Monday, November 30, 2009

Almost Missed It...

Happy Birthday, Mark Twain, 174 years young today:
...a person that started in to carry a cat home by the tail was getting knowledge that was always going to be useful to him...
--Tom Sawyer Abroad

Secret Pleasure (Revealed)

You know what I like? I like animated opera:


Shorter NYT on Food Stamps

One in four American kids is on food stamps. Link.

(Thanks, Francine.)

Good News! Bankruptcy Booms!

My friend John, who has some experience with this sort of thing, thinks he sees an unsuspected ray of light the increased bankruptcy filings:
My comment would be that the recent spike in filings suggests that there may be some more jobs out there than we think. Standard advice for most debtor’s counsel is that you don’t file for someone who is unemployed. This time may be different, of course, but the spike might suggest that after bottoming out, some of the debtors have found jobs and are filing to protect what’s left. Another might be that they just reached rock bottom – and scraped up the money somehow.
I think he's got a point. It is usually) good advice not to file unless you have some income to protect. A possible difference this time: a different motivation for filing is to stay foreclosure and decellerate the mortgage (and perhaps, if the numbers are right, to wipe out the second). Maybe you can do all this without a job, but it would take ingenuity and luck--and, of course, money.

Still, it wouldn't be the first time that the data gave away secrets that the subjects didn't know they were telling us about.

Something Else I Ought to Learn About

Cass Sunstein has worried that the internet will turn into "the daily me"--a little exercise in narcissistic self-reflection.* Obviously, I need to clean up my aggregator:
"Climategate is the greatest scientific scandal of our generation." (Link)

"As near as I can tell, ClimateGate is almost entirely a tempest in a teacup. " (Link)
*Disclaimer: note that the link goes back a while. Whether he is still worried, I don't know.

Something I Wouldn't Have Known
Had the Car Radio Not Been Tuned
To NPR's Talk of the Nation

The nine-year-old kid who steals Beau Bridges' hubcaps at the beginning of The Landlord--that's Eddie Murphy's brother.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

But Wait a Minute...

No oil,no water, and $59 billion in debt. How is this different from, say, the guy who told us he planned to be the Bill Gates of carpet cleaning?

But wait a minute--isn't the absence of resources supposed to be a good thing? Rich in resources, you wind up like Russia or Iraq. Hungry for resources, you wind up like The Netherlands, or at least Venice. Wasn't I saying just last summer how lucky Tunisia was not to have any oil?

Say it Over a Few Times

This is surely one of the most recitable passages in the history of language:
"Deh, quando tu sarai tornato al mondo,
e riposato de la lunga via",
seguitò 'l terzo spirito al secondo,
"Ricorditi di me, che son la Pia;
Siena mi fé, disfecemi Maremma:
salsi colui che 'nnanellata pria
disposando m'avea con la sua gemma."
That's Dante, Purgatorio V, 130ff. Wiki offers:
Ah, when you have returned to the world,
and rested from the long journey,"
followed the third spirit after the second,
"remember me, the one who is Pia;
Siena made me, Maremma undid me:
he knows it, the one who first encircled
my finger with his jewel, when he married me
Eric Auerbach elaborates:
Here no motivation or detail is given;
Dante's contemporaries may well have filled out the allusion, but we ourselves have no definite information about Pia de' Tolomei. Yet nothing seems lacking; she is entirely real and distinct. Her memory is wholly concentrated on the hour of her death, which sealed her final fate; in that memory and in her supplication to remember her on earth, the whole of her being unfolds; and the on line that is not concerned with herself, her sweet and tender words to Dante--e risposato de la lunga via"--tells us all we need to know of this woman in order to perceive her life in its full actualiity.
--Eric Auerbach, Dante: Poet of the Secular World 145 (NYRB ed. 2007).

The Wiki points to a Donizetti operatic version that I never heard of before. And here is a more academic discussion.

This Time, Maybe It's Not So Different

A couple of followup notes inspired by a reading of Liaquat Ahamed's absorbing Lords of Finance: The Bankers who Broke the World (2009). File these under "this time, it's not so different."

One: there is nothing new about a two-tier recovery--ie recovery for some, stagnation for others. Consider the north of England. Remember how Maggie Thatcher broke the unions and drove the northerners into poverty and squalor? But Ahamed reminds us that the north had been in trouble for a generation. Indeed, the traditional "Victorian" industries--textiles, metal-bashing--had never really recovered from World War I. The thread that runs through so much of post-WWI British economic history is: what to do with the persistent squalor of the permanently redundant?

And it's not just Britain. Much has been made lately about how the Roosevelt Administration didn't do all that much to reduce unemployment. True; but easy to overlook is the fact tht GDP in the early part of the Roosevelt administration did just fine. So there was a "recovery" of sorts: it's just that a quarter of the work force didn't (or so no reason to) notice. I suppose you could tie all of this together with Simon Johnson's "Banana Republic" theory of the modern U. S. Economy: that we are a tiny slice of intriguing high rollers, perched on an ever more detached and irrelevant lumpen (my phrasing, not Simon's, but I think I have the general principle right).

And two, a point about banking. Ahamed points out that Britain developed its preeminence as a money center back int he 19th Century when it had a lot of money. It persisted in pretending it was a money center in the 20s and forward long after the surplus had gone.

Of course, you can say that in a way it worked, still works. Brits probably do have some situational advantage in money management, and may also enjoy the accidental magic of path dependence--same reason Pakistan makes soccer balls. Yet at least some of the British mistakes in policy management in the 20s may be traceable to its illusionary embrace of a ghost--its conviction that it retained a centrality in finance when events had passed it by.

Can the same thing be said about the US today? Well, as many have said, we really have not lost our manufacturing preeminence--we've only lost some of it. Still, nobody can gainsay the fact that others are catching up with or surpassing us. And banking is one of those industries that follows naturally on an economic boom--once a nation amasses a lot of wealth, it finds itself a banking center, where it wanted to or not.

And while I am here, allow me to pinpoint one issue I think Ahamed gets wrong. He blames many of the ills of the 20s/30s on the gold standard, and rigid adherence thereto by the Brits, the US, the Germans, the French. But I don't think his evidence quite supports his case. What he demonstrates is not so much the evil of the gold standard per se, but rather the suicidal of the Brits in trying to maintain its gold standard at such a high peg. Overpegging gold impoverished the British working class and it distorted policy in the US and France as they sought to cope with the British miscalculation. There may be inherent problems with any gold standard, but Ahamed has not demonstrated them here.

A final note, fascinating to me as I remember my youth as a shabbas goy in the Jewish resort town of Bethlehem, BH. Per Ahamed, one reason our betters chose Bretton Woods, NH, as the site for the greaat 1944 monetary conference is that Bretton Woods was one of those very rare (in NH at least) fancy hotels that actually accepted Jews. Would have been awkward to have a world monetary conference in the US without the US Secretary of Treasury Henry Morgenthau.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Fom FAI to PAB (To Others, and Oneself)

William Brafford traces the tractory of blog-reading from FAI (fresh and interesting) to PAB (predictable and boring). It's true: I've got a fair number of blogs in my aggregator that I really haven't looked at in months. Time to flush them out, to save oxygen for the newer and healthier specimens.

Since his crowd has linked to me a couple of times lately, I hope I can infer that for the moment I remain in FAI. En route to the inevitable decline, however, I can suggest a further possibility. I.e., there is a time when one gets PAB to oneself. I've been at this --what? Three, going on three and a half, years so far. I think I've noticed some of my nearest and dearest as they quietly tiptoe out of the room. And the thing is, I can hardly blame them. I recognize that there are some, ahem, recurrent themes here, and that as time goes on, they will only become increasingly apparent, and increasingly, thuddingly, you-know-what.

Levitin on Bankruputcy: Creditors Looking in the Wrong Places

Adam Levitin looks at the bankruptcy petitions related to the notorious White House gatecrashers and draws an important lesson:

What is interesting about the Oasis cases is that they indicate that Congress might have been looking for bankruptcy abuse in the wrong place. Cries about bankruptcy abuse are normally aimed at plain vanilla consumer bankruptcies. The Oasis cases show that there is a specter of abuse (and much more galling abuse) in small business bankruptcies, where the small business is the alter ego of the owner. Wealthy debtors are often smart enough to operate behind some sort of corporate form. They might have to give personal guarantees of some of their debts, but the corporate form insulates them from tax authorities, public utilities, tort creditors, and unsophisticated creditors. (Card issuers usually want to see substantial corporate income before forgoing a personal guarantee.) Corporate law is relatively forgiving when it comes to veil-piercing---disregarding the corporate form to hold the business's owners personally liable. If corporate formalities (record keeping, e.g.) are honored, extraordinary facts are generally necessary to pierce the veil. This means that for small businesses, the corporate form offers a way to screw government, involuntary, and unsophisticated creditors. Of course, none of those groups come with the lobbying might of the sophisticated creditors who cried abuse over credit card debt being discharged in consumer 7s.

