Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Tanner Finds the Key to the Great Tragedies

Tony Tanner hits upon a startling insight into Shakespeare's tragedies. He quotes "a soliloquy by Brutus in Julius Caesar," which he describes as "absolutely crucial in the evolution of Shakespearean tragedy:"
Since Cassius first did whet me against Caesar,
I have not slept.
Between the acting of a dreadful thing
And the first motion, all the interim is
Like a phantasma, or a hideous dream:
The Genius and the mortal instruments
Are then in council; and the state of man,
Like to a little kingdom, suffers then
The nature of an insurrection.
II, i, 61-9.  Tanner says:
Shakespearean tragedy takes place in and focuses on, exactly, the "interim" between the first "motion" (or prompting, or provocation, or incitement, or some stirring inclination) and "the acting of a dreadful thing." The "motion" may be started by an ambiguous ghost (Hamlet) or a scheming devil (Othello), or equivocating witches (Macbeth). The "dreadful thing" is always murder--albeit in very different circumstances. The period in between is experienced by the protagonist as, in different ways, "like a phantasma, or a hideous dream". And that "phantasma" is, among other things, the phantasmagoria of the conscience started, startled, into unprecedented activity. The experience takes all the tragic protagonists, in varying degrees, to the edge of madness. ... These are the parameters of Shakespeare's major tragedies. And that is what they are about
--.Tony Tanner, Prefaces to Shakespeare 493 (2010)

I think this is wonderful, although perhaps Tanner overdoes it. I don't suppose it describes Lear or Antony and Cleopatra (both certainly major) nor, ironically, Julius Caesar itself (perhaps not quite major). But it certainly describes the three plays he mentions.

The prefaces, by the way, are a rewarding as good as the best introductions to Shakespeare perhaps but appreciative and insightful all the same.

No Wonder the Coffee Shop Seems so Crowded

My friend Ignoto tells me that 21 bloggers on Blogger list Palookaville as their home town.  Only one boasts of making lemons out of lemonade, though.

Immigration Fact of the Day

People movement patterns are changing; immigration from Mexico to the US, both legal and illegal, is down; some Eastern Europeans are leaving the west to go back home.  Even China is now loosening some immigration barriers.  South Korea now leads in the number of foreigners resident in China.

And which nation is second?  Go here.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Underbelly Goes All People Magazine

Maybe it's just fluff but I'm surprised more is  not made of the fact that Steve Jobs  and Larry Ellison are both the children of what we Victorians would have called "unwed mothers?"  Link, link, And that Jeff Bezos comes close?   None of the three uses the name of his birth father; indeed, so far as I can tell, none had much of any contact with the birth father.  Bezos was raised by his mother; the other two were not. I resist the temptation to psychologize.  And in fairness, I acknowledge that Bill Gates is the child of iimpeccable upper-middle-class respectability.

More Stuff I Did Not Know

Things I learned last week:
  • Tycho Brahe may not have died from an insurgent  bladder; he may have been poisoned by his assistant (and successor) Johannes Kepler.
  • If you call for an ambulance in Karachi, the driver had better have the right ethnic profile; otherwise the neighborhood gunmen won't let him through (sometimes, they won't let him do a pickup anyway; they'd rather watch the victim die).

Monday, August 29, 2011

Candidate Selection on the Left: More Examples

I was complaining last month about the almost suicidal knack among liberals for picking shoot-em-in-the-foot candidates: conscientious wonks or charming, clubbable society boys who couldn't find the VFW hall with a GPS.  Somewhat tentatively, I offer up a few more examples.

I'm tentative because I want to venture onto foreign soil, where my knowledge base is (even) thinner than it is at home. But look at the British liberals (if you must, lib dems), and forget the current deputy prime minister, who is probably too close for us to understand well.  No, go back just a few years: few years: who could imagine winning a national election with a candidate who is (a) accused of having a homsexual affair when homsexuality was still a crime in Britain and (b) of conspiring to murder his accuser?  You're too young to remember?  Go here, I almost have to remind myself that I'm not making this stuff up.    His predecessor (and, indeed, successor) was, I'd have to admit, not nearly so bizarre; was far more successful at doing the things party leaders are supposed to do--win elections, get out the votes.  Yet he also reeked (if I may say) of a kind of exclusionary elitism tht was bound to put a limit on his capacity to command a serious majority. He became a life peer; Wiki reports that his wife was (a) the sister of a life peer; (b) the daughter of a life peeress; and (c) the grandaughter of a hereditary peer ("of the first creation," as a careful eulogist would add). It all smells just way too much of a party that is more interested in being brilliant in a supercool sort of way than doing any real goverening.

Which brings me closer to home, albeit I admit no closer to real knowledge.  Now I'm talking Canada, where a glitteringly brilliant (as they say) historian and novelist in just two short years led the Liberal party to near-extinction (real extinction may yet ensue).  I see that his Wiki calls him an "author, academic and former politician."  As one who might desire victory for a liberal platform, as to the "former" part, I can only add my prayerful wish.

All of which recalls to mind another example, back on home turf, though I had forgotten him until just today.  I actually met him once, briefly, while he was in the House of Representatives.  He was tall--not a lot of tall men in those in the House, at least in those days--good-looking and an affable with embroidery on the pocket of his blazer that spelled out "well-bred."  Okay, that's a stretcher about the embroidery, but not about the candidate--I'm talking John V. Lindsay, certainly the most incompetent New York City mayor in modern memory.  I'm talking "incompetent" in the narrow sense here: an entirely decent and at least adequately bright young man who simply had no clue as to what his responsibilities might be at the helm of a great city.  Murray Kempton, who might have known better, enthused that Lindsay "is fresh and everyone else is tired."   Fresh he may have been, but New Yorkers tired of him soon enough as the teachers hit the street and the garbage caught fire.  New York's fabled near-bankruptcy didn't actually occur on his watch, but much of what he did or failed to do belongs in the account of what brought the bankruptcy episode about.

I think there is a common theme through all of this: the story of coterie politicians who get caught in an echo chamber, driven by their own good intentions.  I'd venture that ever single example I've cited, here and in the predecessor post, is/was a person full of good intentions, eager for chance to do right by his public.  To a greater or lesser degree I suppose they all have at least some of the skills you need to manage public policy.  But nearly all of them are more or less catastrophic at the task of governing.  Perhaps the unluckiest, both for themselves and for us, are the ones who actually get their hands on power.

Well Hey (Burl Ives Department)

I've always cherished a soft spot for Burl Ives.  I don't usually talk about it because I've always assumed it's infra dig.  But the Ives was one of my first great (if semi-secret) enthusiasms back in the 50s. He seemed to me to strike a note of dignified but astringent irony, as if he were leaving something unstated that you, the listener, might or might not be clever enough to figure out.  It seemed to work as well with songs like "Foggy, Foggy Dew," where there may have been a sort of hidden meaning, and just as well with items like "Lavender Blue,"* where there probably wasn't (hey, I was young back then: it was years before I realized that "now I wear my apron high" had any meaning at all).  And although I've never been a huge movie fan, I was dazzled by how he played off Jame Dean in East of Eden:  he did a marvellous job of driving home the point that the good cop is not the one who makes the most arrests, but the one who keeps order.

All kitschy stuff, I suppose.  So imagine my delight to find this from the coolest of critics, John Rockwell:
Ives's voice ... had the sheen and finesse of opera without its latter-day Puccinian vulgarities and without the pretensions of operatic ritual. It was genteel in expressive impact without being genteel in social conformity. 
"The sheen and finesse of opera without its latter-day Puccinian vulgarities:" just what we the staff and management at Underbelly central strive for every day.

