Monday, March 30, 2009

One reason for optimism

I believe in the "magazine cover effect," too! Paul Krugman describes it as:
[W]hen you see a corporate chieftain on the cover of a glossy magazine, short the stock.
Another variation I remember came from Jack Shafer of Slate:
The leading indicator that a national trend has peaked and has begun its downward trajectory is often its appearance on the cover of one of the newsweeklies.
By this indicator, this week's Krugman cover of Newsweek ought to mean that the recovery has already begun, that Geithner's bank plan will restore stability to the financial system and that the recession will be over swiftly. The alternative, that the newsweeklies weren't late to the story, almost does seem less likely.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Where we want to be

There is first of all the problem of the opening, namely, how to get us from where we are, which is, as yet, nowhere, to the far bank. It is a simple bridging problem, a problem of knocking together a bridge. People solve such problems every day. They solve them, and having solved them push on.

Let us assume that, however it may have been done, it is done. Let us take it that the bridge is built and crossed, that we can put it out of our mind. We have left behind the territory in which we were. We are in the far territory; where we want to be.

-- J.M. Coetzee, Elizabeth Costello

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The new reading list

a new project of mine at work is the Economic Recovery Digest, a blog focused on keeping up-to-date on all the financial crisis and recession news and commentary. It's a one-stop-shop for all the day's best info.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Friday, March 20, 2009

Why the AIG bonuses are not so bad

I think the recent AIG kerfuffle has been an unserious distraction, with serious consequences. Members of Congress are falling all over themselves to prove their level of outrage. It doesn't seem contradictory to me, however, to find something offensive in the bonuses and still think it bad policy to try to recoup them.

1. the bonuses amount to less than 0.01% of total funds received by AIG.

2. the argument seems to be: "if you took our money, you play by our rules." But shouldn't, as a matter of prudence, the rule be: "if you took our money, you do whatever is necessary to make yourself healthy again?" So it behooves Congress to show the bonuses are bad policy, which is separate from showing they are distasteful.

3. Its not clear AIG ever "held its hands out," but rather their arms were twisted. The whole categorization of TARP recipients as greedy supplicants is incomplete at best. The original nine recipients agreed to the money after Paulsen strong-armed them in a private WH meeting. Goldman Sachs was vociferously opposed. AIG was seen as a TBTF institution and thus their quasi-nationalization was something of a forgone conclusion. Nevertheless, is someone any more beholden to you because they asked for money as opposed to took it because you saw they were in need? Maybe.

4. This is the bed the Fed made for itself. Capital infusions could have taken place by buying toxic assets, or putting companies through FDIC receivership, using a speed bankruptcy procedure or something similar. But somewhere along the line Paulsen decided taking equity stakes was the way to go. Many of us saw that something like this was bound to happen. Maybe not bonuses. But the politicization of corporate governance was inevitable. My guess was it was going to be a clause in some executive employment contract that guaranteed 45 days of vacation, but the point's the same.

5. What does this do to contracts? Unlike some, I'm not all that concerned about the "sanctity of contract" writ large. But I am concerned about the willingness of other companies to do business with TARP recipients. Who wants to enter M&A talks when everything is now subject to Congressional review and populist backlash? Isn't it indisputable that this adds another layer of uncertainty to companies already shorouded by fear?

6. It's possible, though I dont suppose to know, that many of the "bad people" at AIG were already cleared out in early 2008. Thus bonuses, which are often up to 90% of compensation packages on Wall Street, were a suitable incentive for appropriate talent who were understandably looking to jump ship. Also, even if these are some of the same people who "got us into this mess," should we reject paying them out of hand? Derivative contracts (especially credit-default swaps based on asset backed securities) are very complex and only a small handful of people really understand them. If AIG (and firms in similar situations) are to unwind their positions without taking down everyone else, we need the people who at least understand the problem, even if they are culpable for creating it. As my friend Garett Jones puts it, sometimes you have to bribe the bombmaker to defuse the bomb.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Letterman still better than Leno

I get why Obama goes on Leno -- same reason lots of celebrities go on Leno: big audience, easy questions -- but don't you kind of wish that he had gone on Letterman instead? It could be a Hugh Grant moment for Dave....

