Thursday, May 31, 2012

Simon Johnson Can't Contain his Enthusiasm
(But He Would Say That, Wouldn't He?)

Simon Johnson excoriates Jamie Dimon for hanging onto his seat on the board of the Federal Reserve of New York.  No dissent from me on that one; Dimon's dual role sounds like a massivee case of double self dealing and richly deserves Johnson's rhetorical fusillade.

But he's got an odd way of going about it.  Johnson builds his argument on Why Nations Fail, by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson,  the much-touted new meghistory of more or less everything.  In this we differ.  I was not overimpressed by Why Nations Fail.  Johnson, by contrast, can't contain his enthusiasm."Brilliant and sometimes breathtakin," he gushes.  "Tour de force."

Well, he's entitled to his opinion and I suppose he might even be right.  But the premise of the Dimon screed is the evil of self-dealing.   In a  paper about self-dealing, you'd think that Johnson might wanted to mention that he is a frequent co-author with Acemoglu and Robinson--a serial collaborator, almost to the point where you wonder why he isn't a co-author on the book. In a quick skim through his resume, I find 20 citations to co-authorship with Acemoglu, 15 with Robinson. Evidently Acemoglu and Robinson see it the same way I do.  Here's the lead paragraph in their acknowledgments:
THIS BOOK IS the culmination of fifteen years of collaborative research, and along the way we have accumulated a great deal of practical and intellectual debts. Our greatest debt is to our long-term collaborator Simon Johnson, who coauthored many of the key scientific papers that shaped our understanding
Acemoglu, Daron; Robinson, James (2012-03-20). Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty . Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition. 

Look, I don't suppose this is a big deal.  But isn't this an odd place to make yourself the judge of your own case?  There certainly was another way to make his (perfecctly legitimate) point about Jamie Dimon.  Underbelly calls "self-dealer, heal thyself."

Who are the Greeks?

Ah, it is a trickier question than you might have guessed. link, link.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Satchmo Controls the Narrative

Andrew Gelman rubs his eyes in disbelief at the inglorious display of domestic disharmony between Louis Armstrong and his beloved Lucille.  "Did Louis Armstrong and his wife really have this conversation?" he asks.  "This is just too much!"

Well, you know now, I wasn't actually there, and it's a little hard to believe that any couple will actually record the vituperation they hurl at each other at five o'clock in the morning.  But it doesn't sound entirely out of character for Louis--recall that this is the guy who felt comfortable giving samples of his favorite laxative to members of the British Royal Family.  And it does recall my favorite Louis story which I overheard 30 years ago from the next table in an uncrowded Cincinnati hotel restaurant.  Reputedly this happened during one of those interminable road trips where Lucille managed while Louis entertained.  Evidently Lucille came home one night and found Louis in flagrante delicto* with a woman who was, well, not Lucille.  Lucille gazed wide-eyed.  Louis gazed wide-eyed.  Then he shouted:
"Lucille!  Lucille!  Get this woman offa me!"

Now there is a guy who knows how to control the narrative.

Plays Well with Others: Remembering Doc Watson

I've read that Doc Watson, the country guitarist who died yesterday at 89, was blind from birth.  Apparently this is a slight stretch. The better sources say he was blinded at two--of an infection-- but in any event, it's a detail.  Either way he was consigned to what could have been,  without extraordinary serendipity, a life of isolation. Your first thought would naturally to be that what saved him was his music and you'd be partly right.  But it seems that before the music there was a family--his own family,  who helped him find a place in the world. even to help with the chores. It was only later that his father gave him a start at music, making a banjo, according to Doc's own story, from the skin of a dead cat.

Doc Watson was never as dynamic or riveting riveting a performer as, say, Earl Scruggs who died just a few weeks ago, which may explain why he never made a show-stopping record. On the flat-picking guitar (which became his signature instrument) he had was thoughtless enough to make it look easy, which it certainly wasn't (if it was, how com we nobody else ever picked a guitar with such fluency?).   But that was his  way: he made everything seem accessible.  Which didn't mean that he was shallow or facile.  But it did mean you had to listen up to realize just how good he was.

Childhood blindness  might seem to be enough a misfortune for one life.   Doc had a second his beloved son Merle died in 1985--killed in a tractor action, so it says.  Euripides declared  that no parent should ever outlive a child and he was surely right but Merle was  more than just a a son: he was a traveling companion and a  fellow artist.  One is tempted to say that Doc never recovered.  In a sense that was probably true but Doc did do what a sensible person would do: he got on with his life, not necessarily "accepting" it and certainly not forgetting it, but taking  it as  Something that Happens, and recognizing that there is really no percentage in paralysis.

What seems to have saved him this time was that he appears genuinely to have enjoyed performing in collaboration with others.  And "collaboration" was genuinely the magic word here.  You never get the sense (as you do with, say, Sidney Bechet) that it's a matter of us versus them.  Doc never let his ego get in the way; he enjoyed what he was doing and enjoyed it  more when others enjoyed it too.  Correspondingly while Doc probably got his greatest notoriety playing with Earl Scruggs, he was never really a "Bluegrass" performer.  His style, even when he was playing with more innovative performers, stayed in touch with his traditional mountain roots.

If I had to name just one, I suppose I'd remember the work he did with my beloved Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, perhaps particularly his collaboration with Mother Maybelle Carter and others on "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?"  But here's Doc with his beloved Merle:

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Russell's One Good Idea

My friends know that I love stories about how just one good idea can support a family for a generation, maybe more.  I'm thinking of the guy who learned how to keep Boston cream pie from going sticky in the pan.  Or the one who stitched up the sides of a piece of soft cloth, put it together with a can of polish and sold it to the hotel chain as a shoeshine kit.  Or the guy who bought real estate along Route 19 back when it ran through a cow pasture.

Here's another.   My friend Russell trained as a chemist.  By his own count, he has 36 patents.  But for practical purposes, he has only one: the Pink Panther.  That's right folks, Russell is the man who provided the Pink.  He was employed by a big chemical company: he conjured up just the color they wanted.  

American companies, of course, barely thank you for that kind of thing: you get a pat on the  head, maybe a crisp new dollar bill.  Russell had the good sense to work for a European firm, where the practice was to cut the inventor in for 10 percent of the take.  The project occupied, Russell admits, only a moment in his long professional life. The checks kept coming for about 17 years.  "I've always said," says Russell, saying, "I only worked about two weeks in my entire career."

Sumner's Take

Scott Sumner, who always does his own thinking, offers up a platter full of non-conventional wisdom on banking, housing and macro.  I won't comment on his macro point; it's an  which I could only reduce the sum of human knowledge and BTW is there any other field of human endeavor with such an unfavorable signal-to-noise ratio?  But let me offer a word about his comments on banks and  housing.

One: I expect he is more right than wrong in saying that the big bank bailouts aren't costing the taxpayers a ton of money--a lot is indeed being paid back.  But that isn't quite the point.   Rather, "payback" is hindsight. The  Feds took huge risk in ladling out all that cash in '08 and if it worked out well, why then it was, as my mother so often said "more good luck than good planning."  We did it, of course, to protect ourselves from catastrophe-- but a catastrophe being inflicted by a banking system that seems less and less to perform any useful public service.

He's also right that depositors (as distinct from owners) got a ton of money from the FDIC--much more, that is, than most people notice.   Still, the fact is that 100s and 100s of small banks went broke in the crisis, with more to come.  Dick Fuld would tell us that he knows a thing or two about going broke and I suppose he does.  Still I think the record support the view that stakeholders in big banks mostly got ring-fenced while stakeholders elsewhere were just left to fend for themselves.

