Archive for the ‘Glibertarians’ category

A Lesson In Compassion (From Within A “Family Values” State)

January 30, 2014

Nothing says the dignity of humanity; nothing says kindness; nothing says how a high level of public religiosity makes for a better society than literally ripping  food out of hungry kids hands, and, in front of them, throwing it away:

Up to 40 kids at Uintah Elementary in Salt Lake City picked up their lunches Tuesday, then watched as the meals were taken and thrown away because of outstanding balances on their accounts — a move that shocked and angered parents.

Max_Liebermann_Kindervolksküche

“It was pretty traumatic and humiliating,” said Erica Lukes, whose 11-year-old daughter had her cafeteria lunch taken from her as she stood in line Tuesday at Uintah Elementary School, 1571 E. 1300 South.

Eleven years old!

I’m a dad, as y’all probably know.  My kid is 13 now.  He’s a total pain in the ass about food right now — won’t touch most stuff, including his school’s cafeteria fare.  He takes food from home and we top him up when he gets home.  But he used to get some stuff there.  I remember topping up his account once or twice when I dropped him off — we’d either crossed over into the red or come too close to it.  No one at his school would have dreamed of grabbing his bagel; we’d get a note asking for another five bucks for the system.  That’s how you do it.

If anyone had stopped my son in the middle of the cafeteria line, grabbed his tray and dumped his lunch?

I can’t imagine what I’d have done and said.  I can imagine what that experience would do to my child — to any kid.  Public poor-shaming –turning some little kid, with no power, no agency, no ability to defend or deflect or do anything, into nothing more than your prop in some twisted morality play about the undeserving proles.  I’m sorry about the run-on there. The rage and refracted sorrow/sympathy for the chidren some asshole(s) decided it was OK to hurt just overwhelms my ability to calm down my syntax.  But you get the point:  this  is no way to teach an 11 year old anything.  Or rather it’s just the right way to learn both that child and all her or his peers how to be the worst we can be.

One more thing:  I’m slamming on Utah in the headline, because I’m sick of sitting here in godless Massachusetts listening to folks from the religiousist corners of our country tell us how we all need to emulate the values in which such places are alledgedly rich.

But I take this personally too.  This isn’t just Utah.  An action like this is the logical endpoint of a culture that frames all things as the battle of the individual against society.  I like living in a social setting.  I think the genius of American democracy in the abstract is that it provides a once-novel way of mediating between levels of association from village on up and the individual.  So when  I hear the words “American exceptionalism,  I’d like them to have some other meaning than that we are exceptional in our capacity to be cruel to hungry children.

Image: Max Liebermann, Kindervolksküche, 1915

My Review of Megan McCardle’s Upcoming Opus (Further to the Megan McCardle Is Always Wrong chronicles)

January 13, 2014

I learned — or rather was horribly brought to recall, after having labored hard to unknow the hideous realization, that Megan McArdle is coming out with a book on how failure propels success. (Sic!)  This grim fact was brought to my attention by a co-blogger at Balloon Juice, DPM (Dread Pirate Mistermix), and to my horror, my many enablers in DPM’s thread have noted that news of McArdle’s upcoming volume might be “worth” reviewing.  One even suggested a basic format.
First:  you all are horrible people, wishing upon me or anyone the evils of (a) reading McArdle at book-length and (b) spending the time it would take to disembowel the work honorably.

Second: I’ve already completed my review, along the precise lines recommended within the Balloon Juice comment thread:

Please suggest other one line/haiku McArdle reviews; it’s a rich vein of snark I’m offering here.

Bitcoin Schadenfreude Break

December 3, 2013

OK, this is fun (via the blog’s brother).  Follow a Bitcoin thief in real time:

The thief’s problem is that the angry Bitcoin account holders whose money has gone are following the thief through the tumbler, by sending him small amounts of cash that are appended to the larger amount as it is split up and moved on. Each Bitcoin transaction generates a “blockchain” record showing its history, and the appended loose change thus identifies where the bulk of the money is going. The theft victims are hoping that eventually the thief will be prevented from cashing out his accounts because doing so would lead to him being identified in real life.

So far, Reddit user sheepreleoaded2 believes he has identified 96,000 Bitcoins (about $100 million) being exchanged by the thief

The blockchain record is here. The last transaction was just a few minutes ago. The thief appears to have split the 96,000 coins into packets of ~1,000 each, sending each one on a different route.

Lais_of_Corinth,_by_Hans_Holbein_the_Younger

So, great, right? Follow the money; catch the thief; restore their lost property to the fine upstanding citizens trading in Bitcoins in the first place….

Errr, no:

Unfortunately for those who have been ripped off, the chances of them getting any money back are slim: Once a Bitcoin transaction has been made, it cannot be reversed without the consent of the recipient.

Other than weeping for the glibertarian dudebros and/or criminal masterminds who’ve been ripped off, what’s on your mind?

Image:  Hans Holbein the Younger, Lais of Corinth, 1526.

An Open Letter to Scott McNealy

June 10, 2013

Dear Mr. McNealy,

We’ve never met, but I was fascinated to read your tech overlord’s take on the NSA leaks:

In 1999, Scott McNealy, the chief executive of Sun Microsystems, summed up the valley’s attitude toward personal data in what became a defining comment of the dot-com boom. “You have zero privacy,” he said. “Get over it.”

MusÈe Bonnat - PsychÈ et l'Amour endormi - Peter Paul Rubens (ca. 1636)

Mr. McNealy is not retracting that comment, not quite; but like Mr. Metcalfe he is more worried about potential government abuse than he used to be. “Should you be afraid if AT&T has your data? Google?” he asked. “They’re private entities. AT&T can’t hurt me. Jerry Brown and Barack Obama can.” An outspoken critic of the California state government, and Mr. Brown, the governor, Mr. McNealy said his taxes are audited every year.

Really?  Well, probably:  AT&T or Google probably can’t do much to you.  But they can do a lot to the rest of us, not least in the framing of information — about politics, say — based on data gleaned from our internet habits.  They can or not serve given ads to us — including political speech — and so on.  And there is in essence no way, nothing even as seemingly rubber-stamp-ish as the FISA court, available to  any individual harmed by such behavior, even in the unlikely event one would be able to detect it.

The problem, as the article in which you were quoted  describes, is that creating a no-privacy regime on the internet served Silicon Valley capital well.  But it was supposed to be no secrets for me but plenty for thee, and it seems to shock you that you too, might be subject to review.  But hell, Scott — if you’ve done nothing wrong with your finances, you’ve got nothing to fear from an audit, right?

The bathos is rich with this one, in other words — but, amazingly, your argument gets worse as your quote goes on:

But arguing that computer makers have some role in creating a surveillance state, he said, “is like blaming gun manufacturers for violence, or a car manufacturer for drunk driving.”

