Monday, April 30, 2012

We Don't Need No Stinkin' [See infra, passim]

Ooh, heads will roll: WSJ op ed speaks well of health care and pensions.

`Hobsbawm's Rebels

ShotHotBot reading that booklist yesterday, asks a fair question, and catches me out.  I really should say a word or two about what and why these books are keepers, aside from the mere titles.  So, start with ShothotBot's choice, Primitive Rebels, by E.  J. Hobsbawm,, which I found in London in 1976, probably at Collette's Marxist Bookstore in Charing Cross Road.  In answer to the immediate question: no, this book probably doesn't have much of anything to do with the 99 percent movement, because Hobsbawm is dealing here with genuine outsiders--those who never lugged around a copy of Das Kapital, not even in pretense, and who scarcely recognize the 20th Century, saying nothing of the stages of capitalist development.  It's of a piece with a number of other items in Hobsbawm's early work.  There's one called Bandits (and I can barely tell PR and Bandits apart); another (with George Rudé) called Captain Swing, about popular peasant riots against the threshing machine in England around 1830.

I don't know about anybody else but for me at the time, it was a bracing refreshment.  I'd read a bit of the standard narrative of revolutionary history, more than a bit about the underemployed intellectuals, the briefless lawyers, the pulpitless preachers and suchlike who haunted the libraries and coffee shops of great cities pouring our fusillades of dialectic.  I knew little or nothing about the mostly rural, mostly semi-literate or worse vessels of frustrated rage, who flashed across the night sky and then almost inevitably burned out.

Hobsbawm wasn't entirely unique, of course.  In his preface he tips his hast to Euclides da Cunha, whose Rebellion in the Backlands I think I had not hitherto encountered (and which, in fact, I didn't get round to reading until many years later).  In his text he tries to tie his work together with Norman Cohn's classic Search for the Millennium--"of all the primitive social movements discussed in this book,"  Hobsbawm observes, "the one least handicapped by its primitiveness."  To Cohn I might add HFM Prescott's  Man on a Donkey, about the Pilgrimage of Grace that threatened the very crown of Henry VIII. You could easily also bracket Hobsbawm with Eric Wolf, particularly Europe and the People without History-another one I have not yet thrown away.    I suppose I'd want to throw in Jack Womak's Zapata and the Mexican Revoluition (I see there is now a Kindle--and this is beginning to sound like an Amazon Listmania collection).  Indeed it may be Womak who ties the whole package together.  As someone has said, the challenge of almost every 20C revolution is "what do you do about the peasants?"  The answer in most cases is: you betray them.The Zapatistas, at least as seen by Womak, seem to drive one peasant revolution that can actually survive the telling.

Hobsbawm is at his best on Southern Italy and Sicily--he was the first person to introduce  me to the idea that the Mafia can be thought of as a kind of government, cheek by jowl with the tradition of peasant rebellion and outright banditry.   From Southern Italy, here's a "Carbonaro oath" which Hobsbawm quotes; it gives you the flavor of the mix:

I, N.H. promise and swear upon the general statutes of the order, and upon this steel, the avenging instrument of the perjured, scrupulously to keep the secret of Carbonarism; and neither to write, engrave, or paint anything concerning it, without having obtained a written permission.  I swear to help my Good Cousins in case of  need, as much as in me lies, and not to attempt anything against the honour of their families.  I consent and wish, if I perjure myself, that my body may be cut in pieces, then burnt, and my ashes scattered to the wind, in order that my name may be held up[ to the execration of the Good Cousins throughout the earth.  So help me God.
 Source, as cited by Hobsbawm: Memoirs of  the Secret Societies of the South of Italy (1821) 196.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Kimmell v. Obama

I call advantage Obama.  Link.

But Do They Have One for Bankers?

A town near Fort Benning, GA, has set up a special jail for veterans

H/T Margaret.

Short Books

Culling books out of limited space, I'm surprised at how many saveurs du jour have become saveurs d'hier. But I am pulling out some items I can't bear to part with, even if I very likely will not read them again. And I wonder if this is a coincidence: most of the ones I want to save  are short. Here are some short savers, some of which I admit I haven't looked at in years, but they sure made a dent on me once:

  • Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (224).

  • Edward C. Banfield, The Moral Basis of a Backward Society (186).

  • Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger (179).

  • Leon Fetsinger et al., When Prophecy Fails (253).

  • J. Glenn Gray, The Warriors (242)

  • E. J. Hobsbawm, Primitive Rebels (202).

  • Eric Hoffer, The True Believer (160).

  • Frank H. Knight, The Economic Organization (179).

  • Philip Rieff, Triumph of the Therpeutic (274).

I had totally forgotten Hoffer, though funny thing: back in the 60s when Hoffer was hot, it occurred to me that he might be a flash in the pan. Banfield is a particular favorite that I have written about here before. I suspect you might see it as one kind of Imagined Community--as is, perhaps, also Fetsinger and Hoffer and maybe Hobsbawm. Maybe even Knight, although somehow he seems to be the outlier here. I suspect that several can count as describing responses to extreme situations. Readers are invited to suss out any other hitherto unidentified commonalities.

The New York Review of Terabyte Data Dumps?

Joel asks:

do you think the ny review of books will be around in 20 years?

Um, like no books, no need for book reviews?  But the good and great will have to review something, not so?

Saturday, April 28, 2012

John Le Carré and the Aesthetics of Humiliation

Mr.and Mrs. B. have been imbibing BBC version of John Le Carré's, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. That would be the 1979 mini-series with Alec Guinness, not the current movie (that comes later). And I'm struck by the general air of grunge, of seediness that haunts the whole enterprise. Some it surely is intentional, deriving from the novel itself. Some is, I suspect, a tad more accidental. The almost comical amateurishness of the sets, for example,  like the stuff they used to market as self-parody in the old Bullwinkle cartoons (and the telephones have cords, bleah). But I suspect part of it just derives from the larger atmosphere. Though this is 1979, we're still at the end of the long and debilitating case of the grippe that swept over England when it woke up to the fact that was broke, without an empire, and generally an also-ran in the competition for national greatness.  And it brings you up short to reflect that we're actually functioning after the Beatles, the Swinging Sixties, the Carnaby Street revolution: crushingly, almost none of these characters seems to grasp the fact that his entire career has been a total waste of time.

Humiliation enough right there, had you known what was happening to  you--and George Smiley, at least, for one does appear to know.  He also know that he's being shamelessly cuckolded by one of his nearest and dearest.  To watch it, to enjoy it all, you pretty much have to share his own bleak sense of his own disgrace.  This theme of humiliation, not bye the bye, is also the theme of  my true favorite post-war British flic: Sunday, Bloody Sunday, where we see Glenda Jackson and Peter Finch both having their nose rubbed in the fact that they're not the lover they wanted to be.   

1979: way past the pull  date for the post-War malaise.  Meanwhile, the clattering you here at stage right would be that rough beast herelf, her hour come round at last.

Market Homeopathy in Mexico

I idled away a pleasant hour the other day listening to a discussion of the damage done by NAFTA to Mexican indigenous peoples.  I won't identify the speaker because I wasn't taking notes and I wouldn't want to impute to her the deficiencies of my own faulty memory.  Anyway, short summary: I think I came in expecting some kind of rant about the crimes of capitalism and it wasn't really that at all.   The speaker was  no great fan of NAFTA but she picked up on a theme dear to my heart: the notion of "market" is not cast in stone; a market is a cultural artifact and  particular markets come festooned with all sorts of bells and whistles. 

