Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Isn't That Special?

I see that former Royal Bank of Scotland chief Frederick A. Goodwin has had his knighthood revoked.  I'm sure there are committed anglophiles will tell me I miss the point entirely, but isn't this just a small step up from losing his library card?  Can't we at least consider something that involves, say, shackles, or a humiliating parade through the streets?  Or personal bankruptcy.Yes, "personal bankruptcy" has a consoling ring.   Ought enrich his experience of the human condition even more than, say, a knightood.

Ths Just in: World Going to Hell

I'm a big Kevin Drum fan--and Charles Murray gets up my nose--but for once I think  Murray has the better of it (link). Kevin, I was there, and he is right: we have slid downhill since the 60s.   More people are disconnected, with no real stake in the community. One in eight of us is on food stamps (one in four of children) (link) Fifty-one percent of us pay no income tax (link). And don't misunderstand, I'm not having a Michele moment here: I do not resent these folks but I do think we're seeing a society seriously out of whack.

Here's another point Kevin didn't discuss: the rich and even the well off are finding more and more ways to insulate themselves from the common ruck.   Anecdote: 1963, I was a fledgling newspaper reporter and word got out that the town's leading auto dealer was double-selling his receivables. It fell to me to find him and confront him.  I took my little aqua-blue Renault Dauphine out to his snooty east end stomping ground; I found the circular driveway in front of his columned (no kidding) mansion.  About 645 am I pulled up and parked by his front door.

Sure enough, about 20 minutes later,  he popped out and hustled down the grand front stairway, Tony-Soprano-like in his terrycloth bathrobe, steam exuding from each ear.  Short of it is he harangued and berated me for 20 minutes or so. When I had enough of his bluster to satisfy the city desk, I climbed back into my sewing-machine-powered sardine can and drove away.

Point is, aside from the comic absurdity of it all, these days I wouldn't have got close. A security guard would have stopped me at the project gate. Had I somehow slipped through, once he saw me from the window, he would have called the neighborhood contract cop who would have physically removed me and sent me on my way (probably without a savage beating, but still with nothing to satisfy the gents on the desk).  I--and so much of the detritus of humanity, would just not be his problem.

Here's another take from Underbelly's Wichita bureau--another old guy, albeit actually ten years younger than me:

  We recently were in Minnesota while I toured the Mayo Clinic – (unfortunately they don’t have much of a cure for advancing age). I grew up in Rochester and it was about a quarter the size of the current city. ...  I was appalled at how visibly and aggressively religious the city had become. Not surprisingly, there was a substantial Arab presence – with at least one mosque. And there were at least three Jewish centers – one for the Chabad group. Those make sense due to the people seeking medical care at the clinic. But there were  many  religious schools for kids and lots of ‘Pray for ______’ signs. And more churches than ever. It was depressing. 
 "Oh," adds Wichita, "and big box stores – many many big box stores."  Copy all that, but speaking as a longtime pagan, I have to acknowledge a certain ambivalence on the religious thing.  One the one hand, I'm as offput as you can be by the resentment and rancor that seems to pass for religion in so many quarters--not to mention the intrusiveness.  On the other hand, I acknowledge that there is all sorts of evidence that the sincerely religious are far more likely to be plugged into the world than us heretics.   Oy, young folks nowadays.  Complicated world.   

Monday, January 30, 2012

The Things that you're Liable to Read in the Bible...

Note to self: I think I may have to go back and (re?)  read some of the Biblical political narrative, particularly the stuff about David and Solomon.  I've been curious for some time about the "true history" of the Bible--how and where it came into being, that sort of thing.  For the moment, I'm pretty much sold on the view that it crystallizes shortly after 722 BC when the Assyrian Sargon II smashes his mailed fist down on on Israel driving (one may surmise) a horde of refugees down into poor, forlorn, infertile, left-behind Judah.  The refugees brought with them who knows what sorts of texts; they fell into the mercies of King Hezekiah who, remarkably, chose to accept them and to weave them into a new--or at least a reconceptualized--culture.

Which reconceptualized culture necessarily includes a "founding narrative"--or two, or three, but at the moment (as I say)  I'm curious about the David/Solomon story, which I a few years ago heard dismissed with irony as an artifact of "the missing 10th Century."  Meaning, I take it, that we must doubt the David/Solomon story because there is such a yawning emptiness in the archaeological record. 

I take it that this is a view widely shared among contemporary archaeologists, but no means universal.  And while in broad outlines it makes sense to me, I don't suppose I've actually read those resifted and resifted early narratives since my Sunday school days.  If then: would the authorities have turned us loose on the story of Bathsheba?  Anyway, might be fun to redo it now with  the eye of a detached maturity and after having actually set foot, however briefly, on the turf that gave the stories their start.  I still have that big old sturdy-on-the-shelf volume that my parents gave me for (perhaps) my 17th birthday--the one someone portentously entitled "The Bible Designed to be Read as Living Literature."  I don't recall that I ever gave it much actual attention, though I was always happy to keep it around for show.  And I find somewhat to my surprise that I actually defaced it with some bits of underling here and there.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Our President

He is a barbarian, Scythian, yahoo, or gorilla, in respect of outside polish (for example, he uses "humans" as English for homines), but a most sensible, straightforward, honest old codger.  The best President we have had since old Jackson's time, at least, as I believe; for Zachary Taylor's few days of official life can hardly be counted as a presidential term.  His evident integrity and simplicity of purpose would compensate for worse grammar than his, and for even more intense provincialism and rusticity.
 --New York City Lawyer George Templeton Strong indulges, patronizes and distracts his new president, Abraham Lincoln, 150 years ago today.  From his diary, edited by Allan Nevins and Milton Halsey Thomas, abridged by Thomas J. Pressly 195 (1952). The "old codger" would have been 52; Strong was 11 years younger.  

Saturday, January 28, 2012

One More Reason to Hate the Nazis, or at least Two Nazis

As if you needed one.  But consider: we spend a good deal of time persuading our children, persuading ourselves, that good and evil come all mixed up in the world, that our enemies are rarely the personification of evil, nor we the image of sainthood.  We know that this is an attitude for adults: it is in touch with reality and it laces us with a chastening humility.

But now comes Max Hastings with his admirable review of two new biographies: one of Hitler's henchman, Heinrich Himmler, the other of Himmler's henchman, Reinhard Heydrich--the one, loving and attentive progenitor of the Nazi SS; the other chief architect of the Holocaust.  It must have been a depressing enterprise, plodding through the careers of two such nasty and destructive human beings--though not, perhaps, much wore than the research necessary for Hasting's own recent Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945.  But here's the capstone, per Hastings:

If the two authors' explanations of Himmler and Heydrich remain somehow unsatisfactory, this is surely because it is impossible to explain how two such contemptibly small people could encompass such vast horrors.
So Hastings, "The Most Terrible of Hitler's Creatures," New York Review of Books February 9, 2012, 38-9, 29.  Translated, I think: forget about "a little good in the worst of us:" these guys really were evil.   They can't even claim the Eichmann excuse of stupidity: they went about the work of inflicting untold misery on others every day with zeal and panache.  It's always wrong to claim moral superiority, especially for one's self.  But for this once, maybe we really were superior.  

We are the 21.5 Percent

Like (I suppose) taxpayers everywhere, I gobbled up James B. Stewart's New York Times story this morning on his personal taxes: Stewart says he paid "24 percent of [his] adjusted gross income in federal taxes," and "49 percent of [his] taxable income in federal income tax" (note the inconsistency in wording--"federal taxes" versus "federal income tax").

