Monday, April 14, 2014

No Time like the Present

   "October: This is one of the particularly dangerous months to invest in stocks. Other dangerous months are July, January, September, April, November, May, March, June, December, August and February."

So Mark Twain, or so it is said.   Compare:
Black Monday
Black Tuesday
Black Wednesday
Black Thursday
Black Friday
Black Saturday
Black Sunday
One event makes the list twice. That would be Black Monday/Tuesday, the occasion of the world's largest stock market decline, which straddled the International Date Line. Thursday seems particularly bad for investors.  Blame it for the collapse of Jay Cooke & Co. Investment House on Sept. 18, 1873 (setting off the "great depression," i.e., the one that preceded the  "great depression"). Also October 29, 1929, the mother of all stock market crashes.  And the Moscow interbank crisis of August 24, 1995.  Oh, and the "flash crash" of May 6, 2010.  And if you like, also Sept. 30, 2010, when the Irish learned the truth about their banking crisis, causing their deficit to spike to 32 percent of GDP.    

But Sunday, unless I misread, is the one that has no connection with activity in the market.  On the other hand, there's this:

Sunday, April 13, 2014

DeLong on Piketty; Economist on Banks

Two can't miss weekend reads:  One. the  "Economist Essay" on the history of financial crises; and two, DeLong on Piketty--i.e., P's magisterial new study of inequality.  The Economist piece explains itself and I stand ready to offer it to anybody who needs an updated analysis of why banks ye have always with you and why they are such a damn nuisance. DeLong is a bit more technical and abstract, but he makes a couple of thoroughly accessible points that I hadn't seen elsewhere. One, that Piketty (this isy) seems to assume that “wealth” in a society = concentration. Perhaps it does, but it need not; we can imagine a society that piles up wealth and spreads it around so everyone becomes a rentier. Likewise I suppose we could imagine one where wealth concentrates even as it declines.

Two, DeLong points out that Piketty is shaky on what means by “return.” DeLong suggests four candidate-meanings and I think I get the drift although I'll admit I'm a little unclear on just how he draws his lines (hey, I was a little drunk last night and I didn't get to class until half an hour late—can I come by your office hours?).

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Cowen's Sicily and Mine

Tyler rolls his eyes at an NYT account of prodigal misspending at the Italian Tourist Board, particularly in respect to the South and Sicily.     He's right of course, but here's a guilty secret: hang the Tourist Board, I'd list Sicily as one of my own favorite tourist destinations.  I first stumbled on it alone back in 1985, diverting myself with a long weekend away from a work assignment in Rome.    I told Mrs. Buce we had to get back there together and indeed we've traveled the island a couple of times since.  In all, I've pretty well scoured the place by car bus and train and I'll go again tonight if you are offering.  

There are tourists in Sicily and facilities sufficient to care for them--Taormina is the first place where I ever stayed in a hotel with a rack rate of 800 Euros, though happily I was not paying rack rate.   Things do seem to have gotten busier with time: in '85 I had the sere, spooky unfinished temple at Segesta all to myself; two years ago we found it equipped with full tourist array.    One thing Sicily mostly does without:  the walls of high-rises one finds blazoned along the Costa del Sol.  Too bad for Sicilians who want to make a few coins, but I say thank heavens for waste and sloth at the Tourist Board.

Bibliography:plenty of good stuff to read by Sicilians or about Sicily but I have a nostalgic soft spot for Goethe's Italian Journey, my companion on that solo first foray 29 years ago, and still the only bit of Goethe that I can say I unreservedly enjoyed.  Here's a brief appreciation of the Sicilian chapters.