 NAFTA does seem to have been quaintly rigged to get the most for the Norteamericanos at minimal cost.  Example: subsidies: the US "level playing field" in ag export comes tilted with farm subsidies that make it possible to undercut the competition.  Example: environmental costs, which the US farmers slough off on, as it were, their downstream neighbors.  Contrast, the speaker asserted, Mexican family farmers who generate positive externalities which also do not get priced into the deal (this one sounds a tad more contentious to me, although I'm willing to give it some thought).  Example: the tortilla market, where (it is said) two firms control over 90 percent of the trade--an idea that still pops my eyes out, because how can you monopolize anything so fungible as a tortilla?  

Whatever: the force of these insults and others like them: is to drive the southern peasants off the family farms into the south and fold them into the hordes descending  on the great wen with its catalog of poverty and dysfunction.

And here is where my memory can perhaps go a bit selective.  Because it sounds like that the only solution to the evils of liberalism here is the homeopathic therapy of more liberalism. I found myself muttering--well, if you had to choose just one, which would choose to get rid of: subsidies, externalities or the tortilla conspiracy?  And is there a fourth choice?

The speaker also talked, if I heard aright, about the need for more publicity about problems of this sort, and for more by way of international intervention. The first strikes me as a tasteless joke, in that if "getting more information to the people" were the problem, then we would have solved our problems years As to the second--well, I should have thought perhaps the excesses of globalism had already gone far enough.

And one final question: has anyone since the domestication of the bottle gourd actually wanted to live as a peasant? Okay, I give you Wendell Berry, but anyone else?.

Now They Tell Us....

Taxation of Income Impractical

The tax would fall with its full weight upon men of integrity, while the millionaire of “easy virtue” would well nigh escape it altogether. It would, in fact, be a tax on honesty, and a bounty on perjury and fraud; and, if carried to any considerable height—to such a height as to render it a prominent source of income—it would undoubtedly generate the most barefaced prostitution of principle, and would do much to obliterate that nice sense of honour which is the very foundation of national probity and virtue.

  (last letter; scroll down to Sundt).

Cold, Blue Screen of Death Updated

I think I'm going to start a new website called "U-verseSux." Total calls to ATT: four. Total time on line (hrs): six. Proposed solutions: several, including "try again in a couple of hours." Total time watching the screen below: I hate to think.

Friday, April 27, 2012


Neo-Gramscian constructivist counrerhegemony (and don't you wish you had written it?).

I am afraid I am a Shavian, or a Holbovian.  

When Ed Luce wants to get in touch with the Real America, he goes to Tiramisu, where  Charles Murray makes his job easy  (late, but way too good to ignore).  Cf. link.

On The Simpsons, the disgraced former CEO has to ride the busBut we could consider this.

Wonk porn.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Hah! I Always Suspected as Much!

It is not a crime to pick California poppies in California.  Per Wiki:

A common misconception associated with the plant, because of its status as a state flower, is that the cutting or damaging of the California poppy is illegal. There is no such law in California, outside of state law that makes it a misdemeanor to cut or remove any plant growing on state or county highways or public lands, except by authorized government employees and contractors; it is also against the law to remove plants on private property without the permission of the owner (Cal. Penal Code Section 384a) California Penal Code.
 Link.  Maybe they were thinking about some other kind of poppy.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

What Romney Doesn't Know,
And Doesn't Know he Doesn't Know

I'm swamped with the miscellaneous blahs this week (coming up on exam time) but while I am otherwise occupied, can someone tell the talking heads to quit calling Mitt Romney a "businessman?"  He is an investor, a banker, a finance guy, a money man and from a survey of his record, there is no reason to think he knows anything about the actual operation of a business.  He does know how to take over somebody else's business and squeeze unsuspected money out of it for his cronies at the country club, but that's a different skill set altogether.  For the actual work of conceiving, developing and above all executing a business plan, there's not the slightest evidence that he knows any more about it than an old burnt stump.

Perhaps worst, I'd speculate that he doesn't grasp how limited his knowledge really is.  He seems like a man of limited imagination (aka "laser like focus"), trained in the kind of analysis they teach via the Harvard B School case method.  It's been more than a generation since Harvard taught anybody actually how to run anything (except incidentally and by accident).  Since Romney has lived almost his entire life in that particular cocoon, he's  almost  never been challenged to think outside it.  The likely consequence is that he is not only ignorant, but largely ignorant of his own ignorance.

But 'Twill Serve,'Twill Do...

Last week we offered a passing salute to the world's deepest largest hand-dug well.* It's at Greensburg, Kansas.  Evidently a tornado  blew through town a few years ago and knocked down almost everything above ground but the well is, as they say, still standing.  My friend Steve says there's a gift shop.

They could twin  with wherever-it-is in Tajikistan that boasts the world's tallest flagpole.  Tajikistan is also the poorest country in the former Soviet union; perhaps the one most addicted to the opium (trade; not consumption); and the most dependent in the world on foreign remittances. (link).   Greensburg ranks a thriving 129th (out of 632) in Kansas per capita income.   The county collected $35.5 million in wheat subsidies in the 15 years up to 2010, though I'm betting most of those checks go to drop boxes in San Francisco.  Or the Cayman Islands.

No, 'tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a
church-door; but 'tis enough,'twill serve.


*Except it isn't.  Link.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Dallas, We Have a Problem

There's a great piece up in a Dallas city magazine about the new high-rise and how it--well, boils--the garden next door.  And just generally seems to be mucking up what passes in Dallas for (if you can get your mind around it) a chichi neighborhood.  The topic might seem to offer limited appeal to out-of-towners, but there's lot here to entertain anyone who ever banged their head against the schemes and follies of local governments anywhere.  Here's the fun part:
An announced 2007 groundbreaking had to be quietly canceled when the country plunged into the Great Recession and traditional construction loans dried up—especially for a condo project in an area (downtown, Uptown, Victory Park) that had already spawned nearly 1,800 condo units in the previous decade. But then, seemingly out of nowhere, a savior came to the rescue. The Dallas Police and Fire Pension System, which had earlier made a small investment in the Museum Tower project, announced that it would jump in with both feet and finance the entire thing, all $200 million of it.

The police and fire fund is a $3.24 billion juggernaut that makes all manner of investments all over the world. It has approximately 9,000 participants, meaning cops and firefighters, 3,500 of whom are retired and drawing benefits. The fund’s 12-member board includes four city councilmen, but otherwise the fund’s managers operate independently of the city of Dallas, which every year contributes to the fund 27.5 percent of every cop and firefighter’s salary. In 2010, that amounted to $108 million in taxpayer funds. ...

The police and fire fund’s investment in Museum Tower raised eyebrows across the country, and in June 2010, the Wall Street Journal ran a lengthy story about it. Jim Neil, a real estate investment banker with Churchill Capital Company, worked on behalf of the police and fire fund to find a bank brave enough to make the loan. Asked to describe that loan, Neil says: “It was a very unusual deal at a very unusual time.”

No one is in a better position than Richard Tettamant to explain how the deal got done. He has worked at the Dallas Police and Fire Pension System for 30 years, rising to administrator, the fund’s top executive. Tettamant is a large, affable man with a mustache that’s going gray. When I ask about the $200 million investment, he wants to know where I got the dollar figure. I tell him I saw it in the paper.

“They don’t have a clue,” he says, leaning back in his chair at a large conference table in the police and fire fund’s modern office. “Okay, the total construction budget for the tower is about $200 million, but we haven’t invested $200 million. The Morning News has had it wrong every time they’ve reported it.”

