Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Megan's Myopia

I feel inhibited about joining the affray over Megan McCardle's non-review of the Picketty sensation.  Unlike Megan (and unlike her most affectionate critic), I actually have read the book--okay, 80 percent of it.  Enough to know that, whatever one's tendency to mock, she probably has read enough (i.e., zero) to permit her to mount her soapbox and deliver her exhortation on the virtue of not giving a rat's ass about indifference to the privations of the great unwashed.  She knows, in short, that Piketty thinks there are too damn many rich people and she's willing to go to the mattresses to make sure that none of their comforts and consolations are disturbed.

She knows, in short, all she needs to know for her purpose and reading more wouldn't be likely to improve her understanding.  I'll grant her that and I'll grant her more; she actually sketches out an attractive model of the good life:

  1. Finding a job that allows them to work at least 40 hours a week on a relatively consistent schedule and will not abruptly terminate them.
  2. Finding a partner who is also able to work at least 40 hours a week on a relatively consistent schedule and will not be abruptly terminated.
  3. Maintaining a satisfying relationship with that partner over a period of years.
  4. Having children who are able to enjoy more stuff and economic security than they have.
  5. Finding a community of friends, family and activities that will provide enjoyment and support over the decades.
Yes, well put, dear heart, and thanks so much for saying so.  But it would be fine to hear you say just a word as to how we got pushed so badly off track on this one or, perhaps, just who it was that gave us all so abrupt a nudge in the direction of that particular cliff.

You there, Megan?  No: she seems to have only one positive message: pay no attention to the grinning clown behind the curtaian.   She is, put differently, right enough to say that vulgar wealth transfer is not going to solve the problems of a sick society (though I'd add that it might help a bit at the margin). Yet she seems unwilling to reflect--or to want us not to reflect--on how it is that such absurd imbalance may generate the kinds of problems she professes to abhor.

She doesn't seem to consider, for example, that a society with this (our) kind of wealth imbalance is bound to be a sick society: that the imbalance leeches away not just money but the very civility and good order for which she professes to desire.  She doesn't seem notice the erosion of trust, of civility, of common decency that she so much laments, are perhaps the product of the distortion she wants us to ignore.   We're all hurtling somewhere in this handbasket together; count Megan among those willing to tap the driver on the shoulder and say "tut tut--drive on."

Afterthought: I wonder why she focuses her laser-like attention on "the middle class."  Do we assume that the poor are those who do  not want to find a job, to find a partner, to maintain a satisfying relationship, blah blah?  Perhaps she needs to meet a better class of poor people.  But set that aside.

Why I'm Just as Glad I'm Retiring:

From an inter-office e-memo sent (and received) on April 23:
Christmas cards and other types of greeting cards should not be sent from one department to another.


Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Shakespeare: Oh I Think Not

We've Found Shakespeare's Dictionary!--We got it on Ebay!  So goes the headline (lightly paraphrased).  Well you never say never, but my guess is no.  Not that I've done anything like actually review the evidence, but the very idea seems to fall foul of my favorite first principle of Shakespeare scholarship: it misunderstands who Shakespeare was, and what he did.

Repeat after me, children: Shakespeare was first and last a working hoofer, intent on making money by pleasing the crowd.   From the start he seemed to know the stuff of stagecraft: how to make a scene, how to get a character on and off stage. From early on, he seemed to show a knack for poetry and the craft of dramatic writing--he got much better at it as he got older.   He seems to have had a natural ear and there is no doubt he was a great responder: to his sources (Holinshead, North, Montaigne) but also to his ragged, raucous but enthusiastic audience.

In short, the last guy you'd expect to find hanging around the library.  He didn't bother with the things he didn't bother with.  Had he been a "university wit" (as the misunderstanders said he must have been), he would have been a more disciplined, fastidious and duller writer (I read this somewhere--Jonathan Bate?).

In short, the last guy in the world to sit around annotating a dictionary.  Shakespeare was, in short, not a consumer of dictionaries but a generator of them.  He certainly sopped up words but more than that he improvised and created them.   Had he constrained himself to run off to the authorities in time of trouble, he would have missed out on the electric urgency that gives him so much of his appeal.

I see the folks at Folger share my skepticism.  Good on them, and tell them Buce said so.

Afterthought:  My goodbuddy Carlton reminds me that there was a stir a while back about Shakespeare's Bible.  No, wait, Edward DeVere's Bible--he being, of course, the true author of the plays that the bumpkin never could have composed on his own (snark)  Haven't heard much of that one lately, I'd say. 

Fn:  Happy 350th 450th (heh!), Will.  It's tomorrow, isn't it? Oh, you say we don't know that one either?

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Reasonable Stalin

HG Wells' interview with Joseph Stalin, lately rescusitated by the New Statesman is a delight in many ways, not all of them predictable.  We have Wells' callow, self-admiring pomposity, like a giant gaseous Lieutenant Fuzz--no surprise there, but it's an amusing nostalgia trip.  What is perhaps surprising--startling to me--is Stalin.  He sounds reasonable. Not just reasonable but as well-informed as you might have been entitled to expect from any contemporaneous leader.  Also with a sense of history remarkable in a former bank robber and seminary dropout.

Read that again:  I didn't say he was reasonable; only that he seemed so, to a reader informed 80 plus years and so much savage bloodshed.  I really don't know quite what to make of all this.  One's first thought is that must be some sort of boy-Stalin: a bit bluff and perhaps unwilling to suffer fools (or at least one fool) gladly--perhaps the kind of guy who could mousetrap those who underrated him, not yet a paranoid monster and madman.
But this can't be right: we know now that Stalin was already well into the great terror-famine that Robert Conquest so damningly documented in Harvest of Sorrow. --and which Walter Duranty worked so hard to conceal from the readers of the New York Times.  So we know that Stalin already possessed the barbarity necessary to execute a program of mass murder but also the duplicity necessary to put a benign face on it.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Can't Anybody Play This Game?

