Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Who Again?

Here's another one who's fallen out of our common memory, perhaps more than Michael Dukakis, not quite as much as Alton B. Parker: Mike Mansfield.


Unless you are of a certain age the chances are you've never heard of him, but if you have not, then perhaps you need to listen to Ian Shapiro, hyping his new book, The Last Great Senate.  Or hey, go ahead and read the book, which the author prudently chose not to call The Senate Under Jimmy Carter.  Shapiro evinces an engaging nostalgia for what he sees as a golden age (although one may be excused for wondering to what extent he is evincing nostalgia for his own fast-receding youth).   But you'd have to concede that names like Jacob K. Javits and Warren Magnuson--and a young Richard Lugar-- evoke a time when the Senate seemed to enjoy a kind of salience in the legislative process that has long since passed it by.

And Mansfield.  Even among those who do remember Mansfield, I wonder how many recall that he served as Senate  majority leader for longer than anyone else in history (1961 to 1977).  More remarkable, he ran the place as a gentleman.  More remarkable still it worked: the Mansfield Senate was a a cooperative, even a collaborative, place, unlike anything we've seen since.  And Shapiro relishes a great contrast.  That is: if we do remember a majority leader from those days, it would be Mansfield's great predecessor, Lyndon Johnson.  Shapiro gives Johnson a lot of credit: he dragged the Senate into the 20th Century and he passed (rammed through) the Civil Rights Act of 1957.  Yet as Shapiro recalls, he was a bully: he owes much of his success to his willingness to use threats and intimidation.  Shapiro's argument is that the Mansfield Senate was not a bit less constructive, and a lot more to be proud of. 

What changed?  Maybe everything changed.  The Senate didn't lose all its talent: George Mitchell was probably as much of a gentleman as Mike Mansfield, but he was never able to exercise the same authority in a chamber by then already slipping into polarization and (as a legislating body) irrelevance.  

Kraut und Rüben haben mich vertrieben

That is: "Cabbages and beets drove me away." It's  text for Bach's Goldberg Variation #30 (Quodlibet).

Here's a stripped-down sample.  Here's the full text:
Kraut und Rüben haben mich vertrieben
Hätt' meine Mutter Fleisch gekocht
Wär' ich länger g'blieben.
Here's a recipe for braised beets and red cabbage

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Alton Who?

Somehow, a second presidential item.  The folks in the lunchroom were chatting about Michael Dukakis.   Evidently he stopped for a chat on his way through town yesterday.  Those who joined him report that he's affable and engaging in a face-to-face: not at all the detached and wooden figure we remember from his doomed presidential campaign.

Or do we remember?   That was 1988, which is to say24 years ago.  Is Dukakis becoming the most forgettable presidential candidate of the 20th Century?

I don't know what possessed me but I blurted out "Alton B. Parker."


For a refresher, go here.  

Man of the People

I amuse myself with this idle fancy: it's an elegant concert hall, maybe the Kennedy Center before it started to go to seed.   Eleanor Roosevelt is in the royal box alongside Walter Reuther; they cast a refulgent glow over the yokels in the cheap seats.  At their side is the composer Aaron Copeland; the orchestra salutes him with his Fanfare for the Common Man.

As the music reaches its climax, the spotlight shifts to stage left and there emerges his very self, the commonest of common men--Andrew Johnson, 17th President of the United States.  You remember Andrew: self-taught, apprenticed to a tailor, didn't learn to write until he was in his teens.  But then: senator, governor, vice-president and by a great stroke of misfortune the man who ascended to the presidency after Abraham Lincoln.  Also: the only president to be impeached (well--the only other president to be impeached).  Also a vituperative nest of resentments, the man who did so much to put post-Civil War reconstruction on a wrong track.

With all this in mind it was fun to hear Annette Gordon-Reed as she discussed her biography of his accidency.  A great man?  No, not at all, but an interesting man in an interesting time, and so worthy of our attention whatever his shortcomings.  A tragic figure?  Not really.  Johnson had his redeeming virtues, but as narrow, limited, vengeful man who never showed the slightest impulse to surmount his shortcomings.  That's the scandal of poverty--not just that it leaves people vulnerable to the elements, but that it cripples their soul.  It's entertaining and ironic to compare Johnson to Harry Truman--another accidental postwar president, from a past not quite so modest as Johnson's, but one who did rise to the occasion.  Who could have foreseen that the one and not the other would grow into the job, rather than trying to shrink it to fit himself?

Entertaining and ironic also to reflect on the one man who more than any other is responsible for putting Johnson in the presidency.  No, not by getting shot--but it was, after all, Abraham Lincoln who decided he needed Johnson on the ticket.  And who--himself, after all, the commonest of commoners--didn't fear Johnson's modest beginnings or his constrained opportunities.  Seeing them each on the brink of adulthood, you might have been forgiven for confusing one with another--both the commonest of common men.  Music, maestro please.


Monday, February 27, 2012

Second Opera Post of the Day: A Duet

If you are any kind of a Verdi fan, you know that one of the unmatchable show-stoppers is the second-act "friendship" duet in Don Carlos.  But do women ever get to do anything like that?
Maybe not quite, but here is one reasonably plausible contender.  It's from Donizetti,the second act of Anna Bolena.  Not exactly a "friendship" episode, because here is where Jane Seymour tells Ann that she will be Ann's successor as the (third) wife of Henry VIII.  Anna adorns the resume of several great names; here she is in the rendition of Anna Netrebko, with Elīna Garanča.

We've Borrowed Chairs from the Funeral Home
And Sent Out for more Pie

This is a friends-and-family blog.  We get about two hundred hits a day.  One mash note from DeLong and the next 24 hours brought about 3,000.

But What is the Word for ....

...a disease of elves that makes themselves think they are real?

Question posed but not answered here.

The Mormon's "republican" (sic) Heritage

James R. Rogers in First Things explores Mitt Romney's suggestion that the Constitution might be "inspired by God."

Inspired by God? It sounds like just another sop tossed to Tea-Party constitutionalism, but Romney was in fact invoking a longstanding Mormon doctrine which views the U.S. Constitution as not only great, but literally divine.

A few years back, at the behest of a couple of fresh-faced missionaries, I read through the Book of Mormon. Its focus on politics surprised me. Of course, the Old Testament is a hugely political set of books, setting down God-given laws for Israel and directing her relationship with other nations, but Latter Day Saint scriptures carry accents quite distinct from the Bible.

A repeated theme is that this new “chosen land” of America is to be “the land of liberty” (Alma 46:17). Referring to America in 2 Nephi 10:11, for example, the text states that “this land shall be a land of liberty unto the Gentiles, and there shall be no kings upon the land.”

So, too, the identification of national “liberty” with republicanism in the book (or at least with anti-monarchicalism) explains what otherwise would be a striking oxymoron. In Alma 46:35, the LDS prophet Moroni puts to death those Amalickiahites “who would not enter into a covenant to support the cause of freedom.” The otherwise Pythonesque threat to kill someone unless he agrees to be free disappears if we understand the action is addressed to royalist rebels in a civil war. (Think of the loyalty oaths offered to defeated Confederates during and after the Civil War.) The “covenant to support the cause of freedom” is the repudiation of royalism for the nation.

A substantive commitment to republicanism is not controversial in the U.S. today. But our Constitution provides for republicanism not because it’s divine revelation, but because it’s consistent “with the genius of the American people” (Federalist No. 39) and with the American experience. LDS political thought, then, stands in a very different relationship to the American experiment than does, say, orthodox Roman Catholic, Lutheran, or Methodist thought.
 Rogers thinks this kind of talk "raises honest and legitimate questions," although he is at pains to say it doesn't in itself disqualify a Mormon from the Presidency.   Rogers is bothered by the "divinity" aspect.  I am more impressed by the small-r republicanism of it all.   I'm used to the idea that Kings rule by divine right; I did not know the principle applied to team anti-monarchist as well.  May be Vox Populi does in fact equal Vox Dei after all.

H/T Margaret.  

Don't Miss Ernani

If you've got any taste for opera--and if you missed the opener Saturday--remind yourself to make room for the replay on Wednesday March 14 of the Met's HD presentation of Verdi's Ernani.

