Saturday, March 31, 2012

What Makes the World Go Round

He is more than quarter-master with the gods,
Tenet Thetide æquor, umbras Æaco, coelum Jove:
("He divides the empire of the sea with Thetis,-- of the Shades, with Æacus,-- of the Heaven, with Jove.")
and hath not so much possession as dominion. Jupiter himself was turned into a satyr, shepherd, a bull, a swan, a golden shower, and what not, for love; that as Lucian's Juno right well objected to him, ludus amoris tu es, thou art Cupid's whirligig: how did he insult over all the other gods, Mars, Neptune, Pan, Mercury, Bacchus, and the rest? Lucian brings in Jupiter complaining of Cupid that he could not be quiet for him; and the moon lamenting that she was so impotently besotted on Endymion, even Venus herself confessing as much, how rudely and in what sort her own son Cupid had used her being his mother, "now drawing her to Mount Ida, for the love of that Trojan Anchises, now to Libanus for that Assyrian youth's sake. And although she threatened to break his bow and arrows, to clip his wings, and whipped him besides on the bare buttocks with her pantofle, yet all would not serve, he was too headstrong and unruly." That monster-conquering Hercules was tamed by him:
Quem non mille feræ, quem non Sthenelejus hostis, Nec potuit Juno vincere, vicit amor.
("Whom neither beasts nor enemies could tame, Nor Juno's might subdue, Love quell'd the same.")
Your bravest soldiers and most generous spirits are enervated with it, ubi mulieribus blanditiis permittunt se, et inquinantur amplexibus. Apollo, that took upon him to cure all diseases, could not help himself of this; and therefore Socrates calls Love a tyrant, and brings him triumphing in a chariot, whom Petrarch imitates in his triumph of Love, and Fracastorius, in an elegant poem expresseth at large, Cupid riding, Mars and Apollo following his chariot, Psyche weeping, etc.

--Robert Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy


...a Ben Hur dash for the finishing line, in which Mamma Mia, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, ribbon developments on the Costa del Sol and the migration towards Italy of North African refugees in sinking boats are all briefly glimpsed...
 The modern Mediterranean, as seen by David Abulafia in his new history of the great sea--as summarized by Nigel McGilchrist, in the London Review of Books for 22 March.
[Greece]  is on the verge of radical social change. The political reform and concomitant economic growth that began in the mid-1970s encouraged the formation of a new middle class, which steadied the political pendulum by filling the gap between the warring left and right. Education rather than capital accumulation lifted people into the middle tiers of the social pyramid and, since the public sector is the main employer of the professional classes, most of them are dependent on the state for their status. The present crisis threatens to wipe out this class, clearing a space for a renewed confrontation between irreconcilable extremes.
Greece, per John Makarkis, on the next page.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Earl Scruggs RIP

Cripple Creek, my favorite:

Afterthoughts: I'm feeling impelled to retell some Scruggs stories. I can't find my copy of the biography I read a while back (I hope I didn't send it to Goodwill), but let me wing it and hope I'm right: by my recollection, he was born dirt poor and then his father died. He learned to play the banjo before he could hold it; he put it on the floor and knelt beside it.

As an unknown young muscian, he once left the road to go back to the cotton mill because it paid better. As a struggling performer, he and the band would operate for days at a time out of the car, one driving while the others slept. Mrs. Buce asked, did they bring a change of underwear?

By all the evidence that I've seen, as modest, decent and unassuming a man as ever walked the earth. And a stupefying performer.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Ooh, That's Gotta Hurt

Newt Gingrich: the Republican Howard Dean.

Tough Love in the Law School

From the syllabus for Garrett Epps' Con Law class at the University of Baltimore Law School:Class attendance and participation:

(1) Attendance in this class is required. Students with more than two unexcused absences may be denied permission to take the examination. Under law school policy, five or more absences for any reason require withdrawal.

(2) Class participation is (a) in small assigned groups that will consider specific problems and (b) in the larger class in which we will discuss the problems you have worked through in your small groups. Neither the small-group nor the full class participation is optional. I will not accept an answer of “pass.” Students who are unprepared on a specific day should notify the instructor before class begins; they may be called on at the next class session. Students who are stumped by a question from the instructor may ask for help from other members of their small group.
Class time will often be devoted to discussion rather than lecture and summarization of cases. During discussion of hypotheticals or policy issues, there is to be no use of laptops. Laptops may be used during lectures. However, “laptop use” denotes only taking of notes or consulting casebriefs you have prepared. It does not include any use of the internet during class. Students who do use their computers for non-class uses may be asked to leave the class, as these uses are distracting to both their fellow students and the instructor.
(My God) one of my colleages asks, reverently, does he get any students?  I don't know but my guess is yes.  He is teaching a glamour subject.  He's  telling you the price of the ticket before you get on the bus.  My guess is that he might have made his into a glamour class.  Maybe there are "I survived Garrett" tee-shirts.

FWIW, I've never met that guy.  I found the syllabus on the web, and he graciously assented to my request to excerpt it.   He came on my radar because he provided some of the best, or at least the funniest, commentary I read during this week's Supreme Court oral arguments; see e.g., here.

What to tell the Adolescents

When they are acting their age:

You haven't myelinated the prefrontal cortex yet.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Primary Update

This just in: Clayton Osborn surges into the lead over Mitt Romney in the Wisconsin Republican primary.

The Lottery: Payments or Lump Sum?

I see that the Mega Millions Lottery  is offering (a) $359 million now or (b) $19.2 a year for 26 years.  The gross value of the payment stream is of course 19.2x26=$499.2 million.  Hey, do the math and you'll see that $499.2 tops $359 so take the deferred payments, right?

Well,   I gather that's that what the grownups want us to think.  Don't take it now or you'll blow it. Take the payments, you'll do better in the long run.

But of course it's not right.  Time is money and the present value of the payment stream is the nominal value discounted at the appropriate interest rate.

Anyway, try this.  Assume you get your first payment today and subsequent payments at the beginning of each of 25 more years.  So if you take the payments you are "paying"  $339.8 ($359-$19.2) million.  What is the implied discount rate (internal rate of return)?  Excel says 2.85* percent per year.

So, what is your discount rate?  If your rate is lower than 2.85percent, then the implied present value of the payment stream is higher than 339.8.  If lower, higher.  Such is the conventional wisdom.

And is this right?  Well, there's taxes.  Not really my department, though I think you have to pay tax on the lump sum payment at the front end, but on the payments only as they come in, which seems to tilt the advantage towards payments.  And I suppose with this kind of money, you may be able to get some Mitt Romney action.

Oh, wait--the "I" word, "inflation."  I gather that discount rate is based on the long-term treasury rate.  The rate is supposed to "impound" inflation.  But it looks to me like the inflation rate is already running  close to 3 percent--low by historical standards but still high enough to eat up all of the implied discount rate.  And what are the chances that inflation in the future will stay that low, huh?   Huh?

Short answer: take the money and run.  What say you?

[h/t: Buce's friend Bruce.]  

*See comments.

What Should Scalia Do with his Time?

The topic for the moment a few moments ago was the question whether professors work hard enough.  Speaking for myself only, the answer would be "yes, but" (details below).  But  now I'm reading Antonin Scalia as he encounters the prospect of actually reading the Affordable Care Act, on which he is supposed to pass judgment.  "You really want us," he bleats,  "to go through these 2,700 pages?"  Link

Well strictly speaking, I suppose the answer is "no."  I suspect the parties would stipulate that there are large chunks of it that really aren't germane to the issue(s) before the court and therefore not necessary reading for a judge as he gets ready to give judgment.*

But it raises the larger question--do Supreme Court judges work hard enough?  Recall that this is a crowd that is in court (= in the classroom?) only a few hours a week, only some weeks of the year--with long holidays and summers off.  Moreover it is they who get to decide how hard they work.  Recall that the court now hears fewer than half the cases every term as it used to, and that the reduction is due entirely to the judges' own whim  discretion--i.e., it is they who vote whether to hear  a case or not.  Meanwhile it looks to me like they have something like 36 clerks in gross.   At this rate, somebody ought to be able to extrapolate how soon it will be one clerk per case .  And the clerks, of course, are just the beginning.  There's no end to the amount of support staff available to keep them comfortable and mellow.

