Sunday, October 31, 2010


Reading some stuff by Bruce Bartlett this morning, it occurred to me that there is an interesting array of these "conservatives" who have moved, in various ways out of the Republican loyalist tent (known in some circles as snake-in-the-grass traitors).  I'd count Bartlett as perhaps most notable among them; he first came on my radar as an opponent of the Bush II no-tax-and-spend agenda--a critique which cost him his job.  But how about

  • Jim Webb, Democratic Senator from Virginia and former Reagan Navy Secretary--although query whether he was ever a Reaganite so much as a conveniently situated maverick.
  • Bob Barr, former Georgia Congressman and libertarian party presidential candidate, last seen campaigning for Russ Feingold in Wisconsin in Feingold's apparently doomed reelection bid.  I used to think Barr was a batshit loony and I guess he is in the sense that he really does believe what he says he believes.
  • Clyde Prestowitz, who morphed from a Reagan trade negotiator into an Obama trade adviser.

I'm still not sure what to say about David Frum.  There must be others I'' not remembering.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

David Brooks: For a Confiscatory Estate Tax?

One of Underbelly's crack team of policy advisers commends me to an offering from the sometimes-insightful David Brooks:
Obama will need to respond to the nation’s fear of decline. The current sour mood is not just caused by high unemployment. It emerges from the fear that America’s best days are behind it. The public’s real anxiety is about values, not economics: the gnawing sense that Americans have become debt-addicted and self-indulgent; the sense that government undermines individual responsibility; the observation that people who work hard get shafted while people who play influence games get the gravy. Obama will have to propose policies that re-establish the link between effort and reward.
Let's be fair:L this is not as wooly as some Brooks columns.  I'd agree there is a malaise problem, and I also wish that Obama would do more to try to confront it.  But  I really don't think it is a matter of "policies" as it is of leadership--he's turning out to be terrible at conveying his aspirations and his intentions.  This may sound like "mere salesmanship"--but /a lot/ of the presidency is salesmanship (and didn't your father tell you that every job is a sales job?).

Anyway, I cannot for the life of me imagine what the hell Brooks means by saying that "Obama will have to propose policies that re-establish the link between effort and reward."   When was the link dis-established, and by whom? Is he saying that Obama broke it?   Bush?  Jimmy Carter?     Andrew Jackson?

The only thing I can think that Obama has done so far to break a nexus between risk and reward is to make it microscopically more difficult for banks to predate upon us.   Brooks may lament that change but I am not sure how he would even track it.  Beyond that, the most meaningful alteration that I can remember in the risk-reward tradeoff is    the Bush efforts to destroy the estate and gift tax, creating a new generation of trust fund babies who really do not give a rt's ass whether school keeps or not.

Fifty Little Gingriches

They say the job of every Republican president is to make his predecessor look good.  Bruce Bartlett gives reasons to suspect we soon may be thinking the same thing about a different office:
[T] he House Republican leader in 1994, Newt Gingrich, had vastly more power over his caucus than his counterpart today, John Boehner, is likely to have. The reason is that every Republican owed Gingrich  very heavily for achieving majority status, something many probably never expected to live to see. Therefore, as Speaker, he could get away with doing things and impose discipline in a way that Boehner cannot hope to duplicate. The Republican caucus that will take office in January will be vastly more independent and less willing to blindly follow orders than the one that took office in 1995.
Gingrich was able to command the support of rank–and-file Republicans because of his brilliant strategy that gave them control.  ...

Among the things Newt was able to do once he took control was effectively neuter the committees. The committee chairmen's roles were diminished, their staffs were slashed, and virtually all power in terms of policy and legislative initiatives was centralized in the speaker’s office. The only committee Newt had any use for was the Rules Committee, which would often rewrite legislation in the dead of night and bring it up for a vote the next day. Consequently, members from both sides of the aisle had no idea exactly what they were voting on, which made it easier to hide earmarks and other special interest provisions from scrutiny.

There’s no way Boehner can hope to get away with that sort of thing. It’s clear that the Republicans in line to be committee chairmen are not prepared to be potted plants. They are going to reinvigorate the traditional committee system and make it once again the pipeline through which legislation flows. And if nothing else, the many Tea Party members expected to be elected will want to see more legislative transparency and strongly resist the sort of heavy-handed methods that were used to ram legislation through during the Gingrich era.

Yes, yes, many will be glad that Boehner can't "get away with doing things" the way Gingrich did.  But the spectacle of a whole circus of little Gingriches, each wih his (or her) own ring, is not a sight that bears thinking on.  I remember my friend Larry on the day the Soviet Empire fell: "someday," said Larry, "we'll miss Leonid Brezhnev."

Friday, October 29, 2010

Ah, Here it Is! The Policeman Fishes for Haddock

I tried to quote this the other day, but from memory and I wasn't exact.  Still, I think I caught the spirit of the occasion.  It's from A. P. Herbert, Uncommon Law, the case of Rex v. Haddock:
What the appellant did in fact is simple and manifest, but what offence, if any he has committed in law is a question of the gravest difficulty.

What he did in fact was to jump off Hammersmith Bridge in the afternoon of August 18th, 1922, during the Hammersmith Regatta.  The motive of the act is less clear.  A bystander named Snooker, who, like himself, was watching the regatta from the bridge, has sworn in evidence that he addressed the appellant in the following terms: 'Betcher a pound you won't jump over, mate,' that the appelant, who had had a beer or (as he frankly admitted) two, replied in these words: 'Bet you I will, then' after which pronouncement he removed his coat, handed it to the man named Snooker, climbed over the rail and jumped into the water below ... . The appellant is a strong swimmer, and, on rising to the surface, he swam in a leisurely fashion towards the Middlesex bank.  When still a few yards form the shore, however, he was overtaken by a river police bot, the officers in which had observed his entrance into the water and considered it their duty to rescue the swimmer.  ... He was then arrested by an officer of the Metropolitan Police ... .  The charges were various, and it is difficult to say upon which of themthe conviction was ultimately based.  The appellant was accused of:
(a) Causing an obstruction
(b) Being drunk and disorderly
(c) Attempting to commit suicide
(d) Conducting the business of a street bookmaker
(e) (Under the Navigation At) endangering the lives of mariners
(f) (Under the Port of London Authority By-laws) interfering with an authorized regatta.
 It may be said at once that in any case no blame whatever attaches to the persons responsible for the framing of these charges, who were placed in a most difficult position by the appellant's unfortunate act.  It is a principle of English law that a person who appears in a police court has done something undesirable, and citizens who take it upon themselves to do unusual actions which attract the attention of the police should be careful to bring these actions into one of the recognized categories of crimes and offences, for it is intolerable that the police should be put to the pains of inventing reasons for finding them undesirable.
Id., at 24-6 (1935, 1991).  His honor goes on to caution (at 28):
It cannot be too clearly understood that this is not a free country, and it will be an evil day for the legal profession when it is.  The citizens of London must realize that there is almost nothing they are allowed to do..

Herbert remarks in the introduction that "a sserious American work called The Lawyers " repeated the story, not recognizing it as a joke: "'No such opinion,' says the author with great pride, 'could be written by an American court.'" It is with barely concealed glee that I report that I spotted the error and outed and mocked it in my review of the book in the (defunct) Louisville Times.

Now that I Think of It

I once went a Renaissance Pleasure Faire.

So Sorry

I see that the man videotaped stomping on the head of a woman at a Rand Paul rally has declared that she should apologize.

Would he be invoking the example of Harry Whittington, who apologized to Dick Cheney after Cheney shot him in the face?

Thursday, October 28, 2010

What is it with the French?

Something I just noticed in reading about Flaubert: he seems to share a great kinship with Proust in that both were the cosseted hothouse offspring of highly respectable physicians.  Gide and Sartre too--not the children of physicians but from the same kind of solidly respectable upper middle class (with a sauce of academic achievement).  I tried to fit Stendhal and Balzac onto this same Procrustean bed, without success though I do note this curiosity about Stendhal and Flaubert: they seem to share a closely similar hostility to the conventional middle class.  Yet Flaubert, though he admired Balzac, had no use for Stendhal (he seems not to have understood him).

Am I right in my recollection that French kids stay home longer, leave home later, than any others in Europe?

Bennet and the Cadres

Apologies in advance--I never really intended this to be a political site and I already do far more politics than is perhaps good for me.  But I've been chewing all day at the story about Colorado Democratic Senator Michael Bennet (up to now only a name for me) and his allegedly unsound views on matters of religion.   Bennet per Bennet "does not affiliate with a particular religion but ... believes in God."  Well, fine, although I must say I already feel a little creepy getting all this info on a topic which, to my taste, is no more my business than the content of his underwear.  I'll grant him that in the current environment, he certainly couldn't get away with saying less.

The question of whether he must say more and sure enough, we have an opposition noisemaker who feels perfectly comfortable in twitting the candidate for his supposed laxity:
Michael Bennet, you see, rejects religion. Yes, he says he believes in God, but he makes clear he does not go to worship, does not believe in organized religion, and does not affiliate with a religion.
Does not affiliate.  Oooh, ah.  Does not affiliate!  Is it just me, or are there others who find that this smacks of the worst kind of Sovietism.  Remember how they did it: there was "the government," of course, but then there was "the party," and wose, "the cadres."  Sure, "the government" may have honored some theoretical neutrality.  But from kindergarten on, you knew that if you weren't a party man, you weren't squat.  You wouldn't get into the right schools; you wouldn't get a nice apartment of a dacha in the country and you certainly wouldn't get a decent job.