Yes, it's early, green Verdi, not up to the standard of the the bigfeet of decades to come.  The plot is absurd even by operatic standards and you pretty much skip the (short) fourth act.   But if you want to understand the arc of Verdi's career, it's essential.  This is the one in which, as the serious students might say, Verdi becomes Verdi: you've got your lovestruck but troubled soprano; your faintly befuddled tenor; your imperious and manipulative baritone and your sinister passacaglia basso.  Good singing all around here, but I'd say that the prize goes to Ferruccio Furlanetto, who has lately taken total command of those Verdi basso roles (I see he'll be back at the Met next year in Don Carlos).  In a break-time interview, Joyce DiDonato asked him a question about (I'm quoting from memory) how you deal with the ahem somewhat shaky structure of the plot.  His answer was something on the lines of you just have to make the character carry conviction and the  rest will take care of itself.  Good point: works for Verdi's great progenitor, Shakespeare, and Furlanetto shows how it can be made to work here, too.   

Well, Hey....


Thanks, Brad.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Keith Humphreys Remembers an Old Fool

Hey, what are you wasting your time here for? Pop on over to Reality Based Community  and listen to Keith Humphreys remember Dr. Omphalos.  It's a  tale almost canonical in structure and content and yet when I try to pick it apart, I am puzzled.  In my experience (fairly long)  most academics are pretty insecure, hungry for approval, contemptuous of so much of the approval they get, always listening to the little bird on the shoulder that says "you know, you really ought to be back in Poughkeepsie scraping gum off the bottom of  bus seats."  And yet our profession is structured so as  to engender monsters of vain self-conceit.  We talk, they take notes: the wonder is not that there are so many blowhards in academic life, but that there are so few.

On second thought, I suppose these two stories can be woven together. It's precisely because so many of us are so needy (affectionwise) that we are so stung by displays of dismissive pomposity among our betters.  One thing is clear: it's hard to imagine a profession so rich in opportunities to generate a lifetime of animosity among people  of whose very existence we are scarcely aware.

I Could Swear I Saw This Coming...

..Murdoch's closing of News of the World is just a quicky way of downsizing, and first chance he gets he'll be back with the Sun on Sunday.  I could swear I said it.  Unfortunately I seem not to have written it down.  You'll just have to take my word for it, now won't you?


From the Palookaville campus police report:

Young male refused to leave student union before somebody brought him a blanket

Macdonald Redux And His Companions

Three writers of "occasional nonfiction" dazzled me when I was young.  I use the clumsy phrase because I can't think of a better: they did write nonfictioin and they did write for the occasion--meaning, usually, a publication date--although beyond that there is little that unites them.

One was EB White. I couldn't believe how he made it seem so effortless, his unobtrusive elegance and his droll, understated humor--remembered today for The Elements of Style and Charlotte's Web, but neither sufficient to capture the grace and ease of his best essays.Beginning a long tradition, some of his letters were the first thing I ever read aloud to Mrs. B.

The second  was Murray Kempton.  Wiki speaks of his "reputation for a quietly elegant prose style." Elegant, maybe, but "quiet" is not the way I remember him at all.  "Mordant" might do,  and he was certainly not above sarcasm. But he pursued his enthusiasms with the air of a happy warrior such that even his adversaries might give him a wink and a nod.  I never quite forgave him that he was such good buds with William F. Buckley; perhaps Buckley saw something that I did not see.

I suspect Kempton's best work is compassed in the collection Part of Our Time, available in a New York Review of Books imprint.  I can't think of any single book that better captures the flavor of homefront politics just before (and really, after) World War II: especially the bitter hopes, the agonizing self-deception and ultimately the doomed aspirations of the hard left, as it came of age in a world it didn't understand as well as it thoughtit did.

I am pleased to report that the third of my adolescent crushes now joins Kempton in the NYRB paperback line.  That would be Dwight Macdonald, here represented in Masscult and Midcult. If White largely sidesteps the polemical and Kempton plunges forward with a cheerful irony, MacDonald goes all in: he takes his enthusiasms and his aversions with a full-body embrace.  He could be just as funny as the other two, and he certainly does betray a streak of what passes for meanness.  You forgive him for it (if you do) because he obviously cared so deeply about the ideas and practices that he valued and wanted to protect.

On review, I'm pleased (and a bit surprised) that I feel no need to apologize for in remembering my childhood enthusiasms.  They all (I think the phrase belongs to White) stand solidly on the shelf and I suspect the wouldn't let you down as models for a new day.  Actually, now that I think of it, there are a couple of other icons that I cherished in those days about whom  I'm not so eager to speak now, but let's leave that for another time, shall we?  I'd happiest just to be seen in the company of these three.  

Friday, February 24, 2012

Bartlett on Taxes: Two and a Half Footnotes

I join the general chorus of enthusiasm for Bruce Bartlett's new tour d'horizon  of the American tax system.   It's the kind of book in which most who read will enjoy the gratifying intuition that it tells them stuff they already knew.  They will be wrong: Bartlett is a master of his brief and he writes with a kind of Mozartian ease that deludes one into believing that everything is simpler or more obvious than one knew.Which is not to say he is simplistic: he just doe a grand job of seeming to simplify what is, after all, almost irredeemably complex.  But for the moment, let me follow up on just two (well: maybe two and a half) issues.

One: "tax expenditures."    If I tax you a dollar and then give you back the dollar as a benefit, I've done the sort of thing that governments do.  If I simply skipped the tax altogether I might achieved the same result. Welcome to the world of  "tax expenditures," first thrown into scrutiny a generation ago by the great Stanley Surrey.  Bartlett does a fine job of surveying the lush landscape of tax expenditures and making, along the way, the point that if (as we should) we count "tax expenditures" as "taxes," then we are actually taxed a whole lot more heavily than we suppose we are.

En route, he spotlights an absurd quotation from Utah Senator Orrin Hatch arguing that that money is really ours and don't even think of calling it a tax.    But Bartlett does not stop savor the irony here.  That is: you'd think a rugged, hairy-chested anti-Washington free marketeer  like Orrin Hatch would want to magnify, not minimize, the size of our tax bill ("worse than Denmark"--now there is a rallying cry).

Actually, though again Bartlett doesn't pursue it, I think there is a reason why Hatch doesn't follow his own logic.  That is: if we did pick any particular "tax expenditure" and turn it into a tax, there is just no way we would distribute the revenue the same way we took  it in (Surrey understood this in the 70s).  Take the mortgage interest deduction.  Suppose we decided we wanted to increase the subsidy for housing (good luck!); suppose we fund it by cancelling the interest deduction.  In order to mimic the deduction, we'd have to turn around and pay it to (a) mortgagors, (b) in exact proportion to what we had taken away, (c) i.e. most to the richest taxpayers with the biggest mortgages.   I don't think even a McConnell-Boehner Congress could sell that one. The point is that--even if we stuck with housing, we'd find some other way to redistribute the money.  So also with health care tax subsidies, with IRAs--indeed, with any tax expenditure you can imagine.

So in this sense, Hatch is on to something. If he tells us it's "our money" and he doesn't "the government" to get its hands on it, he means he is just fine with a policy that subvenes the prosperous and the highly leveraged. 

Second point: I know it is a bit rich to ask more from a book that covers so much but I wish he'd said more about tax incidence--who "ultimately" pays a tax: to who, and how (if at all) is it passed on. He does mention incidence when he suggests that the corporate income tax may be freighted forward to the workers. And he talks at length about the closely related issue of incentives--whether, to what extent and how taxpayers are motivated by rate change.  Maybe the defense is that incidence is just to squishy a subject: one on which everybody can spin out an argument and nobody's can be disproved.  Still, I'd love at least to know how much he believes that last statement of mine to be true.

A final half-point, perhaps little more than a cheap shot: I still don't think Bartlett has quite come to terms with his supply-side past.   He does quote derisively Tim Pawlenty and Mitch McConnell mouthing the supply-side mantra that tax cuts don't matter because the energetic and enterprising will just be motivated to work harder to as to make up the lost revenue (for a simple hypo showing why this is deeply implausible, go here).  He goes on to summarize the overwhelming evidence that tax cuts emphatically do nor pay for themselves (although taxpayer incentives very often do serve to recapture some of the "lost" revenue).  Bartlett says "this is not surprising given that no one in the Reagan administration ever claimed that his 1981 tax cut would pay for itself"--he calls it an "oft-repeated myth." On the narrow point, I suppose he has to be right; he's a careful and responsible writer and he wouldn't think about making stuff up here.