*Ives also prepared us for Flanders and Swann and in particular, their response to the first Soviet space mission:
Russia is red, diddle diddle
England is Green;
They've got the moon, diddle diddle,
We've got the queen.
Who would have guessed that, 50-odd years on, Russia would not have the moon, but England would still have the queen? 

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Horror, The Horror

Finished with T.J. Stiles' admirable biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt, I figured it might be nice to triangulate with a look at the (selected) diaries of George Templeton Strong, New York lawyer and Vanderbilt contemporary.

Result: almost nothing.  Only two references.  One is glancing: Strong brackets Vanderbilt with other high-fliers and says he is "ashamed to live in a community" with such men. That computes: Vanderbilt was a grade-school dropout who never learned to spell and never really lost the rough manners of his youth on the river.

The other is more equivocal.  Strong as vestryman of Trinity Church laments that he has to participate in the taking of Vanderbilt's money for the sale of St. John's Park:

Consideration of $1,000,000, of which the church gets $400,000 and the lot-owners $600,000.  I fear this will stir up a perilous storm of abuse and misrepresentation against us.  "A bloated operation"--"adding another to its untold millions, by destroying an old landmark, the garden spot of downtown, one of the few breathing places left to the city poor"--somehow "intriguing with the lot-owners to secure their concurrence"--"no reasonable man can doubt that members of the vestry pocket at least half the money," and so forth. Forty flagrant lies will be told about  the transaction and thirty-nine of them will be firmly believed except by a minority of rational people.  It is in fact a dangerous step for a wealthy corporation to take.  Our only safety is in keeping every dollar of the $400,000 out of our own treasury, and applying that sum forthwith to some church-object outside Trinity Church; as for example, to the erection and endowment of  Free Church or two, or which we might retain some nominal control, or the establishment of scholarships with stipends in Columbia College, the right of nomination to be given to all of the New York parishes.  No one would more gladly apply this money to the extinction of our debt than I, if it could safely be done.

--George Templeton Strong, The Diary of George Templeton Strong 
(A. Nevins and M. Thomas eds.1988)

Dick Cheney, the Cardsharp and the Judge

Reading reviews of the Cheney memoir link, link, link, I remember the story--I could swear it is in Damon Runyon but I can't seem to track it down--about the cardsharp and the judge on the Staten Island Ferry.  The judge wasn't really a judge; he was an old judge who spent most of his time asleep in a swivel chair on the aft deck.  The cardsharp would play poker with all comers and most of the time, he'd just clean 'em out.  Every once in a while--very rarely--the cardsharp would find a taker who couldn't be taken.  Then they'd bring in the judge and he'd beat him honestly.

Translated: it isn't enough to win, you have to win with taunts and catcalls.  It isn't that you need torture for victory, it's that victory without torture just isn't any fun.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Eichengreen on Gold

There's a kinda sorta must-read up at The National Interest right now by Barry Eichengreen, called A Critque of Pure Gold," shorthandable as "Eichengreen against the gold bugs."   Eichengreen is the gold standard of monetary historians working today but I kinda sorta hedge my bets because the piece, for all its palpable merits, appears to tangle three or more topics into one.   Foremost, there is the matter of "the gold standard" itself and why, in Eichengreen's perspective, it wouldn't solve our problems.    Gold bugs have succeeded in making this a topic of central importance and there is nobody better equipped than Eichengreen to present the "nay" case.  He does so in a serviceable manner although notably, he gives more time and attention to the "impure" gold standard--gold-pegged currency controls, like the system Richard Nixon threw over in 1971.  Apparently Eichengreen thinks (and he would probably be right) that support for any hairy-chested purity is ephemeral enough that it doesn't deserve much attention beyond the title.

All right so far but Eichengreen also undertakes to present a fascinating if somewhat diversionary account of how gold came to be so central to modern libertarianism.   As Eichengreen points out, there's no essential  link between libertarianism and gold; the iconic Friederich von Hayek had no particular love for gold (he preferred "free banking").  As we know, Milton Friedman was no special fan either.  The key seems to be Ron Paul: Paul embraced gold and Paul has stood for some years now at the head of the libertarian parade, and so gold has a place along with him.   It's a good story and worth telling in its own right though I am not sure it helps to clarify matters here.

Moreover, I don't think Eichengreen really puts his finger on the one reason why the gold standard has become so popular with libertarians: it seems to take money "out of politics."  "Politics" being, virtually by definition, a limit on "freedom," gold therefore ehances "freedom," QED.  I think I've spoken out before on why this seems so goofy to me: one, the decision to "choose gold" would, in some sense, be a "political" decision--and any polity that could make the decision could later change the decision, by the same political process.   And two, embracing gold doesn't seem to me so much an enhancement of sovereignty as a surrender--from the pinheads in Washington to the proverbial gnomes of Zurich.

ichengreen provides splendid background on these issues in books like Globalizing Capital and Exorbitant Privilege.  I admit I haven't read his big book on gold--$43.14 on Kindle.   Setting that one aside, I'm still waiting for someone to state the case against gold as coherently as the case for it is set by 

Benn Steil Manuel Hinds

These Young Folks, They Don't Know No History

Last night I finished T.J. Styles' splendid biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt and how he built the first great colossus of American capitalism, the New York Central Railroad.  This morning I open up Jeff Madrick's Age of Greed.   Here we are on page 21 of Madrik, and here's the railroad in disguise as "The Grand Central Railroad."  So much for colossi.

Fn.:  Google "The Grand Central Railroad" and you come up with a neighborhood hobby-line at Sun City, Arizona.

Another fn.:  I'm only a few chapters in but Madrick also is informative and highly readable, at least so far.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Wills and Adams on Early America

In his eye-opening introduction to Henry Adams on American history, Garry Wills argues that Adams is widely isunderstood.  Wills says Adams is not (as traditionally understood) negative on America:.  The trouble, argues Wills, is that Adams is negative in the early chapters--and that's the only part people read.  Later chapters, rgues wills, are dramatic in their contrast.

I suspect he's right, although there are acres of Adams I have not read.  Still, he can be pretty expressive at the beginning.  Here's Adams on life in the United States around 1800:

Nearly every foreign traveller who visited the United States during these early years, carried away an impression sober if not sad. A thousand miles of desolate and dreary forest, broken here and there by settlements; along the sea-coast a few flourishing towns devoted to commerce; no arts, a provincial literature, a cancerous disease of negro slavery, and differences of political theory fortified within geo­graphical lines,--what could be hoped for such a country except to repeat the story of violence and brutality which the world already knew by heart, until repetition for thousands of years had wearied and sickened mankind? Ages must probably pass before the interior could be thoroughly settled; even Jefferson, usually a sanguine man, talked of a thou­sand years with acquiescence, and in his first Inaug­ural Address, at a time when the Mississippi River formed the Western boundary, spoke of the country as having "room enough for our descendants to the hundredth and thousandth generation." No prudent person dared to act on the certainty that when settled, one government could comprehend the whole; and when the day of separation should arrive, and America should have her Prussia, Austria, and Italy, as she already had her England, France, and Span else could follow but a return to the old conditions of local jealousies, wars, and corruption which had made a slaughter-house of Europe?

