Sunday, January 31, 2010

Does Life Get Any Better than This?

When I first set up housekeeping on my own account, I decided I need to invest some of my meagre resources in some respectable music. I bought a Schubert Trout Quintet; a Wagner's "Greatest Hits" (I still take my Wagner only in small doses); Mozart's Horn Concertos by Dennis Brain (apparently he died on just about the same day that I bought it). I bought an all-German rendition of the Brecht/Weill Threepenny Opera; I couldn't understand a word of it, but I knew the English pretty well, and I thought that going back to the original was cool.

And the pride of the litter: Beethoven's Razumovsky quartets, by the Budapest String Quartet. I knew just about nothing of Razumovsky or quartets and not very much about Beethoven except that the linkage suited my vanity, like wearing a Yankees sweatshirt. But I took to the quartets, especially the third, number nine in C major, Opus 59 No. 3. I listened to it often enough that I could hum or whistle my way through pretty well the whole thing. I even got to hear the Budapest along about that time, although I don't remember them playing the quartets.

I'm not sure why I'm telling you all this, except (a) I heard numbers eight and nine again this afternoon, presented by the Alexander String Quartet at UC Davis; and (b) to savor the irony that without any conception of what I was doing, I pretty much started at the top. That is: I suppose you can match the Rasumovsky quartets, but it is hard to imagine anything in the whole corpus that exceeds them in originality and raw power. Life, in short, does not get any better than this.

Do I regret starting at the top? Do I think I should have held off, or been restrained, until I was more able to appreciate the grandeur of it all. Nah. Those were actually rather lonely times for me; I was working in a hick small town away from my friends and my accustomed pleasures and I needed all the solace I can get. And the Quartets were a comfort: I knew they were good, or at least I thought they were good, or at least in an untutored way, I liked them. But I don't think I grasped that I should have taken of my hat (if I had a hat) and gaped in awe.

Years later, I had to drag my 11-yer-old to a performance of Handel's Messiah at Wigmore Hall in London. He agreed to go if he could take his book (I think it was an Isaac Asimow). I said sure, fine. So he sat absorbed (occasionally whacking his heels on the underside of his chair) while some of the best Handel I ever heard wafted over our heads. At the interval he lifted his hed for a moment and said "this is pretty good music." You better believe it, kid.

Afterthought: it must have been that same summer--the summer I bought the records-- that I saw my first--and, I think, still the best in my experience--performance of King Lear. Antioch Shakespeare Festival, with the late, great Ellis Rabb (he must have been 27) playing the King.

Could Be...

Aggrieved aroma.

--Dostoevski, A Writer's Diary, 73.8

Saturday, January 30, 2010


Found this in some 40-year-old Law School notes. Apparently I had high principles in those days though how I had time to read (much less copy out) Spinoza soundbytes, I'll never know.
Sent via BlackBerry by AT&T

Fake Home Ownership and the "Other Greenspan Put"

Brad DeLong likes to offer ten good economics stories every day. From today's lot, I pick one: fake home ownership:
I saw an ad on craigslist (though most story that starts with that line are shady, this one is not especially so) for apartment rental opportunities in Sacramento, CA. The rent was very cheap, but you had to post a gigantic security deposit, sign away rights related to eviction and give proof that you’ve never been convicted of a crime. Digging a bit deeper, it was clear that the owner was an out of state company that was buying up sections of foreclosed homes in abandoned neighborhoods. And what they needed was less a “renter” but a controlled “squatter.” If left alone, these buildings would become homes for the homeless, gang activity, looters and pranksters, etc. So what the investment company wanted to do, since they wanted to sell the properties as homes in the long run but couldn’t in the short run, was get someone to squat in these buildings for them; they were looking to hire a respectable squatter, get him on the payroll through really cheap rent, and he or she who could do whatever in the building as long as it wasn’t destructive of value. I think that’s a good metaphor for what homeownership is like with a regime of subprime loans. I like discussing this because it blurs the line of the ideals of homeownership of the late 20th century – a yeoman ownership society where nobody ever washes a rented car – with something more feudal. We’ve had this discussion before, but it only focused on the way up – what’s interesting now is we can begin to play with a theory of fake homeownership on the way down. ....
There's more; go read the whole thing. This is great but there's an underlying issue here that deserves more general consideration than it receives. So: Rortybomb's core point here seems to be the idea of asymmetric risk--the heads-I-win, tails-you-lose nature of mortgage debt, such that (vastly oversimplified) a Californian who owes more on its home than it is worth can simply throw the keys on the table and walk away (you could call it a "Greenspan put," but that term is already taken.

Fine so far. But let me suggest that this asymmetry is hardly limited to home ownership: it's shot through the whole realm of commerce. The same asymmetry is the very stuff of the option market: indeed many (=I) have remarked on the fact that the underwater mortgage can be thought of as a kind of out-of-the-money call option, where the option holder may hold or fold as the numbers dictate.

And of course. there's limited liability corporate debt. The finance types long ago figured out that the equity claim on the leveraged balance sheet of a limited liability corporation is another option--a call option the assets, with the strike price being the debt.

And there is the whole universe of "contract" non-recourse debt, where the creditor agrees to look only to the asset for satisfaction of his claim, and not to the deeper pockets of the residuary owner.

And don't get me started on the bankruptcy discharge...

I admit I don't really have a clue as to how these basic components fit together. But it does seem there are some underlying similiarities and we might gain some insight by comparing them.

Thoreau on Winter

January 30, 1854
...The winter, cold and bound as it is, is thrown to us like a bone to a famishing dog, and we are expected to get the marrow out of it. While the milkmen in the outskirts are milking so many scores of cows before sunrise these mornings, it is our task to milk the winter itself. It is true it is like a cow that is dry, and our fingers re numb, and there is none to wake us up. But the winter was not given to us for no purpose. We must thaw its cold with our genialness. If it is a cold and hard season, its fruit, no doubt, is the more concentrated and nutty.

Shall we take refuge in cities in November? Shall the nut fall green from the tree? Let not the year be disappointed of its crop. I knew a crazy man who walked into an empty pulpit one Sunday and, taking up a hymn-book, remarked: "We have had a good fall for getting in corn and potatoes. Let us sing Winter." So I say, "Let us sing winter." What else can we sing, and our voices be in harmony with the season?
Henry David Thoreau, The Journal, 1837-1861 248 (NYRB 2009)

Alternate title: Why I moved to California.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Art Imitates Life: Annals of Public Service

Is there anything Monty Burns ever did to Smithers half so degrading or humiliating as what Andrew Young let himself be put through by John (and Elizabeth) Edwards (link)?

Kansas Abortion: Boy, I Got This One Wrong

I think I owe Judge Warren Wilbert an apology. He's the man with the unhappy responsibility of presiding over the Kansas abortion trial. Given the surrounding turmoil, and the fact that he is an elective judge, I figured he would let it disintegrate into a sideshow (on rereading my own stuff--apparently I was cautious enough not to say it outright, but I sure thought it).

Evidently not. Brave judge, tougher than I thought, and I wish him well.

More Kindle Stuff

I know I should move onto another topic, but still--a friend told me yesterday that old original Kindle-1s were going on Ebay for $9.99.

But no, seems to be a misreading. Those are Kindle book collections go for $9.99. Kindles themselves seem to go in the range of $238.

But the essential point is worthwhile. I heard somewhere that when news reached Venice that Vasco da Gama had doubled the Cape of Good Hope, the Venetian commodity market collapsed: they knew the jig was up. Should be interesting to watch the Kindle market as an index of Ipad acceptance.

But now that I think of it, apparently TI still sells its BA-II Plus, the off-the-rack business calculator. Looks like they have tarted up the appearance a bit, but I bet the internal electronics are the same as when I bought my first one in the 80s. Prices seem to run around $23. I think I bought my first for about $30, so accounting for inflation, that's a bit of a drop. But they must have amortized their sunk costs years ago; from now on, it is just putting together the pieces.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The NYRB Journal

Well, lookie here--my spiffy new copy of Henry David Thoreau's Journal from NYRB Classics, presenting selections from beginning to end--that is, from 1837 to 1861. It's a fit companion for (and perhaps will come to supplant) the Penguin Classics edition of A Year in Thoreau's Journal: 1851. The NYRB edition comes presented by an introduction from the editor, Damion Searls, and a preface by John R. Stilgoe (not quite clear to me why this double intro). Searls articulates a challenging strategy:
Seasons mattered deeply to Thoreau and I have tried to preserve the balance between the seasons, from his long summer walks to his heavier reading in the snowed-in winters. Months matteered to him too: his first book was organized as a week, and his second, Walden, as a year ... I made sure to include one set of months less abridged than the rest, a representative calendar with an extra March to fetch the year around:
So we have full (or extensive) selections for March 1853, April 1856, May 1852 and so forth. The other approach (of H. Daniel Peck in he Penguin) is simply to take an entire year and let it voice its own rhythms, end to end. There is a gain here, and a loss.

A virtue of which Searls does not speak is that in his extensive view, we get to see the sensibility of the author as it matures and seasons itself. It's a bit like reading Montaigne in bulk; along with sight and hearing and touch and smell and thought, we get the full dimension of time.