Link. A couple of afterthoughts. A lot of bankruptcy professors have decried the 2005 Amendments (which so tightened the screws on consumer bankrupts) on grounds of fairness. I'm not very sympathetic with the 2005 amendments either, but for a slightly different reason. My own take is that they were/are unlikely to lead to any substantial increase in the collection of debts from consumers, while increasing the cost of collection--a deadweight loss. My take is that the amendments were sold not by "the creditors" per se so much as by the creditors' lobbyists. Recall that lobbyists live on lust and fear and thwarted hopes--lust for more goodies, or fear of something bad, or the thwarted hope that they could get something if only Congress got out of the way.. It was the lobbyists, I suspect, who sold their customers on the proposition that (a) there was a lot of money out there hiding behind bankruptcy discharges; and (b) they could get it if only they made bankruptcy more costly or inconvenient.

What's wrong with this logic? The defect is that these debtors are broke. Not completely broke, of course--otherwise they wouldn't need bankruptcy protection. But broke enough that increased collection efforts are unlikely to yield much beyond mere increased costs. Net out the costs of lobbying and there is likely nothing left for creditors at all. So the legendary gains that the 2005 amendments seemed to promise were just that--a legend--from the very start. The data so far is fragmentary, but it seems to bear the point out.

There are, of course, the horror stories that make (or used to make) the news--the rich dentist with a sex abuse conviction who succeeds in walking away with all his live assets in a protected retirement account, or some such. But on all the data, these cases have to be few and far between. And as Letvin points out, the chances are that a good many of them weren't "straight" bankruptcy cases to begin with.

This Time It's Different (Heh)

More than one bloggentator has remarked on the parallel between the Dubai meltdown and the collapse of Credit Anstalt in Vienna in 1931--the latter having morphed a nasty recession into The Great Depression (cf. here*).

All very well, but we needn't be too quick in our comparisons. What really made the Great Depression was not simply the bank failure but the almost criminally ham-handed way the Western democracies responded to it--perhaps most egregiously the British, whose idea of a stimulus was to cut wages and balance the budget. Indeed, it seems to me one of the few topics on which there is broad agreement among macro economists agree on is that he Best and the Brightest just screwed up like Hogan's goat. They may--they do--disagree on what the B&B should have done instead but I can't think of anybody who endorses the actual performance.

We may prayerfully expect that the Best & Brightest bis will do a better & brighter job this time around.
*Liaquat Ahamed, Lords of Finance, quoting Brad DeLong, "The Economic Foundations of the Peace," but the links don't seem to be working.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Two Reading Lists

Here's my newly-updated "recommended background" list for my basic finance students. It's long enough already, though it doesn't include the best finance book I read this year. Nor, come to think of it, any number of excellent finance books that I've enjoyed and learned from. I suppose this whole enterprise is just an exercise in self-indulgence; I can't imagine that even the most conscientious student has time and intellectual energy necessary to go shooting down these raholes.

Also, here's the list I offered up last spring for my bankruptcy students. Not sure whether I need to update this year. Possible candidates: Retsinas and Belsky, eds. Borrowing to Live: Consumer and Mortgage Credit Revsited (2008); Niemi, Ramsay and Whitford, eds., Consumer Credit, Debt and Bankruptcy (2009); Whitman and Diz, Distress Investing: Principles and Techniques (2009).

Demographic Self-Assessment Note

I've had the same home for 25 years now. I've had the same car for 15.

In that time, I suppose I have owned 10 computers. I guess 15, if you count souped up cellphones and such.

One Thing I'm Not Going to Worry About

Invading camels to be shot in Australian town

ALICE SPRINGS, Australia – Australian authorities plan to corral about 6,000 wild camels with helicopters and gun them down after they overran a small Outback town in search of water, trampling fences, smashing tanks and contaminating supplies.

--AP per Yahoo News, and thanks, John

Suspiciously Incongruous Science Datum of the Day

Dr. Fallon's 58-year-old brother, Pete, who owns a pharmacy in Albany, N.Y., is described as a risk-taker by the family.
--"What's on Jim Fallon's Mind? A Secret That's Murder to Uncover,
Wall Street Journal Friday, Nov. 27, 2009.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Francine Got This One Right

Gracian says one should always be more alert to what fate has granated than what it has denied. My friend Francine is a high-rent law professor but for the moment, she is sojourning in San Francisco's Tenderloin:
[I] love living in the Tenderloin. It allows one to appreciate the simple things in life (e.g., shelter, food, mental health, good health care coverage and family support and love). We are so fortunate ...
There's a girl who has a knack for knowing when she's well off, which is a gift all its own.

First They Fell Upon their Knees....

...then they fell upon the Aborigines.

Happy holiday. We're having tapas.

Wonky footnote: the Italians have a nice variant (in Latin): quod non fecerunt barbari, fecerunt Barberini, i.e., what the Barbarians did not do, the Barberini did--about the rapacious family of Pope Urban VIII.

Is This Anything? Dubai and Israel

As Letterman would say, is this anything?
  • Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netenyahu says he intends to halt residential construction in West Bank settlements for 10 months (link).
And this?
  • Dubai triggered the bigest sovereign debt default since Argentina in 2001 (link).
I should have thought that both were pretty big deals, but my paper New York Times put both inside. The Israeli plan does seem to have been hit with a withering fusillade of abuse from those who say that it's not nearly enough, etc. I did catch George Mitchell's press conference yesterday afternoon, where you got the feeling he wasn't sure himself whether it was a big deal.

Dubai, meanwhile, certainly seems to have shaken up a bunch of bankers. But isn't it the kind of thing we've seen coming for months? (Update: Well, lots of people are expressing surprise.)

FWIW, my Google aggregator is paying a lot of attention to Dubai, almost none to Israel. Just tells you about my choice of sources, I guess.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Tragedy of Home Schooling

"Remember Me When I Am Dead ...

...and simplify me when I'm dead:"
On the BBC's Nationwide programme in March 1973, he was the second person on the nation's television to say "fuck" ...
--From the Wiki bio of Pergrrine Worsthorne.

[Poem quote: link.]

A Note on Phil Agre

I don't suppose I had ever heard of Phil Agre until I started reading stories of his disappearance. I don't for a moment want to be understood as being snarky or dismissive about what is obviously a serious matter, but I do note one remarkable fact: the police notice describes him as six feet tall and weighing 120 pounds. Shouldn't be too hard to spot.

Camelback, Horseback, Assback, Muleback,
Old Civilizations Put to the Sword

Visulaization of the fall of empires:

Visualizing empires decline from Pedro M Cruz on Vimeo. And H/T Kottke.

On the Economics of Chinese Food

I meant to comment before on Carpe Diem's post pointing out that by some measures, Chinese food is more popular in the United States than big-market franchise food (link). It's an interesting factoid and I take it mostly at face value. CD draws the moral that "Globalization is good," though what that has to do with the price of chai in China I have no idea (but then, the lesson CD draws from everything is that globalization is good).

But what I'd like to know is more about the internal structure of the Chinese restaurant biz. Note tht the menus, the decor and the outside signs bear an impressive similarity from one end of the country to the other. When you stop and think of it, this is hardly surprising. It isn't plausible that some Chinese family in, say,Wichita, will just say "hey. gang! Let's start a restaurant!"--and then go and invent the whole process from scratch. Sooner rather than later, they will stumble onto somebody who will want to "help" them with the benefit of his/her experience or knowledge. Might be a "restaurant consultant." My guess is that it is likely to be the equipment supplier, whose main job is to get the highest price he can squeeze for that high-BTU stove they will need,* and who finds himself morphing into a restaurant consultant whether he intended such a result or not.

And then--what? I suppose there is no megacorp to which mom & pop must be royalties (unless you count the monthly payment on that stove). But what about the mob? Tony Soprano understands that the best way to squeeze the profits out of a restaurant is to control the towel concession--an excellent index of marginal revenue. Isn't it fair to assume that somebody in the beef & broccoli circuit has figured out the same strategy.

None of this is meant to contract CD's point--as I suggested above, I'm not sure exactly what the hell his point is, anyway. It does suggest that life closeup is usually more complicated than it seems to be from a distance.

