Monday, December 30, 2013

Our Suicidal Christmas Road Trip

[This Post has been Modified to Remove Personal Information]

Not fear but loathing made us do it.  Loathing of taxi rides, being herded through long lines, demeaned  to take off shoes and belt, scanned with empty pockets, only to learn that the passenger next to you paid a fraction of the $1,300 fare being asked to fly two of us for two hours to Vancouver, scrunched like stressed chickens on the factory farm. That, and the allure of a road trip.

The Books

We did not exactly take our lives into our hands by embarking on this trip.  The entire West Coast was blessed with unseasonably sunny weather.  We encountered no rain, no ice, no snow; the new chains purchased for the trip went unused. On the way we finished two books on tape:  "Mrs. Dallowayby Virginia Woolfe, and "Ancient Light" by John Banville.  These books are related by their examination of old loves, beautiful language, attention to observed detail, and suicide.

A Theme

In some ways, 2013 has been the year of suicides for me.  I started out in February thinking and writing about David Foster Wallace, one of the most brilliant writers and thinkers of my youngest sister's (my?) generation.  Born in 1962, he struggled with depression throughout his adult life and committed suicide in 2008. His novel Infinite Jest addresses nihilism in the modern world.  Is his preoccupation with nihilism related to his depression, or are these things apart?   In April I reviewed Amy Shearn's novel, The Mermaid of Brooklynwhose protagonist, Jenny Lipkin, overcome by life and depression jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge.  That's the tried and true spot, of course;  "who jumps off the George Washington Bridge?" as the John Goodman character points out in the new Coen brothers film "Inside Llewyn Davis," which also deals with depression and suicide.

Alex, the protagonist in John Banville's Ancient Light is an actor nearing 70 who is still suffering from his daughter's suicide ten years before.  And it's what suicides do, of course: they hurt those who love them best.  Alex's daughter dashed herself on the rocks in Portovenere, on the coast of Liguria in Italy, near the harbor where Shelley drowned.  Alex returns there now with his leading lady who tried to commit suicide with sleeping pills. He has no particular purpose, except, perhaps, vaguely approaching the past.

Virginia Woolfe published Mrs. Dalloway in 1925.  She drowned herself in the river in March, 1941, at age 59, leaving behind a loving note to her husband, very much in control.  She led a productive life and she delayed her fateful decision longer than David Foster Wallace (age 46),  Anne Sexton (age 45),  or Sylvia Plath (age 30).  Based on the evidence of Mrs. Dalloway, Woolfe did not think much of the the profession of psychiatry in her day. She portrayed the two doctors treating Septimus Warren Smith as charlatans and crooks.  They spoke of the problem being a "lack of proper proportion," and they were eager to collect fees and shuffle their patients off to asylums that they owned.

Mrs. Dalloway was sympathetic to Septimus leaping from his window. Speaking in the voice of Virginia Woolfe, of course, Mrs. Dalloway knows what she is talking about.  But we have not always been so tolerant of suicides.

A Short Taxonomy on our Attitudes to Suicide

Plato opposed suicide because he felt it represents an abandonment by the soul of its guard duty in the body assigned by the gods.  He recognized common sense exceptions that would sound reasonable to us. 

The stoics felt suicide was alright if the means to living a naturally flourishing life was not available.  The roman stoic, Seneca, noted that it is the quality of life, not the quantity, that matters.  

Saint Augustine set Christianity's views on suicide on a harsh path; as with so much else, the effect of his views still linger.  He took the fifth commandment (thou shalt not kill) and extended it to killing oneself.  God has given us life as a gift and we don't have the right to determine the duration of our earthly existence, he felt.  The medieval church turned this into a perversion.  They developed the doctrine that suicide nullified human beings' relationship with God.  They applied property law principles:  the use of our body is limited to usus (possession) whereas God retained dominum (authority over the body).  Suicides were denied a Christian burial, their property was forfeit to the Church, and desecration of the body was permitted. 

It took the Enlightenment to loosen the grip of opprobrium. David Hume argued that suicide should be free of any imputation of guilt or blame. Still, Kant continued to cling to the traditional view.  Like Spock (Star Trek), Kant considered suicide "illogical."  He wrote that because the rational will is the source of our moral duty, suicide somehow offends our rationality.  I'm not getting it, but I'm sure there's more to it.  

In the meantime, novelists like Flaubert, Rousseau, and Goethe idealized suicide as a romantic act by misunderstood and anguished souls jilted by love, or misunderstood by society. 

Psychiatry developed doctrines like "melancholia," "hysteria," or "proportions" as disdainfully discussed by Woolfe in Mrs. Dalloway.  Views of depression as a social ill resulting from widespread alienation in modern society, a sign of cultural decline, caused a wave of institutionalization of suicidal persons.  It also contributed to a view of suicide as resulting from impersonal social forces, not from personal autonomy.  

On the other end of the spectrum, existentialists exalted the personal choice. They proffered suicide as a rational response to the meaninglessness of the world and human endeavor.  Camus, portrayed Sisyphus as heroically enduring the absurdity of his task, resisting the urge to succumb to suicide.  Sartre posed suicide as an authentic assertion of human will in the face of absurdity; an opportunity to stake out our understanding of human essence as individuals in a godless world.  [I'm sure it's more sophisticated and less silly than that in French]

Free Will?

That major depression is rooted in the physical qualities of the brain is beyond question.  To that extent, the symptoms of major depression, sadness, lack of interest in things previously enjoyed, distraction, suicidal thoughts, and the rest… are all caused by the illness.  There is no choice, no free will involved with this.  Yet, here is Virginia Woolfe's suicide note: 
I feel certain I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that – everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer.  
I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.
This seems to make it plain that Woolfe, although in the grip of her illness is very much in charge.  She deserves respect for the free choice she has made without opprobrium or regret.