I sometimes suspect I'm the last person in America who thinks that religion is a private matter; I've always respected the Hegel of whom it was said that he might be a Christian but if so, of a sect of only he was a member.  I've heard that the Druses are so cagy about their belief that they don't even tell other Druses until the student reaches the age of 50 (what must life be like, I wonder, in a Druse Sunday school?)--I wonder if they are taking converts.

When I was a kid in the Midwest and people asked me my religion (they did, believe me), I used to say I was "a listless nonbeliever."  People used to think I was talking about some kind of obscure denomination, but it did get them out of  my hair.  I'm sorry Bennet can't get away with the same thing.  Meanwhile, when the goon squad next comes around with its questionnaire, I think he might trying saying that he belongs to the same church as Abraham Lincoln.  That is to say, bugger off.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Joe the Plumber, Thy Name is Legion

This one's a few days old but it so fits a prejudice n intuition of mine that it's been gnawing at me; anyway I think it deserves wider exposure.

Subject: the gender gap, and the shift away from Democrats. Takeaway point: "the gender gap in party identification is entirely due to the changing preferences of men. There is no noteworthy trend among women."

Highlight mine, partly because whenever any wonky social scientist uses the word "entirely" for any purpose, your eyebrows should pop up. 

All sorts of interpretations are conceivable, of course, but as you might suspect, I'm hung up on the general surplusification of men: a society that finds less and less need for men, for any purpose.  Hardly a surprise that they're turning cranky, and impelled to flee what they see as the girly party for the party with hair on its chest (i.e., the party of Palin, Bachmann, Angle, O'Donnell.  Oh wait....).


I'm Still Trying to Figure Out What's Wrong with This

My cousin Dave points out that 23 percent of all auto accidents are alcohol-related.  Therefore, reasons Dave, stay away from people who don't drink.  They cause three times as many accidents.

Flaubert on How to Judge a Work of Art

While doing our readaloud on Madame Bovary, I'm also flipping through the pages of Flaubert's letters:
What seems to me the highest and most difficult achievement of Art is not to make us laugh or cry, or to rouse our lust or our anger but to do as nature does--that is, fill us with wonderment.  The most beautiful works have indeed this quality.  They are serene in aspect, incomprehensible.  The means by which they act on us are various: they are as unmoving as cliffs, stormy as the ocean, leafy, green,and murmuring as forests, sad as the desert, blue as the sky. Homer, Rabelais, Michelangelo, Shakespeare and Goethe seem to me pitiless.  They are bottomless, infinite, multiple.  Through small openings we glimpse abysses whose dark depths make us giddy.  And yet over the whole there hovers an extraordinary gentleness.   It is like the brilliance of light, the smile of the sun, and it is calm, calm, and strong. ...
That's from a letter to Louise Colet, dated "Friday night, 11 o'clock," --from Trouville, August 26, 1853.   See Selected Letters of Gustave Flaubert (Francis Steegmuller ed.)  161 (1953).  One surmises that this is the standard by which he would wish his own work, or at least Bovary, to be judged. 

The Economist on Milken

If you remember who Anita Hill is, you probably also remember Michael Milken.  If so, you may enjoy a (mostly) excellent wrapup on Milken's junk bond revolution in this week's Economist.  It's billed as a where-are-they-now piece about the later careers of his apprentice superstars: guess what, they're still coining money.

I'd fault it on three, maybe two an a half, issues at least though:
  • One, "fallen angels" v. "new issues."  Milken's kickoff insight was that junk bonds were cheaper than they needed to be, even taking account of risk.  He based his argument on so-called "fallen angels"--once gold-plated bonds that had, well, fallen.  But then he kept flogging the same formula when pushing new-issue junk, which was an entirely different matter.
  • Two, the betrayal element in management buyouts.  BigCo his limping along with a mediocre stock price and ho-hum returns.  The managers pay off the stockholders, take it private and ta da, Cinderella turns into a princess.  This has always seemed to me to count as a monstrous breach of fiduciary duty--if the value was implicit, weren't the managers supposed to find it for their own principals, the shareholders, rather than helping themselves.  I'd speculate that this may be part of the general decline in fiduciary duty in modern commerce--the same impulse that makes it okay for the bank to take your most intimate financial secrets and and trade them off to your competitor, or to sell you crap that they know you don't understand.
  • Three, though this is more disputable--I think they underplay the dark overlap between the flogging of junk bonds and the gang of knaves who perpetrated the savings and loan crisis.  This is purely an issue of fact, and the devil is in the details.  But I suspect there was more incest here than the Economist's gaping admiration might suggest.

Still, I'm on board for the main theme: the junk bond revolution was mainly A Good Thing which blasted sleepy enterprises out of their torpor, opened up opportunities for talented upstarts who otherwise would never have seen the inside of a boardroom, and jimmied open the tight inner circle of self-perpetuating elites.


I fell for a new-to-me and I thought rather elegant phish yesterday, in the form of a Facebook message saying"

Heyy Jack, what are you doing in this video?? LOL!

--with a link, and sent from (seemingly) an honest-to-God Facebook friend with whom I sometimes communicate. And not only the email; the message popped up on my FB message page, with the picture of the (supposed) sender.

I'm ashamed to say I actually punched in on this one--and got a blank page. Oddly, I don't seem to have compromised anything. I sent the "sender" an email and only then learned that it was a fake.

So, stung. Actually, what should have tipped me is that this person is just about the last among my acquaintances who would say "LOL;" also most unlikely to add an extra "y" to "Hey." The price of spam freedom is eternal vigilance.

Update:  Wups, maybe not benign--read the comment infra, and if you dare, follow the link (seems safe to me).    The link offers help for Macs, but anybody got any advice on how to scrub my PC?  I've got good basic security, but who knows...

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

How Pleb Are You?

Proving once again that nothing fascinates a person than himself, I will take the How Pleb Are You? Quiz and tell you more than you want to know about me:
1. Can you talk about "Mad Men?" Yes.
2. Can you talk about the "The Sopranos?" In great detail.
3. Do you know who replaced Bob Barker on "The Price Is Right?" No clue.
4. Have you watched an Oprah show from beginning to end? Neither beginning nor ending nor middle, except by accident flipping channels..
5. Can you hold forth animatedly about yoga? No.
5. How about pilates? No..
5. How about skiing?  Sadly, No.
6. Mountain biking? I've owned mountain bikes, but never biked up a mountain.
7. Do you know who Jimmie Johnson is? No idea.
8. Does the acronym MMA mean nothing to you? Um, Museum of Modern Art? Mennonite Mutual Aid?  Massachusetts Maritime Academy?
9. Can you talk about books endlessly?  I do--whether I can may be another story.
10. Have you ever read a "Left Behind" novel? No, but I keep telling myself I should.
11. How about a Harlequin romance?  Define "Harlequin."  Does Pride and Prejudice count?  How about Larry Block's lesbian porn?
12. Do you take interesting vacations? Interesting to me, anyway.
13. Do you know a great backpacking spot in the Sierra Nevada? Used to know several.
14. What about an exquisite B&B overlooking Boothbay Harbor? Nope.  I stayed at the Susse Chalet 40 miles away.
15. Would you be caught dead in an RV?  Nope.  Not opposed as a matter of principle, mainly damn glad I don't have to worry about the maintenance.
16. Would you be caught dead on a cruise ship? Well, define cruise ship.  I took a tour once on a sailing vessel.
17. Have you ever heard of of Branson, Mo? Yes.
18. Have you ever attended a meeting of a Kiwanis Club? Yes--In my newspaper days, quite a few..
19. How about the Rotary Club? Same Answer.
20. Have you lived for at least a year in a small town? Define "small."  I lived in Bedford, NH, until I was 17,  And for a couple of years in Washington CH, Ohio.
21. Have you lived for a year in an urban neighborhood in which most of your neighbors did not have college degrees? If Palookaville is "urban," I suspect I live in one now.
22. Have you spent at least a year with a family income less than twice the poverty line? Yep.
23. Do you have a close friend who is an evangelical Christian? Close?  No.  Civil speaking terms, yes.
24. Have you ever visited a factory floor? Yes.
25. Have you worked on one? No.
 Source: I got this via Kevin Drum, but I bet it will be everywhere tonight.

Has the Supreme Court Overruled Baker v. Carr ?

Con law was my least favorite course in law school--lousy instructor didn't help--so I'm way out of my depth here.  But I found myself mulling over the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision--the one where the court seems to transfer voting power over to money-power.  I found myself wondering, first--do the proponents of Citizens United believe that it does not transfer voting power to money-power?  Or do they, by contrast, feel that it does and it should?