So, how to achieve a  better economy of effort?  In the old days, one way to burn off the surplus energy of the underemployed was to pile them all into a car and deploy them in the small towns of the south as magazine salesmen.    I never did that, but I did spend one summer day cleaning out an underground oil tank (for my brother-in-law--I think he was trying to encourage me to leave his house, which I did).  Or we could consider having them crawl into cages to catch chickens (paid by the piece).  Or scraping gum off the bottom of bus seats.  Or selling Tours of Homes of the Stars along Hollywood Boulevard.  

Or, oh yes, send them back to the countryside to dig irrigation ditches.  Any other suggestions?

Addendum: do I work hard?   The short answer is "yes."  I've always worked a lot of hours at my professor job, more than I did when I was a newspaper hack, sometimes more than I did as a lawyer.   Perhaps not more than I did as a judge, but then I liked being a judge and it didn't seem like work.   And that is the dirty little secret: as a professor I do work hard but I have almost total control over what, when and how I do it.    And that's the problem with professing: not that it's too easy, but that it is way, way too much fun.  Eat your heart out, Nino.

*Or maybe not.  See link.

The Courtwatchers: What are they Hearing?

My court-watching skills--Supreme, or otherwise--are just about zero.    This insight hasn't stopped me from assuming that Obamacare is toast, long before the route walkover oral argument yesterday morning.  I'm impressed that so many of my better informed colleagues thought--and from what I can tell, still think--that might have a chance,  In that context, David Frum weighs in with some fascinating comments from a guy who seems actually to know what he is talking about: go here.  Frum also offers a fascinating account of why a Republican "victory" may be a poisoned chalice; go here.

Insurance Explained

The barista, explaining Obamacare to the cook: if you get sick you get your money back and more.    The company is betting you will not get sick and they get to keep the money.  It's just like being a bookie.

On the (admittedly scanty) evidence, I'd have to give her an A plus.  Once you understand that insurance is a subset of bookmaking, the rest is easy.   Afterthought: with analysis like this, she just raised the average level of public dialog on the subject.

Is Barack Obama Sane?

No, not rhetorical.  Here's British political theorist John Gray:

It’s hard to know what is going to happen now in US politics. What is significant about Obama, whatever his failures, is his palpable sanity. He is an immensely sane leader. 
Well now, that one ought to hold us for a while, shouldn't it?   Let's skip the all-night adolescent bull session and assume that we do have some working notion of what it means to be "sane:"  a modest reflectiveness, an awareness that facts are stubborn things, a recognition (however reluctant) that the voices inside your head are not God talking but just voices inside your head.  The Barack of, say Dreams of My Father (unless you want to argue that it is Bill Ayers who is really sane).  The Barack of the Nobel Prize acceptance, the Cairo speech--indeed, the Barack of perhaps a dozen speeches over the course of a not-very-long career.  I won't go do far as to say he is Lincoln (he is not) but aside from Lincoln, how many political leaders--ever--can deliver even one speech that seems focused, clear-eyed, at home in the world?

So what shall we make of the other Obama, the one who has left his most fervent supporters so chastened and disabused--the Obama of targeted assassinations, the Obama who stands in slack-jawed admiration of the Wall Street Money Trust, the  Obama who lets himself be the plaything of Mitch McConnell and Eric Cantor?    I'd say there's a problem here: I count myself as a disappointed supporter, if never exactly "fervent."  Disappointed, yes, but does the charge sheet support a finding of "insane?"   I shouldn't think so.  Wretchedly misguided some times, sure.  Wrongheaded, check.  Naive, oboyoboy.    But "wrongheaded=insane"--apoplectic as I may get some days, I'd say that's setting the bar a bit high.

And yet, and yet.   There is that gnawing annoyance about targeted assassinations, the comfortable (it seems) assurance that one's own life-and-death judgment is reliable, that one can, indeed, be the judge of one's own case.  Arrogance at least.  Blind megalomania?  Perhaps there is a subtle boundary,

But speaking of arrogance, perhaps we can broaden the inquiry.  Recall we are dealing here with a man who, five years ago, was a not-yet-one-term senator, whose most noteworthy prior achievement was to edit the Harvard Law Review.  We thought it was a bit of a stretch to think he might become President; what did he think?  What kind of self-assurance--how far outside the bounds of ordinary realism--to think you can scale that mountain from this tiny molehill.  I can't think of another example of ambitious overstretch in the history of American politics.  Well, with perhaps one exception: again, Abraham Lincoln.  And to confuse oneself with Abraham Lincoln--now, that does come close to insane.

Optional extra credit: Gray continues: 
And it’s an odd question to ask, but I wonder if sanity is a political advantage or disadvantage in these circumstances in America?
 This odd question is left as an exercise to the reader.   


Tuesday, March 27, 2012


"The ‘old-age dependency ratio’ demonstrates the proportion of the population aged 65+ relative to the working-age population (15-64)."  By 2050 in the United States and China, the ratio is predicted to be about 39 percent.  Comparatively speaking, this is low: the ratio in Japan is forecast to hit 74 percent, and Korea, 77 percent (link).

A labor-baiting, poker-playing, whiskey-drinking, evil old man.

--John L. Lewis on John Nance Garner.
A savage old Nabob, with an immense fortune, a tawny complexion, a bad liver, and a worse heart.

--Thomas Babington Macaulay, discussing the men who pillaged India.
As I sat opposite the Treasury Bench, the Ministers reminded me of one of those marine landscapes not very unusual on the coasts of South America. You behold a range of exhausted volcanoes. Not a single flame flickers on a single pallid crest.
--Benjamin Disraeli on the Liberal party leadership.
O, I have ta'en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just.

--William Shakespeare, King Lear 3, IV

Monday, March 26, 2012

This is What it Comes To, Not So?

They want health care all right and they want the government to pay for it.  They just don't want to have to take it from a black guy. Cf. link.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Who Said It? Too Intellectual

It's primary season.  What major presidential candidate recently said:
People have told me that my problem with you is that I'm too intellectual, I reply that I'm not intellectual enough. For the people are far more cultivated than the powerful believe them to be, and when not they still love beautiful things ...
 For the answer, go here.

Graetz on Energy

Michael Graetz' End of Energy was published just a bit over a year ago and so far as I can tell, sank like a stone.  This is perhaps unremarkable: there's no hook here, no soundbyte, nothing to put the  author on The Daily Show.  Well: nothing except, perhaps, the title, but the title itself is misleading.  Graetz doesn't really talk about the "end" of anything, except possibility the imminent end of our capacity to kick the can down the road, to evade or sidestep any inducement to step up and address our imminent energy calamity (or calamities, if you give climate change a separate category).   Whatever; it's a shame he is so neglected.  What you've got here is a straightforward, nontechnical account of US government energy policy (and nonpolicy) since...

Since what?  Did you guess "the 1973 oil shock?"  Close, but no: Graetz starts his story with Nixon price controls in 1971, which more or less got the whole ugly decade off on the wrong foot.  The'73 shock figures largely, of course, and indeed the more you read this sort of stuff, the more you come to look back on 1973 as an infliction point not unlike August, 1914, before which everything was great (at least in retrospect), after which not so much so.   Graetz moves briskly forward from there through the Ford administration and then to the misfortunate enterprises of poor, perplexed, Jimmy  Carter, who did succeed in deregulating natural gas but met frustration in almost every other energy endeavor.