It's a question posed by Michael Gazzuniga in “Who’s in Charge:  Free Will and the Science of the Brain.”  Gazzuniga is a Stanford psychologist who is an expert on split brain studies.  He notes that we  lack a proper vocabulary to relate all the things we’ve learned about the brain and how to properly think about consciousness.  He thinks of consciousness as an emergent property.  Will the mind/body problem be solved this century? We will see. 

In the meantime, I'm a champion of free will.  Whatever went into our decision to drive to Vancouver, instead of flying this Christmas, we are responsible for that decision.  We exercised our free will; it was not pre-determined.  And major depression or no, Septimus in Mrs. Dalloway, Cass, Alex's daughter in Ancient Light, Llewyn Davis's partner in Inside Llewyn Davis, no less than Sexton, Plath, Woolfe, or Wallace deserve our respect for the decision they made.  In the end, the allure of a road trip and the allure of death are not so different.  And, perhaps, it's accepting and coming to peace with the decision his musical partner made by jumping off the wrong bridge that will ultimately set Llewyn Davis free.  

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Fun House Mirror Rule that Changed the Filibuster in the Senate

Today the Senate voted to revise its rules, enabling the Senate to cut off debate on executive and judicial branch nominees with a simple majority.  I think the collegial consensus culture of the Senate has changed to the point where this was overdue.  I think Harry Reid should have done it at the beginning of  Obama's first term when it became clear that obstruction would be the name of the game.

Here's a brief post mortem.

In 1789, the first U.S. Senate adopted rules allowing the Senate to end debate and proceed to a vote. At the time Aaron Burr felt this was redundant, and a few years later the Senate agreed when it did not include a mechanism for ending debate when it rewrote the rules in 1806.  This lack of ability to cut off debate laid the foundation for the use of the filibuster, although it took 31 years before the first filibuster was exercised.

In 1917 the Democratic Senate added a rule allowing for the cloture of debate (ending a filibuster) after a group of 12 anti-war senators blocked a bill that would have allowed President Wilson to arm merchant vessels to combat German submarine warfare. From 1917 to 1975, the requirement for cloture was two-thirds of those voting.   In 1975 the Democratic-controlled Senate amended the rules so three-fifths of the senators sworn (usually 60 senators) could limit debate, except on votes to change Senate rules, which still required two-thirds to invoke cloture.

So with a two-thirds majority requirement for a rule change, how did the Senate manage to change the rule today?

Here's how filibuster expert Gregory Koger explained it to Ezra Klein today:
In a paper I'm writing with Sergio Campos, we lay out five illustrative options for how a majority could work its will. It's not exhaustive, because there are dozens of ways you could do this. What the Democrats did today was our option four. You bring up something, have a cloture vote, and after you lose say, "It takes a simple majority to win this one." We're not the only people who had this idea but we did anticipate this possibility. They had the floor debate on the nominee, and the cloture vote, and then the chair's decision is announced that cloture was not invoked, and Harry Reid raises his objection to the ruling of the chair and says he objects because it only takes a simple majority to invoke cloture on all executive nominations, and all judicial nominations except the Supreme Court. So the "rule" is articulated by the objection he's raising, and the only reason that it [SCOTUS nominations] was carved out is that Harry Reid said so.
Say what ……?

If I understand this right, Koger is saying you only need a majority vote to rule on an objection to a ruling of the chair (Point of Order under Rule XX), and so you can frame whatever you want the new rule to be in your objection.  If the  objection is then sustained by a majority …. voila, you've got your new rule!

Well, at least they are still operating by rules, even if it's fun house mirror rules.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Conversation About Economic Growth with Equity--Manifesto for A New Discussion Group

I mention Brad DeLong a lot around here.  Sometimes it seems like I read nothing else.  I do.  But I find DeLong the most engaging, challenging, and fruitful public intellectual on my radar screen in the area of political and historical macroeconomics.  He is now affiliated with a new venture, a discussion group to keep an eye on.  Washington Center for Equitable Growth.

Here is Brad DeLong's explanation for signing up:
Let me try to bring four things together.
  1.  The coming of the internet has created at least the potential for a much better public-sphere conversation on economic policy than we had a generation ago. .... 
  2. We, as of yet, do not have such a public-sphere conversation. At best, the conversation resembles a soccer game of seven-year-olds--twenty people in a huddle kicking the ball in random directions, with few people playing their positions and focusing on what is truly important.
  3. Over the past generation our politics and policy making has arguably degenerated. It is now clearly inadequate. We no longer (if we ever did) have a bipartisan technocratic center with serious votes committed to economic growth, equal opportunity, and an efficient well-functioning government that can tack left or right as necessary to assemble legislative coalitions to support good governance.           
  4. Where the conversation has been guided, it has been directed in directions that I, at least, think are unhelpful. ... Peter Peterson and company have driven the budgetary conversation to focus on entitlement cuts rather than entitlement right-sizing, right-funding, and right-managing. ....
  5. Taking these things together, it seems to me that it would be a good idea if I signed on to this Washington Center for Equitable Growth, and tried to drive the conversation to what is important.  
My promise to you: If you share our interest in public policy that leads to growth-with-equity—and would like to see a 21st century that is an American Century--in a these-are-people-to-emulate rather than we-fear-their-drones-and-their-blackmail sense—then:       
  1.   We are going to be disciplined: we will not publish so much under this heading that you either drown or fob us off to an aggregator.
  2.   Everything we publish will be important for you to read if you are interested in equitable growth (and you really should be).
  3. We won't try to get you to read what we write when somebody else has written it better—we will link instead.
  4.  We will try to make sure that we always do our homework.
  5.  We will try to bring to your attention people who think differently than we do and who have done their homework, are not engaged in intellectual three-card-monte, and are being smart.
Let us try to focus our conversation on what is truly important, for all of our sakes.
 It's a manifesto I can subscribe to.  