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Hannah Montana vs. Radiohead!

On the heels of the super-awesome discussion of the Wayne Coyne vs. Win Butler mini-beef, I feel like I should follow up with some thoughts on the even more unlikely Miley Cyrus vs. Radiohead mini-beef.

I think I am going to side with Miley Cyrus on this one.

It seems to me the basic shape of what happened is that Cyrus wanted to meet Radiohead backstage at the Grammys, and they didn't want to meet her. So then she publicly pouted about it ("I'm going to ruin them, I'm going to tell everyone"), and then a Radiohead spokesman released the drippingly condescending statement that "When Miley grows up, she'll learn not to have a sense of entitlement."

But is sense of entitlement the right term? The way she presents it, Cyrus wanted to meet the band because she was a fan. She wasn't demanding that they play at her super-sweet 16th birthday party. Honestly: She was at the Grammys, they were at the Grammys -- is it really such an unreasonable request to ask that maybe Radiohead walks over and shakes Hannah Montana's hand?

Doesn't it seem more like Thom Yorke & co. wanting to pretend that they aren't really celebrity rockstar royalty and therefore shouldn't have to engage in schmoozing protocol? But in that case, why be at the Grammys in the first place?

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Christine Falls by Benjamin Black

Christine Falls: A Novel Christine Falls: A Novel by Benjamin Black

My review
rating: 4 of 5 stars
Mystery story about a pathologist in 1950s Dublin? I am in. A nice lilting prose style that burrows deep into the mind of protagonist Garret Quirke, and a tight plot moving things along. This book makes me wonder, who is this John Banville fellow and why did he adopt the name Benjamin Black to write this book? And are John Banville novels very different from Benjamin Black novels? I think I will go find out.

View all my reviews.

Monday, March 09, 2009

A National Grill Rescue Plan

As usual, Megan cuts right through the argument for a mortgage bailout plan, and with appropriate panache and snarkiness:
Four weeks ago, I bought a grill on my credit card.

...I've since realized that our landlords have an old, broken grill that we might have been able to repair ...Meanwhile, I've discovered that
I can't sell the grill for a profit, because Home Depot seems to have a large number of very similar grills in stock which they are willing to offer to buyers for a mere $200. For that matter, I can't even sell it for the value of the loan with which I financed it. The equity in my grill has dropped by about 50%. Given all that, I don't see why I should be required to pay back the credit card company...Hell, the dirty bastards may well have known that I was going to end up underwater on my grill loan. I don't see why I have any obligation to repay them.

This seems to me to be approximately the logic behind the people saying that folks who took out stupid loans
don't have any sort of moral obligation whatsoever to make good their debts. The loan company didn't have your best interest at heart, the logic goes, so why should you take care of them at any cost to yourself?

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Best line I read today

Even ultraliberal states like Massachusetts would elect Republican governors like Frank Sargent, Leverett Saltonstall, William Weld and Mitt Romney precisely to keep an austere eye on the depredations of Democratic legislators. After Iraq, Katrina and Harriet Miers, Democrats surged to a five-to-three advantage on the competence and ethics questions. And that was before we put Sarah Palin on our national ticket.
From the much-discussed "Why Rush is Wrong," Newsweek cover story by David Frum.

'You don't want to admit that you're afraid of the person you're sleeping next to'

I have a long narrative story in today's Wausau Daily Herald about a young woman's experience as a victim of domestic violence:
March 2008. Kasha Oelke's cell phone wakes her up in the middle of the night. It's a restricted number but she knows who it is. It is her ex-boyfriend, and he is standing outside her apartment.

