Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Can the Taxpayers Thank Eliot Spitzer for AIG?

In a word, no.  But I've been reading Roddy Boyd's book about the AIG collapse and meditating on a Turledove Scenario as to what would have happened had not Eliot Spitzer set out to disencumber AIG's Hank Greenberg of his scalp, back when Sppitzer was still king of the hill, months before his own political career cratered in a blaze of hypocrisy.

Review the bidding. For as long as anyone could remember, AIG had been the shadow of one man--Greenberg--who for so long enjoyed a reputation as one of the great CEOs, fit company perhaps for no one but Warren Buffett.  How distant all that seemed during the dies horribilus in the early autumn of 2008 when AIG and, it seemed, so many other icons of American capitalism collapsed into the not very welcoming arms of the United States government.

By the standard account, it was a replay of the too-familiar "rogue trader" story--one cowboy (and a London cowboy at that) marketing one catastrophically bad product that brought so many buzzards home to roost. How could so formidable a manager as Greenberg have allowed it to happen?    But that is the point: Greenberg wasn't there any longer.  He'd been hounded out of his job by Spitzer in "an accounting scandal" back in 2005.  At the time--and even more, in retrospect--there were those who said the "accounting scandal" was pretty small beer but no matter; Greenberg three and a half years before the collapse.  Surely so formidable a manager could have averted this calamity--and ergo, surely it was Spitzer who brought this debacle to the taxpayer's door?

This version is at least beguiling and by Boyd's account, there is just enough truth in it to justify attention in so august a forum as this blog.  Bur in the end, I don't think it holds up, and here's why.

The key is to scrutinize Spitzer's motives when he went after Greenberg.  I think we'd have to recognize that his motives were not entirely a matter of disinterested public service.  Spitzer was (and remains?) a man of vaulting private ambition, with the ego and the competitve ruthlessness to match.

Now look at AIG.  Grant that the charges themselves were indeed small beer.  The fact is that AIG was already beginning to skid when Spitzer and his legions showed up at the gte: the company had become too big, too complicated, too (toxic label) mature for its role as the golden favorite of the growth-stock popularity sweepstakes.  Greenberg was getting older, and was finding he had to work ever harder to keep all those plates in the air.
They say that nobody is indispensable in a sense this is true enough, but if ever a man came close to indispensability, it was Greenberg.  And this is not a compliment.  He'd created a marvel like nothing so much as Bismark's Germany--as brilliant concoction, so complicated that nobody but he could keep it in motion.

In short, Spitzer exercised one of the prime skills of an ambitious megalomaniac: he sniffed out weakness.  He knew that Greenberg was an icon ready to topple and he brought him down.

So Greenberg was out.  From there on, popular accounts of the AIG collapse treat it as a "lone cowboy" story--Joe Cassanno's little credit default swaps shop bringing down a great enterprise, but as Boyd tells it, the story is more complicated than that.  There were any number of people who were willing or at least ignorant participants in Cassanno's folly.  If they gave out academy awards for financial folly, Cassanno's litany of thank-yous could extend long into the night.

And it appears that Greenberg himself didn't help matters.  Although he was out, he didn't go quality: he spent most of the years after his departure scratching and clawing at his former colleagues over the rights and wrongs of his dismissal.

But could he have stayed it had he stayed?  Ah, now that is the Turtledove question.  You can certainly think of ways in which he might have.  By Boyd's account, Greenberg was/is the ultimate micromanager, yet an uncommonly effective micromanager: he really did know how many nickels rolled under the couch, and how find and retrieve them.    Yet recall that even--especially?--micromanagers tire after a while.  Indeed on second thought, AIG had had some near misses with bad management before.  And indisdensable men by definition leave a whole lot of wreckage in their wake.

Shoudawouldacoulda.  Spitzer took down Greenberg because he smelled blood, because Greenberg was there.  But considering how driven and unstable the whole enterprise had become, there's a pretty good chance that AIG would have collapsed anyway.  

Dred Scott Redux?

UB's crack Wichita bureau spotlights a fascinating dustup between the Sheriff and San Francisco and Federal immigration authorities:

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF/AP) — If the San Francisco sheriff’s plan becomes reality, illegal immigrants arrested for petty crimes won’t be held in jail longer than necessary, even if federal immigration agents may want them detained for possible deportation.

Instead, starting Wednesday, deputies will treat those eligible for release just like U.S. citizens: They will be cited to appear in court.

City officials, however, aren’t so sure about Sheriff Mike Hennessey’s plan.

The new policy is his attempt to comply with a city law that prevents police from aiding federal authorities in non-felony crimes and a U.S. law that requires authorities to share fingerprints with immigration agents.

ICE Spokeswoman Virginia Kice said Hennessey’s decision is “unfortunate.”
Wichita asks: Fugitive slave law? But I would go a half step further: rerun of Dred Scott. You remember Dred Scott: slave carried to free territory, claims his freedom, Supreme Court rips his case to shreds. And we all know how that ended.  

Afterthought: I did my best to keep from calling this "The ICEman cometh." But I suppose somebody else has used this line already.

Monday, May 30, 2011

More Loose Thoughts on Projections of Power

I offered the other day some idle musings on "projections of power" and the diminutions thereof in a digital world.  Herewith a couple of loose ends.

One, I listed the bank, the opera house, the post office, the great pyramid.   I knew there were many more, but I realize now that I overlooked what must  be the greatest of all projections of power: currency, and in particular coinage.   It seems that as a matter of history, the first thing a sovereign did when he got control of the money supply was to put his face on it, as if to say "And when I ope my lips, let no dog bark! " By comparison, I think it is interesting to note that classic "merchant" currency--bills of exchange, letters of credit, your checkbook--do not bear projections of sovereign power, as if to remind folks that they speak for a web of relationships that transcend sovereign power.

Two, I'm just now catching up with the story that the New York City Opera is making plans to abandon its established venue at Lincoln Center, which is to say, under the shadow of the much grander, more prestgeous, more solvent neighbor, the Met. Makes all the sense in the world: I've enjoyed a number of happy hours at the NYCO, but it's always seems strange to patronize an enterprise whose very being bespeaks the fact that it is second best, an also ran. How did they ever get in such a pickle?

No wait, maybe I have an answer to that question. Could it be that the NYCO's second-tier presence was part of the plan, so as to enhance the pleasure and satisfaction of the Met audience by allowing them to disport themselves in the presence of their inferiors?   I read lately of a prostitute's John who said that if the girl enjoyed it, he felt cheated: he had paid her for his pleasure, after all, and if she too took pleasure, wasn't he paying her twice?  What, after all, is superiority all about, unless you are envied and/or admired? I think it was Jonathan Winters who said there ought to be a point in first-class air travel where they ring a little bell and the first-class passengers get to go back and do anything they want to the passengers in coach. And remember Tertullian:

...that eternal Day of Judgement, that day they laughed at, when this old world and all its generations shall be consumed in one fire. How vast the spectacle that day, and how wide! What sight shall wake my wonder, what laughter, my joy and exultation? As I see those kings, those great kings, welcomed (we are told) in heaven, along with Jove, along with those who told of their ascent, groaning in the depths of darkness! And the magistrates who persecuted the name of Jesus, liquefying in fiercer flames than they kindled in their rage against Christians!
--Tertullian, De Spectaculis, XXX

Now that, as Jonathan Winters might have said, is first class.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Natural Manure

I have never danced at the Jefferson Memorial, but I hope this one goes viral.

The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.  


HT:  BoingBoing.

Michel Who?