The problem, Scott, is that gun manufacturers do bear significant responsibility for gun violence, given that the NRA, the leading enabler of unrestricted gun use in this country is essentially the gun maker’s lobbying arm, not to mention their marketing habits.

The auto line is a nice dodge, by the way.  Guns and Google, used as designed and within the law, put people or their privacy at risk.  Cars, used as designed, within the law, pose real risks that are deterred and/or insured against in various ways.  If there are defects in design, then yeah, the auto companies are responsible (Exploding Pintos, anyone?)  Drunk driving is not such a use, and throwing that up there conveniently shifts the argument away from what private industry has done with our privacy to their profit.

But the telling moment for me, Mr. McNealy came with your last quoted remark:

The real problem, he said, is: “The scope creep of the government. I think it’s great they’re looking for the next terrorist. Then I wonder if they’re going to arrest me, or snoop on me.”

Everything the government does is fine…until it may in some way impinge on the perfect life of one Scott McNealy.

I’m not saying that there’s no problem with the expansion of the security state.  I think there is, a big one, and I think it’s been building for a long time (at least 65 years, if not more), and I think it’s gotten much more acute since 9/11.  I do think that Obama has brought the security state much more in line with the forms of law than his predecessor — but I also don’t have much faith in such legal frameworks when they are themselves secret.

But I also think that a bunch of DFHs have been saying for a long time that the internet will not set us free, that, instead, absent real privacy protections it would become too easy to turn it into the most effective tool for state surveillance of its citizens ever imagined (insert “panopticon,” “Big Brother” or “digital Stasi” here, as you please).  You’ve been the poster child, or at least the most pithy slogan-maker for those who told us all to shove such concerns where the sun never shines.

In any event, Scott, wonder no more.  Yup, they are going to snoop on you.  They almost certainly already have.  Just like the rest of us.

Sucks to be in with the plebes, doesn’t it.

Yours,

Tom Levenson

(PS:  I’ll withdraw this snark and bile if and only if you do something meaningful to ensure your own and everyone else’s digital privacy.)

Image: Peter Paul Rubens, Psyche spying on sleeping Cupid, c. 1636.

Pink Himalayan Calculator Problems, Part (n)

January 10, 2013

Further to DougJ’s catch over at Balloon Juice this morning:  last night I actually found myself reading (why, oh why, dear FSM?) the McArdle post in question, a bit of fappery in which she paraded her above-the-fray disdain for the idea that the Obama administration might take action to clean up a mess the Republican rump plans to deposit on his lawn.  (No linky ’cause I’m not in the business of giving any hint of value to McArdle’s employers/enablers.)

It’s really a sad effort, in which McArdle attempts to complete a ~1,600 word piece on the failure of governance implied by a discussion of a platinum coin on the US balance sheet without implicating anyone other than President Obama.  She does make a couple of nods in the direction of “both sides do it” faux-balance, chiding the Republicans for their role in the last debt-ceiling debacle and noting that the GOP side of the aisle seems even less prepared for the consequences of actually blocking the measure this time around.

But those are head fakes.  She reserves the full blast of McArdle scorn (as always, queue Denis Healey’s “savaged by a dead sheep” line here) for Obama in particular and the Democrats in general (whodathunkit!).  Her chief complaint: Obama’s election campaign went pitiably small (an argument that relies on ignoring most of what Obama discussed on the trail), and that he and his party simply ignore the “fact” of federal over-spending.

I’m not going to do my usual obsessive 4,000 word fisk on all the failings of fact and logic that permeate this, as so many of McArdle’s effusions.  Life is too short; I’m on (self-imposed) deadline; and frankly, the slow erosion of McArdle’s career makes the task less pressing, at least to me.  The Daily Beast ain’t The Atlantic, and while the site itself may still command more traffic her old home (I’m not sure of that, but it was true a while back) you can see the impact the difference in audience makes.  I actually waded into the comment thread on the post in question (the shallow end — didn’t have the stomach or the time for the deep dive) and there were plenty there heading for Red State territory.

Agostino_Carracci_-_Hairy_Harry,_Mad_Peter_and_Tiny_Amon_-_WGA4398

There’s no doubt in my mind that McArdle is unlikely ever to want for a reasonably well-paying gig; she’s pretty well situated on the Wingnut Welfare railroad.  But there is a big difference between those who intone their harmonies inside the Wurlitzer and those who play out a bit, and it seems to me that she’s heading the wrong way on that particular arc.  Could be wrong, of course, and constant vigilance and all that.  But really, there are bigger fish to fry (looking at you, BoBo, et al.).

So, in the interest of everyone’s time, let me here just take note of the fact that McArdle’s calculator is performing as well as ever.  Her post’s coffee-spray-on-the-screen moment came on reading this gem:

For a while, Democrats could pride themselves on being the reasonable ones. Now they, too, are choosing words over math.  “We don’t have a spending problem,” President Obama apparently blithely told the Speaker of the House.  Which is technically true . . . if we’re willing to raise the government’s tax take to north of 50% of Gross Domestic Product. [ellipsis in the original]

Err.

Just to dot the “i”s: 2011 GDP?

$14,991,300,000,000.  Call it $15 trillion. (via the World Bank.)

2011 federal spending?

$3,598,000,000,000.  Call it $3.6 trillion. (Via the CBO.)

Now, I don’t know about y’all, but I’m not sure I even need to pull out my slide rule to see that 50% of $15 trillion is $7.5 trillion.  And I can probably get by without digging up a working model of a Curta to confirm that $3.6<$7.5.

But perhaps I should do the calculation anyway.  Using the rounded numbers, it seems that federal spending in fiscal 2011 amounted to ~ 24% of GDP.  Or, for those of you keeping score, right in the range  Bernard discussed yesterday.

All of which is to speak the obvious; McArdle’s number is simply bullshit.

I actually have no idea what she was thinking there; it really is one of the least well hidden secrets in US budget discussions that the feds spend a bit under one quarter of GDP.  That’s a number that’s been out there a lot, not least in the context of not-exactly-obscure proposals like the Ryan “Path to Prosperity”* budget plan, which called for long-term government spending to fall to 19% of GDP.

Just to belabor the point:  getting this proportion scaled right is not rocket science — it’s just part of the assumed knowledge of anyone talking US fiscal stuff.  Which is to say that anyone can, of course, screw up and type a number in error.  But then, if you’re numerate at all, you get that tingle that tells you there’s something just off — and you fix it.

Which leaves me with the usual McArdle conundrum:  is she simply so tone-deaf quantitatively that she really didn’t catch the absurdity of the claim?  Or is she so reckless a polemicist that she did, and didn’t care?