The mass of Americans were sanguine and self-­confident, partly by temperament, but partly also by reason of ignorance; for they knew little of the diffi­culties which surrounded a complex society. The Duc de Liancourt, like many critics, was struck by this trait. Among other instances, he met with one in the person of a Pennsylvania miller, Thomas Lea, "a sound American patriot, persuading himself that nothing good is done, and that no one has any brains, except in America; that the wit, the imagina­tion, the genius of Europe are already in decrepi­tude;" and the duke added: "This error is to be found in almost all Americans,--legislators, admin­istrators, as well as millers, and is less innocent there." In the year 1796 the House of Representa­tives debated whether to insert in the Reply to the President's Speech a passing remark that the nation was "the freest and most enlightened in the world,"--a nation as yet in swaddling clothes, which had neither literature, arts, sciences, nor history; nor even enough nationality to be sure that it was a nation. The moment was peculiarly ill-chosen for such a claim, because Europe was on the verge of an outburst of genius. Goethe and Schiller, Mozart and Haydn, Kant and Fichte, Cavendish and Herschel were making way for Walter Scott, Wordsworth, and Shelley, Heine and Balzac, Beethoven and Hegel, Oersted and Cuvier, great physicists, biologists, geologists, chemists, mathematicians, metaphysicians, and historians by the score. Turner was painting his earliest landscapes, and Watt completing his latest steam-engine; Napoleon was taking command of the French armies, and Nelson of the English fleets; ivestigators, reformers, scholars, and philosophers swarmed, and the influence of enlightenment, even amid universal war, was working with an energy such as the world had never before conceived. The idea that Europe was in her decrepitude proved only ignorance and want of enlightenment, if not of freedom, on the part of Americans, who could only excuse their error by pleading that notwithstanding these objections, in matters which for the moment most concerned themselves Europe was a full century behind America. If they were right in thinking that the next necessity of human progress was to lift the average man upon an intellectual and social level with the most favored, they stood at least three generations nearer than Europe to their common goal. The destinies of the United States were certainly staked, without reserve or escape, on the soundness of this doubtful and even improbable principle, ignoring or overthrowing the institutions of church, aristocracy, family, army, and political intervention, which long experience had shown to be needed for the safety of society. Europe might be right in thinking that with­out such safeguards society must come to an end; but even Europeans must concede that there was a chance, if no greater than one in a thousand, that America might, at least for a time, succeed. If this stake of temporal and eternal welfare stood on the winning card; if man actually should become more virtuous and enlightened, by mere process of growth without church or paternal authority; if the average human being could accustom himself to reason with the logical processes of Descartes and Newton!--what then?

Henry Adams,  from "American Ideals" Chapter 6 of 
History of the United States: The United States in 1800 

Note that "1800" equates to the final year of the Presidency of John Adams, Henry's distinguished ancestor.  There's a splendid hypertext edition of "The United States" in 1800" here.

Taint Funny McGee


Thursday, August 25, 2011

Measuring GDP Since the Meltdown:
How Can we Lose what we Didn't Have?

Fascinating data here on what has happened to per capita GDP since the end of 2007.  China is, of course, up--a nosebleeding  35 percent; India, 22 percent.  Of the G7, Germany just about breaks even.  US, Britain, Japan, are all down in the 4-5-6 percent negative range.   Plot it by a pre-break 10-year trend line and things are, of course, much worse: US down by 10 percent, poor Ireland, 25 percent.

Yes, well, fine, but--wait a minute.  We now--we knew then but we pretended we did not know--that a lot of that pre-break GDP was just smoke and mirrors.  Saying we're 4 percent down from peak GDP--isn't that a little like saying we lost a million bucks with Bernie Madoff?  Fact is, we never had a milion bucks with Bernie Madoff, and we never had all that GDP either.  For a fascinating discussion of these issues, go here.

And the Second Prize Goes To...

Okay, wiseguys: if I asked you who was the richest man in the United States in 1970* 1870, you might well say "Cornelius Vanderbilt"--and by all that I know, that would be correct.   But after Vanderbilt, who was the second richest?  No Googling, now--but I've got you there, haven't I?

I just picked up a plausible answer, reading TJ Stiles' First Tycoon. I admit I had never heard of the guy.  For a quick summary, go here.
*Thanks, Ken.

Family Picture, Plus a Note
On Growing Up in the 20C USA

My niece Marilyn just lately surfaced this on her Facebook page--a family picture:

That's my grandmother, second from left, with her seven (surviving) children, some time in the mid 1920s.  My own mother, Esther, is at far left.  I guess I've seen it in the past but it offers insights now that I never thought of before.

Some background: mama and papa, Swedish immigrants, met and married in the early 90s.  Papa died about 1910 (the family tradition says that an eighth child and another close relative died the same week).  That is: papa died and left mama with nothing aside from seven young mouths to feed, none out of their teens.  The fact that gets more astonishing to me with each passing year is that she held this family together.   It surely couldn't have been easy: apparently she had to call on her own family.  My own mother, never particularly religious, used to recall with nostalgia and gratitude the kind of support they got from the (Swedish Lutheran) church.  The older three had to leave school early.   My mother --she would have been fifth, I think--did finish high school.  She told me years later that she had wanted to go to "college" (I think she had been hoping for a one year teaching certification program), but there wasn't any cash.

So far, so good: but recall that calamity befell them something like 15 years before this picture.  And now they all look so prosperous.  Or at least solvent, stable, dare I say bourgeois.  Which is not to say they were rich.   Evert (the oldest, far right) was already on his way as a successful salesman, but he had a new family of his own.   I think at least three of the girls--Esther, plus Elin and Selma, the two with glasses, would have been working, but at secretarial jobs where they can't have been earning much.  Yet everything about this picture radiates a kind of middle-class respectability and security.

From the time of the picture on, there were ups and downs.  Elin and Evelyn both died before the end of the 20s--I forget of what, I think one or another of those implacable diseases that swept people away in those days (so also their father and brother).  The men and the surviving girls married--except Selma: too picky, a friend said of her in her old age, but I suspect she thought she was just picky enough.  None divorced.  Mama died in 1936, the year I was born.  "I assume of exhaustion" I used to say--but I wonder: here she seems to radiate a quiet pride and satisfaction, and  who can blame her?--looks like a job well done.

In my youth I often encountered all five surviving sibs together at family gatherings.  Most of their marriages were happy but you got the sense that their ties to each other might be more durable than anything they had acquired later in life.

Oh, and another thing: look at the posing.   It's quite artful.  Except for Evelyn who seems to be trying to hide behind her oldest sister (Louise), everybody seems relaxed and presentable, with just enough personal space.   In its groupiness, it could almsot be a Velázquez or  Rembrandt.  For future reference, then: an artifact of middle-class life. Wonder what an American-family portrait would look like if taken today.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Government as Value-Reducer

The end of government?--I asked.   A cherished commentator responds: "Two words: Italy, Japan."

Ah, I suppose the point is that these are nations that run pretty well even though government is irrelevant--or worse a drag on-- ordinary life?  He's got a point--I might add China, where the state (=party) run economic establishment almost certainly sucks wealth out of the nation.  Purists will argue that all governments such wealth out of the nation; I'm, not willing to go nearly that far but the assertion does suggest an interesting research agenda: measuring how much government adds (positive or negative) by way of value.

Japan and Italy certainly are not DNA twins, but they do have some similarities.  In each case you've got a governing class that lies like an incubus on a society, and a society that does well in its own way anyway.  But there are differences.  In Japan the bureaucracy does play an inescapable role in organizing economic activity.  And whatever its shortcomings (many), I'd be willing to speculate that it still contributes something worthwhile to the national life.   Italy is in some ways more remarkable.  Italians from the Risorgimento to the Lateran Accord were taught (so it is said) that it wasn't a sin to evade their taxes.  Presumably those days ended, but apparently some Italians haven't yet got the memo.    The amazing thing has always been how well Italy works while carrying the government as a pesky but expensive irrelevance.  "And yet it moves," said Gallileo, under his breath: Eppur si muove.  I once read a book on Italian government bearing that title.