But the "myth" certainly endures (hello, governor P and senator M), and it didn't spring forth full blown like Athena from the brow of Zeus.   If i wasn't the administration itself, there certainly was a pack of running dogs around the administration who were perfectly happy to fuel the myth, and I really don't recall anybody inside the administration ever taking a podium to say "you know that supply side stuff? All bullshit.  Forget it."

But that's ancient history; I should give it a rest. This remains a superb book which amply deserves the attention it is getting.

Romney's Long March?

Idle thought: will the thousand or so people who huddled in crowded into Detroit's Ford Field last night to hear Mitt Romney deliver his tax plan--will they one day wear their exigency as a badge of honor, like the Chinese Communists who followed Mao to Shaanxi in 1935, or the sailors who went down with JFK on PT-109? If so, there may be hope--on the Kennedy example, by this time in a Romney second term, enough people will be claiming to have been there so as to fill Ford Field.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Whatever Happened to "Give Away the Pipes, Sell the Bubbles"?

My student Alex points me to a curiosity in reports from the Apple shareholders' meeting; we have Apple President Tim Cook saying apple has lots of content for its devices, "but that it 'was not there for the profit,' noting that the iTunes Store is targeted to run at break even as a convenience to users, not as a business." 

Wha--? What ever happened to "give away the razors, sell the blades?" Or, like sell your device at below cost, trusting you will make it up on content? I mean, not that I'm complaining; I assume those guys know how to run their business.  

Bonus Extra: Don't miss Evgeny Morozov's New Republic Review of the Isaacson biography.  

The Fix is In

I suppose I'm in pulp fiction mode this week.  Or maybe it's just The New Yorker cool, but I had a tough time containing myself as I read Alex Koppelman's account of Ron Paul in his new role a running dog for Team Romney.  "It's evident," purrs Koppelman, "It’s evident, after answers like that one, that if this debate slows Santorum’s momentum, or helps Romney slow him, then Romney will have a lot of reasons to be grateful to Ron Paul. The only question that remains is how Romney might show his gratitude."

Dude, let me be vulgar.  The Fix is in.  We just don't know the details yet.   Secretary of Treasury? Too hard a job.  Head of the Federal  Reserve?  Intriguing, but a bridge too far.   

But how about Vice-President? Surely he w-- ah well,we can wait and see.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Supreme Court as Pulp Fiction

Linda Greenhouse calls it a Do-over Season:  the possibility that the Supreme Court might second-guess itself in Citizens United, and also in Grutter v. Bollinger.   Everybody remembers Citizens United: money in politics.  Not everybody remembers Grutter by name, but they may remember the Court nine years ago upheld a scheme of race-conscious admissions at the University of Michigan.

I suppose it's fair to entertain the prospect the Court might back down on both: the court has done so before.  Linda offers the examples of  Minersville School District v. Gobitis (flag salute) and Lawremce v/ Texas (gay rights).  With clarity of vision, she points out that "repudiations of precedent are nearly always the result of a change in membership rather than a change in perception."   But she might also have mentioned the legendary "switch in time [that] saved nine"--Justice Owen Roberts' about-face that softened the court's hard edge in against the New Deal and very likely helped to defang  President Roosevelt's court-packing plan.

So it is hard to improve on Linda's analysis, but a pulp novelist would surely consider one more possibility: that the fix is in.  Okay, we'll give you campaign finance if you give us race-based admissions.  No, I don't believe it but I'm willing to entertain myself by entertaining the thought. 

Banking the Old Fashioned Way

Ha!  Wouldn't that be the best joke of a fairly unfunny financial crisis?  Dealbook points out that the Volcker rule, with its limit on prop trading, may drive some full-service banks back to old-fashioned utility banking.

You remember banking: some guy who looked like Jimmy Stewart presided over a Greek revival projection of stability at the corner of Elm and Main.  He took deposits, he made loans, he played a lot of golf.    He didn't make a ton of money and we made fun of him behind his back but we needed him.  These past few years, a few of us oldies have been wondering whatever happened to him, and wondering whether we might lure him back.

Of course he won't come back--as Heraclitus famously observed, you never step into the same sewer twice. But if Dealbook is right, then maybe something like utility banking is in our future, as full-service banks try to make the best out of a (for them) bad thing.

But here's the joke part: apparently two who will not profit from this turnaround are Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley.  Why?  Because they weren't really utility banks in the first place.   They were traders and investment bankers who jumped into mama's arms when the bears howled.  Okay, they will say they had no second choice.  But I'm remembering the axiom that you should be careful what you wish for, because you might get it.  

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Remember the 90s?

Remember the 90s?  Harvard Business Review (via The Economist) thinks that well you might:
America is losing out in the race to attract good jobs. Matthew Slaughter of Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business and Laura Tyson of Berkeley’s Haas School of Business point out that multinational firms (which pay higher wages than non-multinationals) increased employment in America by 24% in the 1990s. But since then they have been cutting back on jobs in America. They have moved dull repetitive tasks abroad, and even some sophisticated ones, too. The proportion of the employees of American multinationals who work for subsidiaries abroad rose from 21.4% in 1989 to 32.3% in 2009. The share of research-and-development spending going to foreign subsidiaries rose from 9% in 1989 to 15.6% in 2009; that of capital investment rose from 21.8% in 1999 to 29.6% in 2009. In HBS’s survey, alumni reported that when their firms had to decide whether to do something in America or elsewhere, America lost two times out of three.
But wait, folks, it ain't all bad:
This relative deterioration in America’s business climate has coincided with a spectacular rise in the incomes of the sort of people who read the Review.

This Just In

Galusha Pennypacker is the youngest person in the history of the United States Army to reach the rank of general. He was 20.  That is all.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Econospeak Is Cranky

There's a strange mixture of crankiness and innocence in a piece up at Econospeak this morning--crankiness about the shortcomings of anyone who doesn't happen to be professor monetary theory (sic, did I get that right?). and innocence about--well, innocence about almost everything else.  The headline is "In Some Circles, Economics Is Anathema."  He (Peter Dorman?) begins:

 A pattern I find disturbing is that much of the left, at least in the English-speaking world, regards economics simply as a source of intellectual and moral corruption.

 Hm.  Well, the part beginning "at least..." sounds like a fair statement of fact.  I'd even accept "much of the left" if he added "and a good deal of the non-left"--or if he takes "left" to mean "anyone who does not admire economics as much as I do."    He goes on to complain that "Those who take this view make sweeping pronouncements on economic topics, but they pride themselves in not polluting their understanding by consulting economists or reading what economists have written."  Fair comment again, although I'd try to console him with the insight that the grievance can be uttered by the practitioner of any occupation requiring skill, any profession or trade: don't we all fall short in appreciating the achievements of our betters?  But now he gets down to cases:
Want an example? Check out the Uneconomics initiative and its “exposé” of how banks create money. Who could have imagined: private banks actually create money out of thin air when they make loans, and this creates the potential for economic volatility due to over- and undersupply. These secrets, supposedly covered up by sneaky economists and other elitists, are revealed by radical social critics, and we should be shocked, shocked.
Hm again.  We'll he's certainly right as a matter of crude empiricism.  But I think he might want to give more considered thought to just how pervasive this  notion is--not simply a general  matter of underrating our betters but of embracing this particular (as I would describe it) misunderstanding of the monetary system.  It's not just some unwashed infant in Zuccotti Park.  It goes straight back through the 19th-Century Populists, through Andrew Jackson's campaign against the bank of the United States, through Thomas Jefferson and for all I know you can find it in the pastoral verses of Theocritus.

It is, in short, a very odd idea indeed. I can testify.  I have virtually no "training" in econ (you knew?) although I've done a non-trivial dollop of self-study and I've here to tell you just how vertiginous the landscape of money can be--the same sort of response you had at the age of (what was it, six? eight?) when you  first learned the mechanics of sex: this all just too weird to be believed.  All the moreso, I suppose, if the person trying to keep the secret of money has just so much more security, comfort, prestige and, well, yes, money than you do.  It can give one the jimjams and you don't have to be a lefty to feelit.