One last thought.  Back when McArdle was securely perched at The Atlantic, I often ended these rants by pointing out that her work colored the output of the whole site.  Sometimes I called out the writers I did (and do) admire there to make that criticism more pointed.  The same obtains today:  McArdle’s work is a measure of The Daily Beast.  If they choose to publish her, they own whatever good she may produce — and all the bad, with every bit of reputational and credibility damage that may result. In which context, whatever your feelings about Andrew Sullivan, I’ll say this:  he’s not stupid about his career.  It’s not (or not just) the manner of his leaving Tina’s playpen; it’s the fact of that abandon-ship that, to me, speaks volumes.

*Doublespeak alert

Image:  Agostino Carracci, Hairy Harry, Mad Peter and Tiny Amon, between 1598 and 1600.  I have used this before, but it really seems to fit here.

Guns Are The Enemy Of Liberty

December 17, 2012

I’m going to be posting a number of shorter (for me) posts on this over the next day or so; I take on board the injunction that general expressions of sorrow and disgust have their place — but are no substitute for specifics.

I’ll have some thoughts about actual measures to be advanced (more invitations to the community to continue to think together).  But here I’d like to start off making an obvious point:

An armed society may be a polite one.  But it’s not one that is free. It is not one in which a civic life in any meaningful sense of the term can take place.

Guns kill liberty.

Édouard_Manet_-_Pertuiset,_le_chasseur_de_lions

That’s what philosopher Firman Debrander argued in this morning’s New York Times, and he is in my ever-humble opinion spot on.  It’s worth the time to read the whole thing, but here’s the core of his case:

…guns pose a monumental challenge to freedom, and particular, the liberty that is the hallmark of any democracy worthy of the name — that is, freedom of speech. Guns do communicate, after all, but in a way that is contrary to free speech aspirations: for, guns chasten speech.

This becomes clear if only you pry a little more deeply into the N.R.A.’s logic behind an armed society. An armed society is polite, by their thinking, precisely because guns would compel everyone to tamp down eccentric behavior, and refrain from actions that might seem threatening. The suggestion is that guns liberally interspersed throughout society would cause us all to walk gingerly — not make any sudden, unexpected moves — and watch what we say, how we act, whom we might offend.

As our Constitution provides, however, liberty entails precisely the freedom to be reckless, within limits, also the freedom to insult and offend as the case may be. The Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld our right to experiment in offensive language and ideas, and in some cases, offensive action and speech. Such experimentation is inherent to our freedom as such. But guns by their nature do not mix with this experiment — they don’t mix with taking offense. They are combustible ingredients in assembly and speech.

Exactly so.

Obviously so.

“Smile when you say that, mister,” is great fun from the back row of the movie theater; much less so at arms length, bellied up to the bar.

Gun nuts, the NRA’s official core and all their acolytes and enablers are the enemies of American freedom, of the liberty you and I and everyone should take as our right.  That would be the liberty to walk where we choose, wearing what we want (an “I Reserve The Right To Arm Bears” t-shirt included), to assemble peaceably in protest or at the doors of our kids’ schools every weekday morning.  As Debrander discusses, the openly armed asshole at one of the town meetings during the summer of Obamacare, did not shoot anyone — but no one challenged him; his views echoed in the silence; actual debate was suffocated because no one wanted to piss off a guy who could kill you.  If you can’t have such civil debate, if you can’t even comfortably, free of fear, assemble for politics, or shopping, or a night at the movies, or in kindergarten, you don’t have a democracy in any real sense of the term.  And in that context, tyranny wins.  Debrander again:

After all, a population of privately armed citizens is one that is increasingly fragmented, and vulnerable as a result. Private gun ownership invites retreat into extreme individualism — I heard numerous calls for homeschooling in the wake of the Newtown shootings — and nourishes the illusion that I can be my own police, or military, as the case may be….

As Michel Foucault pointed out in his detailed study of the mechanisms of power, nothing suits power so well as extreme individualism. In fact, he explains, political and corporate interests aim at nothing less than “individualization,” since it is far easier to manipulate a collection of discrete and increasingly independent individuals than a community. Guns undermine just that — community. Their pervasive, open presence would sow apprehension, suspicion, mistrust and fear, all emotions that are corrosive of community and civic cooperation. To that extent, then, guns give license to autocratic government.

Our gun culture promotes a fatal slide into extreme individualism. It fosters a society of atomistic individuals, isolated before power — and one another — and in the aftermath of shootings such as at Newtown, paralyzed with fear. That is not freedom, but quite its opposite. And as the Occupy movement makes clear, also the demonstrators that precipitated regime change in Egypt and Myanmar last year, assembled masses don’t require guns to exercise and secure their freedom, and wield world-changing political force. Arendt and Foucault reveal that power does not lie in armed individuals, but in assembly — and everything conducive to that.

One last thought:  What does such philosophical high mindedness (Foucalt, forsooth!)  have to do with actual change in the way America understands and regulated guns?

Obviously, words don’t stop bullets.  We do need a new, powerful legal framework in which the nitty-gritty of guns and American life are reshaped.  There’s all the stuff we have and will talk about, from regulating the registration of firearms and the licensing of their owners, to restrictions on types of weapons, to insurance and its role in internalizing the social costs of civilian gun ownership and so on.  Others here have already started those lines of thought, and I promise I’ll do so as well.

But one of the biggest challenges we face is that over the last two decades or so, the NRA and its gun nut allies have captured much of the language of liberty as it applies to guns.  Framing regulation of guns as an infringement of gun rights has seen a drop in support for gun regulation from close to 80% to below 45% in Gallup’s polling of the question.  The ability to assert the “guns everywhere” position as a test of freedom has given the NRA and its running dogs* a huge rhetorical advantage.  We need to take it back.  Arguments like the one Debrander makes can help us do so.  We can amplify that one voice with our own…as in this small way, I hope to do here.

*you can take the China hand out of the business, but you can’t take the China out of the hand.

Image: Édouard Manet, Mister Pertuiset, The Lion Hunter, 1881

Why We Fight (Kind of Meta)

July 21, 2012

Attention Conservation notice [w. apologies to Cosma Shalizi, from whom the phrase is stolen]What follows is what in the newspaper business used to be called a thumbsucker  — in this case, yet another way to see the GOP as not just wrong, but so steeped in an error of principle, of worldview, as to be irredeemable.  It’s got a nice anecdote in it, lifted from someone else, but there’s no need to read on if you don’t like such stuff.  Which last is, of course, a PGO of its own.  See:  I’m fractally unnecessary.

