Friday, October 31, 2008

Japan: : Kyoto

“You're going to Japan”? They ask. And they all add: “Are you going to Kyoto?” Well, yes. It is indeed Japan's premier tourist destination.

In the last months of Word War II, the U.S. Military command decided to remove Kyoto from the air-raid list. Although Kyoto was a major population center of some strategic importance, the State Department argued that it was more than just a Japanese city—it was a treasure of the world. As a result, old Kyoto survived at the end of the war, a city of wooden houses, in streets lined with bamboo trellises. The first thing an arriving visitor saw as a train pulled in was the sweeping roof of Higashi Honganji Temple, like a great wave rising out of the sea of tiled roofs. To the eye of city officials, however, the sea of tiled roofs was an embarrassment. ...

—Alex Kerr, Dogs and Demons: Tales from the Dark Side of Japan 166 (2001.

With a beginning like that, you know that (at least in Kerr's telling) it will end badly. We're due to see for ourselves this morning. I promise an update after I've seen it.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Japan: Fukuoka

Due in Fukoaka today. Like so much of Japan, it's undergone a radical makeover in recent years, from mudflat to container port. There was talk of saving some of the mud for a bird sanctuary, but now it seems the more obtrusive issue is dioxin contamination. We'll be looking for (at) Shofuki-ji, Japan's first Zen temple, built in 1195.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Japan: Tokyo

I hear they make wonderful cameras:
General Jack D. Ripper: Were you ever a prisoner of war?
Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake: Well, yes I was, matter of fact, Jack, I was.
General Jack D. Ripper: Did they torture you?
Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake: Uh, yes they did. I was tortured by the Japanese, Jack, if you must know; not a pretty story.
General Jack D. Ripper: Well, what happened?
Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake: Oh, well, I don't know, Jack, difficult to think of under these conditions; but, well, what happened was they got me on the old Rangoon-Ichinawa railway. I was laying train lines for the bloody Japanese puff-puff's.
General Jack D. Ripper: No, I mean when they tortured you did you talk?
Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake: Ah, oh, no... well, I don't think they wanted me to talk really. I don't think they wanted me to say anything. It was just their way of having a bit of fun, the swines. Strange thing is they make such bloody good cameras.
--Dr. Strangelove (H.T to Paul Kedrosky)

Monday, October 20, 2008

Japan Reading/Viewing List

Here's a bit on our background reading--and movie-viewing--for Japan. I've dispensed with dates because tracking down specific editions and translation dates seemed to be more trouble than it's worth; the links will fill you in,.

Nonfiction backgrounders:
  • R.H.P. Mason, J. G. Caiger, A History of Japan. Steady and informative overview; helpful on many issues, reviews suggest it may be the best general history in print.
  • Patrick Smith, Japan: A Reinterpretation. Some traces of journalistic facility and cute but on the whole, an engaging introduction to the issues and challenges of the Post-World War II World.
Classics
  • Murasaki Shikibu, The Tale of Genji. The billing often says it is the world's first novel. That's a stretch, but not a grotesque stretch. We read a short version, translated and abridged by Edward G. Seidensticker; I think I may pack the full-length Penguin edition, translated by Royall Tyler to help me sleep keep me company on the plane. People get mesmerized by this book; I'm not there yet, but I can see that it is something distinctive and I think it deserves more patient attention.
  • Tales of the Heike. Loosely structured 13th-Century story cycle. We read an older translation by A.L. Sander. Conventionally ranked lower in the pantheon than Genji, supra but I found them more accessible; might be a guy thing. Ripping yarns, rippingly presented.
More modern fiction:
  • Natsume Soseki, Kokoro. A student-and-teacher story (I suppose I should say "student-and-sensei"), deftly told. I found it unsettling, not to say offputting, but fascinating insofar as it has been (apparently) so hugely and durably popular in Japan. Maybe I should have listed it under "classics"?
  • Matsutaro Kawaguchi, Mistress Oriku. Good-natured local-colorist nostalgia for the Meiji era, from a female narrator who is wise, warm-hearted and sexually available and who can quarrel with that? Slighter than I had expected, but good fun.
  • Haruki Murakami, Sputnik Sweetheart. We chose this to give a hearing to an immensely popular contemporary novelist. It's readable, alright, but it is also off-puttingly chilly: if this is modern Japan, not sure how much of it I want. Of coufrse, I feel something similar about most contemporary American fictcion.
And now, a few movies:
  • Yasojiru Ozo, Tokyo Story. I wonder if this is perhaps the most accessible film of this remarkable director. I thought it respectful and sensitive; his patient, unblinking camera work is something I've never seen anywhere before. A Story of Floating Weeds isn't quite accessible; released in 1934, it has to cross barriers not only in space, but also in time. Early Spring is attentively shot, but not as daring as perhaps it seemed at first blush.
  • Kenji Mizoguchi, Sansho the Bailiff. There are people that say this is the greatest movie ever made. They might be right; it surely is one of the most compassionate. I'd like to watch it again, maybe a few more times, to take its full measure.
  • Isao Takahata, Grave of the Fireflies. A cartoon about children, but certainly not a children's cartoon. I was curious to watch it because I had read about its hugely unfortunate joint release with Totoro, infra. Impressive insofar as it helps to explain Japan's self-understanding of World War II.
  • Hayao Myazaki, My Neighbor Totoro. This has got to be the most satisfying children's movie I ever saw. Roger Ebert has an instructive review where he explains all the ways in which it could have gone wrong, and didn't.
  • Sofia Copolla, Lost in Translation. Oh, what the hell. Culture shock. I still think he should have nailed her.
Mrs. B also read (but I did not) Kazuo Kasahara, A History of Japanese Religion. Sounds like authoritative stuff, but far more density than I want at this moment in my life. She speaks well of it, though.

Japan: The crops

The Portuguese and the Spanish brought Christianity to Japan in the 16th-17th Century. And they brought a lot else:
Tobacco had its first planting about 1600, with the result that Japanese authorities legislated gainst it while James I of England was composing his Counterblast To Tobacco, and with little effect. Cotton ... became a major agricultural and industrial crop in the course of the next two centuries. Portatoes and sweet potatoes were seventeenth-century importations ...

--RHP Mason and JG Caiger, A History of Japan 188 (Rev. ed. 1997)
One thing that is interesting about this list is that none of these were, strictly speaking, Iberian. In particular, the tobacco and the potatoes came all the way from "the new world," the product of American Indian enterprise of which the Portuguese and Spanish were only the conduits. Oh, and one other thing the Japanese apparently got from the Portuguese: tempura.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Off to Japan (and a Map)

We're off to Japan for a couple of weeks. I'm sure I'll have internet access in this most wired of all countries; not sure how much I will use it. Here's a map of our locations:



View Larger Map

Thursday, October 16, 2008

On My Way

I'll be leaving the country in the morning (early!), to be gone until after the election, and I tell you, I couldn't be happier to put myself beyond a venue where I find myself listening to the Al Smith Dinner speeches three times in one night. I've done my bit and voted for the terrorist dude but I caution the complacent: John McCain has been funny and affable twice today: once at that dinner, and again on Letterman show (he needs to brush up on his pronunciation of "Zoarastrian," though). A few more days like this and people might actually begin to believe he is a nice guy.

What Do You Do to Stay Sane?

Research Digest asks: what do you do to stay sane? Tyler Cowen rounds up some plausible suspects: surprise hugs (watch it there, big guy); music. Commentators add good stuff, but I offer an item I haven't seen elsewhere: reading. But not just any kind of reading: I mean the kind of reading you turn to for solace, or as a means of therapy. Some people would interpret this to mean "reading the Bible;" actually, I can understand this choice, if you are choosy about how you read: (stick close to Song of Songs or Ecclesiastes; go easy on Leviticus). But my own choice would run elsewhere--specifically to Shakespeare, and Proust.

I don't want to make elaborate pretensions here: I don't think I've read an entire Shakespeare play, cover to cover since--oh, heavens, I can't remember when. But I do keep a copy of the Penguin Complete at the bedside, and I find it is the kind of thing I can dip into at any of 100 places and find something familiar and consoling and (often enough) still thrilling after all these years. Lately I've found I can do the same with Proust: in English at least; I am stretching for the French but I'm not there yet.