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

My Kingdom for a Rational Compensation System ...

Brad DeLong has a review of Alan Blinder's book on the financial crisis  After the Music Stopped: The Financial Crisis, the Response, and the Work Ahead (New York: Penguin, 2013).  He includes the following interesting argument:  (1) we need to strictly regulate finance to fix the economy, (2) but we can't regulate finance because with the current income inequality finance finds it easy to buy Capitol Hill, (3) shareholders of financial corporations finance could alter the highly unequal compensation system to a more rational system that would then permit Congress to regulate fianance, but (4) shareholders of financial corporations would rather not, so (5) we are lost .....

Here's Brad:  
[T]he United States ... ought to obey Blinder's three commandments to the government and strictly regulate finance, in the interest of avoiding excessive leverage and hold financiers strictly... liable for misrepresentations and omissions....However, accomplishing it is a political task.
 One point of view is that this political task will be easy for at least the next generation: even people who are twenty today remember the orgies of near-fraud and outright fraud committed in the housing, mortgage, mortgage-backed securities, and derivatives markets; not until they retire in 2060 will it be possible to pull the same type of tricks again on the same scale.  
The second point of view is that this political task will be impossible. According to this point of view, times like these in which income inequality are high are times in which finance finds it easy to buy Capitol Hill, and that although finance has a collective long-run interest in being regulated so that it does not overspeculate [fiananciers do not] recognize this collective interest--or [they] expect to make their financial pile, and take an [attitude of] apres moi le deluge. 
Certainly the root-and-branch Republican opposition in the Congress to the very existence and functioning of the relatively innocuous Consumer Financial Protection Board is a strong piece of evidence for the second point of view. And if that point of view is indeed correct, we are in awful trouble: only ... sharply reduc[ing] the education salary premium coupled with a severe strengthening of the progressiv[ity] of the tax system could then create a politics and a Capitol Hill that would support the kind of financial regulation that 1929 taught us that we needed, and that 2008 taught us that we needed again.  
...Perverse compensation systems--systems that provide financiers with enormous incentives to run very large risks in the belief that you can make your pile and, before the time the crash comes, have moved on to philanthropy or politics or art collecting-- exist for a reason. And it is these perverse compensation systems that provide financiers with the incentives to forget that shareholders are their real bosses, to deliberately un-manage risks, to assume excessive leverage, and to treat the balance sheet as a toy.   
Moreover, there are three ways to make money in finance. The first is to have better information, and so buy low and sell high: this is nearly impossible. The second is to match risks  that need to be born with people for whom it makes sense to bear extra risk: this is difficult. The third is to match risks that need to be born with people with money who do not understand what the risks really are: this turns out to be easy. And this is especially easy when there is less information in the financial market--when securities are complex, when trading is proprietary and secret, when bespoke rather than standardized is the order of the day, and when balance sheets are toys rather than accurate representations of firm positions.  
Fixing perverse compensation systems would fix all these problems. But with perverse compensation systems, all these problems are intractable. The right organization of finance is one in which financial professionals lead middle-class lives but get to be rich at 60 if, when they reach 60, people look back and see that their judgment has been very good and their clients have received good value for their fees. Shareholders of financial corporations could impose such a compensation system if they organized themselves and so wished. They aren't organized. They do not so wish.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Old Man The Word: Robert Redford's "All is Lost"

Single handed sailors are a breed apart:  alone for weeks or months on a very large ocean, they are reliant on their craft, their skill, some electronics to keep them tethered to the world.  But it's a slim line.   Storms, a loss of balance, lacerations, bangs on the head, or hitting an obstacle while sleeping can make it all come undone.  

Such is the isolated life of the nameless Septuagenarian, mid-Ocean 1,700 miles from the Sumatra Straight,  coming to terms with end of life in Robert Redford's All is Lost.  There is a great soundtrack, but no conversation.  Just stoic silence as the old man goes about trying to salvage his craft, a 1980's 40 foot fiberglass sloop with beautiful wood joinery.  It slowly comes apart.  The ship hits a drifting container, a bit of flotsam astray from the commercial shipping lanes in the middle of the Indian Ocean.  The ocean is smooth and calm, so there is no emergency even as water laps over the floorboards.  The sharp corner of the container has ripped a 4 foot hole in the side of his boat like a heart attack.  Water laps in, but the gash is just above the water line, not fatal.  Redford looks down in wonderment at hundreds of baby shoes floating out from the container. 

Over the next eight days we follow the old sailor as he roughly patches the hull with fiberglass, encounters two severe storms, and persevers.  He goes about his business calmly.  What else can he do.  Even as he is tossed around his craft, even as he is violently sea sick, the boat is rolled twice in the storm and he loses the mast, and ultimately the boat sinks.  Pathetically, ever so slowly, but inevitably.

He winds up in the life raft as life becomes ever more precarious.  He improvises a water still, but it produces just less than necessary to sustain him.  He writes a note to his family, his regrets.  I have fought to the end, he tells them.  He wonders if it matters.  It's the human condition;  we struggle, we struggle, 'til we're gone.  He hooks a nice fish, but before he can pull it in the raft, a shark takes it away.  Sharks circle the raft.  The camera is deep under water.  The sharks are not menacing, but it's their territory.  They are young and vibrant.  The old man does not belong.  He has become invisible.  Two freighters pass right next to him.  He is like a cripple next to the freeway, trucks passing by.  The freighters pass by.  They do not stop.  They are oblivious to him.  