One does have to wonder how much of Carter's disappointing record was bad luck and how much sheer incompetence.   Graetz does quote Yale historian Gaddis Smith who said "President Carter inherited an impossible situation and made the worst of it" (Kindle 1860-61).  Either way, he is soon swept away by the tides of history carrying in his successor, Ronald Reagan, whose most noteworthy energy accomplishment may have been to take the solar panels off the White House roof (Reagan did vow to get rid of the Department of Energy but found that the old bulls on Capitol Hill weren't about ready to give up that kind of power).

Indeed one of the remarkable themes of the story is that so far as energy policy goes, there was s whole lot of nothing between 1981 and the early 2000s, when "energy" reemerged under the guise of "climate change."  And here what you noticed is how amazingly little has changed over the decades.  Graetz sums up:

In 2008, just 7.4 percent of our nation's total energy supplies, including biomass, primarily ethanol in fuel, came from renewable sources-compared to about 5.5 percent when Jimmy Carter took office more than three decades earlier. Of that 7.4 percent, more than half is from ethanol and about 2.5 percent still comes from hydropower.  Although growing industries, wind and solar power together accounted for about one percent of the total.
Kindle 1704-6.  Graetz does identify one area of relative success:  the campaign to conserve energy, perhaps most notably CAFE standards for vehicle emissions.  But he adds a caution:

 Any effort to conserve energy faces four challenges. First, inertia: absent large and obvious cost savings or specific legal requirements, it is difficult to stimulate people to make the kinds of changes that would substantially reduce their  use. Second, the size and timing of costs: energy savings often require large up-front costs to achieve small amounts of cost reductions spread over a long period. Third, information and uncertainty: people do not know how much an investment in energy conservation will really save them. Fourth, the frequent mismatch between who will bear the costs of energy savings expenditures and who will ultimately reap the benefits of lower periodic costs: builders, for example, may not be able to recover the costs of energy-efficient features from their buyers.
Kindle 1712-1714.  And what happened to generate the long hiatus between the (mostly frustrated) initiatives of the Carter years and the (still frustrated) initiatives of the new century?  Graetz doesn't quite say so in words but there is one unifying theme that drives, or fails to drive, the energy agenda: the price of oil   Graetz presents the data to show that the inflation-adjusted price of oil peaked at just about the end of the Carter years; then fell, and did not exceed its earlier peak until 2008.  Man, if gasoline ever hits $4 a gallon, there's no tel-- oh, right.  

The Donor

Of course it is standard practice for the organ donee not to know who his donor is.  But I'd say there is a very good likelihood that the (family of) the donor knows this morning that it was Dick Cheney who got the beloved's heart.  Wonder how that feels.


Chesterton*  said ""He was a bold man that first ate an oyster."   We celebrated our 32d/22d anniversary last Thursday at Itineraire in Paris with a dab of oyster sorbert.  Take that, GK.
*Or Jonathan Swift.  Or Roger Sterling.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Paris: Degas Nudes

Who said of the Folies Bergère girls--"ah zair faces are so sad, mais zair bottoms are so 'appi!" It's the Paris we dreamt of--men, anyway--back before we realized we could get naked and get wasted without every leaving home. There's another kind of French allure on display right now at the Musée_d'Orsay, France's national treasury of Impressionist (and kindred) art. It's Degas and the Nude--room after room of them, plenty of paintings, lots of drawings, a few sculptures. And even though it is (nominally) only one subject, it's one of those shows that lets you consider the whole arc of a career.  For who more than Edgar Degas, when you stop to think of it, ever observed the female body--sitting, standing, lying down, climbing out of the bath, toweling down, whatever--with such patient attention?

Of course you want to say this is art and not porn and you'd be right, but that doesn't mean it is not erotic.  I tried to say something about abstraction, timelessness, essence, like Cézanne. But Mrs. Buce says this misses the point: she said their never was an artist who inhabited the body with more convincing particularity, all the bones and joints in the right place, always the right balance between equipoise and action. I suppose we could both be right in the sense of Hegel's god who had to live through the particularity of the world, else be doomed to an eternity of abstract possibility. Anyway, it is here until July 1. Special ticket although it does come included in those multi-day passes. Definitely worth a side trip, perhaps even worth a transcontinental flight. 

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Paris: French Letters

A couple of Parisian book notes, gleaned from hanging out at Gilbert Joseph on the Boule Mich,  One, Saint-Simon: it's not hard to find editions of his memoirs around Paris but what with the 17th-Century style and all those grand personages, comprehension can be daunting.   Happily, Livre de Poche has brought out a nice user-friendly title with the properly grand title Cette pute me fera mourier...--"this whore will be the death of me,."  There's a brief and accessible intro by François Raviez along with text notes and little insert-cues like you might find in a school translation text.  Which in a sense it is, although I expect the intended audience is French speakers, not English.  There seem to be some other volumes in the same series, including some notes by Prince Metternich.

Two: I long suspected that this existed and here it is--an edition of Montaigne's Essais in modern French.  I have to admit I have never had a lot of success with Montaigne in the original--a little too archaic and too much Gascon dialect.  Reassuring to know the French seem to have the same problem.

Oh, and a third: in another shop I saw a two-volume Histoire du XXe siècle by Raymond Aron.  Aron might qualify as kind of a French Tony Judt (or maybe Judt as an American Raymond Aron).  He's been dead for near 30 years now, but this seems to be a first-time publication.  Ought to be worth a read. 

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Paris: My Favorite Spot in the Louvre

You know what it is? Glad you asked. No, not the Winged Victory or the Venus de Milo. Not the Code of Hammurabi, and not even the Vermeers although they, like all Vermeers are eye-popping.

No; I cast my vote for the Marie de' Medici cycle, Peter Paul Rubens' 24 billboard-size paintings that occupy their own room in the Richelieu Wing, second floor on the north side. It's a tic: I'm a sucker for neoclassical/rococo pomp--same reason that I like the Tiepolos that can put us immediately in touch with so foreign a world. Also, of course, because Rubens (like Tiepolo) is just good at what he does--dynamic, brimming over with vivacity and sheer brio. There is a distinction here: Tiepolo, you suspect, is in on the joke, but with Rubens it is just high spirits.

Also, again, the sheer absurdity of it all. Here is a woman never did a single earthly thing of note except throw a king, who returned the compliment on reaching his majority by chasing her out. Rubens, a consummate master at of knowing which side his bread is buttered on, went light on the domestic rancor and brought the story to an edifying reconciliation. All of which is enough one more item: is there anything more suitable to serve as so grand a center of so grand a museum, in so grand a city, at the heart of a (formerly?) grand nation?  

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Paris: Along the River

Earlier in the week I carped about the fog but last night and today, the weather couldn't be better.  Tourists (of whom at the moment there are surprisingly few) had better hurry before it gets too hot.  We dined today at a modest place--rather, as modest as you can get on the right bank of the Seine, just north of the Île le de la Cité. Except for us, the place seemed to belong to the habituels--which is to say, it wasn't half full. We idled away a few minutes appraising the the threesome over by the wall,  at least our age, maybe older--bonus points for the one in the three-piece blue serge with red pocket hanky and discreet purple tie. Why three? We settled on the notion that they were a foursome and that the extra is the widower. So, he needs the company and they see no reason to break an old habit.  I've no doubt that a meal here was inferior to what you would have got at Tour d'Argent within sight range across the river, but I suspect it cost about a quarter as much and was probably a lot more relaxed.

 Last night we took some newbies to the Eiffel Tower; we traveled out on the Number 9 Metro to Pont de Sèvres. That puts you down just west of the Trocadero. From there you can't see the tower but you walk a few feet and look left and--wham, there is is, just as it looked in the iconic photograph with Hitler from 1940.

 I've puzzled over the name, "Trocadero;" I remember an old black-and-white movie where it is the name of a saloon run by a guy named Tony Rocadero. I guess I never credited that version; anyway, Wiki reports that Troc takes its name from a battle in which the French reactionaries mauled some insurgents in Spain in 1823; along with Hitler, ironic brackets for a monument to human reason.

