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Ben A.
Ben H.
Doug

 
     
     
 
Nothing Delivers Like the Metro!

I do not know how many of you live in cities blessed with the (free!) commuter newspaper The Metro, but here is a paper that gives the people what they want. Below is the text from an article I read today. Maureen Dowd, eat your heart out!

* * *
"I Like Weddings"

Over the Holiday weekend, Disney on Ice presents Princess Classics.” Starring Belle, Snow White and Cinderella, skated in to the Garden and, well, we really, really didn’t want to go. So we sent Cambridge resident Liora Skarf Meyer, 4, to review the action (with a little help from mom Lara).

What was your favorite part?
When Cinderella and the prince get married. Because I like weddings.

What part didn’t you like?
Sebastian [the crab] had feet. And when Sebastian said [to Ariel], “You shouldn’t go over there” because Ursula was over there. But really she can go over there, because she wanted to. Also when the people made the beast get sick, even though he was good, because they made him sick.

Would you recommend the show to your friends at school?
No. The boys never want to see princesses, and I don’t think they would have a good time.

Who’s your favorite princess? ?
Cinderella, because she gets married.

Don’t you think a show about princesses sort of sets back the feminist movement? I mean, why celebrate a disenfranchised people, worshipped for their beauty, but always in the shadow of power-hungry male peers? ?
What does that mean?

Why do you like princesses?
Because they get married.
[Ben A.: 1/5/06 23:05]
   
 
What He Said!

I have nothing to add to this fantastic essay by Mark Steyn. [Ben H.: 1/5/06 22:13]
 
 
The Bulldozer Runs out of Gas?

Kadima's would-be back-benchers discover why it is not a good idea to throw one's lot in with a party built around a single personality, when that personality is lodged in a body 77 years old, 5-foot-7, and weighing in excess of 350 pounds. [Ben H.: 1/4/06 22:03]
 
 
The Real Story

Unlike the gentlemanly Ben H, I am base enough to point out the real story here, namely that Yulia Tymoshenko is a total fox. Also, her would-be peasant girl hairdo makes her look like she's about to pin a medal on Han Solo.

Also, wouldn't it be even more accurate to call Trump vs. Spitzer "Sophie's Choice?" [Ben A.: 1/1/06 20:12]
   
 
NYTM Misses the Real Story Again

New York Times Magazine features a rather soft profile of former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. The article does touch on her past as an oligarch, but nonetheless goes quite easy on her. Sure, laws were broken, writes the Magazine, but during Ukraine's "Wild East" days, one could not do business within the law. True, and for that reason one might forgive productive businessmen their formal transgressions of Ukraine's criminal code. However, Tymoshenko enriched herself through, as far as I can tell, outright corruption in the energy sector. She ran UESU, one of the few companies authorized by the state to import and distribute gas. The company apparently paid bribes to RUssian and Turkmen officials in order to get cheap gas from those countries; paid bribes in Ukraine to get import quotas; paid yet more bribes to be assigned customers who might actually pay their bills in cash (most of Ukraine's enteprises at that time settled their bills via "non-cash" payments, i.e. barter).

The article similarly elides the real story of her dismissal. She became embroiled in a conflict with one of President Yushchenko's closest advisors. When this feud broke out into the open, the President dismissed them both. The fight regarded the disposition of a company called Nikopol Ferroalloy. Former President Kuchma's son--in-law, Viktor Pinchuk had managed to get control of this company late in Kuchma's regime. Under the new government, a court reversed this privitization. That in itself does not appear and unfair outcome. However, the beneficiary of this ruling was not the state, the victim of Kuchma's property-grab, but rather a shadowy group of minority shareholders. This group appeared to be a front for the Privat Group, the holding company of an oligarch close to... guess who? Yulia Tymoshenko!

Another irritant in Tymoshenko's relationship with Yushchenko regards her old stomping grounds, Ukraine's gas sector. Her reckless actions culminate in a story that's finally hit the headlines today. Russia has taken steps to cut off Ukraine's gas supply over a failure to reach agreement on prices. This cut-off could jeopardize Western Europe gas supply, as most of Gazprom's exports to the EU run through Ukraine. How did this dispute get started? This past summer, Tymoshenko announced that she had uncovered massive corruption in the previous government's gas deals with Russia, mostly involving the use of shadowy middle-men linked to both Ukraine and Russia government figures. Undoubtedly, these accusations had much truth to them. However, the sum total of the arrangement was that Ukraine was getting gas very, very cheaply. Part of this subsidy was offset by low transit charges Ukraine levied on transshipment of Russia gas to Western Europe, but overall Ukraine had a very sweet deal. Tymoshenko's accusations, however, suggested only that Ukraine ought to receive higher transit fees. Her crusade outraged the Kremlin and shortly thereafter Gazprom started demanding that Ukraine pay world market rates for gas. This pricing dispute remains unresolved, with the result that earlier today, Russia cut off gas exports to Ukraine. In practice, this means Russian has reduced flow through Ukraine by 25%, the amount of Russians exports meant to meet Ukraine's needs (the other 75% goes to Europe). Now, Western Europe faces the risk that Ukraine unilaterally takes its own needs out of these transshipments, leaving a snowbound Europe short of gas. [Ben H.: 1/1/06 12:33]
 
 
Enough To Make Me Yearn For Mario

The cold winters, the high taxes, the rude people, the crappy public services: I endure them all and keep on living in New York. If this news is true, however, I may just have to call it quits and head across the river. Elliot Spitzer versus Donald Trump defines "Hobson's choice." So we either get a megalomaniacal scion of a wealthy real estate family, convinced that his own iron virtue entitles him to rule; or a megalomaniacal scion of a wealthy real estate family, convinced that his own roguish charm entitles him to rule. Just dandy. [Ben H.: 1/1/06 01:15]
 
 
It Was Only When I Saw Poverty Among the Martians That I Realized the True Cost Of American Imperialism

This ideological tick absolutely frosts me as well, Ben H. The third world is pretty horrible, the industrialized west has it pretty sweet; but the world was pretty horrible long before New Yorkers were sipping ten buck cocktails. So unless you want to make the whole 9th century a comment on how morally awful it is to be a mojito-swilling Ivy League grad in Manhattan, don't do the same with fricking Liberia.*

There are opposed motivations at work here. Self-regard, as you note, Ben H, plays a role. So too does a desire that is almost the polar opposite, a need to focus the lense of ethical analysis anywhere except on oneself. Self-love is pleasant; self-examination can be painful. Better then for the focus of morality cosideration to always be external: the Bolivians, the Liberians, the "least advantaged," the Martians. How terrible is their plight! How deeeply I feel it. How guilty we all are. How important that my moral perfectionism never become directed at my own life, my own behavior, my own pride, sloth, vanity, and sinfulness, or anything actually within my power to control.

