Friday, July 31, 2009

Chekhov on Culture

Cultured people will
respect the human personality, and are therefore always forbearing, gentle, courteous, and compliant. They will overlook noise, and coild, and overdone meat, and the presence of strangers in the house....They are sincere and fear untruth like the very devil....They do not make fools of themselves in order to arouse sympathy....They are not vain....They develop an esthetic sense.
From a letter by Anton Chekhov to his brother, as quoted in the foreword (by Robert Brustein) to the Signet Classics Edition of Anton Chekhov: The Major Plays vii (1964).

Overdone meat?

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Ashland Theater Note: Equivocation

Bill Cain's play Equivocation, which premiered at the Ashland Shakespeare Festival this spring, seems almost tailor-made for the Ashland audience. It's about Shakespeare. It's got a lot of Shakespearean in-jokes, together with plenty of the one thing Ashland does best--farce. And it's all played out on a platter of Arthur-Miler-like moral earnestness that is bound to sooth and comfort the dedicated Ashland audience.

Cain certainly hit his mark, if the audience here last night is any gauge: they were hooting and hollering. And I grant him this --there was a lot to enjoy. Cain is polished at the kind of rim-shot dialog exchange that you can only learn from long practice in a real theatre. The farce was great--the climax of the show as a ten-minute sendup on Macbeth, which was certainly the funniest Macbeth I've ever seen and which, considering how many ponderous, marmoreal and overwrought Macbeths there are in the world, might just be the best Macbeth I've ever seen.

Cain's problem, I suspect, is that there isn't any other audience in the world that is going to like this item anywhere near as well, if at all. It's just too inside. And beyond the details, the play is rather a mess. Well--the core plot idea is good enough: King James I asks (orders) Shakespeare to write a play about the Gunpowder Plot. Shakespeare puzzles over how to save his skin while telling the truth. That's a good enough setup for a lot of dialog exchanges about "speaking truth to power" but in the end, he just throws it all away and does Macbeth instead.

Say wha--? For the ordinary (non-true-believer) theatre-goer, I suspect that this is just too much to handle. Meanwhile for contrast--I can't help but wonder if Cain wasn't inspired by Tom Stoppard's great score with Shakespeare in Love a few years back, which he turned into such a successful movie (I've seen it several times, and would gladly watch it again). The thing is, Stoppard achieved the trick of throwing a bone to the faithful--realistic Shakespearean atmosphere--while putting together a show that was funny and sexy that you could enjoy without a particle of insider knowledge. Most of what Cain does here would be lost, I suspect, on any but the truest of true believers.

A word about the politics in the play. Let's stipulate that torture is a bad thing. But to say as much to the Ashland audience is not precisely an act of moral courage: indeed, I suspect if you scored Dick Cheney on the hubba hubba metre with this crowd, with a scale of 100 he might hit a one. Torture is bad, true enough, but to go on and on about it with this crowd is about as tough as dynamiting whales in a barrel. Early on in the play (but I don't have a script) someone says something about the purpose of the theatre is to give you a feeling that you have improved without really changing anything. Exactly right.

So taken overall Equivocations strikes me as a pretty specialized taste. A solace for Cain is that Ashland has plenty of those, and so he is likely to be able to bask in a successful run for the full season.

Crime of the Century

You in a heap o' trouble, boy:

In April an Egyptian blogger, Ahmed Mohsen, was detained on the Orwellian charge
of “exploiting the democratic climate to overthrow the government”.


Liveblogging Napoleon's Russian Invasion:
A Soldier Is Left to Die

July of 1812 for Napoleon meant two great missed opportunities: at Vilna and and Vitebsk, from both of which the Russians slipped away without a fight. Not everyone was so lucky. Captain Franz Roeder, an officer with the First Battalion of Hessian Lifeguards, records a chilling encounter on he the march:
[W]e came upon one of he harrowing sights of the war. About half way we found a soldier of the Young Guard lying by the road in a little copse. For three days he had been left there ill or exhausted without food, and now he was like to die from hunger or thirst. Two regiments of the Young Guard had already passed before us, but the most that a sympathiser had been able to do had been to give him a drop from his water flask, for the Colonel, preferring his chaise and horses to the life of a man, had forbidden them to take him up and carry him with them. If this had been done and they could have given him some soup at the bivouac he might have been saved. We would willingly have helped him, but we only had bread, which he could no longer swallow. If only I had known at the time I might have given him a moment's assistance with some goat's milk, which I had by me in a schnapps flask, but I did not hear what had occurred until too late. If they had had a stretcher our soldiers might perhaps have carried him, but they shuddered to think that no such provision had been made and that he might not otherwise be saved. In his fate they saw their own. And does it never occur to these ego-drunk officers that their manifest indifference to this scene, of which more will follow, has a most demoralizing effect upon their soldiers, especially those who have not yet become hardened to such sights by many campaigns? They will be disposed to desert whenever possible, and if they cannot manage to escape, their already failing physical stamina will collapse form having no moral counterbalance to sustain it.
--Quoted in Helen Roeder, The Ordeal of Captain Roeder 102 (London 1960)

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Thing About Health Care

My friend Rusty and I were idling in front of a TV set a while ago, watching Howard Dean rattle on about health care, when it occurred to us both more or less at once: the thing about health care is that voters really don't see anything in it for them That is to say, nobody has sold the voters on the proposition that the system needs to be changed. We may not like what we
ve got but we muddle along one way or another and we doubt very much that anything the government can do will make it better. Tyler Cowen had a good run the other day with the guy who said "keep your government hands off my Medicare," but there is more truth in the remark than the mockers want to admit. Yes, I am aware that Medicare is provided by the government, and I suspect maybe that the speaker was too. What he meant, in his perhaps inartfully chosen phrase was: Medicare ain't broke, so don't fix it.

You will say that it is broke and you are, in some sense, right. But you havn't sold Tyler's speaker yet. Critics have long pointed out that a lot of the "uninsured" are such out of choice. Granted, there are many ojust can't afford good health care. But many of these don't vote, and as we all know, if you make your proposal a wealth transfer program, you lose.

It may be that a really enterprising and savvy salesman could close the deal. Barack ain't it, but no other politician (= Democrat) is it either. If voters really wanted health care reform, we would have had it 20 years ago.

Ashland Theater Note: All's Well That Ends Well

I've groused before that the good folks at the Ashland Shakespeare Festival operate at less than their best when doing Shakespeare himself. Maybe I should revise that: over the years, they have proven somewhat shaky at the big ones: mediocre at Hamlet, King Lear, Antony and Cleopatra, that sort of thing (though here is a pretty good Othello and here a passable Tempest). But a couple of years back, we saw a really impressive King John. And last night, we took in a convincing rendition of (are you ready for this?) All's Well That Ends Well.

All's Well is a tough nut for Shakespeare fans. It's not precisely a bad play--there is a lot of interesting stuff in it--but at the best of times it is a deeply unpleasant play, where it is near impossible to leave the viewer with anything a really wants to hang onto. The Ashland venture owes a lot of its success to Danforth Comins in the lead as Bertram. The boy seems to have a knack for not especially likeable people: he turned in an impressive Coriolanus last summer, and in other outings he has done Cassio (in Othello), Orlando (in As You Like It) and Benvolio (in Romeo and Juliet). His Bertram is young, full of high spirits, not overbright, but blessed with enough natural charm that you forget how he is really a rotter.

For Helena, his long-suffering adorer (stalker?), they took something of risk: they gave it to Kjerstine Rose Anderson, who played it as a more or less comic bumpkin. Okay, bumpkin is too strong. But this Helena, for all her human appeal, is unpolished: she slumps, she shuffles, she loses words (i.e., on purpose): if she went to finishing school, she surely never finished. It's basically the same schtick she tried as (the other) Helena in Midsummer Night's Dream. I don't think it worked in Dream. For this Helena, seasoned Shakespeareans may regard the bumpkin approach as old stuff but it was new to me (I tend to think of Helena as more in the line of dignified and long-suffering). Maybe it works; it's certainly something to think about, which is perhaps recommendation enough.

Outside the leads, the most noteworthy device may be that they have dressed the play up with a "Clown," who presides, inter alia, over an introduction and an epilogue. My first thought was -- uh oh, they're not trusting the script again, they've gone to panic mode and chosen to camp it up. But not really. What they've done is to stitch together a bunch of stage business onto a single thread of characterization, and in the end, yes, it probably does help to give unity and consistency to the whole. Necessrily a lot of the credit here goes to the actor, Armando Durán, who seems to be able to make his comedy delicate and unintrusive.