Naturally I hauled out our (sic) own return for a comparison, and there are some surprises.  I see that we  paid about 21.5 percent of adjusted gross in federal income tax.  I guess this is the one to compare with Stewart's 24 percent (or is he including, e.g., Social Security as a "tax"?).

Also if I add this up right, we paid only 25 percent of taxable income in federal income tax, versus Stewart's 49 percent--and I haven't a clue why our number is so much lower than Stewart's [But see infra--ed.].  I should have thought that Stewart and we were mostly alike in that most income, in both cases comes from evasion-proof sources like salaries, pensions etc.  Idle speculation: is Stewart single? We are married filing jointly, which I assume translates into a lower rate.

Another puzzle: Stewart says he gave 25 percent to charity. This is eye-popping at least in the sense that I thought we were generous but we don't come close to that.  Anyway, you would assume that the bigger the slug of charity money the smaller the tax bill, which is another reason why it is hard to figure Stewart's 49 percent.

We also paid another six percent in California state income tax, but no local income tax.  I take it poor Stewart pays 13 percent in combined (New York) state and local income taxes; also something called the "unincorporated business tax" which sounds like a very expensive insult. 

Yep, I'd sure rather be in the Mitt Romney 13.9 percent bracket.  But as I suggest, I'm a little surprised to find that our overall rate is as low as it is.  And the truth is, I have never felt myself overtaxed.  Sure, the government spends money on all sorts of lunatic adventures that I'd like to stomp in their cradle.  But nothing is free and I am with Oliver Wendell Holmes when he says that taxes are what we pay for a civilized society.  Well, semi civilized. Some of he time.  

  Afterthought: Oh, maybe I do get it.  If he has huge deductions from AGI, he ends up  with a comparatively low taxable income, but a humongous alternative minimum tax.

Everybody Wants to Tell You about Private Equity

Seems like everybody in the journosphere, blog or otherwise, wants to take a crack at explaining private equity.  Here's a sensible account from The Economist; I'd love to know where they got that "net one percent" number, although it does sound believable.  Here's James Kwak, who says he is much less bothered by Mitt's time at Bain than he is by his current positions--all 180 degrees out from  those he embraced as governor of Massachusetts.   Here's James Surowiecki in The New Yorker, remarking on how little the industry must love all the attention it is getting.   And here's Holman Jenkins in The Wall Street Journal saying everything's all right here folks, move along.

Finally, by special invitation, here is Underbelly guest columnist Ignoto with his own account.  I would warrant him by saying he knows more about the subject than I do.  But that is a low bar; in truth he knows more about  the subject than most people.  Anyway, over to you Ignoto:
So why private equity, you ask?  Good question.  There are two schools of thought, both of which I actually adhere to in certain limited circumstances.  (Naturally, the devil is in the details, and I maintain that private equity as it has been implemented has been a disaster for everyone except the PE firms themselves.)
Thesis 1 – and this is the thesis usually emanating from the mouthpieces of the PE community – is that being private allows for longer-term thinking versus being public.  I get this – to a degree.  A PE-owned firm can put in place dramatic operational and financial changes that may not be necessarily welcome in the public markets.  Or they can commandeer efficiencies by buying two firms in the same industry and integrating them.  (Wilbur Ross is especially good at this – he’s rolled up steel mills, for example, and by using the economies of scale having ten mills in one company rather than ten mills in ten companies he’s created value.) 
All that being said, I don’t know if anyone’s really done a coherent and robust analysis of the “ability” of public companies to do the same kinds of “operational improvements” as private companies.  Frankly, if a company’s management team came out and said “the next two years will involve a high degree of creative destruction as we completely rethink our business model; earnings will drop like a stone and then rebound to previously unheard-of levels,” you might get a lot of sellers of the stock, but unless the company’s on the verge of bankruptcy, it probably doesn’t need access to capital markets anyway, so why does it care?
Thesis 2- and this is the thesis I think makes a hell of a lot more sense – is that it allows investors to lever up their exposure equity using nonrecourse term financing.  If I have $100 of capital to invest, I can invest $100 in the S&P and get one “unit” of equity risk.  I can get $100 in margin financing and invest $200 in the S&P, thereby getting two “units” of equity risk, but I’m subject to the margin loan being called.  OR I can give that $100 to a PE firm, have them take a modestly levered bunch of companies, lever the bejeezus out of them in the credit markets, and gain two or more “units” of equity risk (albeit less diversified than the S&P) with much less risk of the loan being called.  (The high-yield bond and bank loan markets are the sources of capital for LBOs – after the banks provide bridge financing, that is – and those bonds and loans usually go out 5 to 10 years before they come due.  And usually they don’t have triggers that could truncate the repayment period – especially when the capital markets are particularly loose, which is when LBOs are being done easily.  See, e.g., 2005-2007.)
As far as I’m concerned the biggest value-add KKR or Blackstone can provide is using their extensive power over the big banks to wrest cheap long-term capital out of them in ways we can’t (because we don’t bring, say, Morgan Stanley a lot of i-banking business the way KKR and Blackstone do.
The real reason you have so much PE is that it gives politicians access to rich people: the “gains” to the politicians all come up front, and any responsibility for bad decisions is someone else’s problem because the 10+-year lifespan of a PE deal means the politicians in place when the deal gets done are long gone when it blows up…  In essence, a PE guy becoming president is the logical apex of the rise of PE as a political asset class.
 Buce here: marking my own beliefs to market, I'd say for the moment:
  • Does PE pay off for investors?  Sometimes yes, sometimes no.  Maybe more yes than no.
  • Does it pay off for managers? You bet.  Interest deductibility and carried interest help a lot.
  • Does it pay off for target companies?  Complicated question.  Most of the targets were in trouble anyway, so the net effect may be to help them over the edge.
  • Does it help politicians? Sometimes, sure.  But perhaps hard to pin down just how much.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Probably True

"I think it's a rare person who's taught how to handle phoned death threats by their mother."

For a full account of life in tooth and claw, go here.

Governor Brewer: If You Can't Stand the Heat, Stay in the Kitchen

When in the blue blazes did Arizona Governor Jan Brewer mean, saying that she "felt unnerved" when the President gave her some pushback over the way she treated him in her book?   Did she expect him to punch her lights out?

If she wants to learn about "unnerved," she might consult her near neighbor, Gabby Giffords.   Also for advice on grace under strain.

Happy 256, Wolfgang

Nun, komm!
Ach ja!

German? Yes I saw in in the booklet with an old CD. Besides, it's funnier in German.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Republican Politics: a Footnewt

I dunno, may be that the Newt mentum has gone out of the Newt bag before I begin to write (translated: I didn't watch the debate), but I can't resist one parting shot.  The subject for the moment is the great sage of Muncie, R. Emmett Tyrrell and his lament that Newt is "our Bill Clinton."

No, wait.The point is he's right, more or less.  Newt is Bill Clinton: a flesh-pressing mesomorphic volcano of ideas, some actually good, with a shock of white hair and only the dimmest notion of connubial fealty.  Hell, until Clinton had his bypass, they could have worn the same suits.  Maybe they did wear the same suits: chances are either one of them would pick up whichever was handy and built to fit, no matter who happened to leave it lying about.

No, don't get me wrong: Clinton can make  me tear my hair out, but as between the two it's no contest.  Someone said that Newt is a dumb guy's idea of what it is to be a smart guy.    Clinton, who really is smart, gets credit from the voters when he is most acting like trailer trash.  Maybe we get to the point if we say that Newt is a Republican's idea of what it is to be Bill Clinton. 

I really don't want to spend ten minutes locked in an elevator with either of them, though.  

