Sunday, March 31, 2013

Hey Guys, it was Only a Joke!

And here I thought I was kidding: just last Friday I suggested that they might try delivering our Sunday paper by drone.  Turns out in in Southern France, they are doing just that.

Obama and Titles of Nobility

I'm not at all sure I have my mind round Obama's public-private infrastructure plan just yet, but don't they have it exactly backwards?  I mean--apparently the scheme is to let private investors build the projects and lease them to the government?

Excuse, but shouldn't it be we who lease to them, not they to us?  Howard Hughes didn't get rich by selling drill bits; he leased them,.  Same for IBM with mainframe computers.  And the Duke of Westminster became the only native-born Brit in the list of richest Brits by--well, by picking the right ancestors, but then hanging on.  Every time you feed a parking meter in Central London, you are in effect stuffing the pockets of Gerald Grosvenor and his cosseted kin.  The Constitution provides that there be no titles of nobility in the United States; but if Obama gives you a perpetual parking meter franchise, you might have the next best thing.

Afterthought:  This might be an Illinois way of doing things.  As I recall it was that great statesman Rob Blagojevich who wanted to sell off the Illinois state lottery; fortunately for the lottery, Blagojevich wanted to sell just about everything else, too.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Two Artless Queries about the Zero Bound

Paul Krugman's "The Price is Wrong" is about as succinct an explanation as you are likely to get of his position of whether/why to stick with a policy of loose money and unbalanced budgets.  The analysis pretty much makes sense to me although I'm not nearly skilled enough to judge the empirical evidence in any detail.  I do at  least acknowledge that Krugman seems to be winning on points, insofar as the threatened boogieman inflation persists in snoozing placidly under the bed rather than  lurching randomly round the boudoir  and upending  all the furniture.

But two unrelated questions continue to nag at me.  One, the "zero bound" discussion rests on the premise that the nominal rate cannot go below zero (yes?).   But it does go below zero (yes?) even in ordinary times in,, e.g., any checking account that imposes a fee for holding the deposit?  An objector might say that this isn't price-of-money, it's a service/convenience charge.  I'm not persuaded that there is a difference, particularly given that economists are (so far as I can tell) generally a little shaky on explaining just what we are paying for when we pay  price for money.*

Anyway, I find it hard/impossible to believe that all depositors/investors are deceived by the positive-nominal, negative-real fandango.  At least some of that money must be coming from investors who know perfectly well that they are getting a negative return but figure they might as well suck it up and soger on anyway.  

Which bring me to my second question--the topic is the idea  that a little inflation might be a good thing insofar as it drives down real wages.  Apparently this notion has been part of the argument from the beginning: I recall reading it in a letter from John Maynard Keynes, quoted, I believe, in a book by Bruce Bartlett.  As an empirical proposition this may very well be true (why, for comparison, do consumers persist in carrying credit card debt at astronomical rates when they often have other and better choices?).  Yet isn't it strange to construct an economic policy program that only works if the consumer does not understand what is good for her?

[Note: Revised, to take account of some second thoughts and a bit of Larry's commentary, infra.  But basically impenitent.]

*My Uncle Evert used to say he left his money in his copy of Dante's Inferno, so when he asked himself "now where in hell did I leave my money?" he would know where to start looking.  Cypriots may feel the need to resuscitate and refashion this joke.  BTW in a digital, does anybody but me find it intriguing that the Brits are freighting actual pound notes into Cyprus to solace the troops?   I suppose if they simply dropped them from helicopters they might solve the whole problem.  

Green-energy Noir

My friend Larry wrote a novel called When the Sacred Ginmill ClosesNow this:
Heh,   The whole hashtag is kinda fun, BTW.  And FWIW, Larry is on a roll right now: the the forthcoming movie version of his Walk Among the Tombstones is in production and he gets to hang out on with Liam Neeson in a cemetery in Queens.

Pasquale Chiesa

Holy Saturday seems to be a good time to salute the work of Pasquale Chiesa--"Easter Church," credited as the painter of two respectable oils that hang in Rome's Galeria Doria Pamphilj.  

You know about Pasquale?  Good, then you are in a club of one.  He is a painter about whom, it seems, nothing is known--zero, nada, bubkas, zilch--except his name and the attributions.  Have a good weekend, Pasquale.  Vixere fortis and all that.  At least you left a couple of creditable pieces of work behind.

Meaningless Opera Statistic of the Day

" [P]ayroll for 3,400 full-time, part-time and seasonal employees [at the Metropolitan opera] eats up 75 percent of the Met’s $330 million annual operating budge."
 That pencils out to $72,794.12 per person per year, which I admit, is about as useful an average as you'd get from adding up and then dividing the total of all their license plate numbers.  That's from Erik Madigan Heck's arch, chirrupy and mostly noncommital New York Times profile of Peter Gelb, the Met's (himself very high-profile) general manager.  A better takeaway: in his earlier years, Gelb served as chief roady for the pianist Vladimir Horowitz (Gelb's job included assuring that the great man had Dover sole for dinner every night):
Not long before Horowitz died, he called Gelb and told him he was like family now and he didn’t have to call him “Mr. Horowitz,” he could call him “Maestro.”
I'd say this has all the earmarks of an anecdote made up by a publicist, but cute enough anyway.

Friday, March 29, 2013

The Coming Dronology

Contemplating a future in which each of us will come packin' his/her own personal drone (a second-amendment right, perhaps?)--and also each our personal drone defense system, Mrs. Buce wonders: would it be too much to ask that on the way in for the kill, they at least might drop off her Sunday paper on time?

Afterthought:  I suppose what I meant was "dronocracy."

Rust Never--Well, Rarely--Sleeps

Reading Tony Judt's masterful Postwar I'm struck again by something that so often gets to me about the 20h Century's great adventure.  Specifically: how often and how needlessly the Nazis and he Japanese and later the Russians, blew it.  That is: how easy it would have been for them to win favor or support from the conquered peoples and to install themselves as masters not exactly beloved (what master is ever beloved?) but at least accepted and recognized as legitimate.  The point is particularly evident here as Judt shows how the Nazis came close to doing just that in their conquest of France, Norway and other nations of "people like us."  With a fairly light hand and a willingness to leave local matters in the hands of the locals, they bid fair to put themselves in a position to reign if not to rule over a reunified Europe. 

