Wednesday, October 31, 2012

You Think You've Had a Bad Week?

This journey alone has recompensed me for my departure from Paris by presenting me with so many new sights and experiences--things that  sedentary men of letters would not guess at in a thousand years. The most interesting days were the 25th and 26th of October . . .
So Marie-Henri Beyle, Stendhal,writing on November 9, 1812, from Smolensk in Russia to a friend back in France.  the "most interesting days" were the beginning of Napoleon's calamitous retreat from Russia.  In another letter the same day, he elaborates: we were mking our fires, we were surrounded by  mob of men who started firing at us.  Complete disorder, oaths from the wounded: we had all the trouble in the world to make them take up their muskets.  We repulsed the enemy, but we thought ourselves destined for great adventures. ... We decided to spend the night on our feet, and on the morrow, at first break of dawn, to form a battalion-square, set our wounded in the middle of it and try to break through the Russians; if we were driven back, to abandon our vehicles, to reform into another, smaller battalion-square, and to be killed to the last man rather than let ourselves be taken by peasants who would kill us slowly with knives or in any other amiable fashion. ...

[The experienced officers] agreed that our goose was cooked.  We distributed our napoleons amongst the servants, to try to safeguard some of them. We had all become close friends. We drank the little wine we had left.  On the morrow, which was to be so great a day, we all set off on foot beside our calashes, hung with pistols from head to feet.  

In the end, the battle turned out to be non event:  

The enemy did not consider us worthy of his fury; we were attacked only in the evening, by a few cossacks who lanced fifteen or twenty of our wounded.

Stendhal was back in Vilna by the 7th of December; he celebrated his 30th birthday in January, in Berlin.  The retreat was an almost unspeakable calamity for the army taken as a whole, not to mention the Russian peasants who had been so victimized by the entire affair.    For Stendhal, it was probably the high point of his life.  He spent his remaining years as a marginal diplomat and disappointed lover--and, yes, author of two of the greatest novels ever.

Source:  excerpts from To the Happy Few:  Selected Letters (Norman Cameron trans. 1986).


Andrew Gelman Tells us to Chill

A small gust of clarity in the fog of discourse:
Last week I was interviewed by a reporter from France, who asked me who I thought would win the election. I said, it’s too close to call. He said, but Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight blog on currently gives Obama a 72.9 percent chance. I think Nate is great, and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to contribute to his blog for a while. But I’d still say the election is too close to call.

The online betting service Intrade gives Obama a 62 percent chance of winning, and I respect this number too, as it reflects the opinions of people who are willing to put money on the line. The difference between 63 percent and 75 percent may sound like a lot, but it corresponds to something like a difference of half a percentage point in Obama’s forecast vote share. Put differently, a change in 0.5 percent in the forecast of Obama’s vote share corresponds to a change in a bit more than 10 percent in his probability of winning. Either way, the uncertainty is larger than the best guess at the vote margin.

Where is this uncertainty coming from? First, public opinion can shift quickly during the last week of campaigning, as news arrives and as voters make their final decisions. Second, the polls aren’t perfect. Nonresponse rates continue to rise and, although pollsters are working on more and more sophisticated methods for correcting for this problem — an area of my research — we cannot always catch up. Even an average of polls can be wrong, but it’s hard to know in advance of the election how wrong they will be, or in which direction.

What I’m saying is that I can simultaneously (a) accept that Obama has a 72 percent chance of winning and (b) say the election is too close to call. .
 Link  I'm so glad we don't have cable.  And yes, I voted (by mail).  And no, I have not changed my mind.

Nothing About Politics or Weather: Etiquette

 While you're not coping with the weather or the elections, take  note:
The considerate guest on a yacht will shampoo infrequently, so as to preserve the water supply.


Snuff is passed to the right, because port is passed to the left.


Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Nothing About Politics or Weather: Cabbages

If you could show the cabbage that I planted with my own hands to your emperor, he definitely wouldn't dare suggest that I replace the peace and happiness of this place with the storms of a never-satisfied greed
The (former) Emperor Diocletian,
 in retirement, rejecting an entreaty to return.

I want death to find me planting my cabbages, but caring little for it, and even less for my imperfect garden.
Michele de Montaigne, Essais, I, 20
To Philosophize is to Learn How to Die.

Cauliflower is nothing but a cabbage with a college education.

Colder than a kraut crock.

--Weather report.

You asked me for some cabbage
And you ate just like a sabbage.

--Louis Armstrong, and others

Monday, October 29, 2012

À la Toupie, Français!

Je congnois bien par ouyr dire, plusieurs especes de voluptez prudentes, fortes et glorieuses : mais l’opinion ne peut pas assez sur moy pour m’en mettre en appetit. Je ne les veux pas tant magnanimes, magnifiques et fastueuses, comme je les veux doucereuses, faciles et prestes. A natura discedimus : populo nos damus, nullius rei bono auctori.

Ma philosophie est en action, en usage naturel et present : peu en fantasie. Prinssé-je plaisir à jouer aux noisettes et à la toupie !
That is:
I know from hearsay that there are several species of pleasure which are wise, strong and laudable; but rumour has not enough power over me to arouse an appetite for them in me.  I do not so much want noble, magnificent and proud pleasures as sweetish ones, easy and ready to hand.  We are departing from wht is natural, surrendering ourselves to the plebs who aare never a good guide in anything. 
My philosophy lies in action, in natural and present practice, and but little in ratiocination.  Would that I could enjoy tossing hazelnuts and whipping tops!
 So Montaigne, On Some Lines of Virgil, Book III, Essay 5. The italicized quotation is from Seneca, Epist. mora.,CXIX, 17.  The translation is from M. A. Screech, The Essays of Michel de Montaigne at 950 1991).

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Tu Fu

"There is a firm consensus," says A. C. Graham, "that Tu Fu is the greatest Chinese poet."  If he "sounds in English like anyone's idea of a  Chinese poet," Graham suggests, it is precisely because he is so great--he defines Chinese poetry, I surmise, the same way (say) Sophocles defines tragedy.   In Poems of the Late T'ang, Graham offers selections from seven poets but Tu Fu gets pride of place.  But he restricts his selection; his offerings are "chosen from the last four years of [Tu Fu's] life;" no wonder, then, that they "illustrate the beginnings of some of the tendencies which transformed the poetic language in the ninth century."

Graham elaborates:
The climax both of T'ang poetry and of the power of he dynasty was the reign of Ming-huang (713-55); from 755 the rebellion of An Lu-shan permanently weakened the dynasty and scattered the poets to the ends of China. Tu Fu left the capital Ch'ang-an in the north west in 758, and arrived in 766 at K'uei-chou on the middle Yangtse.
In one perhaps slightly untypical selection from the late poems, Tu Fu remembers perhaps the most remarkable feature of his capital:
Well said Ch'ang-an looks like a chess-board:
A hundred years of the saddest news.
The mansions of princes and nobles all have new lords:
Another breed is capped and robed for office.
Due north on the mountain passes the gongs and drums shake,
To the chariots and horses campaigning in the west the winged dispatches hasten.
While the fish and the dragons fall asleep and the autumn rivers turn cold
My native country, untroubled times, are always in my thoughts.
Ch'ang-an, modern Xi'an, is famous among tourists today as the home of the terra cotta army.The old central city retains its chess-board form.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Oh Those Guys! Nu Skin

Joe Nocera at the NYT has a typically crisp and professional piece up this morning about yet another company whose main business appears to be cozying up to the powerful and well-connected so as to enhance the cozyer's private gain.  In this  case the company is a peddler of skin-care products and the ranks of the "rich and powerful" conclude the fellah who wants to be the Republican President of the United States.

