Tuesday, April 30, 2013


 Here's Isaiah Berlin as we like to remember him:
It is difficult enough to develop an adequate consciousness of what we are and what we are at, and how we have arrived where we have done, without also being led on to make clear to ourselves what such consciousness and self-consciousness must have been like for persons in situations different form our own; yet no less is expected of the true historian. ... [I]maginative projection of ourselves  into the past, the attempt to capture concepts and categories not altogether like ours by means of concepts and categories that cannot but be our own, is a task that we can never be sure that we are even beginning to achieve, yet are not permitted to abjure.  We seek to apply scientific tests to our conclusions, but this will take us but a lttle way.  Without a capacity for sympathy and imagination beyond any required by a physicist, there is no vision of either past or present, neither of others nor of ourselves; but without this, normal--as well as historical--thinking cannot function at all.
--"The Concept of Scientific History," I History and Theory 1 (1961) at 26-7.  So my old notes from perhaps 37 years ago.  I don't have that book any more (I think maybe I read it in the library at the London School of Economics).  But I do see tht the same essay is bound up in a paperback appropriately enough titled Concepts and Categories, published in 1980.

I'm remembering Piaget (yes?--I can't find the reference) testing kids on the developing political consciousness by inquiring whether they could recognize "the same" mountain when photographed from different angles, i.e., from different points of view.  And those (can't find a good cite) who talk about the development of perspective in Renaissance art as part and parcel of a growing political maturity (but they still burned Savonarola at the stake).

I copied out the  Berlin quote about 30 years ago. I bet it was about the same time that I copied out two passages from Arnold Hauser's Social History of Art.  First:
When Ibsen was once asked why he gave the heroine of his Doll's House such a foreign-sounding name, he answered that she was named after her grandmother who was Italian.   Her real name was Eleonora, but she had been pampered as a child and called Nora.  to the objection that all this played no part in the play itself, he replied in amazement: 'But facts are still facts.'
--Id., 52.  And:
There is an extraordinary number of anecdotes about Balzac's relationship to his characters, similar to the one about Ibsen. The best known is the incident with Jules Sandeaux who, while telling him about his sister's illness, was interrupted by Balzac saying: 'That's all very well, but let's get back to reality: to whom are we going to marry Eugenie Grandet?
 Id., 53.   This is perhaps the attitude that the Shakespearean critic L.C. Knight mocked (and substantially undermined) with his essay ""How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?"--a question which, bye the  bye, the author made no attempt to answer.

'We Think We're Just Special"

Reading Stanley Payne's  (somewhat ironically?) titled Spain: A Unique History, I'm reminded again of how blinkered are our own perceptions of our own political reality.  As in, we think we're so special; but the briefest reflection should suggest that our own experience finds echoes almost everywhere,not least in the recent history of our close cultural neighbors, the Europeans.

Case in point: "liberals;" "nice people;"--that would be me, your honor--so often suck on their unassuageable sense of hurt, fueled by the insight that "they" just don't understand our good intentions: how we'd all be so much better off if "we'd all" just do as we say and become a tolerant, cooperative, seculariust and yes (perhaps) multiculturist and certainly (well-maybe) market--oriented.  Specifically it makes us crazy when the Tea Party and its ilk let themselves get snarled up in the Muslim Thing,  the Abortion Thing, the Gun Thing when we tend to regard all of these issues as distractions that ought to be got out of the way.

I won't labor the whole catalog of reasons of why "we" are right--nor the companion-account of how entirely this misses the point.  My purpose at the moment is to observe only not-new this particular discontinuity is; how much it helps to explain so much of European politics over the past couple of hundred years.

You could start with the French Revolution, or more precisely, the royalist/Catholic reaction against the French Revolution; you could start with Balzac's first real novel, Les Chouans.  People tend to dismiss the Chouans (when they pay attention at all) as useful idiotsm gullible tools of an evil and manipulative master classs.  Balzac makes it clear that it's far more than that: the reaction (sic) of his Chouans is clearly fueled by the sincerest of passions.

So also Spain and Portugal. It's worth noting that as Spanish/Portugues "liberals" took baby steps with power in the 19th Century, they weren't at all enthusiastic about extending the franchise.  And with good and sufficient reason: they understood that the peasants weren't at all interested in "their"--the liberals'--issues and would do what they could to defeat them.  I suppose this has something to do with what Marx had ind when he fulminated about the idiocy of the peasants, although I suspect he may have come to the point from a slightly different perspective.

If this was novel insight for the Spanish liberals, it certainly wouldn't have surprised, say Napoleon III who grasped early on that he could build a government of the reactionary elite on a properly motivated mass audience.  And forget about Napoleon: it comes close to the truth to say that every important European government of the 19th or 20th Century came from a reactionary elite that learned how one --not just the reluctant consent, but the enthusiastic cooperation--of a mass.

Another thing that is so great about Spain as an example here is that it is a dazzling instance of just how complicated  both "liberalism" and "conservatism" can be.  Spain had secularist/liberals whose main concern was to try to develop markets; but it had others whose primary motive seems to have been simply to bring down the church.  Similarly the right had (at least) the traditionalists of church and monarchy; and the bullyboy streetfighters of falange.  Also the military, whose internal complexities were far more arcane than our post-Franco memories tend to tell us.  And let's not get started on the socialists...

I don't know if there is any consolation to be found here--to know that politics has always been as complex and contradictory a business as it appears today.  But at least, Payne is a good companion along the way.  And as to "unique," recall the old sports announcer's insight: everyone is unique and this one is no different.

Monday, April 29, 2013


Well, if you recognize the word, you must be really old.  It was part of the culture of our youth, almost entirely as rendered by Harry Belafonte an exemplar of the domesticated calypso that made him so distinctive.  As in:
"The woman piaba and the man piaba
and the Ton Ton call baka lemon grass,
The lily root, gully root, belly root uhmm,
And the famous grandy scratch scratch.
Okay, so you thought you knew what "piaba" means, but are you sure?  Urban Dictionary for example--for which there is nothing too deeply immured in pond scum--Urban Dictionary (at least of this writing) offers  no help on the point.

Other sources, are beguiling, but baffling.  A Wiki dictionary says it's Spanish,a form of "piar," "to chirp" and just once in my life I would like to address somebody in the formal second person imperfect indicative,  "usted piaba,"  "you have chirped."

But wait folks, there's more: here's a Portuguese source which says (I think) tht it is a small fresh-water fish, not to be confused with a salt-water fish of the same name.  Also a river in Brazil.  Not sure whether it chirps.

