“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, December 09, 2006

thoughts on Christmas




In 1937, for a Christmas present, Goebbels gave Hitler 18 Mickey Mouse films. Goebbels was always a big Disney cartoon fan – Snow White, in particular, was a favorite.

Christmas, too, was a favorite of the Nazis. An officially sanctioned favorite. Long before Bill O’Reilly discovered that Christmas was being traduced by traitors from within, the Nazis had found in Christmas a powerful way to promote a number of their most signal policies. Hitler’s state was the first modern guns and butter regime, and such regimes require a resilient consumer sector. The most zealous Nazis tried to make Weihnacht into a more Aryan holiday, promoting the use of Yule, for instance. But the effect of the Nazi re-inflation in Germany is more coolly represented in Heimat, which shows the high point of the thirties as a Christmas – the Christmas of 1937 or 1938, I believe. Sebald mentions the mythical Christmases of the 30s in his book on the Air War. The Fox news emphasis on the American-ness of this peculiar holiday simply follows, blindly, a logic at work in war culture economies – the identity of country and consumerism in a holiday that sanctifies using a credit card or spending Deutsche marks.

War’s id finds, in Christmas, a particularly rich text. It is a place where all the many poisons in the system can come out as cranberry sauce and war games for the kids. Let them grow up remembering, on this festive occasion in which we can proudly look across the ocean to the piles and piles of Iraqi bodies, all murdered in an act of generosity by the great American people, that America is a uniquely benign super power, for which Jesu Christi was spangled on a Christmas tree. A great baby, a great savior, who never left home without his Visa card. Imagine, this year Santa is splashing through the blood of thousands of bad little Iraqi children just to bring American children, all nestled in their beds of democracy and CO2, the nicest little computer gifts global corporations can provide! Makes me feel warm and snug.

Ah, and here’s a nice little 1919 Christmas poem by Tucholsky to end with. Here’s the German, with my translation:

Einkäufe

Was schenke ich dem kleinen Michel
zu diesem kalten Weihnachtsfest?
Den Kullerball? Den Sabberpichel?
Ein Gummikissen, das nicht näßt?
Ein kleines Seifensiederlicht?
Das hat er noch nicht. Das hat er noch nicht!

Wähl ich den Wiederaufbaukasten?
Schenk ich ihm noch mehr Schreibpapier?
Ein Ding mit schwarzweißroten Tasten;
ein patriotisches Klavier?
Ein objektives Kriegsgericht?
Das hat er noch nicht. Das hat er noch nicht!

Schenk ich den Nachttopf ihm auf Rollen?
Schenk ich ein Moratorium?
Ein Sparschwein, kugelig geschwollen?
Ein Puppenkrematorium?
Ein neues gescheites Reichsgericht?
Das hat er noch nicht. Das hat er noch nicht!

Ach, liebe Basen, Onkels, Tanten –
Schenkt ihr ihm was. Ich find es kaum.
Ihr seid die Fixen und Gewandten,
hängt ihrs ihm untern Tannenbaum.
Doch schenkt ihm keine Reaktion!
Die hat er schon. Die hat er schon!
Purchases

What am I going to get little Mikey
on this cold Christmas day?
The little ball? a bib for the tykie?
A waterproof little rubber tray?
A clue, that’s what I could get!
He doesn’t have that yet. Nope, he doesn’t have that yet.

Perhaps the re-building set, please?
Or how about more stationary?
A thingamabob with whiteblackred keys;
a patriotic piano?
An objective war report I might get?
He doesn’t have that yet. He doesn’t have that yet!

How about a little potty on wheels?
How about a moratorium?
A pig for his pennies, swollen from deals?
Or a G.I. Joe doll crematorium?
Hey, a war tribunal with rights I might get?
He doesn’t have that yet. Oh, he doesn’t have that yet?

O, dear cousins, uncles and aunts –
Give him something good. I can hardly find it.
You day traders, short sellers, financial hot pants
hang it up for him under the Christmas tree.
But don’t give him any more pro-war shit!
He has just enough. Just enough of it!

Friday, December 08, 2006

alienating America's natural constituency in Iraq

It is the time of the year for top ten lists – top ten hits, top ten best books, top ten worst movies. And of course, everybody’s top ten flop, the defeat of the U.S. in Iraq. We are ending up with a normal week – 500 plus Iraqis murdered, 33 U.S. soldiers ditto. Hollywood flops bleed money, this flop bleeds both money and blood. But in D.C., as in Hollywood, you can fail to the top - there will be laughs at the National Press club next year as our president does his imitation of a mass of Iraqis being blown to bit by a car bomb. Talk about funny...

