“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

Friday, May 20, 2005

Ruins and monuments of the Bush age

The week was pleasantly full of Bush age ironies. There was, first, the curious silence of the Bush administration regarding aging LBO king Perelman’s winning approximately 1.45 billion dollars from Morgan Stanley. Trivial law suits? Misuse of the courts? No, it is a misuse of the court when a man gets his arm sliced off in a meat factory and wins a million bucks from the jury. This is because the man is, originally, shit. Low class. A man who couldn’t make second place to a doorman position at one of the clubs Perelman belongs to. Basically, Bush’s liability reform is class warfare in the raw. Reform, whenever it comes out of the mouth of one of the Bush-ites, means entrenching and legalizing some corruption. Invariably. As anybody who pays attention knows, the big court losses are not to slaughter house workers or Mickey Dee’s customers assaulted by palsied clerks with hot coffee – they are to big corporate players. However, since the money circulates among the upper 1 percent income bracket, which is (to a degree of exclusion that would astonish Ronald Reagan) the only class that Bush cares about, there isn’t going to be any dickering with this system. Well, Morgan Stanley might, rightly, use one of their pawns in Congress to reverse the verdict, but shark fights are never about damaging the real interests of the pool of sharks. Their interest, actually, is to do what they do best – which is to bully. Now, LI recognizes that in every society, the bully rises to the top, and that inhuman cruelty is part of what makes this such a rich country for one and all. They may be sons of bitches, but at least they are our suns of bitches. But that Perelman can coolly extract 1.45 billion for the “bad advice” he got from Morgan Stanley about not pouring money into a company, Sunbeam, is a joke. Perelman, in this scenario, is a naïf. A poor shoeless billionaire. He invested in a company that a half hours acquaintance with any Business news index would tell you had basically come to the limit of its market. How did Perelman figure on making a return? He wanted the spoils that would accrue from sending in a criminal named Al Dunlop as CEO to screw those who had spent their lives working for the company while taking apart the infrastructure of the place – in preparation for daisy chaining it to some other company. Who knew that, in spite of his reputation as a thug, Dunlap was also an incredibly incompetent thug. Perelman should know the m.o. – he helped invent it in the eighties. See under Marvel.

But if sharks eat sharks, is a minnow like me going to shed a tear? Not really. Still, one should put down x-es – the best way to trace the intellectual corruption that puts its spurs into our sides at the moment.

Then, of course, there was a more traditional crushing of minnows into fishmeal, with the “bankruptcy” of United Air. There is no God, otherwise, just for amusement, he would have arranged the news for this to arrive the week Bush signed the new Bankruptcy bill that he has so drooled over. The very thought that some low caste widow of one of the suckers who died in Iraq going bankrupt and skipping those wonderful credit card payments – 40 percent and mounting, all usury, all the time – sends a black arrow through the heart of the worst and the vilest. The worst and vilest, while headquartered in the Pentagon, do have branch offices: Congress, the Treasury department, etc. So that widow is going to pay through the nose for the vacuum cleaner, the groceries, the new tires for the care (strumpet luxuries!) On the other hand, contractual obligations that have extended for fifty years can go out the window without a blink from Treasury Secretary Snow. Of course, only a raving Marxist would mention the 15 to 17 mil that United CEOs have received (keeping the company competitive in the labor marketplace) in compensation for their amazing leadership abilities. Those leadership abilities consisted of tracking their options in the high nineties. LI has already written a lot about the catastrophe in the private pension funds that is ticking away – funds that, hey, were not kept in a locked box but invested, just like Bushites want Social Security invested. That equity market, man. It just goes up. It is riskless. Shoe shine boys become millionaires on it. Or executives in companies with advance advice that the company’s profits are going to tank, as Bush did when he was finally skyhooked out of the series of small companies he ran into the ground and put in an essentially harmless position from which he could operate as a rentier. It’s the Ownership society – they own you. If there is ever a “truth in mottoes on coins” law, surely that should be the consensus choice.