*Afterthought: One of CD's sources offers an enlightening mini-history of the Chinese restaurant in the US. But it includes an odd bit of cultural blindness:
...home cooks may use the Chinese wok pan for simple stir-fry dishes. Authentic Chinese cuisine usually calls for a level of heat unknown in Western cooking. The quick flash fry, on a high-BTU restaurant stove, seals in flavors in a way almost impossible to match in a non-professional kitchen.

Whoa, big guy, you never heard of a pizza oven? I think I make a pretty good pizza if I do say so, but I don't dare crank my kitchen oven above about 515 degrees. Unless I'm willing to spring for something like this, I'm not likely to get any better. Of course, not having a the fancy oven, I always have an excuse for not achieving perfection.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

First-ever Underbelly Gold Price Commentary

I see that the price of gold hit $1,177.12 this evening. That's getting on towards 40 percent of the price at the end of the previous gold boom in April 1980.

Except that it isn't. Adjust for inflation and the 1980 price of $850 translates into a today price of $2268. So we've got a ways to go.

Sweet Jesus! (The Sarah Chronicles)

I popped in on Amazon a few moments ago to see if the Sarah wars are still going strong in the book review trenches. Sure enough, we are showin' 147 five-star, 130 one-stars, and 29 two- three- and four-stars altogether.

But wait a minute, folks. Take a look at "the most helpful review," with 4,485 (of 5,581) favorable votes. That's enough to polish the vanity of any of those ink-stained wretches in the Amazon free labor brigade--especially, as seems pretty clearly the case, it's a parody, or perhaps I should say a mockery, the work of our old friend General J. C. Christian, proprietor of Jesus' General weblog, "an 11 on the manly scale of absolute gender." I will concede that the General's wit can appear a bit scattershot at times, sort of like Hunter Thompson on acid (joke). But the other day, I was wondering if anybody actually read the book. Today, I'm wondering if they read the reviews.

Update: Mrs. Buce says I'm being a chump (again?). She says those 4,485 favorables are (unlike me?) all in on the joke--that they are just extending the mockery. Hey, I thought of that. But I doubt 4,485 mockers could pull the levers for five-star even if they knew they were only joking. Next thing you know, somebody like me might take them seriously (follow that?).

Follow the Hair

I suppose it is silly to expect reliable business advice from a novel but this sounds like it has the ring of truth about it:
"Wigs don't last long. Bet you don't know; toupees are good for two, maybe three years max. The better made hey are, the faster they get used up. They're the ultimate consumer product. It's 'cause they fit so tightly against the scalp: the hair underneath gets thinner than ever. Once that happens, you have to buy a new one to get that perfect fit again. And think about it: What if you were using a toupee and it was no good after two years--wht would go through your mind? Would you think, OK, my wig's worn out. Can't wear it any more. But it'll cost too much to buy a new one, so tomorrow I'll start going to work without one? Is that what you'd think?"

I shook my head. "Probably not," I said.

"Of course not. Once a guy starts using a wig, he has to keep using one. It's like, his fate. That's why wig makers make such huge profits. I hate to say it, but they're like drug dealers. Once they get their hooks into a guy, he's a customer for life. Have you ever herd of a bald guy suddenly growing a head of hair? I never have. A wig's got to cost half a million yen at least, maybe a million for a tough one. And you need a new one every two years! Wow! Even a car lasts longer than that--four or five years. And then you can trade it in!"

"I see what you mean," I said.

"Plus, the wig makers run their own hairstyling salons. They was these wigs and cut the customers' real hair. I mean, think about it: you can't just plunk yourself down in an ordinary barber's chair, rip off your wig, and say, 'I'd like a trim,' can you? The income from these places alone is tremendous."

"You know all kinds of things," I said, with genuine admiration
--Haruki Murakami, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle 110
(Jay Rubin tran. 1997)

Comment: I wonder how, if at all, this picture is changed by the emergence of the hair transplant. Transplants are pretty obvious, IMO--or at least the ones that are obvious, are obvious. Yet they are neat and consistent. Sort of a piece of grooming. I know one guy: I knew him in his 20s with a full head of hair, and then in his 30s, bald as Fabius Africanus. Now in his 50s, he's perhaps 15 years into his transplant and it looks perfectly respectable.

Swiss Army Knife Heaven

Teresa Nelson Hayden directs us to the site where we find all out stuff confiscated from TSA (link). She also links to Bruce Schneier, on "Stabbing People with Stuff you canGeThrough Airport Security" (hint: think obsidian).

BTW, what is all this "-Buddha" stuff? Take away the minus sign and find out for yourself.

Vox Popoli

Waiting for some service at the car repair shop this morning, I slipped into a chair in the "customer lounge." It was almost like a library, with only two other patrons, both absorbed in their reading.

Presently a young man rolled up in a hand-powered wheelchair, carrying a laptop computer. CAN WE GET SOME TV IN HERE? --He asked loudly. From somewhere somebody flipped on a talk show. The young man, watching TV with one eye and gazing at his computer screen with the other, remarked to anyone:
Yeh, now that they've got this health care thing there'll be nothing on the talk shows for two years but health care, health care.
Yeh, responded one of his fellow customers, they're just takin' away more of our freedoms...

Having found each other as kindred spirits, they began a loud and friendly chat. I retreated to the front of the building and perched on the curb, where I could read in relative peace. I was tempted to ask who paid for the wheelchair. Military, maybe.

Mistakes in Novels

When a character in a novel makes a simple mistake, you want to stop and think to make sure you understand whether the mistake is the character's or the author's. Here are a couple of examples--the first from Robert Musil's Man Without Qualities.
Believe me, income has dropped by twenty percent and prices have gone up twenty percent, that's a total of forty percent!
--Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities, Part III
(p. 729 in volume II of the Viking Paperback ed.)

So one of the "driblets of the general conversation around him" that Ulrich hears as his train rolls into the station. Strictly speaking, (1.2/.8)-1=0.5=50 percent, not 40 percent. This may seem a fine point but it wouldn't have been lost on Musil the engineer, and the stance is in keeping with his general negative opinion on the masses. So, character, not author.

Compare Toro Okada, the narrator of Haruki Murakami's The Wind-up Bird Chronicles as he undertakes to cook dinner. I can't find the page reference but I am intrigued to learn that Toro starts by browning the onion and the garlic. Now, any decent cook knows that if you brown the garlic it tastes like overshoes. You can roast it or (as here) you can add the other ingredients and then throw in the garlic to stew.

Whose error? Toro is not a conspicuously great cook, but he is a careful and somewhat fastidious man, and he likes to prepare food with care. I suspect he knows that you don't brown the garlic. So, author, not character.

Cutest Character Slur of the Day

...a guy whose natural place in the universe is on the third block of Hardball ...

Holiday Stimulus

My friend Allison points out that the gummint is out to recruit a head elf.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Election Guesswork: The Size of the GOP Gains

I just caught a few minutes of Charlie Cook with a panel of six political strategists--three and three, Republican and Democrat. Quel surprise: everybody is predicting Republican gains; the only dispute is over how much. But it was possible to suss out some new and interesting insights. Perhaps the most interesting (to me) came from Joe Trippi talking about the turmoil internal to both parties. On the Republican side, it is obvious: Sarah and company versus the grownups. On the Democratic side, it is not quite so easy to notice, but the progressives are really mad--over, as you might say, the Glenn Greenwald agenda plus the Joe Stiglitz agenda. So Trippi, if I understand him right, is expecting a lot of tough primary fights in both parties as the "extremes" try to take out the middle. He somehow thinks that this may lead to limiting the amount of bad news for Dems, but I'm not sure I follow that.

The second thing that struck me was a pitch by Alex Castellanos, the GOP strategist, arguing that the Obama Administration is making a George W. kind of mistake. That is (my paraphrase) in each case--Obama and W--you've got a President who achieved power on a not-very-specific agenda ("Yes, We Can!" is not an agenda). And then each turned out to have a fully articulated agenda which he was determined to pursue whether the voters wanted him to or not. In particular, I understood him to say, the Dems have taken a lot of their necessary support and left it more or less parked, enjoying 10 percent unemployment while the party in power worries about health care and bailing out banks.

I think there are a lot of flaws in that theory so complain to him, not me, but I think there is enough truth in it that attention must be paid.

Much more good stuff here, worth the listsen. But as a final note, for extr credit: why is it that I find all six of these commenttors (plus, of course, Cook himself) more sane, balanced and realistic than almost any of the party noisemakers I see on TV?