The NYT arts section leads off this morning with an account of "One Man's Quest To Prove His Painting is a Michelangelo."   Hell, they could have asked me.  One look ought to be able to tell anyone who ever looked at the Sistine Chapel or the Vatican Pietà or the Florentine David or (my own favorite) the Florentine Pietà that this is a crude imitation by someone hoping to pass sit off as a Michelangelo.  I don't mean to accuse any living person: I  won't question the good faith or the proponents and for all I know it may be hundreds of years old.  But a Michelangelo it ain't. 

Next question?

Two Complaints about Gretchen Morgenson

I haven't read Gretchen Morgenson's new book (with Joshua Rosner) though it sounds promising and I probably will.  But based on what I hear and read, I've got two beefs that won't go away.

One: title versus content.   We've got here what the Brits would call a violation of the Trade Descriptions Act.  It's called "Reckless Endangerment," with the hubba hubba subtitle "How Outsized Ambition, Greed, and Corruption Led to Economic Armageddon."  By all accounts I have seen, it is nothing of the sort: it is an account of Fannie Mae, its rise and inglorious collapse, together with a (partial?) account of the damage the collapse did to the rest of us.  This is a worthy topic, but Fannie Mae is only one part of the problem: even if the biggest part, you can't tell its story without telling the stories of a dozen other players in this long, slow, suicidal game.  
I feel the author's pain: the collapse is a blind-man-and-the-elephant problem and it's inconceivable that any one authorial team is going to capture the whole--they'd be foolish to try.  But would it kill ya to concede the point--to note that (per Robert Reich) you don't even mention Joseph L. Cassano (AIG) or Richard Fuld (Lehman).  And, that by what I've seen, you give only bit-player status to so many others who could take (and sometimes do take) center stage in accounts of their own.

And two: the title itself.  Is there some kind of rule among publishers that you have assisgn titles so anodyne that the reader can't remember which is which?  I mean, be fair: would you look at a book called "Reckless Endangerment" and say "oh, Fannie Mae."  Hell, you might not even say "oh, financial crisis":  the title would work just as well on account of, say the Japanese nuclear  industry.  And for comparison, can you guess without peeking what is the subject of Money and PowerFatal RiskPanicCrash of the TitansThe Monster?   Aren't they pretty much interchangeable?  Note that this may be in part a technological issue: in the old days, I could at least pick up some visual cues from my bookshelf, but now I can never remember where to find them on my Kindle.  But still....

Afterthought: A well wisher points out that the Kindle app on my Iphone and on my laptop does contain cover views.  Point taken.  

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Genius of the Saint-Simonian Variety

Cet enfant de la fortune va si continuellement faire désormais un personnage si considérable qu’il est à propos de le faire connaître. J’ai parlé de sa naissance à propos de son père : on y a vu que ce n’est pas un fonds sur lequel il pût bâtir. Le bonheur et un bonheur inouï y suppléa pendant toute sa longue vie. C’était un assez grand homme, brun, bien fait, devenu gros en vieillissant, sans en être appesanti, avec une physionomie vive, ouverte, sortante, et véritablement un peu folle, à quoi la contenance et les gestes répondaient.

This child of fortune will henceforth figure continuously as a personage so considerable that it is  appropriate to get acquainted with him.  I spoke of his birth when I spoke of his father; we saw that this was not a foundation on which he could build.  His  bonheur--an unheard of  bonheur--filled the lack throughout his long life.   He was a big enough man, dark, handsome, become large with age without appearing weighted down,  with a countenance bright, open, outgoing, and really a bit mad, in which the actions and the capacities met.
--Duc de Saint-Simon, "Portrait of the Marquis de Villars, Memoires 15 
(GF Flammarion 2001) (Delphine de Garidel, ed.) 

The editor quotes Marcel Proust identifying that "a bit mad" as "a mark of genius of the Saint-Simonian variety."   

Projections of Power

Here's another topic on which I am perhaps just playing catchup: projections of power in architecture.

For starters, I suppose that just about every durable structure can be read as a projection of power:d the Great Pyramid, the Parthenon, the Hagia Sophia, whatever.  But move closer to home: for thre moment, I'm particularly interested in the late-19th Century bank building.  You recall: it was down at the corner of Fourth and Main.  It may have been Greek revival, perhaps faux Renaissance.  In any event, its point was: we are stable and durable, we will be here when you need us.  Correspondingly, I think one of the inflexion points in modern finance came to pass at that point--say, the early 80s--when it sank in on bankers that you didn't need a building for a bank.  If you were a money center potentate, sloshing around in surplus capital, you could just ship it all out to some guy with a swivel chair and a computer in an office in a strip mall between the Karate Dojo and the manicurist.  Presto, a bank.

Item two: the opera house.  Seems to me the standard opera house in Central Europe or Northern Italy is  an outcrop of the Austrian Empire, saying "we're here and we're staying--deal with it."  Perhaps this explains why every jerkwater pioneer town beyond the 100th Meridian in the 19th Century had to fling up an opera house, as if to say, "don't be misled, we are real."  I can only begin to imagine what we will do with that tradition as face-to-face opera gives way to multiplex HD.

Item three: railroads.  Up in Tacoma a couple of weeks ago, I marveled at the splendid old rail terminal, now a courthouse, and wondered to myself--what kind of optimism,  not to say cash, led to the construction of so grand a facility in what is, after all, something of a tank town?

I thought of these "projections of power" again this morning when I read the splendid  Business Week piece on the implosion of the postal service. Here in Palookaville, we've a newish post office in drab Steelcase modern.  We also still keep the old one--a dignified pile on the south side of the town square.  The new one always seems to be packed with customers, the old one, not so.  What would it be like if we just abolished the old one and farmed out the residual traffic to, say, the convenience store just a couple of blocks up the street?  We'd have more convenient parking, for one thing.

I know that each of these examples poses issues of its own.  Post offices, for example--I know that no community, no matter how small and forlorn, wants to let go of its local postal service (in this, it is just like passenger rail, although I guess the rail battle had been pretty much fought and lost).     Post-office building must also have a lot do with political patronage--the local politician getting goodies for the boys and projecting his own power via a heap of building material with his name on it.

I really don't know where to go with this except to roll my eyes and say declare that "my, it's a changed world."  I guess it is obvious that our lives today are more abstract, more in our head.  But do we know how to live in a world without stable points of reference--banks, opera houses, railroad stations, post offices, that have done so much, for good or ill, to define who we are?   

Friday, May 27, 2011

"Public Option" Datapoint

You remember "The public option?" Paul Krugman's (and others') line-in-the-sand essential as the sine qua non of health care reform, the defining mark of earnest liberalism?  Sure you do.  Now shift the spotlight to the Ashland (OR) Shakespeare Festival whose audience, I have always thought, harbors a larger cohort of earnest liberals than anything this side of an NPR Tote Bag Swap Meet.  And in particular, focus on that performance of The Imaginary Invalid, which I wrote about a few minutes ago.  Did I mention the topical jokes?  No?  Well among other design features, I could have mentioned the topical jokes.    Viagra jokes, that sort of thing.  My instinct is that topical jokes never go over as well as the director seems to have hoped they would  Still, in particular I was surprised when someone on the stage cracked a joke that ended with "public option," and got booed.  Not loud, not by everybody, but insistent and unmistakable.  Or if you thought you did mistake it, you could have waited another few minutes until again they threw in the line "public option," and got booed again.

I should think the public option would be as popular with this crowd as white robes with the Vatican.  If they can't make it here, either I had better rethink my perception of all these gentle geezers in the audience, or else all the earnest liberals had better rethink their line in the sand.   