I read Rick Perlstein's Goldwater book a few years back with pleasure and profit.  I picked up a copy of Nixonland but it has been languishing on the shelf.  Seeing that he has another on the way, I figured it was time I played catchup.

Short take: I'm sorry I waited. It's superb.    Perlstein has Nixon's number.  Which is to say, he captures not only the subject;s own creepy-crawly self-pitying, vindictive, resentful self, but he puts him into the context of his times: Nixon with his base.   Perlstein shows--I wouldn't say exactly how Nixon and his base "created" each other, because they were both fully formed when they met. Perhaps better to say "discovered" each other and nurtured each other's grievances into a political revolution.

Perlstein tells me a lot of things I had forgotten, or perhaps never knew (and some I would be glad to forget) about Nixon and his history: how he was the only marquee Republican who actually campaigned for Goldwater in '64; how the CEO of Pepsi muscled Nixon into his interim job at (what had been) Mudge, Rose, Guthrie and Alexander that sort of thing. Re "the base" in particular:  The Reagan fanbase (to draw a contrast) is well remembered, partly because they're still with us, and they love to talk about it.  Nixon's--I think we may have forgotten that Nixon didn't do it on his own. He had his own cadres, playing out their own game--not perhaps with the Reaganite buoyancy but with a sullen kind of devotion that stayed with him to the end.

Perlstein is also first-rate in showing how skilfully Nixon wrong-footed his adversaries--not Kennedy, of course (whom Nixon seems in a way to have admired).   But the comfortable and (dare one say) clueless Democratic establishment who were just never able to get it straight in their mind what Nixon was, nor the depth of the currents that he excited.

I want to extend the point, but I need to go forward carefully. I want to say something about our own times, but I want not to be read as saying "it's all just the same."  It's not the same and to pretend that it is would be to sacrifice indispensable nuance.  But there are lots of echoes: we certainly have an army of the insulted and the injured--some really so, some in their mind's eye, some perhaps both. And we have--perhaps this is where I was heading--we still have that barrier of incomprehension. Also, not to put too fine a point on it, those legions of the serious and the well-intentioned who 
still can't get their mind round reality of the legions of the resentful.

So it is we've come up with that parade of appalling mediocrities who have carried the banner in so many Presidential campaigns.  Yes, yes, they too are serious and well-intentioned--Kerry, Gore, Mondale, Carter, the little guy in the tank and of course.the great Adlai himself, once the very cynosure of liberalism, yet now (for anybody under, say, 60) almost as forgotten as Alton B. Parker himself (oh, Google it).  [

It's a selective list.  I don't know quite what to do with Hubert H. Humphrey (but who he?).  Clinton is almost everybody's special case, but he did have the capacity to connect so lacking in almost all the others. Kennedy and Johnson--for all their differences, I'd say they held in common the kind of toughness and meanness so lacking in so many of the others.  Indeed I've often thought it was precisely because of this toughness and meanness that they almost get a bye from their Republican adversaries--the adversaries who hold so much of the rest of the list in such contempt.

Still at the risk of oversimplifying, it's a shame to see the old resentments still there in the baggage. And it's even more dismaying that we don't seem to have figured out any better way to respond to them.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Ingham's The Nature of Money

Geoffrey Ingham, The Nature of Money,  I think this is a remarkable book.  I'm a little out of my depth here (and actually, I haven't finished it) but it's the most useful thing I ever read on the topic.  Put narrowly, it is just what its title says it is: an attempt to probe beneath the surface of a subject so manifestly cloaked in opacity.  It's written by a non-economist, which is good.  It's written by a self-admitted sociologist* which is better.  And perhaps even more remarkable: non-economist academics who stray into the field often stumble into a bog of abstract fulmination which suggests that after all, they really don't know much of what they are talking about.  Ingham by contrast sounds like a sociologist who has been locked up with economists for a decade or so and lived to tell about it (from what I read somewhere, I think this last guess is more or less correct, but I can't put my finger on the source just now).

You don't read many pages of Ingham without thinking that this is the kind of book that David Graeber thought he was writing, or perhaps should have written.  It isn't really; Graeber is must much more scattershot richer in detail, far more intent upon testifying to his disaffection with the current system.    I don't remember Graeber citing Ingham, but god bless Kindle search, it takes just a moment to determine that--there he is, some 15-plus citations text and footnotes together.  It's none too few: I can hardly accuse Graeber of ripping off Ingham but on the whole I'd say the most arresting and/or engaging parts of Graber's book are the parts he gets from Ingham.  I see that Ingham reviews Graeber here; I  haven't read beyond the ungated first page. But I see he wants to  "focus particularly on what I take to be the underlying threads--his analysis of the nature of money, its relationship to debt, and the moral basis of economic life."  Exactly. Although actually I haven't seen that much in Ingham yet about "the moral basis of economic life;" but as I say, I'm not finished.

Continuing what I guess you could call this chartalist bent, I've lain my hands on a copy of Keynes' Treatise on Money.  Eeuw, do I really need to read all of it?
*Did I just compliment a sociologist on his writing style?  Yes, I believe I did.

And BTW:  Pardon the even-more-than-usual array of typos.  I should not blog after 9 pm.  Or wear white after Labor Day.

One More: One hundred and seven dollars? You gotta be kidding.

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?).