Saturday, February 09, 2019

on the character's resistance to her author

I was talking with a friend the other day and she told me that she couldn’t stand Zola. Zola, she said, is boring.
I’m not a young pup. I’m not wet behind the ears, at least in the Zola department. I’ve heard the boring accusation before. I, on the other hand, find Zola amazingly not boring. For one thing, his scenes are developed in an amazing prehension of an art and technique that haven’t been invented yet: film. In the nineteenth century, the novel is close to theater – just as the novel is close to film in the twentieth century – because, for one thing, theater is where the writer could grow rich. Just as with film. We have forgotten the theater scene of the 19th century because we don’t, in the Anglophone world, retain much from it, until its end, with Wilde and Shaw. But that was the world in which the demimonde and the monde overlapped. It was from theater and opera, as well as from serialized novels, that popular culture absorbed, into its folklore, the “higher” culture.
There’s a long story about Zola. I think my friend is echoing Oscar Wilde – whose own ideas about Zola were unfolded in The Decay of Lying, from 1889, which consisted of a dialogue between Cyril and Vivian. Cyril is given the earnest lines, like the cutout in a Socratic dialogue, and Vivian is given the witty and visionary ones. The theme of the dialogue attaches, at points, to the very old theme of mimesis in art. Is an art to be judged on how well it copies reality? And what would it mean for a fiction to copy reality? Vivian explores the problems of mimesis from an angle taken from everyday life: the lie. The lie, after all, is a lie insofar as it doesn’t copy reality. However, it works as a lie insofar as it seems to copy reality. Thus, in the successful lie there must reside some special genius, and for that genius to work, we must look at another standard than that of truth or falsity. We must shift to the field defined by intensity:

“One of the chief causes that can be assigned for the curiously commonplace character of most of the literature of our age is undoubtedly the decay of Lying as an art, a science, and a social pleasure. The ancient historians gave us delightful fiction in the form of fact; the modem novelist presents us with dull facts under the guise of fiction.”

There is one modern novelist whose dull facts particularly get under Vivian’s skin: Zola. At first glance, one would have thought that Zola would be on Vivian’s side, or at least on Wilde’s side. Zola was, after all, a scandal and a stumbling block to Victorian proprieties. Since Wilde aspired to be a scandal himself, one looks for some solidarity. Instead, Vivian remarks:

“M. Zola, true to the lofty principle that he lays down in one of his pronunciamientos on literature, “L’homme de genie n’a jamais d’esprit,” is determined to show that, if he has
not got genius, he can at least be dull. And how well he succeeds! He is not without power. Indeed at times, as in Germinal, there is something almost epic in his work. But his work is entirely wrong from beginning to end, and wrong not on the ground of morals, but on the ground of art. From any ethical standpoint it is just what it should be. The author is perfectly truthful, and describes things exactly as they happen. What more can any moralist desire? We have no sympathy at all with the moral indignation of our time against M. Zola. It is simply the indignation of Tartuffe on being exposed. But from the standpoint of art, what can be said in favour of the author of L’Assommoir, Nana and Pot-Bouille? Nothing. Mr. Ruskin once described the characters in George Eliot’s novels as being like the sweepings of a Pentonville omnibus, but M. Zola’s characters are much worse. They have their dreary vices, and their drearier virtues. The record of their lives is absolutely without interest.”

This rings changes on an old trick in the game of scandal – one trumps the shock of scandal by being resolutely unshocked. In this way, one denies the initial, visceral moment that scandal depends on. The double movement of Vivian’s rhetoric conforms to an old routine: first comes the denigration of the shocked. Thus Zola’s work exposes the Tartuffe, and by implication the Tartuffe are the shocked. Second comes the denigration of the shock. Zola’s characters are dreary in their vices and their virtues. It is dreariness, not purity, that we must judge by. Wrenching the standard by which the copy is judged from the frame defined by veracity to the frame defined by intensity, Vivian finds a new angle from which to disarm Zola’s shock. Since one end of the mimetic spectrum is about sexual arousal, a continually deferred moment that defines art against its erotic use, its pornographic potential, this is a particularly good routine to top Zola. And once Zola is separated from his shock, we see — or Vivian sees — that he is without interest. 

