Sunday, November 30, 2008

More Debunking of Amity Shlaes

Ms. Shlaes' name was brought up on This Week this morning by Torie Clarke, one of the "roundtable" chatterboxes. Clarke urgently advised us to read Shlaes' book on the Great Depression lest we get too excited by the prospect of using government spending as a way to attack the current crisis.

Here's another attempt by Eric Rauchway to explain the flaws in Shlaes' work.

My Review of the Latest Bond Film


It doesn't have to be good to be good.

Nice Primer on Keynesian Economics

If "Keynesian economics" represents for you a vague notion of deficit spending and "monetarism" conjures Milton Friedman's smiling face on the paperback edition of Free To Choose, here's a good recap of some key aspects of each. It comes from Greg Mankiw, a professor of economics at Harvard, and as a former adviser to W, one who presumably has a favorable disposition to free markets.

Professor Mankiw summarizes Keynes on the causes of a recession:

According to Keynes, the root cause of economic downturns is insufficient aggregate demand. When the total demand for goods and services declines, businesses throughout the economy see their sales fall off. Lower sales induce firms to cut back production and to lay off workers. Rising unemployment and declining profits further depress demand, leading to a feedback loop with a very unhappy ending.

Since economists traditionally identify only four sources of demand - consumption, investment, net exports and government purchases - and since economic forces in a recession are working to depress the first three, Keynes famously called for increasing government spending in order to return a sluggish economy to health.

In contrast, Mankiw explains that monetarists react to downturns by lowering interest rates:

In normal times, the Fed can bolster aggregate demand by reducing interest rates. Lower interest rates encourage households and companies to borrow and spend. They also bolster equity values and, by encouraging international capital to look elsewhere, reduce the value of the dollar in foreign-exchange markets. Spending on consumption, investment and net exports all increase.
However, with interest rates already close to zero, the main tool of monetarism is inadequate for stimulating demand in the current crisis and the case for Keynesian stimulation by government spending comes to the fore.

It thus appears that it is not so much Keynesianism vs. monetarism, as it is understanding where the limits of the latter make the former essential.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Claude Lévi-Strauss


Yesterday was the 100th birthday of Claude Lévi-Strauss, the great French anthropologist. My only serious encounter with Lévi-Strauss came in a University of Chicago graduate course in which I read his difficult and fascinating book, The Savage Mind.

I am reminded that this is a book worth rereading. I remember being most struck by what Lévi-Strauss termed the "Neolithic Paradox" - the fact that it was in the supposedly primitive neolithic period that "man's mastery of the great arts of civilization - of pottery, weaving, agriculture, and the domestication of animals - became firmly established." Numerous other treasures abound as well, from the "science of the concrete," to the bricolage of mythical thought, to the surprising notion that the small-scale model might be the "universal type of the work of art."

My to-do list just got a bit longer...

Black Friday Truly Black

James Wolcott blasts the media for their role in inciting the heathenish mobs that stampede retail stores. One such mob, unable to contain its zeal for sale prices, trampled to death a Wal-Mart employee:

If nothing else, it would be nice if CNBC and the other cable networks would at least stop hyping Black Friday as if it were the Super Bowl, grinning and ruminating about it as if it were some durable and endearing national tradition. Quit treating shoppers loaded with merchandise dragging their fat butts across the parking lot as if they were some hardy breed of buffalo hunter heeding the call of the wild.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Economic Theory is Being Rewritten



Paul Krugman recaps the debate between the Keynesians and the monetarists regarding whether or not monetary policy might have caused the Great Depression, arguing that the current crisis proves the monetarists wrong.

The Purpose of the Economy



Here's a long but thought-provoking post from Angry Bear, addressing the difference, which we have ignored, between having a society which serves the needs of the economy and an economy which serves the needs of society.