And dare one add--the whole econ profession might do a bit better a job of selling its prestige if  the practioners had the least reason to crow about their performance over the last half dozen years. Instead we are treated to a display of shouting and finger-pointing that could easily be misunderstood by an outsider as some weird and hitherto undiscovered primitive shadow-dance.

I don't want to join the camp of the nihilists here.  I think economics is a field indeed populated with non-obvious, non-trivial ideas worth striving for and worth understanding (pressed, I could probably even pass the author's course, at least the undergrad version).  I think on the whole that economists have probably added a bit more content to the cup of beatitude.  But a posture of grandiosity is rarely becoming.  Under the circumstances, I suspect that just a trifle of apology might be more in order.

One final note: the writer includes a one-sentence free-standing paragraph:
Banking is a system that runs on make-believe and survives on ignorance.
I am really not sure whether he intends us to file that under prosecution or defense.  But is there anything in it which the most convinced money man would not, in a moment of candor, acknowledge?

Another Lessons We Haven't Yet Learned From the Mafia

William K. Black at the indispensable New Economic Perspectives is back on a favorite theme of his--"accounting control fraud" in which managers loot businesses under the conjoint cloaks of respectability and limited liability.  Black  rings in the classic exposition from Aklerlof and Romer in their 1993 paper, "“Looting: the Economic Underworld of Bankruptcy for Profit."   Black serves up a squib from the U.S. Attorney for Sacramento who (despite years as a prosecutor of white collar crimes) appears bewildered by the whole business:

“Benjamin Wagner, a U.S. Attorney who is actively prosecuting mortgage fraud cases in Sacramento, Calif., points out that banks lose money when a loan turns out to be fraudulent. “It doesn’t make any sense to me that they would be deliberately defrauding themselves,” Wagner said.”
 If he wants clarity, Wagner could soak himself in some Black, or go back and read Akerlof Romer.Or he could kick back with a stream from Episode 23 of The Sopranos, where Tony and the boys muscle in on the sporting goods store formerly run by his old school pal, Davey Scatino, burning Davey's credit line with a whole smorgasbord of goodies, which they sell on the street while stiffing the creditors--no wonder they can offer such good prices.  Davey, the proper owner, loses (per Wiki) "his life savings, his business, his son's college fund, the respect of his family, and his wife (who divorced him),"  What happens to the creditors is anybody's guess.  

And Promptly Misplace It

They should have installed a clapper:

Physicists Create a Working Transistor From a Single Atom 

Link.  Hint: check the sock drawer.  Usually works for me.  

Thanks, John.

Charlie Munger on the Secret(s) of Life

  • Learn a little accounting.  It's not that hard.
  • And a bit of stat, but you don't need too much.
Link.  Hey, wait a minute, I agree.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Takes All Kinds

Old-time Reaganite leaves Republicans because they're not crazy enough.

DeVoto on 1846

More than once lately I have undergone the depressing experience of rereading a book that enchanted me when I was young only to find I had outgrown it.   But here is buoying counterexample: Bernard DeVoto's Year of Decision: 1846, about the drang nach westen that carried Americans to Texas, to Oregon, to Utah, to California.  It's a superbly told tale with the added fillip that I am perhaps better able to appreciate it now when I was then.

I first read it about 1969, just after I had moved to California from the East.  I was a grownup: you'd think I understood how the world worked by that time. But in fact my experience was limited. I never set foot in California until I came out here for my job interview; I still hadn't set foot in Oregon, or Texas, or Utah.  I don't suppose I fully grasped the bitter urgency of the culture war between Anglos and Hispanics along the Rio Grande, nor the dark engine of slavery behind it.  I can't say that I understood the potent mix of energy, enterprise and sheer desperation that impelled men (mostly) to spill out past the Mississippi--sweeping,inter alia, the Indians into their wake.

And so many extraordinary characters: James Knox Polk, still perhaps an underrated president; Brigham Young, who took the lead of the Mormon migration not a moment before he should have; John C. Frémont, who came way closer than we remember to being president of the United States.  And Stephen Kearny, whom I had pretty much forgotten: perhaps the most competent of them all, yet so little full of himself that we have almost nothing left of him besides a street in San Francisco and a town in Nebraska.

DeVoto's Year is not a perfect book.  DeVoto's prose is vigorous and expressive but he will stretch for an effect and his style is not quite as bang-on as he perhaps hoped it would be.  But his imaginative engagement was his subject is complete.  He understands all their aspirations, their follies and their self-delusions. Through his eyes you can see--even if they, perhaps, did not have the time and reflective capacity to see for themselves--how they are shaping a continent.  Here's DeVoto on on Kearney:

In the vaudeville show of swollen egoism, vanity, treachery, incompetence, rhetoric, stupidity and electioneering which the general officers during the Mexican War displayed to the pensive mind, Kearny stands out as a gentleman, a soldier, a commander, a diplomat, a statesman, and a master of his job, whose only superior was Winfield Scott.  He did the jobs assigned to him.  Since one of them involved reducing John C. Frémont's heroic dislocations, he aroused the enmity of a fiery hater, Thomas Hart Benton, and so has had less than his due from history.But he wrote no letters to the papers and he could even address his superiors in respectful prose.
Less than  his due: perhaps, but a figure in history could hardly have a better friend than Bernard DeVoto.  

Stuff I Did Not Know: Norwegian

Norway has two official languages: "Bokmål"  ("book language) and "Nynorsk"("new Norwegian").    There are at least two other written forms without official status: "Riksmål" ("national lanaguage") and Høgnorsk ("high Norwegian"). There are many local spoken dialects. There is no official elite standard speech, though "standard østnorsk" ("standard east Norse") is the form usually taught to foreigners.  Mainland Norway covers about 148746 square miles, about the size of Montana.  It has a population of 4.8 million, about the same as Alabama.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Kurp on Blanshard on Macaulay and Santayana

I always learn something from Patrick Kurp but today is special: he recalls Brand Blanshard and in particular, Blanshard's lethal skewering of  Thomas Babington Macaulay, .  More, Patrick links back to an earlier item in which Blanshard does a number on George Santayana.

I admit it: in my youth I was drawn to both of these worthies--especially Santayana--and as the years have passed, I've come to realize that they are, if a pleasure, at least a guilty pleasure.  Funny, they aren't really all that much alike in particular: Macaulay with a bumptious, almost breezy self-assurance and Santayana with a chilly irony that does not well conceal its disdain. I do suspect there is a common fault: in both cases we have men of enormous talent, just a little too comfortable in their own superiority.   And in both case, if you are alert, you find yourself reading more for how they say it than for what they say.    The style, in short, is the man, in each case rather more damningly than the utterer understands.

I admit I still keep a good bit of Santayana under roof.  In all the numberless cullings, he continues to make the cut, although I can't remember the the last time I actually read much of him (well,  come to think of it, I can: about 1996).  There probably is a copy of that one-volume Penguin edit of Macaulay's History of England around here somewhere, although I'm not sure just where.  Not any Blanshard, though, a writer who up to now has been little more than a name to me.  Thanks to Patrick, I now promise myself to give Blanshard a more serious look.

Anthony Shadid

I can show an unbecoming indifference to the death of public persons I do not know but I have to admit the passing of Anthony Shadid rather wrong-footed me.  He seems to have been everything  you want in a foreign correspondent: patient, courageous, fully briefed,  infinitely inquisitive, and with the indispensable capacity not to confuse himself with the story.  Here he is doing a book talk.


On my 40th birthday, I ran from no. 33, Regents Park Road (London--right next to the canal) up to the top of Hampstead Heath and back. I congratulated myself and marveled at my persistence in the face of onrushing senescence.

That was 36 years ago today. People who are eligible for the presidency were not born then.

Seventy-six. Also the atomic number of Osmium, "employed in fountain pen tips, electrical contacts, and other applications where extreme durability and hardness are needed."   

We will celebrate with sweet treats, revelry and random gunfire.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Did I Just Hear The Economist
Come out for a Return to Glass-Steagall?