The name of the outfit is "Nu Skin," and it took about five seconds before the bell went off and I muttered "oh those guy!"    Those guys indeed.  Travel back to me now if you will to the fall of 1996, when I picked up a visiting gig at Cardozo Law School on Fifth Avenue just above Washington  Square (thanks, David!).  My brief included the basic course in business associations.  It was not part of my regular portfolio but I figured I could handle it and indeed as I recall, I brought it off well enough.  

But about six weeks into the semester, it sank in on me that if you're going to teach the chillun' anything about the Corporation in American Life, you really ought to show them a 10-K or an S-1--an annual report or a prospectus--so they can get some sense of how the money moves.   One day I uttered my insight in class and added: look, one or more of you must work in a financial printing house--see if you can scare me up a stack of samples that we can use for discussion.

Sure enough, a couple of days later a nice lady showed up at my door with a crate, and you know where this is going: Nu Skin.  A public offering of stock.  I dove in with curiosity and enthusiasm.

Boy, what an eye-opener.  Although in fairness, I don't remember anything about Ponzi multi level marketing schemes or unsupported product claims, the stuff of the Nocera piece.

What I do remember--and I grant I am deploying a 16-year-old recollection, but it's pretty vivid--what I do remember was what looked to me like one of the most brazen displays of self-dealing I'd ever seen.  The prospectus, as I remember it, said in essence: if you give us your money, we will pass it on to an unnamed third person who may (heh!) have some relationship to the principals of this company.  If he makes a profit, he may give some back.

Hoo hah, are we talking teaching moment, or what?  I've long marveled at the essence o f the American investment regime: we give our hard earned dollars to total strangers and expect them to behave with it.  The whole point of securities law is to try to impose some limit on the recipient so as to keep him from just flipping out his cigarette lighter and setting fire to the stuff.  Here was a scheme that seemed tailor-made to make sure that those protections didn't do their job.

I paid no attention to Nu Skin after this particular episode.  I do see from a quick check at Yahoo Finance  that anyone who wanted to take a flutter on Nu Skin could have bought it (on Nov. 22, 1996) for $30.88 an ridden it all the way down (by Dec. 1, 2000) all the way down to $4.75.  Would that have been the moment when Mitt Romney was trying to peddle them as a sponsor to the Salt Lake Olympics?  Whatever.  In any event, then and now this seems to be one skin that shows up already ribbed and lubricated.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Stephen Greenblatt's Marxism (No, Really)

"Je suis Marxist.  Tendance Groucho," a wise man once said.  I herewith offer a fresh reading of this old saw, rooted in my own reading of The Swerve, Stephen Greenblant's account of the Roman philosopher/poet Lucretius and his reception in the Renaissance.

Bear with me, this has nothing to do with class struggle or cigars.  But for starters, perhaps I should have said "accounts," plural; Greenblatt's project is really at least four projects, overlapping but separate.  Perhaps the least successful (except as marketing) is the elevator-pitch project embodied in the title: the notion that the Renaissance, and by extension all of modernity, owes its provenance to the rediscovery of one ancient manuscript by one ancient (and otherwise, entirely unknown) poet.  It's an elegant conceit and Greenblatt serves up an elegant performance in presenting it.  But it's ultimately unpersuasive: there are just too many threads in the tapestry of the Renaissance; the best you can say of Lucretius is that he is somewhere threaded into the fabric.

But there are at least three other separable narratives.  Perhaps the least elegant but potentially most useful is Greenblatt's outline-summary of the poem itself.  Lucretius is a notoriously difficult poet in English and even more in Latin; any student would say a quiet prayer of thanks   to receive guidance from so adept a cicerone.

Second is a delightful biography of Poggio the book-mad penman, B-list humanist and alert student of the main chance, who recovered this unique link to the ancients.  Pitch it to a publisher on his own and he'd likely move on to the next offering but stapled into the larger project, it is an unalloyed pleasure.

Finally and perhaps most impressive, Greenblatt offers up a history of nothing less than the transition from paganism to Christianity.  It's short--not much longer than an ambitious piece of longform journalism--but I don't know presentation that offer the story with more conviction.

So what we have here is a formidable array of material inside the covers of a high-end trade paperback.  Which raises the question: how does anybody produce a book like this that offers so much,so well presented--and for so modest an audience?

For the answer, I go back to Groucho and his brothers.  Remember how the boys came to the movie business: they made it to Hollywood only after years of hoofing in which they tried anything and kept only the stuff that worked.  Every single (worthwhile) item in every one of the pictures has a prehistory and nothing stays unless it is audience-approved as funny.

You know what?  It seems to me the professor who becomes an author likely works in exactly the same way.  He's had seasons, maybe decades in the classroom with the most demanding of all audiences: one that really doesn't much care whether he succeeds or fails might actually rather see him fail because the spectacle of failure would be more entertaining.  You don't survive that kind of a gauntlet without nerves of steel and (at least some of the time) a pretty good product to show for it.  So here's to Greenblatt and the new Marxism.  It might not be Night at the Opera, but it might be something just as good.

Oh. Give. Me. A. Break

Buncha crybabies:
The dramatic boardroom coup at the bank’s Park Avenue headquarters has rankled some people at Citi, especially senior executives who feel that the action was needlessly ruthless and who spoke only on the condition that they not be identified. ....

This week, senior executives at the investment bank convened a group of employees to try to stem any exodus, according to several people briefed on the meeting. Among the employees’ questions: why remain at a bank that treated its top executive so harshly?

Link. In the words of Dorothy Parker, tonstant weader fwowed up.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Sheila Bair Displays Practical Good Sense

At least in the spin of her enemies (she had a few) Sheila Bair came across as the Lucy Van Pelt of the mortgage meltdown: as head of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation--the "other regulator," alongside Treasury, the Fed and the Office of the Controller of Currency--she was the one who didn't seem to get the memo.  Which memo?  Why, the one that said she was supposed to show up on demand and sign here, here and here, so the big kids could get on with their game.   This was never quite plausible (for one thing, if she was Lucy Van Pelt, who was Charlie Brown?).  But her troops never seemed to have the publicity firepower as her more austere overlords were able to deploy.

So naturally, one looked forward to a memoir from Mrs.Blair, to let her tell (or vent) her side of the policy differences that drove her into the dissenter's role as the A-team struggled so mightily to stay in front of thee onrushing waves.

Now we have it, and so far (I haven't finished it), I'd say she does herself proud.  It's ;perhaps not as entertaining--for which read "intemperate"--as Neal Barofsky's book about his time as inspector-general of TARP (link).  It may lack some of the sophistication that you might expect from a Wall Street Banker, fhe reader is left to her own judgment as to whether that is a defect of a virtue.  What it does display is that Bair had a coherent and clear-headed vision of what her regulatory responsibilities were and a Kansas girl's practicality in trying to meet them..   One gets the sense of her various qaualities at work in the passage below, where she tries to explain one of the great puzzles of the whole sorry episode--why weren't the banks more willing to do workouts on loans that they didn't stand a chance of getting paid off under any scenario.  Here she offers one of the most useful, practical, clear-headed analyses of the problem that I can imagine:
 Prior to the crisis, the job of a residential mortgage servicer consisted primarily of collecting mortgage payments and passing them on to investors. When a loan would occasionally default, the servicer would simply refer the loan to a foreclosure attorney. Servicers were not set up to deal with mortgage default because it happened so infrequently. Similarly, the agreements under which they operated compensated them based on a flat fee; they were not paid more for dealing with a delinquent loan, so their economic incentive was to do as little as possible with a troubled borrower. Indeed, during the go-go years leading up to the crisis,  competition among servicers for the fees generated by the burgeoning securitization market intensified, driving fees down further and making the business one purely of volume, not of effective servicing. Not surprisingly, under that flat fee structure and in the face of intense competition, servicers never invested sufficient resources to deal with significant delinquencies. There are minimal costs associated with collecting mortgage payments from performing borrowers and passing them on to investors. However, when a loan becomes delinquent, working with a troubled borrower to restructure a loan can be a time-consuming, labor-intensive process, particularly if each modification is individually negotiated. Servicers were not compensated for making the extra effort, so why bother?

