“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Saturday, September 27, 2003

Bollettino

Without a certain sordidness in his surroundings he was never quite comfortable, never quite himself -- Arthur Symons

My fate

The August Contemporary Review comes loaded with a nice little essay entitled "The vanishing man of letters" by Richard Whittington-Egan.

A name like that seems to go with the topic, doesn't it? The essay is full of little anecdotes about my predecessors in the line of turning a little learning into quick copy -- the milquetoast reviewers, essayists, and tepid novelists that drenched innumerable reviews and weeklies and monthlies with the ink of their deadline enthusiasms; who suffered in bed-sits, endured impossible infatuations, and died drowned, or by their own hands, or rusticated into fabulous antiquity. There's nothing worse than a peculiar kind of disease that strikes the well read -- a certain chronic bookishness. It slowly supplants the very soul, making every word ring with tinny tintinabulations of reference.

My favorite among these awesome mummies is Arthur Symonds. Now, somehow, I thought Symonds was gay. But according to Whittington-Egan, he was straight. Or at least so we can judge his sexuality when he existed on this planet. He traversed other ones during his life:


"Surely the most significant Man of Letters to emerge from the ranks of what is generally regarded as the lesser fin-de-siecle crowd was Arthur Symons (1865-1945), whose pioneering, The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1899) was to prove seminal, introducing French Symbolisme to English literary culture, and, incidentally, introducing also the poetry of Laforgue to T.S. Eliot, which, he was later to confess, 'affected the course of my life'.

The son of a West country Wesleyan Methodist minister, Symons was a precocious youth, self-educated in English and French literature, who, joining the newly-founded Browning Society in 1881, when he was sixteen, came to the attention of the Society's co-founder, Dr. Frederick James Furnivall, who invited him to write Introductions to Venus and Adonis, and other works for the Shakespeare Quartos Facsimiles series, which he was then in process of editing. So impressed was Furnivall that he suggested to Symons that he should write a primer on Browning. An Introduction to the Study of Browning, Symons' first book, was duly published in 1886. Its author was just twenty-one. He was to become the complete Man of Letters--poet, critic of the seven arts, editor, essayist, translator, short story and travel writer, and Herrick of the music-halls. Unlike so many of his contemporaries--Arthur O'Shaughnessy, Hubert Crackanthorpe, Ernest Dowson, and Lionel Johnson--Symons did not die young, but he suffered a life-dimming tragedy--the Man of Letters gone to madness. It came upon him in Italy, in the city of Venice, where, in September 1908, he and his wife, Rhoda, were staying at a Palazzo that gave on to the Grand Canal. For some weeks presignatory intimations of insanity had been whispering in his ear and distorting his conceptions of his visions and envisionings. He heard, too, amplified by his mania, the awful sounds of the lunatics in the asylum on the island of St. Clemente. On September 26th, a Saturday, what he described as 'the thunderbolt from hell' fell on him. Leaving Rhoda behind in Venice, he journeyed alone to Bologna, where he took a room for himself at the Grand Hotel Brun. And there the shrieking wind of madness suddenly rose to smite him with all-piercing force. Staggering through the alien streets, he lost all consciousness of himself in a vortex, a whirling maelstrom, of hideous and terrifying hallucinatory images and imaginings. Rhoda arrived. He raved and raged and cursed, and, refusing to return with her to London, sped off, alone again, to Ferrara. It was in a cafe there that, mistaken by two Bersiglieri for a crazed vagrant, he was carried off to Ferrara's ducal Palazzo Vecchio, thrown into a dungeon cell, where, manacled hand and foot, he was left, with neither food nor drink, in darkness and in terror, to struggle with the grimacing faces of his clamouring hallucinations. Rescued through the good offices of the Italian Ambassador, he was returned safely to England, where he was certified insane, and spent long months in Brooke House, an asylum in Upper Clapton Road. But the gods relented. In April 1910, Symons, more or less restored, and, having been wrongly diagnosed at the National Hospital, Queen Square, rejoined his wife at Island Cottage, their country home at Wittersham, in Kent. One of the last photographs of him shows him in his seventeenth-century timbered cottage, resting on a sofa beside the massive open fire chimney corner. Inevitable book in hand, he somehow seems the template of all Men of Letters rolled into one; a Bookman still obstinately reading on the edge of eternity. He was to live on there for another 36 years, outliving Rhoda by eight years. Like many another Man of Letters, the fret and fume of his days in literary London left far behind him, he spent his last years in the wood-smoke calm of a green corner of the English countryside, and found his final bed in the cool, evening shadow of a quiet country churchyard."