When I ask how much the fund does have invested, he says $100,000. I repeat the figure to make sure I heard it correctly.

“That’s all we have spent,” he says slowly, deliberately. “The bank that we borrowed the money from is financing the tower.”

For a second, I become disoriented and feel like I’m in a scene from Nineteen Eighty-Four. Tettamant is duckspeaking doubleplusgood about how the fund borrowed money and yet still got the bank to pay for the building. So I ask him: who is on the hook if the project fails?

“Oh, the Dallas Police and Fire Pension System,” he says.
 Kudos to the reporter for asking the right question (who is on the hook if the project fails?), and a special gasp of wonderment for the pension fund minder who was thoughtless enough to answer it.  Note the numbers: $3.24 billion and 12,500 participants.  That pencils out to a bit under $260,000 per worker.  It's a bogus computation because most of those participants aren't retired yet and I haven't any idea how many more years they may have to work and save.  But in an arena where a private-market annuity might easily cost a couple of million, $260,000 doesn't sound like a lot.  I asked my friend Ignoto how Dallas compares with CalPers, the California Public Employee fund. "Our plan has 1.6 million current and retired employees (100 times as many) and $238B of assets (75 times as much)," Ignoto said, "so that sounds like a decent ratio." Um, really? But I don't suppose I understand this business very well.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Happy 396th, Bill:
here i am ben says bill
nothing but a lousy playwright
and with anything like luck
in the breaks i might have been
a fairly decent sonnet writer
i might have been a poet
if i had kept away from the theatre 
For the whole sordid story, go here.  Or:

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Michael Hudson Explains the Rise of the Rentier Class

Here's the best explanation of the background to the late uproar that I've seen anywhere: Michael Hudson on rentiers.  I hesitate to call it "Marxist" (which it isn't, really) or "leftist" or "radical,"--which would drive away too many readers.    And indeed its tone is perhaps best described as a kind of modernized and sophisticated midwestern populism (it is an accident that Hudson and his ilk work out of Kansas City).     Anyway, here (again) is the link and here is the teaser:
Suppose you were alive back in 1945 and were told about all the new technology that would be invented between then and now: the computers and internet, mobile phones and other consumer electronics, faster and cheaper air travel, super trains and even outer space exploration, higher gas mileage on the ground, plastics, medical breakthroughs and science in general. You would have imagined what nearly all futurists expected: that we would be living in a life of leisure society by this time. Rising productivity would raise wages and living standards, enabling people to work shorter hours under more relaxed and less pressured workplace conditions.
Why hasn’t this occurred in recent years? In light of the enormous productivity gains since the end of World War II – and especially since 1980 – why isn’t everyone rich and enjoying the leisure economy that was promised? If the 99% is not getting the fruits of higher productivity, who is? Where has it gone?
Under Stalinism the surplus went to the state, which used it to increase tangible capital investment – in factories, power production, transportation and other basic industry and infrastructure. But where is it going under today’s finance capitalism? Much of it has gone into industry, construction and infrastructure, as it would in any kind of political economy. And much also is consumed in military overhead, in luxury production for the wealthy, and invested abroad. But most of the gains have gone to the financial sector – higher loans for real estate, and purchases of stocks and bonds.
Is he onto something?  You bet.  But I suspect the best way to mount a challenge to Hudson would begin with the melancholy diktats of market globalism: the cruel truth that world wide, there simply are more bodies chasing gainful employment than there are jobs to satisfy them.  Or under another name, the global capital glut: the truth that we've simply got way more money chasing deals than deals chasing money.

How does this connect with Hudson?  To answer that question, you have to understand the prelapsarian Golden Age back before, as the song says "the banks have all the money."   I speak from a confused sort of experience here: I lived through the 40s-50s-60s.  In many ways, I hated them: I thought they were stuffy, boring, parochial, and don't even talk to me about Red-baiting paranoia.  But they were a kind of Golden Age: they were the last time a guy as, ahem, unskilled as Homer Simpson could support a wife and three kids with the earnings from a job that required him to nap and scarf donuts (I haven't any doubt that for the producers of The Simpsons, the anachronism is conscious and part of the joke).

It was, correspondingly, the age when we lived behind what Warren Buffet would call a moat with alligators.  We'd won the great war, at no more than modest cost to ourselves (You doubt me on cost?  Ask the Russians).  Every other industrial economy was a basket case.  If we did feel any threat, we could protect ourselves behind trade barriers.  The result was that we could build a self-serving behemoth. And more important, that guys like Charlie Wilson really could split the pot with guys like Walter Reuther, reposing in the comfortable assurance that there was more than enough to go around.  As Charlie did not quite say: ironically, what was good for General Motors really was, in a narrow and restrictive sense, good for the country.

You are ahead of me here: you are saying--yes, but the discomfort of adjusting to a world of global competition did not necessitate a massive transfer of wealth to the rentiers.  Now, that is an interesting proposition.  Did it not? I want to say you are right but I would love to know more about just how (and who).   You may be tempted to say "more socialism," but I can promise you that if you put it in the abstract, my eyes will glaze over.  Indeed I suspect that one reason--maybe the main reason--why the fat cats have been able to make off with so much of the swag is the profound and near-universal distrust of anything that smacks of a communitarian solution.  We like private discretion and private initiative.  The problem seems to be that somewhere along the line, we've lost the distinction between capitalism and finance.  Fair enough; but Hudson hasn't forgotten.  To find out just how unlocked the barn door was--now that the horse has been stolen--his piece would be a fine place to begin.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

He Could Have Just Sent a Condolence Card

Add one more to the catalog of non-apology apologies:

I wanted to say I am sorry for the loss of your son

Trayvon Martin's killer, buttering up the court at his bail hearing. Foir a fuller discussion, go here.  H/T, UB's Wichita Bureau.

Just the Facts on Facts

Somber-faced and in his best black suit, Barry Ritholtz holds hat over heart at the grave of fact, dead this week at the age of a 2.372, as reported by Rex Huppke in the Chicago Tribune.

But in fact (!). fact is not dead, simply gone underground.  In the currrent London Review of Books, Christian Lorentzen reports on the curious underground life of the fact-checker, the odd underground creature who beavers away at double-checking the author magazine copy and who seeks no praise nor wages except the satisfaction of knowing that it is his (or usually, her) spirit of conscientious inquiry that allows us to classify the belly button of this week's mega-celebrity as an inny, not an outy.  Fact-checkers, Lorentzen points out, even have an artistic tradition: from Ray Milland in  The Lost Weekend, who retreated to her day-job as a date-checker when not seeking to redeem a seemingly unredeemable alcoholic, through to the hero of Bright Lights, Big City, whose actual job was fact-checking--unless you can say that his real job was snorting cocaine an his fact-checking a hobby.  Lorentzen also promotes John D'Agata's Lifespan of a Fact (dull, she finds it; perhaps more on point, David Shields' Reality Hunger, about how facts are in and fiction is out (just ask James Frey and his co-acolytes at the first church of Oprah).  Lorentzen could have added Farhad Manjoo's  True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.   That's a book which, in fact, I have not read. But as any good graduate student might say, I'm perefctly willing to discuss it with you.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Non-Tax Taxes and Tax Non-Taxes

Not sure that two or three swallows make a summer but I notice an interesting blip of curiosity in my newsfeed on the issue of "tax expenditures"--bennies that arrive in the form of deductions from income rather than tax-and-spend.   There's nothing remotely new about the topic, of course, and I may be the only one raising an eyebrow over the fact that it seems to be getting a bit more-than-usual attention just now.  But to my point--here's Mike Konczal taking the long view, showing how the tax expenditure idea gained traction on the right all the way back in the Reagan administration.  Konczal is picking up on an air-clearing Bloomberg analysis;  also some characteristically acerb comments by Will Wilkinson.

