Friday, November 30, 2012

If I Were Chinese, it would be 25,000,001

In China, 25 million people use their cellphone as their ebook reader.

[Per Atlantic blog; somehow the link will not load.]

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Non-sense of an Ending

Lovely blog squib up at The New Yorker by the indispensable Joan Acocella, this on "the great novels," as in "they end badly."  I think she is right on although I will contribute a suggestion as to the reason. Specifically, the problem is that novels must end, while life does not.  You come to the point where you almost appreciate someone like Stendhal in the Charterhouse of Parma who seems to say "enough, already, I'm bored with this people, let's pack them off to their several fates and be done with it"--no tricks, no insult to the intelligence of the reader, just "show's over folks, time to go home."

But she did startle me with one respect. She says that one who shares her view is/was E. M. Forster; she quotes his Aspects of the Novel (blankety blank Control-C is not working today). Per Acocella, Forster says that "every novel's ending is a letdown."

Did Forster say that?  Oh dear. Then I read it, in about 1957, when I devoured all of the (extant) Forster at a gulp, including the Aspects.  And here all these years I thought the insight was original with me. Ah well, they say that debtors have shorter memories than creditors...

E. M. Forster, in “Aspects of the Novel,” said that nearly every novel’s ending is a letdown. “This is because the plot requires to be wound up. Why is this necessary? Why is there not a convention which allows a novelist to stop as soon as he feels muddled or bored? Alas, he has to round things off, and usually the characters go dead while he is at work.”

Read more:

Makers and Takers Again

I didn't pick up on it right away, but while we were watching The Apartment the other night, I could swear I heard something that must count as a cultural marker.  That is: assuming memory serves, I heard somebody refer to some other folks as "takers."

The 47 percent, you say? Ah no, that's just it; not the 47 percent.  The point was that the "takers" here were the rich folks, the ones with the royal jelly on their fingertips, who took (sic) what they wanted and didn't have to pay.  As Marx might say, the unearned increment.

When, do you suppose, did "takers" pass through the singularity, reverse polarities, and acquire the meaning that Mitt Romney and his pals give it today?

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Bruce Bartlett's Long, Strange Journey

I'm a little surprised that Bruce Bartlett  is getting so  much buzz for his Historia Calamitatum, detailing his long, slow ascent from conservative hackery into a more  independent pundithood.  Not that I mind; I'm a big Bartlett fan and  regular reader of his bloggy Facebook page where he links to a lot of great stuff, including his own.  Though I do think it is time for Bruce to can it with the bitterness, already.  As Barbara Bush so wisely said about the late election: --they won, deal with it.  Except, of course,  Bruce, that you won.  You've got your life, your reputation, a lot more prestige and visibility than you might have had otherwise.  And if you took a financial hit--isn't the real point that  if you choose not to play the whore, well god bless, but you can hardly expect to find $100 bills on the night table?

Anyway--surprised only because I thought most of this was common knowledge by now.  But maybe the essay just links in with my last point: maybe there's something Kublerrossian afoot here, and writing the essay was just one more step on the road back.

Speaking as one regular reader, let me review the bidding a bit: I thought his fisking of Bush administration tax policy was a huge breath of fresh air (though I think it cost me at least one conservative friend).  Of The New American Economy, I wrote at the time that it was "an odd mix of clear thinking and muddle."  This might have been too harsh.  I thought he was marvelously clear-sighted on a lot of things, and I thought his characterization of Keynes was bang-on.  I found his treatment of supply-side  a bit like Clinton's admission of his early dope use--candid in a way but equivocal, as if he hadn't really come to terms with it (I suspect perhaps he might be able to deal with it better today).  As I indicate  here, I thought the recent tax book was superb.

There's one more and I did not read it: Wrong on Race: The Democratic Party's Buried Past.  I skipped it partly because I don't think there is anything "buried" here: anybody who had a decent 11th-grade American history class knows that the Democrats were the party of racism and reaction before, during and after the Civil War, all the way through to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  But here we have a fallacy of false concreteness: the fact is the party of racist reaction did not die: it simply decamped to the Republicans--same policies, same demographics, often enough even the identical people, while the remaining Democrats have redefined their entity free of a great burden.

Bartlett, in any event, has emerged as a superb commentator-analyst with a range of policy perspectcives many of which would get him pitched out of a GOP convention, with the encouragaement of a couple of burly security guards.  He does keep insisting, loudly, that he is not a Democrat, no sirree, don't even think of tainting me with that lot.  I feel for him here: I'm always a little ginchy about identifying as a Democrat myself, though I rarely find any better place to go.   Still, perhaps it is time for him to lay out a full-scale positive agenda.  What, exactly, is his program these days and, perhaps more exactly, how does it differ from those Democrats he insists are not his brethren?  Or maybe this is the subject of his next book.

Afterthought: Bartlett is also, of course, just one of a chorus of bruised and surprised former voices of conservatism who have found themselves, generally to their utter consternation, pointed straight to the kitchen door.  At this point I should think we should start being surprised at the surprise.  It should be clear to anybody by now that this is a realm where money talks and free spirits walk, and had better keep on walking.

But consider this: in the universe of conservative bazilllionaires --there really are a lot of them now, not so?--you'd think there might be one who had a genuine interest in free-spiritedness and would stake these guys on a long leash?  No, pardon, guess not, silly me.

Update:  On his FB page, Bruce denies the charge of "bitter," but says he would cop to "grumpy." Perhaps "bitter" is too strong, but it's more than "grumpy."  He sounds way too much like the guy in the bar who won't quit telling you what a shrew his ex-wife was.  Bruce, listen to one who loves you: get over it.

Where Sanity Reigns

Supreme Court rejects Idaho case
on prohibiting the insanity defense.


First Clown

[Y]oung Hamlet ....he that
is mad, and sent into England.


Ay, marry, why was he sent into England?

First Clown

Why, because he was mad: he shall recover his wits
there; or, if he do not, it's no great matter there.



First Clown

'Twill, a not be seen in him there; there the men
are as mad as he.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Grind on WaMu

I've just finished  Kirsten Grind's The Lost Bank about the collapse of WaMu and I'll give it a thumbs up--surely a worthy addition to the burgeoning stack of post-2008 books trying to figure out the license number of the truck that just hit us.  I've seen at least one review dismissing it as merely rehashing stuff from Wall Street and the Financial Crisis, the report of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations,  which offers am account of WaMu as one of its "case studies."   There's a superficial appeal to that charge but I think it may miss the point.  True that Grind and the Senate committee are telling the same story. True also that Grind fleshes it out with a lot of anecdotes that you don't (and would want to) find in a committee report.  But the anecdote is not mere surplusage.  What she does do is put a lot of flesh on the bone. I'd gladly recommend it to (say) a student or any other visitors from a distant planet trying to get a feel for what it was like to live through both the good years and the bad.  She doesn't blink away the fact that the collapse of WaMu was a terrible misfortune for so many, particularly stockholders and investors.  She also doesn't hesitate to stress that, however far as it may have careened off the rails, WaMu began life as an indispensable enterprise of which its investors, its employees and its customers could be proud.

It's pointless to offer a fullscale review at this late date, but let me meditate for a moment on one issue for which I had a better feel myself.  My topic is the mystery man at the center of the story--Kerry Killinger, for so long the CEO, the man in charge as the bank took its long and ultimately disastrous voyage from small, dull, responsible community  bank to frantic high roller in the great financial casino.

