Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Resolved: Quit Procrastinating

Okay, let me see here: 9 hours and about 50 minutes until New Years, 2009. Think this would be a safe time for me to make my New Years' resolutions for 2008?

Bunin on the Revolution

Although there a couple of other candidates* that I haven't read, I have long thought that maybe the best book about day-to-day life in the Russian Revolution would be Ayn Rand's We, the Living—certainly the only Ayn Rand book that can be read by anybody over the age of 19 (reading John Reed's Ten Days that Shook the World, by contrast, would be an ordeal for a reader of any age, possibly exceptingWarren Beatty.

But now I've got another candidate: the journals of Ivan Bunin, edited by Thomas Gailton Marullo and published under the title Cursed Days: A Diary of Revolution.

The enduring portin of Bunin's oeuvre is impressive, but thin: as is so often the case, his Nobel Prize for Literature in 1933 had far more to do with politics than achievement. He was a member of a family of serf-owning gentry and his tone mixes astringency and hauteur in manner bound to arrest attention in troubled times.

Bunin and his wife were in Moscow when the trouble started. They decamped in the summer of 1918, headed for Odessa, then part of a newly-independent Ukraine. When they reached their destination in October (quoting Marullo) “aghast to see how the city had declined..” Yet in Odessa, they became themselves a kind of living museum of a fast-vanishing world. Bunin's contempt for the Bolsheviks and their allies is unbounded; his optimism about the prospects of the emerging counter-revolution come near to sounding gullible—the whole a mix of (Marullo again) “drama and self-pity.” Here he is on May 16/29 1919:
As far as I can make out,l the Bolsheviks are doing poorly both around the Don region and beyond the Volga. May God help us!

I've just finished reading a biography of the poet Polezhaev, and I've been greatly moved—it was painful and sad and sweet (not because of Polezhaev, of course). Yes, I am the last who feels this past, the time of our fathers and forefathers. . . .

It's been drizzling on and off. There's a cloud high in the sky, the sun is peeping out, and birds chirp sweetly in bright yellow-green acacia trees in the courtyard. I keep having snatches of thoughts and memories, of things that are truly gone forever. I remember a small place called Toadstool Forest—a backwoods, a small birch tree, and grass and flowers that were as high as your belt—and how I once ran through them in the same drizzle that we're having now, and also how I breathed the sweetness of the birches and the wheat and the fields; I think of all, all the charm of Russia. .. .

The Muirids were suppressed along with their leader, Kazi-Mullah. Kazi's grandfather had been a fugitive Russian soldier. Kazi himself was an individual of average height, with pockmarks on his face, a thin beard, and eyes that were bright and penetrating. He killed his own father by pouring boiling oil down his throat. Then he sold vodka, proclaimed himself a prophet, and undertook a holy war. . . . . How many rebels and leaders have been like this one!

-- Ivan Bunin, Cursed Days: A Diary of Revolution 166-7
(Thomas Gaiton Marullo trans. 1998; originally published in Russian in 1936)
Despairing of the counter-revolutionary cause, Bunin finally left Odessa and began (at the age of 50) a new life Paris. It was there over the next decade that he most of his best work. Yet even so—and despite the Prize—he spent most of his life as an exile in a state of privation. He showed the same disdain for the Nazis as he had for the Bolsheviks; (they made him drink a bottle of castor oil). He died in 1953 “in a Paris attic flat”(link). It is said that Nabokov thought highly of some of his poetry, less so of his prose.

*Other candidates: Mikhail Bulgakov, The White Guard, N. N. Sukhanov, The Russian Revolution.

Monday, December 29, 2008


Thanks (again) to Patrick Kurp (link), this time for putting me onto D.G. Myers, and in particular this remarkable new "best fiction" list (link). I like it because it includes stuff that I (a) actually read; or (b) think I might actually want to read. I'm not nearly as well schooled on this topic as Myers (or Kurp), but I've read with great pleasure and profit, e.g., Bernard Malamud, J.F. Powers, Flannery O'Conner, Raymond Carver, Stanley Elkin and Saul Bellow. I enjoyed the Cheever stories when I was young, and Portnoy (snigger snigger). And what a pleasure to find that I don't need to apologize for reading Christopher Buckley. The only choice that seems to me to misfire is Eudora Welty: I've tried, but she just leaves me cold. But in general, his judgment is so good that I am emboldened to go back and try people that I thought I could safely overlook (Paul Auster), or even those I had been actively evading (Philip K. Dick). And I must say I do think he is wrong to exclude Marilynne Robinson.

There's an interesting followup post here, in which Myers responds to Kurp (with a fully justified salute to Cynthia Ozick). Indeed, I think the whole blog belongs in the aggregator.

Afterthought: Unless I missed it Myers nor Kurp nominated this woman. But cf. link. [And: okay, Canadian, right.]

More on the Second Most Popular Russian

Like I say, I think P.A. Stolypin is an interesting character, but I still don't get it that he is the second most popular Russian. I remember first running across him in Bertram Wolf's Three Who Made a Revolution (I'm pretty sure--I can't put my fingers on a copy just now). I remember a chapter called "Lenin and Stolypin," drawing a contrast between Stolypin's vision of a nation of smallholders and Lenin's, well, Leninism (aside: it could be fun to run this comparison alongside other "competing visions,"--the brothers Gracchi, say, or Jefferson v. Hamilton). In An Economic History of the USSR, Alex Nove summarizes Stolypin's efforts at "conservative reform" after the abortive revolution of 1905:
Outstanding redemption dues [from the abolition of serfdom], which had been reduced, were finally abolished. Peasants were now free to leave their communities, to consolidate their holdings as their property, to buy land or to sell it, to move to town or to migrate. Stolypin's object was to encourage the emerence of a class of peasant proprietors who would be prosperous, efficient and politically loyal. This was the so-called 'wager of the strong'. Many go-ahead peasants tok advantage of the new opportunities. ... The process of change was slowed down and then halted by the outbreak of the war in 1914. Stolypin himself had been assassinated in 1911. He held the view that his reform, given time, would have provided the emprie with a solid social base.
And the tantalizing closer:
We will never know whether he would have been proved right.

--Alex Nove, An Economic History of the USSR 1917-1991 13 (2d ed. 1989, 1993)
There mega-Turtledoves of alternative history there, and it is easy to imagine how he might have made things better (harder, after all, to imagine how things could go worse). But there have always been skeptics who remark on Stolypin's own limitations. Here is Richard Charques in The Twilight of Imperial Russia:
Of commanding presence, a man of strong and in many respects impressive personality, clear-headed and courageous, he was as well fitted for the part as any member of the Russian bureaucracy. Yet it is hard to warm to him except in sympathy with his thankless task in serving so jealous and unresponsive a sovereign. And even sympathy is diluted by a sense of Stolypin's unbridled conviction of his own political virtue. His defects as a conservative statesman ... were that he could not conceive it possaible that he was mistaken, and that he was therefore scarcely ever flexible enough in his approach to persons or to problems. Increasingly he was driven by a rigid sense of state necessity into courses which were innocent of scruple or even violated the law in both letter and spirit.

--Richard Charques The Twilight of Imperial Russia 159-60 (OUP 1958, 1965)
Or not all that different from, in a word, Lenin.

Sunday, December 28, 2008


If there is any surprise in finding Josef Stalin on a list of most popular Russians, I suppose it is finding that he is only third from the top (link). We've been hearing for years about how Russian truck drivers carry Stalin dashboard medallions, and how impoverished pensioners moan that "if only Stalin were alive ..." Sure, he was a brutal dictators but so many of his opponents are, well, dead. And not just because it was all so many years ago.

Stalin also defeated the German invaders--a characteristic he shares with the number one choice Alexander Nevsky, whom regular readers of Underbelly will remember for his place in the Second Pskovian Chronicle, recording events of the 13th Century (Alexander had an even bigger problem with the Golden Horde, whom he fended off more with fancy footwork than with fire and sword). But number two is--Pyotr Stolypin? Having had the good fortune to be actually awake in Russian history class that day, I remember him as an interesting guy--the conservative counter-Lenin, who wanted to stem the tide of revolution by creating a class of industrious farmers. He probably does deserve a place in any respectable narrative of the Russian state--but second most popular? How is it that Russians know so much about him? Has there been a series on the Russian version of Mawsterpiece Theatre, or some such? Stolypin? [For a fuller and less flippant answer, see Abraham Ascher, P.A. Stolypin: The Search for Stability in Late Imperial Russia (2001)].

Aside from the "popularity" problem I'd say that putting both Stalin and Stolypin on the same list is no more remarkable than bracketing these two on the "Most Admired American Woman" list. Hat Tip: Wichita Bureau. Thanks, John.

Update: Moscow Times offers a bit of context (link).

Kindle v. Barnes & Noble

I spend a good deal of my life in coffee shops--childhood trauma, don't ask. Anyway, one of the regular stops on my beat is the Palooklaville Barnes & Noble where the good folks provide a warm and comforting venue for meditation and silent study. They've got WiFi but it's paywall and even so addicted a web reader as I ought to be able to stay off line for just a few hours, not so?