So, pity about that Russian business.Of course the Nazis weren't nearly as polite to those easterners whom they saw as more or less subhuman and in the end they paid a terrible price for their callousness. But no worse, really than the Japanese who could easily have been welcomed as racial allies against the hated Westerners, had not their own racist high-handedness trumped any impulse towards making common cause.   Even more foolish still, perhaps, was Stalin who had coherent realpolitik reasons to want to dominate his environs.  And indeed, again he sometimes came close: Poland where his practical concern was most urgent--he wanted a buffer against the possibility of a resurgent Germany--almost got away with a life of its own, as least for a while.  But ideological blindness led him to try to impose gratuitous indignities on the new satellites for reasons which, in retrospect, are almost impossible to define.

Rust never--well, rarely--sleeps.  Arrogance and foolishness are the natural handmaidens of power.  Surveying this record, it's comforting to know that we live in an empire that will never dissipate its natural advantages via indifference and insult.


Thursday, March 28, 2013

Paul Kennedy's Back-office War
(With Cameo Walkon from Jon Gertner)

Here's a shoutout for Paul Kennedy's Engineers of Victory, a fine book even if it is difficult to say just exactly what it is about.  The subtitle is  The Problem Solvers Who Turned the Tide in the Second World War which is perhaps a bit closer to the mark except you could say that everybody was a problem solver from George C. Marshall on down.  Of course that isn't quite what Kennedy has in mind.  A better pitch would be that it is a book about learning-by-doing, about getting things wrong and then staying lucky long enough to get them right the next time.  Closer, but still not enough.  Better to say that in context, what really gets Kennedy's juices flowing are a few stories about individual innovators, mosly  unhonored and unsung (until now) and also, not at all incidentally, the system(s) that were able to assimilate and operationalize their innovation.

In this context, I suspect Kennedy's favorite character in the whole book is an otherwise virtually unknown British test pilot named Ronnie Harker who tried out a US P-51 fighter aircraft and, in an almost seat-of-the-pants intuitive judgment call, suggested that they could vastly improve its performance by dropping in a Merlin 61 Rolls-Royce engine.  Harker's suggestion turned out to be not just right but dramatically right: in effect he turned the air war around: the Allies had been taking near-intolerable losses: after Harker they were able to reclaim the upper hand.  

Of course it wasn't just Harker. Kennedy tells it, the happy ending lies at least as much in the story of how Harker's idea turned into action: how the British operational structure turned out to be loose and flexible enough to know a good idea when they saw one, and how the Americans were able and willing to cooperate in production.

It's a lovely yarn and there are others in the book almost, if not quite, as good.  One gets the sense that there would be more such to tell if only we could find them.  But in a way, that's the problem: Kennedy seems to have done a prodigious job of research but some the stuff you would want most to know continues to repose behind a veil of wild surmise.   Kennedy himself gives the game away at the end of a superb story about the  epic resurgence of the Russians and and after Stalin grand, ending with their savage reprisal/conquest of Germany itself,
 But what about the lesser-known contributors to the Soviet victory? Who were the problem solvers in that part of the story, the equivalents to the innumerable players on the Anglo-American side whose tales are so readily accessible? Clearly they existed and made enormous contributions...
Unh hnh.  It's no real disrespect to Kennedy--after all, the Russian archives just aren't available.  But there is so much more you wish he could tell.

  Even with this limitation, though, I'd shelve Kennedy's offering close to another of my favorite books from the last year: Jon Gertner's The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation.  Like Gertner's, Kennedy's is a delight to read, and gives you a warm glow, if tinged with a dash of wry nostalgia, about a time when things more or less worked.  And can contrast, for example, Tom Ricks' The Generals, in which he offers an account of the Post-War Army's descent into careerism and heroin addiction.

Both Kennedy  and Gertner are well worth the time and effort, even if Kennedy seems a tad  unfinished. Still, in the end you've got the unsatisfied sense that you've got a just-so story.  You could say they both tell you lots of good stuff about institutions that did what you would have wanted them to do, but very little about who or how.  Where's the secret sauce?  Isn't there some way we can have it bottled and stocked in every market in the land?

Did Not Hegel Say that HIstory Repeats Itself

First as tragedy, then as irony?

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Oh, That Again

Here's one that churns around every few years: old guy tries to adopt his sweety.  In this case it's Florida "multimillionaire," "polo mogul"  and general-purpose scamp John Goodman, 49;  the object of his intentions is the object of his affections, his girlfriend. 43.  Apparently there is a $300m trust fund for his "children;" evidently he has two, and baby doll would have made three.  The Florida appellate court was not amused.  "Fraud," the court harrumphed, which will certainly come as a shock to the good folk of Florida who very likely did not know that there was anything you could do in Florida that would count as actionable fraud.

But hey it's not all bad: the decision gives me a  chance to resuscitate the lyrics penned by an eminent Harvard professor on a like occasion; to the tune of "On Top of Old Smoky," he wrote:
Oh father, dear father, let go of my blouse;
Since I am your daughter I can't be your spouse.
Details here.

More Crossover Klezmer

For no particular reason except that it's fun, here's a bit more on klezmer crossover.  Start here:

That's "Der Shtiller Bulgar," recorded at last year's blogapalooza in Palo Alto a concert of the Abe Schwartz Band in New York City in 1918, and if you hear the strains of the Benny Goodman orchestra here, you are not wrong. Trumpeter Ziggy Elman massaged it into "We Meet and the Angels Sing," made famous by Elman and later by Eydie Gorme (here's an Eydie rendition with some lovely nostalgia shots of old New York).
For comparison, take a listen to the first bars of George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" and tell me you can't hear the klezmer echoes:

Finally, for those who said it couldn't be done--klezmer bluegrass:

Clarinet Klezmer

My loyal commentators offer good-natured raillery on the topic of clarinet klezmer.  But it's no joke.  A well-sourced Wiki traces it back to the 19th-Century European roots, and finds echoes in Gershwin and Benny Goodman.  Here's Giora Feldman, who played clarinet klezmer in Spielberg's Schindler's List:


But for something completely different, here's ukulele klezmer: 

Wal-mart: Live by the Market, Die by the Market

Walter Russell Mead thinks he has discovered why the stores are empty at Wal-Mart.  It's that pesky minimum wage.  If Wal-Mart didn't have to compete with (for) workers earning the minimum, they wouldn't have so much trouble finding help.