For those who haven't been following:  WuMu began life a bit over a century ago and enjoyed--that would be the right word--a long life as a responsible (and profitable) public citizen.  It ran into trouble during the savings and loan crisis and fell under the leadership of a non-banker lawyer who had been its outside counsel and became its reluctant triage surgeon.  It appears that he, against long odds, restored the bank to health.  If Stride is to be believed, along the way he assembled a skilled, and cohesive management team who seemed to enjoy playing nice.

As I say, it was he who set the bank right--but it was also he who with great care and much reflection, selected his successor.  And he chose Killinger, who stayed at the helm of the bank for the next 18 yearas--that is until he was removed by the board of direcctors just days before the bank fell into bankruptcy.

Grind spends a lot of ink on what might seem to be the prehistory of the collapse as she narrates the whole trajectory of Killinger's leadership.  You watch the bank as it piles into the acquisition game--one game at which they actually seemed to be pretty good.  But that's "good" in the sense of "technically proficient"--they could make it happen in hours.  But you get the uneasy feeling that in substance, the deals are getting wilder and wilder.

Grind apparently didn't have access to Killinger himself, so we don't have much insight into his thoughts.  But I'm guessing that one day he woke up and realized he was in a game of eat or be eaten--that he couldn't stay a small, responsible, 30-year-fixed bank even if he wanted to; either he gobble up all his competitors or he himself would be gobbled up by somebody else (who would now be the subject of its own chapter in the annals of banking disaster, but that's a side issue).

You also get the sense that Killinger shared at least one important characteristic with the leaders of so many other banking disasters--a fatal allergy to bad news.  Bear Stearns' Jimmy Cayne at the bridge table; Stan O'Neal who just didn't seem to get the fact that "risk" meant the possibility of bad news as well as of high returns; Dick Fuld hunkered down in his bunker while the shells crash around him--the one thing all thee guys seem to share is a near-obsessive aversion to the dark side, and a dim view of anyone who tried to take them there.

As time went by and the problems began to burgeon, more and more of the old team began to peel away, I suspect that Killinger found himself more and more isolated in his own veil of folly--a locale where, for aught it appears, he enjoyed spending his time.   It is hard to say just what sort of moral you might draw from this kind of a story.  Maybe his predecessor made the wrong choice at the beginning.  Or maybe Killinger is just one of those guys who failed to grow into his new role.  They say these challenges can bring out unsuspected strengths in some people while others, they merely crush.  A Google search for Killinger tonight. turns up his name under the aegis of something called "Crescent Capital Associates."  The listing says that "the most recent annual report for Crescent Capital Associates, Llc is due on September 30, 2011" (italics added--huh?).  The address looks like it is probably Killinger's home.

It's Good, Being the King

Devastatingly funny analysis by Adam Minter of how the Chinese People's Daily got suckered into believing that some foreign devil actually had named Kim  Jong-Un the sexiest man in the world.  Next assignment for Adam: how Nobel Peace Prizewinner Barack Obama still gets a bye from the media for filling the sky wirh drones.

Monday, November 26, 2012


Watched the Norwegian Headhunters last night.  It's a cheerfully macabre shoot-em-up, good fun if you like that sort of thing but I kept thinking it was a cinetized version of the one that begins "there once was a lady from Norway/who hung by her heels from the doorway...."

No Wonder They Wanted to Capture Stalingrad

Alexander Herzen exhibits the subtle distinctions of class in the house of well-bred Russians:
When I was twelve, I was transferred from the hands of women to those of men; and, about that time,  my father made two unsuccessful attempts to put a German in charge of me.

"A German in charge of  children" is neither  tutor nor a dyadka*--it is quite a profession by itself.  He does not teach or dress the children himself, but sees that they are dressed and taught; he watches over their health, takes them out for walks, nd talks whatever nonsense he pleases, provided that it is in German.  If there is s tutor in the house, the German is his inferior; but he takes precedence of the dyadka, if there is one.  The visiting teachers, if they come late from unforeseen causes, or leave too early owing to circumstances beyond their control, are polite to the German; and though quite uneducated, he begins to think himself s man of learning.  The governesses make use of the German to do all sorts of errands for them, but never permit any attentions on his part, unless they suffer from positive deformity, and see no prospect of any other admirers.  When boys are fourteen they go off to the German's room to smoke on the sly, and he allows it, because he needs powerful assistance if he is to keep his place.  Indeed, the common practice is to dismiss him at this period, after thanking him in the presence of the boys and presenting him with a watch. If he is tired of taking the children out and receiving reprimands when they catch cold or stain their clothes, then the "German in charge of the children" becomes a German without qualification: he starts a small shop where he sells amber mouth-pieces, eau-de-cologne, and cigars to his former charges, and performs secret services for them of another kind.
 --Alexander Herzen, Childhood, Youth and Exile 39-40
 (Oxford PB 1980)

The translator's forward reports tht Herzen "was the elder son of ...a Russian noble, and ... a German girl from Stuttgart.  It was a runaway match; and as the Lutehran marriage ceremony was not supplemented in Russia, the chid was illegitimate.  ... His parrents lived together in Moscow, and he lived with them and was brought up much like other  sons of rich nobles."

A footnote reports that "A dyadka (literally "uncle") is a man-servant put in charge of his young master.'

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Best Books of the Year

It's time to name the best books of the year so naturally, serious people are asking, what will Buce name as the best books of the year?

Happy to oblige, at least with a shortlist of five.  But first, some groundwork.  One, I can kick out a lot of  (seemingly) not-very-good books because I just didn't finish them.  I'm sure I cost myself something that way, but I've finally  come to terms with the fact that it's not a moral judgment on me if I simply cast the book aside.  I do, however, stick to some books that drive me nuts, where the driving-me-nuts factor is aggravated by the intuition that they nonetheless seem to have something to offer.  See, e.g., this one.  I'm also setting aside narrative accounts of the financial crisis.  I think I've read about 40 of those so far since aught-eight and I'm not at all sure it is anything to be proud of.   At this point, they are too easy: they overlap and they tend to blur.  I suspect I have already forgotten the particular identities of several.  I'm also setting aside  David Graeber's Debt: The First 5,000 years, because I still can't make up my mind whether it is a really original piece of work or an overrated con job--maybe in ten years it will be easier to judge (but not for me, heh).  More perversely, I'm setting aside Daniel  Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow, as just too popular: among other things, it is the only book read this year by both Mr. and Mrs. Buce.  And I guess Nate Silver's The Signal and the Noise:  it's too soon (I read it just a couple of weeks ago), and much as I liked it, still it might turn out to be a flash in the pan.

With some hesitancy, then, I open the envelope and find that the first nominee is Chris Hayes, Twilight of the Elites.  This too is a choice I might regret once the hype wears off but it does seem to be one of the rare left-critique books of contemporary society that really seems to have something new to say, something eyond the usual talking points.  Second, Jean Edward Smith, Eisenhower:  a wonderful biography by almost any measure, with a personal resonance for me because it parallels so much of my own life, but also fascinating study in the nature--the mystery--of leadership--what works and what doesn't, and how do you know?   Third, I'll have to make room for The Emperor of All Maladies  Siddartha Mukherjee's great history of cancer.  It sprawls, and a fair amount of it is a bit beyond me but it is at least a tour de force and probably bears intrinsic merit to match.  The experience was matched, I think, by the fact that at more or less the same time I was listening to Frank Snowden's marvellous lecture course on epidemics, from Yale.  That's another one, FWIW, on which Mr. and Mrs. Buce agree: we'd both rank it as the best audio/video learning we did all year.  