Spiderman West: The Ashland Style

Scan the blurbs for the staging of Molière's Imaginary Invalid at the Ashland Shakespeare Festival and you could quickly conclude that for full enjoyment, you'd best forget about Molière.   A "wild whorl of love and sickness, song and dance," gushes a newspaper review reprinted at the Festival website.  Elaborating:

Seeing a parallel between Molière's blending of court and peasant theatrical styles and Phil Spector's baroque pop-song productions, director [the modern adapter] has set the story in a Parisian apartment where classic elegance has been splashed with mod fashion.

Christopher Acebo's grand scenic design and eye-popping costumes blend with Paul James Prendergast's period-groovy pop-soul songs and Ken Roht's near-campy choreography in explosions of color and motion. Argan, by contrast, mostly sits in a wheelchair and complains, but as played by David Kelly in an iridescent robe and a Spector-ish halo of frizz, he's anything but inert ...

And the jokes are almost nonstop: cheesy puns, off-color asides, sight gags and so on. Anachronistic references to dowries, Viagra and even Hall and Oates fly by ...
 So you might think that  Molière is missing in all the frenetic acting. You wouldn't be quite right--the original was, after all, a comedy and some of the original comic ideas lie there somewhat mangled under the accumulation of debris.

But  Molière is only an incident or an accident  in the full flowering of what you might call "The Ashland Style"--a by-now-fully-matured genre of  theatrical display.  Some of the elements I've already set forth: start with a venerable name--Shakespeare is best,   Molière will do.  Add some of what Ashland has always done best--physical comedy on the order of Feydeau farce.  Tricky near-gymnastics are good, like a scene played at the top of a moving ladder, or a wheelchair that almost skids into the audience.  Add surreal costumes, heavy on primary colors (but no harm if you ask the lead to wear a duck  on his head).

And then the noise.  Oh my, the noise.  I was chatting a while back with a guy who works in Broadway tech. I remarked on  how loud Broadway shows have become. Yes, he said, but it's not the sound guys: they understand modulation.  It's the bankers, or the folks in marketing: they are the ones, he said who want full decibel all the time.

Maybe, although I can think of a good practical reason for all this miking in Ashland: the nature of the Ashland audience.  It's divided into two rather disparate parts.  One part is old--the public pensioners and suchlike who beguile away their sunset hours under a patina of culture.  in the nature of things, their hearing is beginning to go, and they might not complain about loud because they might not know it is loud.  The other part of the audience is the young--the schoolchildren who arrive by busload for a dash of uplift.  Presumably they have already destroyed through the earbuds whatever hearing God gave them but in any event they take loud as a given, a precondition, a matter of course.

Put the sound together with some flashing lights and you've got a halfway decent son et lumière show. So, a Spiderman  replay?  Not exactly.  While it may be like Broadway (or even Vegas. come to that), it's really much more just like itself--a peculiar mix of high culture and boffo that seems to keep bums on seats and cash tumbling into the box office: call it Spiderman west.  You certainly can't argue with this kind of success.  And you shouldn't expect anything else, really: in particular, you couldn't keep the place full by just staging and restaging the old warhorse classics in an old warhorse way.  So if you like lights and color and a lot of actually pretty good pratfall comedy, this is probably the place to be.  If you were looking for a Shakespeare Festival--well, that's a slightly different question.  

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Ashland Caesar

There are innovations in the new Ashland Shakespeare Festival production of  Julius Caesar,  but the presentation of a woman in the title role is not really one of them.  Sarah Bernhardt played Hamlet more than a century ago; apparently she wasn't well received, but that fact appears to root in the performance per se and not in her sex. Other women have taken men's parts, if not often, still often enough to make it no longer a novelty.

The more pertinent issue is: why is Vilma Silva here?  Is she here because she is a seasoned stage-person responding to a new challenge?  Or because there is something that she as a woman can bring to a man's role?

If the latter, then it's not obvious to me what it is she was supposed to bring.  Shakespeare's Rome certainly does present itself as a man's world, and Caesar himself, in conventional readings, as a catalog of manly virtues.  Silva's Caesar certainly isn't particularly manly--she's rather a good, hardened, seasoned, female politician, on the order of Elizabeth Dole.  It's a coherent reading in its way but it's a reading you certainly can't torture out of the text.  And it is far from clear what it adds to our understanding of Caesar (or Caesar) except insofar as it shows us what he is not.

Yet if she is not to be judged as a woman, why specify that she is "she?" Why put her in a gown and rewrite all the pronouns?  As I say it is no longer a novelty for women to play "men's parts."  Ashland for years has used African Americans (and others) in traditional white-male roles, to good effect.  Here in Caesar, there are other women in the cast, some in "men's parts" without making any effort to recast the characterization: Antony says "you are not wood, you are not stones, but men"--but are several women on the stage.   Ironically, one loss of insisting on Caesar's womanhood is that we lose one good woman's part: Caesar's wife, Calpurnia is hustled out of the script, her lines reassigned to others, in whom they make less sense.

Were we to evaluate Silva as a theatre-person and not as a woman, I'd judge her a bit disappointing, though not hugely so.  She's an effective communicator, dynamic and magnetic but again she is herself, not Caesar and it's so she comes across as a successful elocutionist, not as an actor.  For what it is worth, I'd say the same about Danforth Comins' Antony. Comins is one of the most impressive veterans in the Ashland company and he has turned in some superb performances (his Brick last year in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was as good as it gets).  In his big speech a Antony ("Friends! Romans!  Countrymen!") he comes near to the right level of manipulative sociopathy.  But you remember that underneath it all he is just too decent a guy for all the mischief that Antony so effectively creates.   The best actors are the ones that make you forgot who they really are. 

If there is a noteworthy innovation in the production, I suppose it is "Ako,"  cast as(inter alia) the Soothsayer who speaks some of her lines  in what I take to be Japanese.  Remarkably, I'd say that this does work. Let's stipulate that there were not Japanese in the Roman forum; still, the alien utterance adds just the note of strangeness you would want for such an urgent intimation of doom.  

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

"Old Man River" in Yiddish

For no obvious reason, Larry thinks we need to see this. Nu, who needs a reason?

A Pivotal Shakespeare Moment

I believe I first heard this bit of Shakespeare 50-plus years ago in an LP of readings by John Gielgud:

What's this, what's this? Is this her fault or mine?
The tempter or the tempted, who sins most?
Not she: nor doth she tempt: but it is I
That, lying by the violet in the sun,
Do as the carrion does, not as the flower,
Corrupt with virtuous season. Can it be
That modesty may more betray our sense
Than woman's lightness? Having waste ground enough,
Shall we desire to raze the sanctuary
And pitch our evils there? O, fie, fie, fie!
What dost thou, or what art thou, Angelo?
Dost thou desire her foully for those things
That make her good? O, let her brother live!
Thieves for their robbery have authority
When judges steal themselves. What, do I love her,
That I desire to hear her speak again,
And feast upon her eyes? What is't I dream on?
O cunning enemy, that, to catch a saint,
With saints dost bait thy hook! Most dangerous
Is that temptation that doth goad us on
To sin in loving virtue: never could the strumpet,
With all her double vigour, art and nature,
Once stir my temper; but this virtuous maid
Subdues me quite. Even till now,
When men were fond, I smiled and wonder'd how.
Fans will recognize this as Angelo, the proud, punitive authoritarian surrogate-ruler in Measure for Measure.  He has been talking with Isabella, who sought him out to beg mercy for her brother Claudio, sentenced to decapitation for illicit sex.   The sex wasn't even all that illicit: it was consensual, and the lovers were betrothed.  But Angelo is unmoved by her plea--until he discovers, to his horror, that he is suffused by the same kind of ungovernable passion (i.e here, for Isabella) that led Claudio to the mouth of his grave.