Meanwhile Ezra Klein picks up on a promising recent study("Marron and Toder")  addressing a threshold question: just what counts as a tax expenditure?  Per Ezra, we are to distinguish between "“spending substitutes” and “tax policy design.”  Per Klein:
The tax policy expenditures “represent broad choices in tax policy design but are not associated with any clear spending objective,” according to the study. Marron and Toder cite the treatment of qualified retirement saving plans, which, for good or ill, nudges the tax code toward taxing consumption rather than savings.
Other expenditures, however, are simply government spending programs by another name. The mortgage-interest deduction, for instance, is a spending substitute: it seeks to “subsidize identifiable activities” — homeownership in this case — and could easily be designed as a spending program in which the government sends homeowners an annual check.
 I probably haven't given the matter enough thought but I am not at all sure that this works.  For example, Maron and Toder think of the mortgage interest deduction as a "tax expenditure" because it subsidizes home ownership.  Well maybe, but as many have observed, the thing about the mortgage interest deduction (and its ilk) is that it is so weirdly selective in dispensing its bounty.  There is simply no reason to believe that we ever could (or should) embrace a "housing subsidy expenditure" program that deliberately skewed all its benefits to the rich and well connected.  Here's Travis Waldron making the same point on steroids.

The topic so far has been the question of when a deduction is really a tax.  You might well frame the question the other way around: when is a tax really not a tax?  Many (=I) have made the point that Scandinavians appear to regard their tax system as a kind of buying club, where they band together to join the market for goods and services they would buy anyway--only perhaps with more market power, able to achieve economies of scale.  In the US we talk about how we could do more of that if we put some serious backbone into government-sponsored health care; apparently it is not our concern. Local governments also: people struggle to get into fancy suburbs where they will have the privilege to pay high "taxes" for the services they desire.  In the same vein, Californians have learned lately to their cost that when the government stops paying for something, you may have to pay for it yourself--without the solace of a deduction for the payment of a "tax."

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Gracie Field Sings the Bankruptcy Exemption Anthem

So, Like Nobody Ever Charges for it in DC?

Entertaining himself with the Caper in Cartagena, my friend Michael poses an unsettling choice: (a) do they think we are that dumb?  or (b) are they really that dumb?
Some of the agents, caught out, said that they knew the women were prostitutes, others are sticking to their story that they thought they were just women they had met in a bar.

What intrigues me is the hotel system. It appears to be a respectable hotel, patronized by diplomats and other government employees. The rule is that a guest may have a visitor, but the visitor has to leave her name and ID at the front desk, and she is expected to leave before 7 a.m. I understand perfectly well that ladies of the evening occasionally visit hotel rooms in the US, but I don't imagine that hotels up here are so adept at bureaucratizing the practice.

The situation came to light when one lady overstayed her 7 a.m. departure time, and the desk staff went to the hotel room. It then developed that she was ready to leave, but that the man she had been entertaining did not care to pay her. The man in question, it seems, thought she was a charming Colombian lady, no doubt intrigued at meeting an important Norteamericano government official, and they simply moved from the bar to the hotel room to carry on their encounter in more intimate circumstances. He was shocked -- shocked! -- to learn that she expected payment for what he thought was a mutually enjoyable evening.

And I'm thinking -- We hire intellectual giants like this guy to protect our president?
 Idle afterthought:  how many sex scandals erupt in a fight over the bill?

The Pattern of Affinity Fraud

Here's a new version of an old story: the SEC has charged a "financial advisor" (heh!) with stealing more than $7.5 million from 11 investors in a Ponzi scheme. link.  The news account says that the scheme "targeted members of the Persian-Jewish community in Los Angeles."  I would surmise that the accused, one Shervin Neman, formerly Shervin Davatgarzadeh, is also a Persian Jew,  So far, little new here. The intriguing part is that appears to be at least the third case in recent months involving Persian Jews in LA link, link

The case intrigues me but let me be clear: I am not for a moment suggesting that there is anything particularly criminal about LA Persian Jews (in all cases it appears that the victims as well as the perps are from the same community).  What we're seeing here is our old friend "affinity fraud," where the crook manipulates a mix of ethnic or cultural loyalty together with a sense of insecurity about, or distrust of, outsiders.  They happen everywhere--that last link above involves a guy labeled "the Madoff of Beverly Hills," after the notorious Bernie, who apparently still leads the league tables in wholesale fleecing.  Actually, I'd say that Madoff is not entirely an affinity fraud: he seems to have cast his net broadly.   But it seems clear that he profited greatly from a theme of "all-in-the-family" trust.  As to all in the family, perhaps the weirdest recent case involved a trusted senior citizen among Ohio's Amish.   

I take it that the world capital of affinity fraud continues to repose among the Mormons in and around Salt Lake City--and I'm impressed to discover the Utah elites appear to have gone public with a campaign against it (see e,g, link, link).  The only interesting question about affinity fraud among Iranian Jews in LA might be, then, the joint questions of "why so many, and why now?"  Is this some kind of developmental thing?--some kind of sociological adolescence that makes a community specially vulnerable to an otherwise general malady?  The deflating answer is that I haven't a clue.  I remember first being aware of Iranians in LA when they picketed outsider the Ahmanson Center at Wilshire and Western in the late 70s and early 80s  (I'd pass them on the way to lunch).  Later I'd observe them at real estate auctions in the bankruptcy court.  Beyond that, zilch.  Nada.  (But cf., e.g., link, link).  My loss I'm sure but in any event, I'd have to assume that the current notoriety is a kind that any community would gladly do without.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

And Here I Thought it ws Telephone Ring Tones

Or banjo picks. Or refrigerator magnets. Or cheeseburger shaped nightlights. But no.

Wait a Minute, What? Amartya Sen at Airport Security

Did I just hear Amartya Sen say that he got held up for 50 minutes (missing his connection) while British airport security searched his hand luggage?  See link (at 5:25).

Monday, April 16, 2012

Some Disassembly Required

This is either surpassingly trivial or else somebody wrote an academic book about it or both or neither but anyway...

This week I've been teaching the modern model of option pricing.  It's something  I like to do; I think I've figured out how to put it across in such a way that I can take students from zero to an important and interesting insight in just a couple of days and with only moderate discomfort.  The capstone comes, of course, when I get to show how option pricing has disaggregated assets.  We don't buy and sell "stuff" any more; we buy tranches of positive and negative tax flows:  the asset is just the center of the force field.

In my spare time I was finishing Siddartha Mukherjee's inimitable history of cancer, of which I wrote before.  And in an idle moment, it struck me: is it just chance that the same decade in which we discovered option disaggregation is the decade in which (say) Genentech learned how market the recombinant gene?  I'm trying my best not to use the phrase "slice and dice;" now if only I could prove that this was the generation in which we discovered Chinese food.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Ann Romney and "Work"

I've been trying to stay from the momentous issue of Ann Romney and "work,"  and the more general question of whether she has ever done any--partly because I don't like to have my agenda set by the cable networks.   I'm certainly willing to concede (pace the candidate) that housework is "work," but I can't help but wonder: just exactly what did Ann Romney do to earn her bones as a housewife?