 We capped the Tower with the de rigueur twilight boat ride up and down the river. Doubling the Île Saint-Louis, I happened to notice a woman hunched down on the concrete promontory, sheltering a baby.  The whole scene struck me as unutterably sad.  An odd response in a way: the night wasn't especially cold and I suppose there are shelters and anyway, she was probably no more miserable than any number of other homeless people around Paris or elsewhere. I can only guess it had something to do with the austere dignity of her surroundings.  

Monday, March 19, 2012

Paris: Église Saint-Sulpice

I've been in Paris a few times before but somehow I'd never made it to Église Saint-Sulpic, the rococo of all rococos, a massive pile tucked away modestly with its back to the action on the Rive Gauche.  We trekked out there Sunday morning to take in the organ music.  These guys have no illusions: they do mass but they understand that a good bit of their audience will be just tourists there for the entertainment and they plan accordingly.

Actually, there are two organs: one "large" (as they might say in grading olives) with 22 stops and one "jumbo," with 102.  Unless I badly misunderstand, we were hearing the runt of the litter, but it was plenty robust enough to fill the formidable 17-18C space.  A Bach prelude, a bit of César Franck and a fair amount of one Louis Vierne, hitherto unknown to me--apparently he began his career here as assistant organist in 1892.  Certainly worth a visit, as they say in the guidebooks, and probably worth a side trip.

Paris: The French Election, and Ours--Pick Your Brackets

The French don't do things our way (perhaps you knew?).  When it comes to elections they don't have a nice, dignified, orderly (heh!) primary followed by a nice, dignified general.  They have a first-round free-for-all followed by a runoff,   It can be confusing: they're still pegging the socialist Francois Hollande as the ultimate winner here, even though there is some reason to believe he might actually trail in the first round (and there's a surge for a candidate on his left flank, showcased in a rally at the Bastille just yesterday, which could upset things).

But still, it set me to thinking: what if Barack Obama had had to run in all those primaries over the last few weeks, along with the likes of Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann et al.?  Can we imagine a scenario in which he would have been knocked off in an early round, leaving it for, say, Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney to slug it out in the true finals?

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Paris: On French Parents and their Children

We spent a fair amount of the day in the company of French parents and their children--all of them strangers to us but all the more instructive thereby as an opportunity for observation.  There were two venues--one a fairly upscale restaurant peopled by Parisian families in Sunday dinner mode.  The other was the marionette theatre in the Luxembourg Gardens.

The marionette show was programmed for children, so no surprise we'd find a lot of kids there.  The restaurant--just say it seemed as if there were some sort of rule that you couldn't enjoy a Sunday dinner with your kinfolks unless you brought along s selection of five-to-eight year olds.  Still the main point is that in each place, the kids were fine. They did kid things: they giggled; they squirmed; they ordered hot dogs and (French?) fried potatoes.  But not one of them threw a tantrum, or otherwise morphed into a public nuisance. The attitude throughout was one of easy conviviality.

All of which confirms a prejudice of mine: the French are at their most attractive when dealing with their kids.  We all know that the English bully their kids (or simply ship them out, which may be the same); the Italians are bullied by theirs (remember the punch line, "he thinks she's a virgin and she thinks he's God).  But the French seem to have figured out how to develop just the right kind of rapport to keep the kids engaged and yet not out of line.  My friend Rusty asks: they treat them like adults?  No, not exactly. They treat them like kids, but like kids who deserve to be taken seriously.  My friend Kenny used to say that all he knew about life  he learned in kindergarten, although that he learned it as a teacher, not a student.  Which is, he said, they want attention, security and reassurance.  Which amounts, perhaps, to saying that you treat them like adults who happen to be kids.

It's an odd kind of irony when you consider how beastly the French can be to each other in moments of national crisis (except, in fairness, they really don't seem to have had a moment of national crisis for quite some time).  But it's a start.  And it makes for a pleasant ambiance in which to idle away a Sunday.  

Saturday, March 17, 2012

What Is it with Greg Smith?

This will be easy to misunderstand so bear with me while I try to explain--but I really don't get the whole Greg Smith thing.  I mean--well, for sure he is s remarkable human story, this young man from a first-class education and top-of-the-line occupational experience who will put his career in the line in order to (as he sees it) speak truth to power   What exactly did he think when he started at Goldman, and when and how did the scales fall form his eyes?  I suppose we will get a chance to find out (Bill Moyers?  Charlie Rose?  Dear God, not Piers Morgan).   I expect I'll  turn a sympathetic ear.

But it can't be just the messenger who catches out fancy.    It must be something about the message--but what?  What in his account actually comes as a surprise to, say, anyone who has done business with Goldman in the last generation, or who watched what Hank Paulson did to Dick Fuld, or who stood hypnotized at the real-time implosion of John Corzine, or who read William Cohan's formidable account of Goldman's long nonlinear history?  Which is to say, all those (of us) who are helping to boot Smith into the viral premier league.  Aside from the fact that one suicidally brave young man was willing to unburden himself, what do we know now that we did not know before?

Off Again

Pardon if this is a repeat but I do love the story about Clarence from the Cincinnati Rotary Club who won the raffle and got to go to Paris.  
--Well, how was it?
--Oh, it was wonderful, the bright lights, the music...
--And did you go to Montmartre?
--Heh, yes I did.
--And see the dancing girls?
--With the itty bitty short skirts? And the net stockings?
--You betcha.
--And take one back to your room?
--Yes, I have to say, yes.
--And what happened then?
--Well from then on, it was a hell of a lot like Cincinnati.

Shorter version: we're in Paris this morning, though not in Montmartre.   Foggy and a bit clammy. So, a hell of  lot like Palookaville.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Vox Populi


Skeel on "Corporatism"

I'm embroiled in other stuff today but I'm also just finishing up  The New Financial Deal, David Skeel's impressive exposition/critique of Dodd-Frank.    It's the handiest overall summary of Dodd-Frank I've seen and although Skeel makes it clear he is no fan of this particular financial revolution, he's fair-minded and candid in sketching the basic landscape.  His fundamental complaint is that the Act mandates "corporatism"--giving the government broad powers to channel rewards and punishments into selected financial institutions, so as to accomplish a political agenda.  In Steel's words:

The Dodd-Frank Act invites the government to channel political policy through the big financial institutions by giving regulators sweeping discretion in enforcing nearly every aspect of the legislation.
The general point is clear enough.  Skeel makes it clear that he is no fan of the auto bailouts and resoundingly no fan of Fannie/Freddie, but beyond that, he doesn't attempt to explore the notion of "corporatism" in great detail.  But given the current political climate, I'm pretty sure I know how the average reader will understand it: he'll see the threat of "corporatism" as the risk that government bullyboys put their jackboots on the faces of private citizens who are just trying to go about their business.

I'm actually sympathetic to Skeel's concern about "corporatism" and I am no fan of bullyboys or jackboots but I'd conceptualize "corporatism" a bit differently.   Grant that there is a threat governments will (do) push private parties around.  Seems to me there is just as much of a threat that private parties push the government around, and use the intimate but open-ended structure to work their own will on a malleable government: regulator and regulated get in bed and make whoopee together.

The catchphrase name for this sort of thing is "regulatory capture," but that is insufficiently nuanced.   Recall what we're doing here: we're going to take ring-fence one segment of the economy and mandate a special relationship with special obligations and plenty of special protections.  Recall also the free flow back and forth between regulator and regulated: recall that they mostly went to school together; that they congregate at the same watering holes, that they intermarry and inbreed.   It begins to sound like the definition of an entrenched caste, governing of, by, and for the entrenched caste.

I suppose that every government can be seen through some lens as  a business (and vice versa).  Maybe the instructive example is Venice--in a way, the most distinctive society/economy on the planet, and so not a precedent for anything.  Still, Venice was once one of the most energetic, dynamic, and, yes, innovative economies on the planet, until one day the elite decided too many upstarts were getting into the club; they slammed down the shutters and closed the shop.

