Friday, December 31, 2010

The Crank's Girlfriend

 My friend the New York Crank is navigating through a nightmare you wouldn't wish on you worst enemy.  But  carrying it off, I should say, with style.

Competing Bible Narratives

I've been watching some DVDs on the archaeology of Israel and environs, by a teacher with solid professional credentials, both in the field and in the library.  She tells her story in a helpful and instructive manner from which I take great profit. Yet there's an issue of presentation here that strikes me as profoundly irritating.  And it's not just her; it's a rhetorical strategy that you see in a lot of "scholarly" material about the Ancient Near East, and invites some exegesis.  Let me see if I can make myself clear.

First: in wretched oversimplification, there are are two ways of telling the story of "the Bible," aka "The Old Testament."  One is to embrace the text: to accept the document itself as a, perhaps the, primary source on events in its purview, and to accept the document as the arbiter of all doubts, the ironer-out of all lacunae.  Some people profess to accept the Bible in tote, though I doubt that very many actually do so.  Others claim the Bible as a primary document, while subtly dismissing more doubtful or embarrassing portions, (sometimes sub silentio) in a kind of cafeteria doctrinalism.

There is a counter-view that approaches the issue from a wholly different perspective. This counter-view takes the Bible as thee product of a particular place and time--an historical event in its own right, if you like--designed not so much to memorialize but to create the identity of a people.

More precisely: on this view, the heavy work of producing the Bible takes place in or around the Seventh Century BC, particularly in and around the reign of Josiah, seeking to generate a narrative that will justify a single identity for all of what we now call (retrospectively) "Israel and Judah."

Operating from this point of departure, it is natural to evaluate the record of preceding centuries with a critical, if not necessarily skeptical eye.  Seen in this light, we notice a number of remarkable facts.  One, the account of the original Abraham-and-Isaac story is hopelessly anachronistic, impossible to reconcile with the time at which it was supposed to have occurred. Two, the physical evidence for a "flight out of Egypt" is at or near absolute zero.  Three, there is no really satisfactory evidence of a Jewish "invasion" into Israel (the alternate view is that the Jews were in fact a segment of the indigenous Canaanites who hived off with an identify of their own).

Further: there may be some historical evidence of a "King David," but the chances theat he was a great monarch are not so strong as the possibility that he was some kind of tribal chieftain.  As to his son Solomon, said to have ruled from sea to sea--the evidence is equivocal at best, depending largely on whether you accept some archaeological sites as relating to Solomon himself, or perhaps rather to the supposed enemies of the Jews, the evil Omrids (Ahab, Jezebel, and the rest of tht lot).

Just as with those who accept the primacy of the Bible, there isn't a single agreed account among all archaeologists, but a rough outline--along the lines that I just set forth--would win broad acceptance.  And while there are, generally speaking, two contending schools of thought, there is a highly contested no-man's land. Plenty (well--some) of the Biblicists make highly informed and sophisticated arguments that there view can be reconciled with an exact reading of the archaeological evidence.

Back to the DVDs.  Where is our lecturer on this spectrum? This is where it gets interesting. The thing is, if you listen inattentively, you'd take her for a strong Biblicist.  She quotes frequently from the Bible as an evidentiary source.  She festoons the presentation with some of those awful pictures of Biblical scenes you saw so long ago in vacation Bible school.  She unfailing refers to the ur-community on the site of modern Jerusalem as "the City of David."  The title of the series is perhaps a giveaway: it is called "The Holy Land Revealed"--one of those names that seems to punt on the first down.

But listen closely and you get a far different picture: pay attention and you can see that she is fully informed of the competing "archaeological" view, and that she almost buys into at least some of it.  Just exactly how much is hard to tell.  My guess is that at the end of the day, she is some kind of "left Biblicist."  She's far too well informed for vulgar belief.  She even takes pains to try to respond to some of the important talking points in the competing view.

The trouble is, she never lets on that there is a competing  view.  Instead, she gives her (apparent) Biblical narrative; she dances around some difficult issues; and she answers questions that she has never asked.

This strikes me as disingenuous and as far as I am concerned, highly unnecessary.  As I suppose should be obvious by now, I am much more of an "archaeologist" than a "Biblicist."  But I recognize that some of these issues are technical and I am an amateur: the technical heavy lifting is just way above my pay grade.  I'm open to careful analysis and indeed, I thought my lecturer scored some interesting points in favor of the Biblical view without ever acknowledging that she was doing so. How much better--and, I should think, easier--it would have been to lay out a more candid account of the competing positions: this is what I think, this is what the other guys argue and this is why I think they are wrong.

Just why she doesn't do this is anybody's guess.  It doesn't seem that her employer imposes a loyalty test: one of her colleagues is Bart D.  Ehrman, perhaps the best-known secularist scholar of the New Testament, almost a celebrity in the field of informed unbelief.  It might be that it's just easier her way.  She may have decided (and I suspect she would be right) that she catches far less flac this way from the committed God squad.  Indeed I've always thought that the occupation of professor for a serious scholar of ancient Israeli* history must be a pretty thankless job.  I should think the best of them have to fight day and night to be herd over the thrum of grinding axes.

And I stress it isn't just her.  I wouldn't be wasting all these bytes on just one set of DVDs.  From my perspective it is a far too frequent presentational style among expositors of ancient Israeli scholarship, and the listener is the worse for it.

*Names themselves are a problem here.  Jewish?  Palestinian?  Standard labels like "Holy Land" or  "Biblical," seem to me hopelessly to rig the bidding.  I choose "Israeli" as a back-formation from modern Israel, with no pretense that I have ironed out any of the difficulties.
Bibliographic note:  I suspect the best of the "trust-the-Bible" camp is Eliat Mazar, discoverer of what she believes to be "King David's palace" in the ur-city of Jerusalem.  The standard source for the "archeologist's narrative" would be The Bible Unearthed by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman.  A more contentious view, setting the topic in the context of the larger history of  nationalist ideologies, is Shlomo Sand, The Invention of the Jewish People.  The lectures by Professor Jodi Magness are available here.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

But He's Still Dead

Somehow I missed it: Dec. 29* was the 94th anniversary of the assassination of Rasputin:
I went shootin' with Rasputin
Ate farina with Czarina
Blintzes with the Princes and the Czar
*N.S.  O.S., Dec. 16.

Not The Onion

HT: Romenesko.

Bleary Kiri

Ralph Blumenthal has a cheerful piece of seasonal  feelgood in the Times this morning about a holiday party for stray opera singers.   It's good fun and yes, I would have loved to have been there, but my attention is arrested by the presence of the legendary Kiri Te Kanawa.  It seems that Ms. Te Kanawa, who always seems to rank high in the league tables for niceness, had a cold.

Say again?  Would you want to be the culprit who greets a roomful of world-class vocal talent by spewing phlegm?

Afterthought:   It says here that the host (perhaps better, the husband of the hostess) is "a metals merchant."  Back in my newspaper days, that phrase meant "junk dealer."  No complaints on my part, but this has the makings of a story in itself.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

That Bernanke Fella is One Brave Dude

Underbelly's Minnesota bureau reports that some people take their money seriously:
In this year, before Christmas, king Henry sent from Normandy to England, and commanded that all the moneyers that were in England should be deprived of their members; that was the right hand of each, and their testicles beneath. That was because the man that had a pound could not buy for a penny at a market. And the bishop Roger of Salisbury sent over all England, and commanded them all that they should come to Winchester at Christmas. When they came thither they were taken one by one, and each deprived of the right hand and the testicles beneath. All this was done within the twelve nights; and that was all with great justice, because they had fordone all the land with their great quantity of false money which they all bought.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, p. 221 (year 1125).
(Edited, with a Translation, by Benjamin Thorpe, Vol. II
(London: Longman, Green, Longman,and Roberts, 1861)

The Drill Masters

Here's a new one that I guess I don't really need to read: a biography of Cheddi Jagan, sometimes strong man of British Guiana, and one of only two national strongmen I can name who came to politics from dentistry. The other is Gurbanguly Mälikgulyýewiç Berdimuhamedow, and if you can't place the name, go here (hint: he's not nearly as weird as his predecessor).

