Monday, August 31, 2009

This is a Parody,Right?

Somebody tell me this is a crude and lumpy parody. I mean the screed, not the speaker's decision:
Nancy Pelosi, Patriotic Music Hater?

If you’ve ever been stuck on hold with a congressional office in the past, at least you’ve been able to enjoy some good patriotic music, as opposed to the lilting tones of generic smooth jazz that have been driving elevator users insane for decades. For years, congressional offices have played patriotic anthems as the background music during hold times.

Not any more. After we were startled by the hold music when we called a House office recently, sources on Capitol Hill informed us this week that the Democratic House leadership has made a sweeping decision that congressional offices now have the options of “smooth jazz” elevator music or no music at all.
But here's a better idea. Maybe every candidate for Speaker, as a test of competence, should be required personally to render a chorus of "The Star Spangled Banner."

And there's this:

Norway's Best Friend

One of the great puzzles of modern public policy is: how come Norway got it right? Recall: nearly every polity with significant natural resources turns into a kleptocracy where gangsters wrangle over the resource pool while everybody else can go to hell. Think Putin's Russia; think Harlan County, KY.

So how did Norway get it right, emerging as the poster child for responsible management of a resource find? This is another victory that probably has a thousand fathers, but thanks to Michael for showcasing a Financial Times story that identifies at least one. He's an Iraqi who came seeking medical care for his kid.

His name is Farouk al-Kasim, an Iraqi oil technocrat, married to a Norwegian he had met while studying in London. They had three children, but the youngest had cerebral palsy and needed medical care he would not get at home. So they came back to Norway. I won't repeat the rest of Martin Sandbu's fine story, except to make it clear tht al-Kasim appears to have played a central role both in the technical and in the institutional/political part of the Norwegian story. The FT headline writer calls him "The Iraqi who saved Norway from oil," which is certainly hyperbole, but if he didn't do the job single-anded, still Sandbu makes it clear that he played an important role in making it happen. Great reading, highly recommended.

Tepid Appreciation: Durrell's Dark Labyrinth

Packing to ship out for the Mediterranean, we did a quick readaloud of Lawrence Durrell's Dark Labyrinth. It's a trifle, really, with a promise of high mysteries that it doesn't begin to deliver. On this evidence, you would have to conclude something he read somewhere told him how to start a novel but nobody gave him a hint of how to carry one through. He does sketch a bunch of plausible and engaging characters--you really do want to know more about them--but then (caution, spoiler) more or less dumps them with little or (sometimes) no notion of what becomes of them or why. I can see why it seems to have fallen by the wayside.

And yet I have to grant--for all his deficiencies, Durrell is a smooth and polished narrative stylist who can keep you moving from page to page even when you sense that he no longer has much to say. And a bit more: in an ungenerous mood I'd say he was a downmarket Evelyn Waugh, trained (but without the talent) in the same school of cultivated urbanity. In a more accepting mood, I'd have to say that Durrell does have a remarkable talent for the evocation of place. His Alexandria Quartet (if I remember right, from many years ago) really does convey the stink and fragrance of Alexandria; his Sicilian Carousel is an amiable trifle, but it does carrry the ring of authenticity. For all my whining, I think I might still take a flutter on Bitter Lemons (about Cyprus) or Prospero's Cell (about Corfu)--maybe even the Avignon books, where (it is said) he tries to replay his Alexandrine success.

On this standard, Labyrinth is actually pretty good. Crete's a fascinating place with (as someone once said) more history than it can consume locally. Durrell does a convincing job of capturing some of its flavor, and also the flavor of a certain type of British traveller who seemed to wind up there. Not a major writer, then, nor a truly memorable experience. But taken for what he is worth, and without too many expectations, he is a distinctive and engaging voice.

Underbelly From Right to Left

Here's a bit of Underbelly in what I take to be Hebrew (one of the very many languages of which my ignorance is total). Interesting the words for which they cannot get translations, including "Telugu" and "Tokharian" and "Spritz." Evidently (this is all new to me) if you hold your cursor in just the right place over any particular sentence, it will translate back into English. For those who don't have a cursor, it's a piece on Ariel Rubenstein, distinguished economist and proprietor of the cybercloud museum of coffee.

Greenwald on Royalty

Glenn Greenwald writes with his usual acuity and acerbity today as a salutes Jenna Bush Hager on her reception into full adult membership in the pool of shared DNA that is the American ruling class. "We did a national search and imagine our surprise when she turned out to be just the right person for the job," someone probably did not say, but just might have.

Greenwald is catching predictable flac for not mentioning Demo aristos (in this week of the Ted Kennnedy funeral), but this criticism misses his particular point. That is: Greenwald's favorite aristos are those who fulminate against affirmative action and who cluck over the ascent of Sandra Sotomayer because someone may have (gasp!) given her a helping hand along the way.

He's dead on of course, but he might have mentioned one other luminary whom the Chosen might have welcomed into their own circle of merit. That would be Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas who simply cannot bear the thought that he might have made it to the top through anything other than his own slash and grab.

But I think I'd generalize the point. Rightly understood, I think it is fair to say that we are all beneficiaries of some kind of affirmative action: the height gene, the gene that makes us look like Leonardo di Caprio, to say nothing of loving parents, a warm-hearted middle-school teacher, a kindly and avuncular old geezer who took a shine to us while we carried his golf bag. The unseemly part may be not (only) the blindness to the fact that being a Bush, a Kennedy, a McCain, a Russert, a Rockefeller, a Bayh, but that we are all just damn lucky to be as well off as we are, and to be prepared to show a little humility about all the bounty that has been showered upon us.

Update: On rereading, I realize that this comes out all wrong, as if I intended to be kind and forgiving to the insiders in the DNA club. I meant nothing of the sort: taken as a whole, they are mostly preening, smug and self-satisfied.

Unfree Freedom

Of all the world of hurt in the newspaper business these days, I suppose the story that saddens me least is the collapse into bankruptcy of the grotesquely misnamed "Freedom" newspapers the franchise of the Hoiles family out of Irvine, CA, and for long a notorious pimple on the proboscis of journalism. To my mind, Hoiles mostly practiced the kind of libertarianism that meant freedom for me but not for you, gnarlier but not that dissimilar to the Pulliams of Arizona/Indiana--though to his credit, R. C. Hoiles did oppose the Japanese internment in World War II, when it must have taken not only principle, but courage.

I am, however, interested to learn that there is a nicer juicy bit of personal/family drama here. The New York Times reports:

Freedom’s bankruptcy will most likely wipe out the 45 percent equity stake held by two big private equity firms, the Blackstone Group and Providence Equity Partners. ...

The majority of Freedom is still owned by the Hoiles family... Freedom accepted the investments from Blackstone and Providence nearly six years ago to allow some Hoiles family members to sell their stakes in the company, ending strife within the clan.

So, the clear-eyed business heads get to hang onto the bankroll, while the sentimentalists who stuck to their guns will be eating dirt.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Mankiw on Wealth: If You're So Smart, Why Aren't You Poor?

Greg Mankiw,who has deployed all the resources of a formidable intellect to proving that it's okay to be rich, is at it again, this time tangling with Paul Krugman. I won't attempt to defend Krugman (who is not exactly begging for my succor anyway), but I will focus on one of Mankiw's consoling platitudes first principles:

2. More talented people tend to earn higher incomes.

My guess is that the story here is far more complex than Mankiw wants to admit (perhaps even to himself), but in general not nearly so true as he thinks it is, or at least not in the same way.

We can start by dispensing with the circularity: rich people on the whole probably have a talent for getting rich. I say "probably" here to include cases of sheer accident, like The Inheritors. But setting them aside, my point is that if we want to make any sense out of this analysis we have to define "talent" as something other than "whatever got you here."

In fairness, I don't think Mankiw makes this error. He seems willing to concede that we can measure talent by something exogenous like, say, IQ tests, so let's play along. Specifically, my suspicion is that the relation between talent=IQ and high incomes is not nearly as linear or highly correlated as Mankiw thinks it is. Or rather: up to a point I suppose that IQ leads to higher income, but I suspect the point is fairly modest and well defined. Say, maybe 125-130.

What happens beyond 130? Two things. One is that beyond this point, extra intelligence doesn't really help all that much. For most high-income jobs, you probably have to read, to remember a bunch of stuff, for some perhaps to add and subtract. But the number of jobs that require really first-rate IQ is pretty modest (more on those jobs in a moment). And two, the flip side--for many high-income jobs, high intelligence probably gets in the way of good performance. It is very likely to associate with poor social skills, maybe with some degree of Asperger's Syndrome (if there is such a thing. If you are a lawyer, they probably keep you in the library writing briefs; if a doctor, maybe you are in a skill that does not require a bedside manner, like maybe pathology. But short of that, if you are really bright, there is a good chance you are in your mother's basement waiting for a guest spot on Wayne's World.