Yom Kippur Meditation

Here's (what I am told is) a Yom Kippur meditation I just stumbled across:

If some messenger were to come to us with the offer that death should be overturned, but with the one inseparable condition, that birth should also cease; if the existing generation were given the chance to live forever, but on the clear understanding that never again would there be a child, or a youth, or first love, never again new persons with new hopes, new ideas, new achievements; ourselves for always and never any others—could the answer be in doubt?
  No. I'd say no doubt.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

What Pundits Will Get Wrong

Tod Kelly kinda liked the SOTU which, he believes, sets him apart from most of the punditry.  No particular news there, but let me pick up on the punditry point. Tod says:

One of the tricks to being a good pundit is the ability to be clever. Being clever allows a pundit to put unique spins on the ordinary, and to describe things in ways that make them tasty and easily digestible. On the whole, this is a good thing. But part of the risk with being clever is that you have a tendency to over think things – (I do this a lot) – and when you over think things you sometimes find that even though you were sure you were almost to Vegas, you’re somehow just pulling into Amarillo. This is why Obama confuses so many pundits on the right and the left, despite the fact that there’s just not a lot of mystery there.
I'd drink to that, except perhaps that last where he talks about why Obama confuses so many pundits.  I suspect it it why any object of punditry confuses the pundits, and I will generalize: specialist always differ from amateurs.  That's why so many Booker Prize novels are unreadable, why nobody much loves modern opera, and why architectural prizewinners are leaky and drafty.

You'll say I'm just catering to the vulgar masses as if I want to transform the whole of the art world into Thomas Kinkade (or as his friends call him, Thomas "no sales tax" Kinkade) but that's not my point at all.  My point is that the very process of becoming a (pundit/critic) redefines your horizon; it leaves you bored with a lot of things that others do not find boring and opens you up to a range of possibilities that no amateur (including your former self) is likely to comprehend.   And in the particular case of punditry, it means the very process that qualifies you to speak as a specialist--that same process probably disables you from understanding the very subject on which you hope to pundicize.  

More on Fighting Back

My friend Ignoto weighs in on the 99 percent:
The ideologue sees the pepper-spraying and gets indignant. The intelligent ideologue sees the pepper-spraying, gets indignant, and then figures out how to make and sell gas masks and organic pepper spray.
Isn't all pepper spray organic?

Out of the Doldrums: Two New Finds

I feel like I've gone a bit stale lately (you'd noticed?).  I put down a lot of stuff half finished.  I don't seem to be able to get any traction.  I need a new entertainment.

All by way of a shoutout for two great new finds.  One (for which I thank Michael Gilleland)  is the blog of Andrew Rickard, Canadian translator and seeming polymath.  Michael thought I'd enjoy "Weimar Wednesdays" on the literature of German inflation.  He's right there, but the whole thing is wonderful, with snatches of Schopenhauer, Belloc and Céline, and what's not to like?

Thanks also to Bo for pointing me to The Whiskey Rebels by David Liss.  People keep telling me I ought to read Liss' novels of commerce/fraud, and I can see why: there's certainly nothing like a little chicanery to get the day off to a good start.  Up to now I've dipped into a couple but wandered away again.  Whiskey Rebels is out of the main line in that the setting is American, not European--specifically America at the dawn of the Republic.    Bo is right that Liss captures the volatile contention between pastoralist republicanism and the dynamic new vision of the market.  I may even have to go  back and take a second look at the others. 

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Meditation on the Italian Countryside

Between 1950 and 2005 the Italian countryside lost to asphalt and concrete a total of 3.66 million hectares, a figure larger than the combined size  of Tuscany and Umbria.
So David Gilmour in The Pursuit of Italy: A History of a Land, its Regions and their Peoples (2011).  I can't contradict him; I never saw Italy before 1950.  But driving across southern Tuscany last fall, I was impressed at how empty it seemed.  I suppose partly the point is hill country: you certainly can't farm anything much out here and maybe the highest and best use is the production of the admirable wild boar sausage.

The other side of Rome, you find the Capuan Plane which one may think of as empty though it's not: the problem is rather that it seems to belong to the Camorra and thus becomes a place where respectable folks, Italian and otherwise, just don't want to go.  Once malaria country; evidently the mobsters are immune to the mosquito.   

The 99 Percent and What They Are After

I know a guy whose life requires him from time to time to run the gauntlet of 99 percenters.  I'll try not to identify him to closely, but let's stipulate that he's not filthy rich himself, though he does get to go to meetings where people talk about great affairs. And he evinces no great hostility to the 99ers (though I guess not specially sympathetic either).

Anyway, he reports that he's chatted with some of these folks in his comings and goings. And what gets him is how (in the strict sense) ignorant they are about their own situation.  I.e., if you take my friend's word for it, they know next to nothing about where the real pressure points might be, about who has how much, about where precisely to leverage the system.  In particular, he says, they seem to know nothing about who in power they ought to be lobbying and how.

I don't know quite where to go with this one.  I know that some sympathizers will say this is not about pressure points, lobbying, blah blah--that all that stuff is just knuckling under to the system and we want to move beyond the system. As perhaps you might say, change we can believe it.  This is surely an appealing posture and in a way, I sympathize: in a well-run world, ordinary folks wouldn't have to spend all their time worrying about the intricacies of the market, etc.

Well, yes.  But paraphrasing Trotsky: you may be done with high finance, but high finance may not be done with you.  Ignoring the nuts and bolts may be a luxury that simply is not on offer.  

That's All?

Joel favors me with a quick-and-dirty summary of the campaign tax returns.   Quick thoughts:
  • Mitt Romney paid $1.5 to the Mormon church. That strikes me as a bit light, actually.  I've got a vague sense that the right rate is 10 percent of gross, maybe even before tax--which  would suggest $2.17 million.  If you go for after tax, you might figure $1.87--but then you'd have to go back and factor in the charitable deduction. Sounds like the bishop might want to have him in for a chat.  Any way you slice it, the number is ballpark with the total income of the president.

  • Would I be right that our president has zero business/investment income?  Or just too small for this summary chart?
  •  Who's Newt's divorce lawyer?

Monday, January 23, 2012

Guess Who's On TV?

One downside of not watching much TV: you miss out on a lot of popular culture.  So I never knew until 20 minutes ago that the more-or-less champs of churchy TV are (ready for it?) the Mormons.  Sure enough,it turns out that long before Big Love, the Mormons were making (or at least hiring) some of the most professional, most effective "public service" TV anywhere.  So at least Rollo Romig in The New Yorker who can't say enough good things about the Mormon spots that he watched as a child back in the  70s.

And how do they compare to Big Love?  Can't say for sure, but if you take Romig seriously, they might be better.  It happens I have seen a bit of Big Love, and I like it: imaginatively scripted with convincing and surprising plot elements (and the villainous Harry Dean Stanton is a total hoot).  But the scripting has always seemed a bit flaccid to me: somehow they haven't been able to come up with writers as good as those we learned to love on The Supranos or maybe even Mad Men. Maybe the Big Love crowd should simply have outsourced to the makers of the old TV spots.

Sunday, January 22, 2012


Still abuzz with the music of the Met Enchanted Island--loosely based as it  is on Shakespeare's tale of Prospero--we figured we'd take a flutter on the new (to us) gender-bender version, with the dispossessed wizard rechanneled through Helen Mirren.

Bottom line: file it under "rotten shame," or if you insist, "noble experiment."  As a whole it does not work, but that is a shame because the core of it in fact works quite resoundingly well.  The notion Prospero as a woman works better than any other Shakespearean crossover I can remember--much better, for example, than Ashland's Julius Caesar, for example, where the only reason for having a woman in the title role is that a woman wanted to play the title role.