Standing Tall on the Shelf

At Palookaville's fine second-hand bookshop this morning, I picked up a copy of Konstantin Paustovsky's The Story of My Life, which I read with great delight about 30 years ago, and have been wanting to reread. It's a "Pantheon Modern Classic," dated 1982 (I must have read an earlier version. The inside back flap says it is one of four in the set. Here's the entire list, as presented:
  • Giuseppe di Lampedusa's The Leopard, " the remarkable story of a Sicilian prince perched on the brink of historic change" [$5.95];
  • Yashar Kemal's Mehmed, My Hawk, " a modern-day Robin Hood's struggles against the beauty and brutality of Turkish peasant life" [$6.95];
  • Konstantin Paustovsky's The Story of a Life, " a brilliant portrayal of a coming of age amidst war and revolution" in early 20th-century Russia [$8.95]; and
  • Robert Musil's Young Törless, a novel set in a military boarding school in the Austria of the Hapburgs [$5.95]
Now I ask you: are going to find any other list of "modern classics," composed 27 years ago, that stands quite so solidly on the shelf? A list like this is bound to look dated or parochial after such a time, but every one of these entries, to my mind, still stands tall on the shelf. But it does look like they couldn't find something good to say about Törless, though.

[And BTW, I got my copy for $2.95.]

Mystery Google

For no reason that I can fathom, a number of searchers just showed up at Underbelly on redirect from something called Mystery Google--surely the lamest web app I've seen in quite a while and if it really is related to Google, I think it may be time to short the stock.

Gillon on Johnson

Cleaning the kitchen last night, I listened with one ear to Steve Gillon on C-Span flogging his new book, The Kennedy Assassination--24 Hours After. It's a super concept and it's hard to imagine why nobdy seems to have thought of it before, and it sounds like a fine book. Gillon's point is to focus on the transition, and in particular, the role of the unexpected President, the bane of all things Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson. As Gillon tells it, Johnson understood almost from the first gunshot that he was in a world-changing situation--which (subject to one possible qualification) he handled faultlessly.

If you need just one focus-point, consider the Cecil Stoughton's unforgettable photo of the swearing-in--the new President, with his wife Lady Bird at his side. Whom do we see upstage, next to the President and closest to the camera? Oh, look, it is Jackie--the wife of the dead president stands at the elbow of his successor. I can't think of anything more likely to send the message of stability and continuity, and per Gillon, it was Johnson's idea, and he was ready with it on the spot.

Gillon freights a lot onto the animosity between the Kennedy loyalists and the successor. Perhaps he overdoes it a bit for literary purposes, but I suspect he is mostly on the beam. Recall that it was Bobby who went so far as to ask Lyndon to turn down the Vice Presidency after it was offered (and it was Bobby who remained the defining figure in Johnson's White House for the rest of his term).

For all his apparent admiration of Johnson's initiative and instincts, Gillon seems to feel tht he overdid it--that his behavior in this first moment of crisis prefigures the (per Gillon) too-clever-by-half paranoia that dominated and ultimately destroyed the Johnson presidency. I wonder. If the loyalists were indeed as hostile to Johnson as Gillon represents them to be, then every Johnson haad every reason to put his survival instincts on stun. But you can leave that issue to the Monday morning quarterbacks. He's got a great story to tell and it sounds like a fine book.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Sarah Wars: Amazon

Monkey Cage points out that the Amazon reviews of Going Rogue are pretty much either five star or one star. So far so good, although the next question would be: how many of either side have actually read it?

The One-Termers

Gary Wills suggests that Barack Obama settle for a one-term presidency and make it something to be proud of *--i.e., by ending a couple of nasty and persistent wars. He set me to thinking about other one-term presidencies. I can't find a strong pattern here. There several--Carter, Hoover--who seem to have been just not very good at the job. I can think of at least one--Buchanan--who was really awful. And at least one--Coolidge--who simply didn't want it all that much.

But perhaps the closest comparison would by the hypothetical mirror image of Obama's hypothetical stop-the-war program. That would be President James K. Polk, who started a war (against Mexico), won it, and went home (and died, perhaps partly from overwork).

It's probably not a comparison that either Polk or Obama would fancy but you'd have to say this: Polk changed the landscape of America more than any other president from Jefferson to Lincoln. It's a record not to be dismissed lightly.
*"A One-Term President?" New York Review of Books December 3, 2009, 8.

Whatever It Takes...

From the NYT Sunday morning story about Norm Radow the Workout Guy who steps in to make what he can out of failed real estate projects:
In 2003, Lehman sent him to Boston to rescue a failed condo tower. ... Ceilings in the tower were seven and a half feet high, about a foot and a half less than typically found in luxury condos. "He tried to squeeze an extra floor into the building," Mr. Radow says of the project's developer ... To help solve the height problem, Mr. Radow hired only sales people who weren't much taller than 5 feet. he sold all the units, and Lehman Brothers was thrilled.

Update: John says: short sellers. Oh tee hee.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Who Are These Guys, Anyway?

I used to be able to name about 80 sitting U. S. Senators. I think I am down to about 60 now. I assume this is partly just the result of decaying brain tissue, but it has to be partly also that these guys are getting harder and harder to remember. I mean, I suppose it is no big deal to remember Robert Byrd of West Virginia--he's been there forever. And it is probably easy enough to remember Barbara Mikulsi of Maryland even though she is no longer (almost) the only woman in the room. And her name helps you remember Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, otherwise memorable only as a time-server who inherited daddy's seat.

Beyond that--well, I can get through New England fairly well, perhaps because I grew up back there (though I doubt I would remember Judd Gregg of New Hampshire if I didn't remember his father, the governor back in the 50s). The mid-Atlantic--well, I still struggle with Bob Caey of Pennsylvania and I be dam if I can remember Mikulski's colleague, the guy who replaced Paul Sarbanes in Maryland (Cardin, Buce, Car-din). Going further south--now really, is there any good reason to remember either Richard Burr, the Republican, or his Democratic counterpart Kay Hagen (the lady who beat Elizabeth Dole; got it).

And so forth. I think one reason why it gets hard is that more and more of these characters are just so completely anodyne, designed for no other purpose than to look good under a blow dryer. Over time they can come to distinguish themselves, e.g., as flaming right-wingers like Jim DeMint of South Carolina or Tom Coburn of Oklahoma (about the only guy in the galaxy who cam make Don Imhoff look moderate). And there is the occasional gratifying scandal--how else to remember John Ensign of Nevada? And of course with Dave Vitter of Louisiana we get a twopher--extremism and scandal in a single package.

I would like to, but cnanot honestly, say that the Democrats are a lot better. I mean, I know there are important differences between Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, but what are you going to do when they are both iambics?

And the Udalls--keeping two of them straight is hard enough, but I am old enough to remember--and confuse them with--their uncle/father ("I knew Mo Udall; Mo Udall was a--" well, he wasn't really, but still).

Still, I can't escape the conviction that is me and not them: that they are really turning into an increasingly boring lot. Makes one pine for the days when senators had names like Claghorn and Phogbound, or at least Webster, Clay and Calhoun.

He-e-e-e-re Bo!

Elizabeth Drew reminds President Obama of President Truman's first rule of politics: if you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.\

Update: An offline commentator asks: just whom is being betrayed here, and by whom? Interesting question to which, I suppose, I had not given much thought before I posted it. Betrayal is an important concept in the literature of social life: Shakespeare, Cervantes and Dante all pay attention to it, which fact in itself makes betrayal worthy of study. In this case, I suspect that everybody is entitled to a sense of disappointment: The President, the Counsel, the reporter and, oh yes dear reader, you and I.

Friday, November 20, 2009

More on Gunsel: A Prank?

Bad Attitudes, otherwise unknown to me, picks up on my discussion of "gunsel" offers an additional spin. Recall that "gunsel" may mean "male homosexual"--typically the younger, passive partner--or "gunslinger. Now this:
The two meanings are believed to have originated concurrently but independently. gunsel: Or: gonsil/ gonzel/ gonsel: A 19th century term of German and Yiddish (little goose) derivation for a young, inexperienced gay male similar to the more recent gay slang term, “twink.” See sodomite for synonyms. The latter usage — a gun-toting hoodlum — derives from Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. Hammett’s publisher at the time refused to allow any rude or profane terminology in his publication. Hammett slipped in “gunsel” — a street term for a young, gay man — as a joke. Since it is used throughout the book to refer to the character of Wilmer — a gun-toting thug — most people erroneously assumed that is what it meant and it stuck.
He seems to think he is quoting me, but no, I never heard it before. The language apparently comes from the Wiktionary discussion page. The view gains support from the estimable Michael Quinion, who adds a further surprising fillip:

In Australia an equally extraordinary but different shift in sense has taken place. In the spelling gunzel it means a railway or tramway enthusiast (otherwise in various countries a railfan, trainspotter or gricer). In early appearances it referred to the kind of scruffy, obsessive and over-enthusiastic fan who travels with notebooks and cameras and who would bore you to tears with arcane information if you let him get started. The new meaning is said to have grown up at the Sydney Tramway Museum in the 1960s through the reading of old American comics. These days, I am told, the term is worn with pride.