I know what you're thinking: Romney's a guy with something north of $200 million, knocking back something close to a 10 percent annual return: is it likely that she spent all that much time changing the nappies and boiling the potatoes?  Actually, maybe so.  This is also, after all, agood Mormon family,  and they weren't always pig rich.  This is also the guy (no, I'm not going to forget it) who straps his dog to the roof of the car.  Ann seems to be a likeable, uncomplicated person and it is just possible that she has indeed actually poached an egg.

But this is also a family with places to go, people to see, stuff to take care of, and I wouldn't be at all surprised that the real magic word for today is "staff."  A housekeeper. A gardener.  A driver.  An under house parlor maid.  A groom of the backsta--okay, perhaps I am getting ahead of myself.  But now I'm remembering Bertrand Russell as he explains  the meaning of work:
Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth's surface relatively to other such matter; second, telling other people to do so. The first kind is unpleasant and ill paid; the second is pleasant and highly paid. The second kind is capable of indefinite extension: there are not only those who give orders, but those who give advice as to what orders should be given.
 It's hard for me to credit that Ann Romney's work has not (at best) morphed from class one ("unpleasant and ill paid") into  class two.  ("pleasant and highly paid").

Yet this insight alone, however important, is not the end of the story.  Class two, however pleasant and highly paid, is surely by some definiton still "work."  Somebody has to tell the rest of us what to do and how to do it; else there is no telling what we might get up to.  Indeed, if you take the responsibilities of management seriously enough, you could quickly persuade yourself that the unpleasant and ill-paid stuff is hardly work at all.

Verdi on Verdi

Following up on yesterday's Traviata, I've been dipping into Julian Budder's splendid The Operas of Verdi where, inter alia, I find this nugget:
When in the years immediately following its revival which of his operas written to date he considered his best, he is said to have replied: 'Speaking as a professisonal, Rigoletto; speaking as an amateur La Traviata.
Counting only his work up to La Traviata, I'd say this is a shrewd insight. But I wonder when, exactly, he said it? Of course never did anything again with the spare elegance of La Traviata, but he did do Don Carlos and Otello and Falstaff. They don't exactly put Rigoletto to shame, but they certainly belong on at least the same level.

Footnote on The Emperor of All Maladies

I'll restrain myself just another five-star review (322 already at Amazon) for Siddartha Mukherjee's fine Emperor of All Maladies, the definitive (for the moment) history of cancer, but I will offer a couple of afterthoughts and a more general suggestion.

Specifically: it's at least two books--one a social history of the war against cancer, particularly in its early, gorier chapters (think savage surgery, brutal chemo).  Second, it is a richly detailed account of the microbiology of cancer--a story which doesn't really get traction until the 70s, when J. Michael Bishop and Harold Varmus teamed up to unravel the secrets of the retrovirus (retrospective hat tip to Peyton Rous, who propagated a spindle-cell sarcoma back in 1910, and had to wait more than 40 years for his Nobel Prize)..

The point is that there wasn't a lot to tell about the gritty innards of cancer until scientists began making some serious headway with microbiology and that, as high school freshmen now know, didn't really happen until Crick and Watson untangled DNA in the 50s--and even such big ideas as DNA take time to sink in. So at this point, not only the substance but also the style of Mukherjee's book changes: the pace quickens, the glittering array of factoids begin to scatter their way across the stage.  

It's all a wonder--the story and the telling, yet ironically, the nearer he gets to the present, the harder it is for Mukherjee to tell his story with conviction.  Which brings me to my general point: I suspect what we're seeing here is not a failing in the author but a structural failing in this kind of material.  As he approaches the moment, his tale morphs from history into journalism.  Nothing wrong with journalism per se, no siree, mighty proud to say it.  You have to start somewhere. But ten, maybe 20, years from now  he'll be able to retell the story with more structure and more critical detachment--and perhaps with a whole batch  of insights that will make us , wonder "how could we not have known?"  FWIW, I think this insight sank into me as I made my way through so many (often excellent) histories of the late uproar on Wall Street, blessed with comparable virtues and saddled with similar defects.  Journalism is indispensable, but side by side with history it's always going to look weak and incomplete.  Because, well, it is and has to be.

Titanic, 100

Saturday, April 14, 2012


I love Natalie Dessay to pieces but I'll have to concede that she's not for all markets. I thought he Daughter of the Regiment with Juan Diego Flórez was one of the funniest and most charming three hours I've ever idled away.  I think she just nails the quiet dignity of Amina in La Sonnambula  (though I didn't much like the way she had to walk down that skinny little gangway in Vienna).   I thought she was more out of place in Lucia di Lammermoor where she somehow couldn't cut the clowning, even in a tragedy. 

Today for the first time as Violetta in the Met HD La Traviata, I saw her display the kind of vulnerability and pathos that is required of so many operatic heroines, and that she rarely achieves.  The sad irony was that the subject was not her character but herself--Natalie,six days short of her 47th birthday., just coming back from a cold, turned in the most disappointing performance I've ever seen her provide.  And she knew it: in an intermission interview with Deborah Voigt, she apologized for missing a high note (she missed several).  Her Alfredo, Matthew Polenzani, more or less took over.  At first I thought he was just hogging the mike but Mrs. Buce says--and I think she is right--no, he was doing her a favor.  At the encore, her bow came accompanied with  an aspect little short of desolation.

Say this for Natalie: it wasn't for lack of trying.  Her voice seemed strained and she seemed weak but you could tell that she had thought out every line and was delivering the best she knew how.  Say this also: almost everything else in the show seemed to conspire against her.   The set--that austere wall of abstract modernism--is interesting, and it seems to work in a DVD performance that I saw a while back.  But here it just seemed to turn everybody's voice to lead.  And Polenzani--nice man, Polenzani, generous and a trouper, but he wasn't able to relate to her nor she to him.  And Dmitri Hvorostovsky in my favorite role as old Germont--smooth and polished and utterly unmemorable.  Talk about pathos and vulnerability--those are exactly the qualities that make Germont so interesting, as they undercut his persona of stiff pomposity.   In a proper performance, you get the sense that Germont genuinely likes Violetta in spite of himself, and she him.   Hvorostovsky doesn't seem much interested in anybody except himself. 

Some people take delight in the disintegration of a great singer.  Not me.  As I say, I'm more or less nuts about Dessay and I want her to have a long and full and dazzling future career.  Aside from last week's cold, I remember that she's had a couple of semi-recent bouts with vocal surgery.  As she took her bow, I couldn't help but wonder whether this week was just a speed bump or a major inflection point.  From the look  of her, I'd say she was wondering, too.

Afterthought:   Deborah Voigt.  She did the intermission interview, giving herself a chance to hype her own performance as Brunhilde in Wagner's Ring.  I've said before that I don't get Wagner and I won't be seeing her in the Ring. But that voice--even as she speaks, it's like a fine Cabernet.  Indeed hers might have been the best performance of the afternoon.

Online Hell with AT&T

If you're being forced to get one of those new upgraded internet connections from AT&T--well, it may improve your life, but on installation day, you might want to scrub all other appointments.  Took me  an evening and a chunk of a morning, mostly spent in online chat with "helpers" whose best advice seemed to be "try again in a couple of hours."  And did they call me back as promised?  No, they did not.

Okay, I'll spare you further details. We've all been there and the particular indignities are of interest to no one except the sufferer.  But it did set me to thinking--are there people who are good at this sort of thing, providers whose online help can actually help?