But yesterday, I tried a little experiment. I prowled the aisles packin' my still-damp new Christmas Kindle. When I saw a book that caught my fancy, I punched it up on the Kindle to see what I could learn from Amazon. And here's the killer: Amazon jumps the paywall. You straight through from the keyboard to Amazon without so much as a hiccup.

Next thing I learn: about half the items that caught my fancy were not available on Kindle. Others arrested my attention perhaps only because they were on Kindle, i.e., I wouldn't have paid much attention otherwise.

But in time I ran across Graham Howe, The Discovery of France, which my friend Michael had been touting just last week. Retail $17.95. With my B&N discount card, I could shave off 10 percent off that, but then I'd have to pay sales tax. I could get it on line from B&N at $14.53 but then I might have to pay shipping.

But here it is on the Kindle. $9.99. Thunk, pause done: on board and waiting for action. I put the paper copy back on the shelf. I went and bought myself a tall Americano and settled down with the Kindle to read.

This cannot be good for Barnes & Noble.

Now Might Be Just the Time for Obama to Quit Smoking

Christopher Caldwell has a novel spin on the Obama-the-smoker story (link):
Although smoking does not pose any obvious risks to good government, stopping smoking might. People who really need to quit the drug they are taking – whether it is Heineken or heroin or hashish – generally do so by making it their top priority. Addiction counsellors warn recovering addicts that there will inevitably be days when the most important thing they do is not drink or use. Heads of state do not have the liberty to spend days this way, and getting off nicotine is not a sufficient reason why they should.
It's a point worth pondering but I think it might be exactly wrong. I quit smoking, once--48 years ago. I used to say I never started again because it was so hard to quit the first time and I never wanted to have to do that twice. I had backslider dreams for maybe six, seven years.

The immediate point is that I chose to quit exactly when I was moving to a new city, and starting a new job. I figured maybe the easiest time to quit was when I had no old associations. And indeed I think it worked that way. None of the familiar cues or habits, nothing to prompt me to take the fag in particular moments, or at particular times of day. And of course, if I had new surroundings, etc., then Obama has the same opportunity cubed. So I say go for it.

Afterthought: Caldwell says, "the only harm smoking does is to kill the people who engage in it." He's forgetting one special case: pregnant women. Newly married at the time that I quit, one of the things I used to tell myself was that if I quit, then maybe she would quit before she got pregnant. I did, and she did. Might be the best day's work I ever did in my life.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Appreciation: The Man Who Doesn't Know Diddly Squat

I beat up on Niall Ferguson a few days ago for misunderstanding bankruptcy law (the phrase was "doesn't know diddly squat"). I haven't changed my mind on that post, but I could add that I hadn't read the whole book at the time. I have now had a chance to tackle the whole book (it was my first purchase with my new Christmas Kindle), and fairness requires me to add: the book as a whole is quite good very much worth the investment both in money and in time.

I think that Fergson's oeuvre has to be rated on the whole as somewhat uneven. His massive biography of The Rothschilds is a major production, the book that badly needed to be written on a fascinating and important topic. The Cash Nexus was fun but somewhat indeterminate. Colossus just bit off more than it could chew. The new one--that would be The Ascent of Money--is in a different category from any of its predecessors: it is a deliberately structured "popularization" (of sorts) on a specific and manageably well defined 's topic. And Ferguson makes clear that, whatever his skills as an original researcher, he's also well equipped to tell an immense (and immensely complicated) story in an accessible and comprehensible manner.

People who read books like The Rothschilds will already know most of what Ferguson has to tell here. Few of these, I think, would be able to present it with such clarity and grace. Quite a few people have attempted this sort of task: there are, when you stop to think about it, quite a few non-technical accounts of the history of money, investing, or some such. Some are really bad; some are okay, and only a few are really top notch. Ferguson's certainly counts as one of the best. Just skip those few pages about what he (thought he) saw in Memphis.

Our Beastly Holiday

Christmas guests at Chez Buce this year included a puppy, a mongrel mutt; well, a sort of Jack Russell terrier with legs off a coffee table. Chez Buce is pretty much a dog-free zone and we weren't exactly enchanted with the idea of turning it into a venue for random peeing, but the owners are nice people so we figured we'd be civil and give it a bye.

Good news: the whole thing was an unqualified success. The dog was cheerful, friendly and, aside from a certain rambunctiousness (the bottoms of my feet will never be cleaner), entirely well-behaved. And did I mention that she never barked once.

Our thanks to the dog, of course, but I suppose it's worth noting how much this sort of thing is a compliment to the owner. We've all met dogs that need doggy psychiatrists, dogs who have doggie psychiatrists, and way too many dogs who operate as a channel to legitimatize their owner's inner beastliness. If bad doggie behavior reflects badly on the owners, then I think good doggie behavior should be recognized in the same way. Everything about this pooch bespeaks a family that is cheerful, warm-hearted, steady and relaxed. The pooch really lucked out, and I think she knows it. Heartiest congratulations all round.

Long-Term Confusion

Tyler Cowan has an amazingly confused piece in this morning's NYT arguing tht we owe our current plight in large part to the "bailout" (I use the term advisedly) ten years ago of Long-Term Capital Mangement (link). But the point of LTCM, as Tyler's own piece acknowledges (but Tyler ignores) is precisely that LTCM was not a bailout, except perhaps in the sense that the Feds provided lunch. Okay, and a little bit of arm-twisting. But I should think that would be on the approved list for even the most hairy-chested libertarian. The message was: look, we love ya, and we will work with ya, but we will not put skin in the game.

Indeed, I'd like to find a way to generalize. The test of a good cop is not how many arrests he makes, but how much order he keeps. The test of a good general is not his kill rate but the number of battles he wins. The measure of a good central banker is not how well he runs a bailout but how little he needs one. Of course at the moment, ours seem to flunk either test.

Afterthought: Nothing said here is meant to contradict the more general strategic point--we cannot expect good results from heads-I-win, tails-you lose. If we know we are going to guarantee the downside, we have to regulate the upside. Oops, sorry, should have said tht ten years ago. ...

Friday, December 26, 2008

Carolyn to the Court of St. James

Steve Clemons has a great idea--make Carolyn our Ambassadress to London (link). I'm a little surprised, though, that he didn't think to mention how her grandfather had rather a bad time of it back in the Roosevelt years.

But here's a better precedent:

Bush the Reader: Doing the Numbers

I see that Karl Rove is back on the Bush-is-a-great reader meme (WSJ, "Bush is a Book Lover, p A11; cf. link). Not wanting to question the veracity of so distinguished a public servant, I must then accept at face value that the number of books the President finished in 2005 was 95. Do the numbers: assume, conservatively, that each book has 250 pages, then that is a total of 23,750 pages for the year. At 30 pages an hour, that would be 791.67 hours spent reading, or the equivalent of just under 20 work weeks. With a pace like that, I wonder how he ever found time to go to church?

Rove also says that he outdid the President in reading, and that the President's excuse was that "he'd been busy as Leader of the Free World." I assume that's a joke.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Eartha Kitt, 1927-2008

This woman could drive me mad with lust when I was 19. Well; they all could, but she was special:

Eartha Kitt, dead at 81 in New York City (link), where she was under treatment for colon cancer.

Afterthought: I wish I had the time to develop the full-scale appreciation her talent deserves. But let me pull at just one strand: one of the reasons she was such a convincing sexpot is that you were (or at least a guileless 19-year-old was) never quite sure when she was kidding. That hint of mockery--was it self-mockery ot just mockery in the encounter with flaming testosterone?--was a technique that had worked, in a different way, for Mae West. Eartha (what kinda name is Eartha anyway?) had the added advantage of seeming foreign (she wasn't) and therefore exotic and therefore intrinsically hard to figure out (excuse me, I am a stranger in your country, are you making fun of me?).

Some numbers, like the item linked above, had their moments of straightforward, easy good-natured comedy. But there were others (I remeber "Angelitos Negros") that seemed so deadly serious, you couldn't believe they were from the same person. The total effect was one of calculated ambiguity; perhaps it was just a device to deflect the attention of the censors; perhaps (one couldn't be sure) it was a philosoophy of life. In the end, you could say she was hip and camp before her time, which may be why she was able to stay relevant through so much of a long career.

That Day Again

This is the Month, and this the happy morn
Wherein the Son of Heav'n's eternal King,
Of wedded Maid, and Virgin Mother born,
Our great redemption from above did bring;
For so the holy sages once did sing,
That he our deadly forfeit should release,
And with his Father work us a perpetual peace.

--John Milton, On the Morning of Christ's Nativity
For another post about this poem, go here.

Afterthought: In his great Milton collection, Merritt Y. Hughes says that "the theme of the Ode--the triumph olf the infant Christ over the gods of paganism--was dear to Christian humanists, Protestant and Catholic alike." Hughes, John Milton: Complete Poems and Major Prose 42 (1957). Quite right, and a question that may be more obvious to us now than it was to Hughes is: how come to Christianity didn't get swamped by the paganism?