Are there others?

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Rome as Forager

Just about everything this guy writes is worth a stop, but this one is really good.

Ah Yes, I Remember it Well

Nothing like being young and footloose on the Rivieria with a bit of daddy's money:
The next two months passed very pleasantly.  As we were not impelled by ambition, envy, avarice or pride, none of us did anything at all: we remained sunk in greed, sloth and sensuality--the three most amiable vices in the catalogue, and those which promote so much content and social ease that I could never see what they are doing in it at all, and have often thought they should be replaced by jealousy, exploitation and cruelty, which are much worse sins for everyone involved. 
So John Glassco in Memoirs of Montparnasse 122 (NTRB 2007). He goes on to expand his point into a philosophy of life:
I do not think the life we led at the Dora Melrose was in any sense wicked for all its irregularity.  It did not harm to anyone--and far from misusing our time, we were really turning it to the best account for our own sakes and the world's as well; for I am persuaded half of man's miseries result from an insufficiency of leisure, gormandise and sexual gratification during the years from seventeen to twenty.  This is what makes so many people tyrannical, bitter, foolish, grasping and ill-natured once they have come to years of discretion and understand they have wasted their irreplaceable years in the pursuit of education, security, reputation, or advancement.
Id. at 122-3. But there is a backstory to this effusion of youthful effervescence. I'll explain later.

The Zilbergleyz Effect

When you find a frozen lemon, make frozen lemonade: my nomination for linguist of the week goes to Grigoriy Zilbergleyz, 64, who spent Sunday night on the N at the New Utrecht Avenue station in New York City, part of his 15-hour trip from Manhattan's upper west side to his home in Bensonhurst.  Zilberegleyz finally had to walk the last leg of his journey--or trudge, rather, in recognition of the paralyzing East Coast storm which, inter alia, stalled subways all over town.  Zilberegleyz took it all in commendable good spirits:
“Every time when I see the situation like this, I’m very proud of the American people,” said Mr. Zilbergleyz, who immigrated to New York 11 years ago from Belarus. “No panic, no yelling. Just understanding.”

What would have happened back home? He laughed. “I don’t know, a lot of not very good words,” he said. “And they will complain about government, about driver, about his mother, and ...
And what?  I know: you expect him to say "and so forth and so on."  Close.   But what Zilbergleyz  actually said (per the NYT) was "and so what and so on.”  Does this count as a conscious coinage?  Probably not. Zilbergleyz is, after all, a newcomer, and it's hardly a surprise if his English is a bit improvisational (don't try me on Belarus).  But that is perhaps the way a lot of language comes into being: by accident.  "So what and so on," captures an important, if hitherto unnoticed nuance in the language, fully justifying the recognition of Zilbergleyz with an honorable footnote in the annals of his adopted tongue.

Mike Pence and the Charm of Having it Both Ways

I see the Wall Street Journal is now marketing Indiana Republican Represantive Mike Pence as a "military and fiscal hawk."  One's first thought is that it's an oxymoron, on the order of "chaste debauchery."  There's nothing more tiresome than the public figure--there are swarms of them--who ladle out the goodies to the hogs at the military trough while trumpeting their own budgetary rectitude.

Indeed critics like to climb on Pence the selectivity of his hawkery, as he beats his breast for budget restraint, with a compassionate exception for pork in his own state. 

On the narrow issue of inconsistency, I'm almost willing to give him a bye: I can't think of any politician of either party who has ever survived while attacking a dominant economic interest on his home turf.  My notion is that Pence is one of those who have figured out how to talk the talk on defense cuts, knowing they will never have to walk the walk.  Oh, I voted against that.  You mean I lost?  Oh, what a shame.

I suspect we are in for a regular old  bacchanal of such hypocrisy from the incoming Republican House majority as they pick and choose their way through the cafeteria of spending mandates, trimming here, snipping there, slashing others with a Bowie knife, all the time knowing that the Senate (or if need be, the President) will save them from themselves.  And we will continue our established practice of maintaining a military budget bigger than just about all the others in the world combined.

So I think I was right the first time: military and fiscal hawk?  No such thing.  Or if there is, Pence ain't one.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Damn, and Here I Thought I was Happy

You've heard of the U-shaped curve which says that happiness peaks in youth and age and  bottoms out at about age 46?   The awesomely competent Monkey Cage declares that the data "isn't is clear as you might think,"  but a better characterization, based on MC's  own analysis, might be that the whole idea is bollox.

George Will and the Pension Paladin

George Will gasps this morning at the horror of the state and local pension calamity: the shortfall in funding, the chaotic accounting and disclosure, and the overall grabbiness of employes on the public payroll.  He's on the right track with respect to each of these issues, although he neglects to notice the extent that one may solve the other: given the relative (in)solvency of so many public pension programs, it beggars all expectation that employees, present or future, will ever see anything like the money they thought they were promised.

But Will has picked an odd choice of ally in his campaign for fiscal rectitude:  Rep. Devin Nunes of Tulare County, California, one of the most successful and effective exploiters of farm subsidies in Congress.    According to data from the Environmental Working Group,  Devin ranks third among California Congressmen in his capacity to bring home Federal dollars for the horny-handed sons of the soil in his rich farming district.

Credit Devin for talking a good case: back in Bush 43 days, he made a big deal out of voting against (and failing to stop) a farm pork bill.  But some guys just can't cut a break: the dollars keep rolling in.  Too bad: if only he could take all the cotton, rice and dairymen, etc., off the dole, the chances are he could solve the public pension problem right now.  George Will, feel free to copy.

Today's One-Liner

I'm not asleep, I'm running a level three diagnostic on my eyelids.

Thanks, Francine...

Friday, December 24, 2010

That Day Again

Marcellus gets his big moment and then exits stage left:
Some say that ever 'gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour's birth is celebrated,
This bird of dawning singeth all night long;
And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad,
The nights are wholesome, then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow'd and so gracious is the time.

--Hamlet, Act I, Sc. i

[Evidently not applicable in Souithern CA:]

Buchan on Money

I suspect it is easy to overpraise James Buchan's Frozen Desire: Meaning of Money. They say people take you at your own valuation and Buchan's evaluation of himself seems high. I'd file him next to Henry Adams: the same self-assurance, the same deep-seated good breeding. Also: the same not too well concealed astonishment that, given his past and his parts, the world has no particular interest in him. They're too grownup to cry about it: Adams responds with a wry self-mockery at the picture of himself struggling to maintain standards among knaves that smell of sweat.  Buchan's tone is more one of faintly amused bewilderment.  It does serve him well insofar as it motivates him to try to consider his subject--money--with a kind of detached scrutiny rare among students of the topic.

This an approach which yields what is perhaps best in the book--an eye for the giddiness and confusion that money can create, not simply in one who wants money, but in more or less anyone who finds money within easy reach.  It allows him to convey a convincing sketch of the flavor of the madness that overcame France and then England in the two great ur-bubbles -- Mississippi  and then South Sea--of the 18th Century.  It leads him to a surprisingly compassionate portrait of Karl Marx and his family, struggling in Dean Street.  He doesn't simply dismiss them as confused visionaries--they were confused visionaries, at least mama and papa, but as poor fallible human beings who make the same damn kind of mistakes that the rest of us are wont to make.

