21.73 percent of my income. Hey, I'd even top it off to 22 percent, to take account of the general reduction of friction. What if I did just send a check? Must I assume they would audit me, or is it possible they'd decide they had other fish to fry, and just let it slide?

I'd love to generalize this idea, but I can see I've got to work some bugs out yet: I concede there is just a teensy bit of an adverse-selection problem, in the respect that the only ones who would do it are the ones who know their real rate would be higher. But $135 billion--hey, for that price, we could buy a couple of more years in Iraq.

Update: "Slemrod and Bakija" is, of course, Joel Slemrod and Jon Bakija, Taxing Ourselves (4th ed. 2008), an admirable tour d'horizon of tax policy. Wish I could find one as good for health care.

*Re the "average" tax payments, I see that this is economic income we are dealing with here, so we have a little Haig-Simons action going on. The numbers still sound too low, though.


Who Says We Don't Value Life?

Underbelly's defense analyst doubles as a bean counter:

We’re currently using Hellfire missiles to take out militants. (how they can tell for sure from a camera 60,000 feet up, I’m not sure). Last round took out 6 militants. The missile costs about $580,000 (unless we are getting a quantity discount) (link).

At that rate, it cost us $100K per militant in the last shot; and yesterday they took out two of our troops (wounds only) and started a fire in a mistaken shot. Average: $200K per bad guy. Clint Eastwood was much cheaper. I don’t know what the latest estimate of the bad guys is – I suppose it is some where less than all of the inhabitants of Iraq. But at that cost, we’ll go broke.

Hoo Boy, That's a Relief

A gentleman feels no necessity to wear socks after Memorial Day—at least in casual situations. If he is Southern, he may not even wear them to church.

—John Bridges, How to Be a Gentleman (2008)

Saturday, April 12, 2008

This Guy Needs a 401(k)

The subject; DK about the author:

At the side of the lane to the ford, I found a long-tailed field mouse feeding on a slope of grass. He was eating the grass seeds, holding the blades securely between his skinny white front paws. So small, blown over by the breath of passing cars, felted with a soft moss of green-brown fur; yet his back was hard and solid to the touch. His long, delicate ears were like hands unfolding; his huge, night-seeing eyes were opaque and dark. He was unaware of my touch, of my face a foot above him, as he bend the tree-top grasses down to his nibbling teeth. I was like a galaxy to him, too big to be seen. I could have picked him up, but it seemed wrong to separate him now from the surface he would never leave until he died. I gave him an acorn. He carried it up the slope in his mouth, stopped, and turned it round against his teeth, flicked it round with his hands, like a potter spinning. His life is eating to live, to catch up, to keep up; never getting ahead moving always in the narrow way between a death and a death; between stoats and weasels, foxes and owls, by night; between cars and kestrels and herons by day.

—J. A. Baker, The Peregrine (1967)

Obit Watch: Robert Greene

Larry is on obit duty again. He catches the last paragraph in the NYT account of the death of Robert Greene, sometimes reporter and editor at Newsday (link):

Mr. Greene thought no expense should be spared in investigative journalism. As Anthony Marro, a former editor of Newsday, wrote in a 2002 Columbia Journalism Review profile of Mr. Greene: “The result was close to four decades of lobster dinners and two-inch-thick steaks, double Tanqueray martinis, and endless bottles of Pouilly-Fuissé and Châteauneuf-du-Pape. He once stopped a reporter new to the team from ordering a Salisbury steak in a restaurant, saying: ‘When you eat with the team, you don’t eat chopped meat.’ ”

And actually, quite aside from the lobster dinners, Green was a figure of consequence, who has a reasonable claim to having invented modern investigative journalism.

Friday, April 11, 2008

And in Economic News...

And in Economic News…

  • SFO Opera offered us up thirty percent off if we would change our mind and not cancel our membership. Is it the HD simulcast thing? Not that we are giving up on big-city opera, but HDs in Palookaville remind us that we want to save our money for an occasional fling in New York.

  • Oh, and speaking of saving money, I see that my prudent, conservative, sleep-safely-at-night IRA is down eight percent for the quarter. Eeeuw.

Claudius? Is it You?

HBO’s Rome played to great acclaim lately on the big screen at Il Teatro Buce, so we decided we’d take a flutter on “the rest of the story”—I Claudius¸ first aired on PBS back in 1976. Mrs. B says she saw a few episodes in the first run; I had never seen it at all.