I can also work a bit with stuff that I have memorized: half a dozen Shakespeare sonnets, a scattering of speeches, fragments (mostly fragments) of other things; my only regret is that I haven't memorized more. Meanwhile:
What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals—and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?

Joe the Schlep

They say that in a monarchy you have to kiss up to the rich and powerful; in a democracy, to the vulgar and unwashed. Sounds like John McCain's Joe the Plumber could have used a bit more vetting. By the emerging evidence (which has the rudiments of a fair-to-middling straight-to-video movie) Joe is (a) ignorant; (b) angry; (c) self-important; (d) self-absorbed. The one thing he is not, by all appearance, is a plumber. The one thing he seems sure of is that he likes Sarah Palin, and who can blame him? From the look of things, he'd be a natural running mate for Sarah in 2012.

Afterthought: Boy, I must have been in a testy mood when I wrote that. I ought to have some compassion for a single papa who plays football with his son. And it was hardly his fault that he got sucked up into the vortex (though it will be interesting to see how he plays out over the rest of his 15 minutes of fame). And I have to admit that "If I made $250,000, I wouldn't want to pay taxes on it" is hardly incoherent. Still, I'd be just as happy not taking policy advice from Joe.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Boy, I Hope This is True

Obama as the fiscal discipline president? The ally of the blue dogs? As a bit of a blue dog myself, I hope this is true. As I've suggested before, I think a veto-proof Congress of his own party can be Obama's worst nightmare*--just as, I suppose, it would be of any president of either party. But perhaps my view is insufficiently nuanced: even if the Dems hit the magic 60 in the Senate, those numbers are bound to include just a few voices of fiscal sanity. And the House long has been (and will continue to be) a more conservative outfit.

HT: Daniel Shaviro, who points out that a McCain presidency could lead to an even bigger fiscal mess.

*Vastly exaggerated. He would have many potential nightmares.

The Seventh Seal Has Been Broken ...

This one just defies extended commentary by me; it's wonderful in its own right, and the thread is worth reading for some insights into the minds of the believers. FWIW, I remain a supporter of the skinny black elitist Muslim terrorist dude, but without great expectations that he will be the president we hope for, or need.

Hounshell on Frank on Ayers

Blake Hounshell (link) and your humble servant both this morning read Thomas Frank's Wall Street Journal profile of William Ayers (link). Hounshell interprets the story in the context of the "testosterone-poisoning" theory of radicalism--that it is largely the product of rootless, underemployed young men. I'm certainly sympathetic to that view, but I think Hounshell overrreaches when he describes Ayers as "a fully rehabilitated, functioning member of the Chicago political scene." Functioning, maybe. Fully rehabilitated? I'm not so sure. Frank concedes that he will not "quibble with those who find Mr. Ayers wanting in contrition." He adds that "his 2001 memoir is shot through with regret, but it lacks the abject style our culture prefers."

Well you know what, Tom? I kind of like contrition. And I suspect there isn't one of us that hasn't done something that he ought to be abject about, at least some of the time. My take is that for all his achievements in education and community service, that Ayers still just doesn't get it: that he put innocent people in harm's way, in an enterprise that vastly overestimated its own virtue (I am tempted to add: "and effectiveness"--I won't go quite that far, but I think a good case can be made for the proposition that the bombers did as much to aggravate the evils of society as they did to assuage them).

None of this, of course is meant to endorse the slimy and disingenuous efforts of the McCain campaign to demonize someone who should by all rights be recognized as a marginal, even trivial, figure. That's why I join Hounshell in endorsing McCain when McCain says "It's not that I give a damn about some old washed-up terrorist." Quite right, Senator. Now, back to the campaign.

For Extra Credit: The book that sold me on the testosterone-poisoning theory of revolution is James H. Billington Fire in the Minds of Men (link).

Heads I Win, Tails You Lose ...

It's touching to listen to Henry Paulson explain why those bankers don't really want this new capital injection, but how as a civic duty they will graciously set aside their morals and agree to take our money. But Adam Levitin explains how (surprise!) the bankers have pretty well bought themselves the best of both worlds: we (taxpayers) are coming in below debt, but we don't really have the protections of equity (link). Adam calls the new scheme "subordinated debt," which is true in a way but beside the point. The real kicker is that equity can continue to get dividends. I wonder if this trumps the usual rule under which you can't pay a dividend while insolvent? Adam thinks he sees a regulatory motive here, but I suspect he's being too generous: I infer it just proves that bankers are willing to take all the money in the world as long as it doesn't destroy the comfort and convenience of the bankers' life. Well, who among us can blame them for that?

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

More on the Coming of the Horse

Okay, it's a tic, but I'm still curious about the beginnings of civilization, and the coming of the horse. Here's Karen Armstrong again, with some tantalizing stuff. Armstsrong about "the axial age"--broadly speaking, the age of Moses, Buddha, Confucius, Socrates and, by a stretch, Zoarastor: conceptualized differently, of religious innovation in China, South Asia, and the Eastern Mediterranean.
Why did the experience of suffering reach such a crescendo in the three core Axial regions? Some historians see the invasions of the nomadic Indo-European horsemen as a common factor in all these areas. These Aryan tribesmen came out of Central Asia and reached the Mediterranean by the end of the third millennium, were established in India and Iran by about 1200 BCE and were in China by the end of the second millennium. They brought with them a sense of vasts horizons and limitless possibilities, and, as a master race, had developed a tragically epic consciousness. They replaced the old stable and more primitive consciousness. They replaced the old stable and more primitive communities, but only after periods of intense conflict and distress, which might account for the Axial Age malaise.
-- Karen Armstrong, Buddha 14 (2001)

Unfortunately, aving laid out so provocative a thesis, she suavely undertakes to shoot it down:
But the Jews and their prophets had no contact with these Aryan hosrsemen, and these invasions occurred over millenia, whereas the chief Axial transformations were remarkably contemporaneous. Moreover, the type of culture developed by the Aryans in India, for example, bore no relation to the creativity of the Axial age
Id., 15 (2001)

So she's just playing around. Her principal references are in German, which I can't read: Alfred eEber, Kulturgeschichte als Kultursoziology, Leiden 1935; Das Tragische und die Geschichte, Hamburg, 1943. Damn, I knew I should have stayed awake in German class. Wait, I don't think I ever took a German class, but still...

Hitler Economics

I wrote the other day about how Genghis Khan didn't understand the economics of subject peoples. Turns out he has some distinguished compoany:
Alfred Rosenberg, later hanged at Nuremberg as one of Nazism's prinncipal war criminals, ... saw that the German empire needed goodwill from at least some of its subject peoples, so that they might function economically in the Reich's interests. ... 7.5 million men were aabsent at the front, so to sustain Germany's economy, replacement labor was needed for mines and factories. Hitler's captives and subject races provided the only plausible manpower pool. Yet Himmler's SS, with robust assistance from the Wehrmacht, was killing millions of prospective slaves. ... Having no interest in or understanding of the complex relationships of international trade, [Hitler] sought merely to loot the occupied nations for the advantage of Germany. He was oblivious of the consequences not only for subject populations, but ultimately for the entire continent. Germany continued to ship food from Greece, heedless of the fact that the Greeks themselves were dependent on imports to live. ...
That's Max Hastings, reviewing a couple of promising new books on the internal operation of the Nazi Empire ("The Most Evil Emperor,"New York Review of Books, October 23, 2008, 46-9, 47-8). One big difference between Genghis Khan and Hitler: Genghis showed a spectacular capacity to learn from his mistakes. His empire lasted--well, not for a thousand years but for many generations, and changed the face of the continent forever. Hitler's--well, you know about that.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Hey, It's Got a Name!

It's the Dunning-Kruger Effect (H/T Kleiman) which explains why that idiot at the next desk has the presumption to assume he could do your job so much better than you do. As summarized in the fountainhead of all truth and all knowledge (link):
...an example of cognitive bias in which people who are worst at a task show the most illusory superiority, rating their own ability as above average.
Also prompts me to consider how many of my faculty colleagues believe they could perform the duties of the presidency better than the incum-- okay, bad example.