Oh, Sally, Sally...

Jamison Foser reads Sally Quinn so you and I don't have to and for that I'd say a Medal of Freedom would scarce be compensation enough.

The Ipad Speech

I'm sure this is too facile, but I'm going to try it anyway: compare the Ipad rollout to the SOTU--the Obama rollout, I suppose I should call it, Obama 2.0.

Both appear, by almost any measure, to be credible efforts. They pleased a lot of people, and these people tell us that they augur great things to come. There was the inevitable nuttiness about the SOTU: "Comrade Obama's Speech to the Politburo," shrieked one blogger who thereby made it clear he hasn't the least idea what a politburo is. I didn't hear anything quite that loony about the Ipad, though maybe I just wasn't listening.

Yet in each case, am I wrong to divine a soupçon of oof--a bit of letdown, a sense that, oh well, that's nice, could have been a lot worse but--no Adobe? No camera? Don't I already own an Iphone?

You might not guess it but I'm still on board with Obama, specifically because the alternatives look so ludicrously awful. I'm willing to write off a lot of the first year disappointment as due to rookie errors--no, more precisely, I desperately want to write off a lot of the first year disappointment to rookie errors. The nightmare part of me fears that we are dealing here not with just rookie errors, but rather a more deepseated absence of knack. Other people are muttering unkind comparisons to Jimmy Carter. I'm just hoping we don't have an Apple III.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

ABC Doesn't Know How to Play the Game

For me, the most interesting thing about John Kiriakou's offhand acknowledgment that his pants are on fire (about the effectiveness of waterboarding) is that evidently ABC--the network that ran with Kiriakou's fantasy allegations in the first place--has known that it was a dog's breakfast for a long time. They dealt with it the same way you'd expect the CEO of MegaCorp to deal with the news that he'd just deployed company money to buy his mistress an executive jet: they tucked it into a plane brown envelope and slipped it under the door, trusting that before anybody actually got to read it, the janitor would have tossed it away.

What's so remarkable about the ABC response is that it is so amateurish. This is journalism, after all: the name of the game is "shameless." Recall how Grandmaster William Randolph Hearst dealt with the Brooklyn Bridge. The Hearst Newspapers drummed up a pandemic of hysteria about supposed engineering/construction defects in the city's latest adornment. Then when a city engineer hauled them in and proved by chapter and verse that there stories were all a farrago of falsehoods, the Hearst papers ran with the headline:

Good News! The Bridge is Safe!

So, go for it ABC. Run with the climbdown and enjoy the ill-gotten spinoff from your own prior irresponsibility.

Apple: I'm Not Biting

I've got 70+ books on the Kindle that Ms. Buce gave me for Christmas a year ago, so I guess you could say I've more or less amortized the purchase. I tell people (strangers still ask) that it is a kludgy, overpriced laptop. I suppose that's true, but I need to add that it is my kludgy, overpriced laptop, and as a guy who likes to read a lot, I like the fact that it will slip into a lot of coat pockets, and that it's got a battery strong enough to get me to Sydney (not that I plan to go to Sydney, but it's nice to know that my Kindle will get me there).

So now, the (tee hee) Ipad. I'm not a compulsive early adopter, but I do admit I've been waiting for this one with more than usual interest. And--remind me again, why exactly? What is it that I need that would impel me to transfer 700-odd George Washingtons to the Silicon sage?

I guess I can think of one thing: backlighting. Ms. Buce would deny it, but I think one reason she gave it to me is that she assumed it would allow me to read in bed without shining that big ol' bedlamp in her eye. I thouoght so too, and we were both disappointed. Ipad has backlighting, you say? Hmm.

But other than that--well here's the thing. I don't watch a lot of movies. I'm not a gamer. They say this is "the machine for everything else." But for me, reading and writing and surfing is everything else. What I really want, I guess, is a netbook with a 10-hour battery--plus maybe a data plan, if it is cheap enough (I do think I saw one of those float by me a couple of days ago; I must not have cared enough to want to make it stop). I laugh at how dorky the Kindle is. I'm one of those who said Jeff Bezos made a mistake a year ago by trying to do something he wasn't very good at--build a machine--when he could have farmed that part out to Hewlett Packard or, hell, to Apple itself, and concentrate on delivering content.

Dorky, then, yes, but it's my dork, and for the moment I think I'll skip the Ipad and keep my money and my Kindle in my pocket.

Conan Obama? Barack O'Brien?

Is it too cute to compare the perplexity of our President with the fate of the most popular hip comedian who is not David Letterman? The President might be excused for looking around at the empty hall and saying, hey where is everybody? And more specifically: where are you now that I need you? Which is certainly something like what Conan might have said last Friday when the audience that pretty much deserted him in his late-night starring role--that same audience showed up for the farewell party, to tell him how much they loved him, and how much they were going to miss him.

Yeh, right. Well, if the President and the comedian-in-chief are baffled by their supporters, I suppose I can be forgiven a bit of bewilderment myself.

This Just In: Nomenklatura

I guess this is old news but it is new to me and history has its claims:
...the entry on nomenklator in the Great Polish Encyclopedia,
A slave in ancient Rome ... who had the duty to remind his master of the names of persons with whom to exchange greetings. It was particularly important in office-hunting in the Republican period.
More to the point, perhaps, they should have pondered the origin of the word nolmenklatura in Polish usage. It is a Latin term, referring to the lists of named properties of the great feudal magnates, and by extension to the tenants who possessed thoseproperties. Here one can see the true culturazl ancestry of communist society. Anything further removed from socialism, as the rest of the world imagined it, would be hard to conceive.
That's Norman Davies in Heart of Europe: The Past in Poland's Present, a gripping read in its own right, and a bracing reminder of what particular horrors we have, for the moment at least, put behind us.

Where Do I Sign Up?


Tuesday, January 26, 2010

On This Day ...

On this day in 1972, Vesna Vulović fell 10,160 metres without a parachute, and survived.

Update: I posted this some weeks ago. I just went back and checked the Wiki and the story seems a lot murkier than I remembered it.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Henry Again: Turns Out I Had it Wrong

Turns out I was speaking from ignorance yesterday when I dismissed Shakespeare's Henry VI plays as a lesser enterprise, fit for obsessives and pedants. I' ve since run across Roger Warren's Oxford UP edition of Henry VI Part 2, including a splendid stage history that sets my own view pretty much on its head.

Warren must be about my age; he says he (too) was "fortunate enough to encounter" the Henry plays pretty much the way I did--through the BBC "Age of Kings"--that's the series that Chez Buce has been viewing just lately. But then in a brisk and informative narrative, he carries us both backwards and forward--not an overwhelming task because, as Warren says, "almot all productions of Henry VI since the 1590s have occurred within the last fifty years." Even with this limited stuff, however, Warren is able to show actors and directors haltingly feel their way to a modern understanding of their material. He says that BBC production from which both he and I take our departure was like many Shakespeare productions of the 1950s....vigorous, straightforward stagings, strong and clear in narrative, without perhaps probing very deeply into the meaning of the text or the language in which it is expressed." But performances of this sort didn't succeed in reestablishing the play in the public mind. "That was achieved," Warren says
by a remarkable production at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1953. Warren expands:
When in 1960 Peter Hall became Director of what ws then still called the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre (renamed the Royal Shakespeare Theatre the following yer," he aimed to create a long-term company, the nucleus of which would continue from one year to the next, performing both in Stratford and London; and he succeeded in doing this so quickly that by 1963 he had assembled a versatile group of actors equipped to deal with the challenges of the Henry VI plays and led by Peggy Ashcroft [as Queen Margaret]. Another of Hall's aims was that his company should not only be rained to play Shakespeare, and especially to handle Shakespearian verse, but should be alert to contemporary issues, and how these illuminated the plays and vice versa. ... As Peter Hall said at the time: "We have lived among war, race riots, revolutins, assasinations .... and the imminent threat of extinction. The gtheatre is, therefore, examining fundamentals" in staging the Henry VI plays."
And there you have it; Henry VI reasserting itself into the public life of the nation and thereby back into the canon. In that I've never heard any of this before, I suppose my defenses are two: one, that I wasn't in England; and two, that I had other fish to fry.

But I'd note this also: it seems to me that this sort of theatre-as-public-life is something you could pull off in England, while it just wouldn't work in America. Movies can do it, of course, or TV, but there is not now and never has been a theatre house--no, not even West 44th Street--that can dominate and shape popular consciousness the way British theatre can.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Happy Birthday, Charles

My grandsons' other grandfather turns 80 today, or yesterday if you read this tomorrow or--but here's a factoid: Monday the 25th is the birthday of Robert Burns, still a big deal in Scotland.

Anyway, apparently Charles the grandfather was born on the 24th (that would be 1930?) but evidently really, really late on the 25th--so late that his mother fudged a couple of time zones and declared the official birthday to be 25th, the same as you-know-who. So:
Long life, my Lord, an' health be yours,
Unskaithed by hunger'd Highland boors!
Meanwhile, here's another Charles with his own take on Robert Burns.