See id. for "gooseberry lay." Accord, William Safire, with a cute anecdote about James Carville.

The Best Finance Book I've Read So Far This Year
[aka, Cliff Notes for Finance Professors]

The best finance book I've read so far this year (and I've read a slew of them) is Robert C. Pozen's Too Big to Save? How to Fix the U.S. Financial System. But it fits in a somewhat specialized niche. If you are new to the current crisis, it is not the first book you should read on the topic. For narrative framework, I'd recommend this or this, either followed by this. No: instead of overview, what Pozen offers is an analytical framework on virtually every important practical issue in finance, together with recommendations. In short, what we have here is the book that every business/finance professor wants needs. Not to assign to his students: nothing to vulgar as that. What you do with Pozen is stuff it in your top drawer and sneak a peek whenever you want to look brilliant. I can't think of anybody who has covered such a range of issues so efficiently or so well.

But it's not a simple miracle. Pozen brings a lot to the table: he's chairman of a major money manager. He's had a string of posts in the finance industry, with a strong minor in public policy (I assume that he is the same Robert Pozen who, back in a simpler time, co-authored a Ralph Nader report on the state of Delaware). So he has to be in command of a lot of technical detail that most professors don't know (he also authored a couple of academic textbooks, so there is some crossover). What comes closer to miraculous is his talent for exposition: there may be others who can command this kind of detail, but I don't know anybody else can make it march in serried ranks. Pozen has the presentational skills of a journalist (which he is not). In his current guise, it's a blessing.

What we have here, then, is a comprehensive aide-memoire, but Pozen goes it one better. At the end of each chapter he offers up a "summary"--some of them not a lot shorter or less detailed than the original, to serve as an aid to an aid. I wonder if he has a third version tucked away in his laptop somewhere--the superlong version, written before his publisher made him cut it down to a book.

I almost wrote that the book was "about the current crisis," but that's not quite right: Pozen covers a range of issues, and if they all seem to be related to the current crisis, it is more because of the reach of the crisis than the narrow relevance of the issues. So what we have here is not quite an encyclopaedia, but an impressively extensive review of so many of the issues that concern anybody who cares about finance.

With so many specific practical recommendations, it is hard to provide a useful summary but it is possible to note some patterns. Pozen is clearly a guy who likes markets but has seen enough of them to know that they don't just invent themselves. Virtually all of his solutions, including those that involve some kind of government intervention, seem pretty clearly directed at making markets function better.

In the current uproar, he is refreshingly unimpressed by some of the popular shibboleths. He seems to have no truck, for example with the "all-Jimmy-Carter's-fault" school of policy criticism, which argues that all our travail can be laid at the door of those who wanted to increae home ownership. In the case of FNMA and GNMA, for example, Pozen seems much more impressed by the pressure the mortgage-buyers experienced from the CEO of Countrywide Finance than anything they may have felt from Chris Dodd or Barney Frank. He's similarly unpersuaded by those who say it was all the fault of marke-to-market accounting. Pozen does his best to lay out the classic case for truth in disclosure; on the way he provides an admirable nontechnical introduction to the narrow accounting issues.

On the other hand, Pozen is no more impressed by the idea that it was all the fault of the repeal of Glass-Steagall. Pozen makes a fairly sophisticated argument here. He grants that commercial banks gained some new freedom after repeal. But he says that many of their goals they had already achieved interstitially years before outright repeal. And (we are getting close to the point now) some banks exercised their newer, broader powers; some did not. The kicker is that those who did use their broader lending powers appear to have got into no more--and perhaps less--trouble than their brethren who did not. I might add:there might be other reasons why repeal of Glass-Steagall was a bad idea, but if Pozen is right, then culpability for the late meltdown is not one of them.

This is so rich that it seems captious to ask more of it. Still, one's appetites are insatiable and every frontier is a horizon. For example, I wish he had used a bit more of his formidable power as an explainer to throw some light onto the process of securitization--to show why the core idea of securitization really is quite a good one, while the recent innovations are justs betrayals of its good name.

Similarly, although Pozen didn't pretend to write a big-picture book, I'd love to know how he feels in general about the "asymmetry" issue that Barry Ritholtz treats so well: to what extent, for example, does he think we can blame our troubles on the shift to corporate structure at the great investment bank, and the corollary institution of heads-I-win, tails-you-lose incentives. And if I am on the right track so far, why (in the name of all that is holy) did shareholders ever let them get away with it.

And just to show I kept my eyes open, let me offer one policy point that seems to me germane to his discussion, but which he didn't touch on. The issue is executive compensation. Pozen is justly (I think) skeptical of the capacity of government to solve the problem of compensation obscenities; the job will be done, if at all, by better structured boards. In general, Pozen favors incentive-based compensation--but much reformed and improved from the phony incentives on offer today. But here's what he overlooks: almost every serious incentive scheme keys executive earnings to stock value. The trouble with this is thar stock value is not asset value. And as against the assets, shareholders on a leveraged balance sheets have perverse incentives from the get-go. They are impelled by the structure of the enterprise to take value-reducing risks. I admit I am not a careful follower of the debate over executive comp, but I don't know of any serious player who pays any attention to this issue. Pozen is ideally positioned to do so; I wish he would.

So, two points off for incompleteness, but it still leaves him way ahead of the pack. Although there is a final irony here. This book is nothing if not "timely": completely up-to-date and apposite to our current concerns. The irony is that it will be out of date next week. So read it quickly, and enjoy.

Oh, but a word of caution: don't get the Kindle (unless, perhaps, you have one of those new giant jobbies, of which I suspect they have sold about two). This book has far too many charts and tables, unreadable in the tiny format. And right now in the mess on my desk I can't even find mine, but that is another problem.

Anonymous Flattery: Keynes

Commenting on my Bruce Bartlett post, Anonymous asks:
Can you recommend a book on Keynesian economics suitable for an adult with a financial services background and an MBA? I want something more detailed than a "Dummy's Guide to" but not something that will cause me to research lots of things to understand each chapter (It's been 20+ years since MBA school and I barely remember the Black & Sholes option pricing model....)
Ha! That's one of those questions usually asked of people far above my pay grade, but let me give it a thought. I suppose a simple answer is that the Bartlett book itself, on Keynes (unlike supply side) is actually quite wonderful--deft and accessible without great sacrifice of technical content.

The next point would be to stress that Keynes himself never intended to be that-all technical. It was his "friends" (from which heaven save me) who dressed it up iin the full regalia of academic geometry. Beyond that--if you are ready for a bit more technicality, I suspect you might be pleasantly surprised at how accessible the average textbook has become since your time in school (a triumph of the free market?). And needless to say, no reason at all the plunk down the big bux for a new edition--on this topic as with so many others, a used second hand, available for pocket change at Amazon, etc., will suit you just fine. Example: I don't have a macro text at hand at the moment but I find a perfectly readable presentation in my copy of Frederic S. Mishkin, The Economics of Money, Banking and Financial Markets (8th ed.)--which as it happens, I picked up used on Amazon myself.

Beyond that, there re few academic biographies more filled with the sinew of life than Robert Skidelsky's three-volume product on Keynes--true not least because Keynes himself was so full of the sinew of life (there is also an abridgment available). Skidelsky has a new single volume work out with the title Keynes: The Return of the Master, which sounds suspicioiusly like a quicky designed to capitalize on the current resurgence (haven't read it; sounds promising, but note the negative Amazon reviews).

Finding Evan (Caution, Spoiler)

I don't regularly read Wired, but idling through (and not paying for) a paper copy at Barnes & Noble this morning, I ran across the most interesting thing I've read all day: the story about the contest to find Evan Ratliff, the writer who challenged readers to crack his scheme to scrub his identity--including a 60-percent-Ben-Stein double-dare to pay the prize (in part) out of his own money (paper edition on newsstands now; you could even buy it).