Huh. Symons himself has described the death of a man of letters better than this. If you look around the Net, you can find scattered bits of the man -- the essay by Eliot in Sacred Woods, Symons essay on Villiers de L'Isle-Adam, etc -- but the most heartfelt piece I've found is his essay on Ernest Dowson. Dowson is one of those poets who, as Symons admits, just lacked that last bit of genius, and so is remembered now for being mentioned by better poets and writers -- for being Yeats' friend, and being associated with the Yellow Book. However, what do you expect from fame? The afterlife is as full of dying reputations as Austerlitz was full of wounded soldiers. You are rediscovered by an academic looking for tenure, or you are rediscovered because you liked to fuck men. Or you are not rediscovered at all.

In any case, this is Dowson's death:


Latterly, until the last year of his life, he lived almost entirely in Paris, Brittany, and Normandy. Never robust, and always reckless with himself, his health had been steadily getting worse for some years, and when he came back to London he looked, as indeed he was, a dying man. Morbidly shy, with a sensitive independence which shrank from any sort of obligation, he would not communicate with his relatives, who would gladly have helped him, or with any of the really large number of attached friends whom he had in London; and, as his disease weakened him more and more, he hid himself away in his miserable lodgings, refused to see a doctor, let himself half starve, and was found one day in a Bodega with only a few shillings in his pocket, and so weak as to be hardly able to walk, by a friend, himself in some difficulties, who immediately took him back to the bricklayer's cottage in a muddy outskirt of Catford, where he was himself living, and there generously looked after him for the last six weeks of his life.He did not realise that he was going to die; and was full of projects for the future, when the �600 which was to come to him from the sale of some property should have given him a fresh chance in the world; began to read Dickens, whom he had never read before, with singular zest; and, on the last day of his life, sat up talking eagerly till five in the morning. At the very moment of his death he did not know that he was dying. He tried to cough, could not cough, and the heart quietly stopped."

Somehow, that last sentence reminds me of how Wells described the death of the Invisible Man. It is the Cathedral style of English prose, and I, for one, love it.

Friday, September 26, 2003

Bollettino

Life under W.

A couple of weeks ago, the NYT reported that the nation's criminal CEO's and their multimillion dollar minions were really, really going to be prosecuted soon. Some day. As in, the forces of goodness are closing in.

Well, we knew it was a crock. Most Valuable fraudster Richard Scrushy, late of HealthSouth, was the man named as most likely to face a trial. Since then, though, Scrushy has shown with what contempt he takes the feeble efforts of the underfunded, bad faith Feds. The NYT reports, today, that his attorney told a House Panel to take this subpoena to testify and shove it. Meanwhile...



"Meanwhile in Alabama, where Mr. Scrushy lives
and HealthSouth has its headquarters, Mr. Scrushy is maintaining a high profile.

Last month alone, he bought a $3 million yachting marina on the Alabama Gulf Coast; joined with Donald Watkins, one of his lawyers, to buy a Cessna jet; and sponsored a powerboat race in the Gulf, placing second piloting his $450,000 Skater motorboat Monopoly, which is painted like the board game with "Go" across the deck.

Some of Mr. Scrushy's legal foes say that he is being deliberately provocative. He and Mr. Watkins are "thumbing their noses at people pursuing him and his money," said Doug Jones, a former United States attorney in Birmingham who is representing shareholders suing to recover their losses on HealthSouth stock."

In the nineties, there was a lively discussion in centrist circles about "ending equality" -- as Mickey Kaus put it. The Clintons, arch policy wonks, loved the idea that liberalism could be redefined without the ideological baggage of equality. It meant that you could hobnob with the moneyed while training your liberal sensibilities on such things as the symbols of identity politics. Tony Blair is the last survivor, perhaps, of this mindset.

However, in a bust it is much harder to swallow the contradictions of a liberalism of unequal outcomes than it is in a boom. In fact, even hardcore inequalitarians pointed to the lowering of the poverty rate and the narrowing of the income gap (however miniscule) between the working class and the wealthy as a sign that Clinton's economic policies were sound.

