Archive for April 2010

Why I love the English Language: Proper British Snark edition

April 29, 2010

From Peter Robins, wondering what fictional art might have anticipated the surreal reality of the British election, comes an economy of scorn I wish I could master:

I hadn’t read First Among Equals, but it’s a Jeffrey Archer and therefore seems unlikely to be true even by coincidence.

Yes indeedy.

Heh.

(h/t Sullivan)

Image:  François Lemoyne — completed on the day before the artist’s suicide — “Time Saving Truth From Falsehood and envy,” 1873

A Shande für de Goyim* — Ben Shapiro edition

April 28, 2010

DougJ has a stronger stomach than I do.  I won’t link to the offending column — go ahead through Balloon Juice if you want all the gory details.  But if you want to see epistemic closure in action, this could be a type specimen.

(As an aside, I must say I have had the good fortune to have avoided all knowledge of the young (very) Mr. Shapiro until clicking through that post.)

In his open letter to American Jews (why — he means me!) Shapiro commits many, many sins, in what he said and the way he said it too.**

On content, Mr. Shapiro, with the depth of geopolitical experience that a childhood in Burbank, adolescence in Westwood, and premature old-age in Cambridge can give you, asks us to join him in  a murder-suicide vision of Israel’s future.  He comes from that school of American Jewish folly that equates support for Israel with unquestioned allegiance the policies of particular Israeli governments.

Ah well. Those who from the safety of schoolrooms thousands of miles away from the center of conflict are happy to encourage others to fight fiercely will always be with us.

And I’m not really upset with Shapiro for his schoolboy patter of insult to those whose views he finds distressinl  He has all the idiocy that comes from cleverness fed a diet of highly selected books; he has no argument; and so, in the manner of people in such a predicament he sputters out words like “reprehensible” or, more grandly, condemnation of folks who are “committed to chimerical morality that values libertinism over liberty.” (Why, I think he means me again!  News to my wife, who might treasure a bit of libertinism now and then.)

This is the kind of diction bad writers use when they want to impress you with how many words they know.  I get it.

In any event, I can take it.  I can take being told I’m not Jewish, really, or not Jewish enough, or that I seek the destruction of a country to whose founding my family has ties that precedes its existence by more than a century.  If such high dudgeon helps him sleep at night, whatever.

But what makes Shapiro’s letter shameful, and a disgrace before the community of Jews in America in particular and Americans in general is a craziness that amounts, in the end, to a kind of Holocaust denialism.

That is:  Shapiro writes that far from being evidence that President Obama actually trusts and supports Jews at the very highest levels of American power, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel is in fact something else altogether.  Really, Shapiro thunders, Israeli army veteran Emanuel, “is a kapo.”

This is, to put it as simply as possible, as dumb as it gets, and evil too, the product of a depraved indifference to the reality of Jewish history.

As DougJ points out, kapos were concentration camp inmates selected by the SS to run work gangs of other inmates up to the point where they, along with their charges, were murdered.

It does real damage to dilute the meaning of words that describe particular horrors.  It may feel good to tar your imagined enemies with the worst epithet you can think of — but when you do so, the actual events, the real history, the suffering and murder and all that was lost in the Holocaust slip a further out of memory, to be transformed into empty cliche.

When other folks, when non-Jews, do this, when they appropriate the language of the Holocaust to describe trivial or hallucinatory wrongs, we condemn them.  (See also Elie Wiesel’s quote at this page.)

And in fact,  I’ll bet that Ben Shapiro, in the dark of the night, actually does recognize some difference between a Nazi collaborator and Rahm Emanuel.  If so, that makes his sin here worse.  In any event, he’s either to ignorant of history and the fragility of language and memory, or he knows and doesn’t care, willing to diminish the real disaster of the Jews in the 20th century to advance a pitifully poorly argued bit of political ephemera.

Has he no shame?

No, he has not.

SASQ.

*”A shande für de goyimis the Yiddish phrase that can be loosely translating as dissolving oneself into a hideous supperating eruption of puss in front of all and sundry, especially non-Jews.

**I forgot, of course, that Shapiro himself assures us that he is both “a reasoned political thinker and a powerful writer.”*** I do, however, come from that old school in which it tends to be the case that those who say such things of themselves are less reliably in possession of such qualities than those of whom it is said by others.  But that’s just me.

***See, for an example of Shapiro’s euphonious ear for language and his mastery of that tricky concept, metaphor, this passage:

Even as you continue to buttress a president who seeks the destruction of your co-religionists, you demonstrate your myopia by rejecting the tea party movement and evangelical Christian Israel-supporters.

I hate my state as a shortsighted architectural member who rejects both movement and men/women.