Number four is a tougher sell: Kent Flannery and  Joyce Marcus, The Creation of Inequality.  I've inflicted it on at least two friends who seem to wonder why the hell I bothered.  I can take their point: it is sprawling; it is diffuse, and the authors are maddeningly unwilling to draw conclusions or even to offer summaries.  I suspect their response would be: look, what we have shown is that the world is a complicated place and evolves in mysterious ways.  We've shown it to you in all its richness and diversity and we don't apologie for not trying to trick it up with facile soundbytes.

Which leaves room for one more, and I'm going to go with  The Idea Factory, Jon Gertner's unmatchable history of Bell Labs.  Like the Ike biography, it is fascinating for its intrinsic merits but also as a vehicle for further thought: what kind of society, what kind of leadership does it take to produce so successful an institution--or must we write it all off to good luck?

 Perhaps gratuitously, I'll note at least one big book that I did not read last year.  That would be  Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power  the umpteenth installment of Robert Caro's biography of the great drawler.   Johnson certainly deserves the full treatment and I guess nobody can fault Caro's diligence in research.  I read some of Caro's earlier Johnson stuff, but I kind of got off the train with Caro's account of the infamous 1948 primary.  I don't doubt, as Caro argues, that Johnson probably stole that election; I just can't come to terms with Caro's efforts to sanctify his opponent, Coke Stevenson. By everything I've ever heard  or read, Texas politics was a nest of scoundrels in those days and Stevenson was no better than par for the course.  I mention Caro now, however, partly to remind myself that there is one Caro book I really do want to go back and read: The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, which I've heard described as one of the best studies of public administration ever written, right up there with James Q. Wilson's   Bureaucracy.

And here's a book I did not read and probably should: Katherine Boo's, Beyond the Beautiful ForeverThat one might be Mrs. Buce's favorite of the year, and from all I hear, it deserves every bit of the credit she gives it. 

And one final item.  Oddly enough, the book that I may have given most thought to over the past few months is Timothy Wu, The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information EmpiresI say "oddly" because I don't think I realized how impressed I was with it at the time I read it: I liked it but since then it has been coming back and back. Might be partly because it dovetails so well with Gertner's Bell Labs book of which I wrote above.  But in fact, I didn't read Wu this year: I finished it back in the fall of 2011.  As time passes, it really looks like a keeper..

Arcane Enlightenment Question of the Day

First nation to abolish slavery?  Go here.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Good Old Days Again: Music

Joel calls me out for calling the Golden Age music "trite."  He says: "The pop music of 1947-73 included Beatles, Rolling Stones and on and on IMHO not trite." Well, he's onto something here, but I won't go all the way. When I wrote "trite," I was really thinking about the 50s, maybe the late 40s.  Mainstream pop, Your Hit Parade, Gisele MacKenzie, Snooky Lanson.  Look, tastes differ but that stuff drove me wild, just a mind virus that took over potentially useful brain cells and stunned them into a kind of paralysis.   I had heard almost nothing of what we used to call "longhair" until I went off to college and I speak with perfect sincerity when I say I nearly cried tears of gratitude when I first heard some of the stuff that I came to like (came to like hell, it was love it first sight).  

I don't offer this as evidence of refined or superior taste, BTW.  In fact, quite the reverse: I think the problem was that I had (or have) an almost fatal vulnerability jingly tunes and doggerel verse and the first thing you know, the day is gone and I haven't thought a single thought worth remembering.  Guilty secret: for so many pop songs of the 50s, I can remember the silly parody better than the original ("you smile, your teeth fall out, your lips they taste like sauerkraut, it's tragic..."--you think I'm making this up? Go here).   Somebody, maybe Raymond Williams, speaks of a life spent "between activity and repose."  Boy do I get that one.

Anyway, moving forward to the 60s, I'll have to grant Joel the Beatles.  But I'll admit that my prejudices were so entrenched by the time they came along that it took my several years grasp just how good they really were: I do get it now, however belated.  The Rolling Stones--well you know, there is a whole torrent of contemporary music that I simply don't get.  Doesn't drive me nuts like Snooky Lanson (poor Snooky, I should quit picking on him).  But it doesn't really grab me either.  Never got Elvis. Never got the Rolling Stones.  Never got Dylan for the most part, the few funky numbers like "The Mighty Quinn" excite a certain sense of the absurd.    I did develop and retain an affection for a certain kind of faux folk: the Carter Family, Bill Monroe, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Steeleye Span.  But the list does seem a tad interstitial, not exactly definitive of a culture.  Still, even as qualified, I'd have to say (concede?) that the 60s were a lot more interesting than the 50s, and that the 70s were in some ways actually kind of fun.  

Fun fact: I learn from Wiki that Snooky spent the last 20-30 years of his life as a Chrysler salesman back in Nashville.  Also per Wiki, "it is said that big band singer Snooky Lanson's weekly attempts to perform Elvis Presley's 'Hound Dog' hit in 1956 hastened the end of the series."

This just in: Joel emails "we disagree re the 50s."    Ah well, de gustibus.  I wonder where we stand on 1947?

Followup: I can't find "Hound Dog," but I do find this:

Worked for General MacArthur...

They take you at your own valuation. Guy Fieri gets the world's most scathing restaurant review and leverages it into a new round of celebrity.

And now we've got the upmarket version of the same: David Runciman's review of Nassim ("big, baggy, sprawling mess")  Taleb.  Taleb responds, saying he's "extremely flattered," and that Runciman was "not offended enough."

[Not really, though:   Taleb scoldingly reminds Runcman that "heuristics need to be convex."]

Ah, We Each Have Our Own, Don't You Think?

The Wichita Bureau, who doubles on the theology beat, speculates:
If Liz Taylor is in Hell, I suspect that the movie every night is the one staring Lindsay Lohan as Liz.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Krugman, Unions and the Good Old Days

It's becoming more and more the meme to remember the period 1947-1973 as a kind of good ol' days: dynamic growth, sponsored (and unhampered) by high taxes,  supported by strong private sector unions.  I lived through those years and I'd have to sign on to a lot of that.  I'd add the qualifier that in many ways I hated the good ol' days: smug, narrow-minded, paranoid, racist times with tacky TV shows and maddeningly trite pop music.  I grant the economic virtues although in fairness, they are easier to see in the rear-view mirror.   I also join the chorus of those that believe the good ol' days nestled in an accidental sweet spot,  where major employers enjoyed semi-monopoly protections, generating incomes that they could share with semi-monopoly employees--and when we all (did I say this before?) drove crap cars.

I was therefore intrigued earlier this week to see Paul Krugman abandon his wonted tact and decorum and go to Defcon IV against the golden-age deconstructers.  He calls it "The Europe-in-Rubble Excuse."
Whenever I point out how well America did with strong unions and highly progressive taxation after World War II, I can count on conservatives trying to resolve their cognitive dissonance by saying “but it was easy then — all our competitors were in ruins!” ...
Sorry, guys, but that’s bad history and very bad economics.
[A]nyone who reflexively reaches for the idea that we were actually better off because Europe was in ruins as a way to explain the postwar economy should take a hard look in the mirror. Did you think this through? Or were you just grabbing for something, anything, to explain away a fact that your ideology says can’t have been true?
Now by disposition I tend to be a Krugman fan, but I think he misunderstands the argument here, and also draws the wrong inference.