There's an interesting discussion, here
, of the economic groundwork that preceded the institution of progressive income tax. The idea, according to Martin Daunton, is a gloss on one of Adam Smith's precepts concerning "equality of sacrifice". The question that derives from Smith is how to count units. Is taking 5 dollars from a man earning 5,000 dollars the same as taking 5 dollars from a man earning 500,000? Interestingly, the terms of the debate were changed by the coming of marginal utility theory, which seemed to give a model for conceptualizing linear changes within a system -- or, in other words, giving us a sense of the variables that are subsumed by the thing sacrificed.

"Alfred Marshall's Principles stressed the marginal costs of producing another unit of output, and the marginal satisfaction to be derived from consuming it. In this approach, an additional pound did not produce the same satisfaction for someone in receipt of an income of �1,000 as for someone in receipt of an income of �100. The meaning of equality of sacrifice was more complicated than writers in the past had appreciated. Did equal sacrifice mean each taxpayer should surrender the same proportion of their total utility?

"That is, the aim should not be to take 10 per cent from all income levels (�5 from an income of �500 and �10 from an income of �1,000), but rather to extract the same proportion of happiness or satisfaction, which varied according to income. Or did it mean an equal marginal sacrifice in order to produce minimum disutility? By this definition, the aim was to calculate the additional satisfaction produced by the final increment of income, and to ensure that the rate of taxation on that income imposed the same loss of utility or satisfaction. Thus the final �10 of income for someone earning �500 might produce three times as much satisfaction as the final �10 for someone earning �1,000, so that the tax rate could be three times as high on the larger income with the same marginal disutility."

Ourselves, we find the theology of marginal utility cumbersome and ultimately unsatisfactory, here. But it is important to understand that this was the economics standing in the background during the first wave of progressive tax legislation. And that legislation, in turn, codified the idea that income was a variable that does not effect the social and political position of the income earner. In other words, the only principle that should count in supporting a scale of larger percentages of tax on income as we scale upward is to enforce Smith's equality of sacrifice. From an institutional economics viewpoint, however, this abstraction ignores the embedding effects of wealth -- that is, embedded wealth has a direct effect on the political system that decides questions not only of taxation, but of disbursement. The effects are manifold -- and none moreso than the effect on justice. There is no such thing as a graduated scale of legal services that would allow us to model an equality of sacrifice for legal agents. Those who earn 5,000 dollars simple won't be able to afford the lawyers available to those who earn 500,000 dollars. Since the judiciary is a point of direct contact between citizen and state, this is a much more important point for the state than, say, the same disparity that might be supposed for, say, transportation or clothing or shelter. Granting, for the moment, the liberal assumption that such things are best left to the sphere of the market, you have a special case when the market is determining quality of legal service.

Taunton provides an excellent little resume of how the cause of progressive taxation mirrored a change in economics theory:

"Economic ideas provided a large part of the meanings and vocabulary of political debate, and limited possible alternatives. The point is apparent in 1909, when opponents of Lloyd George's 'people's budget' turned to Alfred Marshall to supply them with intellectual authority - which was not forthcoming. He refused to denounce the budget as socialist, as a device to remove responsibility from individuals and pass it to the state. Instead, Marshall believed that cautious redistribution from poor to rich would be beneficial. 'For poverty crushes character: and though the earning of great wealth generally strengthens character, the spending of it by those who have not earned it, whether men or women, is not nearly an unmixed good.' In 1902 he asked, 'Is the share of the total price of products which goes to manual labour as large as is compatible with a wholesome and "free" state of society? Could we by taking thought get the work of our great captains of industry and financiers done with rather less of their present huge gains?'

One hundred years later, we see the massive effects of the embedding of advantage to the wealthy in a system that is effected to a great degree by the greater inputs of the wealthy. The Kaus's of the world could well counter that we are misconstruing those inputs -- that the system is only manipulable by inputs of cash, and that such cash could result from the aggregation of small sums. That is not completely untrue, but it is true for only a narrow range of government structures. This is something to come back to.

Tuesday, September 23, 2003

Bollettino

Combinations

So, on the same day that the Administration claimed that Iraq cannot raise and utilize its own army, or elect its own government, or make any decision not subject to the veto of a man who by all accounts lives in a well guarded, English speaking bubble, Mr. Bremer, the Adminstration "haled" the complete overhaul of the Iraqi economy. It is as if an American occupier were to hale some American Council's decision to nationalize all American industries. A bit of a change, eh?