"Look outside your window," the voice on the phone says.

On this night, when she looks out and sees him there, all he does is laugh at her and walk away. It is not a friendly laugh. But on this night, that is all that happens.

Only a few weeks before, the call that woke her up in the middle of the night was him screaming into the phone that she had tried to poison him. She tried to poison him and he knew all about it. He had saved all the poisoned food and would be shipping it all back to her. He was sounding not just angry and irrational but actually crazy, his voice straining with rage. That was a voice she recognized from when the two of them were together. But by this time they had been broken up for nearly a year.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Win Butler is so missing Wayne Coyne's point

Is it me or did Win Butler of the Arcade Fire just colossally misunderstand and then cluelessly reinforce Wayne Coyne's broadside against his band?

Here is Coyne's diss in its entirety, because it really is great stuff:
I'm a fan of them [The Arcade Fire] on one level, but on another level I get really tired of their pompousness ... We've played some shows with them and they really treat people like shit. Whenever I've been around them, I've found that they not only treated their crew like shit, they treated the audience like shit. They treated everybody in their vicinity like shit. I thought, 'Who do they think they are?' I don't know why people put up with it. I wouldn't put up with it. I don't care if it's Arcade Fire or Brian Eno. If either of them walked into a room and treated people like shit I'd be like, 'Fuck you, get outta here.'

... People treat Arcade Fire like they're the greatest thing ever and they get away with it. Those sort of opinions change my view of their music. They have good tunes, but they're pricks, so fuck 'em. Who does Arcade Fire think they are? I've been around groups. I've been around the Edge from U2 and he's the fucking sweetest guy ever. I was around Justin Timberlake when he was young and he was just a normal, nice, kind person. Anyone can be polite and kind and people who have the privilege and money and attention should understand that. If they don't, then fuck 'em.
Emphasis added, but I think it's obvious to anyone who reads these comments that Coyne is talking about social equality. His sense from being around them is that the members of The Arcade Fire place themselves above the lowly crew members, audience members, etc. That's why the Edge and Justin Timberlake are relevant examples: They are "big stars" who Coyne has seen treating potential social inferiors -- crew, people in the general vicinity -- as equals. That's the point.

But now in his precious, wounded response on his band's incredibly pretentious website (you need a road map to find this response: go here, click "Win" and then "Win's Scrapbook" -- or if you are a regular person just click here to read it transcribed), Butler responds this way:
The only time we have ever shared a stage with the Flaming Lips was our last show on the Funeral tour at a festival in Las Vegas (over 3 years ago)...we arrived the morning of the show from Brazil, slept all day and awoke into some kind of surreal Vegas jet-lag dream in which we were playing after the Flaming strange...I was really excited to meet Wayne. Clouds Taste Metallic was a huge record for me, and growing up in the weirdness of Houston, I always imagined Oklahoma City to be in the same universe. I was really nervous to meet him and I felt a little weird that we were playing after them. We traded a little hello, but he was a hard guy to get a read on. Steven Drodz was super nice, and I felt good after talking to him...

So...I am not sure Wayne is the best judge (based on seeing us play at a couple of festivals) if we are righteous, kind and goodhearted people like The Edge and Justin Timberlake (who I am sure he knows intimately as well). I can't imagine a reason why we would have been pompous towards The Flaming Lips, a band we have always loved, on that particular night, all those years ago. [...]

At times like these I am comforted by knowing that even though Wayne slammed Beck all those years ago, he seems like a really nice guy to me. I guess everyone has a different idea of what being pompous means.
(Cluelessness emphasized.) But Coyne wasn't really complaining that the Arcade Fire were rude to him -- he's saying they were pompous dicks who placed themselves on a higher plane than the non-celebrity-musicians who surrounded them!