Then, the lie that runs through the administration like the Nile, fertilizing every branch, there was the news from Iraq. Seems that a sovereign cabinet member had let the wine of power get to his head and banned raiding mosques. As if the little Mesopomoron didn’t know how business was run in fully democratic Iraq. It is run much as it was run by the Soviets in fully democratic East Germany.

The NYT sank this little jewel of a paragraph in one of their schizo news stories – a week ago Rumsfeld wasn’t bothering to even call the command in Iraq except on alternate Sundays, and only then to discuss the weather and fishing. This week the command is talking about another three, four years meatgrinding Americans – castoffs all, late on their credit card payments – and Iraqis – about which, do we care? Surely they will provide a few more purple thumb moments for us to smile about. And then we get this:

“Another problem cited by the senior officer in Baghdad was the new government's ban on raids on mosques, announced on Monday, which the American officer said he expected to be revised after high-level discussions on Wednesday between American commanders and Iraqi officials.”

LI likes the Soviet sound of this. The high level discussions. The consultation. The our fellow democracy. The brothers in the eternal struggle of liberty lovers.

So: all in all, a banner week.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

odd man out at the orgy

Once, long ago, LI allowed ourselves to be talked into seeing one of the Star Wars series. We must have been in the late teens, early twenties. The blurry memory seems to indicate the talking into was done by a date. So we dipped our toe in the Great American Madness, and picked up from the experience a raging headache, aggravated by the squeals of Wookies. Besides those squeals, we have, honestly, no recollection of the business of the film whatsoever – the humans acting in it, the plot, if any, the S/FX justifying the whole sorry sequence. That we had watched a movie in which the dramatic momentum depended on things named Wookies seems, in retrospect, to eminently justify a little pain.

Every time one of that series comes out, there is a rush of interest, a true and naïve interest, in a thing that has such an intrinsically uninteresting story line, and has such a taste for visual gimmickry wholly separate from a taste for visual beauty, that we… can’t figure it out. It makes us feel a little alien – which, I suppose, is a sci fi sentiment in itself. Since this gives a pleasure that we can’t participate in, the human all too human thing is to think that it must be a lesser pleasure – or maybe a vicious one. We are enough of a puritan and a prig to measure our superiority on the gaps in our sensibility – and to label those gaps good taste.

Well, as Nietzsche once said, good taste be damned. The perdurably alien Philip Dick wrote an essay about Sci Fi which is much on our minds, lately: “How to build a universe that doesn’t fall apart two days later.” Obviously, the perennial life of the Star Wars serial has accomplished that task – but Dick says something interesting about his title:

“So I ask, in my writing, What is real? Because unceasingly we are bombarded with pseudo-realities manufactured by very sophisticated people using very sophisticated electronic mechanisms. I do not distrust their motives; I distrust their power. They have a lot of it. And it is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind. I ought to know. I do the same thing. It is my job to create universes, as the basis of one novel after another. And I have to build them in such a way that they do not fall apart two days later. Or at least that is what my editors hope. However, I will reveal a secret to you: I like to build universes which do fall apart. I like to see them come unglued, and I like to see how the characters in the novels cope with this problem. I have a secret love of chaos. There should be more of it. Do not believe— and I am dead serious when I say this— do not assume that order and stability are always good, in a society or in a universe. The old, the ossified, must always give way to new life and the birth of new things. Before the new things are born the old must perish. This is a dangerous realization because it tells us that we must eventually part with much of what is familiar to us. Unless we can psychologically accommodate change, we ourselves will begin to die, inwarrdly. What I am saying is that objects, customs, habits, and ways of life must perish so that the authentic human being can live. And it is the authentic human being who matters most, the viable, elastic organism which can bounce back, absorb, and deal with the new.”