All of which is entertaining, although it doesn't quite add up.    Chirp?  Fish?  River?  Piaba?  But wait, folks, it doesn't end there--turns out there's more again  A bit more Googling, built on patience and an excess of free time, and we get a whole new view of things.  We discover that it's not a verb, and not a fish.  It's a plant.  Here's a certain Chelsea Fung, self-identified as Guyanese but seconded to Toronto for a course in gender studies::
Woman-piaba (which is our vernacular name in Guyana), Hyptis pectinata (scientific name), is native to tropical America according to American sources, and native to West Africa according to African and Caribbean sources. Thus the origin of the plant is somewhat determined or claimed by the people who first ‘discovered’ its multiple medicinal and spiritual uses. Nevertheless, H pectinata is widely naturalized throughout the earth’s tropical zone. Woman-piaba belongs to the Lamiaceae family along with mint, lavender and basil.
Within the Caribbean, Brazil, tropical America and West Africa, woman-piaba is used for various medicinal and healing purposes. The Patamona Indians in Kamana, Guyana, boil the leaves and use the water for treating ‘bush yaws‘ or boil the whole plant and drink the water for tubercolosis. According to well-known Maroon herbalist in Jamaica, Ivelyn Harris, the Maroon cure for hot flashes is a piaba tea, which is used by many women in the Rio Grande Valley when they are going through menopause. In Mampong, Ghana, the leaf is ground to a paste and mixed with kaolin in water and taken three times daily for vomiting in pregnancy. These are amongst numerous other medicinal and healing uses, only few of which are disclosed. ...

The plant itself is gendered in the context of its uses and nomenclature used by Guyanese people, as the stalks that have the flowers and buds are used for varying symptoms or difficulties associated with menstruation, menopause and pregnancy, hence the reason for calling it ‘woman-piaba.‘ However, the stalks that have the broad, serrated leaves are used in decoctions such as aphrodisiacs for men, hence the name, ‘man-piaba‘. I initially thought that woman-piaba and man-piaba were two different plants. However, as Mr Tiwari, one of the elders I spoke with put it, they “are tubers of the same origin – man-piaba being ‘hard’ and woman-piaba being soft.
Well of course.  Stands to reason, wouldn't you say?  Now as to ton ton and grsndy scratch scratch...

Here's a Belafonte rendition,apparently from back when dinosaurs were young:

Needless to say, you can also get it as a telephone ringtone. Oh, and I guess I should have mentioned--it's also an acronym for Public Investors Arbitration Bsr Association.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Pompey: Dryden's Plutarch

Not sure which text Handel's librettist might have used as a starting-point for his Giulio Cesare, but an obvious beginning point would be Plutarch's Life of Pompey as translated  by John Dryden:
[H]e passed over sea without danger. But on hearing that king Ptolemy was posted with his army at the city of Pelusium, making war against his sister [i.e., Ptolemy's sister, Cleopatra], he steered his course that way, and sent a messenger before to acquaint the king with his arrival, and to crave his protection. Ptolemy himself was quite young, and therefore Pothinus, who had the principal administration of all affairs, called a council of the chief men, those being the greatest whom he pleased to make so, and commanded them every man to deliver his opinion touching the reception of Pompey. It was, indeed, a miserable thing, that the fate of the great Pompey should be left to the determinations of Pothinus the eunuch, Theodotus of Chios, the paid rhetoric master, and Achillas the Egyptian. For these, among the chamberlains and menial domestics, that made up the rest of the council, were the chief and leading men. Pompey, who thought it dishonorable for him to owe his safety to Caesar, riding at anchor at a distance from shore, was forced to wait the sentence of this tribunal. It seems they were so far different in their opinions that some were for sending the man away, and others again for inviting and receiving him; but Theodotus, to show his cleverness and the cogency of his rhetoric, undertook to demonstrate, that neither the one nor the other was safe in that juncture of affairs. For if they entertained him, they would be sure to make Caesar their enemy, and Pompey their master; or if they dismissed him, they might render themselves hereafter obnoxious to Pompey, for that inhospitable expulsion, and to Caesar, for the escape; so that the most expedient course would be to send for him and take away his life, for by that means they would ingratiate themselves with the one, and have no reason to fear the other; adding, it is related, with a smile, that “a dead man cannot bite.”

This advice being approved of, they committed the execution of it to Achillas. He, therefore, taking with him as his accomplices one Septimius, a man that had formerly held a command under Pompey, and Salvius, another centurion, with three or four attendants, made up towards Pompey’s galley. In the meantime, all the chiefest of those who accompanied Pompey in this voyage, were come into his ship to learn the event of their embassy. But when they saw the manner of their reception, that in appearance it was neither princely nor honorable, nor indeed in any way answerable to the hopes of Theophanes, or their expectation, (for there came but a few men in a fisherman’s boat to meet them,) they began to suspect the meanness of their entertainment, and gave warning to Pompey that he should row back his galley, whilst he was out of their reach, and make for the sea. By this time, the Egyptian boat drew near, and Septimius standing up first, saluted Pompey in the Latin tongue, by the title of imperator. Then Achillas, saluting him in the Greek language, desired him to come aboard his vessel, telling him, that the sea was very shallow towards the shore, and that a galley of that burden could not avoid striking upon the sands. At the same time they saw several of the king’s galleys getting their men on board, and all the shore covered with soldiers; so that even if they changed their minds, it seemed impossible for them to escape, and besides, their distrust would have given the assassins a pretence for their cruelty. Pompey, therefore, taking his leave of Cornelia, who was already lamenting his death before it came, bade two centurions, with Philip, one of his freedmen, and a slave called Scythes, go on board the boat before him. And as some of the crew with Achillas were reaching out their hands to help him, he turned about towards his wife and son, and repeated those iambics of Sophocles—
“He that once enters at a tyrant’s door,
Becomes a slave, though he were free before.”
These were the last words he spoke to his friends, and so he went aboard. Observing presently that notwithstanding there was a considerable distance betwixt his galley and the shore, yet none of the company addressed any words of friendliness or welcome to him all the way, he looked earnestly upon Septimius, and said, “I am not mistaken, surely, in believing you to have been formerly my fellow-soldier.” But he only nodded with his head, making no reply at all, nor showing any other courtesy. Since, therefore, they continued silent, Pompey took a little book in his hand, in which was written out an address in Greek, which he intended to make to king Ptolemy, and began to read it. When they drew near to the shore, Cornelia, together with the rest of his friends in the galley, was very impatient to see the event, and began to take courage at last, when she saw several of the royal escort coming to meet him, apparently to give him a more honorable reception; but in the meantime, as Pompey took Philip by the hand to rise up more easily, Septimius first stabbed him from behind with his sword; and after him likewise Salvius and Achillas drew out their swords. He, therefore, taking up his gown with both hands, drew it over his face, and neither saying nor doing anything unworthy of himself, only groaning a little, endured the wounds they gave him, and so ended his life, in the fifty-ninth year of his age, the very next day after the day of his birth.
Cornelia, with her company from the galley, seeing him murdered, gave such a cry that it was heard to the shore, and weighing anchor with all speed, they hoisted sail, and fled. A strong breeze from the shore assisted their flight into the open sea, so that the Egyptians, though desirous to overtake them, desisted from the pursuit. But they cut off Pompey’s head, and threw the rest of his body overboard, leaving it naked upon the shore, to be viewed by any that had the curiosity to see so sad a spectacle. Philip stayed by and watched till they had glutted their eyes in viewing it; and then washing it with sea-water, having nothing else, he wrapped it up in a shirt of his own for a winding-sheet. Then seeking up and down about the sands, at last he found some rotten planks of a little fisher-boat, not much, but yet enough to make up a funeral pile for a naked body, and that not quite entire. As Philip was busy in gathering and putting these old planks together, an old Roman citizen, who in his youth had served in the wars under Pompey, came up to him and demanded, who he was that was preparing the funeral of Pompey the Great. And Philip making answer, that he was his freedman, “Nay, then,” said he, “you shall not have this honor alone; let even me, too, I pray you, have my share in such a pious office. that I may not altogether repent me of this pilgrimage in a strange land, but in compensation of many misfortunes, may obtain this happiness at last, even with mine own hands to touch the body of Pompey, and do the last duties to the greatest general among the Romans.” And in this manner were the obsequies of Pompey performed. The next day Lucius Lentulus, not knowing what had passed, came sailing from Cyprus along the shore of that coast, and seeing a funeral pile, and Philip standing by, exclaimed, before he was yet seen by any one, “Who is this that has found his end here?” adding, after a short pause, with a sigh, “Possibly even thou, Pompeius Magnus!” and so going ashore, he was presently apprehended and slain. This was the end of Pompey.