______________

I don’t recall an election in which two such strikingly opposite visions not just of the United States, but of human nature, so clearly set the stakes.  Let me get to part of what I see by some indirection:

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately, with (thanks to the exceptional luxury of a sabbatical) much more to come.  I’ve started out by trying to catch up on some of the political books I’ve missed recently — and I’ll probably have some thoughts to share about Christopher Hayes’ Twilight of the Elites before long.  I just finished Michael Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy too, though I found it perfectly interesting, but less compelling than Hayes’ book for a number f reasons.  Still that’s a philosopher’s take on the same problem explored in the book that prompts this post, Virginia Sweet’s God’s Hotel.  

Sweet’s work is a memoir of her doubled journey as a doctor at the last surviving American big city alms house, San Francisco’s Laguna Honda Hospital, and as a scholar trying to understand Hildegard von Bingen’s spiritual and practical approach to her form of medicine.  Sweet’s book has been enthusiastically received, and I can see why, though it didn’t move me in quite the same way it seems to have for some others.  It’s Sweet’s lack of struggle that gets me, I guess; there’s no doubt in my mind she did sweat and suffer over her 20 years caring for the poor, but in recollection the life  unfolds with an easy rhythm, no matter how tumultuous the world around her might be.

That said, though, the core message of the book is that there is a profound difference between health care and medicine, and that we ignore the virtues of the art and practice of medicine at our great cost.  As one of  her reviewers notes, this is a subversive thought:  Medicine is a craft, performed one-on-one, slowly…

…while health care is a commodity, something that can be abstracted and, in a sense, mass-produced:

Sweet doesn’t romanticize much, and she never suggests that she, her patients or anyone should trade modern medicine and its quantifying tools for Hildegard’s actual practice.  But she makes the point a good historian of ideas should: one studies the past not to recreate it, but to understand what its thoughts meant to its thinkers — and then what meaning those same insights may have in the radically different time and place in which the historian lives.  Use Hildegard as a tool to probe what the consequences may be if we commit ourselves to life within Mitt Romney’s vision of America.

In that frame, here’s just a brief passage, in which Sweet describes her even-tempered reaction to the consequences of an infestation of her hospital by the kind of consultants that Romney’s parent firm Bain produces:

Above all, the [consultants'] report said, they’d been amazed by the anachronistic presence of a head nurse on every one of the hospital’s thirty-eight wards.  As far as they could tell, this head nurse did nothing but sit most of the day in  her chair in the nursing station.  She answered the phone, to be sure, and kept the charts tidy; now and again she when out and inspected a patient with one of her nurses.  Also, she made coffee, kept the TV room and lounge neat, organized patients’ birthed parties and in general, did whatever needed to be done. It was a pleasant job [the consultants] observed, helpful, no doubt, but one hundred years after Frederic Taylor’s description of scientific management, and in a time of tightening health-care budgets, such a use of a skilled RN was excessive.  They’d even seen one head  nurse whose only task was knitting.  That’s right, a head nurse who, as far as they could tell, spent all day in her chair at the head of her ward, doing nothing but knitting blankets and booties for her patients.

So their main recommendation was to change the nursing structure at Laguna Honda.  The job of head nurse should be eliminated.  Instead, a new nose manager position should be created, where each nurse manager would be responsible for two wards instead of one.  She would no longer answer the phones, tidy the charts, or help out with patient care.  Rather she would manage the staff…

It was a lesson in the inefficiency of efficiency.  And the best way to explain is to tell you about the head nurse who knit….[hers] was a little-old-lady-ward, with thirty-six little old ladies — white-haired, tiny and old — and sure enough almost everyone one was wrapped in or had on her bed a hand-knit blanket; white and green, white and red, white and yellow.  And there was the head nurse sitting in her chair at the nursing station, answering the phone, fussing with the charts, observing her charges, and knitting one of the few blankets remaining to be done.

I’ve thought a lot about those blankets since the disappearance of the head nurses and their well – run neighborhoods of wards.  About what the blankets meant and what they signified.  And here’s the thing: The blankets made me sit up and take notice.  Made me pay attention. Marked out that head nurse as especially attentive, especially present, especially caring.  It put me and everyone else on notice.

It’s not that the ladies for whom they were knitted appreciated them or even noticed them. Who did notice was — everyone else. Visiting family noticed.  Looking down the center aisle, they saw two rows of little white-haired ladies — their mothers, great-aunts, and sisters — each lady bundled up in a bright, many-colored hand -knit blanket. They also saw that each had makeup on, and her hair done and her nails polished by the nurses who knew that, down at the end of the ward, was the head nurse, knitting. The Russian ambulance drivers noticed, when they rushed onto the ward to pick up one of the ladies…Even the doctors noticed.  The blankets put us all on notice that this was a head nurse who cared.

…those blankets signified even more than attention and caring. The click of that head nurse’s knitting needles was the meditative click of — nothing more to be done.  Although it had seemed to [the consultants] that the head nurse  did nothing except knit, that nothing was, as the Tao says, what the Superior Man does when everything that was supposed to be done has been done.

We did get used to the new system eventually.  The remaining staff learned to answer the phones, tidy the charts, talk to families, help the doctors, survey the ward and support one another at the same tim they were looking on the computer or filling out the forms that the new nurse managers created.  But the new system had a cost.  It was stressful. After the head nurses were cut in half, there were more illnesses and more sick days among the staff; there were more injuries more disabilities, and earlier retirements. Among the patients there war emore falls, more bedsores, more fights, and more tears.  And this, in the broader scheme of things — even economics — is not efficient.

…The [consultants'] report  taught me not only the lesson of the inefficiency of efficiency.  It also taught me the lesson of the efficiency of inefficiency.

Because it wasn’t just the tasks of the head nurse that fell by the wayside with [the] recommendations. It wasn’t even their watchful re-creation of neighborhoods within the village of the hospital.  It was the time they had, the unassigned time, that not only belonged to them but spread itself to all the staff — doctors included. That unassigned time, as inefficient as it seemed to be… turned out to be one of the secret ingredients of Laguna Honda.  With the elimination of the head nurses, so economical on paper, some of that extra time was also eliminated, and with it, some of the mental space to focus and care.  There was, I discovered, a connection between inefficiency and good care…

I don’t want to romanticize here, any more than Sweet does through her long narrative.  To channel my inner Freud, sometimes the old ways of doing stuff really are outmoded.  No one who has recently spent four years in academic administration needs to be reminded of that.

But Sweet’s point is one I’ve been thinking of more and more as each Bain vulture capitalism story makes its way in and out of the Look! Shiny! media narrative.  Sweet mentions that the consultants who got rid of half of the head nurses shifted $2 million in the budget.  They collected $200,000 for their recommendation — an agreed 10% bounty on all “savings” their study produced. They correctly determined an individual inefficiency, and missed, in Sweet’s account, the systemic advantages of what seemed to their analytical framework, their faith, to be an obviously flawed system.