They've made somewhat the samer use of G. Valmont Thomas as Lafew, and also in a whole bunch of ensemble parts. Over the years, Thomas has honed a comic persona as the stuffy and clueless (yet somehow likeable) hanger-on who can add a tactful note of good nature to an otherwise tense piece of business. Doesn't work for everything, works nicely here.

When I say "they," I suppose I mean Amanda Dehnert, the director. Apparently she is new to Ashalnd. From a scan of her credits, I infer that she doesn't do a lot of Shakespeare. Maybe that is all for the best; maybe it keeps her from being inhibited in tackling this, one of the most challenging items in the Canon.

[That makes two: who would have guessed it? This is actually the second really good All's Well I've had the privilege of seeing in the past few years. The other was this eye-opening production back in 2006 in New York.

Cute Trick: There's a cute little narrative trick in the film that they run at the end that will be intelligible to anyone who is quick-witted and observant, and who remembers Newhart or St. Elsewhere. Mrs. Buce caught it, although I don't think she watched either.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Nine Dumb Arguments Against Health Care Reform
And One Dumb Argument For It

Paul Waldman at American Prospect offers a good survey of dumb arguments againt health care reform, but he drops a clinker on his foot: he argues that Blue Dogs can't raise budget objections now because they didn't do so during the Bush years.
The Blue Dogs claim to be deeply concerned about fiscal responsibility, but the
truth is that they are motivated almost entirely by ideology. Nothing wrong with that, but don't try to tell us their only concern is deficits. Were that the case, they would be pushing not just for a public option to be part of the bill but for it to be open to every American citizen or company that wants it, because that would save the most money. ... [I]f they were only concerned about fiscal responsibility, they would have opposed the Bush tax cuts, supported tax increases to pay for the Iraq War, or opposed the war and its $2 trillion price tag entirely. But of course they didn't.
Translated: you were wrong before, so you have no right to be right now. This is incoherent. They have every right to be smarter today than they were yesterday.

This is not to concede that "the Blue Dogs" were insufficiently aggressive in the Bush years. "Blue Dog"a big category, perhaps somewhat open-ended. But I have always thought Jim Cooper's Financial Report was among the best budget criticisms availableback then Critics will say--yeh, but he was death on social programs soft on the war. Possibly but I should say that that the same criticism might be tossed back at his critics: lots of lefties would howl about the costs of the war, while soft-pedaling any concern about the costs of social programs. Of course, they were both right: governments have to pay for what they spend somehow, and it is irresponsible for either side to go bandying dollars around without a responsible program for bearing the cost.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Letty and Choice of Law

Before there were Delaware corporations and Cayman Islands hedge funds and Cook Islands asset protection trusts, there were Nevada divorces. The characters in Letty Fox: Her Luck by Christina Stead, understand this: they know that the task of a young woman in the 3os is to get married, and collect alimony. Well, yes, there is the matter of a divorce but this is a transitory instrument: a train trip to Reno, a bit of lipstick on the pig of the local residency requirements. and then home with a (sometimes fragile) triumph on a piece if paper. But Grandmother Morgan knows that you can't push it too far:
Now, if we start plundering the men, if we burden the trade with more than it can bear, it stands to reason that Congress of the Supreme Court or whoever does these things, don't you see, will start to go over the situation and we will get either no alimony at all, or else no divorce (which would be awful, girls, after all), or else a uniform law; and there are no pickings when there is a uniform law. You see what we women have now, in the U.S.A., is an arbitrage business ; we make pickings, even a fat living out of the differences between state laws, an excellent business, considering there are forty-eight states and not only a difference in the laws, but a confusion in the minds of judges, lawyers and divorcees.
--Christina Stead, Letty Fox: Her Luck (NYRB Paperback ed. )

Wiki has a splendid article about the culture of divorce at the old Riverside Hotel.

Liveblogging Napoleon's Russian Invasion:
Again the Russians Slip Away

Raimond-Emery-Philippe-Josephe de Montesquiou, Duke of Fezensac, born in 1784 into a distinguished French noble family, entered the army in 1807 and participated in all of Napoleon's major campaigns. He continued in service after the Restoration and died in 1867, a lieutenant general. He published his journal in 1849. Here he remembers the July days after Napoleon has failed to achieve a confrontation with the Russians at Vilna:
[In] three brilliant engagements ... Osrtrovno had been seized and the Russian army driven from one position after another up to the walls of Vitebsk. I crossed the battlefields which were still covered with the debris of these three battles and arrived at headquarters on the evening of the 26th ...
Thr army was camped in order of battle opposite the Russian army, separated from it by a stream called the Luchosa; the Emperor's tents were pitched on a height near the center. I spent the evening recounting my mission and listening in turn to an account of the engagements that just been fought. I was pleased to hear that several aides-de-camp of the Price Neuchâtel had distinguished themselves, and that the fine conduct of the troops promised even greater successes when the occasion presented itself. We were expecting a general engagement the next morning: great was our surprise when we saw at daybreak that the enemy had withdrawn.

--M. de Fezensac, The Russian Campaign 1812, 16 (U Georgia 1970)

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Garlic Wisdom

Spent a good deal of the day assembling the Lamb-and-white-bean cassoulet from page 292 of Paula Wolfert's The Cooking of Southwest France (p. 292-4*). It's a glorious dish and requires no special skill, but it does require lot of time and tedious hand labor. It occurs to me there is a fairly obvious economic story here. To do this kind of cooking, you will need someone in the kitchen with a fairly low opportunity cost on their time--a retiree (!) or, more traditionally, a granny in an economy where there just aren't that many skilled jobs to begin with. She can multitask by managing some child care--and the precise and delicate fingers of a nine-year-old girl are probably pretty handy for, e.g., stuffing those little slices of garlic into each individual collop of lamb. Now, if somebody would tell me where in Palookaville I can find a dish of pickled walnuts...

Afterthought: I guess I did enjoy one consolation that granny perhaps did not have--an Ipod with a download of the week's Economist. Now,that is double-tasking.
*There's a newer edition. I link to my beloved and gravy-stained old favorite.

Time to Get the Dandelions Pulled
And the Beefsteak Pounded

A friend of a friend brings this crime news update from Iowa:
Sheriff's Report

Sunday, July 19 12:27 a.m.: Report of kids rolling bowing ball down Main St.

--Butler County Tribune-Journal, Thursday, July 23, 2009, p. 10

Lowenstein on Jobs

Roger Lowenstein offers an admirably succinct (but depressing) summary of wht you already kinda sorta already knew about the meltdown and the job market (link). Shorter short Lowenstein: employers aren't hoarding employees any more; they are laying off as many as they can. And it is not just layoffs: the meta-story is that employers haven't been hiring since the dotcom boom went bust.

Copy that. In the recent kerfuffle, I think folks may have forgotten how brief and transitory the boom was. I can remember a student/grad from the early 90s--quite a good one, really, high grades, good presentable manner-who told me felt like the velvet cord had been drawn up just in front of him. In retrospect--if so, it was because they were reconfiguring the theatre for the Next Big Extravaganza. Granted that nobody wants another real estate boom--which was all smoke and mirrors from the start--another dotcom boom, with all its innovation and intellectual electricity--why, that doesn't sound bad at all.

Lowenstein also says that one out of six construction workers is out of work. Sic? I would have thought maybe it was five out of six.

Afterthought: Lowenstein also tangentially hits upon one of the reasons why "economics" drives so many people so nots. He refers to "Okun's Law"- - "a mathematical relationship," as Lowenstein puts it, "between the decline in output (that is, goods and services produced) and the rise in unemployment." Lowenstein says:
It held up pretty well until recently. But this time around, although the decline in output would have predicted a rise in unemployment to 8 percent, the actual jobless rate has soared to 9.5 percent. So this recession is killing off jobs even faster than the things — like automobiles, houses, computers and newspapers — that jobholders produce
Alright, fine. So far so good. Fine fellow, Okun, useful research. BUT IT ISN'T A LAW. It's an insight, a generalization, a quaint observation, a description of some data. BUT IT ISN'T A LAW or we wouldn't be able to blow it off so easily. Got that? IT ISN'T A LAW. And, yes, I am writing in caps.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Two Footnotes on Gates