My fulmination on this topic recalls some thoughts set percolating by Doug's spot-on review of Kunkel from a few weeks back, and perhaps I'll inflict those on you as well.

In a modern novel of the Believer type, of course the protagonist must give a speech on the meaning of life, of couse the audience must be high-schoolers, of course he must be drunk, of course it must amount to little more than "mean people suck." This isn't idealism, it doesn't even have the ideas enough to be an ideology. It's just a way to scratch the itch of transcendental meaning without setting out a position someone might take you up on. Really, you think it's important to make bourgeouis life general? Then you must have very good reasons for why bourgeouis life is a version of human excellence (We will be most interested to hear them!) and you must likewise be willing to sacrifice much to make this goal come about. Would you perhaps sacrifice your Manhattan apartment and your tastefully diverse harem in this cause? Or likewise, have come to tell us that physical privation is the ultimate wrong? Again, certain changes in your life would seem to be forthcoming. In this the dour leftist sister, or Paul Farmer, is exactly right. You should live you values. If you don't, please stop talking about how exquisitely morally sensitive you are.

* Side note. My dad was working in Liberia during Malcolm X's pre-mecca African tour. He reports that Malcolm's claim that the source of all Liberia's problems was Colonialism was met by locals with an equal measure of disbelief and amusement.
[Ben A.: 12/29/05 03:05]
   
 
Peru Presidential Loser on Bolivian Presidential Winner

Maria Vargas-Llosa, reknowned Peruvian novelist and one-time presidential candidate (he lost to the mighty Fujimori) tries via an NYT Op-Ed to soothe American worries about the victory of Evo Morales in Bolivia's recent elections. He makes a reasonable case, but I must admit I remain quite concerned. Vargas-Llosa's argument goes something like this:

"It's true that Evo Morales exhibits all the rhetorical trappings of a dedicated Castroite. However, to really do serious institutional damage, he'll need resources. And unlike, say, Hugo Chavez, Morales will not have those resources. If he wants to mobilize resources, he'll need to depend on Brazil, and Lula will exert a moderating influence. The U.S.'s other policy worry in Bolivia is the resurgence of coca cultivation, inasmuch as Morales' nucleus of support comes from the cocaleros of the Chapare. The worry is misplaced, because Bolivia has already lost control of the Chapare, which is producing copious raw coca already. With respect to processing of coca and smuggling of cocaine, Morales views these activities as illegal and illegitimate. The U.S. therefore has little to lose from engagement with Morales and can only help push him into the arms of Chavez and Castro by confronting him."

I have to part company with Vargas-Llosa on a few of these points. First, Morales appears to want to follow the Chavista script of creeping revolution, a script Chavez managed to get through to first act of at a time of extremely low oil prices and constrained resources. Morales, for example, talks of calling a constituent assembly, just as Chavez did in the wake of his election. He should be able to change Bolivia's institutional structure much to his advantage without having to resort to bribing the electorate. Moreover, it should be noted that Chavez's second wave of authoritarianism got underway in the wake of the PDVSA strike; while oil prices at the time were high, the strike starved Venezuela's government of revenues. That did not stop Chavez from stepping up his assault on democratic opposition. Yet, as Vargas-Llosa alludes to, Chavez right now is swimming in petrodollars. He has not been shy about sharing the boodle with his less fortunate ideological soulmates, including Evo Morales himself in his earlier capacity as anti-government rabble-rouser and blockader of La Paz. Should resources be required to push Bolivia down the chavista path, I suspect resources will be forthcoming. Chavez already helped provide the text for the Bolivian left's demands for cancelation of private development of the country's gas reserves. Chavez picked at the still (after a century) unhealed wound dealt Bolivia by Chile in the War of the Pacific: the loss of its coastline. He dreams, says Chavez, of bathing on a Bolivian beach. And Morales was able to mobilize opposition to the gas deal not so much on economic principles as based on nationalistic opposition to doing anything that would benefit Chile (in this case, much of the gas would be routed through Chile on its way to liquifaction and oceanic shipment). I can't bring myself to downplay the Chavez connection the way Vargas-Llosa does.

Second, I don't see much prospect of Lula acting as a moderating influence. Argentina has a more imminent need for gas and Nestor Kirchner has come to depend on Chavez's loans to roll over maturing debt payments to local bonholders and to prepay the IMF. He has refused to let utility prices adjust, leading to serious problems in the domestic gas industry. In order to avoid shortages, he will need Bolivian gas, and he won't be overnice about Bolivian politics as a condition of purchase. Plus, with corruption scandals swirling about him, Lula is no shoo-in for re-election next year!

Finally, with respect to the cocaleros, while I tend to agree with Vargas-Llosa that alienating Bolivia over coca cultivation probably doesn't make much sense, I take that position only because I believe the drug war generally should enjoy a lower priority in U.S. foreign policy. It is my understanding that during the Banzer administration, coca cultivation declined sharply and has not come close to recovering. Plus, the idea that coca cultivation will take place for domestic, traditional consumption but not spill over to trafficking is a laughable proposition.

Let me depart from Vargas-Llosa now and attempt to relate the Bolivian situation to a much more tendentious piece of work, namely the movie Syriana. The movie tries to make the case that U.S. foreign policy is in the thrall of oil interests. Having made some investments in oil and having more broad involvement in oil-exporting countries, the currency that the movie's thesis enjoys baffles me. But Bolivia offers a great opportunity to furnish contrary evidence. Let's say the U.S. government were in the thrall of petroleum interests. Well, the export of Bolivian gas via LNG terminals would be a great source of supply for the US West Coast. The U.S. government should, if the Syriana view is correct, be dying for a way to outmaneuver Morales and get the gas flowing. Well, as it turns out, the natural gas deposits all lie far from Morales' highlands stronghold, mostly in the southeastern lowlands of Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz's racial makeup tends towards the European, rather than the sarape-and-bowler-hats crowd behind Morales. The region has viewed the success of MAS (Morales' movement) with alarm and the scuppering of the gas deals with disgust. Demands for autonomy have heated up. So, the move is obvious. Support a successionist movement in Santa Cruz. Shoot, it would probably only take a few tens of millions of dollars to arm them better than the Bolivian security forces. So, where's the Fuerza Independentista Santacrucena, my lefty friends? CIA just hasn't gotten around to it yet? The answer is: nowhere, except the fever dreams of Hollywood filmakers...