He also has a good ear for anecdote---it was from him I pinched point d'argent a few days ago.   Yet it is very gift for anecdote that seems to betray him: he tells so many good stories about, e.g., John Law and the South Sea Bubble that you begin to suspect he doesn't understand Law's project itself all that well.  Similarly, over at the end of the book he lifts an arch piece of satire from Tom Wolfe in which the go-go Wall Streeter finds he cannot explain the bond market to his child.  "The Master of the Universe," intones Buchan,
ties himself in knots.  For even poor Sherman has grasped the imperative, which is categorical enough to be worth repeating, once a century: that even in great cities of finance, if you cannot explain your job to your child, you probably shouldn't be doing it.
He's probably got a point there, but it may not be the one he thinks he is making.  Specifically, if Sherman cannot explain bonds to his child, it may not that there is anything particularly corrupt or insidious about it; it may be simply that he doesn't understand it very well.  In outline if not in detail, the bond market is actually not all that difficult to explain.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Big Books

Devoted fans will note that I have updated my Amazon books link.  Woolgathering on the exerbike this afternoon I got to thinking about "big books"--the kind you can dive into and just wallow around in for a week or a month or longer--Middlemarch or War and Peace that sort of thing.  I asked myself: what kind of "big books" explain the 20th Century? 

I see I can give no more than a fragmentary answer to that question, but I herewith offer some of my favorites.   They certainly aren't the kind of thing you are going to breeze through on a weekend--for me, it's pretty much the record of a lifetime. I first read Bertram Wolfe's Three Who Made a Revolution during my "remedial college" years when I was about 25--my battered original copy is still here, eight feet off my right elbow as I write.   I was conscious then that it read like a novel, and I bet it still does.  Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy I read just a bit later--the two together probably shaped the political views I carry with me today. Free market ideologues like to claim Schumpeter as one of their own, but that's a sign that they haven't read him, or that they suspect we haven't read him: he is far too much of an electic, too much of an ironist, for such facile categorization (for extra credit: I have always found it s defect in Galbraith that he has no intelligible program, no teetable hypothesis; in Schumpeter, this bug seems to be a feature--why the difference?).

Others came later. The Spanish Labyrinth was a traveling companion on my first trip to Spain. Autobiogrpahy of an Unknown Indian carried me back and forth on the long plane flights to and from Mumbai.    Hope Against Hope we did as a readaloud, and not an easy task I can tell you--hypnotic, but exhausting (I still haven't read its companion, Hope Abandoned; for a long time I figured it was just a weaker sequel, but Patrick Kurp assures me it is worthy in its own right, and I am meaning to get around to it).  Rebellion in the Backlands (in a new translation, just Backlands) ought of course to be bracketed with its novelistic companion, The War for the End of the World--I cannot imagine why I did not just list them both.  Black Lamb and Grey Falcon the sprawlingest, messiest of the lot, I did as a book-on-tape in the car.  I think it hung around for a couple of years, but I can easily conjure up its tang today--some of the best bits of compassionate comedy I've ever encountered.  The Brothers Ashkenazi, I read just a year or two ago in my commuter motel room, on the recommendation of Joseph Epstein.(hat tip).

I note obvious gaps.  China, for example.  I've read Jonathan Spence's Search for Modern China  in prep for a trip to China; I found it most helpful and instructive but still it comes across as a very good textbook, somehow not the thing I want on this list. Japan: I've read as fair amount about Japan but nothing that qualifies as both (a) big and (b) 20th Century.  Africa--oh, wait, I forgot  to mention Norman Rush, Mating, his not-quite-a-novel account of Americans in Botswana.  Do I file that one under "Africa" or "America?"

And speaking of America, I see I have nothing from the good ol' US of A, but I just thought of a candidate: John Dos Passos' great trilogy, USA, another sentimental favorite from back in my Schumpeter/Wolfe phase.  It's one I', a little iffy about reading again because I liked it so much the first time and I'm a teensy bit afraid I might not think so highly of it the second.

And I end with Ibn Khalid, Muqaddima which, no, is not 20th Century at all (the conventional date is 1377) but whch underwent a kind of rediscovery in the 20th Century (Princeton published a Bollingen three-volume set in 1967).  Anyway  the subtitle is "An Introductioin to History."  Might not be too much to say that it explains everything about the 20th Century, along with all other centuries, before and after. Anyway, I just discovered it only a couple of years back.  In lifetime reading terms, perhaps it forms a bracket with Schumpeter/Wolfe.

Dynamite Ad Capaign

That is all: dynamite ad campaign.  Link  H/T Chris Blatman.

And to match or top it, go here..

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Today's One-Liner

"We don't have ourselves drycleaned."

Barney Frank on showering with homosexuals.  Watching him pummel this poor questioner is a little like watching a 56-car pileup on Interstate 5: link.

Felix Salmon Channels Tim Geithner

Felix Salmon has certainly matured into one of our most helpful and generally instructive commentators on the mare's nest that is modern finance.  Such a surprise, then, to hear him utter flapdoodle like this:

Balance sheets have two sides, of course: assets and liabilities. And I suspect that what Mark might have in mind here is attacking the liability side of things, through pushing principal reduction on mortgages or allowing them to be reduced in bankruptcy.
But there’s a problem with trying to reduce liabilities: when the markets lose faith in credit instruments, as we saw during the crisis, the repercussions can reverberate around all markets and all countries. So governments around the world made a conscious decision to keep most bondholders whole, while injecting new capital and diluting equity holders in their attempt to shore up balance sheets.
Say wha--?  So we want a universal put  under all senior claims?  Do what you will as long as the bondholders don't feel any pain?   "Markets [might] lose faith in credit instruments."  Felix, baby: this is exactly what we want.  We want markets to pay attention to what kind of credit they are underwriting, and not buy crap--or at least, not unless they can get it at Matterhorn prices, such that they can expect to cover their own losses.  Or, if the problem is "interconnectedness," so they will do a lot to try to police the system against a fatal meltdown.  

Instead, we live in a world of "let Tim do it," where the lenders can take any kind of risk no matter how ill-considered because they know the guy with the briefcase shackled to his wrist will move mountains (= mountains of taxpayer money) to make sure they don't suffer the consequences of their own folly.

I admit that housing (of which Felix was writing when he made this uncommonly silly remark) might be a somewhat special case, in that most of the attention has been focused on keeping debtors in the homes they so improvidently purchased: a more hairy-chested market solution would recognize that some foreclosures are going to happen.  But in general: senior does not mean "don't worry, the taxpayers will pay."  Senior just means you are above the Plimsoll line.  The ship can still sink.

Boy Meets Cougar

There is nothing, I have found, more dangerous to young people than middle-aged women who have renounced all pretensions to coquetry, for the sheer force of their desires is channeled into  cannibalistic selfishness, an appetite that has engrossed all the resources of their charm, brains, and conscious appeal as human beings.  True, many elderly men also deploy the same forces vis-à-vis the young of both sexes; but there is with them, I think, a less ruthless, mindless determination, and their efforts are generally tempered by a certain sense of decency and measure, of regard for their juniors whom they consider as desirable objects rather than as victims or trophies.
--John Glassco, Memoirs of Montparnasse 33 (NYRB 2007)

[Glassco would have us believe he wrote this memoir in his early 20s, while the experience was still white-hot. But it appears that in fact he wrote it many years later in his 50s, back-dating it as (apparently) a literary conceit. For details,consult Louis Menand's excellent introduction to the NYRB edition.]

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

We're #21!

Well, isn't that special--a number-crunching professor at the University of Cincinnati has churned out a law school ranking table under which my more-or-less old school is #21(heh!) and (hm!) tied with Harvard.