Well yes, and they could make more money if they could just kidnap bystanders and empty their wallets.  But we have this atavistic notion that even corporate behemoths should obey the law, at least some of the time.

Anyway, I think Walter may be looking for the problem in the wrong place.  Seems to me the real fly in the ointment is CostCo and all the other guys who find that they cannot get good help unless they pay above the minimum wage.   Peter Drucker taught us (or wanted to teach us) that it is important to treat the employees as an asset rather than a liability.  Hire capable people and train them to do a job, rather than teaching them how to apply for food stamps.  Wal-Mart might think this sounds like insanity; but for guidance, they might want to ask the former owners of Border's and Circuit City what happens when you try to staff the floor with zombies.

Meantime, I assume we can expect Walter to demand that Congress impose price controls on CostCo to keep them from promoting uppitiness among the underclass.

Loose Change on the Old Skinflint

I've finished David Cannadine's doorstop biography of Andrew Mellon (cf. link) and I offer a few bits of loose-change derived from the evidence here at hand:

One, the tax evasion charge/trial was an outrage, a farce from start to finish.  On he evidence I'd say that Mellon was guilty, all right, but of an entirely different (and uncharged) crime: self-dealing.  Throughout his tenure he engaged in repeated, egregious and blatant entanglement of his own business with the public's.  And without the slightest hint of defensiveness or irony: one can only assume that he simply didn't see any distinction between the public's welfare and his own.  But the tax case--it reflects no glory on Attorney General Homer Cummings (who emerges as a pipsqueak) nor on prosecutor Robert Jackson--a guy who I have always wanted to like (he is perhaps the best stylist ever to have adorned the Supreme Court), but also a guy who keeps disappointing me with his naked, self-absorbed ambition.

Oh and an extra: whatever his virtues, Franklin D. Roosevelt could be a vindictive little prick.  Particularly, I suppose, about people whose money was newer than his own.

Two, the museum.  The National Gallery on the Mall.  It is indeed impressive, not merely how much money, but also much effort, Mellon poured into the project--much of it while he was under indictment or on trial.  And how careful he was to make sure it would not be merely a monument to himself.  And how much comic relief we can enjoy from the art dealer and impudent old scoundrel, Joseph Duveen.  Side note: I guess it is part of the folklore that Mellon gave the museum in an effort to buy off the government over taxes.  Cannadine makes a compelling case for the proposition that this is a canard: that Mellon was at work on the museum long before FDR ever came to power and that he persisted merely to finish what he had begun.
And three, Scotch-Irish.  Cannadine makes much of Mellon's own Scotch-Irish roots and of (as Cannadine sees it) a pervasive Scotch-Irish cultural template in gilded-age Pittsburgh.  By which he seems to mean: hard work, thrift to the point of austerity and an implacable adherence to perceived principle.  In Mellon's case at least, one might add: contempt for the Irish Catholic underclass.

This is plausible enough, but there is a puzzle.  Seems to me that when we talk about Scotch-Irish we more often have in mind a different slice of America--the southeast, particularly the Appalachians--and a different vocational niche--politics.  We think of "Barbry Allen" and the Hatfield McCoy feud.    Or we think of Presidents like Jackson and Polk (I would add Lincoln but the facts of his ancestry have eluded historians so the attribution can be no more than a guess).

These seem to me to be rather different cultures, not so?  Is it the accident of geography, that the lucky ones wound up in the coal-and-iron country while their misfortunate brothers had to settle for the hoots and hollers?  Or is there a deeper geographical split that we can trace back to the old country?  I suppose what I should do (instead of nattering on) is to go back and retrieve my copy of David Hackett Fischer's Albion's Seed, which did so much to clarify the diverse roots of early American culture.  But it's not at hand: one problem of having (part of) your library made out of dead trees.

Or maybe I am just making too much of it.  Maybe you can't expect to kind a common thread in a culture that can claim Chester A. Arthur,  Elvis Presley and Zack Galifianakis (really--link).

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Homeland as a Buddy Story

I watched season one of Homeland with Mrs. Buce over the past few weeks (we live on Netflix time).   I found myself diverted by Mandy Patinkin as Saul, the guy who plays mentor and counselor, best friend, rab--well, no, not exactly rabbi, but I gather Patinkin has a long career behind him in hooferhood, including klezmer, and everything about him cries out Second Avenue schtick.  Which is not a complaint: I have a soft spot for klezmer and I'm pretty sure I have some Patinkin around the house although I didn't at first connect Saul the CIA spook with Mandy the mamaloshen guy.

I see the producers give star billing to Claire Danes as the hyped-up high-maintenance CIA spook, along with Damian Lewis as her double-triple-whatever agent charge.  But I share a widely held view that there is a lot more chemistry between Danes and Patinkin than there is between Danes and her nominal co-star.  And it's a recognizable trope: the high-energy, perhaps somewhat unhinged, protagonist and the selfless sidekick who repeatedly saves his (her) bacon.  Mel Gibson and Danny Glover.  Jeeves and Bertie.  John Tanner and (what was the name of his chauffeur?--in Shaw's Man and Superman).  Mr. Pickwick and Sam Weller.  At a stretch, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.  Hey, Gilgamesh and Inkidu.  And my all-time favorite buddy story, here.

Here's Mandy in a turn that would probably cost Saul his security clearance:

Monday, March 25, 2013

Tony Lewis, his Times and his Times

I started law school at 6 on a Monday night in August, 1963 in the basement of the University of Louisville law building.  There was a flash flood.  There was water on the floor.  Acting Dean William Peden gave us greeting.  "You are lucky," he said, "that you are joining an underpeopled profession."

