Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Big Short by Michael Lewis

The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
So this is a very good book. Michael Lewis is a wildly gifted writer of nonfiction narratives, and the word I want to use to describe the prose in The Big Short is "breezy." That is a particular accomplishment when your subject is mortgage-backed securities and collateralized debt obligations.

Here is the thing. At this point the book has sort of been outpaced by events. The SEC named one of the book's bit players, John Paulson, in its complaint against Goldman Sachs, and in general the notion that the short-sellers in the subprime market somehow have their hands clean in this whole mess seems less and less true each day.

The truth, so it seems right now anyway, is that the short traders played an indispensable role in inflating the bubble more than it otherwise would have been. This is basically Yves Smith's beef with the book in her lengthy, combative review -- which I think should be essential reading before reading "The Big Short," not after.

Also, this ProPublica/Planet Money/This American Life story about mega-short-seller Magnetar, which describes the same phenomena.

Lewis presents the short-sellers as sort of oddball heroes for taking Wall Street's received wisdom -- housing only goes up, CDOs are pretty safe -- and seeing it for the bullshit it was. And Smith makes the point -- and it's true -- that really, the shorts, too, were profiting from the many fictions of the subprime market. Fair point.

So, okay. But here is the other thing. Shorting the real estate market in 2006 still actually did take a particular kind of oddball character, and there weren't that many of them, and there is something inherently compelling about Lewis's cast of weirdos. There's a one-eyed genius investor with Asperger's syndrome, there's a self-promoting banker with bushy sideburns, there's a money manager who is rude and confrontational by Wall Street standards. And after all, these guys did bet right, and they did have that moment where they saw something that no one else was seeing. You don't have to buy the version where they're anti-market heroes of the little guy to find that a compelling story.

So the book is very good and it's probably good that it's the first thing a lot of people are reading about the crash. It really shouldn't be the last, but that is not something we can hold against Michael Lewis.

View all my reviews >>

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Mike Allen's productive weirdness

I realize I am predisposed to like this piece because I am a sometimes political journalist, though obviously not on anything like this level, but still let me recommend Mark Leibovich's profile in the New York Times Magazine of Politico's Mike Allen, he of the daily Playbook emails and the dozens upon dozens of scooplets and sometimes real scoops. It's a great piece of magazine writing and a great character study of a really odd and interesting character.

Mike Allen is famous in Washington, which is not the same as being famous-famous, but which still means that there are concentric circles of political junkies who know who he is and already knew many things about him even before this long piece. (I am one of these!)

Here is who he is, or seems to be. He is an extraordinarily successful political journalist. He sends out Politico's Playbook emails early-early each morning, seven days a week, and they are always very long and packed full of interesting/important/agenda-setting national news. He writes a ton of stories, goes on TV all the time and knows everybody in both political parties in Washington. He gets Washington stories that others don't get.

What makes this an interesting magazine profile is that he is also a person who has made professional virtues of every one of his many personal eccentricities: obsessive workaholism, hyper-sociability, total voraciousness toward political information, a desire to write thousands of words every week and no apparent need for regular sleep habits. He is a hoarder, an obsessive rememberer, and he works so much that the people around him routinely worry about is mental and physical well-being.

He is extraordinarily successful, in other words, in part because he is extraordinarily odd.

I see many of my own personal characteristics in this guy: I, too, have an obsessive, workaholic streak, I am more hyperactive and busier than I'd like because, for whatever reason, I am compelled to do what I do, despite certain costs to my personal life. Maybe you also can relate.

But you and I, we are only human. Sometimes we get tired, or we get annoyed, or we temporarily lose our motivation, or don't feel like attending that party or event that we really ought to attend, and we don't keep up those personal relationships that sooner or later will benefit us professionally. Not Mike Allen! Not ever! And look where it's gotten him!

At the same time, you read this piece and you ask yourself, could I ever be like this guy? What is even the point of being like this guy?

