Friday, August 31, 2012

Sarah Palin:The Beginning of Wisdom

Balzac says no woman learns the truth until she reaches a  certain age.  Underbelly recalls and refashions:
Who's Sarah Palin?
Get me Sarah Palin!
Get me more Sarah Palin!
Get me someone like Sarah Palin....
Who's Sarah Palin?
Now this: link.

Mr. Smithers Goes to Washington

I read Jeff Connaughton's The Payoff on the strength of an enthusiastic recommendation from Simon Johnson. It was a worthwhile endeavor: an important story, well told. And as may or may not be relevant, it is also an odd story, or at least teller, and I'm not sure myself just how much the perspective of the teller affects the content of the tale. Bear with me, I'll try to explain.

The core story here is the narrative of Connaughton's life as the trusty right hand to Ted Kaufman in Kaufman's two-year career as senator from Delaware. You'll remember Kaufman: he was the trusty right hand to Delaware Senator Joe Biden through much of Biden's senate career, and the appointment to fill out Biden's term after Biden moved over to the White House was his reward. Kaufman, you'll recall, took the bit in his teeth and ran: he began his career by announcing he would not be a candidate for election and thereby freed himself of all the responsibilities of fund-raising that make up the daily life of any senator who wants to stick around for another term.

Arriving just in time to clean up after the 2008 meltdown, Kaufman decided to make a brief for financial reform. It was a topic Connaughton knew a bit about: he'd spent a bit of his youth in banking, as well as long years as a lobbyist. So the setup is clear. But from here, you could file the book on the heavy-laden shelf of memoirs entitled “how I confronted the great beast and got my head handed to me by the forces of greed, corruption and sloth.” Indeed from to time it is hard to tell whether we should envy them for the fun they are having as they slash at the Wall Street minotaur and how much indulge our sense of compassion from our foreknowledge that it will all come to nothing.

If you think you've heard all this before the chances are you have, and that's a problem: the kind of reader who will stick with this book (though it is fluent, and not very long)--the kind of reader is the one who already pretty much knows what story the author has to tell. This is a pity, not least because this would actually be a pretty good one to put into the hands of a reader who does not know the story and wants to know what the fuss is all about. Indeed Connaughton's general introduction to “algorithmic trading”--its revolutionary character and its potential for mischief—is a small masterpiece and I'm pretty sure I will steal it for use with students next spring.

But now, the odd part. Mainly, the alert reader is bound to be puzzled by the tone of Matt-Damon-like innocence that the author adopts when he undertakes to tell us what routine Washington evil is all about. This is a guy who, after all, had been in and around politics for a quarter century; who had managed campaign money; who had made himself a principal (if not quite first tier) of a formidable lobbying machine. Surprised? Is this a literary device thrust upon him by his editor?

Possibly, but here's a reason to think otherwise. Specifically as he describes it himself, Connaughton is one of those people born to believe himself not quite deserving of a place at the high table, the perpetual outsider with his nose perpetually pressed against the glass. He seems to have learned how to make a good thing of it: as he himself suggests, the job of second banana has its inherent virtues, and it is a job he seems to be good at. The irony is that in working for Kaufman he makes himself the second banana of a second banana and here, it would appear, he really excels.

Which sets me up for my final point—one not strictly germane to the essence of the book, but still a fascinating piece of dish. That is: Connaughton, who has built his entire career around Biden—around Biden's presidential aspirations but more generally around Biden's position as a top-tier macher in the Democratic party establishment. Truth be told, Connaughton really hates Biden. Well: he's awed by Biden's political chops and he genuinely admires a lot of what Biden stands for. But in his quarter century, Connaughton feels he's never had the appreciation he deserves.  And it rankles.  I mean really, really rankles. 

Which is to say: I can't count the number of times in the book where Connaughton says of Biden, “But did he ever thank me? Ha!”--or words to that effect.

And it may be more than just Connaughton. If you believe his account, it's a failing of Biden's: a great crowd pleaser, keen political instincts, and in many ways a highly constructive and admirable policy man. But on the testimony here, a man with an unpleasant habit of not saying thank you to all but the narrowest of old established inner circles.

In short, I can' think of anything to match Connaughton's rancor except Paul Theroux's confessional about his "relationship" with V.S. Naipaul.  And I grant this may be nothing more than mischievous gossip, although Connaughton does draw one provocative general comparison. He points out that Biden (at least in Connaughton's persepective) can be seen as the ant-Kennedy. Ted, that is: apparently Ted had exactly the opposite reputation from what Connaughton sees in Biden. Connaughton (quoting a friend) says that “Kennedy believe[d] in force projection”--of keeping touch, of following the careers of your former underlings, of making sure, in otheer words, that you have friends and allies in every cranny of the beast.

It's a fascinating insight, very likely true. Of course the irony is that with Connaughton, Biden got the same result by doing just the opposite.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Who Ran the Temples?

All right Mr. Smarty Pants, you think you know all the answers--here's one for you. It's about temples, specifically Greek temples, the ones in Greece.

Here's the deal: faithful readers will recall that I reported on how much I enjoyed Finnerty's and Maarcus' The Creation of Inequality, about how communities/tribes/clans/families--okay, "states"--generate "elites."    What I learned: well--I think I already said that the best way to turn a transitory inequality into a hereditary elite is to get yourself associated with the neighborhood god.  You don't have to be a god, but once folks come to believe that you pal around with the god, they treat you with deference.

Corollary: sure sign that an elite is getting traction, the growth of temples.  A temple means that god has gone bureaucratic which is always good for someone who wants to create hereditary power.  When we were young, we all learned about "priestly castes," and "temple aristocracies."    And I think there is great merit in this view: the priest (or at least the bishop) always seems to show up in time for lunch.

But here's one to savor: the classical Greeks.  Was there ever a society more fraught with temples than these Athenians and their kin?  We have the Parthenon, Olympus, Bassae, the temples at Agrigento, and fo forth and so on In this context, I was amusing myself with a notion about the Athenians of the Parthenon: they're a temple society in a democracy.  The very idea seems to undercut all the points I was just making about priestly castes.

And go further: unless I am missing something, it seems to me that the classical Greeks in general did not have a priestly caste.   You want to make a sacrifice, you make a sacrifice.  Maybe you do it for fun, maybe  you are shamed into it: still,  as far as the temple is concerned, it's all amateur hour.

So we have a temple society without a priestly caste, nor even priests.  And here is a step further who maintained the temples?  Grant that maybe anybody could do a ceremony, still somebody had to molp the grease off the floor, or fix the leaky roof tiles.  If there isn't a priestly caste, shouldn't there at least be a class of sextons?

"They Said You Weren't Fit to Sleeep with Pigs
And I Denied It!

From the annals of back-handed compliments.  My mother always preferred "you don't sweat much for a fat girl."  Now we have Mike Huckabee with the jerk-surgeon thing.  I see both Maureen and Gail quoted Huckabee in their slasher attacks op eds this morning--in the paper Times, bracketing the page.  Fashion query: is this like both wearing the same adorable little Vin Burnham number to the Inaugural Ball?

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Note to Self: Axial Age

Note to self: never again waste time on a book whose declared subject is the "axial age."  We can agree on this much: something happened to world civilization between, say 800 and 200 BC, a period which probably embraces the Buddha and Socrates and Isaiah and Confucius and suchlike.  Beyond that, it's pretty much anyone's guess, in that just about anyone can bend or stretch this particular catchphrase to fit almost any reading onto almost any set of contemporaneous facts.  I name no names, and I do not think I risk doing harm to the innocent because I think this complaint probably applies to anybody who ever indulged in such an enterprise.

Explaining the Annuity Gimmick

 [Meta note: this post would have been up a while ago were it not for AT&T's "improved" DSL service.]

I must have my bluetooth on stun.  Tonight I caught the podcast of lat week's This American Life (cf. link) where they talked about the guy in Rhode Island who bought annuities on the dying and now finds himself facing a 66-count indictment.  It's a great piece but I didn't hear anybody clarify what seems to me to be the underlying issue here--rather two different issues.   

