Sunday, February 28, 2010

Andrew Samwick Consults His Old Notes

I have a high opinion of Andrew Samwick and so I read with my eyes open as he asks:
Why are the Republicans not using their elected offices to advance policies that serve their own supporters?
Fair question. But exactly what constituency does he have in mind?
The [Republicans'] main voting constituency is middle class (or higher) white families in the suburbs, particularly the husbands and fathers in that constituency.
Let's check the data here. By George, he's right: the backbone of the Republican party is the wise and kindly paterfamilias who lunches with the Kiwanis on Wednesday and takes the nippers fishing on Saturday morning, as seen in Ozzie & Harriet or Life with Father (or at a pinch, The Simpsons, where kindly, familial Homer is able to maintain three kids and a non-working wife in a home with lawn and full garage). Oh, wait, this is the data for 1955, the year when all us lefties waited for Adlai Stevenson to cream Dwight Eisenhower in his campaign for a second term.

But it didn't happen: perhaps you noticed. Somehow Samwick, who is no dummy, has neglected to evaluate the experience of the last 50 years during which the termites have chewed the fiber out of the life he describes. I suspect a more precise definition might might include those who wish they were kindly paterfamiliae but haven't had a really steady job with good pay since sometime in the second Reagan administration. Moreover insofar as there are still people like the ones Samwick described, I suspect that a good many of them are working for the government, or a university, or perhaps a Washington think tank. And they, of course, are the tranche of white males most likely to vote Democratic in any event.

Sunday Weather: Befuddled

--...but you don't live here in town, do you?
--Yes I do. I live here in town.
--How come I didn't know that?
--You knew that. You've just forgotten.
--Too much information! Well, goodbye Lester.
--Larry. My name is Larry.
--Your name is Lester, right?

Must-Read of the Day

U. S. manufacturing is not dead, and in particular, it has not been killed by low-rent foreign competition. But it does exhibit certain zombie-like characteristics (link).

Saturday, February 27, 2010

My Word for the Day: Badinage

...which I first learned as a snotty 15-year-old and have misspelled as "bandinage" from then until five minute ago when I saw the dread red line under my misspelling.

"I need a nickel to call a friend."
"Here's a dime, call all of them."

bandinage badinage, circa 1952

Professor O

Afterthought on the health care adagio dance: Obama must have been a really good law prof. I know, I know, his friends have been saying so all along. I didn't really doubt it so much as take it with a large grain of salt. Trust me, I've seen it happen: it's pretty easy to inflate a bit of adjunct work into a full-bore academic resume.

But watch him work the crowd at the health care summit and you see a guy with some formidable situation-specific skills: he's the master of his brief, of course, but he is also effective at orchestrating the room, including both the dunces and the unruly (not always the same). I now testify: on the professor-meter, I think he deserves all the credit he gets.

But hold your horses there, big guy: situation-specific skill as a professor has almost nothing to do with skill as a president; it may be negative. Remember Bill Clinton: the wonks love him for his wonkiness, but the vulgar mob embraces him (and he embraces back) because he is trailer trash. If Obama had really wanted to polish up his political skills, he might have been well advised to skip the seminar room and punch his card as a per diem classroom substitute at a junior high.

Economies-of-Scale Insight of the Day

Some companies are too big to fail,
and some companies are just too big.

--Scott K. Brown in "Seven Lessons from 2009,"
American Bankruptcy Institute Journal, February 2010, 54-5, 54.

Tiepolo on the Boy-Girl Thing

I've feasted my eyes on every Tiepolo I could find but I don't think I ever wrapped my mind around this point:
[T]he artist focuses over and over again on the pairing of a weathered old man and a young woman with a flawless body, flawless posture, and a superior expression; these are the two members of his painted company of players who can be trusted to look knowingly down upon the events around them, observing attentively, yes, but too involved in one another to care actively about what happens outside their charmed, hermetic circle.
People may argue about the relative temperature of Giambattista's muse, but there is no doubt that he aims for, and achieves, a triumph of eros. His old men are still powerfully muscular, and his milk-white women have the strength of body and will to match their venerable consorts. Tiepolo returned repeatedly to painting the contrast between a besotted Marc Antony and a majestic, disdainful Cleopatra, acting out the eternal strife of War and Love, Mars and Venus.
That's Ingrid D. Rowland, rsponding to Roberto Calasso's Tiepolo Pink in "Tiepolo: Eros, Mystery, Menace," in the New York Review of Books, March 11, 2010, 13-15, 13. Here's a link to some Tiepolos on line.

Friday, February 26, 2010

For More On Age

Go here.

Apiary Wisdom

Cooling my heels at the gas pump at Costco this morning, I listened to a couple of guys puzzling over the one thing that puzzles us more these days than sex—I mean money. One guy in particular: from the sign on his truck, I gather was a beekeeper, but from the sound of his conversation he could have been a bookkeeper (ka-voom!): he knew the price of gasoline in Canada and the pound-dollar exchange rate. He knew that Germany was about the only economic engine in the European community, and said he figured that it was only a matter of months before the Euro went into the tank.

I suppose I could blow him off as just another talker except that, anticipating some foreign travel, I bought some Euros a few months back and so far I've lost a packet. Maybe I should have listened to the beekeeper.

Niall Ferguson Gets One Thing Right

Niall Ferguson has written some good stuff although lately I get the feeling that his love life has impaired the clarity of his vision. Still, I think he makes at least one important point his new Foreign Policy piece on forecasting the demise of the American hegemony.

Ferguson says it's coming, and that it will be quick. Well, of course it's coming, ducks: every empire ends. I'm not persuaded that Ferguson knows the date and time and I'm not even certain that it will be quick. But it certainly could be quick. Some empires—Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, Austrian--seem to take, like Charles II “an unconscionable time a-dying.” But empires can vanish in the blink of an eye. Think France in 1989 1789 (!), or Russia in 1917—scarcely anybody forecast that the apocalypse would be so swift or so calamitous. Perhaps the more troubling example is the Soviets in 1989. I met a lady who says she missed the fall of the Berlin Wall because she figured those demonstrations were nothing special, so she went home and fell asleep. Where were you in the revolution, mama? Oh, I was taking a nap. “Asleep” may be the right metaphor here. Our decline may be long and slow but nobody, absolutely nobody, can be certain that it won't be quick.

Update: H/T John for the date correction. John asks: "Didn’t we all sleep thru something?" Fair comment. Prompts me to remember Fabrizio in Stendahl's Charterhouse of Parma who lived through the Battle of Waterloo and didn't know he was there.

Paging Harry Turtledove: What if it had been the Catalans?

When did the Italian Renaissance end? You might say the “The Sack of Rome” in 1527, or the beginning of the Roman Inquisition in 1542. Kenneth Bartlett in his superb lecture series isn't really transfixed by nny particular date: he's more disposed to the perspective of long, slow decline. But he does offer one provocative takeaway: it was he Spaniards wot done—more precisely, the Castilians, the men on horseback, the feudal lords who trailed in with the baggage of Hapsburg Emperor Charles V. These guys had exactly no interest in all the things that had made Italy great: commerce, intellectual curiosity, free discussion, a sense of res publica. The Italians quickly grasped that the jig was up: better not to make waves, accept the inevitable and settle into a mode of risk-averse mediocrity.

It's a theory worth considering, and I would like to like it to another bit of idle speculation. Note these were not Spaniards we're talking about here; they were Castilians—inland farmers with a tradition of soldiering and religion. How different from the Catalans on the Mediterranean cost, with their long tradition of enterprise and commerce. I've often wondered what would have happened had it been the Catalans and not the Castilians and not the Catalans who had conquered Central and South America. The standard mantra says it was “capitalism” that destroyed the New World, but I wonder if it might be just the opposite—whether the very absence of capitalism that led to an encounter so destructive to the victims.