To test yourself on this, among presidents, whom do you prefer: the really bright guys like Woodrow Wilson or Jimmy Carter or Richard Nixon? Or the less bright but more stable and balanced like Franklin D. Roosevelt or Dwight D. Eisenhower or Ronald Reagan?

As an example for his own case, Mankiw deploys Krugman himself, a presumptively bright guy. But the choice of Krugman shows just how weak his argument is. Because the thing about Krugman is that he is a professor--and let's face it, academia is one place where poor social skills are actually rewarded. I'm a great Krugman admirer and I think he is right far more often than Greg Mankiw. But I've heard Krugman himself say that nobody should trust him with a government job and I couldn't agree more. Hell, we've already got ourselves into enough trouble with this guy.

Hatch on Kennedy

I won't be coy here; I have often found it hard to love Orrin Hatch. It's not just a matter of substance; it's the buttoned-up, oily, smarmy and snide manner (did I miss anything important here?). But I'll have to forgive him a lot for the eulogy he delivered at the Ted Kennedy funeral. It was gracious; it was generous; it was kind; and it sounded entirely heartfelt. You got the sense that they really were great friends--and, what is perhaps less obvious but more important, that they knew how to be friends, however much politics may have divided them. I think I'd be a better man if I could treat my enemies with such courtesy and respect.

We all--well, a good many of us--regret the increasing bellicosity of politics of late and harken back, inter alia, to the time when the Senate was more of a gentlemen's club (sic, was it because, aside from Margaret Chase Smith, there were essentially no ladies?). The gentlemen's club is probably a mixed blessing: one's mind is not always put at ease by the thought of Lyndon Johnson chumming up with the likes of Richard Russell and Robert Kerr. I suppose I've quoted somewhere before the old French adage that there is more difference between two socialists, one of whom is a deputy and the other of whom is not, than there is between two deputies, one of whom is a socialist and the other is not. But civility has its claims.

I suppose part of what was going on here is that both Kennedy and Hatch, by reputation at lest, were hard workers. And heaven knows the job of a Senator, properly understood, can be very hard work: slow boring of hard boards, in Max Weber's imperishable phrase. If you are willing to do the work, you probably come to understand and respect those who work as hard as you do--I think it was Michael Barone who coined the distinction between "show horses" and "work horses." Barry Goldwater was a show horse in the Senate; come to think of it, so was Jack Kennedy. It appears that Teddy and Orrin were both workhorses and came to appreciate each other for it.

I never thought I'd hear myself say it: we need more Senators like Orrin Hatch. But then, we could use a few more like Ted Kennedy.

Afterthought: My friend Michael, who was at one time a Washington insider, liked to tell an anecdote about Kennedy as workhorse. The mantra here is "the bag is closing!" Evidently Kennedy carried a big thick work-bag, which he took home every night. If your briefing paper made it into the bag by closing time, then you could be confident that the Senator would have read the paper by the next morning. One delights in the picture of Teddy in his wet tee-shirt, drinking, womanizing and generally misbehaving, all the time with one hand on a briefing paper, fondling the bag.

Must-Read of the Week: Reid on Health Care

I read this on my Blackberry while waiting for a table at Cafe Pasqual in Santa Fe last week. Hey, I'm learning how to function in the new world!--but not learning fast enough to have known how to post it directly. Anyway, it's T.R. Reid, once of The Washington Post (did he take a buyout?) with the best short summary of health care issues I've seen anywhere:

In many ways, foreign health-care models are not really "foreign" to America, because our crazy-quilt health-care system uses elements of all of them. For Native Americans or veterans, we're Britain: The government provides health care, funding it through general taxes, and patients get no bills. For people who get insurance through their jobs, we're Germany: Premiums are split between workers and employers, and private insurance plans pay private doctors and hospitals. For people over 65, we're Canada: Everyone pays premiums for an insurance plan run by the government, and the public plan pays private doctors and hospitals according to a set fee schedule. And for the tens of millions without insurance coverage, we're Burundi or Burma: In the world's poor nations, sick people pay out of pocket for medical care; those who can't pay stay sick or die.

I read this piece on a Friday. The author tag said Reid was doing a book on health care "to be published Monday." Later the same--Friday--afternoon, I saw it showcased in a Santa Fe bookstore. The book is available here. I see they have a Kindle, but it costs $12.46, which pencils out to about 23 pages for a dollar, which sounds steep to me.

Update: For some fascinating back-story on Reid's conflict with PBS over health care, go here.

Dozenal

Well, here's news. Turns out that the "Duodecimal Society" is now "The Dozenal Society." Apparently all this happened some time ago, although I was not consulted or informed. I learn all this from Michael Qunion at World Wide Words. who seems to be amused by the word. I fancy the concept itself: replace base-10 counting with base-12.

We could certainly do it: clocks already work on base-12. And it would be a whole lot more convenient: 12 is divided by 2, 3, 4 and 6, while poor 10 gets only 2 and 5. I suppose it was what I had in mind a while back when I tried to lop a dozen years off my age. I just didn't know they had a society before, much less a renaming.

There is an American branch, but I gather the mother church here is British, and it all does seem very British, not so? Recall it was Plantagenet Palliser in the Trollope novels dedicated his political career to the establishment of the decimal currency. Had he lived to climb that mountain, one has to suppose he would have moved on.

Anyway, here's to you, duodecimalists dozenists. I in-dozen-d to pay you more at-dozen-tion in the future.

Friday, August 28, 2009

What Stan Said

Go here. This, BTW, comes not from a gang of fire-breathing lefties. Capital Gains and Games is a blog run by a bunch of wonks who would just love to find a "centrist" party they could latch on to. Which is perhaps how I think of myself.

The Non-Julia (and the Non-Rachel)

Over at Slate, Regina Schrambling breaks out the terrible truth: Julia Child may be a saintly woman, but she's not all that cookable. Schrambling talks about the canonical Mastering the Art of French Cooking. My copy of that one disappeared many years ago in a divorce; I do retain The Way to Cook and I look at it from time to time by way of reference but I'm not sure I've ever cooked a whole meal--or even a whole dish--out of it.

Which is all by way of excuse for me to plump again for the non-Julia: Elizabeth David, the woman who introduced Mediterranean cooking to England. Rummaging around my bookcase, I find three Elizabeth Davids: A Book of Mediterranean Food, and Summer Cooking,both from NYRB Classics, and Italian Food, from Penguin. With absolutely no disrespect to Julia--who is just as wonderful as everybody says she is--David is surely the antdote. She's restrained, she's low-key, she's direct and to the point. For example:
SCAMPI LESSATI
(Boiled Scampi)


Boil the unshelled scampi tails in salted water for 10 minutes. Serve them hot with melted butter, leaving each person to shell his own.
That's it? That's all? Well, no, not quite. Elizabeth adds:
This is perhaps the best way of appreciating the delicate flavour of the scampi.
Oh. Ah. Right. Got it. Actually, I don't do it quite that way any more. One, I don't use water; in my view, it's better with beer. On the other hand, I don't "boil for 10 minutes." I think this makes them too rubbery. Rather, I start them in cold stuff and bring them to a simmer and hold until they are just cooked through. Still, the fact is that Elizabeth has got to the point: find good ingredients, and stay out of their way. She's good to go back to, whenever you need to clear the head.

Or, we could go on to:
SCAMPI FRITTI
(Fried Scampi)

There are several ways of frying scampi:The tails can be taken raw out of their shells, dusted with flour and plainly fried in oil, or they can be dipped in egg and breadcrumbs or in frying batter. They can also be first boiled, and then friend in any of these ways.
And the last line kicker again:
They are best served plain, with no garnish but lemon.
That's the point isn't it? Look, this is not all that difficult. Just don't screw it up.

Okay, I am being selective. Not every recipe comes in just a few lines. She takes most of two pages to explain "Octopus, Squid, Cuttle" to the English audience, advising, that "Polipi" i.e., Octopus, "musrt be bashed a good deal before cooking--gads, I which I had known that the first time I tried to cope with one. She ends with the ambiguous advice that "Diogenes the Cynic, it is said, died from trying to eat a raw inkfish."

In simplicity and straightforwardness, I suppose David is closer to Rachel Ray. But she is really the no-Rachel just as she is the non-Julia. Straightfoward she may be, but she doesn't sound working-mother harried so much as uncluttered and focused on the task.