One, the policy.  Here's an annuity with a cherry on top: a guaranteed payout at death.  The core business makes sense.  The company is playing the spread.  They plan to make money on the difference between what they collect investing and what they have to pay on the annuity.   The guy who buys the package has to accept a low rate of return.  But otherwise it's heads I win, tails you lose.

Apparently the trouble is that somebody forgot about the prospect that the customer might die too soon.  That would mean you don't have enough time to collect on the spread, and you still have to make the final payout.    That is, nobody thought to write in a clause saying  you had to prove you were in good health at the time of purchase, or that you had live for a year, maybe two, maybe three, before you'd earned the right  to the final payoff.  So  far, this is just bad underwriting, or bad lawyering, or both (surprise: they've changed the terms of the contract).

This is where our hero steps in.  He figures that if he can get policies on the aged and the infirm, he can make a bundle gambling with the insurance company's money.   So he signs up a bunch of wrinklies and crumblies.  He gives them some cash, maybe a couple of thou, all they have to do is sign.  To listen to the podcast, you'd have to infer that the customers (or their survivors) were delighted with the deal: for them, it looked like free money.

Well.  Delighted, at least until the prosecutor came round and drummed it into much more money the seller had made.  Now is the time when they (or at least some--not all) are ready to turn state's evidence.

It seems to me that this is issue #2, conceptually unrelated to the bad-underwriting problem above.  Evidently the defendant thinks he can show that he never misled anybody, that he never concealed anything, that he promised them money for the signature, and that he kept his promise.

I'll bet  know where you are going with this one.  The little Ron-Paul homunculus on my left shoulder keeps yapping "Hey, they're grownups! If they didn't want the money they shouldn't have taken it. A deal's a deal, let it stand! "  Boy, I'm tempted by that one.  But the bleeding-heart homunculus on my other shoulder keeps answering "Yeh, and pigs will fly.  These people didn't understand what they are doing, and would not have understood it if you'd spelled it out in flashing neon lights.   It takes a special kind of mind to spot a gimmick like that, and decent people don't do it.   Taking contracts from these poor souls was like buying Manhattan island for $24 worth of beads."  

Oh meo myo, a dilemma.  But the voice on my third shoulder (?) adds: "Right, not a single Wall Street pirate has spent so much as one day behind bars. And we are going after a guy who kept his promise.  The only reason for a prosecution here is that the prosecutor can't figure it out either,  and therefore figures that somebody ought to go to jail."  

I am not cool with that.

Afterthought:  That part about the beads--did that ever really happen?

The Real Issue with the Romney IRA

Chopping some chicken bones for stock this afternoon, I listened to Terri Gross talk to the two guys from the Boston Globe who wrote a book about Mitt Romney--and in particular, about that "magic IRA" that may have yielded (so far) no less than $20 million.  Others have dealt with the technical issues here; but let me play around with some bogus numbers for a moment and try to make a point that seems to have slipped through the cracks.

For starters, suppose you can contribute as much as $50,000 a year to an IRA (I'm making this up).  Suppose do contribute $50k for each of 20 years.  Traded in flat, that's a million dollars, but your  money manager is so great you wind up with $20 mill.  What kind of return is that?  Per my spreadsheet, the answer is a tad under 26 percent every year for the entire 20.  Not even the Asian tigers ever did that?

So how did Romney get so lucky favored of fortune?  If I understand these guys right, the answer is "oh, we made side deals on Bain investments and went along for the ride." 

Well.  Okay.  But wait. Did Bain make 20 percent a year on its entire package.  Hah, I'll bet that question answers itself.  Which means that the Bain IRA planner picked and chose, buying into the best projects and skipping the more doubtful.

So who is hurt by this?  Are you with me here?  The answer would be the Bain investors, not so?  You're th manager, your job is to invest the boss's money. You invest the boss's  money in projects #1 through #10.  You put your own money into ##3 and #6 and #7, you skip the rest.  And you never tell the boss?

If I were a Bain investor, I'd be ticked.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Leadership Secrets of the Hunter Gatherers and Others

A while back I posted on Acemoglu's and Robinson's Why States Fail.  Faithful readers will recall that I was underwhelmed: quite a few diverting stories but it never really developed the necessary grit and gristle.  Jared Diamond used the phrase "just-so story," which struck me as hard but true.

Well here's news.  Now I find the book they might wish they had written.  Or more precisely, the book which, had they read it before they wrote their own, might have made their own much better.  That would be Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus, The Creation of Inequality, subtitled, "How Our Prehistoric Ancestors Set the Stage for Monarchy, Slavery, and Empire."  Sp: an attempt to explore the assertion of Rousseau (whom they take as a point of departure," that we, though "born free" remain "everywhere in chains."  And how, exactly, did that happen?

Responding to Rousseau's puzzle, KM explore finding from--what, 20?  30?--different societies around the world.  Almost all are "prehistoric," although they do include helpful discussions of the Big Dogs in the Fight, the valleys of the Nile and of the Tigris-Euphrates.  They find--ah, well, now, what exactly do they find?  Here I hesitate.  For all my enthusiasm, I'll admit I find the book devilishly difficult to encapsulate.  I worry that part of the problem just might be the same thing that bothered me with AR--that they gloss through to much, never stopping to come to terms with exactly what they have uncovered.

There might be a grain of truth in this last, but I think I can offer  more generous reading.  I think the point here is that the data, on close scrutiny, is refractory, and does not lend itself to facile summary.  I'm guessing, in other words, that someone worked long and hard over that title and subtitle precisely to make sure they did not promise to deliver more than they felt they could. This must have driven the marketers wild (cf., e.g., "How Rome Fell!  Six Important Secrets Revealed, to Help You Enjoy a Better World!").  But if you've got the patience and the curiosity, it opens you up to a wealth of material.  And recognizing their own resistance to easy bullet points, let me see if I can wrestle some bullet points out of them, even if against their will.
  • It did not all start with Sumer.   More generally, not even Sumer started with Sumer.  That is to say, the development of urban culture in Mesopotamia was not an act of creation ex nihilo, it was a slow-rolling arms-race competition between neighboring centers.  Moreover even if the Mesopotamians were special, you can find important prefiguring for almost everything relevant that happened there.
  • There really are truly egalitarian societies. But on the evidence, they are fragile, marginal and desperately poor.
  • In hunter-gatherer societies, men do the hunting, women do the gathering.  We knew that; we probably also knew that hunting is a dodgy enterprise: not everybody is good at it, and not everybody is lucky. 
  • If you are good and lucky, of course you start building up wealth.  But here it gets really murky.  Sure as shootin' (heh!) these guys decide they want to pass some of the goodies on to their spawn.   Sometimes they get away with it; sometimes they don't, and in any event, there is likely to be some kind of a row.
  • Now here comes one of my favorite takeaways.  It seems that if you are going to entrench your power, the best thing you can do is to associate yourself  with the local deity.  Not necessarily become a god (although that worked for the pharaohs).  But you put yourself a long leg up once you get the god to say "he's my guy."
  • An important transition in the development of hereditary inequality is the shift from "men's houses" to "temples." This is a  tantalizing point that needs more exploration.  And it is intriguing (though not necessarily a contradiction) to consider the case of Athens--as strong a temple-centric city as ever there was,  yet nominally a "democracy" (yes, women, slaves, foreigners, imperial overreach blah blah. Still...)
  • A critical "next stage" beyond local power is when you reach out and try to dominate your neighbors (by force or (heh!) diplomacy.   When it happened in Hawaii, it was so unexampled they didn't even have a word for it.  So they borrowed a word from their guests and called him a "king."
  •  Oh, and--we really are a nasty piece of business.  Scalpings, head-huntings, cannibalism, mass execution, revenge killing, debt servitude, blah blah.  If there is any evidence that our predecessors were somehow nicer than we are, you're not going to find it here.  They just didn't have nukes.

 Et cetera.  I made more e-notes on this book, I think, than any other I've read  in Kindle.  I'm still trying to sort it--and them--out.  Meanwhile, this one is surely in competition for the best, the most move-the-ball-downfield book I've read this year.  But then, there have been several.