I must say I am impressed at how much of a hold the Gates case seems to have taken on the public imagination--not just Fox News, nor the extremes of the blogosphere, but here it is the lede story in my paper New York Times--second lede in the Wall Street Journal (i.e., Saturday morning). I can hardly expect to kick the can very far downfield, but I do think it my obligation to cry out against what might be the dumbest public policy suggestion since somebody told Thomas Jefferson he ought to try an embargo on European trade:
[S]houldn't we at least entertain the possibility that Gates, at some point in the transaction, decided that baiting Crowley into arresting him would constitute a "teachable moment" about police misconduct toward black people? If he decided that getting himself arrested, under circumstances where the arrest couldn't stand up and would make the police look bad, might protect some younger and less well-connected black man from false charges of disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, and assault and battery on a police officer, that wouldn't have been a silly calculation to make.
Source: link, but to save him unnecessary embarrassment, I will not repeat his name of the author of this idiocy here. Anyway, I trust it is apparent to all reflective readers that this is the kind of logic that could only sound plausible in a first-tier faculty common room. "Teachable moment," you say? "Police misconduct?" Baby, we've teachable-momented ourselves into a point where the wingnuts think they turn it into a resolution of censure against the President. "False charge of disorderly conduct," you say? Actually, I agree with you on that one--or want to agree with you:mouthing off to a cop is not (or should not be) an offense. But my intuition is that somewhere between 30 and 70 percent of the electorate think Gates damn well got what was coming to it--and if it really wasn't disorderly conduct before, maybe the natural consequence is that we will redefine "disorderly conduct so that it will be next time. And what is this about "resisting arrest, and assault and battery?" So far as I can see, the best thing the coppers have going for them here is that they did not overcharge--they took the cheapest item from the hors d'oeuvres side of the menu and left the raw meat quivering on the platter. One more "teachable moment" like this and some looney will start shouting that we should send 'em all back to Africa.*

The whole scenario sounds like nothing so much as Inspector Clouseau. But wait; here is Inspector Clouseau, offering up a piece of advice which, by comparison with the item above, comes across as positively statesmanlike:
If you’re afraid of the Police, or feel some urge to call them dirty names, drive someplace with lots of people (with camera phones) before you pull over. The Police are well aware of the consequences of beating on you in public while being recorded.
Now that, my friends, could be a teachable moment.
*Disclaimer: rhetorical overkill. The staff and management here at Underbelly central does not endorse the idea just suggested; it thinks the idea just suggested would be more or less as dumb as the idea suggested earlier in the column. The whole point is that once you paddle into the maelstrom of stupidity, it is only a matter of time before all good sense gurgles hideously down the drain.

Mrs.Fox and Arina Petrovna (and Robert Frost)

Quite without intending to, I have stumbled into the literature of old age--specifically female old age. There are two instances in particular. One is Mrs. Fox, mother-in-law of Solander, mother-in-law of Mathilde, and so one of the dizzying circus of hustlers, dependents and naifs who swirl through Christina Stead's Letty Fox: Her Luck. Mrs. Fox is certainly not a naif. She she may have been a hustler, although this seems doubtful; at any rate, she is old and her powers may be seen to weaken. She is, alas, as dependent, or at least one who lives as such, not-very-effectively charming and wheedling herself to a bare sustenance day after day. She talks--my heavens, how she talks, pages at a time, with only the slenderest sense of narrative order. She's funny for he reader to listen to, but probably not so much if you are related to her. At the end of one such monologue, her daughter-in-law asks:
"Will you have some ccoffee?"
"If it is fresh."
"I don't reheat it."
"Reheat it: well, that to me is poison. I can't take it. That's another kind of thing, altogether."
"Mother, I asked you would you have some coffee!" [A pause.]
"Is it fresh? Who knows? What is she talking about?" [A pause.]"Not if it is reheated. I'm very sorry, I thank you, but I can't."
"I told you it was fresh."
"Well, if it's fresh. . . . Reheated, you say? No. All right, if it's fresh, but you say--" [A pause.]
"Here's your coffee."
"So latae in the afternoon? I don't know, my dear. I don't sleep." [No repsonse.] "Tea is better. Is it fresh, anyhow?" [Mournfully, low.] "They don't tell me. I don't know. I know nothing!"
"Drink your coffee," said Mathilde, "it's getting cold."
"Cold, hot? What does it matter? I'm dying, my dear!"
"Mother, please don't keep saying that. Every time you come--"
"My dear Mathilde, if you knew--" Grandmother let out a great cry, with a fresh voice, a wail; "I can't keep going any more; it's all over, my dear."
In fact, it is nearly over; a week later, Mrs. Fox is dead: "It was only then that Mathilde had the sense to see what had been the matter; death had been at his tricks.
Mrs. Fox was a dependent most, perhaps all, of her life.In Shchedrin's The Golovlyov Family," we are faced iwth Arina Petrovna who is quite another matter. Or was: for most of her life she bullied, sweated and otherwise dominated her family, her servants and anyone else in reach of the Golovlyov estate. But life is full of surprises; at the end of life she finds out that she too must subsist on the sufferance of others who have no instinct (but where would they have learned it?) to treat her any better than she treated others:
Day followed day with the depressing monotony so characteristic of country life, when one has neither material comfort, nor food for the intellect, nor work. Apart from the eternal causes that made personal work on the farm impossible for Arina Petrovna, she felt an inner revulsion against the petty cares that fell to her lot at the end of her life. She might perhaps have overcome her aversion had she had a purpose that would make her efforts worth-while--but that was just the point, she had no purpose. Everyone was sick and tired of her, and she was sick and tired of everyone. Drowsy idleness had taken the place of her former feverish activity and the idleness gradually demoralized her will, and developed in her inclinations she had not dreamt of a few months before. The strong and self-possessed woman whom no one v entured even to think of as an old lady had suddenly become a wreck, for whom there was neither past nor future, but only the present moment to be lived through.
On the evidence presented here, I suppose Mrs.Fox is marginally better off--at least there is someone to argue with her. But both women would have done well to harken to the advice of Robert Frost which, because it is late and because I am lazy--and because it sticks so vividly in my mind--I quote from memory:
The witch that came, the withered hag
To wipe the steps with oil and rag
Was once the beauty Abishag;
Too many fall from great and good
For you to doubt the likelihood;

Die early, and avoid the fate,
Or, if predestined to die late,
Make certain that you die in state:
Make the whole stock exchange your own!
If need be occupy a throne,
So nobody can call you crone!

Better to go down dignified
With boughten friendship at your side
Than none at all: Provide! Provide!

Friday, July 24, 2009

MB Meditates on MA

I can remember how impressed I was to discover that Lee, the Chinese servant in Steinbeck's East of Eden, rolls into his hidy hole at night with a copy of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius (and cf. link).

Hey! I rolled into my hidy hole with a copy of MA! I was 22; I was doing boot camp at Fort Leonard Wood,MO. Or rather, "hidy hole" is an exaggeration: my "hole"was a bunk bed in as barracks full of new recruits, so it wasn't exactly "hidy," but nobody paid much attention to me so I was able to achieve a bit of privacy. And what a pleasure it was to discover that I was part of the invisible choir of sensitive souls honored in literature, if not on the firing range!

Like I say, I was 22, which was probably already pushing it a bit. I should say the maximum respectable age for actually reading Steinbeck is about 19--anything after that is a case of arrested development. Same with Atlas Shrugged. But I was a slow starter (in fact, I never did get around to Atlas Shrugged).

It took me a while to grasp the point that Steinbeck is for the young. It to me longer to figure that something of the same sort may be true of Marcus Aurelius: his natural audience may be proud, lonely, sensitive (post-) adolescents in dusty Army camps or forlorn hidy holes the world over (I'll bet you a crumpled packet of Camels that Plato in Beetle Baily read the Meditations). I do remember marvelling over the book. And I do remember wondering--how did this guy find fhe time for all these lucubrations, what with running a great Empire and all?

Comes now Mary Beard to explain that it wasn't that big of a deal.
If a text like this were to be discovered today in the sands of Egypt, not tied to the name of an emperor, we would almost certainly interpret it as a set of fairly routine philosophical exercises--the kind of thing that a philosophically trained member of the Roman elite would compose to keep himself in good intellectual shape. Although we often choose to read it in a narrowly personal way, much of the material draws on a fairly standard repertoire of ancient hilsophical theory.
See "Was He Quite Ordinary?" London Review of Books 8-9, 9 (23 July 2009)

Oof. I guess that is not quite the same thing a saying that he did not write them at all. Still, she suggests, the way that we relate to them is defined by the fact that they are attributed to an emperor:
[P]art of the contemporary appeal ... lies in the feeling that the Meditations offer us a a rare glimpse into the personal dilemmas of the man in charge of the Roman world.
She also points out ho much of our encounter with the Meditations is determined by the work of later editors:
We now read Marcus' Meditations as a coherent work organized in 12 separate books, further subdivided into separate sections, under an overall title. All these features are modern, and combine to give us the impression that we are dealing with a private introspective work of literature, somewhere on the spectrum between Augustine's Confessions, the theological theorising of Pascal's Pensées and an 18th-century commonplace book. In fact, we have no information on the origin and purpose of the work at all....
And she also--a final blow--suggests that it isn't really all that readable. "[N]o one except an academic philosopher could possibly read the original from start to finish." By "original," I assume she means Marcus' "rather thorny" (as she calls it) Greek. Can't say, haven't tried. I do admit that even in my enthusiasm, I found large parts of the Meditations ro be pretty much of a slog. I read the old Casaubon translation, an Everyman's Library edition pinched from my girlfriend's roommate. It has an air of quaint obscurity which can be both attractive and repellent at the same time. Still, there are passages that struck me like lightning and stay with me today.
The time of a man's life is as a point; the substance of it ever flowing, the sense obscure; and the whole composition of the body tending to corruption. His soul is restless, fortune uncertain, and fame doubtful; to be brief, as a stream so are all things belonging to the body; as a dream, or as a smoke, so are all that belong unto the soul. Our life is a warfare and a mere pilgrimage. Fame after life is no better than oblivion. What is it then that will adhere and follow? Only one thing, philosophy. And philosophy doth consist in this, for a man to preserve that spirit which is within him, from all manner of contumelies and injuries, and above all pains and pleasures.