Early Shakespeare

Not everyone will regard this as fun, but we enjoyed it: we spent several evenings lately watching our way through Shakespeare's "first trilogy"--Henry VI part 1, 2 and 3, followed by Richard III. The challenge is, of course, that these are early Shakespeare, learner stuff, maybe his first plays--and to some extent (hard to tell how much) , maybe not even Shakespeare (playmaking was and is a collaborative enterprise, and Shakespeare was an unknown beginner.

Yet the rewards, in the context of Shakespeare's life-work, are considerable. They give you a wonderful chance to observe Shakespeare the learner, still finding out who he is, just beginning to learn what he can do.

But this is too dismissive. It's worth keeping in mind that these, though they may be inferior Shakespeare, are inferior only in comparison to later Shakespeare. It's hard to imagine anyone--yes, including Marlowe--who could do more with this material, who could find a way to weave it together into a stageable presentation. And for whatever it may be worth, my own notion is that they survive all the rest of Shakespeare' juvenilia--not as grotesque as Titus Andronicus, not as anodyne as Two Gentlemen of Verona, not a all-round dreadful as Taming of the Shrew.

The big drawback of the Henry plays--this has to be conceded--is that it's a set pretty much without plot in the stage-sense. We get good, straightforward narrative--from the beginning, Shakespeare seems to know how to put together a scene--and, in lieu of plot a kind of theme (a weak monarch leads to disorder). I was going to write "and we don't get character," although this is only part true. We don't get a single, strong, unifying figure like Rosalind or Macbeth. Yet the remarkable is that we do have character--characters that invent and obtrude themselves as if in spite of the playwright--as if in a fit of authorial absent-mindedness. That would be Henry himself, of course, memorable in his weakness, and Margaret his Queen, the first of Shakespeare's powerful and so often troublesome women.

And of course, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, so powerful and so evil and so magnetic that in the end, he explodes into a play of his own--a different sort of a play from the narratives, this time all character, still early, still unpolished, but for all its limitations, the first real indication of what the poet can do.

Oh, and did I mention: the text for the occasion was the old BBC set, The Age of Kings, first released in the 60s (I saw bits of it from a rabbit-ears TV while feeding a baby in the kitchen). It's black and white and features those cheesy production values that carried BBC-TV through the early days of its entertainment life (you can see them as late as I, Claudius, although by then at least they had discovered color). The casting and direction are consistently professional. Paul Daneman, who went on to become a household face in British sitcom, is a superb Richard.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Weasels Redux: Beltway Friendship

Here's an attribution of a quotation about a Washington pooh-bah. Identity and substance not important, look at the tag:

...who did not want to be named because the two are friendly.


...who did not want to be named because he fears retribution.

It's nice and straightfoward, and perhaps we do not owe any candor to the bully who is getting ready to whale the tar out of us. But what if it had said:

...who did not want to be named because
he enjoys sticking the shiv in between his goodbuddy's shoulderblades.

You wouldn't think so highly of him if he said that, now would you, huh? But isn't that exactly what he did say? It's interesting to note that neither Newsweek (the source) nor ThinkProgress (the channel) saw anything noteworthy about this; apparently this is the meaning of friendship in Washington.

If you want a friend in Washington, said Harry Truman, get a dog. But not, he might have added, a weasel.

Today's Factoid: Fiscal Integrity among the Weasels

The argumentative among us might like to comment this to memory (link):
Let's pick ten Republican or near-Republican senators typically called "moderates" (some of whom have retired since 2003): Collins, Domenici, Grassley, Gregg, Hatch, Snowe, Specter, Voinovich, Nelson, and Lincoln. Only two of them (Blanche Lincoln and Judd Gregg) opposed the unfunded Medicare Part D. Only one of them (Olympia Snowe) opposed the 2003 tax cut, even though it was very clear at the time that permanent (as opposed to temporary recession-fighting) tax cuts were the last thing that America needed. And none of them opposed the 2001 tax cut--even though Alan Greenspan was at the time wandering around Capitol Hill whispering that it was bad policy, and that we were very likely to rue the day it had passed.
To my own surprise, this actually makes me think a bit more highly of Blanche Lincoln and Judd ("Acne") Gregg. And of course, an idea has a truth-value that is independent of the character of the lying, hypocritical weasel who endorses it. But when these guy tell you they've always been deficit hawks, keep this list in mind.

Is That a Union Endorsement in your Pocket, Or Are You Just Happy to See Me?

I guess the only thing that surprises me about this headline (link)

Most U.S. Union Members Are Working for the Government, New Data Shows that it didn't happen years ago. Surely it has been obvious to anyone looking that private-sector unions are tending to disappear while those in the public sector maintain themselves or flourish. I assume we can anticipate a new eruption of bile from websites of a certain sort about the evils of the teachers, the TSA employees and others of that sort--and of their corrupt alliance with the Democrats--but the issue is a good deal more general that. Those who want to holler about the teachers' unions--you don't usually see them telling us that we need to stand up to the prison guards or that part of our problem is lush pensions for police and firemen.

It's a dreadful problem all round, but it exists for one good non-insidious reason: positional advantage. Unions worldwide do well in things like rail and trucking--the historic core of the Teamsters Union--because they've got geography on their side: you can't leave home without them. Same with a good many public employee unions: when the day comes that the Meter Maid can pound her beat with Google goggles from Bangla Desh, I'm sure there will be somebody trying to make it happen. Meanwhile, we are more or less stuck with real cops on real beats, looking for real bennies and real pensions.

Positional, plus the grandfather effect. While the cop is tooling around in his cruiser all night, he has plenty of time to think about his situation--and think, and think, and think, until he has come up with 20 more ways to leverage some extra dollars out of the public fisc. Surely some of those 20 include ways of strengthening his relationship with the running dogs of the protected market system who are in the position to help keep him comfy and secure.

The virus, then, is quite general, and I don't see any immediate or obvious cure--the kind of thing that tends to grow in any stable society as it ages and becomes more entrenched. Meanwhile, we welcome the new Senator from Massachusetts, who arrives in Washington with the endorsement, inter alia, of her opponent's husband's own union.

From the Great State of (Um, Let Me Check my Notes...)

I used to have fantasies of sitting under the light before a Congressional committee and saying, "but I ask you, Senator Mundt, just what is the point of South Dakota anyway?"

From Neil Freeman (via James Fallows), comes now an attempt to answer that question, sorta,

I love the concept, and some of the names are good, too. I am tucked snugly into "Willamette," which suits my tastes rather better than mere "California" (yes, I suppose "Euphoria" would have been okay). I was born in "Northern New England" which works for me as a concept--but as a name? Eeuw, these people are more imaginative than that. How about "Franconia," after the notch, or "Green Mountain," or, as it is known in some circles, "Vermont?"

Others are not so felicitious. "Rocky Mountain High" is an ice cream (or is it a soda pop?) and Sohio is, or was, a gasoline. Ar-kansas is too cute. "Baltimore-Washington" is just a failure of imagination, though I grant it is a difficulty that "Wabash" is taken.

Other are more puzzling. What's the "Delta" doing tucked up under New Madrid Bend? I really don't get "Sabine" or "Pamlico" at all, although this may be just a geographical deficiency on my part. If "St. Croix," why just "Joaquin?" "Washlaska" and "Michiana" strike me as failures of nerve, although they do recall my days in Louisville on the Ohio River. One disk jockey liked to call it "Kentuckiana," while another preferred just "Indianucky."

Friday, January 22, 2010

Naipaul's Pessimism

I've never known quite what to make about this, but it has been in my notes since the novel was new:
My family were not fools. My father and his brothers were traders, businessmen; in their own way they had to keep up with the times. They could assess situations; they took risks and sometimes they could be very bold. But they were buried so deep in their lives that they were not able to stand back and consider the nature of their lives. They did what they had to do. When things went wrong they had the consolations of religion. This wasn't just a readiness to accept Fate; this was a quiet and profound conviction about th vanity of all human endeavour.

I could never rise so high. My pessimism, my insecurity, was a more terrestrial affair. I was without the religious sense of my family. The insecurity I felt was due to my lack of true religion, and was like the small change of the exalted pessimism of our faith, the pessimism that can drive men on to do wonders. It wa the price for my more materialist attitude, my seeking to occupy the middle ground, between absorption in life and soaring above the care of the earth.
VS Naipaul, A Bend in the River 16 (1978)

Reinhart and Rogoff Again (Deleveraging)

I uttered a few dismissive words about Reinhart and Rogoff's much-praised This Time is Different (though not, be it noted, the formidable dataset that underlies it). Comes now two commentators who has read it more comprehendingly than I did:

We glean five important factors from this work that pertain to our present situation. First, financial imbalances occur when aggregate domestic debt is excessive relative to income, regardless of whether the government or private sector is accumulating the debt. Once debt becomes excessive, countries do not grow their way out of the problem; they must go through the time consuming and often painful processes of debt repayment and increased saving.

Second, whether the domestic debt is externally or internally owed is not as critical as the excessiveness of the debt.