Reconciliation and Piracy

Let a waiting multitude understand that this publication is not in the least way disturbed or upset or indignant at the threat of the Democrats to use "reconciliation" to sidestep the Republican minority on health care. My only beef with the Democrats is: how in the Sam Hill did they let themselves get maneuvered into a quarter where the exercise of majority rule is seen as a betrayal of a sacred trust, if not the Code of Hammurabi? There's a long and pretty good Wiki on the notion of filibuster, detailing its corrupt alliance with all the foes of civil rights, and its linguistic provenance in the idea of "freebooter." Freebooter: that's, it, pirate. Let's hear a little less about all working together, and a bit more about piracy.

Fn.: Or if that's too strong, just call refashion the reconciliation as "the Reagan maneuver." Cf. link.

Why Is This Man Frowning?
(aka Mark Perry Gets it Backwards)

Per Mark J. Perry, here's reason #1 why the Canadians avoided a bank meltdown: recourse lending:
Almost all Canadian mortgages are “full recourse” loans, meaning that the borrower remains fully responsible for the mortgage even in the case of foreclosure. If a bank in Canada forecloses on a home with negative equity, it can file a deficiency judgment against the borrower, which allows it to attach the borrower’s other assets and even take legal action to garnish the borrower’s future wages. In the United States, we have a mix of recourse and non-recourse laws that vary by state, but even in recourse states, the use of deficiency judgments to attach assets and garnish wages is infrequent. The full recourse feature of Canadian mortgages results in more responsible borrowing, fewer delinquencies, and significantly fewer foreclosures than in the United States.
This is weird in so many ways that it is hard to know where to begin, but grant him his general proposition: There is indeed something problematic about the asymmetric heads-I-win, tails-you-lose structure of non-recourse finance.

The trouble is, once you start looking for it, you find "non-recourse" under almost every rock in the capitalist garden. I'm sure Perry would be happy to show you how the same problem underlies the bankruptcy discharge, where the debtor gets to walk away from his just debts. I'll bet (although I do not know) that he feels the same way about bank insurance, like the free-handed taxpayer guarantees that allowed the mischief-makers to bring down the Savings & Loan industry in the 80s/90s.

But it doesn't stop there. When I buy a call option on LittleCo stock, I acquire the right to take the stock or throw it away--analytically no different from my right when I buy my home on a nonrecourse mortgage. I have not heard Perry howling for the abolition of the conditional claims market, and I am not holding my breath.

Or consider the corporate limited liability form itself, the greatest social invention, so Bertrand Russell is supposed to have said, of the 19th Century. Restated: the equity stake in a leveraged company is a call option on the assets--you can take or walk away, just as with stock options, just as with the nonrecourse mortgage.

Probably nobody ever understood this better than the bankers. Look at that picture above of Mr. Banker Himself, J.P. Morgan Jr. Why does he look like he is ready to explode? Because it's his own skin in the game. He was a general partner. If the deals went sour, he stood to lose every penny. No wonder he was a prudent lender. No lwonder he staked so much on personal character.

Sadly, his successors appear at last to have grasped the full implications of his insight. What caused the late meltdown? Of course you can't bring it down to one cause, but if you had to name just one, I'd say--incorporation of investment banks, the great tectonic shift from unlimited to limited liability.* That's when the bankers stopped having skin in the game: when they shifted to heads-I-win, tails-you-lose. They bankers didn't worry about taking lunatic risks because they knew the downside was yours, or rather ours (indeed, any first semester MBA student can show you, the greater your capacity to shift he losses, the greater the inducement to take a risk and the more lunatic the risks you take).

I grant, there is a great puzzle here: why do shareholders get bankers get away with it--or more generally, why does anybody ever buy stock in a bank? But the same specter haunts Perry's argument: if banks operate in a regime of nonrecourse finance, you'd think it would make them more cautious in their lending, more prudent in protecting against risks that they couldn't offload. I don't know the answer to that, but Perry doesn't even seem to notice that it is a problem.

Final Jibe: I think it's pretty rich to see an endorsement of Canadian banking from a crowd who have spent the last dozen years or more telling us about the evils of Canadian health care.

Afterthought: and how could I have forgotten the biggest nonrecourse of them all?

*I first grasped this point in reading Barry Ritholtz' Bailout Nation, though I am not sure he would press it quite as far as I do.

Update: This piece got picked up at DeLong, where there is an interesting comment thread. It is also cross-posted at the new UC Davis faculty blog.

Update: Returning visitors will note the much improved glower on the face of JPM. And what is it with the knife?

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Unreliable Unreliables

Clever of unreliable narrators in the Guardian, but how can any such list be trusted that does not include the retire-the-jersey champ in the sweepstakes, John Dowell in Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier? Or is it just that a columnist born in 1963 has no idea who Ford Madox Ford was?

H/T, the highly reliable DG Myers.

My Word for the Day: Serein

Stolen from Patrick:
One of my new friends, the reader who inspired this little celebration, has just sent me the newest book on my shelves – The Meaning of Tingo and Other Extraordinary Words from Around the World by Adam Jacot de Boinod. I particularly like serein, French for “the rain that falls from a cloudless sky.”

Your Banker as your Friend

My friend Crank has a nice piece up about a case I'd missed: evidently JP Morgan Chase gave away some customer's trade secrets (and when I say "gave away," I think you can read "sold"). It's an interesting story in its own right but I'd like to generalize. There was a time when your banker was your friend, a wise counselor with obligations of loyalty and confidentiality. He knew as much about your receivables as your doctor does about your pineal gland. He was supposed to draw on his fund of experience to help you run your business so you could get rich together.

Or so it might have been in a Frank Capra movie. I don't suppose it was ever true but I do think it was a lot more true two generations ago than it might be today. I guess the watershed moment in my understanding was the episode in 1994 when it came to light that Bankers Trust had written a Byzantine-incomprehensible derivatives deal and essentially stuffed it at Proctor and Gamble; P&G took a $157 million loss in five months (there's a rudimentary outline here).

You may say: hey these are big boys, they can look out for themselves. But no you thought you were looking out for yourself when you hired a trusted and reliable banker.

Back to the mantra: markets are great, but a market doesn't just fall from a tree; a market is a human construct, and there are good markets and bad. We need a world where you can trust your banker. Apparently we don't have one. Or perhaps you knew.

Vendor Slowpays: KMart

Regular readers will know that Underbelly is your primo go-to source on the topic of vendor slowpays--slowing down payments to vendors so as to increase the amount of cash in the till (aka an involuntary loan). I first saw the phenom at work back during the credit crunch of 1980 when Sears just jacked up its payment schedule from 30 days to 45 and left a whole nation of suppliers without work capital oxygen.

Comes now the case of Charles Conway, former president of Kmart, ordered to pay some $10 million in an SEC civil action on the premise that he misled investors on the eve of KMart's Chapter 11. The gravaman (I love that word) seems to be that he didn't tell the analysts on a conference call that he'd slowed down payments to save money.

I've got mixed feelings about this one. I certainly feel for the vendors who were pretty much stuck: the sparrows can't bring down the woolly mammoth, and why would they want to? Chances are Kmart was their only (or their most important) customer.

On the other hand--misled? I wonder. Certainly every vendor knew about the policy, no later than the time he missed his first payment. It must have been in the trade press. And any investment analyst worth his salt is going to know all about it, phone call or no.

Moreover if I read this right, Conway was the turnaround artist, brought in to save the day. Isn't this what turnaround artists do? Reading the self-promotional utterancess of George Cloutier, the self-described "tough-love" business adviser, I find that a key rule is " Never Pay Your Vendors On Time." He says:
We tell our vendors, if you’re asking for 15 days, forget it. We’re going to pay you in 45 days. You don’t want the work? Tell me, and I’ll find somebody else. You have to work on stretching your payables because every dollar you get in extended payables is an interest-free loan. ...
He might have added: ...and a shot at a $10 million disgorgement order.

Afterthought: I think one reason this Cloutier guy gets up my nose is the posturing as the professional tough guy. Making hard decisions is one thing; bragging about it is another. My memory is that these guys who brag about the the sharpness of their alligator teeth are often just exactly the ones who wind up as a pair of cowboy boots. Cf. this guy, or this guy.