Now reconsider: imagine Prospero as Prospera, the wise and beneficent duchess, cast aside by a brutish Brother and his gaggle of cronies. As Mirren herself as said, you have to change scarcely a line.  Unexpected side benefit: aside from Mirren herself, the finest thing about the show is the extended intimate dialogue between Mirren/Prospera and her young Miranda (Felcity Jones), so much better as girl-talk than as some kind of stilted father-daughter thing.

The trouble is that everything else is a mess.  It's as if Julie Taymor--the director--just said "whatever," and let everybody else just do whatever they wanted.  There's a formlessness, a sprawl, made (perhaps unintentionally) worse, by the formlessness and sprawl of the Hawaiian Island on which it was shot.  In this non-context, the brother and his cronies do a decent ensemble turn but you have to remind yourself how, if at all, it relates to the rest of the play. Ariel doesn't seem able to convey any grace or charm.Caliban is almost perfunctory in his (supposedly) suppressed lust and the comics--oh,dear, the comics.  Why is it so many movie funnymen either (a) don't know how to get  laugh out of Shakespeare; or (b) just don't seem to realize that there are any laughs to be had.  Not that it's rocket science: I've seen high school troupes that have you falling out of your chair with their caterwaulings under the blanket   Heck, I've seen my own grandkids crack themselves up with a homemade rendition on the living room floor.  Not this crowd; they're just punching in on the clock.   Which leaves just about everything in the hands of Mirren and Jones.  That's a heavy burden; the consolation is that they do carry it well. 

Attention All English Majors

And there is no educated human being less likely to know business worse placed for knowing business than a young lord. Business is really more agreeable than pleasure;  it interests the whole mind, the aggregate nature of man more continuously,  and more deeply.
 --Walter Bagehot, The English Constitution 161 (Dolphin Paperback ed.)

Bleakest, Most Chilly Phrase of the Morning

"the flexibility, diligence and industrial skills of foreign workers..." 

Apple executives, on why those jobs are never coming back.

Well,That's a Mercy

      She was decapitated and disembowelled. She was however not interfered with.
Letter to The Economist (ironic [and perhaps fictional?]).

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Enchanted Island Again

I can't imagine what of lunatic inattention possessed me this morning, almost impelling me to pass up a second chance at the Met's rollicking pastiche performance of Enchanted Island. Now would that have been a dumb move. It was wonderful, wonderful, to begin with and this time, out of all whooping.

Which is to say I liked it fine at the Met three weeks ago, but I'd say I liked it better this time around in HD. I don't know, maybe I was coming with the flu that first time. Or perhaps more likely, the HD was enriched, enhanced, by virtue of having seen it the first time on the big stage. Or it may be that the whole shebang is so multifarious that you just can't take it all in at first glance. And the close-ups: I remember enjoying all the boy-girl action, but there is a whole range of over-the-top mugging which just doesn't make it to the second balcony. And Joyce DiDonato: girl's got just a bit of Carol Burnett in her, wouldn't you say? And Luca Pisaroni as Caliban: concealed behind all that pancake, it was easy for me to overlook just how dignified and steady he really is.

One thing that didn't work quite as well in HD: Anthony Roth Costanza, the counter-tenor as Ferdinand. He's got a fine voice and should himself remarkably well ale to command the big hall. Ironically, the closed framework of the small screen just didn't give him quite as much room to shine.

And I still think the Placido Domingo Neptune was a bit much of a muchness. He's a Mount Rushmore figure and I don't begrudge him an ounce of his acclaim. But if it had been anybody else, you would have said the comic pacing was a bit slack, and you'd wonder why after a lifetime on the stage, he's still not so great at English. No matter; he's a lovable old coot at there is so much other good stuff that you're almost grateful for a breather. 

Friday, January 20, 2012

Which is Rare

I agree with just about every word of this.

Mothers Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Free-Lance Journalists

You'll spend the rest of your natural life trying to squeeze a $200 fee out of Rupert Murdoch.

[Two comparisons come to mind: one, my friend Michael who used to run a Snap-on Tools franchise.  He said he spent half his time trying to squeeze money out of his customers and the other half trying to wrestle commissions away from his boss.  And two, my ex student who bagged carpentry for law school. He said in carpentry, the prime was always telling him--well, I can't pay you now, but I tell you what, I'll give you a bigger piece of my next job.

London Bookstores

Back in the 70s I used to say my dream job was to be the checkout clerk at Collette's Marxist bookstore in Charing Cross Road.  My customers would stock up on dialectics; I would argue with 'em.  It would be just like law teaching but with a more motivated audience, and no grading.

Collette's Marxist is long gone as is Collette's itself and these days I'm pleasantly surprised when I get back to London to find that not every other bookstore has gone the same path.  Now here is Rhiannon Batten in The Independent with a list of "The 50 Best bookshops," i.e., in England, Scotland and Wales.  I suppose it is always possible to pick apart this kind of a list ("What?  You didn't include--?").  I will deny myself this indulgence (ha!--see infra.) and just say I'm glad to find some dependable favorites still alive and kicking.

First on the list is an almost inevitable choice: The London Review Bookshop at 14 Bury Place up near the British Museum, interesting not least because it for all practical purposes a new bookshop, aggressively self-invented to cross-market product from its distinguished weekly newsletter.  I can't think of any place in London more pleasant for idling away an hour.

Except it be my other old favorite, Waterstones (as it is now called) in Gower Street--but really Dillon's until it went belly up in (2000?), happily recreated by people who had the good sense to salvage the best of a good thing. And, well, yes I guess I am a little surprised to note the omission of my other London favorite, Foyles, across the street from the ghost of Collette's in Charing Cross Road.  And while I'm at it, I suppose I am also a little surprised at the omission of Hartchard's at 187 Picadilly--never an habituelle of mine because I never lived or sojourned in the neighborhood, but still exuding a kind of English solidity that you've got to enjoy.

I know, I know: these places are all cutting against the grain as folks like me undertake to destroy them with a thousand digital cuts.  If and when they vanish, I will be one of those to blame. Well, yes.  And maybe they won't vanish.  Maybe even in the cyclonic winds of change, there is a place for a few durable old monuments who find a way to buck the fashionable current and retain some of their old identity.  For all my apostasy, I must say I hope so.   


This will be a more than usully half-baked post, but I'm wondering--isn't it time for a book entitled "demutualization," i.e. the get sea change that did so much to create the corporate culture that afflicts is today. It's fun to tell students about the early days when "insurance" arose in the form of mutual benefit societies, linked to churches or ethnic communities (which might be the same thing)--so also banking, and in a slightly different wy, farm production. Fun, but I might as well be lecturing on early Ugaritic bookkeeping, it is so distant from and alien to whatever we understand today.    I suppose there might be such a book but I haven't found it yet.  I do see a Wiki page; it seems to be tilted to the British experience, and it isn't as ambitious (or protean?) as I am beginning to visualize.

There'd surely be a chapter on the mutual fund industry, and the story that John C.Bogle recounts at every opportunity about how Massachusetts Investors Trust morphed alpha to omega while Vangurd's Wellington went from omega to alpha. 

Though I know it isn't the sme thing, I suppose one could make room for (a) chapter(s) about the demise of the partnership model in Wall Street banking.  If I'm not careful I suppose I'll find myself throwing in a chapter on the fall and fall of the Israeli kibbutz.

I smell the outlines of a larger social/history story here: the passage from active to passive wealth-making, the rise of a rentier class.  I suppose what  I'm really after is the kind of big history best undertaken by the young, eager to make a splash and too callow and ignorant to realize they are biting off so much more than they can chew.   