And so it goes throughout the current GOP worldview.  We know that the private sector is the GOP solution to (putative) problems in the public schools [paywall] by selecting the right measurement criteria.  Bobby Jindal can determine the cost of libraries, but not the cost in money or possibility of their loss. The number wins; the uncertain future weighs for nought.  The usual catchphrase for all this is privatizing profit and socializing risk — which is what the GOP seeks for social capital as much as the financial kind.  Hence the stakes of this coming election.

But beyond that pretty familiar notion, what came to front-of-mind as I read Sweet’s story was the reminder, if any were needed that the basic worldview of the two sides in this election are not the same, for all the overlap of interest and elite corruption and all that the circular firing squads of the left can (sometimes accurately) describe. I said this was meta, and it is, and I should probably let y’all get back to your Saturdays.  But behind the consultant’s technical apparatus is a vision of a world of individual action and reaction. Cut here, save the money, Profit!

Taken to the level of politics and national elections, it’s a vision (sic!) of a country best understood as an assemblage of 300 million individuals. Hence, among the adherents of this view, the furor over the suggestion that business folk had any help building their businesses.

If you think that such a view of the lack of connection between one person’s endeavor and the next is the way to educate a population, receive health care in a timely and useful fashion, to innovate, then the GOP is for you.  If you think we live in society in which individuals  gain freedom of opportunity and access to experience supported by the links between the lives of all those 300 million — if you inhabit reality, that is — then we need to destroy the current GOP root and branch, now and for the forseeable future.

Put another way:  we need to recall that I didn’t build this blog…without the internet, without its readers, without…you get the idea. ;)

And that’s enough meandering.  I’ve just finished my next, post-Sweet book in this orgy of reading, Elaine Pagels, Revelations. Interesting, culminating in a very good explanation of what from my perspective I read as the reason Isaac Newton so excoriated what he saw as the theft of Christ’s church by Athanasius, his imperial patrons and his allies.  Not sure what to grab next.  No matter.  What a joy it is to read and read and read…

Images: Jan Steen, The Sick Woman, ​ before 1679.

Max Liebermann, The Canning Factory, ​1879.

 

Federalism For Me And Not For Thee…Food Safety Dept.

July 14, 2012

As long as we’re talking about food….

Government by referendum is not a great way to run a railroad, IMHO.  Certainly, California voters have wandered down some deeply damaging alleys with the referendum process in that state.  (The referendum-induced 2/3rds majority required to raise taxes has been a stunning success, for example, if by success you mean rendering the world’s 8th largest economy largely ungovernable.

But there is no doubt that if you are into federalism and the return of power to the most local level possible, then it ought to be hard to find fault with the notion  that citizens of state ought to be able to decide that they want there food supply raised under certain regulatory conditions, and they want to ensure local standards of food safety.  So, who should object to this:

A California voter-approved law…requires that caged veal calves and breeding sows as well as laying hens should be able to stand up, lie down, turn around and freely extend their limbs.

The initiative was approved by 64 percent of California voters after animal rights activists released undercover videos of strangled, deformed and mummified hens in cages.

This isn’t even that controversial among at least some of the affected producers, according to reporting at SFGate.com:

The egg industry, in a landmark agreement with the Humane Society of the United States, has embraced the hen law and enlisted Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., to enact it nationally so that all egg producers operate under the same rules.

Other states have similar laws, but all that may change (cue the usual suspects music) if the House GOP, fronted by poster child dangerous idiot Steve King (R-salmonella) have their way:

The latest salvo came in a midnight vote in the House Agriculture Committee on an amendment to deny states the ability to regulate any farm product, potentially overturning not just California’s farm laws but animal welfare, food safety and environmental laws related to any farm product in all 50 states. [King introduced the amendment]

Read that again:  “potentially overturning not just California’s farm laws but animal welfare, food safety and environmental laws related to any farm product in all 50 states.” [Emphasis added, obviously]

For just a taste of the implications, here’s a California egg farmer who supports the law:

Riebli, the Petaluma egg farmer, said that if King’s amendment survives, “California also has pesticide laws for fruits and vegetables. They’re gone. California has its own standards for fluid milk (requiring fortification with vitamin D). They’re gone.”

Who needs a race to the bottom when Congress can just teleport us to the floor of the Marianas Trench?

There’s a lot more to this issue — we’ve got a pigs vs. chickens battle going on; an argument over what states can regulate that has genuine complexity and so on.  But look at what the GOP is trying to do (to be fair, along with Democrats from some ag/agribusiness heavy states): deny the ability of any state to regulate the health and safety of the food it’s citizens consume.

John’s running tagline is basically right: anyone voting Republican now and for the foreseeable future is voting to turn the United States into  Somalia.

Discuss.

Image:  Gustave Klimpt, Garden With Roosters, 1917

McArdle Mini-Me Follies, Real Estate Economics Division

May 25, 2012

Blogger’s note: You’ll find below that I use an anonymous source to support my attempt to dissect Someone [who] is wrong on the Internet.™  As always, anonymous sources are only as trustworthy as the writer who deploys them.  You have been warned.  (BTW — I do know that it’s cheating to do even minimal reporting on a blog post.  Sue me.)

Dr. Manhattan is one of the McArdle guests feeding the wire whilst that blog’s proprietor is preparing what will no doubt be a never-before equalled work of economic and/or culinary erudition. His is the nom de blog of someone described as “a lawyer…who represents, among others, clients in the investment industry” — a connection that may prove significant below.

Up for dissection today: his post titled “A Modest Proposal” in which he promotes the idea of killing what he alleges to be the lead culprit in the crash of 2007-8:  Mortgage Backed Securities.

What’s fishy here?  Well — lots.

I’m not going to go full metal blogpocalypse on this, in part because life is too short, and in part because Dr. Manhattan gets props in my book for having written clearly and unequivocally against the vaccine-autism claimed link on his (now dead) personal blog — from the perspective of a parent of an autistic child.  That kind of writing in that community takes courage, so this brush with the McArdle empire will be as free of my usual attitude in that direction as I can make it

That said, here’s the passage that set me wondering about this post:

…killing MBS will likely kill the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage with no prepayment penalty, which, in the words of Raj Date, “does not flourish in the state of nature.”  And right now very few people can get one of those anyway, which is not a coincidence.

Hmmmm.