Not long after, Caesar arrived in the country that was polluted with this foul act, and when one of the Egyptians was sent to present him with Pompey’s head, he turned away from him with abhorrence as from a murderer; and on receiving his seal, on which was engraved a lion holding a sword in his paw, he burst into tears. Achillas and Pothinus he put to death; and king Ptolemy himself, being overthrown in battle upon the banks of the Nile, fled away and was never heard of afterwards. Theodotus, the rhetorician, flying out of Egypt, escaped the hands of Caesar’s justice, but lived a vagabond in banishment; wandering up and down, despised and hated of all men, till at last Marcus Brutus, after he had killed Caesar, finding him in his province of Asia, put him to death, with every kind of ignominy. The ashes of Pompey were carried to his wife Cornelia, who deposited them at his country house near Alba.
 ...except in the Met version, Tolomeo gets to take the final curtain with the victors, bloodied but otherise no worse for wear.  Poor Pompey's head remains in its box. 

Afterthought: well, what makes you think he would use an English source?  The libretto is in Italian, not so?  So how about an Italian source?  Or, while we are at it, the original Greek?

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Met HD Giulio Cesare

Mr.  and Mrs. Buce ventured forth on a bright spring morning to spend 4.5 hours in the Palookaville multiplex in the audience for the Met HD presentation of Handel's Giulio Cesare--and count our time well spent.   This is the famous-all-over-town Glyndbourne production, decked out as Gilbert and Sullivan.  Most of the buzz has centered on Natalie Dessay and David Daniels as Caesar and Cleopatra and for sheer theatricality, they deserve the credit. They're both warm, engaging personalities with a knack for theater far above the mean among opera singers.  Dessay in particular--she's got her Carol Burnette cover down cold.

But for music, the day belonged to the second string--Patricia Bardon and Alice Coote as Cornelia and Sesto, two mezzos together as mother and son.  Each was fine in her own right but the chemistry was astounding--the kind of companionship in which each makes the other look better.  Bardon's injured dignity as the quintessential Roman matron was so much more in evidence when set off against her impetuous, hot-blooded son.    And by precise corollary, you got to see better what he was by letting her show yo0u what he was not.  Their first-act closer, "on nata a lagrimar"--I can't remember when I've heard two people work so well together or enrich each other so much.*

Aside from Bardon and Coote, the show-stopper was Christophe Dumaux as Tolomeo--heavy on the clowning but for Tolomeo, that is rather the point: he's a callow little twit, the Lieutenant Fuzz of assassins, one who can squeeze frivolity from the gravest of occasions.

Daniels and Dessay are charming--so much so that you might not notice that neither one was quite up to the job.  Daniels has fine acting chops but he lacks the sense of menace, the capacity to inspire awe, that you would want in any Caesar.  And his voice was so weak at the beginning that you had to wonder whether there was something wrong with the sound system (as the day went on, either he got better, or I got used to it).  

And Dessay--said to say but she really seems to be passing her prime.  I say this without a hint of schadenfreude: I love her all to pieces and I owe her gratitude for some of the happiest evenings I ever spent in the theater anywhere.  But she's apparently had some voice troubles lately and it seems to show.  Not that she is phoning it in or anything: you can see as much discipline and attention to detail as ever.  In the intermission interview, she says she has been doing yoga an hour and a half a day and I can believe it: from the look of those biceps, she could lift up a Volvo.    Right now I think her best days may be behind her and I can only hope I am wrong.
*But wait: here's a review of an earlier production when Cornelia and Sesto were Stephanie Blythe and, yes, David Daniels.  Wish I could have been there: for my money, Blythe is the best there is, and I suspect Daniels is better suited in any event for Sesto than for the star.  In any event, the reviewer called it "maybe the most electric moment I have ever experienced in an opera house."  Strong language: wonder if he would say so today.


Update:  Woo hoo, here it is:


Friday, April 26, 2013

Happy 449 Christening Day, Will!

[Somehow I didn't post this on the 24th.]  Wups, missed Shakespeare's 449th yesterday.  I suppose (but I have not looked) that there is a Facebook page where I could stop by with a quick woo hoo.  In lieu, I offer up a favorite sonnet, #138:

When my love swears that she is made of truth
I do believe her, though I know she lies,
That she might think me some untutor'd youth,
Unlearned in the world's false subtleties.
Thus vainly thinking that she thinks me young,
Although she knows my days are past the best,
Simply I credit her false-speaking tongue:
On both sides thus is simple truth suppress'd.
But wherefore says she not she is unjust?
And wherefore say not I that I am old?
O, love's best habit is in seeming trust,
And age in love loves not to have years told:

Therefore I lie with her and she with me,
And in our faults by lies we flatter'd be.
 Afterthought:  But maybe I didn't miss it.   The choice of the 23d is, after all, merely conventional--we know he was baptized on the 26th, and we back-engineer from there.  So, maybe happy birthday after all, Will.

Best Thing I've Read All Week:
Steve Randy Waldman on the Resource Curse

If you've missed it, stop reading here right  now and pop over to Interfluidity and read up on the new, pervasive, worldwide "resource curse" as understood and explained by the ever-provocative Steve Randy Waldman.  Takeaway:
Clucking about places like Nigeria is almost a reflex, a familiar tic among Western economists. But meanwhile, we’ve hardly noticed that technological and international supply-chain developments have snuck the resource curse in through our own back doors. In aggregate, the goods and services we require have grown ever more tradable, and production has grown ever more amenable to control by relatively small groups of people. There’s a sense in which we are all Nigerians now.
Repeat--link.  There's some good stuff in the comment thread also, though predictably not always easy suss out.  For background reading, you could go also to The Economist's briefer on "generation jobless," as in: youth unemployment is not just your harebrained nephew, it is a world-wide pandemic [I think I was struggling for the same point in my winsome and artless way a few days ago myself].

And for a generalized proto- crypto- neo- Marxist spin, go here.  No, wait, really.  I understand what you're saying: the very name of Jameson is usually as effective a soporific as a cosh at the back of the skull, but this guy draws a straightforward and thought-provoking inference.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Alternative to What?

The Wiki page for Appalachian Law school recalls the episode in 2002 when a dean, a professor and a student were shot and killed by another  student.  The account says "he was subdued by two students armed with personal firearms."