That latter is hardly beyond the realm of consideration.  The idea of one man, one vote, may (or may not) be in the Constitution but it certainly is not carved in stone. Plenty of societies make voting a function of wealth--either limiting the right to "property owners" or going all the way to one dollar, one vote.  And while we haven't been doing it lately in government, we certainly make voting a function of wealth in corporate voting, where the rule is one share, one vote.  I believe the same holds true for, e.g., New York City co-op apartments. And plenty of "government-like" special purpose districts that perform functions which might otherwise be performed by governments.  I'm too indolent to search it out right now but I remember a Supreme Court case--I believe it was Rehnquist at the very beginning of his tenure--expressly avowing that truly "special" special-purpose districts were not bound by one man, one vote.

Indeed, the premise of the voting revolution on the court in the 60s and 70s--capped by Baker v. Carr in 1962--was that there was a Constitutional dimension to one man, one vote, and that we'd insensibly slipped away from it, and that we needed the court to set it right. Which leads me to wonder--has the court now implicitly overruled Baker v. Carr?  Indeed, has it gone the whole way and held that money-voting is not only permitted, but required?

The Met on Khubilai Khan: The Show and the Other Show

If you're looking for a bit of easy-to-take culture in New York City, you could do a lot worse than the Metropolitan Museum of Art's show, "The World of Khubilai Khan," on display until January 2.  Khubilai's Mongols kicked out the decaying Song Dynasty in 1268 and established an East Asian Empire that was powerful if not long-lived--it lasted only 97 years.  The Met's blurb is fair comment when it says that "Most of us picturing the Mongolian empire think horses, banners, colorful tents, deadly bow and arrows, and lots of portable loot."  And sure enough, this is none of these.  The Mongols in fact did not bring a lot of culture of their own but they weren't willing just to assimilate their Song predecessors. Instead they imported Craftsmen from elsewhere in the Eurasian landmass.  What may be the most remarkable piece is a Manichean Jesus perched on a lotus throne.

But spare a bit of time to go up to the Museum's Asian wing at the other end of the building where you'll find another, complementary exhibit.  The name is "The Yuan Revolution: Art and Dynastic Change," and presents us the work of the losers: Song artists kicked out, chased out, or simply self-exiled from the Khan's  great court.  It's not ambitious or extensive and it might not be easy to grasp the point had you not seen the main show first, but in context, it provides a gripping insight into a world of dispossession and disappointment.  The Met doesn't seem to be pushing this second show especially hard, but catch 'em both: do the main event and then follow up with this darker reflection.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Two Thoughts on the Mortgage Meltdown:
A Plague o' Both Your Houses

I won't for a moment pretend to have read everything written on the topic but here are a couple of thoughts on mortgage meltdown that i haven't seen elsewhere.

One: the banks are going ballistic hanging tough over the question whether they should rewrite some of these deals so that buyers can stay in their homes. They've pretty well sandbagged HAMP and they talk about a possible Chapter 13 writedown amendment as if it were the End of Western Civilization as we Know it.

What this loses sight of is the question of what will happen if the banks don't get writedowns. For borrowers, this is a huge issue, of course. Either they get to stay in their homes or they do not. For banks, I suspect it is not a big deal. The point is: they are never going to see this money anyway.

Consider the debtor with a $400,000 loan on property worth $280,000. He's out of work and can't pay. He walks away, leaving a deficiency claim of $120,000. What then? In a nonrecourse state, the bank eats it as a matter of law: the bank is debarred from pursuing the debtor for the shortfall.

In a recourse state, the bank can sue the debtor for the shortfall, but I suspect in most cases it won't be worth the bother. The debtor either (a) goes bankrupt and discharges the shortfall claim; or (b) does not go bankrupt and just limps along judgdment-proof, i.e., with no assets to play the game.

The point is that in all three cases, the bank is no worse off than if it took a modification. Indeed I can think of only one way that modification changes things and that is it may allow the bank to get more. How can this be? The answer is that if it plays its cards right, the bank may be able to position the debtor where he is obliged (and willing) to pay a bit more than the bare minimum--in our case, say $290,000. If these are the right numbers, than the bank is better off taking a carefully-done rewrite than otherwise.

That's point one. Now onto point two. We hear a steady drumbeat of argument that the debtors ought to get relief because the subprime fandango was full of "massive fraud." Correct, the subprime fandango was full of massive fraud, but look as little closer. From what I hear, the main fraud claim is that the banks (or brokers for banks) structured deals based on grotesquely inflated estimates of the borrowers' ability to pay--faked data about income and employment,l for example. Sounds like fraud to me, but who is defrauded here? Maybe the buyers of this caca, who took it on the bank's recommendations. Maybe the shareholders, entering into the delusion that their agents the managers were spinning straw into gold and thus deserved massive bonuses.

But the borrower? Maybe he was lied to--e.g., when he was told that it was perfectly all right to declare his income at eight times its actual number. Yet for the life of me I can't understand why a grownup loose on the streets could be misled into believing that he could pay, say, a $3,600 monthly mortgage payment from his takehome down at the car wash. 

Sure, there are cases and cases. That's why we have courts and lawyers (and that is why, inter alia, it is so bogus for the banks to say that they ought to be able to foreclose without paperwork). I might add that I'd feel differently if we were dealing with people 26 years into a 30-year mortgage who got whipsawed by some unseen society-wide calamity. But people take chances; it is okay with me that they take chances, but if you take chances, there is a chance that you will loses.

So, a plague o' both your houses.   I don't think the banks are ever going to get their money back on this one and I don't think they deserve to.  On the other hand, I'm not losing much sleep over debtors who so eagerly bought into such a lunatic fandango.

Update:  The Wichita Bureau, who is skeptical that workouts will succeed,  offers a constructive program for relief:
The banks might be better off with a deed in lieu and a short term – three year lease with option to purchase deal. So would the borrower. The house would stay off the market for a while; the borrower would pay the taxes and upkeep and the bank wouldn’t have to sell into a falling market (if the foreclosure mess didn’t kill the market; a lot of people are suggestion that too many short cuts were taken).
 Wichita adds:
This whole mess seems to be a fight over who is going to get stuck with the loss – the borrower (unlikely), the bank or the investor who bought the asset backed security (which means the government). I’m betting the government eats it.
 Sounds right to me.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Celebrity Sighting, Maybe

The other day on Fifth Avenue just north of Ninth Street in Manhattan I saw either
  • James Carvill; or
  • A crazy person.
Not that easy to tell.

Caldwell Scrambles to Save --Something

Chris Caldwell gets off to an inauspicious beginning  his (attempted) defense of conservatism topping the New York Times book review this morning.  He complains about court decisions blocking the implementation of, respectively, the Arizona immigration law and the California gay marriage ban.  "The two decisions," he intones, "imposed liberal policies that public opinion opposed."  By recreating the agenda of the "Impeach Earl Warren" decade, Caldwell deftly deprived himself of the right to criticize the biggest recent choke on majority sentiment--Citizens United, which effectively turns the election processes over to the moneyed elite. 

It's a shame, really, because Caldwell was trying to hard to turn this into a people-versus-pointyheads showdown, and nothing seemed to be going right for him.   The threshold problem is that Caldwell, who is no dummy, made it clear that he understands that we've got at least a tripartite division here--one, the pointyheads (if you must); two, the pitchfork-and-tarbucket-wielding multitude that we bracket, for lack of a better name, as "the Tea Party;" and three, the segment to which he seems to think he belongs that we bracket, for lack of a better name, as "the conservatives."

One might think, probably Caldwell does think, that this third segment deserves the name of "a school of thought," or "a tendency," or "a movement," or perhaps even "a political party" (the Republicans?) but it is clear that for the moment they are something less grand than that: they are a tiny beleaguered remnant, clinging together for their dear life and scared witless of the monster they seem to have unloosed. 

Clearly, Caldwell as a thinking-man's conservative is horrified--scared witless--by the populist Yahooism that people of his ilk did so much to create and seem to powerless to control.  Indeed, it might be the one point of consolation for Democrats in this miserable election season--of Sarah Palin scares them, she scares Caldwell and the other half dozen or so remaining thinking conservatives far worse.  Their whole game--a fairly common one in politics--has been a version of "which way are my people going so I can run out in front and lead them," sicklied o'er with deflating recognition that they may not be able to lead them any place at all. 

Caldwell ends with what I'm sure he thinks of as statesmanship but which sounds more to me like a stitched-together vision of blind optimism. He says that "the Republican party" (sic), assuming it wins in November, must not mistake "as protest vote for a wide mandate."  Rather, he says, they must focus on "the larger goal," which he defines as achieving "a citizenry sufficiently able to govern itself to be left alone by Washington"  For "the Republican party" to hang onto power after the election, he says, its "leaders will need top sit down respectfully with the people who brought them to power and figure out what they agree on."

Savor that last sentence.  I think what it means is that the mass of Tea Party leadership will have to shut up and listen while Caldwell and his remnant tell them what's what--if he tries that with a room peopled by, say, Sharron Angle, Michele Bachmann, Christine O'Donnell, and of course her Sarahship herself--if he tries that, I hope I get to sell the popcorn.

Ritholtz Instructs Nocera

Here's the post I intended to write yesterday, but Ritholtz did it first (and probably better).