The spoiler is that he lost; his cover was blowen by a pizza guy in New Orleans, collaborating with a yelping horde of online searchers. But he gave them a run for his money: even though he and the mag had double-dared and taunted--and even upped the ante for--his searchers, he still made it within sight of the finish line. On the other hand, I suppose you could expect the same sort of full-court press if, say, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed jumped from a moving van on the Jersey Turnpike and vanished into the Pine Barrens.

I suppose the most impressive part to me--but you will say you knew this--is the number of really, really smart people who had the time and the energy to devote to the enterprise. Money must have been a factor but these guys are smart enough to multiply the size of the award by the probability of success, and then offset against the lost earnings from not working at Dairy Queen. Is this a sad testimony to our unemploymPasent rate, or where they all Googlers on their free day?

A minor not-very-technical note: I was intrigued to find how easy it is (or was) to beat the Airport Security prohibition on going to the gate: just buy a refundable ticket. Pass through the gate, do what you will, and return.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Welcome, Ordinary Gentlemen

Would not have guessed there are so many of you. But c'mon in, there's pie.

Short Memories: Republicans and Civil Rights

There's a curious case of memory loss that seems to be afflicting both left and right this morning over the history of civil rights legislation. Link, (link). Start with Republican Rep. Virginia Foxx of North Carolina:
Just as we were the people who passed the civil rights bills back in the '60s without very much help from our colleagues across the aisle," said Fox. "They love to engage in revisionist history.
Shift now to Democratic Rep. Dennis Cardoza of North Carolina California:
Today, what I’m hearing on the floor really takes the cake. The gentlelady from North Carolina, in her statement just now, indicated that the Republican GOP had passed the Civil Rights Act legislation with almost no help from the Democrats. I can’t believe my ears. It was the Kennedy and Johnson administration where we passed that Great Society legislation. It was over the objections of people like Jesse Helms from the gentlewoman’s state that we passed that civil rights legislation. John Lewis…
In response, Republicans gleefully jumped on the fact that Cardoza was wrong about Jesse Helms: he wasn't even in the Senate until 1972.

But on the larger issue--comments are still pouring in and I won't pretend to be keeping up with them; still, the fact is that Foxx actually had a kind of a point here. What she was really talking about the Civil Rights of 1957, which was passed on the initiative of the Eisenhower Administration, over the dead-body opposition of the Senate Democratic leadership--and only after the Democrats had so gutted it as to leave it largely meaningless.

How fast memories fade: recall that the pre-1960 Democratic party was a monstrous two-headed beast with liberal (sometimes radical) union members, blacks and intellectuals on one side and reactionary So;uthern whites on the other. It was the Republicans who still carried a progressive tradition on civil rights, going back to the founding of the party at the beginning of the Civil War.

Eisenhower himself, as many have observed, wasn't deeply hostile to blacks, but he just didn't get it:the real motivation came from the "northeast" wing of the party, notably Attorney General Herbert Brownell. Leading the Senate opposition was Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson. As others have remarked, this created thre ironic mirroring in which the forces in fazvor of enhanced civil rights were led by a man who had no particular taste to it, while the opposition came from one southerner whose attitude towards racial minorities was one of genuine compassion.

When he signed the Civil Rights Act, Johnson famously said he figured he'd delivered the south to the Republicans for a long time to come. That was the year Rep. Foxx turned 21.

Update: I am catching offline flac for having saddled Lyndon Johnson with the onus of "leading the Senate opposition." The point is made that Johnson was in fact the person who jammed the bill through. ITechnically correct, but am unrepentant. I don't doubt the sincerity of Johnson's compassion for blacks. But he had two choices: one, let the bill fail, at the behest of the old bulls who still dominated the august body (e.g., Johnson's personal mentor, Richard Russell of Georgia). And two, strip it naked and deprive of all nourishment and push it forth into a hostile world. Johnson knew he couldn't make his bones as a Presidential candidate in 1960 without a civil rights scalp in his belt. So he chose the path of betrayal.

I am, at the end of the day, something of the Johnson fan. He certainly is the most interesting president of my lifetime (or perhaps a close second, behind Richard Nixon). But there is no point in obscuring how many grandmothers he had to pitch under how many speeding locomotives to get where he wanted to be.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Apprciation: Return of the Soldier

The Buce readaloud sodality recently undertook a perusal of Rebecca West's The Return of the Soldier. I think the immediate impulse was that Mrs. B's sister had read it in a book club and wanted out opinion. I was happy to oblige: I had taken great delight just last year from our reading of The Fountain Overflows, and I think that Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is one of the great whaddycallums of the lat century.

I wasn't disappointed: at just 90 pages Return of the Soldier is a slight thing, and the plot--a riff on Rip Van Winkle--offers little by way of substance that you haven't seen before. But West is an absolutely distinctive sensibility and even in this youthful trifle, she has a way of putting her own stamp on things. Indeed, my only strong complaint is that it is almost impossible to read aloud right, at least at sight. Her sentences re so serpentine, not to say feline or leonine, that you almost stub your toe on the syntax and bloody your nose on the iimplacable structure.

One thing that still strikes me as ironic, though. Return of the Soldier apparently ranks as a feminist classic, and in a narrow sense, I suppose I can see why this is so. It's a story told by a woman, herself a figure of inarguable raw talent. And it is a war story (or at least a home-from-the-wars story) told from a woman's point of view. Yet it is hard to imagine a story more man-centroc than this: everything and everybody revolves around Chris--poor, damaged Chris, just home from the wars. Plus (what is almost the same thing) the healing power of women: the restorative power of women and their indispensability in accomplishing what seems to be the end: the healing and general well-being of the man.
So it was not until now, when it happened to my friends, when it was my dear Chris and my dear Margaret who sat thus englobed in peace as in a crystal sphere, that I knew it was the mot significant, as it was the loveliest, attitude in the world. It means that the woman has gathered the soul of the man into her soul and is keeping it warm in love and peace so that his body can rest quiet for a little time. That is a great thing for a woman to do.

--Rebecca West, The Return of the Soldier 57 ( 2008)
West goes on to concede that there are other great things that a woman may do, but that is a detail. For the moment, here is a central mission, here is fulfillment, here is home. From stuff like this, you've come a long way baby indeed.

Dowd on Sarah Pa (snooze...)

The breakfast table at Chez Buce is in unanimous agreement that today's Maureen--on Sarah Palin's new book--is the dullest ever. Seems that when the Beltway Queen of Snark meets the Wasilla Whiner, she really can't figure out what to do with her. Maureen ia reduced to trying to figure out ways in which the two are alike, and in fact, she finds quite a few. They both won VFW Writing Contests for Children. They both read Animal Farm (no kidding?). They both watched Sound of Music.

In short, a big yawn, with one possible exception. That is: maybe they are actually alike, in the sense that political adversaries are often more alike than they or we might notice at first blush. Think Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich: those guys could probably fill each other's suits. The presence of the two together in one room is bound to suck the oxygen out of everything in sight. A little boomlet, like matter and anti-matter. Might be interesting to see what would happen if they traded places: plump Sarah down in the columnisgt's bullpen at the Times Washington bureau and send Maureen up in a helicopter with a Moose gun. Would anybody notice?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Decomposing China

Nothing that the population of Russia is now running about 142 million (down about five percent from the end of the Empire), it occurred to me to wonder--are there provinces in China that big?

Answer, no. Wiki gives the largest Administrative Division of China as Guangdong with about 94.5 million people. So, way smaller than Russia, but about the same says as--what? You thought Germany, Britan, France, italy, but you rejected them all because you knew they were too small, and you are right.

But the winner turns out to be The Philippines, weighing in as the 12th largest nation in the world. I have to say, I think I would have got that one wrong. I've never set foot in the Philippines, and I'm just not habituated to thinking of it as such a heavyweight.

Meanwhile, just as I was doing my looking, The Atlantic Magazine posted this too-cool analysis of "The Nine Nations of China." I've been to five; never been to the deep south nor the far north--never to Guangdong or Hong Kong, although I have been to Beijing, Shanghai, and all the way west to Kashgar. Big country, lots to see. And, come to think of it, three of these nine have a population bigger than Russia.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Boys Club Con't

A few weeks ago I argued that the reason that the bad boys couldn't corral Sheila Bair for their save-the-world program is that they treated her like a girl. In Too Big to Save? Robert Pozen appears to see another episode of the same sort. The subject is Brooksly Born, head of the Commodity Futures Trading Corporation back in the Clinton administration who wanted to regulate nonstandard credit default swaps.
[H]er views were curtly dismissed by then Federal Reserve Chair [Alan] Greenspan as well as then SEC Chair Arthur Levitt and then Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin. As Michael Greenberger, a senior CFTC official at the time, explained: "Greenspan told Brooklsy that she essentially didn't know what she was doing and she'd cause a financial crisis. Brooksly was this woman who was not playing tennis with these guys and not having lunch with these guys. There was a little bit of the feeling that this woman was not of Wall Street.
--Pozen in the uncitable Kindel edition, citing Peter S. Goodman, "Taking a Hard New Look at a Greenspan Legacy," New York Times, October 9, 2008, p. A1.