Afterthought: nine months it took the judge to come up with his opinion. Yes, I assume he had other demands on his time, but leaving Conway's life in suspension like this appears to be a kind of penalty all its own.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Hard Times DataPoint of the Day

Number of Hummers sold by GM in January: 265(link).

Correction: An earlier version of this post accidentally included the phrase "all to California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger." This attribution cannot be confirmed.

The LA Murder Docket

I knew that Jill Leovy of the LA Times back in 2007 had presented a "riveting" (my word) story about murders in LA County-who and by whom. I.e., not just the full-bore celebrity crime, but the longer and sadder chronicle of ordinary human misfortune. I did not realize she had turned it into a franchise, but here it is: the blog Homicide Report at the Times website. I suppose it is a perverse taste but believe me, some people can't get enough of this stuff (i.e., reading about it),

The latest on the list is, surprisingly, more than two weeks ago, February 7, although there were three that day, including Ronald Barron, 40, whose killing amounts to a particularly pointless waste of life: per the blog, he was a former Crip gang member, working in gang outreach. Evidently he confronted a graffiti tagger in the 5000 block of West Pico Boulevard; the tagger killed him with one bullet to the chest. No, make that two cases of pointless waste.

Numbers: as you might guess the victims are overwhelmingly male, 2,242 to 379 (with seven listed as "unspecified"--several of them fetuses). I assume the assailants are even more overwhelmingly male, though course that would be harder to track because in many cases, the record-keepers have no idea. Among "causes," the vast majority are "unspecified;" next is "walk-up" with 248; then "fight" with 187; "domestic violence" with 165 and "drive-by" with 143.

Looks to me like the same ethnic categorization applies now as then: most killings by raw number among Latinos; most in proportion to population among blacks. An interesting FAQ note points out that LA is not even close to the top of the league tables ini terms of killings per capita, and that killings in LA and elsewhere are way down from what they were in the 80s.

My Word for the Day: Horcrux

I never saw (or read) Harry Potter so I had to look this one up:
Dick Cheney has 5th heart attack. only two horcruxes remain.

(But shouldn't it be horcruces?) Anyway, thanks, Margaret.

Hobby Major

Lunched with a student the other day who had a checkered past, in the sense that he'd bounced around the world and around the job market for several years before he needed to settle down and get an education. I asked him what he majored in and he said something about "hobby major," which in his case meant history. I said I thought I recognized the feeling: I was a history major myself, thanks, and I remember it as a form of high entertainment.

But here's the thing: hobby major? I can hear lib arts profs all over the profession sobbing into their chardonnay at an attitude that might seem so dismissive of their beloved core curriculum. And I feel their pain. Yes, I know all about the need to preserve and transmit the culture, and how the unexamined life is not worth living. Hey, look at me: I'm still in college because I never left. Hobby major? Boy, you sure know how to hurt a guy.

But you know the part that really hurts? What hurts is that this is not remotely the kind of guy who can be dismissed as a baboon. He's not one of those hunchbacked knuckle-dusters who drag themselves through Phil 1 with arrogant insults and vile body noises. He's smart, he's inquisitive, he's well traveled, he's involved in some public policy issues about which he cares very much and on which, I must say, he is far more knowledgeable than I.

And I think that in some sense he is even well-educated. He certainly seems to have enjoyed his hobby major. Yet the way I hear it, he thinks it cost him (time and money) and he counts it more as a large self-indulgence than an indispensable part of his life (my phrasing, I admit I may have misread him).

Hobby major? Ouch.

Where's My Money?

I got a wake-up jolt this morning when I went on line to check my accounts at Fidelity. I had sent them a check for $12,000 back at the first of the month and it didn't seem to have been posted. I flipped over to a separate screen to look up my hometown bank records and sure enough, the check had cleared my bank on February 12.

Back to Fidelity where I set up an IM session with a techie. He asked some perfectly reasonable basic questions. Bank routing number? Who endorsed it (actually, the endorsement stamp is so smudgy I could barely make it out). After a few minutes he was back on line saying right, we have it, we'll post it right away (Dated back to the 12th, yes? Yes, dated back).

So it ended happily, if you price my time at zero. But I wondered--where does an outfit like Fidelity come off misplacing a $12,000 check even if only once in a while? Could it be--oh dear--that I sent paper, instead of bits and bytes?

Oh and he did say: better check back in a couple of days to confirm that it is in the account. Fine, good point, but not the kind of advice that inspires confidence in Fidelity.

Update: Looks like I have a history here:


Truer than They Know

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Unemployment Datapoint of the Day: Auto Rehab

Lunch today with a law student who, like so many, has no prospects. He said he used to fix cars. I asked him if he could find work there? Well, he said, I used to buy a junker every so often and rebuild it for resale. But these days everybody's doing it, so there's no easy money any more.

This Just Might Be Right

I guess I'm taking a victory lap (link):

We Are Happiest at 74, Says New Report

H/T Joel, who has something to look forward to.

Father Smith Cuts a Deal

Father Smith visits Mrs. Flanigan's boarding house to administer the last rites to the old sailor. The priest finds himself called upon to cut a deal:
It was obvious at once that the sailor had not been practicing his religion for years, because he said right away that he didn't remember when he had last been to Mass or holy communion, although he had never gone to sleep without saying a Hail Mary, because out East a fellow never knew when he wouldn't wake up with his throat slit. Then he started to tell the priest about all the women he had known in Buenos Aires and Hong Kong and said that he had liked he women in Hong Kong best, but Father Smith said that he thought they had better go through the Commandments from the beginning and see how many he had broken because after all it was a bigger mortal sin to have forgotten to love God all one's life than to have known tawdry Jezebels in foreign ports. The sailor said that that was quite easy and that here was no need to go through the Commandments at all, because he had broken the whole lot of them right down to coveting his neighbor's ass, and that Father Smith was quite wrong, as the women weren't tawdry at all, especially the ones in China, who had gold on their fingernails and worn black satin slippers with high red heels, and that now that he came to think of it he wasn't sorry for having known all these women at all, since they had all been so beautiful and that he would like to know them again if he go the chance. Father Smith said that was very wrong of the sailor and that our Lord and our Lady and Saint Joseph and the saints were very much more beautiful than number of Chinese harlots with high heels; but the sailor said that he wasn't so sure, and that he still wasn't sorry for having known all these women, because their dresses had made such lovely sounds when they walked, and in South America it had been much the same thing and the governor general had seemed to think so too, because he had always been at old Senora Alvarez's every Saturday night. The priest said that was no way for a man to talk to God when he was dying and that the old sailor had better hurry up and be sorry for his sins if he didn't want to go to hell and lose Almighty God for ever and ever; but the old sailor said that while he was sorry for having missed the Sacraments so often and for not having loved God more, he wasn't sorry for having known all those women, because they had all been so beautiful and some of them very kind as well. In his despair Father Smith asked the old sailor if he was sorry for not being sorry for having known all those women and the old sailor said that yes, he was sorry for not being sorry and he hoped that God would understand. Whereupon Father Smith said that he thought that perhaps God would understand. ...
That's from Bruce Marshall, The World, The Flesh, and Father Smith 19-20 (1945). How old was the old sailor, I wonder? 74? But he had had a hard life; I suspect more like 56. Note that he does not appear to have a name.

See also:

The Death of Rozzie

How Edith Died.

All the Murders.

My Word for the Day: Nooks

A headline in the New York Times says:

New York's Nooks are a Challenge to Census Takers

Oh, Nooks. Turns out they are talking about "nook" as the companion of "cranny," though extended here to include a 900-apartment, 40-story tower block (Ma-ma mia...). Silly me. I thought they meant Nooks:
Nooks is something great, or a cool black person, who really does not have to be completely black but just dark in skin. Who acts him self, doesn't follow trends or anything. Nooks is pronoucned like Books but with an N and not like Nukes.
That's Urban Dictionary definition #4. Query, does the census overlook them also?