The Wiki also showcases the school's program of "alternative dispute resolution."   I wonder, what as alternative to what?

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Language Watch: Sourced, Rentier

It's surely* a truism that you can gauge social changes by changes in language usage.  Here are a couple of instances that caught my eye this morning.

One, sourced as in "few of the reporters ... were sourced in the Federal Reserve."  That's Ezra Klein in an encomium to his companion-wonk Neil Irwin.  Translated: Neil has good cooperative sources who feed him stuff.  That is the whole story of new-age journalism,  not so?  Your sources are your inventory, just like the lawyer who wants to make a lateral move must bring a book of business (BTW I am reading the Irwin book right now, and it is indeed pretty good).

And two, rentier, as in "he who eats but does not work."  Hardly a neologism--an online etymology dates it to 1881 but surely* it is older.   Still, the first time I remember hearing it in contemporary dialogue would have been about 15 years ago when I read the remarkable Wall Street, by Doug Henwood, the Bruce Bartlett of the left.  Henwood is proudly non-mainstream, but here's Michael Konczal now channeling and force-magnifying** Michael Lind, with an essay "towards an anti-rentier politics."    Apparently we need it again. 

[BTW, do we put rentier in italics, as a French word transmogrified into English?  Or has it been so thoroughly Anglicized that it can pass into Roman, that is, English?]

*And while I am at it: I've been lurking at another list where they have been discussing "surely," as in "Surely he hath borne our griefs."  Surely (heh) they say, we only say "surely" when we are not sure, or at least by way of admitting that we don't have a good source (heh).  The conversation quickly descended (or ascended) into the discussion of the original source (Isaiah 53:4) as rendered in Hebrew, Latin, Greek.   But surely (heh) for most people the principal source would be something like this:

**Update: a well-wisher says I could also have noted force magnifier.  Surely.

Update II:  Another faithful reader points out that I veered close to this topic before.   Sho, and at least I did not say this.

Times Talk

I wonder how many people who gobble up gossip about the New York Times (that would be me, your honor) are also among those whose job applications wound up in the circular file (that would be me)--?  For them, now this: link.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Where's Chechnya?

In all the harmless merriment over the "where's Chechnya" meme, I'm happy to see that some people are remembering "Pine Barrens," the very best episode of The Sopranos, infra.  They might also have recalled what Neville  Chamberlain said after he handed the Czechs over to Hitler:

"a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing."

And now that I think of it, I keep hearing reports that folks were confusing Chechnya with "The Czech republic."  Not likely, IMO.  My guess is that anybody who made that blooper would have said "Czechoslovakia," not knowing that "Czechoslovakia" closed up shop back in '93. 

Confusing Kyrgizstan with Kazakhstan is perhaps a bit more forgivable.  From what I read, apparently there were/are a lot of Chechnyans in Kazakhstan, just not the current lot.

Admati/Helwig on Banks and Too Much Debt

Here's a surprise, kindled by my Kindle and specifically by The Banker's New Clothes, the remarkable new reform proposal presented by Anal Admati and Martin Hellwig.  That is: the surprise is that when understanding themselves and their own finance, bankers are really a bunch of primitives, mired somewhere back in the 19th Century, unencumbered by any of the knowledge that helps us to understand financial markets today.
Start with the balance sheet, specifically debt and equity.  Back when rocks were soft, we tended to think that equity was "us" and debt was "them"--leading, inter alia to the egregious conceptual error whereby we let management deduct debt service as an expense before figuring taxes; contrast dividends, where we have to pay the tax before we pay the equity.

Actually, students still believe that.  But one  of the jobs of the finance teacher is to beat it out of them: to convince them that everything on the right-hand side of the balance sheet.  Interest is a return on assets; dividends are a return on assets.  In short, it is all capital.

This isn't fancy theory; this is every day stuff.  The odd thing is that the only people who don't seem to get it are the bankers, who persist in building their model around "capital" which means equity-and-not-debt; us versus them.

Which brings me to the remarkably simple thesis of the authors: banks have too much leverage: too little equity and too much debt.  The remarkably simple remedy: change the ratio; more equity and less debt.  The point is that equity is not a fixed charge.  You don't have  to feed the meter every six months or every year; indeed you don't   So equity is resilient; equity can roll with the risk, and thereby avoid the calamity of aught eight.

The authors support their argument with an admirably clear sketch of debt  in practice, its opportunities and hazards--had I had it on hand, I might have swiped it for students,.  Beyond the basics, they are still clear and mostly convincing, although they seem to be a little wobbly on just exactly how and why we find ourselves burdened with these distortions.   The real point seems to as simple as the core argument itself: bank debt comes decked out with an implicit subsidy so it's cheap.  The banks pass the government's money on to you--no, strike that, banks pass the money on to bankers in the form of fat pay packets and all the attendant perks   (you can pretty much skip the stuff about the tax subsidy to debt, and the phenom of banks that trade below book--they're both side issues, I think).

This is beguiling although I am not sure it goes all the way to making their point.  After all, equity gets its own share of government subsidy, so equity itself should be below-market cheap.  The more compelling reason seems to be that bank compensation is pegged to equity returns which, even if distorted, will nonetheless almost invariably exceed debt returns,.  So it doesn't matter how small the equity slice is: what does matter is the rate.

And now we come to the next point that nobody down at the bank seems to notice: the other reason those equity returns are so high is that equity is risky--the more debt, the higher the equity return, and the more chance the whole deal will plotz (heh).  You'd think that somebody down at the bank might have noticed.  But as somebody once said, when a man's living depends on not noticing something, he will not notice it.

At least I think that's how it work and I suspect that the authors, though a  bit more tentative, might agree.  But I can also think of at least two points beyond the basic framework that need attention.

One: the authors seem to take it for granted that a business with too much debt is too rigid.  They may  be right--there is a lot of evidence on their side.  Yet for entities other than banks, this alleged rigidity doesn't seem to be a problem.  When the business gets on the trouble, we toss the keys on the table; we cancel the old equity and rechristen the old debt.  Maybe there are good reasons why this won;t work for banks; or maybe we just don't try.

The other point is one that the authors probably understand perfectly well.  Thar is: they don't offer the slightest suggestion as to how we get from A to B: how we extract all these pointy fangs from the bankers' mouths and leave them less like an alligator, more like, say, a simple garden-variety snake.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Bruce on Our Spectacular Good Luck

I have often said that if I win the lottery, my prize will be two weeks  in Alexandria--like, Egypt--in  1912--like, a patchwork of ethnic sounds and smells.  Or Smyrna/Izmir.  Or Thessaloniki.  Or Sarajevo.  Right, Sarajevo, the last of the great cosmopolitan cities   Or so it was until the Serbians so murderously invaded--and the United Nations so cravenly responded--back in the 90s.

My friend Bruce (sic) is just back from Sarajevo.   He reports:
.. I was overwhelmed by the residue of war.  Still lots of buildings bullet-ridden, although many obviously repaired.  I attach a few pictures.  The first is a panoramic of Sarajevo -- beautiful city, and you can see snow on the mountains in the background.