First: I don't think those of us who gaze back at the golden age are focusing only on Europe-in-rubble (he could have added Japan.  And China).  For one, if we're being fair we'd have to grant that the ravaged nations mostly recovered far  more quickly and successfully than most people expected (and thank you, General Marshall).   And we'd have to grant that healthy trading partners can make us healthier: beggar thy neighbor is never a good long-term bet.

But rubble is only part of the story.  As Brink Lindsey aptly observes, there was a whole lot more going on in the golden age:
There was a pent-up demand for goods and services after the privations of the Great Depression and the mobilization of World War II. There was also a pent-up supply of new products that couldn’t be brought to market during the depression and war years. That pent-up supply was augmented by technological and organizational breakthroughs accelerated by the imperatives of total war. Big advances in transportation, communications, and air conditioning stimulated catch-up growth in the underdeveloped South and underpopulated West. And rapid upgrades in human capital (first explosive growth in high school graduates, then explosive growth in college graduates) doubtless helped to spur productivity gains.
Link  Reading Lindsey, DeLong concludes  that Lindsey drops an own-goal on his vaunted libertarianism.  DeLong is narrowly right  but it's irrelevant to my point.   For my money, Lindsey is quite right to argue that the old times were special in ways that might not be easy to replicate.

But here is where I think Krugman misses the point.  That is:  he could perfectly well concede that the old times are special without accepting that "speciality" as an argument against unions.  He might say: yes unionism was easier in the good ol' days.  But that doesn't mean unions are any less necessary in a different kind of economy.  It just means we have to work harder to explain and justify their importance to a functioning democracy, and that we must work harder to assure these virtues are preserved.

He could argue that.  For myself, I would argue that, kinda.  As I said above,  I lived through those days.  I remember railroad featherbedding, bogus type in the print shop.   I remember how big steel and the steel unions bound themselves together in a dance of denial that would do Kubler-Ross proud, until it virtually destroyed them both.

But I also believe in the kinds of insights Joseph Stiglitz argues for (in the book which, ironically, I trashed just the other day).  A functioning workforce is the very definition of a healthy society.  Masses reduced to pauperism and beggary are no good for themselves and, paradoxically, not much good for their overlords either.  Some sort of union movement is almost certainly part and parcel of such that healthy society   So I can understand Krugman's eagerness to defend the golden age.  I just think he'd be on firmer ground if he went about it a different way.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Nothing Says "Thanksgiving" Like...

Spent most of the day in the kitchen preparing not for tonight but for tomorrow (we operate on our own calendar). In lieu of myself, I offer the Thanksgiving equivalent to It's a Wonderful Life:

Fun fact: I once got struck down by an attack of bronchitis and had to spend a werekend in a hotel room in Cincinnaati watching reruns of WKRP.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Gintis Gets Back to First Principles

In a book review, Herb Gintis offers an introduction to the modern state:

The "welfare state" that ruins our lives is the modern state that has virtually unlimited power to deliver goods and services outside the market framework, financed by the state's power of taxation. The book [under review] makes three major arguments. First, the state does not deliver services that are in the general public interest, but rather supplies perks to special interest groups and places the burden of financing these perks on others, especially the general taxpayer. Second, taxpayers are not willing to fund these rent-seeking activities, so the state finances its expenditures by borrowing. Third, the build-up of burdensome levels of debt will eventually bankrupt the welfare state.

The first two arguments are correct, but are characteristics of the state in general, not in particular the "welfare state." States, going back to the the thirteenth century, have always delivered perks to favored groups and forced others to foot the bill. And taxpayers have always resisted payment, forcing states to borrow to finance their follies.

The third assertion is probably false. When debt reaches burdensome levels, states usually either inflate their currencies to devalue the debt, or they simply default. Both have negative effects of public welfare and economic growth.

The implicit assumption is that the state is simply a predator, and we can easily limit its activity to protecting private property and supplying essential services. This assumption has not basis in fact. States are tolerated and promoted by voters and citizens because it supplies services that are not properly supplied by the market. There is no advanced society without a very strong interventionist state, and I am certain there will never be one. Standard public economic theory explains why a large, interventionist state is an essential part of economic development. I outline this theory on my web site, under "You Must Read This!", in a short paper entitled "A Brief Introduction to the Theory of Welfare-Improving State."  [Link--ed]

The state, like the market, is subject to corruption, and it is the citizens' task to keep both in line and serving the public interest. ...

Three Thoughts on Silver's Book

I've indulged myself with a quick red of Nate Silver's The Signal and the Noise and yes, it's wonderful.  The mature autumnal wisdom of a 34-year-old, dressed out with a near limitless fund of good stories about predictions gone wrong and otherwise.  I don't suppose I can add a lot of value with a complete review just now--maybe later--but let me offer a few disjointed passing thoughts.
  • It's really all in the "case study" chapters--on baseball, sports gambling, climate change and so forth. Such as there is by way of abstract lesson-drawing is good enough but hardly necessary if you have read the specific chapters, pretty much worthless if you haven't.  I do wish he hadn't hit us over the head so often with "Bayesian,"  when he could just as well have repeat Brad DeLong's catchphrase that we must mark our beliefs to market.  On the other hand, I much enjoyed his survey of possible innocent explanations for the presence of a pair of panties in your husband's underwear drawer.
  • Here's one proposition that intrigues me.  Silver makes the point that sometimes has the incentive to exaggerate, even at the expense of being wrong.  Quite persuasive as he presents it: if you are a TV pundit, nobody will notice if you go along with the crowd; the only way to get air time is to say something weird or off the wall.  Quite plausible as set forth here but do you notice how it contradicts what you were taught in school.   That is: we used to say--don't predict; if you are right, no one will notice and if you are wrong, everyone may notice.  Silver seems to be suggesting that (as with so many proverbs) at least part of the truth might be just the other way round.
  • Silver obviously did a lot of interviews for the book. And he goes out of the way to show that he did them in person: he specifies where they met, what the guy looked like, and so forth (Donald Rumsfeld is old, and short).  A little mental arithmetic told me that he must have been doing all interviewing at the same time as he was riding the wave of success for his 538 Blog.  Which led me to wonder--who's minding the store?   How do you get out a world-class blog if you are gallivanting all over hell's half acre?  The immediate answer seems to be: the blog is all in his laptop, and he can do that from anywhere--the departure lounge, the hotel lobby, even the great man's waiting room.   But wait a minute: if we live in an electronic universe, why do all these interviews have to be in person?  Left as an exercise for the reader.

Sheila Bair and the Slow Boring of Hard Boards

In her memoir of her service as head of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, Sheila Bair tells  cute one on herself on how she emerged from a meeting with bank CEOs to be confronted by a gaggle of protesters who mistook her for a CEO.  One yelled: "How much did that suit cost that you have on?"

Bair recounts gleefully, "his jaw dropped when I responded truthfully that it had cost $139 at Macy's."

It's a moment to savor although I think it might impart meaning beyond what she seems to notice.  I've said before that I have thought   that one reason she had so much trouble getting along with all the other bank regulators is that they treated her like a grrrrl: cutting her out of critical negotiations, failing (or choosing not) to keep her informed, seemingly ignoring any of her own policy proposals.

I'll stick to that but I'll add: in this crowd, can you really take seriously a person in a $139 suit?

I guess I don't quite have my heart on this.  Truth is, I haven't any idea where Ben Bernanke or Tim Geithner get their suits, and indeed if they are spending a lot of  money on fancy threads, I'd have to wonder where it was all coming from.