Friday, April 11, 2014

An Homage to More or Less Everything

Somewhat against my better judgment, I  trekked off behind Mrs. Buce to the Plookaville Multiplex this afternoon for a screening of Wes Anderson's Grand Budapest Hotel.  I was probably being too fussy. Ir's a good-natured entertainment with lots of comic side effects.  But I'll sign on with others and say I just don't get this hat tip to Stephan Zweig.  It's not that the movie is not derivative.  No: it's a virtual tropical rain forest of homages: Laurel and Hardy, Dudley Moore and Peter Cook, Holmes and Moriarty, Alfred Hitchcock, I'd say even a little of the early Disney: Pinocchio for sure, maybe a little Fantasia and I think I even sniff a little Lady and the Tramp.   If there is a hotel in the background, I suppose it would be the Hotel Savoy of Joseph Roth.  If on a mountain top, then Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain.  Or if he is just trying to make a buck on the hotel theme, then I suppose it would be The Best Exotic Marigold.  But Zweig, oy.  My guess is that he's never so much as read him.  And it doesn't have much of nothing to do with Budapest, either.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Larry on La Différence

Larry the Barefoot Bum takes me to task for my suggestion that some disparities in male-female payscales might be "justified."  He says:
When we are talking about establishing differences between classes of human beings (which seem, quelle surprise, to usually be construed as inferiority), our null hypothesis should be that there are no differences, until evidence compels us to reject the null. I do not believe that we have anywhere nearly enough evidence to conclude that that women are substantively inferior... oops... different in capabilities than men.
I'd agree 95 percent, maybe 97, maybe 94, whatever.  Assessing differences is a perilous business at best, and turns invidious at the flick of an eyebrow.  It's  very like (but perhaps not quite like) the Hegelian insight that we can't know what "man (sic) in the abstract" looks like because nobody has ever seen man in the abstract, nor women neither, for what it is worth.

But there is a dangerous slippage underfoot here.  Back in the 60s (say) we all learned (or were taught) that we shouldn't assert differences between men and women.  We subtly tramsmogrified that mandate into the proposition that there are no differences between men and women.  Narrowly interpreted, this little two-step is incoherent: if we cannot know that any categorization of men versus women is empirically based, how can we know that it is not?

Actually (one reason Hegel doesn't apply here) my take is that there are a few--perhaps very few--differences that we simply cannot explain away as matters of culture.  My pet is the fetal damage through drug use.  So far as I know, there is no dispute on the proposition that the male fetus is more vulnerable to such the risk of such damage than the female. I first ran across that one about 20 years ago.  I haven't yet run across any possible basis on which this variation could be cultural.   It's small potatoes I suppose; I suspect there are others but for the moment I only need one to make my point.

Larry is quite right that we have a long history of using this kind of stereotyping in ways that are adverse to women (Does Senator Dianne Feinstein fail to understand torture because she is "too emotional?"  No, I think not.)  But Larry might be overlooking an important cultural shift: these days, it's at least as likely that the stereotyping is used in ways that are invidious to men.    On that latter point, FWIW, I'd have to confess that I am a culprit.  I do tend to think that men are on the whole idiots. their minds clouded by sexuality and a tendency towards violence.  I suspect (though  certainly can't prove) that traits like this are hard-wired.  I think we'd make a mistake to say that of course it can't be so when the fact is we don't know at all (nb, I think I have just said that I'm not sold on Larry's "null hypothesis," supra).

By the way, does anybody remember Ashley Montagu's Natural Superiority of Women?  It was published in 1952, i.e., when I was just starting my senior  year in high school; when I was, in other words, obsessively alert to the question of the truth or falsity of just that proposition.  I see there's an Amazon review saying that "Most men will not care for [the book] at all."  I'm not at all sure that that is true: I suspect that most men know they are oafs and are not pleased with themselves for being so.  Stereotyping again.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Fair Game

Here's an email from Elizabeth Warren that will not surprise: 


When I started teaching elementary school after college, the public school district didn't hide the fact that it had two pay scales: one for men and one for women.

I can't believe we're still debating equal pay for equal work 40 years later.
She's right, of course. The disparity does persist, and it is unfair--it cannot be fully justified (though I think it can in part be justified) by factors that have nothing to do with gender.  It's another one of the facts of life I came up against in the City Room of the (notoriously liberal) Louisville Times back in the 60s.