China is rather more of a special case because the "state" if you can call it that appears to function more and more as as business conglomerate of, by and for the princelings.  Just how this sort of thing could add wealth to the larger society is far from clear   Yet the larger society does seem to make amazing strides despite the drag.

So yes: societies may function, sometimes extraordinarily well, even in the teeth of governments that seem bent on doing everything they can to make good living impossible.

Anecdote: I had a student a few years back whose father was Italian.  "Does he ever go back?" I asked.  "Nah," I was told, "he hates the place.  He was there during World War II.   He was drafted into three different armies."

"Needless to say," he added, "he ran away from all three.

In Case You've Been Away...

For all Underbelly readers who have been living with their heads in a paper bag for the last couple of years, Barry Ritholz offers an impossible-to-make-more-concise summary of the continuing financial train wreck, together with a Turledoveian summary of what perfectly could have been.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Geithner Rules

Oh dear.  Of course I haven't any idea whether this is true but it Sounds like Tim Geithner hasn't learned a thing:
There is a rumor circulated on Wall St. that JP Morgan (NYSE: JPM) will take over Bank of America (NYSE: BAC) within the week. The government will support the deal with a $100 billion investment in preferred shares issued by the combined entity. Alternatively, the government may guarantee the value of a large pool of Bank of America assets. The word is that Treasury Secretary Geithner has discussed the transaction with JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon.The “merger” would completely destroy the value of BAC’s common shares.
Translated: okay, so equity gets hosed, which is just as it should be in insolvency. But it sounds like we will be paying $100 bill for something. And that would be? Why, the bondholders, I suppose--who else could it be, with numbers like this and on terms like this. It's been the one abiding principle throughout the Geithner--no matter how parlous the state of whatever, no bondholder gets left behind.  Apparently we need to say it again, guys: capitalism means the risk of failure, and real failure when things go bad.  Bank bailouts that protect bondholders are ring-fencing for which the rest of us pay.  Sheesh, is that so hard to understand?

More on un-Failed States

Fresh from yesterday's rant on things that are not failed states, I ran across this and thought: Damn!  I forgot Lord of the Flies!   The while piece is fascinating, and deserves a careful read.  H/T MR.

Tweetfest: and the Winner Is...

Dave Weigel:

DEVELOPING: Earthquake turns Gallup offices upside down. Obama now at 62% approval

This and other goodies here.

The End of Governance as We Know it

What with the great crumbling sound emerging from Tripoli, we hear more talk about how we are marking the end of despotism in our world. It's easy to dismiss this kind of jabber as  euphoria; I'm willing to venture that the euphorics just might be onto something although they may not be saying what they saying.

Consider: what with Mabarak and Ben Ali gone, and Gaddafi in undisclosed location and the Great Ophthalmologist quaking in his contacts, we certainly are seeing something like a more-than-random decline in repressive authoritarianism.  But then take a look at the non-Arab granted that plenty of other governments are noto inimical to human well-being as the realms of the fallen dictators, still the evidence on governance even in benign countries stands, at least at the  moment, depressing.  Face it: Lula is gone; Singh has grown old; Merkel is a disappointment, Cameron is a lightweight and Ob--well, you can see where this is going.   Whoever we have in the spotlight, we don't have a Roosevelt of a Churchill or a deGaulle.  Hell, we don't even have an Eisennhower or an Adenauer. Could it be, in short, that we are entering into an age of entropic limbo where the elites can't repress like they did in the old days but they can't do much of anything else either?It's certainly the lament of so many in the first world who want Washington or Brussels (or maybe Tokyo, etc.) to just do something instead of just wandering around tripping over each other's coattails. But   what if tripping over each other's coattails is the New Normal, as both autocrats and democrats find themselves both descending into the same twilight blur?

Even if I am onto something here, I concede I've still got only the dimmest idea whence and whither.  I don't want to scream "it's the internet!" but it does seem that at least for the time being, new technology has taken trump cards out of the hands of traditional leadership, for good or ill.  My pessimistic self says--bah, any day now the powers will learn out to turn technology into their own weapon and lock us all down again.  My even more pessimistic self says--maybe they won't.  Maybe will wind up all subsisting in a kind of freedom, but perhaps the freedom last seen in the reign of Pepin the Short.

I'm probably back on another of my favorite themes here: good government is a luxury, in some sense a superior good.  Grant that mob rule is a perfect horror, still a society that has lost the capacity to make informed and rational collective decisions is a society that has lost something virtually beyond price. So if this is the dawning of a dark age--if indeed  the forces of barbarism really do surround us all--then I sure hope somebody is out there pulling that sword from that stone.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Dwight's Optimism, and Our Own

Henry Adams, in his overview of the United States in 1800, quotes the work of Timothy Dwight, later to be president of Yale, as the author of an epic poem of 11 books and near 10,000 lines, entitled "The Conquest of Canaan:"

    "Then o'er wide lands, as blissful Eden bright,
         Type of the skies, and seats of pure delight,
         Our sons with prosperous course shall stretch their sway,
         And claim an empire spread from sea to sea;
         In one great whole th' harmonious tribes combine,
         Trace Justice' path, and choose their chiefs divine;
         On Freedom's base erect the heavenly plan,
         Teach laws to reign, and save the Rights of Man.
         Then smiling Art shall wrap the fields in bloom,
         Fine the rich ore, and guide the useful loom;
         Then lofty towers in golden pomp arise,
         Then spiry cities meet auspicious skies;
         The soul on Wisdom's wing sublimely soar,
         New virtues cherish and new truths explore;
         Through Time's long tract our name celestial run,
         Climb in the east and circle with the sun;
         And smiling Glory stretch triumphant wings
         O'er hosts of heroes and o'er tribes of kings." 

Dwight wrote this about 1775.  Adams wonders if Dwight would have exuded the same optimism a quarter century later.
Perhaps in the year 1800, after Jefferson's triumph, Dwight would have been less eager that his hero should save the Rights of Man; by that time the phrase had acquired a flavor of French infidelity which made it unpalatable to good taste.
Link.  A more contemporary question would be--forget about the Augustan verse-form, can we imagine any American poet of any age exuding the same kind of optimism today?  Or indeed, any poet of any nation?

Nobody Lives in a Failed State

Listening to Jay Bahadur on C-Spsn discuss his new book about Somali Pirates, I picked up a useful, if overlooked, insight. That is: nobody lives in a "failed state." Somalia may fail, may have failed, but the the people are still there, and free-floating anarchy does not ensue. Tribes, warlords, gang capos, whatever--some way or another people organize into "polities" of some sort. Nobody lives in a condition of Hobbesian anarchy, not never. These "statelets" (if you will) may very well be less commodious to human well-being than the states that preceded them--or maybe not, there is no general principle on which we can rely.

I take it that all this is corollary to the well-understood insight about neighborhoods in cities where the police can't go. It's not that these areas are "ungoverned;" rather only that they are "governed" by forces with which the police cannot cope. It is probably also related to the insight that every prison is run, to one degree or another, prisoners; the role of the guards may be subject to negotiation but it is never absolute. And also to the more speculative proposition that a "mafia" is a layer that develops between (say) the peasants and the great landlords who have no interest in their latafundia beyond the collection of tax.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Real Estate Watch

Pretty much by chance, I came upon the Zillow page for the first house I ever bought, back in St. Matthews (i.e., suburban Louisville) KY in 1965.  I paid $13,900 (and felt the realities of adulthood crashing down on my shoulders, believe you me).  An inflation calculator translates that to $99,693 in today-dollars.  The Zillow estimated price is $163,600.  That pencils out to a real-dollar return of just a shade over one percent a year.