Still, I think I'm right on fundamentals.  For good reasons or bad, Bair was never deploy the same heft as the rest of the crowd.  So in a lot of press accounts, and also in Steve Rattner's (mostly fascinating) account of his work in the auto bailout, she comes across as a pesky irrelevance who just didn't get it, who was willing to throw the entire economy into a shambles only to suit her own private vanities.

Shorter Sheila Bair: she is one of those who thought that the bailout should have been far less generous with  the shareholders and bondholders of the banks, far more willing to kick out old inculpated management, far more aggressive about capping sweetheart compensation deals for so many who helped to create the mess.  It's a position in which I am largely in sympathy  although I'll admit that it's a complicated complex of issues and that the devil is in a great many details.

By every account, the soft-on-bankers policy appears to be the handiwork of one who was not a banker himself--Tim Geithner, the bureaucrat's bureaucrat, who has survive so many storms to continue as Secretary of Treasury.  Her memoir is now the third memoir I've read by people who ran crosswise with Geither during the crisis times.  The other two--Neil Barofsky's Bailout and Jeff Connaughton's The Payoff.  Both are worthwhile reads in their way but both are heavy on their own frustration and disappointment with the administration's financial leadership, particularly as exemplified by Geithner.  [Noam Schieber's The Escape Artists  is similar in tone but it is reportage, not a memoir.]

Given this background,  one might well have expected Bair's book to be more of the same.  It is, sort of, but in the end it is, perhaps surprisingly, the least rancorous of the three.  Oh, no doubt she's frustrated with Geithner and his no-banker-left-behind approach  But this is a lady who has spent a good deal of her adult life on Capitol Hill: implicitly, you can tell she understands that you've just got to deal with some people whether you like them or not.  And she seems to take a certain pride in the fact that at the end, Geithner, even Geithner, comes to her farewell party--and makes a wry but not ungraceful joke about their difficult relationship.

Perhaps a second reason the book is not mired in disappointment is that   Bair won a fair number of incremental battles even if she did not win the war.  She seems to have been able to make some deals go the way she wanted them to go, and in particular when it came to the matter of reform, she seems to have played a large, albeit not dominant, role in shaping the Dodd Frank Act.  And one more reason for lack of ranker: although she may not have noticed it herself, she seems to have had an immense good time doing what she did.  At least by her own account, she seems to have been kept herself well briefed on every relevant issue.  Also, again by her on own account, she seems to have enjoyed the support of a loyal, talented and energetic staff who were delighted to fight the good fight alongside her.

So what you get in the end is not precisely story of triumph.  What you do have, however, is one of the better books I've read about how this kind of high-end policy scrum really works.  The tictoc can get a little numbing after a while--it has taken me about a month to get through the whole thing.  But I'll gladly keep it on hand as an offering as prep material for any student who finds himself lucky enough to get a chance actually to observe this kind of dustup in real time.

Two disconnected afterthoughts.  I said that Bair ran crosswise with Steve Rattner on the auto bailout.  Th issue was the use of FDIC resources to support the car companies.  In his book (Overhaul), Rattner make it clear that he found her obstructive, parochial and short-sighted; Bair in her book makes it clear she thinks she is being treated unfairly.   I though Rattner's book fascinating and I think in general he deserves top marks for his management of the bailout.  On the substance of the particular issue, I tend to side with her, not him.  I think her concerns were legitimate and she was right to push them.  In this case, then, I think it is he who is being parochial and short-sighted. On the other hand, I can hardly blame him.  It was his job to ram through the auto bailout and it is in the nature of things that he won't have an easy time understanding those who take a different view.

Second afterthought: on issues of grand strategy in the financial crisis,  the reader will have surmised that I count myself as part of the anti-Geithner faction.  I think his banker-protective policy--ring fence and coddle your friends, let everybody else go to smash--is bad politics and terrible policy.  I don't doubt his integrity or his seriousness of purpose: I just think he is catastrophically wrong.  Yet as DeLong likes to say, the cossacks work for the tsar.  If we have been stuck with this wrongheadedness for so long, it is because Obama wants him there.   Odd because in accounts by many people, Obama alone seems capable to entertain a much broader and more wholesome view. But for the foreseeable future, it is Geithner we've got and Geithner we will keep.  And that is because Obama wants it so.

Third afterthought: would be fun if Bair got the not to chair  the new Financial Stability Oversight Council, though.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

DeLong on Nearly Everybody Else v. Nate Silver

DeLong assembles an amusing catalog of criticisms leveled against Nate Silver and Silver-style polling.  I assume a fair number of these are just routine hackery but what strikes me as remarkable is how many of the critics really seem to believe what they are saying.   DeLong's commentators do offer a few helpful nuances but for the most part, the critics still look pretty ridiculous.  Grant that Silver is going to blow one bigtime someday--that's  in the very nature of probabilities.  But for the moment, I'd say that the evidence is all on his side and it really is impossible hard to conceive why anyone would think they could credibly challenge him.   Reading Silver's book (The Signal and the Noise), however, I can see one good reason why pundits harbor such animosity against him: in his own direct critique, he really does make them look like idiots.


Underbelly's Wichita correspondent, who doubles as military/defense analyst, meditates on the apparent source of a destabilizing tradition--the lieutenant colonel:
Ever notice how much trouble LTCOLs of various types cause?  Consider one LTCOL Custer – who famously was the youngest general in the Union army and the dumbest LTCOL on the books after he tangled with the natives in a field in the Black Hills. The Army would have been better off if they had left him a major general and parked him Washington to molder in the damp. He famously left his Gatling guns behind. To the sorrow of the 7th Cavalry. 
I’m sure I missed a few but the next one of note that I recall was LTCOL Ollie North, who among other things was termed the highest ranking LTCOL in the country at the time. Infamously, he escaped from imprisonment due to the interference of congress. Famously, he was represented by a potted plant in hearings. 
Now we have two examples to contemplate: one LTCOL Broadwell, who didn’t play well with others but can do a lot of pushups. She’s turned a lot of heads en route to being a soccer mom in the south somewhere. And finally LTCOL Allen West, recently one term congressman and soon to be talking head on Fox or worse. He seems to fail upward: having been ejected (with pension) from the army for violating the rules of war (’they are just guidelines’) but got elected to Congress by being nuttier than the other guy. Having failed as a congressman (who by definition have to get reelected or fail), he will now make six or seven figures mouthing off on Fox – where he will be limited to embarrassing himself rather than Congress.

As for Broadwell, well, she may be talking head – but not on TV. From her perspective, she’s likely better off in Carolina than in North Dakota. And her book will sell out -
Wiki has a list.  It includes  Aaron Burr, John C. Fremont and Henry Blake from M*A*S*H.  Also (remember him?)  Bill Kilgore:

Warren Rudman

It's probably an exaggeration to call Warren Rudman "the last of the sane Republicans," but he was surely one of the last and one of the sanest.  Serious liberals may have trouble forgiving him for his fiscal conservatism--the attitude that impelled him to collaborate with Pete Peterson in the creation of the fiscally hawkish Concord Coalition; or perhaps worse, for consorting with the likes of Senator Phil Gramm.  But even the unsympathetic will have to credit him with two remarkable virtues not in wide availability today: one, an openness to evidence (when did this become a rarity?); and the other, an almost obsessive eagerness to believe that "we can work things out."