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Opera Riff: Boris Godunov

We took in the Met's Boris Godunov this afternoon, and my main question is whether are two Valery Gergievs?  All week this guy has  been knocking out Mahler at Carnegie Hall and here he is for the four and a half hour stint in the pit at the met this afternoon.  Granted it is an opera he's done perhaps 50 times (in its various avatars)--but with that kind of a background, you think that in addition to tired, he might be stale.  Nothing of the sort: he turned in a crisp and emphatic rendering with his signature Russian timbre (though I do not know precisely why I think that).

You will recall: this is the opera where the chorus is one of the stars, or rather the Russian People, or rather Mother Russia itself.  A surprise to me is that (at least in this rendering) the chorus isn't actually on stage all that  much: they're on hand for the beginning and the end, but the middle is mostly intimate and inward looking--with the risk of feeling a tad slow unless you are really engaged.

You'll recognize the story:  Dmitri, child of the late tsar, dies; perhaps he was murdered, perhaps by Boris. Boris becomes tsar, but he's not happy about it: he weeps for his people and for his own incapacity to to give them succor.  Griogory the young novice from the monastery, sets himself up as Dmitry, not dead at all, but returned and ready to claim his throne.   The tsar dies, mad.  Grigory/Dmitry marches on Moscow, at the head of an army of cheering peasants.  A Holy Fool stays behind to lament the uncertain fate of his unfortunate nation.

It's all great theatre, and I wonder if it is too early for a remake. Tsar Barack laments his incapacity to give succor to his people.  Meanwhile in a distant province of the empire, the monk Sarah plots her return in the guise of her people's fallen hero, Ronald.    I got dibs on Holy Fool.

Just Askin'

If they play field hockey on horseback, does that make it horse hockey?

Bad Weekend for Hero Worship

First we learn that Jane ain't Jane.

Now it turns out that Kalashnikov didn't invent the Kalashnikov.

[Could it be that Kalashnikov wrote the novels and Jane--oh, forget it.]

Friday, October 22, 2010

Nietzschean Flaubert

I think I'm becoming a moe sophisticated teader. I've read Madame Bovary at least twice before in my life.  I can't say I genuinely enjoyed it; I knew I was supposed to think well of it, and I was impressed by what seemed to me to be the economy--sparsity?--of the telling.  Lots of simple declarative sentences.  I liked that.

We're doing it now as a readaloud and I am astonished at what I seem to have missed.  Nothing you don't know already if you really like the book, but I'm just now catching onto, say, the deft elegance of the numberless shifts in point of view, and how subtly they work their magic in shifting one's one view of the story.  And the number of places where Flaubert' apparent artlessness inflicts a savage comedy:
Quand Charles, après être monté dire adieu au père Rouault, rentra dans la salle avant de partir, il la trouva debout, le front contre la fenêtre, et qui regardait dans le jardin, où les échalas des haricots avaient été renversés par le vent. Elle se retourna.
- Cherchez-vous quelque chose ? demanda-t-elle ?
- Ma cravache, s’il vous plaît, répondit-il
Et il se mit à fureter sur le lit, derrière les portes, sous les chaises ; elle était tombée à terre, entre les sacs et la muraille. Mademoiselle Emma l’aperçut ; elle se pencha sur les sacs de blé. Charles, par galanterie, se précipita, et, comme il allongeait aussi son bras dans le même mouvement, il sentait sa poitrine effleurer le dos de la jeune fille, courbée sous lui. Elle se redressa toute rouge et le regarda par-dessus l’épaule, en lui tendant son nerf de bœuf.
 That is:
When Charles, having gone upstairs to say goodbye to old Rouault, came back into the room before leaving, he found her standing with her hand against the window pane, gazing into the garden, where the beanpoles had been blown down by the wind.  She turned round.

"Are you looking for something?  she asked.

"My riding crop," he replied.

And he began hunting on the bed, behind the doors, under the chairs; it had fallen on the floor, between the sacks and the wall.   Mademoiselle Emma noticed it and bent over the sacks of wheat.  Charles hurried forward politely and, reaching down with his arm in a similar movement, felt his chest brush against the back of the young girl, who was bent over beneath him.  She straightened up, blushing, and looked at him over her shoulder as she handed him his whip.
 The first think I think of here is Eartha Kitt in "Uska Dasra," where she sings "...casually feeding him candies."  I'm still trying to work out the anatomical logistics Charles', um, encounter.   Meanwhile, as Nietzsche might have said, “You are going to women? Do not forget the nerf de bœuf!”

Say It Ain't So, Jane

Link.  Thanks, Joel, I guess.

Okay, I'll Bite (Classical Tradition Dept.)

Okay, I'll bite--why is Amazon cross-marketing The Classical Tradition, edited by Anthony Grafton (Editor), Glenn W. Most and  Salvatore Settis, with The Concrete River: A Jack Liffey Mystery by John Shannn?

Thursday, October 21, 2010

I'm Tired of Birthers and Antibirthers

Know what I'm sick and tired of?  I'm tired of birthers--folks who swear that Obama wasn't born in the United States, or that Hawaii is not a state, or whatever. But I'm getting just as tired of people who roll their eyes and sputter and tell me in soporific detail just why the birthers are wrong.  They are almost always right on almost every point.   And entirely miss the point, and that is what makes me tired.

Let's stipulate for starters that the birthers are mostly deeply confused people who believe a whole range of silly and self-contradictory nonsense and who, not least, are splendid at spotting the little speck of granola in the other guy's teeth while missing the large intrusive crowbar through their brain.

Still, it's time that somebody said this: the birthers are telling us something real.  They're telling us that they feel fatally disconnected from our President: they don't recognize him; they don't understand him; as far as they're concerned he's from another planet--meanwhile, "born in Kenya" seems real enough.

Of course they've got a perfect right to feel as they--but you knew that.  What I'm trying to do is to get past patronizing dismissal and argue that they are also onto something important and right.  Specifically: they don't understand him because he hasn't made himself understandable. They are bewildered because he is bewildering.  I really can't remember a president in my lifetime, maybe ever, who has done a poorer job of conveying what it is what he is about and why he is doing it.

Don't misunderstand me here: of course Obama is"native born," and while we are at it, Hawaii is a state.  And in many ways, he has been a pretty good president: the health care bill might actually save us a bit of money, and some of the things in Dodd-Frank probably do more good than harm. And politics is the slow boring of hard boards. 

But I've said it before and I'll say it again: the job of a leader is to lead--to define issues, to mobilize coalitions, to scare the living crap out of opponents, above all to convey to friend and foe alike that you are in the cab pulling the throttle and dinging the bell.  It is what people, sometimes in a confused way, expect of a president, and they don't know what to do with one who is so strangely unwilling or unable to do that job.

Skimble Skamble

"Skimble Skamble" is a mind virus that has taken over my brain. Maybe this will exorcise it:
Sometime he angers me
With telling me of the mouldwarp and the ant,
Of the dreamer Merlin and his prophecies,
And of a dragon and a finless fish,
A clip-wing'd griffin and a moulten raven,
A couching lion and a ramping cat,
And such a deal of skimble-skamble stuff
As puts me from my faith.
That's Harry Percy, Hotspur, appraising the character of his ally Owen Glendower, in Shakespeare's Henry IV, part 1.  E. Cobham Brewer, in his Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, elaborates:
“Skamble” is merely a variety of scramble, hence “scambling days,” those days in Lent when no regular meals are provided, but each person “scrambles” or shifts for himself. “Skimble” is added to give force.

Something I Never Knew about East Asian Buddhism

Back in the Pleistocene, I worked as a gopher for a resort hotel (of sorts) at Bethlehem New Hampshire, called the London House.  It doesn't seem to be there any longer and I think I know why.  Every day about 3:30pm, the boss lady would pack me into the car and we'd drive down to the train station at Littleton to wait for the New York train.  I'd clip my bow tie onto my white shirt and walk the platform saying "LONdon House.  London HOUSE.  LONDON HOUSE."  and so forth, as if to recruit new customers from among the new arrivals.

The trouble is, we never had any.  I can't remember once in the time that I stayed there--what, three weeks?--that we actually recruited a customer off our afternoon station runs (perhaps needless to say, there were other hotels that did better). We didn't have many other customers, either: throughout my brief career, the house was all but empty.  Since I was supposed to be living on tips, I finally got the message and decamped for another and busier hotel.

I hadn't thought of that place in years until this afternoon at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where I visited the Khubilai Kahn show.  It's entertaining and instructive in its own right but one item that particularly caught my attention was the blurb for a portrait of "Buddha Amitabha Descending from His Pure Land."

Wait a minute, "his?"   You mean there is more than one?  Turns out yes:
The image in this painting shows the Buddha Amitabha descending form his Pure Land to welcome the soul of a recently deceased individual into his paradisiacal abode.  Amitabha is one of several Buddhas who create and maintain such realms.
  So, there is more than one Pure Land--competitors, just like hotels?  Do they all  have to pile into their jitneys and drive down to the train station every day, clip on their bowties and shout "Ami-TABHA" and such like?  And is there some poor sect that never gets any customers and has to go home every day empty?

Seems kind of sad to me, a heaven with no takers.  At least in our day, we used to get to drive down to Echo Lake at night and go skinny dipping.   I hope they have that kind of fun in the Pure Land.