From a diatribe against briefing paper on Dodd-Frank:

. The muddle [of Dodd-Frank] stands in sharp contrast to the aftermath of earlier legislation. The banking-reform act of 1864 consolidated America’s fragmented currency system and enabled Abraham Lincoln to finance the civil war. The period of reregulation between 1933 and 1940 reserved a safe harbour for commercial banks, which were backed by federal deposit insurance but didn’t attract speculative capital because of caps on the rate of interest that could be paid. Risk was left to investment banks and asset-management firms, tempered by abundant requirements for disclosure and a shift in where the burden of proof lay in litigation, from plaintiffs to defendants. Even Dodd-Frank’s creators can bring no similar clarity to its intentions.
 Sounds like nostalgia to me.  

Oh How Dreadful it is to Grow Old

a)      REMINDER—Northern California Elderberry Flute Making Workshop, Sunday, February 26,
--From the newsletter of the Retirement Center, UC-Davis.

The Definition of "Conservative"

In his excellent new book, Bruce Bartlett remarks that he can't get any conservative to admit that any level of taxation is proper.  Copy that, but isn't that a principle that has crossed over from the empiric into the analytical--ie., that if you do admit that any level of taxation if proper you are thereby drummed out of The party of Grover Norquist American conservatism. Like, for example, Bruce Bartlett? 

Idle afterthought: does anyone but me note a certain overlap between the celebrated non-conservative Bruce Bartlett and the celebrated Marxist, Doug Henwood? The convergence is not complete, of course, but they're both ornery freethinkers with a knack for tossing stink bombs into the vacuities and fatuities of ordinary debate.  

Followup: And each has an impressive Facebook presence. BTW, David Frum does not belong to this club: he is Canadian, which is something else altogether.

Chicken McNonsense

Superb deconstruction of the great Chicken McNuggets (non) Scandal.  Hard to improve on it but it does inspire one second thought: seeing, hearing, knowing, how fast a story like this can morph into viral fantasy, aren't we beginning to beginning such a teeny bit crap-sensitive when we encounter this sort of thing, in the sense of "hm, this can't possibly be true" (and it isn't)?

OTOH, I remember that I didn't believe the "dragon sausage" story--and it was true.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Things Keene Could Buy Instead of a Tank

Tell homeland security just to give you the $285,933. Then--

238 fully functional combat-ready rifle
3,212 cases of Pol Roger Champagne Brut Rose 2002 750M
6,086 five-pound bags of Haribo Gummi Candy Gold-Bears, 5-Pound Bag
3,074 bus tickets to Boston (advanced purchase)
1,388 bus tickets to Boston (same day)
Full tuition for 31 students at Plymouth State University 
4,539 boxes of Gerber baby formula
4.39 police squad cars (mid price)
One fire truck (ding dong condition)
Dinner for 7,418 at Keene's finest restaurant (estimated; negotiable)  

Towns, Tank and Otherwise

Way back in the 50s I lived in a tank town in Central Ohio where I learned the full implications localism. Idling at the marble countertop in the drugstore at morning coffee break, someone was bound to tell you: "you know, when those Russkies drop the big one"--and then the speaker would fall inarticulate as he pointed into the air over his head and then the floor under his feet. Had he commanded the power of speech, he would have said "right here."

And he wasn't alone. I think Art Buchwald did a column in those days about how every town had its own un-American activities committee--so many of them that we were running out of Communists to investigate ("No! He's ours!" "No, we saw him first").

I thought of my old tank town this morning when I read about the City of Keene, NH, and how it is adding new meaning to the old label. Keene (last murder: 2003), thanks to the Homeland Security Administration, will soon be the proud owner of a $286,000 eight-passenger APV--proudly described by the mayor as a "tank." And as the sales manager for the seller says:

"I don't think there's any place in the country where you can say, 'That isn't a likely terrorist target,'" ... "How would you know? We don' t know what the terrorists are thinking."
If tank town was a target and if Keene stands in need of a tank, then you can't be surprised to learn that folks in Kansas feel the pressure to protect themselves as well. Here is a squib from what appears to be an authentic letter now circulating among the sunflowers:
First of all pray. Secondly, contact the senators listed below and ask them to vote to get the bill NO FOREIGN LAW out of committee so it can be voted on in legislature. Thirdly, pass this email on to others with your encouragement to do the same. The people of Kansas need to be informed.
There is quite an Islamic lobbyist group at work at the KS state Capitol. IN the past couple of years, they have wined and dined many legislators with trips to Turkey, etc. and they make their presence known on the hill. These people persevere with their agenda and are willing to wait patiently to see their agenda fulfilled. If you have any doubts about not wanting to have Sharia Law in KS, you need to do research on the topic and it will curl your hair.
 Two thoughts:
  •  An Islamic lobby in Kansas?
  • Kansas has a hill?
Research assistance: Wichita bureau.  

I Prefer "We are the 6.30E-06"


Wednesday, February 15, 2012

To an Unknown Student

I think you dropped a lottery scratcher on the way out of class today.  Please identify yourself so I can thank you for the $285 million.

Update:  Oh, my mistake, I misread it. Turns out the prize is a 24-ounce fountain drink.  For a penny.

Dueling? The Plot (Plasma) Thickens

Dueling in Uruguay?  Not unless you are a registered blood donor.  So I reported the other day in a fit of facetiousness, not really believing it for a moment.  Come now two commentators, each reporting that the law was "deroga"--repealed?  So, not quite a fiction after all.

But wait a minute: what law?  Are we saying that dueling is no longer permitted?  Or that it is permitted without limit, and you no longer have to be a blood donor? 

"If the King Wants My Head, He Knows Where to Find It"

I lately heard this attributed  to Lord Coke, responding to King James I, who (so it seems) wanted Coke to knock it off, else he (James) would knock it off.

Charming and plausible--Coke was, after all, a man with a sharp tongue and evident physical courage.  But my friend Carlton, who is much better at Coke than I am, says it is a new one on him.

And so off to Google, which availeth not.  And so?  Is it out there but unGoogled (can anything be unGoogled?)?--in Catherine Drinker Bowen's charming but not particularly reliable biography, perhaps (but isn't that in Google books?--I haven't checked)?  Am I misquoting?  Or--

I suppose it could be Tom Lehrer (snark).  

One-term Worthies

Ezra Klein writes:

In his essay on President Obama’s first term, James Fallows dismisses Obama’s conceit that he would prefer to be “a really good one-term” president than a “mediocre” president who served two terms. “The reality,” Fallows writes, “is that our judgment about ‘really good’ and ‘mediocre’ presidents is colored by how long they serve. A failure to win reelection places a ‘one-term loser’ asterisk on even genuine accomplishments. Ask George H. W. Bush, victor in the Gulf War; ask Jimmy Carter, architect of the Camp David agreement.”
There is of course a bit of sleight-of-hand here: being a good one-term President might differ from being perceived as a good one-term president.  
Example: I'm not exactly as screaming groupie for Jimmy Carter, but I do think he was a good deal better president than (most other people's) perceptions.   I suppose your answer would also depend on what you want out of a president.  I've always had a certain affection for my fellow New Englander, the cuddly Calvin Coolidge. I don't actually think he was a particularly good president but I'd have to grant he did exactly what he told us would, which is also what he wanted to do.  And as the fellah says, if you like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you will like.

But here is the great counter-example: James Knox Polk--still our "our least-known consequential president," as adjudged by those worthies at The Daily Beast (though perhaps a bit less well known than he was a few years ago, thanks to a brisk and instructive recent biography).

In the celebrity sweepstakes, I think Polk has not one but three strikes against him: first, that he served only one term. Second,  that his achievement (and purpose) was to establish an empire, and we are still a little skittish about the empire thing.  And third, he died, just after leaving office.   We can only wonder how things might have gone differently had he hung around long enough to write a self-justifying memoir.  Granted, neither Kennedy nor Lincoln needed the opportunity to explain themselves.  But we can think of so many examples--Hoover and Nixon come quickly to mind--of presidents who left office in the shade and thereafter clawed their way back to--well, perhaps we can say "clawed their way back to mediocrity."  Surely Polk, had he chosen, could have done at least  as well.  