He was right.  I suspect through most of history the supply of lawyers has exceeded the demand, but coming out of World War II, the market was particularly grim.  Swarms of returning vets used their GI bill money to qualify for the bar and what had perhaps long been an oversupply became an outright glut.  By 1963, he juridical python had pretty much assimilated its consular pig.  

I suspect we all held our breath for a moment (I know I did).  This was night school; we were mostly around 28 (my age); mostly in careers which, though not exactly dead-end, still didn't seem to be going anywhere quite as fast as we were piling up expenses for wives and babies we had somehow accumulated (we didn't quite know how) along the way.  We were looking for a break.  Bill Peden had just told us that we might just have cut ourselves a break.  In retrospect, I'll surmise that not many of us had an inkling of just how good a break it was.

Now jump cut sideways a few months.  I think it was the spring before my evening in the flood zone that I read Anthony Lewis' Gideon's Trumpet (it have been just after but that's a detail)--about the Gideon of Gideon, who found himself, the somewhat bemused centerpiece in a story about the Constitution and the glory and dignity of the practice of law.    I loved the book: had I been sufficiently fluent, I could have said all the nice things about it that his legions of admirers are saying just now  as they honor Lewis' passing (early today, in Boston, at the age of 85). 

Truth to tell, I had harbored a near-paralyzing ambivalence about law school: Would I like it? No, much less: could I bear it?  Would I have even the foggiest notion what was going on?  You are waiting for me to say that  it was Lewis who gave me the assurance to go forward.  In a way, this is true.  Granted, I never really saw myself as Abe Fortas, the powerful, implacable, cerebral, and, yes liberal lawyer who reigns, as much as anybody, as the hero of Lewis' book. but he certainly made me feel that I could find law "worthy of the interest of an intelligent mind" (me, of course). Not only that, you could make a pretty good living, too (I suppose I could also see that if Tony Lewis was the standard, there was no future for me in journalism).

They couldn't have known it then (nor could I) but Lewis and Peden thus converged to begin a series of events that made the 60s a marvelous decade to be a young lawyer.  Next year was the Mississippi summer of 1964 when we discovered--imagine our surprise--that lawyers could be figures of glamour, even a kind of honor.  It was along about the same time that Lyndon Johnson funded legal services as a part of the law on poverty, so even of the truest of true believers could fight the good fight while still putting food on the table.  And one more: I think it was in 1965 that Cravath, Swaine & Moore, the whitest of white-shoe firms made Soros-like preemptive strike on the competition by raising the starting salary to some unheard-of number (I've forgotten, was it $8,500?  Or $18,500)--anyway a number that made it clear that at least in biglaw, beginning lawyers need never fear poverty again.  Oh, and a final fillip: it was along about the same time that I saw the smiling face of a law professor--and an associate dean, at that--as the glamour boy in an ad for some kind of whiskey.

In short, all of a sudden it was a great time to be a  lawyer. For me to, FWIW: I won't labor the details, except to note that I never did get to Cravath, nor to Mississippi either, for that matter.  Let's just note that I had made rather a mess of my early education (why I wound up in night school at 28). But children, don't believe them when they tell you there are no second chances in life.  For most of the decade, I found myself hurling my body against doors that turned out to be unlocked.

But as the fella says, enough about me.  I'm trying to say something about Tony Lewis.  So perhaps we can agree  that Lewis went from success to success also, though on a much higher plane.  In short he morphed from being a young man of promise, the author of  one very good book (and several other respectable books),  into what seemed to be his destined place at the very center of the liberal firmament, the let-no-dog-bark oracle with (at least) "wisdom, gravity" if not "profound conceit." [Which is not to say he was lockstep predictable: breaking with the pack, he proved himself a dissenter on the matter of special rights for reporters and the institutional press.  For myself I'd say he got that one profoundly right and we can be grateful to him for it.]

So far as I can tell, Lewis' luck held throughout his career (until one day it didn't but that last  is true of everybody). "Luck held" in the sense that h e continued to find causes he felt worthy of his advocacy.  "Luck held" also in the sense he wasn't really onstage long enough to get torn up by the scratching and clawing in which big time journalism has immured itself, nor to see his platform gnawed away from under him as it has for, say Thomas L. Friedman or David Brooks.   In short, a charmed life.

I wonder if I should say the same for the profession of law that Tony Lewis did so much to define.  Granted, there are a lot of old coots (and younger coots) who still burn with the passion of Warren-court liberalism.  There are also ladies and gents in storefront law offices who go to work every day as true believers, and who have probably never seen the north side of $60k a year.  But I suspect that a lot of the brave young souls who got on the up escalator in the heady days went on to become--well, try this: went on to become what became of the French bourgeoisie in the 1860s-70s-80s, who still saw themselves as children of the revolution even as they dined on oysters and fine champagne. The kind of person,  in short, for whom Karl Marx had contempt, and whose very existence was proof enough to Marx that the events of 1789 were only the beginning.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Piero at the Frick

We took in the  new Piero della Francesca show at the Frick in New York last week and it came home to me for the first time what people mean when they say that Piero is an original, his own man, outside the common ruck of  his time.  I suppose what I'm saying is no more than that only now do I have enough acquaintance with his contemporaries to be able to intuit some of the differences between him and the others.

Walter Klein also discusses Piero's individuality, in his splendid review of the show, although he approaches the matter a bit differently than I do.  I was lucky enough to have the chance to make the ritual pilgrimage up to Monterchi and San Sepolocro a few years back, later to Urbino and Arrezo--so I've had the good fortune to see most of Piero's best work in its natural habitat.    I  think I've been able to intuit a sense of how Piero had rejected Firenze--in his time, probably already the center of the Italian art world--for the gnarly hill country where he was born.   View a few (in fact, there are only a few) of those exemplars and you can't escape the notion of an artist who wanted to  proceed undistracted by the fashions of his time, who wanted to do things his own way.  Kaiser speaks of the "serene immobility" of Piero figures; he quotes Zbigniew Herbert, speaking of the paintings'  "ontological indestructibility."   I'd go further: I'd say they exist almost outside of time, like the bodily essences of Cézanne (quoting Roger Fry, Kaiser mentions Cézanne).