Reception Index:  Here are a couple of squibs I wrote about the book earlier.   I see that no one else in my Google Reader feed has chosen to comment on it.  And at the moment, the number of Amazon reviews = zero.  So also the number of reviews at the Harvard Press book page.  I do find one review in the Wall Street Journal.  The reviewer reads it as a brief in favor of hereditary monarchy, which strikes me as batty. Oh, and I just spotted another, this in the Times Literary Supplement. This one faults them for underplaying the role and story of women--which is probably a fair cop.

Wilder Gets it Right

Chez Buce enjoyed a screening of the 1944 Double Indemnity last night and here's the big news that you already knew: Wilder really is one of the all-time great storytellers. I really never have seen the point of Fred McMurray nor even Barbara Stanwyck, but it doesn't matter: the pace and the detail and he atmosphere are all so right that it still remains the gold standard of noir.

I had always thought of this as a James M. Cain film after the guy who wrote the book; I had failed grasp how much of the dialog--the ratatattat almsot Groucho-ish one-liners that just holler the name of Raymond Chandler, who co-wrote the script. I see from David Thomson's account that Cain got it: per Thomson, Cain said "it's the only picture I ever saw made from my books that had things in it I wish I had thought of."

Curious fact name on important respect in which this film is like the other great Wilder masterpiece, Some Like it Hot. For an answer, go here.

Fun fact: I know that Edward G. Robinson was a vociferous Democrat and if memory serves, McMurray was a devoted Republican. Wonder if they spent their final moments together trash-talking the Roosevelt fourth term.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Geoffrey Writes History on a Broad Canvas

Students of British History know that Geoffrey of Monmouth, in his Historia regum Britanniae, undertakes to give his tale a proper classical lineage, beginning with the founding of London by Brutus,great-grandson of Aeneas. Less obvious is how careful Geoffrey proves to be in showing the links between his British tale and the event of the Bible. Describing the foundation of London by Brutus, he adds, "at this time the priest Eli was ruling in Judea and the Ark of the Covenant was captured by the Philistines." 

 Having described the reigns of (the folkloric) Queen Gwendolen and her son Maddan, Geoffrey adds: "At that time the prophet Samuel was reigning in Judea, Aenes Silvius was still alive and Homer was considered to be a famous rhetorician and poet." Just a paragraph later he tells how Maddan in the twentieth year of his reign was "surrounded by ravening wolves and eaten up in miserable circumstances." Geoffrey adds: "At that time Saul was reigning in Judea and Eurysthenes in Sparta." A paragraph on, having decribed the 39-year reign of Ebraucus, he adds: "At that time Kind David was reigning in Judea and Silvius Laatinus was King in Italy. In Israel, Gad, Nathan and Asaph were the prophets." 

 Shortly after he offers his account of "Leir" (Shakespeare's "Lear.").   The Lear story extends over several pages and ends "At that time Isaiah was making his prophecies; and on the elventh day after the Kalends of May Rome was founded by the twin borthers Remus and Romulus." In a footnote, the translator notes that Geoffrey had alreadyd twice mentioned Rome as being in existence.

All excerpts are from the Penguin Classics paperback translated by Lewis Thorpe.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Mark Kleiman Tries to Sort Out the Meaning of "Conservative"
And You Can't Blame Him for Trying

Mark Kleiman offers a taxonomy of meanings of "conservative," offering multiple meanings, each amplibied by its antonym (numbering added by me):
One: An Oakeshottian conservative wants to moderate the pace of change and to proceed incrementally and experimentally rather than suddenly.  ... The antonym of “conservative” in this sense is “radical.”

Two:A traditionalist conservative is someone who prefers old ways to new.  (In the extreme, this can mean opposing the growth of knowledge that might threaten traditional beliefs.) The antonym is “progressive.”

Three: An authoritarian conservative distrusts the use ordinary people make of personal  freedom and favors strict social controls over individual behavior. The antonym is “liberal.”

Four: A particularist conservative is unashamed about favoring his own interests and values, and those of his family, neighborhood, ethnicity, and nation over those of outsiders. The antonym is “universalist” (or “liberal” in another sense of that term).

Five: A market conservative likes capitalism and distrusts regulation and state production. The antonym imagined by such conservatives is “socialist.”
I'd give him serious points for trying, but I think he has proved just how difficult the definitional problem really is.  Start with five:  a market (bleep) is, of course, in traditional terms, a liberalizer, trying escape from under the hammer of three.  It's a somewhat antique usage but it has an honorable history and explains a lot that needs explaining.  It explains, e.g., why Hayek was so insistent that he wasn't a conservative.  Those who embrace class five what-ever-it-is do, indeed, see their foe as "socialism," but their use of the term is so open-textured that it never seems to add much to the debate.

Now go back to one; conservative as incrementalist. For a lot of readers, that will be the most beguiling face of "conservatism," but again, I think the antonym is unhelpful.  Type one conservatism is a habit of mind, an approach, more than a program; s/he'll be skeptical of anything that moves the ball down field, whether radical or not.  

Two  and four seem to me particularly difficult to sort out, not least because the so much overlap.  There are certainly plenty on the left who think that the problem with "conservatism" today is that it is way too much five, and that five tends to bulldoze anything in its path: the party of the late Christopher Lasch.  We can hear the ghost of Hayek saying "quite right."

Of three, Kleiman says "There is no word I know of to define the sort of person who prefers hierarchy to equality, and in particular who both supports the maintenance of the current hierarchy and opposes both social mobility and the leveling of status gradients."  Really, no word?  Maybe not today, but in the grand tradition of post-Renaissance political thought, this is the very essence of what a conservative was thought to be.  The classic word here would be "reactionary," in the sense of "plus royaliste que le roi;" its high priest (sic?) would be Joseph de Maistre; in England, Sir Robert Filmer perhaps Lord Eldon.   Some would say the proper name here is not "conservatism" but "orthodoxy."

Addressing the current landscape, Kleiman declares that 
Obama, as I read him, is indeed Oakeshottian rather than radical, but he is also moderately progressive rather than tradition[al]ist, quite liberal rather than authoritarian, reasonably universalist, and purely pragmatic about regulation and state production. But most of all, Obama is strongly egalitarian: he wants both more social mobility and gentler status gradients. That’s the feature of health care reform that the plutocrats really hate ... . 
Hm.  This is not an easy one to sort out, but I think it is possible to read the evidence  in a somewhat different way.  One, it's hard associate the label "Oakeshottian" with the man who propelled himself into office on the mantra of "Yes we can!"  And it is hard to imagine Oakeshott--the great intellectul foil to the Attlee reformers--embracing any comprehensive program of health care reform.

On the other hand, I think one thing that upsets some of his old friends (=me) is the emergence of an authoritarian streak we may not have expected when we first saw him.  Guantanamo is still open.  Teens can't get Plan B.  And there is his near-servile deference to the culture of finance.

Just for the record, as I've said before, I don't mean this as a total writeoff.  Whatever the particulars, he is so many light-years ahead of the opposition that it isn't even worth discussing. But on the narrow issue of conservative v. something else--well, kudos to Mark for trying.


Drives them wild every damn time. She knows what they want. And that other one stretching over him with the clocks on his socks sipping that violet syrupy nonsense.
"Sirens" in James Joyce, Ulysses

It was about eleven o'clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark little clocks on them. 
Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep (first sentence)

"A man, it  must be presumed, without clocks on his socks.

Garry Wills on Russell Lynes in The Kennedy Imprisonment
She hesitated for a second, then kicked her shoes off, hopping on one foot then the other until she was down to blue socks with little clocks on them.
Penny McCall, The Bliss Factor  

Clocks are a design on the side of the sock thought to resemble clocks, but in reality are most often a square with a dot in the middle. The elements of the design are usually different colors.

 --Ask Andy About Clothes Forum

I could swear I saw a reference to "clocks on his socks" in Proust somewhere but I can't put my finger on it.