And then there is the hand of God from the Sistine Chapel, reaching out to Adam; and there is Alex Ebert's song …

Old man hypnotized
Spider with ancient eyes
Black dogs who come in herds
Old man the word

Raised on golden days
God loves the U.S.A.
Fed on purple haze
Young men today
He heard them say
Amen, Amen, Amen

I’ll never say good-bye
I’ll never tell you lies
I’m never gonna die
Amen, Amen, Amen

Young man’s memories
Stay away from the summer leaves
Old man we cannot see
Old man decay
Slip slow away

Old man we’ll hold your face
Sons danced for your song
Old man looked around
Heard but the sound
Amen, Amen

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Shakespeare's Procreation Sonnets: Walt Whitman for Heterosexuals

Shakespeare wrote 154 Sonnets, and the first 17 are all about hopping in the sack, spreading the seed, or settling down in marriage, all for one purpose:   to celebrate the song of thyself--Walt Whitman style--through procreation.  We guys owe it to the world to make little copies of ourrselves, and how could any "untilled womb refuse thy husbandry", or some such….

Sonnets are written in iambic pentameter, meaning five two syllable couplets per line.  Shakespearean sonnets have 14 lines, and, unlike the plays which are written in blank verse (unrhymed), there is a rhyming pattern of

a-b-a-b; c-d-c-d; e-f-e-f; g-g

The whole lot of them (the 154) were published together in 1609 by Thomas Thorpe, who may or may not have come by them legitimately.  Shakespeare (~1564-1616) was 45 at the time.  

Although the exhortations in these procreation sonnets verge on the preachy, there is not a hint of religion in any of them.  This is not a vision of marriage and procreation for the glory of God; it's all about the glory of me.  They are concerned with youth, beauty, and loss thereof.  They are lusty and full of life.  

Here is the most famous, and best by a wide margin, of the 17 procreation sonnets:
Sonnet XII 
When I do count the clock that tells the time,
And see the brave day sunk in hideous night;
When I behold the violet past prime,
And sable curls, all silvered o'er with white;
When lofty trees I see barren of leaves,
Which erst from heat did canopy the herd,
And summer's green all girded up in sheaves,
Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard,
Then of thy beauty do I question make,
That thou among the wastes of time must go,
Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake
And die as fast as they see others grow;
   And nothing 'gainst Time's scythe can make defence
   Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence.
So, naturally, I wanted to try my hand at one.  Being past youth, and never having procreated, I take issue with the message in Shakespeare's first 17 sonnets that the meaning of life is youth and propagation of youth through procreation.  The need for a rhyme for "manifesto" led me to Alexandre Dumas and his Count of Monte Cristo.  It's quite the story, judging from the plot summary in Wikipedia.  It was excerpted in a periodical, like many of Dickens' novels at that time as well.  Elizabeth, a patron of Shakespeare's, of course, is a paragon of an independent woman who is not defined through procreation.   I found it's easy enough to fit the form and structure and make a point,  but it's tougher to make it sound like Shakespeare.  

So here goes ….
Boys Just Want to Have Fun  
The creation sonnets manifesto,
Sheakespeare’s desperate cry of Henry the VIII,
Was lost on his daughter and Monte Cristo.
The count, his heart consumed with schemes of hate,
Takes revenge although blessed with fortune;
What matters for him lies in the spleen,
Present beauty is not what’s opportune.
And Elizabeth, the virgin queen,
Her fairest beauty has never died,
No tender heir to bear her memory,
Yet her life is fulfilled and not belied,
By lack of issue or end of dynasty.
All beauty should have its day in the sun,
Yes, because boys, we just want to have fun.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Of Courtesans, Trophy Wives, and Woody Allen's "Blue Jasmine"

In our time, it is acceptable for highly successful men to ditch a dowdy and child-worn wife and trade her for a new super-model spouse.  But what are the values inherent in such relationships?  What's left when it all blows up?  

Tennessee Williams explored this question in his 1948 Pulitzer Prize winning play, A Streetcar Named Desire.  His answer:  what's left is more fakery and phoniness than is pretty to look at.  Here is a quick synopsis,  just so we're on the same page:  
Blanche DuBois is a fading, though still attractive, Southern belle whose pretensions to virtue and culture only thinly mask her alcoholism and delusions of grandeur. Her poise is an illusion she presents to shield others (but most of all, herself) from her reality, and is an attempt to make herself still attractive to new male suitors. Blanche arrives at the apartment of her sister Stella Kowalski, ... on Elysian Fields Avenue in the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood of New Orleans; one of the streetcars that she takes to get there is named "Desire." The steamy, urban ambiance of Stella's home is a shock to Blanche's nerves. Stella, who fears the reaction of her husband Stanley, welcomes Blanche with some trepidation. As Blanche explains that their ancestral Southern plantation, Belle Reve in Laurel, Mississippi, has been "lost" ...  her veneer of self-possession begins to slip drastically. Blanche tells Stella that her supervisor allowed her to take time off from her job as an English teacher because of her upset nerves, while in reality she was fired for having an affair with a 17-year-old student. .... A brief marriage marred by the discovery that her husband, Allan Grey, was having a homosexual affair, and his subsequent suicide, has led Blanche to withdraw into a world in which fantasies and illusions blend seamlessly with reality.
In contrast to the self-effacing and deferential Stella and the pretentious refinement of Blanche, Stella's husband, Stanley Kowalski, is a force of nature: primal, rough-hewn, brutish, and sensual. He dominates Stella in every way and is physically and emotionally abusive.  [Yet] Stella tolerates his primal behavior as this is part of what attracted her in the first place; their love and relationship are heavily based on powerful – even animal-like – sexual chemistry, something that Blanche finds impossible to understand.
Marlan Brando made  a hell of a Stanley Kowalsky.  