Third, government actions, even involving sizeable sums of money, are far less helpful than they appear. As the book states, "Infusions of cash can make a government look like it is providing greater growth to its economy than it really is."

Fourth, Reinhart and Rogoff cover countries in debt crisis with a host of different conditions, such as growth and age of population, political regimes, technology status, education, and other idiosyncratic features. Nevertheless, economic damage as a result of extreme over-leverage has remarkably similar results, whether the barometer of performance is economic output, the labor markets, or asset prices.

Fifth, further increasing leverage to solve the problem only leads to greater systemic risk and general economic underperformance.

The real question for financial participants is whether all these influences result in inflation or deflation, and the authors' research details both outcomes. As is widely feared here in the U.S., they outline that many countries have had the right circumstances and mechanisms to inflate away their debt overhang, and, in fact, have done so by debasing their currency. Those particular circumstances are not currently present in the United States.

According to Reinhart and Rogoff the norm is that major economic contractions lead to deflation. Importantly, they call our present economic circumstances the "second great contraction."

Thus, not only has the historical "qualitative" research on the subject of deflation chronicled the deflationary impulses emanating from overindebtedness (Fisher's 1933 "Debt-Deflation Theory of Great Depressions"), but also modern "quantitative" methods have now essentially confirmed this conclusion. Over-indebtedness and major contractions lead to deflation.

That's Van Hoisington and Dr. Lacy Hunt, writing in the weekly newsletter of John Mauldin.* They also say that "At $3.70 of debt for every dollar of GDP, U.S. debt is excessive."

*Prescribed Mauldin blurb:
John Mauldin, Best-Selling author and recognized financial expert, is also editor of the free Thoughts From the Frontline that goes to over 1 million readers each week. For more information on John or his FREE weekly economic letter go to:]

For Further Reading.,..

I'm back to schoolteaching for the moment, and it seems to be absorbing a formidable amount of my intellectual energy. So my blog posts seem to be fewer and more trifling. I hope this won't last, but in the meantime, this might be a good time for me to showcase my own current fave blog reading:
  • Capital Gains and Games. Already a strong team, made stronger by the insourcing of Bruce Bartlett, they don't always integrate tightly but still a great one-stop shop for a lot of good analysis.
  • FiveThirtyEight. Everybody writes about politics, mostly yada yada. Nate Silver actually brings new stuff to the table.
  • Naked Capitalism. Hard to choose between half a dozen good financial bloggers (Ritholz, Salmon, Kedrosky, etc.). If I had to choose one, I'd say Yves Smith is most likely to come up with original in-depth journalism that I haven't seen elsewhere.
  • Then if I really want something to wake me up in the morning, I go skim DeLong's "X Economic Pieces Worth Reading"--Brad likes to noodle around with the toys, he might consider trying to construct a single feed for this stuff alone.
Guilty pleasure: OHINYC, not civilized at all. Now, like I said, the work is backing up.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

What Were they Thinking?

Here's a TSA screener who was (apparentlly) as dumb as Sheila Baird--not a good standard (link):

A TSA worker was staring at [the subject]. He motioned her toward him.

Then he pulled a small, clear plastic bag from her carry-on - the sort of baggie that a pair of earrings might come in. Inside the bag was fine, white powder.

She remembers his words: "Where did you get it?"

Two thoughts came to her in a jumble: A terrorist was using her to sneak bomb-detonating materials on the plane. Or a drug dealer had made her an unwitting mule, planting coke or some other trouble in her bag while she wasn't looking.

She'd left her carry-on by her feet as she handed her license and boarding pass to a security agent at the beginning of the line.

Answer truthfully, the TSA worker informed her, and everything will be OK.

Solomon, 5-foot-3 and traveling alone, looked up at the man in the black shirt and fought back tears.

Put yourself in her place and count out 20 seconds. Her heart pounded. She started to sweat. She panicked at having to explain something she couldn't.

Now picture her expression as the TSA employee started to smile.

Just kidding, he said. He waved the baggie. It was his.

Blog commentators, inevitably, are having a circus: "Has to be fired...unacceptable behavior...uncool and uncalled for...." Yada yada. Fine--except everything so far is awfully neat. Precisely why in heavens' name did he do something so (apparently) idiotic? I'm not quite saying "there must be an excuse...;" the full story might be even more bizarre and unsettling than we guess. At least for all the incipient novelizers out there, it would be nice to have more

As to Sheila--evidently the explanation is not a bit more interesting than it sounds. Turns out that like the rest of us, she's just a yokel.

Hoffman on Zweig: Tell Us What You Really Think

Can't remember when I've seen such a slapdown of a famous writer by a famous critic as Michael Hoffman administers to (the ghost of) Stefan Zweig (link) in the current London Review of Books When's the last time anyone called you a "uniquely dreary and clothy sprog of the electric 1880s"--?

Zweig may be second-rate but he's not that awful. I suspect that Hoffman is feeling the need to protect the reputation of his own beloved Joseph Roth (of whom Hoffman has translated umpty ump books). Fair enough: Roth is clearly the better writer, but it is an unfortunate truth that he looks enough like Zweig from the outside that the casual observer is likely to mix them up. What Hoffman may fail to understand, though, is how much Zweig probably does give voice to a certain defining characteristif of dessicated Late Empire sensibility and deserves attention for his very clothy sprogginess.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Another Casualty of Massachusetts: Health Care Cost Control

Once again, James Kwak administers a reality slap in the health care debate. Forget about "health care" broadly defined: focus on trying to get something, anything that will put the reins on longterm health care costs.

Kwak (largely amplifying Jonathan Gruber) argues that the Senate bill is that rarest of all Congressional species: a genuine-honest-to-god, money-where-your-mouth-is attempt to get a saddle and bridle onto the ever burgeoning cost of health care.

Some one more casualty of the GOP victory in mass: spending sanity. Thanks, GOP.

Don't Give to Haiti; Give to Non-Haiti

As a general practice, Chez Buce does not give to disaster appeals. We figure that new incoming resources at a time of crisis arrive by necessity at the most inconvenient time when they are most difficult to process, and that relief of high-visibility disasters is most likely to be skewed at the expense of the less glamorous and more drab. We do cut some checks for charity, of course, but we try to do it in the most boring way.

But Mrs. hit upon a worthwhile idea: wouldn't this be the ideal time to make a gift to a provider that has nothing to do with Haiti--a provider, that is to say, of a sort most likely to have been hurt by the skew of resources in the direction of the the TV cameras?

So here it is, folks, the first-ever Underbelly appeal for the relief of the non-telegenic. No photos will be shopped, no bells rung, whistles blown. And in particular, don't send it here, sweetums: find the earnest, unglamorous and indispensable charity near you and far from the hot lights; pile it on and be ashamed of yourself for being such a cheapskate.

Today's Headline

Scott Brown Wins Mass. Race,
Giving GOP 41-59 Majority in the Senate

Roy Edroso, Village Voice blog.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Couldn't We Just Get Rid of the Restaurant
And Save the Shellfish?

God hates Shrimp.

H/t BoingBoing.

Forget About Massachusetts,
A Whole Lot of Fancy Dancy Professors
Have Reason to Sleep Easier Tonight

Joyce expert admits he's never read Finnegans Wake.

Comment: Of course neither have I but nobody would have supposed I had. Lotta great stuff I haven't read, but for the moment, here's this guilty admission: I still can't write "Massachusetts" without looking up the spelling. More or less true of my own middle name too, but I bet a lot of people would say that.

Scariest Muted-Blue Chart You are Likely to See All Day

An oddly muted presentation for a pretty inflammatory topic: projected state budget deficits:

It's from a Congressional Budget Office Report called "Policies for Increasing Economic Growth andEmployment in 2010 and 2011" (link). It's popping up all over bloggyland, but one source link is here. Can you read the number in the California box? It says (gulp) 49 percent.

Maybe We Could Dip the Bullets in Pig Fat

...because Homer loves porkchops (link). That should appeal to "John Redfield says he doesn't see a problem with American troops using gun sights that have the numbers of Bible verses inscribed on them:
The perfect parallel that I see," said Maj. John Redfield, spokesperson for CentCom, told ABC News, "is between the statement that's on the back of our dollar bills, which is 'In God We Trust,' and we haven't moved away from that." Said Redfield, "Unless the equipment that's being used that has these inscriptions proved to be less than effective for soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and military folks using it, I wouldn't see why we would stop using that.
In the same theme, every shell could bear a reference to Deuteronomy 10:16:

Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no more stiffnecked.

Our Ancestors Took Down the Wooly Mammoth... it's our turn (link):
JAKARTA (Reuters Life!) - A tiny Indonesian lizard has become big business for impoverished villagers in Indonesia, where growing Asian demand for reptile-based traditional medicines has driven a boom in gecko farming.
Comment: It's the gecko, the same as stars in those tiresome insurance commercials. The teaser paragraph quoted above says "farming," but from the story I surmise that we are still at the stage of capture & process. "Farming" would seem to be a normal next step; something to do with all those old ostrich ranches (just add water). I understand there's an order pending from three witches in Scotland.