Pacino's Sullivan's Merchant

I got to take in the much-touted Merchant of Venice at the Broadhurst just off Time Square last night and I have almost nothing to add to the critical consensus: it is just as good as everybody says it is. 's cheerful, grittyMore: Al Pacino is indeed wonderful in the lead but--this is the remarkable part--he does not run away with the show.  Daniel Sullivan has put together a genuinely ensemble cast, except that if there is anyone who runs away with it, it's Lily Rabe as Portia.  This is surely the best Portia I've ever seen.  It's a part  that generally goes okay--another of Shakespeare's cheerful, gritty, warm-hearted cross-dressers.  But Rabe massages it into something far more complex and subtle than anything I (at least) ever suspected.

Another way to tell that this is a success for a director, not the star: I'd seen an earlier Pacino Merchant on DVD.  It was a polished performance all around, but it offered none of the bite, power and drive of Sullivan's presentation here last night.   He's apparently affixing his personal brand (that word again) to New York Shakespeare and I can only regret I haven't seen any more of it, perhaps particularly his Twelfth Night last year.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Anita Who?

Clarence Thomas' wife Ginnie has certainly performed one important service for current political debate: she's educated a new generation (and reminded an old one) of just why there is so resentment against her husband and his presence on the Supreme Court.  Still, a little voice asks: what if this shrill, over-the-top, hectoring nag turns out to be right?   What if Anita is really not telling the truth?

Don't misunderstand, I think Anita is telling the truth (and that Mrs. T. was Martha-Mitchell-class loony to raise the issue).  But I once thought Alger Hiss was innocent, and that Sam Sheppard was guilty.

Afterthought: I don't doubt Mrs. T's sincerity, even though I might question her judgment. I once saw some survey data suggesting that men were more likely to believe Anita than women.  Wouldn't surprise me; after all, we know what pigs we really are.

Update:  Over oysters at Cafe Loup,  and speaking of Martha Mitchell, Larry asks--was Ginnie Thomas drunk?  It's a thought--who would do this sober?--but Anita did say the call came in at 730 in the morning.

Ein Kleine Ferschluggener

We got a look at the Broadway revival of A Little Night Music last night.  It's had mixed reviews and I must say I join the non-fans.  It has its moments and its successes, but it has a few pervasive and disabling liabilities.  Mainly the diction, the articulation: you can't understand a word much of anybody is singing.
  • I don't think it is just me here.  I listen to (watch) a fair amount of complicated stage work and I can usually stick with it.  Even here, I know quite a bit of the text--after all these years, who doesn't?--but I sure wouldn't have been able to guess it on my own.  I can think of two possibly overlapping reasons here:
  • One, poor diction coaching.  Shakespeare companies these days spend a lot of time these days making sure they will be understood.  I suspect it never occurred to anybody that they needed to do it for a show like this one.
  • And two: dreadful miking, or an overall dreadful sound system.  Everything on Broadway is done at full volume any more.  I gather the techies don't necessarily want it that way: loud is good.  Put loud together with inadequate audio devices and you wind up listening to a show that sometimes sounds like it's being performed in some sort of nightmarish wind tunnel.   It was particularly egregious with Elaine Stritch: she seemed to be taking cues through an earpiece and you could sometimes just a bout hear the cues.  But it wasn't just her: just about everybody got the wing wangs some of the time.
I'd never actually seen LNM before, though I had seen both the movies--Bergman and Woody Allen--from which it derives.  And heaven knows I was familiar with a lot of the music: if we all had a nickel for every time we've heard "Send in the Clowns," we'd be rich as Barbra Streisand.  I was favorably disposed: I liked what I'd heard, and I take it is an article of faith that Sondheim at or near the top of the list of American stage composers.  But after an hour or so of this, I found myself looking at my watch, and realizing that the show, like Bergman and  Allen  before it, really does have its longeurs.  With the right hands, this can turn into a mode of leisurely affability. With a chorus that yells at you all the time, it gets to be a bore.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A Couple of Things I Just Learned About Goya

Best I can remember, I've been to four Goya shows in my life, if you count the stuff at the Prado in Madrid. Two of the four were at the Frick here in New York, the latest today.  The show is actually billed as The Spanish Manner: Drawings from Ribera to Goya, and some of the early stuff is indeed interesting, but one of the two rooms is devoted entirely to Goya, and it taught me at least two things about Goya that I never knew before.

One: I guess I didn't realize how prolific he was, and how diverse.  In my febrile adolescence, I had a whole portfolio of prints of the Horrors of War--it took me a while to figure out that the ladies did not think this a turn-on.  But I see how that his range is so much broader.  Plenty of horrors, but lots of telling scenes from ordinary life, some sly digs at religion, even one "Nude Seated Beside a Brook," which puts you in mind of Manet.

The other: it never occurred to me  before how good Goya is at handling the body in action.  There's a drawing called "Three Men Digging," which  is pretty clearly a model for a painting named "The Forge," also in the Frick (on the main floor).  And when that guy flexes his legs and raises his arms to swing (the shovel; the sledgehammer), you can really feel the energy and tension in his limbs.  So also his "Peasant Carrying a Woman"--he's really carrying her, though it is far from clear just what he is carrying her over, or why.  So also two pictures of old men leaning on canes: you can believe that the cane feels the weight.  Aside from Goya, I'm also a big Tiepolo fan.  I like Tiepolo not least because his airborne figures really fly; Goya has the same kind of knack.

Say That Again?

From a bunch of wall-hangings hyping HSBC, inside Kennedy Airport:

What we learn from one customer helps us better serve another.

Uh--are they telling me they steal my secrets to sell them to my competitors?

Monday, October 18, 2010

We've Got This Great New Device Called "The Wheel"

The Wichita Bureau catches the WSJ (and a BlackRock partner) in a piece of inspired fatuity:
A special chapter of bankruptcy should be created to fix the mortgage crisis and hasten a housing recovery, while protecting borrowers and investors alike. Regulators would identify an affordable total debt-to-income ratio for overburdened borrowers. Qualified individuals could then file for this special bankruptcy by presenting all their debts—mortgages, credit-card bills, car loans, and the like—to a court (or an arbitrator). No debts would be excluded, so the borrower's entire balance sheet could be addressed.
The court would then rank those debts so that a borrower's debt would be reduced or eliminated in order of seniority. If the court and the borrower could not settle on a sustainable payment plan, then foreclosure and liquidation proceedings could commence.
To relieve banks from having to absorb all the losses associated with borrowers' bankruptcy plans at once, regulators could allow losses on home-equity loans and credit cards to be spread over an extended period. They might also include a "sunset clause" so that these special bankruptcy rules expire once the mortgage crisis is resolved.
 Link.  This is, of course, with some tweaking, exactly what the Bankruptcy Court does today.  Evidently nobody at Blackrock or the Journal has ever heard of Chapter 13?

Off Again

This time to NYC, for a bit of Boris Godunov, etc.
Tout le malheur des hommes vient d’une seule chose, qui est de ne savoir pas demeurer en repos, dans une chambre.

--Pascal, Pensées 139, (1670)

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Nation's Premier Broadcast Organization
Takes a Dive Before Niall Ferguson

I often think Brad DeLong goes over the top in his criticism of the press but I hope he wasn't listening to the NPR interview with Niall Ferguson (on All Things Considered) tonight or they would have had to call for the paramedics (update: here's a transcript).

Faithful readers will recognize Ferguson as an entertaining teller of tales who has somehow developed the idea that he is a Man of Vision.   That's to be expected, I guess; once you bear the weight of two named Harvard professorships, it would be surprising if you retained any sanity at all.  So it is hardly surprising that we heard stuff like this:

  • He beat up on Paul Krugman for endorsing Depression-era deficit spending, without seeming to grasp that Krugman's complaint is that we spent too little in the Depression: caught between Roosevelt's diffidence and the counter-cyclic pressure from the states (sound familiar?) we were left with the need of a great war to bail us out.
  • He sniped about "Keynsianism" but than morphed into an attack on quantitative easing as if he can't tell the difference between fiscal policy and monetary --i.e., precisely the distinction that lies at the heart of the conflict between Keynes and his free-market critics.
  • He seems to be under the impression that the Depression was an era of isolated national, as distinct from global, markets.  Dear God, has this man never heard of the Gold Standard?
As I say, Ferguson can pontificate all he wants and nothing I can say will slow him down. But what was the reporter doing while all this was going on?  Twittering his publicist?  I should think that one of DeLong's Political Econ majors ought to be able to pick up on and challenge (seeming) absurdities like this. Why,oh why, as one might say, can't we have a better radio show?

Liveblogging Twelfth Night Again: The Last Episode

Mr. and Mrs.Buce have finished their much-disrupted and deferred readaloud of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, still in the company of the incomparable Michael Pennington and his unmatchable director's commentary.  Every page of it was worthwhile, and I'm looking forward to giving the same kind of careful attention to Pennington's two other commentaries (Hamlet and Midsummer Night's Dream, respectively).  For all that, I end as I began, somewhat unsold on Twelfth Night, still convinced that it will never be my favorite among the comedies.