Angry Bear quotes Sir James Goldsmith at length, from testimony Sir James made before a U.S. Senate committee in 1994 regarding GATT and NAFTA. Rather surprising stuff coming from a billionaire financier and legendary anti-socialist:

We have convinced ourselves that there exists only one valid economic and social model: our own. By attempting to impose it universally, we have exported to almost every corner of the world our diseases: crime, drugs, alcoholism, family breakdown, civil disorder in urban slums, accelerated abuse of the environment and all the other problems that we experience daily.

and:

The economy is a tool to serve us. It is not a demi-god to be served by society.

and a big one:

Senator, when I was young I was taught, as we all were, that if we managed to create extraordinary material prosperity we would solve our problems. And we were brought up in the belief that there was an inevitability of progress: progress of wealth, progress of stability, progress of civilization. Well during the last fifty years, since I've been more or less an adult, we've had the greatest period of economic prosperity, economic growth in history. We have succeeded beyond our wildest dreams...And what has happened? Have we solved our problems? Are our towns more stable? Are our families more stable? Is there less crime, less people in prisons? Less people in--are there more people in permanent and noble employment? What have we done? We have profoundly destabilized our communities. We have done everything that was wrong in social terms; we've deracinated, we've uprooted people from the countrysides, we've shoved them into towns, we haven't given them jobs; we've created ghettoes and underclasses; we've increased crime and drug addiction and family break-down--all this in a period of maximum prosperity. Why? Because we were only interested in economic indices. We forgot that the purpose of the economy is not just to improve the index; it is to improve prosperity along with social stability and social contentment. And GATT is typical of the economic instrument, whose purpose is to increase corporate profits; whose purpose is to increase gross national activity; and whose result will be the destruction of the stability of our society, a continued break-down in family life, a continued increase in crime, impoverishment and all the other ills that we are now suffering.

Radical Proposal for Executive Bonuses



An excerpt from a letter to the editor of the NYT:

I would suggest that the financial crisis has now made it possible for high-ranking executives to participate in the bonus system that most of us have operated under for years.

This real-life bonus system works as follows:

If you do your job well, your bonus is that you keep your job.

If you muddle through your tasks, your bonus is that you get demoted.

If you do your job poorly, your bonus is that you are shown the door.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Does Your Head Hurt Yet?



Another breakdown of the bailout, this one calculated at $7.4 trillion.

Another Approach to the Bailout


Intriguing:

So... if the goal is to stimulate production and/or consumption, why not cut out the unnecessary layers of exorbitant expense? I'm not sure I see the reason for bailing out car companies, but say that was the goal for some reason. In that case, the government could simply buy a $20K car for every single American, every single one, and spend less than the $7 trillion that's been committed so far. That's well over 30 times as many cars as GM made last year. Worldwide. You could bet the car companies would tool up for this, and it would employ a lot of people, and it would stimulate the economy. Additionally, we'd all have another car thrown in. Sure, it might be a GM vehicle, but its still something, which is more than the nothing we're gonna get from pumping it into the Goldman, Welfare, Queen & Sachs black hole. Heck, it doesn't have to be cars - the gubmint could simply commit to spending $20,000 on something, anything each of us picks. You could take your 20 G and spend it on a menu of American made options.

Preposterous, you say? Inflationary, you say? Jingoistic, you say? Sure, I say. Its a stupid idea and I don't like it all. But I think its a much better idea than the current bail-out approach, which I think is worse than taking (for now) $7 trillion and setting it on fire. Giving the money to the likes of Henry Paulson's former employer is simply rewarding bad behavior and sending the wrong message, not to mention preposterous, inflationary, and jingoistic.

Bailout Cost (So Far...)

Some unbelievable numbers from a site accessed via David Seaton (whose blog, by the way, is a great antidote anytime you fear you might be swooning a bit too much for Obama):

If we add in the Citi bailout, the total cost now exceeds $4.6165 trillion dollars. People have a hard time conceptualizing very large numbers, so let’s give this some context. The current Credit Crisis bailout is now the largest outlay In American history.

Jim Bianco of Bianco Research crunched the inflation adjusted numbers. The bailout has cost more than all of these big budget government expenditures – combined:

Marshall Plan: Cost: $12.7 billion, Inflation Adjusted Cost: $115.3 billion
Louisiana Purchase: Cost: $15 million, Inflation Adjusted Cost: $217 billion
Race to the Moon: Cost: $36.4 billion, Inflation Adjusted Cost: $237 billion
S&L Crisis: Cost: $153 billion, Inflation Adjusted Cost: $256 billion
Korean War: Cost: $54 billion, Inflation Adjusted Cost: $454 billion
The New Deal: Cost: $32 billion (Est), Inflation Adjusted Cost: $500 billion (Est)
Invasion of Iraq: Cost: $551b, Inflation Adjusted Cost: $597 billion
Vietnam War: Cost: $111 billion, Inflation Adjusted Cost: $698 billion
NASA: Cost: $416.7 billion, Inflation Adjusted Cost: $851.2 billion

TOTAL: $3.92 trillion

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Tom Friedman Broods

Tom Friedman is like the kid in grade school who eggs on his classmates to engage in some type of naughtiness, tells the teacher when they do, and then beams with pride while she pats his head.