And since I've started in with tying together cultural artifacts with unifying thread of Bolivia: you'll remmeber, Doug, that Bolivia is where Benjamin Kunkel's Indecision ends up. Let me second all your observations about the books flaws. I'll also add my own disparaging observation, which, in the spirit of the foregoing, has something to do with Bolivian angle. I think it is great when a novelists has the ambition to ask the Big Questions. But it truly disappoints me when somebody raises a big philosophical or aesthetic or spiritual question -- and after the portentous wind-up delivers a narrowly political answer. What's the meaning of life? Going to Bolivia to fight capitalism! Now, I know that what he wants to say is that the answer is (as you put it, a la Pynchon) "be cool, but care", i.e. a synthesis of "good life" and "life of good"; but it comes out more like "viva la Revolucion!"

Now, let me drop this very dull, overpraised, and ultimately forgettable book for a moment and move on to a more general point it got me to thinking about. The author illustrates a genre of conceptual mistake that really bugs the crap out of me. In order to show his exquisite moral sensitivity, his main character professes to an awakening to his own culpability when he witnesses poverty/environmental degredation/disorder in a Third World country. These vicissitudes of Third World life he traces with burgeoning shame to his own country and class. That he takes the sin onto himself is supposed to be praiseworthy. Hold on a second there, pal. Ecuador, Bolivia, wherever, is not some sort of tableau which exists for the artwork of your ethical struggles. These places are generally fucked up because the people who live there have fucked them up. I mean... Ecuador? THe U.S. contribution to Ecuador's pathetic state may not be zero, but it is pretty darn close.*

To explain all a country's failures by reference to yourself is not heroic or even responsible. It is frighteningly egotistical. The Ecuadoreans have very little to begin with -- don't rob them of their moral agency!!


*I take it you guys see no need for me to retail the long list of Kunkel's factual and interpretive errors in re Ecuador and Bolivia; but if you doubt me, just ask and I will provide.



[Ben H.: 12/28/05 19:04]
 
 
Captain, She's Inverted! Abandon Ship!

Lots of yippety-yap in the papers today about the inversion of the U.S. yield curve, for the first time since 2000. Many observers have jumped on the economist's rule-of-thumb that an inverted curve implied an impending recession. Perhaps. But one should remember that yield curve slope* consists of (at least) two factors: 1) expectations of future short rates and 2) term premium. The correlation of yield-curve inversion with recession stems principally from (1). High short rates restrain economic activity, it is argued, and lower rates out the curve imply the expectation that rates will have to come down, probably because present tightening will lead to softer economic growth. Now, maybe this story described the present situation. However, I have some suspicions that inversion now has a lot more to do with (2). Observers of the US yield curve don't watch as many curves around the world as your average EM investor. Term premium shows up in a lot of different markets. It appears to correlate well with a sort of general risk appetite. What I've noticed looking at curves around the world is a broad evaporation of term premium in curves of all kinds. Local interest rate curves in many emerging markets are very, very flat or even inverted. More precisely, they follow survey-determined future-path-of-short-rates-expectations very closely. In other words: close to zero term premium. Likewise, credit curves are ridiculously flat. You don't get paid much more to take 10 year credit risk than you do to take 5 year credit risk. Implied volatility curves are also very flat. All of which, to me, screams that the world has become extremely insensitive to risk. A curve inversion due to risk-insensitivity does not portend a recession, inasmuch as high risk-tolerance generally means high investment, expansion of credit, and robust consumption.

* I am going to ignore the distinction between nominal and real curves, because both are inverted. However, if one thinks about nominal curves it is necessary to add inflation expectations as a factor. [Ben H.: 12/28/05 08:08]
 
 
Attention, David Wells!

Behold your future! [Ben H.: 12/27/05 17:12]
 
 
Baby On Board

I happened late yesterday afternoon to wind up for a time at FloydNY, a friendly bar on Atlantic Avenue (not that this is to the point, but it has an indoor bocci court!). That I would consider meeting a friend at bar is a direct consequence of the much-debated NYC smoking ban. Thank you, Mr. Bloomberg. I can't type swear words on my Bloomberg Terminal message function, but I can breathe freely at the local watering hole. The mayor giveth and the tycoon taketh away. Amen.

The reason I mention this otherwise unremarkable excursion is that it revealed to me another class that has likewise derived advantage from the ban on smoking in bars, a class I would not have expected. It was with a certain censoriousness that my companion pointed out that a woman sitting at a couch at the other end of the room was holding her infant son. Within a few minutes, I noticed her and her husband chatting with another couple, the woman of the pair likewise hoisting a baby. By the time we left, two strollers had rolled in to join the conclave.

Now, as the resident curmudgeon here on thebandarlog, you probably expect me to excoriate these parents for inflicting their spawn on me; or, if I am feeling in a particularly magnanimous mood, I will pretermit the aforemention (and genuine) reason for my greviance and denounce the parents for an alleged dereliction of their custodial responsibilities. However, today I shall surprise you! These babies behaved better than your average bar-goer, emiting significantly fewer screeches per hour. And there is something about the presence of an infant playgroup that strips a bar of that vague sense of menace attendant to watering-holes, like a distant echo from the days of saloons. [Ben H.: 12/27/05 08:21]
 
 
Old School Rap At Its Finest

"They think I'm Aaron Burr from the way I'm dropping Hamiltons." [Ben A.: 12/24/05 13:56]
   
 
Scary

John Whitehead wrote yesterday in the WSJ of his startling experience with Eliot Spitzer. I re-post it here, because it is behind the WSJ subscription wall and yet a crucial read in light of Spitzer's lead in the gubernatorial race.