Brain Bon Bons, because it’s been too damn crazed today to finish any of the posts in waiting — Sade Diva/Goddess edition

April 28, 2010

Reminded via a spectacularly off-topic comment on this Balloon Juice thread, please, enjoy with me this grand blast from the past:

Beyond all the obvious awesomeness of this, my get-off-my-lawn media maker’s heart leapt at the glorious grain and feel of an image shot on real film.

There’s bite to these pictures, even in this stomped-on Youtube form, and for all that I love the creative flexibility modern video cameras give us now (out with students shooting on a tricked out Sony Z7U this morning, and rocking with it) there is something really lovely about the sense of dimension that comes from the way our eyes, mine at least, see the physicality of light trapped by tiny 3-D grains of silver and projected back through the frame.

I wouldn’t go back, except under special circumstances, but I’m damn glad I got to feel the reality of sprocket holes passing under my fingers, and the sense of space and color that a good cameraman could layer onto those rolls of coated plastic.

So there.

I feel better.

Megan McArdle, Lawyer, Ethicist, Historian.

April 27, 2010

She’s not even trying anymore. (And thankfully that means I don’t need to haul out my 5,000 word howitzer to shoot this bit of ephemera down.)

Here’s Ms. McArdle  on the Goldman hearings — uncut, not cherry-picked:

Now Levin is grilling a Goldman employee as to why they continued to sell a deal that the head of the division had described as “a shitty deal”.  The banker is trying to explain that he’s a salesman, not a fiduciary, with little success.  What I want to know is–didn’t these guys learn a damn thing from the show trials of the last decade?  These are the kinds of things that should never, ever be committed to any form that can be subpoena’d by a committee.

So the key issues in this incident in our public life  are  (a) that Goldman too fully documented its business practices (that’s the legal eagle McArdle at work); (b) that the key wrong here is being called to account for those business practices, not any acts by the witness or his employer (here’s McArdle’s keenly honed sense of right and wrong firing); and (c) that the injustice of asking for justification for said business practices, and the implication that these might have been less than savory, is of the same rank odor as these.  (And here we see the fine McArdle understanding of the lessons of the past in all its glory.)

Update: Per Downpuppy’s comments below — yes, McArdle qualifies the phrase “show trial” with “of the last decade,” meaning, I guess, something to do with Enron or the like.  But the

This is, of course, standard operating procedure for the Big Lie right.  In case you hadn’t noticed, there is a systematic rhetorical trope of delegitimizing the acts of the Obama administration and the current Democratic Party -led Congress in particular, and the idea of government action in general.  To McArdle, the notion that any Congress should interrogate the “free” market is a travesty; and though McArdle masks some of her partisanship under a veneer of the faux libertarian’s “pox on both their houses” rhetoric, she and her many fellow travelers frame the acts of this particular administration as being distinctively odious, specially intrusive and in violation of ideas of liberty to a degree unprecedented in American politics.

Nonsense of course — see, e.g. Hendrik Hertzberg’s depressingly mild rebuke of that similarly glib and much more overtly genial partisan propaganda monger/would-be public intellectual, David Brooks.

And really — even for the relentlessly sloppy and supericial McArdle, this is a terribly weak effort.  Questioning by a Senator with full advice of counsel and a few billion dollars behind you is of the same order as one of Stalin’s court cases, from which the only exit could be a bullet to the brain?  The moral midgetry required to make the comparison is breath taking —  and illustrative.

Update: Per Downpuppy’s comments below — yes, McArdle qualifies the phrase “show trial” with “of the last decade,” meaning, I guess, something to do with Enron or the like.

But the point I’m trying to get across here, expressed perhaps a little too elliptically above, is that the use of an term like “show trial,” even qualified, is of a piece with a broader rhetorical move on the seditious right to conflate, say, a mild, originally conservative-supported health care reform with a vast government overreach of a scale Stalin or Hitler would recognize.  There is a kind of dual outrage inflation/sense or judgment dulling that comes with  the use of words like statism, or over reach, or socialism or fascism — or show trials, with all the 20th century baggage that such an epithet evokes.

In this context, besides being incoherent (what does she have in mind as a show trial of  2001-2010 decade?  I really got nuthin, unless she truly does believe that Ken Lay and Andy Fastow are martyrs on the altar of Ms.Rand) McArdle’s attempt to qualify her use of the loaded “show trial” is merely a fig leaf, really a tell:  that she has to modify her rhetoric here strongly suggest that she knows just how noxious it really is.

Image:  Édouard Manet, The Execution of Emperor Maximilian, 1867

A Tale of Two Financial Stories, or Why it Helps to Pay Attention to the Man Behind The Curtain — Paul Krugman and NPR edition

April 26, 2010

Two stories caught ear and eye this morning.