Dick says a lot of things in this essay that are a bit crazy – for instance, he finds such intensely meaningful and accidental parallels between his book, Flow my tears the policeman said, and the Book of Acts that he is forced to draw conclusions that are stretchers: “So my novel contained material from other parts of the Bible, as well as the sections from Acts. Deciphered, my novel tells a quite different story from the surface story (which we need not go into here). The real" story is simply this: the return of Christ, now king rather than suffering servant. Judge rather than victim of unfair judgment. Everything is reversed. The CORE message of my novel, without my knowing it, was a warning to the powerful: You will shortly be judged and condemned. Who, specifically, did it refer to? Well, I can't really say; or rather would prefer not to say. I have no certain knowledge, only an intuition. And that is not enough to go on, so I will keep my thoughts tc. myself. But you might ask yourselves what political events took place in this country between February 1974 and August 1974. Ask yourself who was judged and condemned, and fell like a flaming star into ruin and disgrace.”

I rather want to be Isaiah myself. Unfortunately, the flaming star from Crawford who I want to see fall into ruin and disgrace seems to blithely escape my prophetic mental ray gun.

On the other hand, Dick earned the right to his stretchers, if you ask me. But this is getting off the track. What impressed me most about the essay was how it captures the sci fi moment that encloses both the work and the reception of the work. Or, to be less mysterious about it – Dick gives us a sense of how the science fiction of something like Star Wars lies not in the series itself, but the viewing and buzz around the movies. That great machinery of commerce and p.r., dovetailing with these passionately awaited and debated story/games, makes it hard to know what is going on here for someone like LI – who, when all is said and done, is just your typical boojwah symbol pusher, thinking to put himself in a one on one with the great works – or the video, or the novel, or the poem. Thinking that the orgy is all about himself.

One more passage from the Dick essay, just for the hell of it. I love this: “If any of you have read my novel Ubik, you know that the mysterious entity or mind or force called Ubik starts out as a series of cheap and vulgar commercials and winds up saying:

I am Ubik. Before the universe was I am. I made the suns. I made the worlds. I created the lives and the places they inhabit; I move them here, I put them there. They go as I say, they do as I tell them. I am the word and my name is never spoken, the name which no one knows. I am called Ubik but that is not my name. I am. I shall always be.

It is obvious from this who and what Ubik is; it specifically says that it is the word, which is to say, the Logos. In the German translation, there is one of the most wonderful lapses of correct understanding that I have ever come across; God help us if the man who translated my novel Ubik into German were to do a translation from the koine Greek into German of the New Testament. He did all right until he got to the sentence "I am the word." That puzzled him. What can the author mean by that? he must have asked himself, obviously never having come across the Logos doctrine. So he did as good a job of translation as possible. In the German edition, the Absolute Entity which made the suns, made the worlds, created the lives and the places they inhabit, says of itself: I am the brand name. Had he translated the Gospel according to Saint John, I suppose it would have come out as: When all things began, the brand name already was. The brand name dwelt with God, and what God was, the brand name was.”

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

poetry and rent seeking

Poetry is a mysterious thing. It can go underground for a century – as it did in eighteenth century France. In the U.S., poetry has always been capricious. What happened in the twentieth century was in some ways miraculous – yet, after the major poets of the forties generation started dying out, they weren’t replaced. Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, James Merrill – there’s no American poet, at the moment, of a remotely similar stature. There’s a factory mindset that worries about this – it is as if there were some production quota for sausages, lawn mowers and poets.

In the absence of great poets, the American community has great poetry cabals. There’s a very nice article about this in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Thomas Bartlett. Alas, the article is entitled Rhyme and Unreason, instead of (dream on!) Poetry and Rent-seeking. And double alas, Thomas Bartlett, the author, didn’t seek out any economists for comment. But he nevertheless untangles a wonderfully tangled tale.