I'll try not to get carried away here.  I'm not talking about the illuminati, or even the Council on Foreign Relations (though if you really want to go down that road,. here is a transcript of a discussion of Dodd Frank from the World Economic Forum at Davos).  But you don't need to be a tin hat to worry about the threat of a society in which either governments or private persons have too much power.  Or worse, both together.   

Optional extra-credit reading: Andrew Redleaf, Panic.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Frum Explains the Talk Radio Business Model

The last time I understood anything about the radio business was about the time when Arthur Carlson learned that turkeys can't fly.  Undertaking to explain R*sh L*mb**gh, David Frum brings me up to date:
Most talk-radio programs offer radio stations this deal: we’ll give you three hours of content for free. (Some programs—cough, Glenn, cough, Beck—actually pay radio stations to accept their content.) Those three hours will include 54 minutes of ad time. That ad time is split between the radio station and the show: each gets 27 minutes to sell.

In this world, Limbaugh is unique. He actually charges radio stations for his content: up to $1 million a year in a major market. Plus, he charges the highest ad rates in the business. Those two revenue streams—multiplied by more radio outlets than anybody else in the industry has—have made Limbaugh a very rich man.
As apparently everybody knows, Limbaugh seems to begin on the skids at moment.  Frum's takeaway is that the real threat to Limbaugh is not the his own anarchic like but a milder, gentler, more amiable form of talk show host--folks, put your hands together for Mike Huckabee, onetime presidential candidate who seems to entertain some fairly standard batshit looney views of other leading Republicans but in a less confrontational manner.

I doubt it.  I don't think anybody wants to listen to three hours of nice, no matter how goofy (full disclosure: I add my name to the list of those who find Huckabee likeable in manner if godsmacking in substance).  My guess is that Rush may be on his way to satellite radio where he can join potty mouths like Don Imus and Howard Stern and, so far as I can tell, never be heard from again.


The Underbelly Creed

Reading about the epidemic of noisy corporate departures, the staff and management here at Underbelly central feel it incumbent on us to report that we aren't going anywhere: we will continue to hire smart people to invent the future with teamwork, integrity and a spirit of humility; we will never ever adopt litigation as a business model.   Dissident  refugees from other firms are welcome to make application here but pay and perks will probably not measure up to what you got on your last job.  Hey, who ate the last of the Cheetos?

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Count No Man Fortunate Until he is Dead

Why I'm glad I got out of journalism:

Mike Trimble, Denton Record-Chronicle Opinion Editor, 
Fired After Clash with Publisher

Link.  He's 68.  He's been at it for 48 years.  He had he bad foresight to put himself in the hands of Bill ("My way or the highway") Patterson, who knows that if you buy ink by the barrel, you're in a different league from people who buy it by the bottle.   It's not really clear from the linked account what part of "my way" he did not understand.  He seems to be taking it all with saintly patience; supporters told him they would cancel their subscriptions but he told them not to.  I wonder how much he has in his 401k.

On the other hand,

Bob Caldwell was with 23-year-old Tigard woman 
when he went into cardiac arrest

Link.  He was editorial page editor of The Oregonian.  Pictures show a jovial man.  Red-faced.   Roundish.  He probably should have taken better care of himself.  On the other hand, he won't have to worry about his 401k. 

Henry's Cool Idea

Henry at Crooked Timber has the coolest idea of the day. The topic: Dick Cheney. The solution: pardon him. In defense he can speak for himself.   It's sorely tempting but I worry: if pardons become as cheap as postmortem conversions, won't we quickly get to the point where the pardon will be something we issue to every new employee at the beginning of every administration, like the free tote bag and the discount pass for the Gray Line Tour bus?

Monday, March 12, 2012

From the Bin: Arthur Leff Explains Contract Law

Every first-year law student learns that "“A contract is a promise the law will enforce.”  But then you have to beat it out of them; to persuade them that contract enforcement has little to do with the law and almost everything to do with whether the parties want the deal to work.

How to make the point?  You could watch reruns of "The Supranos."  Or you could return to the work of the late, great Arthur Allen Leff who died in 1981 at the absurdly young age of 46:

But considerably more important for avoiding the coercive collection game is the availability of a strikingly effective alternative procedure, one while not abjuring threat and coercion, avoids the costs and dangers of the official varieties. It depends not on force, but on the exchange of information. The “solution” to many of the divers disputes between businessmen takes the form of some variation on one of the following scenarios.
[I quote only the third:]
Seller: So Kevin? Morris. Where’s the money?
Buyer: Soon.
Seller: It’s been soon for a long time. Now it’s now.
Buyer: Look Morris, I could have gotten the stuff from Acme or Nadir cheaper. I gave you the trade.
Seller: Now you’re giving me the business. Now! Or there’ll be trouble.
Buyer: Tell you what I’ll do. I’ll pay you today, right now, what I could’ve got the merchandise for from Acme.
Seller: Tell you what I’ll do. I’ll break your head is what I’ll do. We got a goddam contract Kevin, and you pay the goddam contract price.
Buyer: Morris, you don’t like my deal, sue me with your contract.
Seller: I may and I may not. But one thing I know I’ll do; anyone asks me if you pay your bills the answer is no [The last clause is delivered in a high-pitched shriek of absolute certainty.]
Buyer: Morris? Half today, the rest the end of the month?
Seller: OK.
Buyer: My best to Ethel.
Seller: You too. Remember me at home.
[Back in Professor mode, Leff draws the moral:]
It would be folly to characterize these solutions as ‘coercive’ or ‘cooperative;” they are deals and like all deals partake of both elements. But one thing is perfectly clear: this form of solution depends upon the generation, transmission and communication of information and threats of information. And another thing is clear: until one begins to understand this method of collection, one understands nothing.

--Arthur Allen Leff, Ignorance, Injury and Spite: 
The Dynamics of Coercive Collection, 80 Yale LJ 1, 25-6 (1970)


In his excellent weekly newsletter on language, Michael Quinion showcases "froward:" 
 ...means leading away. ... By the fourteenth century, froward was attached in particular to a person who figuratively moved away from others by doing the opposite of what was asked of them or what other people thought reasonable. A froward person was hard to deal with — obstinate, peevish, perverse or childish. Indeed, a difficult child was often said to be froward: ... That sense remained until froward slipped out of daily use in the latter part of the nineteenth century. 
Fine, with the observation that it probably was the concept as well as the form that is lost in the winds of time.  It is beyond thinking in a democratic age that we would have the nerve to scold anyone with "froward;" certainly not children, whose license for frowardness has been on automatic review at least since the occupation of People's Park.  Most of the observations seem to be 19th Century schoolmasters testily rebuking the brats, but the online King James Bible gives 22, mostly from Proverbs (but Deuteronomy 32:20: "...  for they are a very froward generation, children in whom is no faith").   I see that you can occasionally find it quoted in a distinguished modern publication. 

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Most Congenial Figaro

Kitchen/cooking music for the past few weeks has been David McVicar's 2006 Covent Garden  Nozze di Figaro with Erwin Shrott, Miah Persson and others, which I've been playing over and over.  I don't suppose it is the most dazzling  Figaro ever achieved but I suspect it might be the most agreeable: warm-hearted, easy-going and funny.  Schrott nails his role in the lede as the ingenious scamp.  And Persson, his bride-to-be,  you just want to nibble from head to toe; so also Rinat Shaham as Cherubino if you have the stamina.    Mrs. B had seen Schrott play Don Giovanni (I hadn't); she marveled at his capacity to change character.    I thought Gerald Finley's Count was just  a smidge too good natured; the Count needs at least a hint of menace; Mrs. B thinks I am taking it all too seriously.

The piece itself of course is one of those that just never fails; you (or at least I) can always find something you didn't see or her before  Obviously I am not alone in my opinion; you can find an array of enthusiastic review/excerpts here.