One of the benefits of hanging out at a place like MIT is that there is almost always someone around who actually knows stuff on just about any subject you’d care to check…and so it is with the economics of real estate.  I dropped a line to a colleague up the street, and got confirmation of the obvious:  the 30 without a pre-payment penalty (the clause that makes refinancing mortgages so straightforward) significantly predates the rise of mortgage backed securities (by decades).  Such mortgages start to appear in the 30s; MBS start to become significant in the marketplace after 1970.  That the end of the latter would kill the former is, as we say, an assumption not in evidence.

Oh well.  And that “very few people can get one…” claim.  I’m filing this in the life-is-too-short category to check fully, so I’ll just note that (a) 30 year mortgages remain by far the most common housing loan out there — roughly three quarters of all mortgages as of the most recent Census report (2011, on 2009 data).

Also, being as I’m someone refinancing for the third time a loan first taken out in 2009, I can in my anecdotage* attest that the no-prepayment-penalty mortgage is both alive and trivially easy to obtain.  (At least in my market, it remains the default option.)

What bothers me about this passage is just the garden variety flaw behind so much glibertarian and/or right econ blogging:  what they know** requires no actual data to confirm.  This is kind of what you’d expect at a McArdle-branded blog:  that which ought to be true need not be checked.

But the tricky bit is that plausibility is all; the moment the reader’s willing suspension slips  — then you read everything else in the piece with attenae quivering.  Hence, I was ready when I took a second look at this gem:

 CDOs and credit default swaps don’t kill financial systems, mortgages kill financial systems.

Uh.  No.

As it happens, I’m not operating out of my usual sea of ignorance on this point, as my current project involves a deep dive into the first debt-for-equity swap in financial history.  The key fact most often ignored from that early period of finance is that though plenty went wrong, usually in ways that, frankly, aren’t materially different from the ways folks game and/or fail to grasp the system now, the core financial act of abstracting things into numbers is an enormously useful trick.  It is, truly, an engine of wealth.  See, e.g. Adam Smith, chapter IV of Book I of Wealth of Nations on the importance of a medium of exchange; currency is just the first step in the process by which finance mediates transactions.

In that vein, mortgage backed securities are like any tool; you can build a house with a hammer; you can also crush a harp seal’s skull.  It is all a matter of the user and the constraints that user’s society places on the deployment of such tools.  As my correspondent at MIT put it, there are three clear points of vulnerability inherent in the process of packaging individual mortgages into a big clump:

1). Originators do not have skin in the game and may try to pass off bad loans as good.
2). Rating agencies are paid by the pool creators rather than the investors (who are unknown at the stage when ratings must occur).
3). Special servicing needs a better business model. (TL: I.e., those who handle troubled or in-foreclosure mortgages need to do it right, which isn’t happening)

All of these are known flaws.  All of them are subject to regulatory responses.  My interlocutor again:

Until the 100 year flood #3 was never problematic. As for #1 and #2 as long as F&F were functioning as a public entity they monitored and disciplined originators and rating agencies with bad records. 800 lb gorillas can do that.  So a huge monopsonistic mortgage conduit actually overcame the intrinsic problems with MBS – and in my view should simply be turned into a non-profit public utility!

The alternative to MBS is to return to individual loan underwriting, retention and servicing.  We could certainly choose to say hello to all that, but at a cost — not a trivial one — that in the end would make the price of money for housing detectably higher.

This isn’t a terrifically complicated idea:  from its emergence in the 18th century, the bond market has lowered the cost of capital applied to all kinds of stuff in the real world, beginning, more or less, with the British Empire.  (See, for example, the brief essay buried about 2/3rds of the way through Volume II of Fernand Braudel’s Civilization and Capitalism, which gave me my first glimpse of the role of liquid capital markets and Britan’s rise to world-power.

All of which is to say that the derangement of the mortgage market in the United States was indeed a major and growing problem through the ‘oughts, compounded by an ideological commitment that prevented regulation everyone with an economics IQ higher than a plant’s understood to be necessary.  But even if the collapse of the housing market provided the spark for global financial disaster, the fuel for that inferno came not from the securities constructed directly out of home loans, but from their derivatives.  And as it is in derivatives that a whale’s share of the money can be made (at least until the music stops) those on Wall St. resisted and still resist not just regulation of those instruments, but any real discussion of their significance.

But here’s the blunt reality of modern finance: the scale of the derivatives market vastly exceeds that of the real economy that underlies it.  The leverage — the number of dollars at risk  in excess of the value of the real assets from which such bets are derived — is what makes for catastrophe.  Dr. Manhattan’s airy confidence, as quoted above, that ” CDOs and credit default swaps don’t kill financial systems,” is more than wrong.  To the extent that it reflects accurately what folks on Wall St. actually believe, it’s terrifying.

Or, as my MIT wise man says, more gently:

Not sure your writer fully understands how CDO and CDS markets work, and how counter party risk is basically unmeasurable – making them horribly subject to a systemic meltdown.

I’m betting none of this comes as a surprise to anyone reading this; reality based communities tend to be able to count on both fingers and toes.  And I guess I’ve committed my usual sin of John Foster Dulles-ing what was, after all, a throwaway of a line and a thought.

But I do think it important to try to push over and over again one basic point: financial markets are essential; they fund real lives.  They are also prone to failure in ways that are unsurprising, and are, at least in part, subject to constraint by design.  To pretend that failure is at once impossible and inevitable, just one of those things (like cancer) that attends the messy business of being alive, is merely to ratify the transfer of wealth from most of us to those with their paws on the capital spigots.

Dr. Manhattan might say that he is merely directing our attention to the root cause of our ills — but it is to me notable that the instrument he wants to do away with is the one that lowers the cost of a mortgage to you and me, and those he wants leave untouched are what buys as 2008.

If it were McArdle herself who had written this, I’d add snark here.  But as I said up top, Dr. Manhattan is someone who has earned some benefit of the doubt.  He may simply have gotten this one wrong, which is a state that comes to us all; me certainly.  So I’ll leave it here….

Over to you all.

*Credit for that coinage (at least in my first hearing) to the king of the three dot columnists, the gone but by no means forgotten Herb Caen .

**In the Mark Twain sense of knowledge.

Images:  Frans Snyders, The Fishmonger, first half of the 17th century.

Benjamin West, The Death of General Wolfe, 1770.

Megan McArdle Orders the Burlwood Dash For Her Tumbrel

December 4, 2011

Blogger’s Note: Zandar (apologies…) and Asiangrrl goaded me into diving once more into the swamp that is Megan McArdle’s prose.  But this is it.  There’s real and much more interesting work to be done out there, good stuff to read and (I hope) write.  And it’s clear that I can’t do what folks like TBogg and DougJ have mastered — the precision strike, 300 words and out, that leave the divine Ms. MM’s latest smoking in the ruins.  There’s no “I can handle just one more toke” self-delusion available to me.