These days he's not so much scolding everyone about the Iraq War (for which he was a principal cheerleader) as he is about the unintended consequences of another of his glorious visions, globalization, and the havoc it has wrought on the world financial system. A commentator to his latest column says shame on him:

But... but... but... The World is Flat! These are the financial geniuses who were beating our olive trees into Lexuses! A wise man wrote books about how financial engineering was making it a brave new world, and anyone who clung to stodgy concepts like regulation and protecting workers was for fools. But maybe the guy who wrote those books was the fool, eh? I don't think we'll see him admit it, though.

— Bukko in Australia, Melbourne, Victoria

Should Bank Execs Give Up Their Christmas Bonuses?

Barbara Walters tries to get Obama to shed a tear, but does little more than reveal her own class prejudice. Obama replies as would anyone with common sense.
WALTERS: Should bank executives -- it's almost Christmas time -- forgo their bonuses?

OBAMA: I think they should. That's an example of taking responsibility. I think that if you are already worth tens of millions of dollars, and you are having to lay off workers, the least you can do is say, I'm willing to make some sacrifice as well, because I recognize that there are people who are a lot less well off, who are going through some pretty tough times.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Texas Flood

Stevie Ray Vaughan shows off:

Small Blue Thing

Tune in to Bruce Schneier

I've subscribed to Bruce Schneier's blog for a number of months now. Although many of his posts probably appeal more to security specialists, others are quite provocative and meaningful for the layperson. This one is an example of the latter, addressing the death by technology of ephemeral conversation.

The problem:

Conversation used to be ephemeral. Whether face-to-face or by phone, we could be reasonably sure that what we said disappeared as soon as we said it. Organized crime bosses worried about phone taps and room bugs, but that was the exception. Privacy was just assumed.

This has changed. We chat in e-mail, over SMS and IM, and on social networking websites like Facebook, MySpace, and LiveJournal. We blog and we Twitter. These conversations -- with friends, lovers, colleagues, members of our cabinet -- are not ephemeral; they leave their own electronic trails.


Schneier's remedy:

But as technology makes our conversations less ephemeral, we need laws to step in and safeguard ephemeral conversation. We need a comprehensive data privacy law, protecting our data and communications regardless of where it is stored or how it is processed. We need laws forcing companies to keep it private and delete it as soon as it is no longer needed. Laws requiring ISPs to store e-mails and other personal communications are exactly what we don't need.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Wall Street Entitlement

Monday on the NewsHour, Jim Lehrer interviewed Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research and Robert Glauber, currently at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and formerly CEO of the National Association of Securities Dealers.

After a chat about Obama's newly named economic team, the discussion turned to the Citigroup bailout. Both guests agreed that Citi was "too big to fail," but Baker questioned the deal the government made, pointing out that although the $20 billion put on the table was virtually enough to purchase Citi outright at its current market value, the government had settled for considerably less. He wryly noted that Warren Buffet had been able to negotiate a much better deal for himself when he came to the aid of the much stronger Goldman Sachs. Furthermore, Baker warned that if Citi's management, rather than being fired for ruining the company, remains comfortably in place, it will become the very embodiment of "moral hazard."

Glauber immediately countered the crazy notion that management should be held accountable, arguing that it would "misplaced" to axe Citi's CEO, Vikram Pandit, since Mr. Pandit was not at Citi when most of the decisions were taken that ultimately led to the firm's meltdown. Thus, Pandit, who got $216 million just for taking the job, is in no way accountable for the $10.4 billion his company lost in the first nine months of his tenure, nor for the 88% decline in its stock price. Nice work if you can get it.

Glauber went on to dismiss concerns about the terms of the deal, explaining that the government's role is not to maximize value for the taxpayer in hard measures like ROI, but rather to provide the softer comfort of "stability to the financial markets."

Lehrer then turned the discussion to the hapless auto makers, asking Baker to comment on the irony that huge bailouts for financial firms can be put together over a weekend, whereas the government is much stingier about helping the Big Three. Baker agreed that a double standard prevails, observing with wonder that many resent the $57,000 pay of an auto worker and yet seem untroubled by payments of millions of dollars to bank executives who run their firms into the ground.