We Are All GSEs Now

Somebody must have made this point before but I haven't seen it so here goes. The question is: how far do we blame the goverrnment for the mortgage meltdown and ensuing general debacle. The Republican mantra is some variant on “Jimmy Carter did it”--home loans to poor people, plus the implicit guarantee to Fannie and Freddie, underwritten on our behalf by Barney Frank and Tom Dodd.

True? Well, not as true as the wingnut asserts. I've read the much-cited weekender by David Goldstein and Kevin G. Hall at McClatchy (link). The McClatchy headliner has no doubts: “Private sector loans, not Fannie or Freddie, triggered crisis.” I think this headline, like most, is over-simple. I take it at face value that (as Goldstein/Hall say) 84 percent of the subprimes in 2006y were issued by private lending institutions, and that only one of the top 25 subprime lenders in 2006 was directly subject to the Community Reinvestment Act. Still, I don't think the analysis connects all the dots. E.g., “private lending institutions”--okay, but how much of this private lending was underwritten by Fannie/Freddie, or strongarmed through some other channel. At the end of the day, I suspect that we will find that Goldstein/Hall are in essence right, but that there were a lot of people pushing for more risky lending, at that Republicans and Democrats both left fingerprints on the murder weapon.

But there is another issue. Much is made of the fact that Fannie/Freddie were able to haywire because of asymmetric risk—the implicit government guarantee. Very likely, but isn't it fair to say now, in retrospect that the entire banking system operated under an implicit guarantee? Granted, there are some bodies in the ditch here—I'm glad I'm not a shareholder in Lehman—and there will be more. But some shareholdings and a lot of debt will walk away with cash vastly in excess of their fair market value (the Chinese apparently have no imagination when it comes to 40 cents on the dollar).

So apparently there a lot of people who didn't have any incentive to worry about bank solvency because they knew that on way or another, in the end they would be paid. This isn't an argument that the friends of Fannie and Freddie were without blame. It is an argument that spotlighting Fannie and Freddie is view matters too narrowly—in large part, to look through ideological blinders.

We all love markets. Okay, I love markets. But a market that is systematically, in principle and as a matter of necessity, asymmetric—that's not a market, that is a license to steal. At the end of the day (boy, I hope we never get there) we'll have to find a way to defang the of the GSEs and “the banks” alike.

Go Read Weller

Some useful stuff going up over at Credit Slips from a bloggger you probably don't know: Christian E. Weller, of The University of Massachusetts at Boston and the Center for American Progress, doing a visitor turn, and it could hardly be more timely. For some unterrified clarity of vision, go here.

W/o Comment (Almost)

"We've Got Them Just Where We Want Them"--John McCain

Who was the general (Pappy Boyington?) who, when told he was surrounded, responded:

"They Can't Get Away From Us Now!"

Semi-Appreciation: Soseki

Chez Buce just completed a readaloud Natsume Soseki's Kokoro, by all accounts one of the most populer, perhaps emblematic, novels of the Meiji Era in Japan. It was an unsettling experience. On the one hand, I have to agree that it is smoothly and competently written; that the characters are plausible and engaging, and that the story moves forward without effort. Beyond the bare bones, Patrick Smith puts it in a larger context: Smith argues that Soseki identifies and personalizes Japan's “new man” (Soseki wrote Kokoro in 1914):

In our own time he would aspire to a standard blue suit and a standard white shirt and a middling position at Toyota or Toshiba—section manager, assistant department manager, or some other precisely defined rank. ... [W]e see in him ... the odd intersection of economics and psychology that is unique, perhaps, to modern Japan. Soseki's character sacrifices everything to make himself a firm, resolute Japanese according to a tradition he finds elusive even as it consumes him.

--Patrick Smith, Japan: A Reinterpretation 107 (1997)

I'm not convinced that Smith's characterization of the novel is accurate, but I gather his view is widely held so I will accept it at something like face value—Soseki's novel is popular because his character is a kind of Japanese everyman.

And that is precisely why I find it so unsettling. For Soseki's novel is ultimately about suicide, its meaning and significance. I don't want to spoil too much plot here, but try this: there are many reasons for suicide, some of which, it seems to me, can be entirely rational. For the person in extremis who takes his life to put an end to unbearable pain—I can easily feel compassion and even regret but I can hardly call the act incoherent. So also for the person who thinks his life is done--perhaps including the “stoic suicides” of the Romans, though whether they actually exist outside of Plutarch or Shakespeare may be a question all its own.

But there are other classes of suicide that do not inspire the same sympathy: suicides that leave vulnerable dependents behind, or suicide designed to punish the survivor. I think Mrs. B has it right here: any suicide in the service of a grand idea is likely to lie at least on the nether edge of narcissism.

Again, I'll leave the details to the reader. Let's just say I'd love to have a conversation with Soseki or better, with one or more of his characters: do you understand what you are doing here? Do you understand how much of your supposed high principle is just a triumph of self-absorption, or self-delusion? I suspect I've got a lot more to learn about Soseki and the culture he undertakes to represent. But on the basis of what I've learned so far, I must say there is a whole lot more I'd like to know.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Appreciation: HD Salome

Viewers who betook themselves to the local multiplex on Saturday morning for the HD Met simulcast of Richard Strauss' Salome, were sorely disappointed if they came to see Karita Mattila in the buff. In the diva role, Miss Mattila cooed, stumped, pouted, belted and shouted through one of opera's most demanding assignments. She faithfully executed the dance of the seven veils, but at the end, she wasn't showing any more skin than you could find in a high school remake of Jesus Christ Superstar.

Bummer: I was hoping that at least they would sample in lantern slides of Britney Spears getting out of a Volkswagen. But if ever I am a diva at the Met (long odds) I suppose I will make the same choice: it is one thing to go prancing around in the altogether before 3,800 spectators live at the Lincoln Center—from the family circle, you can hardly tell whether you are gazing at skin or just a well-designed body stocking. It's quite another to face the prospect of spending the rest of your life finding your pink stuff displayed on YouTube.

But this insight introduces a larger problem with this HD performance of Salome. Miss Mattila has a fine voice and more, an impeccable knack for interpretation: she squeezed more out of the part than ever I'd heard before. But she's 48: Strauss said he wanted a 16-year-old Isolde; what he gets here is an Isolde pretending to be a 16-year-old. Again, from family circle you might have been able to ignore the incongruity, but from a few furlongs across a mail-box-sized movie house, it was on your mind the whole time.

The result was a Salome with a curious range of strengths and weaknesses. The first was Mattila, and forget about the incongruity—no strike that, Mattila in an extended conversation with James Levine's(!#$@!) Patrick Summers' orchestra. Together they gave you Strauss as Strauss might have wanted it: all his distinctive virtues were on display at their best advantage.

The tradeoff was that they tended to overpower just about everything else on the stage. As John the Baptist, Juha Uusitalo is competent but he doesn't really convey the batshit looniness of a man who talks with God. Herod and Herodias have an additional problem: they are earnest and attentive but they look far too much like Burl Ives and Elizabeth Taylor in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. This might be forgivable if they sang with enough conviction to sweep away the comparison, But for my money, Herod in particular was remarkably tepid for so rich a role.

I had a fortuitous point of comparison in that we had just lately watched a DVD of Salome under the direction of Götz Friedrich (link). In a way, it's a mirror image of the Met HD: in the title role, Teresa Strata was a bit more plausibly a 16-year-old. But Hans Beirer as Herod walked away with the show. Astrid Varnay as Herodias had less to work with but she sang it well, and in terms of appearance alone, she was about the nastiest stage villainess you could possibly imagine.

In the end, I'll take 'em both. Mattila (and Levine(!$#@!) Summers') probably let me in on more of what Strauss wanted me to hear, but for sheer craziness, Friedrich is far more likely to start a riot. I mean that, of course, in the nicest possible way.

Footnote: Say, what was that kerfuffle between Voigt and Mattila in the intro? Staged? Or a bit of real theatre?

Belated Book Fair: Erik on the Burning Bronx

Remember the Underbelly Summer Book Fair? Sure you do. We closed up shop a few weeks ago, but here is my friend Erik with a late entry. Give him a break, he's been billing 2,100 hours a year:
For me, there were no summer doldrums, and my reading list didn't get much shortened. But I have spent the past day going through what would have been the best book of the summer, had I cracked it last summer: Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx is Burning.