First, in terms of my attention, this one from NPR, heard while driving in to work.  Then, this one from K-thug, pulled up via my usual quick check of Daily Kos’s pundit round-up.*

Very short form:  the NPR story, of a type that I generally regard with a bit of suspicion, was an anchor-interviewer with a reporter doing a prospective analysis of the big financial rumble to come between, Goldman Sachs and Sen. Carl Levin’s subcommittee.  The story hinged on the release of emails by both sides intended to condemn or exculpate the poster child for a financial system gone way off the tracks.

It was everything you’ve come to loathe in political horse race stories, now translated into the big-money arena:  who’s ahead, who will win, what each is saying of the other.

There was no real attempt to make sense of the underlying argument, and in fact the reporter conflated two different issues: whether Goldman defrauded investors by failing to reveal flaws it knew and or consciously engineered into financial instruments it was selling; and/or whther Goldman in some sense conspired to bring the economy down by shorting mortgage backed securities in the run-up to the collapse of 2008.

The difference matters, to put it mildly.

Meanwhile, Krugman makes the obvious point: short sales may be ugly but they are not in themselves evil.**  FWIW  I’m not bothered by shorts at all (except on English men of a certain age, but that’s a different story, and probably relates to the trauma of being forced to wear and observe type-specimens of such schmattas as a very knobby kneed and self-conscious third grader in Hong Kong back when blogging was done with chisel and slate).

Rather, as Krugman argues, the real story revealed in straying emails is not that of Goldman doing what Goldman is set up to do — make as much money as it can, by any means up to the limit of the law (they devoutly hope, while budgeting for that hope’s denial) — but of rating agencies doing exactly what they are set up to prevent.  Krugman writes:

The Senate subcommittee has focused its investigations on the two biggest credit rating agencies, Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s; what it has found confirms our worst suspicions. In one e-mail message, an S.& P. employee explains that a meeting is necessary to “discuss adjusting criteria” for assessing housing-backed securities “because of the ongoing threat of losing deals.” Another message complains of having to use resources “to massage the sub-prime and alt-A numbers to preserve market share.” Clearly, the rating agencies skewed their assessments to please their clients.

These skewed assessments, in turn, helped the financial system take on far more risk than it could safely handle. Paul McCulley of Pimco, the bond investor (who coined the term “shadow banks” for the unregulated institutions at the heart of the crisis), recently described it this way: “explosive growth of shadow banking was about the invisible hand having a party, a non-regulated drinking party, with rating agencies handing out fake IDs.”

Goldman is a pit bull, trained up as an attack dog.  You expect it to bite, especially, as now, when that hound’s master has for so long failed to constrain its pet.

The response is obvious, and is now, imperfectly, working its way through the Senate.

The ratings agencies are supposed to be neutral umpires, but the payment structure under which they work has turned them, as Krugman notes, into witting confederates of the very folks whose offerings they were supposed to assess.  The term “accelerant” is often used to describe the chemical compounds arsonists to transform a match-drop ignition into a holocaust.  It works pretty well to describe what happened to our financial house when the ratings folks used their magical “AAA” rating to transform sh*t into (fools’) gold.

All of this is to say read the whole Krugman piece, for one, and to ask the DeLong question of NPR:  why oh why can’t we have a better press corps.

What’s really troubling to me is that NPR is in fact one of the good ones, by and large.  They have smart people working for them; they still employ real reporters; they pay attention.

But economics reporting is very hard — I’ve said elsewhere that I think it is harder than what most people think of as “real” science writing — and the way NPR swung and missed this morning is a very useful example of what happens when a news organization doesn’t quite get the story or the beat.

The piece I reference isn’t altogether  terrible, in the sense that it sets out to deceive or is talking about something wholly trivial in the face of a larger disaster (see Michelle Obama, sleeveless dresses of, for an example of what I mean here).  I don’t know the internal editorial sequence of events that NPR stories go through in this or in any case, but if I were to guess, I’d say that at least part of the problem behind this kind of story on that network is that the assigning or managing editors for the show are not sufficiently knowledgeable to tell the difference between the tabloid excitement of Goldman in the headlines and the substantive significance of something much duller, like whether or not Moody’s and Standard and Poor assessed risk accurately.

Just writing those last three words made my eyelids dip, just a little — which is the problem.  You have to see the story behind the facts if you want to be a useful journalist.  To be sure, a big part of the job of any specialized journalist, a science writer, an econ scribe, whatever, is to educate your editors into a broad understanding of what really matters on your beat, so I don’t want to absolve the on-air folks entirely.