There are at least two biographies of David, neither of which I have read. But from the sound of things, her life wasn't as simple as her approach to dining. Wiki says that made a "marriage of convenience" with "a man whom she did not ultimately respect." It says that "she had many lovers" and that at "49, she suffered a cerebral hemorrhage, possibly related to her heavy drinking." It adds: "Although she recovered, it affected her sense of taste and her libido."

Sadly, I can't speak for her libido (come to think of it, which of us can ever speak for our libido?). But her taste seems to me impeccable. More than impeccable, she seems to have understood early that good food was worth attending to and worth taking seriously. And not that-all difficult.

Source: both recipes quoted are from the Italian Food with an introduction by--oh, look here, folks: Julia Child.

Appreciation: Morris on The Tycoons

This review is about four years late, but I'll do it anyway, for two intelocking reasons: one, it's a pretty good book, and two, it's easily misunderstood.

The book is Charles R. Morris' The Tycoons, first published, if I read this right, in 2005. Let's start with the misunderstandings which are, I suspect, either self-inflicted or the work of an incompetent publisher. The most important arises from the subtitle: How Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Jay Gould, and J. P. Morgan Invented the American Supereconomy. I can't think of a single respect in which this phrase is accurate. Granted, Morris puts a spotlight on the fabulous foursome--rather, threesome, since he never quite makes the case that Gould belongs in their company (in preference to, say, E.H. Harriman, who seems every bit as important as Gould, and in his own lone). But it's almost perfunctory: when the three are relevant to some larger story, he keeps the focus on them; otherwise, he simply moves away. And the profiles themselves are pretty much second-hand stuff, summaries of what you'd get in more complete form from any number of standard biographies.

What Morris does far better--where he is far more helpful--is in his review/analysis of the vast secondary literature on the structure of development in the 19th Century. Thus he has a number of enlightening insights to offer about the place of technology/innovation in economic growth (in this respect, a good companion to Joel Mokyr's Levere of Riches)--close alongside such related matters as the development of replaceable parts. He also offers a fascinating discussion of what you might call the "puzzle of deflation." That is: after 1873, American prices went into a cycle of decline. But wages in many cases seemed to decline more slowly than other expenses--so the lot of ordinary people might seem to have improved. Yet they weren't happy with it. What can have caused this unrest? Morris doesn't have a ready answer, although he offer some general comments about social instability. But he sets forth the evidence nicely, and makes a good case for the proposition that the puzzle did exist.

More generally, Morris offers some useful notes toward a general analytical framework to understand both the successes and the perils of the economy at the end of his story. That is: we have a market heavy on items with high fixed costs and low marginal costs. Railroads are perhaps the obvious example: it takes a ton mof money to build a railroad, but once it is in operation, you re impelled to accept almost any return, hoever trifling, rather than let your stock sit idle. This led to persistent cycles of oversupply and "ruinous competition"--two words that JP Morgan, in particular, tended to utter as if one. A lot of the competition does indeed seem to have been ruinous, but it seems to have accompanied a spectacular cycle of innovation and technological creativity. As an aside, Morris points out that we've gone through something of the same nature in our own recent past in telecoms--think of how many winners and losers we saw in the 90s in telecoms, but think how much the product has changed as part of the same process.

Morris sets himself up here for what I take to be a more general message about the 20th Century, although he doesn't spell it out in detail. In my own rephrasing: the American economy was the victim of its own success. "We" (=they) built up a network of complex and powerful--yet dynamic--entities, capable of producing a huge volume of product at low prices (think Model T Ford, bakelite telephones). Yet we made ourselves so invulnerable that we went soft. We became a woolly mammoth which had no idea what to do when the cave men showed up with clubs and spears. The reader is invited as an exercise to identify his own favorite example. Mine would be steel. Morris pointed out that almost nothing happened by way of innovation in American steel production after the great consolidation at the turn of the (20th) Century. Protected by strong tariffs and the ruination of our competitors, we still enjoyed a pretty strong domestic steel industry at the end of World War II. The generation after that can be read as almost nothing more than a cycle of evasions and lost opportunities as we threw away our received advantage.

Morris is so good at what he puts into this book that it is a shame to consider how much he has left out. But you'd have to concede that you can't call it a universal history, no matter how good it is at the breech-loading rifle and the open hearth furnace, if it leaves out any but the slightest mention of the trans-Atlantic cable or the electric light bulb.

A final word about the personalities. As I say, Morris may not regard them as central to his story. Still, he has some interesting insights. He seems to give the highest marks to Rockefeller who, in Morris' view, had a spectacular ability to be right sooner than just about any of his competitors (and not nearly as evil as his critics charged). He is slightly more guarded on Morgan. Morris grants him his energy and integrity. He finds Morgan guilty of a certain lack of imagination--yet ironically, it may be this very lack of imagination that may have kept him on message, and made him such a rock of stabilityin time of trouble. Carnegie by turns comes across as talented and energetic, yet a hard man to like or admire--often mean and mischievous with his friends to the point of (ironically) obstructing his own best interests. Gould remains for me a fascinating character--was he a creative scoundrel or just a scoundrel? Morris seems to vote for the former, although he doesn't offer enough by way of detail to make his case.

Ironically, perhaps the best portrait in the book is one of a man not in the title, and whose presence is only tangentially relevant to Morris' plot. That would be Frederick Winslow Taylor, father of "Taylorism," and "efficient management," the dark progenitor of the modern business school. Morris clearly dislikes Taylor whose attitude he finds mean and snobbish, and whose pretensions he finds overblown. I suppose his point here is that Taylor represents all that went wrong with the American economy in the (early decades of) the 20th Century, just as the other four represent what went right with it in the 19th. He's certainly onto something here and I think I'll forgive him for not quite integrating the character sketch into his general point.

Granting its limitations, though, I still can't think of a better introduction to the structure of the American economy than Morris' account. As qualified, highet marks.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

"Just When I Thought This Junk Was Beginning to Make Sense..."

Calvin in the comics said that "in the middle ages lords and vassals lived in a futile system" (the strip is here, but is it bootlegged?).

"That's 'feudal system,'" Hobbes cautions. He could have elaborated:
Montesquieu was the first writer to use the adjective féodal in the context of a social state. He used it to describe a condition where monarchy had so far degenerated as to be forced to share power with a military aristocracy whose power base was their knights, established on hereditary fiefs. He coined the term to describe the eighth-century Carolingian Francia. ... The English Whigs who read him were rather more sympathetic to the 'feudal' aristocracy (such as that which routed King John at Runnymede) which was seen on such occasions as a bulwark against overbearing monarchy. ... The next dimension added to the construct 'feudalism' came in less than a generation, with Adam Smith in 1776, He gave it an economic dimension. Like Montesquieu, Smith believed that a feudal aristocracy was antipathetic to the king and to ordered government. ... He made much of the change in his native country caused by the 1745 rebellion. To him the defeat of feudal Scotland in the wreck of the Jacobite cause led toa new nation enjoying commercial and agricultural prosperity. ... The third dimension of feudalism has less to do with society and economics than zeitgeist. ...[I]t was first articulated in England by the Georgian orientalist, jurist and radical politician, Sir William Jones (1746-94). Jones quite agreed with Adam Smith but added touches characteristic of his time; his feudal society had a Gothick, anti-papist background. ... The medievalism of the early-nineteenth-century England, the medievalism that influenced Sir Walter Scott, Pugin and the Tractrians, was just waiting for terms like ;feudalism' or 'feudal system' to give political and social shape to their various versions of medieval history. ... Marx ... did not much add to ther confusion. His 'feudalism' was at root that of Adam Smith, a primitive, socio-economic order stifling commercial development. ... Marx ... made it universal. ... Marx saw feudalism in every society where the powerful victimised the weak and imposed tribute on them.
--David Crouch, The Birth of Nobility 163-4 (2005)

Santa Fe Opera Note: Traviata

I had the great good fortune to see Natalie Dessay do Daughter of the Regiment a couple of years back, in what seemed at the time like a career-defining performance. In retrospect, I think it may have been az curse. It was a delight to see her in Daughter as she clowned, caterwauled and generally charmed her way across the stage, releasing her inner tomboy. But it turns out that tomboys once released are not easily put back. A few months after I saw her in Lucia di Lammermore, where she offered the oddest of opera spectacles an (almost) comic mad scene.

Last night as Violetta in Traviata at Santa Fe, the tomboy was back. She arrived in a carrot-top hairdo with a yelp. She spent the ballroom scene horsing around with her buddies in a manner that was fun to watch, but hardly Violetta. You got the sense that she didn't have a clue what her heroine was all about.