The surface reasons ought to be clear enough.  I'd sign on with W.H.Auden that it is an "unpleasant" play, though not, of course, nearly as "unpleasant" as the unpleasant plays to come--All's Well that Ends Well, Measure for Measure, Troilus and Cressida.  In any event, it just doesn't seem to have the liberating grace that you--I--find in Midsummer Night's Dream, or As You Like It, or even (personal choice) Much Ado about Nothing.

The more intriguing question is why, given its unpleasantness, does it retain in such high esteem among Shakespeare fans.  I can survey some possible reasons.  One: the core love story, but let's be clear here: the core love story is not Orsino and Viola, nor Olivia and Sebastian.  No: the core love story is the brotherly (and sisterly) love between Viola and Sebastian, set forth with a delicacy and precision that is probably unmatched anyplace else in the canon.  Or more precisely--Viola herself.  She doesn't dominate the story the way Rosalind dominates As You Like It.  But with her own dignity and sensibility, she provides a quiet center to he piece such as not even Rosalind can achieve.

On a somewhat larger scale--one thing I liked about the somewhat even Trevor Nunn film version is that he got the larger structure right.  Specifically, he gave you the sense that all this could go dreadfully wrong. So though a comedy, it remained a comedy with an urgent and insistent buzz just below the surface, enough to keep even the most inattentive observer pinned to the stage.

Turned inside out: this play must be the very devil to direct.  The Nunn movie was good  but imperfect (what did Ben Kingsley think he was up to here?).  I haven't seen but two or three others, none of which really sticks in my mind.  I can only wish I had seen Pennington's own Chicago production of which he seems just a bit proud, thank you.  But that's true of a lot of Shakespeare: once you get to know it, the performance in your mind is better than any you are going to see on stage.  Maybe I'll jsut have to go back to Twelfth Night informed by Pennington, and make it just as good as it really can be.

Fiorina Goes Palin

I don't envy Carly Fiorina.  Set aside the fact that she was a mediocre CEO and that she has no natural feel for politics; still, she's far more informed about the hard facts of economic life than the Palins or O'Donnells; the degree of self-loathing she suffers as she postures before the multitude must not be fun.  Still, I think she went over the edge this morning while evading Chris Wallace's questions about what she would cut out of the Federal budget.  Forget about the evasion itself; we can't fault her for that because no candidate can identify any particular spending cuts unless s/he is looking for a quick trip to oblivion.  But then there's this:

FIORINA: …We don’t know how taxpayer money is spent in Washington...

Link.  File this one under "oh, for pity sakes."  First of all, we do know how taxpayer money is spent in Washington; as an ordinary taxpayer, Fiorna has more information available about Federal spending than she did about spending at HP when she was CEO.

But simple wrongness is not the worst of it.  The infuriating part is that this plays to directly into the weaknesses and prejudices of the worst part of her base.  I'm talking about the people who truly don't know anything about how the Federal government spends its money and really don't have a clue as to what it would take to get Federal spending back into line.  This ignorance is shameful on the voter's part, but Carly makes it respectable: You are right not to know; I, the former CEO do not know; by not knowing, you are just as well informed as I.  Your ignorance is not the product of laziness and incuriosity.  You are the victim of forces you cannot control

The press reports are saying she she's been running away from Palin on the campaign trail.  I can see why; wirth demagoguery like this, she really doesn't need her.

From the Bin: Conrad on the Market

Wonder what prompted me to file this one away:
The only real feeling was a desire to get appointed to a trading-post where ivory was to be had, so that they could earn percentages. They intrigued and slandered and hated each other only on that account -- but as to effectually lifting a little finger -- oh, no ... Their talk ... was reckless without hardihood, greedy without audacity, and cruel without courage; there was not an atom of foresight or of serious intention in the whole batch of them, and they did not seem aware that these things are wanted for the work of the world.
--Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Dan Barry Channels Joseph Mitchell

...and I mean that in the nicest possible way, link.

Kling More or Less Loses it on Foreclosures

Arnold Kling can barely contain himself: 
[T]toss around words like "shoddy" or "sloppy" or "fraud" is going rather far. If you want the record-keeping process to adhere perfectly to the traditional process, then you effectively eliminate securitization. I think that would be fine, but it would have been more helpful to have made that determination in 1968, before the government created GNMA, and before it created Freddie Mac in 1970.

It is safe to say that what is going on now is not helping "little people" against "the banks." It is an assault on a process that has done little or no actual harm to borrowers, and which supports the complex allocation of mortgage cash flows under today's securities.

In the end, the biggest losers will be the unemployed, because the assault on the foreclosure process is going to keep the housing market in limbo for years. That in turn is going to make economic recovery something that does not begin until well after President Palin takes office.
It's hard to know where to begin here but I can't for the life of me understand why insistence on effective record-keeping. would "effectively eliminate securitization."  It would have slowed it down, I suppose, but so what?  And is he saying that the very existence of securitization was the fault of some crack-brained government decision?  That the poor misled banks are just so many lemmings walking off a government cliff.

And I have to admit I fail to grasp the linkage between the bankers' serene indifference to facts and their horror at the possibility of mortgage writedowns.  Just for the record, I'm not that nuts about writedowns either (FWIW I'm with him also on bankrupting banks).  And I would assume that most of these borrowers do, in good conscience, owe something to somebody.  But I should think that minimum civility would require that they pay their creditor, not any guy in polyester who happens to show up at the sale.

Maybe what Arnold is thinking of is that bit from the AP Herbert story (in The Common Law) about the guy who was brought up on charges after a policeman fished him out of the canal.  The judge said (I quote from memory):
It's been my experience that most people who come to the attention of police have done something to deserve it and I don't see why it should be the policeman's fault if he can't come up with the charge.
 On second thought, I suspect Arnold probably wouldn't understand why that is funny.

[Going away thought: I suspect he is probably right when he says that the biggest losers will be "the unemployed" (by which I guess he means "the borrowers").  We'd agree that it certainly won't be the banks.  Oh, and by the way, I'm sure the thought of President Palin turns his small intestine to water just as much as it does mine.]

Ah Yes, I Remember It Well...

Spent a good chunk of the day at my former students' alumni reunions.   I've grown to like this kind of gig far better than I ever expected to.  Far more people that I'm glad to see than that I want to avoid. It seems the ones whom I really couldn't  abide, or who couldn't abide me, pretty much stay away. Why,  I  wonder?  Or is it just that we all sand down these old memories and recall everything as more mellow than it was?  Further evidence for the same view: there always a couple of encounters in which you get told what a wonderful fellow you were from somebody you don't know from Adam.  It always makes me think of the fine old Tom Stoppard radio play--Where Are They Now?--about the guy who just can't quite make his reunion memories match up and discovers at last that he is at the wrong reunion.

We all have our share of these stories.  I'm certain in my own mind that the first time I met the to-be Mrs. Buce, I told myself "my god, the lady Windexes her glasses."  She says that the threat of having her fingernails pulled out would not have been enough to induce her to wear glasses on a first date.  With this caution in mind, I inventory some possible memories, or maybe not.  So, I remember:
  • The Hurricane of '38.   We went out gazed on the uprooted apple tree, and went in and ate scrambled eggs.  I  have heard repeated ironclad assurances that I can't possibly remember this one (I would have been two) but I do.
  • Pearl Harbor.  My father was out putting up storm windows.  The trouble with this one is that I don't think anyone in New Hampshire would have waited until December to put up storm windows (as distinct from simply not putting them up at all).
  • The Normandy Invasion.  Since I heartily wished that the grownups would get this uproar over before I reached draft age, I greeted this one with great approval.
  • VJ Day.  We banged on pots and had a parade.
  • Kennedy Assassination.  Stunned and horrified, just like everyone else.
  • 9-11.  I woke up and flipped on the TV;  I thought I was watching a bad movie.
And some I don't:
  • VE Day.  Oddly, no.  I had followed the troops on the map in the newspaper.  I guess maybe it was an anti-climax.
  • John Lennon.  Sorry 'bout that.
  • Where I left my car keys, and I have to find them so I can go  to another alumni party.

Friday, October 15, 2010

My Cognitive Dissonance about Mexamerica

I'm still trying to work my mind around this pairing:
  • Drug violence in the "smuggling belt" of Northern Mexico persists at a level high enough to brand the area as a kind of failed state.  Link.
  • Latinos in the United States live on the average two years longer than whites.  Link.
Complicated world.

Update:  Yes, I'm aware that most emigration from Mexico to the US comes from a group of states south of Mexico City, far from the smuggling belt.

And I am Right, and You are Right,
And Everything is Quite Alright

We're not for inflation, we're not for deflation: we're for flation.
Gold bugs are buying bullion for the understandable reason that central banks appear committed to printing more money: they fear that eventually this will lead to inflation. Stockmarkets are buoyant on the grounds that QE will eventually work to revive the economy and head off the prospect of a double-dip recession. Meanwhile government-bond yields have fallen because central banks seem to spend most of the QE money buying their own country’s debt. Traders see the central banks as putting a floor under bond prices.

--Wait a minute, your honor, they can't all be right!
--That's right!

Chile Posmortem

Juan Coles Top Ten Questions about Chile Mine Collapse: Was it Nixon-Kissinger’s Fault? are a bit loaded; the "ten" really down to two or three, or maybe just one.  Still, the list is a good start for any postmortem on the role of government and social order in the Chile mine disaster success.  Certainly better than this piece of straw-man assassination from the Wall Street Journal.