 Actually, as we would soon discover, if anything, servicers had affirmative economic incentives to go to foreclosure quickly.  That was because when a loan they serviced became delinquent, they were required to continue to advance the mortgage payments to the investors out of their own pockets. If they modified the loan instead of foreclosing, they would be reimbursed by the borrower slowly, over a period of years, by taking out a small part of the borrower’s new monthly payment. On the other hand, if they went to foreclosure, they were paid immediately, off the top, from foreclosure sale proceeds. If you were they, which would you do?

 Why wouldn’t investors tell the servicers to modify loans? After all, if a foreclosure cost more money than a modification, it was the investors, not the servicers, who took the loss. But in point of fact, just the opposite happened, with some investors threatening to sue servicers over modifying loans. Why would investors want to sue servicers for trying to rehabilitate delinquent loans? After all, that would usually save them money over the cost of foreclosure. The answer to that question goes to the heart of what I believe was probably the single biggest impediment to getting the toxic loans restructured: the conflicting economic incentives of investors themselves.

 Remember the tranches we discussed? As you will recall, most mortgage securitizations were set up to provide the senior tranche— the triple-A portion of the securitization— with substantial overcollateralization. What that meant was that if a mortgage   defaulted, it had no impact whatsoever on the senior tranche— unless the defaulting mortgages exceeded 20 to 30 percent of the mortgage pool. However, here is the catch: because of the way in which many securitization documents were written, if, instead of a foreclosure sale, the loan was modified, the reduced mortgage payments flowed through to all investors in the securitization pool, meaning that everyone’s income was reduced, including that of the triple-A investors. 

So again,  would you do if you were a triple-A investor? If a loan becomes delinquent and the servicer modifies it with a 30 percent payment reduction, your portion of the payment flows from that mortgage will be reduced along with all the other bond holders. If, however, the servicer simply forecloses on the loan, even if the losses on foreclosure amount to 50 percent, you will still prefer the foreclosure because that entire loss will be absorbed by the lower tranches. From the standpoint of investors as a whole, it obviously makes more sense for the loan to be modified with a 30 percent loss instead of a 50 percent loss on foreclosure. However, from the standpoint of the triple-A bondholders, it makes more sense to foreclose. And the triple-A bondholders were more numerous and more powerful than investors and more powerful than investors holding the subordinate tranches.
 Bair, Sheila (2012-09-25). Bull by the Horns (Kindle Locations 1149-1181). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Admirals: What did Leahy Do?

I've finished my audioread of Walter Borneman's The Admirals, thus further filling in the many gaps in knowledge from my childhood in World War II, when I waited in fascinated apprehension, trusting they would get this damn thing over with before I turned 17, else I would have to go to war and would be killed.  Borneman's book is a satisfying read at least for someone as ignorant as I, though how it would hold up for the serious boffins is an interesting question to which I don't have the answer.  I am forced to revise a couple of  my untutored judgments.  I'd say that Ernest King, who commanded from Washington, is perhaps not quite as rotten a human being as he appears from a distance and probably on the whole an effective presence, though perhaps a bit more focused on winning glory for the Navy than winning victory for the allies.  On the other hand I'm revising downward my untutored  opinion of William Halsey--active and aggressive, always in the thick of the fray but culpable for a few whopper mistakes from all of which he seems to have walked away unscathed, at least in the eyes of an adoring public.  Halsey, that is, appears to be a natural master of showmanship--not the calculating megalomaniac that was Douglas MacArthur, but simply one whose instinctive effusiveness left him richly qualified for the role of hero.  Chester Nimitz comes across as just about on pitch with his reputation: steady, likeable, warm-hearted.

The puzzle for me is William D. Leahy, who spent the war at Roosevelt's ear, first as adviser on military matters and at the end--as Roosevelt was dying--the President's sole avenue of communication with the world.  It seems undisputed that if anyone stood had the full attention of the President, it was Leahy.

Yet what, exactly, did he do?  I haven't read Leahy's  own memoir of Leahy, nor any biography of him, but on Borneman's telling his record is oddly opaque.   Borneman does remark on their differences--Leahy was a "conservative" by the standards of  his time (which are not the standards of our time).  He also remarks on Leahy's unstinting fealty to the President whom he served, yet whose aspirations appear so different from his own.

Is that it?  Is Leahy then  merely (as MacArthur said of Eisenhower) a great clerk?   It seems unlikely.  Even if he left no dramatic mark, still it is true that one may exercise influence in ways that may not always be easy for a biographer to spot.   For example, Leahy  seems to have managed the President's agenda--some of it from the beginning, and all of it at the end when the other great agenda-setter, Harry Hopkins, and the President himself, were dying.   

There is at least one other possibility--one which Borneman, at least, does not explore.  That is: I wonder what are the chances that Roosevelt, the master manipulator, was simply using Leahy--defanging his deep-seated conservatism with flattering attention on the principle that you keep your friends close and your enemies closer.

Of course there may be some mix of motives here, and the relationship may have evolved over time.  It could be that  Leahy began as a pawn in Roosevelt's larger chess game and grew genuinely  to respect and sympathize with his boss.  Beyond all that, it may be simply that Leahy was one of those people about whom it can be said: we don't know what he does around here, but we know that as long as he is here, a lot of things go right and not many go wrong.

Afterthought:  I turned 17 in 1953, long after World War II and a gnat's eyebrow too late for Korea.  By the time I did get to the military--as a reservist/trainee in 1958--nobody in the world was particularly mad at anybody, and I found the whole thing pretty much of a cakewalk.

The 350th Anniversary of a Very Good Day

For Samuel Pepys on October 24, 1662, things were going well: 
24th. After with great pleasure lying a great while talking and sporting in bed with my wife (for we have been for some years now, and at present more and more, a very happy couple, blessed be God), I got up and to my office, and having done there some business, I by water, and then walked to Deptford to discourse with Mr. Lowly and Davis about my late conceptions about keeping books of the distinct works done in the yards, against which I find no objection but their ignorance and unwillingness to do anything of pains and what is out of their ordinary dull road, but I like it well, and will proceed in it. So home and dined there with my wife upon a most excellent dish of tripes of my own directing, covered with, mustard, as I have heretofore seen them done at my Lord Crew's, of which I made a very great meal, and sent for a glass of wine for myself, and so to see Sir W. Pen, who continues bed-rid in great pain, and hence to the Treasury to Sir J. Minnes paying off of tickets, and at night home, and in my study (after seeing Sir W. Batten, who also continues ill) I fell to draw out my conceptions about books for the clerk that cheques in the yard to keep according to the distinct works there, which pleases me very well, and I am confident it will be of great use. At 9 at night home, and to supper, and to bed. ...

Afterthought:  Except it's not, is it?  Given that Julian/Gregorian stuff, the "real October 24 is--um sometime in early November.  The Russians have some kind of a problem along these lines, not so?

Monday, October 22, 2012

Debate Sudden Death Overtime: Battleships

Governor Romney said in tonight's debate that we don't have the Navy we had in 1916.  President Obama said right, and we also have fewer horses and bayonets.

For valuable prizes, how many battleships are active in the United States Navy today?  Answer here.