I think I understood the unfairness to women in the regime as it subsisted.  But I was more alert to the unfairness to me. The boss would have said (I think perhaps he did say) that it was only right that he paid women less because they didn't have families to support. True as a matter of fact, but it also glosses over the point that I did have a family to support, and all this low-price scab labor was undercutting my paycheck.  I think the boss felt pleased with himself for providing jobs for women when they weren't all that common.  I don't think he minded pocketing the extra change that came from hiring (at my expense) on the cheap.

A Short Guy

One more thing about Jay Gould: he was short.   Certainly by the standards of our time and even by the standards of his own--he apparently charted in at just about exactly five feet (so that instructive biography I'm reading). Which puts him right up (heh)( there with his contemporary, Andrew Carnegie, whom I have always thought of as short--he also was five foot.

Which set me to wondering: were we really shorter in those days?  The usufruct of some desultory research is: well, yes and no.   Wiki has a chart of Presidents by height. Abraham Lincoln was, of course (tied with Lyndon Johnson) our tallest President, standing 6' 4".  The rest of the 19th Century lot count as what might think of as "average,"  though there are a few more in the 5'6", 5'7" range than later--at 5'6", Benjamin Harrison is shorter than any later president (and also more forgettable)?  Shortest  was James Madison at 5'5".

Maybe the Presidency is special because it is such an alpha-male role. Supreme Court justices are  bit more remarkable.   We can discount the girrls because they are, you know, girrls (though Ruth Bader Ginsburg seems to stand about 5'1" and Elena Kagan, perhaps just a tad more-Justice Thurgood Marshall, Kagan's old boss, called Kagan "shorty").   Anyway, they can't compete with  Alfred Moore, elevated to the court by John Adams: he was 4'5".

This being the 21st Century and the age of the internet and all that, wouldn't you know it didn't take me any time at all to come up with a "who's who of short people," running all the way down to Gul Mohammed who measured one foot (sic) 10.4 inches--though it appears he must give way to  Chandra Bahadur Dangi, said to  measure just 1'9".  

Moving away from these total outliers, it's interesting to note those who leap out because they don't actually seem all that short.  Who would have guessed, for example, that David Ben-Gurion was only five foot?   Or my favorite engineer?  Or Steven Douglas, the man who was not Lincoln in the 1860 Presidential race?  And is Steve Schwarzman, the Blackrock billionaire, really only 4'8"?

But one could just as well play the game the other way round.  I certainly wouldn't have expected, for example,  that this guy was a strapping 5'4",.

I end wit the canonical place-marker for any discussion of height in our time.

Monday, April 07, 2014

The Way Forward for a Clever Boy

Reading Edward J. Renehan, Jr.'s bio of Jay Gould, I struck upon a remarkable parallel.  No,  not "coincidence," because I think it is more than just happenstance. Here's the thing: Gould got his start as a surveyor.  Abraham Lincoln was a surveyor. George Washington was a surveyor.    Evidently this was a way up for a bright boy who could master the elements of trigonometry and who enjoyed the gift of stamina sufficient to make tracks in the trackless.  

The story of Lincoln's learning his trade is part of the folklore: Carl Sandburg tells it here (though I had forgotten how Lincoln seems to have gone broke at it).  The Washington story probably gets subsumed into the larger story of his career as a land speculator.

Gould's career is  necessarily less familiar. After a long hiatus in he shadows as the master malefactor, he seems to have found his defenders: Renehan is one; another is Maury Klein. Renehan calls Gould  a "Dark Genius," but presents him as a talented and largely constructive investor-builder who played a central role in the development of the railroads.

Surveyors on the make.  There must be other good examples, but who?

Update: Thoreau, right. A start for his legendary career in Wall Street speculation.  Thanks, Michael.