H/t John, who has his eye out for government gecko subsidies in Kansas.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Grass-Roots Rage: Another Voice

Andrew Sullivan gives the megaphone to a remarkably articulate voice:

The past year has been a very difficult one for me, personally and professionally. I've been up a lot more than I've been down, and I've been angry and frustrated with life, as we all are at times. But I can't remember the last time I felt such overwhelming rage toward a group of people as I have felt toward the Republican Party and the conservative movement since President Obama's election....

And now some low-rent hairdo, whose sole claim to fame is posing naked for some ladies' magazine way back when, may happily destroy whatever chance this country has at moving in a more just, humane, and morally and fiscally responsible direction.

As you stated, the Republican Party of this new century is shot through with nihilists. Unabashed nihilists. But what leaves me shaking with anger damn near every day since President Obama's inauguration is the pure smugness and nonchalance of their nihilism.

Palin, McConnell, DeMint, Boehner, Cantor, Rubio, Scott Brown and the rest of the Ailes- and Limbaugh-warped GOP: Would you trust any one of these goons to greet you at Wal-Mart, much less govern our country? The question answers itself. ...

That's just an excerpt; you can read the whole thing here. I have to admit I agree with about all of this, even though (by good luck more than good planning) my own situation isn't anywhere near as bollwackers as his.

But let that pass. The thing that puzzles Democrats is: why doesn't everyone feel that way? Why aren't all the voters willing--as they clearly are not--to dump the same spew of venom on the authors of their misfortune and--more apposite--the ones so determined not to offer any salvation or even relief?

Well of course if I knew, I wouldn't be here: I'd be out advising campaigns somewhere (so thank heavens that I don't know; at least I'm saved from that fate). I do offer a tentative and partial suggestion, though: our old friend Dr. Freud's cousin Schaden. They like to see 'em squirm. Put differently, they really don't think much more of the Republicans than our correspondent thinks. Truth is, in their rare moments of candor, they'll tell you that of course Sarah Palin isn't fit to govern a class picnic nor John Boehner a fourth-rate mortuary. But it is the Democrats who are inside the piñata for the moment. If you beat them hard enough some goodies might tumble out, but suppose not: at least you get to listen to them squeal. Damn, uppity, patronizing college girls and funny-looking tan guys. They never bother to stick their heads up around here until election time and now they want to tell us how to solve our problems! Hah! As far as we can see, our problems are not going away, but at least we have the momentary diversion of screaming holy hellfire at the fancy dancies who say they'd like to help.

My suspicion is that when if the Republicans do get back in, they'll find that their friends "the people" are not as good-natured and docile as they must seem for the moment to be. But meanwhile, it is the other guy who is the problem and the target.

Oh, as an afterthought: it might be nice if just once in a while somebody, somewhere in the Democratic apparatus gave them at least a little evidence that they were wrong, I saw Bill Clinton today, tromping around in the Haitian mud. It was shameless, look-at-me grandstanding, of course, but what grandstanding! Couldn't somebody on the White House team just for a moment show that they really do conceptualize the current crisis as something more than an academic exercise in fiscal management. Then, just possibly, the glacier might start to crack and you might begin to see the rage of Sully's letter-writer just a bit more often than sometimes.

Afterthought: By the way, I must have missed something. Which low-rent hairdo was it who posed naked for a ladies' magazine?

"And What About the Girl Up Against the Barrel?"

Some will find this depressing; some, simply maudlin:
The patients were stuck on hard chairs round the walls of the waiting room and smelled of garlic and sour clothes. Except for a pale girl reading a copy of Marie-Claire they were all ugly and old and stamped on. Yet the nun in the métro, Dugommier was sure, would have said that God loved all those cartwheel ears and gobby eyes, all those unthinking noses and unseeing mouths, and perhaps that was the only answer to their lack of success in the Gadarene rush. A few thousand more bus rides from the Louvre to the Porte des Lilas, a few thousand more walks along the dank corridors of Châtelet, a few hundred more revolting caresses, a whisk of holy water from the hyssop and out they would be tipped into the grave, their laughters at Fernandel forgotten, and another corpse pitched in to rot on top of theirs if their relatives didn't stump up another five years' cemetery rent in time.

Such might soon be his own fate if the doctor didn't manage to cure his breathlessness. Flung into a coffin in the bed in which he had died, nailed down behind the screens with all the other patients listening, and then off to Paradise, via the Porte de Pantin. And would there be Paradise? "What about the girl up against the barrel at Noeux-les-Mines?" God might ask. "Please, God, I also loved Mallarmé," he would reply trying to make himself heard aboive the hundred and eighty-three Spaniards, Russians, Swedes, Finns and Brazilians thrown up from their fornications in the same minute of hearing.

--Bruce Marshall, The Accounting 221-2 (1958)
"Mallarmé" is, I suppose, the poet Stéphane Mallarmé, and the issue of just what he has to do with it might invite a more explicit answer. Still, on the whole I rather liked this bit.

You'd Think I'd Learn

Fancy that: DeLong showcases me with a "Best Non-Economic Thing I Have Read Today" spotlight and I greet the gawkers with a brain fart (h/t to trialsanderrors for the correction). It's a bit like thanking the academy with that little bit of toilet paper in your teeth.

What Have We Learned?

Others may favor Nine-inch Nails; for verbal wallpaper, I tend to lean towards public hearings on C-Span. This weekend this has meant the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, rather grandly misnamed as the "New Pecora Commission." It's not as awful as it may sound: Phil Angelides (the chair) and Bill Thomas (the vice-chair) are both wonky smart, and the level of questioning (at least) is on the whole higher than you might expect for this sort of spectacle. From the bureaucrats there is the usual display of bureaucratic butt-covering and from the private sector, the predictable projection of astonished dismay at the idea that anybody might think they were in any way involved with the problem. I did, however, garner two important takeaway points from the array of private-sector luminaries:
1) Nobody had the slightest reason to suspect any of this was going to happen; and

2) Risk was, at all times and without exception, properly priced.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

God Must Love Goldman Sachs

Datum: Gross Domestic Product of Haiti (pre-quake): $8.5 billion. Goldman Sachs bonus pool: $20 billion.

Source: Doug Henwood's tweet feed.

They Shouldn't Have Left their Snow Clothes On

The floor of a Swedish weight watchers' clinic collapsed as 20 member queued up for their weekly weigh-in. "The cause of the floor's collapse remains under investigation," a press report says (link). H/T Joel

Opera Note: Met HD Carmen

Okay, here's the scoop on the Met's HD Carmen, as seen at the Palookaville multiplex yesterday: it was a room largely populated by 50- to 80-year-old women, decently dressed and presentable, all kicking themselves sideways for having listened to the nuns in middle school.

Think of it: with just a little bit of enterprise, they could have been the brooding, butt-smoking beauty who gets to run off with Mr. Studola. Instead they wound up as Micaela, loyal, self-sacrificing and long-suffering whose greatest thrill comes when she is nearly gang-raped by a barracks full of horny soldiers.

Okay, so Micaela goes on to a comfortable maturity, with a 401k and tickets to the opera on Saturday afternoon, while Carmen lies dead in the rubble at the end of the third act. Forget that. A short life but a happy, not so?

It was that kind of Carmen--energetic to the point of urgency, and dripping with lust. Not least, it made its good-girl point by showcasing far and away the best good-girl Micaela that I've ever seen --the Italian soprano Barbara Fritolli, hiherto unknown to me, who inhabited the role with a density and conviction that added heft to the drama as a whole. From her half-time interview, I gather that she meant it this way: she appears to think that Micaela is an underappreciated and often underplayed role, and she certainly made her point.

Of course it's still a secondary role, and if you remember much about the show, it's going to be more of Carmen (Elina Garanca) and Don Jose (Robert Alagna). Their chemistry was superb (it needs to be: I remember a Carmen a few years back at the New York City Opera where Carmen and Don Jose just didn't seem all that interested in each other). But I'd have to say it is Alagna who is the more at home in his role. No longer lost as the Other Guy in the team of Angela Gheorghiu and the Other Guy, Alagna is a talented and polished singer with just the right touch of loser about him to make his Jose plausible.

Garanca for her part has a lovely voice and a world of technique, but sadly, there is nothing of the loser about her: no fatalism, no superstition, no incapacity to frame the future, no aura of doom. Impresive a she is as a singer, you can never quite forget that underneath the Cher wig there's a strapping Balt whose shots are up to date and who spend an hour this morning on an elliptical trainer (a NordicTrac?).

Teddy Tahu Rhodes who played the role with four hours' advance notice, turned in a perfectly creditable Escamillo; the trouble is that part of the point of Escamillo is that he's really nobody--just a reflection of the adulation of others. So if he comes in and just belts a few, why then he is just doing his job.

The production by Richard Eyre is getting a lot of favorable but invidious comparisons with the Tosca that opened the Met's season last fall. I didn't mind the Tosca that much, but I must say that Eyre, together with Choreographer Christopher Wheedon, put together a production with a lot of originality while continuing to carry conviction. The dancing works; it's integrate with and develops the story. And as I guess I said, it's a production that does not stint the sex. I can't remember when I have seen quite so much langourous stroking of the female fanny. A bit too much, actually, I think, for the two ladies next to us. But we were in the third row (the theatre was crowded and we came late). And anyone you look at it, there was no way of missing the point that as between Micaela and Carmen, it is Carmen who has more fun.