An Amazon reviewer describes it as,
"... an excellent book on a year in the life of New York City. The year is 1977 and it was a year marked by incredible turmoil. The city is under a fiscal crisis, there is a blackout that leads to massive looting, the Son of Sam killings and other problems. There is also a mayoral race and the Yankees race towards the World Series. Mr. Mahler perfectly melds all these elements together. He bounces between stories first starting out with 1976 Bicentennial celebration and ending up with the Yankees winning the World Series. He focuses on the struggles of Mayor Abe Beame, Yankees manager Billy Martin and the Yankees new superstar Reggie Jackson as well as Ed Koch, Mario Cuomo, the Bushwick section of Brooklyn and the detectives on the Son of Sam case. He weaves these stories together and shows how New York City was on the brink of collapse and how these people and events did battle for the soul of the city."
Why I recommend this book is far from simple. I remember that year, mostly as it was the year my dad and I rooted for the opposing sides in the World Series: he for LA and I for the Yankees, not out of disloyalty, but because I was stick on baseball and had started playing little league for the Yankees. I wore number seven, and as I watched after game two, I could tangibly feel the Dodgers momentum slipping away.

If a kid from Hawaii can stir strong memories in a retelling of events that occurred on the other side of the country, I don't doubt the same resonance in many others. Also, for a kid who later ended up for a time in New York, I feel some affinity for the author, who came to New York from his own LA upbringing. If he can get it, so can we all. In a sense, summer reading should take the flavor of past summers which, in the end, is about the connections - I live in LA now and root for the Dodgers, like my father before me.

To be clear: the book is about far more than baseball. But the game just happens to be my starting frame of reference.

Sorry about responding so late. Then again it's still practically sunny here and the Dodgers are (barely) in contention. Also, given current events, I have reason to ignore the bad news and take time instead to get last summer's reading done.
Comment: You know, I've been meaning to read that one: I remember thumbing a copy at the Barnes & Noble on Sixth Avenue in Greenwich Village a couple of years back while I was sojourning there--and during the time when Erik and I were enjoying the ambivalent rewards of the high-calorie student feeding-troughs along Third Street. Maybe time to revivify the memories of 1977, and of 2006.

Cheer Me or the Kid Gets It

McCain Palin supporters can't really get traction on the fact that Philly fans booed their beloved--after all, hockey fans boo everybody. But they're brimming with righteous indignation that those animals would boo her daughter, a mere child (link).

Fair enough, although there is no sign that it bothered mama one bit (so far as I can tell, she smiled her way through the whole thing). And what about the judgment of a parent who would hurl her own kid into the political mix? [One answer: same as you'd say about one who showcased the pregnant daughter at the convention.] But remember: Don't. Bring. Family. Into. This.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Bradley and the Bradley Effect

I've heard a couple of commentators on the networks this weekend talking about "the Bradley effect"--the phenomenon that black candidates punch below their polling weight with white voters. Will it torpedo Obama? So far, I gather from the commentators that (a) everybody assumes there is a Bradley effect; and (b) nobody knows how to measure it.

I don't know how to measure it either but I was living in California and voted for Tom Bradley in the 1982 election for governor, where the term arose. Let me offer a few wonky footnotes:
  • Most important--unless my memory has gone bollywackers, Bradley had the misfortune to share the ballot that fall with some sort of gun control initiative--I've forgotten the details, but it was precisely the sort of thing that was bound to bring the wingnuts to the polls on election day, in numbers far ahead of whatever might have been the conventional estimate.
  • Bradley was no bozo: he was a five-term mayor of Los Angeles with indisputable stature as a pro. But he was also low-key to the point of near-invisibility, the kind of guy whose very presence could suck the oxygen sraight out of the room. This wasn't a bug, it was a design feature: his very impassivity is one of the things that made him effective in the sometimes raucous cross-currents of Los Angeles politics. But the corollary is, he was precisely the kind of candidate who would look puzzling or unfamiliar to voters from outside is this base.
  • For what it is worth, his opponent, George Dukemejian--vapid and competent (he swamped Bradley in the rerun in 1986). Dullness can be a virtue in a state that churned up Ronald Reagan, Jerry Brown and the gentleman from Muscle Beach.
I haven't any idea what all this proves except that every election stands on its own feet, and there probably a great deal about the Bradley effect that is peculiar to Tom Bradley.

Appreciation: Sansom on Proust

"Of course!" I said. "I'd be happy to crawl under the bed and retrieve your cellphone converter!"

Or words to that effect. Anyway, serendipity kicked in: I came up with a copy of Proust by William Samson, first published by Thames & Hudson in London in 1973 (my copy is an American reprint from 1986). I have no idea who Samson is: apparently some kind of British belle-lettrist of a previous generation. So this is exactly the kind of book which, in my recent slaughter of the innocents, I would almost certainly have thrown out, had it not escaped its down by hunkering down among the dust bunnies.

But about 4 a.m., fumbling around for something that might put me back to sleep (I do that sometimes), I picked up Samson and discovered--what a wonderful little book this is! Not a "biography" exactly, but a "biographical essay"--some 128 pages, including (it says here) 145 illustrations that do as much as anything you could possibly want to capture the context of the man who surely counts as the 20th Century's greatest novelist.

It's customary (at least among people who have only heard of him) to think of Proust as an "interior"novelist--one who spends all his time attending to the nuances of his own feelings. This is an error. Proust does pay attention to his own feelings. But he is also a superb "social" novelist--much moreso, I'd say, than Joyce or Woolf (perhaps you could compare Musil or, in his own way, Chekhov). And he freely rewards the attention of someone who can put him in context with the arts, the music, the politics, of his day.

This is exacctly what Sansom does so well. He is, first of all, a great and knowing of Proust's own sensibility. But he has a distinctive knack for relating that sensibility to its sources in the larger world:
[A] taste of the salons and hostesses of the Parisian nineties--a salon, of course, meaning a drawing-roomful of regularly invited guests, and occuring at various times of the day, as afternoon or evening receptions, or dinners. It is notable here that still as late as 1917-18 Proust was checking up with a Society footman on various procedures of seating and invitation: although he had been through it all, he was not a natural aristocrat, and well knew that in these circles, while few eyes batted at a change of liaison, the misplacement of a stitch of clothing, an accentuation, a gesture could send the arriviste back down a few rungs of the ladder.
Id., at 55-6.

Moral of the story: never, ever, throw a book away. Or at least hide a few under the bed. Oh, and I did find the cellphone converter.

What We'll Learn

Jeremy Grantham on what we'll learn (link):

We will learn an enormous amount in a very short time, quite a bit in the medium term and absolutely nothing in the long term.
That would [he adds] be the historical precedent.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Did He Say That?

Let's stipulate that this is one of the main things I will never understand: the McCain campaign. Today's move has me absolutely baffled. I'm talking about the 401k fandango: the idea that people with 401ks ought to be able to defer drawdown on their pension funds. Two points:
  • As a solvent guy with no immediate need for my pension pot, I think this is a nice little early Christmas gift.
  • As a campaign measure, it's absolutely daffy.
Here's Senator McCain: My friends (sic), we live in troubled times. And I feel your pain; I know what's worrying you. You're lying awake nights worried that you'll have too much money to spend next year. Well, worry no more my friends; SuperMcCain to the rescue--thanks to my new 401k program, you won't have the burden of extra cash to spend; you'll be able to let it sit and fester away in your mouldy old 401k.

Okay, I made that up. And like I say, as a guy with a steady income and a pension fund, I think the idea is really cool (actually, I think the whole deferred-tax fandango is terrible public policy, but leave that for another day). My question--my bafflement-- today is: am I really the market niche who needs special favors in order to be induced to vote for McCain? I think the question answers itself; I can't imagine who is making this stuff up.

The Conservative Canada

I've got a friend who claims she will move to Bangla Desh if McCain is elected. I tend to take that lightly, but I am intrigued by Slate's rundown on where Republicans can run to after the runup (link).