Thursday, January 19, 2012

If You Were a Car...

What kind of a car would you be?  The Wichita Bureau is amused that Newt Gingrich views his former wife as a Jaguar, and the incumbent as a Chevvie ("nearly old enough to be a Cougar," growls Wichita, in an uncharacteristic lapse of chivalry).  Which segues to: what sort of car-personality is right for ol' Newty?   Something ahead of its time, but not quite right for the market, like the Edsel, for example?  A  Delorean has more by way of daring and imagination (forget about the cocaine).  But it is likely to lose out in any head to head showdown with the Batmobile.

Actually, I suspect it is wild choices like this that got ol 'Newtie into the kind of troubles that seem to beset him.  The party is, after all, still American, and Republican.  In the end, I suspect nothing says "Grand Old Party" quite so emphatically as the 1934 Belchfire Runabout, plate number 313. 

BTW, all those Huffpost quotes from the ABC interview--didn't I read all that stuff a couple of weeks ago, if not before?  Or don't they have internet in South Carolina?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Shakespeare's Golding

One of Shakespeare's most attractive qualities is his ability to discern the merit in the work of others; to see the nascent possibilities that he can unlock and unleash.  One of the most remarkable is this speech from Ovid as translated into  jingling English hexameters by Arthur Golding:
Ye Ayres and windes: ye Elves of Hilles, of Brookes, of Woods alone,
Of standing Lakes, and of the Night approche ye everychone.
Through helpe of whom (the crooked bankes much wondring at the thing)
I have compelled streames to run cleane backward to their spring.
By charmes I make the calme Seas rough, and make the rough Seas plaine,
And cover all the Skie with Cloudes and chase them thence againe.
By charmes I raise and lay the windes, and burst the Vipers jaw.
And from the bowels of the Earth both stones and trees doe draw.
Whole woods and Forestes I remove: I make the Mountaines shake,
And even the Earth it selfe to grone and fearfully to quake.
See how little he has to change to recast  it into a different dimension, and present it as one of the grandest pieces of verse he ever wrote--Prospero's incantation to the spirits at the end of The Tempest:
Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves,
And ye that on the sands with printless foot
Do chase the ebbing Neptune and do fly him
When he comes back; you demi-puppets that
By moonshine do the green sour ringlets make,
Whereof the ewe not bites, and you whose pastime
Is to make midnight mushrooms, that rejoice
To hear the solemn curfew; by whose aid,
Weak masters though ye be, I have bedimm'd
The noontide sun, call'd forth the mutinous winds,
And 'twixt the green sea and the azured vault
Set roaring war: to the dread rattling thunder
Have I given fire and rifted Jove's stout oak
With his own bolt; the strong-based promontory
Have I made shake and by the spurs pluck'd up
The pine and cedar: graves at my command
Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let 'em forth
By my so potent art.
Interesting whether if Shakespeare tried it today, the Golding estate would slap an injunction on him, perhaps shutting down his website and confiscating his Ipad.

Compassion and the Indonesian Railroads

I read that the Indonesians are trying to keep people from riding the roofs of trains.  They've tried soft music; now they are erecting concrete balls that apparently will just boot the malefactors into the ditch.

Some see this is harsh.  I'd say it is an improvement over the Nazis. As I recall, it came to their attention that prisoners were trying to escape the trains to the camps by hacking holes in the floor and dropping onto the track below.  Ever inventive, the Nazis undertook to equip the trains with giant scythes, so as to cleave the body in to as they hurtled past. 

Source: I can't pin this down at the moment but I believe I saw it in Richard Overy's Dictators.

A Job for Superlawyer

The captain of the doomed Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia stands accused of abandoning ship (he now says he "fell into" the lifeboat).  He's under criminal charges; apparently the judge will face the question whether to grant bail.  Now, repeat after me:

"Your honor, there is no reason to think my client a flight risk..."

Monday, January 16, 2012

From the Chronicles of Tescovina

You'd have a tough time recognizing that this is not an excerpt from Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities.

"The Province of Tescovina, which is comprised of Tertiary Hill country rich in loess, has no natural eastern defenses and lies exposed to the Podolian Steppe, so that for thousands of years the land wa ssubject to the invasions of barbarian nomads."  That was the sentence we had to commit to memory as one of our first lessons in local history and geography under Herr Alexianu, who worked for a while as our private tutor--one part of our vsry checkered and highly unsystematic education. The purpose was to acquaint us with the idea that running through our veins was the blood of Dacians, Romans, Gepids, Avars, Pechenegs, Cumans, Slavs, Magyars, Turks, Greeks, Poles, and Russians: "a strong mix of ethnicities" was how the book described Tescovina.   In the fourteenth century some landed gentry whose names struck our ears like the curses we were always hearing--Bogdan Siktirbey, for example--founded small states, known as "voivodates," which soon came under Turkish rule.  In 1775 the Sublime Porte ceded our homeland to Austria, which first annexed Tescovina to Galicia, and later declared it an independent Crown Land. Her Alexianu spoke about this historic episode with the greatest reluctance.
 In fact, it is a selection from an introductory chapter in Gregor von Rezzori, An Ermine in Czernopol (NYRB ed. 2011).  Sounds like he is  once again remembering his youth in the lost world of pre-War (which war?) Eastern Europe, as he did in Memoirs of an Anti-Semite and The Snows of Yesteryear--though this time, perhaps more explicitly in the form of a fantasy. I'm advised that "Tescovina" is Romanian for "rape."

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Miss America Takes a Risk

Ever alert to current events, the Wichita bureau notes that the new Miss America won her honor with a bit of opera but hopes to use her scholarship money towards law school.  We're wondering if opera mightn't be the safer choice.

Vice is Just Too Much Trouble

Aristippus establit des opinions si hardies en faveur de la volupté et des richesses, qu'il mit en rumeur toute la philosophie à l'encontre de luy. Mais quant à ses moeurs, Dionysius le tyran luy ayant presenté trois belles garses, afin qu'il en fist le chois : il respondit, qu'il les choisissoit toutes trois, et qu'il avoit mal prins à Paris d'en preferer une à ses compagnes. Mais les ayant conduittes à son logis, il les renvoya, sans en taster. Son vallet se trouvant surchargé en chemin de l'argent qu'il portoit apres luy : il luy ordonna qu'il en versast et jettast là, ce qui luy faschoit.
 --Montaigne,  "de la Cruauté," reprinted with a photo of Montaigne's own markup here.
Aristippus instituted opinions so bold in favor of pleasure and riches as set all the philosophers against him: but as to his manners, Dionysius the tyrant, having presented three beautiful women before him, to take his choice; he made answer, that he would choose them all, and that Paris got himself into trouble for having preferred one before the other two: but, having taken them home to his house, he sent them back untouched. His servant finding himself overladen upon the way, with the money he carried after him, he ordered him to pour out and throw away that which troubled him.
--Montaigne. "Of Cruelty" (Charles Cotton trans.) 

Unh Hunh

Mark and Sarah Plath of Little Rock, Ark., awoke to an announcement just before 11 p.m. saying there was a power outage but not to worry about it. Using their iPhone's level app, the couple soon discovered the ship was tilting 23 degrees.
 --Link, on the sinking of the Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia.

People Are Dying Now who Never Died Before

When Irving Berlin died in 1989 at 101, I remember Herb Caen saying how it used to be that people famous for being old were never famous for anything else.  Wasn't true of Berlin (which was Caen's point) and these days, it isn't true at all.  Consider Frederica Sagor-Maas, the Hollywood silent-movie script writer whose obit is up at the NYT this morning; she was 111, by one credible account the 44th oldest person in the world.