Update:  Wait a minute, here it is--from Within a Budding Grove:
A dark green thread harmonised, in the stuff of his trousers, with the clock on his socks, with a refinement which betrayed the vivacity of a taste that was everywhere else conquered, to which this single concession had been made out of tolerance for such a weakness, while a spot of red on his necktie was imperceptible, like a liberty which one dares not take.
That's in volume 2, Wihtin a Budding Grove; part two, Place Names: The Place. recounting "Marcel's" first meeting with the Baron de Charlus.   So Scott-Moncreiff.  The Kilmartin revision has "the stripe of his socks," and why Kilmartin felt he had to abandon the clock I do not know.  I went scrounging for the French original \but I don't find it in house and I am too indolent to try to suss it out on line  Nah, I can't help myself; here's the French, with the mystery word in bold face:
Un filet de vert sombre s'harmonisait dans le tissu du pantalon à la rayure des chaussettes avec un raffinement qui décelait la vivacité d'un goût maté partout ailleurs et à qui cette seule concession avait été faite par tolérance, tandis qu'une tache rouge sur la cravate était imperceptible comme une liberté qu'on n'ose prendre.
For "rayure," my dictionaries give "stripe"--so also Google translate.  Must be some deeper cultural foundation to the clocks thing. 

Friday, August 24, 2012

But Nothing to do with G*ns, Right?

Firt up on my Flipboard this morning: an Onion headline, the one that reads:

Next up: an early report on the Times Square outburst. Next: a story on how there were 19 shootings in Chicago last night.

"Maybe they should have said 'a full day," observed Mrs. Buce.  "Or 'an hour.'"

The Big Bang Theory of Childhood

I remember where I spent Fourth of July, 1943 and you would too: I was scoonched down in a corner next to the garage out back of this house,  "Indian Head," watching the big kids as they poked lighted firecrackers under empty number-ten tomato cans; then we all hollered as the charged vessels headed off in the direction of low earth orbit.  I had never seen anything so (words I would not have used at the time) gonzo cool.

The only thing that matched the homemade fireworks that summer was when the adults had to rip the lid off the septic tank in the front yard at Red Wing up the road.  All the kids crowded round in gobsmacked fascination while the parents tried frantically to cordon them back up onto the porch.  No child was lost in the endeavor, at least none that I remember.

There's a connection.  I see that Indian Head (listed at $442,500) offers sleeping accommodations for 12 people and one bathroom (plus a "partial bath," whatever that means).  Say what?  Twelve?  One bath?  

I suspect I know the response: 69 years later, they're still running on septic tanks.  Fair enough, I can't imagine how they'd get a sewer line in there.  And the bedrock, my god it's everywhere.

And did I mention that the lake is being overrun with Myriophyllum?  Flourishes in nitrogen, don't you think?

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Romney Tax Dump: First Thoughts

My first thought when I saw the story about the Romney tax data drop was "this is going to be huge." Within moments I had clicked through to Daniel Primack at Forbes saying pha, move right along folks, this is a non-event. Primack makes some interesting micropoints, but on close reading his piece begins to sound an awful lot like the special pleading of a guy who didn't run with this story when he came across (part of?) it a few months ago.

For a more temperate view, I moved on to the estimable Daniel Shaviro who, unfortunately, begs off from serious analysis, pleading deadlines. Shaviro does linger long enough, however, to offer one instance of what our weekend might be llke--"the debt-equity swap." Take it away,Dan:
Suppose I think GE stock would be a good investment, but I don't want to own it for tax purposes because the Caymans entity through which I am investing would owe withholding tax on any dividends that GE paid. So I arrange a swap with a bank that has the following terms. One year from today, it will pay me the interest that I would have owed it on a $100 million loan. It will pay me an amount equal to the dividends that I would have derived during the same year had I owned $100 million of GE stock. In addition, it will pay me the amount by which $100 million of GE stock appreciated during the year (or I will pay it a similarly determined amount if GE's stock price goes down).
For those of you who were staring out the window:
The bottom line is that, counter-party credit risk aside, this is economically equivalent to borrowing $100 million at the specified interest rate in order to hold $100 million of GE stock for a year.
So this is what high-end tax work is all about, or did you know? Anyway, first thought: the sheer cheesiness of it all. Recall that this is one of the richest men ever to run for the leadership of the free world. And note what we're fighting for here: not the question of "pay/no-pay," but only the question of when to pay, i.e.,at the very worst, the cost of the lost use of the money if you have to pay early --net, I should add--of the hefty bill that the preparer will present for having structured this baby.

Migawd, you are saying: is that all? All? Mr. Megabucks will go to the mattresses to protect a transparent fraud dodgy and questionable--perhaps disallowable--tax dodge for the few nickel of lost interest on early payment?

Answer: probably yes.  Romney seems to be part of that multitude--let's face it, their numbers are not small--who think that tax evasion is a blood sport, the kind of game in which to leave any nickels on the table is to mark you as a chump and a loser.  As I admit, he is not alone: hell, there are places in this great nation where, when you come back to the country club after serving your time for tax fraud, they give you a party with balloons.

The thing ig was not always thus, and in some quarters, may not be thus now.  There was a time when to be born to a life of privilege was  a privilege and accepted as such by those who enjoyed it.  If by chance you garnered the extra accolade of an invitation to public service, you took it with humility or awe; the possibility that you might leave a few pennies on the table for the roughnecks down at the IRS was just not seen as so big as a deal.   Clearly not a common attitude.  Clearly not Romney's attitude, not ever, not now.
Footnote on charity: reviewing some recent news clips I see that Romney is also saying, "hey, I give to charity" (details pending, I guess).  I actually feel conflicted on this one.  There is much to be aid for keeping charitable donations secret--Maimonides said that the only true charity was anonymous charity because it was the only kind bestowed without ulterior motive.   I suppose I might be willing to waive the Maimonides rule if it turned out that Rommney's charitable giving was all focused on, say, the Dressage Federation.  For the moment, we don't know.  Still, I don't see why he ought to have both ways.  Seems to me that if he really wants to honor him for his charitable spirit, we have to know a lot more about where and when.

It's the Nats

We all remember Douglas Adams' theory of elections: ""Because if they didn't vote for a lizard,the wrong lizard might get in."  Finnerty and Marcus explain how this stuff works among the Kachin of North Burma:
The ancestors of every lineage became masha nats, “ancestor spirits,” and every household had shrines to them. Ancestor spirits were thought to intercede with the celestial nats on behalf of their descendants. When the Kachin were in rank mode, their chief had two household shrines, one for his human ancestors and one for Madai. Lower-ranked households, on the other hand, had only one shrine, at which they supplicated or scolded their human ancestors before making sacrifices to less-powerful nats. ...
 In Kachin society the lineages that worked the hardest and produced the greatest surplus could sponsor the most prestigious sacrifices and feed the most visitors. Their fellow Kachin, however, did not attribute such success to hard work; they believed that one only obtained good harvests through proper sacrifices to the nats. Wealth was seen not so much as the product of labor (and control over others’ labor) as the result of pleasing the appropriate celestial spirits. The key shift in social logic was therefore from “They must have pleased the nats” to “They must be descended from higher nats than we are.”
So there you have it.  Not the lizards, but the nats.

Flannery, Kent (2012-05-15). The Creation of Inequality: How Our Prehistoric Ancestors Set the Stage for Monarchy, Slavery, and Empire (Kindle Locations 3914-3794). Harvard University Press. Kindle Edition.

Remember, Stop Milk

It's estate planning season at Chez Buce and you know what that means-- we rounded off  a pleasant morning with a stroll over to the internist and the hospital to drop off copies of advanced health care directives.  I suggested it might simplify life if we just went on to drop ourselves off at the mortuary.  But that's a joke: in fact, Mrs. Buce has the social calendar well enough organized that it won't be cost-effective for either of us to die before the next ice age.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Leadership Tips from the Polynesian Islands

I'm having a grand time with The Creation of Inequality by Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus about which I will say more when I'm done with it, but for the moment, let me recount their summary of the three sources of power in Polynesia (channeling Irving Goldman):
The central concept of chiefly power was a life force the Polynesians called mana. Goldman defines mana as an odorless, colorless, invisible, supernatural energy that pervades people and things. ... Some Polynesian chiefs had so much mana that by touching them inappropriately, one could receive a jolt akin to being Tasered. . . 

A second source of power in Polynesia was tohunga, a term usually translated as “expertise.” Tohunga could refer to administrative or diplomatic skill, ritual skill, or craftsmanship. . . .