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

If There is a Bunny in the Movie ...

My friend Ignoto articulates a sentiment that I have long entertained but never so well expressed. The topic is movies,specifically weird, nasty, creepy ones. Ignoto says:
I can watch fairly gnarly stuff, but I don't like it one bit when kids get hurt and I have an extremely low tolerance for movies about people screwing up their own lives. I have been known to say JUST TELL YOUR WIFE NOW AND GET IT OVER WITH BEFORE THE PSYCHO BITCH YOU SLEPT WITH COMES AFTER YOUR KIDS' PET BUNNY IN THE THIRD REEL.
My sentiments exactly.

Reference, for the lucky few who didn't get it: link.

All In the Family

A MetaFiler query begins:

Argh! I just found my dad on facebook. Do I add him as a friend?

(link). The responses are inevitably diverse but a number of them agree that it's a pretty creepy idea. We have the problem at Chez Buce, cubed. I, my son, his wife, and their daughter, are all on Facebook, and we are all linked. They haven't taken me (or each other) out yet, although there are surely times when they would be just as glad if I were not around. But it seems to me the issue runs both ways. When I write for this blog, one thing that runs through my mind is--omigawd, my grandkids might be reading this.

So far, it doesn't seem to be have been an issue. And by the way for contrast, Mrs. Buce never looks at the blog at all. She says she figures she's heard it all before.

Deep Thought: Keynes

Everybody is adding John Maynard Keynes these days as a Facebook friend.

[See,e.g., link, link, link, and of course link, etc.]

Update: I thought I was joking (link).

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Defining Diuretics Down

Theodore Dalrymple, where are you now that we need you?
People should ignore signs telling them that it is legal to urinate in certain public places in Nottingham, the city council said.

The signs, which were put up by pranksters in and around Nottingham, are designed to look official.

They feature a toilet sign and include the words: "Public Urination Permitted After 7.30pm".

Nottingham City Council is now urging the public to ignore the notices as it sets about removing them.
Link. Thanks, JOel.

Blagojevich as St. Vincent de Paul

The most interesting thing I noticed in a quick skim of the story about the Obama/Blagojevich infodump is the suggestion (hearsay) that the governor hoped to be Secretary of Health and Human Services. Say again, Blagojevich as the comforter of the downtrodden? Is there really any money in that? I should have thought something like director of procurement at the Department of Defense. Or designer of a post-Cheney energy policy? Or director of Public Lands? But HHS sounds like just a lot of hard work, not something where regulator capture has a great role.

Credit Crisis Datapoint of the Day

If we are in a credit crisis, how come I keep getting those robocalls telling me they can lower my interest rate on my credit card?

And since I pay it all off every month, are they really offering to lower me to less than zero?

[No, I thought not.]

Henry James' Inner Yokel

I offer the snippet below as pretty good evidence of what a yokel Henry James can be. But first, to clarify. I don't mean to question that Henry James is a great novelist, perhaps the greatest American novelist, perhaps, as Joseph Epstein says (and he does not bandy words lightly) a "genius."

But even a genius can have blind spots and the number of things that James does not know is quite as impressive as the list of things that he does. He doesn't know the first thing about money, for example. He doesn't seem to know how babies to made.

And then there is the whole Americans-in-Europe thing. James is actually pretty good at the "innocence" theme, or at any rate its close cousin, "innocence corrupted." And he uses the American in Europe as a pretty good (though far from the only, and perhaps not the best) vehicle for its exploration. But when it comes to Europe, the irony is that James himself is just as slack-jawed and wide-eyed as meanest young Smithie on her first solo foray.

As Exhibit "A," consider the scene in The Ambassadors where Lambert goes to pay his first call on Madame de Vionnet. He, of course, is the American in Paris, confused and disoriented by his first encounter with the great city. She is most emphatically European: cultured and cosmopolitan with just a dash of naughtiness to spice the brew. Lambert encounters her in her apartment on the Rue de la Bellechasse. James is careful to use the names of real streets in Paris, but from the tone of it all, you'd think Lambert had gone to visit Hitler at Bechtesgarten:
She occupied...the first floor of an old house to which our visitor had had access from an old clean court. The court was large and open, full of revelations, for our friend, of the habit of privacy, the peace of intervals, the dignity of distances and approaches; the house, to his restless sense, was in the high homely style of an elder day, and the ancient Paris that he was always looking for--sometimes intensely felt, sometimes more acutely missed--was in the immemorial polish of the wide waxed staircase and in the fine boiseries, the medallions, mouldings, mirrors, great clear spaces, of the greyish-whtie salon into which he had been shown. He seemed at the very outset to see her in the midst of possessions not vulgarly numerous, but hereditary cherished charming.
And she (or it) has a past:
[H]e found himself making out, as a background of the occupant, some glory, some prosperiity of the First Empire, some Napoleonic glamour, some dim lustre of the great legend; elements clinging still to all the consular chairs and mythological brasses and sphinxes' heads and faded surfaces of satin striped with alternate silk.
Say again, First Empire? That would be Napoleon, yes, 1804-14? My memory is that was a period of almost inconceivable carnage and bloodshed but let that be, it doesn't end there:
The place itself went further back--that he guessed, and how old Paris continued in a manner to echo there; but the post-revolutionary period, the world he vaguely thought of as the world of Châteaubriand, of Madame de Staël, even of the young Lamartine, had left its stm;p of harps and urns and torches, a stamp impressed on sundry small object, ornaments and relics.
Yes, that's it: at the end of the day, it is pretty much about things:
He had never before, to his knowledge, had present to him relics, of any special dignity, of a private order--little old miniatures, medallions, pictures, books; books in leather bindings, pinkish and greenish, with gilt garlands on the back, ranged, together with other promiscuous properties, under the glass of brass-mounted cabients. His attention took all them tenderly into account.
I'm searching my mind to find out what is the best point of contact here. Pooh Bear, admiring a tea party with honey and cream? Or Daisy in Great Gatsby, having a conniption fit over the wonders of the shirts? Or perhaps Proust-but, specifically, the child Proust, lost in magic-lantern fantasies about the antiquity of the House of Guermants (indeed, the best I can figure is that the Guermants must have been living just over the road), and the heroic memories of Genevieve de Brabant. The point being Proust treats it all with irony; you could say that the other six volumes of Proust are an extended ironic commentary on what the child Marcel misunderstands in the first. In the passage above (he is better elsewhere) James doesn't seem to recognize that the joke is on him.

He'd Get Two to Seven

That's Jimmy Stewart. For grand larceny:
Checking with District Attorney Frank Clark in Erie County, N.Y., where the fictional Bedford Falls might well have be deemed to have been located,[New York Times critic Wendell] Jamieson confirmed Stewart's legal peril.

“If you steal over $3,000, it’s a D felony; 2½ to 7 years is the maximum term for that. The least you can get is probation," Clark told him. "You know Jimmy Stewart, though, he had that hangdog face. He’d be a tough guy to send to jail.”

That's okay for larceny. For the movie, I'd say hanging's too good for him.

Source: ABA Journal, reporting on the NYT (link).

Monday, December 22, 2008

Annals of Postmodernism

Chez Buce is now the proud respository of a device that whistles Beautiful Dreamer while it boils water.

Fagen on Shepherd

Here's a special for today: Donald Fagen on Jean Shepherd. The hook is that Shepherd is "The Man Who Told A Christmas Story," but Fagen makes it clear that Shepherd's oeuvre is deeper and richer than just that. I was never as devoted a fan of Shepherd's as Fagen, but I certainly remember some wonderful stuff from the early Playboys (I got it for the articles!). There was Shepherd off to school leaning forward into the snow and wind like (I quote from memory) "A hood ornament on an old Packard." There was the great gravy-boat war (on movie theatre premium night). And there were the neighbors from Kentucky who did not know the meaning of guilt and shame--when the son came home from prison,they thew a welcoming block party.

But Fagen's piece takes an unexpected (to me) turn, when he discusses the darker Shepherd whom he discovered later on stage. I won't steal Fagen's stuff here: go read his whole piece, it's great. But I will offer a generlization. Is it just me, or are we generally disappointed by celebrities when we see them live in standup?

I don't have a broad search set--never laid out 50 thousand smackers to listen to Bill Clinton or Colin Powell. But one reason I don't have more experience is that I've often been disappointed by the experiences I have. I can remember Bill Cosby, saintliest of men, many years ago riffing us through a half hour of pretty good jokes and then drifting into a kind of moony feelgood family values routine, with just enough religion to annoy the eculaar without, I suspect, really pleasing the believers. I can remember Dan Schorr who emerged, on close scrutiny, as just a kindly, affable old man with nothing much to add to what I already knew (and he wasn't even 90 then).