Oh, mock on, you doubters.  It's better than we do in most rankings, and it is better, relatively speaking, than I ever achieved in the Bay-to-Breakers.  If we deserve it at all, I suppose we make it on "Professors: Accessible," perhaps also "Professors: Interesting."    I do wonder if we are really that much more interesting than, say Yale (tied with Cardozo for #39).

We will of course go all squiggly giggly and who can blame us?  But it might be more fun to hear the conversation at Harvard--we're tied with who?  (pardon, this is Harvard: whom?).  Which brings to mind the occasion when our first dean,Ed Barrett, called the then-dean of Harvard, Erwin Griswold, and asked him if he knew anybody who might want to be a law professor at Davis.   Griswold was a massive old grizzly bear with a voice that could take the rust of an anvil. "DAVIS?" he is said to have responded, "WHO THE HELL WOULD WANT TO PUT A LAW SCHOOL IN DAVIS?"

Good question.  And while we are t it, who the hell would want to put one in Cambridge?

[Oh, and a "hai, caramba!" to Francine for the alert.]

Small World

So far as I can tell, this is Underbelly's first-ever Lithuanian link.

The FCIC "Presponse:" Did they Blow It?

Remember the guys who did not finish their term paper?  I mean the four Republicans on the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, who issued their  their "presponse" to the Commission report, i.e., a "dissent" when there was nothing to dissent from.  Evidently the plan was to kidnap the narrative and make it their own, as in "it was the government wot done it"--especially Fanny and Freddie, the great bloated unloved demons of the housing market.

Am I right that they blew it, these guys?  Among people who care, they've had a week of pretty much undivided attention, the upshot of which is to leave the report exposed as a shoddy piece of hackwork.

The man who seems to have drawn the task of manning the machine gun to cover the retreat is Peter J. Wallison of the American Enterprise Institute who has made kind of a career out out of seeking to discredit Fannie and Freddie.  Joe Nocera of the New York Times does the most thorough job of deconstructing the "presponse" (his word) and Wallison's role in it.  In the heat of combat observers may forget, but it's fair to note that Nocera was actually measured in his criticism: he acknowledged that Wallison has been one of Fannie/Freddie's most insightful critics.  But the idea that Fannie/Freddie created the current debacle--Nocera makes a compelling case that on this point,Wallison just goes off the rails.

Wallison might just have ignored Nocera.  Or he might have set to show that Nocera was wrong.  But no: he opts instead for the weakest of all responses: he's seen the documents; he knows he's right, maybe he'll show you next month.  Meanwhile, you'll have to take his word for it.

Felix Salmon pretty quickly showed how this one doesn't even pass the giggle test.  It puts me in mind of that granddaddy of all securities promos:"a company for carrying out an undertaking of great advantage, but nobody to know what it is." 

But that's all so last week.  Attention has already moved on ("oh, look, a puppy!").  The FCIC will issue its report.  Wallison and friends will deliver their dissent (a"postsponse?").   Chances are he will even come up with some data on Fannie/Freddie that will muddy the debate, but if he has anything good, it's hard to imagine why he doesn't just turn it loose now.  Meanwhile if anybody remembers this episode at all, they'll probably remember it as an occasion on which a quartet of supposed Republican grownups looked like just one more Gang that Couldn't Shoot Straight.

Postscript:  One  irony here is that Fannie/Freddie do have a lot to answer for: too big, too bloated, too self-serving, too much of a burden on the taxpayers.  But on all the available evidence (i.e., excluding whatever is in Wallison's private dossier), the charge that they triggered the meltdown--that's a charge that simply will not wash.  By all that we know so far, they came late to the party in a desperate game of catchup, driven mainly by their determination to retain market share.  In short (I  must have written this  before) not so much a case of misguided public policy, but of a "shadow government" acting way too much like a sociopathic bank.

When Man Bites Dog...

Mrs. Buce is not at all impressed that the Met has recommissioned a long-languishing portrait of Philip IV as "really" a Velzaquez.
One more Philip IV?  Who needs it? There must be 40 of them.* Now, if it were Philip III, maybe.  Or Philip V.  Or a portrait of Velazquez by Philip IV, then we'd be getting somewhere.
*Wiki counts 11, though if you throw in portraits of the family, you'd get a lot more.  Still an ugly dude, though, wouldn't you say?

Monday, December 20, 2010

Some Post Post Postcripts on Mistry's A Fine Balance

Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance: I suppose it's a tad pathetic even trying to say something useful about a book that was an Oprah choice nine years ago, and that gets 621 Amazon reviews, but I feel obliged to catch a few thoughts on paper,* at least to nail down a couple of points in my own mind.

For starters: I'll sign on that it is, as a multitude of endorsers testify, that it is at least a very good book--remarkable in a book with so much awfulness.   It's like standing at Trafalgar Square and waiting for the car wreck, and it happens only this ti\me it is a thousand car wrecks and they all  happen.  You get an odd sense of closure, perhaps driven by the observation that you knew it was going to work out that way and it does.

There's also the artistry of the telling--the art-that-conceals art, as Mistry delivers some 600 pages of almost unadorned narrative, striking almost never a wrong note.  This, I surmise, is far trickier than it looks, especially remarkble in one who really did not have a huge bedrock of experience to call upon.  It took Verdi--what?  17?--operas to hit his stride; Mistry makes a hole in one on his second shot.

But I want to leave a couple of points about style, or perhaps better his relationship to his material.  One--this will seem a silly thing to say about so unremittingly glum a story.  But in an odd way, Mistry's novel is too nice.  Yes: for all the doom and gloom, there are a number of interludes of solace and calm, a number of characters who you'd like as friends, hope for as next door neighbors.

These emollient eddies are certainly a relief from all the misfortune and disappointment, but as a strictly artistic matter, I'm not sure it quite works.  There are times when you feel like you've wandered into the set for a Bollywood version of M*A*S*H, where (as they say) it's Autumn in the 4077th and the whole gang goes crazy.

I can think of several possible reasons for this.  One is, he just wants to give the reader a break (I think it is Alan Furst who says he sends his characters to Paris every so often because the reader deserves a bit of fun).  A second--I don't quite believe this, but it's a thought--it's a bid for Oprah.  Hard to believe she would have taken 600 pages of pure gloom with no relief.

But I think perhaps a more basic reason might derive from the situation of the author himself.  I know just about nothing of the other except what I learn from his novel and Wiki.  But my guess is we are dealing here with a guy who is writing (and writing well) of a life he observed but did not really live.  Let's see: Parsi, check;seems to be of good family, check; good schooling, check, and finally, escape to Canada.  This is someone whose sense of the wretched of the earth comes at second hand.

That sounds like a dismissive sneer. I don't really mean it so.  He is who he is and I should take him so. But it leads, perhaps, to my second point about his relationship to his material.  A number of readers have asked: what exactly is Mistry trying to prove?  And the most plausible answer seems to be: nothing at all.   He has no moral, no messsage.  He stands and admires.

This, too, is not at all intended as a slur.  No law requires that he have a message.  Or if there is a message, perhaps no message is itself that message.  As Dina Auntie reflects, in a voice suspiciously authorial:
Where humans were concerned, the only emotion that made sense was wonder, at their ability to endure; and sorrow, for the hopelessness of it all.
There, that's it.  Not said with great artistry, but no matter: most of the time he doesn't tell, he simply shows.  And few have done it better.

==*Metaphorically.  Actually, I use obsidian chips on sandstone.

The What Citizens Councils?

This really belongs in a comment over at TPM, but they don't take comments* so I'll go on record here.  They are going on about God Ol' Haley Barbour and the Good Ol' White Citizens Councils.  Good Ol' Haley says there was nothing sinister about them and--why, here's a racist, now fancy that!