Woman in the Dunes:
My Little Cake of Madelaine

The Buce household witnessed a screening last night of Woman in the Dunes. Remember Woman in the Dunes? That's the one of the bug-catcher who stumbles—he only dimly understands how—into life. He finds himself bound to the company of the mysterious woman who needs help with the shoveling, shoveling, shoveling, so she can just stay even He doesn't know how he got here, and he really doesn't know how to get out: he tries scratching his way up the wall; he appeals for help to indifferent strangers; he actually does scratch way out of the pit just once, but he is harried and run to ground and at last finds himself back where he began. True he does get some food, and cigarettes, and booze, and there even was the chance for a bit of sex, but mainly it's shoveling, shoveling, he does not know why.

You remember yet? Boy, I did. I first saw it when I was 28 (I had thought I was younger, but it wasn't released until 1964), and I had never seen a movie that engaged me so powerfully and directly. Review the bidding: I was in a rocky marriage, in a job that I liked well enough, but which I wasn't terribly good at., and where the pay was execrable. I knew if I threw in my hand, I would lose every dime—and anyway, I didn't want to leave: I adored my kids and I just wanted to lead a life that was decent, civilized and simple. And as to how to go about it—I didn't have a clue.

Of course it couldn't affect me the same way a second time. Forty-six years have passed; now my kids have kids, and so many things are going right in my life I can barely keep score (I still don't much understand the world, but I've learned to live with that).

But here's the a scandalous secret: on the whole, those years went pretty well. As an adolescent, I was pretty much of an oversized infant. Like most guys of my time, I knew that if I wanted to get laid, I would pretty much have to get married, and if I got married, I would have to support my family or else, let me see here—ah yes, or else go to jail. Introduction to adulthood, in short, was for me abrupt, sharp and fairly brutal (might also be “civilizing influence of a good woman,” but I'm not sure I'm ready to go there).

And that's the point: men respond well to challenges. You hit them over the head with some inescapable responsibility, they tend to rise to the occasion: to steady up, to go to work, and to begin to make a life. Just like the guy in the dunes.

The movie kind of dribbles out in the end—too many themes, the director can't figure quite which way to go. That's fine, lots of good movies (and novels) dribble out at the end. Still, as a metaphor for my youth, it still rings pretty true. But a final question: in an age when young men (except the minuscule number who go into the military) are pretty much surplus, exactly what i the metaphor? In an age where there isn't much for them to do except wear torn underwear and drink milk out of a carton, how will they ever grow up?

Those Were the Days

Sorry I can't do a direct live link but this song, which I last heard in the Carter administration, has been running through my head all morning.
Do you think you've hit bottom?
Oh no!
[Growl] There's a bottom below!
But hey, we survived the Carter administration, didn't we?

On the Front Lines

A friend of mine in the middle of it all says that the financial heavyweights are putting all their silver bullets in the Uzi and hoping that one connects. Cute, but I would revise: they are putting all their bullets in the Uzi and hoping that one is Silver.

We Are the World

I think the unifying theme is money:
In the 1920s, Lucky Luciano was closely allied with the top Jewish gangsters Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel. In the 1960s and ’70s, Luchese mobsters were partners of a sort in heroin trafficking with the Harlem drug kingpin Leroy (Nicky) Barnes. In the 1970s and ’80s, the Gambinos had working relationship with the Westies, an Irish-American gang based on the West Side of Manhattan.

For many years now, Albanian gangsters have been closely aligned with Bronx-based members of the Gambino family. In the 1970s and ’80s, Spiros Velentzas, the so-called Greek godfather of organized crime, was closely affiliated with the Luchese family.

That's Jerry Capeci, proprietor of the mob's leading "social networking site" (tee hee!), answering questions about the mob at a New York Times blog. Apparently you don't have to be Sicilian. Apparently it doesn't even help.

Is It Fair to Say...

First words I heard from the radio as I stumbled out of bed this morning:

Is it fair to say that nothing we have tried so far, has worked?

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Sure, Why Not

Oh, and thanks again, John.

Genghis Khan on Tax Policy:
Oh, I Never Thought of That

Truth is, Genghis Khan didn't know the first thing about tax policy. The first thing being: don't kill the goose that lays the golden egg:
At the time of Jenghis Khan's last campaign in Kansu, a Mongol general pointed out to him tht his new Chinese subjects would be useless to him, since they were unsuited to warfare, and that therefore he would do better to exterminate them--there were nearly ten million--so that he might at least make use of the soil as grazing land for the cavalry. Jenghiz Khan appreciated the cogency of this advice, but Ye-lü Ch'u-ts'ai protested. "He explained to the Mongols, to whom any such idea was unknown, the advantage to be gained from fertile soil and hard-working subjects. He made clear that by imposing taxes on land and exacting tribute on merchandise, they might colect 500,000 ounces of silver yearly, 80,000 pieces of silk, and 400,000 sacks of grain." He won his point, and Jenghiz Khan ordered Ye-lü Ch'u-ts'ai to draw up a system of taxation on these lines.
--René Grousset, The Empire of the Steppes:
A History of Central Asia 251(English Trans. 1970)
Afterthought: Might be more correct to say that Genghis Khan understood tax policy well enough (or parasitology: don't kill the host); he just didn't understand settled peoples. By all accounts, Genghis Khan set foot in a city just once in his life (Bukhara, around 1221), and he didn't like it, and didn't stay--one is reminded of the Saudis coming to meet with Presidennt Roosevelt, and pitching their tents on shipboard.

Taking Equity: But Wait, Folks, There's More

I, like so many of my betters and wisers,have been saying for months that if the taxpayers are going to bail out the banks, the taxpayers ought to get equity (see, e.g., link). I'm still not sure why equity was not part of the first Paulson plan:I suppose it is some confused notion that bailing out debt is not socialism while taking equity is. Still, the idea of a $700 billion wet kiss to the richest and best protected has turned out to be a hard sell--it takes a lot of explaining that Paulson et al apparently never thought necessary.

But wait, folks, turns out that we can take equity--and could do so all along (link). Two thoughts:
  • Well, hey!
  • Doesn't anybody know how to play this game?
Boring who-the-hell-cares policy note: No, I don't want the government in the business of running banks. But if they (we) are going to take the risk, we ought to get to share in the upside. Preferred is okay with me. Or warrants. And it some not too distant day when the birds all sing again, sell 'em all at an obscene profit.

Tech note: the original of the linked piece is, of course, from Hyperbull Nouriel Roubini who is now saying he wasn't pessimistic enough. I link Kedrosky because it seems you have to register for Roubini to get full access. OTOH, registering is not that hard, and they are giving away a ton of free stuff at the moment, so give it a look-see.

Afterthought on Friedman on Palin

Tom Friedman rightly fulminates against Sarah Palin's notion that taxes are "unpatriotic" (link). Inter alia:

I can understand someone saying that the government has no business bailing out the financial system, but I can’t understand someone arguing that we should do that but not pay for it with taxes. I can understand someone saying we have no business in Iraq, but I can’t understand someone who advocates staying in Iraq until “victory” declaring that paying taxes to fund that is not patriotic.
He might have addded that there is at least one more way to finance all these ventures. and that is to monetize the debt--politespeak for turning on the printing press and letting inflation roll (or flame, or explode, or whatever is your metaphor of choice). We haven't yet become Zimbabwe or the Weimar Republic or (all time champion?) Hungary, but if we insist on a policy of not paying our bills, sooner or later we are going have to start heading that direction. My Taft-Republican father liked to remember the (alleged) FDR slogan: "We will tax and tax, and spend and spend, and elect and elect." If only.

Chandlerism

Two quotes from Raymond Chandler, culled from the The Write Stuff, BBC's literary quiz show.. First, Phillip Marlowe, in High Window:
From 30 feet away, she looked like a lotta class. From ten feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from 30 feet away.

And next, from a letter to his editor, on his cat:

At certain times she has a trick of holding one paw up loosely and lookng at it in a speculative manner. My wife thinks she's suggesting we get her a wristwatch.. She doesn't need one for any practical reason; she can tell time better than I do. But after all, you gotta have some jewelry.

Now He Tells Us

Google CEO Eric Schmidt called the Internet a "Cesspool" Wednesday in reference to the quality of content and the amount of false information residing on it.
--WebProNews, channeling AdAge

The Wichita Bureau
On the McCain Real Estate Bailout

Wichita recycles an old favorite:
The efficiency of the post oiffice. The compassion of the IRS.
Wichita offers assorted additional insights on the proposal no one seems to love:
Aside from the tax consequences to the debtor (here comes the IRS to take away the house for nonpayment of taxes on debt forgiveness income), how would it work?