Most--worst--of all, I remember Bill Maher here in Palookaville just a few years back. No one ever called Maher either kindly or affable (or saintly) but he's got a lightning (if somewhat nasty) wit, and I was happy to spill a few coins for the privilege of seeing him face on. And what a bummer: I suppose part of the trouble was thee crowd. These were all true believers: early Bush-haters back before everybody was a Bush-hater, ready to hoot 'n' holler for even the lamest bit of insult or abuse. And Maher was ready to give them they wanted. I suppose you could say it was pretty much like his HBO routines except (a) smuttier and (b) not as funny, and believe me, the combination ain't good.

Leaving the theatre, I saw a giant SVU-style stretch limo--a hearse, really--backed up to the stage door, apparently so the performer could make it from the protections of the green room to the protections of his vehicle without so much as a breath of fresh air from the Palookaville night sky.

I'm not sure what the moral is here, if there is one; maybe that you never want to see your celebrities close up. Remember Joel's test for success on the celebrity circuit: it's when the intended audience says "if he knew me, he would like me." Maybe you can entertain that fantasy when you are watching on the little screen, but when you get too close, you have to wonder if you really like him.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

A Lib/Lib Alliance?

For housework entertainment, I've been Ipodding a Princeton conference the confluence (if any between libertarians and liberals. You've got three of each, plus a couple of commentators. It is uneven; a couple of the liberal profs just utter come-to-Jesus pieties about how libertarians just ought to recognize where their real home lies. Chris Hayes as the third liberal does a good job of offering an update from the trenches--turns out there actually are confirmed sightings of overlap on issues of, e.g., torture, snooping, immigration and Bushite big government predation. Still the libertarians are more fun, not least because they seem more genuinely puzzled and thereby give evidence of having thought about it more (Jacob Levy, who offered the nearest thing to a full-blown academic paper, posted his text on his own blog here).

But it's unsatisfying for one inescaable reason: the libertarians are, as Will Wilkinson of Cato suggests, pretty much ringers: all, so far as I can tell, are secularist, with indifference or downright hostility to the Republican churchy agenda. And I think they all believe in some kind of sociasl safety net--I keep hearing voices reminding us that Hayek believed in a safety net, and that Milton Friedman is the step-grandfather of the Earned Income Tax Credit.

If this is libertarianism, then as the old punchline goes, "we're only arguin' over price." We might favor, say, single payer health insurance because it achieves economies of scale. Or we might want to restrict Social Security because it is just sloshing money from one middle class bucket to another. But these are not matters of grand theory; they're details for technogeeks.

Moreover, if the panelists are indeed libertarians and they are at best a pretty rarified subset. Pop into the saloon down at the corner and it shouldn't take but a moment who find that "libertarianism" is fully consistent with the ramming of religion down other peoples' throats, and embraced by people for whom the very idea of a social safety net is enough to send beer out of the nose. The panelists might want to say that it is those guys who are not real libertarians while they themselves are the genuine article. But they're going to have to settle that issue (one hopes without broken bar stools) before they can make any progress on the left.

[Aside: in the right kind of saloon, you might even be able to win a bar bet on the issue of whether or not Hayek or Friedman favored a social safety net. Then again, merely citing chapter and verse might not do the trick.]

I will suggest a couple of further complications, more for deviltry than any serious purpose. One, these liberals and libertarians seem to believe they have found common ground on opposition to the war. Copy that, but they aren't the old ones. The paleoconservatives too, from what I understand, think that mischiveous foreign adventures are a pretty stupid idea. And two, for a moment consider Latinos, voters or illegal immigrants, for whom both sides of this debate wanted to show some respect. From what I can tell, Latino voters chart out on the issue spectrum just about the opposite of the people in this Lib/Lib alliance. These guys seeem generally comfortable with free markets (plus the proverbial safety net) and an "individualist" take on social issues--hospitable to abortin choice, gay marriage, the whole nine yards. Latinos (like the paleos?) are far more distrustful of markets in general, far less horrified at the spectre of big government, and far more retrograde on issues involving church & family.

This isn't big news; politics is always a crazy quilt. If there is any news at all, I suppose it would be (a) a lot of people from all over the spectrum are really really fed up with the incumbent and his cronies; and (b) liberals are not as entranced by government per se as perhaps they were before the Cultural Revolution. Hey, these things take time.

Appreciation: Thais is Nais

If you'd asked me to free-associate, before 9 a.m. yesterday, about Massenet's Thais, I suppose there's a good chance I would have come up with "overipe." I knew it, if I did know it at all, as the not-quite-first-rate work of a not-quite-first-rate composer, good at soft, unchallenging music and junie-moonie-spoonie love stories, with a taste of the saucy exotic.

If the Met's Thaïs shows it to be more than that, I suspect the composer ought to send a big bunch of slightly overripe roses around to the dressing room of Thomas Hampson who played--no, silly, not the title role, but her male counterpart, Athenaël the desert monk who comes, as you might say, to scoff and stays to pray. I've come to think of Hampson as the Michael Cain of opera stars--one who thinks out every move, who always has a reason for what he does, and does it. No surprise that Hampson cut his teeth on German Lieder, little operas-on-the-halfshell that require the singer to squeezee meaning out of every note.

In a break interview, Hampson says he like to play "compex, unpleasant" characters and that is just exactly what he had here--a man who moves from one form of self-indulgence to another without really noticing the humanity of any other creature along the way. The music is a bit soupy, but by the end I found myself recalling what I've heard people say about Debussy: he's so pleasant to listen to that you forget how good he really is. Hampson was able to convince you--well, me, anyway--that Massenet has given the performer everything he needs to make a character that is plausible, fully-rounded and compelling.

Renée Fleming, who was his Thaïs, of late has made herself more or less the public face of opera in America: "Hello, I'm Renée Fleming, here to tell us just how accessible opera can be..." Give her due credit: from all appearances, she is one of the best disciplined performers in the business, always on message and always doing what she wants to do (if you doubt the discipline, watch her in the intermission interview, where she practically rips the microphone out of the hand of Placido Domingo and sets the pace and the blocking--does everything except actually ask the questions--herself). Yet I've often found her oddly unmemorable or (what may be worse) memorable mostly for her over-the-top costumes. There's a whiff of banker casting about her--someone so well polished you know she isn't going to offend anyone, which always entails the risk that she might not please anyone either.

Happily, Thais may have shown her to best advantage. She's got an impressive range, and Massenet requires just about every bit of it. But she's at her best in her middle range with a tone that is not plummy so much as resonant with unexplored levels of buzz and whirr behind every note. In Thais, this is the range where she does most of her work. And the HD camera gives you a chance to move in close and really engage with what she is trying to tell. She also accomplished the remarkable feat of coming off as a sexpot without ever showing much by the way of skin, but this, again, is perhaps a tribute to the costumer.

The staging, by the way, was a bit of a relief. After the earlier entries in the roster, you'd be gun to feel that the Met had just given the designers the keys to the prop room and the combination to the safe and let them try any damn thing they wanted, no matter how distracting or simply irrelevant. Thais was convincingly presented, and you got the sense that they are indeed learning to design for camera, so much different from designing for the theatre-house audience. I did like the colors in the desert, in any event, and I thought it only right that I be able to see them as if from a low-flying ho-air balloon.

Acknowledgment: The tag line above is from what is said to have been one of F. Scott Fitzgerald's first published verses--
To be on a dais
with Thais
How nais.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

"I'd Sell My Soul to See Her Do the Shimmy Once Again"
--Once Again

A while back I showcased Newman Levy, the greatest of opera doggerelists, and in particular his imperishable narrative verse account of Thaïs, known to opera lovers as the work of Jules Massenet. When I first ran across this gem 50-odd years ago I had never heard the story of Thaïs, didn't know there was an opera by that name, knew scarcely nothing about opera at all. I always loved the verse and today, I close the circle: we're off to the Palookaville Multiplex to see the Met's HD production of Thaïs with Renée Fleming. High expectations, more later.

Afterthought: Well, maybe tomorrow or Monday. After the opera, we trek off to a sing-along Messiah. I love these things: they can make me believe (against all evidence) that I really have a voice.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Mark Kleiman is Right

Take him to heart as well as to mind (link).

Rosenbaum on Respectability

Bernie read of the day: Ron Rosenbaum on Jewish Gangsters and The Country Club Set (link). Somewhat oversimplified, Rosenberg reads Bernie as drawing his wealth from, specifically, not the establishment, the respectable, but rather from the strivers, the wannabees, the gullible, those who are avid for respectability from the outside--the country club set.

I wouldn't want to commit on this. For all my own fascination with Bernie, I really don't know anyone who took a direct hit. I do have one good friend who took some shrapnel on a near-miss and she is as solid and centered and non-gullible as anybody I know, so she's no help. I do recognize a wider pattern here, though. Just in general, I recall that if anything seems to good to be true, it probably is, and the most egregious scams often require a certain, shall we say, lack of sophistication--a sense that all investing is a scam, and that you'd better cut your own deal the bet you can because that is what the Big Guys do. And that way (this is needless to say) disaster lies.