Haley--Baby--I lived through the Golden Age of the CCs and I can attest--I never, ever, not once, heard them referred to as just "Citizens Councils" before--the adjective was always there, like gum on the bottom of a bus seat.  I suppose at some point, somebody in PR told them they had to buff up their image, the same way Jubal Early sanitized the Civil War.

But I have a gold-plated rebel yell ready for anybody who can point to just thing that those WCC's ever did that with a purpose other than the squelching,bullying, intimidation or outright eradication of blacks.
*Okay I guess they do  but I wasn't finding the link.

Eleanor and Gypsy's Ass--Diid She Say That?

Go to Google.  Type in (using quotes): "May your bare ass always be shining."  As of 9:06 pst this morning, you would have gotten 99 hits, all (well--I didn't actually read them all) assuring you that this was the text of a message (telegram?) from Eleanor Roosevelt to Gypsy Rose Lee.

Did she say it?  Boy, you'd sure hope so, wouldn't you?  Restore your faith in humanity.  My own guess is that it's about as authentic as Richard Holbrooke's last words--something to be filed under "too good to check."   Again as with Holbrooke, I can believe in a kind of quasi-truth: maybe somebody on the press team scratched it impudently across a telegraph blank for the edification and entertainment of his buddies.  Than as inevitably happens with impudent jokes in the newspaper copy, it made its way into print.  I'd say maybe a 30 percent chance that she never knew she said it.

Heaven knows I am not an Eleanor scholar--or a Gypsy scholar either.  Maybe this is all in the footnotes of the best biographies.  I'd probably be just as happy if I never found out.

Oh, and my source: Janet Maslin

Afterthought:  My friend Clyde says that what she really said was just "shake your moneymaker."

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Mistry Updated

Just after finishing a readaloud of Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance, I ran across The Economist's what it identifies as "India's Languishing Countryside," and found myself wondering whether the author understood--he must--how much he was providing a backgrounder/update on Mistry's grim but grimly satisfying novel of life under "The Emergency"--Indira Gandhi's lawless power grab that kept her illegitimately in office in the late 70s.  Readers of the novel and the update will recognize the home turf of Ishvar and Om, the two benighted tailors who carry Mistry's story.  The E does provide some extra background: the importance of post-independence land reform in shaping the structure of the Gangetic economy, for  instance, and the ironic dilemma created by the fact that the land is simply too productive for its own good, leading to a kind of overpopulation and land prices that nobody can pay.  The also adds just a bit about India's economic "renaissance," if it is that, which remains offstage but still sets the background for village life.   Christmas (!) special on

There are, perhaps surprisingly, some tiny notes of solace in this hard story--particularly, the insight that Hindus and Muslims here in the villages actually get on quite well, somehow immune or at least indifferent to the clashes that drive their brethren in the cities.  But perhaps the central point is how little seems to have changed at least since Mistry's time and perhaps in ages beyond memory.  Forget about the "abolition" of the caste system: leatherworkers are still leatherworkers, midwives are still midwives.  The E quotes B. R. Ambedkar, the architet of the India's constitution, himself from the bottom of the caste hierarchy:  "What is the village but a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness and communialism?"

What indeed?   If the reporter got it right, the answer would have to be:  not much.

Afterthought:  I hope to say more about the Mistry novel tonight or tomorrow morning.

Anybody Can Play!

 Keynes and Friedman in a dead-ish heat.

Adding Friedrich Hayek makes surprisingly little difference.   Would I be right to infer that Glen Beck has hurt more than helped?

 But throw in Karl Marx and he sweeps the field--for now.

Law extra: guess who swamps Benjamin Cardozo.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Andrew Sullivan says Obama is Smarter Than You Think He Is

On repeal of DADT:
Like 2009's removal of the HIV ban, which was as painstakingly slow but thereby much more entrenched, this process took time. Without the Pentagon study, it wouldn't have passed. Without Obama keeping Lieberman inside the tent, it wouldn't have passed. Without the critical relationship between Bob Gates and Obama, it wouldn't have passed. It worked our last nerve; we faced at one point a true nightmare of nothing ... for years. And then we pulled behind this president, making it his victory and the country's victory, as well as ours.

A Payment of How Much?

Yves Smith raises the question whether banks are afraid to foreclose on the rich?  Her piece speaks for itself and I won't attempt to add to it, except--a payment of $20,000 a month?   And "He knows of 20 people personally in his community who have mortgages of over $20,000 a month"--?

Of course I don't know the terms, but a payment of $20,000 a month on a 20-year fixed at five percent annual pencils out to a liability somewhere north of $3 million.

Her source also says that he knows a guy with such a mortgage who "has not made a single payment in over 18 months."  At the same five percent rate, $20,000 a month for a year and a half gives a present value of $346k.   Per the U.S. Census Bureau, the median sales price of a new home in the United States is somewhere a bit  shy of $200k.  So the arrearage alone here would be enough to pay for nearly two of them.

He lives in a fancier neighborhood than I do.

Not in Front of the Children

Thomas Gradgrind, sir.  A man of realities.  A man of facts and calculations. A man who proceeds upon the principle tht two and two are four, and nothing over, and who is not to be talked into allowing for anything over.  Thomas Gradgrind, sir--peremptorily Thomas--Thomas Gradgrind. With a rule and a pair of scales and the multiplication table always in his pocket, sir, ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to. It is a mere question of figures, a case of simple arithmetic.
That's Charles Dickens, Hard Times, Chapter II.

Now this.

More on Karajan: It's All in the Optics

Busy with other stuff today so no for deep thought, though I can offer up one other insight drawn from  Norman Lebrecht's Maestro Myth.  The subject again is dictator and unholy terror Herbert von Karajan.  And in particular, the question of his Naziness--not whether, but how much.  Lebrecht's answer: plenty, and he worked hard to conceal or minimize it.

But reading Lebrecht, one draws the inference that "plenty" does not necessarily mean "more than others." Apparently a lot of serious musicians had a lot to apologize for after the war.  von Karajan's problem may have been that he acted like a fuhrer and seemed to enjoy his role as a bully-in-chief.  And perhaps worse, that he looked like a Nazi with his chiseled brow and imperious frown,  Ironic, seeing as how his father was apparently Slavic and his mother Greek.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Neckties: There Had to be a Reason

As one who believes that neckties cut off the blood flow to the brain, I am intrigued to hear Jonathan Roth explain that neckties evolved from military neck-scarfs: evidently soldiers in an earlier time wore them to keep their armor from chafing the skin.  So informed, I engage never again to wear a necktie unless I am also wearing armor.

The Grand Old Man of Elevator Music

Stuff I wouldn't have known if I hadn't picked up a copy of Norman Lebrecht's saucy-but-informative The Maestro Myth, specifically about the late Maestro di tutti Maestri Herbert von Karajan: he was not only the kingpin/dictator of the podium and the recording industry; he still rules us from the grave.  That is: Karajan is surely one of, maybe the, most recorded classical artist (a search for "Karajan" in Amazon music yields 9,000-plus hits).  He achieved his dominance partly through an artful and masterful collaboration with the top brass at Sony: they worked together to devise and market the digital music which swept the field away from the old LPs (recall--the secret of success in the music biz is to make sure we all have to repurchase our favorites every four-five years).
A corollary: Karajan understood for the mass market, classical music had to be boring.  Or at least "unsurprising," in the sense of "elevator music."  Technically proficient, of course--nobody can fault Karajan for technique.  But reassuring, anodyne.  This flattening of technique seems to have suited Karajan's temperament.  Lebrecht says:
Where lte performances  by Klemperer, Walter, Stokowski and other elder statesmen accquired dimensions of wisdom and grandeur, Karajan's recordings become shallow and insipid as he pursued continual refinement of the quality he perceived as breuty.  'Would you prefer them to be ugly?' he demanded when his interpretations were challenged.
And right there, I think, you have the dirty little secret of too much modern classical, including opera: technically proficient, but with the rough edges or the eccentricities all knocked off.   Like the cider you'd get if you cut out all the wormholes before you threw the apples in the press.  No, not elevator music: banker music:  Can't be too upsetting here.