--Marcus Aurelius, Meditations II, XV
(tr. Méric Casaubon, Everyman's Library 1906)

To young men everywhere finding their "soul[s] restless, fortune uncertain, and fame doubtful," I suspect the Meditations will continue to appeal, and the fact that Mary Beard finds them a mere copy book exercise--while a plausible claim--is not likely to dent their enthusiasm.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Appreciation: Herman on Churchill and Gandhi

Near the end of World War II, as India's elite faced off against Britain's elite in irreconcilable opposition over the cause of Indian independence, Mohandas K. Gandhi sent a letter to Winston Churchill:
Dear Prime Minister, You are reported to have a desire to crush the simple 'Nakie Fakir' as you are said to have described me. I have been long trying to be a Fakir and that naked--a more difficult task. I therefore regard the expression as a compliment, however unintended. I approach you then as such and ask you to trust and use me for sake of your people and mine and thorugh them those of the world.
It's an arresting anecdote, precisely the sort of story you'd expect Arthur Herman to deploy Gandhi & Churchill: the Epic Rivalry that Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age. The trouble that the letter was lost in the mail, never delivered, or at least not until its punch had passed. The story thus illustrates Herman's key structural problem in assembling this dual biography. That is: Gandhi and Churchill never really engaged with each other directly. Aside from the missent letter, they had only one other direct contact: a personal meeting back in 1906 when Churchill was /Secretary of State for the Colonies and Gandhi achieved an audience with him in his role as advocate (supplicant?) for the causeof overseas Indians in South Africa; Churchill pretty much cleaned his clock.

Of course they came to know of each other as Gandhi evolved into his role as the principal symbol of the campaign for Independence and Churchill, as its most energetic and vociferous opponent. Even here, Herman offers no evidence to suggest that Gandhi ever personalized his campaign on Churchill. Churchill for his part did personalize his campaign on Gandhi--"this malignant subversive fanatic," Churchill once called Gandhi. Yet it was a strangely abstract sort of hostility. As detailed by Herman, Churchill's public record makes it tolerably clear that Churchill never understood Indian politics, nor Gandhi's place in it. All the more credit, then, to Herman for assembling such a readable and informative account, on a premise that might not work.

Still even with its inherent limitations, the comparison is instructive. It helps one to see, for example, how Churchill and Gandhi were in many ways more alike than either would have liked to believe. They were both romantics,in the sense that the had vividly imaginative and fully articulated pictures in their mind of the political worlds for which they strove. Gandhi's, what with his cotton dhoti and his spinning wheel, was surely more personal and eccentric (hardly anybody, even in the independence movement, came close to sharing it).

Churchill's vision was, of course Empire--but not just any empire. The thing about Churchill was it his view of Empire was so benign. For all his excoriating rhetoric, he had an odd streak of generosity about him; he also seems genuinely to have believed that one of the evils of the independence movement is that it would victimize the underclasses.

And here is another, perhaps even more important,, point of convergence: both Churchill and Gandhi entertained a vision of an empire that worked--where the human spirit could flourish and soar. Indeed Gandhi in his younger years (like so many of the Indepence elites) was an insatiable Anglophile. He had lived just shy of three years in London in his youth: he trained as a barrister and was called to the bar. It was there that he established his affinity for British culture (and there also where he encountered so many of the crack-brained ideas that would come to dominate his political thinking: vegetarianism, theosophy, and suchlike).

Gandhi thus did not begin as a separationist: his primary purpose in his early years (as an advocate in South Africa) was to insist that the British live up to its own high standards of justice and good order. But even after he went back to India and began to play a role in the indepencence movement, he continued to operate on the premise that there were some things that a well-brought-up Britisher simply would not do. "Without this implicit moralcontract betweenruler and ruled," Herman observes shrewdly, "Gandhi's career would have been nasty, brutish and short."

One of the admirable aspects of Herman's book is the degree to which he avoids imposing any air of inevitabilityon the career of either man: he makes it clear how each career was riven with false stars, wrong turnings and perhaps lucky accidents. Of Churchill, perhaps we know this; there are many accounts of his impulsiveness, his opportunism and his long sojourns in the political wilderness. Of Gandhi, so often bathed in hagiography, the point needs more insistence. Indeed for purely structural reasons (though not for marketing), Herman might have done better to abandon the Churchill theme and to adopt the theme that he almost adopts: the story of the conflict between Gandhi and so many in his own country who would have gladly seen him out of the way or dead (in the end, of course, it was Hindu nationalists who did him in).

Among such competitors, three stand out in Herman's account. One was the brilliant, ambitious, impulsive Subhas Chandra Bose. It was Bose who distinguished himself during World War II by casting his lot with the Nazis and, later, the Japanese. He died (perhaps?) in a plane crash in 1945. I have heard Indians alive today wonder aloud what their life might have been like had he lived. I think this is a fanciful vision. Bose got little enough thanks for his choice: the Germans ignored him and the Japanese abused him. And in the end, he picked the losing team. But his memory persists.

A second was Muhammad Ali Jinnah, remembered now as the founder of modern Pakistan; most of his political career was based around creating a separate base (or state) for Muslims, against Gandhi's (and other's) dreams of a single unified India.

The third is perhaps most interesting of all--Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, a figure almost entirely forgottenin the west, though still present in the memory of Indians. Unlike Gandhi (or indeed, almost any other Indian political figure), Ambedkar's roots were among the poorest of the poor: he was a Dalit, an untouchable (and a 14th child in the bargain). Ambedkar's is a story you hear from time to time in India--a child of no resources who shows promise and finds himself taken up by powerful protectors. Ambedkar at last earned a PhD degree from Columbia University and emerged at home as a powerful and influential advocate of the untouchables from whence had sprung. Gandhi, of course, had his own view of the India's poor--and to the likes of Ambedkar, it was patronizing nonsense. Ambedkar spent the rest of Gandhi's life resisting Gandhi's program, and is one of perhaps few leading Indian voices who found it hard to say a generous word about him in death (it intrigues me that we always picture Gandhi in his dhoti; in the only statues of Ambedkar I have seen, he is wearing a suit).

These rivalries are pretty well forgotten now, at least outside India (I wonder how many in India have any exact knowledge of them?). Herman serves them all well by bringing them back to life. But one is left to wonder: was it an "epic rivalry?" Not really; there is too little direct engagement. Did it "destroy an Empire?" A curious might-have-been. Herman does apper to believe that Churchill played his hand badly, and may have played a role in the calamatous transition to independence in 1947--but it was going to happen one way or another, sooner or later. "Forged our age?" Well, yes. However inevitable indepence may have become; however artificial may be supposed rivalry between Gandhi and Churchill, still the world could easily have been a different place without the stamp of their personalities.

Re-pealing The Onion

The Onion reports that it has been sold to a Chinese conglomerate. Apparently not everyone realized it was a joke. Well, I can relate. With a name like the "Yu Wan Mei Amalgamated Salvage Fisheries and Polymer Injection Group," how was anybody ever going to guess? (Yu Wan Mei, get it? Oh, say it fast two or three times). Cf. link, link.

Alright, children, very funny. But I remember a few years back when the US Attorney at Sacramento conjured up a fake shrimp fishery to create a bribery sting in the State legislature. When the dust settled the USA undertook to get his fake fishery law repealed. But it turned out there were real shrimp fisheries who thought the law a pretty good idea.