But perhaps surprisingly, a few minutes later "fors'è lui," she was wonderful: meditative, introspective, touched with pathos. Almost as much so a few minutes later in "sempre libera" she was almost as good, although this time, she could have used a bit more of her natural energy and tension (for a concert rendition, go here). I think the point may be that she is at her best alone. In the crowd, her natural self emerges, and a wonderful self it is, but not right for the role.

You could see the problem again in one of my favorite of all opera, her encounter with the elder Germond, when he tells her "don't you understand, sweetie, I have a daughter with a reputation to protect and you are a mere trollope." Anthony Michaels-Moore played papa with great poise and dignity and, perhaps out of character for Germonds, he actually inspired a good deal of sympathy. Here I think the point is that for the scene to work as planned, you need a Violetta who is vulnerable and pathetic: Dessay, god bless her, is neither of the above.

I suspect Dessay wasn't helped in any of this by her director, Laurent Pelly, who is a wonderfully inventive talent, but who certainly isn't going to be remembered for delicacy or restraint. She's still wonderful and so is he--I'd go along way to see either. But Traviata didn't show her at best advantage, and I'm looking forward to another day on which there may be more restraint.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Santa Fe Opera Note: Don Giovanni

Standing up in a bookshop at the Santa Fe Opera last night, I read something about Mozart's Don Giovanni that I would sign on to. So: tis said that DG is not the greatest opera in the world, although it has lots of, perhaps the most, greatest operatic music. One after another, these boffo numbers keep crashing over you, but the plot as a whole--well, I define anyone to give an accurate and intelligible account of the second act.

We're here in Santa Fe for a couple of days in our frantic race away from the demons of mortality. The DG performance itself here was passable but patchy. There were some strong singers but they didn't always coordinate well together. There were others who coordinated well but weren't that-all strong. For my money, Charles Workman as Don Ottavio was the prize of the lot--here are some snippet reviews that sound right to me.

I suppose that an opera director, like a general, goes to war with the talent s/he has, but it seemed to me the problem here might have been in the directing. There was a lot of stage business that didn't make a lot of sense--what is this about the Commendatore showing up drunk? And it certainly didn't help that the conducting was pretty tame--I'd think it would take some ingenuity to present a performance of DG where the orchestra did not make your hair stand on end, but this crowd seems to have achieved it.

A propos of nothing, then, I will now tell my favorite DG story. It's about the text-booklet I used to have--one of those that reprints the libretto in three, four, maybe five different languages. Anyway, here we are at the end of "La Ci Darem La Mano," the great seduction song--the pont at which the Don has finally brought her around. In Italian, he says "andiamo," and she purrs "andiamo." The English reflects it: "Let's go...let's go." But the German version says:
Nun komm!
Oh ja!
Now, that's my idea of a seduction scene.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Liveblogging Napoleon's Russian Invasion:
Stendhal Finds it All Vulgar

Henri Beyle, not yet the world-famous novelist known as Stendhal, accompanied the forces of Napoleon all the way to Moscow and back. On August 24, 1812, writing from Smolensk, he gives his general view of matters:
My own happiness at being here is not great, How a man changes! My old thirst for new sights has been entirely quenched. Ever since I saw Milan and Italy, everything I see repels me with its crudity. Would you believe it that, without any vexation that affects me more than anybody else, and without any personal sorrow, I am sometimes on the point of bursting into tears? In this ocean of barbarity there is not a sound that finds an echo in my soul! Everything is coarse, dirty, both physically and morally sinking. I have found some small pleasure only in having a little music played to me on an untuned piano by an individual whose feeling for music is on a level with my feeling for mass. Ambition no longer has any influence over me: the most handsome ribbon would seem to me no compensation for the mire in which I am sunk. I imagine the heights that my soul inhabits--that soul which composes works, listens to Cimarosa and is in love with Angela, amidst a beautiful climate--I imagine the heights as delicious hills. Far from these hills, down in the plain, are fetid marshes--and here I am plunged, and nothing in the world except the sight of a map can remind me of my hills.
--Beyle to Félix Faure, 24 August 1812
[Letter 64 in To the Happy Few: Selected Letters 138-40, 139 (1986)]

Faure was sometimes First President of the Royal Court at Grenoble. Beyle addresses a number of letters to Faure, although he elsewhere (in Vie de Henri Brulard) he desribes Faure as sometimes "about the dullest of my friends."

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Shame

Something has been bugging me since I finished In Fed We Trust, Dan Wessel's helpful account of Ben Bernanke and his pals during the near-meltdown and I think I've put my finger on what it is.

Put it this way: the chief Bernanke weapon against impending disaster was the great Money Slosh: turn on all the taps full blast and hope that we could drown the monster of depression the same way the Dutch fought off the Spaniards by piercing the dikes.

I said yesterday that I tend to think that this was probably right, although I was a little irritated that Wessel did next to nothing to present it as anything other than a self-evident truth.

But there's the thing. Even accepting all this to be true, still I'm struck by the fact that there is not one word of anything even remotely like blame against anyone in this whole account (unless you count the obstreperous Sheila Baird.). Really now. I know this was a time of crisis, but didn't anyone think to spare just one moment to marvel if nothing else, against the narcissism, the bloated greed, the heart-fatally-bent-on-mischief recklesness, that threw us all into this mess?

Maybe, but you wouldn't guess it from Wessel. But even conceding that we had to fatten these lords of misrule, you'd think that someone might have cherished the irony.

There seems to be something about the regulator mindset here, although it is a bit hard to pin down. As to culprits, it is impossible to put any direct blame on Bernanke himself, who seems to be the most selfless of public servants. Nor (with perhaps slight qualification) against Tim Gerthner, the man born with the briefcase under his arm. Henry Paulson, Treasury Secretary and former head of Goldman Sachs, is perhaps a tougher case although nobody that I know of has suggested that he made direct private profit on the deal.'

But how refreshing it would have been if just one of these regutors had muttered, just once and sotto voce (though within earshot of Wessel)--"I'd really like to tie these guys to an anthill and cover them with honey."

Maybe wht prompted me to this was an encounter with Michael Froomkin's dismay at the scot-free escape of all Bush's foreign policy bad-guys. Froomkin's proposed 11th-hour last-next-best remedy: shunning.
Shun Ridge. Shun Yoo. Shun Rove. Shun Gonzales. Shun all the torturers and torture enablers, and shun the perverters of law and justice. Don’t ever put anything their way. Don’t give them a visiting gig. Don’t invite them on TV. Don’t buy their books. And make it contagious. Make them professional lepers. Make the people who give them treats sorry they did it.
It's a start. And in a very limited way, it may be happening. Indeed, it amuses me to learn that one of those shunning Alberto ("Speedy;" "Fredo") Gonzalez may be his old mentor and protector--boy what a class act that guy is.


But why stop there? In addition to shunning, how about shaming? I admit that these guys may be beyond all capacity for shame, but we might get some comfort nonetheless. As I recall, bankrupts in Scotland used to have to wear dunce caps so people would be able to identify them and know of their shame. Closer to home, how about a "financial predator register," like the sexual predator register, so we will know which of these guys is living in our neighborhood, among vulnerable school children? Or faces on the post office wall? Or endlessly repeating episodes of COPS, or those old-crimes eyebrow-raisers which seem to be the only thing besides Obermann and Maddow that actually run on MSNBC?

Or how about the pillory? Yes, the pillory would be nice. HE SOLD ADULTERATED SECURITIES. Smack! goes the rotten tomato. FLOOSH!--that was a cabbage. And if anyone dares to call it "cruel and unusual"--why, I suspect we might find something in the files of the Justice Department that would be just the protection we need.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Appreciation: Wessel on Bernanke

There's a delicious moment of unintended hilarity in the midst of In Fed We Trust, David Wessel's absorbing account of life at the epicenter of the non-meltdown last fall---together with a cautionary moral. The subject is Sheila Bair. Recall that Bair is the "strong-willed" Wessell's phrase and somewhat fortuitous (by Wessell's account) chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Commission.

Coming from Mars, you might expect to find the FDIC in charge of any effort to deal with banks in crisis. After all it is the FDIC that nationalizes liquidates failing banks. They are the guys in polyester who swoop in on a Friday night and open the doors next Monday morning after a transfer which one hopes will prove entirely invisible to the attending public. And pretty good at it, too: by my count, they've done their schtick 81 times so far this year.

Bank regulation has long proven way more complicated than that, and Wessel provides a thrilling account of how Ben Bernanke, et al., by a mix of bluff, guile and improvisation tortured the statute books and the bank ledgers in their campaign to fend off Armageddon.

Until they needed Bair's consent, and Bair said "no." By Wessel's account, this happened more than once, and evidently it made some of the salvationists just crazy. You get the impression that she put the whole operation at risk by stubbornly (my word) refusing to extend FDIC protection beyond a fairly restrictive letter of the law. Evidently she just didn't understand, Wessel seems to suggest, just how narrow-minded and obstructionist her concerns had come to be, and how much she put at risk by her skepticism and hesitation.