No moral, just reporting.

Ambiguities of Politics, and a Recycled Joke

My friend Rebekah, who knows a lot about Turkey, recalls how
...Erdoğan is always saying that he had to send his daughters to the US universities to study so they can wear headscarves to school.
Recalls to mind the one my friend Taxmom used to tell back in the 80s, about the African potentate who sent his kid to University in Moscow.  Why don't you send him to Oxford, a friend asked.  Oh I would, he said, but I don't want them to get all those socialist ideas.

Wouldn't be surprised if there is a version involving Helena the mother of Constantine.

Sunday Morning Miscellany

Mr. and Mrs. Buce are just back from a happy hour at the coffee shop, burrowing through the morning's news.  My own top pick--it'll be old news by the time you see this, but still take a look at Juan Cole on what is happening in Tripoli right now, I  mean right now.   Also: Mark Thoma is surprised to find that the unwashed are a bunch of atheists.  With all respect to a truly wonderful blogger, I'm surprised that he is surprised.  Isn't it the pattern that a spasm of religiousity nearly always leads to upward economic mobility?

Meanwhile Mrs. B, who came within one pair of blunted scissors* of joining the convent at the age of 19, reviews  her other life, the life she did not live.

*Long story.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Other, Other Europe: A Hungarian Restoration

Der Spiegel tells us that Viktor Orbán is demonstrating that he really meant it when he laid out his populist-nationalist agenda for Hungary ("Goulash Archipelago"--oh, Spiegel, you're such as kidder).  Meanwhile, from the Wall Street Journal, I learn that the Hungarian government doesn't want the folks to learn English as a "first foreign language" because it is too easy.

Boy, I can relate.  I'm not a good foreign-language speaker but in Europe I am a fairly adept guesser and in Hungary, I am toast (unless I want someone to serve me gulyásh in my kocsi).  But it is not just the utterly unfamiliar language, stranger than Klingon; it's the pronunciation of that strange language.  The Hungarians appear to trade in vocal subtleties that are beyond anyone other than, perhaps (just guessing) the Cantonese.  I recall one day in Budapest when a tourguide was trying to give us a bit of history.  In a desperate and forlorn attempt to show I had done my homework, I piped up:

"Was that Rákosi?"  I asked.

"No," she responded. "It was Rákóczi."
Or maybe it was the other way round.  Would have been lost on me either way.

By the way, that language point--would it have anything to do with the fact that Viktor was an English major?

The Economist Channels Underbelly:
Gender Imbalance in Asia

The Economist goes all in on the gender-imbalance issue with a leader and a detailed special report.  Shorter gender imbalance: Asian women are hurtling forward in education and employment, but conventions/expectations of domestic life remain stuck in the dark ages (yes, moreso than in America and Europe, and by a long shot).  So when the choices are early marriage, age-appropriate marriage or late marriage, the best selection seems to be "non of the above." There's plenty of good stuff in the about the instability problems that arise from a large, growing, potentially huge, population of unattached young males, but less direct attention to another aspect of the issue. That is, you might think the imbalance would favor women: lots of demand, limited supply, jack up the price, pile up the rewards. There are  many suggestions that it won't work (isn't working) that way.  If you are a rich or powerful or merely a sufficiently aggressive male, in this unbalanced market you are all the more motivated to stockpile your goodies--put 'em in purdah or lock them up in a harem (note to self, ask broker to find a pure play in chastity belts).   More: if women are notably in short supply then the rich and powerful will want to collect as many as they can as prestige goods, so to the blessings of one's own success one can add the satisfaction of somebody else's suffering.

I've long argued that the pattern of imbalance argues for more globalization: ship girls from Russia/Ukrain (92 men for every 100 women, aged 15-64) to Saudia Arabia (129) or Bahrain (133).  Of course it is already happening, and it is no joke: we hear reports of a roaring trade in the traffic of humans and a lot of it starts in the old Soviet Union and a lot of it winds up in the gulf.  So the future may offer a lot of "choices" for women, but they'll have to be tough as nails to keep from getting swamped by them.


The Almost-Poor on Soaking the Rich

You can see why Lloyd Blankfein doesn't like higher taxes on high incomes.  But what about Joe the Plumber?  How is it that people near the bottom of the social heap are so hostile to redistribution?  The Economist reports on some fascinating new research that offers insight on the point.  Turns out that it is not those above us who are our primary concern; it is those below us. And if you are near the bottom of the heap, you can take solace from the proposition that at least you are not at the bottom of the heap. Correspondingly, anything that tends to ramp up well-being for the scum  of the earth just goes to obscure the distinction between the nice (us) and the not-so-nice (them).  Quel humiliation.

It's a fascinating thesis and if it turns out to have legs it raises a fascinating meta-question.  That is: if true, how come the chattering classes didn't figure it out long ago--how come it took a piece of NBER research to tell us?  Are the chatterers (us) so out of touch with  Joe the Plumber (them) that we can't even figure out what is bugging him?

Friday, August 19, 2011

Every Lawyer Dreams of Running a Bookstore

Or an NFL franchise, one.  Now this.

Pizza Porn

Crust, courtesy of Buce's secret formula.  Mixed greens from Mrs. Buce's garden.  All rights reserved.

Huntsman Plays a Deep Game

Smart people, prompted by an even smarter person, are clucking that they have an answer to the puzzle of Jon Huntsman: he's running for 2016.

I agree with the multitude that he cannot be running for 2012. But what makes them think that the Republicans (or the Democrats either, for that matter) will be looking for a sane, candid, lucid, constructive candidate in 2016, saying nothing of 2012, or indeed, of any other year? My guess is that he is auditioning to be this guy:

And a balloon to anyone under 30 who has the foggiest notion who he is.  Or if you must, go here.

When They Came for the Potted Plants, I Did Not Object

...because I was not a potted plant.  Link.

Grazie, Ignoto.

Hugo Pulls a Goldfinger

...and Joel thinks it would make a great movie:
Massive security headache as Hugo Chavez orders 100 tonnes of gold bullion stored in Bank of England vault back to Venezuela


It’s the sort of news that would make greedy Bond villain Blofeld sit up – Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez wants the 211 tonnes of gold he’s storing overseas, much of it in Britain, shipped back to Caracas.

Security experts say the operation to transport it safely will be enormous as that amount of gold – 17,000 400-ounce bars – is rarely moved around.

What’s more, flying is out of the question because no insurance company would be able to cover a single aircraft carrying a consignment of gold this big, which is worth £7 billion. This means that ships will have to be used, which are far more vulnerable.
Newspapers seem to be all guesswork as to what he might be up to.  My guess: he's suddenly waked up to the fact that somebody might find it in a British bank and try to offset it against an uncollected debt.  Can't blame him.  Maybe the Iranians told him what happened to them after 1979.

Afterthought.  Hugo goes into a bar with the parrot on his shoulder.  Bartender says "hey, where'd you get that?"  Parrot says: "Oh, we got it from some guy who used to live in France."

Ron Who?

Kevin Drum says Ron Paul's 15 minutes of fame are up. Brings to mind the old show biz life cycle:
Who's Ron Paul?
Get me Ron Paul!
Get me more Ron Paul!
Get me someone like Ron Paul.
Who's Ron Paul?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Tom Coburn: Gun-control Moderate

Sen. Tom Coburn is catching flac for having said "It's just a good thing I can't pack a gun on the Senate floor," as if there was something inflammatory (or explosive?) about that kind of talk.   No flac from me.  No; I'm impresssed that Coburn has done something that the serious gun nuts will never do, ever.  He's actually acknowledged that there may be some limit to second-amendment rights.