Re housing: partly right again--housing probably is not quite the mess we perceive it to be.  There sure are some green shoot in the desert--even the notoriously parched Las Vegas desert, as credit starts to loose up, and as rent-veruss-own ratios get ever more skewed.   Scott says the "oversupply" of housing (if any) will be soaked up in a heartbeat, and that "houses often last for 100 years."  Do they in fact?  I guess the President still lives in the White House but we've done a bit of upgrading since the British torched the place in the War of 1812.    In California, people do love those old Craftsman treasures, but I suspect that very few have the original bathroom.   How many people, think you, really want to live in a 1946 Levittowner without, at least, a humongous refit? I may be skewed by my own experience: Mr. and Mrs. Buce live happily in a 55-year-old house which we bought 30 years ago--but we've paid almost twice as much for various remodelings as we paid for the deed.  If it is around in 2057, I suspect it will look rather different than it does today.


Roman, I think 1C AD, from the museum at Corinth.  Might make a nice Facebook mugshot, don't you think?

Monday, May 28, 2012

Airport Orientation Tip

In any major airport, the long line of disheveled customers queued up before a single harried employee--that's likely to be the United Airlines customer service desk.

[What?  Oh, actually no, but I was watching.]

Sunday, May 27, 2012

If This Won't Kill the Euro, What Will?

Feta cheese rolled in sesame seeds and deep fried.  With honey. And complementary chest spreader.

Greek Miscellany: Wealth, Ephialtes, Rent, etc.

Greek loose ends:
  • Thoughts while gazing down onto the Bay of Corinth, from Delphi: these suckahs were rich. No, silly, not last week. But in the 5C BC. All the classical stuff that gins up the modern tourist trade: Delphi, but even more the Parthenon, Olympus, Delos. They are splendid displays of wealth in their own right: somebody had to csrt in all the stone, roll it uphill, carve it, put it in place. And shrines were loaded down with treasure--not just coins but vases, statues, whatever, all fine materials in fine handiwork. And I suspect whatever they may have given to the gods, we can assume they kept the good stuff for themselvea (recall Homer: they sacrificed cattle, but the gods got the smoke; they saved the meat for themselves). All this implies--what? Right, slaves. And mines. But Athens (at least) was a great trading empire, sending out triremes and hauling back loot, all presented in ensemble as a great projection of power.
  • In the foothills below Delphi, olive trees.  Everywhere.  Apparently not just a marketing choice: the government limits tillage to olives so as to please the eye of the tourist. The EU picks up (part of?) the tab.  And FWIW, Armenians do the scut work.
  • Found in the ruins of the ancient Delphic stadium: a mandate imposing a fine of five drachmae for taking wine out of the premises.  Go figure.
  • My friend Gordon wonders what it would take to buy the American licensing rights for the Cult of Dionysus. There's not a town bigger than Podunk where we couldn't find some self-starter fit to franchise the wanton ecstasy of the flesh. All we ask is three percent of the gross.
  • You remember  Ephialtes of Trachis?  Sure you do.  Or at least you remember Thermopylae, the pass in Northeastern Greece where the Spartan Leonidas and his forces kept the Persians at bay until some snake-in-the-grass led the Persians round by the back way.  Ephialtes is the snake in question; Kieron Moore played him in the movie. Anyway, I learn that the name Ephialtes survives in modern Greek as the word for "nightmare." 
  • And speaking of nightmares, here is my word for the day: ενοικίαση, aka ενοικιαζόμενα, and kindred.  That's "rent," as in "for rent," as in "store for rent," as in "hundreds of stores for rent in just about every town I've been through."  Whether or not Greece is holding its own, you'd have to say that retail is dying.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Macedonia/Makedonija Again

I'm here in Thessaloniki in Northern Greece again tonight, my first time in this part of the world and specifically in what is a pleasant and to all outward appearances prosperous city.  If you like to kick old rocks, I find there is some wonderful stuff in the vicinity, more engaging and challenging than I expected.  I gave some hints about Philippi yesterday--aside from the battlefield,  they've got the conventional site of St. Paul's prison and the remnants of a Bishop's Palace that would seem to bid fair as competition with anything in modern Europe (Mrs. B, who grew up Catholic, knows how to say: "we have our better halves, they have their better quarters).

On other side of Thessaloniki, there's a remarkable museum-in-a-tumulus--literally, under the grave mound--although you might reserve judgment as to occupancy: no matter what the signs say, it appears that there is a  tooth-and-toenails conflict among archaeologists over just who is buried where.  

But perhaps most interesting of all is Pella, billed as the capital of ancient Macedon.  Taken on its own terms, it is s fascinating mess: a grid-pattern metropolis more or less plunked down in the middle of a plan, seemingly overbuilt from the start,.  Evidently we can picture veterans of Alexander's conquest army, trooping home fat with the loot of the greatest foreign invasion campaign the world had ever known.  Too much money and not enough to do with it: the ancient Dubai.

But after a while you notice a curious back-story.  That is: the Greek government seems to have poured a remarkable amount of money (back when they had money, yes) into these remote northern sites which will be visited not by Euro- and dollar-bearing foreigners but by hordes of neighborhood schoolchildren.

And why, exactly?  Unencumbered  by hard evidence, I bet I know th answer to this.  I suspect what we have here is one more thrust or parry in the ongoing conflict between "Macedonia," as in Greece, and "the Republic of Macedonia," known to the UN as "the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia," just next door.  Recall: there is a long-running and seemingly irreconcilable dispute between the Macedonians (Gr) and the Makedonijans (not Gr) next door.  I haven't any instinct at all to take sides in a fracas about which I know so near to nothing, but I wouldn't be at all surprised to learn that what we are seeing here is one of the most venerable forms of a projection of power.  Be interesting to know how they will keep it up if, as and when, they can no longer afford to pay the wages of the guards and ticket-takers.

Friday, May 25, 2012


I've never read Appian before and could easily have confused him with Arrian,.  This source calls Appian "one of the most underestimated of all Greek historian," and his account of the Battle of Philippi, which left Octavian and Antony victorious and led to the demise of Brutus and Cassius,  is dense with plausible incident. The conflict began with Brutus and Cassius in far the stronger position.  Brutus attacked and broke Octavian's line.  But Antony drove back Cassius.  Appian elaborates, in the Loeb translation by Horace White:
113  When Cassius was driven out of his fortifications and no longer had even a camp to go to, he hurried up the hill to Philippi and took a survey of the situation. As he could not see accurately on  account of the dust, nor could he see everything, but only that his own camp was captured, he ordered Pindarus, his shield-bearer, to fall upon him and kill him. While Pindarus still delayed a messenger ran up and said that Brutus had been victorious on the other wing, and was ravaging the enemy's camp. Cassius merely answered, "Tell him that I pray his victory may be complete." Then, turning to Pindarus, he said, "What are you waiting for? Why do you not deliver me from my shame?" Then, as he presented his throat, Pindarus slew him. This is one account of the death of Cassius. Others say that as some horsemen were approaching, bringing the good news from Brutus, he took them for enemies and sent Titinius to find out exactly; that the horsemen pressed around Titinius joyfully as a friend of Cassius, and at the same time uttered loud hurrahs; that Cassius, thinking that Titinius had fallen into the hands of enemies, said, "Have I waited to see my friend torn from me?" and that he withdrew to a tent with Pindarus, and Pindarus was never seen afterward. For this reason some persons think that he killed Cassius without orders. 
Thus Cassius ended his life on his birthday, on which, as it happened, the battle was fought, and Titinius killed himself because he had been too late;  