So I'm watching to see what happens when the owners of the real Yu Wan Mei Amalgamated Salvage Fisheries and Polymer Injection Group show up saying they don't find it funny at all. Hey, getcher popcorn here folks. Amalgamated with fake fish waste.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Vagaries of Language: Two Accounts

Tricky business, language. Two illustrations. First, a discussion of how folks in the Italian corner of Switzerland manage "dialect": Italian Switzerland...runs along the edges of social divisions, age, sex and class in fascinating and complex ways. ...Dialect is the language of neighbourliness and the commune, but ... its use reflects very subtle canons of social behaviour. The country man or woman in a city shop may use dialect with impunity, but the middle-class city-dweller wil use Italian, certainly at first, less the shop girl feel insulted by such excessive familiarity. Similarly, the middle-class city dweller who returns to the village of his origin would give even greater offence if he did not speak dialect from the beginning.

...In traditional middle-class families, parents speak dialect with each other, as do the children, but children speak to parents and parents to children in Italian. ... Teachers chat in dialect int he common room but speak Italian to pupils in the classroom and in all other encounters. Children speak dialect among themselves and, of course, Italian to teachers. ... [In one research study] the boys spoke dialect among themselves but Italian to the girls, and the girls dialect among themselves but Italian to the boys. ... Adult men use dialect more than adult women, especially in towns and cities. ... Italian is the language of public life and dialect the language of private social relations. Hence it is not surprising that, as soon as a political organization or government body becomes larger than, say, twenty people, which it will generally not do on village level, Italian replaces dialect
--Jonathan Steinberg, Why Switzerland? 143-4 (2d ed. 1996)

And here, a more straightforward of all solutions, from the most British of azll 20th Century political leaders, India's Jawarhalal Nehru (Harrow, Cambridge, Inner Temple), who spoke English far more easily than he spoke any Indian language:
In any discussion Nehru would listen carefully to his interlocutor's accent, then carefully calibrate his own so that it would sound at least one social cut above.

--Arthur Herman, Gandhi & Churchill(Kindle 2009)
[Sourcing Nirad Chaudhuri,]

I Think his is a Joke

But, since it's McKinsey, you can't be too sure. Link. HT, these guys.

But Who the Hell is Charles Barkley?

Larry likes this one:
These are my new shoes. They're good shoes. They won't make you rich like me, they won't make you rebound like me, they definitely won't make you handsome like me. They'll only make you have shoes like me. That's it.

--Charles Barkley

Bernie and the Birth Certificate

One of my favorite undergrad instructors back at Antioch in the 1950s was a guy named Bernie Weisbesrger, who taught Intro to Western Civ. He was not the sort to dress up in costume, but he did do a marvellous rendition of Martin Luther in German to show us, as he said, just how argumentative those Protestant reformers could really sound. That sort of thing.

Bernie's introduction on the first day of the first semester, was an introduction to the historical method.
Good morning, my name is Bernard Weisberger. At least I think it is Bernie Weisberger. Indeed, I sincerely believe it to be so, but of course the sincerity of my own belief is no evidence at all for the truth of the proposition at issue. Aside from my own belief--my mother told me my name was Bernard Weisberger. She perhaps had the attributes of a good witness, but she might have been mistaken, or she might have been lying. I have also seen a birth certificate saying that I am Bernard Weisberger, but of course it might have been forged, or it might not be really mine at all...
You can see where this is going. We were off on a merry romp through the jungles of critical judgment, laced with the darker menace of phyrronism. That, even more than the bare substance, became the agenda for a truly memorable undergraduate course. The lesson, at least as I understood it, was twofold. On the one hand, nothing is certain--certainly not your mother nor the state. On other hand--and I think this was perhaps equally important, if easy to obscure--on the other hand, life goes on. Nothing is certain but we make judgments and act upon them, all the time recognizing that we really do not, in the strict sense, have any idea what we are talking about it.

I think of this whenever I try to follow the allegations about how the holocaust was a fantasy, or that the moon landing was a smoke-and-mirrors show, or any of the rest of the catalog of fantasies in the Rough Guide to Conspiracy Theories (a delightful book, by the way, highly recommended). Strictly speaking, I suppose it is possible that, e.g., umpty ump pretended survivors gave consistent false testimony on the attempted eradication of the Jews. But I don't think it is even remotely likely and I have long since relinquished according the idea any but the most transitory thought.

Still, one remarkable and easy-to-ignore fact about virtually all conspiracy theories, together with urban legends and suchlike, is that they respond to real human concerns. The idea that those nice Germans would do something so awful to all those Jews is just too awful to bear (and besides, you know, those people are such whiners!*) The thought that a bunch of incompetents in Washington could execute anything as complex as intergalactic travel is just too distasteful to contemplate, etc. There's a wonderful novel by André Gide, now largely, it seems forgotten, called Les Caves du Vatican, aka Lafcadio's Adventure, about a gaggle of con men who undertake to disencumber prosperous Catholics of their wealth on the premise that the real Pope is being held prisoner in the basement--because no real Pope would utter all the pernicious nonsense we are hearing today!

The model for Gide's novel may have been Leo XIII, propounder of the (only very mildly) reformist encyclal De Rerum Novarum. It's easy to imagine Rush Limbaugh (say) reading that line about "
"the misery and wretchedness pressing so unjustly on the majority of the working class" and oofing his cookies. Surely, surely, this paltry shadow of a real pope--surely he must be an imposter!

So it is hardly surprising that some segment of the population sincerely entertains that the proposition that the incumbent President was not born in the place where the (alleged) birth certificate or the (putative) newspaper from that day and place says he is. And they may be right. For all I know, he was born in Kenya; hell, for all I know, his middle name is Murray and he arrived full-blown from the planet Zyrcon. The only surprise, I suppose, is that the cause is taken up by prominent people in a party that wants to be taken seriously as part of government--that people who look like grownups will struggle so hard not to be seen as such.

Afterthought: Come to think of it, has anybody ever seen a birth certificate for Rush Limbaugh?


Update: He's alive! And, I hope, well, I hope enjoying a hard-earned retirement after a long and distinguished career.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Moss and Ippolito

Here's a shout-out for two books that may ocunt as a genre. One is David A. Moss, A Concise Guide to Macroeconomics (2007), which filled the course of a plane trip east a couple of weeks back. The other is Richard A. Ippolito, Economics for Lawyers (2005), which has occupied a few idle hours since summer.

The common thread is that they are both bare-bones intros to technical subjects--books that pare their subjects down to an (irreducible?) minimum, without gross oversimplification or serious intellectual dishonesty.

I suppose a second common thread is that they are both "service" books, written about one discipline for another. Moss says his book "began as a note on macroeconomics for my students," i.e., at the Harvard Business School. Ippolito's book developed (per a jacket note) out of his "immenely popular class at George Mason Universtity Law School." Popular indeed.

As to the macro book--I never actually took a course in macro and so learned what little I know ono the fly. I've never quite understood why professors do it as they do. Teaching econ to adolescents must be a challenge in any event, and the macro books, with all their charts and graphs, must leave most students entirely ignorant of exactly what they are talking about, and why. Moss' students are a bit older, and by definition, more or less the cream of the crop. Still, I think he does right to begin with some explicit non-patronizing introduction as to just what he is doing, and why. From there, he plunges headlong into the basics: money supply, inflation, expectations. He follows with an admirable "short history" and just a bit of GDP accounting, and a discussion of exchange rates. The only disappointment is that he published just a bit too early: he doesn't get to discuss the almost total collapse of macro theory in the current uproara.

Ippolito's is a bit more ambitious. Once again, it is most easily understood in comparison to a conventional textbook. Ippolito tries very hard to throw out just about everything that isn't essential to the main line of his argument, and in particular, to what he perceives as the needs of lawyers.

Given the context, it is perhaps particularly worth noting what Ippolito's book is not: it is not a text in "law and economics"--that monster hybrid bred out of professional restlessness and by a crude theory of operant conditioning. There are a number of books that purport to do "law and economics" for law student, but I never saw one that got it quite right. They all seem to assume either too little or too much. Too little, in the sense that they feel constrained to some basic economic groundwork although they don't really want to. And too much, in that they virtually all roll off into flights of fancy on the nether end of professional learning. Ipollito understands he is here to lay the basics. He does his best to couple them with plausible illustrative examples from basic law material. The best thing I can say for both these books is that I wish I taught courses in which I could use them (although I suspect I will steal just a bit from each, for my course in basic finance). If there is a genre here, it's a worthy one. In any event, the books are worthy in their own right.

How Not to Run a Police Department

I wouldn't think for a moment of passing judgment on the propriety of the Cambridge police arresting a prominent professor of African-American history for breaking into his own home (roll that sentence off the tongue a few times). But I will offer what I take to be a an instructive anecdote.