The next is a cemetery.  Most of the headstones in the cemetery bear a death date during the war -- there are 10 such cemeteries through Sarajevo, all overfull. Each has a 24-hour military guard who stands still with his hand over his heart, unless you hold your hands as though you were reading a book -- the Muslim gesture for prayer -- and then the guard gives a Bosnian salute -- he takes his hand from his heart and displays his open palm on the right side of his body. 

The last picture is of the downtown open market, not a quarter mile from where we worked. It was the site of two massacres during the war. The first massacre happened on 5 February 1994; 68 people were killed and 144 more were wounded when the Serbs launched mortar shells into the city from their positions near the place where I took the panoramic view. The second occurred on 28 August 1995 when five more mortar shells killed 43 people and wounded another 75. This latter attack was the stated reason for NATO air strikes against Bosnian Serb forces. The Serbian military generals who ordered the shelling were tried as war criminals, convicted, and are now serving life sentences. To the end, they contended that the Bosnian forces shelled their own people to foment international sympathy for them. The red glass wall at the back of the market has the names of those killed inscribed in gold.

 Bruce concludes:
I don't know why I'm writing this to you, except the blog posts on the Boston suspect made me think that we are spectacularly lucky here that we do not have more of the type of sorrow Sarajevo has experienced.
Right.  And so say all of us.

More Equivalences, False or Otherwise

This may not be new (little is) but it's new to me.  Anyway, the topic is bankers, their crimes and follies and the running dogs who defend them.  And in particular, the recurrent howl that it is all the fault of the GSEs--Fannie and Freddy,  their implicit government guarantee.

As it happens I don't think the GSEs are the culprit, but I do agree on the implicit guarantee: bad policy, shouldn't have happened.   But here's the thing.  In retrospect, isn't the problem that everybody had a government guarantee?  How is the policy we followed with the GSEs any different from what we did to (for) AIG, and through them Goldman Sachs, and also Citibank, to name only the most egregious examples?  Have any of those who criticize the GSEs--has any of them spoken out against the corruption that ensues from bailing out the entire banking system?

And while I'm at it, I can think of another.  We've heard lots of whining the last few years about  the evilz of nonrecourse finance and jingle mail--how the debtors can just toss the keys on the table and walk away from the mortgage.

I've never been much impressed with that line of reasoning.  So far as I can tell, nonrecourse has been baked into the cake since the depression which ought to be time enough for even the most slow-witted banker to grasp its implications and price it into its detail.  It's just like--

Well you know what it's just like?   It's just like banker compensation.  Heads I win, tails you lose.  Succeed, I get the big bonus and go to the seashore. Fail and you pay.  Well, not you, of course--the government, the taxpayers, with that implicit put, but you get the idea.  In any event, can anybody show me just one person who fulminates against nonrecourse and also against banker bonuses?

Fun with Constitutional Equivalence

Isn't there a national security exception for the second amendment?  Or enemy combatant status for the guy who ran the Texas fertilizer plant?  Or at least for the Elvis impersonator who tried to assassinate the president with ricin?  Or all Elvis impersonators?

Yiddish Update

I did not learn my Yiddish at my mother's knee (she was Swedish), but I thought I had picked up the basics in my college years, and hanging around the bankruptcy court.  Evidently not.  The quiz show Says You reeducates me on a couple of points.

On, plotz.  I had thought it meant "fail," as in "the business plotzed."  Evidently a more careful definition is "explode;" so, failure with an oak leaf cluster.

And the other, bubkas, as in what the creditors get.  I thought it meant "nothing," and it seems I am sort of right, but I miss an important nuance.  I'm told it means insultingly nothing, in the sense of "how dare you?"  We once had a difficult client who did not pay his bill; he did, however, send us a nice flowering plant.   Perhaps I can file it under bubkas.

Perhaps both these textured meanings offer a small window into the texture and fluency of so extraordinary a language.  Which recalls to mind a story from my 19th summer--my time as a shabbas goy in Bethlehem, New Hampshire.  The  kid behind the cash register at the drug store said "...well, the thing about Yiddish is that it developed without a court tradition."   Which prompted two new insights: one, it's a concept I never thought of before; and two, this kid has a much better education than I do.

BTW we idled away a couple of pleasant hours last night with Joseph Dornan's Laughing in the Darkness--nominally a biopic of the Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem but as the more insightful critics appear to have understood, a superb exploration of how a culture is created, finds it place, and is then swept away--all more or less within the career of a single writer.  Superb social insight and a fit companion to Ken Burns' Dust Bowl, which we had watched just before.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

B of A's Bot Chat Specialist

I got an odd sort of maybe-phish the other day in the name of Bank of America.  The phish part was that they warned me about trouble on my account.  The odd part was that they did not ask me to "reply to this message," and did not ask me to "call this number"--only to check in st the B of A web page.  

I did check in at the web page,, and here is the odder part--nothing seemed out of line.  No blockage on the account, entries looked all right, blah blah.  So I popped over to the B of A customer service and fired up internet chat and--well, I'll spare you the details but I told my little story and they started firing back a list of warning signs for possible phish.  Whereupon I guilelessly typed
That is great, but I'm not 100 percent sure you are hearing me. Note that this email did not contain any of the obvious phish tags--.
And that was when it finally sank in on me: of course they weren't hearing me because there was nobody there.  Talking to a bot about a phish. Welcome to the new world.

Update  A friend says--oh, there was somebody there all right, just trained to talk like a bit.  Could be.

Afterthought.  I realized a little later that there was an obvious giveaaway in the email--came from "banksofamerica," i.e., plural instead of just one bank.  But I still don't know--what, exactly, was the scam?

De-Mirandizing: Not a Bug, but a Feature

Emily Bazelon does a superb job of explaining a(t least one) good reason why we should be reading young Dzhokhar his Miranda rights, but I think she may be talking past the important issue.  She might want to consider the point that for some people, depriving defendants of fundamental human rights is not just a practical compromise, it an urgent principled necessity: necessity because the goal of the whole process is to strip them of their human dignity.  It's the same reason why, for example, not many people get worked up over the victims of prison rape.

Consider: if we acknowledge their human dignity, we are admitting they are "like us," which would imply that people "like us" can do dreadful thing, which would imply--oh, dear,, let's not go there, but I do recall Goethe (yes?) saying there was no crime he couldn't imagine himself committing.  For folk with this attitude, refusing to grant fundamental rights is not a bug but a feature, and "necessity" is quite beside the point.  Emily argues that if they can do it to people like young Dzhokhar, then maybe they can do it to you, or her.  Quite right, Emily, and that may be just the point.

For extra credit:  the proposition set forth here is independent from the proposition that people enjoy torturing others because they enjoy seeing them suffer.  But they overlap.  If we (for example) send Christians into the  arena to be torn to shreds by lions, it may be because we enjoy seeing them suffer.  It may also be be because we don't recognize them as "like us."  Yet if they are not "like us," why do we get such enjoyment out of seeing them suffer?