And to counter this charge, Butler responds that he, Win Butler a.) was perfectly polite to fellow celebrity musician Wayne Coyne, b.) doubts that Coyne is really that well-acquainted with super-famous celebrity musicians the Edge and Justin Timberlake, and c.) is unlike Coyne in that he, Win Butler, actually is friends with super-famous celebrity musician Beck.

We're going to score this one a big win for Wayne Coyne and a big loss for Win.

(image stolen from BrooklynVegan)


Not to double-up on links to New Yorker profiles, especially when I really don't have anything to add, but the long profile on David Foster Wallace's life and death is quite moving. This is the crux of it, and it's crushingly sad:
For some time, Wallace had come to suspect that the [antidepressant] drug [Nardil] was also interfering with his creative evolution. He worried that it muted his emotions, blocking the leap he was trying to make as a writer. He thought that removing the scrim of Nardil might help him see a way out of his creative impasse. Of course, as he recognized even then, maybe the drug wasn’t the problem; maybe he simply was distant, or maybe boredom was too hard a subject. He wondered if the novel was the right medium for what he was trying to say, and worried that he had lost the passion necessary to complete it.

That summer, Wallace went off the antidepressant. He hoped to be as drug free as [Infinite Jest protagonist] Don Gately, and as calm. Wallace would finish the Long Thing with a clean brain. He entered this new period of life with what Franzen calls “a sense of optimism and a sense of terrible fear.” He hoped to be a different person and a different writer. “That’s what created the tension,” Franzen recalls. “And he didn’t make it.”
Not a good trade. How much better would it have been to just wait another twelve years for a new novel? Or to get no new novel at all?


Me and DFW

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

On The Roots and Jimmy Fallon

Everybody seems mad that The Roots are Jimmy Fallon's house band. But why shouldn't they make money on some guy's TV show? My understanding is they never got much from the industry. Even Jay-Z kind of half-screwed them over if memory serves.

One of our town's more colorful characters

Ryan Lizza has a great profile of Rahm Emanuel in The New Yorker. This part made me laugh out loud [HT to Daniel Drezner]:
I noticed that over [Emanuel's] left shoulder, on the credenza behind him, was an official-looking name plate, which he said was a birthday present from his two brothers. It read “Undersecretary for Go F**k Yourself.”
For some reason it made me think of Ari Gold.

I also liked this part:
When Emanuel was a teen-ager, he lost half of his right middle finger, after cutting it on a meat slicer—an accident, Obama once joked, that “rendered him practically mute.”

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Shaving Day fun pics!

In which I undergo a male rite of passage and create a bunch of different formations in the course of shaving my beard...

Well, that was fun. Maybe I'll do it again next winter...

Rushdie: Slumdog sucks

My friend Katie points me to an article about how, like me, Salman Rushdie also hates "Slumdog Millionaire," too.

Rushdie has a rather long Guardian piece about film adaptations in general, with a few shots at Slumdog embedded in it. Here's a good bit:
Boyle, when asked why he had chosen a project so different from his usual material, answered that he had never been to India and knew nothing about it, so he thought this project was a great opportunity. Listening to him, I imagined an Indian film director making a movie about New York low-life and saying that he had done so because he knew nothing about New York and had indeed never been there. He would have been torn limb from limb by critical opinion. But for a first world director to say that about the third world is considered praiseworthy, an indication of his artistic daring. The double standards of post-colonial attitudes have not yet wholly faded away.
Some of the "poverty porn" critiques of Slumdog that floated around on the web were a bit too PC, certainly, and my own main problem with the movie had everything to do with the storytelling and nothing to do with a white guy telling it. But there is something breathtaking about Boyle's attitude here and I think Rushdie puts his finger on it.

P.S. ... I would totally go see a film adaptation of Midnight's Children that Rushdie says he's starting work on. Hopefully this time it will actually happen.

P.P.S. ... I wonder what Rushdie will think about the Watchmen adaptation? He is a comics fan with an interest in film adaptations, somebody remember to ask him this in another few weeks...