A General Rates a General

All this military stuff: it's not that I'm so interested in military history per se--I'm no better at doping out a battle plan than I am an NFL offense.  It's rather more the "development" thing, as in how did Ike become Ike, or what moulded the four admirals who ruled the waves in World War II.  Of course might consider this issue in the context of almost any occupation (or more generally, "life-plan")--I recall a wonderful book from a few years back about how Lincoln became Lincoln, for example.   But the military provides particularly good lab specimens, for two reasons: one, they care about this stuff, and write about it and think about it a lot.  And two, they keep such good records. Each of the subjects under scrutiny leaves a long paper trail of documented assignments, efficiency reports and whatnot--also, in several cases, private diaries or introspective letters to loved ones.

Expanding on the topic, I'm remembering a fine one I read a few years back--The Class of 1846 by John C. Waugh, considering the class that provided so much senior manpower for the Civil War (20 general officers, counting both sides).  I won't rehash the whole product at the moment, but allow me to pick out one fascinating insight about the man who was second in the class of '46--but whom everyone, it seems, assumed would be the class star.  Of course he was not: he rather fizzled out as the first of Lincoln's several false starts in his search for an effective commander of northern forces in the Civil War.  The speaker here is not a member of the class of '46, but he is someone whose judgment has to be heard:
McClellan is to me one of the mysteries of the war.  As a young man he was always a mystery.  He had the way of inspiring you with the idea of immense capacity, if he would only have a chance. . . .  I have never studied his campaigns enough to make up my mind as to his military skill, but all my impressions are in his favor. . . .  The test which was applied to him would be terrible to any man, being made a major-general at the beginning of the war.  It has always seemed to  me that the critics of McClellan do not consider the vast and cruel responsibility--the war, a new thing to all of us, the army new, everything to do from the outset, with a restless people and Congress.  McClellan was a young man when this devolved upon him, and if he did not succeed, it was because the conditions of success were so trying.  If McClellan had gone into the war as Sherman,Thomas, or Meade, had fought his way along and up, I have no reason to suppose that he would not have won as high a distinction as any of us.

Waugh at 519.  The writer is, of course, the one who did succeed as Union commander, U. S. Grant,  17th out of 39 in the West Point class of 1843.  Fun fact: at the time he graduated, Grant stood 5'2" and weighed 117 pounds.

Update:  Here's David Frum's list of "worst generals."  Lot of room for second-guessing here, I suspect.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Remembering McGovern

 Scott Sumner says:
In 1972 one of the most decent men to ever run for president of the US ran against one of the least decent.  The fact that I had a rather low opinion of McGovern at the time tells you much more about my flaws than his.
George McGovern,  the man who bore perhaps the most calamitous defeat in American Presidential-electoral history, died yesterday at 90.  I can relate to Sumner's appraisal, although I don't entirely agree.  I actually voted for McGovern in 1972 without any real expectation he would win but with an animated sense of the awfulness of the alternative.  I heartily endorse Scott's point about McGovern's decency; McGovern ways also entirely likeable, the kind of guy you'd be honored to have a beer with, if he drank beer.  But I always felt he lacked the killer instinct: the toughness, the wiliness, the trace of meanness you need to be a successful President.  I felt the same thing about Mondale and (to a lesser extent) Stevenson.    Aside from that--well, there's Kennedy and Johnson and I guess Clinton but still it is remarkable how often the Democrats miss out on tough and wily in the Presidential sweeps (they seem to do better at city hall).

Republicans like to natter on about how we nee a President like Jack Black or Chuck Norris, maybe Charlton Heston.  I'll see 'em and raise 'em one with Edward Melvin Deline--Deline of NBC's Las Vegas: loving husband, devoted father, CIA hit man and shrewd business operative who bears an unsettling resemblance to Sonny Corleone.   It's Deline who presides so successfully over the bacchanale of money and vain desire, supporting himself and his corporate overlords by skimming the sustenance out of the greedy and guileless multitude.  Just what the qualities needed to be the leader of the free world.  

I won't say McGovern wasn't tough enough: it would take a lot of gall to appraise a guy who flew 35 bomber missions over German-occupied Europe and say he "wasn't tough."  Sadly, though, he probably wasn't mean and I'm not at all sure about the guile.  So I'll have to leave the Presidency to guys like Deline, and count myself lucky to share a beer with guys like McGovern.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

DiDonato Where She Belongs

Here's a surprising truth about Joyce DiDonato, the scrumptious soprano: she's better outside the Met.

Surprising to me, anyway.  I've seen her a couple of times at the Met in the past couple of years and I love her all to pieces.  She was magical in The Enchanted Island, hilarious in Le Comte Ory.  But a few hours later, you can't quite remember what you heard.  Last night in San Francisco (in Berlioz' I  Capuleti e i Montecchi), she was stunning. 

 It's not a matter of power: Juan Diego Flórez (say) ha a voice of comparable power. But Flórez' voice has a raspy edge to it that makes it send out in almost any crowd.   DiDonato's however wonderful, tends to dissipate in a big house.   Put her inside the more constrained space at San Francisco and she'll knock you flat.

All the more impressive in that the opera, for all its virtues, is second tier--the fourth, as one might say, of Bellini's three great masterpieces.  But the second scene--DiDonato's Romeo matched with the Nicole Cabell's equally arresting Juliet--was one to remember.  Two lovers, each intense, urgent, bound together, yet each with her own agenda, so also at cross purposes with each other in an engagement they cannot resolve and cannot break.    As a a performance piece, I'd put it on the shelf next to the old tape of Maria Callas and Tito Gobbi doing the second act of Tosca.

In the overwhelming unlikelihood that she ever paid any attention to me, I don't suppose DiDonato would think I am doing her any favors.  Fair enough; I'm sure the Met offers more of everything of which a diva can dream, including pay.   And I don't begrudge her a bit of it.  Still for pure listening pleasure, I  think I prefer the other house.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Sighting: Tattoo

In the locker room at the gym yesterday, about 15 feet away a guy, naked, a bit pudgy, pink skin, a cane (too young for the cane--Iraq vet?).  And up and down the left side of his rib cage, a tattoo: some 15 lines of text.  I couldn't read it, but it looked for all the world like one of those poems that Michelangelo used to jot on scrap paper at the job site.  I say I couldn't read it--but wait, at the bottom, here's one word in all caps: AMEN.

Not this, but like this
So, the Lord's Prayer?  That's my best guess.  As I say I couldn't read it.  I was curious, I admit.  I admit also that I am nosy enough to peek at the book in the hands of the passenger(s) next to me in economy plus to see what they're reading.  But I can further assure you  that I am  not the kind of guy to sidle up to a naked stranger in a locker room, not even to read what he has written on the side of his rib cage.  

But this prompts a question: just who is the intended audience for this projection of sentiment?  Not me, obviously.  And I don't see how it could be intended for any hypothetical sweety in bed beside him--hey, how often have you lifted the sheet and gazed at your companion's bod for a little light reading before lights out?  So, who?

A few minutes later I was galumphing away on my torture device exercise bike: I saw him walk out assisted by his cane, now fully clothed.  A couple of small tattoos displayed themselves.  But the textual foundation--ah, that remained a secret to all, perhaps excepting the idle observer in the locker room.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Why Spain is Different (And a Broader Question)

Read a couple of interesting pieces this week on what makes Spain Spain (link, link).  Hint:  six letters, begins with "F" and ends with "O" and in the middle we find an unfinished revolution, where the old crowd continues to enjoy ingroup privileges at the expense of everybody else.  Which might go a long way to explaining how a seemingly-grownup nation can run a youth unemployment rate of 50 percent.  All of which impels me to consider whether the Spanish experience is unique?  The obvious first point of comparison would be Greece and here I do think I see some striking differences.  Most notably  in wretched oversimplification, the problem has been that everyone was on the take: in the sense that everyone enjoyed a government job or some kindred benefit from the license raj that provided sufficient bread and circuses to keep the party in power.  