114 and Brutus wept over the dead body of Cassius and called him the last of the Romans, meaning that his equal in virtue would never exist again.
 Some twenty days pass.  Brutus, believing tht his adversaries will run short of provisions, undertakes to wait them out.  But the adversaries provoke a fight.  Brutus tries to  hold his force in defense but his soldiers, impatient and hot for blood, erupt into an attack.  At first they seem to prevail, but then instead of consolidating their victory, they fall to pillaging  Octavian's camp.  Again Appian:

128 The day was consumed in preparations till the ninth hour, when two eagles fell upon each other and fought in the space between the armies, amid the profoundest silence. When the one on the side of Brutus took flight his enemies raised a great shout and battle was joined. The onset was superb and terrible. They had little need of arrows, stones, or javelins, which are customary in war, for they did not resort to the usual manoeuvres and tactics of battles, but, coming to close combat with naked swords, they slew and were slain, seeking to break each other's ranks. On the one side it was a fight for self-preservation rather than victory: on the other for victory and for the satisfaction of the general who had been forced to fight against his will. The slaughter and the groans were terrible. The bodies of the fallen were carried back and others stepped into their places from the reserves. The generals flew hither and thither overlooking everything, exciting the men by their ardour, exhorting the toilers to toil on, and relieving those who were exhausted so that there was always fresh courage at the front. 

Finally, the soldiers of Octavian, either from fear of famine, or by the good fortune of Octavian himself (for certainly the soldiers of Brutus were not blameworthy), pushed back the enemy's line as though they were turning round a very heavy machine. The latter were driven back step by step, slowly at first and without loss of courage. Presently their ranks broke and they retreated more rapidly, and then the second and third ranks in the rear retreated with them, all mingled together in disorder, crowded by each other and by the enemy, who pressed upon them without ceasing until it became plainly a flight. The soldiers of Octavian, then especially mindful of the order they had received, seized the gates of the enemy's fortification at great risk to themselves because they were exposed to missiles from above and in front, but they prevented a great many of the enemy from gaining entrance. These fled, some to the sea, and some through the river Zygactes to the mountains.
 The next day Brutus followed the example of his companion and himself fell upon his sword.  Shakespeare (deploying an English translation of a French translation of Plutarch's Greek), in the play Julius Caesar compresses it all into two days, and into  single act.  In the play, Caesar's ghost pays a call on Brutus "to tell thee thou shlt see me at Philippi."  "Why," responds Brutus, "I will see thee at Philippi then." 

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Greek Phrasebook Essential

I learned this one in 1987, and have never found cause for regret.

η γυναίκα μου θέλει άλλη μια μπύρα

Go ahead, Google it.

It's Quiet...Too Quiet

Anon asks me for my "sense of the situation on the ground" in Greece.  Anon flatters me.  Recall that I'm a tourist which means that I have about as much "sense on the ground" as I would if I stayed home and read The Economist--which is to say, as much as Thomas Friedman on a good day ("one Athens taxi driver said...").
But of course, invincible ignorance never stopped a pundit so I venture this thought: from my vantage, you'd never guess we were gazing into the abyss. The place seems almost on the edge of a little spooky.  It could just be the tourist biz: it is perhaps a tad early in the season, and I gather they are doing a roaring trade out in the islands but here on the mainland people (not just taxi drivers) do complain that business stinks.  Apparently the Germans are staying home which doesn't sound like much of a surprise, except if they are really feeling unwelcome, why would things be going well in the islands?   But whatever: traffic is light, restaurants are often empty.  And in particular, nobody seems crabby or frantic or on edge.  They're just happy to scoop up our tourist Euros with the usual air of stoic acceptance.

In short, you could be excused for thinking that the Greeks have decided that either (a) Angela will blink; or (b) it won't be so bad after all.  Of course I have not the foggiest notion whether (a) Angela will blink.  As to whether (b) it won't be so bad after all:   I surprise myself by thinking that you could actually make a case for that view.  Short term, the Greeks would have a hard time.  The new Drachma would trade at confetti prices, and the won't be buying much of anything from overseas.  But they could still ship farm products--or eat them, which is not the worst fate.  And if tourists are staying away now, at new-drachma prices, they certainly wouldn't stay away for long.

The 900-pound moussaka in the room is, of course, the domino effect.  If Greece then Portugal and Ireland blah blah---leaving Germany high and dry like those monasteries around Kalambaka.  And it is hard to see why one of the world's great export economies would want to try subsisting on a diet of nothing but the world's most overpriced currency.  Which makes me think that (a) Angela will blink may not be all that crazy, I'll be passing through Frankfurt next week, I must try to find a cabbie.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Still Looking for the Hat

The last time I came to Greece--twenty years ago--I knew exactly one person in all of Athens.  I  bumped into him crossing the street.  He was kind enough to take us to lunch out at Piraeus.  In those days I  wore a big old straw hat, but when I got back to the hotel, the hat was not with me.

This year I came back optimistic that I would run into him again crossing the street, and that he would have my hat.  

I have now departed from Athens.  No dice.  But who knows, maybe he will show up in Thessaloniki.

Tirtaios on Spartan Virtue, and a Critique

τεθνάμεναι γὰρ καλὸν ἐνὶ προμάχοισι πεσόνταBut
ἄνδρ' ἀγαθὸν περὶ ᾗ πατρίδι μαρνάμενον·
τὴν δ' αὐτοῦ προλιπόντα πόλιν καὶ πίονας ἀγροὺς
πτωχεύειν πάντων ἔστ' ἀνιηρότατον,
πλαζόμενον σὺν μητρὶ φίλῃ καὶ πατρὶ γέροντι
παισί τε σὺν μικροῖς κουριδίῃ τ' ἀλόχῳ.
It is beautiful when a brave man of the front ranks
falls and dies, battling for his homeland,
and ghastly when a man flees planted fields and city
and wanders begging with his dear mother,
aged father, little children and true wife.
--Translation, Willis Barnstrone, Greek Lyric Poetry 38 (1975).

 But compare Archilochos of Paro
Ἀσπίδι μὲν Σαΐων τις ἀγάλλεται, ἥν παρὰ θάμνῳ
ἔντος ἀμώμητον κάλλιπον οὐκ ἐθέλων·
αὐτὸν δ' ἔκ μ' ἐσάωσα· τί μοι μέλει ἀσπὶς ἐκείνη;
Ἐρρέτω· ἐξαῦτις κτήσομαι οὐ κακίω.

Well, what if some barbaric Thracian glories
in the perfect shield I left under a bush?
I was sorry to leave it--but I saved my skin.
Does it matter?  Oh hell, I'll buy a better one.
--Id., 28.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Lucky Nauplia

It seems to me that Nauplia  on the Argolic Gulf in the northeast Peloponnese, has enjoyed at least one great stroke of luck, maybe two. The first, political: Nafplio was the first capital of Greece in War of Independence; it occupied the role from 1821 to 1834. But then classical fervor superseded and it fell to Athens to suffer the noise, the smog, the overcrowding and the general air of seediness that the state of modern capitalhood so often seems to require. And second tourism: Nauplia has some, but it doesn't have the beaches and attendant enticements that so often induce the hordes of German, English, whatever, down into the Mediterranean sun. The result is a perfect gem of a little resort town, with just enough by way of gemütlich to make it interesting, with little or none of the overload that so often makes modern tourism a form of betrayal. 