The tale in short goes like this. Foetry, a website dedicated to getting to the root of corruption in poetry contests, appeared on the web last year. It was run anonymously. Eventually, that anonymity was penetrated – it turns out the site is run by a librarian named Alan Cordle, who is married to a poet. Cordle felt a burning sense of injustice about the world in which his wife was trying to make it as a poet, and so decided to attack the backscratching and numerous collusions that make poetry contests as fair as a Florida election.

Rent-seeking is a term invented by Anne Krueger to denote behaviors that are advantage-oriented but unproductive. It is an oblique acknowledgement by neo-classical economists that the model of enterprises fairly competing with each other to achieve advantage doesn’t really take into account the enterprises knowledge of the system – that, in other words, the path to profit needn’t be a matter or services, prices, or innovation, but can consist in gaming the system. In fact, the impossibility of creating a system that would block incentives to game the system is the reason that neo-classical economics is the economics of a vacuum in search of a reality. And the term “unproductive” is, shall we say, debateable – for economists, outputs from the government, such as environmental protection, can be seen as “unproductive”, while the output from a small movie company making snuff films can be seen as “productive.”

As you can see, the roots of the notion are embedded in the usual conservative world view that establishes absolute differences between the state and private enterprise, or bureaucracy and management, and so on. The usual unjustifiable intellectual cockledoodledoo. But there is a nugget of sound common sense here, as long as one is not carried away by the normative overtones. Andrew Hindmoor published a nice knockdown of rent seeking in the Journal of Political Philosophy in 1999. He provides a useful summary of the rent seeking concept:
“(i) Rent seeking is extremely common. Within the political arena where attention remains largely focused, examples of rent seeking are manifold.(n4) Interest-groups invest resources in an effort to extract favourable legislation from government. Utilities invest resources in an effort to capture their regulator and so ensure the erection of barriers to entry which will stifle competition. Bureaucrats invest resources in an effort to persuade government that budgets should be increased and political parties invest resources in an effort to capture the monopoly rent of government itself. Whilst efforts to quantify the volume of rent seeking remain in their infancy, one recent study concludes that as much as one-quarter of American gross national product is devoted to rent seeking and rent protection.

“(ii) Rent seeking is pernicious. Rent seeking may be individually rational but it is socially costly because it occurs at the expense of productive investment. Consider the following `clear cut' example offered by Tullock.(n6) In an effort to increase its profits, a struggling American steel company invests resources in an effort to secure a ban on the imports of a rival Korean firm's goods `on the purported grounds that [they are] environmentally dangerous'. Not only will the price of steel rise but money invested in this way cannot then be spent in other more productive ways. Resources invested in an effort to secure an import ban cannot be invested in new machinery which will reduce costs and improve quality.

“(iii) Rent seeking should be eliminated. For Rowley and Tullock, it is an item of political faith that `for those concerned with advancing the nation's wealth, the elimination of rent seeking ... is on a par (almost) with support of the flag, motherhood and apple pie'. It may not be possible to eliminate rent seeking but it is possible to reduce it. Reform is often envisaged as occurring at the constitutional level. Proposals are varied and include the imposition of tighter party discipline, rules limiting the size of government and a requirement that legislation be non-discriminatory.”
Interestingly, the political economy of poetry in the U.S. is very like the political economy of a particularly corrupt third world country. For instance, take the poetry contest. As Bartlett puts it:

“Poetry contests -- particularly the prestigious ones -- do more than boost the egos of the winners: They often make a poet's career. The winners get published; the losers are left to enter another contest. Published poets are first in line to get university teaching jobs, which is one reason they spend a lot of time and money (contests often charge "reading fees") trying to win big-name competitions. The contests also matter for established poets, who are seeking to publish their books and strengthen their reputations.”

So far, so good. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with contests making a poet’s reputation. The problem comes from the fact that the reputation does not then get out in the world, so to speak. Poetry doesn’t sell. Here’s where the kicker comes in:

“But the fact is, poetry books don't sell, and so-called reading fees paid by contestants subsidize the cost of publication by small and university presses. That works well for the presses, but for poets it can mean spending a small fortune trying to get their words into print. Mr. Cordle and his supporters see the system as a scheme to defraud naïve poets while judges select their friends, students, and colleagues. Presses argue that it is just a regrettable economic necessity.”