Beyond that--well, I guess you could say that when banking came to Ireland, a lot of the blessings tumbled over into the bogs, in the form of jobs, real estate deals and suchlike.  Italy--I guess Italy is the European country I think I know best but at the moment, I'm finding it hardest to figure out (is there a moral here?--ed.).  Heaven knows it had its secret societies, its Mafia skimmers and such like.  But I've always had the sense that in Italy everyone has an angle, albeit an angle that I may not understand (compare New York City doormen who seem to subsist in an ecology that no outsider can penetrate).

Oh and on this issue--as so many others--I can't even begin to make sense of my own United States.

But it does imbue the whole sorry bubble-bust episode with an overriding whiff of cui bono?  Surely the then crust of the finance class walked away with unimaginable  profits.  But some of the money spilled  out to various people in various ways.  It's another one of those questions that can be fun to consider precisely because we'll never sort it out.  But it seems to work differently in different places--that, at least is a kind of a start.

The Most Decent Guy on the Internet

Might be this one.  No, silly, the writer, not the subject.  Still not sure I'm ready to give Dinesh a bye, though.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Education: Whatever Works

I've finished up my Ike biography (though perhaps not finished writing about it).  I've moved on to Walter Borneman's The Admirals--a group bio of Leahy,* King, Halsey and Nimitz who stood at the forefront of the Navy in World War II.  The fascinating parallel is not just the war stuff (actually, I  haven't got to the war part of Borneman yet), but the stuff about all these guys before they were famous--"Ike before Ike" and so forth.  And the inevitable question: for any of the five could we have known on graduation day that they were bound for greatness?  And the related question: what (if anything) about their experience and education prepared them for what they became?

As to "could we have known," one kind of answer is easy:  "of course not,"   because we didn't know that there would be a global war at just the time they were positioned for high command.  But this is a cop-out.  Remember the precise question, and beware the problem of 20-20 hindsight.  Had we been present as they walked down the aisle, would we have said "he's the one!"--?   I grant that I can't give a conclusive answer but I doubt it.  By Borneman's account (with Smith's), only one of the five seems to have been impelled by naked ambition from the beginning.  That would be King who never shied from telling people that he intended to make it to the top and that he deserved to be there.  Yet that kind of ambition can damage a career just as often as it pushes one forward, and in King's case, I wouldn't be at all surprised to find there were people who would have taken the chance to derail him if it came their way.

Another of the four Navy men--Leahy, the oldest, though apparently less brazen about it than King, does seem to have shown remarkable foresight in picking his protectors.  He signed up early in the club of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, then Undersecretary (but de facto boss) of the Navy, and formed a bond that lasted through FDR's time in the White House.  But did Leahy know in the 20s that he had backed the right horse (maybe a better metaphor would be "yacht").  The question answers itself.  Picking Roosevelt as protector may show nothing more than good luck.

The other two Navy men--Nimitz and Halsey--seem less focused on the very top rung.  Or at any rate, more happy with their day to day work: both men just seemed to enjoy being sailors.  Of the four, so far I find Nimitz more likeable--Nimitz who, after all, once plunged into the ocean to rescue an enlisted man.  Great for PR, I must say: maybe Paul Ryan should push somebody into Lake Michigan, so he can pull him out.  Or maybe Mitt Romney can push Pau--but I digress.

Perhaps what they do have in common is a quality somewhat more abstract: a capacity for learning from experience, a knack for taking something out of the job every day, of building  book of skills and intuitions that will serve them in their different ways when, as and if.

Back to the particular matter of schooling.  Evidently Annapolis was pretty much of an intellectual backwater in those days.  In pure academics, King did well; the others less so.  But in retrospect it is hard to see how the classroom experience --or deficiency thereof--had much to do with their careers one way or another.  Aside from the Borneman bio, another thing I stumbled on today was a post from the personal blog of James Kwak, he better known as co-proprietor of  Baseline Scenario.  Regular blog-shoppers will know that Kwak graduated last year from Yale Law School-in his 40s--after a career (or careers) of stunning variety   Here's a bit he wrote back as he entered his final semester at YLS:
In the long run, what I’ve learned is that being good at school is not that important in the real world. In the business world, for example, academic and intellectual skills are far less important than the ability to pick up a phone, call someone you hardly know who doesn’t owe you anything, and get him to do something for you — and that’s something they don’t teach in any school. In the academic world, even, the skills you need to take classes are far less important than the ability to identify promising research areas and convince other people (particularly funders) that they are promising areas of research. And of course, in life as a whole, being able to get along with other people and enjoy your time with your family and friends is more important than just about anything. But that’s made law school even more enjoyable in some ways, because it’s this little cocoon where I can forget how complicated life can be outside the classroom.

*Leahy or Leahey?  The preferred spelling seems to be "Leahy," but "Leahey" is widely reported, including at least once on the book's Amazon page.  And yes, Nimitz.

Breaking the Form

Sometimes the sentiment is so strong it busts clean out of the form:
Yea, like the stag, when snow the pasture sheets,
The barks of trees thou browsed'st.
--Antony and Cleopatra I.4
See what a rent the envious Casca made:
 --Julius Caesar, III.2
...graves at my command
 Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let 'em forth
By my so potent art.
--Tempest, V.1

--The trick of that voice I do well remember:
Is 't not the king?
--Ay, every inch a king.
--King Lear, IV.6
Inch-thick, knee-deep, o'er head and
ears a fork'd one!

--Winters' Tale, I.2
Bloody, bawdy villain! 
Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!
--Hamlet, II,2 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Liveblogging Smith on Ike: The Buck Stops Here

Surveying the Eisenhower presidency, Jean Edward Smith (cf. link, link, link) writes with obvious fascination about one of its  most inglorious moments: the occasion  in 1960 when the Soviets brought down an American spy plane over Sverdlovsk, bringing the pilot home alive.  As Smith shows, Ike and Khrushchev had been moving delicately towards closer cooperation but the U2 episode hurled the improving relationship off track.  Smith recounts how the administration tried at first to defang the incident but that Ike finally chose to face up to the fact that they had been caught red-handed.  Smith:
 The president telephoned Secretary [of State Christian] Herter and instructed him to issue a new statement acknowledging that for the past four years, U2s had regularly been sent into the Soviet Union under orders from the President.  [Emphasis added]....
Focus on that "personal responsibility" stuff.
Milton Eisenhower....told his brother that he must not take the rap for the U2.  Ike disagreed.   He said he would not blame subordinates for his decisions.  It would be a glaring and permanent injustice.  John [Eisenhower, Ike's son] suggested that his father fire Alan Dulles; again, Ike said no. "I am not going to shift the blame to my underlings."
 Smith is impressed.  
Eisenhower's decision to accept personal responsibility for the U2 flights may have been the finest hour. of his presidency.  Rather than force Alan Dulles and Richard Bissell to walk the plank for reasons of state, Eisenhower acknowledged his own culpability.  FDR would  not have not have done so. Ronald Reagan was shielded from Iran contra.
But  then:
In Eisenhower's case the President,  by taking direct  responsibility,  doomed the Paris summit, scuttled an impending nuclear test ban treaty blew the chance to  reduce defense expenditures and forfeited the possibility of progress on the German question.  "I had longed to give the United  States and the world a lasting peace, Eisenhower said later.  I was able only to contribute to a stalemate."  His sense of decency and personal sense of responsibility had carried the day.  ... Cynics would argue that such sentiment is out of pace in the  oval office but it was not out of place for Eisenhower. Ike knew the difference between right and wrong. and tried to apply that knowledge to politics and diplomacy.   That is why the country always trusted him.
 The reader is invited to consider whether the "cynics" were right; whether, to put it differently, this outburst of moral purity was an adolescent indulgence on his part; that he would have served the country better by throwing Dulles and Bissell under the bus and (perhaps more important) that they expected nothing less when they signed up for the job.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Liveblogging Smith on Ike: The Bomb

How far can we blame General/President Eisenhower for the Cold War and its umbrella of nuclear terror?  In his biography of Ike, Jean Edward Smith lays out a case that the answer is "not very much."  It's well-argued but not quite persuasive enough.