Friday, April 19, 2013

An Odd Beethoven Moment

We indulged in what I''d count s one of the oddest Beethoven experiences of my life down at the Mondavi Center at Davis last night.  The subject was the violin concerto in D major, Op. 61.  The conductor was Herbert Blomstedt (with the San Francisco Symphony).  The soloist was Augustin Hadelich except that's the thing: the two (symphony and soloist) scarcely seemed to be in the same room together; you had to wonder if they had ever met.   Hadelich was technically dazzling although he played like a kid, younger than you might expect for his 28 years.  And maybe that's the thing; at 85, Blomstedt is more than three times the young fella's age, easily old enough to be his grandfather.  You had to wonder what it might be like if they teamed young Gustavo Dudamel (now 32, after what seems already to have been a long career) with a soloist of, say, 96.  It was fun to bask in the sound of the Stradivarius, though, although you did feel a twinge of pity for the poor Strad as the young man assaulted it with pizzicati in the Paganini encore.

For the second half, we had the orchestra minus soloist doing Nielsen's fifth.  It was all comfortably Nordic in a Strindbergian/Munchian/Kierkegaardian/Mankellian sort of way. You got the feeling that Blomstedt the Swede felt a lot more at home with his Danish neighbor.  It was entertaining to reflect that the murky Dane's day job was to conduct the band at the Tivoli Gardens.

Names and a Complicated World

[Updated for second thoughts].  There's a bleak element of comedy in the fact that the name--Tamerlan--of the deceased suspect in the Boston rice-cooker bombing echoes the name of one of history's great bullyboys who exploded out of Central Asia in the 14th Century to loot and pillage and--well, actually, not much of anything.  Timur the lame was famous for troublemaking but unlike other great trouble makers--say, Genghis Khan--Timur built almost nothing permanent and really had no program for his conquered victims except to come back and pillage again.

But I'm actually more  intrigued by the name Tamerlan's younger brother, still on the loose, given to us as "Dzhokhar."  My first thought was "Dzhokhar" = "Zohar," as in the founding text of Kabbalah.  

But probably not.  An online etymology dictionary gives "zohar" as Hebrew זֹהַר  meaning "light, brilliance." A reader contribution to the same source gives "dzhokhar" as "Chechen masculine name that is most likely of Nakh origin."  "Nakh" is a Caucasian language group, apparently a long way from Hebrew.

Meanwhile  a cursory Google search suggests that "Dzhokhar" was also the first name of a hero, perhaps the hero, of the Chechen resistance to the Russians.   Still, a complicated world.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Sometimes it Pays to Read the Comments

Ritholtz posted a clever but instructive skewering of gold mania. He got some of the predictable blowback.  In response to the blowback, Ritholtz said "Paper money is backed...  a collective belief system — so is gold — but the fiat currency also is backed by the ability to tax and have a standing army."  Responding to Barry, comes now a certain "Carchamp1," otherwise unknown to me:

Consider that, despite conventional wisdom, fiat currency, or paper money, is backed by far more than general collective belief. When you think about how a fractional reserve system works, a currency is backed by productive enterprise and work. In a fractional reserve system, money is, yes, created “out of thin air”, but it is loaned out with some confidence that it will be paid back.

Now, as we saw with the housing bubble, capital is sometimes employed very poorly. When that happens we ultimately get a contraction, sometimes a very powerful one. This is inherent in fractional reserve systems. That is, it is supposed to happen. It is part of the plan.

While I think the idea of having a few bankers at the Federal Reserve pull the switches on monetary policy should be looked at (could this be done in a market-based approach?), I tend to think the fractional reserve system is pure genius. Probably never heard that before.
 Okay, I grant this may not be Nobel quality, but how often do you here anybody mount any defense at all of "fractional reserve banking?"  [Still as a general rule--I'd venture that any comment thread including both "fiat money" and "fractional reserve banking" is probably not worth the eyeballs.]

Nerd Sweepstakes: We Have a Winner!

There's an episode of Cheers where the entertainment at the accountant's party is the guy who can recite all the telephone area codes.  I think he loses the nerd sweepstakes to this guy at the Berkeley economics and annual skit party, with charity auction add-on:
Professor Gorodnichenko (who also swept the awards ceremony tonight, winning the Best Professor and Best Adviser awards) donated another auction item-- a check with the amount drawn from a beta distribution with parameters alpha=3 and beta=2, multiplied by $100. The beta distribution is only nonzero on the unit interval, so the check will have value between $0 and $100. The mean of the beta distribution is alpha/(alpha+beta), so the expected value should be $100 (3/5)=$60. The item went for $50 -- so everyone in the audience must have been risk averse, loss averse, financially illiterate, or liquidity constrained (or some combination, like me.)
 Link. That would be Yuriy Gorodnichenko, and he is apparently all in at this game: he also offered to stump up $500 "if Christina Romer or Janet Yellen becomes Fed chair at any time in the future."  Any time?

Wednesday, April 17, 2013


I'm guessing this will be easy:
But what has always struck me about [X]’s work – certainly, the [mature items]  – is not that they enthral us through bewilderment or narcosis, but how unnervingly intelligible they are, and how, in being so intelligible, they hold our attention, and, in holding our attention, draw us ineluctably in.
Who?  Go here.  [Hint: it doesn't work for me.]

Filibuster: I Confess

May I take a moment of your valuable time to make an ignominious confession of ignorance here: filibuster.  Specifically: I'm, like, y'know a pretty well-read guy, follow the news and all that, and I have not the foggiest clue  why we still have the wide-open no-filibuster fillibuster anymore.  Yes,  yes, I know about minority protection, just like the bill of rights and all that.  And I guess I could tolerate a filibuster back when it meant that Strom Thurmond had to pee down his leg.  But in this day and age when it is only a convention, a charade, what possible (good) reason is there for the Dems to put up with it?

Update:  A commentator suggests that they don't want the Republicans to do it to them. But this is fanciful, yes?  For surely the Republicans will do it to them, as soon as Repubs get 51 votes?

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Boston Footnote

I need to choose my words carefully here.  The last thing I want to do is to trivialize the awfulness in Boston yesterday, but consider this: of all the places in the universe can you think of any better equipped to cope with a calamity like the one than the finish line at the Boston Marathon?  Can you imagine any place better fitted out with first responders, emergency room surgeons, combat veterans and countless non-specialists just equal to coping with life's misfortunes?  And one of the best cities in the world for good hospitals.  Hard to find a silver lining in a mess like this but just sayin'.

Okay Everybody, Line Up....

Yesterday's number, $10 billion, being the aggregate compensation last year for the 10 best-paid hedge fund operators.

For comparison, how many people still live on a dollar a day?  Oh, it's a squishy number a bogus question; still, a good guess would be about a billion (there's a pretty good Wiki discussion); that would be $365 a year.  So $10b/$365 = 27,397,360, which is about halfway between the population of Nepal and Venezuela.  Okay everybody, line up, there's gruel.

Afterthought:  shed a tear for Daniel Loeb who weighs in at number 10 on the list with $380 million.  He's probably not dining on gruel tonight, but my guess is that he is the kind of guy wakes up mad every day that there are nine guys on the list who made more money last year than he.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Bond Market(s): End(s) of Western Civilization as we Know It

The following is right, isn't it?  The typical municipal bankruptcy is (and will be) a three-way fight: current employees versus retirees versus bondholders (with taxpayers languishing already beaten in the corner). Sure there is some overlap: you might say  younger/newer employees versus older-plus-pensioners, but it's a fine point.  Anyway you look at it, three into two don't go and something will have to give.