Okay, let's grant that from other accounts we can affirm that Bair was something of a loose cannon in the bailout operation and wasn't afraid of bandying about her power to make known her views. But there is a perfectly obvious (though invisible to Wessel) reason why she proved so obstructionist. That is: they treated her like a girl. Unintentionally but unambiguously, Wessel makes it clear that the pooh-bahs at Treasury and the Fed scarcely gave a thought to Bair's role in the great enterprise until they needed her signature or he bankroll. Even then, they seem to have perceived her as more or less of a speed bump and couldn't understand why she didn't just flatten when they rolled over.

In fairness, the real problem here doesn't seem to be Bernanke himself, who comes across in Wessel's account as one of the least ego-driven politicians alive: Wessel says that early in the crisis Bernanke "courted" (Wessel's word) Bair, "once going to her office and sitting next to her to a computer keyboard to fashion a compromise" (wouldn't you like to see Alan Greenspan do that, huh?). But Wessel says that later Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and New York Fed Chairman (later Paulson's successor)Tim Geithner all came to see her as "stubborn and myopic." Tellingly, he says they also came to envy "the political agility that made her a hero on Capitol Hill."

Okay folks, time for the moral. In two words, "Stockholm Syndrom"--Wessel is just way too close to his story. He'a a diligent reporter with a pretty good knack for untangling abstruse money maneuvers, and a delicate touch for nuance as he tries to understand at least some of the personal issues involved. But his critical detachment is just about zero. So what we get here is the Bernanke version, told not with any insidious ulterior motive, but in a straightforward manner by a serious reporter who simply believes that Bernanke and his allies were right.

The Bair example is dramatic and amusing, but it is not the most important. Of much greater urgency: Wessel simply takes it for granted that Bernanke was essentially right: save us all from drowning by turning on all the spigots. Now, as a matter of fact, I tend to think Bernanke was right. But how can I know? More, how can anyone know? How do you test the rightness of a decision like this, when you can never have anything even remotely like a counterfactual?

Wessel gives you none of this. And while this kind of critical inquiry might be a lot to expect from a piece of quasi-journalism, still there were ways of approaching the issue. Specifically, as Wessel does have the courtesy to note, there are plenty of people who thought that Bernanke's strategy was fundamentally wrong. I mean in particular the several other Fed officials who voiced doubts and reservations (albeit almost always out of earshot from the daily press). Or John B.Taylor from Stanford who has positioned himself as the loudest nay-sayer in recent monetary debates (and who does get passing mention in Wessel's account). I'm pretty sure any one or more of them would have been happy to take some time on the record with Wessel to add dimension the main line of the narrative.

A related problem may be book-structual at least as much as (or more than) Stockholm Syndrome. That is the focus on Bernanke and the Fed. Bernanke certainly is a central figure--perhaps the central figure. But just about every page of Wessel's book makes clear that the rescue effort was a full court press, involving not just Bernanke but also Paulson and Geithner and others. The trouble with the focus on Bernanke is that he leaves Wessel unable to spell out the relationship between the three players. Certainly they understood the importance of cooperative/coordinated effort. But did they truly think alike? This ias implausible. A better and more thorough book would have spent more time trying to suss out the relationship between them.

But a better and more thorough book probably couldn't have been ready for publication so soon after the events it chronicles, not even (or especially not) if it was written a beat reporter whose objective was to grind out a good piece of second-generation journalism. That's a limitation, but granting the limitation, I'd say that Wessel has done quite a good job. I wouldn't be surprised but the authors of later and more leisured accounts will be peeking at their copies of Wessel's before they undertake to write their own.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Ashland Theater Note: Macbeth

I had thought that I'd never see a really first-class Macbeth, because the play requires two over-the-top performances--Macbeth and his Lady--and you couldn't expect two that strong in the same place: like matter and anti-matter.

I think the current Ashland offering pretty much proves me wrong: Peter Macon as the King and Robin Goodrin Nordli, seen yesterday with a pig-snout on her nose, were just about as powerful and evenly-matched a pair as you could hope for. The result was all you could want in a Macbeth: rapid, scary, pathetic, blood-and-thunder theater dynamic enough to hold any live audience, with enough inner life left over to win forgiveness from an academic. Macon, who turned in a good Othello last summer, seemed even better suited for the role of the King: eager, ambitious, warm-hearted and just gullible enough to think that he could do it. Nordli, who seems to have tackled just about every fat female part in the canon, was mostly his match, although Macon did have a kind of raw energy that would just spill over the rest of the stage whenever he was present.

But Mrs. Buce adds--and I think she is right--that the director did betray Nordli in one important respect: she stepped on Nordli's big speech. That would be the mad scene, the one where Lady Macbeth says "out, damn spot," and "who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him." Nordli started out at the top of a long ramp, her face in shadows; she was followed by three children in black who seemed to be a part of the witches' intern program. By they time you could see her, you realized that she was covered with so much--what, pancake makeup? A mask?--that was supposed to make her look crazy and just made her look like she was on crystal meth. I can't for the life of me understand why they didn't just let Nordli be Nordli and finish her lady's life with all the range and subtlety she had displayed all along.

Besides the leads, there is surprisingly little in Macbeth that you really remember. For a company that likes to hoke it up so much, the witches were surprisingly conventional--at the beginning, almost perfunctory, although they picked up steam later. Josiah Phillips, such a fine Sancho just yesterday, was a bit of a disappointment as the Porter (a matter of some personal concern since this is the only Shakespearean role I still want to play). Rex Young as Banquo presented a ghost sufficient to scare the bejeeezus out of us. As to the rest of the young men, I admit I kind of have trouble keepimg them all straight in my mind anyway.

Macbeth may not be the greatest Shakespeare play, but it is the greatest something-or-other. In particular, it is my hands-down pick for the ideal "first play" in high school. I know, teachers always fall for Romeo and Juliet on the mistaken notion that the kids will like it because it is about young love. They forget that it is an old person's view of young people. Not to mention that dialog in Romeo in Juliet is some of the most stylized and in the canon. Meanwhile Macbeth is all murder, madness and betrayal and what's not to love about that?

Ashland Theater Note:
Goldoni and Cervantes (Updated)

Underbelly groupies will recall that I've complained before about how the Ashland Shakespeare folks will step on the Shakespeare in favor of the comic stage business. But I think I've also said that they are pretty good at the stage business.

Two cases in point. One: Carlos Goldoni's The Servant of Two Masters--adapted, as we might say, for the modern stage. Goldoni, who died in 1792, wrote plays with about the speed and care you would expect from Law & Order or a Bollywood film studio, so there is no particular need for reverence here and adaptation is no crime. The plot is easily accessible. It's about, well, a servant who has, well, two masters, and hilarity ensues. The framework is perfect for bringing out all the stuff that Ashland does best. The script itself--the verbal humor--is good-natured but forgettable, not designed (or designed not) to offend anybody, like a Scott Simon NPR monologue. The clowning is mostly first rate, although in a generally high-quality cast, it is the servant, Mark Bedard, who pretty much runs away with it. Bedard, who was a relatively minor newcomer to the company just last year, has an impressive bag of physical tricks: he can sit, fetch, beg, play catch, shake hands and roll over--indeed, just about anything except come to heel or play dead. The rest of the cast was fine but I was particularly taken with Richard Howard and David Kelly as the commedia dell'arte mainstays in the piece. They're somewhat similar in style: they've both played Richard II. They've both been at Ashland forever; they must have worked together before, and it is amusing to watch them work off riffs that must have been in the making since sometime back in the early 90s.

My only real reservation about Servant is that the audience, to put it crudely, wasn't drunk enough. This kind of mindless clowning is good fun for an hour or so but after the intermission you start looking at your watch. The cast dabbled a bit in audience interaction: they almost got upstaged in repartee with a quick-witted stranger named Ralph, and some guy in the first row quite gratuitously kicked Bedard in the butt (he responded with aplomb). A bit more groaning, hooting and obscene yelping could only have enhanced the experience.

Example two: Don Quixote, another modern adaptation. It was the props department who had a field day on this one. You had puppets of all shapes and sizes and conceptions, and one intern even got to play the back end of a horse. Dear Mom: The good news is that I will have a part in a play.... (Checking the program notes, I see that her previous experience includes The Vagina Monologues and something claled The Little Coochi Snorcher That Could; maybe the back end of a horse is an improvement).