Contradiction has become Bush's daily bread; his substitute for the politics of joy. Now, however, he is starting to choke on it.

The plan, apparently, is to make Iraq into a sort of Cato Institute wet dream. This has, of course, been in the works since before the war. But the question, to LI's mind, is not whether the plan is a good one or a bad one -- we think that it is inevitable that the state dominated economy of Iraq is in line for a hit. Tha't reality. No, the question is one of form. The question is: can Bremer top, for complete stupdity, his edict this spring to dissolve the Iraqi army, right away? That decision added four hundred thousand armed and pissed off men to the mix in the country. The decision yesterda, we think, is Bremer blunder number 2.

How stupid is it? Let us count the ways.

The low intensity warfare being waged by the Iraqi resistance lacks a fundamental reason for being. That is, beside the question of pure power. Insofar as the resistance is manned by Ba'ath diehards, it is self-limiting.

The Cato Institute policy is a gift from heaven to these people. They suddenly have an ideological goal. Blowing up an oil pipeline owned by the Iraqi government is, really, just a way of saying that the sabateurs want to control the Iraqi government. Blowing up an oil pipeline owned by Exxon, however, is a way of sending a much more attractive message: we are fighting for Iraq.

The new rules put a premium on the skills of Iraqi exiles. When foreign companies enter the country and bid on the stuff there, the intermediaries will almost surely be selected from the exile pool, which is better educated, and familiar with the inscrutable customs of foreign companies. Second huge gift to the resistance. The exile leadership in Iraq has faced, from the beginning, the charge that they are pawns of the Americans. This is just the kind of economic policy that will confirm that idea.

And then, of course, there is the overarching question of governance. If the Americans are so concerned that Iraq has a constitution before it has a government -- the ridiculous belief that some constitutional looking piece of paper will defend America's interests when our troops leave is among the more riotous of the neo-con superstitions -- then why are they so suddenly eager to allow a non-constitutional, non-elected government to, essentially, revolutionize the Iraqi economy?

For a preview of coming distractions, check out the LATimes article about the Iraqi response to the Council's NEP:

"BAGHDAD � In the marble-floored corporate offices of Al Hafidh General Trading Co., Waleed and Hani Hafidh vented the rage of many Iraqi businessmen Monday over the country's new wide-open foreign investment policy.

Puffing furiously on imported cigarettes, the brothers asserted that the economic reform package unveiled by Iraq's recently appointed finance minister in the United Arab Emirates on Sunday will destroy the country's small yet burgeoning private sector, create a permanent "world occupation" of its economy and render the Iraqi people "immigrants in their own land." "

As we've emphasized before, prediction is not the mark of good cultural commentary. Rather, what one wants is a clear sense of the combinations that are forming now, and some way of assessing their odds for the future. A week ago, we gave our own list of the five major combinations we see in the Iraq situation, and how we assessed the odds.

Here is a possible scenario that plugs into those combinations. Let's say the odds that the NEP angers Iraqis more than it entices businessmen from outside is really the case in the next couple of months. We would guess that the next Saddam tape (we used to be of the opinion that Saddam was dead -- but we think now, from the accumulation of tapes, that he is probably not) will probably contain some reference to selling out the country. Look for a heavy anti-semitic tone to come into those references too. Because the plan is both impossible to impose and ideologically rigid -- its imposition would certainly cost Iraqis jobs, at a minimum -- it will be both used as a confirmation that the occupation is a thinly disguised colonialism and used as a weapon to challenge the idea that things are going to get better for the average Iraqi. Because the NEP comes from an unelected council, it will be a mark against the council's legitimacy. And because the distrust engendered by the plan will actually give an ideological gloss to the resistance's acts of sabotage, it will heat up Rumsfeld's Spike -- indeed, we can call this the Spike war. This, of course, will lead the Bremer faction to further postpone Iraq's political autonomy. And so on and so forth. The combinations lead to further involvement in the country, rather than less.

This, we think, will be very bad for Bush. That is a good thing, since Bush needs to go. But it will also be very bad for the U.S. and Iraq. That is a very bad, immediate thing. If there were ever a time for an opposition to make a change in a potentially disastrous course, the time is now.