Lauber did not directly address the compensation issue, and instead fumbled to reiterate that well, Citigroup, being at the "center of the financial system," is simply too important to fail. The auto industry, on the other hand, while very important, must present a "viable plan" to justify its aid or the government would simply be throwing good money after bad. He conceded that this plan will probably involve "some cuts in the wages of the people that work for them [the Big Three]."

For he that hath, to him shall be given: and he that hath not, from him shall be taken even that which he hath.

More Peter Schiff

The man who's been right about everything continues to be bearish. Long gold, short the dollar.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Pragmatism Will Equate to Liberalism

Regardless of whether you think this is a center-right or a center-left country, events are pulling the center leftward, at least in terms of economic policy. If there are no atheists in foxholes, there are no laissez-faire capitalists in a depression.

It's only socialism if the government is giving money to the other guy.

Obama Told Us He'd Hire Hillary

OK, so maybe not everyone is thrilled that Obama is going to bring on Hillary as Secretary of State. But we were warned:

Citigroup

Some pearls from today's New York Times article:
The bank’s downfall was years in the making and involved many in its hierarchy, particularly Mr. Prince and Robert E. Rubin, an influential director and senior adviser.

...
When he was Treasury secretary during the Clinton administration, Mr. Rubin helped loosen Depression-era banking regulations that made the creation of Citigroup possible by allowing banks to expand far beyond their traditional role as lenders and permitting them to profit from a variety of financial activities. During the same period he helped beat back tighter oversight of exotic financial products, a development he had previously said he was helpless to prevent.

...
To make matters worse, Citigroup’s risk models never accounted for the possibility of a national housing downturn, this person said, and the prospect that millions of homeowners could default on their mortgages.

....
In fact, when examiners from the Securities and Exchange Commission began scrutinizing Citigroup’s subprime mortgage holdings after Bear Stearns’s problems surfaced, the bank told them that the probability of those mortgages defaulting was so tiny that they excluded them from their risk analysis, according to a person briefed on the discussion who would speak only without being named.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Better Background and Camera Angle

You have to admit this guy's a quick study. Just look how quickly he abandoned the drab paneling and uncomfortable close-up.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Bailing Out the Auto Industry

The most incongruous decision I ever made was to channel my youthful ambition toward a career in the auto industry. At 17, I began working in a GM brake plant as a co-op student enrolled at General Motors Institute (now Kettering University), a school that in all seriousness called itself “the West Point of the automotive industry.” I graduated from GMI five years later with a degree in engineering and then spent another three years with GM before moving on to other things that I would regret in other ways.

Although my tenure in the industry ended long ago, it gave me the benefit of an inside view that colors my perception of the drama that unfolded this week on Capitol Hill. There was little to admire at General Motors, other than its vaunted ability to make money in spite of itself. It was gargantuan, lumbering, and bureaucratic. Its plants were depressing, contentious places - cauldrons of social pathologies. Labyrinthine org charts offered white-collar workers plenty of places to run or hide, depending on their ambition. Union rules made a parody of blue-collar work: Replacement of a switch on a machine required a portfolio of skilled tradesmen; “make-out and quit” standards gave some people the right to stop work three hours into their shift; guys busted for theft or vandalism or worse were protected from disciplinary action. Employees of all types slept on company time, returned from lunch drunk, and milked their straight-time responsibilities to insure plenty of overtime. It was a culture of entitlement that the rest of the country was vigorously admonished to protect by “buying American.”

The insularity of GM’s senior management was astonishing. Executives at my own division, one of dozens in the company backwaters that made parts for the far more prestigious car divisions, were tucked away in a secure corner and usually only seen as herds of expensive suits migrating to and from the executive dining room. Despite the status they enjoyed among the provincials, they didn’t attract much notice by the nobles at court in Detroit. Our general manager didn’t even rate one of the countless vice-presidencies that represented the pinnacle of corporate success (the President and Chairman being living deities whose jobs were beyond imagining). When a bona fide vice-president would pay a visit, as happened every year or two, it would be preceded by a flurry of cleaning and painting in every department, just on the odd chance that his Lord might stroll past on a tour and deign to watch a machine and ask a learned question or two.

With my background I probably should not have been surprised at the curious spectacle of three men arriving in Washington on $30 million corporate jets to pick up a welfare check. But surprised I was, if only at the apparent absence of image consultants in their entourages. As to the substance of their pleas, my reflexive reaction was one of schadenfreude: Let ‘em sink in their own stink. These staggering giants don’t deserve a bailout and giving them charity would be like giving a twenty to a street-corner drunk.