I'm Taking Notes for the Midterm

Is it true that the coolest kids on the block are

Okay, Manjoo with a book behind him is not quite a kid but if anything, getting more cool.  

Post-Valentine Greeting

I'm sending my liver to Liverpool,
My pancreas off to Peru;
My stomach and kidney
For the summer to Sydney,
But my heart I'm still saving for you...
--Author unknown (and perhaps too ashamed to identify himself)

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

David Cay Johnston Does Not Know the Meaning of Fear

I didn't realize anyone had the stomach to tackle this one any more: here's David Cay Johnston, "Three Big Tax Lies," reviewing in Bruce Bartlett , The Benefit and the Burden and Martin A. Sullivan,   Corporate Tax Reform:

Sullivan, like Bartlett, operates from an unstated assumption: that tax and shareholder accounting should remain separate. Each author touches lightly on distortions caused by a 1954 federal law that lets companies depreciate new plant and equipment faster for tax purposes than for reporting to shareholders. But Robert Solow showed in 1956 that this law was based on false economic reasoning because accelerated depreciation did not, in fact, increase long-term growth. It was an insight for which Solow later won his Nobel Prize in economics. The intellectual father of accelerated depreciation, Evsey Domar, acknowledged in 1957 that Solow was right, yet this law still bedevils. While Republicans denounce Obama as an anti-business socialist, on his watch corporations got to write off immediately either more than half or all new investment, a capitalist dream come true.

Neither Bartlett nor Sullivan challenges the 1954 law’s requirement that companies keep two sets of books, an offense to simplicity and transparency. The authors also ignore how the corporate income tax enriches utility--holding companies by forcing customers to pay income taxes embedded in rates for electricity and other monopoly services, allowing the holding companies to then permanently pocket some or all of that money.

Here is a simpler solution: Keep one set of books. If companies were taxed on profits they report to shareholders, the line for corporate income taxes that appears in financial statements would match the taxes paid. We could even hang on to the tax credit companies get to claim for research to develop and refine processes and products, as both authors favor. All that retaining the research credit would take is adding one line to financial statements, under the tax line. 

For publicly traded companies, this would align the interests of taxpayers and business, because both seek maximum revenue. Tax revenues could be expected to rise, while compliance costs would fall dramatically. For capital-intensive companies, which spend heavily on machinery rather than workers, the change would bring in more immediate revenue as deferrals finally end.

--David Cay Johnston, "Three Big Tax Lies," reviewing in Bruce Bartlett , The Benefit and the Burden and Martin A. Sullivan , in The American Prospect.   

The Two Worlds of Liss' Whiskey

At moments, I can't believe how much time I spent slogging through David Liss' Whiskey Rebels.  Yes, it is a book I spoke well of before, and I will again in a moment, but I do have to admit: any self-respecting English teacher would crinkle up her nose at.  Characters are pretty wooden, for one thing, particularly the femme lede.  And the dialog is cardboard.

So who should I--one who doesn't read that many novels anyway--give it the time of day?  Two reasons, really: one obvious and the other that just came to me more lately, on which I am more tentative.

The obvious reason: Liss may not be so hot at character or dialog but he is superb at atmosphere, milieu.  More precisely, two milieux:  one, he does a bang-up job with the dynamic and unstable--okay, the near-chaotic--atmosphere of mercantile/commercial Philadelphia and New York, under the aegis of Alexander Hamilton with his grand vision of a great nation.  It brought to mind an exchange with a lawyer I once worked for on a securities case. I remarked on how constraining I found some thread of securities law.  You think modern securities law is bad, he said, just go inquire what they did in the old days before there was any securities law.

And the other is the frontier, specifically western Pennsylvania where we get to observe the parallel story: rough, raw and anarchic in its own way as new settlers try to claw a life out of the frontier.  A delicious irony here--and I am not sure where Liss intended it--is how startling and sobering is Liss' frontier when measured against the vision of pastoral husbandry that so animated Thomas Jefferson.  Jefferson certainly didn't want Hamilton's world, but did he grasp that the alternative might be this?

The common thread here is, of course, a theme of betrayal: the story of the revolutionary veterans who found themselves more or last cast adrift in a world they can manage only poorly if at all, and in which they feel themselves (perhaps accurately) used and abused by their freebooting "betters" back in the city.  That in itself is of course not an original theme: I think it is quite the standard way of telling the revolutionary story.   Liss may drag it on at a bit too much length but I'll have to grant that the message comes through convincingly even so.

The other is a point I'm kind of playing with.  Specifically, Liss' "bad writing" (if it is not unfair to call it that)--you know, when you stop to think of it, it's a lot like "bad writing" that was fairly standard at the end of the 18th Century or the beginning of the 19th.   His femme lede fancies herself a novelist.  We never see any of her handiwork but you do come to speculate that if she had actually published a completed product, it might read a lot like this.

Nannyhood and the Ascending Bar

Following up on my snark about high-achiever nannies, it occurred to me: isn't this one more item of evidence for the proposition that the bar to entry into the elite is getting ever higher?  I wonder if the career services office at major grad schools now offers tips on nannyhood.  Or, now that I think of it, at our law school.?

This insight came to me this morning while doing class prep at a student coffee shop. The next table was engaged in sober inquiry as to whether it made sense to do a second PhD.

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Pope and "Moral Teaching"

That piece on Rick Santorum and his relaxed attitude to Catholic doctrine has been circulating among some of my friends, where it received an abrupt dismissal from a commentator who says that obviously we don't understand the niceties of Catholic doctrine--in particular, the distance between ex cathedra and (mere?) "moral teaching."

He's right in as narrow sense.  I don't know the niceties and I wasn't thinking of the distinction when I wrote the gotcha post.  But I wonder how to evaluate the implications.  I should have thought that (mere) "moral teaching" was, at a minimum, something to be taken seriously and treated with respect--such that, if you do choose to vary from it, you do so only after careful thought and in a posture of awe at your own assumption of responsibility.  Am I right on this, or is it rather just like a Christmas tree where I am free to pick the prettiest candy cane?  In the same vein, I wonder if Rick Santorum has ever troubled to tell the voters how much real estate separates him and the hierarchy?  Or by chance can we look forward to a Youtube club where he tells an evangelical audience: you know that moral teaching stuff?  Hey, not to worry: I don't believe a word of it, except the part that lets me impose myself on women.  

Thank God I'm Not Like Other Men...

My buddy John is chewing the chair legs:

The NYT article on Chisago County continues to nag at me – not sure why. I guess the major mystery to me is why these folks – who are on the edge of existence – are so determined that raising taxes on the likes of the Kochs is bad – are taking that position. They don’t seem to have much stake in the system – they pay essentially no taxes and many of the interviewees are one carrot away from starvation or malnutrition – and actually are net beneficiaries of the safety net. Yet they attack the government and taxes like it would affect them. Why?
I think I can offer an answer to that. It's a two-parter. Part One I blogged about a couple of weeks ago (though I am too lazy to track down the cite). Call it the rule of "thank God I'm not like other men." More precisely: I may be down, but I'm not as far down as they are--"they" being anyone who seems more marginal and beleaguered than I am.  Why the most vicious  racism came not from the planters (who could be polite about it) but from the white trash, many of whom had barely seen a slave, much less actually owned one.  I'm recalling a scene in a novel--I'm betting Jerzsy Kosinski--where he hero wakes up and finds himself in a cattle car on the way to a concentration camp. Worse than that, he is among Jews.  What am I, a good Catholic, doing in a herd of Jews?  Note, this is what passes for humor in Kosinski.

The corollary flip side--part two--is that I like to associate myself with the hottest alpha in the pack.  Partly this is pure instrumentalism--he might take care of me, or at least keep me from being hurt.  But more, I think, it is just a matter of display.  You think I am a simple tattoo artist?  Hah!  I am one of Koch's boys.  So no matter what you think, same answer as before: I am not like other men.nbsp;

This Just In: Grover Norquist Campaigning for Obama

Norquist: Romney Will Do As Told

Link.   Thanks, John.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Economist as Celebrity

Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson sound like nice enough people and good public citizens but I can't think when I've read anything so hilarious as the slackjawed gushiness of Motoko Rich's joint profile in this morning's Times, all presented in a tone that would qualify the author for the assignment to do Kim Jong-un.   She describes a life which, one suspects, is every underemployed Ivy grad's dream:  two baby strollers!  Nanny with a master's degree!  And oh look,Noguchi coffee table (and he doesn't even have to cut his long hair!)!    Note to Motoko: read the journalistic mission statement again: it's afflict the comfortable, and comfort the afflicted.  Dear god woman, whatever happened to that essential requisite of the good reporter, the crap detector?