Sad to say, I did not see this presentation live. But I did see my first Figaro at Covent Garden back in '76: I think generously state-subsidized orchestra seats cost us less than $10 a head. I enjoyed that one too, although I certainly can't say I understood it as well.

Does This End the War?

I mean, like, right now?  Link.

Horses for Courses

...he headed to Matagalpa, Nicaragua, to pick coffee during the Sandinista years. He hated the work and instead built his coffee cooperative a database to do inventory control.
Link. Statistician Patrick Ball finds the best use of his talents.

Once Again....

...nobody has ever come up with  a good reason for Daylight Savings Time.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

I Still Vote ...

... for Curtis LeMay.

The Second-Best Tax Book of the Year

Martin Sullivan, author of Corporate Tax Reform, can be excused if he feels like the folks who make the Samsung tablet computer.   He's got a fine product out there, a lot to be proud of.  But he has the misfortune to have published the second-most successful tax book of the year, behind Bruce Bartlett's The Benefit and the BurdenWhich is not at all to suggest that Sullivan's is an inferior book, nor that Samsung's is an inferior tablet (nor, for that matter, that Bartlett has achieved wealth equivalent to the gross domestic product of Slovenia).  No surprise that Amazon brackets for cut-price sale, even though Sullivan weighs in at about 106,000th in the league tables while Bartlett  stands just now at 650th (sic--off by two orders of magnitude; and I see that Amazon offers me in the "also bought" list, Jacob Hacker's Winner-Take All Politics--heh). 

More than, the two books are in some ways hard to tell apart.  Both do an admirable job of explaining an impenetrable subject in a manner that the slow learner can handle.   Sullivan's writing has perhaps a tad more personality which may or may not be a a virtue but it certainly is a detail.  Both, so far as I can tell, end up pretty much at the same point on the policy agenda: against our own, they'd prefer  tax system that unburdened by incoherent but politically attractive inefficiencies.  They aren't crazy about taxing capital but they know that consumption taxes impose unacceptable burdens on the poor.  It may be that Bartlett leans more strongly towards a value-added tax but that is just a guess.

The problem with Sullivan's book (if there is one) is structural.  Coming out of the chute, his remit is narrower: the corporate tax as distinct from tax reform as a whole.  This does set him up for a presentation of issues in the corporate tax more searching than you'd get from Bartlett. But you'd really have to love the topic of the corporate tax to follow him all the way through the intricacies of transfer pricing and pass-through entities (I skimmed a bit). Yet ironically, his remit isn't that much after all.  Considering alternatives to the corporate income tax leads him to a review of VAT; also the "flat tax" and the "fair tax" (heh!) just as you would find in Bartlett.

Obviously if you were looking for an overview of the tax system as a whole, the choice would be Bartlett.  But you'd be short-changing yourself if you didn't lay your hands on both.  At least the first few chapters of Sullivan are clear value-added and put important meat on the bones of Bartlett's outline.

Aside: curses on Bartlett's publisher for sending him out with such an anodyne title.  I'm piling up more and more policy books on my Kindle with titles so meaningless that I simply can't remember which is about what.  On this count at least, Sullivan is a hands-down winner (note to blurb writers: please do not quote "Sullivan is a hands-down winner").  

Stendhal and the Civil Code

Following up on that last post, I'm remembering that Stendhal once told Balzac that he warmed up for novelizing by reading the French Civil Code.  Cute, but I think it has to be a joke: Stendhal is, after all, a compulsive trickster with a taste for the obscure and the faux pedantic: if this (if in little else) a bit like Joyce.  

The odd thing is--literary scholars appear to take him at face value and to consider the deeper meaning of the comparison.  One thinks that perhaps they need to lighten up.

Afterthought: I seem to have thought this thought before.

Friday, March 09, 2012

Never Thought it Before, but it Sounds Right

"About one-quarter of Jews alive today (25 percent) have left the country in which they were born and now live somewhere else. By contrast, just 5 percent of Christians, 4 percent or Muslims and less than 3 percent of members of other religious groups have migrated across international borders."
From a Pew survey discussed here.   A propos of not much, I remember listening to an academic's discussion of census data on ethnic categories a few years back, in which the speaker told us that Japanese-Americans and Jews have the highest rate of out-marriage; Chinese the least.  American blacks, so it was said, marry out less in this generation than before. 

Brown on the End of the Old World
and the Beginning of the New

Peter Brown is one of those scholars who can claim virtually to have defined the field in which they make their career.  Before Brown "late antiquity" was not exactly unknown or unexplored but it remained a hazy concept since the time of Gibbon--i.e., some two centuries before. From his biography of Augustine (first published when Brown was 32) he produced a steady stream--no, a dignified procession--of works that broadened and deepened his chosen field.

Now he is 75ish; one can hope he will still offer us a summing-up, his best autumnal wisdom after 50 or more years in the field.  This talk may count as a good start, although one may hope for more.  Meanwhile, if you want a takeaway account of the transition from the pagan world to Christendom (as redefined by Brown), I can scarcely imagine a more convincing account than these few paragraphs, seemingly tossed off with effortless ease in a review in the New York Review of Books:

[L]ong-established codes of living in this world (propounded by philosophers since classical times) were transformed. They came to be seen as divinely sanctioned precepts with which to achieve entrance to the other world.

The ancient codes of living had never been easy. They had always called for courage in the face of bullies, for respect for the integrity of the soul in a violent and stratified society, and, above all, for the need to maintain a high-pitched hierarchy that placed the soul firmly above the body. “Dualism” is not a popular notion nowadays. The ancient insistence on the absolute superiority and separateness of the soul from the body has lost its edge. But the sharp division between mind and body served for millennia to help the desperate—the victims of torture, of illness, and of bereavement—to raise themselves, if only a little, above the huge pain of the world. Christian congregations expected their preachers to harp on these themes. ... Indeed, congregations would continue to demand such preaching until well into the modern age.

[T]hese codes changed direction. They “flipped” upward, as it were, toward heaven. It was not enough that precepts of courage, continence, and self-denial should help to steer men and women through the dangers and temptations of this life alone. These virtues, if practiced with heroic abandon, were held to lead directly to heaven—to “the true days, full of light and everlasting brilliance.”

The result was not as we might expect. ... [For Bishops Ambrose and John Chrysostom] asceticism did not mean flight from the world. It meant engagement in the world in the name of another world, more brilliant, more enduring, and more certain than their own. Both emerged from the ascetic battle against the “inertia of flesh and blood” with their traditional codes not abandoned but transformed. They took on the hardness of an industrial diamond. Both “believed that they knew God’s plan for the human race.” To bring these plans to fruition, both strove to combine the classical tradition of public courage, summed up in the long-cherished virtue of outspokenness—parrésia—with the tone of a Hebrew prophet bearing a message from God.
  Link.  Is there anything else to be said?

More Proof that Lawyers should not Practice "Law and Literarture"

Almost every time a judge offers a literary flourish he gets it wrong.  From today's Wall Street Journal:

"Picture a law written by James Joyce and edited by e.e. cummings," wrote Chief Judge Royce Lamberth of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, in a January ruling in a Medicare case.
Link.  I assume the judge thinks he has said something erudite.  In fact I think he has proven that he didn't like English class very much.     Had he paid attention, he would have learned that (though there are plenty of impenetrable passages) the best parts of Joyce are at least as lucid as, say, the New Yorker (private message to the judge: go read "The Dead").    And the only difficult part of Cummings is trying to figure why he left out the capitals.  Anyway, these days Cummings is pretty much junior high school stuff and I doubt the preteens would get equal enjoyment out of the Medicare statutes.

H/T Wichita.   

Who Cares about the Dual Mandate?

Scott Sumner waxes splenetic about an (im)pending measure to end the Fed's dual mandate--to scrub the Fed's responsibility for promoting employment, leaving it only with the job of stabilizing money.    But it's a looking-glass war on both sides.  
Let's stipulate for starters that the dual mandate never did make any sense.  Stabilizing money and maintaining employment are jobs independent of, and often at odds with, each other. Mediating between them isn't "science," neither economic nor rocket.  It's an essentially political exercise in trading off competing interests best left to the political class.