The, the puppets were lovely. Casting was serviceable all around (oak leaf cluster to Josiah Phillips as Sancho Panza), though once again I found myself diverted by a meta-point from Ashland history. That is: for the "priest" and the "barber," the director cast Mark Murphy Prybil, another pair of Ashland veterans. These two have been around the Ashland company almost since the time of Cervantes himself: I remember them particularly from 17-18 years ago as more or less of a two-man show in something called "Voice of the Prarie." As with Howard and Kelly, it was fun to watch these two guys riffing off each other still, or again.

The scripting was serviceable, but at the end of the day I think the whole thing fell a bit flat. At its best (in the first act), you could say it was a set of Cliff Notes on the novel, with the respectful solemnity of a Merchant-Ivory soaper. Unfortunately, this fealty brought in some of the worst features of the novel as well: its gratuitous violence, its general slackness, its lack of a long story arc. In the second act, the adapter, in what must have been a fit of desperation, shifts gears away from Quixote himself into a story-within-a-story about Cardenia and his odd love life; I wouldn't be surprised if a good chunk of the audience (this certainly includes me) just had trouble figuring it all out.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Realism About Madoff

Edward Jay Epstein, reviewing some new books about Bernie Madoff, adds a therapeutic dose of realism. Press numbers for the actual fraud range as high as $65 billion. But as Epstein notes, numbers like this apparently turn on Madoff's own fanciful books. A more careful accounting puts the amount purloined since 1995 at closer to $15 billion. Meanwhile bankruptcy trustee Irving Picard is sueing to recover $13.7 billion in various lawsuits.

Epstein also outlines new evidence that lead me back to my view that some of this money is still around in somebody's pocket somewhere. And that a lot of investors who got high but fraudulent returns may in the end have actually made profits--just not nearly what they thought they were getting.

Public Option: Kaput?

Lyndon Johnson famously said "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost America."

Now this.

[h/t Joel.]

Ashland Theater Note: Henry VIII

Well, I've completed the set: 55 years ago this summer, I saw my first live Shakespeare performance: a presentation of Much Ado About Nothing with the late Ellis Rabb as Benedick. Last night at the Ashland Shakespeare Festival, I saw Henry VIII. My friend Hal said: will you be having some sort of a celebration? Well, no, actually, I had forgotten I hadn't completed the set a few years before. A few years ago, when Ashland did Two Noble Kinsmen, I figured I could count that as the last, forgetting Henry VIII. This was a palpable error: for my money, there's a lot more of Shakespeare in Henry than there is in 2NK.

But two thoughts about Henry VIII. One, you can see why it is not performed more often. And two, Shakespeare may sometimes have written mediocre plays, but he never wrote an uninteresting play--never wrote a play that wasn't worth watching, that you couldn't chew on, couldn't get something out of.

Henry VIII confirms the point. You probably do have to love Shakespeare to have the patience to stick it out with this play: it's pretty static,. with a lot more pageantry than dynamism. Still it some fine characterization (Catherine of Aragon; Cardinal Wolsey) and a few bits of really dynamite verse. And something else, a bit harder to pin down: a peculiar Shakespearean sensibility, a tang, consistent throughout and strong enough to hold it all together. Hard to put my finger on exactly what it might be but it's somthing you find also in the other late plays--I mean The Tempest and Pericles and Winter's Tale. You have to admit that Shakespeare may have been a bit bored with his job by this time, and you probably do have to stretch to enjoy it. But in the end, you can come away satisfied.

I said I'd never seen Henry VIII before: I need to qualify it a little. Again back in the 50s, I stood outside on the lawn and peeked in on a festival-under-the-stars production of it. I didn't stay long, but I did hear Cardinal Wolsey say:
Had I but served my God with half the zeal
I served my king, he would not in mine age
Have left me naked to mine enemies.
Well, if I could remember only one bit, I suppose this was a pretty good choice.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Scrannel

scrannel (dial.) lean, thin. XVII ( Milton Lycidas 124 s. pipes, from which subsequent users of the word have inferred the meaning ‘harsh, unmelodious’). Obscurely rel. to synon. dial. scrank, Sc. scranky, scranny; all prob. ult. of Scand. orig. (cf. Norw. skran shrivelled, skrank lean large-boned figure).

Link.
Grate on their scrannel pipes of wretched straw
Link.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Polyanna Note

Well, here's a pleasant surprise: I signed on to download my audio Economist for this week and found that I can now do it direct and automatic: have it delivered direct to my laptop Ipod file, for transfer to the device itself. This is a lot easier than remembering to sign on each week, and then doing a download, and then transferring to the Ipod file myself: doing it this way, I usually make mistakes, and it usually chews up about a half hour of my life.

Meanwhile it occurs to me that the last few times I've dealt with doctors, I've found they were actually ahead of the curve on insurance paperwork--"paperwork" here meaning computer bits. Ditto prescriptions. Evidently somebody is figuring out that there actually is some virtue in taking some initiative here, and flattening the speedbumps.

And just now I hung up the phone after doing a financial transfer which I could not do on line. Once again, it was quick and painless.

God forbid I turn Polyanna here, but I think I have to face up to the fact that there just might be a trend here. Whatever I say about the evil providers, the fact is that there is a learning curve here and they have share my interest in making transactcions more friction free.

I suppose the only downside on this is that every frontier is a horizon: the more we can do, the more we will want to do, and as we do new tricks, we will run into new problems. The other thing I did last night was to put all sorts of apps onto my Blackberry...

Well, That's a Blessing...

My friend Nancy says there is only one Tom DeLay.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Appreciation: Pleasure of Ruins

My friend Taxmom, a frequenter of yard sales, has given me a special gift: Pleasure of Ruins, previously unknown to me, by Rose Macaulay, previously known to me as the author of one extraordinary novel The Towers of Trebizond. For me, Towers was a surprise--an item that started out as a piece of fluff and wound up as one of the most unexpectedly and interestingly plotted novels I've run across in years (so many plots, maybe most, really aren't that good).

I suppose you could say that Macaulay is a travel writer (the introduction to the NYRB Towers is the work of Jan Morris, herself an inimitable travel writer). But to call Macaulay a travel writer is a little like calling Melville an expert on fishing: strictly speaking correct, it still fails to capture to the distinctiveness of her peculiar sensibility.

You might be closer to associate her with that whole cohort of doughty British women who bestrode the globe in (at least so the caricature goes) tweeds and Tyrolean hats and sensible shoes from Clarks in Regents Street. One thinks of Freya Stark, Jane Ellen Harrison, Gertrude Bell, by courtesy also Rebecca West and, of course, Macaulay herself.

Apart from "doughty" and "British," and, perhaps, formidable learning, there is probably more that distinguishes than unites these women. Macaulay in particular has as gentler take on life than the others; she also embraces a sort of mysticism, sometimes but not always Christian, that the others don't embrace in any way. "[T]o be fascinated by ruins has always, it would seem," she says, "been a human tendency." Maybe, but to be fascinated enough to write a 455-page book about it verges a bit on the leeward side of obsession. It's not only "the stupendous past" (a chapter title) that fascinates Macaulay. She seems almost to prefer it that way:
Of all ruins, possibly the most moving are those of long-deserted cities, fallen century by century into deeper decay, their forsaken streets grown over by forest and shrubs, their decadent buildings, quarried and plundered down the years, gaping ruinous, the haunt of lizards and owls. Such dead cities stir us with their desolate beauty, in contrast with their past of greatness and wealth.
One can count also among the many charms of this meditation her formidable acquaintance with the work of other travelers who have passed her way. She seems to have read and assimilated a great deal, but she wears her learning lightly; she can invoke the shades with an easy familiarity that adds texture and richness to the whole endeavor.

None of this should be taken to mean that this book is in any way encyclopaedic: Macaulay cares what she cares about, and the rest she more or less ignores. So "ruins" here mean, pretty much, classical ruins in and around the Mediterranean basin, with random and more or less unpredictable asides on other perhaps-related topics. But "ruins" includes almost nothing about Islam except the odd reference to the things the Muslims ("the Moors") ruined. Perhaps more surprising, given her own bent, there is scarcely a word about Christianity. But no matter, there is plenty enough to keep her (and the readre) busy through a long succession of traveling seasons.

Oh, and a particular triumph: for all her breadth, and for all the depth and precision of her citations to the secondary literature, she achieves the near-impossible in writing about ruins: she covers 455 pages without a single reference to this.

Update: A couple of friends point me to The Lawrence Durrell Travel Reader as covering a good deal of the same turf with a somewhat similar sensibility. Good call; I have a vague sense that I read it many years ago but it might deserve another look.

The Richard J. Daley School of Cogitive Psychology

Somehow I had missed out on the whole IAT thing. Now the non-Tyler-Cowen tells me that it ain't that-all reliable anyway. And a commentator points out that they give it to dead people.