I shouldn't complain: I listen to a lot of this stuff, and enjoy it.  But I remember Jim  Svejda, the public-radio classical music guru, years ago choosing his favorite recording (LP, no doubt) of Beethoven's Fifth. His choice: the CBS Orchestra.  Not because they were the best, but precisely because they weren't.  He argued that you could hear them thinking, "hey, we're playing Beethoven"--and practically falling off their stools. Gave the performance an energy and urgency that you just wouldn't have found with a more experienced crew.    Energy and urgency, can't have that.  Blame Karajan.

Uh, Legislative Purposes?

Ivan keeps us up to date on the news from Alabama (channeling the Washington Free Paper):
Alabama is the only state to ban the sale of sex toys in most cases; nevertheless the Huntsville shop Pleasures recently expanded, moving into a former bank building and using the three drive-though windows to sell dildos, lubricants, and the like.  Since state law prohibits the sale of these items unless they're used for 'bona fide medical, scientific, educational, legislative, judicial, or law enforcement purposes,' customers must provide a brief written description of the reason for their purchase.
Legislative purposes.  I am so tryin' not to go there.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

We All Suck at Law

 The good folks at Above the Law find astonishment and entertainment in the story of the former biglaw associate who tells the world that he just wasn't very good (="I suck") at law.  That would be Will Meyerhofer, "The People's Therapist," who, I suspect, his protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, can probably still tell you to three decimal places his grade average at  NYU.

As Meyerhofer obviously understands, he's not alone: lots of people suck at law, which shouldn't be too surprising in the sense that lots of people suck at lots of things, even the ones they have trained for, and even when they are sitting on 200k in student loan debt. One item of evidence that this proposition is true: the number of people who want to  escape law practice into law teaching.  I don't have exact numbers, but best I can tell, the number of applicants for teaching positions is rising even faster than the numbers of those trying to claw their way into law school in the first place.  And the quality, at least on paper--if you're not top ten percent at a top five law school, with a prestige clerkship to boot, you'd probably start making other plans.

Hah, you will say, those who can't do, teach!  But that's really not the point, at least not in the sense that you mean it.  The fact is a lot of these new professors are not mere refugee/mediocrities--as I say, look at the paper.  They're extraordinarily talented and hard working people who just can't stomach the life they thought they were (or pretended to be) training for.

Flipside: they may gag on law practice; they often are pretty good at the enterprise of being a law professor.  But being a law professor has little to do with being a lawyer: it's a whole different skill set, a whole different temperament.  And a core of it is the dirty little sotto voce that says: I am purporting to train you for a profession I do not have the stomach to do myself (exception: Yale, where don't have to pretend--they are not training lawyers, they are truly training others to be professors, just like them).

In terms of campus politics, there is a certain irony here.  The folks across the quad in Hom/SocSci, they mock us as a trade school, a barber college, teaching mere practitioners, not advancing the life of the mind.  Yet on closer scrutiny, it is they who are teaching by apprenticeship, they who are replicating themselves.  In that perspective, our life is much more abstract.

I don't mean to offer solace to the apprentice-masters over there in the culture factory.  As a serious student of polisci (say),  you may learn by apprenticeship, but the only thing you learn to be is another polisci professor, thus joining the great pyramid club of professors training professors to train professors.  And  I don't mean to pick on polisci: they same could be said about classics, or philosophy, or any of a dozen of those engines in self-replication.  Ponzi was a piker; if he'd come to us, he could have lived out his career full of years and honor with a festschrift and a pension at the end.

I'm not complaining, of course.  It's been a great life, this career-long avoidance of law practice.  It's given me endless opportunities to to think, to write, to follow my intellectual fancy anywhere it led.  I'm just lucky I had the chance.  For as they say, those who can't teach, do, and who wants that?

The Blogger has Questions

  They say the Devil has nine questions. Barry Ritholtz has ten; he poses them to the four guys who didn't finish their term paper:
1. From 2001 to 2003, Alan Greenspan took rates down to levels not seen in almost half a century, then kept them there for an unprecedentedly long period. What was the impact of ultra low interest rates on Housing, credit, the bond markets, and derivatives?

2. How significant were the Ratings Agencies (S&P, Moodys and Fitch) to the collapse? What did their AAA ratings on junk derivatives affect? What about their being paid directly by underwriters for these ratings?

3. The Commodities Futures Modernization Act of 2000 removed all Derivatives from all oversight, including reserve requirements, exchange listings, and disclosures. What effect did the CFMA have on firms such as AIG, Bear, Lehman, Citi, Bank of America?

4. Prior to 2004, Investment Houses were limited to 12-to-1 leverage by the SEC’s net capitalization rule. In 2004, the 5 largest investment banks asked for, and received, a full exemption from leverage restrictions (known as the Bear Stearns exemption) These five firms all jacked up their leverage. What impact did this increased leverage have on the crisis?

5. For seven decades, Glass Steagall separated FDIC insured depository banks from riskier investment houses. Prior to the repeal of Glass Steagall in 1998, the market had regular crashes that did not spill over into the real economy: 1966, 1970, 1974, and most telling of all, 1987. What impact did the repeal of Glass Steagall have on the banking system during the 2008-09 crash?

6. NonBank Lenders: Most of the sub-prime mortgages were made by unregulated non-bank lenders. They had a ”Lend to securitize” business model, and they sold enormous amounts of subprime loans to Wall Street for this purpose. Primarily located in California, they were also unregulated by both the Federal Reserve and the California State legislator. What was the impact of these firms?

7. These firms abdicated traditional  lending standards. They pushed option arms, interest only loans, and negative amortization mortgages, all of which defaulted in huge numbers. Was non-bank sub prime lending a major factor in the crisis?

8. The entire world had a simultaneous global housing boom and bust. US legislation such as the CRA or Fannie & Freddie only covered US housing and lenders.  How did this cause a worldwide boom and bust — even bigger than that in the US ?

9. Prior to the 2004, many States had Anti-Predatory Lending (APL) laws on their books (and lower defaults and foreclosure rates). In 2004, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) Federally Preempted state laws regulating mortgage credit and national banks. What was the impact of this OCC Federal Preemption ?

10. Corporate Structure: None of the Wall Street partnerships got into trouble, only the publicly traded iBanks. Partnerships have full personal liability for their losses. What was the impact of this lack of personal liability of senior management on Wall Street risk management?
Comment:  Some of these come close to being purely rhetorical in the sense that (I suspect) Barry feels he knows the answer, and that the answer is damning to the culprits.  For every one of them, I suspect somebody over at the American Enterprise Institute will be ready with a memo showing that it was a total non-issue and oh look!  There's Barney Frank!  Even given AEIs risible record of "research," still a number of these do represent real issues on which I'd love to have a better sense of who is right.  Example: repeal of Glass Steagall is part of the standard mantra.  Yet wouldn't I be right that the worst afflicted banks (Bear Stearns, Lehman) are the ones least diversified, the ones that took least advantage of Glass Steagall repeal?  Can we document that Federal preemption really changed anything?