Of course Ike wasn't present at the creation: by all accounts he never learned bout the bomb until the genie was already out of the bottle. And by general agreement, he counseled Truman against using it on Japan.  Moreover as Smith makes clear, Ike strongly opposed using it in the "small wars"--Korea and Viet Nam.  In both cases, he had to sit on the heads of his own generals to get his way.  And the one thing everybody knows about Ike is that he left the Presidential stage with a valediction inveighing against the military-industrial complex.

Yet it was Ike who presided over (if he did not exactly create) the doctrine of of "mutually assured destruction"--the policy that kept a generation of school children hunkering down under their desks whie their parents dug fallout shelters.  My mother, only somewhat in jest, said she was going found a construction company called Grandma's Linger-a-Little-Longer.

It's probably Secretary of State John Foster Dulles who gets primary credit for the rhetorical incendiarism of MAD.  In other cases, Ike stifled Dulles, just as he often stifled the generals, but not here.  Why not?

If I read Smith right, the answer is three fold.  Ike felt, as I understand the argument, (1) that nukes were cheaper than ground war; (2) reduction in conventional weapons would actually reduce the scourge of ground wars; and (3) the very threat of mass destruction would be enough to keep it at bay.

O boyo boyo boy.  But before you fulminate with excess against Ike's policy, keep in mind the stark fact that it worked: we got through the Cold War precisely without the kind of holocaust that MAD was supposed to scare us out of (FWIW, I don't think this discussion as anything to do with proliferation, rogue nukes, or the other problems of the 21st Century--they were bound to happen anyway).

It worked:  my mother again: well, that's more good luck than good planning.  It might well be, and thank heavens we don't have any kind of a double-blind study designed to see how it might have gone in an alternative universe (does Harry Turtledove go into this possibility?  I don't know).  So, the fact is it worked.  But I'm still not quite persuaded that this ends the analysis.  For even if we sidestepped the unspeakable, still the fact is that MAD led is straightway into the  colossally dangerous, destabilizing and mainly  expensive arms race that MAD put in place.  In  short, precisely the sort of thing Ike inveighed against when he spoke about the military-industrial complex.


Stockman tracks Underebelly: link.

Remnick tracks Underbelly: link.

Get it here months (or years) ahead...

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Margaret Sullivan Moves into the Center Ring

--"Now there are two Irish women," Mrs. Buce remarked over breakfast.

--Two what? 

Oh, right. She's reading the Sunday New York Times, in particular Maureen Dowd, whose weekend offering often provokes at Chez Buce a fullscale dramatic oral rendition.  But, two?

--Ah.  Mrs. Buce had happened on Margaret Sullivan, the New York Times' new public editor, who has already proven she is her own woman, in a kerfuffle last week about indecorous tweets.     Here is Ms. Sullivan today, trolling for much bigger fish: in particular the creepy/unsettling story of the drone attacks, and the general question of whether our President has, or ought to have, the right to knock off  targets or bystanders at the end of the earth on his own say-so. 

Sullivan starts small with a crisp summary of the (reported) record to date: between 282 and 535 civilians, including more 60 children.  She reviews the journalism, including the masterly report last spring by the Times' own Scott Shane and Jo Becker.  

But then--but then the point is not to pat two Times reporters on the back for a piece of work they signed off on nearly five months ago.  Sullivan's real point emerges as twofold: one, this is a hell of a story, not nearly fully enough explored; and two, the Times is one of those not on it:
Since the article in May, its reporting has not aggressively challenged the administration’s description of those killed as “militants” — itself an undefined term. And it has been criticized for giving administration officials the cover of anonymity when they suggest that critics of drones are terrorist sympathizers.  ...
With its vast talent and resources, The Times has a responsibility to lead the way in covering this topic as aggressively and as forcefully as possible, and to keep pushing for transparency so that Americans can understand just what their government is doing.
All this is on point and worthwhile but conceptually, it's not a lot different from clucking about the misspelling the name of the mayor of Pokipsie Pookepsie, Phoughkeepsie.  Far more interesting are ten intervening paragraphs in which Sullivan takes it upon herself to summarize just how creepy/unsettling this whole drone business is: not only an underreported story but rather also a story that would be a lot more unsettling if it got the kind of coverage it deserves.   Here if not before, Ms. Sullivan makes clear that she has got a bully pulpit and is going to use it.  

How long is her term of office, is it two years [no, it's four--ed.]?  My guess is there is someone in the bowels of the Times' overstuffed management echelon who is already marking dates on his calendar.  Meanwhile for Sullivan's full "drone" column, go here.

Met HD Elisir

Elevator pitch: town drunk stalks wealthy landowner.  She flics him off until she learns that he just inherited a bunch of money, at which point she flics him on again.

You buyin'?  Well, audiences buy: that's the plot of Donizetti's L'Elisir d'Amore, constantly in the repertoire since it opened in 1832, now 13th on the Operabase list of most-performed operas.   Granting that opera plots never make much sense, you will surmise that I don't quite get it.  I'll agree that there's a lot of mighty purty music, though.

The Met used Elisire as sits season opener a couple of weeks back, and as the opener for its HD season yesterday.   We caught the Palookaville avatar.  It's  new production and I gather not everyone was impressed.  I can see where the critics are going on this one: it's certainly not a production for purists.  Bart Sher, falling victim to the familiar directorial impulse to Make his Mark, has sandblasted away some of the innocence and given it all a darker edge.  There's a loss here:  as the other man, the thoroughly amiable Mariusz Kwiecien comes across as a boor (as the rejected suitor): he loses the comedy without any obvious compensation (chalk the fault up to Sher, not Kwiecien).    As diva, Anna Netrebko did what Anna Netrebko does.  But both performances more or less cleared the way Matthew Polenzani as the guileless young swain.  I heard Sher at the break mutter something about his "poetry" but that's a distraction: he's just a love-struck kid and (though he is three years older than Netrebko) I think he nailed it.

There's been a fair amount of buzz about the sets.  Cognoscenti keep nattering on about the inspiration of Oliver Messel, the ballet designer, but the reference is likely to be lost on the average opera viewer/listener.  For me, a more direct reference might be those racks of engravings that street vendors used to offer in Rome, as a small flicker of immortality for the passing tourist.  Whatever modernism there may have been in Sher's interpretation, the staging provided an almost eerie counterpoint that cast everything in context and made sure you didn't take any of it too seriously.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Liveblogging Smith on Ike:
Cannons to Right of Them, Cannons to Left of Them

I had a chance to audioread another chunk of Jean Edward Smith's Eisenhower last night.  We've moved now from 1942 to early 1944 by which time Ike is back in London getting ready for the main event.  In the standard reading, this is a narrative of slow, steady progress: North Africa, then Sicily, then Italy, then...Yet my dominant thought is: what a mass of cockups, or near cockups.  Migawd, the number of things that went wrong, or could have gone wrong.   