----

By JOHN C. WHITEHEAD
December 22, 2005; Page A14

Last April, The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed piece by me titled "Mr. Spitzer Has Gone Too Far." In it I expressed my belief that in America, everyone -- including Hank Greenberg -- is innocent until proven guilty. "Something has gone seriously awry," I wrote, "when a state attorney general can go on television and charge one of America's best CEOs and most generous philanthropists with fraud before any charges have been brought, before the possible defendant has even had a chance to know what he personally is alleged to have done, and while the investigation is still under way."

Since there have been rumors in the media as to what happened next, I feel I must now set the record straight. After reading my op-ed piece, Mr. Spitzer tried to phone me. I was traveling in Texas but he reached me early in the afternoon. After asking me one or two questions about where I got my facts, he came right to the point. I was so shocked that I wrote it all down right away so I would be sure to remember it exactly as he said it. This is what he said:

"Mr. Whitehead, it's now a war between us and you've fired the first shot. I will be coming after you. You will pay the price. This is only the beginning and you will pay dearly for what you have done. You will wish you had never written that letter."

I tried to interrupt to say he was doing to me exactly what he'd been doing to others, but he wouldn't be interrupted. He went on in the same vein for several more sentences and then abruptly hung up. I was astounded. No one had ever talked to me like that before. It was a little scary.

It's up to others to make their own conclusions. I have only set out here what happened.

-----

As an investor in the emerging markets, I get to see on a daily basis the baleful effect of corruption. In fact, this week my book lost a deal with profit potential of tens of millions of dollars because a South American counterparty bribed a government official to quash our agreement. The point is I need no lectures about the importance of public integrity. However, it seems to me that there is also danger at the other end of the continuum, for public officials who are not exactly too honest, but rather too obsessed with honesty -- namely totally convinced of their own honesty and, more to the point, its uniqueness. It's not for nothing that Crane Brinton in his Anatomy of Revolution called the witch-hunting phase of revolutions "the Reign of Virtue and Terror." [Ben H.: 12/23/05 08:59]
 
 
Welcome Back to NYC, Doug

Not quite Orange Country, is it, my friend? You should thank the TWU for making it emotionally easier (if physically harder) to leave New York!

If you knew more about the TWU pay package, I think you would regard the fight with more partiality. What surprised me about how the situation unfolded is how strongly anti-TWU opinion broke in a city as liberal as NY. What killed the TWU, I think, was that in the course of reporting on the strike, the press revealed the terms of TWU employment. These so far surpass in generosity the employment conditions of the average subway rider that ingrained pro-labor sympathies could not suppress reflexive indignation.

Mr. Toussaint and his minions have frequently made recourse to the claim that TWU workers deserve "respect" because "we move New York." My Lithuanian economist colleague pointed out today that as the transportation sector has extremely high infrastructural requirements, rather it is the rolling stock and power plants and rails and tunnels that move New York; much more than the trained monkeys who gibber unintelligibly into the train PA systems or the sessile token booth clerks entombed uselessly in their Plexiglass pillboxes. New Yorkers' transportation needs in the main are met by a century of accumulated investment that has resulted in today's capital stock. Economic theory would thus suggest that capital's share of income from public transit should far exceed labor's share. Yet 80% of the MTA's budget goes to personnel costs. Bring in the robots!*

*in the early 60s, the MTA installed an automated control system for the 42nd Street shuttle, much to the TWU's chagrin. A fire later gutted the shuttle and the MTA, pressured by the union, never replaced the automated system.

[Ben H.: 12/22/05 19:29]
 
   
I have no idea whether the TWU's demands are (were?) reasonable; nor, frankly, do I feel like reading up on all the issues to come to an informed decision. Probably the best thing to do is quadruple the taxes on luxury condos and give all the proceeds to the working poor. But what do I know.

Well, what I know is that French public employees give even less of a shit about people than our TWU does. We need visas for France so yesterday we spent $40 on a cab up to the consulate on 74th street. (For non-New-Yorkers, there has been an emergency decree for taxis that, among other things, makes them charge a fixed cost per passenger for every "zone" they cross.) The line was far out the door and people in it told us not to waste our time. So I walked back to 11th street (Dao is sick so she sprang for a cab back). We decided to come back this morning, sleeping over at Dao's sister's place on 92nd street because of the virtual impossibility of getting up there in the morning. This meant another $40 cab ride. We got to the consulate at 8:30, a full half-hour before it opened. There was already a line. We stood outside for more than three hours (the temperature was in the twenties; I started doing tai chi exercizes when my toes started going numb). Once they let us in the door it was another two hours before we got the visas. Then I walked back to 11th street. [Doug: 12/22/05 16:11]
 
 
MTA Wins!

Eat it, Toussaint! [Ben H.: 12/22/05 12:23]
 
 
TWU Toll

My physical presence was required in the office today, so I drove into work at 4:30am in order to avoid the four-in-a-car requirement. The trip in didn't take much longer than usual, but finding a parking lot with space did. The drive home, at around 3:00pm, was a different story. 50th and 2nd to Cobble Hill took 90 minutes. At that hour on a typical workday, the trip usually takes around 30 minutes. I had the pleasure of listening to TWU leader Roger Toussaint speaking at a press conference (thanks to WCBS) while I stewed in traffic. This guy should not be speaking over the airwaves; but rather through the plexiglass at Riker's visiting facility. Be a man, Pataki! Ask a judge to put him away! [Ben H.: 12/21/05 19:50]
 
 
The Times

From the article you linked:

Yet for all the rage and bluster that followed, this war was declared over a pension proposal that would have saved the transit authority less than $20 million over the next three years.

It seemed a small figure, considering that the city says that every day of the strike will cost its businesses hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenues. But the authority contends that it must act now to prevent a "tidal wave" of pension outlays if costs are not brought under control.


What type of fiend uses a timeframe longer than three years to evaluate the cost of a pension plan? Only a short-sighted, labor-hating grinch, surely. [Ben A.: 12/21/05 08:55]
   
 
Johnny Damon: A Uniter, Not a Divider

I don't think we disagree. Four years is too long, $13 mm is too much, and Damon will decline close to replacement level by the out year. Williams, as you note, lost much of his ability by age 34, and he was a better player than Damon to begin with.