Politics: You Choose

Here's the quote:
For many reasons, this is by far the best book and greatest literary achievement by a political figure in my lifetime.
Forget about the author. The subject is:
a) Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged
b) Frederich Hayek, The Road to Serfdom
c) Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom
d) Michael Oakeshott, Rationalism in Politics
e) Other

Update: Silly me. He was born in 1967. He couldn't be expected to know about old fogeys like Ayn Rand or Milton Friedman anyway.

Heart Attacks: Another one Rides the Bus

Liam Hudson, the British psychologist, argued that the real augury of success in science was not brilliance so much as it was a certain habits of mind: a patient and enduring curiosity about the subject, coupled with a knack for picking good projects (I think his showcase example was Ernest Rutherford, but don't hold me to it).

Anyway, I thought of Hudson last week when I read about the death of this guy:

Jeremy N. Morris, a British epidemiologist whose comparison of heart-attack rates among double-decker bus drivers and conductors in London in the late 1940s and early ’50s laid the scientific groundwork for the modern aerobics movement, died Oct. 28 in Hampstead, London. He was 99 ½. ...

It had long been surmised that exercise and a healthy heart were correlated. ...

Dr. Morris surmised that the proof could be found on the stairs of those double-decker buses. In 1949, he began tracing the heart-attack rates of hundreds of drivers and conductors. The drivers sat for 90 percent of their shifts; the conductors climbed about 600 stairs each working day. Dr. Morris’s data, published in 1953, indicated that the conductors had fewer than half the heart attacks of their sedentary colleagues.

In a follow-up study, Dr. Morris found that a lower incidence of heart attack among people doing physical work was not, for the most part, related to other factors, like body type. Transport for London, the city’s transportation agency, provided him with the sizes of the trousers it supplied to its workers. His data indicated that the conductors’ waistbands were smaller, but that their protection against heart attack could not be explained by their relative leanness. They had a lower risk of heart attack whether they were slim, average size or portly.

To corroborate his findings further, Dr. Morris did a study of postal workers. Comparing those who delivered the mail by walking or riding bicycles with the clerks behind the window at the post office and the telephone operators, he found that the deliverers also had a far lower risk of heart attack. ...

I suspect there must have been young scientists all over the world who read that and asked: why can't I come up with something quite so simple? Alas, I suspect all the low-hanging fruit has been picked. And anyway, it's a knack.

[No real reason for the late posting; I just forgot about it until now.]

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Onion Needs to get Back on Message

I guess this is funny enough, in Onion sort of way (link).

Area Man Passionate Defender
Of What He Imagines Constitution To Be

...but here's the funny thing: the rest of it isn't really funny at all. It's just a tedious whine--virtually all of which I happen to agree with, but hey, you can get tedious whines in any faculty lunch room on the planet. Somebody needs to go reread the mission statement. This, for example is funny.

Susan Graham, Up Close (but not Personal)

We saw Susan Graham a about three weeks back as she disported herself in a queen-sized bedroom frolic with Renee Fleming, as co-stars in Der Rosenkavalier at Lincoln Center in New York. We were watching from the dress circle which is not exactly New Jersey, but it is a good city block from the stage (my favorite location, as it happens, but that is another story). We saw her last night at the Mondavi Center at UC Davis, from a distance of about 110 feeet. Let's just say that you notice the difference.

First point: as U Utah Phillips liked to say, the dude is big-- an easy six feet, pretty much of a head taller than anybody else in her company. We were watching from the third row, so I guess you could say ten feet out plus six feet up, and if I remember my high school geometry, that's actually about 11.6 feet from her eyes to mine, though she missed a chance to lock on. But it brings me to my second point: the dude is loud, in the sense of having enough vocal power to lift the roof off and spin it around a coupler of times. Not quite Joan-Sutherland loud, but that's not entertainment, that's grotesque. Just a naturally powerfull (or unnaturally well-trained?) voice, that cazn command an audience all the way to the dress circle.

The particular item on display was Handel's Dido and Aeneas, which has enchanted me since I first heard it when I was 19 (although come to think of it, I'm not sure I ever saw it live before). And the intimate quarters allowed a third insight. that is: she had a superbly well qualified supporting cast, but not one of them had the belt-it-out power of the star. So you could just see that, for all their talent and training, they were doomed to smaller halls and more stingy paydays than the diva. I felt particularly sorry for Cyndia Sieden who played Dido's sister Belinda: she had to stand right next to Graham and open before her, and I think that would be enough to throw any but another diva a bit off-stride.

Clearly Graham has a lot of raw natural ability, but I don't mean to dismiss her as a mere animal act. She's a meticulous preparer, and we've seen her now in half a dozen different roles, about as different as you could hope for--aside from Strauss, we saw her first as the lead in Gluck's
Iphigénie en Tauride; later in Handel's Ariodante and Mozart's La clemenza di Tito. Mrs. Buce also saw her as Donna Elvira in Mozart's Don Giovanni and anyway, the point is--put that together with Dido and you've got a tremendous range of material, forgetting about all the stuff we haven't seen. A first-rate talent at the top of her game; something to remember.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

More than you Want to Know about the Court of Louis XIV

The Duc de Saint-Simon marvels over the impudence of Marie-Adélaide of Savoy, duchesse of Bourgogne, who could "do no wrong" before King Louis XIV of France "because she diverted him." One evening, the King and his mistress came to chat with her one evening before a play. In came Nanon, a chambermaid.
The duchesse de Bourgogne, in evening dress and jewels, stood with her back to the hearth and leaned on a small folding screen. Nanon, keeping a hand under her apron, went behind her and kneeled down. Seeing this the King asked what they were doing.

The princess laughed, and said she was only doing what the King did on theatre nights. The King insisted. "Do you really wnat to know?" she asked. "Since you haven't noticed, I am taking an enema." "What," cried the King, "do you mean you are taking an enema right there in front of us?" "That's right," she replied. "How do you do it?" the King wanted to know, and they began to laugh with all their hearts. The princess explained that Nanon brought the syringe all prepared under her apron, lifted her skirts while she held herself as though she was warming herself behind the fire, and Nanon slipped in the nozzle. Then Nanon lowered her skirts and left with the syringe, so no one was the wiser; people usually thought Nanon was fixing the princess's dress.
--Duc de Saint-Simon, The Age of Magnificence: Memoirs of the Court of Louis XIV 84
(Sanche de Gramont ed., Capricon Books 1964)

All Those Meetings: Morgan Saves Wall Street While Asleep

Back in my newspaper days, I spent a bit of time at the Kentucky legislature. For a fan of participatory democracy, it was not a very inspiring sight: many of these "legislators" were just country boys who came to Frankfort for the hookers and the booze and whatever other vices they did not feel comfortable indulging at home. But the presiding officer--a guy named R. P. "Dick" Maloney--was of a different stripe: a shrewd and crafty manipulator of people and policy, he played them like a violin. This mostly entailed keeping order in the sandbox, and trying to keep things on schedule. But every so often, Maloney seemed to cede away his responsibilities, and for a couple of hours things would run riot--people would talk on and on about anything at all.

What's going on here? "You've got to let them get off steam," he would explain. After a while, he would take bring down the gavel again and get back to business.

I thought of Dick Maloney this week while reading Panic of 1907, Sean Carr and Robert Burr's absorbing account of the mostly-forgotten near-death financial meltdown on Wall Street early in the last century. It's a fascinating backgrounder on some of what we lived through last year and, not incidentally, a remarkable insight into the career of J. P. Morgan Jr., the old lion who more or less systematically hectored and bullied financial markets back into order.

So we're at the old Union Trust Company on the northeast corner of Thirty-sixth and Fifth Avenue. The order of the day is to squeeze $10 million out of the presidents of New York's most powerful trust companies to help shore up a flagging comrade and thus restore confidence in he system. Morgan (inevitably) presides. For him personally, it was no small matter. He was 70; he was mostly retired from the bank--he spent his time on Episcopal Church matters, and his collection of rare books and Renaissance art. He'd been on his feet in action for days and nights now. And he nursed a persistent, nasty cold.