In Blue Jasmine, the Woody Allen homage to Streetcar, Bobby Cannavale is no Marlon Brando.  Allen's "Chili" is but a poor Elvis caricature.   Sally Hawkins is a delightful Ginger,  the South of Mission grocery clerk sister to Jaenette Francis (Jasmine).  She's as self-assured and solid as Jasmine is weak and without a center.  Ginger is alright, despite her unpromising men.  But the center of gravity of Blue Jasmine is squarely on the Blanche DuBois character.  Cate Blanchett puts in a tour de force as Jasmine, falling apart because her center will not hold.  

The other main source for Jasmine is the Bernie Madoff story.  Surely Woody Allen must have run into  Ruth Maddoff in New York.   But, whereas in real life, Ruth Madoff is rumored to have been knee deep in the books of the Madoff Ponzi Scheme empire,  a powerful and savy co-conspirator with her husband, Allen's Jasmine character is all trophy wife courtesan.  

Is that misogynistic?  I don't know.  It's not a new phenomenon.  

There is a new book out by Julie Kavanah, The Girl Who Loved Camellias:  The Life and Legend of Marie Duplessis, about a famous 19th century Parisian courtesan.  Anka Muhlstein describes these women thus, in her review in the New York Review of Books:
A courtesan never burdened herself with any career other than the one she pursued flat on her back ....  These temptresses have existed throughout history but they took on a special status in post-revolutionary France.  That's when they were ushered into French literature, by writers ranging from Balzac to Proust.  
The licentiousness that marked the high society of the eighteenth century did not survive the French Revolution.  Virtue, piety, and decorum reigned in respectable houses and men were bored.  The wives--married too young, deeply ignorant, and regrettably, as noted by Georges Sand, raised to be saintly--had no way to keep those men at home....  The only salons where you could laugh freely, tell a risque joke, or start an affair---all while enjoying an excellent repast in the company of lovely women--were those presided over by one of these women.  
 And she includes this delicious image:  
Noone reported that Marie Duplessis uttered a witticism.  Housaye insisted that she talked nothing but nonsense, but so charmingly that no one wished to stop listening.  
We guys can relate.  Some of these courtesans, like some trophy wives today, became fabulously wealthy.  But life being what it is, that kind of fame and fortune is harder to maintain than a Ponzi scheme.

In 1980, relative newly-weds, Bobbi and I attended the opening of Paul Verhoeven's Spetters at the Pike Place Cinema in Seattle.  Paul Verhoeven was there and the film was followed by a question and answer session.  That film also features a striving vixen, searching her fortune by successively hitching her wagon to  the most successful of three friends .... the constellation and power relations change throughout the film.   Just like  Blue Jasmine, Spetters drew some strong negative reactions.  One viewer, a woman, reacted to the mercenary portrait of marriage in the film.  Verhoeven's response rose to the bait of her anger:  "All marriages are an economic relationship at heart," he said.

That's not wrong, it strikes me.  Man or woman, whether courtesan, corporate CEO, shop girl, grease monkey, Stanley Kowalsky, Jasmine, or Ginger, ultimately we've got to stand on our own two feet.  In the end we die alone.  In the meantime we've got to roll with the punches and make our own center, hold it together, and try to have a good time, no matter what.   If, in the process, we can create loving and long lasting and supportive relationships...well, so much the better.

In the end, Versace, fancy houses, cars, and first class flights notwithstanding, we want to live like Ginger, not like Jasmine.  And if you can have both .... well, hell, then you've really got something.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Eugen Weber on "The Ups and Downs of Honor"

Eugen Weber was a professor of modern European history at UCLA.  This past week, Brad DeLong, directed us to Weber's utterly fascinating essay published in The American Scholar back in 1999, on The Ups and Downs of Honor.  

The essay makes fascinating background reading for Syria, protestations of Obama's "fecklessness", or the daily evidence of shortage, in general, of integrity and honor in our Congress.  It's a fascinating look at the honor of thieves, honor among the high, the low, the mythic, the real:
The oldest poem in our Western tradition opens with a quarrel about honor. The Greeks, who have spent several years besieging Troy, take time off to sack a neighboring city. From the plunder, a girl, the daughter of the priest of Apollo, has been allocated to the Greek commander, Agamemnon, king of kings. When the girl's father comes to plead for her return, Agamemnon refuses the rich ransom he offers. So Apollo sends a plague upon the Greeks, and Agamemnon is forced to hand her over. To save face, he confiscates another captive maiden who has been bestowed upon Achilles, the greatest fighter among the Greeks. Achilles has a big ego and a quick temper, but he cannot resist, because Agamemnon can call on more men than he can. So he does the next best thing: he drops out of the siege and goes to sulk, while the rest of the Greeks get walloped.

Many have read the book or seen the movie, but few have fathomed that the function of this tragedy, as of many others, is to glorify and heroicize ugly motives and ugly deeds. If we look at it afresh, without the respect due to a classic, we will discover that the Iliad, chapter 1, presents two gang-leading thugs, Achilles and Agamemnon, facing each other down, trading threats and insults over loot and women, and that the whole poem turns on plunder and pride and the sport of killing.