I think I understand now (as I surely did not then) that it is not just a powerful speech in its own right, but rather also a pivotal item in the entire Shakespeare canon.   Here we have a central figure in solilloquy, responding with shock and horror at the spectacle of his own inner self.  Can we imagine any character any work ever before who might have responded to himself in the same way.  Montaigne in his study perhaps, or Hamlet (whose own play appeared just a few years before).  But that is the point: Harold Bloom says that Hamlet taught us what it is to be human; her Angelo continues the job.

Another thing I learned since my first encounter: Gielgud's Angelo evidently occupies a pivotal juncture in the development of modern British drama.  I learn that Peter Brooks's presentation of Measure with Gielgud in 1950 proved an eye-opener for British audiences, creating a new understanding of the play and the part almost as revolutionary as Shakespeare's first introduction 350 years before (and not incidentally, did much to establish Brooks' own career).

I'm prompted to remember all this on having seen a new Measure here in Oregon at the Ashland Shakespeare Festival.  It's a flawed performance of a flawed work but interesting in its flaws of both sorts.  Say this about Shakespeare: he often wrote imperfect plays but he never wrote dull plays.  And like no other artist except possibly Picasso, you can always see him pressing the envelope, exploring something new, trying to expand the frontiers of his own world.   I may say more about the new Ashland performance later--I still haven't quite made up my mind about it.  But that may be precisely the appeal of this imperfect work, in text and also in this performance: you know it is imperfect but it gets under your skin and you cannot let it go.

Biblio note: the Gielgud LP is an item in its own right; here's a brief Wiki introduction.  Note to self, see if you can retrieve a copy of the LP.  No, wait, I don't have anything to play it on.

Just Sayin': FNMA

Chris Bertram remembers AJP Taylor:
What the capitalists and their lackeys hated about Soviet Russia was not its tyrannical nature but the fact that there was a whole chunk of the earth’s surface where they were no longer able to operate. Ditto Cuba, for a much smaller chunk.
Link.  Just in passing, isn't that a pretty good reason of what the Wall Street Journal hates about FNMA?

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Lee's Correlation of Everything with Everything

If you haven't found it already, walk-don't-run over to Overcoming Bias for a preview of the best dataporn datamine I've seen in quite a while.  That would be the Ken Lee's  (George Mason) thesis,* inadequately captioned as "How States Vary," not much less inadequately characterized as "the correlation of everything."  As described by his supervisor, Robin Hanson:

Ken collected 81 features of states, 56 cultural rankings and 25 demographic variables ...), and did a factor an analysis on them. 
One--word answer: health, and Robin is doing some followup analysis of the health findings right now (three-word advice: skip cancer screening (link; cf. link)).   The whole project seems almost like a spinoff of  a Hanson blog post of a few months back, where he divided us all into farmers and foragers. The earlier post kicked off a lovely comment thread, including those who think he is totally bollox and and those who just want to tweak the model (maybe three classes?  Farmers, foragers and nomadic herdsmen?) (good comments on the new item too).  One thing you can't easily sidestep: Lee's maps, suggesting that something is going on. 
*Idle curiosity: why does GMU call it a "thesis" rather than a "dissertation?"

Monday, May 23, 2011

Liveblogging the Gospel of Matthew II

Have I been forgetting my Greek read of the Gospel of Matthew?  No, although I have been busy with other stuff.  Still, I've made my way through to the end of Chapter 8.  I'm struck by how this part--5 through 8, say-- is pretty much all talk, and decontextualized talk at that--strings of wise sayings with no story arc and little or nothing by way of place or company.  This is perhaps the part where the record puts you in mind of so much "wisdom literature"--anything from Heraclitus to the Book of Proverbs, with perhaps particular reference to the Hellenistic Cynics.  It's perhaps the part that gives rise to the "great moral teacher" trope, but as C.S. Lewis has suggested, if Jesus has to make it as a "great moral teacher," he probably doesn't make it at all.

Morning After

...or two:

5 Build ye houses and dwell in them, and plant gardens, and eate the fruit of them.

6 Take ye wiues, and beget sonnes and daughters, and take wiues for your sonnes, and giue your daughters to husbands, that they may beare sonnes and daughters, that ye may bee increased there, and not diminished.

7 And seeke the peace of the citie, whither I haue caused you to be caried away captiues, pray vnto the Lord for it: for in the peace thereof shall yee haue peace.

8 For thus saith the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, Let not your prophets and your diuiners, that bee in the midst of you, deceiue you, neither hearken to your dreames which yee cause to be dreamed.
Link.  H/T Slacktivist.  

From the "Reporter"'s Notebook

What in the blue blazes impels Patrick Fitzgerald (in the Dow Jones Daily Bankruptcy Review) to refer to Douglas Baird et al. as "self-styled "bankruptcy scholars'" instead of just "bankruptcy scholars," as they surely are (get my point?--Watch the quotation marks.)?

Calling this panel of luminaries "scholars" is at least as noncontroversial as calling the Wall Street Journal a "newspaper."  Oh, wait...

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Socialism in One Country Dept.

I was telling Taxmom my theory of Scandinavian socialism--how it all started with Viking raiders, who worked as cooperative ventures, in which everybody had a share.

"So, let me get this straight," Taxmom responded.   "You're telling me that socialism works fine as long as there is a nearby developed civilization on which the socialists can pillage?"

Chris Bertram on the Varieties of Leftism

Chris Bertram offers a brisk taxonomy of leftism which might be sound-byte-summarized as "market," "populist" and "pastoral."  He might have added another class: the cohort which take it upon itself to classify and evaluate the other classes.  I hope I do not seem snide here, for I would certainly have to include myself in that additdional  class.  As such, I'm impelled to point just how much normative appeal one may find in all three varieties  Chris' the chart.  That certainly includes the "market" variety, however sullied it may be from consorting with capitalism  People like making choices; moreover the enterprise of rational choice is uniquely definitional of the human endeavor and by corollary, any polity that encourages it must be worthy of commendation.  "Normative appeal" also extends to the "populist" variety, however dangerous its potential for flirtation with fascism.  Lefties know better than anybody that relationships define who we are: I am my mother's son, the last of the just, the man who knew Coolidge, etc.  But nobody has yet come up with a scheme of communitarianism tht is not exclusionary ("all humankind" is not a community, it's a cop-out).  And one could certainly note the normative appeal of the third class which Chris calls "the eco-left," aka  "the greens."  One might say that green leftism is too new for evaluation but I think this view is blinkered; seems to me that eco-leftism bespeaks a tendency that goes back to Theocritus, if not the garden of Eden.  As a human instinct, it is almost inescapable; as a political program it never seems to get off the ground.

Chris also mentions a fourth class--"The old Leninist hard left," which he dismisses as   "washed up, marginal, authoritarian and unappealing."  Agreed, agreed and agreed, with the qualifier that I can't imagine how anybody (including its sponsor) ever mistook it for leftism in the first place.  It's just an authoritarian program for industrial development and lucky for all of us, its time appears to have passed. 