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Many ways to skin a plutocrat

The billionaires convoked their version of a kangaroo court – call it the country club court – and pronounced sentence upon Elizabeth Warren’s wealth tax proposal: unconstitutional! Well known legal scholar Michael Bloomberg, atop his pile of 3 billion dollars, was particularly scornful of such doings by the plebes far down below.
And so the word went forth. But the word is, to say the least, a bit confused. For why, one might ask, is a federal tax on the wealth of the living unconstitutional, but an estate tax on the wealth of the dead constitutional?
Here we have a truly marvelous structure founded on split hairs.
Federal, as opposed to state, inheritance taxes have a long history. They were first implemented in the Civil War. Even then there were voices raised – voices rich with port, steak, and oysters, voices that were filtered through cigar smoke – that such a tax was a direct tax, and thus unconstitutional, under the provision of the tax and spend provision of the Constitution in Article one, section 8, which reads that Congress has to the power : “to lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common defence[note 1] and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States.”
The rub, here, is twofold. On the one hand, are there taxes that discriminate against certain states – that violate the uniformity condition? And are the taxes indirect – for instance, duties, imposts and excises – or direct? Direct taxes seem to be limited by section 9, which reads: ” no capitation or other direct tax shall be laid, unless in proportion to the census or enumeration hereinbefore directed to be taken.” And so we have some rather abstruse questions to deal with in this matter of direct vs. indirect – or as one scholar has put it, taxing a measure as opposed to taxing a substance. This question is as delightful to tax lawyers as the old question about the heads of pins and angels was to your medieval theologian. It is through the notion of excise – which has been taken to mean any tax that can be construed as indirect, such as corporate income tax – that much of our modern system was driven. Historically, the Court has sided as much as it dares with the country club – in the gilded age and down through the thirties, the Court hated to see Mr. Moneybags burdened with pesky national taxes. This is, in fact, why income tax had to come into our world through a constitutional amendment.
The Supreme Court of the thirties, as is well known, viewed New Deal legislation with horror, and sought to limit Congress’s power to impose regulatory taxes – for instance, on child labor, or as part of a scheme to pay farmers to produce less. Though Roosevelt never succeeded in creating more members of the Supreme Court – which, in spite of the term “packing”, was a common occurrence, as the Supreme Court originally started out with six members. The number nine has no mystical signification. In any case, the SCOTUS has never set itself athwart the current of history and yelled stop – for too long. Thus, in the wake of the New Deal, the Court grudgingly allowed Congress to increase the scope and intention of taxes. In fact, even back in the days of the progressive movement, a famous case, McCray vs. U.S. (1904) endorsed a principle that rules most legal decisions about taxes today:
“The judiciary is without authority to avoid an act of Congress lawfully exerting the taxing power, even in a case where, to the judicial mind, it seems that Congress had, in putting such power in motion, abused its lawful authority by levying a tax which was unwise or oppressive, or the result of the enforcement of which might be to indirectly affect subjects not within the powers delegated to Congress; nor can the judiciary inquire into the motive or purpose of Congress in adopting a statute levying an excise tax within its constitutional power.”
Every major national tax has, it should be noted, been greeted by a chorus of apologists for the wealthy, claiming that it isn’t constitutional. For instance, national corporate taxes, which were enacted as an “excise”, were called no such thing by various distinguished writers in the press back in the 1900-1909. The question for Warren’s tax on the wealth proposal is where it falls in the meshes of previous tax legislation. This is a question that should make us think back – in an extended flashback, a very exciting sequence! – to the Estate Tax of 1916, and its successors.
There is an excellent article by our foremost tax historian, W. Eliot Brownlee ( The proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 1985) on the forces that came together to push through the tax on estates in the 1916 Congress. Among those forces were the progressives and the single-taxers – the latter being convinced that a single land tax, as advocated by Henry George, should produce a leveling affect that would cripple monopoly power. It was towards the question of monopoly power and its attendant ills – most notably, a widening gap between the wealth of the wealthiest and that of the working man – which powered the reforming tax legislation in that session of Congress. On the other hand, there was Wilson’s attempt to prepare for war, with massive new military expenditures. Meanwhile, the Republicans were pitching for a decreased income tax, increased sales taxes, and raising the tariff. If we look back from our own kaleidoscope of ideological preferences and blindly match them to these actors in the past, we will get the general pattern wrong. Remember, the Republicans of that time were split between the Western wing, which was progressive, Rooseveltian, and ardently opposed to war, and the Eastern wing, which was pro-big business. On the Democratic side, many were as opposed to war. However, they blamed the conflict on monopoly capitalism. Progressive taxes, for this sector, seemed to work not only against monopoly, but ultimately for peace.  John Dewey, Amos Pichot, and some other created a group called Association for an Equitable Income Tax that proposed 50 percent taxes for all income in excess of one million dollars. This is a higher marginal rate than we have today.
All of this came together in the estate tax bill of 1916, which maintained its status as an excise by emphasizing wealth transfer. And so, too, in some way, Warren’s surtax on wealth will surely be presented, if it ever succeeds in passing Congress, in such a way that it taxes the measure of wealth. This could be done in a number of ways – in particular, by taking apart the tax exemptions that usually make family trusts so sweet.
There are many ways to skin a plutocrat. That is the lesson of tax history.
See other articles at Willett's Magazine