What I Learned Today: Civil War Battle Names

Okay, I knew that Civil War battles have different names, northern and southern.  Bull Run and Manassas Junction.   Antietam, Sharpsburg.   Stones River, Murfreesboro. 

What I didn't  know that there is a pattern.  The north names after terrain features, the south after towns or rail connections.   H/T Gary Gallagher, University of Virginia.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Fourteenth Banker's Hair is On Fire


Shakespeare's Carnal Enthusiasms

Shakespeare seems to have had a particular taste for carnality.

In Othello, Act I, Scene iii, Iago says "we have reason ... to cool our carnal stings."  In Richard III, Act IV, Scene iii, it is Queen Margaret who brands Richard as "this carnal cur."   In Hamlet, Act V, Scene ii, the stage littered with bodies, Horatio says he will tell "of carnal, bloody and unnatural acts." 

In Henry V, Act I, Scene iii, the boy declares that the dying Falstaff said that women "were the devils incarnate." But Hostess Quickly says: "A' never could abide carnation; twas a colour he never liked."  In Titius Andronicus Act V, Scene i, Lucius declares that Aaron the Moore is "the incarnate devil."  But in Merchant of Venice, Act II, Scene ii, it is "the Jew" (Shylock) who "is the very devil incarnate."

In Macbeth Act II, Scene ii, Macbeth says his hand will "The multitudinous seas incarnadine," and explains, "making the green one red." "Incarnadine is often cited as a Shakespearean coinage, but doesn't it go back to Latin and perhaps Italian?

In Twelfth Night, Act V, Scene i, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, all aflutter, declares that Cesario is "the very devil incardinate." He means "incarnate," but is upset.

There must be a graduate dissertation in here somewhere.

Those Were the Days...

  Tired of the madness of current politics?  Looking for  retreat to a simpler time whose story is at least finished, with a known ending?  Then you might enjoy Marilynne K. Roache's The Salem Witch Trials, a day by day account of a simpler time when neighbors settled their grievances with neighbors by taking them out and hanging them.  It's pure chronicle, no massaging, which may sound amateurish, but here it works.  There's really nothing like watching thee waves of madness as they advance and crest and finally recede again--the end almost as incomprehensible as the beginning.

I made a special point to check out the notes on Mary Ayer Parker who, if my rudimentary attempts at genealogy research are to be credited is (a) a direct ancestor of the Bushes, father and son; and (b) a collateral ancestor of my own.   Sure enough, here she is, under the entry for Saturday, September 17, 1692:
The Massachusetts Court of Oyer and Terminer finished the week's trials. The only surviving testimony against widow Mary Parker  of Andover was from the afflicted and the confessors. ... Nothing other  than spectral evidence from the usual Salem Village girls and testimony of other confessors remains within the surviving records--the word of afflicted people who, even if they changed their minds about the situation, would now find it dangerous to say so.
 p. 294.  And on Thursday September 22, Mary and seven others were taken out to be hanged:
As the crowd crossed the causeway over  North River and turned up the steep path, the ox cart stuck.  While men labored dto move the wheels, the afflicted saw the Devil holding back the cart.  But eventually the oxen heaved it forward and up to the ledge. ... After all eight had the breath permanently choked out of them, and their bodies hung lifeless, Rev. Nicholas Noyes remarked, "What a sad thing it is to see eight firebrands of Hell hanging there."
 p. 300.  Meanwhile in my Evernote file, I have what purports to be an undergraduate paper by one Jacqueline Kelly, arguing tht it may have been flat-out mistaken identity: they didn't get the right Mary Parker.  Can't seem to find a live link on the web just now, though.   Here's a link.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Early Reports from A World Without Men

Link.  H/T Joel.

Molly Green on Law and Disorder

If you're interested in sovereignty, anarchy, order without law, law without order--issues like that--then you realy want to take a look at Mollie Green's entry  over at "Five Books," the daily teaser/reminder of all the stuff you would like to read but haven't.  She was shrewd enough to include one of my very favorite modern law books--
Robert Ellickson's Order Without Law, about how they settle disputes over straying cattle in Shasta County, CA, just up the pike from Palookaville.  Don't overlook the sidebar where she includes some of her own stuff which (unlike some other contributors) she was tactful enough not to include in  her list of five.

The Last Man Down

I'm not nearly so blase as to ignore the story of the Chilean miners.  I happened to go to the computer in the middle of the night last night (don't ask) just as the story seemed to be turning happy, and I admit that it has been on my mind ever since.  Delighted that everything seems to be going okay.

I know there are 1,000 meta-stories playing themselves out today, as e.g., the rescued begin to disentangle the competing claims of their wives and girlfriends, and as they fend off the teeming throng of piranha paperazzi, some I hope with checkbooks, just dying to get the word out.

But right now, what I'm thinkin': there will have to be a last man--the last miner, the last guy down the hole. And what will he be thinking, alone in the dark, everybody else having departed? Will he be wondering if they will forget him? Or will he, perhaps, after two months, be at last glad for a moment of solitude, with peace & quiet? He might as well enjoy it, before the storm of girlfriends and paperazzi.

Oh, and I missed this: evidently to ease their ordeal, the Pope sent down rosaries, and Steve Job sent down Ipods. 

Update:   He's out!  And if you believe the hype, he's quite a guy.  But there is a line about how rescuers are still down there, so not quite a movie finish.

How My Favorite Republican President Brought Down the Soviet Union

Not having read Friedman's book, I never thought of it quite this way before:
A good measure of [Jimmy] Carter's problem is the fact that he was farsighted in seeing the kind of energy and ecological mess we are now experiencing.   Thomas Friedman pays proper tribute to his response to the oil crisis of the 1970s, when Carter cut back on fuel use in federl buildings, installed solar panels at the White House, promoted tax breaks for wind technology, and regulated gas consumption in Federal vehicles.  In Friedman's words:
Between 1975 and 1985, American passenger vehicle mileage went from about 13.5 miles per gallon to 27.5, while light truck mileage increased from 11.6 miles per gallon to 19.5--all of which helped to create a global oil glut from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, which not only weakened OPEC but also helped to unravel the Soviet Union, then the world's second-largest oil producer.
Reagan mocked such measures as a failure of America's can-do spirit, and when he became president he canceled the tax breaks for energy conservation measures, lifted regulations, and removed the solar panels.  Technology developed for wind and solar energy was sold to foreign countries.
That's Garry Wills, reviewing Jimmy Carter's White House Diary, in the New York Review of Books, Oct 28, 2010, at 23.  The Friedman snippet is from Thomas L.Friedman, Hot, Flat and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution--and How it Can Renew America 14 (2008).

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Been Waiting for This Shoe to Drop

Here's tonight's e-ad from Borders:

ALL BOOKS: Buy 1, Get 1 50% Off

This does sound like a liquidation sale, does it not?

Puzzling Over the Nobel

As an outsider, albeit an interested outsider, I'm still looking for a backstory in the award of the Economics Nobel to three guys who have developed some elegant but not-that-all-easy-to-explain models on “markets with search frictions,” or, as I suspect the press would prefer to term it, "structural unemployment."  Although I won't pretend to have made a comprehensive search, I don't recall hearing any buzz about these guys earlier, while commentators seemed to be restricting their focus more to treehouse celebrities like Eugene Fama.  So why who and now?

Some commentators are noting that Diamond was earlier rejected as "unqualified" for  seat on the Federl Reserve Board--"that for you, Richard Shelby!"  This seems unlikely; I suspect there is a good chance that the recommenders have no more than the foggiest idea who Richard Shelby is, and aren't really focused on this kind of political gamesmanship (contrast, e.g., their neighbors on the "real Nobel" and their work on, e.g., the Peace prize or the prize for literature).

But here's a different kind of "political" motive, spun out of a thread from my own gizzard.  Specifically: nothing in economics looks more beat-up and plug-ugly these days than "formal macro"--predicting, e.g., when economies will collapse and what to do to bring them to recovery.  Could it be that the Nobelists went looking for a respectable macro person--and, failing that, moved next door to a field that outsiders might mistske for macro, where reputations are more stable?

Okay, just sayin'.  Meanwhile, another Nobel thought: I lately heard a right-wing chatterer say that we needn't take Krugman's Nobel seriously because "his Nobel is not in Economics in general, but in a narrow area." I'll try to restrain myself as to the general silliness of the remark, but I found myself wondering--how many Nobels are for "economics in general," rather than "a narrow area"? Skimming old citations--I suppose you could say that recipients like Samuelson and Arrow got their prizes for "economics in general"--but in the sense that their technical work transformed the whole field. The 1976 Milton Friedman citation strikes me as a masterpiece of equivocation, seeking to honor his work as free-agent publicist, while keeping its purity as respectably scientific:
...for his achievements in the fields of consumption analysis, monetary history and theory and for his demonstration of the complexity of stabilization policy.
 Um, okay I guess, though you would never guess whom you were talking about from this characterization.  But would I be right to say that more recent prizes have almost all been for what my chatterer calls "a narrow area"--in the sense that the low-hanging fruit has mostly been picked, and we are left with ever more arcane particulars?