Midnight Reading: Such Gallant Chiding

I've written before about that wonderful bit in Midsummer Night's Dream where Theseus and Hyppolyta slang each other over the power and musicality of their hounds (cf. Yowp Yowp Yowp Yowp Yowp, link, with edifying insights into the matter of basset poop).

Anyway, looking for something to put myself back to sleep with last night, I read the footnotes in my Arden Edition (the 1979 version, Harold F. Brooks, ed., I believe there is a newer). Imagine my surprise to learn that choral singing in the hound pack qualified, in Shakespeare's time, as a kind of art form. Here is Gervase Markham, in Country Contentments (1615--quoted in fn. 105 of Brooks, p. 92-3):
If you would have your kennell for sweetness of cry, then you must compound it of some large dogges, that have deepe solemne mouthes, and are swift in spending [sc. quick to give tongue], which must, as it were, beare the base of the consort, then a double number of roaring, and loud ringing mouthes, which must beare the counter-tenour; then some hollow, plaine, sweet mouthes, which must bear the meane or middle part; and soe with these partes of musicke you shall make your cry perfect.
Brooks' notes also provide enlightening support for another great Shakespearean theme: the idea of Shakespeare as the great responder, a creature of his time who makes richer the richness that he finds there. We find strands for the fabric in Chaucer (mainly) but also in Sir Philip Sydney (of course) Arthur Golding (tracking Ovid).

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Yosemite

Back from the South Side of Yosemite Park, and grandchildren. There must have been a half mile auto queue at the entrance as we drove out, with perhaps a dozen tour buses between the entrance and Madera downhill. I did the Glacier Point loop yesterday with nine people aged 10 to 48; I was far the slowest and tried not to remember that 40 years ago I would have done it at a trot.

The sign in the upscale Parks Service privies says (I quote from memory):

Please do not put garbage down the toilets.
We have a tough time fishing it out.


Good strategy, that. Explain the potential consequences of the subject's action. Beneath it was a sign saying:

Ask About Our Intern Program

No, I made that up.

Liveblogging Napoleon's Russian Invasion:
Napoleon Makes a Fateful Choice

Perplexed that the Russians have eluded him and immobilized in the summer heat, Napoleon makes a fateful choice:
The Emperor was not the least of the sufferers from the heat, but when he had been refreshed by rest and still did not see any deputation arrive from Alexander, and when all his first orders had been carried out, he became impatient. We noticed that he was restless either because as with all men of his nature, inaction lay heavy upon him and he preferred danger to the poredom of waiting; or because he was excited by the hope of gain which, in most men, is stronger than the plesure of keeping or the fear of losing.

It was then that thee image of a defeated, subjugated Moscow began to obsess him. There lay the end of his fears, the fulfillment of his hopes. Possessing it, he would have everything. From that moment, it could be predicted that this fiery, restless genius, accustomed to short cuts, would not wait eight months when the final destruction was in his grasp, so close that it could be reached in only twenty days. ... It was very important to him that his decision should not displease his staff. But every one of tthe men opposed him in some way, each according to his character ...
On rhe thirteenth of August, he left Vitebsk.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Off Again (with Optional Vacation Assignment)

Off to play with some grandchildren. Back Sunday, or maybe Saturday night. Meanwhile, the reader is invited to consider whether the "lost decade" in Japan was such a bad thing. Sure, the real estate market tanked and the Nikkei now stands somewhere around 25 percent of its all time high. Yes, the banks, with the backing of the bureaucrats, kept sloshing money around on the ludicrous pretense that they were making good deals.

But for the ordinary working stiff, not a lot changed. Japanese are notoriously careful with their money--still one of the highest savings rates in the world, and they more or less plugged along as they always had.

You do have to wonder where in the devil all that money came from. But in the end, was it such a bad thing?

H/T Joel, who pushed a version of this idea on me a couple of months ago.

Swedish Taxes

Mark J. Perry is scandalized ("Yikes!") that "Tax Freedom Day" arrived in Sweden only on August 8 (link), making Sweden again one of the (but not "the") most highly taxed country in the Western world.

This is a fairly standard mantra among libertarian groupies. And I can't quarrel with the data. And I'm just as glad I'm not there. And I see no reason for a tax regime in the US that imposes such a burden.

But there's an embarrassing fact for tax critics to gag on: the Swedes don't seem to mind all that much. Nobody suggests that this burden is imposed on them by a foreign imperial power, or gaggle of gangster kleptocrats. Granted that the Social Democrats get about 30 percent less vote than they got 30 years ago, and the (former) right-wing party have taken up a lot of that slack--but the former right-wing party has renamed itself "the Moderate Party" and shows no disposition at all to dismantle the traditional Swedish welfare state--only to "reduction of the public-sector growth rate" (per Wiki) which is one of those political mantras you can't recite without a giggle.

I can think of two or three reasons why the Swedes might be disposed to hang on to their old ways. One is ethnic homogeneity. Granted that the population has changed over the generation, and granted the Sweden has a fair amount of racial tension and outright racial conflict--still it retains a sense of common identity that we've perhaps never enjoyed in the United States.

Another--perhaps a subset of the first--is that Sweden seems to have a long tradition of communal cooperation. Many have noted that the Scandinavians are about the only people have ever run a "socialist" government that anybody else would be willing to live under--think Wisconsin, Minnesota, the Dakotas. Going further back--I'm riffing now, but I think I'm onto something--I gather that the tradition of the Viking marauder* was in large measure a communal ethos: local folks built the boat, and manned it, and split up the swag.

And second (or third) Sweden's the kind of environment where a lot of the "taxation" can be thought of as a kind of group buying, where the government organizes the volume purchase of goods and services the taxpayers would buy anyway (think what happens in the US in tightly organized UMC suburbs). This perspective necesarily raises question about which services could be better privatized, and Sweden has a lot of that kind of discussion. But framed in this way, the issues become a lot less poisonous than they might in societies where "taxation" might be seen as wealth transfer --or worse, wealth transfer from locals to strangers.
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*He's back!

Appreciation: Ritholtz on the Late Uproar

So far I've read three overview accounts of the debacle/meltdown/uproar.* Charles Morris' The Two Trillion Dollar Meltdown is the most polished and elegant, with some good detail on the mechanics of particular deals. Mark Zandi's Financial Shock! is perhaps the most thorough, though a bit pedestrian in style. Comes now Barry Ritholtz' Bailout Nation, surely the wise-guy hubba hubba entry in the pack. Short summary: they overlap; they're different; they are all worth the effort.

For all his streetsmart style, Ritholtz has plenty of content, but I'd say his book is a bit misnamed. He does indeed provide a convenient summary of which banks have allowed themselves to be burdened with how many ladles full of taxpayer money--at least so far. But perhaps the most distinctive part of his presentation is his account of the sea change in Federal Reserve policy from its original role as a guarantor of the integrity of money to its modern avatar as protector of asset values (he doesn't have much to say about the intermediate character as facilitator of full employment--somehow, that one seems lost in the shuffle. This is interesting and important, but I'm not persuaded that it quite fits the catchphrase of the title. The "rescue" (sic?) of Long Term Capital Management, for example, was noteworthy in the respect that it did not involve the direct expenditure of taxpayer money, although it certainly did involve a fair amount of Federal bullying arm-twisting, with the intent of getting private parties to act. Even the Fed's frantic, pell-mell rush to restore confidence in markets after the 1987 jolt was not quite the same as a direct stuffing of Federal dollars into private pockets.

Ritholtz begins his account of a "modern bailout era" with the story of Lockheed in the early 70s and Chrysler in the early 80s. This is both too broad and too narrow. Too broad: Ritholtz is right that both Chrysler and Lockheed did involve infusions of taxpayer cash into private entities, although neither one was quite the naked public-to-private wealth transfer that we might envisage. Lockheed, for example, as government contractor, was virtually a ward of the state to begin with. And while a good deal of its problem appears to have arisen from mismanagement of the Tristar project, still a lot of their difficulty could simply be attributed to faulty bidding on government projects.

Chrysler was, of course, not primarily a government contractor. The difficulty with Chrysler is that the company, against almost everybody's expectation, actually paid the money back. We may well say that the government made a colossally risky loan/investment here, of the sort that no sensible private party might have undertaken. Still, it was a kind of success, and recall the answer to the question "who was the best Civil War general"--"Gentlemen, they paid off on Grant."

But Ritholtz is also too narrow, in that forgiveness of the financial failings of private parties is an old American tradition. A natural complememt to Ritholtz' book is David A. Moss, When All Else Fails, about the long history of the government as a guarantor of last resort--including, inter alia, it's role in facilitating the limited liability company and the bankruptcy discharge.