Life around Nafplia seems generally to have calmed down a bit from what it was a century and a half ago, when the back-country around here was infested with bandits.  Here the subject is treated appears in an odd mix of decorum and savagery:
The evening of our sojourn in Argos saw an excitement much like that which blocked the street at Nauplia.  The occasion was the same--the bringing home of a brigand's head; but  this the very head and fount of all the brigands, Kitzos himself, upon whose head had been set a price of several thousand drachmas.  Our veteran with difficulty obtained a view of the same and reported accordingly.  The robber chief of Edmong About's "Hadji Stauros", had been shot while  sighting at his gun.  He had fallen with one eye shut and one open, and in this form of feature his dissevered head remained.  The soldier who was its fortunate captor carried it concealed in a bag, with its long elf-locks lying loose about it.  He showed it with some unwillingness, fearing to have the prize wrested from him.  It was, however, taken on board of our steamer, and carried to Athens, there to be identified and buried.

All this imported to us that Mycenae, which we desired to visit, had for some time been considered unsafe on account of the presence of this very Kitzos and his head.  But at this moment the band were closely besieged in the mountains.  They wanted their head, and so did Kitzos.  We in consequence, were fully able to visit the treasure of Atreus and the ruins of Mycenae without fear or risk from those acephalous enemies.
 The memorialist is, of all people, Julia Ward Howe, she of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," in From the Oak to the Olive (1868).  Richard Stoneman, he of A Literary Companion to Travel in Greece (1984), from which I pillaged this excerpt, says she was "one of the first American travellers in Greece."   This seems a bit of a stretch, but she is very likely one of the first travel writers. But--"they wanted his head, and so did Kitzos":  do we hear an echo of Dickens' Pickwick Papers? That is:
'Terrible place—dangerous work—other day—five children—mother—tall lady, eating sandwiches—forgot the arch—crash—knock—children look round—mother's head off—sandwich in her hand—no mouth to put it in—head of a family off—shocking, shocking.'

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Athens Fragments

Some loose ends  from around  Athens:
  • The last time I set foot here was about 20 years ago. Changes: much less smog and traffic, many more graffiti, especially around the University.  I have no good ideas about the graffiti, but I wonder about the smog and the traffic.  Is it better fuel processing efficiency?  The price of gas (calculating in my head, I think about $12 a gallon for premium)?  Economic doldrums (everyone staying home?)?
  • Those  boar tusks on Minoan helmets--I am assured that they were not merely decorative, but fully weaponized. I wonder. You'd have to be awfully close, and the strap would have to be mighty tight.   Anyway, I have an operatic Wagnerian horned helmet which I wear to class on silly days.  Twenty years and I've never yet gored a student. 
  • The new(ish) Parthenon museum: indeed it is a prodigy of political theatre, demonstrating so emphatically that yes, we can provide a home for the Elgin marbles, long so unjustly (so they say) withheld in London.  It's an impressive showing, although I never thought Elgin  was quite the bad boy as which he is often cast--look at the frieze panels in place here and you get some sense of just how shabby the London pieces would look if they, too, had been left just lying around on the ground for another century or more. But beyond that--if it is so important to move the Elgin marbles back from London to Athens,wouldn't it be just as important to move the Minoan Boxers back from  the Athens Archaeological Museum home to their source on the Island of Santorini?
  • And while we are taking on current politico/cultural controversies: it dawns on me that there really were lions in Greece, well into the Iron Age (where else did Hercules get his lion suit?).   Now that we  we have reintroduced wolves to Yosemite, is there anyone lobbying for the reintroduction  of lions to Greece?
  • A final thought: Israel had 12 tribes and lost ten, some time before the end of the 6C BCE.  Just a few years later, Athens emerges with ten tribes.   Just sayin'.
Update: That last one is a joke OK? I do not believe the 10 tribes are the ten lost tribesl

Pericles' Funeral Oration

Delivered at the Keramikos, the cemetery at Athens, in the shadow of the Parthenon:

We have a form of government, not fetched by imitation from the laws of our neighbouring states; (nay, we are rather a pattern to others, than they to us); which, because in the administration it hath respect not to a few, but to the multitude, is called a democracy. Wherein, though there be an equality amongst all men in point of law for their private controversies; yet in conferring of dignities one man is preferred before another to public charge, and that according to the reputation, not of his house, but of his virtue; and is not put back through poverty for the obscurity of his person, as long as he can do good service to the commonwealth. And we live not only free in the administration of the state, but also one with another void of jealousy touching each other’s daily course of life; not offended at any man for following his own humour, nor casting on any man censorious looks, which though they be no punishment, yet they grieve. So that conversing one with another for the private without offence, we stand chiefly in fear to transgress against the public; and are obedient always to those that govern and to the laws, and principally to such laws as are written for protection against injury, and such unwritten, as bring undeniable shame to the transgressors.
--Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War(Thomas Hobbes trans.)
It just now occurred to me that a suitable translation of "Keramikos" would be "Potter's Field."  But cf. link.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Greece: Thinking the Unthinkable

Best recent summary of what's up in Greece: link, where we learn that a departure from the Euro might lead to an 80 percent drop in value of a new drachma against its departed comrade. Meanwhile I hear that you can buy a Mercedes for taxi service in Athens at a discounted price of €30,000. I assume that this means that the devalued price would be 150,000 drachmae? Unless, perhaps, the sellers of Mercedes taxis decided they had to shave a little off the top to keep the business (for you only, 147,000 drachmae, my best price!)?  This seems to me we should all be stocking up on Greek taxis--but no, wait, if  what I say is true, then somebody has already done it.

We also learn that the pre-crisis street price of an Athens taxi license was €150,000. (you could pass them down in the family, like a priesthood of Dionysios). A reforming Greece was supposed to do away with the Greek license raj, but with numbers like this I wouldn't hold my breath: few things can bring a nation to its knees quicker than an army of enraged taxi drivers. My puzzle is: would a post-departure taxi license find its price pegged to the Euro and so leap to 750,000 drachmae? Or is does it subsist in an internal market where a lower price might be indicated?

Meanwhile I hear that tourist business in the Greek Islands is growing again this summer—but that traffic on the mainland, including Athens, is falling flat. The Germans in particular are said to be giving the place a wide berth.  Given what I read, it is hard to blame them.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Faded Glory

May the sailor who brought me [to Athens] die miserably.  Athens contains nothing magnificent except its place names.  When a sacrificial victim is burnt only the skin remains as an indication of what animal that once was; just so, now that philosophy has deserted Athens, all that remains is to wander and wonder at the Academy and the Lyceum; ... Athens was indeed once a city, the home of the wise; now it is inhabited by bee-keepers.

--Synesius, Letters 135 [395 AD]
Richard Stoneman trans, in 
Richard Stoneman, A Literary Companion to Travel in Greece  (1984).

Sunday, May 13, 2012

When the Going was Good

Edith Wharton's classical adventure:
A cruise through the Aegean was scheduled for the end of March [1926], something Edith had been dreaming about for a long time.  Her previous Aegean trip ... in 1885, had been, she said, "the crowning wonder of my life and yet how ignorant I was."  Recalling the expense of the adventure, she calculated that a cruise of half the length would now cost one-third more, about twenty-eight thousand dollars, and of this shed was prepared to put up more than half.