So what went wrong? Dream cast, brilliant photo ops, a strong return to the war theater by old Cap’n Rumsfeld, voted sexiest psychopathic rightwinger of 1985 and still bulging that wrestler honed physique, and introducing Sonny, the Rebel in Chief playing Rebel with a Cause against former marquee magician, Sr.

Among Rumsfeldian deadenders, reference to other occupations, other times are still de rigeur. It is true that allegories of occupation weren’t the guide the deadenders thought; but partly this is because the deadenders never really looked at those occupations. The WWII reference debased itself about 2004, and only surfaces in the slimier parts of the Net, where eager Islamophobes congregate to swap saliva and dreams of mass murder, glassing deserts, flaying the bodies of Moslems, and perhaps even raping the women (although not so much – the homoerotic glorying in twisting the entrails of the dead enemy about one’s neck, the notion of decapitating, of burning the skin off of, of crushing the skulls of infants – this is the all American fantasy of this group of middle management white males. If the Insurgents out there have a moment, they might want to turn to, say, the RedState blog and translate into Arabic the comments that have accrued about what to do next in Iraq. Talk about a motivator for attacking Americans!). However, there is something to be learned about American foreign policy by looking at America’s previous wars.

The thing to learn is simple. America’s wars since 1945 have largely depended on appealing to a constituency, in the targeted country, made up of the upper and upper middle class. This class is the natural American ally. This was the class that the Occupation authority appealed to in both Japan and Germany. This was the class that gravitated towards the U.S. in South Korea and South Vietnam. This was the class that, bitching and moaning, has carried out U.S. friendly policies in Latin America.

It was with this history, sublimated into instinct, that Jay Garner arrived in Iraq in 2003. And it was this history that made it possible, for a historic moment, that the Iraqi upper and upper middle class, which had endured Saddam Hussein with varying degrees of enthusiasm until the debacle of Kuwait, and endured him with silent dissent thereafter, would form their natural alliance with the U.S. But Garner was quickly sidelined, and the U.S. embarked on a program that utterly alienated both the poor and the upper and upper middle class. The question is: was this program simply the result of the personal failings of the Bush nomenklatura? Or is there some interesting pattern emerging here?

The old pattern of interventions went along with the strictures of the post depression New Industrial State. These structures had adapted to state intervention without excessively ideologizing its day to day workings. That Europe adopted a Social Democratic economic structure, gave a stronger role to unions, etc., didn’t really get in the way of American co-operation. However, with the rise of Reaganism and the fall of the Wall, the equilibrium shifted. The new policy could be labeled – why not have it all? why bargain with those lousy rentseekers and government contract nichemen when we could sweep them out by enforcing mass privatization and introduce the 2.0 capital markets shell game, taking their wealth and seamlessly integrating it into the international flow of capital in Friedman’s ‘flat world’. While the personal shouldn’t be entirely discounted – a man as ignorant and vein as President Bush, and a clique as ideologically mad as that which swirled around the Wolfowitz contingent in the Pentagon, and a person as corrupt in all respects as Rove, clearly created a unique set of circumstances that would have fucked up the invasion of Monaco, much less Iraq – the thing about what happened, under Bremer, in Iraq is that, by all accounts, nobody is quite sure who had the ideas. These were puppets of the post-Cold War Zeitgeist, flatlanders by instinct. And thus, quickly, America’s natural constituency in Iraq, the aforesaid uppers, turned against the Americans in pure self protection, while of course American policies impacted heavily on the poor. Still, there was the brief hectic period that can be seen in any country colonized by neo-liberal policies – the explosion of debt and consumer goods. But in Iraq, that explosion took place while the infrastructure visibly degraded – hard to run your new Mercedes on a road that is bumpy with bomb craters and impeded, every few miles, by checkpoints.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

adams again

In the 1868 presidential campaign, Grant’s election campaign spent an unprecedented amount of money – $250,000, twice as much as his Democrat opponent. The money came from the prosperous class that had benefited very largely from the Civil war: Vanderbilt, William Astor, Hamilton Fish, etc. The money that went into Grant’s election campaign signaled a change in the relationship between the elected and the moneyed, which was, in turn, a product of the changes wrought in the American economy by the Civil War.