Start with the real heart-stopper:  D-day itself, and the plan therefor.  The focus for the moment is not Ike himself but his boss and protector, the incorruptible and saintly George C. Marshall.  Now I have long counted myself a big Marshall fan and remain so but here's the thing: Marshall was one--perhaps chief--of the party who wanted it to happen in 1942.    C'mon, hurry up, no time-wasting, Hitler is the main event, let's go for him.

And what a catastrophic blunder this would have been.  By just about all the evidence, we weren't remotely ready to take on Hitler at that point, and couldn't possibly have been so by summer.  And ironically it was Churchill--Churchill, the great romantic, the risk-taker--who put the kibosh on the plan.  Churchill remembered Dunkirk; he remembered Dieppe; ironically perhaps most of all he remembered Gallipoli, one of the darkest stains on his on career, and he (at least) understood just how dangerous a coastal invasion might be.  Had Marshall prevailed--well, let's just say we would have had a very different war.

As I say the focus here was not Ike per se, but the decision had huge consequences for Ike's career/  Thing is, grant that there would be no European invasion--still, Roosevelt felt strongly that he had to do something, to reassure the voters; he couldn't just let the Army sit on its duff for a couple of years.   And so we find ourselves in one of the most irrelevant campaigns ever fought: the whole North Africa business, which was a surreal sort of sideshow from the very beginning.   "Sideshow," in the sense, for starters, that Hitler should never have let himself get sucked into it: North Africa had exactly nothing to do with his grand strategy; all it did was suck away precious resources.   "Sideshow" also in the sense that the Allies felt no military necessity to win it: the dominant purpose was to reassure the public.    Grant that it did make life inconvenient for Hitler; still I suspect that would have seemed like a pretty insipid reason to the boots on the ground.

North Africa was, of course, Ike's first real command, and here we come to a greater irony (Smith calls it "luck").  Specifically: by only a mid exaggeration, you could say that Ike won the North African command precisely because Marshall didn't expect the campaign to happen: since it was paper only, why worry about who is in charge.

Which beings us to the next question: how'd he do?  The charitable answer would have to be:  about as well as Obama did in the first Romney debate.  Ike, the consummate staff man, seemed to have all the problems you would expect for a newbie learning how to lead an Army in the field.  The landing was a mess (a committee job, it appears); the Allies misjudged the Germans at every turn;  we remember now (if at all) for one of the great field disasters of the war: the Battle of Kasserine Pass, in Tunisia.  Per Smith, the  Allies prevailed in North Africa by their one inarguable trump card: overwhelming material advantage.  They could (and did) throw money, men and materiel into the field in dimensions that the Germans couldn't begin to match.

On to Sicily.  The landing here goes better and the battle went, on the whole, pretty well.  Smith doesn't address the question of how much Ike was culpable for the fact that Patton went off on a frolic of his own rather than standing tough at the side of Montgomery in front of Mount Etna.  But he does point to one glaring deficiency: how completely the Allies dropped the ball in letting Kesselring escape scot-free onto the mainland with his entire force--men and equipment--intact.  We remember Ike as the great planner but this seems to be a planning error of the first order.

And then Italy.  I think just about everyone agrees now that the Italian campaign is an embarrassment in American military history: poor in planning, lackluster in execution.  Taking Italy (which might have been a bad idea in the first place) surely proved more costly than planners had predicted--in resources, but also in time.  And at the end--no, midway, long before the end--Ike moves on to the much more awesome responsibiilty as director of the Normandy invasion.

 Whew.   It's a wonder we won at all, seeing as how our leader was a man who couldn't tie our shoes in the morning.  Oh, no, of course not.   Do I cook the books?  Oh yes, of course.  At the end of the day I still think--and so does Smith--that Ike was an extraordinary leader of near-indispensable abilities, just the right man for a job that few if any others could have carried off.  And even if you accept my catalog of misbegotten enterprise, you can put a positive spin on it: Ike's errors in North Africa (at least), with more charity also in Sicily and Italy, can count as rookie errors: one reason the Normandy campaign went so well is precisely because of the things that had gone wrong earlier, and because of Ike's capacity to learn from them (Genghis Khan once accidentally drowned his own army--didn't make that mistake again).

My larger point, though, is twofold.  One: you make decisions, you make mistakes.  No one's career is blemish-free, and the more decisions you make, the more mistakes.   The trick is to learn from them.  Ike probably never heard of Samuel Beckett, but we can read Ike as a textbook instance of Beckett's counsel to "try again, fail better." And two: there is absolutely nothing like good luck.  Patton remarked on Ike's luck with admiration and a touch of rueful envy.  Napoleon said luck was his first requisite in a general.   Victories like the Allies' in Europe necessarily (inevitably?) take on an air of inevitability on the rear view mirror.  But here as in so many cases, it is probably worthwhile to remember Wellington's verdict on his victory at Waterloo: a damn near run thing.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

No Unskilled Jobs: the Restauranteur

Chatting with a restaurant owner outside Reno last night.  The food was great but the house was a bit thin.

-- Business slow?

He shrugged.

--First couple of days after the weather changes.  Everybody is in shock, they stay  home. Same in the spring, first time temperature goes over 90 they all say oh by, we better stay inside.  Not to worry, they'll be back.

Ike before Ike

  I'm not one of those who drives an automobile for the fun of it, but I can testify I came close to enjoying my late six hour round trip  to Reno thanks to the voice in my ear that kept consoling me with (the first part of) Jean Edward Smith's  biography of Eisenhower--specifically the first part, about his childhood and his long years as an underlaborer in the peacetime Army (I left off just at the point where General Marshall, as chief of staff, plucks him out of the Louisiana war games and brings him to Washington to put him to work on trying to salvage something out of the Philippine debacle).

I had all I could do to keep from saying "plucks him out of obscurity," which is pretty much the way I have always heard it: Eisenhower was nobody until Marshall said let there be Ike and there was Ike. But Smith makes clear that this is a gross distortion. Yes, it was Marshall who finally brought him into the charmed circle. But Ike had spent most of the interwar years making himself the indispensable staff man, the guy who could take a problem off the boss' desk and make it disappear--sometimes, before the boss even knew it was there. Along the way he assembled an array of powerful, and sometimes wise, mentors who educated him and counseled him and moved him along in his career. Indeed the odd part may be that one person who had not functioned as a mentor was Marshall himself. By the time of their fateful encounter Marshall obviously knew about Ike but almost entirely by reputation: their direct interaction had been fragmentary and fleeting.

There's a dark underside to this triumphal narrative which Smith sets for with equal clarity. That is: migawd what a hidebound, reactionary, racist bureaucratic jungle the between-the-wars army was. Setting aside the bureaucratic time servers, it's amazing that so many truly talented people stayed on board at all. Yes, there was a depression going on but I don't think that's sufficient to make the point. Eisenhower had options--bona fide job offers--and he stayed, so it appears, because he had a genuine sense of himself in his career.

Genuine, maybe, but Smith makes clear that Eisenhower like the best of them had to become a master of bureaucratic slash-and-grab. Eisenhower does seem to have one genuine appreciation and admiration from people who could do harm or good. But he also seems to have understood that he needed this kind of protection if he was going to get ahead. Indeed one of the most fascinating episodes in the whole chronicle is Smith's account of how Ike got crosswise with an inspector general who wanted to ruin Ike's career over what seems to have been a $235 misunderstanding--and how Ike did all he knew how to bring down superior firepower to save himself. More amusing, if not more benign, is the account of how the great MacArthur himself got exiled to the Philippines because he had nicked off the wealthy widow whom Pershing had counted has his own (hey, there's a Wiki, it's got to be true).