An outlier, but not by much.  Survey the other recent obits still up at the Times:   Here's ceramic artist Eva Zeisel (105).  Here's photographer Eve Arnold (99).  Here's population geneticist James F. Crow (95); Macedonian president Kiro Gligorov (94); desegregation strategist Robert Carter (94)  and half a dozen or so until you come down to   Jerzy Kluger, Pope John Paul II's childhood buddy and  Judge Joel J. Tyler, who gagged on "Deep Throat" both 90.  Shame to think of them snuffed out in their prime.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Election Year Prayer

Dispatch from the Battle of Gaffney

In the battle of Gaffney SC--pitting a whole bunch of other Republicans against Mitt Romney over the alleged malfeasance in job creation/destruction at Bain Capital--I'd say the score at the moment lies "advantage  Romney."  Those Chardonnay-sipping lefties at the New York Times appear to have demonstrated that the Gaffney plant-closing was a non-event, long since swept up in a turmoil of creative destruction; in short, precisely the sort of thing that makes Bain's (Ronmney's) role appear on the whole pretty good.

Yet there are oddities about the Times account that leave me puzzled.  Example: here's Tom Higgins, "who operates a lawn service company with five employees," according to the Times. Evidently he "finds all of it a distraction"--"it" being, I take it, the question whether Bain gutted a local employer. Fine, but then:  “There’s too many other things that concern us,”  the Times quotes him as saying.  And the Times adds: "noting the loss of jobs to Mexico and Asia."  Huh?  But the Bain story is a story about job loss, yes? If you are concerned about job loss, how could you not care about Bain?

And more: "'We’ve sort of been in a standstill for years, especially since Obama took over,' Mr. Higgins said."  My italics, and  I have to say, this one has me baffled.  Faithful UB groupies will recognize that your proprietor is more than a bit underwhelmed with the performance of our incumbent president. But for the life of me I can't put my finger on what Mr. Higgins is thinking about when he blames his current woes on Obama.    I suppose you could say--no, I would say--that Obama hasn't done nearly enough to try to improve the economy.  But these are sins of omission: if Mr. Higgins had said "especially since Obama failed to take over," I might have understood. But what, exactly, are the positive complaints?   


My favorite grave encomium. I've never actually seen it, but Emily Vermeule, in Aspectcs of Death in Early Greek Art and Poetry, reports that it can (could?) be found on a hewn oak monument in a cemetery in St. Helena, California:

To Dan from his friends in the circus 1860.

Here's a rendition of Keith Douglas' "Simplify Me When I'm Dead."

Friday, January 13, 2012

Mauling for Jesus

"Scrappy white guy uses grit, determination, and his faith in God to win miraculously under pressure" is what most people here think of as a good summary of the New Testament.

We are by no means forced to believe that the centralfigure of the Gospels was an ascetic; he never condemned pleasure  as such, and he seems to have had his own pleasures in life.  But his participation in any sort of competitive sport is not to be imagined.  Among his most characteristic utterances were the fervent exhortation thathe last should be first and that he who would be chief should be the servant of all.
 --Frank H. Knight, "The Ethics of Competition," in id. at 33-67, 64-5 (Transaction ed. 1997)

Buce Offers Himself

This blogging business gets tiresome.   For a  multitude of reasons I think the time is right to more publicly own a responsibility I feel to serve in the public good.  Therefore as soon as my chief of staff irons out the details with their people, I expect to be taking up my duties as an NBC news presenter. Unless this little Vixen beats me to it. [Late, I know, but too tempting to pass up.]

El Mormón and the Mexifornian Presidency

Following up on a comments discussion of Republicans and immigration, here's  a suggestion that Romney's Latino credentials are actually pretty good.   And  there's this.

And not really a propos, but I liked this:

“We have a saying: When a Romney drowns, you look for the body upstream,” Kent said. “They don’t just flow with the current.”

Thursday, January 12, 2012

In Zoos, Wonderbuns, not in the Highlands

--I read that there are more pandas in Scotland than there are conservative MPs.

--No kidding?  Where do they find bamboo?
[Come to think of it, the conservative MPs are perhaps more often found in the Highlands than in zoos.]

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Tweedledee and the Other Guy: A Question for the Anointed

I think it is now clear to anybody except those with a stake in the process--that is, anybody except competing candidates and reporters--that Mitt Romney will lead his ragtag army into the fall elections.  He'll be able to command from the center--or at least to pretend to do so as he undertakes to demonize his adversary for a whole catalog of crypto-Islamo-socialist enormities.  His supporters will take delight in the tang of raw meat, distracted from the spectacle of periodic lapses into reasonableness.

Yet there is an irony in the victory of Romney the centrist, Romney the traditionalist, Romney the moderate Republican.   The irony is that he finds himself face to face with a man who has the best claim to represent moderate centrist Republicanism of any president in living memory.   If, indeed, it is still fair to call Obama a moderate.  He has shown himself, after all, more bellicose in foreign policy than Eisenhower; more chummy with Wall Street than Nixon, no less friendly to the abuse of human rights than anyone in the Republican list.  Romney's attempt at demonizing had better be good; otherwise he is left with a puzzle: how do you out-center a centrist.   How, in short, do you repudiate a president whose showpiece achievement is an idea he nicked from you?

There is one possible game-changer approach here and while I don't really expect Romney to take it, I recognize that he's enough of a flexitarian he might at least be willing to give it some thought.  That would be: outflank him to the left.  Forget about the  Paul and the Santorum-Bachmann-Perry-Caine-whoever voters: they'll mostly come around and come through when you need them.  No: make your pitch to the middle by arguing that you are actually more liberal than the man who has done so much to abandon his own base.  Make a gesture.  Promise to close Guantanamo.  Threaten a millionaire tax.  At any rate, you'll need to do something, anything to show that you are distinguishable from the other guy or you really aren't giving voters any reason for your presence.

Indeed, let me turn the whole point around and frame it in the way of a question; the kind you might expect from, say, a primary voter in New Hampshire.   Something like:

Mr. Romney, you are presenting yourself as the moderate, centrist candidate in contradistinction from the  excitable ones in your own party, and from the cauldron of seething leftism you present as your opponent.   But you know as well well as we all know that the Republican Obama is no more than microscopically different from yourself on the issues that count.  So my question for you, sir, is: can you identify any way or ways in which you as present will govern more "moderately" than the Republican Obama is already governing?   On economics, for example?  On foreign policy?   On health care?

If your answer is "no"--if you cannot offer such examples, then why should we vote for you?  Isn't the devil you know always better than the devil you do not know and are we not better advised, then, to stick with the incumbent rather than to grasp at something new and untried?
Of course, Romney's answer might be, "No, no, you have me all wrong!   I  fully intend to abolish social security, to embark on an ill-conceived and costly war, to abolish at least six amendments along with all but three government departments.  Different?  Sonny, you don't begin to know what 'different' really is."  Now, that would be a campaign....  

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Hey, Gang, Let's Do a Show! The Met's Enchanted Island

Shorter Enchanted Island: worth a visit, perhaps even worth a repeat.

That's the first sentence of the review I drafted last Wednesday just  after I saw EI, the new/old opera pastiche (more of a collage?) at the Met--which review negligently let itself get trashed later in the same day.throwing me into a snit that lasted until the flu bug descended later in the day blunting all impulse to blogging for the rest of the week.  Anyway, as I was saying when I was so rudely interrupted:

The things that make it work are two: one, the illimitable parade of hits in the 18th Century catalog, including not just Handel but also Vivaldi,  Rameau and others.  And two, some superb Met singing--especially Joyce diDonato (no surprise) and David Daniel.   Daniel is perhaps a bit of a surprise, at least to me.  I'll grant you a mellifluous voice but he often seems to me to lack substance, and you're hungry again 20 minutes after you leave the restaurant.  Here, his steady. consistent approach proved just the thing to stitch together a somewhat languid first act, awaiting the parade of hits in the second.