Monday, February 22, 2010

Mike Huckabee Gets It

You'd think I'd get over it but for some reason I continue to marvel at that alliance of seeming opposites that we observe in the union of the libertarian and the authoritarion wings of the the Republican party. Sure all parties harbor strange unions, and the enemy of my enemy is my friend. But I think there is something more to it than that. Self-professed libertarians seem genuinely not to observe any inconsistency when they howl for freedom while cheerfully sticking their nose into the lives and under the blankets of others. The best comparison I can find is to recall the ease with which Confederate slaveholders or Polish aristocrats used to beat their breasts in the good cause while standing on the face of others.

This cognitive non-dissonance was in full flower at last weekend's CPAC convention, where Ron Paul walked away with the balloon. Oddly, one person who does get it is Mike Huckabee. You could say it's just sour grapes from a man who scarcely ever gets out of single digits at the CPAC convention or elsewhere. But here's Huckabee saying "CPAC has becoming increasingly more libertarian and less Republican over the last years." Exactly so, and amazing how rare this voice is. Ironic also to see it coming from a rather nice man who fronts for such an unpleasant doctrine, criticizing a much less appealing human whose platform on the whole makes a lot more sense.

Investment Datapoint of the Day

[Paul] Krugman and [his wife] pulled out of the stock market ten years ago and never went back.
From the profile (highly recommended) of Krugman in the New Yorker.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

My Prefix of the Day: Hella

A UC Davis grad student wants to establish "hella" as the prefix for 10^27. He has created a Facebook page and as of a moment ago, it had 13,363 fans (apparently none is also a friend of mine; I wonder what that proves).*

Austin Sendak, a grad student in physics, is the creator of the Facebook page whose full name is "The Official Petition to Establish "Hella-" as the SI Prefix for 10^27." One's first thought is: Facebook. Right. Language has always been a product of social networking. Not only does it grow in the community: you can't stop if if you try. Anyone who attempts to pin it down will find that (as T.S. Eliot wrote):
Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.
On the other hand, there's the little matter of "SI." That would be (perWiki) "a set of unit prefixes" "standardized by the International Bureau of Weights and Measures." This would suggest a degree of codification, on the order of the French Academy. Anyway, Sendek has a nuclear backup. He says that if the SI standard-makers turn him down, he'll try to get it included among computational terms at Google

*Apparently this is only the latest move in a fairly complex social-networking game, which, like so many social-networking games, appears unintelligible to the outsider. The California Aggie, the UC-Davis student newspaper, surfaces the word as part of a "Southern versus Northern California slang rivalry," but then adds that "'Hella,' the popular NorCal slang word meaning 'a lot' or 'very' is commonly used among Northern and Southern Californians..." without further clarifyig what, if anything, the rivalry is about.

Annals of Music Marketing: The Worst Wagner?

The music business is, after all, a business:
In 1958, Decca Records announced the largest undertaking in the history of the gramophone: the first complete stereo recording of Wagner's Ring cycle. After seven years of recording, the nineteen LPs were released. Many would still say it was worth the wait: the Solti Ring remains the gold standard.

In today's world of Blackberry and Twitter, gratification must be instant. In what can only be a bald-faced marketing gimmick, Arthaus Musik rush-released the first Ring to appear on Blu-ray disc, taped at 2008 performances by the Deutsches Nationaltheater und Staatskapelle Weimar.

Press releases pronouncing it the first Ring to adhere to Wagner's original intentions amount to utter hogwash. This Ring is out there for one reason only: it has no competition in the Blu-ray market. Alas, it is an unmitigated disaster.
So Larry L. Lash in the March, 2010, issue of Opera News at 65-6, 65. Other snippets:
The production is constructed from bits of old furniture with thrift-store costumes ... Nibelheim is two long rows of shelves covered in shower curtains ... There are some interesting ideas: in execution, none of them succeed. ... The majority of the singers are not young, physically fit or attractive. ... Do you really want the clear outline of the nipples of a singe with a gut stuffed into a tight T-shirt jumping off your TV screen. ... The singing ranges from barely adequate to abysmal...
To that last, he adds: "with four exceptions." He gives high marks Catherine Foster ("a confident and radiant Brünhilde"); Nadine Weissman ("a substantial, gorgeous, reedy contralto"); Norbert Schmitberg ("tireless and charismatic") and Erin Caves ("surprisingly lyrical Siegmund." Still, per Lash, "There is really no good reason to own this misbegotten project."

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Tom Schaller Gets it Partly Right

Tom Schaller at the formidable Five Thirty Eight serves up a whuppin' plate of clear-sighted wisdom on tea-baggers, although I don't think he gets it quite right:
Five months ago in this space, I speculated that this new conservative movement is fueled to a significant degree by a lot of ginned up former Ron Paul supporters. I mentioned and quoted at length from Dana Goldstein's fanstastic reporting that connected the Tea Party movement to residual Ron Paulites. When is the national media going to finally make these connections?

Instead, the kooky, historically revisionist, apocalyptic ideas of Glenn Beck and Ron Paul are treated with equivalency to those of the majority Democratic Party in Washington and--here's the key point--these movement activists and their ideas are often discussed without much mention of their connections to Beck or Paul. Beck earns his share of attention, granted. But there is almost no recognition whatsoever of the true origins of this conservative backlash. The movement is instead covered as if it is the somehow the byproduct and wind in the sails of national Republicans like Michael Steele, John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, when in fact it is operating wholly independently of any or all of them. And remember that these are people who, as Nate pointed out earlier this month, believe that the president is a socialist Muslim interloper born in Africa; who, as I suspect, somehow think that earmark and tort reform will solve our deficit problems; and who, as we saw today, cheer without any sense of internal contradiction as Beck boasts about educating himself for "free" at a public library system paid for by the very taxes he complains about.

But go try to find much in the way of reporting on how closely connected these two movements are. Or how disconnected these people are from political reality. You won't find much. Because the media wants to provide competitive balance to its narrative, reporting to date has either willfully disconnected the Tea Party movement from the Ron Paul presidential campaign or it simply has not noticed.
There's great merit in all that. But take a second look at the critical sentence:
The movement is instead covered as if it is the somehow the byproduct and wind in the sails of national Republicans like Michael Steele, John Boehner, Mitch McConnell, when in fact it is operating wholly independently of any or all of them.
Let's grant that the tea-partiers probably scare the daylights out of John Boehner just as they scare the daylight out of any sensible citizen. Still, the "leadership" (if you can call it that) hasn't the slightest disposition to disown the beast: they are merely scrambling to relearn the ancient game of which-way-are-my-people-going-so-I-can-run-out-in-front-and-lead-them. Distasteful as they may find all this poisoned looniness, they know it's the only party they've got at they've got to find some way to bronco no matter how much it bucks.

And as to the "lot of ginned up former Ron Paul supporters." Well, yes, they won the straw poll, but with a fairly weak plurality and a lot of booing. Politico reports that only 2,935 (of approximately 10,000) attendees actually voted. If a 74-year-old loose cannon can't get more than 10 percent of the aggregate potential vote, I'd say he's more of an accident than a contender.

I would, however, like to know just what the booers have against him. I mean, I know what have against him, and what any sensible Republican might have against him, but neither of these datapoints is particularly relevant to the current inquiry. What, exactly, is the beef?

Mead On Gore (with Hobnailed Boots)

Let the recrimination season begin--Walter Russell Mead lands with both feet on Al Gore for having (Mead's words) "wrecked planet earth."
Frankly, I blame Al Gore. Unlike naive scientists who know little about life beyond the lab, or eco-activists whose concepts of the international political system come from writing direct-mail solicitations to true believers in rich countries, the former vice-president had decades of experience with high politics. It was his job to provide the leadership that could channel the energy and concern of this movement into an effective political program.
This may or may not be overkill, but Mead does draw one unsettling analogy from the abundance of his experience in foreign affairs: the peace movement of the 1920s, and ultimately, the Kellog-Briand Pact which, as we all know, ended war forever.

The Banks are Made of Marble...

I'm a little bit chagrined to report that I was besotted in my youth by this piece of crude lefty propaganda. On the other hand, I'm a little surprised it hasn't had a resurgence:

There's a full set of lyrics here.

Well, I Won't Dance, but I'll Lift my Leg...

Fifty-odd hours spam-free. I think I know how we solved the problem, if we did solve the problem, but I won't give the bums the satisfaction of telling them here.