Similar sentiments move another heroic figure, Roland--a reckless young fool who accepts combat at odds of ten to one; who refuses to call for help when only reinforcements can prevent annihilation; who sacrifices his men, his friends, and himself; and who endangers the interests of his lord and country in order to satisfy an ideal that even his best friend does not accept. Yet Roland's values were widely admired for centuries. It was of Roland that the minstrel sang to the troops of William the Conqueror before the Battle of Hastings, and it was to Roland that the Crusaders looked for inspiration, as did Pizarro's men in Peru as late as the early sixteenth century. 
And, after picking on my namesake, he picks on my profession:  
The legal profession, for example, which had been much concerned with the nobility of its calling, found other fish to fry. In 1908, the American Bar Association's Canons of Professional Ethics had bound lawyers to use only "fair and honorable means." In 1969, the ABA junked the Canons because it was "designed for an earlier era" and full of "quaint expressions of the past." One of the quaint expressions that it dropped was "honor." Perhaps the ABA had assimilated the spirit of Emerson's sally: "The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons."
When it comes to drawing conclusions, Weber does not shy away.  There is nothing like the long view of a historian to sober us up about what's at stake ....
The period during which a few Western societies managed to persuade themselves that their security was assured as long as law and order were guaranteed by that idealized monopolist of violence--the state--has proved brief. What is coming back is the original, violent, practical model that a lot of reasonable, law-abiding people had come to consider as obsolete as chastity. These days, over growing patches of what had slowly, painfully, precariously become a civilized world, older and more primitive conditions are returning. "Things fall apart; the center cannot hold"; the authority of what we call authorities is questioned or ignored; bodies and institutions that are supposed to secure security contribute to insecurity--either by failing to act or, in countries where corruption is prevalent, by effectively erasing the line between criminals and police.
That is where, that is when, the codes and the mentality of old-fashioned honor re-emerge to dictate principles of conduct. Retaliation looks more effective than reprieve. Experience teaches that if you give way, more people push you. The logic of violence is crude but simple: violent reaction against transgression deters others who might follow suit. And there's little evidence that litigation affords a better chance of justice or satisfaction than forceful direct action does.
We are back in the realm of the Iliad, the Odyssey, and Roland, a realm of small communities and face-to-face relations in hostile surroundings, where men prey and plunder as much for prestige as for material gain, where bands of young warriors like those that Tacitus described in ancient Germania--gangs held together by interest in booty, hope of fame, and fear of shame--gather around a leader selected or self-selected for enterprise and ferocity. Material conditions, appropriate ideological codes, and shortage of alternatives explained it then and explain it now.
"The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity." Yeats wrote this after the First World War and during the Irish civil war, but his words apply to other darkling ages when other barbarian gangs destabilized decaying civilizations; and they apply as well to the centuries of convalescence from chaos, when expedients were being turned into rules once more to create the norms that we were brought up to think of as normal. The rules are seeping out again, aggression is reasserting itself as the better part of valor, and a new kind of honor that looks disturbingly like the old kind of honor is seeping back in.
Read the whole thing, it's well worth the time.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Watching a Beating on the Street, Uncomfortably

Ezra Klein at the Washington Post has read the transcript of the four hour Senate Foreign Relations Hearing, resulting in a 10-7 approval of the White House request for authorization to punish Syria for its use of chemical weapons.  He was struck by the hollowness and desperation of the arguments made for a limited strike to "send a message" to Assad.  What's going on? 

As usual, Klein engages in some clear thinking:  
The problem is that achieving ... [the real goal of stopping Assad from killing his people with any kind of weapons right now] requires a military intervention of a size and length that America is not willing to countenance.  So they're increasingly trying to justify the military intervention that Americans might countenance [limited symbolic strike] by using the arguments for the military interventions they won't consider.  
Four main arguments were trotted out at the hearing in support of a strike authorization, he reports.

1.  Deter future dictators from using chemical weapons on anyone.  This is weak.  Doing something pretty ineffectual today won't deter anyone from anything in 2022.

2.  Prevent use of chemical weapons on American troops or civilians.  Weaker still.  We don't need to do something ineffectual in Syria to have credibility on that issue.  After Iraq and Afghanistan, we have all the credibility we need to deter this type of attack on U.S. troops or civilians.   Bombing some assets in Syria that, by the very terms of the authorization resolution being considered won't be sufficient to actually bring about change will do nothing to prevent future attacks on American soil.  In fact, our bombing of yet another country in this volatile world may well increase the risk of terrorist activity on U.S. soil. 

3.  Humanitarian intervention.  No it's not.  Bombing Syrians with cruise missiles from the Mediterranean, or from high up in the air, will harm that country and many people in it.  It may accelerate and fuel the civil war going on;  it will not reduce the refugees; it will not reduce the bloodshed, it will not save any Syrians. 

4.  Stop the killing.  That's what we want. That's the reason we're outraged--Assad has killed maybe 100,000 of his people, and forced 1.5 million from the country as refugees, and displaced another 6 million within the country.  The 1,000 dead in a chemical weapons attack, whose specific source is open to question, is just the straw that broke the back of our patience.  That's why it does not really matter who is responsible.  However, not Congress, not the American people, not Obama have a taste to really do what needs to be done to stop the killing.  To stop the killing and set that country on a course for a brighter future would require a hundred thousand troops and a long term involvement.   

Bottom line, it's not about deterrence, it's not about red lines on chemical weapons, it's not about credibility, or actually helping Syrians .... it's about we are shocked at the violence and we want to just "do something."  It's like watching a group of hooligans beating an old man on the street.  We feel we have to do something.... but we don't want to actually get in the middle of the fight to stop it.  

It doesn't feel good to watch this beating on the street.  There is no police to call.  No United Nations.  That beating won't stop unless we jump in the middle of it.  But we don't want to jump in the middle of it;  we don't want to get bloody.  It's not our fight.  And, truth be told, all the characters are kind of unsavory.  So we watch in the shadows, under the bridge, uncomfortably.  Maybe we'll throw a rock to scare the hooligans off;  maybe we'll slash a tire on their car.


Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Working Poor and 24 Loaves of Bread: or has the Industrial Revolution Wrought a Miracle?