There is an air of improvisationality about it, like that TV sitcom about the high school where every so often everyone burst as-if spontaneously into song.   They'd better be ready to sing: there's not enough plot to fill one of those little pots down at the dram-shop, but that itself is the joke: there never was any plot to speak of so to replace a classic non-plot with an updated 21st Century non plot is just one more way of poking fun at oneself.  Think  Johnny Carson as Carnac tthe Magnificent.

Production was, inevitably, that modified cirque de soleil style that seems to have become de rigueur for any venue where the seats cost more than $45.  I suppose I've made myself a bit of a bore with my old-guy complaints about absurd excesses of oompah, and I'd have to grant that if ever a show deserved such a fate, it's this one.  

Romney and "Firing People" and a Management Lesson from Julius Caesar

Lost in the general schadenfreude about Mitt Romney and his (somewhat distorted, out-of-context) admission that he likes firing people is the insight that "experience at firing people" ought to be a feature, not a bug, in his resume. "Have you ever had to fire a friend?"--isn't one of the items that pops up on lists of interview questions designed to see if you have to right mix of maturity, balance and bitter experience to confront the world with wisdom? Isn't that what we would want in a president? As in (channeling; this is not me): 
Hey, let me level with you. I've fired people. I've even fired friends. I'm not bragging; I'm certainly not proud of it in any important way. I'd go so far as to say that if I have to fire somebody, the failure is at least partly mine: it means I haven't been able to give the person the support he needs to find his place or to do his job. But one thing I've learned is that you don't always get what you want in this world and some times you just have to make the best of it and move on. What I do know is that what I want to do as president is to help create where we have less need to make unpleasant choices of this sort, where people can find and hold onto job where they do an honest day's work for an honest day's pay ...
...blah blah you get the idea. What is missing in Romney, then, is not just that he fired people is that we feel he did it with such an oddly machine like lack of humanizing compassion. He might want to consider the example of Julius Caesar, captured by pirates and held for ransom.  Caesar taunted his captors with the promise that if they released him, he would come back and capture and kill him.  They did release him; he did come back and captured them and ordered them crucified.  But in recognition of their kind treatment, he ordered that their suffering be minimized: he directed that their throats be slit first.

I think Mitt Romney needs a bit more of Caesar's compassion.  

Afterthought: No, I've never had to fire anybody, friend or otherwise. I was sorta fired once (long story) and I lived in terror of firing for most of my early adulthood--i.e., the period when I had the most people the most fully dependent upon me. I'd say these gaps in my firing record are more of the many reasons why I am not qualified to serve as leader of your great nation.

Timewaster of the Week: GSElevator

...and speaking of distractions, have you discovered @GSElevator, the Thinkingman's Overheard in New York?  They've got 78,000 followers as of this morning (including me), all enjoying the spectacle of crass vulgarity in the vertical corridors of power.  I've read a fair amount of commentary that speaks of the "arrogance" of these merry pranksters and arrogance is not entirely wrong, but I'd lean more to "bluff and bluster," coupled with lots of free-floating anger and whole boatloads of insecurity.  One thing that has long fascinated me about Wall Street bankers is how pissed-off they all seem to be: would you really want to join a profession that seems always to leave you just one automatic weapon away from a moment of suicide by cop?

And one point of perspective: these guys may earn zillions ("rich," says one, "but not give-up-my-US-passport rich"), but I get the strong sense that what we hear here are not the real movers and shakers; rather, these are the underlings, the foodsoldiers, the myrmidons,  the running dogs of capitalism who get to do the dirty work while their masters dine with popes and kings.   And they know it, these underlings: unloved as they are by so many, including themselves, they spend a good chunk of their day wondering where the real Goldman Sachs elevator might be.

Monday, January 09, 2012

The BBC on Crocodile Tears

It is a myth that it is a myth that crocodiles cry crocodile tears. So it would be wrong to deny that they do. 

--The Unbelievable Truth, BBC
Turns out that it's true.

You Noticed?

Κρὴς γενεὰν Βρόταχος Γορτύνιος ἐνθάδε κεῖμαι
 οὐ κατὰ τοῦτ' ἐλθών, ἀλλὰ κατ' ἐμπορίαν. 
 I that lie here am Brotachus of Gortyn, a Cretan born,
and I came not for this but on business.


I've been away.  You noticed?  Okay, so you didn't notice, but we flew to New York last Mon for a bit of opera and company.  Had a wonderful time until Thur night when we both came down with the flu; we spent the next three days in bed.  We flew home today and Mrs. B, poor thing, went straight from the front door to her PJs.  And yes we had flu shots, of course we had flu shots; these New Yorkers are tough.

I learned--I suppose you knew--that if you surrender your opera tickets before the show, you can get a charitable deduction?  I like to think we've done out bit to cushion the losses suffered through  the Bass divorce. 

Actually, it's not just the flu.   I've been thinking lately that I blog too much.  I may blog about that, too.  More tomorrow, perhaps.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Walter Russell Mead Gazes Into his Father's Glass-covered Bookcase

I've just now come across Walter Russell Mead's "How to Get Smart" reading list, and I have to say that  it's weird in a way that makes me wonder if it is not self-parody.  I mean--I'll grant him The Economist and Financial Times.  I do (audio) read The Economist every week.  I'm not a regular reader of the FT; I probably should be, and my only defense is that I got friends who send me lots of links.  To be charitable, I'll also grant him Milton, although we might quarrel over particulars.

But beyond that--I believe Mead's father was an Episcopal bishop, and I wonder if perhaps we are gazing with admiration at the glass-covered walnut bookcase in papa's study, as it appeared to the young Walter so many years ago.  The contents are arrayed in fine buckram bindings that make excellent decoration but as to actual reading--let's  just say if this weren't Mead talking, I'd suspect he hadn't really read any of them: it's full of the books most often recommended by people who haven't read them.

I'll grant that Mead is far too avid, energetic and responsive a reader for such Shennanigans but still consider:  The Bible, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, The Wealth of Nations, The Federalist Papers.  Every one of these has its merits, but not one needs the kind of reverent attention that Mead seems to think it deserves.

Start with the Bible.  As the anthology of a culture it is a remarkable achievement; as a documentary on the history of Christianity it is indispensable.  Mead writes with obvious admiration that Harry S Truman read it five times during his presidency, cover to cover.   Five times, no kidding?  The world is coming unglued and our president is laboring away through Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Chronicles, the minor prophets,  the pseudo-Pauline letters, the Apocalypse?  I think there is a lot to admire about Truman but in the end he's  still a country boy with all the artless gullibility the term implies.

As to Gibbon--let's be honest, we're among friends here:  Gibbon is the most overrated name in the Western Canon (saving only Thackeray, and I'm not sure Thackeray even ranks any more).  He;s not negligible: Gibbon's History is a prodigy of scholarship, and his sensibility has a distinctive tang.  But after a couple of chapters, if you don't simply lose patience and set it aside (most do), you come to realize that he's a one-trick pony, telling the same fussy and fastidious little joke over, and over, and over.  Or so it seems; I did read more than two chapters,  although I can't claim to have read more than the first book myself.  But I read enough to come away with a profound sense that this is a guy with whom I do not want to be locked in an elevator, and that nothing in the later volumes would be likely to change my judgment.   BTW if you accept my suggestion on two chapters,  the obvious choices are chapters 15 and 16, on the rise of Christianity.