Still, Morgan's entreaty, the president of Bankers Trust agreed to stump up $500,000, perhaps a million. But the others balked.
Their aimless discussion continued. Morgan was clearly exhausted. At first, he sat quietly smoking, until his cigar went out. Then his head dropped forward and he fell asleep in his chair.
Get that: perhaps the most critical moment in the career of perhaps the most powerful man in the world, and the old goat falls asleep.

But get this also: it didn't matter. Discussion continued to meander around him:
Another 30 minutes passed. Morgan then abruptly awoke, and he immediately asked [his aide] for apencil and a sheet of paper. "Well, gentlemen," Morgan continued...
And he got his money. And the system survived.

What do we see here? I think we see something between Kubler-Ross's six stages of grief and Maloney's "let them let off steam." It really didn't matter what the bankers said. It didn't matter whether Morgan was there or not (maybe he was awake all along and just faking it). They knew they were licked from the start. They needed to reconcile themselves to the fact they they were going to part with a large chunk of their beloved change. And these things take time.

I think there may be a moral here about all those meetings that everybody hates to go to. We never get anything done, you say. We just talk and talk. True, too true. And sometimes, that may be just the point. Deans who preside over faculty meetings, please copy. And consider a nap.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Annals of Judicial Humor

ATL is reporting on the travail of as Minnesota judge who so far forget himself as to utter a one-liner. He said:
I've been married 45 years. We've never considered divorce. A few times murder, maybe.
Okay, har de har. But as ATL recalls, "we live in America, the land of perpetually bunched panties" (har de har again). And the judge is in a spit storm.

I won't begin to recount all the details of the fewferaw, but so far as I can tell, nobody seems to have noticed that the great progenitor of that remark is the wife of the late Billy Grahm (see a Google search with 3.88 million hits). If you can't wrap yourself in that much sanctity, we truly are screwed.

You Go, Girl

I think of Jan (formerly James) Morris as the energizer bunny of travel writers: 83 she is, if not necessarily still going, at least still assessing and evaluating and appreciating (link, for which thanks to Joel). I've read a lot of her stuff over the years but the one that sticks on my shelf is a little item that I gather irritated some of her faithful readers. That would be Last Letters from Hav, a charming little jeu d'esprit, casually structured as a novel so as to provide her with a chance to talk about all the places she'd been and the traces they inscribed on her memory. It is a charming and good natured and, okay, sentimental read. It was nominated for thee Booker Prize that year and that, I suspect, may be why polite critics get so sniffy: how dare she presume to compete with the likes of Keri Hulme, who won the prize (for The Bone People) --or, for that matter, with Iris Murdoch, Doris Lessing, Peter Carey and J.L. Carr, the other contenders.

Hav has a Turkish air, but there is a little bit of everything: German electric fittings (undermined by a Russian power plant); a French Maison de la Clugture ("one of Le Corbusier's less inspired works") and, of course, a Chinese Pagoda:
The fundamental shape of the building is, of course, that of the pagoda, the most unmistakably Chinese of forms, with its wide eaves and its gently tapering flanks--the Arabs were to be left in no doubt, not for a moment, as to the identity of the Master. In the five bridges there is apparently a direct refernce to the five bridges over the Golden Water River in the Forbidden City, an allusion that would imply to the Chinese themselves, if hardly to anyone else, the presence here of the imperial authority. The moat itself, with its nine unblinking eye-pools, is be a figure of the Lake of Sleepless Diligence, while the high corridor which bisects the ground floor of the building, west to east, is said to be exactly aligned upon Tian Tan, the Tem;ple of the Heavens in Beijing. Finally... the whole edifice, so complex and deceptive, is a sophisticated architectural metaphor and maze.

--Jan Morris, Last Letters from Hav 96-7 (Vintage Paperback ed. 1988)
Fo;r my money, it is not all that far from Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, recognized as a modernist classic. I suspect that Morris does not lose any sleep over the fact that she did not win the Booker; I hope note, for I'd cetainly rather read her than any of those who did.

Laddish Humor: Philippine Insurgency Department

A Google blog search for "Moro Islamic Liberation Front" yields 29,965 hits. Does this represent an intense curiosity about Philippine insurgency, or just a laddish tee-hee about the initials?

Understated Shakespeare

Watching the last of those wonderful "Shakespeare Master Classes" with John Barton (I wish there were 20 more), I see that he picks up on a hobby horse of mine: some of the best moments in Shakespeare are the simplest, far from the legendary bombast.

Barton gets half a dozen actors to recite the first line of Merchant of Venice:

In truth, I know not why I am so sad.

That's Antonio. Ten syllables, ten words, as near to a perfect iambic as you're going to find. But as Barton shows, it can define his character for the rest of the play. He gets half a dozen of the actors in his company to give it a go; they come up with wildly different characters--not all of whom you'd want to watch, but no matter, the point is made.

It also sets Barton up to pursue again a point he has been pursuing through the series: actors have to earn a particular interpretation--a line, or a pause, or whatever. They have to figure out a way to create a context where a particular bit makes sense. So, for example, after Emilia discovers the murder of Desdemona (a few pages after) she shouts "O villainy, villainy!" Her husband Iago responds: "What, are you mad? I charge you get you home." And Emilia says:
Good gentlemen, let me have leave to speak.
'Tis proper I obey him, but now now.
Perchance, Iago, I will ne'er go home.
There is so much in those three lines. She's respectful of authority; she shows respect for her husband, the villain. There's a touch of domestic intimacy. But:

Perchance...I will ne'er go home.

In fact, a few moments later Iago kills her--so she does not go home. Or, ironically, "goes to her final home". Or simply: my life is so altered that no matter what happens, that nothing will ever be the same. In context--and with an actress who knows how to set it up--this can be as effective as anything in the play. But that, I think, is the real difficulty with Shakespeare for the audience--not the antique language, but the fact thst there is so much going on that you've got to be engaged every minute or you are going to miss the good stuff.

Barton also stages two bits of hugely effective poetry from non-obvious sources: one, Ian McKellen as Justice Shallow, only beginning to recognize his own mortlity ("Jesu, Jesu, dead!--a' drew a good bow; --and dead!"); and the other, a boffo performance by Donald Sinden and Peggy Ashcroft as Falstaff and the old whore Doll Tearsheet ("Kiss me, Doll!") as warm-hearted a piece of domestic intimacy as ever you are likely to see on stage. Did Sinden ever actually play Falstaff, I wonder? There are a lot of bad Falstaffs, but I would have gone a long way to see this one. And as to Barton--what a privilege and what an education it must have been to work with this guy: a director who makes everyone around him better. Like I say, I only wish there were 20 more.

Thursday, November 12, 2009


Grace Slick is 70.

Can This Be Right?--Tipping

A reader asks the advice columnist Jeffrey Goldberg at The Atlantic:
My husband and I are law partners and we travel frequently together for business. We get along well, except for one issue: he insists on cleaning up hotel rooms before the chambermaid arrives. I say the chambermaid is paid to clean up the room. He doesn’t go into restaurant kitchens and cook his own food, so why should he clean up the hotel room? Who is right here?
Pause for a moment and consider your own response. Then consider Goldberg's:

When the revolution comes, and the chambermaids and busboys and janitors rise up in righteous fury to judge the lawyers and the lobbyists and the CEOs, you will find yourself defenestrated, or at least disbarred, but your husband will see statues raised in his honor. Which is to say, I also clean up my hotel room before the maid arrives. No one gets through life without troubles, but I think that poorly paid hotel workers get through with more than their share. Why not pick up after yourself and make life a little easier for someone who works harder than you do?

Two things. One, I am 100 percent pro Goldberg on this one. I am quite conscientious about cleaning up the motel room--and if I were to forget, Mrs. Buce would snap my head back until you could hear the crack in my neck. Partly this is self-interest: I stay at the same motel about 75 nights a year and I know which side my complimentary toiletries are buttered on. But I even do it among strangers. So I think that every word Goldberg says at true.

The trouble is, careful reasoning tells me he is wrong. Sure, being a chambermaid is a lot less pleasant a job than being a semi-retired law professor. But it is a job. And she needs the job--certainly she isn't doing it for fun. If I do all my own cleanup, don't I make her more dispensable? And in particular, if I do my own cleanup, isn't there a risk that they might just send her home 15 minutes early?

I suppose one of that great rash of home-made economics books has an answer to this one, but I haven't read any of them: I suppose I'm just too busy cleaning up the room.