Nonetheless the transfer of a player of Damon's current value probably does wrap up the division for New York, unless the rotation falls apart. That could happen. [Ben A.: 12/21/05 08:51]
   
 
I Hate The Goddamn New York Times

Check out this account from the Times of the precipitating factor of the MTA strike. A deal was about to be struck when the callous head of the MTA inserted an inexplicable demand that would have only saved the MTA $20mio dollars. Surprisingly the Times did not describe a deal, in their standard formula, as "achingly close." Does it not occur to the Times that if it was unreasonable for the MTA to "risk" a strike with a demand worth only $20mio, it was likewise unreasonable for the TWU to strike in defiance of the law and a court order and in the face of opposition from their national parent over a $20mio issue? [Ben H.: 12/21/05 08:37]
 
 
Samson In Center

I think Yankee fans ought to read up on their Old Testament. Damon will decline, and although blaming it on a haircut rather than the natural effects of time on a 32-year old baseball player probably counts as a post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy, expect to hear it cited repeatedly. Ben, the last time we disagreed strongly about a Yankee deal, you were clearly in the right (Wells-for-Clemens). Yet I will risk embarrassment again and come out against the Damon deal. He is right at that age where decline sets in. We've seen this movie before in center field and it did not end happily. Granted, I give Cashman credit for refusing to consider a contract longer than four years. However, this move still strikes me as an expensive lunge for a ring next year at the cost of the an impoverished future. $52mio is a lot of dough and probably could have bought some decent younger talent. Sure, we can't have Bubba Crosby start in center, but there must be a happy medium between the guy who embodies the RP in VORP and a $52mio mega-acquisition. And apparently we are still left with Bernie Williams as DH and a mediocre defensive first-baseman in Giambi... [Ben H.: 12/21/05 06:41]
 
 
Public Unions

I am sympathetic to labor actions, and even I think public sector unions amount to institutionalized theft. As you point out, Ben H, if GM tried to charge me $98,000 for a used Buick LeSabre, I would buy from another vendor. Government monopolies -- like the bureaucracy -- don't allow this exit. This eliminates downward pressure on wages, and since the unions define a concentrated interest, public choice theory preducts that they will capture enough of the political system to vote themselves raises into perpetuity.

AL East Clinched in December?

That hurts. 52mm for four years may be an out-of-market bid for Damon, but it is hard to see now how the Boston can catch New York in the regular season, even if the Yankees don't, er, upgrade the starting rotation. It's quite a line-up.

[Ben A.: 12/21/05 00:59]
   
 
And How About Broken Cities?

New York City sure isn't Haiti, but on days like today it feels closer than it should. As you've surely read by now, the TWU has gone on strike, shutting down New York City subways and buses. The inconvenience for me started as early as last Friday. I went into work that day not knowing whether the TWU would fulfill their promise to strike as soon as their contract expired. I took a calculated gamble that if they didn't strike before the morning rush they would not stop working until at least after the evening rush. In the event, I had the right idea. HOwever, Bloomberg (the system, not the mayor) reported at 7am that TWU had announced the commencement of a strike. I dashed out of my office to grab a cab home to Brooklyn before the chaos started. As I reached the end of the Brooklyn Bridge, my colleague sent me a message clarifying the situation: only three Queens express bus lines would suffer a work stoppage.

Enough of my Friday sob story. The real pain begins today. For me and for people similarly situated (well-paid Reichian symbolic analysts), it won't cause much disturbance. Heck, working from home feels like a holiday! As usual, unions, those preening tribunes of the working class, will destroy the livelihoods of the truly struggling in order to advance the interests of their overpaid, underskilled, competition-quashing membership. Let me start at home: the woman who cleans my house, how will she get to her clients' homes? If she doesn't work, she doesn't get paid (OK, I'll probably pay her anyway, but I doubt the majority of her clients will do so). So Roger Toussaint should spare us the cant about "dignity."

You fellows know that I naturally view labor actions with suspicion. However, I think there is a case to be made that a strike against the MTA should disturb even those sympathetic to labor actions. The MTA is a publically owned natural monopoly. The workers do not face off against a rapacious, profit-hungry set of owners. To the extent they wring more emoluments from the MTA, it is the public that pays, not a set of risk-taking shareholders. Likewise, during a strike the public has no recourse to a competing provider of services. If the UAW strikes Ford, car-buyers can always look to GM or Chrysler. The special status of monopoly public services finds recognition in the New York State "Taylor Law", which forbids strikes against such entities, including the MTA. To the extent the workers and the Authority can't negotiate a contract, the law provides for binding arbitration.

So what do I suggest should happen? I think the MTA and the NYS government should go Reagan on the TWU workers ass.

1. Throw Roger Toussaint in jail
2. Fine the workers who strike until they either resign or return to work. And collect on the fine.
3. After a certain period, start firing workers MTA has long considered excess. Bye-bye token-booth clerks. Cancel their pensions.
4. After a longer period fire all the workers
5. Offer higher wages for MTA jobs (but many fewer jobs). Old workers who want to come back to work need to go through hiring process. MTA can pass on the troublesome workers they've long wanted to fire. And the pension clock starts from zero. And anybody can apply for the jobs. Note that the training for "subway conductor" lasts approximately two weeks. This isn't rocket science. (And don't quote me the sad story of "The Malbone Street Wreck." That was almost 90 years ago).

I am willing to suffer a month or two of no subway service to break these fuckers' backs. I'll spend a couple of hours a week driving people around town for free in my car. We need to stop this crap once and for all. And maybe get a better subway system out of it in the bargain.


[Ben H.: 12/20/05 07:42]
 
 
Helping Broken Countries

Have either of you read Mountains Beyond Mountains, by chance? The Theroux piece Ben H cited brought Paul Farmer to my mind, and fascinating case study he offers of the possibilities and limits of providing effective aid to broken countries. Farmer has accomplished miracles in Haiti. Yet even in Kidder's sympathetic account, it is not obvious what aspects of the Partners' approach can be replicated without the selflessness bordering on saintliness exhibited by Farmer himself. Indeed, the Partners in Health crew have an amusing catch phrase to this effect: "If Paul is the model, we're fucked." The thought being, if third-world health care depends on the emergence of more Paul Farmers, the third world will be sick for a long time.