In this I'd say Piero stands at the opposite end of a continuum from another artist I think I can understand better: Caravaggio, whose figures so often to seem to leap out at you in an electric moment.  Perhaps needless to say, I don't for a moment mean to disparage either Piero or Caravaggio--only to suggest that a fully rounded education would require the appreciation of both, and of the particularity of their achievement.

Kaiser offers superb guidance for this particular show (can't say I agree with him about St. John's feet, though).  But he also offers the best possible appreciation of Piero's importance in his own time:

In significant ways, Piero’s paintings are the quintessential artistic expression of the quattrocento humanism given definition by authors like Leonardo Bruni, Poggio Bracciolini, Poliziano, Vittorino da Feltre, and Pico della Mirandola—much as the Pazzi Chapel in Florence is the architectural expression of those same Renaissance ideals. Describing an orderly, rational world of individual freedom and dignity inspired by the world of classical antiquity, they extol the virtues of eloquence and learning, liberty and aspiration, personal nobility, goodness, and beauty. With inherent hopeful optimism, they depict an ideal universe of the imagination in which man, endowed with unlimited capacities and encompassing intelligence, has the possibility of perfecting himself and creating a harmonious society of virtuous citizens. That ideal world is one of the noblest dreams of Western man, and it suffuses the paintings of Piero della Francesca; for they depict, as Berenson wrote, “his dream of surroundings worthy of his mind and heart, where his soul would feel at home."
 Fn.:  I'm ashamed to say Kaiser never registered on me before although it is clear he is a figure to be reckoned with in Renaissance studies.  The NYRB alone offers a modest but impressive catalog of reviews and essays, some of which I must have read when they were new.  In any event, I'm going to try to make time to read them all now.


The IRS' online tax-pay systems seems never to have heard of the quarterly estimated income tax.  Too bad I didn't owe the excise tax on greenmail; that, they would have let me pay.

[I suppose I've fussed about this before but I still marvel: the State of California seems to have figured out how accept online payments years ago.  With the IRS, every year I try and every year I give up and mail 'em a check.]

Friday, March 22, 2013

Schmatta: A Book that Needs to be Written

Ask my college friend David what his father did for a living and he would say "outsmarts the ILGWU."  I mor or less got it: papa was management, contending withgi the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union, which meant (I have long assumed) that he scratched and clawed his way up from an immigrant beginning--first as a tailor, perhaps, then behind a sewing machine, then off on his own--a factor?--and so forth.   I never did get the details and I haven't seen David for half a century.

But it prompts a still-unanswered question: is there a good history of the garment industry in New York City, with or without its larger context in textile more generally.  Odd if there is not because as many have observed, except perhaps for the  story of the rise of Harlem,there are few immigrant sagas more fully documented than the story of the East European Jews who fled the Tsar's pogroms in the 1890s and beyond.

And you can get parts of the story everywhere.  Maybe the story is well enough told in Irving Howe's great World of Our Fathers; I read it with great pleasure and profit may years ago although I can't find a copy in the Buce bibliotech just now.  You get a slice of the story in David Von Drehle's Triangle: The Fire that Changed America and its ilk but that is only part of  larger story.  Perhaps you get the flavor from IJ Singer's The Brothers Ashkenazi--perhaps the most gripping novel I read  in past 10 years, but it is about Poland, not Amricaa, and one gets the sense the structure of the story is different.  I see there is an HBO documentary called Schmatta which I think I'll have to take a look at, although it sounds a bit solemn and predictable in format.  You even get a whiff of it in Grant Gilmore's magnificent Security Interests in Personal Property, where he devotes a chapter to "The Factor's Lien," with a concise but elegant account of the patterns of schmatt finance (fn.: as Gilmore's work suggests, someone would write a pretty good history of the word "factor" and its more overbearing offspring, the "factory")--but I digress). 

The story that I'm describing is in large part a story of Jewish immigrant life but I don't quite want to see it that way.  For one thing, I think it could also be described as "Italian," at least in part.  For another, I'd really like something more abstract or technical--the structure of the industry, where the capital came from, indeed the larger question of how anybody could make a living an enterprise so free of product differentiation and the absence of monopoly rents.

I suppose the book I want to read would have to include the account of the collapse of New York textile in the Lindsay-Beame years, including, perhaps, the inglorious last chapter in which someone gave an old loft factory building to Yeshiva University which turned it into a (gasp) lasw school.

Anyone?  Anyone?  Meanwhile, I guess I'll have to settle for this:

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Art for All Ages

Young man, wrangling wiggly infant at the Metropolitan Museum:
--She always gets excited when she sees men in loinclothes.
Proper adult female bystander:
--Happens to me too.

Why the Clarinet?

We've taken in some lovely music on our NYC sojourn this week but perhaps the most accomplished performer was the clarinetist Narek Arutyunian in the Young Artist series ar the Morgan library.  He wriggles around like a teen-ager which he was until not long ago but he's got passion and brio and he is bound to sober up with age.  But t raises a question: who exactly, takes up the clarinet in a serious way?  I don't mean to disparage it--I grew up on Benny Goodman, Woody Herman and Artie Shaw. 

But I'd like to know more about the motivation.   Grant that it is possible to play it well, you still you'd have to agree that the clarinet, like its kissin' cousin the saxophone, is one of the easiest instruments to play badly--just the opposite of the oboe, say, or the French horn.  The kid who takes up the oboe is the clever loner who knows that with an oboe there won't be much competition and he'll get to go on all the trips.   The clarinetist is one of a multitude.  Does he start out telling himself that yes, I am one of a pack, but I will excel?  Or does he simply join the pack and then one day later wake up to the fact that he has real talent and can make something happen?