Here at Palookaville U, we enjoy the presence and services of one of world's foremost authorities on the butterfly. He's a treasure and a lovely guy to boot. But he looks like a street person--scraggly beard, ducktaped Levis (okay, I made up the ducktape, but you get the idea). In short, he looks like a hobo. And being a butterfly expert he spends a lot of his time hanging out under bridges.

My wise friend Ignoto says: it is the job of a Palookaville cop to know the difference between Dr. Butterfly and a hobo. Even though it is not obvious, it his job.

Jump cut to Cambridge. Let's stipulate from the outset that when a cop sees two guys with backpacks trying to force the front door, it is not unreasonable to inquire. Let's stipulate that if this had been a real burglar and the cop had given him a bye, why then he would have been in trouble for that, too. I would also like to believe (though I am sure this is more contentious) that it is not actionable to address a cop as "Yo' Mama."

But n0ne of this is the point. The point is that if you are a cop, you do not want things like this to happen, period. You don't want to get into a mess where your story is going world wide in every major news outlet. You want things to be orderly, peaceful, and, most of all, quiet. Move along, folks, nothin' to see here.

As a minimum, I would think this means knowing something about your neighborhood. The story says that the professor lived "a few blocks from Harvard Square." My guess is that this is a fairly upscale neighborhood, full of high-prestige famous-all-over-town celebrities with (I suspect) a vast sense of entitlement (not, we are not talkin' race here; we're talkin' Harvard professor). A good cop is going to know who is who, or, more precisely, who expects to be recognized, and who will ring the phone off the wall in the chief's office in the morning if he is not. A good cop at work in his own neighborhood knows the difference between a Harvard professor and a housebreaker.

And again quite aside from the narrow rightness of the matter--I'll bet that's what his shift commander was telling him after it all blew up last night.

Aferthought: One more anecdote which probably doesn't prove anything. I used to have a '65 Mustang --crappy car, dumb mistake. But one night, I left work at the University to make the 90-mile (sic) drive home. I quickly determined that was way too foggy to drive; I turned around with the purpose of dumping my car in a campus parking lot, and then walking over to a motel. I saw the blue light behind me.

I got out of the car and walked back to the cruiser. "I don't know what you stopped me for," I said, "but I probably did it..." and then told him what I just told you now.

The cop was black, a compact little man with sergeant's stripes. Once he saw I was an old white guy, he lost all interest in me. "Okay, professor, have a nice night..."

Review the bidding: an old Mustang creeping around campus at eight miles an hour in the dark. Not a bad call, was it?

Update: Hoo boy, that didn't take long.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Hey, I Could Do That!

[Nassim] Taleb [he of Black Swans, etc.] seems to earn his daily bread by showing up and being kind of witty.
(link). Fn.: I see that Taleb's Wiki lists his occupation as "epistemologist."

Sanford's Armageddon

If Governor Marc Sanford really wants to turn his life into a career of Biblical of the proportion, here is another possible point of contact: Father Sergius, from the Tolstoi story of the same name. Father Sergius' response to the reality of sexual anarchy was to give all his property and retire to a monastery for a life of fasting, self-mortification and prayer. In the end, Father Sergius found he wasn't good enough for the sarcedotal path and wound up working as a handyman for a rich peasant. Sanford's achievements as an Eagle Scout might yet come in handy.

CIT: Not Yet

Oh, that's good: CIT has apparently escaped its near-death experience with a big chunk of new money (and the government wins this particular poker game).

Oh, that's bad: but as Felix Salmon points out, it comes with a humongous interest rate and a security interest in everything except the CFO's underwear. A bit like the deal Carlos Slim made for with the New York Times.

Oh, that's good: But it does mean there'll be somebody roped in with an incentive to pick up the pieces, once the problem resurefaces.

Afterthought: Everyone is saying that if CIT goes under, all these gazillions borrowers will be wiped out. But why woult that be? CIT's loan book is an asset, not so? The buyer would want to preserve the value of the assets, not so? And this would include continuing to collect and enforce these obligations, not so? So, what's the problem?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Shchedrin on Drunkenness

There's certainly no shortage of literature on drunkenness, perhaps never surpassing Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano. But Schedrin's The Golovlyov Family offers a brief summary which, for concision in horror, is hard to beat:
At nine o'clock, when the lights were put out in the office and men went home to their lairs, he put on the table the bottle of vodka and a slice of bread thickly covered with salt. He did not begin on the vodka at once but gradually stole up to it as it were. Everything around him was dead asleep; only mice scratched behind the wall-paper that had come unstuck, and the clock in the office ticked insistently. Taking off his dressing-gown, with nothing but his shirt on he scurried up and down the heated room; sometimes he stopped, came up to the table fumbling for the bottle, and then began walking again. He drank the first glass making traditional drinkers' jokes and voluptuously sipping the burning liquid; but gradually his tongue began babbling something incoherent, his heart bet faster, and his head was on fire. His dulled mind struggled to create images, his deadened memory strove to break through into the realm of the past; but the images were senseless and disconnected, and the past did not respond with a single recollection, sweet or bitter, as though a thick wall had risen once for all between that which had be and was now. All there was before him was the present in the shape of a tightly locked prison in which the idea of space and time disappeared without a trace. ...
--Shchedrin, The Golovlyov Family 57-8 (NYRB ed. 2001)

This is just a sample; there's more.

Two ECMHs: What Thaler Said

The Economist's postmortem on the place of academic economics in the late uproar is crisp and intelligent, not least for this account of Richard Thaler, expressing a point I've tried to make here before (link, link):
The [Efficient Capital Market] hypothesis has two parts, he says: the “no-free-lunch part and the price-is-right part, and if anything the first part has been strengthened as we have learned that some investment strategies are riskier than they look and it really is difficult to beat the market.” The idea that the market price is the right price, however, has been badly dented.
Afterthought: I'm sure that Thaler has long since noticed that his craft-appropriate surname is the root of the word "dollar."

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Postmodern Reads

Jorge Luis Borges' "Labyrinths"Icons_234569
Robert Burton's "Anatomy of Melancholy"Icons_3412
Italo Calvino's "If on a Winter's Night a Traveler"Icons_467
William Faulkner's "Absalom! Absalom!"Icons_3512
Michael Herr's "Dispatches"Icons_13
Franz Kafka's "Metamorphosis"Icons_351112
Milan Kundera's "The Book of Laughter and Forgetting"Icons_12367
Vladimir Nabokov's "Pale Fire"Icons_23456
Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried"Icons_1347
W.G. Sebald's "The Rings of Saturn"Icons_13479
William Shakespeare's "Hamlet"Icons_34561112
Art Spiegelman's Maus I & IIIcons_1347911
Laurence Stern's "The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy"Icons_3456712

Flying Out of Boston

Flying from Boston to Palookaville yesterday:
  • Is it just me or is the flight from Boston a more high-toned class of readership? Lots of books; I didn't see a single Danielle Steele. Lady next to me had global tastes. She started out with How Soccer Explains the World, and topped it off with The Ornament of the World. Her companion seemed to be reading something about colloids.

    [Nosy? You betcha. If I come to visit at your house, I will inventory the bookcases.]
  • Is it just me, or do cross-country flight attendants, relieved of the obligation to serve meals, have more time on their hands? A lot of gabbing back in the galley. One of them seemed to be cramming for an exam--but hey, this is the Boston flight. Perhaps a staffing rule predicated on the assumption tht they will be serving meals, when in factc they do so no longer? Or a minimum-crew safety requirement?
  • Overheard:

    Momma: You didn't think I could walk downstairs and get the suitcase while we were flying, did you?
    Kid: [Long pause.] We could ask the driver!
    Momma (juggling a baby): No, I don't think that's possible.
    Kid (squirming to get out of his seat) I know, I could ask the driver!
    [Apparently the driver said "no."]

Friday, July 17, 2009

Amazon and 1984

I'm as puzzled as anybody else at the mad stupidity of Amazon stealthily erasing all the George Orwells off customer's Kindle readers (and, apparently, crediting the customerss' accounts). I agree with others that it is not quite like Barnes & Noble breaking into your living room and stealing your paper copy and leaving you a check (personal space issues blah blah). But it's close enough.

Meanwhile, I am intrigued to determine that a search on my own Kindle, brings up an edition of Keep the Aspidistra Flying at 99 cents, and two collections of essays--one at the standard Amazon price of $9.99, the other at $4.79. I also find an edition of 1984, "published Jul 11, 2009" at a prrice of $3.99--but that price is crossed out, and there is nothing in its place. Down at the bottom of the panel, it says "Not Yet Available." The publisher is listed as "Download eBooks." Several other Orwells seem to be (un)available on the same basis.

Meanwhile, that same search brought up three links to Ayn Rand's "Anthem two at 99 cents, one at a dollar.