What makes this a fascinating profile is that Mike Allen is an absolute outlier in all of these personality traits that are actually fairly common among your driven, ambitious professionals. But in Allen they're maxed out, to the point that they are barely recognizable anymore as the type of standard-issue workaholism and obsessiveness that we lesser political junkies experience. And we are all lesser political junkies than Mike Allen.


A lot is made of the pernicious influence of Politico culture on political culture, and it's not all the way wrong. The scooplet-driven, constant conflict, who's-up-who's-down philosophy that Leibovich critiques does indeed have some big holes to it. Politico is annoying, in other words, and it's often shallow.

But I also think at least some of the criticism of Politico has to be seen as, you know, jealousy and highbrow snobbishness. The fact is that there are political junkies, and they do want to follow all the little ins and outs of the game in the same obsessive way that football fans freak about about the draft and baseball fans want to drill down on every little statistic. Politico, in other words, fills a genuine niche.

The bigger issue is whether who's-up-who's-down political coverage comes at a cost, and I think it's hard to argue that it doesn't. You need a news culture and a political culture that is able to see the bigger picture and not just the minutiae. But I am not sure there is anything mutually exclusive about having some people whose focus is on the minutiae while others are focused on bigger stuff. It makes sense to encourage big-picture thinking, but I am not sure that the existence of play-by-play guys like Mike Allen necessarily make that easier or harder to do. It's always going to be hard.

Good/bad, not art/not-art

We touched on this in the new Insophisticate podcast about Roger Ebert's trollish videogames post, but I don't feel like I explained this point very well, so I'm going to make another run at it.

I am against the aesthetic view that writes out of art the art that isn't very good. In other words, a movie like The Godfather is art while, you know, Little Man is not just bad art, it's actually not-art.

The reason I don't think that's right is that it is too narrow a view of art. If "art" only means "successful art," then 99.9999 percent of the creative product out there is excluded, and that doesn't seem right to me. I think the better way to look at this is just to allow for really broad categories of good and bad art.

I also happen to think that the "art/not-art" school of aesthetic classification places too much power into the hands of, well, critics and tastemakers. It's not exactly that quality is a subjective thing (it really isn't), it's that it's complex and has a lot of different aspects to it. And it changes over time, as stuff that was universally derided or dismissed turns out to be lauded later and vice versa.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

"It's the home of cheese."

Check out this video I made for work:

Thanks Dino for help filming these.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

A shadow narrative of a 1960s when crooners were still king

Or, "Pop Memories of the '60s" is arresting and perverse

So Laura and I were watching TV the other night and somehow she came upon this incredible extended infomercial hosted by a guy in an awesome mustache and a mock-turtleneck and a sort of bizarro Florence Henderson type, and it was advertising a 470-disc Time-Life box set called "Pop Memories of the '60s." This does not have the hosts, but it should give you a flavor:

Now, I am going to be honest and explain, this is the sort of thing I always like because I happen to believe that the dead center of the middle of the pop mainstream is almost always more revealing of culture than the stuff that is edgy or critically acclaimed or enjoyed by the fancy people and hipsters and therefore ends up being canonized in the long run.

And as you can clearly see above, "Pop Memories of the '60s" is nothing if not a portrait of the unhippest, boringest pop mainstream imaginable. But it's also somewhat arresting and, I don't know, kind of funny because of the ways that it seems to represent a kind of shadow narrative of 1960s music. In the same year that Hendrix played the national anthem at Woodstock, Glen Campbell released and recorded "Wichita Lineman." See what I mean?

So instead of the '60s being about the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Dylan and Hendrix, this box set it's about Bobby Vinton, Petula Clark, a little Dionne Warwick, some late-period Elvis and early-period Stevie Wonder

This is pop music that is still heavily influenced by the crooner era, and dominated by smooth, way-out-in-front vocals backed by a full orchestra. That's not so unusual -- Elvis and a lot of other early rock 'n rollers always took certain cues from crooners, at least in their slow songs. But there is still something striking about how totally alive and well the big-band, crooner, smoothed-out sound was deep into the '60s. I would have to think about this more, but maybe this is the last stand of the popular crooner, at least as a standard pop music figure.