On the other hand, when has the Fed ever taken its dual role seriously?   The guys in the suits know that their job is to manage  money. They'll pretend to worry about employment if as and when necessary to placate a Congressional overlord.  But the incumbent overlords aren't all that worried employment anyway (possible exception: the overlords very likely do like the idea of a workforce that is hungry, insecure and thus dependent on its betters).  So, why waste time and energy over a non-issue?   My own guess is that it's symbolic or cosmetic--trying to please some big donors somewhere who think it really matters.

On the other hand, why waste time and energy fighting it?  Again, there may be cosmetic reasons--perhaps also tactical if it gives you a chance to embarrass your adversary.  But the content is pretty empty.

Scott's rhetorical trope also seems hasty or ill-judged: "turning macro policy over to a cabal of unelected bankers."  Um--?   Scott also says that the sponsors have "pissed off unemployed Youngstown steelworkers"--but before we sign onto that one, I suspect we might want to find an unemployed steelworker and ask him.

So, should we let them get away with it, i.e., end the dual mandate?  Surprising myself a bit, I guess I say "maybe not."   I sign on with those who think there is precious little a government can do about the economy anyway.  But there probably is some virtue in keeping the heat on.  If the Fed doesn't have the mandate to care about employment, then I suspect nobody gets the mandate to care about employment. And paltry as that obligation may be, there may be some residual (again symbolic, tactical?) value in making the guys in suits at least pretend they have to care.  So I suppose I am saying Scott is right after all.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Barbara Clark Smith's America, and American Patriotic Religion

Barbara Clark Smith's The Freedom We Lost ranks one millionth (give or take) in the Amazon league tables which must be dispiriting. And a rotten shame because it is a book that deserves a lot more attention particularly in the fatiguing and seemingly unending debate over the "intent of the founders."  Smith's narrow point is in her title: she throws light on the way in which the revolution centralized power (and don't they all?)--leaving the locals more constrained in managing their own lives.   The Crown may have been autocratic but at least it was remote. The new Federal government had its own autocratic tendencies but was not nearly so remote.

But beyond the narrow point, Smith helps us to see how radically different the world-view of he founding generation was, particularly with reference to the role of "the market."  Recall that Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations is no older than the Declaration of Independence. These people had not the remotest notion what a "market economy" might look like--indeed the very idea of an "economy" (in the modern sense) was only just a-borning.  They believed in "controls."  They didn't like displays of great wealth.  They didn't mind busting down the door of the occasional warehouse to to thwart the merchant's attempt at gouging.

I suppose none of this is in any way new to students of the period.  But it is well expressed here, and one can't help but reflect on how poorly it fits with the prevailing patriotic religion, and the vision of the founders has having launched us on an unfettered market economy, and may the best hedge fund win.

Don't misunderstand, I'm a Smithian myself, yessir, mightyproudtosayit.  But I try not to drink too deep of the Kool-ade, and I certainly can imagine an economy (!) with a different vision.  But enough about the founders--tell me, what would Jesus think of credit default swaps?  

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Most Sensible Thing I Read All Day

From a certain Michael Thomas Brown, unknown to me, commenting at Bruce Bartlett's Facebook page:
The people I know who call themselves libertarian aren't any different than other conservatives, to me. I think they call themselves that so that they can criticize Democrats, but when Republicans screw up, they can just say, "hey, don't blame me, I'm a libertarian."
 Fn,:  I savor the fact that Ron Paul walked away with 41 percent of the vote in America's bureaucratic bedroom.

Gopnik on White

I offered some admiring remarks the other day about EB White.  Here now is his spiritual legatee Adam Gopnik with a fuller appreciation:
White, for me, is the great maker of the New Yorker style. Though it seems self-serving for me to say it, I think that style was the next step in the creation of the essay tone. One of the things White does is use a lot of the habits of the American newspaper in his essays. He is a genuinely simple, spare, understated writer. In the presence of White, even writers as inspired as Woolf and Beerbohm suddenly look stuffy and literary. White has an amazing ability, which I still marvel at, to come very close to a faux-naïve simplicity that’s excessive and then pull it back.

I’m just picking up one of his collections. I’m going to open it up at random and look for a sentence that captures White. Here’s one from a piece called “The Trailer Park”:

“Before sitting down to draft a preamble to the constitution of a world federations of democracies uniting free people under one banner, I decided I would mosey over to the trailer park at the edge of town and ask some of the campers whether they favoured any such idea of this union.”

The virtue of White’s kind of writing is to start with something that sounds pompous and editorial and then use a verb like “mosey over” to make it work. He cleans up the prose of the essay. Both Beerbohm and Woolf are belle-lettrist sort of writers and they connect to that leisurely tradition. White is a much more urbane and American writer.
Gopnik prompts me to remember one of my own favorite lines from White (I quote from memory but I'm pretty sure I have it right."  White is in a hospital and is morning is disturbed  by the minstrations of a nurse.  To whom White speaks:

Sister why wakest though me with this  morning dumbshow?

Love to have heard her answer.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Why Do We "Insure" for Routine Meds?

Let's all agree that Rush Limbaugh is a vagrant little sac of pus (okay, one of those words is a lie).  Still the question remains--why do we pay an insurance company to cover routine medical expenses?  After all, you don't expect your auto insurer to pay for an oil change.  Aren't we just round-tripping money that we could perfectly well spend on our own?    I can think of four (maybe three and a half) possible reasons.

One--the most plausible in fact, I am sure--is because of taxes.  The employer gets to deduct medical; we don't pay tax on it.  A sensible employer ought to be willing to pay as much of our compensation as lawful in the form of medical insurance, and we ought to be glad to pay for the privilege (i.e., in the form of lower aggregate compensation).  So we try to cram everything we can into the "medical" pigeonhole.   Given the state of current tax law, this makes sense.  But it's a stupid law.

Two--quite apart from tax law, there is the point of motivating cost-effective behavior.  The medical insurer really doesn't want to pay out on, e.g., lung cancer losses for a pool of smokers.  So it makes economic sense for him to pay for, e.g., stop-smoking remedies, even classes.   I suppose we can imagine a world in which your right to catastrophic coverage is based on your showing that you met some cost-reducing preconditions.  But we know we would never stick to our guns on that one so we don't try.

Three--children.  We find a social interest in protecting against childhood, even prenatal, health issues, even if the parents don't want to.  We could try--we do try--to police the parents through the criminal law but it's an expensive blunt instrument, not all that effective in the best of worlds. So we go ahead and pay up.

Finally--group buying power.   Folks in our shop can buy a vision care package.   People talk about it as "insurance," but it's really nothing of the sort: it's just a group buying plan, with attendant economies of scale and buying clout.  Now, if only we had a national medical program, we could whip those gouging providers into line. Oh, right.

Note, I can think of a fifth possible factor in the debate, although I am not sure quite how far it counts a reason.  That is:  we think that medical care is just too damned expensive, and we've become habituated to having "somebody else" pay for it. 

Anecdote: the Wichita bureau reports on a relative--a schoolteacher--who has tolerated a lowish salary partly because the district is picking up so much of the meds.  Now, of course, the employer is trying to cut back on medical coverage, but they aren't offering to raise pay.  Seems to me if they are determined to make an absolute cut in compensation, it would hurt less to cut the taxable earnings first.

This Guy...

...could easily find himself with a cult following.  "[A] PhD in geography with an emphasis on interactive cartography"--?  I mean, not that I'm complaining.

Great New Pickup Line

Trans., "do you have any idea how much it costs to get a good cleaning lady in Wolfeboro?"  I suspect their are two possible inferences from Mrs. R's immortal moment of candor:
  • She's the kind of person who cannot bear having only $250 mill when there is someone down the street who has $250 mill plus a penny.   There are any  number of different reasons for wanting money, but this one always struck me as about the most pathetic.