The third of Goldman’s sources of power was toa. While toa referred to a durable tree known as “ironwood,” it was also a metaphor for bravery and toughness. Toa was applied to warriors in general, and especially to those who distinguished themselves in battle. A key aspect of toa was that it allowed for a certain degree of social mobility. A warrior of humble birth could rise in prominence to the point where he had to be taken seriously, even by chiefly individuals.
Flannery, Kent ands Marcus, Joycc (2012-05-15). The Creation of Inequality: How Our Prehistoric Ancestors Set the Stage for Monarchy, Slavery, and Empire (Kindle Locations 4101-4115). Harvard University Press. Kindle Edition. 

Doesn't leave much out, does it?

Tuesday, August 21, 2012


At my doctors' office the other day I noted that the staff includes a "PA-C."  Um, that would, perhaps, stand for "physician's assistant--certified?"   And the point is that she doesn't want to bear the obloquy of being a CPA?  Forgetting Molly Bloom Goldberg who delighted in telling the neighbors that her new son-in-law was a CPA--"cleaning, pressing and altering!"  Or forgetting Normie from Cheers, who thought that being a CPA was almost as good as knowing CPR.

Il Divo

Il Teatro Buce enjoyed a screening of Paulo Sorrentino's Il Divolast night.  That would be the one about Giulio Andreotti, seven times prime minister of Italy and so long the black hole at the center of alliances that make up what passes under the name of "Italian politics."

Well: "half-enjoyed" might be better.  I stuck with it in a stance of reserved  enthusiasm.  Mrs. Buce bagged it early, generously revealing a preference in favor of finishing the dinner dishes.  I can see why: Divio is inside calcio if ever there was such a thing.  I just barely know enough and care enough to catch something like 30 percent of what is going on in this fusillade of names and events and alliances and betrayals; Mrs. B, wisely. has never wasted scarce brain cells on the topic.

She did agree, based on limited viewing, that the film has a certain style about it--perhaps the only aspect that can really appeal to the uninitiated.  Though we had a bit of difficulty putting a name on just what that style might be.  Surrealism?  No, not really.  Modernism?  Way too broad.  I entertained the notion of "video game" but then I had what struck me as an even closer analog: it's Batman, with its murky urban exteriors, its imputations of exotic villainy and its €2,000 bespoke suits.  

Yes, Batman in tone and flavor, and this fact may help to explain the corollary point that strikes one about this murky movie.  That is: at the end of the evening, after all the inquiries, all the charges and counter-charges, we can make only two points about Andreotti: one, he seems to have been in or around the scene of the action for just about everything that happened in Italy in the generation before the Berlusconi era. And two, we have really no idea how (if at all) the hell he did it.  Move along folks, no plot to unfold here. Might as well just enjoy the pretty pictures.

Can There Be a Private Religion?

Back in the midwest, when people asked me my religion I used to sy "listless nonbeliever." This worked in the respect that they thought it must be some kind of sect, and figured the course of prudence was to stay out of my way.  I did suppose, when I supposed anything about it at all, that religion seemed like a pretty weird and implausible business, but I never felt the impulse to make much of a fuss about it.  I did not, needless to say, face up to the  great gorilla in the room, i.e., if religion was such a goofy idea, how come it was everywhere--how come, in other words, was it so evolutionarily successful.

After a 50-odd  year hiatus, I've gone back to reading some stuff about the evolution of religion and find there's a whole nuther perpective on the issue--one which I don't think was around when I was a kid.  Specificlly--religion as social glue.  Religion binds people together, helps them to organize and coordinate and so better to make or maintain a place in the world.

This strikes me as promising and plausible, but it raises another question about which I've entertained some vagrant curiosity.  Specifically: can there be a private religion?  I'm sure my betters have worked out elaborate analyses on the point, but it remains new to me.  I suppose also that it is akin (but I guess not identical) to that philosophical favorite, can there be a private language?

I suppose it is perfectly plausible for any of us to have feelings of transcendence, sanctity and suchlike that come to us seemingly out of nowhere (sic, seemingly?).  And to keep it to one's self.  How many? Well, who knows? The point is they aren't telling right?

But the question would be--is this religion?   If not, what is it?  And is the distinction merely conventional?  Is there anything about a purely "private" (pseudo-) religion that makes it worthwhile to distinguish away the public variety?

Trying to think up examples of people who might be candidates for observation in this inquiry, I can come up with just one--Abraham Lincoln.  There's every reason to believe that he read and (somewhat?) comprehended the King James Bible--not just comprehended, but resonated with its majestic sonorities.  Yet it is almost impossible to identify a public person more cagy about his private religious commitments (if any).  I suppose some would respond that the fact that he is rooting himself in the King James Bible means that his commitment is not "private;" rather, it makes him the receptical for a vaunted tradition. But is this enough?  Was Lincoln, then "irreligious" because he didn't bandy it about?  Or can there indeed be  a "private religion?"

Update:  thanks to my old pal Anon for the ref to de Botton; I had read his little book on Proust but nothing else of his.  Also on reflection, I think I was considering the more general category of religions that don't like to proselytize: I'm thinking perhaps of the Druze who, so I am told, do not vouchsafe their secrets to the children until they are about 50 years old  Teaching Druze Sunday school must  be a challenge.

Monday, August 20, 2012

In Which I Remind My Readers that I'm a Vulgarian

Am I the only guy in America who does not think Joe Biden speaks in "gaffes?"  Grant that he is a chatterbox; still he strikes me as well-briefed and in full command of the vernacular.  If he seems to indulge himself in a cheerful partisanship, isn't that part of his job?  And isn't it to his credit that he evinces that rarest of all qualities among politicians of our  own time, a degree of comfort in his own skin?

And speaking of "skin," I'm equally baffled at why Rep.Kevin Yoder (R-Not in Kansas Any More)  felt he had apologize for going skinny-dipping in the Sea of Galilee-- or more precisely, why the fussbudget in chief, Eric Cantor, felt he had to scold Yoder for it.  Seems to me that the correct response for a grown man against an imputation that he took a moonlight plunge in the altogether ought to be "Yeah? So?"  Or in the words of the immortal Joe Biden, I do not see it as a big effing deal.

Underbelly's Wichita bureau  does offer one possible clarification: maybe the problem with Yoder and the water is that he didn't walk on it.

Lady Mary: The Elopement Continues

Here is Mary Pierrepont again, on the verge of becoming Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, as she and her Sir Edward continue the escapade of their elopement, in a letter dated 300 years ago today, 20 August 1712..
We have more ill Luck than any other people. Had you write in your first Letter where you intended to  be etc. I could have ris up by  my selfe at 4 a clock and come to your chamber, perhaps undiscover'd.  At worst you could but have done what you resolv'd on at first if it had been known, which could not  have been till  after it was over, all our people being in bed.  After my woman was up,she watch'd me so much it was impossible; she apprehended you was in the house, but I beleive has now lost that thought.  Had I not been sick and gone to bed sooner than usual, I should have seen your Gentleman, and then he would have told me where you was.--All things conspire against the unfortunate, but if you are still determin'd, I still hope it may be possible one way or another. Write to me allways what contrivance you think on; I know best what is practicable for me.  I have since ask'd my B[rother] what he could have done if I had been marry'd in that way. He made answer, he durst not have taken me with him, we must have staid in the Inn, and how odd that would have been!

If there had been any Robbery lately committed, you had been taken up.  They suspected you in the House for Highway men.   I hop some time of our Lives we may laugh together at this Adventure, tho' at this minute tis vexatious enough.

Do what is most convenient for your own Affairs, but if you intend to go to the Spaw, we are very near a a sea port here, tho' if possible I would delay my flight till the Night I come to Acton, or I must come quite alone.  I should not much care to have this said, but if you judge it most convenient I will drop that scrupule, and in every thing prefer you to the world.  I am (?) of what you do for me, and my thoughts (?) it are all you would have them.

Pray write.  If possible I would do what you desire, and say No, tho' they brought a parson, but I hope we shall not be put to that hard Necessity, for I fear my own woman's weaknesse.