Economic growth, and the poltical institutions that enable them, are of course the only answer. But political cures prove even more ellusive than medical ones. Farmer's idealism and moral greatness (and he is great) does not make him a reliable guide to the tangeled politics of Haiti. And it is this political situation -- the lack of civil order, the brutal equation, memorably described as economic growth = political instability = zero -- that entombs Haitians in poverty, and that makes it almost inconceivable that in 10, 20, or 50 years Haiti will be the beacon of progress, itself exporting doctors to assist the wretched of the earth. As with most damaged countries, what Haiti needs most is relatively decent hands holding monopoly on the use of violence. And that is the hardest situation on earth to create.

What to do? I don't have much of an answer, other than to minimize suffering where one can, identify seemingly effective charities, and cut a big check. [Ben A.: 12/20/05 01:12]
   
 
In his own country he was a king, but he comes to you in chains!

King Kong is a movie to avoid. Naomi Watts sure is pretty, and Jack Black was born to play a swindling impressario, but the movie loses its way in bloat after the first, engaging, half hour. Along the way, Jackson provides the most nauseating use of big budget CGI to date: a five minute set-piece in which giant millipedes, roaches, and bloodsucking worms devour the cast. Real feel-good filmaking. Give me back my 10 bucks, you thieving gnome. [Ben A.: 12/18/05 00:09]
   
 
Theroux Takes Down Bono

Read this excellent Op-Ed by Paul Theroux. He demolishes the assumptions behind the resource-mobilization approach to palliating the lot of the residents of Africa's failed states, a course urged by engage rocks stars like Bono.

I found his take particularly interesting because he chose as his example the country of Malawi, a place where I have done some investing in the past few years. That he did so probably helped get him a coveted Op-Ed spot in the Times, since the paper recently ran a multi-part color story on Malawi's burgeoning famine. Since I follow the news in Malawi, I'll take the liberty of adding my own example of the sort of behavior -- unremediable by Peace Corp volunteers or rock-concert-funded infusions of charity -- that keeps Malawi poor. For the whole time I've watched Malawi (a couple of years now) the IMF and the World Bank have urged the government (first Mr. Muluzi's government, now Mr. Mutharika's) to privitize Malawi Telecom. The state-owned company has done a horrendous job -- managing to provide only about 75,000 land lines in a country of 12 million people. When I call my contacts in Blantyre, I usually have to try four or five times before I can get through.

This month the government finally managed to find a consortium willing to buy the company and to push through the sale. It netted the government something north of USD30mio. Concomitant to the sale came the announcement of the use of proceeds. Part of the money will be earmarked for the construction of a new building for Congress. The rest will go to provide Malawi's state broadcasting company with facilities for satellite broadcasting from remote locations. This last for a country where only 2% of the population has access to the power grid. Meanwhile, something like 1 million Malawians are at risk of starvation this year. Just brilliant. This sort of thing doesn't call for government aid or debt forgiveness or guilt-mongering charity rock concerts. It calls for colonization.

[Ben H.: 12/17/05 12:48]
 
 
Matsui: Yen Talks, Giles Walks

Diversity, clearly, Ben A. Didn't you learn anything at Harvard?

Giles vs Matsui on the statistics is not an obvious call. The batting numbers strike me as fairly similar, with the exception of walks (and the fact that Giles is a lefty batter). Giles has consistently drawn more walks than Matsui, though this may partly have to do with the batting order in which Matsui finds himself embedded. On the other hand, Matsui is three years younger than Giles, who finds himself at an age that often marks a precipitous decline in batting ability. The major difference between the two players, though, relates to business rather than baseball. Matsui's presence on the Yankees has created a big Japanese fan base. You'd be surprised how many Japanese tourists you run across at an average Yankee home game. I'll bet Yankee-logo gear sells really well in Japan, too. Brian Giles can't do that! [Ben H.: 12/14/05 07:31]
 
 
Nomar at First

Garciaparra does not seem to be the obvious first base solution. Nonetheless, a first baseman that batted like the 2002/2003 Nomar would be a substantial upgrade from Tino Martinez. Garciaparra's recent poor seasons make a long-term contract unlikely, so 1 year for $5-7mm + incentives seems possible. That would be a reasonable gamble for Cashman.

Maybe you can tell me, Ben H, why the Yankees made no such a small attempt to pursue Brian Giles, instead settling early on Hideki Matsui. [Ben A.: 12/14/05 07:18]
   
 
Who's On First?

For the Yankees, the answer may be: a shortstop. The Post reports that Brian Cashman has made an offer for Nomar Garciaparra, with a view to putting him at first base. Ben A, any thoughts? To me, this seems like a classic Steinbrenner error. The Boss throws big bucks at a big name, who fails to fill the team's most obvious unmet need. The Yankees are short a center-fielder. The response: go get a past-his-prime star shortstop and ask him to play first base. The existing first-baseman's weakness is defense; he also tends to hit much better when playing first base than when he starts at DH. The obvious answer then is to put him at DH in favor of someone who has never played the position. If the trade gets consummated, the Yankee infield will consist of the three best shortstops of the last decade, plus Robinson Cano. The worst of the bunch defensively (one could argue) will play shortstop. Something only Steinbrenner and his henchmen could dream up! [Ben H.: 12/13/05 07:41]
 
 
Congratulations, Peter Watson!

Finally, Deborah Solomon finds an interview subject who, in the course of the interview, manages to seem more annoying than Solomon herself.

We should make this an annual bandarlog prize: can we send him a golden monkey? [Ben A.: 12/12/05 00:15]
   
 
And a New Trading Floor Mantra is Born!

Just watch

[Ben A.: 12/12/05 00:08]
   
 
Narnia

Better than we had any reason to expect or hope for. Basically an enjoybale movie with only a few cringe-inducing moments, one of which occurs when Susan Pevensie shoots an (evil, naturally) dwarf from a distance of approxiamtely 5 feet. I think this is the first screen depiction of "execution style" use of a bow and arrow. At least she didn't hold it sideways... [Ben A.: 12/12/05 00:00]
   
 
Strange Sign Watch

On an empty storefront on Second Avenue: "Store For Rent -- Ozymandius Realty Exclusive Agent." Suggested slogan: "Look on my listings, ye renters, and despair!" [Ben H.: 12/10/05 09:15]
 
 
A Great American

"There might be a lot wrong with America, but nothing Hitler can fix."