No, wait, here is something even funnier than Rich's uncritical admiration: Tyler Cowen's even more gushy endorsement, in which,  however, he cannot  forebear to remind  us that he, too, has Noguchi, and that his kids' nanny, has a PhD.  


You Gotta Hand it to the New York Times

I mean, say what you like about those guys-- a couple of weeks back, there was that boffo, longform granular account in which Charles Duhigg and David Barboza introduce us to the Steve Jobs China factory (and see also link). Yo, harsh working conditions in China--who knew?  No, that's too snide: sure we knew, but they  spelled it out with a richness of illustrative detail that brought it home to us in a way we won't forget.  And here's the Times blog, with blowback.

Now today, we've got with the pendant story -- Binyamin Appelbaum and Robert Gebeloff  serve up the cognitive dissonance of the folks in tea party country as they confront (or fail to confront) to the fact that it  is they (and not just the undeserving poor)  who are  hurtling down into the safety net.

It doesn't take great reflective power to grasp that  these two stories are parts of the same story, like one of those multivolume novels where each volume tells of the same events from a different point of view.  Or in this case, like listening in at opposite ends of a vortex from which emanates the great sucking sound. 

Of course it is tempting to feel a certain amount of schadenfreude about people who spend all their time howling about taxes while keeping one hand firmly ensconced in the cookie jar. Tempting, but unkind and unfair: humans are complicated and politics is complicated and there really isn't that much all that inconsistent about wanting a well-run lean-and-mean government and wanting to make sure that there's somebody to bail you out when you need it.

One superficial point that caught my eye in the safety-net story is the sheer bleak marginality of it all.  The NYT describes the locale as "cheap housing for commuters" (i.e., to Minneapolis)--which I think means "a place that nobody wants to live but is as close to the city as they can afford."  The Times also says "no poverty," but what do we have?  A tee-shirt retailer (in Minnesota in the winter? John asks).  A tattooist who is worried about losing his arm control.  A meat raffle?  I confess I am so sheltered I don't exactly know what a "meat raffle" is (though sure, I can guess).  But I suspect it is not what our ancestors had in mind when they came to a Land of Opportunity where the Streets are Paved with Gold.

One thing I liked in both stories: the sheer density of detail.  And the safety net story in particular: I surmise that Gebeloff is part of some sort of data-crunching unit at the Times, and from a scan of his CV (sic?), I'd say they are making good use of his time and talent.

I don't want to sound too gushy here.  The Times can give me a conniption fit when it wants to (for a recent, egregious example, go here).  But as long as they do stuff like the China piece and the safety-net piece, they are worth letting in through the velvet cord.

Update: Mrs. Buce reminds me I shouldn't overlook Jim Yardley's superb Christmas week piece on how people survive in a Mumbai slum. Well no, she didn't remind me because somehow I misssed it in the first place, but she's right, it's another bell-ringer.  

Update II: You think you know cognitive dissidence? Go here.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Duelling in Uruguay

Is it lawful to fight a duel in Uruguay?

Answer: yes, so long as each participant is a registered blood donor.

Go on, Google it. The story is all around.  It sounds almost too good to be true.

Of course, it almost certainly is to good to be true.  A fairly strenuous search located not a single report that offered anything remotely like a source.  No statute.  No lawbook.  Not even, in my inquiry, so much as a little snippet of Spanish.

When you stop about it, the story almost has to be false. It is just too neat and charming, too much suited to the intertubes.  A hint of exoticism, weirdly funny, with a soupçon of the macabre.  

Now, if it turns out that it really is true. Or perhaps I was thinking of Paraguay.  

Friday, February 10, 2012

Is Rabelais Funny?

Is Rabelais funny? The professor asked.  Yes, he is original, energetic, forceful and scatological.  But if you want funny scat, the intertubes will offer plausible candidates in a heartbeat.  Consider:

Et voyent les dolens pères & mères hors leurs maisons enlever +* tirer par un incongneu, barbare, mastin tout pourry, chancreux, cadavereux, paouvre, malheureux, leurs tant belles, delicates, riches, + saines filles, les quelles tant cherement avoient nourriez en tout exercice vertueux, avoient disciplinées en toute honnesteté esperans en temps oportun les colloquer par mariage avecques les enfans de leurs voisins + antiques amis: nourriz + instituez de mesmes soing, pour parvenir à ceste felicité de mariage, que d'eulx ilz veissent naistre lignaige raportant + haereditant non moins aux meurs de leurs pères + mères, que à leurs biens meubles + heritaiges. Quel spectacle pensez vous que ce leurs soit. Ne croyez, que plus enorme feust la desolation du peuple Romain +; ses confoederez entendens  le decès de Germanicus Drufus. Ne croyez que plus pitoyable feust le desconfort des Lacedemoniens, quand de leurs pays veirent par l'adultère Troian furtivement enlevée Helène Grecque. ...Et restent en leurs maisons privez de leurs filles tant aimées, le père mauldissant le iour +  heure de ses nopces: la mère regrettant que n'estoit avortée en tel tant triste + malheureux enfantement: +  en pleurs +  lamentations finent leurs vie, laquelle estoit de raison finir en ioye +  bon tractement de icelles.

Okay, it's all but totally inaccessible to anyone not a native speaker, and perhaps even to some of them: the briefest scan will satisfy you that it's not the French you learned in school, perhaps not even in France.  Now compare:

May not these fathers and mothers, think you, be sorrowful and heavy-hearted when they see an unknown fellow, a vagabond stranger, a barbarous lout, a rude cur, rotten, fleshless, putrified, scraggy, boily, botchy, poor, a forlorn caitiff and miserable sneak, by an open rapt snatch away before their own eyes their so fair, delicate, neat, well-behavioured, richly-provided-for and healthful daughters, on whose breeding and education they had spared no cost nor charges, by bringing them up in an honest discipline to all the honourable and virtuous employments becoming one of their sex descended of a noble parentage, hoping by those commendable and industrious means in an opportune and convenient time to bestow them on the worthy sons of their well-deserving neighbours and ancient friends, who had nourished, entertained, taught, instructed, and schooled their children with the same care and solicitude, to make them matches fit to attain to the felicity of a so happy marriage, that from them might issue an offspring and progeny no less heirs to the laudable endowments and exquisite qualifications of their parents, whom they every way resemble, than to their personal and real estates, movables, and inheritances? How doleful, trist, and plangorous would such a sight and pageantry prove unto them? You shall not need to think that the collachrymation of the Romans and their confederates at the decease of Germanicus Drusus was comparable to this lamentation of theirs? Neither would I have you to believe that the discomfort and anxiety of the Lacedaemonians, when the Greek Helen, by the perfidiousness of the adulterous Trojan, Paris, was privily stolen away out of their country, was greater or more pitiful than this ruthful and deplorable collugency of theirs?...   They wretchedly stay at their own miserable homes, destitute of their well-beloved daughters, the fathers cursing the days and the hours wherein they were married, and the mothers howling and crying that it was not their fortune to have brought forth abortive issues when they happened to be delivered of such unfortunate girls, and in this pitiful plight spend at best the remainder of their time with tears and weeping for those their children, of and from whom they expected, (and, with good reason, should have obtained and reaped,) in these latter days of theirs, joy and comfort.
 So Sir Thomas Urquhart, who may lay claim to honors as the greatest of all English translators, for seeking to scale such a monument--and for recognizing that the only way to do honor to his subject was to let his "translation" veer perilously off in the direction of homage.    A quick appraisal rooted in no more than high school French will satisfy the reader that Urquhart, while he may have stood in awe of his great subject, still did not feel constrained to honor the ltetter of the text.