I know, that's not really his point--his point being to try to shame four guys who seem to have no sense of shame, and who pass on, as an "investigation report," a set of AEI talking points that they could have drafted before the commission was ever appointed.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Today's Quote

If the four of them brought this to my office hours I’d advise them to take an incomplete for the class and turn in the paper next semester in January.
That's Michael Konczal on the four-man "minority report" of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission.  He means it in the strict sense:
The paper is 9 pages, and about 5,000 words. There are almost no hard numbers. There are only three citations. Everything here was in the popular narrative a year and a half ago.  This was supposed to be original research.... They had the power of subpoena, staff and a budget, and, random bloggers covering it have done a much better job. 
"Random bloggers" is unfair; it fails to identify the central contribution of some very skilled and experienced bloggers including, of course, Konczal himself.  He also includes references to a more serious effort to analyze -the crisis from a point of view with which he is not specially in sympathy-  The Squam Lake Report, out as a book last summer.

Should I be Embarassed by This?

Must be lower than "My Pet Goat."

[A complication: two hours ago on a different computer, I got an intermediate reading of 54 percent.]

Vlad the Impaler by any Other Name...

  Vanessa  Jackson, the Texas diva judge, offers a provocative insight into the forecasting of criminal behavior:
[S]he noticed that a large number of the defendants in capital cases in her court had Wayne or Lee for their middle names. After doing some informal research, Gilmore says she determined that an “oddly high number” of defendants in Texas death penalty cases have those middle names. After doing more online research, she’s determined that others have noticed the same strange propensity for people with Wayne or Lee for a middle name to have trouble with the law.
Mock on, but she may have something here.  Our names define us: Moynihan and Glazer pointed out years ago that you are more likely to be defined (and to define yourself) as "Irish" if your father is a "Hogan," than if your mother is.  And if you name the baby "Vlad the Impaler," the chances of his avoiding a schoolyard brawl are slim.

Yes, but what would it be with "Wayne" and "Lee."  Well, I wouldn't be surprised if a fair number of the "Waynes" are "Anthony Wayne," after "Mad"  Anthony Wayne, celebrated badboy of the American Revolution.   Right, I know his parents never actually heard of the general, but the bad-boy aura survives (statement of interest: the second-most-feared bully of my youth was an Anthony Wayne; he claimed direct descent from the badboy, and took great pride in it).

"Lee" is even easier.  Surely a fair number of those parents are claiming fealty to "Marse Robert," Robert E. Lee, Confederate Civil War general-in-chief and patron saint of lost-cause rebellions everywhere.  As a definer of behavior, I'd say it is almost as good as having "born to lose" tattoed on your forearm.

It Means "Trust is Number One!"

Thirteenth most hacked Gawker password:


The Love that Dare Not Speak Its Name

From the annals of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission:
[A]ll four Republicans voted in favor of banning the phrases "Wall Street" and "shadow banking" and the words "interconnection" and "deregulation" from the panel's final report ...
Link, with sourcing, here.  For valuable prizes, readers are invited to suggest other words that the party of W*ll Str**t should exclude from its vocaabulary.  Like "integrity" and "responsible government."

You Can Take This One to the Bank

  "Think Yiddish," they used to say, "dress British."  These days, you should dress Swiss.  We learn that USB, the Swiss banking behemoth, is circulating a 43-page appearance/dress code to employees in its retail branches.  As in:
[D]esigner stubble is out of the question for men, as is excessive facial hair.UBS's advice for men even extends to underwear, which should be of good quality and easily washable, but still remain undetectable
Link.  I told my friend Lee once that I think I missed my calling, and  that I should have been a banker,.  "You can't," she said, "you're not tall enough."  She neglected to mention the excessive facial hair.

Joel Kotkin is Not Impressed

As they used to say, put him down as "doubtful:"
[Arnold] Schwarzenegger’s soon-to-be-ended seven-year reign as California’s governor can be best described in just that one simple world: failure.  It has been so bad that one even looks forward to having a pro, the eccentric Machiavellian master, Jerry Brown, replace him.
Schwarzenegger never grew beyond the role of a clueless political narcissist. As the state sunk into an ever deeper fiscal crisis, he continued to expend his energy on the grandiose and beyond the point: establishing a Californian policy for combating climate change, boosting an unaffordable High-Speed Rail system, and even eliminating plastic bags. These may be great issues of import, but they are far less pressing than a state’s descent into insolvency.

The Terminator came into office ostensibly to reform California politics, reduce taxation and “blow up the boxes” of the state’s bureaucracy. He failed on all three counts.
You think that's bitter?  Go and read the whole of it.  There's actually not a whole lot to disagree with here, although I think Kotkin's rage is driven by one important offstage factor: disappointment.  I can't say I have followed Kotkin closely, but he sounds like a guy who expected better.

That's a charge on which I think I can plead not guilty.  I certainly wasn't impressed by Grey Davis, but I don't think I expected tht-all much from Arnold to begin with, so I suppose you could say my expectations were gratified.  And quick as I am to brandish the charge of "narcissism," in the case of Arnold, I'm more inclined to write it off as simple laziness: the first couple of years, he pretty much faxed it in, trusting (as it seemed) that he could coast on his reputation without ever having to leave Malibu.  He blew a lot of opportunities them; I don't know what would have happened if he had tried to use them, but then, none of us ever will now, will we?

I've actually been more charitably disposed to Arnie lately but mainly for the enemies he has made.  He's said a lot of good things; shame he didn't say them years ago

And while Kotkin sees us as more captive than ever to the bloated unions and such, my guess is that weird old Jerry Brown might be the one guy with enough independence and savvy actually to elude their grip.  At least in part.  At least for a while.  Just let's not expect to much of him, okay?


Department of Self Congratulation

  Looks like I pretty much nailed it on Richard Holbrooke's last words:
"At one point, the medical team said, You've got to relax," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters on Tuesday, relaying what he said he had heard from people who were in the room with Holbrooke at George Washington University Hospital. "And Richard said, I can't relax, I'm worried about Afghanistan and Pakistan. After some additional exchanges, the medical team finally said, Tell you what, we'll try to fix this challenge while you're undergoing surgery. And [Holbrooke] said, Yeah, see if you can take care of that, including ending the war."
So Huffpost. making the point that the White House was trying to defuse any suggestion that Holbrooke had wanted to, well, like end the war in Afghanistan.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The IRS Doesn't Want me to Pay my Taxes

I don't know about you, but I've always found quarterly estimated tax payments to be a bleeping nuisance.  It's not really the money: I'm a fairy docile taxpayer.  I've always shared the view of the crusty New England libertarian that "Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society;"* hell, I have been known to err on the side of overpayment.

But those quarterlies--I have never yet invented a system that guarantees I will remember (a) the due date; (b) the amount due; (c) where I  stowed the paperwork; and, yes, (d) whether I have already paid them.  Huff, puff.  Grump.  Grrr.

Just lately I went in quest of the universal solvent--online payment.  Dealing with my State taxes, I found, to my pleasant surprise, that the State of California was ready, willing and able.  I glommed onto a user name and password just about the same way as I would at any commercial site; I logged on and made a payment, and I said yes, I would be most pleased if they would henceforth send me reminders (if I am conscientious, I will log on at my bank today to make sure it is posted).  I don't know whether this is "secure" or not--I suppose not--but if anyone wants to hack my account for the purpose of helping me to stump up, they should feel free.

But the Feds.  Ah, the Feds.  First, they don't want just a user name and password; they want user name and PIN and password.  More: they mail you the PIN, then you have to phone for the password.  When you finally get around to signing you find yourself being warned that you are  now being transferred to some other arm of the Federal government which may have different policies and that if I want that okay but it's my funeral.   Like virtually every other internet user, I ignore the warning text, then check the box saying that I have not ignored it, and then proceed to ground zero--the site for online payment.

But wait--quarterlies aren't there.  Or I can't find 'em.  Some taxes are listed--some I've never heard of and am delighted I do not have to pay.  But after doodling around for a few (more) minutes, I chucked it all, pulled out my paper checkboook (I still have one), found the tax paperwork (glory be!), went and stole a stamp and envelope from Mrs. B, and posted the payment.  Notice to the boys in the mailroom: those bad vibes have nothing to do with the tax itself; they are all about the nuisance of payment.