I also find myself recalling an ancdote out of my past--specifically, 53 years ago. It may be wildly off point, but here it is in my memory, just waiting to be retold. So here goe.

In this story I'm working as a bus boy and general factotem at a little hotel in Bethlehem, New Hampshire. Bethlehem was an "exclusion town"--a place where Jews gathered because they weren't admitted in other places. I'm not Jewish: I stumbled more or less by accident, via an employment agency. I don't remember much about the customers except there weren't very many of them and as one who depended on tips, I eventually drifted away to greener passengers.

But I do remember one old guy. He took a table all to himself. I remember him as rigid and somewhat stiff-lipped but he took an interest and me and engaged me in civil chat. I think he even recommended some books, which flattered me, though I have no memory of what he recommended, nor that I ever read them. Anyway he was also--he made no secret of this--appalled at the people around him. As I say I don't remember much about them, but he made it clear he thought they were vulgar and overloud. I assume he found them tiresome and boring but also, I have no doubt, he was embarrassed. Recall that this is just a few years after the end of World War II. Maybe some of these people had been in the camps. Certainly they knew people who had been in the camps and died, or survied, as the case might be.

The main thing I remember is how my friend wanted to tell me that these people weren't like "real Jews" (as he said). We are a cultured people, he said. Always remember, he said, we are the people who gave you the Ten Commandments.

I'm not sure how many of the Ten Commandments Bernie violated; my guess is that it is quite enough.

Mark Felt

I suppose this tags me as a flat-earther, but I still don't think Mark Felt was Deep Throat. Just to review the bidding: (a) he wasn't in the first draft; (b) he appeared only after the editor said the authors needed more story arc; (c) the timing doesn't work. As to (c) specifically, for example, Deep Throat is said to have disclosed that there was an erased tape--but Felt had left the FBI six months before the supposed erasure.

What we do know is that Woodward dined out for a generation in an elaborate cat-and-mouse game that must have added formidable sums to his already sleek exchequer. And Vanity Fair outed him just months before Woodward's own book on the subject finally hit the stands.

I don"t doubt that (a) there was a Mark Felt; and (b) he did meet with (and squeal to) Woodstein; and that (c) Felt himself, by the time he was aged and infirm, believed himself to be Deep Throat. But the Deep Throat has far more to do with the needs of plot and narrative than it does to the sticky demands of raw fact.

Addendum: At least this guy agrees with me.

Defenders of Freedom on the Defense of Freedom

Here's the latest "Bushism," from Jacob Weisberg:

I've abandoned free market principles to save the free market system.

I really don't know quite how to take this. I gather the "Bushisms" are primarily intended to reveal out leader's Inner Oaf--to suggest the sloppy and incoherent interior that lies behind the sloppy and incoherent exterior. But if that is the purpose here, then I think Weisberg has flamed out. It seems to me that as a general proposition, Bush here is entirely right. Or rather, Bush's insight is the kind of thing I've been hearing ever since I first learned any politics (at the feet of Heinz Eulau at Antioch College in the 50s)--often, for what it is worth, about Franklin (destroy capitalism in order to save it) Roosevelt. It's called the irony of history. Hegel (another guy who wasn't always such a standout in the felicitous speech department) would chuckle. Of course it may be that Weisberg expects to understand that Bush is simply no ironist. That may be true, and sufficient, but it's still a modest point, not very well made.

The greater scandal (and this may be what Weisberg had in mind in the first place) is the suggestion that Bush ever had anything to do with free market principles in the first place--unless, that is, the set "anything to do" includes the subset "rape and pillage." Look, for the umpteenth time: denuding the public fisc for your pals is not free market, it is cronyism. The Bush clan has bathed itself so long in the warm chowder of cronyism that we can hardly expect them to catch the point. But the rest of us need not to be fooled. This. Is. Not. A. Free. Market. Regime. And if this is what Weisberg is reminding us of, then bully for him.

In the same vein, I see that The Wall Street Journal is once again reminding us that necessary components of free market capitalism are torture and repression. It's an arguable proposition (many Marxists would agree with it), but one I take to be grotesquely wrong. For the moment, though, if anybody ever again tries to utter the phrase "Wall Street Journal" and the word "libertarian" in the same simple declarative sentence, I think I will oof my cookies.

Why Not to Rescue GM

I see that the President is ready to throw another $17.4 billion down a rathole of bad management (this time at big auto) without much in exchange except the purring utterance that "of course I'll respect you in the morning" (link). There is a little flutter in the story about getting "non-voting warrants" but my guess is that by the time the ink is dry, they will turn out to be pretty much confetti. So this is as good a time as any to showcase a story that Steve Coll dug up for his riveting account of the Bin Laden family.

It's about Salem, eldest brother of Osama and de facto leader of the family for many years before his death in 1998. Apparently Salem had some honest-to-goodness ability, but he certainly relished all the perks of being a rich kid, including but not limited to all the babes that come with the deal.

But at around the age of 40, Salem decided to settle down and take a wife--well, actually, four wives, as permitted by Islamic law. He brought four of his special friends to his brick-walled estate outside London. There were four separate nationalities: one British, one German, one French, and one American.

Now I paraphrase Coll, parphrasing Salem: ladies, I propose to you marriage: honest, upright, honorable, marriage. But I am a dreamer, a visionary. I will build each of you a home in my new family compound at Jeddah. It will be a little United Nations. Each of you will have your own home, where you will fly your own flag. And (now I quote Coll) "each wife would have a car parked outside, a model from her own country."

We shift our focus now to the American girl (she seems to be Coll's source for the story). What is she thinking as she listens, with her prospective co-wives, to this vision of domestic and international harmony? Coll quotes her:

"I get gypped--I don't want a Corvette or a Cadillac."

Keep that in mind, Mr. President, when you are drafting the language of the bailout warrant.

Source: Steven Coll, The Bin Ladens 308 (2008). Coll also tells the story in this podcast, where I first heard it. The book, by the way, is a gripping read, and it works on two quite different levels. One, it's just a ripping yarn (I believe I heard Coll say he had more fun writing it than anyof his previous books). But two, it is a riveting introduction to the new world of Middle Eastern playboys (and a few playgirls), thrust from the Stone Age into the 20th (and 21st) Century before either we or they had any chance to figure out what was up.

Greenwald on Warren etc.

I agree with Glenn Greenwald that showcasing Rick Warren at the Inauguration is in itself not that big of a deal. I agree with him also that we shouldn't kid ourselves: that past efforts at "statesmanship" by Democrats have usually ended in disaster and disappointment--with an added soupçon of contempt from right-wingers at the very idea that their opponents would be so foolish as to try to be "reasonable."

Greenwald asks: How New is Obama's New Politics? The question is rhetorical, I assume, and his answer, I take to be: "not very." My natural pessimistic skepticism tells me he's probably right. My sometimes delusional optimiism whispers "maybe this time it's different."

Just maybe. Politics is, after all, always a question of who is using whom. Evidently Obama things he can massage Warren into support for at least some Obama hobbyhorses (climate control, third-world poverty). Warren believes he can use Obama for--what, exactly? Okay, maybe for stuff like suppressing gays and destroying abortion rights. But I suspect these particulars for Warren are mere incidents to the more general goal of becoming Billy Graham's successor as the evangelical Pope. And recall that Graham himself was oddly non-ideological, much less ideological than Falwell or Robertson or Dobson, etc.--much more interested in being seen with the President than in actually accomplishing anything.

I recognize that this is a rough game and that Warren, in a spirit of Christian love, will be happy to help in trying to devour and destroy Obama if and when he smells blood in the water. I recognize that we are dealing with a president who has managed nothing more fracttious than the Harvard Law Review. There's little to suggest that he's got the blood instinct of a Lyndon Johnson, to say nothing of the lion-and-fox wiliness of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Still, as theatre, it's fun to watch. At least the first act.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Bad Banker! Bad, Bad Banker!

I see the Credit Suisse will transfer out its own toxic illiquid assets to employees as ((harrumph!) bonuses. Is this the financial equivalent of
a) Making them eat in the company cafeteria; or
b) Rubbing their little doggie nose in the mess on the rug

I'm From the Old Country

Long Island (kavoom foosh!).

The Lesson of Bernie

Per The Wall Street Journal: Too much regulation.

For a more useful comment, go here.

Glückel of Hameln on Creditors' Rights

Glückel of Hameln recounts the story of the failure of her (second) husband, Cerf Levy of Metz, in 1702:
My husband was forced to take himself into hiding. When his creditors discovered he was gone, they despatched three bailiffs to our house. They made an inventory of everything, to the nails on the walls, and wrote it down and sealed everything up, so I had not food enough by me for a meal.