In the past couple of days, however, my initial views have given way to the sobering realization that this bailout is not about an industry, it’s about the country. With deflation and depression looming ominously, allowing one or more of the Big Three to collapse would risk a devastating chain reaction. We have no choice but to view the bailout as part of a larger Keynesian stimulus package designed to arrest our economy’s decline and to reorient it in a sustainable direction.

We can only insist that our money not serve simply to prop up dying firms comfortable in their roles as laggards and obstructionists. Oil-based transportation is a long-term loser, so the bailout should be a first step to spur us on to something new.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

He Sure Ain't Bush

Here's a video message sent to the Global Climate Summit. It's going to take me a bit to get used to this sort of thing, but the adjustment is going to be a lot of fun.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Big News From the World of Finance

No Bonuses for Top Executives at UBS

Gems From This Month's Harper's Index

  • Percentage by which the $750 billion bailout exceeds the total U.S. GDP of a century ago, adjusted for inflation: 50
  • Percentage by which it exceeds the cost of the entire New Deal: 33
  • Factor by which it exceeds the cost of the 1990 savings-and-loan bailout: 3
(Source: Harpers' Magazine, December 2008)

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Where Less is More

Although the dance remix that came out a few years later got far more airplay and probably sold a lot more records, I will always favor the delicate purity of Suzanne Vega's original a cappella version of "Tom's Diner."

Intense Cool

Miles Davis and John Coltrane doing "So What."

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Track Star

Couldn't resist posting for posterity this clip of my son qualifying for the city championships last spring in the 800 meter run.

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

I don't understand exactly why I've long had a special affection for this poem. I discovered it many years ago in a book of Eliot's that my father had acquired for a night school class when I was a young boy. That book and this poem first served as a reference for me in high school, when I needed a poem to interpret for a literature class. I remember laughing and rolling my eyes with a friend as we hooted at the lines: "Should I, after tea and cakes and ices/Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?" and "I grow old...I grow old.../I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled."

On a good day, I can recite the entire poem by heart, a pleasant exercise on a morning bike ride. I'm convinced its appeal is strictly aesthetic, as I could offer you no "interpretation" and wouldn't hazard any sort of critical analysis for fear it would destroy it for me. It did inspire me once, however, to use it as a model for a rather feeble and futile protest of W's signature folly.

Here is a reading of the poem by Eliot himself, following a brief pitch for you to buy a Lexus:

Friday, November 14, 2008

While We're Celebrating Chicago Things

Kurt Elling electrified my wife and me when we saw him a year ago in Millenium Park.

Absolutely Priceless

Another one courtesy of Andrew Sullivan.

A brief retrospective of Peter Schiff doing battle with the inveterate shills of Wall Street and Fox News:

The Times, They Are A-Changin'

Twenty years ago communism collapsed with little apparent warning, in the process destroying the political, intellectual, and economic paradigms of generations. In a flash, one of the world’s two superpowers disintegrated. In a flash, the Iron Curtain rusted away and the geopolitical map was radically remade. In a flash, the intellectual counterbalance to free-market capitalism fell completely off the scale. Communism as a political system, communism as an economic system, communism as an intellectual framework, communism as a world power, was bankrupted, discredited, repudiated, and exposed as a fraud.

Twenty years on and suddenly it is we - the triumphant victors of last century’s epic struggle of the “isms”- who watch in horror as our economy fails in spectacular fashion. And make no mistake: We are witnesses not merely to a deflated real estate bubble or to Wall Street excess or to the unintended consequences of derivative financial instruments, but to an unfolding systemic failure resulting from what Wendell Berry calls our “credo of limitlessness:”

In keeping with our unrestrained consumptiveness, the commonly accepted basis of our economy is the supposed possibility of limitless growth, limitless wants, limitless wealth, limitless natural resources, limitless energy, and limitless debt. ("Faustian Economics: Hell Hath No Limits," Harper's, May 2008)


The implications of the present crisis remain lost on most observers, particularly the chatterboxes bickering over whether we are a center-right or center-left nation. Capitalism, as we have come to know and mythologize it, is dying as surely as communism died – from sheer unsustainability. Consider the evidence:

  • A culture of deregulation and laissez-faire not only permitted, but encouraged the creation of mortgage-backed securities that although poisoned with mortgages made to high-risk borrowers, were rated AAA investments by corrupt rating agencies. To mitigate the risk of these securities, a $60 trillion market developed for insurance contracts that were not called insurance contracts and therefore were not backed by appropriate capital reserves. All these “investments” were apparently bought and sold with the assumption that home values could only go up. Thus, complicated instruments devised by physicists using advanced math and high-horsepower computing were rendered “toxic” and nearly brought down the entire world economy because they ignored the law of supply and demand.
  • The government has intervened to prop up banks and insurance companies in a desperate attempt to stave off financial Armageddon. The initial sum pledged of $700 billion (which at this writing seems likely to be far from the eventual tally) exceeds what we spend on our gargantuan military and is nearly a fourth of the entire federal budget. Call it socialism, call it welfare, this astonishing act ridicules our professed faith in free markets.
  • The investment banking industry, the storied flagship of American finance, has completely disappeared.
  • The automotive industry, an iconic mainstay of our economy for a century, teeters on the brink of collapse, government welfare its only hope for survival. The cause of its collapse is its failure to plan for a rise in the price of a diminishing non-renewable resource largely obtained from volatile regions controlled by our enemies.
  • The institution of a comfortable paid retirement, long thought of as the just deserts for a suitable tenure in the workforce, has suddenly become a mirage for many, most noticeably the large generation of baby boomers whose imminent retirements have been threatened or indefinitely postponed by tanking markets.
  • Iceland, a first-world nation long possessed of enviable economic and social stability, has been ruined, its economy effectively wrecked by a decline in the American housing market.
  • The doctrine of globalization, under which countries were advised to abandon all economic activities except those that offered them a comparative advantage, has resulted in nations that can no longer feed themselves nor afford to provide their people with food grown by others.
  • The health of the global economy has come to depend on the insatiable consumption of the American consumer. Since American incomes have not risen to match the imperative of ever-increasing consumer spending, ballooning debt has financed our expenditures. The bubble has finally and cruelly burst. With credit now tight and incomes threatening to spiral downward, the engine of global economic growth has been thrown into reverse.
  • In the race for ever more of everything, the world’s arable land has been decreasing at an alarming pace in order to make room for subdivisions, big-box retailers, and other “developments.” This madness has occurred at the same time world population has been growing, justified by a naïve faith that technology (currently exemplified by the petrochemicals that make industrial agriculture possible) will somehow find a way to compensate.
  • The largely unrecognized foundation on which the entire “growth” economy exists is cheap energy, particularly cheap liquid fuels. Without cheap energy virtually every feature of modern life would cease to exist, from car-based suburbs, to global supply chains, to air travel, to strawberries in February. Yet the evidence is mounting that the era of cheap energy has ended, notwithstanding the recent dramatic drop in oil prices (what James Howard Kunstler refers to as the great “fakeout”).
  • The very world in which we live has been imperiled to a frightening degree. Global warming, shrinking biodiversity, widespread monocultures, etc. are evidence that we are playing roulette with our very survival as a species.

In short, our society is undergoing a tectonic shift. If history is any guide, we can be sure that too few will recognize what is happening and appreciate its significance until too late. Tragically, this applies not only to the commentariat, but also to the technocrats and political leaders who develop and implement our policies.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Wilmington, Ohio

The message is plain enough, and we have ignored it for too long; the great, centralized economic entities of our time do not come into rural places in order to improve them by "creating jobs." They come to take as much value as they can take, as cheaply and quickly as they can take it.
-Wendell Berry, Another Turn of the Crank

DHL's closure of its hub in Wilmington will cost 7000 jobs in a community of 12,000. The hub was built in 2005 "with the help of a $400 million state and local incentive package."

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Lest We Ever Forget

Courtesy of my friend Joel, here's a comprehensive video history of the build-up to the Iraq War, featuring all my favorite Bush administration liars and fear mongers.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

President of All, Commander-in-Chief for Some

Perhaps Obama will correct the notion that as President, he is our Commander-in-Chief. The President is Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces of this country. Those of us not in uniform do not have commanders of any sort.

The New Deal and the Great Depression

Financial commentators cannot go five minutes without reminding us that the current financial crisis is the worst since the Great Depression, so as we anxiously await the Obama team to parachute into Washington, it rather behooves us to consider the extent to which the Great Depression and FDR's response to it are valid models for our present predicament.