I have often wondered how far the "arms" part of the "right to bear arms" extends.  The proton pack?  Slimerizer?  A fully configured nuclear submarine?  I don't recall that I've ever heard the gun nuts ever admit to any limit of any sort.   It's a bit like the Republicans who won't entertain the possibility of a ten-to-one ratio of cuts to taxes.  You get the sense they'd say the same thing to 100 to one, or 1,000 to one or--anyway,  Coburn has done the unthinkable in suggesting as to weapons, there might actually be a limit.

Of course, Coburn didn't go so far as to say say that he actually approved of a limit on the packing of Senatorial heat.  And why should he?  Is there anything in the second amendment that that actually says a senator should not be allowed to carry his gat, his persuader, his rod, his piece into the chamber if he damn well pleases?

I suppose the nearest thing to a good argument you could advance is from pre-Constitutional tradition: as I recall the conventional definition of the "aisle" in a legislative chamber is that it should be wide enough that swords cannot reach across it.  I suppose we could adapt the same principle to modern times by letting the Republicans sit in Virginia, the Democrats in  Maryland.  Or, if we are using fully configured proton packs, maybe New Jersey.

Japanese Wallets

I remember reading somewhere that the reason Japanese suffered such privation in the Tokugawa was their high standards of cleanliness and public health.  Slovenly Europeans enjoyed (ahem) high levels of dirt-related disease (think cholera) and and so high levels of infant mortality, leaving the clean and lean Japanese with more survivors to feed.

People are contradictory but Japan has long struck me as one of the most paradoxical countries in the world.  How could a country with a shiftless and irresponsible government (but there is plenty of competition) enjoy such high levels of personal integrity and social solidarity?  Don't know, of course, but it does mean I am not particularly surprised by this story, as recounted  by Aaron Cohen over at Kottke:

This is a nice story for the afternoon. During the cleanup process following the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, citizens have turned in tons of wallets containing $48 million. 5,700 safes washed out to sea in the tsunami have been recovered containing another $30 million. Most of this has been returned to the owners. This is the type of story that makes me say, "Please don't be fake, please don't be fake," as I click submit.
He's right to be skeptical; always be skeptical.  But I'm more inclined to believe this one than most.

The Ambiguities of Competition

Michigan is in a slump, but I bet they still import cheap orange juice from Florida.  Should Michigan designate "orange development zones," so Michiganders can develop orange groves and juice processing plants where local workers can take pride in doing real jobs that support their local community?

No, I thought not (and the example is not original with me).  But it is a good introduction to the ambiguities of competition policy that seem to beset some parts of the polisphere (that one, I think, is original with me).  The immediate example is Rick Perry and his supposed "job-creating machine" in Texas.  Turns out that a good deal of Perry "job creation" is nicking off job from other states.  Should we be disturbed about the success of Texas as a job stealing shifting machine? Obviously if the jobs were going to (gasp!) Mexico, there would be a terrific uproar. Should we feel any less outraged (more forgiving) because they are staying "at home?"

Another example, I think related. Matt Yglesias has glommmed on to the idea the crushing of unions may improve the quality of the beer. I think he's basically right. (Some) people say that unions are "a conspiracy in restraint of trade." I think that is snarl talk, but I'd agree that in order to be a successful union, you have to be part of a conspiracy in restraint of trade. So in the 1950s, management and unions in the auto industry, protected against competition, divvied up the economic rents while we all drove crap cars.

Yglesias presses on to complicate his beer example by pointing out that the beer cartel may actually help to generate better beer, insofar as it provides an incubator for the development of beer-making skill. Good so far although I think he is just scratching the surface of a much larger issue here. Example: I think one of the most under-reported stories in the public arena is the role of the government (monopoly, with the death penalty) in generating good ideas from which others get to profit (Jim Fallows has a superb post on this point).

I don't have much to add to the analysis except to point out that (a) the problem is ever with us and (b) it seems unsolvable. I may be sensitive to the issue right now because I've been reading T.J. Stiles' superb biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt , in which Stiles does a masterful job of situating Vanderbilt at the center of a tectonic shift in our notion of government--I mean the shift from "mercantilism" to a model of "free competition." In particular, Stiles is devastating in his demonstration of how Vanderbilt mastered the art of (a) excoriating "monopolies;" and (b) crushing competitors, so as to build monopolies; and (c) threatening to build monopolies so as to be bought off. Self-contradiction: it's as American as Apple Pie (all right reserved).

The Fall of the Dollar--Wasn't That Supposed to be a Good Thing?

I know there is no intrinsic merit to s falling dollar: a dollar is a price and prices go up, prices go down. As a fairly compulsive tourist, I admit I don't like having to suck it up a bit more every time I travel with my passport: I loved those 85-cent Euros we played with back in 2001. As an investor I'm so sorry I wasn't more international-diversified. And I certainly think it is silly for Republicans to complain about dollar slippage now--now, about s slippage that has been going on for years.

But wait--isn't thee falling dollar supposed to make our exports cheaper and so goose up native industries? And, for that matter, make imports more expensive--just generally, to induce the greater export of goods and the lesser import of cash?

Think about it.

So, where would we have been had the dollar not fallen?

Dr. Pangloss said that this is the best of all possible worlds. Maybe Dr. Pangloss was a pessimist.

Apple v Exxon--A Footnote

All this stuff about how Apple is "as big as" or "almost as big as" or even "bigger than" Exxon--maybe I haven't read widely enough, but every one of those stories I've seen talks in terms of "market cap"--share price times number of shares outstanding.

Well now.  A moment's reflection  will tell you there is no reason on God's green earth to expect that all shares will sell at the same unit price as a single share.  Might be less, often more.  Indeed if it were to be the same, you'd have to count it as a crashing coincidence.

But of more direct interest--market cap talks only of equity, says nothing of debt.  The whole enterprise value counts both. So, how do Exxon and Apple compare in terms of debt?  There is a difference, although it's perhaps not as great as you might guess.

Start with Exxon. From the balance sheet, we see that non-current liabillities total about $93 billion--a bit over a quarter of the much-noted market cap.  Of course this is accounting-speak: non-current liabilities include, e.g., deferred charges and the dreaded "other."  Pure "accounting" longterm debt is $12.2 billion--pretty slim when you consider the size of the company, but still more than a rounding error.

For Apple, the comparable balance-sheet non-current-liability number is $6.67 billion--a trifle between friends.  Apple's "pure" long-term debt number is just what you'd guess for a Silicon Valley hottie--zero, nada, bupkas, zilch.  

So however you count it, once you throw in liabilities, the total Exxon value is still a good ways north of Apple.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

GOP Candidates and Hot-Button Concepts

Political candidates could not live without hot-button concepts: buzzwords that tend to set the adrenaline running (while blunting the critical faculties) of friends and enemies alike.  The GOP primary field seems to be setting out early this year to explore the limits of the strategy.

Here's Rick Perry, for example,using the name "Ben Bernanke" and a form of the word "treason" in the same sentence.  I haven't the least idea what it is about Bernanke's conduct counts as "treasonous" for Rick Perry although in fairness I will grant that Perry probably doesn't either;  in fairness I will also grant that Perry probably knows he doesn't know what he means although I  am not sure it would be fair to say the same about his audience.