29 Percent

I heard a few word on American Public Media's "Marketplace" the other day (no longer available on line) about General Motors' (since-abandoned) campaign to achieve a 29 percent market share. They must have been serious; evidently they had lapel pins. The drift of the story was that it must have been a pretty stupid idea to begin with (which it certainly was). But nobody really zeroed in on he question of what would motivate presumably competent auto executives to zero in on such a daft idea in the first place.

Here's a suggestion: bureaucratic empire-building--the same thing libertarians identify as a crippling vice of big government. The more troops under your command, the bigger your personal retinue, the bigger the splash you make when you arrive at the party. The critics are probably right about the curse of empire-building in government; oddly they seem to overlook the same propensity in the private sector.

Well now wait, they say, the difference about the private sector is that they have a separate metric --profits--that insulates them against the temptation to aggrandizement. Oh, really? And where is the evidence? My guess is that seven out of 10 corporate CEOs, given the choice between a small but highly profitable company and a abig but sluggish one, would go big and sluggish every time. Sure, they'd reason, even if the shareholders suffer, still my pay & perks are likely to be larger and I will create a bigger whoosh when I go to the fancy parties in those water holes where we globe-girdling aristos like to disport ourselves (is it Davos or Darfur?--I keep forgetting).

Putin and the Poultry

I'm fighting off a touch of flu (despite two flu shots! Grrr!)--and I have to do a bit of tax work (I like to have all my pain at once) so anyway, I'm not in a mood for heavy blogging. But I have been wanting to say a word about Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and the ban on American chickens. Apparently the Russians don't like it that we clean them with chlorine.

I haven't an ounce of technical knowledge on this one. Perhaps the Russians are completely right: apparently the Europeans have enforced the same kind of ban since 1997. But am I wrong to note a sense of truculent pride in thiss one, as President Putin says "One shouldn't look for political background in this case, God forbid,. No political background here!"

Narrowly speaking, maybe not. But recall: this is a guy with a highly actuated sense of humiliation. He lived through the destruction of his favorite empire, and the near-death-experience of his favorite empire-within-an-empire, the KGB. He seems never to have mised a meal in the process, but must have mortally wounded his pride. "Yeah!" he seems to be saying. "But we're cleaner than you!"

Friday, January 15, 2010

Who Are We?

Just heard a BBC announcer refer to Barack Obama as "The President of America." Is that standard? I concede that "The President of the United States" is ambiguous, but "The President of America" is just as much so, not so?

The Coolidge Effect

Wry wisdom from our wittiest president here. Cartoon down at the bottom of the page is cute, too.

H/T: John.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

And That's My Word for the Day...

I guess I get it, although "define Drupalista" brings up nothing useful.

Afterthought: but Wiki does have Drupal.

The Kansas Abortion Trial

I certainly don't envy Judge Warren Wilbert of the Kansas 18th Judicial District. He's the one presiding over the murder trial of Scott ("You Got a Problem With That?") Roeder, on trial for a crime which he has never denied--the premeditated killing of an abortion doctor. Apparently Wilbert has to face the voters in a partisan election; I assume that anything less than an outright acquittal is bound to haunt him at the polls and an outright murder conviction probably means tht his career is toast.

It's ironic that we are still fighting this issue in this way. As far as I can see, the anti-abortion campaign is one war the terrorists have won: the Center for Disease Countrol counts just 820,151 abortions nationwide in 2005, down by 43 percent from the 1991 peak. There may be any number of reasons: perhaps better contraception, less shame about out of wedlock pregnancy, better (until lately!) economic times. It would be interesting--albeit impossible--to know how many were prevented by bullying and intimidation, not to mention outright murder.

But given the intensity of the feelings in the case--indeed, the risk of further violence--isn't this precisely the kind of trial that ought to be conducted out of the spotlight--by, say, a military tribunal in an obscure corner of a Carribbean island? If ever there is a case where the civilian courts can't be trusted. If ever there were a case where we seem determined to criminalize what amounts to an act of war, it is this one. Dick Cheney, where are you now that we need you?

H/T John, who made sure I didn't overlook it.

Obama's Bank Fee

Quel surprise: bankers will oppose the proposed Obama bank fee. The only ground they've been able to stand on so far is one of the silliest of canards: we might reduce the amount of banking. The Republicans have been quick to parrot the theme, which puts them in the awkward position of comforting the comfortable and afflicting the afflicted. There's a great opportunity for the Democrats to demagogue the daylights out of this thing, but so far as I can tell, there isn't a single effective demagogue left in the Democratic ranks. Does no one dare say "malefactors of great wealth?" No, I thought not, or not in a way sufficiently aggressive to avoid ridicule and derision.

The estimated $90 billion revenue sounds rather trifling to me, as a slice of bank wealth. I do think it's a clever stunt to peg it to bank liabilities, with the intention of discouraging leverage, although I suspect the piddling payment spread out over a number of years is not enough to motivate very much.

But in any event, nobody seems to have focused on the buffalo-at-the-picnic point: we don't need such a big banking sector. Cutting the size and wealth of the bloated bank sector is likely to increase rather than reduce general well-being. Right now I am perfectly happy to put them in the category of sawed-off shotguns were we tax precisely because, not in spite, of the possibility tht we might reduce the activity

Sarah and the Public Schools.

I read Steve Benen's hilarious post on Bart Simpson's school report, just minutes after I read Patrick Kurp's horrific account of his life in the public school system. In case you missed Benen's post, here's Bart:
"The exports in Libya are numerous in amount," Bart said earnestly. "One thing they export is corn, or as the Indians call it, maize. Another famous Indian was Crazy Horse. In conclusion, Libya is a land of contrast. Thank you."
Put it in the context of Patrick's account: we're raising a generation of school kids who don't learn, and don't want to learn and--this is the worst of it--who don't in the least way grasp why learning might be interesting or worthwhile.

Benen's point is, of course, that Bart reminds him so much of the Lady from Alaska who can't name a newspaper she reads (all of them!) or a founding father she admires (all of them!). It's not just the absence of learning, it's the absence of the possibility of learning: the absence of any sense that learning is, in fact, one of the great joys of life, the great solaces in time of trouble. "The best thing for being sad," said Merlin to Wart in The Sword and the Stone:
That’s the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then—to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn.
Then idly, it occurred to me to wonder: is Sarah a public school girl? Sure is: Wasilla High School , Class of 1982 (The Wiki says they teach "abstinence education, although it is not abstinence-only," which sure doesn't sound like abstinence to me). Could Sarah have been the kind of student that so dismays Patrick?

Well, you can guess what I think. And it's a kind of a cheap shot (oddly enough, both her parents seem to have made their living in public education which might suggest some possibility of belief or commitment). But though it may be a cheap shot, I really don't mean to be putting her down. My point is that it might help to explain so much of her behavior--her insatiable urge for an audience, her frantic flitting from half-baked idea to half-baked idea. I don't know about you, but this strikes me as the show of a deeply unhappy person. In short, I don't like having Sarah around, but I suspect it might be even worse to be Sarah.

An added irony: I don't know but I'll bet she tracks extremely well voters most committed to home-schooling or private schools. If we can understand her as the kind of wreckage a public school system can produce, perhaps we can see their point.

Adultery Is Now Out

Appeals court reverses Ten Commandments decision


Wednesday, January 13, 2010

What Did We Do to Deserve This?

I suppose I should not be surprised that the Rev. Pat Robertson finds Haiti's plight to be the consequence of a "pact with the devil:"

...but what the hell did the rest of us do to deserve Pat Robertson?

Update: You want more? Go here. H/t, Will.

What Can He Be Thinking?

I've always had the highest possible regard for Tom Campbell ever since I met him back in the 80s. He's that rarest of the rare among politicians, a genuinely honest, hard-working serious guy, looking for real solutions to real problems. But I really can't imagine what he is thinking by jumping into the California Governor'sSenate race alongside Carly Fiorina. Is't it a given that he and she will split the sane vote and leave the lunatics in charge of the asylum.

If he does, what then? I've never been particularly nuts about Boxer as a senator though I don't think she is anywhere the demon she is made out to be. And my impression is that maybe she's grown a bit in the job.

At first blush, you think I'd go for Campbell in a heartbeat. But do I really want Republicans organizing the Senate? I'm afraid that question answers itself ("no"--ed.). Put differently: I can understand why Campbell doesn't want to be a Democrat but why in heavens' name does he want to hang out with the current crop of Republicans?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Are We Having Fun Yet?