So I’m quitting. Cold turkey.

This is the last McArdle post for at least six months — and I’ve empowered my colleague, Seth Mnookin, to tase me if I slip.

Also:  to steal Cosma Shalizi’s customary phrase, here is an attention conservation notice.  What follows is about 2,700 words vivisecting a 1,000 word or so book review.  It’s John Foster Dulles-scale overkill. It’s just me lancing a boil.  That’s all.  Read it at your own pleasure — but don’t come complaining to me that you’ll never get those minutes back.  We cool?

_______________________

My uncle, the ex RA officer, once told me the grim term-of-art British soldiers adapted to describe IRA bomb-makers inept enough to blow themselves up.  They had scored, it was said, an own-goal.

So it is, (without bloodshed, thankfully) that we must read the latest from our favorite Marie Antoinette re-enactor, Megan McArdle, writing in last weekend’s Wall St. Journal.  (And yes, I know DougJ got here first, along with all you would expect from the Balloon Juice commentariat, but what good is snark without oversnark, I say.  Charlie Pierce too.  (Update: and, of course, the invaluable Susan of Texas.)  Well, say I, a feast is as good as enough, is it not.?

Just to recap:  last Saturday, McArdle wrote what was ostensibly a book review that devolved rapidly into a celebration of McArdle’s own purchasing habits and the particular form of her pursuit of happiness.

There’s a lot that could be said about the miserably parched self-and-world view that informs that defense, but the rest of the column is equally egregious, so, in my usual succinct fashion, I decided to have a whack at it:

McArdle begins by announcing that she has bought herself a $1,500 food processor/cooking robot, a Buck Rodgers gadget called a Thermomix. This machine’s claim to fame is that it combines a chopper/grinder/stirrer function with a precision scale and a heating element.  Toss stuff into its mixer bowl in the right order and in what the machine tells you are the right amounts, press some buttons in the correct sequence, and standardized results accrue.

Now, contrary to the outrage in DougJ’s thread, I’m going to say up front that I have no problem with McArdle lusting after this, buying one — it’s her money to blow, after all — and concluding that this kind of automated cooking satisfies her urges.  I’ve dumped most of my sideways snark on this question to the footnote, for anyone that cares.*

No, what gets me, pretty much as always with this writer’s stuff, is her ferocious disregard for basic craft, and what I think is the essential bargain journalists make with their readers.

So, to begin, here she is, ex cathedra, on the book nominally under review, James Roberts’ Shiny Objects:

It’s a thorough survey of both academic research on consumerism and basic finance advice. Still, I first ran into an argument I hadn’t seen before somewhere around page 200…

We have a familiar McArdle rhetorical cheat here.  “I first ran into an argument I hadn’t seen before around page 200…” as if her familiarity with this literature is itself somehow dispositive.  I’ll give you that she’s not quite saying the arguments are wrong, but it is a purely uncheckable diminuition of her antagonist’s authority.

Next:

And well before then Mr. Roberts had fallen into some of the terrible habits of the genre. Though less openly contemptuous of the spendthrift masses than many of his fellow scolds, he still exudes that particular sanctimonious anti-materialism so often found among modestly remunerated professors and journalists.

Oh, snap!  It’s a measure of McArdle’s particular qualities that she manages to transform whatever publication chooses to admit her to its space into that privileged corner of the school steps where the Mean Girls live.

I mean, seriously:  working at jobs we like for money less than that the 1 % can command so warps the character as to turn us unfortunate journalists and professors into hypocritical scolds.  Damn.  I’m short on my month’s quota of vituperation and visible displays of hair-shirt couture.

Of course, this is (a) simple pre-emption:  “I’m not a culinary snob, wielding cash to distract as I chase the lives of my betters.  You’re the snob!  So there!”

And (b) it’s nonsense.  Professors and journalists are not badly paid by any reasonable standard. Roberts himself is a professor of marketing at Baylor, and as of the 2009 mean salary for such faculty was $138,000.   That’s not Prada and hot and cold running Dom rich, but it’s not bad coin by anyone’s standards, and applied to the cost of living in Robert’s Waco, Texas, that’s a sum that will set you up very nicely indeed.

All this is crushing flies with a jack-hammer, I know, but the point is, I think, pretty damn obvious:  McArdle hasn’t or won’t do the work to test the question on the table: whether or not money buys you happiness.  So she throws monkey faeces at the wall instead.

To continue:

Here are some of the things that upset him and that “document our preoccupation with status consumption”: Lucky Jeans, bling, Hummers, iPhones, 52-inch plasma televisions, purebred lapdogs, McMansions, expensive rims for your tires, couture, Gulfstream jets and Abercrombie & Fitch. This is a fairly accurate list of the aspirational consumption patterns of a class of folks that my Upper West Side neighbors used to refer to as “these people,” usually while discussing their voting habits or taste in talk radio. As with most such books, considerably less space is devoted to the extravagant excesses of European travel, arts-enrichment programs or collecting first editions.

I’ve long noted that McArdle has, to put it kindly, some reading comprehension problems; they are manifest again it this paragraph. She writes down a series of items.  Note that she does not quote — somehow she’s culled this set of items from what could be a single passage, or might be half the book, which would affect the interpretation of what Roberts was actually saying.

Now look at the key claim:  “This is a fairly accurate list of the aspirational consumption patterns of a class of folks that my Upper West Side neighbors used to refer to as “these people,” usually while discussing their voting habits or taste in talk radio.”

Do you see a pattern of consumption in that catalogue?  Iphones and McMansions — just points on a single cultural and aspirational continuum, right?  a Gulfstream falls uniquely onto the same folks’ bucket lists as Abercrombie and Fitch products?  This is a set of cultural markers that clearly distinguishes Limbaugh dittoheads from those who shop at Murray’s Sturgeon?

What’s actually going on here is McArdle distorting what Roberts is trying to say, even  within her own skewed presentation of his case, in order to transform that serious argument into a spitball fight about class and privilege.  But everybody wants something on that list, and many of us want a lot of it, which is what I understand Roberts to be saying:  the pressure to consume affects us all, no matter what we got or where we live.  Oh — and I’d have to say — it’s pretty bold, to put the nicest spin on it, for a Manhattan-bred, beltway insider like McArdle to lecture a guy living in Waco about what ordinary Americans want.

Really, McArdle’s rush to contemn her neighbors for the class snobbery she imagines she hears (make the lambs stop screaming!) sounds to my suspicious ears to be something that has crossed the writer’s mind.  There’s just a little too much specific desire in that “bling…plasma…rims” catalogue for me to trust her claim as to who spoke such slurs and who listened.  And as for that ” considerably less space is devoted to the extravagant excesses of European travel, arts-enrichment programs or collecting first editions,” I bet Roberts didn’t mention $1,500 food choppers either.