I do see that Perry has caught some flac for his remarks from inside his own party, though I wouldn't get too excited about that little sideshow; I am sure it has more to do with long-forgotten (by the rest of us) hurts and slights inside the toxic swamp of Texas Republican party politics than it does with anything that might really matter to anybody,  What interests me more is his notion of "treason."  Never having been particularly strong in my criminal law course, I'm a little shaky on the notion of "treason," but I gather it's got something to do with a direct offense against the state--somehow I hear an echo of Henry V repeating "why, so dist thou," as he sends his former friends away to meet their doom ("Get you therefore hence,/ Poor miserable wretches, to your death"),  I don't know about you, but this seems to me to call for something more contentious than QE2.

What, for example?  Well, here's a suggestion: tax evasion.  Honestly, can you think of any offense that strikes more directly at the lifeblood of the state than to try to starve it of its very sustenance?  Will Governor Perry avow that he will carry his analysis to its logical conclusion, and commit that a Perry administration will prosecute tax evasion as treason--with, I should think, the death penalty, and to satisfy originalists everywhere, I suppose the death penalty in whatever  ugly and disgusting form was prevalent during the time of Henry V?

Here's another hot-button concept: slavery.  Michele Bachmann has offered a number of insights into the nature and history of slavery lately, including the suggestion that black children were better off under slavery.

Again, the issue might be how far she wants to push the point.  If slavery was "a good thing," as the books used to say, would a Bachmann administration undertake to reimplement slavery, as a means of enhancing the public good--at lest, e.g., for black children?  Or short of that, would Bachmann want to offer herself and her family up as potential slaves, so that they might enjoy the blessings that the peculiar institution appears to confer?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Ah, Those were the Days!

Instill the little rascals with a bit of moral fibre!:
"[M]ost of the city's newsboys took their earnings home to help support their families.  But many newsboys were orphans or runaways who lived on the streets.  Owen  Kildare was seven years old when, in 1871, his stepfather kicked him out of their Catherine Street home.  Kildare went to Park Row (where most of the city's newspapers had their offices), took up with a gang of newsboys who slept on the streets, and soon began selling newspapers himself.  During the summer, these waifs slept in City Hall Park, on courthouse steps, or in col boxes under building stairwells.  In the winter, they huddled over steam grate outside the newspaper pressrooms or in the doorways of unlocked buildings.

Despite these hardships, the newsboys relished their freedom and independence.  On a typical day, they bought their morning papers at the  crack of dawn and worked until they had exhausted their supply, usually around nine o'clock.   They would then eat breakfast at an inexpensive restaurant, and afterward go to a ferry terminal hoping to earn tips carrying passengers' packages to the hacks and omnibuses.  After their midday dinner, newsboys purchased their supply of afternoon papers and sold them into the evening.  Many then went to the working-class theaters on the Bowery or Chatham Street, after which they could often be found at midnight in a "'coffee and cake' cellar" taking their supper, smoking a cigar, or sipping a cup of coffee.
--Tyler Anbinder, Five Points 131-2 (2001) 

Truly Weird

I think I just passed myself on the street.  Old guy, unkempt silver hair.  Scraggly beard.  Dour expression.  Oh, and the travel vest, did I mention the travel vest.  Only inconsistency: he had grey eyebrows; mine, for some unaccountable reason, are still black.

I tried to suppress a hysterical giggle.  I think I saw him trying to stifle a smirk.

...and Speaking of Community Policing

On the towel dispenser in the rest room at Palookaville's finest student joint:

Monday, August 15, 2011

Creeps' Creep

You might think the "creep of the year" award could go to a guy who kills his two-year-old daughter as an act of vengeance his ex-wife.  But wait, folks, there's more.

[Yes, I know, the killer also did in himself.  Don't see how that alters anything.]

Has it Been 37 Years, Really?

Oh, looky folks, here's a paperback ($2.25) copy of The Bankers, by Martin Mayer, copyright 1974 (mine is a 1977 reprint, with a 1977 introduction).  This is a book that I without irony as thee gold standard of its time for a popular-audience discussion of banking issues (he did a reprise in 1997 which I'm a bit embarrassed to say I've never read).

I can't say I've reread every word of the earlier version earlier, but a skim of the index is enough to give you a hint of how much banking has changed.  There is, of course, no entry for Alan Greenspan, Jamie Dimond, Robert Rubin.  There's no entry for "proprietary trading (did the phrase even exist them?)--more surprising,  none for "investment banking."

I don't mean any disrespect to Mayer here, but these insights do just begin to suggest how much banking has changed over the past generation.   Mayer opens the book with a chapter called "The revolution," but its main purpose appears to be to suggest just how dull banking was, and perhaps was supposed to be: Mayer retells the anecdote of the old banker asked to name the most important change he had seen in half a century of bankruptcy--he answered "air conditioning") (shades of Paul Volcker's crack that the greatest financial innovation of the modern age was the ATM machine).  Perhaps the only hint in this intro of what is to come is Mayer's description of the Walter Wriston (then head of National City Bank) as "a man who radiates nervous energy."

There are a few harbingers of what is to come.  There are excellent discussions of the Penn Central debacle, including a mention of the highly ahem equivocal role played by Goldman Sachs.   It's one of only two mentions of Goldman in the book (the other has to do with securities trading in the 20s; in both, Goldman comes off with egg on its face, as amply documented more recently in William Cohan's admirable history of the firm).  There's an intelligent discussion of Franklin National, the largest bank failure in the 20th Century up to its time (1974).

Perhaps more familiar to the modern ear will be the discussion of Saloman Brothers (remember): how they borrow(ed) every last clacker of government money they could lay their hands on, and repurpose it unconstrained by such niceties of reserve requirements.  This was. of course, before Lew Ranieri at Salomon more or less invented securitization--and long before Paul Mozer nearly brought the whole temple down on his head.  Tantalizing for its promise, but not fully developed, is his discussion of "bought money"--what Mayer himself later popularized as the shift from  "asset management" to "liabilities management."  Here perhaps we have a glimmer of the dynamic vortex that it appears we must all live in today.

Mayer isn't perfect.  He tends to wander and to ride his own hobbyhorses at the expense of a more measured presentation.  And perhaps needless to say, if anyone were to assign this to you next semester as a textbook on modern banking, you'd want to find yourself another instructor.  But as perspective, as context on where we are today, it is an unbeatable recofrd of where we have come from.

Per Wiki, I surmise that Mayer is 83, and still active: he's up at the website of the Brookings Institution; here is his most recent Brookings post..  Here's a fairly recent interview.

We Report, You Decide

The luckiest generation.

Generation f*cked.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Where are All the Men?

Fabrizio, bewildered and unattached on the battlefield at Waterloo, stumbles into the company of three other stragglers and an otherwise unnamed corporal:
“That’s good news! We’re all in the same boat,” said the corporal; “but do what I tell you and you’ll get through all right.” His eye fell on five or six trees marking the line of a little ditch in the middle of an immense cornfield. “Make for the trees!” he told his men; “lie down,” he added when they had reached the trees, “and not a sound, remember. But before you go to sleep, who’s got any bread?”

“I have,” said one of the men.

“Give it here,” said the corporal in a tone of authority. He divided the bread into five pieces and took the smallest himself.
--Stendahl, Charterhouse of Parma 60 (Signet ed. 1962)


Accept it as a universal: unattached, underemployed young men are a misfortune and in sufficient numbers can be a calamity.  I've argued before that we (they) will probably breed young men out after another couple of generations, but in the meantime here is another home truth, perhaps more contentious but I think no less true.  That is: the only force that society has ever devised sufficient to control anarchic young men is older men: men old enough to have banked the fires of testosterone poisoning, to have acquired mortgages and steady gigs they don't want to lose--but who retain enough energy and personal magnetism to slap the young ones into line.