We could assign FEMA to do it –

Anyone who had to deal with the former federal farm agencies in trying to negotiate debt settlements has some clue as to how hard that is.

First they would have to write about a million regulations.

Then (or perhaps while writing the regs) they’d have to staff up (although that may be the easy part; going to be a lot of realtors, brokers and bankers looking for work).

Then they would have to send everyone to some educational seminars.

Then they could start negotiating.

Meantime, there is no incentive to the borrower to insure or maintain the house, pay the taxes and try to make payments.

The efficiency of FEMA, the compassion of the IRS and the practical good sense of a rock.

I know – make it a rehab effort and farm it out to the prison system. Going to have a lot of brokers and folks with the right backgrounds in prison.side from the tax consequences to the debtor (here comes the IRS to take away the house for nonpayment of taxes on debt forgiveness income), how would it work?

We could assign FEMA to do it –

Anyone who had to deal with the former federal farm agencies in trying to negotiate debt settlements has some clue as to how hard that is.

First they would have to write about a million regulations.

Then (or perhaps while writing the regs) they’d have to staff up (although that may be the easy part; going to be a lot of realtors, brokers and bankers looking for work).

Then they would have to send everyone to some educational seminars.

Then they could start negotiating.

Meantime, there is no incentive to the borrower to insure or maintain the house, pay the taxes and try to make payments.

The efficiency of FEMA, the compassion of the IRS and the practical good sense of a rock.

I know – make it a rehab effort and farm it out to the prison system. Going to have a lot of brokers and folks with the right backgrounds in prison.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

And Here I Thought it was Just
"The Cultivation of Animosities"

"Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere,
diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedies."

--Calculated Risk's Brother
[channeling Groucho Marx]

"Clear of Trumpery Little Passions": Auden on Smith

"Auden?" my friend Zoltan said, with a sneer in his voice (this was 50 years ago, but I remember it). "Auden? A writer of editorials!"

I shivered a little. I liked Auden, and I admired Zoltan, and I wasn't sure where to go with that remark.

In the fullness of time, I have come to suspect Zoltan was overdoing it. In poems like "September 1, 1939" for good or ill, he captured the temper of his time. And I do love "Herod." But in the fullness of time, I've come up with a different spin on Auden: I wonder if perhaps he isn't a better critic than poet--or at least a shrewd and insightful appreciator, whose enduring legacy may be his capacity to convey his own enthusiasms to others.

As Exhibit A, there is surely his Lectures on Shakespeare, about which the learned Patrick writes so forcefully. But there is so much more. I still have my old copy of the Portable Greek Reader, with his inimitable introduction. NYRB Classics has seen fit to republish his introduction to Kierkegaard. There's a great deal more--and wait, folks, here's one that's new to me. In Palookaville's best second hand bookstore, I discover an Auden edition of The Selected Writings of Sidney Smith (Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, New York, 1956). I'm happy to report that it is all you would expect of an Auden introduction: learned, congenial and insightful, with a special knack for putting this B-list literary celebrity into his proper context.

In a way, it's a pity that Smith isn't known better: the most unlikely of preachers, the kindest and most civilized of companions, Smith probably did more than any other person to give the Anglican clergy its reputation for being more interested in cricket than theology. Auden, whose own religious impulse was strong, remarks that readers wonder "just why he was an Anglican and not, say a Unitarian." (viii). Yet Auden's respect for Smith's decency and generosity win out, and he pays him what is, for Auden, a high compliment: he mentions him in the same breath with his greater enthusiasm Kierkegaard. The Dane, as Auden recalls, had as his "chief complaint against the bourgeois ... that they were a parody of the Knights of Faith." He thinks Kierkegaard "would have appreciated ... Sidney Smith's use of bourgeois terms to define A Nice Person:"
A nice person is neither too tall nor too short, looks clean and cheerful, has no prominent features, makes no difficulties, is never displaced, sits bodkin, is never foolishly affronted, and is void of affectations. . . . A nice person is clear of trumpery little passions, acknowledges superiority, delights in talent, shelters humility, pardons adversity, forgives deficiency, respects all men's rights, never stops the bottle, is never long and never wrong, always knows the day of the month, the name of everybody at table, and never gives pain to any human being. . . . A nice person never knocks over wine or melted butter, does not tread upon the dog's foot, or molest the family cat, eats soup without noise, laughs in the right place, and has a watchful and attentive eye.

Id., xx
I don't know how many of his own terms Smith can be said to exemplify, although I'm pretty sure that he "is clear of trumpery little passions ... shelters humility, pardons adversity [and] forgives deficiency." Oh, and that Auden has "a watchful and attentive eye."

Afterthought: "Sits bodkin"--? I'm workin' on it.

The McCain Housing Plan--What's Different?

I'm trying to make sense out of the "McCain HOME Plan" wherein, as I understand it, the government (we) will buy up toxic mortgages and write them down to the market value of the property. Will we be buying those mortgages at face value? If so, isn't this primarily another bailout for bad lending practices? If we will be buying them at market--isn't that exactly what is happening now, when secondary market bottom fishers buy up the toxic debt at distress prices and undertake to do the workout themselves?

[For clarification: I think "secondary market bottom fishing" is an honorable profession, and I hope we are seeing lot of it--would go a long way to putting this problem behind us, and without more taxpayer frontloading.]

Update: DeLong says it's a full frontal, and he is not impressed.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Why the Debate was So Hard to Watch

"The American public got a pretty candid assessment from both these candidates..."

--Wolf Blitzer, CNN
What rot. The last thing you political campaign is candor, and who can blame them? The candid candidate finds himself in single digits. Reminds me of what they used to say about the small town weekly newspaper--people buy it every week to see how much of the truth the editors will tell.

Next Stop: Algebra

TheDeal.com has a cute piece up about the future of former spoiled brats dealmakers, asking what the future may hold: apple carts, boutiques, mini-golf (go read it yourelf)?

I venture one possibility: high school algebra teachers. I suspect a fair number of these guys have been telling themselves that after it was all over, they'd go do something wholesome and soul-cleansing. I'll bet the queue at the math department right now is as long as it ever gets. Well, God bless 'em: some of them perhaps would/will do very well. But, two things: one, it isn't as easy as it looks, and two, they don't want you that bad.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Were We Nuts?

Were we nuts to think that the quirky flyboy would run a campaign less loathsome and contemptible than that of his predecessor? Joseph Lelyveld provides a moment of solace:
Here was the man who'd stood with Russ Feingold, the Wisconsin Democrat, on campaign finance reform; with Edward Kennedy, on immigration reform and a patient's bill of rights; who'd denounced Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson as "agents of intolerance"; who'd voted against Bush's proposed amendment to outlaw gay marriage and played a leading part in normalizing relations with Communist Vietnam ...; the man who brokered a bipartisan Senate compromise that doomed three of President Bush's most conservative judicial nominations ....; who was disparaged as McKerry, on the suspicion that he'd briefly entertained John Kerry's proposal four years ago that he join the Democratic ticket; who, even as the delegates were ;packing to come to St. Paul, had them worried that he was going to try to shove Al Gore's hitherto pro-choice Democratic running mate, Joe Lieberman, down their throats as this year's Republican nominee for vice-president ...
Oh, that guy. Remember him?

Source: Joseph Lelyveld, John & Sarah in St. Paul, New York Review of Books 10-14, 10, Oct 9, 2008.

Update: Charlie Cook also remembers another and different McCain:
There was a time when McCain could speak intelligently and persuasively on a multitude of subjects, but it would seem that his tunnel vision on Iraq, some might even say obsession, has considerably narrowed areas in which he can speak authoritatively. In short, he has become a Johnny One-Note, and that note isn't the one that people seem to be listening for right now.

--From Cook's email newsletter "Off to the Races" for October 7, 2008.

One and a Half Reasons Why I am Wrong
On Homeowner Mortgage Relief

I've been channeling Mr. Scrooge on government-sponsored homeowner mortgage relief: most of these people took knowable risks that turned out badly: too bad, but that's life. Here are one and a half reasons why I may be wrong.