In recent weeks, I've seen and heard the economic journalist Amity Shlaes interviewed on several occasions (including on the NewsHour and The Daily Show) to discuss her book on the Great Depression, The Forgotten Man. I had never heard of Amity Shlaes but after listening to her explanations of FDR's foibles and of the danger when the government "does too much," I wasn't surprised to learn that she was once a member of the WSJ's editorial board.

It appears that her sudden ubiquitous presence in the national media is irritating some of the folks I turn to for economic insight. Eric Rauchway takes her to task for distorting Roosevelt's record, following up on his review of her book. Angry Bear blasts her for disseminating Republican propaganda. And Paul Krugman expands the critique to include FDR-haters at-large.

Disappearing Honey Bees

An article flagged by Andrew Sullivan that discusses the causes and effects of the dramatically declining honey bee population.

The situation:
Colony Collapse Disorder first showed up in the fall of 2006, though there were a few signs of it in 2005. Honeybee populations, which had been slowly declining for decades, suddenly fell off a cliff. 31 percent of America’s honeybees died that winter, and another 36 percent died last winter.

The risk to our food supply:
More than 100 crops, about a third of the calories we eat, require cross-pollination by honeybees. The grain staples such as corn, rice, and oats are wind-pollinated, but most of the stuff that adds color to our plates and vitamins and antioxidants to our diets—apples, pears, blueberries, cherries, raspberries, plums, melons, cucumbers, zucchini, almonds, macadamia nuts, and so on—would disappear. Plants like lettuce, carrots, broccoli, and onions, which don’t make edible fruits but need to make seeds for next year’s supply, also rely on bees. Bees also cross-pollinate the forage crops, like alfalfa and clover, that are vital to many dairying and beef cattle operations. And don’t forget honey, of course.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Tower of Song

"I said to Hank Williams, 'How lonely does it get?' Hank Williams hasn't answered yet."

Admirable Ones - John Coltrane

For many years, I did not understand the fuss about Coltrane. One of the pleasures of getting older is the growth of understanding.

Admirable Ones - Vladimir Nabokov

Nabokov spoils one's taste for mortal writers.

Admirable Ones - Wendell Berry

One day this poet and Kentucky farmer will be the object of essays written by schoolchildren.



Admirable Ones - Sir Georg Solti

Maestro:

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

My Take on the Election

I think you would have to be made of wood not to have been affected by last night's results. Even though Obama's win was largely expected and as the evening went on, clearly inevitable, there was something electrifying and moving about the official announcement of his victory. The elated reactions of people throughout the country and around the world were spontaneous, genuine, and overpowering, akin to the jubilation one typically only sees expressed by the winners of epic sporting events.

For blacks, there was obviously special significance in the election of a black man to the highest office in the land and the most powerful position in the world. They are justifiably proud and amazed at this event and I think all of us can celebrate the progress it represents and the hope it offers that a crippling blow has been struck against the plague of racial prejudice. But I am dismayed by the narrative that has taken hold in the media in which Obama's election is viewed first and foremost as a milestone of racial progress. Yes, the racial aspect of Obama's victory is important. But it is, in my view, a footnote to something broader and more profound.

Last night's cathartic outpouring of joy and goodwill came primarily because Americans are preternaturally optimistic people, famously unwilling to accept life as a tragic enterprise. The past eight years have put the squeeze on our optimism as first we endured the shock of an attack on our shores and then struggled with how to respond. We found ourselves lead into wars and then forced to confront both the barbarism that war engenders and the challenges that a siege mentality presents to the liberties we claim to hold dear. We saw the trendline of our political discourse - already dropping as a result of the contentiousness of the Clinton years - accelerate sharply downward, resulting in a bitter and poisonous climate in which we became dangerously balkanized into irreconcilable shades of red and blue. Our differences were exacerbated, in my view, by an administration that found it politically expedient to amplify them by fanning the flames of fear.

In the midst of the political tensions and ill will spawned by the "war on terror," we experienced the emergence of problems of unprecedented scope that seemed not only to threaten our way of life, if not our very survival itself, but to elude any conceivable political solution: intractable wars, global warming, rising inequity, increasing economic anxiety, skyrocketing health costs, decaying infrastructure, porous borders, etc., etc. It all combined to coat our core optimism with a thick shellac of pessimism and to make us angry, bitter, and cynical.

