Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great GatsbyThe Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

The latest of the books I have read into Laura's belly, to the evident delight of the baby, who squirms and kicks throughout reading time. He is right about this one: It is really good. I had not read it since high school, and it is fairly magnificent. It is also about a time in America when James Gatz from North Dakota could turn himself into the fabulously wealthy Jay Gatsby, a possibility that has come to seem remote to us today. Although, as American Lit. students will recall, even Gatsby did not ever quite succeed in turning himself into Gatsby. Thumbs up to this book from me and the baby, and from Laura, too, although she slept through a lot of it.

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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Inside Job burns with righteous moral fury

Probably the most devastating segment in Inside Job comes in the last third when it discusses the lucrative off-the-books consulting careers enjoyed by many (most?) major academic economists. Economists from top schools are paid not just for speaking engagements but actually to write (or sign their name to) actual economic studies pointing to a client's desired result, and they never even disclose it because there's no rule at Harvard or Princeton or wherever that says they need to.

In an interview with John Campbell, chairman of the Harvard Economics Department, filmmaker Charles Ferguson uses this analogy:
Ferguson: A medical researcher writes an article, saying 'To treat this disease, you should prescribe this drug. Turns out, doctor makes 80 percent of personal income from the manufacturer of this drug. Does that bother you?

Campbell: I think it's certainly important to disclose the, um. The, um. Well, I think that's also a little different from cases that we're talking about here because, um. Um.

So I am late to seeing Inside Job, but I am guessing that I am not the only one who waited for it to come to Netflix, so a few thoughts:
  • The film is suffused with righteous moral fury, but also intellectual rigor. It's the best kind of polemic, and seriously I do hope Michael Moore and Davis Guggenheim were taking notes.

  • Part of the reason that the exchange above, like the entire segment on the corruption of academic economics departments, is so effective is because it really does present some new information. Somehow cornering a big-time financial services lobbyist with questions about CEO pay and lobbying dollars spent, which the film also does, is just not as effective. Maybe it's not as shocking or satisfying because Crooked Lobbyist is a character out of central casting, and besides, the lobbying guy knows exactly what he's doing in the film: He's there to provide slick, weaselly answers to pointed questions about his clients. The academic guys, by contrast, are so arrogant as to actually be shocked that they're even being questioned in this way.

  • It seems like most of the movie is made out of airplane shots of the outside of buildings, and yet it is still visually pretty great. I think they must've shot their Manhattan cityscapes early in the morning or right at dusk, because the light is terrific.

  • I think the film's argument is correct and well-constructed. The housing bubble was driven by Wall Street instruments and the crash was the result of a completely deregulated industry grown to monstrous proportions. But still this one, nagging thing: Ordinary people benefited from the housing bubble, and while it was going on they loved the housing bubble. Remember home equity loans? Remember the concept of home-as-retirement-fund? Remember the television program "Flip This House"?

    Ferguson talks to exactly one homeowner, a Latina woman whose family was taken advantage of by rapacious, criminal predatory lenders. But there were hundreds of thousands of others who bought into the bogus idea that housing prices always go up and benefited from it.***
It is satisfying to see some of the people who were directly responsible for the bad economic theory that set the table for the crisis cornered on film. And it's telling to see the names of many, many others flashed across the screen with the perfunctory "declined to be interviewed for this film."

Of the questions that arise out of the 2008 collapse, here are some: Should more people have seen the 2008 collapse coming? Are we likely to see another cycle of bubble and collapse? Is last year's financial reform law likely to prevent the next crisis? With the swollen size of the financial services industry, is the government structurally likely to successfully recognize and head off such an event?

Inside Job asks these questions, or at least touches on them. But it seems to me that its main question is a somewhat simpler one. It is: Would the world be a better, fairer place if there were more accountability for the crooked Wall Street CEOs and the hack economists and the macho Type A traders and the government toadies who all, all together, failed us on an unprecedented scale? And the answer is, Yes, absolutely it would.

*** There is a Republican story about the financial collapse that blames it all on Jimmy Carter's Community Reinvestment Act and/or Fannie and Freddie. It is a false, pernicious, ridiculous story. And yet. Acknowledging the truth that derivatives run amok caused the financial crisis shouldn't mean denying that there was a sense in which even ordinary homeowners were in some ways complicit in creating the bubble. A bubble is a kind of mass delusion, and requires the participation of masses.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

15 Songs About Parenting

God willing, in a few months Laura and I will have a baby, a son. Today I came across the great Randy Newman song "Memo to My Son" and got to thinking about what were some other great songs about being a parent. Through a combination of Googling and also thinking about my own favorites, here is the playlist I came up with.

Lou Reed, "Beginning of a Great Adventure"
I love this one. Probably captures most closely the way I am feeling right at this moment -- anxious, excited, bemused, talking to myself a lot.

David Bowie, "Kooks"
So good.

Slick Rick, "It's a Boy"
Possibly my favorite new discovery of the day. Great music video includes a Lil Slick Rick, Lil Flavor Flav, Lil Kool Moe Dee and others! Rick the Ruler's take on parenting: "Hope I don't spoil a n**** rotten."

Talking Heads, "Stay Up Late"
Technically about being a sibling to a baby, I know. But so good that we're going to allow it.

Randy Newman, "Memo to My Son"
Wry, warm. Terrific.

Brad Paisley, "Anything Like Me"
About finding out that you are having a son. Ending of the song is a killer.

Loudon Wainwright III, "Daughter"
You remember this from the closing credits of "Knocked Up." Well, it's pretty great.

Harry Belafonte, "Turn Around"

Wu-Tang Clan, "Better Tomorrow"
Admittedly only partly about parenting. But the chorus -- "You can party your life away, smoke your life away/ but your seed grow up the same way" -- is definitely a way of thinking about how to be a parent.

Drive-By Truckers, "Outfit"

Lee Ann Womack, "I Hope You Dance"

Cat Stevens, "Father and Son"

The Coup, "Me and Jesus the Pimp in '79 Grenada Last Night"
Not a fathering manual, this one. Maybe this is a good example of what you should not do as a father. Less depressing: "Wear Clean Draws" by The Coup.

John Lennon, "Beautiful Boy"

Sade, "Babyfather"
Pretty gorgeous song with a terrific video.

Honorable mentions:
Tupac, "Letter 2 My Unborn" (good, but like everything Tupac did, it is really all about him); The Beatles, "Hey Jude" (seems parental, but too oblique -- a song Paul wrote for John's son); Paul Simon, "Graceland" (involves a father-son road trip, though its real theme seems to be lost love); several Eminem songs.

Extra credit: 3 Songs About Pregnancy
R. Kelly, "Having a Baby"
Safe to say no one but Kells could pull off the gonzo playacting of an entire pregnancy in an R&B song, culminating in shouts of "Push! Push!" Good God.

R. Kelly feat. The Dream, Tyrese and Robin Thicke, "Pregnant"
Basically just biting a Tracy Morgan joke, but funny anyway.

Ghostface Killah feat. Raheem DeVaughan, "Baby"

Leave your own favorite parenthood songs in the comments, though if anyone says "Cat's in the Cradle" you are totally fired.