More Mysteries of Statehood: Snyder on Eastern Europe

Here's another item on the mysteries of statehood, at least as instructive and entertaining as Kate Brown's: Timothy Snyder, The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569-1999 . Snyder works on a larger canvas than Brown, with more scope if less intimacy and texture, but both develop essentially the same argument: the practical impossibility of a coherent nationalism, and the tragic destructive power of any efforts to achieve it.

Snyder finds a rich vein of grotesque humor in the work of one Jonas Basanavičius, who in 1883 undertook to establish a Lithuanian-language newspaper. Lithuania (such as it was) languished under the thumb of the Tsar. Basanavičius was living in Prague; he enlisted compatriots in Germany. One obstacle:
Although the Lithuanian language was legal in the Russian empire, it had to be printed in Cyrillic characters. In Germany, Lithuanian activists could publish in the Lithuanian language and Latin script, then smuggle their work in to the Russian empire.
The title of the new journal was Aušra, "the Dawn," -- revealing (as Snyder explains) "the universal conceit of nations with weak state and cultural traditions: what seems to be death is only a sleep and the sleeper will awaken as the world turns and night becomes day." Part of the task of recreation, then, was to fashion an alphabet that respected the "traditions" of the beloved object. The spelling "Aušra itself was a kind of a statement. It was an adaptation of Czech orthography. The conventional spelling at the time was Auszra, but the editors thought Auszra looked "too Polish." Snyder notes:
The shift had nothing to do with publishing in the Russian empire: both spellings used Roman characters and both were therefore illegal. The Russian police would have confiscated a journal called "Aušra" and one called "Auszra": only something called "Аушрa" would have been permitted.
Snyder sums up:
The ironies of the Lithuanian borrowing from Czech are four: (1) in the Middle Ages, before the association of Poland and Lithuania, Polish had become a written language under the influence of precisely Czech... (2) But because Prussia banned the use of Latin characters in Lithuanian writing, Lithuanians ... used the Czech letters to write their (more or less) reformed Lithuanian across the border in German East Prussia. In this roundabout way a script designed to limit the spread of German culture made its way into Germany. (3) ... So...a German supported the part of the Czech solution by which Polish influence upon the Lithuanian language could be shrouded in Russia. (4) The German philological interest in the Lithuanian language was itself part off the Romantic turn in German scholarship, which was partly an attempt to emancipate German culture from French influence
Okay, so much for the alphabet. And then they had to manufacture a literature...

My Word for the Day: Fnord

That's Fnord, courtesy of BoingBoing, with a link to a pretty good Wiki. There are eight definitions in the Urban Dictionary, including with two interesting lists of putative Fnords. I particularly like:
Fnord is place where those socks vanish off to in the laundry.
Fnord is the bucket where they keep the unused serifs for Helvetica.
Fnord is the color only blind people can see.
Fnord is the the four-leaf clover with a missing leaf.
But I wonder: are they really all Fnords? I wonder also whether I could qualify "Wagner is the Puccini of music." I hear tell they ran a philosophy seminar at Harvard on the question whether and under what circumstances that one made any sense.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Job Market News: Accountants

Of course I've heard the horror stories about the job market for young lawyers. I read that New York Times piece about the increasing supply (i.e., possibly reduced income) of doctors). Yesterday I chatted with my friend John the accountant (different John from the regular John). How's employment holding up in the bean-counting trade?

Pretty well these past four or five years, John reported. Indeed he and his partners (who run a small firm) have had to pay top dollar to get whatever help they can get. The main reason: Sarbanes Oxley, the post-Enron Congressional mandate to stiffen up the policing against fraud.

This year though, John said, demand for accountants seems to be slackening off--he can hire at reasonable prices again. Maybe the Sarbanes Oxley market is saturated, he speculated. Or maybe people have just figured out that there is only so much people can do to ferret out fraud. If the client is determined to cheat. he'll cheat, and you might as well reconcile yourself to that fact.

How I Destroyed Cleveland

John calls our attention to a Reuters story declaring that the most miserable city in the United States is (drum roll) Cleveland. Ah, poor Cleveland. It's been a long sometimes-slow decline from the time when Cleveland smugly proclaimed itself as the "Best Location in the Nation." And the person who set it all going was (another drum roll) me.

You mean I haven't told you how I destroyed Cleveland? Hang on a moment, this won't take long.

It was the fall of 1954. I had taken a menial (but no worse than I deserved) job as clerk in the grandly named "Cleveland Urban Renewal Agency"--an agency devoted, as they would tell anyone who would listen, to applying the therapy of Federal dollars against a multitude of urban ills. Granted that Cleveland was a thriving metropolis in those days, still it did have its ills. One of those most devoted to cleaning up the detritus of his beloved city was tht booster of booster, the Editor of the Cleveland Press, a guy named Louis B. Seltzer. (It was Seltzer who, with his great megaphone, almost single-handedly succeeded in packing the hapless Sam Sheppard off to prison for a murder he very likely did not commit, but that is another story and I digress...)

Anyway, back to the Urban Renewal Agency. There really wasn't a lot around the office I was competent to do, but they were stuck with me for the moment. Also on hand was a guy named Harvey who looked a bit like an imaginary rabbit. Trained but unlicensed as an architect, he did a bit of drafting, but like me, he seemed to have some surplus time on his hands.

But we're dealing with bureaucrats who exhibited a high sense of professionalism. They weren't going to let marginazl petty clerks idle around twiddling their thumbs. So every so often when our presence became intolerable, they would pack me and Harvey into a black government Chevvie and send us out on assignment.

Our target was "Area B." "Area B" was an area designated for annihilation and reconstruction, also known as "renewal" under our Federal program.--33d to 40th on the East Side, Woodland to Scoville. Harvey would drive and I would pack a clip-board, or vice versa. Our purpose was to make a "survey of dilapidation," which is to say we'd say "yep, that one is dilapidated, nope that one is not..." and so forth, with appropriate annotations in the clipboard file.

Re-enter Louis Seltzer, for whom urban renewal was almost as much a priority as felony murder. Next day, Seltzer's Press would bray "45.6 PERCENT OF AREA B HOMES DILAPIDATED, SURVEY SHOWS." "Survey" being, of course, Harvey and me in an government Chevvie.

I left Cleveland after a few months and I've never spent more than half a day there since. I gather that "Area B" was, in its own right, kind of a "success."--evidently they did bulldoze it, and evidently something else was built on the land. Best I can understand, though, there are other parts of Cleveland that urban renewal destroyed in the 50s/60s and and that have never really been put to use again. Shame to think it was all my fault.

Footnote: I find just a snippet of authoritative history on the issue here, at page 160.

Afterthought: Actually, I did spend just about half a day a few ago in the Asian art collection at the Cleveland Museum. Breathtaking, got to be one of the best in the world.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Well, Hey...

Mrs. Buce must be peeking at this blog. For my birthday, she churned up a copy of the original 1931 German version of The Threepenny Opera--the double-disk set, yet, with commentary and a (gasp) French version. Here's the imimitble Lotte Lenya:

Liberal Academe

My friend Marie showcases a study purporting to explain why so many academics are liberals:
A recently released study ... concludes that 43 percent of the political gap between academics and a random population sample can be attributed to four factors more common among academics: 1)high levels of educational attainment; 2) disparity between levels of educational attainment and income; 3) self-identification as Jewish, non-religious, or a member of a faith that is not theologically conservative Protestant; and 4) high tolerance for controversial ideas.

The authors of the study, Neil Gross and Ethan Fosse [also] see intellectuals as defined by "possession of high levels of cultural capital and moderate levels of economic capital." [French Sociologist Pierre] Bordieu asserts that this structure shapes intellectuals' political views. ".... Deprived of economic success relative to those in the world of commerce, intellectuals are less likely to be invested in preserving the socioeconomic order, may turn toward redistributionist policies in hopes of reducing perceived status inconsistency, and may embrace unconventional social or political views in order to distinguish themselves culturally from the business classes."...
A whole bunch of thoughts. First, as to educational attainment and income, two points: one, I'd say that professors are on the whole pretty well paid. They can envy their former roommates who went into investment banking, but we all envy somebody. I suspect the vast majority of profs enjoy family incomes above the national average, with intangibles to boot. Second, the proponents may have forgotten that the taste for "redistributionist policies" is almost inverse to actual income. The richest Congressional districts in the country--Manhattan Upper West Side, West LA--are among the most "redistributionist;" the poorest--Eastern Kentucky, Western Kansas and Nebraska--are somewhere to the right of Ivanhoe.