--Joe Louis

Solid. Go here and you can listen to him knock out Max Schmeling. [Ben A.: 12/9/05 15:57]
   
 
>Popped on a Plane

An air marshall shot and killed a crazed passenger who, apparently in the throes of a psychotic episode, claimed to have a bomb. The good news is his widow will get a drink voucher, $200, and 10,000 frequent flier miles.

Note to self: next time the flight attendant is tardy bringing warm nuts, don't make a scene... [Ben H.: 12/7/05 17:52]
 
 
As Long As There Will Be Villages, There Will Be Village Atheists

Because here in Narnia is the perfect Republican, muscular Christianity for America - that warped, distorted neo-fascist strain that thinks might is proof of right. I once heard the famous preacher Norman Vincent Peel in New York expound a sermon that reassured his wealthy congregation that they were made rich by God because they deserved it. The godly will reap earthly reward because God is on the side of the strong. This appears to be CS Lewis's view, too. In the battle at the end of the film, visually a great epic treat, the child crusaders are crowned kings and queens for no particular reason. Intellectually, the poor do not inherit Lewis's earth."

Polly Toynbee (in, of course, The Guardian)

The point can be put most compactly in one of Whitman's own phrases; he says somewhere that old artists painted crowds, in which one head had a nimbus of gold-coloured light; 'but I paint hundreds of heads, but paint no head without its nimbus of gold-coloured light."

....

The truth is that Whitman's wild picture, or what he thought was a wild picture, is in fact a very old and orthodox picture. There are, as a matter of fact, any number of old pictures in which whole crowds are crowned with haloes, to indicate that they have all attained Beatitude.


G.K. Chesterton


One of the less charming effects of identity politics is that every segment of society has now learned to cast itself as an oppressed underdog. This mewling becomes no more attractive when emitted by members of majority religious groups.

This is all by way of preemptive defence, however, so that I can confess that I really do feel for Western Christians these days. What can one do with opponents so resolutely stupid? That Monotheism is a difficult, dubitable doctrine does not excuse the simple ignorance displayed by Toynbee and a host of other, similar commentors. Hey, I'm not a Christian, but I have managed to grasp the that it's a basic Christian precept that every human -- every one! -- is important to God. This just comes with the territory. That's why ordinary middle-class kids get enthroned at the right hand of Aslan (and in later books, a London cockney cabbie), that's why the meek get the earth, that's why the poor (who are often dirty, and do not know anyone famous) get the kingdom of heaven. One way to make this point in a didactic Christian work is to show that the character(s) with whom the reader identifies (in a children's book, children, not talking moles, or the least advantaged Faun) capable of exaltation.

[Ben A.: 12/7/05 03:55]
   
 
Iran

And yet strangely one does not witness people in Beverly Hills, Great Neck and the Upper West Side taking to the streets and celebrating... [Ben H.: 12/6/05 17:20]
 
   
Iran Disaster

Words cannot describe the terrible tragedy in Iran today. ... Or perhaps "training mission" fits the bill? [Doug: 12/6/05 11:14]
 
 
The Geniuses at HQ

I was working today on closing a new investment in Uruguay. One of the annoying things about dealing in foreign, civil law jurisdictions is that they do not recognize American notarization. Instead, one must resort to the expediency of an apostille, a sort of special super-notarization. In general, one can get a document apostilled by the Secretary of State of one's own state or the U.S. Secretary of State. I once got an apostille with the "signature" of Colin Powell affixed. However, some countries, Uruguay included, will only recognize documents apostillized by one of their own consulates or embassies.

As part of today's deal, our legal department had to get some documents apostilled by an Uruguayan consulate. The legal assistant in charge of getting the apostille works in our Dallas HQ, so she set about getting an apostille down there. From time to time in the run-up to closing, I asked her how the apostille was coming along. She kept complaining that the Uruguayan consulate never answered the phone and that they had not responded to any of her faxes. She decried their sloth and irresponsibility. Finally, with the closing just a day away, I told her that I would have my assistant up here just take copies of the documents over in person to the Uruguayan Consulate in New York. The woman in Dallas replied that she had finally established contact with the Uruguayans herself, but that it would probably be better to do as I suggested. The Uruguayans were telling her that it would take several days to turn around the documents. "Yeah, they said I would have to Fedex the documents to the consulate, over in New Orleans and they would need a couple of days to get to it." Excuse me, New Orleans? And you've been wondering why they haven't been picking up the phone??!! [Ben H.: 12/2/05 16:19]
 
 
Irvine, again

The author of the Irvine story emailed to point out that he in fact has an office of his own! So the amorous couple indeed is guilty of both breaking and entering and public lewdness. My apologies to him for suggesting otherwise! [Ben H.: 12/2/05 09:07]
 
 
Irvine Vs Penn

Apparently, the guy whose coitus the Irvine grad student interrupted might not have been making an outlandish claim when he accused the grad student of "sexual harassment." See this story at Penn. [Ben H.: 12/2/05 07:38]
 
   
This Is How The World Ends

To judge by modern Hollywood movies, it is with neither a bang nor a whimper, but with one of two pieces of classical music -- "O Fortuna" (I think it is) from Orff's Carmina Burana, or the "Dies Irae" from Verdi's Requiem. Next time you sit through the conclusion of a special-effects schlockbuster, see if I'm right. I haven't seen Doom or its trailers, but I'd be surprised if its soundtrack lacked both pieces. Am I forgetting any other pieces that get used this way? Can you think of any pieces that could be used as effectively to accompany cinematic cataclysm? I'm listening to the Requiem right now so it's hard for me to think of other pieces of music. Probably there are some Mahler climaxes that would work. The first movement of Das Lied von der Erde is suitably intense, but I think the fact that the vocal part is for a soloist nixes it. The apocalypse really requires a chorus.

Incidentally -- or no, this is the non-incidental part; what I've already said is incidental -- Verdi's Requiem still grips me. It was in fairly heavy rotation in the dorm suite that Ben H and I shared, and it seems to have survived whatever changes my musical taste has undergone since then. I'm not a big fan of over-the-top baroque Italian stuff in visual art, or of Italian opera for that matter. But this piece rises above those categories.