I suppose I might be missing something here--I am an old guy, I am not supposed to understand computers.  But my friend Taxmom, who lives with this every day, seems to believe I am on the right track:
Yes, the State has done a great job of streamlining things.  Fed is driving us up a wall b/c they require online payment for certain things, yet make it prohibitively difficult to arrange that payment.  We've seen the FTB (CA) be proactive in other respects as well....for instance they like most correspondence / forms submitted by fax these days, instead of reg email, also greatly streamlined the corporate revivor process (FTB handles finances of this even though it is a Sec of State issue) which used to be a nightmare.

Go California!
*He also said "get down, you fool!" 

w/ o comment

 When he understood it, he called for his friends, and told them of it. Then said he, I am going to my Father’s; and though with great difficulty I have got hither, yet now I do not regret me of all the trouble I have been at to arrive where I am. My sword I give to him that shall succeed me in my pilgrimage and my courage and skill to him that can get it. My marks and scars I carry with me, to be a witness before me that I have fought His battle who will now be my rewarder. When the day that he must go hence was come, many accompanied him to the river-side, into which as he went, he said ‘Death, where is thy sting?’ And as he went down deeper, he said, ‘Grave, where is thy victory?’ So he passed over, and all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side. 

--John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress


Last Words

Seems like everybody in my Google Reader this morning is citing "Richard Holbrooke's last words:"

"You've got to stop this war in Afghanistan."

"Patient zero" seems to be this Twitter feed.

I'm a great admirer of Richard Holbrooke and I share the widely held view that we've lost a giant.  But were these his "last words?"  I doubt it.  I think it is pretty clear by now that "last words" are a cultural construct, especially popular in Victorian times though I bet they go back to the stoics (cf. "see how a Christian dies!").   The reality is virtually always less theatrical.

But here's a guess: it wouldn't knock me over to find out that Holbrooke, hospitalized, in extremis and with his loved ones, indulged in a moment of black humor to say "yeh, if I go, tell them my last words were..."  This guy was as dedicated, determined--and savvy--as any diplomat whose services we ever enjoyed.   And he understood that part of the job was playing the media. 

OBTW, whether or not I am right, let's agree that he was right.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Can He Do That?

I'm still trying to get my mind round the idea that the Virginia judge who decided the Obamacare  case also owns a chunk of a Republican advisory firm.  My first thought was--can he do that?  On slightly closer scrutiny I suspect the answer is--maybe, just barely, yes.  The governing rule seems to be the one that says the judge must recuse himself in a case where his impartiality might be reasonably questioned.  I've never much liked the squishiness of that rule--I used to speak out against it  back when I did continuing legal education programs.  But if ever there were a reason for questioning, this would seem to be it.

But as my friend Richard suggests, a threshold question is--where were the government lawyer on all  this?  I assume it's the kind of question that only arises if somebody makes an issue of it.  Did they object?  What kind of ruling did they get, and from whom?   Did they even consider it?

There is a devil's bargain here, of course: if you question the judge's impartiality and lose, then you are stuck from the get-go with a judge who thinks don't think he is up to the job.  But if you don't make the objection and lose the case, then you've pretty much screwed the pooch.

St. Lucy's Day

Were you awakened this morning by a girl with candles in her hair?   If so, you may have been enjoying the celebration of St. Lucy's Day, conventionally the beginning of the Christmas season.
At the first cock-crow, between 1 and 4 a.m., the prettiest girl in the house used to go among the sleeping folk, dressed in a white robe, a red sash, and a wire crown covered with whortleberry-twigs and having nine lighted candles fastened in it. She awakened the sleepers and regaled them with a sweet drink or with coffee ...
 So  Clement A. Miles, Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan (T. Fisher Unwin, 1912), recorded in Hymns and Carols of Christmas channeled through the aptly named Making LightApparently under the old calendar, December 13 was the shortest day of the year, but what is this with the first cock-crow between 1 and 4 a.m.?  Wouldn't this be New Zealand, or July?

I recall that I was so fêted once, back in the Pleistocene. I did my best to accept it with the generosity and good grace that it deserved although I admit that fussbudget I spent the whole time fearing the poor girl's hair would catch fire.  Won't be happening around here, though, we are plumb out of whortleberries.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

My Argument in Favor of the Efficient Capital Market Hypothesis

Graphically summarized:


The Best New Finance Commentator You've Never Heard Of

  ... is a certain EWC who has taken to reviewing (mostly) finance books at Amazon.   I have no idea who s/he is and his Amazon profile is entirely unforthcoming.  He's not an easy man to impress: of his 15 reviews, I find only one five-star, and that for his very first review, his only novel, which he denies (wrongly) is chick-lit.

Even within his rather austere limits, I can't say my enthusiasm is driven by the mere confirmation of ready-made prejudices.  He's down on All the Devils are Here which I liked a lot, lukewarm on Fault Lines, Crisis Economics, Good Capitalism, Bad Capitalism and Fool's Gold, all of which I liked though in varying degrees.  The nearest he gets to warm praise is for  Slapped by the Invisible Hand ("A five star insight wrapped in a 3 star book"), which I also liked. We are happily in tune at least on Thomas Sowell's typically overpraised Economic Facts and Fallacies, which he eviscerates with far more courtesy and respect than I would have mustered.  And it's not just those whose conclusions he opposes: on Sowell, for example, he says he likes Sowell's conclusions but faults him for (as he says) knowingly torturing his data.

I don't think I can fairly summarize EWC's whole point of view: extracted form miscellaneous reviews, his thoughts are necessarily presented as fragmentary.   His principal concern seems to be rooted in the problem of short-term hot money and the prevalence thereof in a long-term system.  At its first mention, I wondered if he was one of those fractional banking nutcakes, but no: he seems to be an industry insider with a good handle, inter alia, on a fair number of insights about the operation of the banking system to which neither I nor any of commentators appear competent to respond.  One giveaway, though: of Nocera/McLean's Devils, supra, which I liked and he did not like, he says:
[I]t never dawns on the authors to wonder why these lenders predominately put themselves at risk by holding the risky tranches of these loans rather than selling them (acknowledged in Chapter 14), by agreeing to buybacks loans that defaulted (acknowledged in Chapter 15), and overall by holding 40% of all these loans on their balance sheet rather than securitizing them. If they were intentionally making loans to homeowners that they knew could not be repaid and defrauding investors with fraudulent credit ratings and loan documentation, it would have made no sense for them to do this.
No: the insight that bankers made seemingly suicidal choices is important and worth noting, and there is a perfectly good reason why they did so. That is: the individual players were engaged in a heads-I-win, tails-you-lose game where they simply figured they could get their own off the table before the police (or reality) kicked in the door. Which, to all appearances, they have pretty well succeeded in doing.  ECM continues:
[McLean and Nocera] repeatedly swipe all this away with the dubious but often-repeated claim that everyone thought home prices would rise forever. Honestly, did you believe the price of your home would rise forever?
 I'm not persuaded that M&N "claim that everyone thought home prices would rise forever."  If they did, they were foolishly wrong.  But the real point is that the bankers  surely did not think that home prices  would rise forever.  Yet they acted as if they did, to all of our cost.

So there is a lot about ECM's presentation that makes me uncomfortable, even though I can't always respond as well as I'd like.  But he's too interesting to dismiss out of hand; I'd love to see him do a book--and to see it reviewed by a true industry insider--Yves Smith, say, or her great buddy The Epicurean Dealmaker, both of whom have the kind of chops necessary to cope with his banker expertise.