Reviewing John Cassidy's How Markets Fail: The Logic of Economic Calamities, Robert Solow asks and (more or less) answers a question:
Why, in the marketplace (sic!) of ideas, have the evangelists for the unrestricted market attracted so much attention and the “realists” so little? He argues, fairly convincingly, that the truth does not lie predominantly on that side of the issue. So is it that believers always make more effective advocates than skeptics do? Are we for some reason more receptive to simple answers than to complex ones? Is it that, in the nature of the case, there is more money backing one side than the other?
It isn't clear whether Solow is embracing these answers or just flirting with them, but I will embrace them: he is exactly right. "Pure" libertarianism* is always an more dramatic and more elegant and therefore an easier sell than the slow boring of the slowly boring. In this respect, ironically, the inheritors are the intellectual inheritors of the radical socialists. Socialists used to compare an actual free market with a hypothetical socialist nirvana. Libertarians like to compare an actual messy market with a hypothetical self-executing dynamo. Wonky, mainstream liberals and market realists actually like being boring. But it's not a program that wins elections.
*Actually, there is no such thing as pure libertarianism, but leave that for another day (and anyway, the explanation is probably boring).

Gideon Rachman says Bankruptcy's the Cure!

Roy flags me to Gideon Rachman in the Financial Times on how bankruptcy could be good to us:
In Winnie-the-Pooh, there is a significant moment when the bear is asked whether he wants honey or condensed milk with his bread. He replies “both”. You can get away with this sort of thing if you are a much loved character in children’s literature. But it is more problematic when great nations start behaving in a childish fashion. When Americans are asked what they want – lower taxes, more lavish social spending or the world’s best-funded military machine – their collective answer tends to be “all of the above”.

The result is that the US is piling up debt. A budget deficit of about 12 per cent of gross domestic product is understandable as a short-term reaction to a huge financial crisis. What should worry Americans is that, with entitlement spending set to surge, there is no credible plan to bring the budget deficit under control over the medium term.

The US has formidable strengths that will allow its government to be profligate for far longer than other nations could get away with. But if the US keeps running huge deficits, sooner or later the country will start flirting with bankruptcy. Oddly, it might be best if the crisis came sooner rather than later. For a surprising number of countries, running out of money has been the prelude to national renewal.

The two biggest and most beneficial geopolitical stories of the past 30 years – the spread of democracy and of globalisation – were driven by a succession of states finding their coffers empty.

Etc., with talk about China, Mexico, etc. I'd love to know a lot more about exactly what he has in mind here. Seems to me that governments can go broke in a couple of different ways: one, by propping up insolvent state-sanctioned oligopolies. And two, by transferring wealth to poor people (although the two problems can overlap). So far as I can tell China (for example) carried and still carries a large chunk of essentially insolvent industry that survives through the protection of powerful political forces. Although I'm not an expert, I'll bet you could make a case that China's "liberalization" amounted to protecting the powerful on the backs of the poor.

In the US, we've had (and have) different kinds of debt problems. I'm one who believes we did ourselves a lot of good by blowing out a lot of private debt via bankruptcy and otherwise in the 80s and 90s. I believe we've got medium and long-range problems with public matters like Social Security and Medicare though I join the ranks of those who think the problems are vastly exaggerated and still solveable.

We've also got the somewhat distinctive problem of so much new public/private debt, i.e., via bank guarantees, company takeovers and such. We've certainly gone too far with that: I'm not sorry that Lehman failed, and I am sorry that Bear Stearns did not. And auto--hey, we have more vehicles on the road than we do licensed drivers, so why do we need Chrysler?

Rachman isn't specific here but the folks who talk like this aren't usually interested in hurting bank executives are shareholders; they are looking for ways to stiff a lot of poor people. As someone has said, they go to sleep at night nauseated that somebody with an income below the median might be getting a penny of government money.

World's Strongest Man Dies; Traffic Mishap

My aunt Louise loved the one about the vegetarian who died when he was hit by a meat truck. Now: too close to true.

h/t BoingBoing, who transmit the suggestion that he should have bent it apart with his bare hands.

Charlie Cook Doesn't Mince Words

From his weekly newsletter:
The terms "gruesome" and "psychologically devastating" come to mind when thinking about the political developments over the last six weeks for Democrats.

Last week was a particularly bad one by any standard. In a matter of a few hours last Tuesday, Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota and Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter unexpectedly announced their decisions not to seek re-election, and Michigan Lt. Gov. John Cherry, the all-but-certain Democratic pick for governor, apparently decided his party's nomination wasn't worth having.

So this weekend's news about Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's relapse of foot-in-mouth disease was just a cruel ending to an awful week.
That's from his weekly email newsletter. His online column tells a similar story. "The Democrats' 60-40 edge in the Senate -- not counting the vice president's ability to break ties -- makes it almost impossible for that chamber to switch," he says, "but a four-to-six-seat Democratic loss seems most likely." Maybe. But if I were a GOP operative, reading Cook's stuff might convince me that a party switch is indeed in the offing.

Monday, January 11, 2010

"Oh Look What I Just Found under the Mattress!"

I've been boycotting Andrew Lee Sorkin's Too Big to Fail for the same reason I avoid Bob Woodward: sounds like so much unsourced insider gossip. I may need to rethink. Yves Smith has been reading Sorkin, zeroing in on the rescue of AIG. Here's Yves:
The Fed agrees to extend a $14 billion loan to get it through the trading day but it wants collateral. Collateral? From a broke company? How is that going to happen?

Then we get this bit:
Wilmustad understandably wondered how they were supposed to come up with $14 billion in the next several minutes. Then it dawned on them: the unofficial vaults. The bankers ran downstairs and found a room with a lock and a cluster of cabinets containing bonds – tens of billions of dollars’ worth, dating mostly from the Greenberg era. They began rifling through the cabinets, picking through fistfuls of securities that they guessed had gone untouched for years. In an electronic age, the idea of keeping bonds on hand was a disconcerting but welcome throwback. (p. 400)
WTF? This is a company about to go out of business, then it suddenly remembers it has a secret stash….worth at least 1/6 of the initial government rescue commitment? $14 billion was only what they coughed up to satisfy the Fed. How much more was left in those cabinets?

And more important, WHO SUPPOSEDLY OWNED THIS PAPER? This wasn’t held by the subsidiaries; otherwise, AIG would not have been able to pledge it to the Fed. And if it was a parent company holding, why wasn’t it repoed or sold earlier? What entity took the semi-annual interest payments? Take the $14 billion we know about, and assume a 5% interest rate. That’s $700 million. Where did it go? Was it reinvested? Disbursed?
Wonderful. But note that it was Yves, and not Sorkin, who connected the dot.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

My Alter Ego Has a Book

And you can get it in Lego:

Thanks, Daniel. Now go do your homework.

Appreciation: Kierkegaard Lite

I think my problem with Søren Kierkegaard is that I came to him too late. I could see there was something going on but I couldn't get past the self-absorption, the adolescent pomposity. Had I read him I was myself a pompous and self-absorbed adolescent, I might have had a chance. Like Ayn Rand.

I don't know what adults read in lieu of Ayn Rand, but for Kierkegaard, I've found my solution: Walker Percy, specifically The Moviegoer. Well: "found" is a bit of a stretch. I've heard of it often; I've long since acquired sufficient evidence on which to infer that it has a kind of a cult status, the kind of title that people--I think mainly guys, perhaps earnest, lonely guys--utter with a kind of hushed passion. I see from the weathered cashier's tag that I bought my own copy on October 9, 1978. That was a transitional time in my own life and I suppose I was looking for something new. Evidently I found something new, because my copy of The Moviegoer lay aside unnoticed until I was cleaning out some bookshelves just last week.

In any event, I've read it now and I'm a believer. It's all there: The Moviegoer is about the meaning of life, the mystery of existence and above all, about "despair"--or at least I think it is about despair, but "the specific character of despair is probably this: it is unaware of being despair." Who said this? Søren Kierkegaard. How do I know? Because Walker Percy quotes him in the epigraph to The Moviegoer. It's a funny, poignant, warm-hearted, richly-textured book, and as a substitute for Kierkegaard, it's top of the chart:
Uncle Jules is the only man I know whose victory in the world is total and unqualified. He has made a great deal of money, he has a great many friends, he was Rex of Mardi Gras, he gives freely of himself and his money. He is an exemplary Catholic, but it is hard to know why he takes the trouble. For the world he lives in, the City of Man, is so pleasant that the City of God must hold little in store for him. I see his world plainly through his eyes and I see why he loves it and would keep it as it is; a friendly easy-going place of old-world charm and new-world business methods where kind white folks and carefree darkies have the good sense to behave pleasantly toward one another. No shadow ever crosses his face, except when someone raises the subject of last year's Tulane-L.S.U. game.
That's on page 31, and you know you are in safe hands, so you can just go along for the ride. I admit I don't quite grasp the plot if there is a plot. But plot is often lost on me. And with writing needs like this, who needs a plot anyway?

Opera Note: Met HD Rosenkavalier

I already weighed in on the Met's Der Rosenkavalier when we saw the live performance last fall so let me draw on yesterdays' HD performance at the Palookaville Multiplex for just a few extra comments.

One: the horseplay between Renée Fleming and her "boy toy" (!) Susan Graham at the opener is a lot more erotic at close range than it did from the Balcony Circle. You can see them tickling, poking and very nearly giggling their way through the morning, which is just exactly what a young lover and an old cougar would be expected to do.