And what's this stuff about "high tolerance for controversial ideas?" When was the last time anyone spotted a controversial idea around a faculty lounge? My impression is that virtually every faculty homogenizes inside two tenths of a decimal point on a 10-point scale. I should think this would be true independent of your position on the political spectrum: you'd never mistake Chicago for Yale, but it would be hard to mistake either for anybody else.

Finally, I trust the authors of the study recognized that they can sustain their case if at all only within the humanities and social scientists. The hard scientists are by almost any measure still a pretty conservative bunch. Come to think of it, I wonder if the hard scientists might show actually a broader "tolerance for controversial ideas" than their colleagues in the lib arts?

H/T John for the pointer.

Afterthought: I guess I'd agree that economists are special. They tend to be secular, wet on social issues (gay marriage, dope-smoking, etc.). But they believe in a lot of things that the standard liberal agenda does not embrace--markets, lower trade barriers. Yes, even the "liberal" economists. So I don't think they are on this chart at all.

Wisdom of the Aged

A birthday greeting to myself:
Now that I am getting old and begin to approach the patriarchic state, I too feel that it is worse to preach immorality than to practice it. One may be driven to commit murder by love or hatred, but one can only advocate murder out of sheer wickedness.
--Italo Svevo, Confessions of Zeno 30 (Alfred A. Knopf ed., 1930, 1958)

Afterthought: By my count, this is my 27,029th day on the planet, including Leap Days. The Leap Days, and actually 19 Leap Days somehow seems like more than 27,029 days.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

My Word for the Day: Hektarnitsa

As of 11:21 am today, Google had no links to this word except the one I am quoting. That is, Hektarnitsa:
Her biography would serve as an emblem of [a] new kind of spacial immobility coupled with an economic simplification. The hektarnitsa was a woman assigned a hectare (2.6 acres) of beet field. She was responsible for sowing, weeding, watering, and harvesting her hectare alone, by hand. In Ukraine, women ran households by mastering the nuances of caring for livestock, weaving, sewing, healing, preserving, as well as growing garden produce that almost entirely fed the family. In Kazakhstan, the hektarnitsa's workday narrowed to 2.6 acres, where she performed repetitive motions on uniform rows of a single crop.

The herktarnitsa worked hard, all of her life. She worked through her childbearing years, trying to keep up with the demands of her hectare. On most days of the growing season, she was in the field in heat or brisk wind. She stooped oer her eight-months-gone stomach to block and hoe, taking her children along with her to work the hectare because "no one could manage a hectare alone." When I asked these former hectarnitsi to write down their addresses, they pressed their hands behind their backs and said, "No, no, you write. I'll tell it to you." Their lives spared them no time for grammar. Yet, since literacy had become a primary ticket to prosperity, without education the hektarnitsa worked for the next generation, toward a personal definition of progress, trying to make something of the destiny handed to her, trying to get the children out opf the closed settlement to study, becaue "you had to study if you didn't want to work the beet fields all your life."
That's Kate Brown again, in A Biography of No Place. This time she has followed her Polish Ukranians on to their forced resettlement in Kazakhstan.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

What Have We Learned?

The only reason for posting (again) this much-posted video is that it seems to have been produced in 2007. Quaere, are we any smarter now?

Felix Misses the Lede on Greek Derivatives

Fascinating followup from Felix Salmon on the Greek derivatives, although I think he misses the lede. He goes with "Goldman wasn't at fault," which is a contentious call. Far more interesting to me is that it turns out that the story is old news. Evidently, as Felix documents, it was all laid out in perhaps-agonizing detail in Risk magazine back in 2003. Even more interesting (for my money) --evidently the prospect of such a deal was an active topic of discussion among Euro bloc accounting rulemakers--why, a suspicious nature would infer that they planned the rules with this deal in mind. So all the gasping and harrumphing today is just a charade.

I guess I follow Felix's argument about Goldman but I'm not sold that they are off the hook. If the Sovereign State of Apoplexia chose to legalize kiddie porn, Goldman would be free to say thanks but no thanks. Moreover I think it might be instructive to dust for fingerprints around the conference room in which they wrote that protective accounting rule. Mr. Goldman? Mr. Sachs? You, here? My, this is a surprise...

BTW I may be too attuned to the task of making complex matters simple, but at the end of the day this deal sounds to me like nothing more than a souped-up space-age version of the old "concealed loan" dodge. Going back to the Middle Ages when good Christians under threat of hellfire had to hire Jews to do their financial scut work, we've known how put lipstick on this pig. No, no, I won't loan you $100. But I will pay you $100 for your widget. On condition that you agree to buy it back from me for $125. Usury? Oh, bite your tongue...

Bonus 20-20 Hindsight Inquiry: I know, easy for me to say--but aren't we permitted to roll our eyes just a tad at the idea that the New York Times never tumbled to the old-news aspect of the case before showcasing it on page one, column eight? Defenders will say--wal, a seven-year-old story in a trade pub is pretty obscure. I hear you. But I thought the reason we all bought the Times is that these guys have the specialized lifelines that the rest of us don't enjoy. Floyd? Gretchen? Andrew? Though come to think of it, perhaps it is also interesting that none of these glamour bylines was on the story.

And failing direct knowledge, you'd think just one of their sources might have said: you know, this isn't really a secret. Why, it ws in the trade press back in '03.

Spam Update

Apologies and thanks for your patience to all those of you who have put up with the spam postings here over the last 36 hrs. I've reported it to Google; I posted a cry for help at the Google blog help forum--so far nothing. I've been thinking that the easiest way to scotch the problem would be simply to terminate this blog and start a new one--but that would just inconvenience those of you who have me in their news feeds. Thanks also to anon who suggested changing my password; I did so and also changed passwords on some other accounts. I don't see that any other account of mine has been corrupted, and changing the PW here didn't help but it was a good idea anyway.

Hey wait folks, there's more: I see that Google is now asking me for a "word verification"--one of those squiggly unreadable things--because I have made too many postings in the past 24 hrs. Well, that's progress of a sort.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Appreciation: Diane Coyle Has Soul

It's probably more than coincidence that two of the books I enjoyed most lately were (a) written by women who (b) used to work as British journalists and (c) went on to get fancy degrees and (d) write sprightly, non-shallow, non-technical introductions to interesting topics.

I'll save one of the two for later but for the moment, allow me to showcase Diane Coyle's The Soulful Science, where she tries to show that economists are not as crude, vulgar and unfeeling as they're cracked up to be. While I'm not quite persuaded that she achieved her mission, still I'd say she's done a remarkable job of surveying the discipline's current agenda.

Along the way, she covers three (or maybe two and a half) broad topics. Her first and perhaps most important item is the problem of poverty, and here, she showcases something that the purists in the first-class lounge might not regard as quite economics at all: it's the grungy and onerous task of data-gathering to find out just how many and who are the poor. Coyle doesn't mention it, but she is here attempting to respond to a recurrent jape of Robert Heilbroner--that economics, begun as an enquiry as to why so many were poor, had pretty much left the whole problem of poverty in the ditch. Her principal exhibit here is the work of Angus Maddison who may have done more than anyone alive to collect and organize the data on poverty. It's a prodigious effort and an awesome work product, but it probably says a lot about economics as a whole that I don't think he is on anybody's shortlist for an economics Nobel.

From Middleton and his ilk Coyle moves on to a somewhat more conventional presentation of recent developments in growth theory and trade theory--including some admirable insights into the issue of why Paul Krugman was important even before he had a column in the New York Times. From there she proceeds to two--or is it just one?--topic(s) that concern the relationship between economics and other disciplines--chiefly psychology, but also evolutionary biology. Her narrative of the uneasy encounter between econ and psychology is good fun although so many people have been trying to write sprightly and readable expositions of this topic that you'll find plenty of worthy competitors. The stuff on evolutionary biology is perhaps necessarily a bit more diffuse.