Personal afterthought. I took up the trumpet because I wanted to impress chicks.   I was terrible at the trumpet and not much better with the chicks.  Years later I realized I probably could have done okay with the bass, and still carried off all the chickwise action I could handle.  Autumnal wisdom.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Wait a Minute, Wha--? Carter and Oil Prices

I suppose it is a waste of good brain cells to expect serious news analysis from Investopedia but this one really takes the biscuit.  The subject is Jimmy Carter, recurrently reviled in the wingnut press as a disaster.  We at UB will grant that Carter in office was (like most Presidents)  a mediocrity, although it's interesting how hard it is for his critics to put their finger on just what he did was so awful, aside from carrying his own garment bag and taking advice from Henry Kissinger.  But I don't recall ever before having seen this:
In an ill-fated attempt to free America from its dependency on foreign oil, Carter deregulated domestic oil pricing. In response, foreign oil producers banded together to form a price-fixing cartel.  Oil prices ended up soaring, causing massive inflation which then caused a massive recession which then caused massive unemployment.
 Link.   As the headline so trenchantly observes, wait a minute, wha--?  I should have thought that the sole task of any President,  aside from reducing taxes, was to unleash the market.  Which is exactly what Carter did (in oil; also in trucking, airlines, and natural gas).  There were serious short-term dislocations in the oil market--caused in large part because consumers thought they were seeing a repeat of the previous oil crisis in 1973 when President Nixon had imposed price controls.  But production and conservation both spiked--which is exactly what you would expect in a free market--and the Carter deregulation triggered a decline in oil prices that continued for some 20 years (here, as with so much else, Carter proved to be Ronald Reagan's best friend).

And that sentence about how "in response, foreign oil prices banded together to form a price-fixing cartel"--is just nuts. OPEC was created in 1960, while Carter was still .  a struggling peanut farmer.  It created "its" oil crisis in 1973, while he was governor of Georgia.

But as I suggest, I may be the only guy on the planet that takes Investopedia seriously.  For an appreciation of Carter from the flamingly libertarian Mises Institute, go here.  For an UB appraisal of Carter as a (heh) Republican, go here.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Tradition of the Recluse in China

Now, my co-mates and brothers in exile,
Hath not old custom made this life more sweet
Than that of painted pomp? Are not these woods
More free from peril than the envious court?
...Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
And this our life exempt from public haunt
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones and good in every thing.
I would not change it.
 --Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act II, Scene 1
And even in Atlantis of the legend
The night the seas rushed in,
The drowning men still bellowed for their slaves.
--Bertholt Brecht, A Worker Reads History 

We took in a marvelous but misdirected exhibition at the New York Asia Museum yesterday on "The Artful Recluse" --the scholars who from the cares and distractions of ordinary life, to pursue the discipline of solitary study.  The premise is two fold.  One arises from the collapse of the Ming Dynasty in the 17th Century and its conquest by the (foreign, Manchu) Qing who ruled until 1911.  By the standard account, some scholar/poet/bureaucrats responded by retreating from court to country (some others, it appears, did not retreat; some retreated and then came back). 

So far so good.  But the presentation slips almost without notice into a discussion/considertion of a longer tradition of "the reclusive scholar" which extends perhaps at least as far back as the Tang.  So, one part specific,  contextualized, "historical;" another, a piece of the grand tradition of Chinese identity, existing as it were out of time.

Once you focus on the grand tradition in it own right, you realize that the notion of "the reclusive scholar" in China is stylized in much the same way as the  tradition of the pastoral in the West--the pastoral which extends at least from Theokritus in the late Hellenistic through to Marie Antoinette at  the Petite Trianon.

Bringing the larger tradition  into focus, you can take a second look at the historic moment of the Chinese17th Century revolution.  You realize that these scholars who rejected the cares of the court seem never to have missed a meal.  They still have inkstones and leisure to write with them, and boats, and time for quiet idylls on the water. A lot of their painting and poetry seems designed to honor masters from centuries before. And most particularly: one suspects that the Qing conquerors could if they wished have merely squashed these dissenters like a bug.

There's a giveaway in the comments to s particularly interesting display on the place of "the female recluse":
While a number of women were encouraged by their husbands and sons to go into reclusion, unlike men, women did not hold positions in the civil service from which they could withdraw.  For women , therefore, reclusion related to the rejection of traditional positions that they might hold on society.... The use of the term recluse could be a way to describe a woman's removal from following the typical feminine roles of wife, concubine, or courtesan ...
 Translated, for women, reclusion may have marked a rejection of roles (or perhaps better, an escape from particular forms of bondage), still for men, it was just another job.

Journalism, Lamentable and Otherwise (Herein of "Curation")

Mrs. B and I  were chatting at lunch yesterday about the lamentable state of mainstream journalism and the possible alternatives, if any. We were wondering if perhaps mainstream journalism is no worse than it was a couple of years ago, but more easily discredited because more exposed, more subject to instructive criticism.  

Criticism by whom?  Why, the blogosphere, of course.  All those people who really cannot imagine why Thomas Friedman and David Brooks get a steady paycheck and a bully pulpit for purporting to expound on topics that the critic might (no snark here) very well be able to expound upon better.

Which moves the spotlight to the other side of the stage, with a more provocative proposition: maybe journalism is in many ways getting better--more room for more voices, letting a hundred digital flowers bloom, you actually generate a lot of really interesting stuff.  It may be more than lucky accident that the New York Times gives Krugman a platform, surely far more remarkable that Glenn Greenwald gets so powerful a megaphone--surely in an earlier time he would have been relegated to some lefty backwater.  Or the really extraordinary range of semi-journalists, never quite rooted in the old school, busy defining a new home of their own--I think of Josh Barrow, David Weigel, Felix Salmon, David Frum, Dan Froomkin, Doug Henwood, Bruce Bartlett, Ezra Klein, etc., with apologies to the near-numberless voices I have forgotten to include.  And how is one to classify the really original and ingenious bloggers like Barry Ritholtz, Steven Ray Waldman, Daniel Davies, Noah Smith?

Well yes, says Mrs. Buce, but don't you want some form of curating here?  With a hundred flowers blooming, how do you know which to pick?    She's got a point but  there are responses.  For one, you could say that with old-school media, the curating is precisely what they got wrong (yes, I'm looking at you, little Freddie Hiatt).  Second, the new digital potentates--Huffpost, Daily Beast, do a kind of curating and it may be a disputable point whether too much or too little.