One reaason: in a sane market, the lenders would be providing a lot of relief. The reason is straightfoward. The debtor owes you $100. He can pay you only $70. But the next-best buyer can pay only $60. Smart bankers understand this; smart debtor lawyers negotiate in the white space between $60 and $70.

That's always been the way. What's different this time is that nobody owns the problem, so there is nobody to do the deal. In default of a deal, government sponsored relief may be a case of doing what lenders in enlightened self-interest should be doing for themselves.

Now the half reason: bankruptcy courts have rewritten loan contracts before, and the system survived. Back in the 80s, bankruptcy judges used persuasion and compulsion to restructure a whole slew of failed limited partnerships. Back in the 30s, the Supreme Court invalidated a debt-relief system for farmers; debtors howled, and a year or two later the same court blessed a statute identical except for a few commas and semicolons.

So nothing says it is structurally impossible, and it maybe doing some bankers a favor. Even if you don't like debtors, save your outrage for something else and let this one slide.

[Do I believe my own arguments? Sometimes, maybe, more or lesds.-ed.]

Dick Cheney Can't Do This

Just exactly how do you field-dress a moose? Turns out it's not easy. Executive summary: keep cool, be careful, and don't use water. Oh, and first of all tag your animal--the bureaucrats have their claims. For the rest--can you say "guggle to zatch?"

Sunday, October 05, 2008

What Joe Biden Could Have Said
(But It's Just as Well He Didn't)

What Joe Biden might have said:
"May I call you Joe"--? Sure, if you like. I never have been much hung up on titles.

But you might want to ask yourself: do you want to call me Joe? This is a decision you'll have to make for yourself. Still, as well-wisher, I will offer a suggestion. That is: it's an issue of decorum. Strictly speaking, anybody can call anybody by their first name. But as a matter of self-respect, some people want to be choosy about how free they are with the the easy approach. They think that a too-free use of the first name is a sign of impertinence or disrespect; even downright rudeness.

So, you like to remind people that you've been paying attention to me since you were in second grade. I suppose this might in itself explain why you feel the kind of intimacy with me to put us on a first-name basis, just as celebrities (real celebrities: not just politicians) get bales of mail every morning from folks who can't shake the notion that the celebrity, if s/he knew them, would be their best friend. This is a common failing, but that it is a failing is something on which you and I could probably agree.

On the other hand "second grade," may be designed to remind people that I am very, very old (or at least that you see me as such: I can assure you that I think I'm young enough to show a few new wrinkles). If that is the case, you might want to consider what people will think of you when they see that this is how you treat your elders.*

Or I may be taking entirely the wrong approach here. From an entirely different perspective, I can observe that there are people who like to use the first name on comparative strangers as a way of throwing them off balance, of putting them off guard. You may have experienced this kind of intrusion from your insurance salesman, or your gynecologist. My suspicion is that you don't take kindly to that kind of thing when it happens to you. Are you happy with what it says about you when you do the same thing to others? Remember I'm not answering the question here; if is for you you with your own sense of self-worth to make that decision for yourself.

Indeed, Governor^, may I suggest that this is one of the challenges and fascinations of a political career: you get to know yourself. You get to understand how much you will allow yourself to be bullied, and how much to bully; what you require of other people and what you expect of them; in deed, you learn about your own notions of respect, and self-respect, and self-worth.

So be my guest, Governor. Call me "Senator," or "Joe," or "old fuzzy," or anything you like. Your call; I hope you are satisfied with the choice you make.
*You may be tempted to respond by saying "but John McCain is even older!" True, but my guess is that you've pretty much written him off now anyway; you're shooting for 2012.

^Shorter Joe:
Sure. But I think I'll call you "Governor Palin."
Footnote: Yes, I call her Sarah all the time. But I'm not running for anything.

Fran Lebowitz Wasn't Joking

Mrs. Buce won the grand prize in the lottery at her high school reunion last night. That's nice: it's a three-day cruise from the Port of Long Beach although actually the dates are wrong so she'll take the cash instead.

Remember Fran Lebowitz? She's famous for (at least) saying that she figures she has as much chance of winning the lottery if she enters as if she doesn't.

That lottery Ms. Buce just won--she swears she didn't enter--never bought a ticket, never stuck one in the bowl.

There's only one possible interpretation: Fran Lebowitz was not joking.

SuperCheney

Back from my hiatus, I am a little surprised that not-more attention is being paid to Sarah Palin's claim in the debates that Dick Cheney doesn't have enough power. Apparently it was not a slip; she repeated it on Saturday.

I think it might be fun to ask McCain for his views on the matter (or whether, indeed, he has even heard of her power-grab; he seems remarkably disconnected).

I'm inclined to take it as one more index that she doesn't much care what he thinks; that she has pretty much written him off and focusing on 2012.

Which is ironic, in its way. Because if she does run for President in 2012, the idea that the Vice-president needs more power is one claim you're likely never to hear again.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Off Again

Off to the Bay Area for a high school reunion (Mrs. B's) and some compensating fun. I will forego my sandles for real leather. I believe they have wifi in that part of the world, but I may not trouble myself to find out.

[I expect to be on an expressway at the time of the great debate. Not sure what this bodes for traffic safety.]

Waugh, Naipaul and Changing Tastes in Kleptocracy

Mr. and Mrs. Buce enjoyed a viewing of Scoop, the other night--not the Woody Allen Scoop, but the earlier movie based on the Evelyn novel. It's good, though a bit slow paced, a bit Merchant Ivory-like--a visual aid best enjoyed by people who already knew the novel.

But it did remind us how much we enjoyed the novel (along with its companion piece, Black Mischief). And it caused us to marvel again--how did Waugh understand so much, so early, about kleptocracy, chaos and general mismanagement in the Third World (or more precisely in Central Africa)? In this respect at least, he makes you think of Conrad, who had an uncanny way of understanding things in his own time that other people didn't figure out for a couple of generations (think Secret Agent, Under Western Eyes, Nostromo, etc.).

But it might be helpful to put him context. It happened that just a few days before, on whim, I had been reading a Sven Birkerts essay on V. S. Naipaul (reprinted in the excellent collection, An Artificial Wilderness (1987--but the essay is obviously earlier)). Birket focuses on Naipaul's A Bend in the River and Guerillas--two corrosively clear-sighted novelistic accounts of misgovernment in forgotten places. They are good, Birkerts admits, but a little, well hard, as in cold, unfunny.

They are hard; you don't read Naipaul for laughs (the mature Naipaul, at any rate--the early stuff has some warm-hearted chuckles). But I remember reading them in the late 70s or early 80s with a great sense of delight--at last! Someone knows how to speak the truth!

Naipaul was, then, a tipping point: a point at which we recognized (or admitted to ourselves) that all was not well in the new nations and that some of our best hopes were being defeated by experience. Waugh, of course, had seen it all a generation before. At the time, readers recognized that his books were funny, in an unkind, scabrous ("hard") kind of way. But they were a bit of a scandal in their own time; not the sort of thing that nice people admitted to reading, or liking.

We've come a long way. Waugh's stock has never been higher. Naipaul's stock--well, it hasn't exactly fallen, but he certainly isn't on the radar the way he was a few years ago. He's done his job, and moved on. That we can now enjoy Waugh without apology or even any obvious regret--I leave it to the reader to consider whether or not this is an improvement.

Fn.: the movie may be a bit ho hum, but Donald Pleasance as the megalomaniac press lord, is a stitch.

Reviewing the Bidding

Allow me to review the bidding:
  • We've got a liquidity crisis and a solvency crisis.
  • For at least 170 years now (sic?), it has been accepted that in a liquidity crisis, the government has a role to play.
  • Turning on the money spigot helps liquidity, and we're doing that.
  • Raising the deposit insurance helps liquidity, and we're doing that.
  • So much for liquidity, but as to solvency--we seem to be speaking out of both sides of our mouth.
  • On the one hand, we do tough love: equity owners take the hit in Bear Stearns, Lehman, AIG WaMu and more. We've even wiped out some debt, but apparently the Chinese have told us we'd better not wipe out their debt.
  • But for others, the Treasury Secretary proposes a balance sheet bailout, to the tune of $700 billion--a number, it is conceded, pretty much plucked odut of thin air.
  • Nobody speaks up for this plan, but everybody says we have to; have it.
  • It looks more and more like it won't do any good anyway.
Does anybody here know how to play this game?