Well actually--you know on the whole, I'd have to admit that most outfits get better at this sort of thing over time.   Back in the 90s, people were launching web help without any practice or guidance. And as if to complicate things, they were buying whole new businesses, trusting themselves to learn to service the customers later.  But as life settles down, some of them actually do learn a thing or two.

From my own experience, I'd like to give the Golden Handset to two in particular--Vanguard, and American Express.   In both cases, I've never had a bad experience:  answerers who pick up before the 25th ring, techies who seem to have ready and relevant responses, even some who can identify and flag problems before you see them coming.  The interesting question is--why can't everybody be like that?   I suspect that Amex is a bit smaller than some of the relevant points of comparison, and so has less to cope with.  Vanguard isn't "small"  by any measure, but they do seem to have a knack for finding a stable and dependable business model that works, and then sticking to it--like Volvo making the same car for twenty-plus years.    Anyway, whatever they've got, I wish they'd have it bottled and retailed.

Meantime, as to AT&T I suspect part of the problem is that they are one of those who haven't digested all the business they've swallowed: they still don't seem to have grasped that they run two phone companies (land and mobile), not just one (and if I understood right, they'll now be breaking their land billing into two parts--phone and data--so total of bills in all, three).  The other problem is that this is a techie business and the geeks probably just can't get their minds around the idea that their customers aren't as geeky as they are.  Actually, I think I can count myself as a paid-up member of the cadet branch of geekdom--and a good thing, too, or three hours might have been just the beginning.

Update: From chat with the neighbors, I think I got off easy.  Lots of chat about cancelled appointments, missed appointments, an installer who said he couldn't install unless the customer agreed to an upgrade--one house that went without for about a week. 

Uh-oh:  Now we're having stability issues. Pages crash, ;pages load, lots of links (but not all) tell us that we must have an unfiltered line somewhere (but we've looked and looked).  If this is general, they've got a problem on their hands.   If they regard it as as problem....

Friday, April 13, 2012

Palookaville, April Morning

But don't get eaten up with envy. It gets brutal-hot here in the summer. And in the winter, lots of rain.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Saucy Devil

Three Google searches came to Underbelly today looking  for "girl hot bikini girl bath paint bath."   They found this. Actually, they're right on everything except bikini.

Update: Migawd, now there are 50 of them. Did somebody just make me a classroom assignment for a study of global warming at the University of the Arctic Circle?

Discovery: Frank Snowden III

We pause to offer a shoutout for a man I never heard of until just last week.  Which is not to say he is obscure; just hitherto unknown to me.  That would be Frank Snowden III, scholar of Italian history and holder of an endowed chair at Yale. He came on my radar sideways; on a whim I downloaded his lecture-course on "Epidemics" from the Yale Open Courses website.  It's wonderful but perhaps not quite for the reasons one might expect.  It is in part a "science" course--there are spirochaetes and penicillin and high-saline water.  But the best parts address the social response to epidemic; indeed, best of all may be Snowden's account of the Naples cholera epidemic of 1911 and the infinitely resourceful efforts of the Italian government (with the cooperation of the United States) to keep it secret.  Not quite "your government is trying to kill you," but certainly "your government has other, more important items on its agenda and really doesn't give a rat's patootie whether you live or die."  Snowden does almost as well in his gripping account of the notorious (or is it forgotten?) Tuskegee syphilis study, losing a bit of its bite (if it does) only because it is better known (if it is).

But beyond the lectures.  If I understand this right, Snowden started his career with a more abstract interest in political theory and social justice but somehow stumbled onto the case of Italy where there is just a whole lot of political theory going on.  I'm  just now getting acquainted with his four books, but there's consider the subject matter: cholera, malaria, the rise of fascism, the dispossessed southern peasantry.   In short,  a down-and-dirty attempt to understand real human problems and their solutions or not. 

What's particularly intriguing here is  it's a topic so often corrupted with a gauzy romanticism.   I suppose it is nearly impossible for the writerly class to come to terms with the truly dispossessed in any event, and I'll grant there are some Italians who have given it an honest shot: Verga in particular (but he is Sicily); Sciasscia (Sicily again, and general corruption); with qualification, Silone (a  bit too readable for his own good.  But writers like this, however they much get respect, never get that much of an audience.  Our views are far more likely shaped by the easy (and photogenic) pieties of Bertolucci's 1900 . And recall Giuseppe di Lampedusa's insight that the reason Italian politics are so awful is that people confuse opera with life (a more suitable movie entry might be Matteo Garrone's Gomorrah).

Granted, Snowden is never likely to achieve the celebrity of a Bertolucci, with or without a shoutout from me.  But it bears all the earmarks of a sustained, integrated and coherent career, all of a piece and all worth serious attention.  

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

More on Opera and Sexual Anarchy

I have few unfulfilled wants in life but I still wound like just one chance to sing the role of Giorgio, old Germont, at the Met in Verdi's Traviata.  You remember old Germont?  He's the the swain's father, the one who is trying to maintain the good order and stability of his family and (not least) to marry off his daughter.  To achieve this end, he has to ice Violetta, the consumptive prostitute courtesan, inconveniently beloved of Alfredo,Giorgio's son, the handsome young Labrador retriever of a tenor.  In both his social and his operatic role, old Germont gets to sing one of the warm-hearted and pathetic, yet also blackly comic, numbers in the entire catalog.  You understand, don't you dear (I translate loosely).  My daughter is a respectable woman.  She needs a respectable husband.  And you are a whore, so you will have to go.

But watching Manon last weekend at the multiplex HD, it dawned on me that old Germont, just like the hero and heroine, is a stock type.   Manon has his own Germont: Comte des Grieux, whose job is to bring his own young man back to the path of righteousness (which in his case, oddly, means leaving the church).  All brought off nicely by the American base/baritone David Pittsinger, who does not seem to have sung Germont, though I wish he would.  In Madama Butterfly,  you get a similar perspective from Sharpless, the American consul---not precisely a father, but still the man-to-man avatar of common sense and good order.

Carmen offers a different take.  Here the force of order is Micaëla, the "village maiden," as it says in the cast list, who tries to persuade the hapless Don José to abandon his lethal bout of fun and games.  This time, it is the baritone Escamillo who gets all the nookie.

Hello, Peter?

How Many?

Can you name the ten most populous state capitals?  Can you name five of the top seven?

H/T, Overheard in New York.

Something I Didn't Know: Tribes

Chippewa and Ojibway are the same name.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Gentlemen, Puh-leez! Steve Randy Waldman Orders Everybody Out of the Pool

I hope Steve Randy Waldman gets at least a few minutes knocked off his time in purgatory for this bracing dose of cold reason which he administers to the great Keen/Krugman debate.  Although I'd have to say I don't agree that "the stakes are so small:"  the issue is real and important, and God knows macro needs all the help it can get, if it is to be saved from hurtling into the dustbin alongside astrology.  And full disclosure: as a somewhat popeyed nonprofessional onlooker, I'd say that so far Keen is ahead on points.  

But Steve's main point is elsewhere and on this I'd give him a grand thumbs-up.  There's just a whole lot of hurt feelings and (dare one say it?) not a little self-pity on both sides of the arena here, surely inimical to civil discourse and probably not a whole hell of a lot of help in sorting out the underlying issue.  There are also, no doubt, a whole raft of people just lined up at the popcorn stand,  hoping to enjoy  a takedown of the master of all takedowns, the great panjandrum from the op-ed page at the New York Times--a raft of people who, ironically, really don't have any enthusiasm for the Keen side of the case, but are happy to see Krugman take a spear from any quarter.