I lived together with my housekeeper in one room. The three bailiffs made themselves master of this as well, and no one could enter or leave. Once when I sought to leave, they put me to search, lest I hid something on me. ... Not a pewter spoon escaped writing down, so that nothing could be concealed. Three weeks we lived in this miserable state.
Yet Cerf seems to have retained some repute with his creditors, even in time of trouble. Glückel says that "finally, my husband reached an accord with his creditors." And: "Though his creditors received but half of what was due them, they treated him with great clemency." In the end, the creditors organized an auction, but they paid hCerf the ultimate compliment: they left him in charge, a kind of proto-debtor-in-possession.

Glückel appears never to have lost her regard for Cerf, whom she seems to perceive as a victim of circumstance. "My husband was exceedingly able, and a great business man, and highly esteemed by Jew and Gentile," she declares. And then, every debtor's lament--all he needed was more time:
{I]f my husband could have held out for two years longer, he would have well cleared himself of his difficulties. For two years after he surrendered all he had to his creditors business flourished so mightily in France that all Metz became rich.
--The Memoirs of Glückel of Hamelin, 255-6
(Marvin Lowenthal Trans., 1977 [the translation was first published in 1932])

Famous Bernie Update

Joel's back again (cf. this) to remind us of another famous Bernie: that would be Bernie ("Do You Sincerely Want to be Rich?") Cornfeld of Investors Overseas Services and the Fund of Funds who was--I had forgotten this part--was acquitted of charges resulting from the collapse of his empire. The Wiki quotes Bernie as saying that polygamy was "considerably simpler than monogamy and a lot more fun." Boy, never seemed that way to me. I mean, you know, never looked that way.

And here's Bernie the Window Cleaner.

And Corneil and Bernie, oh the list goes on and on...

Update: All the Bernie chatter gives me an ad link to Bernie & Phil's Furniture Store. I don't know where they are but they're offering 70 percent off.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Debt Collection, Bin Laden Style

I'm not sure this is lawful under 11 U.S.C. Section 362(a)(6):
He employed his acrobatic skills to shake money from his debtors. "People were forever owing him money, so he would offer them rides," recalled Rupert Armitage. Once in the air, "he'd say, 'Look, you owe me two hundred thousand dollars. I want you to write out a check now.'" If they declined, he would threaten to take the plane's controls and roll it upside down. If they stil refused, "he'd start doing it...and then, 'Okay, okay, I'll sign it!
"He" is Salem Bin Laden, oldest brother of Osama Bin Laden. Salem was an electic mix of shrewd businessman, lousy rock musician, frenetic party boy and pretty good pilot (who died when he ran his plane into a power line in Texas, aged about 43). Armitage was a sometimes schoolmate and guitar-playing buddy whom Salem put in charge of a Bin Laden family communications equipment company. From Steve Coll, The Bin Ladens 173 (2008).

Notice to All

It's that time of year again: we have begun to receive the annual Christmas letters from all and sundry, chronicling their lives, their adventures and their achievement over the past year.

It is the fashion in some circles to mock these missives. I do not wish to join the mockers. In truth, I read (almost) all of them, (almost) every word. And greedily, and with pleasure. I learn stuff that I am glad to know; and I know they are meant to convey joy, and I am of the party of joy.

Still, they do take on a certain sameness after a while. In that spirit, may I serve notice on the world:
--That the grandchildren are brilliant and beautiful, and the apple of our eye; and

--That we traveled a lot this year, learned a lot, made some new friends and renewed old acquaintances; and

--That we receive signals of the persistent onslaught of aging, but that we have tried to accept them with equanimity and good humor, and

--That we look forward spending the holidays among family and friends in a spirit of Gemütlichkeit; and

--That we look to the New Year with hope for good things for all.

Yours in the recognition that every day above ground is a good day--

--Mr. and Mrs. Buce

PS--Every word of this is exactly, precisely, unironically true.

"Sure We Blew a Couple of Ventures
With Those Corporate Debentures"

Mr. Interfluidity, who kindly favored me with an Ipod version of "My Attorney Bernie," invites me to take a closer look at the lyrics:
I admire my attorney Bernie
I admire any guy who knows his stuff
Sure we blew a couple ventures
With those counterfeit debentures
But you win a few, you lose a few
and like Bernie says, you keep on hanging tough.
Afterthought: if there is a real "Bernie" in this operation, perhaps it is not Bernie himself but that hapless "auditor," the one who puts you in mind of Gene Wilder in The Producers.

Rule of Thumb on Social Security Discussions

Spent most of last evening drafting a note for my students on the meaning and history of the "Ponzi Scheme." In the process I discovered that if you search Google for "Ponzi Scheme" together with "Social Security" you get 74,000 hits. I didn't check every one, but at least for the first few pages, it appears to me that the overwhelmingly dominant view is that, yes indeedy,
you-know-what is a you-know-what.

Now, there are some perripheral problems of definition here (for a brisk but useful summary, go to Slate--oh, and this, which I found just this minute). And I readily, even cheerfully, grant that there are important public policy questions immanent in Social Security, including important issues about long-term funding. These need to be addressed and solved in due course, though I must say,for the moment I think they can stay on the back burner.

But to call something a "Ponzi scheme" is to declare it a deliberate flimflam, a calculated imposition on the artless honesty of an unsuspecting public. Like, well, perhaps this guy. Now, Social Security may or may not be good policy (I tend to think it is so-so policy). But the one thing it is not is a deliberate flimflam. Every relevant fact about Social Security is out there for all to see, and has been from day one.

May I, then, propose a general rule for Social Security discussions? That would be: anyone who opens the discussion of Social Security reform with a declaration that it is a "Ponzi scheme"--that person does not want to be, does not expect to be, and does not deserve to be, taken seriously?

Bibliography: There is a non-hysterical introduction to Social Security issues in Teresa Ghilarducci, When I'm Sixty-four, Chapter 5 (2008). I also like the stuff I read here (where, as it happens, just lately Ghilarducci has been taking some heat).

Tee Hee

I am amused to find that Walter Noel, head of the battered Fairfield Greenwich Group, lives on "Round Hill Road." I give it as a moral certainty that the slack-jawed young yahoos down at the service station call it "Round Heel Road," with suitable illustrative anecdotes to enhance plausibility. And come to think of it, why did The Wall Street Journal feel impelled to include the street name in its story? Cf, "Fairfield Group Forced to Confront Its Mandoff Ties," WSJ December 17, 2008, A10.


Calpers has always atttempted to learn from downturns.
--Ted Eliopoulos, head of Calpers' real estate portfolio, attempting to find consolation for the fact the giant pension fund bought in at the top. The Wall Street Journal, December 17, "Risky, Ill-Timed Land Deals Hit CalPers."

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Why Caroline Will Get the Senate Seat

Caroline will get the Senate seat. So says my friend Swifty, remembering his days working for U.S. Rep. Carl Perkins:
Put yourself in the gov's position. This appointment is like any appointment a governor has, but a much bigger deal. A little ancient history ... Congressmen used to get to appoint the postmasters in their district, if they were of the same party as the President. The old rule was when the governor decides to appoint he or she ends up with one ingrate and a dozen enemies. The ingrate is the appointee, who immediately claims he or she was appointed on merit, not patronage. the enemies are the dozen or so people who wanted the appointment but didn't get it.

There's a bunch of people in NY who want it. The gov ends up with one ingrate and a bunch of enemies. He appoints Caroline and he's got just one more enemy among the disappointed, no ingrate, and the never ending loyalty of the Kennedy family, which is a very big deal. example ...

When Carl Perkins died, Ted Kennedy went to the funeral. I was in the official congressional delegation going to the funeral and it was a real process. The nearest airport that could handle the plane the Air Force used for the huge number of congressman going was in London, Kentucky, not even in Carl's district, but as close as they coul AM at Rayburn building, went to AF airport in Maryland, flew to London, rode buses for a few hours to Hindman, county seat of Carl's home county. it took a full day, early am to late night, of Ted's time.

Why did Kennedy make the trip? Because in 1960 Carl campaigned all over his district for Kennedy (who was in the House when Carl Got elected in '48) hurting his own reelection chances. In 1960 the anti-Kennedy forces in Appalachia used the term "Papist" because in Appalachia it sounded more un-American than Catholic. Carl worked 18 hour days, driving up every passable road, getting people to vote for Kennedy. the Kennedys knew what Carl was doing, and they never forget.

If NY gov knows the family political history, and I assume he does, he'll appoint caroline.
For extra credit, identify the Congressman in this postscript:
PS -- the rest of the staff had to fly commercial to Lexington or other airports and rent cars or get rides to Carl's funeral. i Igot to go free as part of the congressional delegation, with Air Force staff serving us drinks and snacks on the plane and bus. On the bus a congressman from NYC sat next to me. Can't remember his name but he was famous for being a great harmonica player and for shifting domicile around NYC to stay in congress every time there was a redistricting. As we rolled along, we passed crops in fields. He pointed out the window and asked me "what's that growing there?" I told him that was "tobacco." He said he'd always wondered what tobacco looked like. He had a big harmonica collection, including a tiny one he put entirely in his mouth and played.
Actually, it was marijuana.