I also noticed that at one point there's a really intense chord progression that reminds me of another one -- one of my favorite moments in any piece -- that happens in Dvorak's New World Symphony. It happens 1:09 minutes into the "Dies Irae" on my recording. It sounds like there are two melodic lines, one descending from above and another rising from below, approaching each other with enormous momentum, threatening to slam into each other -- but they manage to slide past each other in an exhilirating way. Maybe I can get one of my composer friends to explain what's going on there. (Speaking of which, I should post about a concert the other night where some piano pieces by Carl V. were premiered.) [Doug: 12/2/05 00:23]
 
 
Irvine

Now, on behalf of Bernie I ought to point out that a graduate student in English doesn't get his own office. So it is something of an exaggeration on the author's part to suggest that he walked into "his" office to discover random people having sex in there. More likely, one or both of the amorous couple could just as easily lay claim to the office. That's not to excuse the behavior; rather just to downgrade it from Breaking and Entering and lewdness to just plain lewdness. Having spent 2 years in Irvine, though, I have to say that I did not count wanton lasciviousness among the institutions notable problems. It is filled neither with the Ivy League's over-refined libertines nor with the Big Ten's simian hedonists, but rather the gadgrindy progeny of Southern California's immigrant strivers. It had all the sexual tension of a retirement home... [Ben H.: 12/1/05 18:22]
 
 
I Miss the UC System

UC Irvine, at its finest.

hat tip ogged.

Fun With the Young and Wealthy

As far as I can tell, there is a lot of unreflective materialism in our peer group (early 30s, educated, high income). A few weeks back I went to social event at which discussion centered on recent experiences at ‘hot, new restaurants.’ Needless to say, the location was itself a hot new restaurant. Now I like my balsamic-cured Nieman Ranch Komodo Dragon eggs as much as the next guy, but ten minutes of this conversation had me climbing the walls.

My fondness for capitalism, the bourgeoisie, and the US of A has long caused me to downplay criticism -- aesthetic and moral -- of consumer culture. I think it may be time for me to stop doing this.


[Ben A.: 12/1/05 16:54]
   
 
Tyler

Since we're on the topic of "Tyler" (ok, since I introduced the topic), I wonder if either of you can tell me the origin of this suddenly popular name? Or, if I can borrow precision from the "Baby Name Wizard", I should say this name which enjoyed a surge in the late 80s and 90s and which has dropped off a bit from its peak, such that it now ranks around 15th among male baby names.

The origin of the name is the old english word for someone who tiles roofs for a living, suggesting that its original onamastic function would have been as a surname, not a first name. It seems unlikely that the residents of One Carnegie Hill and their ilk would suddenly conceive of a desire to associate their children with an obscure corner of the buildings trade. It is fair, then, to assume that Tyler migrated, like many names, from surname to given name. Still, I find its popularity mysterious. The only famous Tyler that comes to mind is the tenth president of the United States, John Tyler, a personage who has very little to commend him to obsessive parents of the 1980s and 90s. Tyler attained the presidency only by virtue of the sudden death of William Henry Harrison. He held strong pro-slavery views, opposed the extension of the franchise to unpropertied men, and prevented the resurrection of the Bank of the United States. He also was the president who presided over the annexation of Texas -- and so indirectly, the metropolitan leftists naming their kids Tyler could blame John Tyler for giving the country a century and a half later President George W. Bush. To the extent these parents have any knowledge of John Tyler's life and achievements, I would guess they would consider him a rather wicked DeadWhiteMale.

The timing puzzles almost as deeply as the name itself. What would catapult this name from virtual nonexistence to wild popularity right around 1980? Perhaps the Baby Wizard offers a clue. The first measurable Tylerization seems to occur around 1950. Could it have started as a Dixiecrat gesture, part of the angry Southern segregationist response to the burgeoning civil rights movement? If so, it's a quite an ironic outcome. [Ben H.: 12/1/05 14:25]
 
   
Walking Cliches

There are people who would be moved by the advertisement below. Dao and I sat next to a couple of them at dinner in Paris -- our age, married or at least engaged to each other. They spoke just loud enough to ensure we could overhear them. Each sentence they spoke attested to how much money they had. Examples: "Do you want me to buy you a Rolex? The $5000 model?" "My dad is so great; every year the day after Thanksgiving he goes out and spends $25,000 on presents for the family." "We got the most expensive wine on the menu here, and this is still the cheapest meal we've had in Paris!" You could stick Plantu's dollar-sign-emblazoned cigars in their mouths and it wouldn't have made them any more perfect as caricatures of America. In fact, if I were French and they were the only live Americans I'd seen, I'd probably start sending half my paycheck to Al Qaeda to help them finish the job.

Still, such people are a minority among the "achieving" classes, and I suspect that the advertisement below will disgust more potential customers than it entices. Why publish it then? One explanation may be that real estate and advertising tend to attract the crasser members of the achieving classes (compared to, say, the professions of surgery and antique dealing). The makers of the ad below may be (at least "aspirationally") part of its target demographic themselves, and they may have assumed that the rest of this demographic is as boorish as they are.

Or maybe I'm wrong and most of our high-achieving coevals really are this crass. (I suppose this would follow from the "Platonic" principle that Ben A has cited before: "Most everyone is a fucktard.") All I know is that I saw a Simpsons episode yesterday where the third-grade teacher was handing back quizzes or something: "Tyler, Dakota, Bart, Tyler, Tyler, Dakota, Tyler ..." [Doug: 12/1/05 13:23]
 
 
Pitch Perfect... Self Parody

Following up on the Onion NYTM parody cover, I call your attention to an NYTM advertisement which, though it may look like satire, appeared toward the back of the magazine last week touting a (yawn) new luxury development on the Upper East Side(hat tip: Curbed).



Now, I understand that advertisers often try to sell a product by making its purchase seem like an affirmation of the buyer's identity, real or aspirational. However, slapping potential buyers in the face with a potent satirical twenty-word reduction of their identity seems like more of an insult than a marketing strategy. I mean, "Tyler"? It's like the slap of a gantlet across a well-moisturized face. If they turn this campaign into a television ad, what's the background music going to be? X-Ray Spex's I'm a Cliche?
[Ben H.: 12/1/05 08:51]
 
     
 

 

 

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