These days Alan Greenspan looks pretty much like a bum for having opened the money sluices duirng the flood of real estate financing. Ritholtz adds his voice to the chorus of critics, but it would have been helpful if he had gone a step further and tried to understand or account for the response of Greenspan and his defenders. For example, Greenspan himself as argued that his manipulation of short-term money can't be held responsible for the real-estate bubble because real estate is long-term and there is no evident coupling between short-term and long-term rates.

Aside from Greenspan, Ritholtz is enthusiastic in general to assign praise and blame. Blame is easy because there is so much to go around; I guess you would say that Ritholtz's prime targets are former Senator Phil Gramm, who worked so hard to exempt derivatives from commodity trading regulation, and the "weasels"--Ritholtz' word--who advise corporate boards to pay their managers such obscene salaries. On the other hand, he does a careful and (I think) thorough job of showing that the meltdown was not the result of the Jimmy Carter Community Reinvestment Act or its progeny. He's also got a soft spot--and so do I--for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the outfit that really does know how to bankrupt a bank, quickly, cleanly, and with minimal damage to the system. I (and, I think, Ritholtz) can only wish they had a chance to do more of it.

All this is good stuff and it may be niggling to want more. Still, there is one underlying issue so pervasive and so central to his argument that I'd really like to know what he thinks about it. That is: did we need to "save the banking system" and if so, was any "bailout" necessary--and if so, how much (I guess that is three issues but you know what I mean). Is Ritholtz a let-em-all-hang libertarian noninterventionist? If so, I'd be happy to have him say so up front, and to address the (possible) consequences. If not, he's put to the question of deciding what parts of the intervention that he excoriates so much--what parts were actually essential to saving the system.

Obviously no book is going to finish the story of this great calamity--certainly not one written in the calamity itself. Still, all three of these books deserve a place on the shelf. If I had to take just one, it might be Morris', but you can learn a lot from any of them, and you can learn stuff from each that you don't learn from either of the others.
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Paul Krugman's Return of Depression Economics might count as a fourth, although as I've said before, it bears the scars of a somewhat improvisational effort to rework an earlier book.

Monday, August 10, 2009

ShakespeaRe-Told

I grant that when I saw it in the Netflix queue, I was not a happy camper. ShakespeaRe-Told, modern renditions of Shakespearean classics. Oh, fine, I thought. Video CliffNotes, the very thing.

Blaap, wrong. In fact, they are wonderful. Well: there re four. One of them is wonderful; two are pretty good, and one is a passable entertainment. Still, they've done something I wouldn't have thought possible: they've taken four Shakespeare plays and refashioned them as modern entertainment that work.

The point is, they are clearly not just a set of CliffNotes. All four of them would work as least passably as comic/romantic entertainments even if you didn't know a word of Shakespeare. Throw in the sly riffs and random bits of homage and you've got something that works at least twice.

I think the best of the four is Much Ado About Nothing--partly, I suppose, because I have a special affection for this play, which I think is often underrated. But also the plot--who would have guessed it, a Shakespearean plot--can be turned, with only a minimum of trimming and turning, into a perfectly straightforward straight-to-video movie. Good acting doesn't hurt. The direct Shakespearean riffs are tactful but funny. And they've had the good sense to take the most discomfiting aspect of the story--the public humiliating of Helena, followed by her instance and reconciliation--and simply scissored out the impossible part. No excess of loyalty here.

Macbeth also worked pretty well, set in a kitchen, with lots of barbarous Scotsman and plenty of knives. It was a bit slower in getting started, I thought, and it tended to wander a bit here and there. But the witches are something else (grant that the witches need to be something else to make any production of Macbeth a treat).

Taming of the Shrew was fun to watch--that's two comedies in a row about couples who fall in love via trash-talk. The only obvious problem is that the play itself is so over-the-top that it is almost impossible to parody. And finally-- Midsummer Night's Dream: I thought the rendition here was least successful. All those fairies and lovers and rude mechanicals--maybe there is just too much going on for easy reworking. The odd thing here may be that the most successful part was the Theseus and Hippolyta (Theo and Polly) replay--an elegant bit of bittersweet midlife romance, only barely hinted at in the original.

Still, I came to scoff and stayed to pray. I didn't l think they could do it, and they did. I see by the Wiki note that they did the same kind of trick a few years back with Canterbury Tales. Now, I wonder if we can get that in the Netflix queue.

Gates on Lincoln

I caught Henry Louis Gates on C-Span last weekend, hyping his new book, Lincoln on Slavery and Race (link), and focusing, inter alia on the topic of according blacks the right to vote. Gates was obviously pleased that Lincoln (as Gates reads the record) came around the issue in the end (at least for those who had fought for the Union in the war and those of “exceptional intelligence”). But Gates is obviously a little squirmy that Lincoln seemed to reach his final position so slowly and haltingly.

I don't want to quarrel with his sense of disappointment, but it might be fun to consider: forget about race. What about the question whether we should extend the vote to people generally, including women, those without property, the great mass of (e.g.,) illiterate urban immigrants? As Answers.com recounts:
From the early national years to the Civil War, states were free to deny the right to vote with regard to a wide range of conditions, including gender, religion, race and ethnicity, citizenship, residency, tax status, wealth, literacy, mental competence, criminal conviction, and military service.
The idea of "unversal suffrage" (to put the point differently) was an idea that wasn't near to being born yet in Lincoln's time. To restrict the suffrage of blacks could easily be understood as no more than a subset of a general case.

Today we tend to look back with condescension on the idea of limiting suffrage, and with good reason: Jim Crow southerners long used phony suffrage restriction as a device to keep blacks (as one might say) in their place. And just about everybody recognizes today that a general prohibition on the the suffrage of women, was pretty much of a damn fool idea by any measure.

But the idea of some sort of restriction on suffrage--bona fide, straight-up literacy or basic citizenship tests, for example--are not in principle a bad idea. I'm not proposing that we roll back universal suffrage--the costs would clearly outweigh the benefits, and anyway, the lumpen stay away from the polls in great enough numbers substantially to mitigate the evil. I'm just sayin' a rational case could be made, consistent with an expansive view of human dignity. Were I Professor Gates' friend, I would urge him not to worry about Lincoln on suffrage: here at least, we don't need to see Lincoln's concerns as race-based at all.

Afterthought: Sounds like a good book in any event, worth looking forward to. And indeed, I'd like to more about Gates' work on black American racial ancestry, which sounds like a fascinating project in itself.

Teabaggers: A Hasty Response

My cousin Dave, an Obamaniac, reads accounts of the mischief of the Teabaggers and says: "These stories worry me How about you?" Here's a hasty and ill considered and totally off the top of the head response:
Sure they do. I will concede/assert a few complicating points.

1. Radical lefties have done it too. Of course. So what? Just because your big brother engages in a dangerous flirtation with fascist hoodlumism, does that mean you have to do so too?

2. Protesters have legitimate concerns. So far as one can tell, true,although they don't always make it easy to determine just what it is they want. I suspect that for the most part these are people who fear paying more for less. This is a legitimate concern, and may even be a realistic possibility. But you'd think they'd have some knack for making their points more explicitly (cf. get your government hands off my Medicare, oh tee hee). And you'd think they might have some minimal inquire as to whether, e.g., President Obama really does favor the compulsory killing of old people.

3. The Dems have done a piss poor job of trying to respond to such legitimate criticisms as there may be. One impediment here is they don't have any idea what they intend to do themselves. This makes it hard to come up with a response. It also excites paranoia--no information always does more harm than any information.

4. My own guess is that the best the Dems will come up with is a little bit more of the same--somewhat expanded coverage, st somewhat higher cost, and heaven knows on whose toe the cost ingot will drop. This is not a program likely to mollify the protesters. Ironically, it won't mollify Obama's warmest supporters either, who are already demoralized to observe that he doesn't walk on water.
Afterthought: Teabaggers? GTeabaggers? Isn't that somebcdy's idea of a bad joke?

American Exports: A Dose of Reality

This publication has been to make snarky cracks about the paucity of American exports. See e.g., these discussions of telephone ringtones.

Oh, I kid, I kid. Actually, America still exports a lot, including farm products, but also lots of high tech. Here's a good summary (from NSF) of what we still export, and what not: (link). And here are the tables: (link).

For more context here's a piece on import-export activity involving the United States and that poster child of low-rent, low-tech entrepreneurs, Bangladesh (link). Sure enough, exports of textile products (Tee-shirts!) from Bangladesh to the US have been booming. But look at what Bangladesh imports from the US. Textile machinery is on the list, but it's not on top.