Must-read for Opera Fans: Isherwood on the Met

Opera fans will not want to miss the fine wrap-up by Christopher Charles Isherwood in this morning's NYT about the Current State of Things at the Met (that "Spider-Man" lead in is only a distraction).  Nothing sensationally new here, but a sane, measured and generally sympathetic account  of life under Peter Gelb.  But the part that made me laugh aloud was a look back at the old days:

Directing for the opera house is a discipline with its own distinct demands, and the scale of the Metropolitan Opera’s stage adds another troublesome factor to the challenge. In the pre-Gelb era the grandiose literalism of Franco Zeffirelli was the house style at the Met, at least for the core of the repertory. His meticulous re-creations of period décor and his penchant for filling the stage with boisterous crowds and the occasional animal were pleasing to fans who enjoy opera as an escape into an eye-popping fantasyland of the past where even the greatest suffering took place in sumptuous surroundings. But Mr. Zeffirelli’s productions often had a way of diminishing the operas themselves; their emphasis on scale and spectacle could trivialize the musical dramas they were meant to showcase.
Also a fine throwaway on the challenge of performing under the close scrutiny of the HD camera:

Watching the telecast of  [Nicholas] Hytner’s production of “Don Carlo” on DVD, I noticed that the performers were often acting in different keys. Roberto Alagna, in the title role, a creature of the old-school European opera stage, hits the emotional notes squarely and with ample recourse to semaphoric posturing, while Simon Keenlyside, portraying his boon companion Rodrigo, employs a more inside-out acting style. He occasionally seems to be searching for an authentic human connection that Mr. Alagna’s more presentational style made impossible.
Almost impels me to betake myself to the Palookaville multiplex for five more hours of Wagner's "Ring."  Well, probably not.  

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Growth Stock: No Release but the Grave

For twenty year or so now, I've taught the "Gordon Growth Model" of valuing stocks, to be used when earnings are retained and reinvested.  It's stylized and simplified, sure, but it's supposed to focus on the mind on the skill (or incompetence) of managers in making reinvestment decisions.  I think it's an important point to make but I don't think I've ever done a good job of making it plausible or even interesting to students who, to be fair, are pretty much beginners at this stuff.  On reflection, I need to present it more like it is: as a blood sport, a bearbaiting in which the bear can win.

   If I choose this route, I could  worse than deploy the account furnished by Robert Boyd in Fatal Risk, his account of the rise of American International Group and its formerly legendary CEO, Maurice "Hank" Greenberg.  Per Boyd, the lesson of AIG/Greenberg is that the category of "growth stock" is one of the trickiest in which a corporate manager can find himself:

In the 2st century, being the CEO of a growth stock was a designation unlike any other in the capital  markets.  Your stock stayed well bid when others in your sector sold off; the bad news or ill omens that forced the stock prices of your bitter rivals ever lower affected you half so much.  Even if a full-bore contraction took place when
The flip side of being a growth stock was being a company that had engendered deep-seated investor disappointment.  Growth stock investors didn't rotate out of a stock, they  abandoned it, resulting in the unrestrained selling of shares--it took very little time in globally integrated securities markets to go from overvalued to undervalued--and a board that would likely decide that a change of leadership was needed.  The growth stock CEOs club was not one that you could voluntarily leave, save for feet first.
All this may be true of any company but it takes on special piquancy in the case of insurance:

The details of running an insurance company--reserves against clams, claims liquidity, underwriting discipline, an aversion to risk--all come into conflict with the pressures of growth stock status.  An insurance man at his core, Greenberg did not seek the easy path to goosing earnings in the short term, by underreserving and writing insurance coverage on anything and everything in a grab for premiums.  He chose growth ...
And as Boyd shows, the thing about growth is that it works until it doesn't work any more:

Greenberg's situation in 2000-2001 left him little cover.  The company was so big and in so many sectors of the market that there was no "natural" target left for them.  So, in a move that was rare for him, he did what other CEOs did in this dilemma: he bought other companies simply because that's where the growth was.
You know the rest of the story: once growth topped out, the marketing superstars made a play for accounting trickery--this on the heels of the Enron debacle, when regulators for once found themselves in a mood to try to prove they offered some relevance to the world.   It was Greenberg, once the most legendary of CEOs, who found the gods abandoning him, like Antony after Actium; it was he who found himself departing feet first.  And still later, of course, came the hard lesson that left us all on the hook for ($182 billion) ($50 billion)  (whatever).  Greenberg has the consolation of saying (if he wants to) that he wasn't on board at the time of the bailout.  Still, there's an implacable logic here that is built into the growth model: you start out chasing the bear, and  one day the bear starts chasing you.  

Hey, It's Okay...

... it's not like it's the End of the W...

Well, let me rephrase that...

Friday, May 20, 2011

I Amend on "Extend and Pretend"

I've earlier argued that "extend and pretend" was just bureaucratic inertia--banks or bankers who knew perfectly well the game was up  but who didn't have the conviction or the power to face facts.  Tracy Alloway persuades me that I spoke out of ignorance--Alloway presents a very good reason for extend and pretend, rooted in the obscure purlieus of accounting rules.   Sounds right, shoulda guessed.

Harold Camping and the Long, Lonely Road

No reason why we he should know, but Harold Camping already almost played a prominent role in my career, long before he set this coming Sunday Saturday as the date for the end of the world.

That is: for nearly 30 years I've done a 90-mile backroad commute across Californie Profonde.  Which is to say, for a long time, for an hour and a half on many a Thursday evening, Camping was my only companion as I hurtled through the dark towards home. I'm an inquisitive guy and I can listen to almost anybody's story once,  but I have to admit I got tired enough of the preacher's, ahem, ministrations--so tired that I had begun flailing around for some way to escape this weekly routine: a different job, maybe, or maybe even early retirement. But I didn't want to retire and in particular, I didn't want to be driven out of my place by some guy with a microphone.

What finally bailed me out was the discovery of good audio books. Suffice it to say that I plugged an old (ten pound?) tape deck into my cigarette lighter (sic!) and  I pretty well worked my way through the classical canon thanks to Blackstone Audio of Ashland Oregon, together with the settled conviction that I didn't want to go back to the preacher.

What do we learn here, children? We learn that I owe an incalculable debt of gratitude to preacher for having made my world a richer, more varied, altogether more interesting place. 

Ah well.  I should try to avoid snark here, but as to the preacher's main message--I am already on record as one of those who believes that the rapture has already happened and it is we who are left behind. So I haven't cancelled my dental appointments for Monday. Meanwhile, if you're looking for an absorbing diversion as you beguile away the idle hours of Sunday Saturday afternoon, may I recommend an old favorite of mine--When Prophecy Fails by Leon Festinger et al. Festinger is the man who invented "Cognitive Dissonance." The book is a careful, insightful and remarkably kind study of those who believe in end-of-days stories and in particular, what happens when they turn out not to be true.    Meanwhile, enjoy your weekend, Harold, but remember:

  Περὶ δὲ τῆς ἡμέρας ἐκείνης καὶ ὥρας οὐδεὶς οἶδεν, οὐδὲ οἱ ἄγγελοι τῶν οὐρανῶν οὐδὲ ὁ υἱός, εἰ μὴ ὁ ]πατὴρ μόνος.
 For those of you keeping score at home, that is Matthew 24:36.  For a more emphatic rendering of the point, go here.  I've always said that if I'd grown up next door to a good cathedral music program, they'd probably still have me.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

"Inside Job:" Don't Waste your Time

I went to see “Inside Job,” the newly iconic flic about the financial meltdown. I wasn't eager to go; a friend wanted me to and I was pretty sure my friend would like it and I would not. And that was pretty much the way things worked out. From a desultory search of the internet, I find little but praise for the way in which it takes the skin off the bankerly class. I thought it was awful.