Bondholders clearly know it. The reason you know they know it is that we are beginning to hear those voices telling us how it  can't be that bondholders will ever suffer in a muny bankruptcy; that it will be the end of Western Civilization as we know it!

Right, sure, maybe, whatever.  Sounds a lot like how they tell us that it can't be that bondholders will suffer in a bank failure either; that it would be the end of Western Civilization as we know it!

With banks, the claims strikes me as particularly egregious, recognizing that we start off with insured debtors who have a formal protection against loss--which the banks have more or less paid for--and try to extend the same kind of protection to those who do not have that protection.

What the bondholders do have in each case is not a formal protection; rather they have the assurance that they've got a pretty safe investment--one which, over the long horizon, has done pretty well.  But a bond is still just an IOU, even if tarted up in its Sunday best.  It's a claim; it's on the right hand side of the balance sheet.  It's ahead of equity, but it may or may not get paid in full.

One reason the pious affirmation gets so tiresome is that a moment's reflection give you a little context as to how these bonds came into being.  I.e., somebody had to loan the money and for all practical purposes the landscape presented prime opportunities for guys with suitcase-sized brains (or so they said) whose specialty was  hoovering up  the detritus from the Mayberry mafia.  Was anybody better equipped to appraise risk?  Was there ever anyone less entitled to say "oh, it's munies and they always pay"--?

But one thing I don't know, in either case: how often does it actually work?  We know a lot about failure rates among corporate bonds in the post-Milken generation. We've learned, among other things, that first-tier corporates never were quite as bulletproof as conventionally assumed.  But what, exactly, is the record of munies (or, while I am at it, of bank debt)?  Is there really  substance to the assertion that "they never fail"--?  Or is the landscape actually scattered with more corpses than our memories account for?

We Don't Have Enough Deans

Reserved Chancellor/Dean Parking, Monday morning.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Thatcher Afterthought: Sovereign Wealth

Here's one I hadn't thought of until I read someone recalling how Maggie dealt with Britain's sudden oil wealth, in contrast to the Norwegians. Recall that the Norwegians put together a sovereign wealth fund-- by any measure, one of the best managed and most contructive sovereign wealth funds in the world.  By contrast, Maggie cut taxes.

Counterfactual thought experiment, what if Britain had launched a sovereign wealth fund?  Would it have worked like Norway's?  Or would it just have been gobbled up by friends of friends?

I suppose one could also speculate on what the world would have been like had we had all those Norwegians running about (on cross-country skis, no doubt) with a few thousand extra kroner in their pockets?

Happily, My Kids Cannot Say This about Me

Bumper sticker:
Kind of Famous at Burning Tree

Friday, April 12, 2013

The Quiet Ones

A faithful commentator doesn't know what to make of my last crack (i,.e., lifted from The Economist) about atheism.

Oh, I wouldn't read much into it; I think I just found it amusing.  But if the question is whether atheists make a nuisance of themselves: I'd have to say that some do (you've heard of this guy?).  But my guess is that there are actually quite a few who do not pester and harangue: some, perhaps, because they fear getting into fights that might cost them, others possibly because they simply don't think it is anybody's business--a subject they are no more eager to discuss than their bowel habits.

And while I'm on the subject, I suspect the same may be true of believers, Christian or otherwise.  Some share the good news in a mood of transcendent ecstasy; some like limpets to your screen door.  Like it or not, the phenomenon of religious feeling appears to be amazingly widespread, at least as pervasive as the taste for Monday night football, even ignoring any possible overlap.  I gather there are some who hold to the view that religion is an essentially social experience, and that you can't have a private religion any more than you can have a private language.  I doubt it. a I'd rather go to the other extreme and venture that the number of belief-patterns in the world is at least as numerous as the number of public sects--allowing that some people may well have more than one.  And among all these, the vast majority may be precisely those you do not notice.

Where the Livin' Was Easy

Two snippets and a bit of context.  One, Chez Buce indulged (if you call it that) the other night in the first part of Ken Burns' Dustbowl.  It's a good reminder, if any be needed, that people through most of history had to scrape every day just to stay alive.  And forget about the hockey stick: some of the stark stories are pretty close to home.  

Which presents the second snippet: Trente Glorieuses.  You've heard the phrase before?  It's new to me. It's French; means "the glorious thirty," as in 1945-75, yesrs of ease and abundance and who could have guessed that France, with its own bleak history and inglorious war would recover so fast and so well.

We had our own glorioius thirty, of course, or perhaps "glorious 26" if you count 1947-1973.  Ease and abundance again, in the narrow sense that if your worthless brother-in-law fetched up on your doorstep around, say, the San Fernando Valley, you could have found him a job.  And not only a job, but a pretty good job, building cars, or airplanes, or highways, or big dams or whatever.   And even your worthless  brother-in-law would have been able to maintain a nice house with a stay-at-home wife and some kids and a lawn.  The echo of Homer Simpson is not accidental.

Remarkable how we really didn't notice at the time.  Some of us remembered the War, I suppose, but that was special and far away.  Some, to be fair, were haunted by memories of the Great Depression (of 1929ff; acgtually, the second Great Depression, after 1873-93, but pretty much nobody remembered that).  It's a human failing, I suppose: it takes a rare and special knack to recognize when you are well off.  And granted, there was the shadow of the Cold War: a looming menace so pervasive that it gave us reason to forget how well off we really were.

We're past all that now, of course.  Well: we pretend it will come back, but in the black of night, we feel a little bit like that billboard in Kansas that used to say "Please, God, Give Me One More Oil Boom--I Promise not to Piss It Away This Time." 

And not just us: some of the time we talk about how, oh it's outsourcing, the Chinese, blah blah. But no.  It's everywhere.  Fact is, we are beginning to realize that there simply may not be enough work to do, worldwide, anywhere.  

This cannot be wholesome.  I suppose it is a truism that you cazn infer the structure of a society from its military needs.  You fight on horseback, you need swaggering young thrill-seekers with enough of the ready to fit themselves out in full kit.   You need skilled longbowmen, you cosset them and treat them as a privileged class (and try to keep  them out of harm's way).  Somebody invents gunpowder: everything changes.  Ammo is cheap, weapons aren't that costly, and you can teach almost anybody how to point and shoot.  And the fact that they aren't too clever, that they're good at taking orders, is not  bug, it's a design feature.  Next thing you know, you've got a mass society where everybody has cell phone.  Point and shoot indeed.

Point and shoot indeed.  What sort of a society will you have when you really don't need anybody except the ones who fight your wars,  and when they are all tucked away in front of a computer screen in an air conditioned bunker in Las Vegas.

[Late-night rant.  I'll feel better in the morning.  It's the Perrier talking.]

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Heh (Religion Dept.)

... religious strictures, many of which involve compiling lists of what is forbidden and dreaming up creatively horrendous punishments for those who fall short.


[de Waal] compares the “neo-atheists” to people standing outside a cinema, earnestly pointing out that Leonardo DiCaprio did not really go down with the Titanic—in other words, a crowd of crashing bores spoiling the fun by stating the obvious to people who know better than to take a film as gospel truth.