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

the guiding myth of social mobility at the top: dont believe it!

Excerpt from Willetts Magazine: On the social function of fat cats 2: inherited wealth

...So whenever some purported study of showing that fortunes don’t last down the generations is pumped through the system, the media jumps for it. For instance, this study: the American Enterprise Institute, that stalwart engine of plutocratic reflection, published the findings of two of its researchers, Kaplan and Rauh, in 2014, which purported to show that there was a vast socially mobilizing churn that we can see by looking at the Forbes 400.
Kaplan and Rauh have divided the individual who find places in the Forbes 400 from 1982 to 2012 into three categories: that that come from wealthy families, those that come from upper middle class families, and those that come from working or middle class families. The claim to discern a distinct change from 1982 to 2012 – the number of individuals coming from wealthy families declines, while those from upper class families increases. Thus, there is churn at the top, due to the meritocratic structure of American capitalism.
This study was approvingly cited by Larry Summers in a speech patting American capitalism on the back for its meritocratic form and substance. So: is it true?  
Granting, for the moment, that the categorization, although a bit fuzzy, does actually represent three different kinds of individuals, we have to trust Kaplan and Rauh on their judgments as to which class individuals fall. They don’t include the list of all individuals on the list – in Peter Bernstein’s book about the list, All the Money in the World, there were 1302 people on the list from 1982 to 2006, which makes it likely that there might have been fifty to one hundred more in the six years after 2006 – but instead give us representative names – which is how we know that they included Bill Gates in the upper middle class group, because his father was a well known lawyer. This tells us a lot about the laziness and bias of the authors. Even a cursory glance at the numerous profiles of Bill Gates over the years would tell you that he was endowed with a million dollar trust fund by his maternal grandfather, who owned a Seattle bank. A million dollars back in the sixties was a figure to reckon with. According to Google’s inflation calculator, that sum is worth 7million dollars today. If Kaplan and Rauh truly think 7 million dollars only puts you in the upper middle class, they need to get out more. And if one can’t trust the authors about Gates, one of the five names they mention, how are we to trust them about the rest?
Of course, family money is a tricky subject. Carl Icahn definitely came from a middle class family. On the other hand, when Icahn was 32 and wanted to buy a seat on the NYSE, it was certainly convenient that he had an uncle, Elliot Schnall, who was a Palm Beach millionaire and who could loan him the money without questions.
This leads us to a much larger criticism concerning how well the 400 represents dynastic wealth. In fact, the very framework seems to occlude it. In 1987, CBS news reported that, curiously, there was not a Dupont on the list, even though the Dupont family was worth an estimated 10 billion dollars. CBS resolved this enigma by pointing out that if each of the 1500 Dupont relatives got a share of that money it would come to 5 million apiece. However, this is a deeply misleading. The Dupont fortune operates as a unified entity through family trusts. As an entity, it is as unified as the ‘Gates’ entity. In a list of individuals going from 1982, sheer mortality and reproduction would naturally diminish the part of the inheritors, but this would not really give us an idea of how much money is under dynastic control. In Lundberg’s 60 families, for instance, there are names that seem foreign to us, who are used to reading about tech barons and hedgefunders. But because they have receded from the press spotlight doesn’t mean that they have “lost their fortunes”. This fact is easy to disguise, because few journalists or economists are going to really try to find where the money goes.  