Just to put my cards out on the table, with certain exceptions (Little Stevie Wonder!) this is not really anything I would actually, you know, listen to. I am not going to invest the $7,430.99 + $299.99 shipping and handling to purchase the full box set. But it's an interesting document all the same for anyone like me who is interested in the counter-narratives that are woven into popular culture. Your parents might have loved the Rolling Stones, but at the same time there were millions of American households who much preferred to spin some Roger Whittaker, thank you, and that is a true fact about that decade, too.

P.S. ... You know what else? This makes me view the Trololo guy as a little bit less weird. His manner and presentation are definitely run through a ridiculous Baltic-Lawrence-Welk filter. But he's not really so far away from a Glen Campbell or a Wayne Newton or somebody who would have been roughly his contemporaries.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Confederate History Month

Thank you, The Onion:
"Slavery shouldn't stop us from celebrating Confederate History Month anymore than terrorism stops us from celebrating Bin Laden’s Day."

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Whither whiteness?

For reasons I really don't need to get into here, I have had occasion to think a lot lately about whiteness -- not just who counts as white but what makes whiteness substantively different from blackness or brownness or whatever else, and indeed whether whiteness can even be considered a positive identity at all.

So I am interested to see this new New Yorker essay by Kelefa Sanneh, one of my favorite music writers since forever, examining whiteness and the dubious concept of "white culture" today. Ultimately I find that this essay is a bit gentler than it needs to be, but it gets some big things right and besides that deserves credit just for taking on the subject.

This is a relatively minor point in the essay, but it's well stated and hits directly on what I think is an increasingly common phenomenon. (Nevermind the mention of Glenn Beck in this graf, it is just one example.):
In fact, [Glenn] Beck's slippery concern with racism -- outrage over false charges of anti-black racism, combined with outrage over anti-white racism -- seems central to a certain kind of white-identity politics. This professedly anti-racist argument is about as close as anyone comes to articulating a mainstream political agenda that is explicitly pro-white.
Obviously it is perfectly logical and consistent to oppose anti-white racism as well as other forms of racism. But when it's combined with aggrieved suspicion and outright anger at virtually any mention of anti-black racism -- an example of this would be Andrew Breitbart's latest crusade -- it is hard to avoid the conclusion that concern with racism per se is not the real motivating factor in the matter. And again, this is something that has become very, very common.

I think that Sanneh's conclusion is interesting but perhaps a little too pat:
[I]t's getting easier to imagine an American whiteness that is less exceptional, less dominant, less imperial, and more conspicuous, an ethnicity more like the others. In the Obama era -- the Tea Party era -- whiteness is easier to see than ever before, which means it’s less readily taken for granted. If invisibility is power, then whiteness is a little less powerful than it used to be.
Is this true? Couldn't it also be the case that we're seeing the revival in the U.S. of some semi-dormant strain of genuine white supremacy? And that instead of receding into just another sort of soft tribalism, whiteness, fueled by its many narratives of victimization, will actually attempt to rise back up to reclaim its dominance? In short -- isn't there real reason to worry about the path we're headed down?

Saturday, April 03, 2010

"Che" is not about what you want it to be about

There is a moment deep into in the second half of the two-part, four-hour epic biopic "Che" when Che, in the middle of the jungle in the midst of his badly failing guerrilla campaign in Bolivia, turns to one of the other guerrillas and says, "I'll write Sartre and Bertrand Russell to establish a worldwide fund."