Update: And the winner is--Swifty himself, his memory refreshed on the identity of the wheezer:
The congressman whose name I couldnt think of was Jim Scheuer, originally elected from the Bronx but I bet he really lived in Manhattan all the time and used addresses to run from. he knocked off a NYC machine hack whose name I also cant remember. always was a high type guy. he was an original Harmonicat, i'm told, a virtuoso.

Monday, December 15, 2008


I wonder, did anyone ever call St Bernard "Bernie"? Probably just as well; otherwise it would have been too easy to link him to the (reputed) uber-crook, Bernard L. Madoff, so newly famous in song and story. In my earlier entries here, I find that I (without any warrant at all) slipped ineluctably into calling Mr. Madoff "Bernie." But authorized or not, I seem to be on safe ground: a Google search for "Bernie Madoff" (in parens) turns up 64,000 hits and I can assure you they are not all cites to my stuff.

Could it be that part of the problem is the name? Is there something about "Bernie" that smacks of chicanery? Perhaps: I do find that before Bernie M, there was Bernie E--that is "Ebbers," the wonderman of WorldCom, now cooling his heels in the stony lonesome at Oakdale, Louisiana, for his part in what always seemed to me like the crudest of financial frauds.

Aside from these two Bernies, I admit the evidence bag may be light, but it is not empty. The phrase Bernie the Accountant, brings up 73 Google hits, many of them involving the 79th Academy Awards, and cross reffing the word "abscond" (the list also tags Bernie Provenzano, the Sicilian Mafia boss formerly known as "Bernie the Tractor"). "Bernie my accountant" and "my accountant Bernie" pick up a few more Google hits, but without direct reference to criminal misbehavior--unless you regard the practice of accountancy itself as a felony, which strikes me as extreme.

Meanwhile I'm not sure how much it helps the reputation of the name, but "Bernie" seems to be a prominent monicker among law professors.* Chicago had the revered Bernie Meltzner and Havard, the revered Bernie Wolfman. Neither, to my knowledge, ever denuded a balance sheet; Wolfman is, however, more or less the inventor of the practice of law-professor-as-expert-witness, a trope that has done a good deal to sweeten the purses of so many of his colleagues.

Aside vulgar numbers, there are other Bernies to remember. New Yorkers will recall Bernie Goetz, the Subway vigilante who, on the afternoon of December 22, 1984, wounded four assailants on the Downtown No. 2 train just past 14th Street in Lower Manhattan (he left one a paraplegic). So far as I know, Goetz is still alive; I had dinner with a guy a while back who claims to live in the same building as Goetz; apparently Goetz is now pushing vegetarianism.

From the world of sport, we recall that Formula One Racing has Bernie Eccleston who, aside from being one of Britain's richest men, has the distinction of measuring in at 11.5 inches shorter than his wife; his nose would come in at just about her collar bone, but she is said to be divorcing him anyway.

And fans of the Jim Henson product line will not forget Bernie the agent-accountant who makes repeated non-appearances in The Muppets. As I recall, we never do see Bernie's face. If I were the chief Muppet, I might take this occasion for just a bit of an audit.

Acknowledgment: For these and other Bernies, thanks to Joel.

Update: Steve Waldman (that Steve Waldman?) just sent me an Ipod link to Susannah McCorckle doing "My Attorney Bernie." Thanks, Steve.
*Apparently there is also at least one law professor named Madoff, busy telling people that he she (pardon me, ma'am) is no relation to Mr B. Ha. She says.

The Snuffy Smith Maneuver

UB's Hootin' Holler Wichita bureau is pleased to point out that "ethanol" is basically corn squeezin's--moonshine. In this light, he wonders if this stuff isthe kind of thing that Snuffy Smith used to hide from the revenooers?

For Bibliophiles

Kottke on Bibles is just too good not to share. But somehow he missed the version that Larry King reads to Homer Simpson in Episode 11, Season 2. And the staff at Underbelly, being big Lego fans, find this one pretty cool.

Bernie's Investors: Did They Lose "Everything?"

Prompted by a question from my friend Joel, I invite attention to another Bernie Madoff issue. Put it this way: these people who have lost "everything" --let's assume this means that an individual investor will get back zero percent of his capital invested. Still, it appears likely that the investor will have been getting little checky weckies over the life of the investment. Is it possible that the investor has made out okay, even allowing for the loss of capital?

I guess the abstract number has to be "sure, depending on the assumptions." But let's put some flesh on the bones. Go back 20 years. Bernie says: I have a $25,000, 20-year, four percent bond--that is, a bond that will pay you $1,000 per year for 20 years, plus a return of $25,000 at the end of 20 years. Because you are special friend, I can let you buy the stream of payments for just $12,200. This implies a return of just a shade over 10 percent a year (which is more or less what Bernie was delivering, according to press accounts).

So far, so good. But now: what if you fail to get your $25,000 back, but still get to collect (and keep) all those $1,000 coupons. Where do you stand?

Obviously, you are worse off without the $25,000 than you would be with it. But you still got a stream of 20 $1,000 payments for only $11,200. The implied rate is no longer 10 percent, but it's not zero either --in fact, it is 5.25 percent.

Is that rate "good enough?" The answer, it seems to me, depends on two further questions. Most obviously: at the time you took Bernie's deal, what was your next best shot? Obviously, 10 percent looked better than whatever else was on offer, or you wouldn't have bought the deal in the first place. Is 5.25 better than your t best shot? The answer is: we can't tell from the information given, but it just might have been. And if 5.25 percent was better than your next best shot, you would have taken the deal anyway.

The second issue is muddier, in the sense that I don't know any glib conceptual formula with which to address it. But that is: what kinds of commitments did you enter into assuming you had a locked-in 10 percent return, that you wouldn't have made if you knew you were only getting 5.25 percent? I think this one takes us into a never-never land (or is it a hall of mirrors?) where I really don't know how to travel.

In any event, though, I think this adds nuance to the idea that Bernie's investors lost "everything." By all accounts (including his own) it appears that Bernie is a criminal, perhaps of olympic scale. But to say that the "investors lost everything" may be pushing things too far.

Afterthought: Felix Salmon offers some thoughts on possible tax relief. And some of the losses may be reimbursed under SIPC, though I suspect in the great scheme of things, the reimbursement will be pretty small potatoes.

It Can't Be Just a Ponzi

It's beginning to sink into me that the Bernie Madoff's disappearing $50 billion cannot be simply "a Ponzi scheme." Recall: In a Ponzi scheme, somebody gets the money. So in a $50 bill Ponzi scheme, somebody gets $50 billion. But if there were $50 billion walking around unsupervised, you'd think somebody might notice. One billion, maybe two or three, could easily get lost in the uproar, but there is an upper limit, and beyond that upper limit there's money tucked away somewhere, un-Ponzied and (so far) undisturbed. We don't know by whom or where, but we'd bet on some place where the drinks have little umbrellas.

Footnote: Do I get credit as the first person to use Ponzi as a verb?

Footnote II: All Bernie, all the time here.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Democrats and Financial Regulation

Kevin Drum makes the point that when it comes to asleep-at-the-switch on financial regulation, there's blame enough to go 'round at both parties (link). I'll drink to that: Democrats have a lot to be ashamed of here. Kevin mentions Charles Schumer, the target of a New York Times searchlight this morning, but there are plenty more. He could surely have mentioned (ex) Senator Tom (Mr. Credit Card) Daschle , (ex) Senator Joe Biden from MBNA, or Senator (if he is a Democrat?) Joe Lieberman, the enabler of sloppy accounting. Or, of course, Barney Frank, Mr.FNMA/GNMA.

With people like Daschle and Biden, I suppose you have the old familiar problem: small state, big interest. With Barney Frank, I think the problem is a bit different. I have to admit a lot of ambivalence here. On the one hand, Frank is probably the smartest and funniest man in Congress sinice the departure of Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Alan Simpson, and may well be better briefed than anyone at all. On the other hand, he believes a lot of extremely dopey things. I don't think he is in the pocket of FNMA/GNMA in quite the way the Wall Street Journal would have us believe (though I have to keep reminding myself: just because the Journal believes it doesn't mean it's wrong). I do think he is starry-eyed out over the cause of expanded home ownership, and lets himself be blinded by all kinds of abuses in consequence. I'm glad he has a seat at the tables of power, and I love it when he skewers and eviscerates the idiocies of his opponents. I just wish there were somebody around to sit on his head once in a while. Trouble is, you'd have to be smarter than Barney Frank to do it, and the list of candidates for that slot is not long.

Where Did the $50 Billion Go?

I (and, yes, I bet a bunch of other people) are still puzzling over the propositin that $50 billion (that's "b") went missing out of Bernard L. Madoff's change purse in what we are please to call a "Ponzi scheme." When you stop to think about it, a Ponzi scheme is about the crudest and simplest of all frauds--you use new money to pay old debts or (what is close to the same thing) you use capital to pay interest. It hardly even deserves the name of "scheme;" for the most part, it's just the form of betrayal that comes naturally to a debtor who can't mee his obligations and is stalling for more time in the hope that Something Will Turn Up (or, as they say, that he might get lucky and die).