The pre-requisites for corruption in a small undeveloped economy are similar. An economy that doesn’t produce enough saleable product – or that has systematic impediments to the production of saleable goods – which, nevertheless, has an inflow of aid for some reason from developed countries. An oversized administrative structure that sucks out the money and energy that could be spend on removing impediments to native growth. A competition for power-brokering positions, rather than for productive positions – as the latter are not as profitable as the former.
Cordle stumbled upon a great trove of insider dealing when he went after the University of Georgia poetry contest, getting a list of judges for recent poetry contests. The University had not published that information before. It turns out Jorie Graham, who is the poet laureate of rentseeking, happened to be a judge the year the top prize was awarded to a Peter Sacks.

As Bartlett puts it:

On its face, that was a shocking revelation. Ms. Graham and Mr. Sacks are colleagues at Harvard University. They are also married.
“Ms. Graham says it is not that simple. The two were not married in 1999, and Ms. Graham had not yet arrived at Harvard. They knew each other, she says, but not well. They married in 2000, the same year she moved to Harvard.”

The story gets much funnier, as Bartlett gets a series of excuses from all participants that are, truly, the stuff of poetry. Or litigation, or both – this being an American story, the end of it is that all sides are mounting up their lawyers. Graham claims that she had reservations about her role in the UGA contest.

But… “Documents that Mr. Cordle obtained from the Georgia press, however, do not seem to support that scenario. For instance, in a letter Mr. Ramke wrote in 1999 to the director of the press, he says that Ms. Graham "enthusiastically concurs" with his decision to pick Mr. Sacks's work.
Ms. Graham calls that wording a "big mistake" and points to another part of the letter in which Mr. Ramke says he would pick the manuscript "even if I were alone in the wilderness." Mr. Cordle also obtained through the request a page of prose written by Ms. Graham praising Mr. Sacks's book. She says that was nothing more than "jacket copy" that Mr. Ramke asked her to write. Mr. Ramke, however, says that judges -- whom he calls "outside readers" -- are asked to write a page or so about the manuscript "to be used as arguments for publishing the book."

However, the reach of rentseeking as a tool of analysis only goes so far. There is no reason to think Sacks’ poetry isn’t great – LI hasn’t read it. In fact, the universal perniciousness of rent seeking only appears to University of Chicago deluded eyes. Still, there is something enjoyable – something Dunciad like – about this farce.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

the sycophants ball

The Washington Post, in its infinite wisdom, decided to send a staff reporter to interview Phillip Johnson, the gray eminence behind the pseudo-science of Intelligent Design. This is interesting. Are they going to start letting the style section do reports on business, now? How about having a sports reporter do the Pentagon beat.

The article, of course, betrays Michael Powell’s powerful eighth grade education in biology, and his charming belief, which probably won him prizes in high school, that a newspaper story doesn’t take sides -- it deals with both sides of the question. He even wrote a very good essay on that in his English class, and Ms. Figworth marked it VERY IMPRESSIVE!

One doesn’t blame poor Mr. Powell – he truly seems prepared, if the question is, say, whether Star Wars one is better than Star Wars three – but the brothelkeeper who sent him on his task. As usual, the Washington Post’s response to the conservative establishment that runs D.C., now, is to fetch the bone. The bone, in this case, is the debasing of American education with nonsense.

We especially loved this sentence:

“Johnson and his followers, microbiologists and geologists and philosophers, debate in the language of science rather than Scripture.”

Because Powell obviously think that science is a debate, with people taking notes out of their files – yes, it is the debate club! He covered the debate club, once! He knows how to do this!

Oh, the Bush age. How I long for it to end.