I suppose I can understand why a semi-quasi-crypto-Austrian might sulk over the intuition that he Don't Get No Respect--and to enjoy a bit of schadenfreud as he observes the spectacle of establishment disarray.  It's perhaps easy to forget that Krugman, too, feels like he spent way too much time in the wilderness, under the sting of the dismissive pieties of his self-admiring freshwater neighbors.

Lost sight in this farrago (it can happen) may be the point that these guys are actually making a tiny bit of headway giving macro itself the bitch-slap it so richly deserves.  So good work, fellahs.  I just hope you can see past your bruises and through your puffed eyes to enjoy the success you may be having in pushing back the frontiers of ignorance.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

More on Where the Doctors Are

The Wichita Bureau offers some intriguing comments on that chart of where the doctors are:
I think the stats are somewhat misleading in the map: “Office” may mean more than one doctor – and a lot of the big city specialists fly out to rural areas for monthly consults with specialized need patients. Lawrence is probably over doctored – it is one of the few places in Ks with pretty easy access and a good ER (which ends up providing a lot of medical care for the students – free).  ...  There are great swatches of the western part of the state that are practically unpopulated. Not only are there no doctors or dentists (there is no dental school here in KS) but there are NO LAWYERS. Of course much of the population in western KS is either elderly or Hispanic. And most of the health care is falling on the local hospital – if there is one. One thing the GOP hasn’t figured out here is that by paying low wages and no benefits, most of the big farm operations are pushing the health care for their often illegal employees off on their neighbors.
I wonder how they count the Mayo Clinic? It’s “one office” in Rochester – but there are something like 800 doctors (and fellows?) who see patients there. Rochester probably has more doctors per population (and more hotel beds) than any similar sized city (100K) – but there are a lot of clinics modeled on the Mayo method of seeing patients (Hint: it’s like the carwash). ...
One interesting note: when Greensburg KS got hit by the F5 tornado five years ago, it pretty well leveled the place: HS, hospital, courthouse (jail) and most of the businesses. The population dropped by 50%: the elderly residents who were living out their golden years in the tiny town took their insurance money and moved near their families. The county seat functions, the school and the hospital were rebuilt (in green tech) – and they cleared out the only tourist attraction in town, the world’s largest hand dug well. But there ain’t much left. I suspect the doctors are still there – but specialized care requires a trek to Wichita.
 World,s largest hand-dug well, bleah.  He's got a point re multiple offices.  Shasta County CA gets an A on the "doctors" chart; nearby Butte gets only a B plus. But Butte has a big medical center while Shasta is a recreation spot.  Big offices in Butte, solos in Shasta?



Saturday, April 07, 2012

Manon and the Idiocy of Men

Mr.and Mrs. Buce ventured forth to take in the Met's HD production of Massenet's Manon today.  It's a fine presentation of a not-quite fine opera.  Massenet is almost never challenging or actively engaging but he is fluent and here, at least, he seems to have mastered the knack of matching the score to the meaning of the moment.

Still, it was all non-taxing enough so as to allow my mind to wander to the whole array of golden-age operas premised on the idea that sex is an antic force disruptive of stable social order.  I thought partticularly of La Traviata, Camen and Madame Butterfly, although I probably would have to allow a dozen more.  The standard mantra for all of these is that they demonize women (or "woman") as the creature who brings evil into the world.  But on the evidence at hand, this doesn't seem quite right to me.  Sex is an antic force alright, but the women are more or less the bewildered vehicle, perplexed as anybody else about the strange power of the visitation.  Carmen is no doubt the most explicit expression of human agency, but Carmen doesn't want to make trouble; she just wants to be free.  The hypnotic power she holds over others appears to her to be almost a curiosity, perhaps useful in its way but nothing to write home about.  I suppose the most damaged of the four would be Cio-Cio-San who has the misfortune to entangle herself with  imperial realpolitik, and did everyone notice that she is the only one to have a baby?

The other common theme of the four, perhaps more consistent, is the men.  And what a bunch of lamebrains they are, lacking the most rudimentary tools of prudential wisdom. You could say it's all dopamine poisoning, but I'm not so sure: looks to me like they've pretty much earned their lamebrain status on its own terms. There isn't any one of them for whom you can feel much of anything other than the notion that he had it coming.  Even, or especially, Pinkerton who gets to walk away--"her gentle face will always haunt me, torturing me endlessly," ri-ight.  You walk away with the profound sense that it wouldn't take any great skill to beguile this lot, and if the devil really wants a challenge, he'd better look someplace else. For extra credit, consider what happens to my list if you add Berg's Lulu.)

Afterthought:    and speaking of men and their lives.  The intermission camera lingered patiently over the  workmen moving the sets.  All men as far as I could see: a job that requires considerable skill, along with cooperation, teamwork.    And they get to use their fabled upper-body strength. And they've got a union. Do they begin to understand how well off they are?

Friday, April 06, 2012

Tea Party Enablers

Best thing I read all day is Conor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic Monthly (h/t, Bruce Bartlett) how it is time to quit romanticizing Tea Party loonies.  They had a chance at Jon Huntsman, Mitch Daniels, Tim Pawlenty and Gary Johnson and they wind up with mad,, impulsive crushes on the likes of Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich--way more than evidence enough for the proposition that they are not to be taken seriously.

So far fine, but it is also time to bitch-slap the mainstream "respectable people" who tiptoe around the Tea Party because they don't want to damage their own careers.   Well you know what?  Your careers aren't that-all important to me.  If you can't get ahead in politics without pandering to these nutjobs, well then go find another line of work.

Yes, yes, I know.  Boring from within blah blah.  Got to stay on board so I can be a steadying force, blah blah.  If we leave them alone they'll only get worse, blah blah, and politics is the art of compromise.   Beguiling halftruths all, but if we are ever (again) going to have a responsible center in this country, it will not be achieved by all these pretend centrists who are willing to cut and run whenever they hear the dog whistle.  And by the way, if you expect those guys to thank you for what you're doing, you better think again.  When (!?) they finally do get real power, chances are you will find that your kind of squishy centrism will get pushed right on off the cliff.

Two Things I Never Knew Before: Smallpox and Pap Smears

  • Why do they call it smallpox?  Because the legions are not as big as the lesions in largepox, AKA syphilis.
  • Why do they call it a pap smear? It's named after Georgios Papanikolaou, the inventor.
I got the word on smallpox from a fascinating series on epidemics at the Yale open course page.I met Papanikolaou in Siddartha Mukherjee's history of cancer, the Emperor of All Maladies. Papanikolaou, I should add, is a wonderful story. He showed up in the United States with a European education in science but no money and no connections. He underwent an unproductive but mercifully brief apprenticeship as a carpet salesman at Gimbel's. He finally wangled a lab job at Cornell, scraping of the cervical cells of guinea pigs with Q-tips.  He graduated from female guinea pigs to real women; at one point he used his wife as a guinea pig.  In time he learned that the cells sloughed off from the cervix could foretell the stages of the menstrual cycle. Since most people already knew how to foretell the stage of the menstrual cycle, he didn't find a ready market. At last at struck him that he could use the same technique to foretell other transitions--for example,  to cancer.  Even armed with his insight, it took him more than 20 years to get support for a fullscale field test. 

Where the Doctors Are

Today's chart porn: cool interactive map of where the doctors are.    Doesn't tell you much you wouldn't have guessed but it does provide dramatic evidence of one of my favorite points.  Specifically, that a genuine wasteland is the swath of round down through western Nebraska and Kansas and environs.  No surprise that there are so few doctors in that part of the world; the amazing part is that there are any people.