Third, there are any number of other improvisational curators.  I get my daily dose pre-gummed and pre-salivated from The Browser which is somebody's guess of what is worthwhile.  I frequently click on links from Longform or ProPublica.   And I skim half a dozen daily newsletters, from foreign policy through banking to bankruptcy, all curation of a sort.  

In the end, of course, this is a game nobody can win.  You have to delegate the job of selection. But once you delegate, it's an agency problem: you're subject to the whims and prejudices of the delegatee.  Perhaps the best we can said is that for the moment we live in a kind of sweet spot.  Old-fashioned curators--Times/Post/WSJ, suffer(ed) from too much of a bully pulpit, too easy to dominate, with too much power to exclude.  Grant that these days a huge chunk of the audience will never turn the dial away from Roger Ailes. Still, for a remarkable chunk of the audience, there may never have been a better time to be a news consumer: illimitable amount of stuff, quasi-illimitable range of sluices and channels, a genuine possibility for constrained and intelligent choice.  Can't last, of course, good things never do.

Anecdote: In my morning news feed, I see a summary (with links) of a new proposal on what to do about Cyprus.  The authors are longtime sovereign debt guru Lee Buchheit at Cleary, Gottlieb, and Mitu Gulati of Duke Law School. Their proposal comes in the form of a paper published at the Social Science Research Network,the number one Serengeti watering hole for policy wonks of all stripes.   Where this lies on the continuum between scholarship and journalism--and what it says about curation in the news biz--are questions I am just beginning to sort out.

Etymological Footnote:  Curious word, "curate."  Without hitting the books, I assume it is cognate with  Κύριος and Κυρία, (Old fashioned? Formal?) forms of address for "Mr." and "Mrs." in modern Greek. Also "Kyrie," as in "Lord have mercy on my soul."  Also "curia regis," the king's court.  But not the same as "cure" in what you do to a patient or a parishioner or a ham (cf. "care").

Update:  David shows me that I could have saved myself a bunch of time if I just read SlateCf. link, link (could be my unaccountable unwillingness to read Matt Yglesias, about which I really must speak to my therapist).

The ToniKröger

Mrs. Buce does not pay a lot of attention to financial news but like the rest of the world, she cannot evade the Cyprus kerfuffle. She's coming around to the view that there really two Eurozones, one for Huns and Vikings, the other for those excitable southerners.  It's like one soul trying to claw its way out of another body (think Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin).  Or perhaps one body comprising two souls, like the divided souls of Thomas Mann stories,  in particular the one about Tonio Kröger, the lad with the northern-banker father and the Italian-artist mother

Mrs. B suggests that it is time, maybe not to split the Euro in two but perhaps to recognize the duality of the  system by conferring a more suitable name. She would suggest "the Kröger," but rejects it because people might confuse it with the Krugerrand which is something altogether different. She thus lights on "the ToniKröger." I point out that for correctness she really needs the extra "o." She grants the point but responds that five syllables would be too many and that anyway, if she added an "o," people would think it Irish.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Japanese Birds Fly

Here's a quicky on a special exhibit at the Metropolitan in New York. The subject of the show is birds, paintings thereof. The takeway of this post is that Japanese birds fly.  

It must be near  impossible to paint a bird that looks like s/he is actually in motion: so much easier to let them appear as if dangling from an invisible string.  I say "must be" in the sense that I've never myself lifted a paint brush, but I've looked at a lot of pictures and I can't remember many where the birds actually fly but the Japanese seem to know how to do it.  So also, come to think of it, when they are landbound: Japanese hawks assailing  mountain lions look full of life; it is the mountain lions that look dead.

New subject: Giambattista Tiepolo the Venetian--but bear with me here, there is a sequitur.    You recognize Tiepolo, painter of lustrous blue skies attended by billowing clouds.  And people: Tiepoolo skies are full of people, in and around the clouds.

And here's the thing: Tiepolo people fly.  Or at least float in the aether as if it is their natural elemement. Any other artist, their aerie figures look like they are going to drop like an anvil as soon as the painter turns his back.  

Tiepolo, meet the bird painters of Japan. Brothers in the aeronautic arts. 

Saturday, March 16, 2013

New York Music

New York seems to be full of music tonight.  I assume the St. Patrick's day serenaders are in voice somewhere as the Irish release their pet snakes on the new world as vengeance for the potato.  But we were otherwise occupied; we took the subway from Murray Hill to Lincoln  Center, passing within earshot of  at least three buskers.   At Grand Central, there was a sort of Neo-Dixieland band with a strong beat, old guys who looked like they had been working together for years.  On the shuttle was a young guy unsubtle in his solicitation for money.  He said it was his first time; the guy next to me muttered "you're lying," and I think the guy next to me was right: the kid had pretty good R&B chops.  The woman across from me began to hum along and for a moment I thought I was watching the beginning of a flash mob, but no such luck.

At Times Square there was a steel drummer, loud enough to fill the  the tube up to 50th Street except he seemed to be suffering from some kind of mechanical function that was crimping his style.

All this was prep for the destination stop: Lincoln Center, to take in Alan Gilbert's presentation of the Bach's B Minor Mass.  This is one of those pieces of music that took the top of my head off when I first heard it in college--Hermann Scherchen, though I can't remember which orchestra (here is an old Scherchen although I don't think it is the one I remember--date is to late).  Anyway, imagine my surprise when I learned a couple of years later that it was a like, you know,  mass (I had grown up among Catholics but I never got the memo)

By his own account, Gilbert is trying to do something a little different with Bach these days--trying to move away from the austere, somewhat fussy "early music" purity that I grew up on (and loved, or love).  Gilbert has ideal equipment to work with: a fine orchestra and a first-class chorus, and for the Mass four topnotch soloists.  At the end, I'd have to say it didn't quite work: energetic and accessible but somewhat deficient in majesty and awe.  Call me a fogey but I like my Bach with majesty and awe.  Energy and accessibility we can leave to the buskers.

Of whom speaking, we saw four or five more on the trip  home, including a woman trying mightily to mount a disco act with two pre-schoolers.  At 10:30 at night.  Hope the kids had had naps.  Mama too.