It was a great age (if you extend the boundaries far enough) of earthy, energetic vernacular: of Machiavelli and Luther, of Shakespeare and Cervantes.    It was coming on to a great age of translation, few or none quite as distinctive as Urquhart's Rabelais.  Voltaire deemed it unnecessary that there be two Rabelais in a nation, but that it is necessary there be one.  Perhaps the same can be said for Urquhart.

[The selection here follows The Limits of Art (1948)  the great anthology  collected and edited by Huntington Cairnes.]   

*Wonk Stuff: Rabelais uses the ampersand. Blogger won't allow the ampersand so I have replaced it with the plus sign.

American Airlines has a Son Named Luke?

As with many great American institutions, i.e., General Motors, American Airlines, and many others who have utilized the strategic business tool called bankruptcy, Gary Busey's filing is the final chapter in a process that began a few years ago of jettisoning the litter of past unfortunate choices, associations, events and circumstances that visited themselves upon this great American icon, to enable the start of a new and clear path to peace, happiness and success with his career and his wonderful new soulmate, Steffanie, and their son, Luke.
--Gary Busey's press agent explains his bankruptcy filing.  Thanks, John.

[But it is a line that deserves a place in the language: your honor my client is here to jettison the litter of past unfortunate choices.] 

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Constitution? Who Needs It?

I can't pretend I've read all the stuff about the export of the US Constitution and Justice Ginsberg's "controversial" comment on same, but are people picking up on two important qualifications:

  • Of course it is archaic; it's over 200 years old.  Nobody would write it the same way today.  This is not an argument for abandoning it: continuity has its claims, and the prescribed process of amendment is probably the best available response  to change in an imperfect world (but a constitutional convention dominated by Newt Gingrich and Donald Trump--that would be a sight to see, eh?).
  • But more important: don't you suspect that over the whole  life of state-making, most constitutions have been a fraud?  No, not including ours: ours is perhaps an exception-that-proves-the-rule in the respect that there may be at least a passing resemblance between the document to which it refers.   But if you're an upstart hustler with a bit of scrambled egg on your hat, what's the first thing you do when you capture government house?  Why, you promulgate a constitution, and pack it with every scrap of pious nonsense you can muster for the further abuse of a harried populace.  By corollary, if you really want to know how things work in a country, about the last thing you look at is "the constitution" (except, possibly, as a proxy for the chasm of falsehood that might separate ruler and world).   And keep reminding yourself: the Brits never did write theirs down.
More broadly: it's amazing how easy it is to miss, but a "constitution," is merely the social fact of how the government is constituted.  Every society has to have one, it's definitional; if you aren't constituted, you aren't a society.  The piece of paper (parchment, vellum, foolscap, whatever) is only evidence of the social fact, and damn poor evidence most of the time.  Now, get back to something serious.  


I suspect he's right.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Labor Numerology

Number of Apple employees in the US: 43,000.

Number of Apple employees in the mother-of-all-factories in China: 430,000.

Number of employees at GM at its peak: I could swear I saw the number 430,000 again (which is, obviously what set me out to write this post).  But Google is unavailing. Here's an older NYT clip that says GM US had  "more than 600,000 workers in 1979."

Oh and: UAW membership in 2010: 430,000, down from a peak of 1.5 million.  

Ignoto has been Hitting the Red Bull Again

My friend Ignoto the investor is cranky this morning:

For decades the flow of capital was treated like the flow of water, sewage, and electricity - a regulated utility with means to ensure that "excess risk" was not being taken with the public's "airwaves."  Bank regulators were like the Public Utilities Commission.  In the 1980s, someone decided that when it came to finance, mixing water, sewage, and electricity into the same conduit were perfectly appropriate.  Naturally, after 25 years of allowing this stuff to mingle a bunch of sparky shit-water came out...  Bankers called it "finance" while the rest of called it, well, sparky shit-water... (The first phase of structured credit, Fannie/Freddie/etc., were logical - like going from copper to fiber-optics.  The next stage was putting sewage down fiber-optics...)
 Maybe Ignoto is remembering Scopenhauer's law of sewage entropy.  

Failure? Let Me Tell You about Failure!

Donald Trump was on the TV in the exercise room a few minutes go, mocking Rick Santorum for having lost his Sente seat by the largest majority ever sustained by a sitting senator.  That strikes me as pretty rich for  guy with four bankruptcies under his belt.

Somedbody Has to Win

Laugh while you can but just remember--one of these bozos has to win the nomination.  And in November, we'll elect a president who is cool with the idea of locking people up and throwing away the key.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

He Thought Well of Huckleberry Finn, Though

What do these three have in common: the novels of Jane Austen, the novels of James Fenimore Cooper, and the Book of Mormon?

Answer: Mark Twain disparaged them all.   On Jane: "her books madden me ... .. Everytime I read 'Pride and Prejudice' I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone."  (With more here).

 Cooper gets a famous (and savage) essay in which Train concludes (writing of The Deerslayer):

A work of art? It has no invention; it has no order, system, sequence, or result; it has no lifelikeness, no thrill, no stir, no seeming of reality; its characters are confusedly drawn, and by their acts and words they prove that they are not the sort of people the author claims that they are; its humor is pathetic; its pathos is funny; its conversations are -- oh! indescribable; its love-scenes odious; its English a crime against the language.

His judgment on the Book of Mormon is more muted in tone; it extends over several pages of Twain's own great memoir,  Roughing ItTwin writes:

It is such a pretentious affair and yet so slow, so sleepy, such an insipid mess of inspiration. It is chloroform in print.

If Joseph Smith composed this book, the act was a miracle. Keeping awake while he did it, was at any rate.  ... Whenever he found his speech growing too modern, which was about every sentence or two, he ladeled in a few such scriptural phrases as, "exceeding sore," "and it came to pass," etc. and made things satisfactory again. "And it came to pass," was his pet. If he had left that out, his bible would have been only a pamphlet.  
Given the severity of his judgments, it is probably just as well that Twain restricted himself to writers who were safely dead.

Jonathan Gruber Explains What's Different About Obamacare

Note the highlighting in the third paragraph:

You were an architect of Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts health programme and an instrumental adviser in the design of the Obama administration’s health reforms. So please settle the question of the year: How similar are they?

They are very, very similar. You can think of the Affordable Care Act as a more ambitious version of the Massachusetts reform. Both reforms have the same core principles: Non-discrimination in insurance markets, health insurance mandates and subsidies so insurance is affordable. In Massachusetts, we stopped there.

The national bill – the Affordable Care Act – has two additional features. One is it’s paid for and two, it takes on cost controls. Romney’s reform was paid for with funding from the federal treasury. The Affordable Care Act is paid for through offsets in the federal budget. And the Affordable Care Act tackles the increase in costs in a serious way, which the Massachusetts bill didn’t do. So you can think of the Affordable Care Act as the Massachusetts bill-plus.
 How to guess your age?  I remember when Republicans paid their debts.   

Happy 200 Charles (and a Word on Words)

It's Charles Dickens' 200th birthday today.  Apparently they are making almost as big a deal of in England as they are over the Queen. I've never been a huge Dickens fan myself (and in fairness, I've read only about half the Dickens canon so I might have missed something wonderful): too much Victorian sentimentalism, especially about women--that last a topic on which he seems to me just awful. Still, I will have to grant his fecundity and his felicity at generating a certain kind of memorable cartoon.

But Michael Quinion points to something that I'd missed before: Dickens as a wordsmith, a coiner of words.  Not, perhaps, on a plane with Shakespeare.  And not, perhaps on a plane with himself, or at any rate his former self as admiringly characterized as his Victorian admirers.  Still, Michael gives him credit for "butter-fingers, unpromisingly, sawbones, messiness, spiflication, whizz-bang and seediness."  Quite enough for a day's work.  BTW, if you don't read Michael's excellent weekly words newsletter, you're missing a treat.

Update:  Buce's friend Bruce points out that it is also the anniversary of the Beatle's  first American tour.  He asks: "which has had more lasting cultural influence?"  The question is perhaps intended to be rhetorical but I am not sure the answer is obvious.  No  doubt that the Beatles are more vivid in our consciousness but Dickens may just be more closely woven into the woof.  Maybe (as Bruce graciously observes, echoing Chou En-lai about the French Revolution) it is just too soon to tell.