She had chartered the Osprey, a 360 ton steam yacht from England, carrying five "master cabins" and two cabins for servants. ...

The cruise lasted for ten idyllic weeks--an experience, Edith told [art critic Bernard] Berenson, that belonged "to a quite other-dimensional world."  The Osprey passed through the Strait of Messina and crossed the Ionian Sea to Cephalonia and Zacynthus.  There were late evenings on deck under the stars, afternoons of sun and sea spray, explorations of island coasts, and bumpy drives through the hills.  The yacht turned northward and sailed along the Gulf of Cornith.  At Delphi they lunched on a ham-and-veal pie prepared by their accomplished cook, consuming it under trees of hoar olives, just below the Castalian Spring.  From Itea they could see snow far away on the slopes of Mount Parnassus.  Years later Edith would vividly recall gazing up at that spectacle and saying to herself, "Old girl, this is one of the pinnacles."
--RWB Lewis, Edith Wharton 469 (1993).

Greek Elections Update

Substitute "Prussian" for "Turkish" here and you might draw a crowd in Athens tonight:
Spirit of Freedom! when on Phyle’s brow
Thou sat’st with Thrasybulus and his train,
Couldst thou forebode the dismal hour which now
Dims the green beauties of thine Attic plain?
Not thirty tyrants now enforce the chain,
But every carle can lord it o’er thy land;
Nor rise thy sons, but idly rail in vain,
Trembling beneath the scourge of Turkish hand,
From birth till death enslaved; in word, in deed, unmanned.
Here's a more familiar stanza of the same:
Yet are thy skies as blue, thy crags as wild;
Sweet are thy groves, and verdant are thy fields,
Thine olive ripe as when Minerva smiled,
And still his honeyed wealth Hymettus yields;
There the blithe bee his fragrant fortress builds,
The freeborn wanderer of thy mountain air;
Apollo still thy long, long summer gilds,
Still in his beam Mendeli’s marbles glare;
Art, glory, freedom, fail, but nature still is fair.
Both from George Gordon, Lord Byron, "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage." II.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Off Again

Of again, this time to Greece; fished a few spare drachmae out of the corner of the sock drawer, just in case.  We were in Crete a couple of years back but we are startled to realize we haven't set foot on the mainland for about 12 years.  We will travel, inter alia to the north, including Thessaloniki, where I've never set foot at all.
But I must finish, and shall chatter less
On Greece, for reasons which yourself may guess.
Only remember what you promised me
About the flask from dark-welled Castaly,—
A draught, which but to think of, as I sit,
Makes the room round me almost turn with wit.
Gods! What may not come true, what dream divine,
If thus we are to drink the Delphic wine!
--Leigh Hunt to Lord Byron (1816)
 To all faithful Underbelly readers, we'll tap a flask of dark-welled Castaly.

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Peasants Ye Have Always With You

It is said that the critical question for all 20th Century Revolutions is "what to do with the peasants?"  The usual response is, one way or another, betray them.  Now this:
The peasant is the weak point in all China's postwar planning. Unless his standard of living goes up, China's industry will have no true domestic market but will be linked to the uncontrollable cycles of world trade and the menace of war; unless he is helped, 80 per cent of China will remain unchanged.  To raise his standard of living, reform must start in the village, with the problems of landholding, rent, and credit, by the introduction of modern agricultural methods and seeds.  Unless reform roots itself in the village, the industry of the planners will mean little.  So far as the peasant is concerned, the new industry till be a Christmas tree decorated with imported tinsel bearing present only for others, but none for himself.
So Theodore H. White and Annalee Jacoby, 
Thunder out of China 306 ( 1946) 

So how's it going out there?

In Which the London Bookies Prove Themselves
Smarter than JP Morgan Chase

If you get to be too big of a player in the market, then one day you wake up and find you are the market, and you will get killed trading against yourself.  Jamie Dimon's crew may have missed this insight.  Evidently the London bookies are more sophisticated:
 A surge in bets has forced Britain's biggest bookmakers William Hill Plc and Ladbrokes Plc to suspend betting on the odds of Greece dropping out [of the Euro--ed.].
William Hill said the level of betting on Greece quitting first was such that it had become too risky to continue taking bets ...

"We've had Greece as hot favourites for some time but increasingly it was becoming the only one that people wanted to bet on," said a spokesman for William Hill, Britain's largest betting firm.
"It wasn't a healthy situation for bookmakers. We found it was virtually impossible to make a book."
H/t Athens News, via Calculated Risk

Acemoglu and Robinson on Failure

As they got ready to publish Why Nations Fail, I suspect that Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson saw themselves as shooting at the big targets: Jared Diamond, or maybe Francis Fukayama. On that standard, I'd say they have reason to be disappointed. I think they've put together an interesting book, readable, and plausible in its argument, though not by any means the game-changer they might have thought it to be. Yet perhaps surprisingly, in a certain way they may have ended up with a book that is better than what they expected or wanted. 

First things first: it's hard to come to terms with a book entitled Why Nations Fail when you can't pin down a precise definition of “nations” or “fail,” or in particular, “why.” Given its pretensions, we have here, then, a remarkably casual book. The authors say they offer large a “theory,” although they concede that their “theory” is no great shakes at prediction. In particular, while they obviously harbor strong views as to what counts as failure, illustrated with examples, they really don't offer any insight into the process that brings it about.  We might better characterize  it as a “description,” a sketch of things that they like and don't like in large social organizations. Judged by this standard, it's affable, even convincing except insofar as it sketches a picture that you've been convinced by already.

They prefer, to be more precise, societies in which the worker is worthy of his hire; in which there are incentives for the production of new ideas; where there is flexibility and even fluidity as the polity responds to changing times—in short, to use their word, “inclusive.”  They're also hot for the old Schumpeterian show-stopper, "creative destruction"--my searcher says the phrase occurs 64 times--but again, it isn't really clear what they mean by it.  The people who "created" Venice, for example, weren't really "destroying" prior society; they were just a bunch of swamp rats who learned how to turn some coins through trade/piracy.  And the Europeans who introduced mass slavery in the New Wotrld may well have been "destroying" what went before but it would be odd to think of them as "creative.

On the negative side, A and R  don't like societies where elites entrench themselves and try to gobble up all the rewards, no matter who may have produced them, The catch-name here is “extractive.” You might think that “extractive"  had something to do with the pillaging of nonrenewable resources and in some cases here perhaps it does, although far more often it seems they are talking about the extraction of wealth from anyone else who might have a claim on it. Since “elites” in this context seems to mean “whoever wins the competition for the levers of power,” the proposition comes pretty close to definitional--an elite is by definition a person who excludes others from their just reward.   [As what is perhaps an aside: A and R never seem to make clear just why they are so down on the “extraction” of wealth from others—is is it because they are Kantians who want to treat people as ends, not means?  Or perhaps Utilitarians who believe that more entrepreneurship will get down if entrepreneurs enjoy a good payday? It is possible that A and R simply did not notice the distinction.]