An Impending Obama Train Wreck

Having time to kill in Logan Airport this morning, I gave more than usual attention to the front section of the New York Times. There seems to be a theme. Here's Graham Bowley on Goldman and JP Morgan Chase as the survivors of the late uproar, richer and more powerful than ever. Here's Krugman saying it'll be worse next time. Here's Julie Crewswell and Michael J. de la Merced, on how the nation's largest lendr-to-small-business is still shopping for an angel. And here's Stephanie Rosenbloom on how losing that lender-to-small-businesses would count as just one more insult to retail. Oh, and here is Bernie Becker, tell us how the House is taking action to prevent the closing of auto dealerships.

And here's Buce with the day's wrapup. Say what you will, I think there is good evidence that we dodged a meteor last fall: that we came within a gnat's eyebrow of total worldwide credit paralysis and the full meaning of that (hypothetical) impact is just too awful to imagine. We did it by hurling great gobs of money at rich people. It was a good thing to do. So pin a rose on Ben Bernanke.

The trouble is, nobody remembers. The bankers themselves have certainly forgotten as they go all into a hissy fit about how mean it was for that nasty government to give them all that money. The public remembers the giveaway part. They can't remember (maybe they could never really see) the deflected meteor. Krugman is certainly right that we seem to be blowing a chance for some sensible regulation, and that in the long run, this failure to act is likely to make things worse.

He's right, but politically, at least in the short term, that seems to me beside the point. Recall that we've got two parallel economies here--financial and real--with two parallel problems. "Financial" it seems we have solved in the short term, and even if it comes back again, that maybe won't happen until after 2016. The "real" problem--high unemployment, sluggish job creation--is just as real as it was last month, and perhaps even getting realer.

That last stuff, people notice. So far, they can see (a) that the bankers are getting richer with (b) taxpayer--i.e., "their"--money; while (c) they are getting bubkas. The longer this goes on, the more clearly they can see it.

This is all entirelyperfectly understandable, and in large part rational. But add another factor: clear-eyed as people may be about the shape of the problem they aren't nearly as coherent when it comes to figuring out what to do about it. They really don't have any idea what would amount to good bank regulation (aside from "hang the bums"). They find discussionos of bank regulation tedious and confusing. Their mind wanders. Meanwhile, they are happy to get behind measures like saving the car dealers (for extra credit: how many of the Cognressmen who are hot to save the car dealers are also among those who howl about he evils of govesrnment running a bank?).

Which brings me around to the lender-to-small-businesses, i.e., CIT. It now looks like (a) the government will let CIT fall off the cliff; and (b) some unknowable number of borrowers will be pushed into trouble as a result; oh, and (c) an unknowable but perhaps larger number of debtors will claim that heir problems were caused by the failure of CIT (I see that Blomberg has a story up tonight about an Alabama tool supplier, apparently the first company to blame its Chaper 11 on CIT--I have no idea whether justly or not).

You can see where I am going with this. The Chrysler dealers are just a blip. If business start going broke in asssorted Congressional districts; if they can claim with any degree of plausibility that it was CIT wot did it; and if the story catches on that the government pushed them off the cliff--why the howls from the pitchfork-and-tarbucket set will be loud enough to make the welkin ring.

I am not in any way delighted with this prospect. I voted for Obama and I would vote for him today. And like all grandstand kibitzers, I don't have anything like a plausible recipe for a different result. But if things keep going this way, the Presidency over the next few months is going to start looking a lot less fun.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Appreciation: The Origin of Financial Crises

I'm off at the crack of dawn for a few days on the East Coast, but I don't want to let slip a chance to put in a good word for George Cooper's The Origin of Financial Crises. That's "Crises" plural--so, not just about the current uproar. I made that mistake a few months ago when I opened Cooper looking for a tictoc of recent events; no such luck, so I set aside in favor of this and this--and got back to Cooper just now.

Anyway, say this for Cooper: Origins is a marvel of exposition. I don't know of anybody who puts the common sense of macro policy* into such a straightforward and comprehensible form. Cooper's style is a bit jaunty and chatty which puts your--or at least my--guard up at first. But he is able to deliver with examples and and analysis that are simple without oversimplification.

Cooper's content isn't terribly original and I don't think he means it to be so. It is, rather, a distallation (in varying degrees) of John Maynard Keynes, Hyman Minsky and perhaps Bernard Mandelbrot. He casts it all in a frontal attack against the Efficient Capital Market Hypothesis. This works for purposes of presentation, but I think it is overdone: as I have argued elsewhere I think the ECMH emerges in the current debate emerges as not so much wrong but rather crashingly irrelevant--offering no help on issues for which it didn't presume to offer help to begin with.

Cooper also undertakes to hook his argument onto some 19th Century mathematics developed by the great Clerk Maxwell for use in the making of machines (he even reprints a critical Maxwell paper at the end of the book). It's elegant and it may be right, but I think it may be a sidetrack. Insofar at it is an accessible analogy, it risks a false comparison. Insofar as it is trying to say something about the behavior of markets, it is probablywell enough said by more conventional sources.

Which leaves us with a straightforward message, not exactly unfamiliar, but too much forgotten of late. That is: bubbles happen. Financial markets carry an inherent risk of instability. It is the "the job of the Federal take away the punchbowl just when the party gets going." Cooper quotes those words; if they sound familiar, it is because they come from former Fed governor WilliamMcChesney Martin, who died in 1998.
*Well: there is a wonderful mini-text on macro issues: David A. Moss, A Concise Guide to Macroeconomics.

Appreciation: Parade's End

Well, Chez Buce has completed its readaloud of Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End--all 836 pages of it, all four volumes including the one that Graham Greene seemed to feel shouldn't ever have been written. It was worth it (having done the work, how could we think otherwise?)--worth it, but I must say a bit of a slog sometimes. It's hard to remember a book that is such a conbination of dazzling structure, delicate insight and perverse, wrong-headed self-indulgent eccentricity--if I see another exclamation point or ellipse, I may break something!...but either way, I can't remember anything else quite like it.

I guess Parade's End is remembered (if at all) as a "war novel"--World War I again, as with so many others. But as Robie Macauley points out in a superb introduction, it is not about the war per se as it is about a whole way of life--call it "Edwardian" or more broadly "Tory," or for lack of anything more adequate, just "before the war."

Here it gets stylistically interesting. A second-rate novel would try to paint a panorama. Ford is acute enough to recognize that he can't do that so he focuses instead on a small number--half a dozen or so--incidents, carefully and lovingly developed: a progression d'effect, Macauley observes, channeling Flaubert. Most of these have little or nothing to do with the war itself, although I must say Ford's account of one German bomb landing on one English trench--and its aftermath--is as hair-raising a piece of war literature as ever I've read. Virtually all the others count as something closer to drawing-room drama, although the war is always somewhere in the background, a looming presence.

Reading the closing chapters this past week or so, I found myself to my own surprise reminded of another book I was reading at the same time --Gyula Krúdy's Sunflower. One of my problems with Sunflower is that I didn't know quite how to take it, because the world of rural Hungary seemed so far away. Oddly enough, Ford's Edwardian England seems almost equally distant, and I sometimes found myself just as wildered with Ford as I had with Krúdy. At one point, Mrs. B interrupted to say (testily?)--you're reading it as comedy. Are you sure it is comedy? The answers were no, I wasn't sure it was comedy, but yes, I was reading it as comedy because I couldn't think of it any other way. I suppose the fall of a civilization should not be lightly regarded but there may be something to laugh about in it even so.

I do think there is one insurmountable problem with Parade's End and that is a certain hollowness at the core--Christoher Tietjens, the hero, the protagonist, the one who acts or suffers (mostly suffers) through the tumultuous events of his time. Macauley reports that he was modeled on a real person. Maybe, but I suspect the really real person was Ford himself who, from his pictures, looks just about the same as Tietjens is described. I think the best you can say for Christopher is that he fits in the classic tradition of novelistic heroes, from Don Quixote to Prince Myshkin. The trouble is that both Don Quixote and Prince Myshkin are to be treated with irony, and it is the irony itself that makes them so rich and subtle. I suppose you can give an ironic reading to Tietjens, but I'm not sure Ford understood it or intended it.

In my mind, that is a major drawback, but it isn't fatal. Even given the difficulty with the protagonist, there is so much richness of detail in the individual scenes-comic or otherwise--that I'm delighted to have read it and will cherish the experience.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Dog Did Nothing in the Moonlight (Surplus Men Dept.)

I've been reading Jonathan Steinberg's Why Switzerland? in the hope of finding out something about how this mountain fastness became a banking power. On that point I think I may come away unenlightened, but I'm picking up some fascinating stuff along the way. For example, about the Peace of Aarau.