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

What I Learned Today: Henry Schricker

Hoisted from the comments at Steve Benen (augmented by two minutes' original research):

Henry Schricker was governor of Indiana in 1944 when Franklin D. Roosevelt asked him to serve as candidate for vice-president on the Democratic national ticket. Shricker refused, saying "a man ought to know his limitations."

There is a Henry Schricker Toll Road Plaza and Wifi Hotspot outside Elkhart, IN.

Oink

A direct steal from Slate (H/T Yves Smith), but not to be missed--partial list of what's in the Senate bill:

DIVISION C-TAX EXTENDERS AND ALTERNATIVE MINIMUM TAX RELIEF

SEC. 308. INCREASE IN LIMIT ON COVER OVER OF RUM EXCISE TAX TO PUERTO RICO AND THE VIRGIN ISLANDS.

(a) IN GENERAL.-Paragraph (1) of section 7652(f) is amended by striking ‘‘January 1, 2008'' and inserting ‘‘January 1, 2010''.

(b) EFFECTIVE DATE.-The amendment made by this section shall apply to distilled spirits brought into the United States after December 31, 2007.

SEC. 309. EXTENSION OF ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT CREDIT FOR AMERICAN SAMOA.

Subsection (d) of section 119 of division A of the Tax Relief and Health Care Act of 2006 is amended-

(1) by striking ‘‘first two taxable years'' and inserting ‘‘first 4 taxable years"

SEC. 317. SEVEN-YEAR COST RECOVERY PERIOD FOR MOTORSPORTS RACING TRACK FACILITY.

3 (a) IN GENERAL.-Subparagraph (D) of section 168(i)(15) (relating to termination) is amended by striking ‘‘December 31, 2007'' and inserting "December 31, 2009''.

SEC. 325. EXTENSION AND MODIFICATION OF DUTY SUSPENSION ON WOOL PRODUCTS; WOOL RESEARCH FUND; WOOL DUTY REFUNDS.

(a) EXTENSION OF TEMPORARY DUTY REDUCTIONS.-Each of the following headings of the Harmonized Tariff Schedule of the United States is amended by striking the date in the effective period column and inserting ‘‘12/31/2014'':

(1) Heading 9902.51.11 (relating to fabrics of worsted wool).

(2) Heading 9902.51.13 (relating to yarn of combed wool).

(3) Heading 9902.51.14 (relating to wool fiber, waste, garnetted stock, combed wool, or wool top).

(4) Heading 9902.51.15 (relating to fabrics of combed wool).

(5) Heading 9902.51.16 (relating to fabrics of combed wool).

SEC. 503. EXEMPTION FROM EXCISE TAX FOR CERTAIN WOODEN ARROWS DESIGNED FOR USE BY CHILDREN.

‘(B) EXEMPTION FOR CERTAIN WOODEN ARROW SHAFTS.-Subparagraph (A) shall not apply to any shaft consisting of all natural wood with no laminations or artificial means of enhancing the spine of such shaft (whether sold separately or incorporated as part of a finished or unfinished product) of a type used in the manufacture of any arrow which after its assembly- ‘‘(i) measures 5⁄16 of an inch or less in diameter, and ‘‘(ii) is not suitable for use with a bow described in paragraph (1)(A).''.

Wooden arrow shafts? (Updated:) Bloomberg has the skinny here. Apparently the deal is something like this: money bills originate in the House. In order to vote first, the Senate had to tie the bailout onto another bill already pending. So it was a Christmas tree to begin with. How much was added yesterday afternoon--maybe we'll find out, and maybe we won't.

Palin/Truman

Steve Benen picks up on the Palin/Truman meme and declares resoundingly: Governor, you're no Harry Truman. He's right as far as he goes (but: war hero?)--she doesn't have anything like the experience and seasoning that Harry had. But I think Steve misses the point. Sarah's not wedded to the claim that she is as experienced as Harry. What impresses her was that Harry was an outsider who came from more or less nowhere to the Presidency in a matter of months. Sarah just loves that part. President McCain better hire a food taster.

You Heard It Here First

I don't know about you, but I've heard surprisingly little call, in the current kerfuffle, for the gallows or the guillotine (except for the odd mutter that it is all the fault of Jimmy Carter). I suppose we are all too frightened. Once things settle down, I suspect there will be some cry for heads to roll.

But if your idea of entertainment is to watch an investment banker doing the frog walk, I suspect you are in for a disappointment. Mark you calenders for two years from today: my guess is by that time, the only person actually incarcerated for any role in this mess will be some old black guy in Lansing. With diabetes.

What's Wrong with This Picture?

I admit it; I had to have it explained to me:



H/T: BoingBoing, with a link to this guy.

Religion versus Barbarism

It is said that one of the functional virtues of religion is that it helps to lift us out of barbarism. I grant that sometimes it does. But it's a mixed bag Here, René Grousset compares the devastations inflicted by Tamberline in the 15th Century with those of his predecessor Genghis (Jenghiz?) Khan in the 13th.
It has been noted that the Jenghiz-Khanite Mongol invasion of the thirteenth century was less cruel for the Mongols were mere barbarians who killed simply because for centuries this had been the instinctive behavior of nomad herdsmen toward sedentary farmers. To this ferocity Tamerlane added a taste for religious murder. He killed for piety. He represents a synthesis, probably unprecedented in history, of Mongol barbarity and Muslim fanaticism and symbolizes that advanced form of primitive slaughter which is murder committed for the sake of an abstract ideology, as a duty and a sacred mission.

--René Grousset, The Empire of the Steppes:
A History of Central Asia
434 (Trans. 1970)
Earlier, Grousset has argued that Mongol warfare, however savage, was more "natural," in that it was a matter of nomadic warriors preying on their richer settled brethren, using techniques they had developed in the hunting of (other?) animals.

In Which I Soften on Mark to Market

Here's a quick summary of all debates in accounting: how much truth can you stand? Translated: it's had to remember any major controversy over accounting rules that didn't involve (at least) one side trying to keep something out of the financials, because investors or creditors might not like it. Contingent pension liabilities? Options? Oh, dear god, don't book 'em; end of Western Civilization as we know it. None of this has ever made much sense to me: if the truth is too awful to bear, than that is just the sort of truth the users should have.

My attitude to mark-to-market has been pretty much in character. Of course you should mark to market. Not marking to market is like (I read this somewhere) the doctor not telling the patient he is sick.

I'm beginning to soften: wiser heads than my own are persuading me that maark-to-market may not work when there isn't any market--as pretty clearly seems to have been the case lately in, oh I dunno, short-term money, real estate, whatever. Marking to market assumes a market; if there is an exogenous collapse in the market structure, then mark to market doesn't make a lot of sense.

And so? Well, it does not follow that we just default to book value. We might be able to cook up some sort of red-flag system that will warn the reader that the usual bets are off. Or maybe we could do some kind of "price smoothing," where we assimilate the market meltdown over time--providing an opportunity for the crisis to pass.

By corollary, I don't see any need for regulators to hew blindly to mark-to-market decisions in situations where the market simply isn't working.

But the core point remains: accounting is about information, and information includes bad news as well as good. Every debtor always thinks his assets are undervalued and if only he gets a little time blah blah something will turn up. God love 'em, some unknowabale number of these straitened debtors may be right. But there is really no way of telling for sure, and in default of a confident judgment, the market's judgment is likely to be the best judgment we have.

A couple of useful links: here and here.

Who Knew?

Edmund S. Phelps, the Columbia economics Nobelist, wants the government to take equity (warrants, as in Chrysler), so I'm in good company (link). He also provides a handy thumbnail summary:
Among most economists, it came as a surprise that the banking industry and indeed, most of the financial sector, was so devoted to houses. We had not realized that the investment and innovation in the country's business sector was largely getting by on rich uncles, a tiny cottage industry of venture capitalists out West, and a few private-equity funds doing alternative energy. And we didn't foresee that a trillion or two of losses in an economy with $40 trillion of financial wealth could bring high anxiety and, two weeks ago, near panic.
Afterthought: Not quite sure just how much of this is sarcasm and heavy handed irony. "Didn't foresee," really? Seems to me that a lot of people saw this train wreck whistlin' down the track a long time ago.