This is where Henry Adams enters the picture. In my last post, LI might have puzzled readers by linking Adams to an article warning of the bust inside the commercial real estate bubble. Adams, however, was not merely a belle lettrist – he was a financial journalist too, one of the first of the breed in this country. He obviously benefited from acquaintance with Bagehot, but he also benefited from a sensibility sufficiently sensitive as to be shocked when he came home to the U.S. after being abroad during the Civil War – he served the government, under his father, in Britain – to remark on the massive changes he saw everywhere. As he puts it in the Education, he might as well have been a Tyrian trader from 100 B.C., landing on an unknown shore, so strange was his country to him when he came back in 1868. In one of the more famous anti-Semitic passages (Adams was afflicted with a sort of lyncathropic anti-semitism - in the turn of a phrase he suddenly grows fur and fangs, and the next moment they seem to vanish - however, always beware of a man who carelessly allows himself to become a werewolf) he wrote:

“One could divine pretty nearly where the force lay, since the
last ten years had given to the great mechanical energies --
coal, iron, steam -- a distinct superiority in power over the old
industrial elements -- agriculture, handwork, and learning; but
the result of this revolution on a survivor from the fifties
resembled the action of the earthworm; he twisted about, in vain,
to recover his starting-point; he could no longer see his own
trail; he had become an estray; a flotsam or jetsam of wreckage;
a belated reveller, or a scholar-gipsy like Matthew Arnold's. His
world was dead. Not a Polish Jew fresh from Warsaw or Cracow --
not a furtive Yacoob or Ysaac still reeking of the Ghetto,
snarling a weird Yiddish to the officers of the customs -- but
had a keener instinct, an intenser energy, and a freer hand than
he -- American of Americans, with Heaven knew how many Puritans
and Patriots behind him, and an education that had cost a civil
war.”

Adams came back the year Johnson was impeached and Grant made a successful play for the presidency. That Grant would become president seemed natural, although – of course – for an Adams, not wholly pleasant. Grant was like Washington, Andrew Jackson, William Tyler – a parade of generals who seemed to embody the military virtues of organization and forthrightness without having, at their backs, the threat of standing armies. Adams was, at the time, trying to introduce the kind of sophisticated reportage of politics that he had seen in England, and he stationed himself in D.C. to observe and write long thought pieces for the North American Review. At the same time, his brother Charles engaged in the newest of the new technologies – railroad companies. Charles’ worst business enemy was Jay Gould – and by family loyalty and temperament, he became Henry Adams’ too. This is how Adams decided, in 1870, to publish a revelatory account of Gould’s attempt to corner the gold market in 1869. Here’s how he puts it in the Education:

“Before he got back to Quincy, the summer was already half over,
and in another six weeks the effects of President Grant's
character showed themselves. They were startling -- astounding --
terrifying. The mystery that shrouded the famous, classical
attempt of Jay Gould to corner gold in September, 1869, has never
been cleared up -- at least so far as to make it intelligible to
Adams. Gould was led, by the change at Washington, into the
belief that he could safely corner gold without interference from
the Government. He took a number of precautions, which he
admitted; and he spent a large sum of money, as he also
testified, to obtain assurances which were not sufficient to have
satisfied so astute a gambler; yet he made the venture. Any
criminal lawyer must have begun investigation by insisting,
rigorously, that no such man, in such a position, could be
permitted to plead that he had taken, and pursued, such a course,
without assurances which did satisfy him. The plea was
professionally inadmissible.”

As always, with Adams, it is the pattern that comes first. The sample that defies the pattern calls for explanation; Adams problem was that, in the America of his thirties, the great Gilded Age, the aberrant samples multiplied, while the pattern of the republican order to which he was loyal as a family matter, diminished into a mere blind spot. The Gold conspiracy was part of that exile from the pattern that marked Adams self-consciousness about being American.