Still, it is here in this latter portion of the book that you find a remarkable kind of meta-story that Coyle herself probably did not intend. Specifically: she begins to kick holes in her own major premise. She acknowledges--almost incidentally, but still tellingly--that the interesting econ/psych stuff is still at a level not much above anecdote. She remarks that it isn't likely to go far without some overarching theory. And she mentions that almost none of this new stuff has yet made it into the textbooks. She pretty much concedes that basic econ--below, say, grad school level, is still pretty much rooted in static equilibrium models that go right back to Jevons and Walras (for an interesting counterexample, look here).

So she teeters on the edge of, but does not quite explore, some larger issues about the shape of economics as a whole: the place and shape of theory, the nature of model-making, the role of models in the world (for a fascinating foray along these lines, look here). Maybe that is her next book. Meanwhile, this is as instructive and entertaining overview of the current state of the profession as you are likely to find.

Yep, Spam....

I have no idea whence or how. I kill 'em off as fast as I see 'em, but I suppose there is nothing to stop them through the night. Suggested remedies welcome.

Oh, Joe...

Faithful readers will know that I have a soft spot for Joe the Plumber. Okay, so he is ignorant, gullible and churlish, but who among us, etc. etc. I even let it pass the other day when he said that John McCain had screwed up his life.

Josh Marshall, by contrast, is scandalized, or at least rolls his eyes. I have no instinct to quarrrel with Josh, but I can think of one reason why Ol' Joe is so upset. Namely: he senses--correctly, that John was making fun of him. Among his many virtues and defects, McCain is an old-fashioned wise-cracking, sissy-taunting, towel-snapping locker room bully ( believe me, I have reason to recognize the type). When he talked about Joe, his bumptious good fellowship was always tainted by that sneer of dominance that you would expect from the BMOC. Joe is divorced; he's broke; he's pushing middle age, and his prospects are zero (unless there is an MOS for "army candy at a political rally"). He feels the pain.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Appreciation: Kate Brown's Report from Nowhere

Kate Brown has written a wonderful book* on the shadowy roots of statehood in the void between Poland, Russia, the Ukraine and heaven knows what else, fit to stand on the shelf with Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities and John Scott's Seeing Like a State, but she seems to have paid the price for it by spending a lot of her youth in disagreeable, not to say muddy, places. Her focus is the kresy which, as she says, "has no definite polity becaue it was never the seat of power but always the peripherey, whether rulers arrived from the north, west, or east. ... Never the center of things, the kresy has played the role in east-central Europe of an arena in which warring parties have time and again fallen into the exhausted embrace of worn-out prize fighters."

Setting aside a tangled prehistory, Brown asserts that it was the Soviets who did most to imposes nationalist/ethnic identities in Eastern Europe--ironic, for an ideology so committed to internationalism--and then turned on its progeny when they began to stand on their own feet. Her particular focus is Dovbysh, once Marchlevsk, once burned (i.e., from above, from Moscow) with the peculiar destiny of becoming a center of Polish culture and society. "Dovbysh," she says
is classified as 'a rural settlement of the urban type,' a Soviet euphemism which translates as a village with a population and industrial base nearing that of a town. It means Dovbysh lacks both the conveniences of the city and the charm, the space, and greenery of a village. The result is a sludge, lots of it, washing the overtaxed infrastructure in human and animal excrement.
"In order to reform" she continues, "modernizing societies first take stock. ... Jews were relatively easy to count. .... Germans too were distinguished by religion and tradition. ...
The Polish population, however, was more ambiguous. Although the official statistics listed the population of Poles in the Marchlevsk territory as 70 percent of the total population, less than half of tht number actually spoke Polish; fewer than half of those spoke it well and used it daily ... When asked to stste their nationality, many peasants replied simply "Catholic." One peasant said he spoke quite well the "Catholic language." Other peasants said they spoke po-chlopski, "in the peasant way," or "in the simple way" (pro-prostomu) or "the languge of here" (tutai'shi). Investigastors went form location to location reporting that no two villages were alike, each place contained a different blend of language, ethnicity and social composition.
This sometimes-comical chasm of bewilderment and incomprehension certainly doesn't excuse, but it may help to explain, the epidemic of paranoia, emanating first from Stalin himself, that turned the Bolshevik regime into an enemy of the people. Brown's account reminds one of nothing so much of Mark Twain's story of his uncle who "went to bring the good news to the savages, and they et him." Only here as so often, it may have been the "savages" who got the worst of it.

*A Biogrphy of No Place: From Ethnic Boderland to Soviet Heartland.

Notional Creature: The Stone Louse

John updates the notional people entry with a notional creature:
The German-language medical encyclopedia Pschyrembel Klinisches Wörterbuch
features an entry on the Steinlaus (Stone Louse, Petrophaga lorioti), a
rock-eating animal.[6] The scientific name implies the origin: a creation of
the German humorist Loriot. The Pschyrembel entry was removed in 1996 but,
after reader protests, was entered again the next year, with an extended
section on the stone louse's involvement in the fall of the Berlin Wall.
... and also provides an update/expansion on Lillian Mountweazel.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

His Own Man

Well, he doesn't seem to be following anybody else's script;
He said he doesn’t support Sarah Palin anymore. Why? Because she’s backing John McCain’s re-election effort. “John McCain is no public servant,” he told the room, calling the 2008 Republican nominee a career politician.

... “I don’t owe him s—. He really screwed my life up, is how I look at it.”

Wurzelbacher said, “McCain was trying to use me. I happened to be the face of middle Americans. It was a ploy.”

...Wurzelbacher says it’s his duty to take advantage of the platform he’s been given. He wants to talk up the issues he cares about, and encourage the grassroots tea party movement.

Wurzelbacher also told the room to lay off the extreme personal attacks on President Obama. He said people who question whether Obama was born in the United States or compare him to Hitler “belittle and set back” the conservative movement. “The birthers, the truthers — if people are trying to bunch them [with tea partiers], that would kill us. That just pushes away Democrats and independents who might come out for our cause otherwise.” He said he actually likes Obama, in some ways. “I think his ideology is un-American, but he’s one of the more honest politicians. At least he told us what he wanted to do.”
"Joe the Plumber," campaigning for a gubernatorial candidate in Pennsylvania.

Glad I Don't Live There

"It's a cross between Northern Exposure and The Lottery."

What's a Lawyer Gentleman to Do?

I just stumbled on this problem in an old ethics opinion issued by the California Bar Association:
The attorney was retained to represent a carpenter who had performed labor and supplied materials for an addition to a home. On the client's behalf, the attorney brought suit against the owner to foreclose a mechanic's lien. The action was contested and, after a trial of three days, the plaintiff obtained judgment. The defendant did not pay the judgment promptly. The attorney caused a sheriff's sale of the defendant's home to be held. Under the particular state of the law and the facts, no actual notice to the defendant was legally requisite to the validity of the sale and neither the defendant nor defendant's counsel in fact knew of the sale. The plaintiff bid in the property for the amount of the judgment, and thus became the owner of the defendant's home, worth much more than the amount of the judgment, subject only to the defendant's right to redeem within a year.

Some time later the defendant's counsel wrote a letter to the plaintiff's attorney, enclosing the defendant's check for the amount of the judgment. The check was tendered in full satisfaction, but it was legally insufficient for the redemption of the property since it did not include the expenses of the sheriff's sale, the existence of which was still unknown to the defendant and defendant's attorney.