As to Adam Smith--now I did read Wealth of Nations cover to cover.  And let me tell you, it's not necessary.  Smith is valuable and insightful and actually quite likable, even at length; much misunderstood,  though less so now perhaps than 50 years ago.  But he's a natterer.  Is my recollection right that he dictated to an amanuensis? I can't imagine how s/he kept from falling asleep.   A good 150 pages ought to be enough.  And do skip the history of silver prices.  Afterthought: Theory of Moral Sentiments is instructive and satisfying (evidently he wrote it sitting down) although I doubt that would it get much attention were it not seen as a pendant to WN.

Now, the Federalist Papers--as a cultural artifact, they are unbeatable but as a text they are what you might expect for something composed on the fly and in the heat of battle--transitory, uneven, and sometimes flat wrong.   Among serious students, my guess is that as much as half of the commentary focuses on just one item: No. 10, on the meaning of "faction."  Maybe throw in No. 14, as a defense of the federal convention; No. 39 on "federalism" and No. 51 on checks and balances (all by Madison, be it noted; go look for Hamilton and pretty soon you find him (in No. 84) arguing against a separate bill of rights).  All good and important stuff, but if you are looking for a font of pure wisdom, you can do better.

Aside from these four, Mead throws in Macaulay's History of England, and I cannot imagine whatever possessed him to put Macaulay in this otherwise august company.  As an exemplar of what is best and worst in Victorianism I suppose Macaulay is hard to beat, but as an  historian, he's the Victorian Trotsky--glib, facile, at  his worst when most self-congratulatory and at his best (and funniest) when he is most unfair.  If Mead wanted  truly wise British historian, why not Hume?  Or as a judge of character, Clarendon?  Or for a more nuanced and defensible presentation of the case for grand whiggery, why not Macaulay's own great-nephew, GM Trevelyan?

Come to think of it, if what he wants is ringing drama with casual regard for the truth, why not go the whole way and take Shakespeare's history plays?  Defamers of the Duke of Marlborough say that was the only history he ever learned, I say he could do worse.   If you still want to read Macaulay, go read "Horatius at the Bridge."

Yada yada, you get the idea.  Where Mead comes up with Carlyle and , I cannot possibly imagine: if he wants a "social novel," he might as well cut straight to Middlemarch; if he wants a critic of the French Revolution, he'd be better off with Taine.   I suppose the only thing left for me to do is to suggest a "get smart" list of my own and don't think I'm not tempted.   Start with The Economist again of course, okay on Milton.  Add a dash of Hume.  If you must have an American classic, maybe Lincoln's Second Inaugural.  Then Johnson.  And Thucyd--but now, I am veering into the purlieus of self-parody on my own.

Monday, January 02, 2012

If I Didn't Poke into my Google Reader All Day Long...

I might have time to read Fortunata and Jacincta.

Just Sayin': Defoe on Living in Hard Times

Tis  true observation that men grow shabbily gay as they grow poor, not as they grow rich; the reason is because pride is oftener the companion of poverty than of wealth; mark then in the chief trading streets of this great city, and see how trumpery and gaudy trifles fill up the vacancies, the gaps and the intervals from whence your departed substance of trade is fled...there's the fine and famous street of Cornhill, since I remember, filled with whole-sale men, and rich shopkeepers, if I mistake not, two or three most famous periwig-makers, five or six spacious coffee-shops, three or four illustrious cake-shops and pastry men, one or two brandy-shops and the like ... the alleys where the small places were full of Notary Publics, offices of Assurance ... now are crowded with stock-jobbing brokers, buying and selling of bearskins, and tricking and sharping to get estates...
--From Defoe's Review, his proto-newspaper (and proto-blog) for 12 January 1712,
quoted in Richard West, Daniel Defoe 178-9 (1997)

Off to Shangri-La

No, not the hotel, silly.  And not the Himalayan retreat.  No, we've just been reading the annual dump of stories about morbidity statistics and figure we might as well head off for the place where Americans just seem to live longer. On the plane all day Monday.   Desultory beavering until next Tuesday, on which date regular beavering should resume.   Oh, and we  might take in a bit of opera while we are at it.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Not Siri's Fault

So I pulled out my Iphone and fired up Google voice search.  I spoke clearly and slowly (I thought).  I said "Arch-ae-o-log-i-cal tours."
Must have been too slow and careful.  I got "I  feel like to go to hooters."

Oddly enough, "Archaeological Tours" was  suggested result #6.  I don't even want to tell you what the other four were.
OBTW, they\re a great outfit.  Check 'em out.  

The Evolution of the Errol Morris Audience (Chez Buce Division)

Il Teatro Buce indulged in a screening of Errol Morris' Tabloid the other night.  That's the one about hormone-poisoned former beauty queen who did or did not kidnap a Mormon missionary to make him her sex toy and I am shameless enough to say I enjoyed every moment of it.  Not a shred of redeeming social value of course, unless you count it as instruction in how far the  camera can press the outer limits of vulgar and tacky.

As it happens I watched it in the same room as I occupied to watch my first Errol Morris film 20-odd years ago--Thin Blue Line, about a wrongful death sentence.  Let's stipulate that TBL  had a ton of redeeming social value--saving, as it did, the life of an innocent man, but also exposing the moral bankruptcy of one slice of the criminal justice system.

But there is an inconsistency in my own response on which I want to linger for a moment here.  That is: I remember being uncomfortable with and irritated by so many of the manipulative production tricks in the earlier film, whereas I seem to be far less offended by the cruder and even more manipulative tricks of the later.  What, exactly, is going on here?  Am I just getting crass(er) in my old age?  Does the sheer blatancy of the manipulation in the new item turn it all into comedy?  Or is it that Morris and his ilk have dulled all our sensibilities: persuaded us that it really doesn't matter what you put into a "documentary," still its primary purpose is to entertain?

Still working on them.  Meanwhile, it appears that one person who fails to see the humor is the star of the show (and a side issue: how the hell has she been paying the bills all these years?).  

Spring Semester Appetizers

Gearing up to teach corporate finance and bankruptcy (two courses, not just one) in the spring, I'm spending my holiday looking for appetizers--hors d'oeuvres* to serve up on the first day of teaching before people's minds are fully in gear. I certainly ought to be able to get some mileage out of this brisk summary of 2011's major corporate bankruptcies, served up by Matt Yglesias (and when, exactly, did he become an economist?).  A few of them (e.g., American Airlines) look to be meaty stories with lots of good classroom apps.  Some (Dynergy?) perhaps just too difficult to untangle at this distance.  And the champ (MF Global) looks to me like just one more  narcissistic banker with a suicide streak and a bent for his own press releases.

For balance, I think I'll throw in the fascinating NYT story of five small businesses that failed did not survive last year..  Interesting that the B-word is not mentioned.  Note, nothing so far on the vast majority of bankruptcy cases: the ordinary working folks who get further and further behind under until they just get sucked into the maelstrom.  True, but plenty of stuff on them to come later.

For corp finance, I think I'll recycle a favorite: the NYT's glorious account of Simmons Mattress, transmogrified from a sleepy (heh!) but study old-fashioned manufacturer, then into a cash cow, then into bankruptcy (why do so  many of my stories wind up here?).  Sure, it's a chance to beat up on private equity but it's also a great vehicle to  kick off an inquiry into the question, what do we want out of a finance system, anyway?

Sounds like fun.   To me, anyway. 

*Does it really mean "out of work?"