the pilgrim finally gets back home

I’m back. I’m alive. Yesterday, my birthday, I spent the entire day in transit – from the car that was supposed to pick me up in NYC at 10:30 am, and decided that it had other priorities, to the great Continental guy who, with the largesse of the royal prerogative that came with the keyboard and the quiet corner at JFK, gave me a seat on a plane going in the vague direction of Texas, to the long waits in various airport-expensive bars mulling my bad luck. Since getting to NYC had taken two days, one of which was spent in the Austin airport while they played pocket pool with the flight that I was supposed to take (it would regularly appear and disappear on the schedule of flights, until, heartstoppingly, it stopped appearing at all - at which point I found a harried Delta employee who told me I had to find a flight for the next day), getting away from the place in only one day was a strange sort of mercy. There is something medieval about air travel now – at least, I could have recited the whole fucking Canterbury Tales while waiting around in various departure areas. In these hairy intervals, I was subjected to more tv news than I had seen for the past year. Mostly CNN, although at one point – if I wasn’t hallucinating – Geraldo Rivera was talking to Bill O’Reilly about the lifestyle of Britney Spears. Or was it Britney Spears talking to Geraldo about the lifestyle of Bill O’Reilly? I don’t really think that it matters much – the rule, among celebrity variables, is that they are infinitely inter-substituteable. But mostly it was CNN. It all looked like news from some grim and ruined Disneyland. I noted that the Iraqis still play the bit parts in their war, foregrounding cars and buildings on fire, being out there, unseen, as the clip of the American soldiers firing weapons unspools. I was happy to see that, compared to other years (I see CNN pretty much only when I am in airports), the Rebel in Chief no longer receives wraparound coverage. Perhaps the coin has dropped: this guy is ratings poison.


Well, enough of that. My plan for this post was to talk about the truly tasteless, odorless and colorless essay on Henry Adams by Peter Heller in the Smithsonian, timed for the centennial of the Education. LI is always glad to see a revival of interest in Adams, but … this article simply gives you the cheat sheet of his life, which do we really need? Adams survey of the 'stupid nineteenth century' - as a famous fascist pamphleteer named it - was much fiercer than Heller depicts. Heller is right, however, that Adams is curiously absent at the moment – for instance, there wasn’t a single review of Pynchon’s recent novel, which starts in 1893, at the Colombian Exhibit, that collated it with the Education chapter on the Virgin and the Dynamo. This is odd, insofar as it is an old, petrified part of Pynchon criticism that V and the early stories took a lot from Adams, and in particular Adams amateur’s fascination with entropy.

Huh. Well, I might get back to that column. On the other hand, I have another post on Coriolanus written up in a notebook, and a post on the column by Pearlstein in the WP about the secret, 1987-like cancer in the financial system – to wit, the current craze for private equity companies, and their use of the old LBO techniques of the eighties. Here’s the gist of the Pearlstein column:

“…But enough hand-wringing over the residential real-estate market. Not much anyone can do about that now. The new story is the bubble in the commercial real estate market -- offices, hotels and retail establishments -- which has generated spectacular returns for investors over the past few years.

Prices have risen to ridiculous levels, relative to the risk involved and the amount of income generated by these properties. But even those prices don't seem to scare away pension funds, university endowments and Arab investors, who continue to pour hundreds of billions of dollars into real estate investment trusts, private-equity real estate funds and hedge funds that specialize in real estate finance.

Exhibit A is the purchase of Equity Office Properties, the country's biggest owner of office buildings, by the real-estate arm of the Blackstone Group, a private equity firm. What you need to know about this $36 billion deal is that 80 percent of the purchase price will be financed with debt, and that the "cap rate" -- the rate of return from next year's rental income -- is an estimated 5.5 percent.

What, exactly, does that mean?

First of all, it means that the lessons of the past five real estate crashes have, once again, been forgotten, and real estate has once again become a highly leveraged investment class. So, when the inevitable downturn finally happens and the price falls by more than 20 percent, there's a pretty good chance the value of the collateral will fall below the value of the loans, which in financial circles is considered a no-no. To make things even worse, it's a good probability that these are interest-only loans, which means that even in good times, the borrower is not paying down principal.

These numbers also mean that once you take into account things like the need to invest each year in maintaining the properties, investors will earn a premium of less than 1 percentage point for the risks associated with real-estate investing -- little things like tenants who don't pay rent or vacant property that can't be rented -- as compared with risk-free Treasury bonds. As risk premiums go, that's as low as anyone can remember.”

LI has a theory about business cyclical phenomena like this and their derivation from increases in wealth inequality (operating as a special case of the regular Keynesian supply and demand cycle) that would have interested Adams, always a sucker for theories about patterns in history. We will, someday, spring it on you all…