Anyway the point, for present purposes is, that a Ponzi scheme is not the same as simply setting fire to a big pile of dollar bills. The money is somewhere--in the wallets of the transferee, or the transferee or some such on down the line. The bankruptcy statutes have devices for recovering these transfers sometimes, under restricted circumstances but you can bet your boots that if these transfers were made long enough ago, there are plenty of tranferees who can get on with their life as the money continues to warm their pockets. Suffice it to say that litigators' grandchildren yet unborn and unbegot will be flipping back jello shots a couple of generations from now in honor of the old fraud and the mess he created. Or should be, the ungrateful little twerps, but do they ever thank you? Ha!

On Samwick on Kristof on the Auto Bailout

Right, right, right, right and right (link).

Update: And his colleague is right,too.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Post Katrina Recovery Factcoid

Tulane University had 34,117 applicants for a 2008 entering class that numbers 1,550 (link).

Thanks for the pointer and congratulations to Pam, whose daughter made the cut.

Appreciation: Martin Wolf and John Maynard Keynes

I've spent some profitable hours with Martin Wolf, Fixing Global Finance, but it is Martin's good fortune that I was struggling with him while trying also to cope with Tyler Cowen's book-club reading of Keynes' General Theory. It's an irony that Keynes, who won so much recognition as an essayist and pamphleteer, produced a "big book" that makes the finals in the all-time impenetrability sweepstakes: by comparison, Wolf is merely abstruse.

At the end of the day, I don't suppose Keynes' General Theory is quite as impossible as Hegel's Phenomenology (and, in the end, I suspect not as important). But it's fit to appear in the same company, and perhaps in part for the same reasons. Here are two: one, both Keynes and Hegel are taking part in conversations that are pretty well lost to us know--hard to guess (or to believe) that so much of that seeming jargon in Hegel was part of the parlance of his time, at least in some circles. So also with Keynes, and with Keynes there is a more insidious problem. That is: he seems to be talking the language of an economics that we recognize, but he's not, really. A lot has happened since 1937 and so much of what we think we ought to understand turns out to be obscured by subtle shifts of meaning. So we are almost as lost as we are in the swamp of German idealism.

The other is that Keynes and Hegel have a maddening habit of arguing with learned predecessors while (a) not telling you who those predecessors are; nor (b) exactly what the argument is about; nor (c) indeed, that there is an argument at all. Here's one huge reason why, with either of them, you really can't expect to do it on your own. For guidance with Hegel, there are a number of good choices (here's a favorite). For Keynes there are, surprisingly, fewer. There is some useful stuff in the Robert Skidelsky biography, particularly volume two. There stuff from his acolytes in the literature of economics itself but nothing that I know of by way of patient chapter-by-chaptere exposition. Which would be why the efforts of Tyler and his commentators are so much to be appreciated.

The Wolf book is a more puzzling item. No one claims that Martin Wolf is John Maynard Keynes, but Wolf is certainly a splendid journalist-on-economics: on big-picture macro, maybe his only current competitor is Greg Ip. Fixing Global Finance exhibits his technical skill and also his knack for explaining, but in an odd way: page by page, Wolf makes his points clearly, without jargon and with precision. But it's still a take-no-prisoners book. Wolf may do a good job of explaining the dimensions of global trade imbalances, and of assessing their possible implications. But he isn't going to lift a finger to remind you why it matters, or exactly how they happen. For a serioius economist (not me) I suspect this is pretty easy going. For a patient and attentive observer (I think that would be me), it all takes, well, patience.

Also: when all is said and done it is actually pretty anodyne. Yes, the evidence is equivocal, but yes, there are trade imbalances and no, nobody quite understands why, an[d yes, it's probably best to do something about them, and by the way, do something drastic with the International Monetary Fund. That is useful, but it's hardly enough to make you toss your hat in the air.

And there is a final problem, certianly not of Wolf's own making--the fact that he has been swamped, drowned, rendered almost voiceless by events. This isn't an old book at all--Wolf was writing after Northern Rock--but so much has swept over is since that his comp copies might as well have been swept off by the flood

Japan: A Great Refusal?

I can't quite figure out whether to file this one under "Japan" or "Testosterone Poisoning" or just "Marketing Hype," but Michael Zielenziger's Shutting Out the Sun sketches an arresting picture of a generation hikikomori--young people (mostly men) in Japan who simply turn off, tune and drop back, typically to the spare bedroom. They aren't (that is to say) street thugs or party animals or obsessive gamesters--they re just Japanese Bartelbys, declaring "I should prefer not to." (wonder how that sounds in Japsanese?).

Zielzinger was a foreign correspondent in Japan for a while and for all that appears, a pretty good one. He (or is agent) is smart enough to realize that one more account of Sport and Travel in the Far East is not likely to fly off the bookracks. There is thus an inevitable tendency to suspect that he is overselling to grab shelf space, but maybe not: there is a Wiki page on hikikomori with a fair number of independent references, i.e., not just echo-chamber cites back to Zielenziger himself. But then, the independent references do not inspire total confidence. For example, we have here a citation to one Tamaki Saito, a psychologist who is said to have coined the term, and to have estimated that it afflicted 20 percent of all male adolescents, or one percent of all Japanese society--a number he later admitted he pretty much spun out of his own gizzard. There is also, I suppose, the related problem of defning when something becomes a "pathology:" hikikomori may belong beside Asperger Syndrome, where it is not at all easy to distinguishs the truly afflicted from the merely seriously annoying (e.g., my colleagues at a faculty meeting, or the Buce family at a holiday dinner).

News to Me


Meanwhile, my friend Scott tells me that Coalinga was the name of a coaling station. Coaling #A, right?

Men Meme

On display at the Palookaville Borders for your Christmas shopping pleasure:
Men to Boys

Hysterical Men

The Decline of Men
And, of course:
Why Women Should Rule the World

Friday, December 12, 2008

Ah, But They are Still Good at Moving The Stuff

Sally offers more evidence on an endangered species. Two words, furniture assembly.

And the Multiplier Is ...

Economist's View has a remarkable thread off a study summarizing the multiplier effect on GDP from infrastructure spending. The paper concludes that the multiplier is one, but the thread makes it clear (a) that plenty of smart, well-informed people do not agree; and (b) that macro, taken as a whole, remains disturbingly close to phrenology.

Recall: phrenology--the "science" of studying head-bumps--was not exactly wrong; there is indeed a geography of the brain, and we can learn important stuff by tracking what happens where. But in its long infancy, the name "phrenology" was pretty much a synonym for "charlatanism' (the correlation is one?). I wouldn't go so far as to say that macro is charlatanism, although god knows there is plenty of charlatanism on the fringes of macro. And the Thoma thread makes it pretty clear that for all the effort and energy, we've made embarrassingly little progress towards reaching a consensus on what works and what does not ("reasonable minds may differ"="local mileage may vary"="whirl is king, Zeus being dead").

Meanwhile people who ought to know better have a new mantra.

De Maximus Non Curat Lex

Too big not to fail: (link), (link) and (at this moment) 7,126 others.

Stimulus Plan

Does it really come down to this?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats;
A Falling Tide ...

Finance websites are gasping over the unraveling of Bernie Madoff, charged in connection with a 50 billion (that's "b") fraud at his advisory business (eat your heart out, Rod Blagojevich). Details are pretty much above my pay grade, but I can offer a generalization. John Kenneth Galbraith used to say that financial acumen is a short memory and a rising market. Just as a rising tide lifts all boats, so a falling market exposes all those discarded refrigerators and miscellaneous detritus that huddle out of view below the normal water line. I'll bet a nickel we'll see more of this sort of thing, and that their mantra will be "everything was fine until the market fell apart..."

Update: It's pretty small potatoes compared with the foregoing, but I bet this is more of the same. Oh, and of course there is this guy.

Update II: Holy Toledo.

Coping in Hard Times

I'm sure this placement was intentional, but you have to be alert to notice. On page one of today's Wall Street Journal, you find the beginning of a story about how rich people are jettisoning their nannies. Follow it over to the jump on page A25 and you find it side by side with a story about how foreign remittances--money sent home by immigrants--are holding up remarkably well.

In the nanny story, we learn about Suzanne Siroff; she laid off a nanny who (as the Journal says) "was here when [Mrs. Siroff] suffered a about of depression and when she went on spa trips or outings to get Botox and Juvéderm injections." The kids took it badly, the Journal says, and Mrs. Siroff says she feels "horrible." But, she adds, "nothing deters me from my Botox treatments."

That's in column six. Over in column one, we learn about Miguel Flores, a Los Angeles house painter whose work has fallen off in the construction slowdown. Although he has less money coming in, he still sends $250 a month to his mother in El Salvador. "Times are tough," he says, "but I will keep helping my mother."

Query, does Mrs. Siroff's former nanny send remittances? And while I think of it, does Mr. Flores' mother get Botox?