Don't get me wrong here: the premise is fine. The banking system is broken, and we all suffer from its crimes and follies. I don't see how anybody, not even a banker can keep a straight face while denying it.

But that doesn't tell us very much. Knowing we're in a mess tells us next to nothing about how to get out of it, which is to say, nothing about what we want from a banking system nor, as necessary corollary, how we got into the mess in the first place. Right, yes, I forget: we need “more regulation.” But a particle's worth of reflection ought to be enough to tell us that we don't have a clue as to exactly what that sentiment dictates nor, by corollary again, just how we might achieve it. I suppose we might put the names of all the bankers in a hat and toss them all in the air and pick up the first ten and have them shot. That might provide some short-term entertainment, and I suppose it is possible that few aside from their immediate clienti would so much as notice their absence. But it is far from clear that even so cathartic an exercise in fiscal theatre would change much about the size or shape or function of the industry. Beyond that, I'd say we know almost nothing about precisely what sort of regulatory regime can be effective in the construction of the banking system we need.

So far, am I right, or am I right, huh? If you do think I am onto something then you recognize we need a clear understanding is to just exactly went so wrong, and how it happened. And that is precisely what you'll never get from “Inside Job.” Instead, you are left with a collection of loosely related video, all strung out along a thread of moody and portentous background music whose thematic device seems to be “hey folks, isn't it awful?”

Well, yes, of course it's awful, but where does that get you? In “Inside Job,” it gets you some cheapshot disembodied interview footage with Fred Mishkin from Columbia, I can certainly see why they wanted to stick with Mishkin: he certainly comes across sounding like an idiot. Again don't misunderstand; perhaps he
is an idiot (though he seeks to defend himself here), But that's clearly a side issue; the promoters obviously stuck with him because he looked so bad, no matter what he might be saying. Same goes for the industry lobbyist who got so much face time except here there was not that he looked like an idiot; I'd say something rather more in the lizard line, though looking like a lizard is perhaps exactly what he is hired for. FWIW, these problems of cosmetics both ways. It happens I've got a more-or-less good opinion of Carl Levin as a Democratic senator (though heaven knows it's a slow race). But the point is that Levin is not at his best when he is under the hot lights harassing a witness; yet that is exactly where the sponsors like to see him.

Aside from these bits of set-up staging, about the only thing you get from the presentation is the disembodied voice of a narrator from time interjecting with “but that's wrong,” or words to that effect—with almost nothing by way of particulars to show just why any point might be wrong. In short, there is nothing, exactly nothing, useful to be learned from a watching “Inside Job,” however effectively it may massage the spleen. My first instinct was to say “the subject doesn't lend itself to a documentary,” but I'm not sure that's true. The PBS account of the defanging of Brooksley Born, for example: partisan for sure, but a careful and detailed presentation of a case such that you could sink your teeth into. In “Inside Job,” you've got nothing but gruel.

So unfortunately, for once things worked out more or less like I predicted. My friend and I didn't talk about it afterwards, from which I infer that we disagreed just as much as we had before, only now more intensely.   

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

At Last! A Job for Men!

That does not depend on upper body strength:

...the hotels of the world are cleaned by immigrants, most of them women.  The women's vulnerabilities are legion, and in many countries, hoteliers have adopted a raft of precautions to protect staffs and guests.
For example, if a male guest calls for service, the housekeeping department would send up a male attendant.
"Oftentimes, male guests will order the pay-per-view adult movies, and then call for towels, perhaps hoping that a woman will be sent to bring them up," said Peter M. Krauss, chief sales and marketing officer for Plasticard Locktech Inernational of Asheveille, N.C., which provides card keys to hotels.  "So whenever they can, the hotels will send up a male if the call comes from a male guest."
--"Hotel Keycard Of I.M.F, Chief May Tell a Tale," New York Times 
paper, p. A14 (Pacific ed.) Wed., May 18, 2011

Premium bonus, re Maria Shriver, husband of serial paternalist Arnold Schwarzenegger, at the funeral of her father, R. Sargent Shriver:
Ms. Shriver gave a heartrending and pointed eulogy, as her husband looked on, praising her father for teaching her brothers how to properly treat women.
"Schwarzenegger Whispers  Became an Admission,"  New York Times 
paper, p. A3 (Pacific ed.) Wed., May 18, 2011

Go Stuff This in your RSS

Felix likes feeds:

[I]f I were hiring, the first thing I’d look at would be the prospective employee’s Twitter feed. What are they linking to? What are they reading? If they’re linking to great stuff from a disparate range of sources, if they’re following smart people on Twitter, if they’re engaged in the conversation — that’s hugely valuable. More valuable, in fact, than being able to put together an artfully-constructed lede.
Link.   But confession, I don't have a Twitter feed. Am I overdue?

Roseanne Waxes Nostalgic

Roseanne remembers life on Roseanne:
I grabbed a pair of wardrobe scissors and ran up to the big house to confront the producer. (The “big house” was what I called the writers’ building. I rarely went there, since it was disgusting. Within minutes, one of the writers would crack a stinky-pussy joke that would make me want to murder them. Male writers have zero interest in being nice to women, including their own assistants, few of whom are ever promoted to the rank of “writer,” even though they do all the work while the guys sit on their asses taking the credit. Those are the women who deserve the utmost respect.) I walked into this woman’s office, held the scissors up to show her I meant business, and said, “Bitch, do you want me to cut you?” We stood there for a second or two, just so I could make sure she was receptive to my POV. I asked why she had told the wardrobe master to not listen to me, and she said, “Because we do not like the way you choose to portray this character.” I said, “This is no fucking character! This is my show, and I created it—not Matt, and not Carsey-Werner, and not ABC. You watch me. I will win this battle if I have to kill every last white bitch in high heels around here.”
Go read the whole thing.  

Wain and Macaulay on the Scribbler's Life

Following up on my last (18th Century lit) post, I'm reflecting on that stuff about Samuel Johnson's unobtrusive generosity.  I think I drew that insight from John Wain's biography of Johnson, together with his even more elegant little autobiography of Johnson--a selection of Johnson;'s own writings on himself, which Wain published via Everyman in 1976,  Together the Wain books are a marvelous exemplar of an indispensable genre: the "shock of recognition" book where one write responds to another writer.  The best comparison I can think of is Peter Levi's fine little biography Shakespeare.  You  might think that no one could add anything to the Johnson story after Boswell, just as you might think that no one could add anything to the Shakespeare story after a torrent of predecessors.  In each case, you'd be wrong: Wain, like Levi, achieves a connection with his subject quite beyond the reach of any ordinary scribbler.

I find only one reference to Smart in the index of the Wain biography but it is a story worth repeating.  Per Wain, one "Gardner" a "bookseller"

 signed up two authors, Rolt and Christopher Smart, to produce a monthly miscellany.  This was to cost sixpence and they were to have a third of thre profits between them.  It sounded good until one gets to the small print; neither man was to write anything else during the period of the contract, and it was to last ninety-nine years.  Small wonder tht the lurid miseries of this period provided Macaulay with the material for one of the liveliest pages in his Essays.
[All that is squalid and miserable might now be summed up in the word Poet. ...  Even the poorest pitied him; and they well might pity him.  For if their condition was equally abject, their aspirings were not equally high, nor their sense of insult equally acute.  To lodge in a garret up four pairs of stairs, to dine in a cellar among footmen out of a place, to translate ten hours a day for the wages of a ditcher, to be hunted by bailiffs from one haunt of beggary and pestilence to another, from Grub Street to St George's Fields, and from St George's Fields to the alleys behind St Martin's church, to sleep on a bulk in June, and amidst the ashes of a glasshouse in December, to die in an hospital and to be buried in a parish vault, was the fate of more than one writer who, if he had lived thirty years earlier, would have been admitted to the sittings of the Kitcat or the Scriblerus Club, would have sat in Parliament, and would have been entrusted with embassies to the High Allies; who, if he had lived in our time, would have found encouragement scarcely less munificent in Albermarle Street or in Paternoster Row.
Tough life.  Give that man a MacArthur Grant.   