[Perspective point: I've long wished Ike had had a better take on civil rights.  Yes, he is the guy who pushed through the first modern civil rights  act, and sent the troops into Little Rock.  Yet there is a sense that when it came to race, Ike never quite got it: his concerns had far more to do with good public order than they did with racial justice per se (in this perspective, he sounds an awful lot like William T. Sherman).  Still, reading Smith, I  can see that considering the company he kept, Ike's attitudes can be regarded as damn near enlightened.)

As Smith notes, many--not least his British competitors--reminded Ike that he got into his position of command without ever having led troops in battle. Yes indeed, but he does apear to have accumulated exactly the sort of skills he needed to perpare and organize a war for the battlers to fight. Indeed in a tantalizing aside, Smith points out tht Ike's very paucity of field experience might have been an advantage: he, unlike so many of his compatriates, was not mesmerized by the model of trench warfare and was willing to devise plans--and take risks--of which the old trench warriors appeared incapable.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

And Speaking of Books. (Grunwald on the Stimulus)

I suppose I ought to say a word about The New New Deal, Michael Grunwald's chronicle of the notorious Obama stimulus.  It's a worthwhile and important (if imperfect--see infra) book which to my eyes doesn't seem to be getting the buzz it perhaps deserves.

The book falls analytically into two sections, maybe two and a half.  The first is the chronicle of the assembly of the stimulus bill.  It's another account of the inner workings of the sadly dysfunctional White House economic team, providing further evidence of what you knew from elsewhere--that Larry Summers, while not entirely a Wall Street tool, was just not at all effective at his assigned task: i,.e.,  organizing, focusing and clarifying the Obama economic message.  Important for the record, but not exactly stop-the-presses news. Also further evidence, if we needed any, of how completely in the tank for the big banks was Tim Geithner.

The more important part of the book is the long, detailed and sometimes wearying catalog of all the stuff we did with the stimulus money.  I don't know of any other easily accessible source that comes close to detailing this record so completely.  So far so good, but this is where the trouble starts, because it quickly becomes clear that Grunwald's dominant purpose is to persude us that the stimulus program was just dandy and that the critics are all knaves and scoundrels.

Now, it so happens I am generally hospitable to that view.  I've never pretended to be strong macro, which may distinguish me from all the other know-nothings who do claim to be strong at macro.  But I'm generally sold on the idea that  this crunch may indeed be a problem that you can solve by throwing dollars at it.  Still--really, a little critical detachment wouldn't have hurt.  Note in particular: reading Grunwald it becomes clear that "the stimulus" was partly about revving the engines (but please don't say "shovel ready"again).  Yet it is equally clear that a good many of the projects were not short-stem stimulus at all--rather, just substantive innovations that Obama thought were A Good Thing that he might as well ram through while he had the chance.

It's hard top get too worked up about this: I can't imagine any president who wouldn't have yielded to the same temptation.  But I would have loved a more candid and critical account of whether the zeal for particular projects may have hurt the overriding goal of getting the economy going again.

The "half" story is the account of the policing of the stimulus, so as to prevent fraud.  Here Grunwald gives a shout-out to Joe Biden.  And once again, I am disposed to think Grunwald must be on the right track.  But the way he tells the story, the bells are ringing, the whistles blowing, and we're on the first train out of happy town.  All I'd say is that Grunwald has a lot of guts as a journalist to stick his neck out quite as far as he does on this one.  I suspect there's bound to be some contrary evidence as time rolls on, but Grunwald has staked out his position as the original yea-sayer, and I hope he can live with it if as and when the picture out to be not quite so sunny as he paints them.

Monday, October 08, 2012

The Budget and the Debt: Two Good Books

Sometimes good things really do come in pairs.  Last spring I read, back to back, two super introductions to the tax system.  This week, here's another pairing, this on the conjoined problems of budget/debt.

That would be: Red Ink by David Wessell, and White House Burning by Simon Johnson and James Kwak.  They're not identical, neither in content nor in style.  Wessell mostly limits himself to the mechanics of the budgetary process.  Johnson/Kwak cover everything from from the War of 1812 (actually, from 1789) to the beginning of the next ice age.  Wessell, though he has a narrative, still reads a bit like one who makes his paycheck meeting a daily deadline.   Johnson/Kwak remind you that their ideas may have started in the classroom.  But at the end of the day, they're both telling the same story.   That is: we've got a debt problem--maybe not critical today and perhaps not even tomorrow, but bound to come home to roost within the lifetime of a large part of the voting public.  And we can't solve it by icing Big Bird.

You knew that.  You know the litany of conventional responses: we raises taxes, or we cut taxes and solve the problem on the backs and necks of the poor.  Neither book really challenges that framework, although Johnson/Kwak do throw out a couple of points that don't seem (to me) to have gotten the attention they deserve.

One: cutting "government spending" does not necessarily cut spending.  You'd think the voters--particularly in a place like California, where we started capping taxes in 1979--would have figured this out before.  There's  no end of instances out here were voters who rejected the notion of paying taxes for something or other have waked up to discover they have to pay, ahem user fees for the same damn thing. Stuff is not free; if you don't pay for it one way, you may wind up paying for it another. Like I say,  not rocket science.  Surprising we would even need Kwak/Johnson to remind us.

The other is perhaps one step more subtle.   This one addresses the supposed peril of increases taxes--i.e., the peril that as tax increase will destroy jobs.  Grant it: given the right particulars; still the point is that if true, then we have not a tax problem but an employment problem.

At the end of the day, there's probably nothing much in either book not already well known by the conscientious wonk.  But never so well presented.  If I had to read just one, I'd go for Kwak/Johnson, but go ahead and read them both; well worth the effort.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Auden's Agape

W. H. Auden, who thought himself a Christian, claims one warm June evening in 1933 to have been sitting with three colleagues--fellow teachers at  boys' school, two women and a man--and for the first time in his life he "knew exactly--because thanks to the power, I was doing it--what it means to love one's neighbor as oneself." No alcohol was involved, and no sexual interest among any of the four people.  Auden recounts at that moment he "realized with shame the many occasions on which I had been spiteful, snobbish, selfish, but the immediate joy was greater than the shame, for I knew that, so long as I was possessed by this spirit, it would be literally impossible for me deliberately to injure another human being."  The heightened feeling, he says, continued for roughly two hours, and lasted, in diminishing force, for two more days.  "The memory of the experience has not prevented me from making use of others, grossly and often, but it has made it much more difficult for me to deceive myself about what I am up to when I do."

What Auden  apparently had undergone is the experience, or vision, of agape, or Christian love feast, in which one feels a purity of love for all human beings, without invidious distinction of any kind, the powerfully certain feeling that one's fellows are worthy of the same respect, sympathy, and consideration as one pays oneself.  Wholehearted love with the power of pure objectivity behind it, how glorious it must be to undergo--and, as Auden was to honest not to add, all but impossible to maintain.
So Auden as channeled by Joseph Epstein in Snobbery.  I can sign on to virtually every word of this, subject to two important contextual limitations.  One is to realize there is really nothing here specially privileged to Christianity.You could easily imagine instances of the same in Sufism, say, or many forms of Buddhism (the most transporting religious music I ever heard came from old Chasidic Jews, while I was working as a shabbas goy).  Or poetry--how many 14-year-olds' lives have been transformed by their first reading of Romeo and Juliet?  Or their first hearing of the Goldberg Variations (okay, maybe a bit older than 14)?   Or, I suppose, LSD or peyote (never tried either one).  I don't mean to trivialize Christian agape here--only to suggest that it may not have a special purchase on the illusion of perfect love.

And second, read the fine print.   Auden's point is not merely that he felt the purity but that he knew/knows that it cannot last.  Feeling the possibility of this kind of transcendence is a rare and priceless blessing.  The mistake is to suppose it is, or can, continue.  The real trick is not the agape,  but learning how to get through the rest of the night.