Sometimes, the journalistic disinterest in where the money goes turns into outright journalistic malfeasance. For instance: in 2015 the Williams Group wealth consultancy put out a publicity release that stated that 70% of wealthy families lose their wealth by the second generation, and 90% by the third. This was regurgitated in the business press as a fact, rather than fact-checked. Then regurgitated again, as though it originated not in a company pushing its songbook but in some serious journalistic investigation. So, for instance, Atlantic Magazine’s Ester Bloom (September 2015) quoted this stat as originating from  Time Magazine, and went on to survey some of the gilded age families with a hasty dab of research. Nobody checks these stories. So to demonstrate the thesis, Bloom presses the Gould family, with a fortune derived from Jay Gould, the famous robber baron, into the confines of the Gone with the Ritz narrative.  I’m going to quote the entire passage because it is so egregiously sloppy, so incredibly refutable, that it would not pass by the merest 15 minutes worth of factchecking if it didn’t adhere to the contours of a well-beloved myth:
Jason “Jay” Gould, the original 19th-century robber baron, is one of the richest American citizens of all time and possibly one of the richest people, ever.* He made his money in railroads, by attempting to corner the stock market, and by being what CNBC has called one of the worst CEOs ever:
Gould sold out his associates, bribed legislators to get deals done, and even kidnapped a potential investor. He duped the U.S. Treasury, pushing up the price of gold and prompting a scare on Wall Street that depressed all stocks. After hiring strikebreakers during a railroad strike in 1886, he was reported to have said, “I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half.”
Where did his billions go?
Jay had several children and, among them, they married a Tallyrand, a Baron Decies, and a Drexel. Jay’s oldest son, George, inherited the family fortune. George had seven legitimate and three illegitimate children, all of whom he recognized in his will. But more of George’s money went to creditors than to his offspring: He had $30,000,000 to bequeath when he died, according to his obituary in the Times, down from his father’s peak of $77,000,000 (not adjusted for inflation). Yet even that was later revised down by the Times to only half as much. After the creditors were paid off, George’s children were said to collectively receive a little over $5 million in 1933 dollars.
In other words, the fortune of the man who once helped collapse the stock market didn’t survive the 1929 collapse.
None of Jay’s various children or grandchildren seems to have done anything with the great financier’s remaining money except spend it on polotennis, and litigation.”
Now of course this is an ultra-screwy description of the Gould family fortune. Since one of his daughters married into one of the richest families in France, and their combined fortune is powering descendants to this day, I could go in that direction. The key role played by marriage, and by daughters, in the preservation and transmission of family fortunes, is overlooked by reporters because of: sheer sexism.
But instead, let’s look at the poor Goulds with their 5 million dollars in 1933 currency – which in today’s terms is 94 million dollars. This is why Ester Bloom did not calculate that money in today’s terms. But is it true that it was all spent on polo, tennis, and litigation?
Ask Kingdon Gould III. Ester Bloom should have. His father, who didn’t dissipate his money on polo but spent it on becoming a parking garage king, was an ambassador to the Netherlands, and made the list of 400 wealthiest Americans in 1986. Not bad for the second generation.  Did his children spend their money on polo, and are their grandkids living in trailer camps? No. Kingdon Gould III expanded on the real estate kingdom that his dad created and is often listed as one of the wealthiest denizens of D.C. His company is currently building Konterra, a three billion dollar mixed us center in Laurel, Maryland.
So: why did Ester Bloom look up the NYT archives to see how much Jay Gould left at his death, but ignored the easily available evidence of the continued wealth of family members, which is even now leaving a big mark in the D.C. and Maryland real estate space? I don’t think it is just that she is a bad journalist. This is the result of a story line that is as firmly in place as the one about how America only intervenes in the affairs of other nations to promote democracy. It is a guiding myth.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Scullery work