I'm not talking superman here, not vainglorious displays of macho bravado.  Precisely the contrary--that is young man stuff.  I'm talking the humbler and more demanding task of Keeping the Wheels on the Bus. Women will say that is women's work and in large measure they are right.  But the preponderance of the evidence tilts towards a melancholy truth: they can't do it on their own.  Say what you like about what "a mother knows," the fact is they are too often bullied or--what is worse--suckered by the young hot-bloods to maintain stability and good order on their own.

What men, exactly?  One's first thought may be "pastors"--priests, rabbis, but I'm not so sure.  I'm inclined to vote with Ann Douglas and recognize that pastors are mostly about women.  For men, I'm thinking rather of a humbler category: petty officers, top sergeants, shift commanders, shop foremen and the like.  And I'm specifically not talking about heroism here.  I'm just saying that a decent society can't run without them.

[Aside: in passing, I'd say that this insight helps to explain the enduring popularity of a particular kind of TV show--my old favorite Hill Street Blues, for example, or Coach, or the immortal (interminable?) Law and Order.]

All of which makes me wonder: where are the men in London, specifically Tottenham and Wood Green?  The short answer is that I haven't a clue: I've spent a lot of time in London but I don't think I ever set foot in either place.  All I know is that it's pretty clear that some sort of social glue is missing.  In America, some people would say this sort of thing is an artifact of excessive incarcertion: lock the men away for a generation and you've got nobody to mind the home front. In some places, you might find that it's a function of immigration patterns: young folks come to the city while old folks stay home (think New York in the 1880s-90s).    It some places, it may be that the older men have never got plugged in themselves--that they remain without jobs and mortgages and the other indicia of stability that work to put them on an even keel.    Ironically, one thing underlying this model is the very philosophy of policing, as invented in modern England by Sir Robert (Bobbie!) Peel."

I stress I don't want to pretend that I know enough to push any one of these particular theories: I'm posing a question, not giving an answer.  All I'm saying is that a society with a surplus of underemployed young men is sitting on a bonfire.  And a society without a network of plugged-in older men is very likely to find itself stuck with the former.

Anything Worth Not Doing is Worth Not Doing Well

Moby-Dick demonstrates the pleasures and profundities of digression, and is an excellent example of how a novelist can excel at what he perhaps should not have tried in the first place.
--Jane Smiley, 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel 371 (2006) 

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Ashland Shakespeare Note: Henry IV Part 2

I guess a lot of people say that Henry IV part II is among the weaker of Shakespearean histories, and I can see their point.. It's pretty clearly a sequel, with a lot of the same characters, reprising some of the same devices. There's little by way of dramatic conflict; just a series of something very close to tableaux.

And yet I've liked it from the very first time I saw it some 40 years ago (at the Shakespeare Festival at Stratford, Connecticuct), perhaps the moreso as time goes on. There be more than coincidence at work here: turns out on closer scrutiny that the play has a theme, and the theme is old age, decay, disease (I think I heard somewhere that "disease" is a word first used in this play). Falstaff is a busted flush. The King is on his death bed. Northumberland may have brought about the death of his son. Shallow and Silence present themselves as  perhaps the most remarkable old-guy buddy team in literature short of Statler and Waldorf.

It also includes (and I suspect this is most important) three of the most hauntingly wonderful and uniquely Shakespearean prose packages in the canon.  One would be that bit where Mistress Quickly tries to berate Falstaff into marriage .  ("sitting in my Dolphin-chamber, at the round table, by a sea-coal fire, upon Wednesday in Whitsun-week")The second is the item where Doll Tearsheet suavely beguiles the same Falstaff into blackguarding his great friends while they stand at his elbow (" a' plays at quoits well, and eats conger and fennel, and drinks off candles' ends for flap-dragons).    And the third would be that absolutely inimitable "exchange" where Justice Shallow tells old Silence what a carouser he was in his youth (all lies?)("How a good yoke of bullocks at Stamford fair?").

Every time I hear/read Shakespeare do stuff like this, I remember all those people who insist that Shakespeare couldn't possibly have been Shakespeare because he wasn't a college boy.  What we have here, of course, are samples of Shakespeare channeling "common speech"--precisely the sort of thing you would not have learned in an Oxbridge common room--and channeling it with a pith and urgency that I think are unmatched anywhere else in literature (no, not Dickens; Dickens stuff  is diverting in its way, but it's a cartoon).  But wait, no--Shakespeare is not merely "channeling:" he's taking common speech and adding his own particular bite and drive such as to make it all into poetry.

He does it elsewhere, I suppose, depending on your definition.  There's a stellar example--perhaps the best--in Act II, scene 1 of Henry IV part 1, the inn-yard at Rochester ("What, ostler! come away and be hanged!").  I suppose you could count the rude mechanicals in Midsummer Night's Dream. although this falls over into more explicit comedy ("The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen...").  I'd count the boost for nationalist solidarity you get from Fluellen in Henry V ("it is out of my prains
").    For all this, I don't think any play quite matches Henry IV part 2 in capturing this distinctive mode of expression; all reason enough to keep it among the first rank.

Afterthought: Oh, the play, right, I forgot. I'd say the Ashland troupe did a fine job with it--mostly straightforward and uncluttered. The Doll Tearsheet scenes do seem to get raunchier with the passing years, but I'd say it is all there in the text (guy behind me was loud in his disapproval, though). James Edmondson and Michael J. Hume, whose experience at Ashland extends almost back to the War of Roses, played Shallow and Silence a bit like a pair of vaudeville hoofers (and I say that in a nice way). I thought last year that John Tufts didn't have quite the ambiguity--the combination of charm and menace--that you might want in Prince Hal. I'd say the same now although ironically, he has less to do in this part 2 so you notice it less. Richard Howard, whom I first saw when he strode buck naked across the stage (near 30 years ago, come lammas-eve)--and later, dying in the (literal, Ashland) rain as Richard II--Howard was just about perfectly cast as the ailing and disappointed old king.

Apple Reminds Me that Its Motto is not "Don't be Evil"

Here's Apple again with another one of those annoyances that really doesn't gain them much of anything but certainly annoys people like me. Here's the deal: a couple of months back, just after I got my Iphone, I downloaded the Kindle reader app, idly and not expecting much.  To my stunned surprise, I fell  in love with it.  I do most of my Kindle reading now on the Iphone--so much so that I've basically ceded the real Kindle over to Mrs. B.  I also found that Amazon could just suck money out of me because I could order and take delivery right from the Kindle app screen.

A few days that "order"  function just disappeared, zap.  Or if anybody told me, I sure missed it.  I figured it might be a software glitch so I did the standard computer evasion of killing it out and reinstalling.  No change, nada, zip.  Idly again, I fired off an email to Amazon to tell them I missed the ordering app and, not incidentally, that it would probably cost them money.

They must have been waiting for me to call.  In less time than it takes to tell, Amazon fired back an answer saying sorry, the app is no longer available "In order to comply with recent policy changes by Apple." So, apparently Jeff wants me to understand that he's  not taking for Steve's grabiness.  But then in  the same email, Amazon tells me how to configure the same feature via Safari--with the facility, of course, to put a link on my home page.

Long story short, in a few more minutes, I have essentially the link installed on my home screen and by george they are right, it does just what the original Kindle app used to do. I cannot possibly imagine what advantage Apple gains by insisting on this workaround (and then not telling me about it)--unless their business plan shows them gaining utils by annoying the customer.