Anyway, “inclusive” societies that institutionalize innovation and exterminate “extraction.” Against this “framework,” A and R discuss a great variety (40? 80?) of instances from the prehistoric Nafutians to the present-day (I hope not “posthistoric") Somalis. Some of these stories are familiar, some quite new (at least to me). It isn't always obvious why a particular story is in s particular chapter although if you go with the flow, this isn't a problem. At any rate,  the authors are at least insistent on what their theory is not: not merely geography and not just culture.  Hmph, maybe.  . It'll be a long time before you persuade me that the differences between Venice (say) and Chad have nothing to do with geography; nor that the differences between Muslims and Hindus in the Indian subcontinent have nothing to do with culture (nor, come to think of it, Persians and Arabs in the Middle Eastern heartland, nor Muslims and Europeans in the Mediterranean). But the difference may not be obvious to A and R either: they seem to abandon the not-stuff whenever convenient as, for example, when compare/contrasting the experience of Spaniards in South America with that of the English in the North.

At this point, one might be tempted to say that one has read a lot of this before—in, for example, the seminal work of Douglass North. The authors will have none of it. They salute North as a distinguished forebear but they say that what they have added is “politics.” But once again, we are up against a problem of definition. Having pored conscientiously over the entire text, I haven't the least idea what precisely they mean by “politics,” unless it be “leadership,” or perhaps “the accident of leadership,” or perhaps more generally “accident.”

From their endnotes, it is clear that A and R have absorbed and (mostly successfully) repackaged a formidable amount of material, yet the general theoretic anemia helps to remind the reader of what they  have left out.  Unless I missed it, there is no mention of Richard Pipes and his superb account of "patrimonial" social order in Russia; nor of Kenneth Pomerantz and his searching comparison of China and the West, nor Martin van Otswald and his work on the social order of the military in Modern Europe.  Perhaps most important, they seem not to have considered what I would count as the runaway best book on modern nationhood--Charles Tilly's Coercion, Capital and European States.  As authors who want to include "politics" in their account of nationhood, it is hard to think of a better place to begin.

With limitations like these, how can one still count the book a success.  I'd put it this way: we're dealing with authors who come from a milieu where theory dominates.  As political/social historians in the academy, they come from a world where theory dominates: if you don't have a theory you are a mere popularizer, doomed to spend your weekends on C-Span with the likes of Doris Kearns and  Goodwin and Douglas Brinkley.  No self-respecting Ivy League professor wants. Better to propound any theory than to suffer obloquy such as that.  So now you've got two choices: either postulate a theory that is too rigid and formal to capture experience; or settle for one that is too weak to offer any new insight at all.  Given the choices, I'd say they are much luckier to have fallen (intentionally or not) into the second error.  At least it leaves them open to telling a bunch of really good stories.

Footnote:  The authors now have a blog, in which they answer some criticisms and offer some extensions of remarks.  It bids fair to become more interesting than the book itself.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Ed and The Flowering Peach

Through the magic of Facebook, I've lately made contact with my old college friend Ed.  I am happy to report that Ed seems to be thriving.  After years of grinding labor in Cleveland, he's now securely ensconced in Pompano Beach, full of years and honors and surrounded by family and projects.

 Particularly theatre: Ed has rekindled his youthful affinity for the stage.  These days he is producing, including Jersey Boys (well: by his own account, one of 75).  But in fact,  I remember his on-stage  career.  I told him that I think the last time I laid eyes on him, he was a son of Noah, lamenting "what am I without my money?" (Ed was Shem, Noahs eldest, on the make).     That was 53 years ago; I wondered if Ed would remember.   Quicker than you can say "okay animals, two by two," he responded:
THE FLOWERING PEACH is a favorite play. I wonder why it has never been revived. Also remember that we had to eat "biblical" food when we were on stage...dates, figs, etc...and one night the ark wheels got stuck on a fig...took four folks to get it moving...Glad you recall the play, and it brought back many memories. 

Right, the The Flowering Peach.   Not that I remembered; nor did I remember that it was by Clifford Odets, still a name in our youth, hardly a memory today.  Well, at least a memory: I remember seeing an Odets on Broadway just a few years back, though I don't think its hearty proletarianism wore very well.

The Flowering Peach is perhaps a slightly different animal.  It's a warm-hearted (yech) family comedy.   That is, Jewish family comedy--only the Jews here sound less like the Fertile Crescent than they do like the Lower East Side.  I remember it fondly also and like Ed, I would be glad to see it again. But wait: for a comedy from Second Avenue, how would you find a cast, unless you can get Jackie Mason to take a victory lap?

Translated,  I suspect it is a cultural remnant that has been lost--maybe a whole cultural world.  This is the tail end of the great immigrant generation, the memory of the holocaust still warm, the bitterness of postwar politics still stopping the breath of the old loyalists (Odets himself had gone over to the dark side, losing the sustenance he had enjoyed among the lefty companions of his youth).   Ed and his classmates could do it not because they spoke much Yiddish (I suspect that none of them knew any but catch-phrases)--but because at least they had heard people from the generation of their parents and grandparents.  I can't imagine how you would recreate that knowledge today.

Still, it could be fun to try. There was even a musical version, with Danny least as much of a stretch as Jackie Mason.  If only we knew someone with the grit and determination to take it on as a producer.  Hello, Ed?  Hello?  Hello?

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Exxon: Being a Manly Man

 Were I not reading Steve Coll's gripping new  biography of Exxon, I would  not have not run across this gem, about the observation of an executive examining Exxon culture around 1990:
The executive was startled to discover at one point that the corporation's stop five leaders, all white males, were the fathers, combined of fourteen sons and zero daughters. 
"The mathematical probability that such a quirk had no basis in the corporation's social mores was low," Coll remarks drily. And quoting his "executive:" "'What is there in the culture here that promotes people with sons?'"  Actually, Coll has already suggested an answer:
Exxon recruited heavily from the petroleum engineering departments of the public universities of America’s South, Southwest, and Midwest. By locating its headquarters in Texas, the corporation placed itself in the landscape to which many of its long-tenured American employees belonged. Exxon maintained “kind of a 1950s southern religious culture,” said an executive who served on the corporation’s board of directors during the Raymond era. “They’re all engineers, mostly white males, mostly from the South.  .  .  . They shared a belief in the One Right Answer, that you would solve the equation and that would be the answer, and it didn’t need to be debated.”
--Coll, Steve (2012-05-01). Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power 
 (Kindle Locations 868-871). Penguin Group. Kindle Edition. 

Man, I wouldn't have lasted there five minutes.  No, strike that: the security alarms would have howled as I walked past the front door.

Afterthought:  Has it changed?  Dunno, haven't finished the book yet.

Reading Maketh a Full Man

Back in the Pleistocene, my then-wife undertook to run for the school board. She lost, which I think was probably a blessing for all concerned. But why, exactly? I have sometimes wondered if it might have been the slogan. The best we could come up with was "Education--it can do no lasting harm." Anthony Grafton suggests we might have been tracking this guy:
Many years ago I asked Otto Neugebauer, a pioneering historian of mathematics and astronomy in the ancient world, about his education in pre–World War I Austria. Neugebauer was known both for his comprehensive histories and for his editions and interpretations of very difficult texts—mathematical and astronomical tables and horoscopes, preserved on cuneiform tablets, in Greek papyri and Latin manuscripts, and in many other sources and traditions. (Late in life, Neugebauer mastered Ethiopic and wrote penetrating work on Ethiopian astronomy and calendrics.)

I expected him to say something warm about his teachers at gymnasium, along the lines of the memoir in which another great émigré scholar, Erwin Panofsky, described the “lovable pedant” who taught him Greek in Berlin (this gentleman reproached himself in class for failing to notice a misplaced comma in a Greek text, since he himself had written an article on that very comma long before). Instead, Neugebauer told me that he had hated his secondary school. He received his diploma, he explained, only because he volunteered for the army, which led to several years of service in the artillery on the Italian front. And he did not begin to work at a high level until he went to university after the war.