Adieu.  I am entirely yours if you please.
In fact they were married; Isobel Grundy, editor of the Penguin edition gives a date of 23 August.  One is tempted to say "and they lived happily ever after," to which the reader may be excused for responding "yeh, and good luck with that."  Well:  in point of fact, she left him to go abroad from England in 1739, and never saw him again; he lived until 1761, she until 1762.  Yet remarkably, they seem to have remained on civil throughout; as late as 17 February 1760, she is writing to him a civil and consolatory letter.  Apparently he fears that he is going blind; she writes "If I could be of any Service to you ... I  shall think my last remains of Life well employ'd."  It may be that they were one of those couples who can cary on with civility because they have simply outgrown each other.  Their children--a son and a daughter-are a far more complicated story.  Her daughter, in a crowning irony, eloped with a man of whom Lady Mary did not approve.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Anniversary: Lady Mary Elopes

Lady Mary Peirrepont, born in 1689, educated herself in the library of her father, Evelyn Pierrepont, 5th Earl of Kingston-upon-Hull.  By the time she had turned 21, she had met  Edward Worley Montagu. Montagu wanted to marry her but her father refused to allow it; apparently Montagu refused to entail his estate on a possible heir.  Undismayed, the couple eloped.  Three hundred years ago today, 19 August 1712,  she writes three letters to her beloved:
1--I have no servant with me I dare trust.  I was oblig'd to leave my own behind.  I believe You have no conveniency of carrying me off now, nor is it very decent for me to go without a servant.   I dare not come to you, nd hope not to hvae it known, except we meet not to part.  -- Tell me how you intended that.--
Here is enclos'd a Letter I writ last night, with an Intention to send by post.

2--If you have provided conveniency to carry me away decently I will come, if not I dare not.  Your way would be exposing my B[rother] to use me ill if I return, or disoblige my fath[er] for ever.  I would not see a relation after tis over.

3--Why did you not bring  coach etc., to be set up at another Inn?  I would fain come but fear being stopp'd.  If you could carry me with you, I would not care who saw me.  Or if you had been lodg'd on the same floor with me, I might have been marry'd perhaps and return'd unsuspected.
 Lady Mary thus becomes Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, author chiefly of one of the most remarkable bodies of correspondence in the English language, chiefly her "epistolary travel book," which she wrote while accompanying her husband on a diplomatic mission to Istanbul.  For more on the elopement, see tomorrow's letter.

Lady Mary's letters are collected in a Penguin paperback, Selected Letters,(Isobel Grundy, ed.)  from which these entries are excerpted.  The entire record of her adventure reads like nothing so much as the moment-by moment epistolary accounts of the heroines of a Samuel Richardson novel; it's unclear to me whether Richardson could have seen these.  Even if he did not see these, it seems likely the exemplify a mode of correspondence with which he might have been familiar.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

The Economist: Skip Ryan, Read about the Church

I really wanted to set fire to this week's Economist--or better, the pants of the editor--as I watched them quaff a full beaker of Paul-Ryan-is-serious kool-aid: "athletic and brainy;" "a brave man" (link);  "a note of rare intellectual clarity" (link).  Oh meyo myo.  Let's settle for this, okay?   Paul Ryan may indeed be one of the few politicians to open a briefing book, but as Robert Waldman says, the best you can make of this is that it makes him a non-wonk's idea of what a wonk must be (I have my own doubts about whether a guy who spends that much time at the gym will ever have time for real wonkery, but that is perhaps a sidetrack).

So, shame on you, big E,  not really excused by the fact that your detailed (wonkish) coverage od of the Ryan "budget"  is actually pretty clear-eyed--proving only that your fatuous lead-in was less by way of ignorance and more on the order of actual misdirection.  But I will forgive give you this one time only for a bit of knockout redemption: that superb briefer on of the finances of the Catholic Church in the US.  Main takeaway: over and over again, the bishops engage in--and get away with-- stuff that would send them to the stony lonesome if they did them in the private sector, or at the very least, strip them of their employment or at least of their bankruptcy discharge.  Commingling assets, shell-game moving of assets, misuse of trust fund taxes--this is stuff that causes real trouble to real people even in the highly forgiving realm of private-sector corporate America but not, it seems, for those who are so securely wrapped in the cloth of sanctity.

Some of the E stuff is from public documents, thanks largely to the eight church bankruptcies of late.  Much else is the E's own guesstimate and  of necessity can't be any more reliable than guesstimates about Mitt Romney's taxes.   Still, even allowing a large margin for errors, the numbers help to create a context.  Example: the briefer pegs annual gross revenues at about $170 billion--bigger than General Electric, albeit with fewer than half the employees of Wal-Mart.  Perhaps the most striking datum is just how small potatoes (if the briefer is right) is the role of ordinary diocesan and parish work--only six percent, it says here, contrasted with some 57 percent for health care.  The corollary is the relatively small role occupied by ordinary Sunday offerings--a tad over 7.5 percent of gross revenues, if the guesses are right.  This offers a hint of the relative clout of the big donors like the Papal Foundation whose 138 members pledge to deliver $1 million each annually.

You get the drift. And I'm just rehashing stuff stuff already well said in the piece itself. If you've got a short list of long form stuff, put this one on it.  Re Paul Ryan, you'll do yours blood pressure a favor if you just look elsewhere.

You Knew That, But... it is again:
Much important work is done by people with sore backs and calloused hands who don’t get paid that much...

So this guy, whose car gave out on the Dan Ryan Expressway.

Friday, August 17, 2012

From the "You Know Nothing of My Work" Files

Seems like the sources are queuing up to disavow the use of their work in the Hassett/Hubbard/Mankiw/Taylor = Romney/Ryan Economic plan,.  Cf. link,link.   But it's not just economists; last week Paul Ryan said that one of his favorite bands was Rage Against the Machine.  Comes now Rage guitarist Tom Morrello telling him to stuff it.

Would I be right that the only involuntarily enlisted ally not to disavow the campaign so far would be Ayn Rand?

I Can't Lose any Sleep over This One

Must be my 10 years in the city room as an ink-stained wretch  I'm normally a pretty radical free speech kind of a guy.  But here is a verdict over which I will not lose any sleep.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Something I Learned Today: Хулига́нство

I've often wondered why Russian miscreants are so often charged with "Hooliganism."   I mean sure, I recognize the word, known it all my life, probably learned it from an old book of Happy Hooligan comic strips. in my childhood still hanging around the house I grew up in.   I'm not sure I ever actually used it in its unmarked sense but then I guess my life has been mercifully free of, e.g., football hooligans and whatnot.

But why the Russians?  What word is it that we keep translating back as "hooliganism?"  Turns out the word is--wait for it, folks-- "Хулига́нство,"--Hooliganstvo, i.e., Hooliganism.   When and how it made its way into Russian are matters on which I remain unenlightened but apparently it's a straight-out borrowing.

And so the world shrinks. But while I am on the subject, I should caution my Russian friends that the "pussy" in the notorious band name probably does not mean "festering."

Double-Dutch Michelle: The Great Non-Event

Idling in the motel breakfast room this morning, I saw Michelle Obama chatting with Bryant Gumbel and (what is her name, anyway?).  And I was struck by a great non event. Specifically: save only that dustup over "proud to be an American" way early in 2008, the slime machine hasn't been able to lay a glove on Michelle. And I'm sure it is not for lack of trying, or at least probing for an opportunity.  No: it seems to me that she is playing her hand perfectly: she's so easy-going and affable, so comfortable in her own skin that it's hard to imagine any attack that wouldn't blow up  in the face of the attacker.  Rather, I suppose the worst rap would be that she has put her life on hold for her man,.   Here she is, Ms. Princeton corporate lawyer, talking about--about child raising. About the kitchen garden.  About how the President won't eat beets.  I suppose a certain style of feminism is going to be outraged by this kind of self-effacement. But that is so 1992..  She  seems to like talking about the kitchen garden, and she clearly loves life with her children.  Anyway, she is young yet in politician-years, and there's time.   For all I know, five years from now she'll make a great candidate for the senate somewhere.

And the jump rope, did I mention the jump rope?  Follow up on the recipe talk and here we see the First Lady of the United States on national TV going double-Dutch with some sort of national jump-rope team.  Class, is there any other First Lady we can imagine going double-Dutch?  Bess Truman?  Maimie Eisenhower?  A small voice whispers "Laura Bush," and I pause for a moment--but she had her chance, didn't she, and we never saw it?