You remember? Course you do. That's the one that ended the Second Villmergen War (with me now?) in 1712. By Steinbserg's account, it was a bloody and bitter conflict, essentially a religious war, a fit successor to the dreadful Thirty Years' War that tore Europe asunder between 1618 and 1648. Yet it ended with in a settlement, shaky at first but enduring. More: it was a treaty in which (as Steinberg says) "[t]he Catholic party lost its commanding position ... and was forced to accept parity of faiths ..." He marvels:
Here was a group of defeated states, profoundly convinced of the God-given rightness of their cause, accustomed to think of themselves, and rightly, as the founders of the Confederation, and absolutely sure that the heretical beliefs preached by the Reformed pastors brought death and damnation. In the wings, a powerful Catholic ally [sc. France] with inexhaustible funds stood ready to finance their crusade. A war of revenge seemed natural, inevitable and right.

No war took place. The Confederation survived. Another turning point pased at which nothing turned.
Why not? Exhaustion may have been a factor--Protestants had been fighting Catholics here for 200 years. Realpolitik certainly played a part, but that only begs the question. But Steinberg offers another reason, bound to suit the prejudices of staff and management here at Underbelly--something about surplus men:
A very shrewd Englishman travelling in Switzerland at jsut this period put it well: "If they did not continually drain their Country, by keeping troops in foreign service, they would soon be so much overstocked in proportion to the extent and fertility of it that in al probability they would break in on their neighbors in swarms or go further to seek out new seats." Obviously the service of the Bourbon King of Naples was a better place to see a turbulent young Obwaldner than at the gates of Basel, and no doubt the acceptance of compromise owes much to the export of the uncompromising.
--Jonathan Steinberg, Why Switzerland? 35-37 (Second ed. 1996)

But I'm still looking for the bankers. I have a vague sense that I've heard somewhere about banking families from Lucca coming up to settle when things got too hot for them at home during thee counter-reformation. But I haven't yet been able to put any flesh on those bones.

Update: That stuff about Lucca--apparently I said it before.

Oh All Right, Very Funny, Very Funny...

Link. Actually, some of them are kind of cute. H/T Joel.

The Uighurs and the World

Ask a Uighur (I have done this) about his or her family background and you may find yourself baffled. You'll get an odd melange of stories about Uzbeks, Kazakhs, perhaps even Tadjiks, but nothing at all about what you thought you were asking for: the background of the Uighurs themselves.

There's a good reason why this is so. That is: the modern "Uighur" identity is in large measure a late-come thing, the work of a fairly small group of urban visionaries who wanted to work to develop the society of Turkic peoples in the Xinjiang basin and knew they had a better chance if had a single identity with some claim at a history.

There is absolutely nothing sinister about this. You could say it is just exactly what almost every European nation has done (not to say however many non-nations) to try to nurture a collective identity. But it helps to explain one problem the Uighurs face in their conflict with "the Han"--the majority Chinese with whom they are in such visible conflict just now. Tibetans really have a history; we'd probably know about them even if they weren't being beaten up on. For Uighurs, the story isn't nearly so rich or textured and therefore harder to tell.

You get a clue from the Uighur Wiki page, where you can find an account of a Uighur empire that ended in 840 AD and followed by--read it critically now--a longish, convoluted, fairly difficult-to-follow account of the adventures and misadventures of various Turkic people. The story only gets bite with the coming of the Soviets in 1921: thenceforward we get a Uighur identity.

None of this for a moment denies the reality of the conflict in Western China, rooted in a long-standing and persistent conflict of cultures. None of this obscures the fact that the Chinese have poured ethnic Han into Western China with the purpose (to all appearances) of swamping and ultimately dissolving the ethnic Turkic peoples. But it may help to clarify just why it is the Uighurs (might as well call them that) have so much trouble developing a story with any traction.

Well, Who'd Have Guessed...

Last week when I cracked that there ought to be some sort of "progressive taxation" on University employees in time of trouble, I assumed I was just being snide. But here is UC President Mark Yudof with just such a plan and it looks like it is going to happen:

Most University of California professors and staff would have to take between 11 and 26 unpaid furlough days a year, cutting their pay by 4% to 10% under a revised budget proposal announced Friday by UC President Mark Yudof.

The UC Board of Regents is expected to approve the emergency plan next week in response to deep reductions in anticipated state funding. ...

The proposed furlough days would progress in seven steps up the pay scale, from those earning less than $40,000 to those above $240,000. For example, the group earning $60,001 to $90,000 would face 18 furlough days, equal to a 7% pay cut. The stepped plan is a major change from a controversial earlier proposal that had only two salary groups, and from an idea to cut pay without offering furloughs in exchange.
Link. Though exactly how a faculty member "takes a furlough" is far from clear. The typical professor's career is built around his research agenda. Although she may draw a paycheck from the university, she is in fact a kind of entrepreneurial free agent, devoting his primary efforts toward more and better publication so she can promote herself to a better job or at least more prestige. Meanwhile, Yudof is making it clear that is proposal does not allow for class cancellations. Meanwhile the primary. That leaves what? Committee service? Most faculty either (a) pretty much blow that off; or (b) do it for fun--so in either case, it is unlikely that their output will change much. Student contact? The truth is, in most departments, students don't demand that-all much student contact, and if faculty members provide contact hours, the chances are they do it because they are motivated from a sense of loyalty to their craft.

So for faculty (unlike staff), what we have here is an outright pay cut. That's lamentable. They need to put food on the table, and they deserve to be recognized. But in their heart of hearts, most of them know that they love the job and that if they had to, they'd probably do it for for free.

Judge Sotomayor Again

Chris Mealy offers a provocative two-part comment re Sonia Sotomayor,each part of which deserve a response.

One: I had said that Judge Sotomayor struck me as "lonely." Chris said "worked for Souter." I don't agree at all. Seems to me that Souter is one of those rare creatures who actually enjoys his own company. For money, got zillions; he doesn't have to live up a dirt road in Weare. Hey, if he wanted bright lights, he could move to Concord. Sotomayor, meanwhile, is there in the West Village, ensconced--uneasily, as it seems to me--alone in the middle of her vast network.

Chris' other point is more intriguing:
What is the ideal temperament and personality for a supreme court judge then? I suspect creativity might not be that useful. Creative people often go too far and in weird directions. That's what makes them fun (I'm thinking of Posner here). A boring old grind with a good heart might be just right.
You know, I have often wondered about that. And I may have said earlier (I'm too lazy to check)--I think that of all the qualities you might want in a good judge, brain power is not at the top of the list. It may be on the list somewhere, but I think I'd put it somewhere around sixth or seventh, behind--

Well, behind what? Might depend on your point of view. For a lawyer practicing in her court, I suppose steadiness/predictability is at the head of the list. Followed by diligence (which is not the same as workaholism). An ability to listen. Empathy/compassion gets in there, although even compassion can be overrated if it blots out any sense of principle or focus.

I suppose "knowledge of the law" gets in here somewhere also, but again, I suspect that as a quality it maybe, if not overvalued, at least misunderstood. A judge should know the basics of course, but beyond that, but she can't be expected to know everything. And part of the job of counsel is to advise him on the law; to make sure he does not fall into error. See steadiness, diligence, an willingness to listen, empathy, supra.

What is that, five? Okay, maybe I will let brain-power come next, but with a warning. As with being a lawyer, being a judge is in large part drudgery (think Mickey Mouse in the Sorcerer's Apprentice). Any experienced lawyer can point to judges who have been at it too long and who get bored with it and get weird--and this peril is likely to afflict the smart ones more severely than the stupid.

I'm pretty sure that judge Sotomayor is not "brilliant" in this sense, and as I suggest, I think that counts in her favor (I think I am more or less agreeing with Chris here). A particular problem for her is that she is joining a court of people who, for the most part, count themselves as "brilliant." Some--Alito, Breyer, maybe Roberts and Ginsberg--may deserve the imputation. Others--Scalia and Kennedy--probably less so than they think. I suspect that Thomas is pretty sure he is not brilliant and I wish I could persuade him that he is perhaps the better for it (John Paul Stevens was off playing golf in Florida and not available for testing). Part of her challenge will be figuring out how to cope with such a bunch of thoroughbreds--it's one of the reasons I tended to favor the former dean at Harvard, who has been dealing with a stable full of prima donnas for years now. Or Judge Wood from Chicago, who has some how learned to put up with Judges Posner and Easterbrook. It's hard to guess how she will do it: the Second Circuit, for all its talent, is really not the same kind of club. For this duty, maybe Judge Sotomayor's best preparation was not her childhood in the Bronx, nor her coming-out at Princeton and Yale, but her time going to lunch in Chinatown in a bullet-proof vest.