Of course, we know how the story turned out, and it wasn't good for Ernesto "Che" Guevara. And by that point in the movie, it's obvious that he is making a desperation move. But while it's a stray comment that the movie never revisits, it's also a very clear indication that Che, by this point in his life, had himself bought into the myth of Che. I'd argue that this is one of the central themes of the movie -- how Che came to believe in the same romanticized guerrilla-hero pap that has launched a million t-shirts and dorm-room posters. And, ultimately, how badly that myth served him and the other revolutionary fighters, and indeed the people of Bolivia and elsewhere.

A lot has been made about the fact that "Che" is a movie with virtually no emotional content, an "anti-biopic." And it's true -- in this respect it's the opposite of "The Motorcycle Diaries," in which Young Che was portrayed as an empathetic, sensitive champion of the peasant farmer whose travel experience as a young man launched him on the path to glorious revolution. I hated "The Motorcycle Diaries" more than I hate most biopics, but the basic problem is the same throughout the genre: over-reliance on facile psychological explanations for every single decision made later by the character. "Che" does none of that at all, and that's a good thing. It's much more concerned in the "what" and the "how" -- battle tactics, the military campaign's movement from place to place -- than it is with the "why."

The first part of the movie is the Cuban revolution, ending with victory over Batista; the second half is in Bolivia, ending with Che's execution. Its central purpose is to provide a study in contrasts between the two -- differences it underlines with differences in form between the two, in color schemes and even technical things like aspect ratio. But also in the facts it dramatizes: In Cuba, revolutionaries brokered deals among peasant groups and got their buy-in. Their forces grew, and their tactics won the day. The wind was at their backs. In Bolivia, meanwhile, everything that could go wrong did. Peasants rebuffed Che. The government forces were well-organized, and the CIA was involved. The guerrillas' numbers dwindled and Che died a failure.

But while the second half is simply a chronological the story of the campaign, the first half of the movie is intercut with scenes of Che's speech at the United Nations in 1964, and with his interviews in New York with fawning journalists asking questions about what it's like to be the personification of the revolutionary warrior, how it feels to be so awesome and so on. Those sections of the movie are about the creation of Che-the-myth. And in the movie's second half, we see the result of it.

Now to be sure, it does seem like director Steven Soderbergh, one of my favorites, and actor Benecio Del Toro, also an amazing actor, were playing a sort of double game in the promotions of the movie. Both of them said some stupid things about Che, and they held off from actually making moral judgments about Che. They promoted the movie heavily in Cuba and Latin America (including with a fairly disgusting meeting between Del Toro and Hugo Chavez), and especially given that the movie is in Spanish, you have to assume there was a bit of a commercial motivation for not coming out and saying, you know, "Che was a brutal murderer and no one should aspire to be like him." But who knows. Maybe they actually don't believe that.

And for anyone who would look to "Che" as some kind of comprehensive biography of the man, it must be said that there are some unforgivably large omissions. The defining characteristic of Che's character was sadistic brutality. As a revolutionary, he made his name and his reputation as an enforcer, a staunch Stalinist ideologue and, finally, an enthusiastic executioner of dissidents, political enemies and anyone in his way. This movie deals with that side of Che very little, and that's an understandable disappointment for people who want to see a film that grapples with the actual moral content of the man's life.

Still, there's a big difference between this movie and the pastel, romanticized Che of "The Motorcycle Diaries." That movie did take a strong moral stance and just happened to get it exactly wrong. No doubt some critics wanted to see something more like a corrective to that vision of Che, and Soderbergh's movie isn't that.

But then I think, would I really have wanted to see the movie that is all about the many summary executions Che oversaw, his ideological rigidity and his Soviet allegiance and narcissistic martyrdom complex? I am not sure I would. As opaque as it can be, this movie is actually in a lot of ways more compelling than that one would have been. And in some some subtle ways, this "Che" does depict the man who actively built his image as revolutionary hero, and who ultimately was brought down when he came to believe in it himself. That's a more complicated story than either the one that casts Che as a Christ-like hero, or the one that is all about what a villain he was. Che was not a good man, but "Che" is a good movie.