If memory serves, western Kansas and Nebraska also rank at or near the top of farm subsidy recipients.  But I believe the checks go mostly to places where the drinks have little umbrellas.

H/T Ezra Klein.  For ag subsidies, ,the go-to source is Mark Perry.

Oh, and speaking of ag subsidies, go here.

Helping the Child to Understand

Count William of Warwick prepares to depart for Jerusalem, leaving his wife, child, and just about everything else behind:
"That all sounds very sweet," the countess said, "but it is I who musts drink this cup of grief, and bitter it is for one orphaned so long and a widow with neither husband nor lord.  Just when I thought my  misfortune were over, I see my  woes increase and can truly say that I have only this poor son to remind me of his father.

Then she grabbed the little boy's hair, pulled it, and slapped his face, saying: "My son, weep for your father's departure and keep your grieving mother company."

The infant, who was only three months old, began to cry...
 --Joanot Martorell and Marti Joan de Galba,
Tirant Lo Blanc 4 (Rosenthal Trans., 1984)

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Finally, a Reason for Ringtones

I never have quite got the point of tailor-made telephone ringtones.  I figure I'd just never remember who was which.    But just today I was searching (don't ask) for lyrics to Stephen Sondheim's "Liaisons."  And sure enough, you can get a "Liaisons" ringtone. And it struck me: that's what you need for your girlfriend, so you will know it is not your wife.  And he wife gets?  Oh, I suppose "Here Comes the Bride."   Looks okay to me unless you have more than one girlfriend in which case I look on with stupified awe.

  BTW yes, it turns out you can get a ringtone also for "Here Comes the Bride."

Wait a Minute, What? (Dividends Dept.)

"With dividend payments at an all-time high..." (link). Wait a minute, what? I thought dividend payments had been trending down since 1978. Can this be right? Maybe so:
NEW YORK, April 3, 2012 /PRNewswire via COMTEX/ -- S&P Indices announced today that dividend net increases (increases less decreases) reached $24.2 billion in the first quarter of 2012, a 27.6% rise over the $19.0 billion posted in the first quarter of 2011. S&P Indices reported 677 dividend increases during the first quarter of this year, a 32.7% jump over the 510 increases reported in during the first quarter of 2011. Thirty-one companies, of the approximately 7000 that report dividend information to S&P Indices, decreased their dividend in the first quarter of this year.

"Dividends had another great quarter, with actual cash payments increasing over 11% and the forward indicated dividend rate reaching a new all-time high, with or without Apple," says Howard Silverblatt, Senior Index Analyst at S and P Indices. "Payout rates, which historically average 52%, remain near their lows at under 30%. At this point, we expect to see double-digit growth in actual dividend payments for the remainder of 2012, which would equate to a 16% gain over 2011."
 Link.  But wait, here's William Carney, in the teachers' manual for his excellent coursebook on corporate finance, referring to “…the steady decline in the payment of dividends since 1978."   Has Carney not been reading the papers? No, no, wait,  maybe  he's been looking at this:

Wait a minute, as the old canard goes, they can't both be right. Except maybe they can. Might be that dividends in (nominal) dollars are going up while dividends as a percentage are going down?Anyway, the chart ends in 2010; would an up-to-date chart show a flip in the tail? 

  H/T: Jared; Bob H.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Watergate Again, and Remembering Tony Lukas

University of Kansas Press must be pleasantly surprised that they've got a kind of hit on their hands (we're  #24,450!) with Max Holland's Leaks, yet one more presentation of the oft-told tale of Watergate and Nixon's fall.  Holland's main point, it seems (I haven't read the book) is to whisk away whatever aura may have surrounded Mark Felt, the man we remember as "Deep Throat."  I say "whatever" because it's not obvious to me that he ever had that much of an aura to begin with; some of the raised eyebrows today may be no more than readers who have forgotten what we knew about the whole episode before.  Which brings to mind what I've long thought was (and what I suspect remains) the best single narrative of the whole sorry episode, the under appreciated Nightmare by  J. Anthony Lukas.  There are only three Amazon reviews (one by me) all five-star and I gather it has enjoyed a steady positive reception.  Lukas himself committed suicide a few years later, apparently afflicted with depression.  He remains a name among people who care about good journalism, though mostly for projects other than this.  So now is as good a time as any to remember him and his one sturdy and durable contribution to the Watergate saga.

Monday, April 02, 2012

Siddartha Mukherjee and the Past of the Future

There had to be a time when there was no people, right? 
Well where did all these people come from, huh? 
I'll tell you where. The future.
--Miller, in Repo Man

I've been reading Siddartha Mukherjee's justly praised Emperor of All Maladies--that is, reading about the various campaigns to tame, conquer or just understand cancer.  I'm reflecting, inter alia on that time not so many years ago when we were hot on the trail of a "cure for" this peculiarly dreadful disease. We went about it with all the optimism and conviction that a sophisticated, well-financed and energetic research machine could promote.  And of course we can cure some cancers, sort of, and we have made some impressive headway at cancer prevention in, e.g., reducing the presence of tobacco.  But cancer is still with us and as a whole, we have a more chastened view of our possibilities than we did, say, along about the beginning of the Nixon administration.

Mukherjee's book follows hard on Michael Graetz' End of Energy, where there is a similar theme.  After the crude, rude "first oil shock" in 1973 we spit on our hands and tackled the job of developing magic bullets among alternative energy sources.  Once again, we've made some progress sideways: CAFE standards have a remarkably good track record and we've done by way of improving energy efficiency. But wind and solar seem almost as elusive as ever and ethanol has turned into a bad joke.  Carter made any number of bold forays; then Reagan supplanted him and said "whatever" and there it pretty much lay at least until a year or two ago.

Meanwhile I've also lately listened to an intriguing interview with John Crowley about what he calls "The Next Future"--as the interviewer puts it, “the ways in which writers have imagined the future and how today the future is disappearing from people's imaginations only to be replaced by the past."   Think steampunk, or Harry Turtledove.  Recognize that hardly anybody in any genre--except dystopia--spends much time worrying about what might like ahead

There's a segue here, not so?  We look to the past because our future is just not as dazzling as we thought it was going to be. We more or less know we aren't likely to "cure" cancer; we'll count ourselves lucky if we can just hold it at by.  With energy, we know in our heart of hearts that we're just kicking the (empty oil?) can  down the road and we entertain the pious hope of a miracle because we know that not much else will save us,.   The future, in short, lies mostly in the rear-view mirror.  The Jetsons have left the building, and not in a flying car.  

Now This One Really Is Idiotic

Harry Stein in the Times:

The only thing more embarrassing than catching a guy on the plane looking at pornography on his computer is seeing a guy on the plane reading “The Hunger Games.” Or a Twilight book. Or Harry Potter. The only time I’m O.K. with an adult holding a children’s book is if he’s moving his mouth as he reads.
 I know very little about The Hunger Games and I'm hazy on Twilight  I've read some bits of Harry Potter and find it amiable enough but the young folks  in my catchment area seen to have been fine with reading it on their own, thank you.  But as to the more general proposition--let's just say that I'd be happy to read Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons, or several of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House books, or Charlotte's Web or Wind in the Willows right now, tonight, thank you, with or without the loan of a kid to read it to.  I might not want the kinder to know I was reading them but that is a different problem altogether.

h/t BoingBoing.