And? Well, have you ever heard the insight that historical novels date more quickly than others because when you are reaching to depict another time, you always load up on unconscious anachronisms that are more glaring than they would be when you were just trying to be yourself? Think George Eliot’s Romola—a pretty good novel, actually, once you get past the Victorian tracery that obscures her best efforts to display Renaissance Florence, but very near comic if you let the tracery get in your way. So here: Derek Jacoby survives pretty well as Claudius, the dictator with the speech defect and the limp. But the rest of the cast sounds like nothing so much as a vintage sitcom. Think The Honeymooners, think The Flintstones—heck, think he Simpsons, the sitcom’s sitcom par excellence. It’s the dialog, partly—these Romans talk back to each other, they banter, they do all the things the sitcom writers used to do to beguile the odd half hour. And the casting: Rome’s Augustus was lean, and mostly mean. In Claudius, he sounds like nobody so much as Barney Rubble, or Ralph Kramden himself (“one of these days, Livia, pow, right in the kisser!”).

Claudius has another problem, pitted against Rome: it looks cheap. No wonder: they say Rome cost $100 million. I haven’t any idea what Claudius cost, but it pretty clearly wasn’t in the same league. Virtually all the sets are indoors. When they want to do what might laughingly be described as a “crowd scene”—well, early on, there is a bit where Livia chooses to face down “the Roman mob.” The “mob” turns out to be a couple of dozen guys with their backs to the cameras, yelling and flailing while camped in between two walls about 15 feet apart, so as to create the illusion of too many people for the space. It’s a stitch. So also the “gladiator” scene in a later episode. Livia delivers a queenly lecture to a dozen or so guys with hangdown manners and swords. Then she repairs to her throne and gets on with her royal conversation, while we listen to an offstage chorus of clank, clank.

For all of this, Claudius actually turns out to be good fun. The writers obviously worked over their Suetonius and Tacitus with great care, and have done their best to tease out the naughty bits (though inevitably, more prim and restrained than we we would expect today). Strong, crude plot line; plenty of intrigue and betrayal, and a camp hoot. I just hate to think what Rome will look like to the critic of 2040.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

If I Forget Thee, Oh Jerusalem ...

Fascinating piece up at FP on the 60th anniversary of the State of Israel and how, well, underwhelmed (in default of a more negative word) they all seem to feel about it. And how mediocre (in default again) they perceive their leadership to be.

I was in Israel for a couple of weeks just a couple of years ago for a tourist's-eye (which is to say, wildly distorted) view and all I can remember is how well, in spite of everything, it all seemed to work. I'd come from Jordan which was interesting in its own way but seemed on the whole gloomy, as if almost depressive. Then here's Israel, all noise and hustle.

I know, I know, I couldn't have seen much, but I suspect that part of the problem is just that things grow old. Including me, in the sense that I can remember the mood of euphoria that followed upon independence: we will make the desert bloom, swords into plowshares, if I forget thee oh Jerusalem, yada yada. It was wonderful while it lasted, but nothing retains that kind of fever indefinitely. Sooner or later you get to the point where you just keep at it, recognizing that your life is bound to be shot through with mistakes and disappointments, but you can't let them grind you down. And mediocre leadership? Yeh, well, not nice. But in a world where most people are wretchedly governed most of the time, mediocre can appear far above average. Happy birthday, Israel, and enjoy the heroism of sheer dailiness.

Fn.: Just a nanosecond after I posted this, my Google ad was inviting the reader to buy real estate in Jerusalem. So somebody hopes I have hope.

McCain and Mo and the Elevator Test

Slate recycles a wonderful story about John McCain and his affection for--and attention to--Mo Udall, his adversary and friend, particularly when Udall was dying, and was long past the point where he could do McCain any good (link). It's an affecting yarn, worth repeating, a good reminder of why you can't help but like McCain even if you think--I certainly do--that he could be a calamatous president. It reflects well on McCain, but it's worth recalling that it also reflects well on Udall--one of the last genuine human beings to serve in Congress. In my journalism days, I had the great good fortune to cross paths with Mo Udall, and I'd rank him at the head of the short list of those who actually pass the Underbelly elevator test.

[Does McCain, pass, you ask? Hm. I won't say no, but what are the chances that McCain, frustrated with the slow response to his calls for help, would start ripping the roof off the elevator?]