Also, to be fair, we all like the tabloid stuff to help the morning coffee go down; it’s part of the trade too.  But my beef is that NPR had two stories on the financial crisis in today’s Morning Edition program — the other was on the way Senate filibuster rules are impeding reform — and both missed the story with more significance to the question of how bad and how soon the next crisis will be. And that’s not good enough.

*Within which I also found today, to my far-from-solitary surprise, a pointer to Mark Helprin making sense.

**For a good explanation of one of the garden variety uses of short selling for ordinary investers, or more precisely, the writing of put options, see Burton Malkiel’s passage on the use of options in his occasionally controversial classic, A Random Walk Down Wall Street.

Image:  Jean-Marc Nattier, “Marie Zéphirine de France”  c.1753

Andrew Sullivan and the Anatomy of False Equivalence

April 24, 2010

Here’s one more attempt to learn how to blog short, made glorious summer by that son of Surrey (not quite the same ring, is it?), Andrew Sullivan.

Instead of doing the full John Foster Dulles at every opportunity, I want to try picking on the one moment that illustrates the larger problem.

Here it is Sullivan’s inability to escape both the tropes of a failed journalistic conceit he himself often condemns…and the fact that he simply cannot free himself from the fetters of both identity politics and the claim of faith over experience.

Here’s the relevant passage in his post from yesterday (April 23, 2010) on yet one more bit of David Brooks’ maundering:

I can see how easy it was for the FNC-RNC to wheel out their exhausted tropes of anti-government rhetoric and for Paul Krugman, say, to wheel out his own pro-government radicalism.

Of course, to any unbiased observer — hell to just about any biased one, it must be obvious that a major propaganda network and the national committee of one of two American political parties are institutionally equivalent to one biweekly newspaper columnist.

Or not.

And of course, there is the question of the empirical issue:  who was right.  The weird thing here is that Sullivan actually knows the answer, for a little further down in his post, he writes,

“I happen to think that Krugman has much more of a case right now, because the circumstances almost require the drastic measures he favors.”

Which is to say, of course, that Krugman is not radical, and his work is not “pro-government,” whatever the hell that cliche masquerading as a thought might actually mean.  Rather, he proposed a series of extraordinarily conventional, mainstream economist’s responses to a classic financial crisis, and both his proposals and his criticisms of the actions actually undertaken have turned out to be well matched to the actual events and clearly derived from a long-standing and often-tested body of economic thought.

And, not to belabor what I think is obvious, this is where, for all of Sullivan’s obvious accomplishments, he still allows the habits born of his roots in polemic, not to mention his tortured identity politics, to limit his grasp of his circumstances.

Fox News and the modern Republican party are radical, by any reasonable definition of the term.  They are committed to creating a false reality to replace the actual body of knowledge and experience that describes the world most of us actually inhabit (and yes, I’m getting ready to ridicule you too, Rod Dreher, you pietistic and scientifically illiterate purveyor of false intellectual modesty).  And most important, they lie a lot.  All the time.  About big stuff and small.

And there is nothing in that record that is equivalent to anything in Krugman’s.  Again:  Krugman was right and Krugman was wholly conventional, neither seeking an expansion of government for its own sake nor any radical transformation of the relationship of government to the economy.  The pairing simply makes no sense as an actual statement about the world — and it only does in the context of Sullivan’s angst about the fact that the person he believes himself to be is one that his world now clearly says he’s not.

That is:  he wants to continue calling himself a conservative, despite the fact that most of the people in this country who claim that label, at least in the public arena, disdain his views, a favor he readily returns.  At the same time, he wants to appropriate any act he approves of as “genuine” conservativism — notably the many accomplishments he and I both admire to President Obama’s credit.  It’s an endlessly fluid concept, Sullivan’s political theory:  what is truly conservative is that which satisfies his sense of self-image and or necessity at any moment.

And that, of course, is the danger one faces when reading him:  you need to continuously filter out his reflex to utter and perhaps even in some deep way believe “conservative” tropes that should have been mugged out of him by the history of the last two decades.  That he still cannot do so on a regular basis (and there is a lot more of this kind of nonsense in just this one post…really I’m trying to restrain myself here) is a measure of how hard it is to abandon epistemic closure (to coin a phrase…or not) even when you warn against it.

Image: Ambroise Paré “Portrait of a Chameleon” 1585.

Adventures in Diplomacy: UK-Vatican edition

April 24, 2010

Actually, there were some useful suggestions here.

Though on reflection, the memo in quesiton may be better read as the fastest “I think I may be more suited to a different line of work” composition since Kurt Vonnegut delivered his resignation note to his bosses at Sports Illustrated.

Image:  The sacrificial death of Marcus Curtius (1550/52) by Paolo Veronese


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