It was surprising enough to learn that Neugebauer, whose brilliant, demanding lectures on ancient science had impressed even Richard Feynman, no admirer of the humanities, had ever been a less than brilliant student. But I was even more shocked when he went on to explain that he thought his experience typical of the only general principle about education that he had been able to distill from his career of many decades in German and American universities. I asked him to reveal it. He smiled and said: “No system of education known to man is capable of ruining everyone.”

Tuesday, May 08, 2012


There are so many ways I could go with this one, not sure which one I want to take:
What does civility have to do with civil society?  What place do good manners, courtesy, etc.,have in a civil, i.e., pluralistic society of many, partially autonomous and competing individuals and associations?  What does the civility of good manners have in common with the civility of civil society?  Let me begin by saying that both postulate a minimum dignity of all citizens.  The dignity which is accorded to a person who is the object of civil conduct or good manners is dignity of moral worth.  Good manners postulate the moral dignity of the other person who is seen face-to-face, and in public discourse about individuals and groups who are not immediately present.  It makes no reference to his merit or dignity in general, in all other situations. Civility as a feature of civil society considers others as fellow-citizens of equal dignity in their rights and obligations as members of civil society; it means regarding other persons, including one's adversaries, as members of the same  inclusive collectivity, i.e., a members of the same society, even though they belong to different parties or to different religious communities or to different ethnic groups.  Civility in the  former sense is  included incivility in the latter sense.  But in the later sense, it includes concern for the good of adversaries as well for the good of allies.  Therein lies the difference between civility understood as good manners or courtesy and civility as the virtue of civil society.
--Edward Shils, "The Virtue of Civility," in id., 320-355 at 338-9 (1997)

In lieu of this post, I was going to write something snarky about Romney claiming credit for the auto bailout.  Maybe I'll save it for half an hour.

Dig In!

About a third of us are obese now; by 2030, the number will be 42 percent. Looks like an implied rate of a measly 1.35 percent per year. At that rate, we won't all be obese until 2094.

Remembering Maurice

My two kids were born in the 60s, just in time for the Maurice Sendak books.  When I read this morning of his death, I emailed the young ones:
Just curious: did you like his books as well as I did?  They of course came on line just in time for your childhood, so you and I were seeing them for the first time together. What are your recollections?
I haven't received a specific response from either but I see that each of them has subbed out his/her Facebook profile pic with a Sendak illustration: the son's is, I think, Max from Where the Wild Things Are; the daughter's is from Chicken Soup with Rice.  Meanwhile the daughter-in-law, a guru among Montessori teachers, weighs in with a measured response:
Where the Wild Things Are really captures that bursting-into-bloom imagination that is characteristic of the development we note in Montessori as happening about five / six...Max is younger, though, I think.  I found the book a little scary for younger children.  There might be monsters in their heads, but we don't need to dwell on that yet...we can better serve them by giving them the real world (that's the party line, but I also think it's true).  The self-awareness necessary to truly love and identify with Max doesn't really come on line until five or six.

As a book for parents, however, it rocks. 

 And my sister, a seasoned veteran of the Kindergarten classroom, adds:
Yes, I loved the books but often wondered if they might be a little intense for my age kids, kindergarten, did read them some times but tried to balance with some softer types in between times.   A little the way I felt about Chris Van Allsburg, although his illustrations weren't quite so intensely scary but his stories were pretty often kind of creepy for real little kids,  but did read them sometimes to kindergartners and then wondered if I just wasn't reading them  for me!  Maybe that is partly why you read Sendak.  But those illustrations of Sendak are like no other, they are wonderful!  Sorry he is gone.
 That's an enduring problem with "children's" books, not so?  Gulliver's Travels, Pilgrim's Progress, Huckleberry Finn have all spent their time on the children's shelf when it is pretty clear that adults were the real audience.  I confess I had never heard of Chris Van Allsburg; here's a Wiki link

Update:  My friend Steve writes a posthumous fan letter.

Monday, May 07, 2012

At Last!

I finally learned how to caramelize a scallop.  The secret: brine it for ten minutes (I knew that part), and then let it rest uncovered for a couple of hours in in the fridge.  That way, you can get an (a) an exterior that is toasty-like brown; and (b) an interior that is almost transparent.

Why didn't I figure that out before?

[I'd show you a picture but we et em.]

Comparative Politics

Let's review the bidding: incumbent who promised "change" and then disappoints almost everybody ...

...defeated by candidate whom no one much likes, but who is not the incumbent.  Were I the leader of some other government, I'd worry.

Followup:  Glib and facile?  Sure.  One big difference between France and US--rightwingers withheld their vote at the instance of a right-wing candidate who figures she can vault herself into the mainstream by strolling through the wreckage that her defeated predecessor leaves behind.  I can't think of anybody in US politics positioned to take her role (no Sarah, not you. And not you either, Michele).

Banfield's Moral Basis of a Backward Society

Late in life when he was already well-known (if not always well  loved), Ed Banfield offered a credo:
A political system is an accident. It is an accumulation of habits, customs, prejudices, and principles that have survived a long process of trial and error and of ceaseless response to changing circumstance. If the system works well on the whole, it is a lucky accident—the luckiest, indeed, that can befall a society, for all of the institutions of the society, and thus its entire character and that of the human types formed within it, depend ultimately upon the government and the political order.
Link.   Or more pithily (same source): “I am a vintage Burkean,   I am convinced that “society exists on the basis of habits and beliefs.” 

 It was not always so.   Banfield began his life as a bureaucrat and long persisted in his commitment to the model of rational planning.   His Damascene moment was his the nine months (in 1954-5) he spent with his family in "Montegrano," a peasant village under the arch of the boot of Italy.  That was the inquiry that led to perhaps his most important and enduring work, The Moral Basis of a Backward Society (1958) another of those short books I will not throw away.  

At the beginning   of his account, Banfield (always a superb analyst) itemizes six commonly held explanations for the kind of poverty he found in the village:
1.  Most people in Montegrano are desperately poor. ...

2.  The peasant is as ignorant as his donkey and the artisan hardley less so. ...

3.  Political behavior reflects class interests and antagonisms. ...

4.  Workers who have a plot of land, however small, want to maintain the status quo. ...

5.  Centuries of oppression have left thepeasant with a pathological distrust of the state and all authority. ... 

6.  The southern Italian is a despairing fatalist.
"There is an element of truth in each of the theories," Banfield wrote, "but none of them is fully consistent with the facts."  Instead, proposed that "the Montegrenesi act as if they were following this rule:
Maximize the material short-run advantage of the nuclear family; assume that all otheers will do likewise."
Banfield coined a name for his hypothesis: "amoral familiasm."  He conceded from the start that the name was inexact: an "amoral familist" might be deeply moral in his commitment to his family, but with little or none to the larger community.  Still, he offered seventeen (!!) implications, of which a sampling may capture the flavor:
9.  In a society of amoral familists, the claim of any person or institution to be inspired by zeal for public rather than privae advantage will be regarded as a fraud. ...