In the midst of this came the long agony of the Presidential campaign, during which we were constantly subjected to the exasperating superficiality of the he said/she said, who's up/who's down trivia that passes as informed political coverage. Honorable people suffered the ritual humiliation to which we subject citizens who aspire to public office and our serious social and political problems were reduced to disingenuous slogans and distorted caricatures. As the campaign approached its denouement, we were treated to the disgusting spectacle of McCarthyite labeling and character assassinations at the very same time that the tidal wave of the financial crisis threatened to plunge us into another Great Depression.

Thus as election day came, we were a people sorely in need of a jolt of positive energy. Mercifully, the result was clear and decisive - no stupid hanging chads or Supreme Court refereeing, no suspicions of vote fraud or conspiracies. Suddenly, the full realization hit that an ugly and divisive chapter had come to a close and America's suppressed optimism burst forth in a collective spasm. We suddenly saw Obama as what he is - a young and immensely talented man who perfectly represents the classic American success story; a politician who won by appealing to our hopes and not our fears; a man who despite his clear mandate, reached out immediately to those who did not vote for him; a President whose election sent shock waves around the world, reassuring friends and foes that America remains a place where amazing things are possible. This was bigger than a landmark in racial relations, bigger than a mere swing of the political pendulum, and bigger than the passing of the torch to a new generation. It was reassurance that democracy can still work and that the ideals that we so often and hypocritically betray can still find expression in special ways.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

What Jackie Kennedy Must Have Meant to the French

Madame Sarkozy:

Twenty-five Reasons Why I Will Vote for Barack Obama


  1. Because he is my age and I can measure his worldview by my own.

  2. Because he neither fought in Vietnam nor in the streets against Vietnam and at long last, it is time we exorcise the ghost of Vietnam.

  3. Because he struggled to come to terms with religion and still struggles to come to terms with religion and I don't trust those who have never struggled to come to terms with religion.

  4. Because he is more intelligent than I, as a President should be.

  5. Because he went to Harvard on his merits and not, like the current occupant of the White House, because of affirmative action.

  6. Because he is black and he is white and he understands the prejudices of each.

  7. Because he used his Harvard Law degree to help people, not corporations.

  8. Because he not only reads books, he writes them - himself.

  9. Because he is neither warrior nor business tycoon and we need to get over the false belief that either makes a good President.

  10. Because he appeals to hope and I do not care if some people prefer fear.

  11. Because he comes from Hawaii, an exotic state that is not steeped in the prejudices of the Deep South, nor the hubris of Texas, nor the false modesty of the Midwest, nor the blue blood of the East Coast, nor the machismo of Alaska, nor the self-importance of California.

  12. Because he adopted Chicago as his home, as did I.

  13. Because he lost an election to Bobby Rush, a former sixties radical, and therefore learned that there are times when a mature man might have to interact with a former sixties radical.

  14. Because he does not try to claim that Sarah Palin is against dental care for kids because she is a hockey mom and many hockey players lose teeth.

  15. Because he has not stooped to question McCain's associations with G. Gordon Liddy or Charles Keating, both convicted felons.

  16. Because his association with Reverend Jeremiah Wright brings discomfort to people who are comfortable with Pat Robertson and I am glad they now feel what I have long felt.

  17. Because he is cool and smooth and unflappable, qualities that will serve us well in the tough times ahead.

  18. Because unlike Bush, he can pronounce the name of Iran's president, and unlike Palin, he could do so without requiring a tutor.

  19. Because his father was not a President, nor an admiral.
  20. Because he was neither born into money nor married into it.

  21. Because I love the irony by which a black-skinned man born of modest means and raised in a broken, multi-racial family can be accused of elitism by those suckered into believing that the prodigal son of a long line of Yankee blue-bloods is "just folks."

  22. Because even if he is not a Muslim, I wish he were, since it would be nice to have a President who could betray the principles of a different religion for a change.

  23. Because it amuses me to see people foam at the mouth at the "socialism" of returning the top marginal tax rate to 39% but not at the "socialism" of spreading their wealth to undeserving banks and auto companies.

  24. Because it amuses me that after seeing him vetted and tested before their very eyes over two years, people still do not trust him, but trust instead emails that show up in their inboxes from unknown sources.

  25. Because he is skinny whereas the world thinks of Americans as fat; he is black whereas the world thinks of Americans as white; he is smart whereas the world thinks of Americans as dumb; he is calm and reserved whereas the world thinks of Americans as loud braggarts. His very being will confound the world and upset its preconceptions of our country, as well as our own.