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Larry Commends me to Kit Smart (and his Cat, Jeoffry)

Well, fancy that.   Larry writes:
I remember that you're fond of Kit Smart, and thought you'd like this from G.Keillor's blog: link.
He's absolutely right.  I was a fan of Christopher (Kit, Kitty) Smart, author of the inimitable Jubilate Agno, including (amid all its religious intensity), the greatest poem about cats ever written. I guess you would say I remain a fan of Smart's work, although I haven't given him a lot of thought for much of these past 54 years.   Still, the memory is vivid: it was the winter of 56-57 and my life was more or less falling apart.  I won't trouble with the details except to say my troubles were pretty much entirely of my own doing--and to rub salt in the wounds, I pretty much recognized that bitter fact.

One thing that kept me going was that in the same winter, I discovered 18th-Century English letters.  Well: "discovered" is too strong a word: I was introduced to the 18th Century by Basil Pillard, teaching English at Antioch College.  Our class met, I think, just once a week.  Between times, we kept journals.  In class and out, we encountered Boswell (the London Journal); Fielding (Joseph Andrews); Richardson (Pamela); and of course, the great man himself--Samuel Johnson, through Boswell's Life.

Everything about this new vista was a revelation for me.  I thought I knew a bit about culture--I certainly had pretensions along that line.  But for me "culture" meant the great moderns (Joyce, Woolf, that sort of thing) or the Victorians, whom in truth I did not really fancy (still don't, really).  Nothing prepared me for the grit, the intensity, the bitter realism and the raw energy of the 18th Century.  I was dazzled and I must say also animated: here was stuff you could actually engage with,  not just in pretense.

I dropped out of college  before the end of that winter so I don't really know what exactly I missed--more Johnson I think, perhaps Tobias Smollett, whom I then thought of as an "English novelist," not foreseeing that he would be recast in our time as a "Scottish novelist."  But Pillard, among his many other gifts, provided the one thing that I suspect a good humanities teacher always hopes for: he jump-started the engine. He gave me a taste for the 18th Century that has never left me. [Via the journal, he gave me something else as well: I can remember perching on the edge of the ratty couch in my ratty student apartment, pounding out journal entries and telling myself—hey, I am th... th... I must be thinking. An almost entirely unfamiliar experience for me at the time, I say with all earnestness].

Smart came to me sideways through Johnson. I did enjoy Smart in his own right: I've never thought of myself as a particularly religious person (nor a cat-lover either, come to that), but then as now I was arrested by the focus and clarity and individuality of Smart's own engagement. Still, as much as by Smart himself, I was taken by Johnson's response to Smart. Johnson is known for truculence and such a reputation is not entirely undeserved. But less obviously, he was a man of abundant compassion, particularly for those who didn't show much knack for helping themselves. “Less obviously,” has at least a double meaning here: one of the most attractive aspects of Johnson's charitable attitude is that he never made a big deal of it. Sometimes the most elevated of stylists, he could easily dismiss his own kindness and tolerance with a one-liner. As ever, Boswell captures the moment:

Concerning this unfortunate poet, Christopher Smart, who was confined in a mad-house, he had, at another time, the following conversation with Dr. Burney. — BURNEY. "How does poor Smart do, Sir; is he likely to recover?" JOHNSON. "It seems as if his mind had ceased to struggle with the disease; for he grows fat upon it." BURNEY. "Perhaps, Sir, that may be from want of exercise." JOHNSON. "No, Sir; he has partly as much exercise as he used to have, for he digs in the garden. Indeed, before his confinement, he used for exercise to walk to the alehouse; but he was carried back again. I did not think he ought to be shut up. His infirmities were not noxious to society. He insisted on people praying with him; and I'd as lief pray with Kit Smart as any one else. Another charge was, that he did not love clean linen; and I have no passion for it."
"I'd as lief pray with Kit Smart as any one else”--I'm not at all sure I know why but I still find that one of the most touching insights in the English language. The whole experience can come back to me in a moment. I'd thank Pillard if I could but he died years ago. I am profoundly grateful to Larry, and I respond by commending this selection of smart as offered by PoemHunter.Com. For a largish expert from “I Will Consider My Cat, Jeoffry,” go here.   

Walter Russell Mead Channels Bertolt Brecht

Brecht said:
The people have lost the confidence of the government; the government has decided to dissolve the people, and to appoint another one.
Here's Mead.

[Mental and emotional health warning: this post may contain sarcasm, on a whole bunch of levels.]  


I'm supposed to be grading today...   

The Palookaville Department of Motor Vehicles Office

Does not provide a bike rack.  That is all, no further message.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Eichengreen's Horror Story

Looking for something to sooth me to sleep the other night, I cracked Barry Eichengreen's Exorbitant Privilege, about the dominance of the dollar as a world currency and its inevitable eventual decline.  Ha! for sweet repose, I would better have chosen a slasher flic.  Eichengreen offers a horror story  but he tells it with almost effortless ease: how grandly we perch on top of the world currency system, how much solace we draw from our privileged position, and how easily, and quickly, we might lose it all.*

We came by our privilege honestly: by the end of World War II we were the only substantial currency anywhere (though the British did not quite get the message until the Suez debacle of 1956).  We stay aloft now through a devils brew of inertial and kinetic force.   In any event, we get to push other people around do not get pushed around; we have everybody else in the world on a don't-call-us-we'll-call-you basis.  A moralist might say that our very success harbors the seeds of its own demise: our very preeminence has led us to go slack, to get away with stuff because we can get away with it and not for any better reason.  In any event, sooner or later the gas will go out of the bag, maybe with agonizing slowness, perhaps with a deafening "pop."    Either way it won't be pretty: it will make our lives tougher and more demanding than any native-born American has ever known.  The sheer economic consequences alone or sobering enough.  And although he doesn't dwell on them, it is clear from Eichengreen's narrative that the political consequences may be far worse: if, as they say, no politician ever survived a bad harvest, what will become of the person who presides over a currency collapse.

Eichengreen's book has been extensively reviewed elsewhere and I won't burden the record with repetition. but I would like to pose a question.  Stipulate that our present world financial order is held together with piano wire and glue (does anyone really think otherwise?).  Stipulate that the prospect of gold as an alternative is only fanciful (though perhaps not quite as fanciful as it may seem its sharpest critics).  Stipulate to all that but then ask--okay, Mr. Wiseguy, suppose you were sovereign: just what of monetary order would you propose?  Is there a coherent system that can be imagined or are we doomed forever to juggle hot knives on the edge of a precipice?    No, I was wrong to call you a Wiseguy.   But the question is advanced in earnest.  Stipulate that we creep interminably along the edge of the abyss, do we have any other choice? 

*Previous foolish assertion excised.  See Stephan's comment below. and Buce's response.