  • She's as clueless as a cast iron lawn dog.
I lean to cast iron lawn dog,  but I could be wrong.

Monday, March 05, 2012

You Can't Do it with Fishwrap

Sorry no words of wisdom today, too busy playing with the chart porn over at the NYT site.  Note that you can get individual county data just by fiddling with your cursor. BTW, I've been to Owsley County, KY, and they're right, it's pretty gnarly.

Well, What Would You Expectc?

Promiscuous beasts abandon Limbaugh.  Cf. link.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

An Economist (Yet!) On What Motivates People

Perhaps the most interesting tidbit in that yarn about the "invention of email" is this from a certain "Jim Kane," identified as "an economist who has worked with lots of technology firm" (this guy?).  Kane is quoted as saying:
Technologists primarily are driven and motivated by recognition from their professional peers much more than by financial rewards. I strongly suspect that among all the individuals who responded to the original article there is not one among them who has financially benefited from the creation of e-mail to any significant degree.
Pretty rich from someone in the profession from which you could be excused for inferring that the only form of human motivation is the marginal tax rate.
In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms,
I labor by singing light
Not for ambition or bread
Or the strut and trade of charms
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart.
Dylan Thomas, of course. Be a good joke if I get an abusive letter from the Thomas estate demanding money for that one.

Are We Witnessing the Repeal of Stigler's Law?

For those of you who turned in late, there's a nasty (or maybe "comical") scuffle going on over at the Washington Post on the question of who invented Email.  Evidently the Post back on February 17 published a story with the headline:

V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai: Inventor of e-mail honored by Smithsonian

Apparently about the time the reporter hit the "send" key the Post got hit by a whole spitstorm of, well, e-mail, from techies who undertook to, shall we say, refine the point.  There followed a back and forth with the Post's ombudsman, ending (for the moment) with a shame-faced  apology from the obudsman which has perhaps momentarily quieted the hordes (or maybe not).

Of course I'm not remotely qualified to wade into the substance of the dispute.  Apparently this Ayyudurai person does hold a copyright (sic) on the use of the word "email" in connection with some code he wrote back in 1982, and evidently there is, or was, some kind of Smithsonian recognition.    The original Post story does look pretty wide-eyed but that's hindsight.  What interests me is a meta-issue--specifically, the question whether we are watching the slow-motion (strike that, quick-time) disintegration of "Stigler's Law of Eponymy."

You know Stigler's Law--in Wiki form, "No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer."  Stigler liked to say that he called it  Stigler's law because he didn't invent it.  And flippancy aside, he is making a larger point about the paths of inquiry and the methods of discovery. He's also zeroing in on the romantic notion of the inventor: the idea of the isolated hero, alone in his lab at 3 am (or perhaps in congress with the deviil) whose "aha!" moment sets the world on its ear. 

It's a seductive notion with a long pedigree. Of course we know now that it doesn't work that way--probably never did and certainly does not in an age of lightning communication and galaxy-wide competitive cooperation.   Abner Doubleday did not invent baseball and Marconi did not invent radio.   And Watson and Crick probably copped a bit more credit than they deserved for DNA.  So poor Ayyaddurai, who seems to have been a willing participant in, perhaps the protagonist of, this little drama, just came along too late: people aren't going to let him get away with a ploy that might well have worked in ages past.  Generalizing, the point would be  that people just aren't going to get credit (that they don't really deserve, anyway) just for catching a particular moment in  collaborative process.  I could call this Buce's law but that would be admitting that somebody had already thought of it.   

Legacy Parties

New to me, not quite new. I.e., "parties," as in "Republican" or "Democrat" (maybe also Whig?).   Urban Dictionary does not yet have "legacy parties," but it does define "legacy" as: 
In computing, describes outdated, obsolete hardware or software. Usually a pain in the ass to support. Often refuses to die.
 I found it here,  Go read it, the whole piece is a stitch.


This post is not intended as a bleg but if you feel you can help, please chime in.  Anyway, long story short: it came to pass that I needed to replace (heh!) my Iphone 3.  The new guy arrived all healthy and squalling, kitted out with the new operating system (at any rate, new to me). Some things actually seemed to work better: I think it charges and downloads faster. But a few hours in I a message I had never seen before:

Charging is not supported with this accesssory.

Oh. Ah.  Inconvenient, in that I am always charging while using accessories.  But I guess I can live with that.  I  did get a little nervous a few hours later I saw the message come up when I wasn't charging anything at all.  And that was when I did what any decent researcher does: I went to Google.  I typed it the phrase (above) and I put it in quotes.  WHAM: 81,800 hits--not a lot, you will say, for a Google search, except recall that this is a seven-word phrase in quotes.  Evidently, it seems that I am not alone.  And that this happens a lot.  

To make life manageable, I cut myself down to the last month (405 hits) and started reading.   And I certainly got advice.  O boy, did I get advice.  Here's stuff from a three-page comment thread, starting last spring and updated as recently as last week: 
 "If its a third party USB cable it may tell you that message.  If its the Apple cable, try resetting you iPhone, if that fails a restore may need to be done" ... "Cleaned connectors as suggested, no dice. Changed sockets on USB hub still no dice. I then plugged the cable into the wall socket charger and no warning sign and iPhone 3GS." ..  "I already tried system upgrade, resetting it, and even forced restart."
 And finally, the most recent (at the moment):
Apple i am sick of yoyr company ignoring this major issue and conflicts with your phones.i have tried many different remedies to get my phone to charge properly i have restored my device even purchased 3 cords n 3 chargers the issue stops for a inane amount of time and starts back up again. This message is driving me nuts is there any thing you can give your customers to stop this issue software update maybe?? 
 You get the drift.  Actually I thought I had the problem solved for a while yesterday but it started popping up again last and I've changed plugs so far three times while writing this  screed blog post.  If anybody can offer me a magic bullet, I'd love to have it but meanwhile--I'm with the last quoted commenter: this just shouldn't be happening.  For a company that makes its bones on product quality, it's a shande and a scandal. 

[Feel better? Yes, thanks, a little. But the charger still isn't working.]

Saturday, March 03, 2012

James Q.Wilson: More than Broken Windows

It was clear-eyed of the New York Times to put the obit of James Q.Wilson on the front page, except that it wasn't really an obit; it was a story about "fixing broken windows," designed to give New Yorkers one more chance to look and try to make sense out of the tumultuous Lindsey/Beame/Dinkins/Giuliani years (and for some, a chance to congratulate themselves once again that they picked up a West Side apartment when they were going for $35,000).

"Fixing broken windows" is a remarkable story, and Wilson deserves s lot of credit for propogating this once-innovative mode of policing.  But Wilson did a lot more: his masterpiece is probably his one-volume study, Bureaucracy, probably the best introduction to organizational behavior outside of the BBC's Yes, Minister.  Trace back from that to City Politics, his early collaboration with his friend and mentor Ed Banfield and you find an intellect that was fertile and path-breaking from the very beginning.

Everybody is busy describing Wilson as a "conservative," and he certainly would have accepted the characterization but--particularly considering how much the term has been vulgarized and travestied in recent decades--I suspect it doesn't really catch the flavor.   The thing about Wilson is the sheer granularity of his work: his curiosity about, and concern for, ordinary people and how they go about making sense of ordinary lives.  It is, indeed, a "conservative" stance to the extent that it respects good order and stability and distrusts grand solutions and grand theory.  But it was a compassionate conservativism in a way that more ambitious political uses of the term never captured.  Wilson was extraordinarily open to experience and remarkably free of received stereotypes.  Social science looks almost unimaginably different today from what it looked like when he started his work. It is a career for which he had--and his loved ones have--every right to be proud.   

Suggestion: in lieu of the Times piece, go take a look at this far more imaginative appreciation by one of his intellectual legatees.