Rudman, then, was a  "moderate," but not precisely a centrist.  He maintained a commitment to arithmetic and to budgets that made sense, and a corresponding aversion to nostrums of all sorts.  From another perspective, you'd have to say that he was a moderate but not squishy.   He'd done a bit of boxing and he liked to tell people how in childhood he had made his way on the street with his fists (he carried himself like a kinder, gentler version of James Caan in Las Vegas).

Rudman's resume displayed at least two bullet points notable for their absence in more recent conservative resumes. One, bona fide military service (he won a bronze star in Korea); and two, a bit of genuine have-you--met a payroll business experience (he spent his early years as operations manager for a family furniture company). 

In another respect, Rudman displayed himself as more dramatically out of step with what passes for conservatism today: his profound lack of sympathy for theocracy.  This might be partly a New Hampshire thing: New Hampshire conservatism has always coupled pennypinching with secularism.  But whatever the source, it appears that Rudman was entirely sincere in his conviction that the Republicans had nothing to gain from cozying up to the religious right.

Rudman died yesterday at 82.  There is much more, including an account of what Rudman counted as his most important achievement, in Adam Clymers' appreciative New York Times obituary here.  An obituary from his hometown newspaper is here, together with some interesting links.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Petraeus Scorecard

Ooh, my head is spinning.  Let me see if I can sort out the big-and-small in L'Affaire Petraeus.  In no particular order, and surely not complete:
  • Whether we should be delighted to be rid of a guy who had turned the CIA into a covert fourth branch of the military (and legitimated drone attacks--though these may be two separate issues).
  • Whether should be scandalized (or darkly amused) at the ease with which the security state (in the avatar of the FBI) bit its own tail.
  • Whether we should care at how fast the media (and we the readers) jumped to probably-wrong conclusions about the Marine general and the topless FBI guy.
  • Whether "support the troops" includes feeding cavier to the top brass.
  • Whether an honorary consul is entitled to inviolability?
  • Whether Jon Stewart is the "worst journalist in the world"?
  • Whether we should be darkly amused that the world is still neck-deep in social-climbing arrivistes, resume-padding-vixens, rogue cops, self-promoting alphas, vain and foolish alphas (more than one category may apply). 
  • What we should make of the fact that ten gazillion journalists new all along that Petraeus was a self-promoting jerk, but never bothered to tell us until last week?
  • Whether anybody other than Chuck Norris can turn water into bottled water?
  • Whether Tom Ricks is doubling down to protect his franchise?   Cf. link.
  • What to make out of the fact that Eric Cantor behaved like a gentleman?
  • Whether we should be surprised that men think with their--oh, forget it, this one is too easy.
Did I miss anything important?

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Rehnquist: the Unh-hnh Moment

Years ago when the world was young, Mr. and Mrs. got to share a party boat with, inter alia,Chief Justice William Rehnquist.  After assorted bits of casual conversation and observation  she offered her insight.  

"He's a menace."

It wasn't precisely a political, substantive judgment.  Mrs. B didn't follow politics terribly closely in those days but she knew enough to understand that Rehnquist had been put on the Court by Richard Nixon to roll back--whatever.  What was news to her was not the substance, but personality: he was si easy-going, genial, modest, low-key: a guy in a baseball cap.  

It was a good call and it highlights one of the paradoxes of human behavior: Rehnquist was all that Ms. B observed and more: he drove a VW Rabbit and famously skipped the State of the Union address one year to attend his acrylics class.  Mr.Nice guy, setting aside, say, his utter indifference to the horrors of racial discrimation and his neaar-manic enthusiasm for the death penalty.  Also--but this may have taken more careful scrutiny--as manipulative and result-oriented as any judge since his great doppleganger, William O. Douglas.

All by way of background for one I hadn't heard until today.  It's in the New York Times review of a new biography of the Chief:

After years of promoting states’ rights — or “federalism” — and scoring some big victories, he surprised court-watchers by writing a decision holding that Congress could force states to give their employees family and medical leave. He may have gone “wobbly,” as Margaret Thatcher might have said, from watching the struggles of his daughter, a single mother.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Great Also-Ran

I'm totally in the tank for those maps of Europe as it might have been, with all the also-rans in full majesty.  Ruthenia, Provence, Pomerania, that sort of thing.

Waverly Root understands.  In his Food of France, he explains Burgundy:
Burgundy is as much basic country, elemental country, country of long-rooted traditions as is the Ile-de-France and its attendant territories to the west, and if it is the latter territory which has been described as the most French part of France rather than Burgundy it is only because its continuous history has been attached longer to the name of France than has that of Burgundy. Burgundy's contribution to what is France today goes back as far and is of comparable cultural importance to that of the Ile-de-France, and its capital, Dijon, is one of the great cities of France, a sort of eastern Rouen, whose buildings attest to its rich past; but three quarters of its history was unrolled under a name other than that of France, and in the days of its greatness it was a dukedom that was the peer of the kingdom of France, and for all any fourteenth-century prophet could have foretold, seemed quite as likely to make France part of Burgundy as the other way around.

At a time when the Ile-de-France had added to its possessions only the Orléanais, the Berry, Champagne, and Normandy, Burgundy had expanded eastward through the Franche-Comté, and possessed also, on the far side of the territories of France, Picardy, Artois, and Flanders, a great part of what today is Belgium, all of Holland (which is to say, the southern half of the modern Netherlands)except an island around Utrecht, and the Duchy of Luxembourg.  The territories of Burgundy, more extensive than those of France, had the disadvantage of not being continuous; but they had the advantage of pinching France between them, which could be decisive in area with such well-developed means of communication as our own.  Even then France and Burgundy battled as champions, equally matched.  It was the Burgundians, you will remember, not the English, who captured Joan of Arc; the English only purchased her from her captors when Charles VII, the kind whom she had crowned,proved too parsimonious to pay her ransom.
 --Waverly Root, The Food of France 174-6 (1992)

For Surviving the Ravages of the Savages

I see they are now commercially marketing turducky, thereby destroying all its novelty and macabre appeal. Here at chez Buce, we be having camel stuffed with goat stuffed with raccoon stuffed with gerbil.  

I see the Palookaville zoning code contains no prohibition on camel slaughter.  Meanwhile, can somebody send me an anchovy?

Friday, November 16, 2012

...and Raise the Intelligence Level of Both Places

I see that 61 percent of Puerto Ricans voted for statehood. We could solve the problem of reorganizing the flag if we could just trade them for Texas.

Oh, You Mean That "Apartment"

Mrs. Buce's Netflix queue last night churned up Billy Wilder's The Apartment. I had never seen it before; I remember my friends talking about it but I had just started the repair of my life via night school and I wasn't doing many movies. 

But maybe I need(ed) a better class of friends.  I was always under the impression that it was a comedy. Seeing it last night, I guess I can see what Dave Thompson means (in Have You Seen...) when he says that Wilder "seems to have felt the need to reestablish himself as the surveyor of a cold and heartless world."

Point taken; but perhaps we have become more cold and heartless in general, because at the end of the day, you come away still thinking it is a comedy.  I tend to link it generally with so many other films in what you might call the "Apartment 3G" genre: enterprising youngsters having wacky adventures in the big city.  Cf., My Sister Eileen, or Wonderful Town.  You want edgy, you have to move forward to The Landlord.  You want really edgy, you go on to Looking for Mr. Goodbar.