Tintoretto, the Miracle of Loaves and Fishes (1545-1550)
When Jesus heard of it [the beheading of John the Baptist], he departed thence by ship into a desert place apart: and when the people had heard thereof, they followed him on foot out of the cities.   
And Jesus went forth, and saw a great multitude, and was moved with compassion toward them, and he healed their sick.  And when it was evening, his disciples came to him, saying, This is a desert place, and the time is now past; send the multitude away, that they may go into the villages, and buy themselves victuals.   
But Jesus said unto them, They need not depart; give ye them to eat.  And they say unto him, We have here but five loaves, and two fishes.  He said, Bring them hither to me.  And he commanded the multitude to sit down on the grass, and took the five loaves, and the two fishes, and looking up to heaven, he blessed, and brake, and gave the loaves to his disciples, and the disciples to the multitude.  And they did all eat, and were filled: and they took up of the fragments that remained twelve baskets full.  And they that had eaten were about five thousand men, beside women and children.
Matthew 14:13-21.

Prior to the industrial revolution, the multitudes lived on the edge.  Absent drought, famine, pestilence, or war, unskilled workers earned just a little more than what was needed for daily sustenance.  The industrial revolution, and the century and a half since, has freed the multitude from the cycle of population growth and famine.  How do we measure the progress?

Brad DeLong has reposted a discussion examining the explosive growth of economic productivity that happened in 1870.  He identifies 1870 as the hinge of the Industrial Revolution.   John Stuart Mills and Karl Marx thought about this in terms of how many calories of bread an unskilled laborer could earn at different times.  We've escaped the Malthusian trap that spawned such thoughts, but what does this thought experiment look like in 2013?  How many surplus loaves of bread does a minimum wage worker earn in a day?

Unless I'm completely missing something, the count is 24, and Brad's calorie count, below, is spectacularly off.

Here's Brad:
To put it another way: In 1870 the daily wages of an unskilled worker in London would have bought him (not her: women were paid less) about 5,000 calories worth of bread--5,000 wheat calories, about 2½ times what you need to live (if you are willing to have your teeth fall out and your nutritionist glower at you). In 1800 the daily wages would have bought him about 3,500 calories, and in 1600 2,500 calories. Karl Marx in 1850 was dumbfounded at the pace of the economic transition he saw around him. That was the transition that carried wages from 3500 calories per day-equivalent in 1800 to 5000 in 1870. Continue that for another two seventy-year periods, and we would today be at 10,000 calories per unskilled worker in the North Atlantic today per day. 
Today the daily wages of an unskilled worker in London would buy him or her 2,400,000 wheat calories. 
Not 10,000.  2,400,000. 
That is the most important fact to grasp about the world economy of 1870. The economy then belonged, even for the richest countries, much more to its past of the Middle Ages than to its future of--well, of you reading this. Compared to the pace of economic growth since 1870 and even more so since 1950, all other centuries--even the first-half of the nineteenth century that so impressed Karl Marx--were all but standing still. 
That is why there is a very good case that it is 1870 that is the most important historical axis on which the wheel of economic modernity, modern economic growth, the modern economy--whatever you choose to call it--turns.
But I think Brad's got that 2.4 million number wrong.  According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in July 2013, the price of whole wheat bread is $2.06/lb. [There are 453.6 grams in a pound]  A 38 gram slice of Oroweat seven grain bread contains 100 calories; a pound of this bread contains 1,192 calories.

So how many loaves (or wheat calories) does the federal minimum wage stuck at  $7.25/hr allow you to buy. Assuming 8 hours of work, a minimum wage worker earns $58 per day.  Assuming no deductions, except sales tax on the bread, this would buy approximately 25 one pound loafs of bread ..... or 30,205 calories.

Not 2,400,000.  30,205.

If it's true that in 1870 an unskilled worker would earn enough to purchase 5,000 wheat calories, or ~five loafs of bread (and I understand we are taking John Stuart Mills's word for it here), then the progress of a minimum wage worker in 2013 earning 24 surplus loaves of bread per day does not seem so spectacular.  The unskilled worker in 1870, after he ate one loaf to survive, had four left over to trade for shelter, and clothing,  a few lumps of coal, and some milk.  Today, a minimum wage worker--and in 2011 there were 3.8 million of them, or 5.2% of all hourly wage workers--has 24 loaves left over to trade for shelter, clothing, gasoline, car repairs, public transport, phone, computer, and a movie on Saturday night.

If we're thinking in terms of just surviving day-to-day until we run out of bread, then 20 additional surplus loaves is progress.  If we're thinking of 24 loaves of bread in terms of paying for shelter, clothing, phone, transport, television, radio, internet, books, movies, medical care, and children, then that is less than what Jesus managed with his five loaves in the desert.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Good Life, Picnic Baskets and Participation

On San Francisco Bay they are about to race for the America's Cup in those amazing AC-72's.  The  wing masts are ten stories tall.  The boats are fragile and when the wind blows 20 knots they won't race.  In a moderate breeze the twin hulls levitate out of the water and they fly around the course at 43 knots, balanced on slender  foil and rudder wing.  The sailors wear a helmet, body armor, breathing apparatus, electronic headcount system, and an underwater position locator.  They complete the 10 nautical mile course in 25 minutes.  They have killed five seals this summer.  Picnic baskets are not allowed.