I'm really not very good at politics; I have no idea whether this sort of thing actually helps in a campaign, but I can think of so many ways in which the First Spouse might do harm, and so far, she seems to be avoiding all of them.  And I know what you're thinking: how can we size up Michelle against Ann Romney, the First Wannabee?

Boy, that's tempting, but the truth is we haven't any idea.  She has made  a couple of what may count as rookie errors, and she might learn. Or it might be that she is betraying that same kind of bubble-wrap cluelessness that keeps getting her husband into trouble.  Might be they will just stow her away in Wolfeboro for the duration--an option which, unfortunately, is not on offer for him.  But you do have to wonder: double-Dutch versus dressage. Will it really help the Romney cause if Ann shows up to meet Bryant Gumbel on a horse?

Update: After I wrote this post, I found this. So yes, you can even slime jumprope.

Update II: Oh, it's a rerun!  Hah, I am thereby acquitted of knowing too much about Bryant Gumbel.  Everything I say is still true, though I suppose Jimbo is right that they've tried to slime her; they just haven't been able to make the slime stick.  Anyway, my sister Sally is hereby enjoined to give me warning when she sees the First Wannabee's horse coming over the horizon.  One if by land and two if by sea, okay Sal?

A Wrinkle on Education Pricing

You probably know this one already, but I just glommed onto a wrinkle in the college pricing game.  

We all know (don't we?) that pricy schools share the wealth: they charge rack rate to the eager and solvent. Then they transfer some of the wealth as "scholarships" top the ones they really want.

Do the numbers.   Suppose the rack rate is $100.  The effective cost is $80.  You have two eager applicants;  #1 is willing and able to pay $100, #2 would love to enroll but he can't scrape together more than $60.  How do you get them both?  Answer, you charge the one $100, and you transfer $20 to the account of the other.

So far, old news. What I just noticed is this: you tell #2, "good news, I am giving you a scholarship...."  A scholarship of what?  Well, you are cutting his price from $100 to $60, so you tell him  "I am giving you a scholarship of $40."  But you're not.  In the strict sense, I suppose you could say you aren't giving him any scholarship at all; you are just making a semi-voluntary wealth transfer from #1.  But set that aside: the point is that in any event, the amount in play is not $40, but only $20.   Generosity on the cheap.

[Afterthought: I suppose it works the same for any transfer pricing scheme, but right now, education may be one place where transfer pricing really thrives.]

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Annals of Fatherhood

I don't think there are many men who can read this one with indifference.

Greece: More History than it can Consume Locally

On his personal webpage, Alan Furst writes that his novels are "really one very long book with, to date, twelve chapters."  In the manner of Faulkner, then, or maybe Balzac.  It's a fair cop, but it needs to be understood in context.  Furst is nobody's idea of a great novelist and in many ways, you'd have to say he is not even s particularly good novelist: cardboard characters, clunky plots, clunky narrative.  What saves him is a marvelous knack for capturing time and place.  Specifically the charged and murky Europe on the eve of World War II, when decent people--or even thoughtful criminals--saw the world on a collision course with Hitler and Stalin, and scrambled desperately so as to minimize damage in the inevitable crisis.  It's period that we can consider with an odd mix of involvement and detachment-=-close enough so we recognize it, glossed over with the sense that at least we know How it All Turned Out (and not least, that we, somehow, are still here despite it all).  For Americans, at least, I think the Civil War has the same kind of fascination.

Spies of the Balkans, which I just now finished, must be the eleventh of his twelve.  Balkans is an odd title in the respect that the focal point is Greece, in particular Thessaloniki.  And grant that Thessaloniki is (or was) one of those cosmopolitan hubs, with Jews, Turks and, yes, ethnic Balkans such as Macedonians, Bulgarians and others, still the Greek focus is paramount and highly specific--Spies of the Greeks must somehow fail to convey the right message.

The copyright date is 2010.  One can't help but speculate that it was written to capitalize on the current uproar but no: the inflection point for the American collapse is the autumn of 2008, but things didn't go bollywackers in Greece until round the end of 2009, so it is implausible to saddle Furst with any such ulterior motive.  For all of that, though, it is fun to read the book in context, because it is a therapeutic reminder of an central fact easy to overlook in understanding the current calamity. Specifically: Greece has a history, more precisely a modern history, more precisely an almost impenetrable mare's nest of loyalties, betrayals, long memories and well-nourished grudges.   Moreover--I don't know, maybe it is because Greece is so small (somewhere around an eighth the size of Germany); maybe because they use that funny alphabet and have all those polysyllabic names--moreover it is a history we seem almost incapable of comprehending or even keeping in mind.

Furst's period is 1940-41, so has nothing to say about the bloody civil war that pitted communists against "democrats" at the end of World War II  (for that, go back and dust off a copy of Nicholas Gage's Elini).  Likewise there no mention of the "dictatorship of the colonels" that dominated the 1970s, although we are, here in Furst country, laboring under another and earlier military autocracy.   Likewise we're a couple of decades too late for the Turks, who left Thessaloniki as part of the great population dislocation of the early 20s: we are too late for it, but Furst's characters remember it, and it is part of the background of their lives (our hero dines out at a restaurant named "Smyrna Betrayed," and you can probably back-engineer that one for yourself).

What you do get is a sense of a country with a full set of internal animosities and resentments; a country with a tradition of banditry not long dead and perhaps not dead at all; and a country with a profound sense of insecurity about its fragility among its neighbors.  Most of all, you get the sense of a country that does not believe its fate is in its own hands. When I first went to Greece in the 80s, s friend told me that "a leaf doesn't fall in the forest here but what the Greeks believe the CIA told it to fall."  And the hell of it is, they probably had good reason to feel this way.  They'd been captives of the Turks until the early 19th Century. They'd been a pawn of European politics until the end of World War II, and of Cold War politics until 1989.  For Turkey or Europe or the United States, substitute Germany, and you have a pretty good idea of where Greek perceptions of the larger world might focus today.

Right-wing Possibilities

Good Economist aide-memoir this week about comparative Naziism the various possibilities exhibited by the resurgent right-wing parties in different European countries (see also link).  Some takeaways: one, it's certainly not all about economics. The right is doing best perhaps in beleaguered Greece, but also doing well in the thriving Netherlands.  Two: in Hungary, "right-wing" translates into good old-fashioned anti-Semitism,  but elsewhere, right-wing hostility to Muslims can lead to support for Israel.  And three: it is not just disappointed young guys.  France's Marine LePen (surely one of the most talented politicians in the pack) garners strong support among women, notably "women working in routine non-manual profession."  Three, notably absent from the discussion in the Economist is any of the slash-and-burn small-government talk that seems to be dominating (or confusing) the debate in the United States.

There does seem to remain one common thread, though: what the Economist  dubs "ethno-authoritarianism"--"a profoundly nativist resentment towards immigrants and a belief that the state should take more concerted action towards clamping down on foreigners."

Monday, August 13, 2012

Henwood Remembers

Doug Henwood, sorta Marxist renegade, in his early days at Yale indulged in a sorta one night stand with the Party of the Right.  In 2003, nostalgia drove him back to a reunion:
The centerpiece of a POR event is a toasting ritual organized around a "green cup"--a silver cup filled with a vile green punch. Toasts were raised to: the Catholic Church (inspiring some hisses from the Episcopalians); the "possession of absolute truth," which is one of the "incidental perquisites" of party membership; to the murder of Ben Linder, the American Sandinista sympathizer who was killed by the Nicaraguan contras in 1987; to the Crusades; to the "British empire and its American successor"; and to the prospect of building "a Basilica in Riyadh, and a cathedral in Mecca." The last prompted a call from the audience, "What about Jerusalem?"

Wonder if the Cro-Magnons got their own table.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Who Is It?

Recognize this one? You probably read it, though maybe a long time ago.

A Frenchman named Chamfort, who should have known better, once said that chance was a nickname for Providence.