Two: I can't even remember who we saw in the "third-banana" role as Sophie at the Met--maybe it was Christine Schäfer who played it in the HD and if so she's a big gainer from the HD format. She's got a lovely voice but it's weak in the low register. She's also a wonderful actress, with loads of great face-action (she reminds me of James Woods, as a performer with more going on in his/her mind than s/he can contain). Both the voice and the face deliver better in close-up than they do on the big stage. I'd love to hear her in something like Schumann songs (fn.: I see from Wiki that she debuted as Sophie in San Francisco back in '95. We had season tickets for the SFO Opera back then--so chances are I saw her before yesterday).

Three: Mrs. B, and I disagree over how they played the great trio in the third act. Mrs. B. thought they destroyed the unity by focusing on the singers one (or two) at a time. I thought it helped me to follow what is a thrilling but fairly intricate piece of music. Either way, it's a reminder of what you already know: HD and big stage are two different shows. Opera will never be the same.

Cookie Watch

I'm distracted with chores this weekend so I outsource to Randy Cohen, the New York Times Sunday ethicist, who at last considers a really interesting question: if you eat the $6 Oreos out of the hotel minibar, can you cover yourself by replacing it with a an identical pack bought at the corner liquor store fast food mart for $2.50?

Mr. Ethics says no. Mr. Underbelly says--hey, why didn't I ever think of that?

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Mouths of Babes dept.: Foreign Exchange

We gave grandkids assorted pocket change from our foreign travels. One of them wrote in a thank-you note:
I will leave it on a bookshelf until it appreciates.
Maybe he know something we don't know.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Lawyer Jobs and Earnings Again

Re my discussion of attorney earnings and job satisfaction the other day, I find that one tiny link from increases my daily hits by a factor of about 10. I suppose it's flattering, although a humbling reminder that roughly nobody gives a rat's patootie about this simple barefoot country weblog, and whether I keep school or not.

On the other hand, while we're maundering on about the difficulties of the life of the lawyer, we might get a bitch slap reality check from the good folks at, as reported in the Wall Street Journal, with their annual survey of "best and worst jobs"--a survey which I assume is every bit as reliable as the US News ranking of law schools (joke--ed.). For ATTORNEY at #80, we have a median income of $111,000, with a range from $54,000 go $171,000. For PLUMBER at 150, we have a median of $46,000, with a range from $28,000 to $49,000. So if that plumber makes $425 for 45 minute, he's billing just 81 hours a year. No wonder he's got a beer belly.

For comparison, general practice physician weighs (#128) weighs in with median of $162,000, just a tad under the lawyer's max. I do note that the physician's maximum is only 29 percent above the mean; the comparable number for attorneys is 54 percent, confirming my suspicion that the spread is greater for lawyers than for doctors (downside spread is just the mirror image--attorney min is about 51 percent of the mean; for doctors, 75 percent)..Oh, and surgeons (#136) weigh in with a mean of $300,000, so it looks like Carla made a smart move to choose Turk over JD.

Update: And h/t to David for this link to an opinion piece by a guy who thinks we need a tighter lawyer oligopoly.

Appreciation: Cohen and DeLong on The Future

[It's 10:09 PM, and I like to go to bed early. I invoke the blogger's privilege of publishing a first draft.--Buce]

Readers who want the core argument from The End of Influence by Stephen Cohen and Brad DeLong might consider this roadmap: read the first chapter; then skip to Chapter 6 (State-led Development) and read the first half; then Chapter 7. (Conclusion). That will give you the takeway points (or keep reading this review and pick up another version of the takeaway points below) (or see this helpful excerpt in FP).

Am I saying you shouldn't read the rest of the book? Hm. Well, if you do skip the rest, you'll miss out on a lot of cool factoids about the current macro environment--the kind of thing that makes you such a damn nuisance so loveable at parties. But if you follow DeLong's hugely successful weblog, you know a good deal of this stuff already. On the other hand, if you don't read the intervening chapters, you'll miss out on the frustration of trying to cope with an absorbing and instructive--but maddeningly ill-organized--presentation. The book, to be blunt, shows all the earmarks haste, as if the authors felt they just had to get an oar in at this juncture of the debate, rather than think through a more complete project.

Item: there's a lot of discussion here of "the neoliberal order" (aka neoliberal dream, neoliberal utopia, neoliberal program, neoliberal game, neoliberal age, neoliberal worldview)--all without any effort at precise definition, nor (this is more important) any effort to specify just why it is so central. Item: there's a useful introduction to "sovereign wealth funds" with little to connect the dots as to how they fit into the larger argument. Item, there's a discussion of dirigiste economic growth, provocative but entirely inconclusive (Can anybody do it? Can we do it? Have we done it? Will others do it? Should we try it? etc.).Item: there's an elegant menu of competing paths to development which seems on the face of things almost entirely irrelevant to the business at hand. Item: there's a swell tour d'horizon of foreign-exchange issues, instructive if you ignore the fact that it seems almost to contradict the main line of argument.

So, of course you'll read it. But you'd better be prepared to structure a lot of the argument yourself. Let me see if I can give a summary:
1. In the future, we won't be as powerful as we have been in the past; because
2. We won't be as rich;
3. Relatively [and also absolutely?], such that
4. In fact, nobody, will be able to dominate the way we have dominated since world war II. This will lead to
5. Wasteful, beggar-thy-neighbor strategic infighting.
This is a perfectly intelligible set of propositions, debatable of course (not least because we are predicting the future here), but still worth reflection. As to the first couple (not as powerful, not as rich), it happens that I believe them to be true. They are also at this point pretty familiar stuff ("that's all?" said Mrs. Buce with a dismissive snarl; she outsources macro policy to me and expects a higher-value-added return).

The last couple of pointts (infighting, beggar-they-neighbor--dare I call it mercantilism?)--are interesting and might be right, although I'd need a lot more by explicit argument to be persuaded. But this is where I could use lot more careful analysis.

Example: consider "the neoliberal (whatever)"--by which I take it they mean "the way we have lived for the last 40 years:" increasingly unfettered free markets. CD seem to be assuming that this "neoliberalism" has been discredited by the late uproar and will therefore vanish into the sunset. I'd need a lot more persuading. There is a lot of money and power that rides on the legitimacy of the market model, and these guys have no instinct to go away--hell, they don't even know they've been discredited.

Example: I am really not at all clear why they are telling me what they tell me about foreign exchange. They observe that lots of people, for a long time, have been forecasting s calamitous decline in the exchange value of the dollar. And yet it hasn't happened. There may be good reasons why it hasn't happened: we offer political stability; world lending is still dollar denominated; the lenders are locked in. Sure, fine, but what exactly does this have to do with their more general argument? Stated baldly (but this cannot be their point) it seems to suggest that we might not be losing our wealth and power and influence anywhere near as fast as might at first glance appear.

A final example: CD seem to be trying to tell us that sovereign wealth funds necessarily exercise "political" or perhaps "strategic" power instead of mere "economic" power, as we might expect from a neoliberal enterprise. The more I look at that one, the more skeptical I become. My present inclination is to surmise that the critical factor is "bigness," and that huge "private" corporations" might well start acting like (or in concert with) states; while "sovereign" funds might perfectly well find that money is more fun than politics.

Which brings me to a final, more general, point. That is: if there is an important flaw in their general argument, it may lie in their (implicit) assumption about the nature of states. They seem to presuppose a static model of statehood--the kind of thing we've come to take for granted since the Treaty of Westphalia. That would mean: a state that makes at least a pretense of commitment to "a common good," to the maintenance of public order, to the administration of justice. It would mean a state professing (however hypocritically or ineffectually) to the welfare of its people.

I think they may failing to consider just how transitory, perhaps accidental, this model might be--a lucky accident, like the very existence of life in the universe. We've lived so long (and in the US, so well) on that state model, that we forget how quickly and easily and completely it might pass away. There are already signs of states weakening everywhere--not just the basket cases like Somalia or Afghanistan, but in so many places where the ligaments of the (if you'll permit me) Enlightenment model may seem to be coming unglued.

This is a nightmarish scenario and I certainly hope I am just grotesquely wrong. If it does come to pass, what then? I don't even pretend to have a very clear idea, but whatever idea seems to boil down to two overlapping concepts: tribes, and cartels. As CD observe, we also have a half a dozen or so sovereign wealth funds that we find we must treat as players in their own right. CD seem to assume (although they don't quite say) that we should treat them as arms or allies of the stat. But what if they simply are the state? Or simply self-sustaining states-within-a-state, nesting in some vestigal state womb, but answering to no one but themselves (and each other)? What then, huh? I have no idea;it's an incomplete picture and thank heavens for that, because it isn't very pretty and I'm not in the mood for a nightmare. But I think I'd have to cope with it before I went public with any grand propositions about the future.

I don't think CD have considered this possibility (or perhaps they simply think it is too ridiculous even to consider). Yet I'd say it is one testimony to the power of this absorbing and provocative book that it generates the thought of such a bleak alternative.