...[H]unter-gatherer egalitarianism is rather a sham.  ... [E]ven the most egalitarian of them had a dominance hierarchy as clear-cut as tht in any ape society. The difference is that for humans, the alpha elite were invisible supernatural beings, far too powerful to be overthrown, while the betas were ancestors who did the bidding of the alphas.  No "egalitarian" hunter-gatherer was ever more than a gamma in the social hierarchy,.
--Steven Mithen, "Foresomes and so on," reviewing and interpreting Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus, The Creation of Inequality (2012), London Review of Books 11 April 2013, 17-18, 17.  Cf. link, link, link.

I'll Bite

Let's grant that we might like "“a universal payments system with no friction or interchange costs” (link).  And let's ignore that awkward little volatility thing.  Still, do we really want to be in a product whose target demographic would be (a) money launderers; (b) tax evaders; and (c) gullible paranoids of a sort who think they can get rich by shipping all their wealth to an anonymous transferee at the end of an intertube?

Wednesday, April 10, 2013


I think some authors cry out for animation. Dickens, surely. Not Henry James. Certainly Cervantes although there seems to be a lot of bad Don Quixotes around. Here's one that I think looks pretty good:

Who You Gonna Believe?


Link.  Or Frum:

Link.  Or heck, let's just relax with Alyssa:

Link.    Just as wild speculation, I'd guess that people in earlier generations also felt a letdown in their 20s as the burdens of adulthood came crashing around their shoulders.  For men of my cohort, you woke up one day married and with kids and a mortgage and not the slightest idea how it all happened.  Oh, and the high likelihood that if you did not meet these new responsibilities, you would go to jail.

Monday, April 08, 2013


I can't say I was ever a Thatcher fan but I feel no particular need to join the ding-dong celebratory parade that seems to be gathering to honor her death. She did some stuff that was way overdue (Falkland War not one of them). And as a whole Maggie, like her good buddy Ronnie, wasn't really as wonderful or as awful as reputation suggests

But there is one remarkable fact around her that doesn't seem to get the notice that you (=I) might expect. That is: her chronic sulk, her appearance of unassuageable inner grievance, her evident sense that somewhere along the line she was being cheated. What's particularly striking in this regard  is how different she presented herself as against her separated-at-birth soulmate across the water, Ronald Reagan. She may have smiled on or twice during her incumbency; I certainly can't remember it and I doubt that any of her countrymen do either.

 Actually, after I wrote that last sentence, I went to Google Images for a reality check.   Okay, there is the occasional smile, even more than two.  Perhaps the interesting takeaway, though is  that the smilers  appear to come mostly from her youth, as if the cascade of political success did nothing to mollify that persistent sense of hurt.  Indeed--I'm sure others have said this before--she seemed almost to reserve her greatest resentment or rancor--certainly her greatest contempt--for those who were (politically) closest to her: the toffs in the Conservative party, the wets, the softies, the "you never had it so good" conservatives who let the undeserving poor get away with so much (Thought experiment: what if Maggie had been caught on camera railing against "the 47 percent?"  My guess is she would have doubled down and told the world that she damn well meant every word.)

The stylistic gulf between her and Reagan is more than just a curiosity: it's a remarkable political paradox.  We seem to take it for granted in America that the reason--the only reason--why Reagan got away with it all is the smile: the easy, affable, nonchalance, so easy to mock and so maddeningly difficult to get round. Comparative case in point: it's easy to forget that both Thatcher and Reagan had a rough go of it in the early 80s.  Both swept to reelection and confounded all opposition.  For Thatcher, the campaign style was confrontational and unapologetic; for Reagan, it was morning in America.

For Thatcher, it seemed it was never morning anywhere.  "Seeming" cannot cannot be entirely true, of course; at any rate she seems also to have been devoted to her husband and he to her.  Her relations with her children--may have been more difficult but the fact is that not even the shamelessly snoopy London press knows much about him. In any event, I'm finding myself recalling a particularly difficult colleague from my past life.  "It is not fun to be around Ignota," we used to say.  "But it would be even less fun to be Ignota."  Thatcher may have succeeded in imposing a good deal of her utopian vision on Britain but it is not so clear she had much fun doing it.

All Change

Larry tells you most of what you need to know about the new world of publishing.  Great stuff; and note that he knew it last year.

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Gary Gorton's Missed Opportunity

In Misunderstanding Financial Crises, Gary Gorton has such an important point to make that it is a shame he sat on the execution.

The one-line takeaway is, as I take it, that we don't pay nearly enough attention to the concept of "financial crisis"--by which he means, I think, crisis narrowly defined like the mensis horribilia when Lehman went down--also Fannie and Freddie, WaMu, Merrill Lynch and the reputation for invulnerability of the American banking system.

I think that much is inarguable, although there may be some issues about cause and definition.  Gorton says it is because economists are too analytical. not willing to  grant history the respect it deserves.  I think there is a core of truth here but I suspect his own analytical focus wobbles a bit when he concedes implicitly that actually we do pay attention to history--we just don't go back far enough.  That is: almost any consideration of slumps and booms, shocks and suchlike, confines itself to what he calls "the quiet period"--1934-2007, during which there was not a single disruption in the system (October 1987 and Long Term Capital Management would not count as exceptions, I suppose ironically because they ended so quickly and  painlessly).  

We can see at least two errors at work here.  One, we assumed that because we had escaped for 73 years, we seem to have figured there must have been some fundamental change in the system that made us invulnerable to dislocation--the "great moderation," or whatever.  And two, we failed to notice that even in "the quiet period," shocks continued to occur--it was just that they occurred in Mexico or Argentina or Thailand or Russia or (again) whatever.  Apparently we blew them off either because we weren't paying attention or because we didn't think they had anything to do with us.

Well, time for a rethink. And here is where Gorton has done some important work.  His Slapped by the Invisible Hand demonstrated how the critical events of aught eight could be understood as an old-fashioned bank run in new garments.  Slapped was brief, crisp, elegant, and squarely on point, or so it seemed.  It invited generalization.    That is what Misunderstanding purports to offer, but aside from remaking the core points of Slapped, there is surprisingly little that's new.

Gorton does offer up a sort of history of previous crises.  But it's perfunctory, amateurish--mostly just rip-and-read quotations from old court cases.  Unless I missed something, he seems not even to specify precisely why,  he is replowing the old ground although I guess I can surmise a good reason: he wants to say "hey guys, you see what happened before?  Well it happened again--and can be expected to happen yet again, quiet period notwithstanding."
I'll grant that this is a point worth making, even if somewhat slapdashingly presented.   But convinced as we may be (and my guess is that most readers were probably convinced before they open the book), there remains the larger question--okay, so?  We've seen that they happen, you've persuaded us (more or less) that they'll happen again.  Giving credit where credit is due, you've even shown how sometimes the great and good have handled them right.  So what do we do now to get our thinking back on track?

It is perhaps one of the lesser disappointments of this book that Gorton hasn't disposed of all the questions on the agenda he presumes to create.  Setting the agenda is an achievement in itself and it is probably asking too much to expect him to flesh out a fullscale response.  Still, I suspect he might have stood a better chance of getting everybody's attention if he had done a more polished job of laying it out.