15.  In a society of amoral familists it will be assumed that whatever group is in power is self-serving and corrupt. ...
 Banfield ends with a short chapter of suggestions for reform, but it's a damp squib: as a habitual skeptic, he is not one well armed to  take us up to the mountaintop and show us the broad vistas.  It prefigures the man who would later describe political success as a "lucky accident."   But it also discloses a man of great compassion who can see what is in front of his eyes without blinking.

Reality bitchslap:  I may have thought this book was a keeper, but in my preparation of this timeless commentary, it pretty much fell apart.

Fun Fact:  Evidently  Banfield told his friends that the person he got his ideas from at Chicago was--Frank Knight.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Sunday Lesson: Does Kevin Exist?

Kevin Drum wades into what is, for him, untypical territory.  He asks: did Jesus exist?  And he answers: yeh, I guess so, but I don't really care.    I agree on "yeh."    Like him I'm a nonbeliever, and like him I do not get the point of nonbelievers who feel that denying the historicity of person named Jesus is an entailment necessary to help them in their larger nonbelief.  

But I would press Kevin's point a bit farther.  I think the study of early Christian history--call it, if you will, "How Jesus  became Christ"--is fascinating.  Watching early "believers" (hazardous to call them "Christian," so early) as they stitch together the various patches of Hellenistic dogma, folklore, whatever, into what they can perceive as a unified whole--well okay, again, absolutely nothing turns on it, but as a chapter in the history of a culture can be most absorbing.   Do we need the Jewish Bible (soon to be "the Old Testament?") or not?  If we need it, can we still eat pork?  Do we have to chop off the tip of our tackle?   And what about all those stories?  Are they messages to the Jews and Us?  Or just to Us?  

I should add that I'm just as intrigued by the  history of how the Judaism of the temple gave way to the Judaism of the diaspora: if anything, that one is even more interesting, because it is not just the creation of a new faith but rather the turning of a theological battleship 180 degrees in stormy waters. Anyway, now this:

And now for that saying of Moses, You are not to eat of the swine; nor yet of eagle, hawk, or crow; nor of any fish that has not got scales.  In this there are three distinct moral precepts which he had received and understood.   (For God says in Deuteronomy, I will make a covenant with this people that will embody my rules for holiness; so you see, the Divine command is in no sense a literal ban on eating, and Moses was speaking spiritually).  The meaning of his allusion to swine is this: what he is really saying is, 'you are not to consort with the class of people who are like swine, inasmuch as they forget all about the Lord while they are living in affluence, but remember Him when they are in want--just as a swine, so long as it is eating, ignores its master, but starts to squeal the moment it feels hungry, and then falls silent again when it is given food.

Next, you shall eat neither eagle nor hawk, kite nor crow.  This means that you are not to frequent the company nor imitate the habits of those who have no idea of earning their own bread by toil and sweat, but in total disregard of all  law swoop down on the possession of other people; going about with every appearance of innocence, but keeping a sharp lookout and darting glances in every direction to see whom their rapacity can prey upon next....

When he says, you are not to eat of the lamprey, the polypus, or the cuttlefish, his meaning is that you are not to consort with or initiate the kind of people who have rejected God altogether. ...
--"Of the Laws of Diet," from The Epistle of Barnabas (A.D. 70? 200?)
(Maxwell Staniforth trans.,, rev. Andrew Louth)

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Where's the Party?

Does anybody do Chinese opera any more?  I had a chance to see The Red Detachment of Women back a few years ago and to my lasting regret, I somehow missed it.  But if you hear of a performance coming up give me a jingle, okay?

Afterthought:  I suppose I was thinking "in the US." But not necessarily.  If you there's something really good on offer in China, I suppose I might try to make it happen.

Frank Knight's Economic Organization

I wouldn't say that Frank Knight's Economic Organization is his most important  work, or his most interesting.  Those accolades would apply to Risk, Uncertainty and Profit (most important) and The Ethics of Competition (most interesting).  But EO is fascinating both in its context and history and as also as an exemplar of Knight at his best--his parsimony, his precision, his fair-mindedness and his flat-footed Midwestern elegance.  In respects like this, I'd place him squarely in the tradition of British Clear Thinkers, along with Mill and Hume (I might throw in Schopenhauer, if I thought I could persuade you he was really British).   So, EO a keeper in my stack of short books not to be thrown away.

There are actually three parts to the backstory (all summarized in an admirable "genealogy" posted at SSRN by one Ross B. Emmett).   One is the semi-official version of Knight in samizdat--how his paper became a favorite of economics professors, the kind of thing you hide in your top drawer to reread before you face the students.  Two is the remarkable account of the paper and Knight himself--how it was first published and copyrighted without his knowledge and, as it appears, against his will (are there any other cases of involuntary copyright?)--pretty good evidence, if we needed any, of Knight's utter lack of personal vanity (and perhaps also, of a streak of orneriness).

Third and perhaps most intriguing is the relationship between two discontinuous parts of the essay--the first chapter (called "Social Economic Organization") in which Knight lays out a sketch of the nature and purpose of economics; and the remaining chapters in which he undertakes to lay out the ways in which an economy does its work.   Focusing on the first chapter naturally raises the question of how this paper relates to other papers (notably "Ethics of Competition") in which Knight offers so trenchant a critique of the market mechanism.  The short answer is that Knight rather pulls his punches; other papers are more challenging (a longer answer would be more complicated; see Emmett, supra).  But even in the restrained version, you can find stuff like this:
Social costs of Specialization. All the gains from specialization are summed up  in the one word, efficiency; it enables us to get more goods, or better; its advantages are instrumental. On the other hand, specialization in itself, is an evil, measured by generally accepted human ideals.   It gives us more products, but in its effects on human beings as such it is certainly bad in some respects and in others questionable.  In the nature of the case it means a narrowing of the personality; we like o see people of all-around, well-developed powers and capacities.  In extreme instances, such as the monotonous work of machine tending, or repetitive movements at a machine-forced pace, it may be ruinous to health and maddening to the spirit. In this connection it is especially significant that the most important source of gain also involves the most important human cost.  The specialization of leadership means that the masses of the people work under conditions which tend to suppress initiative and independence, to develop servility as well as narrowness and in general to dehumanize them.
From the spiritual progenitor of fresh-water economics, these are strong words indeed.

Wait a Minute, What? [Kenetucky Dems Edition]

Did this guy really mean to say that the chairman of the Kentucky Democratic Party is a registered Republican?

Friday, May 04, 2012

The Passing of Dick Lugar: A Premortem

It says a lot about the state of our politics that people who would have reviled Dick Lugar as a wild-eyed extremist have gone into prospective mourning over his apparently inevitable defeat in next Tuesday's primary.  Count me among them: however grudgingly I've come to recognize Lugar as representing a standard of purposeful integrity that is almost Quixotic.

That said, I'd have to say I can't really blame the voters of Indiana for wanting to get rid of him. He came in with Jimmy Carter, for heavens' sakes.  And I've no doubt his enemies are right when they say he spends more time cooling his heels in the departure lounge at Perm than he has kicking back a few brews with the boys at the Legion hall in Terre Haute.  And didn't Plutarch tell us that the Athenians banished Aristides because they were tired of hearing him called "the just?"

Fn:  I didn't know it until I scanned his record for this piece, but it appears that by the standards of the Republican party of today, Lugar can be ranked as positively bomb-throwing.  He's squishy on abortion and gay rights, close to liberal on immigration and Cuban sanctions.  And he gets an F from the NRA.   Ironically, I suppose quite a few Republicans would have embraced such a record in 1976.  Like I said, times change.