Still, I guess what struck me most about The Apartment was the whole milieu thing.  Here's a place where our hero works in a Chairman-Mao-style bullpen of clerks, where he makes $94 week--and pays $85 a month for an apartment at 51 West 67th.  I mean--actually, I suppose that address is underneath Lincoln Center today, but these days it would be available on an investment banker budget.  And the cab up from 61st Street costs 70 cents.

Bottom line: the film is a great argument for legislation against wrongful dismissal.  And do you suppose by chance the Shirley McLain who plays the winsome elevator operator here is any kin to the Shirley McLain who played the sharp-tongued old harridan in Terms of Endearment?   

What Did Not (and maybe Will Not) Kill Twinkie

I see tht Hostess Brands is folding its hand after a rancorous bloodletting with its unions--heading for liquidation in bankruptcy under Chapter 7. Management says it is the fault of the unions. Unions say it's the fault of a heartless Bain-style destruction--"real products Americans love," says AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka" (cough).

Well, two things. One, learn Buce's law: when a company says its problem is all the fault of the unions, the one thing you can be sure of is that it is not all the fault of the unions. The union problem is bound to be a symptom of a larger problem in management discipline or creativity. And blaming it on the unions is pretty clear evidence of a failure to take responsibility or, perhaps even more likely, stark incomprehension of what the problem really might be.

Take Twinkie, Hostess' marquee product. Forget the jokes about how it will be around until the next ice age. Focus instead on the fact that it has been around since the last ice age, as unchanged in concept as it is apparently durable in manufacture.  And as Bill Rochelle (see infra) likes to say, this is an industry where tastes change, and where products must change or be left behind.   There are a lot of companies in the snack food biz/ The successful companies are the ones that innovate to beat the band. Think Procter & Gamble.  Think Frito-Lay. Think Grupo Bimbo.  Say you want about the misallocation of resources, the crime of capitalism, the gross waste of energy and effort, these guys are people who know how to make money under the existing rules.  If the Hostess people didn't understand that, they don't deserve to run a major commpany, and their workers are paying the price.

But there is a second wrinkle here.  Hostess may "liquidate in Chapter 7," but Hostess very likely is not dead yet.   The financial press is quoting Those in the Know as saying that the case is all about the  brands--the trademarks, the attendant intellectual property, the great name of Twinkie and suchlike.  The talk is that the ought to attract serious bidders and draw cash into the bankruptcy estate.

And?  And who knows?  And begin to produce something, anything, who knows what, under the Twinkie name.  Fine, it happens all the time.  But here's a guess: I suspect that whatever gets fobbed off as a Twinkie henceforth will differ from the former Twinkie in one vital respect and that is it will come from a non-union shop.    So the simple explanation of the liquidation/sale here may be that it is just an efficient way of getting out from under what Twinkie couldn't get out from under otherwise.

Acknowledgment:  Some of this is inspired by the insights of the world's greatest bankruptcy journalist, Bill Rochelle at Bloomberg. Here's Rochelle on Hostess's bankruptcy filing back in January.  And for a mid-gme update, go here (at1:52). And ask Bill to tell you what he thinks of Drake's Cakes.

Update: Too true, too true.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Stiglitz on Inequality

There is so much good stuff in Joseph Stiglitz new The Price of Inequality  that it is not easy to specify just why I keep wanting to throw it away with great force.

Start with something positive: he's on the side of the angels.  He's got the right friends and the right enemies and a generous heart.  But he writes a book that can make you just want to scream.

Part of the problem is merely structural.  From the title, you might guess this is a book that makes the functional case against disparities in wealth or income: disparities entrench elites, they undermine democratic values, they destroy trust in the system, and mutual trust.  This is an important perspective and Stiglitz makes many of the particular points well.  Which isn't to say they haven't been made as well or  better elsewhere but no matter: the case can bear repeating.

The trouble is, you have to work awfully hard to find it.  The narrow point--the point of the title--comprises maybe 15-25 pages of the entire book, scattered and sometimes camouflaged.  The rest of the book is a free-floating leftie talking points, loosely scattered as if he had dumped out his box of three by five cards--a bit like locked in a semi-dark room with a loop tape of the Rachel Maddow show.

Ironically, a giveaway as to the content is that Stiglitz spends far more time talking about fairness versus unfairness in distribution than he does about his "costs" argument.  This is telling: fairness functionality are both important principles: one might well want an economy to be both functional and fair.  But it's not clear that Stiglitz even recognizes the difference.   Quite the contrary: much as he cites as principle of fairness, Stiglitz nowhere spells out just what his principle of fairness is.  Rather, he falls back time and again by telling us what the public perceives as fair/unfair.  He never seems to notice that these references tell us nothing about fairness per se; a public might very well perceive a fair world as unfair or vice versa.

This is frustrating.Although I should stress I don't have a lot of trouble with content.  As to particulars, I think I'd sign on to somewhere between 60 and 90 percent of what Stiglitz has to offer (lot of nuances, but let that be).

But none of this is what is really maddening. I guess what really gets me is what I wrote about in passing when I was sizing up Chris Hayes a few days ago.  In the end, it is a massive exercise in preaching to the choir, telling his audience what they already know, beefing them up with soundbytes to annoy their relatives at the Thanksgiving dinner table.  In the process, it sidesteps or minimizes virtually almost any difficult or perplexing argument that complicate the case.

I could offer a number of particular examples but let me concentrate on a thematic difficulty:  Stiglitz' near-complete schizophrenia on the issue of "competition" and its evil twin, "economic rents."  You can probably guess he framework: competition good.  Rents bad.  Goal of policy, dismantle rents, restore competition.  

In individual cases, this is bound to be a beguiling argument. But it sidesteps the core paradox of the economic world-view: everybody wants free competition for others.  Nobody  wants it for themselves.  And who can blame them?  A competitive world is a grey, bleak and heartless kind of a place--a world in which as Albert O. Hirschman says, "every individual firm considered in isolation is barely getting by, so that a single false step will be its undoing."  Or as the fella says, absolutely the last thing you want in the world is a job where you get paid what you're worth.

I think this problem is pervasive in Stiglitz' book but it takes on particular poignancy for two reasons.  One: Stiglitz is in his own way a conservative or better, if there is such a word, a nostalgiast (id that a word?).  He's a sucker for the old ways, meaning particularly the old ways of the Roosevelt New Deal and the broad social compact that organized the United States from the end of World War II until the first Arab oil shock.  Strong bank regulation, good manly jobs and in particular, strong unions.t

Unless I missed it, he never once faces up to the stark fact that this entire model subsisted in a warm bath of economic rents and restricted competition.   American industry had a huge home market, protected from foreign competition by law and by the disaster of World War II.  There was a lot to go round, even for the low-skilled.  But the best jobs were in the most protected places: big auto, big steel, big telecom: these were the places where management and labor could agree to split up the proceeds, secure in the knowledge that they wouldn't be undercut.

Stiglitz' nostalgia for the Good Old Days carries over into what may be the weakest part of his book.Oh yes, he says, good thing, globalization. bit you've got to do it right and the financiers have done it all wrong.  Let's concede that big finance has committed great mischief in the pursuit of globalization.  Still, I see almost no recognition in Stiglitz that a newly globalized word has less starvation, less abject poverty and yes, more equality (between nations if not in nations) post-globalization than it did before.  As Paul Collier says, we used to talk about "the bottom five sixths;" we now talk about "the bottom one sixth."  And scandalized as we may be over the abuses of labor in the developing countries, I don't know of anyone who has ever made the explicit argument that our nation should be rich while all others are poor.