Onward!

Consider the matter of status competition. Mr. Roberts, like so many before him, argues that conspicuous consumption is an unhappy zero-sum game. But this is of course true of most forms of competition: Most academics I know can rank-order everyone in the room at a professional conference with the speed and precision of a courtier at Versailles.

Oh yeah?  McArdle must know a particularly miserable set of academics, which, now that I think on it, is not that farfetched.  All I can say is that at the conferences I attend, McArdle’s kind of high school (yes, that again) attention to who among us are the kewl kats is not the defining dynamic of the meetings.

Of course, the real stupidity here, beyond the “trust-me” bullsh*t inherent in the “most academics I know” approach to reporting, is the idea that academic exchange is merely the arena in which status competition plays out.  This is the shorthand response, but academics are members of a professional community.  They go to conferences to communicate results.   There is competition, and you notice the Nobels in the room and so on.  But most academics understand that better work by anyone raises the status of the entire group as well as of the individuals involved.  Success in physics or  geochronology or the study of counterfeiting and late 17th century finance (a plug, here, in case you were wondering (Kindle edition too!) is not  a zero-sum game.  That McArdle thinks it is explains much.

Any competition, from looks to money to academic credentialing, both consumes a lot of resources and makes many of the participants feel bad about themselves.

No.  See above.  For a beautiful account of the meaning of competing, and not just the competition, check out what is in my opinion the single best book about a sporting event ever written in America, John McPhee’s Levels of the Game.

Actually, I have to say that to say that this passage from McArdle actually made me feel a ghost of pity for her.  Such a direct glimpse into the poverty of her soul!  Setting aside all else:  what a drag it would be to be her!  (Apologies, Bobby D.)

There’s more — I’ve only covered the first half of a two-book review.  I just don’t have the strength to go through that latter half, beyond noting that it took me all of a couple of moments to find that in trashing his book she makes one claim that is simply at odds with what Rutgers economic historian James Livingston, actually says. It’s not “rich savers,” as she has it, whom Livingston charges with inflating bubbles.  Rather, he argues, “corporate profits …[are] just restless sums of surplus capital, ready to flood speculative markets at home and abroad.”  I have little doubt that similar problems obtain with the balance of her review, but there comes a point where even I can take no more.

So one last thought, really an explanation about why it is McArdle so gets under my skin.

That would be because she so diminishes the craft I have spent decades learning and now teach:  how to write about matters of fact; how to be a journalist.  I’ve detailed some, (by no means all) of the kinds of errors of argument and interpretation in this one little fish-wrap piece that make a mockery of the notion of a bargain of honesty with one’s readers.  But I’ve left till now the tic that McArdle displays over and over again that tells you that she simply can’t be trusted.  And that would be her near-constant invocation of strangely generic sources.

Journalists often use anonymous sources, and it’s always an issue.  But good journalists provide enough of the context of anonymity to give the reader a chance to gauge how likely it is that Mr. X actually said what he is reported to have done, and that Ms. Y is actually knowledgeable enough to be a sufficient authority for whatever the reporter asserts.  The guy inside Philip Morris who’s identified only as a Big Tobacco insider — that’s someone who’s need for anonymity the reader understands, and if he says that the tobacco companies knew about the smoking-cancer connection since the fifties — and oh, by the way, here are the shopping bags full of documents — then you know what you’re dealing with.

But those “neighbors” whom, presumably, McArdle engaged in friendly conversation, no doubt hiding her overflowing disdain with all the subtlety and grace for which she is so well known…I don’t think so.

Rather, whenever you read the broad cultural pronouncements of our Village betters, remember this:  the local taxi driver, the “concerned Democrat,” any of Megan McArdle’s usefully clueless liberal “friends”…they don’t exist.  Not in any meaningful sense, at any rate, and any actual journalist knows this, as does any competent editor.

And in the end, that’s why I’ve got to quit this beat for a while — a long time I hope.  McArdle has disproportionate influence, or at least, a much bigger megaphone than her own merits could command.  But in the end, she’s just not that interesting.  There are better things in life to do than to spend precious moment, much less hours, contemplating the train wreck that passes for her body of work.

Oh — and one more thing.  Whilst I’ll defend to the death McArdle’s right to spend her cash on any damn gadget she wants (see the footnote immediately below), that doesn’t mean I won’t snicker at it.  And yup, a $1,500 kitchen robot is pretty much an après moi, le déluge kind of item.

Me, I’d rather Occupy My Kitchen, and dine (as last night) on roast capon with a pasta-and-sausage stuffing, squash and cippoline onions, sides, and an almond and pear tart, home made.  Did I mention that in bamboozling my beloved into marrying me, I gained a former pro chef as a roommate?  I believe I did.

*Go to it, I say.  I don’t even think that McArdle’s appreciation for what the machine can do is as hopelessly misconceived as her examples suggest. While making a béchamel sauce hardly requires such an investment, still I can see the convenience, and in the right context, some real value of such a device.

That would be in a professional kitchen, where the goal of uniform repetition is paramount.  Once you work out the recipe for something you want your restaurant to add to its menu, a machine that automates the process of turning out consistent results every time has an obvious value.  For the home cook?  Well, Nathan Myhrvold has one, and if you are his kind of cook, one fascinated by the application of technology and precision measurement/regulation to cooking (and with the budget to sustain your fancy), then fine.

If you’re McArdle, less compelled by molecular gastronomy than the kind of kitchen olympics that leads one to write a  phrase like “…perfect hollandaise and flawless béchamel can be produced in minutes with virtually no effort,” then clearly, this kind of robot can help mask any flaws in your basic kitchen technique. And, hell, take her word for it that the gizmo is fast and convenient, and that those qualities enable her to make food she likes more often than she previously could.  As McArdle perfectly correctly says — that’s a boon, for her.

There is a price to be paid, it seems to me:  a tedious leveling of one’s cooking.  Once the robot gets going, all you can do is accept the price of automation:  you get consistent results, but you can only experiment by rerunning the whole process — making the same dish again — for each change that might seem desirable.  When you cook by more pedestrian methods, you dip and intervene.  All in all, it’s a perfect device to turn the ambitious but not-terribly-talented home cook’s kitchen into an amateur version of the sort of restaurant Calvin Trillin marvelously dubbed the Maison de la Casa House.  But all in all, if you’ve got the money and you want the crutch — hell, why not?

Images: Joachim Wtewael, Kitchen Scene, 1605.

Jean Clouet (attr.), Charles IX of France with racket,  1552.

Bartholomeus van Bassen, The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, c. 1620-30.


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