Meanwhile, at the Museum of the Legion of Honor (June 1 - October 13)  there is an exhibit,  "Impressionists on the Water," that depicts a more peaceful and participatory relationship with the water, worlds removed from the gladiatorial battle being waged by moguls of industry on the Bay.
[There are] more than 80 remarkable paintings and works on paper by Impressionists such as Claude Monet, Gustave Caillebotte, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and Camille Pissarro and Post-Impressionists such as Maurice Denis and Paul Signac—artists whose breathtaking artistry reflects their own deep understanding of pleasure boating and competition. ...
The scenes are intimate and calming.  
[E]ngagement with boating as both pastime and artistic subject is at the heart of the exhibition. In the countryside west of Paris new patterns of life, including the idea of middle-class leisure, reflected the social and economic energies of an emerging modern world. Artistic innovations such as painting out of doors developed to capture the spirit and quick pace of recreational activities. The Impressionists’ brushwork suggests both the atmospheric effects and the sensations of movement that contribute to the invigorating experience of boating.
Invigorating, yes .... but they don't mean hydrofoiling at 40 knots invigorating.   One of the stars of the show, Renoir's "Oarsmen at Chatou" (1879),  is set in the same town as "The Boating Party" (1880-1881), and evidently features some of Renoir's same friends. The dandy in white jacket (probably Gustave Caillebot) and a finely dressed lady (Aline Charigot who became Renoir's wife) are standing at the river's edge, perhaps preparing to to step into the rowing skiff helpfully being steadied by a friend standing in the water, although Caillebot seems preoccupied with the races out on the water.  Two men are engaged in friendly competition; a sailboat drifts lazily down-stream in the distance.  No one's got white knuckles.  The picnic basket with a bottle of wine, bread, and cheese is surely hidden just behind the comfortable seat.

The museum displays examples of the skiff in the foreground here, as well as the racing sculls farther out on the river.  They are beautiful, and the varnish work is impeccable, but really ... the spirit of these pictures would have us take these boats out to the Oakland estuary with a picnic basket, not look at them in a museum.  

Caillabot, they tell us at the exhibit, was quite the sailor.   His "Regatta at Argenteuil" (1893) is one of my favorites in the show.   There is a regatta going on.  Caillabot, in a self-portrait, is at the helm finely balancing the tiller with one finger.  It seems he just rounded the leeward mark and is heading back up-wind.  Unlike the current version of the America's Cup, this race involves tactics, not just speed.  Caillabot is about to tack onto port tack and will have to contend with the boat coming down-wind still heading to the leeward mark;  fortunately that other boat is also on port tack and will have to give way as the windward boat.   Matters are complicated by the current.  You can tell Caillabot is sailing down-current by the way the moored boats are floating on their buoys.  Life is good if you're Gustav Caillabot. 

What do these Impressionist painters tell us about life?  They show us the beauty of the landscape, the pleasures to be had.  They encourage us to partake.  Break out that picnic basket, float on the Seine.  Don't break a sweat doing it.  What does the America's Cup race tell us?  We are plebs on the shoreline, watching a spectacle.   The richest men in the world are putting on a show, aren't they great!  But, hey, we've got the picnic basket.  

Sunday, July 28, 2013

A Day in the Life of Kirill I, Putin, Rubio and Portman

The Beatles "A Day in the Life"  is a mixture of news stories presented as a dream sequence:  imagery, melody, beat, and meter are gloriously jumbled up.   

I read the news today oh boy
about a lucky man who made the grade

and though the news was rather sad

well i just had to laugh

The song popped in my head, for no particular reason, as I was reading about Putin's meeting with Patriarch Kirill I of the Russian Orthodox Church.  

The Russians and Ukranians are latecomers to Christianity.  The Primary Chronicle, a history of the Kievan Rus, reports that in the year 987 Vladimir sent envoys to the surrounding lands to figure out what religion he should adopt.  The envoys reported back that the Muslims of the Volga were an unhappy lot, they considered Judaism and felt that since the Jews lost Jerusalem God must have abandoned them,  but they were smitten with what they saw at the Sophia Hagia in Constantinople :  "'We no longer knew whether we were in heaven or on earth,' they reported, describing a majestic Divine Liturgy in Hagia Sophia, 'nor such beauty, and we know not how to tell of it.'"  The clinching consideration was the strategic marriage with 27 year old princess Ann, daughter of Byzantine Emperor  Basil II.  

Here is Sophia Kishkosvky on Putin's meeting with Kirill I on Saturday in Moscow: 
Patriarch Kirill invoked the concept of the Holy Rus, referencing Russia, Ukraine and Belarus as a unified spiritual expanse united under the faith.  .... 
The patriarch has sought to unify the faithful with warnings of the encroachment of secular values.  He recently warned that legislative efforts to legalize same-sex marriage in Europe posed a grave threat to Russia. 
 "This is a very dangerous apocalyptic symptom, and we must do everything so that sin is never validated by the laws of the state in the lands of Holy Rus, because this would mean that the people are starting on the path of self-destruction," he said at a Moscow cathedral, according to the Web site of the Moscow Patriarchate   He previously said that such "blasphemous laws" could prove as dangerous to believers as the executioners of the Great Terror during the government of Stalin.
The church's views have increasing resonance in the political debate in Russia, where Parliament adopted laws in June banning "gay propaganda" and the adoption of children by foreign same sex couples.  
In a film called "The Second Baptism of Rus," shown recently on Russian state television, Mr. Putin credited Prince Vladimir's choice of religion with 'building a centralized Russian state,' something he sees as a cornerstone of his leadership.  ...He described Communism as 'just a simplified version of the religious principles shared by practically all the world's traditional religions."  
In the meantime, Republican party leaders, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Robert Portman are demagoguing religious doctrine by introducing a bill in the Senate to ban abortion 20 weeks after conception.  Ted Cruz is looking for votes beyond his home state of Texas.  Rubio and Portman are appeasing their base  who did not like their support of immigration legislation (Rubio), and gay marriage (Portman).  

I read the news today oh, boy 
Four thousand holes in blackburn, lancashire 
And though the holes were rather small 
They had to count them all 
Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the albert hall 
I'd love to turn you on