The problem of rents-versus-competition imbues his discussion of our own current internal agonies as well.   Specifically, I don't see any acknowledgment in Stiglitz that governments as well as private persons can be rent-seekers as well; that, indeed, our current politics may perhaps be best understood as a competition between two different alliances for control of the rent-seeking machine: young people and public employees on one side, old people and finance on the other.

I know.  Almost anyone who has stuck with me this far is sputtering that but, but I don't understand, there are various kinds of rents, and not all rents are alike, and we can have good competition and bad competition.  Well, very likely we can; I certainly hope so.  But any attempt to understand that point will have to start with an account of the present that is far more clear-sighted and yes, ambivalent, than what is on offer here.

That's my point.  Actually, I've got (at least) one more point I'd like to make about Stiglitz and his ilk but I guess I'll save it for a separate post (which I may or may not get round to writing).

Footnote:  I seem to have hammered on this particular guitar before.  See:  Link, link, link all of whom impel me to believe, in various ways, that I'm not crazy..

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

In Uniform?

A  commenter at Bruce Bartlett's Facebook page reports that in 1932, at the time of the infamous "bonus march," it was still illegal for a military officer to wear a uniform in the District of Columbia.

No kidding?  Like Caesar not being permitted to cross the Rubicon?  Or the French hand-picking only one senior officer to come to town for the Bastille Day parade?  When did all that stop?

But then, at  time when wars are fought from air-conditioned mancaves outside Las Vegas, it doesn't really matter all that much any more.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Opera: The Queen of the Bight

Others are already sketching and plotting for the Petraeus movie, perhaps as crafted by Oliver Stone. But I'm thinkin' opera.  I'll bet Thomas Adès' agent is already on line with him, trying to make sure he'll go, as they say, all in (nudge).   I' had been hoping for Juan Diego Flórez and Natalie Dessay but that's only an easy indulgence of my own personal taste.  

As the day goes on, one's thinking evolves.   I'm realizing that the real story is not the general who, until just last week, seemed secure behind the most successful public relations firewall since Douglas MacArthur.  No: the real center is turning to be the doyenne of Tampa Bay society, "Inbox Zero" as Farhad Manjoo has dubbed her,  the lady who told the police to get the kids offa her lawn because she is, after all, the Honorary Consul.  It's see who seems to stand at the center of the great and seemingly ever-expanding web.  By the time we get through all this, the general may be no more important to the story than the poor doofus from the barracks guard is is important to Carmen.

So I'm thinking coloratura and I'm thinking Adès' coloratura; I'm thinkin' Audrey Luna.  You may not be able to understand a word she is saying but she can strip the varnish off an antique dining table, which is to say, powerful and  insistent enough to draw everybody else into her web.  Sharpen your quill pen, Thomas, you're on.

Such Health as is Conceded to Moribundity and Caducity:
The Life and Good Times of Sydney Smith

When you can't focus, it can be a good move to go read some more from the letters of Sydney Smith:
(Of Scotch beggars) They beg in a very quiet, gentle way, and thus lose the most productive art of their profession, Importunity. (Nov. 4, 1798)

(Of a young lady being considered for matrimony) Can she read without Scotch accent? Is she good tempered?  Pray let Horner see her if you think there is any probability she will do so; but let him see her under the influence of yr presence, or he will impregnate her.  There is a fecundity in his very look; his smiles are sensual. (Oct 29, 1805)

If the oxen catch the butcher, they have a right to toss and gore him. (July 3, 1809)

It would be a bad comfort to an Indian widow, who was half-burnt, if the head Bramin were to call out to her 'Remember, it is your own act and deed; I never ordered you to burn yourself, and I must take the liberty of telling you that you are a fool for your pains.' (Jan. 17, 1813)

I wish you had told me something about yourself.  Are you well?  Rich?  Happy?  Do you digest?  Have you any thoughts of marrying?  My whole parish is to be sold for ₤50,000; pray buy it, quit your profession, and turn Yorkshire squire. We should be a model for squires and parsons.  (Sept 3, 1820, to J.A. Murray, literary man, lawyer and lord; in fact they remained friends for the rest of their joint lives)

I love liberty, but hope it can be so managed that I shall have soft beds, good dinners, fine linen, etc., for the rest of my life.  I am too old to fight or to suffer.  (Jan. 3, 1830; he was 58)

I am convinced digestion is the great secret of life; and that character, talents, virtues, and qualities are powerfully affected by beef, mutton, pie-crust,  and rich soups.  I have often thought I could feed or starve men into many virtues and vices, and affect them more powerfully with my instruments of cookery than Timotheus could do formerly with his lyre. (Sept. 30, 1837)

Mrs. Sydney and I are both in fair health,--such health as is conceded to moribundity and caducity.  (Sept. 12, 1842; he was 70)
All from the Oxford World Classics edition of the Selected Letters of Sydney Smith  (1956).  Auburon Waugh in his introduction calls Smith "the embodiment of our national genius."

Well, um, Hey...

Welcome, friends of Toni.  Stay awhile, and don't be a stranger; there'll be pie.  Meanwhile, I am gobsmacked, flabbergasted, astonished, astounded, thunderstruck, staggered, at a loss for words.  Well, maybe not at a loss for words.

And ctually, none of those applies. Kindness and generosity beyond the call are entirely in character for her.   But I am touched and flattered, and delighted to have such a friend.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Lovers, Haters and Biography

Slate has a cute piece up on the question of how many biographers have fallen for their subject.  Answer: some.  Maybe not many.  Who the hell knows?  Unaddressed is the related question: how many grow to hate their subject as they get to know him (or her--see infra).

Getting hard data here might be even harder because the author might have all kinds of reasons not to want to admit that he had made a critical error in choosing his subject.   But famous among law professors (at least of a certain age) is at least one remarkable instance: the case of the late Supreme Court justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.  His first biographer abandoned the project unfinished "discouraged by what seemed to him the bleakness of Holmes' character."  His second, the legendary Grant Gilmore, grew so hostile to his subject tht he finished nothing at all.   Later biographers, while not so dramatic, appear not to love their particular subject much better.  Holmes appears in retrospect, so this account goes, to have enjoyed a Petraeus-level PR operation during his lifetime which may have laid the groundwork for disappointment later (documentation for this paragraph is here).

I can think of another case which may be relevant although I am not entirely sure of the facts so I need to tread cautiously.  At any rate, I know a well-regarded feminist scholar who set out to write a biography of a pioneer in the campaign for women's independence.  Early on she discovered to her horror that her subject was also a flaming racist.  I know very little of her thinking beyond this point but I know that completion of the project took another 20 years.  One might well say--hey, finding that your subject has feet of clay is not a problem, it just makes the project all that much more interesting.  Well one might, but perhaps not so easy if you are the one.

The only other case that comes immediately to mind is the biography Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel, by the incomparable historian of the postbellum south, C. Vann Woodward.  The way I remember if from the 60s, Woodward began his book by saying he had grown to dislike Watson more as his writing went on.   I just now went and looked at the online Google sample; I don't find quite those words but I do find a fascinating preface on how to deal with the life of a man who is in some (but not all)) ways quite loathsome.  
Afterthought: of course there is a whole shelf of biographies where the author seems willing just to tell the story as best he can, without (apparently) worrying about how much he cares about the subject.  I don't think anybody ever thought that Ian Kershaw (for example) ever saw much good in Hitler.  But he seemed to delight in the opportunity to tell the story fully, carefully, and  and with as much accuracy as he could control