The question presented is whether the plaintiff's attorney could properly have refrained from any action at that time, leaving the letter unanswered and the check unnegotiated, in the hope that the period of redemption would expire before the defendant or defendant's counsel became aware of the fact that their tender had been insufficient.
That's from Formal Opinion No 1967-11. So what's a gentleman lawyer to do? The opinion goes on to say:

[U]nder [former] canon 15 of the Canons of Ethics of the American Bar Association, an attorney must zealously advance the interests of his client, but not by using "any manner of fraud or chicane. He must obey his own conscience and not that of his client." One of the obligations of conscience to which the lawyer must conform is stated in [former] canon 22: his conduct with other lawyers "should be characterized by candor and fairness." [Former] canon 29 states that a lawyer "should strive at all times to uphold the honor and to maintain the dignity of the profession . . ." All of the canons are commended to the members of the State Bar by rule 1 of the Rules of Professional Conduct of the State Bar.

Yes, yes, but what's the answer?

In the opinion of the Committee, it would not have been candid or fair to opposing counsel to keep silent under these circumstances.
The interesting wrinkle is that the committee concedes it can't find any specific peg to hang its doctrine on. The committee bandies around phrases like "intentionally deceptive" and ""unjustly enriched" and "grossly unconscionable." But any firt year law student knows that "unjust enrichment" is a doctrine of almost unlimited malleability. And "grossly unconscionable" is a phrase you use when you don't have anything else.

I wonder if an ethics committee would reach the same result today. My friend Rex, who knows a lot more about this stuff than I do, says he suspects not. Yet in the bankruptcy court, where I have spent some of my (professional) life, my guess there are a lot of judges who would go ballistic if they thought someone was running this sort of caper in front of them.

Perhaps a more interesting question: if the lawyer does disclose is he breaching his fiduciary duty to his client?

Wow, That Was Quick

I don't suppose I can claim complete credit, but she's gone (with $4.7 million in her wallet).

Filthy Communist Trick

Todd Henderson, channeling Alan Greenspan, offers up what must be the screwiest analysis I've read (or expect to read) of the late uproar.

First, channeling Greenspan: it wasn't the Fed's fault (and as Henderson comments pithily: suprise!). Not the Fed's fault because (short-term) Fed rates don't affect (long-term) mortgage rates. Henderson again:

So what caused the drop in long-term interest rates? Greenspan blames, well, capitalism. He writes:

[T]he presumptive cause of the world-wide decline in long-term rates was the tectonic shift in the early 1990s by much of the developing world from heavy emphasis on central planning to increasingly dynamic, export-led market competition.

In other words, China and others abandoned idiotic political control of markets, and the resulting flood of wealth created needed somewhere to go. It went to invest in US houses. Ergo, the lowering of rates and the rise in values.

"This certainly sounds plausible," says H:

...but why did China invest in my mortgage instead of Google? I’m not an economist, although sometimes I pretend, but it seems like Fed rates, which made T-bills less attractive on the margin, and silly policies about housing, such as forced lending to poor people and guarantees of Fannie and Freddie bonds, made the latter much more attractive. If Chinese investors could only get 2% return on T-bills (guaranteed by the full faith and credit of our government) but could get 8% return on investments in housing (guaranteed by the full faith and credit of our government), then why would they ever choose the former?

And the grand finish:
So I think it is probably unfair to blame the Fed or Mr. Greenspan for the crisis. It was not loose monetary policy alone that led to the state we are in. A combination of factors led to the boom and the bust. We will probably never know exactly what the relative weight of them was in causing the crisis, but they all have one thing in common — bad government policy. Sure the market acted greedily, selfishly, narrowly, and all the other ways that humans act, but that is to be expected in all states of the world. But for bad government policies, including Mr. Greenspan’s loose money policies, we wouldn’t be where we are today.

Whoa, big fella. It seems to me that you have proved just the opposite of what you think you've proven. You've shown that the collapse came about because those nasty Commies abandoned omnicompetent state planning and embraced the free market. His problem with the government is that the government failed to stop it (I am unclear how we factor in Alan Greenspan who, in Henderson's account, appears not to have been part of the government). If Henderson is right, then the obvious solution is to dig up Chairman Mao and restore ourselves to a more blissful time when the dirty Reds did not paralyze us with free-market poison.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Notional People

"That's all very well," said Balzac, "but let's get back to reality: to whom are we going to marry Eugénie Grandet?" Eugénie was, of course, fictional, but Balzac wouldn't be the first or last person to mistake a fictional character for a real. Aside from the countless literary personifications, however, there is a class of--dare I say "cultural constructs"?--imaginary beings who take on a life of their own. I suggest:
Im considering also A.J. Liebling's Ignoto, sometimes plagiarized for use in these pages. Thanks to Larry for Spelvin and Peter for Shrdlu. John would add Hadley v. Baxendale, who starred in a famous porn film (btw I once knew a man named Price v. Neal). Joel suggests the gang of ruffians in the credits to Garrison Keillor or CarTalk--Erasmus B. Dragon, Picov Andropov, that kind of stuff. But don't they verge on literature? With the same reservation, I rejected Miss American Pie.

Are there others?

Ooh, That's Gotta Hurt...

Moody's downgrades Harrisburg because doubling property taxes is not enough to solve the problem.

Cloutier on the Fear Factor

I see that George (Fire the nephews!) Cloutier, who makes his living by applying tough love to small and middlesized businesses, gets himself a whole boatload of free publicity from the New York Times. He's basically on the right track: most businesses could gain from soneone who kicks butt and takes names, and a lot of business talk is indeed sentimental caca. But I wonder if he is missing a point about employees. "You have to treat your people with respect," he says, but still "fear is the best motivator." He says:
Getting good people is 100 times more difficult than conventional wisdom says. The fact is, you're going to deal with a lot of mediocre people, no matter how hard you try. ... The concept that if you love your employees they'll perform is on the edge of insanity."
Of course he's right about "being liked." But has he ever stopped to ponder why he seems to come up against so many mediocre people? It might be that if he were a bit less of a bunghole, he could get a better class of employee to begin with.

I Guess I Thought This Happened Years Ago

"Outdoor preaching" is a pretty slender reed on which to predicate a 200-year separation:

Methodists declare 'we're ready to merge' with Church of England

Link, and H/T Joel.

would this be like an AOL/Yahoo merger--two marginal players struggling to maintain market share?

Swedish Haiku

Still bloody freezing
Swedish winter never ends
My glass half empty.
From Sweden's News in English, although the link seems to be dead, and thanks, Sally.

Also this--not so hot Haiku but cool story:
Ursula got paid
Bathing in hot winter sun
It wasn't Fredrick

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Dynamite Prize

Real World Economics is accepting ballots in its search for the winner--actually, three winners--of the Dynamite Prize "to the three economists who contributed most to blowing up the global economy." The finalists are:

I'll bet a hat that not many Underbelly readers can identify the entire list (I couldn't). Prescott and Kydland, for example? Oh, "dynamic macro," right. Portes? Oh, "clean bill of health to Icelandic banks," check. Lindbeck? Ah, the evil genius behind the Econ Nobel, checkeroo.

Butbutbutbut--Friedman? A highly creative thinker (also a pugnacious public intellectual) who did more than almost anyone to shake us out of the socialist doldrums. Black and Scholes? Architects of a really insightful analysis of options behavior that remains as true today as it did last year. Fama? Author of one deeply flawed but still irreducible first principle of market behavior--namely that you can't run with the big dogs if you pee like a puppy. Lucas? Too weird for words? Samuelson? Now, that's just silly....

But that does leave two candidates. One, Larry Summers who seems to have ridden a long way on (a) a rep for off-the-wall yet provocative flashes of clarity; and (b) the fact that he has two uncles with Nobel Prizes. Oh yes, and (c) his role as a great excuser for just about everything that went bollywackers in the market over the last decade.

Now, that is indeed good grounds for candidacy. And it brings is to (the envelope, please)--the one person on the list whose life work is almost entirely devoid of coherent theory, but rather dominated by fealty to dogma. And here is the great irony: Alan Greenspan probably does deserve most of the abuse being heaped on him--but he earns it not so much by advocating as by betraying the principles of market autonomy that he has so loudly espoused.

So for refusing to take markets seriously--for telling us to ignore everything we'd learned from Friedman, Black, Scholes, Fama, Samuelson and their ilk--for telling us to trust him and he'd make it come right in the end, I'd say the man who carries the can is Alan Greenspan.