No, no, I'm not talking about Chamfort, who was real enough, but the guy who is quoting Chamfort, or the story in which he is quoted. The speaker continues:

It is one of those convenient, question-begging aphorisms coined to discredit the unpleasant truth that chance plays an important, if not predominant, part in human affairs. Yet it was not entirely inexcusable. Inevitably, chance does occasionally operate with a sort of fumbling coherence readily mistakable for the workings of a self-conscious Providence.

And then:

The story of...

Of whom?  Go here.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

For Romney, It's Lose-Lose

They used to say that the reason Nelson Rockefeller never got elected President is that he had squeaky shoes.  Worse: nobody told him he had squeaky shoes, because who is going to tell the truth to the likes of Nelson Rockefeller?

Mitt Romney isn't Nelson-Rockefeller  rich (just ask his sponsors), but I'm beginning to think he has the kind of cluelessness that comes from spending so much of his life inside a swaddle of bubble-wrap. How else explain the series of own-goal errors that have placed him so he is struggling to keep even in a race where he should be leading by 20 points?  It must be that he honestly didn't know (perhaps still doesn't) that he was putting his foot in it over tax returns, over the Olympics, over the Palestinians, even the powerful dressage Mafia--and now, of course, over his introduction to the "next President"--oops, pardon me, Vice President of the United States, Paul Ryan.

Don't misunderstand, Romney may win in November.  As Shaw's Don Juan says "even a stupid general can win battles when the enemy's general is a little stupider" (the Commander adds, "some donkeys have astounding luck").  But by picking Ryan, he puts himself in the spot where he will be humiliated either way.

First way: if he loses, people will say that he never should have taken that fool Ryan and should instead have run with (pick one: Jindal, Pawlenty, Palin, Portman, Trump, Grizzly Mom, Catwoman,whoever).

But what if he wins?  I know, that is supposed to be easy: giving it to Ryan shunts him out of a power position in the house and into a hall of mirrors. Tthe vice-presidency is an empty suit, the rocks and shoals of otherwise promising careers.   Grant that there is a lot of evidence for that, but it misses a central truth: Paul Ryan would be the first Veep in modern times with a constituency.  I was going to add "stronger than the President's," except it's not clear that the President himself has, or will have, any constituency at all.  

Review the bidding. The first thing any President wants in a Vice-President is that he not threaten the President.  Nixon picked Agnew so that no one would dare impeach him (worked, too: they had to get rid of Agnew before they could get rid of Nixon).  George HW picked Dan Quayle to leave the path open for Jeb his son.  Joe Biden is much more seasoned, savvay and connected than than either of these, but Obama judged correctly that that Biden had truly abandoned any Presidential aspirations of his own.

And what have we in Ryan?  Let's begin by conceding that he is not every conservative's darling.  He's gone squishy on immigration, on gay rights, even (when the concerns of his district are on the line) on issues that concern blue-collar unions.  But by good luck or good planning (likely both) he has positioned himself as one Republican whom everyone is supposed to respect.  More than that, he is and remains down with the money men, the true angels of the party, in a way Romney will never be.  Which is to say, he may be the first Vice-President in modern history (maybe ever) with independent power base, equipped to tell even the President what to do.

They say that with every new President, there comes a point about six months into his incumbency when you can see the twinge of horror in his face, as it begins to sink into him how little he can do and how much--how many--he has to fear.  In Romney's case it might take the peculiar form of discovering that the job he struggled so hard for isn't really his after all.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Bernard Lewis Again

Followup notes on Bernard Lewis and his Notes on a Century; Reflections of Middle East Scholar. For a man of 96, and one who has placed himself t the center of the passions (if perhaps not the actions of his time, Bernard Lewis has enjoyed a remarkably untroubled life. Grant the odd kerfuffle: a public feud here, a grotesque lawsuit there (Paris, actually), a failed marriage back home--grant all this and grant also that it's a good thing he had a few such encounters or his life would have been boring almost beyond tears. He found his calling early; he got people to pay him what he enjoyed doing, and since before most of his professional peers were born, he has pretty much defined the study of Islam in the West.

Almost boring, then, in its virtually uninterrupted fecundity. Lewis has produced more polished works--monographs, overviews, (semi-) popular accounts, polemics--than many of his aspiring competitors have years in their lives--more than half of all these, in retirement. He has played a dominant role as one who explains Islam to the West, but he has made any number of particular contributions of his own--on slavery under Islam, for example, on the Muslim view of the West, perhaps most important on the place of Jews under Islam. Recognizing that a memoir is only a record of a life--not a life, still on reading Lewis, one is hard put to figure out how he got it all done. For Lewis appears also to have been an indefatigable globe trotter; for all his time in the library, he must have spent a comparable amount of time in the airport departure lounge, on his way to conferences, seminars, festschrift presentations, consultations with potentates and whatnot. Among his many talents, Lewis seems to have been a natural guest: cultivated, affable, easy to have around, an adornment to almost any scholarly gathering. When Lewis says "and so I told the Pope," he means just what he says: he is talking about a real Pope and a real conversation. Thus we get to enjoy the amusing ironies that accompany a Jew explaining Islam to the head honcho among the Catholics.

Of course Lewis' role as the primo interpreter of Islam in the west has not been quite as sedate as his memoir might suggest.  Far from anodyne, he has built his life around a worldview and a model of scholarship that have put him in the center of contention not only of how we understand Islam but for how we conduct scholarly issue.  He doesn't really elide these issues in the memoir; rather he presents them with a kind of austere dignity that makes it easy to overlook just how fraught these issues may be.  In this light, perhaps the centerpiece of the book is a chapter/essay articulating his view on the place of the scholarly inquirer.  It's as good an introduction to the topic as you might imagine; I'd rank it alongside Max Weber's great lecture, "Science as a Vocation,"   But perhaps the critical word here is "inquirer:" scholarship, on Lewis' presentation, begins with the unknown, not known, with hypothesis, not with thesis.  It's a view not always evident among his adversaries nor even (dare one say it) among his friends.  But Lewis makes a strong case for the proposition  as a guiding principle in his own life.

Beyond the basics, I'd say the easiest way to understand Lewis s in terms of three other public figures, two of them obvious linkages, the third perhaps less so.

The first, as Lewis explains with bleak irony, is Osama bin Laden.  By the sheerest chance, a book by Lewis entitled What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response appeared in bookstores just weeks after 9/11.  It gave Lewis a kind of minor/major celebrity that  most academics only dream of.  "Osama bin Laden made me famous," Lewis observes with no particular relish.  "I was interviewed, quoted, filmed, and I even made the front page of The Wall Street Journal."

No doubt Lewis' new-found notoriety was enough to dismay the second of the defining figures in his life--Edward Said, the doyen of what has come to be known as "post-colonial studies."  In his pathfinding Orientalism (1978), Said had done Lewis the courtesy of singling out Lewis for special venom.  The two continued to define and redefine each other until the end of Said's life (he died in 2003).   Lewis, with the gift of longevity, has the last word.  He states his case crisply and with vigor, but I wouldn't say he overdoes it.

The third may be not quite so obvious a choice.  I'm thinking of Abba Eban, known to the world as Israel's public face at the United Nations during the critical formative period for the new Jewish state.  But "public face" scarcely does it: by his dynamic and magnetic presentation, I suspect Eban did as much as, or more than, any one person to breath life into the new nation.

Lewis calls Eban "Aubrey," his non-public name.  He doesn't discuss Eban at length in the book; he doesn't mention that he spoke at a memorial service for Eban (who, like Said, died in 2003), where he declared that they had been friends for 70 years.  But it is almost uncanny how closely those two lives parallel.  They were born just over a year apart; they grew up in modest circumstances in London.  Each achieved a dazzling record at University, in each case not least because of their knack for languages.

From there, their careers part, although they run in parallel.  Eban, far more the public man, devoted the larger part of his career to Israel and to Zionism.    Lewis sustained a passionate curiosity about Israel (late in life, he said he visited there every year).  But his main public presence was in the Muslim countries--Turkey first, but so many other states as well.  What's remarkable in retrospect is how much these two men, Eban and Lewis--three, if you count Said--continue to define so much of what we know, or thought we knew, about Islam and Israel and the Middle East.