But You'll Have to Admit That

"Michelangelo Painting Found Behind Sofa"

sounds less freaky than

"Michelangelo Found Painting Behind Sofa."


Meanwhile, they could have asked me: I would have told them it's a fake, and I have a pretty good eye.

[Alternate headline: In the room, the women  come and go/Perching on Michelangelo."  Thanks, Wichita.

Steadman's Labor of Love

Here's a labor of love: a new edition of Plato's Symposium for intermediate students, with facing-pages vocab and commentary.  I say "labor of love" in the sense that I expect no edition of a Greek text is going to yield enough to cover the cost of paper.  More, the author (well--editor) has produced it himself as print-on-demand, with the side offer of an e-file under a Creative Commons license.  And if "print on demand" suggests "vanity press"--the author/editor tells us exactly nothing about himself in the book, unless you count a couple of email addresses and  the sidenote "Ph.D."  A bit of Googling suggests that he--the name is "Geoffrey Steadman"--is a high school teacher in Tennessee, and surely to prepare a work of this sort for an audience of high school students is to learn a lot about humility.

The most obvious appeal of the book is the facing-pages vocabulary with running same-page commentary.  This kind of layout is so obviously helpful you can't imagine why editors haven't always done it this way.  I suppose you could say the model is the Loeb Classical Library, with its facing-pages English and Greek (or Latin, as the case might be)--or whoever it is from whom Loeb got its idea.  You get a version of it in the superb teaching materials from the Joint Association of Classsical Teachers, published by Cambridge University Press.  There are others: I have at hand a lovely edition of Longus' Daphnis and Chloe with the same facing-pages presentation. And here's a presentation of Plato's Apology; it has running commentary with vocab in the back, but the commentary is so thorough that you won't need much vocab.

For the basic text, Steadman has done what any sensible presenter ought to do--he's taken an old out-of-copyright edition and just photocopied.  He's added some helpful general commentary and intro but the guts of it is in what must have been the appallingly tedious labor of assembling all the vocab and the meticulous commentary notes--I get a headache just thinking about it.

I wish I could say the notes answered all my questions, but notes like this never do: it's a mug's game, trying to anticipate what every reader will want and need and somebody--everybody--is bound to come up disappointed.  Still, as I work my way through Steadman, I do find myself keeping handy a copy of the 1980 Cambridge Edition by Kenneth Dover.  Some of Dover's comments are gems in themselves and they certainly are prodigies of patient scholarship.

But Dover doesn't do facing pages.   And Steadman's comments are all you have any reason to expect.  I see he's done at least three more editions of this sort (link, link, link).  And did I mention that the top price is $14.95?  I see the new third volume of Hornblower's Commentary on Thucydides is retailing at $350.  For that price you could by 23 Steadmans, with money left  over for a latte.  If somebody gives this guy a MacArthur Grant, they won't have any complaints from me.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Thompson on the Art Market

I spent the last couple of evenings with Don Thompson's The $12 Million Stuffed Shark, a highly entertaining and somewhat instructive account of--well, of what, exactly?  The subtitle is "The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art," but that is at best an oversimplification.  Thompson makes it clear at the outset that he isn't really clear on the meaning of either "contemporary" or "art."  As to "economics"--Thompson says he was inspired by Levitt and Dubner's Freakonomics, so perhaps he has read a book by  an economist.  But for his own work, a better category might be "marketing," because "marketing" is indeed what the book is about, and if he uses the word "branding" one more time, I'll be tempted to slap him on the butt with a piece of red-hot iron.

A useful way of understanding the book is to recognize that he's considering at least two separate, albeit overlapping, phenomena.  One is the closed circle of  "art as event" and "event as buzz" and "buzz as money"--here encapsulated in the story of Damien Hirst and Charles Saatchi and gaping yokels who surround them.  Saatch in particular: without, so far as I know, ever tapping a brush on a pallet, has made himself at least as much of a swaggering alpha in the art world as Michelangelo or Monet--or, come to thaat, of Hirst himself.  It is Saatchi, after all who personally reduced the Tate Modern--intended to be the crown jewel of British art showcases--to the status of shopworn second-best against his own gallery a bit further upriver.

The Saatchi/Hirst net nexus can be disentangled and distinguished from the "other" art world--the one that revolves around the great auction duopoly, Sotheby's and Christie's.   Here you may find stuffed sharks and condom-strewn beds and other treasures of the contemporary art world.  But you're at least likely to find Monets and Cezannes; you'd even find the odd Michelangelo if one ever came on the market.   The driving force here is not precisely contemporary so much as it is scarce: we are in the world where the super-rich are clawing each other's face off in the one game that they and only they can play.  Fun fact: Thomas says there are only three Raphaels in private hands.  If one of them comes on the market, I doubt that the auction houses will reject it on grounds that it is too old..

"One game only they can play" is the operative part.  There re so many things that even the merely rich can buy these days: nice cars, fancy vacations and suchlike--that's harder and harder to prove that you really are in the top tier and not just the great vulgar unwashed semi-top.  So if you are (say) a 30-year-old hedge fund manager, you announce your arrival in the first tier by transferring $10 million to Sotheby's for something to hand on the wall of your $10 million apartment.  It tells the world you're one of the inner circle; it may also say that you are "cultured" although I suspect that is more or less of an afterthought: if the buyer spends $10 million for it at Christie's, then it is culture, end of argument.

One large area of overlap between the Saatchi buzz and the auction house market is the matter of --yes, here it comes--branding.   I gather that Hirst himself doesn't "make art" any more than Walt Disney drew Mickey Mouse--these days, the work is done by the poor slobs down on the shop floor.  But the mere fact tht Hirst smiles on an item is enough to add value.  And apparently the everyday auction house conversation is littered with phrases like "you know, Saatchi almost bought this one," or "Saatchi has one like it"--heaven forbid you learn that your new acquisition was once owned by Saatchi and that he tossed it aside.

Hirst is a brand; so is Saatchi and it is an interesting question which is bigger.  So are Sotheby's and Christie's and so, come to that, I suspect, is Raphael, if he ever comes to market.  And in this sense, the art world turns out to be just like any other where the buzz of association seems to drive the economics.  Think sports teams, university faculties,  rock bands (world's most successful brand: Grateful Dead).  And just about any other activity you can think of; here's David Carr in this morning's NYT:

More nd more, media outlets arae becoming a federation of individual brands ... Journalism is starting to look like sports, where a cast of role players seves a platform and contet for highly paid, high-impact players.
Carr himself, we may note, is a recovered junkie who leveraged himself into prominence with an account of his own unsavory past.  Maybe he can get his old needles into a diisplay at the Saatchi gallery.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Honey Pot

Back in  my baby lawyer days I did some work on the case of a short-haul trucking company (this was pre-UPS) that collapsed into bankruptcy, a farrago of bad management. Or worse: the books showed something like $5 million in claims collected (mostly minuscule); when the bean counters moved in they  could find only something closer to $2 million.  I believe one guy went to jail--that would have been after I left the case.  But early on, I remember chatting with an investigator; I remarked that I wasn't satisfied in my own mind just who had walked off with all the swag.

"You forget," he said, "the possibility that it wasn't one person.  It may have been everybody--in the sense that controls were so bad here, it could be that everybody had access to the cash, and everybody just helped themselves."

I thought of this conversation this morning when I picked up a Sacramento Bee  and read about accusations of "Massive fraud" in the California National Guard.  We're still at the accusation stage here (where would journalism be without the word "alleged"?) but in outline it looks something like this.  Apparently the Guard had a pot of money earmarked to pay of student loans and such like as inducements for recruits.  Evidently (you're ahead of me here) a good deal of the money seems to have walked out the door to people who didn't qualify, who didn't have any paperwork, or who collected on claims way over the limit.

The Bee fingers one apparent culprit--the "M&M Lady," who is said to have supervised the payouts.  Apparently she is now responding with "profanity and evident bitterness," which doesn't sound like a great career move: this looks to be a girl who is going to need all the friends she can get, not least in the press.  But on the core point, I suspect she is right.  I.e.., the thrust her remarks seems to be that she couldn't have done it without a lot of help.  IOW, another honey pot in which everybody felt entitled to poke their taster.

In my distant and not-terribly-corrupt youth,I also spent some time in the National Guard (not willingly, I can assure you). And unencumbered as I am by any specific knowledge of the present case, I can see the outlines of a picture.  That is: my guess is this a crowd with a settled aversion to the pinheads in Washington, with a particular hostility to confiscatory taxes and silly bureaucratic rules.   I bet they spent a fair amount of their spare time fulminating against the evils of "waste, fraud and abuse,"  with star turns for food stamp fraud and the provision of medical care to illegal alien children.  This would be, if I am right, a crowd that wouldn't see any inconsistency at all in lining their own pockets while decrying the grabbiness of others.  After all, we're good ol' boys (unisex) together, not so, and it's the gummint's money so where's the problem?

Afterthought:  The Bee bills this as a "Bee Exclusive," as if they created the story.  This strikes me as a bit of a stretch.  Looks to me like is largely the creation of one, maybe two, hard-working and boringly-honest mid-level noncoms.