Most Interesting DSK Comment So Far

Gopnik in The New Yorker:

The great risk in the French scene is the rise of Marine Le Pen, the daughter of the extreme right-winger Jean-Marie Le Pen, and the head of the National Front. Marine Le Pen is far more media-pleasing (and intelligent) than her father was, as much as she shares his views... .
Dumbest move by an alleged serial predator: alerting the cops to his whereabouts by phoning up to ask about his missing cell phone:
The police were called to the hotel about 1:30 p.m. on May 14, but when they arrived, Mr. Strauss-Kahn had already checked out. At some point, Mr. Strauss-Kahn called the hotel and said that his cellphone was missing. Police detectives then coached hotel employees to tell him, falsely, that they had the telephone, according to the law enforcement official. Mr. Strauss-Kahn said he was at Kennedy Airport and about to get on a plane.
Here's a summary of reasons why it may all be a stitch-up. Pretty thin soup, if you ask me, but not impossible.  

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The 250k Obsession

Fiscal Times is  back with another one of those accounts of how life on $250k a year is not all ortolans and whipped cream.  It's temperate in its way, not early as delusional as the angry outburst of a Chicago law prof that caused such a stir last fall.  But it still fails to come to terms with its own fundamental reality, that is, how most Americans would kill for those problems.  Accepting every word the FT says as true (and I don't, really), still the fact is that we are talking about a hangnail on the body politic.  Somehow the vast majority of Americans are trudging along only only a fraction of the 250k number.  And how will they pay for maid service, dry cleaning, higher education?  And you expect them to feel any sympathy at all for the beleaguered minority at the top of the food chain?


Cute riff on tote bags, to which I can add only that Mrs. Buce tends to favor the American Bankruptcy Institute model, no doubt because they published two books of mine.

The Glass Man Cometh

Idling away my time in Tacoma (as I have been for the past couple of days) there aren't a lot of choices, so sooner or later you wind up at the Museum of Glass where they show you the work of Dale Chihuli and others (I keep trying to say "Cthulu").  It's impressive in its way although there does seem to be a certain tendency to try stuff just to see if it can be done--I rather favor some of the less assertive pieces, seemingly more devoted to capturing the sheer glassiness of glass (there's a lovely roundish something, gunmetal grey on grey, of which sadly I cannot seem to locate a picture).  Mrs. Buce kept muttering that we do it better in Palookaville and on this judgment, as with so many others, she is probably right.  Two special offerings, however stand out.  One is the Hot Shop, the real-time glass-making factory, available through a live webcam, and offering more 2200-degree molten blobs at the end of long poles--with fewer safety precautions--than I've ever seen anywhere.  Someday somebody will gaze perplexedly at the underwriter and utter the immortal phrase "what were you thinking?" I cannot begin to guess what he will answer.

The other is more unambiguously charming.  It's a roomful of kids drawings--suggestions, really--and their rendering in glass models.  There's a cool slide show here,  but it showcases only the models.  To appreciate the captivating nature of the enterprise, you'd want to see the original drawings, and to observe how completely the modelers have captured the intentions of their designers.  Worth a detour, that, even if the museum as a whole is just worth a stop.  

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Patrick is in a Grump

Patrick Kurp, proprietor of the formidable Anecdotal Evidence, is in a grump.  It seems he's been getting way too much advice, particularly of the improving kind.  "[W]hat I hate most about efforts to usurp my will and run my life:" he intones--

arrogance and self-righteousness, and the assumption that someone else knows better than I what’s good for me. What if I don’t want to be happier? What if I suspect I’m already too happy? ... Beware, always, of do-gooders and their casual fascism.
Can't quarrel with that.  But that's the fascinating point: nobody can quarrel with that.  If Patrick ever chooses to run for public office (not likely), I suspect a platform of "no more advice" will carry hm to victory in a landslide.  Nothing, so they say, is so freely given, and so unwelcome.

But this is only one of the paradoxes of advice.  To explore the topic further, Patrick might have considered (but far be it from me to advise him to consider) some of the suggestions offered up by James Boyd White in his path-breaking law school classic, The Legal Imagination.   White it a pioneer, the pioneer, in the exploration of the lawyer's life as a form of self-creation--and not incidentally, LI is one of one of the most challenging classroom coursebooks I've ever had the good fortune to deploy.  It's a book about reading, writing and the law--not (and I cannot put this too strongly) a mere cafeteria of "law and literature" (there are many of those).  Rather it is a full-scale invitation to the student, to engage with, to find his own voice in, the long tradition of humane letters.

White operates through a series of finely-crafted exercises--unanswerable questions, really--inducing the student to think through the kinds of issues that perhaps any professional, not least a lawyer, ought to consider as he undertakes his responsibilities (to White's work, the closest analogue I know is the work of Robert Coles, trying to explore the same sorts of issues with students of medicine).   White's enterprise may seem too grand an undertaking for someone who will spend his life tending to, as Rumpole says, "a spot of indecency down at the Uxbridge Magistrate's Court."  But that may be part of the point.  White's premise, not explicitly stated, may be that any life, even a lawyer's, can be led grandly as an exercise in virtue ethics ("Did there come a time," says she to he in an old New Yorker cartoon, "when you thought you could love a lawyer?")

One of White's exercises, of which there can be few more relevant to the life of the lawyer, involves the matter of advice.  It's probably been 20 years since I actually read the exercise and I'm in a hotel coffee shop with no copy at hand (and Google Books is unavailing).  But I vividly remember the drift.  What is good advice?  How do you get it, or give it?  Specifically, if we say "that is good advice," how do we know?  If we recognize it as good advice, do we need it--and if we don't need it, is it really advice?  One could easily fold in some of Patrick's own thoughts.  "Unsolicited advice," says Patrick, "always presumptuous, is never welcome and often dangerous."  Yes, but what of solicited advice; is it any less dangerous?  Any more (be candid now) welcome?

I certainly don't mean to deride so arresting and provocative an essayist as Patrick.   Indeed on questions like White's, I would cheerfully solicit  his opinion, even his--oh, I'm pushing this too far.   Go dust a copy of White, Patrick.  See what you can learn.  See what you think you can teach him.   And then come back and teach us all.

Afterthought:  This is the point in the discussion when the essayist is obliged to recall Elihu Root's canonical dictum that "about half the practice of a decent lawyer consists in telling would-be clients that they are damned fools and should stop."  For a jaundiced reading of Root, go here.  

Friday, May 13, 2011

Clive James: A Self-Portrait

The best portraits are self-portraits.; Clive James gazes into the soul of David Thpmpson and sees the imaage of Clive James:

Most people of his generation who have spent their lives seeing every properly released movie even if it stars Steven Seagal are incapable of judging them. The reason is simple: those people are monomaniacs. Thompson has found time to do other things: read books, breathe clean air, cook and eat real food. It takes someone with greater resources than a mere buff to ask whether his chosen field might not have reached a point in its history where the best movies, being aimed successfully at an audience that wants art, are no longer for everyone. On the other hand, such a moviegoer can see that he might just be getting old.
Whatever the subject, a real critic is a cultural critic, always: if your judgment doesn’t bring in more of the world than it shuts out, you shouldn’t start. Writing at his best, Thomson is well qualified. You have to know about more than just the movies to see the “nobility” in Denzel Washington’s best acting; to isolate Al Pacino’s characteristic of “outrageous inner size,” you have to be up to speed with short-legged Napoleonic warlords since Alexander the Great; evoking Warren Beatty’s “puzzled look” is a nice way of describing catatonia, but it proves that the critic’s eye for aesthetic value can penetrate a surface; and it takes a knowledge of the American class structure to make the correct observation about Katharine Hepburn that she “loved movies while disapproving of them.” Thomson just loves them, but he knows there is a world elsewhere.
Link.   For Thompson's masterwork, go  here.