I've been reading a fair amount of midcentury history lately--the depression, war, postwar, that sort of thing--and what I can't get over is the amazing amount of stuff we used to make in those days.  First cars, and highways to run them on.   In the depression dams, and public buildings. In my youth I knew an old guy who remembered his time on the Hoover Dam the way others would remember their time at Guadalcanal.  I had a law clerk once who said that when the next great earthquake arrived he wanted to be inside the LA federal courthouse because he figured anything built by the on cost-plus could withstand anything.

And then the war: rifles of course, and uniforms, but that was barely the beginning: whole buzzing storms of fighter planes, flotillas of carriers to deliver them, hordes of high-flying bombers to glower over them all.  And not  just built them: built them knowing they would be destroyed, shot out of the sky, sent off to the bottom of the briney deep, we well knowing that we would and could and did build them all again.  We seemed to have no end of metal to bash into things, or oil with which to feed them.

And then after the wars the cars.  And the superhighways.  And the washing machines: I got an early break in the newspaper biz when a somewhat less than sober young engineer catalogued for me the defects in the 1962 GEs.

All of which implies the labor: the armies of workers marching through the door in Fritz Lang's Metropolis. And the strikes: another thing we tend to forget were how violent or disruptive were the near numberless labor-management conflicts of those days.   It was mostly a guy thing, something you did with you buds (inadequate word: Aussie "mates" is much more to the point) before you went off  hunting together.

I don't mean to go overboard on the nostalgia here.  It was pretty awful, the way we ripped through the planet and through each other.  It was also a way of life, the only one we knew.  One may speculate on the etenet to which it was hard-wired.  But we've still got a (dying) generation who cannot imagine it any other way.  And their children and grandchildren who have not yet invented one. 

Friday, March 15, 2013

How the World Works

It works like this.  The land line in my office rings about twice a year.  One of them was Wednesday afternoon.  Assuming it to be a wrong number I for some reason nonetheless picked it up and received a greeting from a chap who was actually looking for me.  He was a reporter type, from a respectable newspaper.   Covering a big-dollar bankruptcy case, he had stumbled on a device that offended his sense of decency and  good order (I guess he found my name from the law school web page).  They can't do that, can they?--he asked, in a tone of grievance. Well, yes, actually, the chances are pretty good that I can. I know he was disappointed but it was all very civil and professional and we parted friends. 

Next morning while doing the breakfast surf, I idly popped over to Google and searched my name together with the name of his newspaper and the single word "bankruptcy."  Bam, there I was third or fourth item, right after the ad for cheapo bankruptcy services.  And there was the story and there was a quote that I recognized--except--uh oh.  I had said "if X, then Y" (subjunctive).  Somehow he'd left off the "if;"  it came out "X, then Y," in a resounding declarative.

Oh what the hell.  What do I care about a one liner in a newspaper read by nobody that I know. But precisely because it was easy, I popped over to the original story and sure enough, there's a comment trailer.  So I posted a quick two sentences gently suggesting that I had been misunderstood.

Next comes the part that would be old stuff to the grandchildren, but for which I was not prepared.  My next stop was my daily look-in at Facebook where--hey, wait, here is the story and my comment.  

Say, what? I admit I was a bit irritated.   Not that there was anything inherently wrong with all this--after all, there was the correction, front and center.  I suppose just irritated that the commissars in the Facebook politburo had alienated my work product quite so high-handedly.

I killed off the comment and defaulted back to my Email screen.  And hey--here's a message from the reporter saying sorry, he'd missed the "if"--and that he would tell his editor.   Half an hour later he sent another email saying the web story had been corrected (I never troubled to notice whether there is/was a dead tree version).

Two hours later, here's another email--this one from our law school director of self-promotion, itemizing all those of us whose names had appeared in public that week (full disclosure, I self-promotingly had sent him an email about the story, although I bet he would have picked it up in some kind of search engine anyway).  And another half an hour, here's another email, this from the dean congratulating me for getting my name in the news (without, I guess, any mention of underage barnyard animals).

How the world works.  Such is the glamorous life of the busy law professor.

Whine? Me?

Rob Portman says he's changed his mind on gay rights now that he has found out that his son is gay.  He is greeted with hoots of derision unsympathetic responses from Matt Yglesias, Paul Krugman, Noah  Berlatsky and GOK who else, all chorusing that it's pretty rich for a hardliner like Portman to get religion (heh!) on an issue like this only if as and when it creeps into his own DNA.  It would be churlish and self-defeating for the folks here at  Underbelly to point out that we made the same--oh, crap, Buce, go for it.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Habemus Argentinian!
Must Credit Underbelly!

(Cough, cough) Underbelly March 9:

I Think I'll Take a Flutter on the Argentines 

 Link.  Although I admit, there is probably somewhere an Octopus who knew exactly which Argentine. 

Update:  And just as I feared: he's younger than I am.  I agree with UB's Wichita bureau that a decent PR operation would have strung this out for a week.  And that  now the vultures can go circle Queen Elizabeth.

Update II:  MSN assures us that the new Pope is "The son of an Italian immigrant and a doctrinal conservative..."  So, which parent was the immigrant and which the conservative? 

Update III:  I mock my own flippancy here but in truth I think I am onto something, which is my way of saying I think the Washington Post has it entirely wrong. 

Update IV:  He actually seems like quite a nice man, if the possible past complicity with the dictatorship can be factored into "nice man."  I do like my Popes to be riders of the subway.  But the more I read, the more I think the Goodfellas were willing to settle for  him because he has almost no Vatican experience, which means almost totally vulnerable to control and manipulation by the insiders.  My guess is he could live out his entire Papacy without ever getting the codes to the secret bank account.  

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

And Rounding the First Turn...

Intrade may be gone but there's still plenty of room for punter action on the Papacy.  John points us to Paddypower  where Richard Dawkins pips Bono by a third of a thousand.  My Argentines are not exactly burning up the track, though.  Rest of the list looks pretty conventional although if the boys in the Chapel spend too much time IM'ing the  turf accountant, they might just accidentally elect a horse.