Time to fire the Defense Department crew. Replace them with people who have been, at least once in their lives, to a racetrack.

Sunday, September 21, 2003

And he spake a parable unto them, saying, The ground of a
certain rich man brought forth plentifully:
And he thought within himself, saying, What shall I do,
because I have no room where to bestow my fruits?
And he said, This will I do: I will pull down my barns,
and build greater; and there will I bestow all my fruits and my goods.
And I will say to my soul, Soul, thou hast much goods laid
up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and� be merry.
But God said unto him, Thou� fool, this night thy soul
shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou
hast provided? � Luke


Imagine ten archers, shooting at a target a mile wide and a mile high at a distance of three feet. And imagine them all missing. It would be easy to infer that they were all blind.

That�s the feeling LI sometimes gets with the ten Democratic presidential candidates. Here we have a presidency that has utterly failed. One that has amassed a five hundred billion dollar deficit on� nothing. One that has gotten us enmeshed in one war, in Iraq, that not only has nothing to do with our interests, but is actually harmful to them. Meanwhile, we have incompletely dealt with a group that really has physically attacked us � al Qaeda. By cautiously never pronouncing the name, Osama bin Laden, Bush attempts to exorcize the man. What is the result? In Morocco, Bali, Jakarta and Saudi Arabia the organization, or its allies, have attacked. The pretence that they are crippled makes sense only to people who cannot see what is in front of their nose. Here�s something in front of our noses: the people who hijacked the four planes three years ago did not have chemical weapons. They didn�t have Uzis. They used credit cards, airplane tickets, and hobby shop paraphernalia to wipe out three thousand lives. And so far, nothing that has happened tells us that this can�t happen again. Meanwhile, the Democrats act as if calling the President a �miserable failure� is some kind of logomachical triumph.

Well, it isn�t. The candidates are making promises, blithely, as though there weren�t a five hundred billion dollar deficit. As though the security alerts are all a joke. As though, in other words, we were all still living in 1999, except that we more frequently speak the phrase: �war on terrorism.� Without, of course, meaning it.

So let�s do a little scenario building. Let�s say that the phrase actually makes sense. Let�s say one of those bogus alerts isn�t bogus. Let�s say an attack happens, a mini 9/11.

Now, the last time that happened the market plummeted. It shed what, a trillion dollars worth of value? And while it temporarily regained ground, it drifted down again. To combat the inevitable downturn, the government, in 2002, threw an extra two hundred billion dollars into the system, in addition to the money already budgeted.

So � what is it going to do next time?
The next two hundred billion dollars is going to come out of our flesh. One of the odder spectacles of our time is watching the newspapers deal with the U.S.�s five hundred billion dollar deficit. They deal with it by assuring us that, as a portion of the GDP, this is nothing. Hasn�t Japan run an even bigger deficit? And Germany?

What they don�t say is that those two countries also run a trade surplus. The US hasn�t done that since the seventies. Counting the trade surplus, conservatively, at 350 billion dollars, we are already talking of an outflow of dollars of about 800 billion. If there is an attack, another two hundred billion would make more than a trillion. Now, it is true that the world�s investors are prone to periods of stupor in which they will invest huge sums in obvious death traps. The elevation of various dot coms is proof. But even the most inattentive investor is going to ask, sooner or later, what the US is doing to be floated on a trillion some dollars of debt.

Of course, of course, the account in trade is a little different from the money the US government borrows. There are caveats to adding the two figures together. But overconcentration on the caveats blurs the general picture, which is of a nation crazily careering, in an uncertain time, to the brink of financial disaster. With nobody in D.C. concerned about it; with the ten Dems pretending that they can ignore it and go on their Dem way, getting vaguely New Dealish about health care; and with the incompetent at the head of this enterprise still the odds on favorite in the next election. It makes no sense that the Dems do not make an issue of simple stewardship � of what you pass on to your successor. They should, and fast. The supposed �problem� the Dems have with national security should be flipped around: the problem with national security, right now, is the astonishingly vulnerable position Bush has gotten us into. As with all Bush initiatives, the bet is completely on the most unlikely set of combinations that will produce an optimal outcome. If the US were an investment fund in 1999, it would be as if we�d invested everything in the telecommunications industry. Not, retrospectively, the wisest of choices.