It is a natural law that a room tends to become dirty – and if you don’t believe me, take it up with the Second Law of Thermodynamics. This natural law has evoked a social response – or many a social response. “Dirty” is a word that seems to imply dirt – that thing we see plants grow from, and that we walk on when we go out into the woods. But like a speck of dust, “dirty” has floated away from dirt to embrace a host of ills – stains, smears, muck, grease, fingerprints, fungus, etc. It also goes with the word “stinky” – dirty and stinky belong together like a comedy duo. If you smell something foul, chances are you will find something foul.
In the 19th century, the old ways – which in the country meant embracing your sweat and never changing your clothes, and in aristocratic circles meant heavy perfumes – gave way, grudgingly, to new ways – for instance, running water and electricity. It was a long haul, and involved (gasp!) a great deal of public investment in such things as sewers. The public campaign for “hygiene” used the medical knowledge of the time to make its case – to dirty and stinky, doctors added sick-making – or, after the discovery of germ theory, germy. Davis S. Barnes, in The Great Stink of Paris, pinpoints a crucial 19th century phenomenon:
“From setting fires in the streets to burning incense or sulfur indoors, communities have attempted to neutralize disease-causing influences by chemical and other means since ancient times. By the mid-nineteenth century, the favored forms of disinfection—defined by the Larousse dictionary in 1870 as the destruction of “certain gases or certain exhalations produced by living matter, and called miasmas”—included the application of liquid chemicals, the burning of materials such as sulfur, and mechanical devices producing artificial ventilation through the forced circulation of air. Larousse’s definition also complained about the popularity of so-called disinfections that “left much to be desired,” merely masking unpleasant odors with stronger odors rather than truly “removing the harmful and stinking substances from the air.”
The legacy of that time is our comparatively bright and shining present. However, I think it is a good rule of thumb to suspect that every rational policy rides on the back of a host of superstitions – metaphors and myths that do the mental policing work. I suspect disinfecting, which after all aligns itself, when all the germ theory talk is done, with ancient methods of meeting “pollution”, has generated certain habits that are, if not irrational, at least not as rational as they seem.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you – the dishwasher!
I have never lived in a place without a dishwasher, and hope never to live in such a impoverished space. But I have long had my doubts that a dishwasher is worth it. And surely I am not alone in my existential struggle. This morning, for instance: I get up and go into the kitchen to make coffee. Everybody is asleep – and this is how I like to begin Sunday mornings. A little pause in which I am the waking, bright little dot of consciousness, getting brighter as my eyes get used to being open (and no doubt the part of my brain devoted to vision pumps itself up), while my loved ones are in their beds, dreaming. Is there a more secure feeling than this? While making coffee, I decided to unload the dishwasher and put into it some plates and cups I found in the sink. So I did what I always do – I ran hot water on the plates and cups, I wiped them with a sponge, I made sure there was no clump of food sticking to any surface, and I popped them in the dishwasher. And as I did so I thought, as I always think, why do we have a dishwasher?
From experience and common sense I know that if you put dishes, cups, bowls, cutlery and whatnot into the dishwasher and you don’t rinse them beforehand, they won’t get washed. In 1956, the New Yorker sent a correspondent to GE to look at the new mobile “automatic dishwasher”. The correspondent, in the typical arch New Yorker style of the day (it was the heyday of E.H. White), cooked and cleaned in an “unmechanized” kitchen. In order to test the new dishwasher, she – I strongly suspect a she – brought an “unwashed earthenware pudding dish that in my own, unmechanized kitchen would have required overnight soaking and the energetic application of steel wool.” The GE people didn’t like the pudding dish – myself, I don’t know what one of those is – and sternly warned that “no automatic dishwasher should be expected to take on such a heavily encrusted utensil without a preliminary soaking”. Isn’t this what the confidence man calls a “tell”. What is this machine doing?
Read the rest here: On Washing the Dishes

Thursday, January 24, 2019

On balls

“Your toddler is starting to have a ball – first by rolling that curious round thing you’ve handed him or her… and then by attempting to throw it – or more likely, dropping the ball and watching in delight as it moves across the floor.”
What to expect the second year: from 12 to 24 months, by Heidi Murkoff
France and the U.S. are separated not only by language, but also by ball obsessions. The football that charms the heart of the French boy is of a different species than that which makes the American highschooler’s heart go pitter pat.

However, I’ve forever been an American dissident. Between the ages of 11 and 21, the ball I followed with passion was knocked around by a tennis racket. It was fuzzy – close cropped fuzzy when new, just a little ruglike to the palm, and very fuzzy when wet and old, when it was retired from the court and used to, for instance, make a dog take off running in the back yard for a game of fetch. The cans would make a satisfying whoop sound when you took off the top and broke the vacuum seal. They were made so that they began all bouncy and went flat – unlike footballs or soccer balls, which ride on their inner air. I have since not been an attentive tennis fan, or a player of tennis – save for odd times when I can scare up a racket and an opponent. I miss it. I miss, more, the body that would, like a dog’s, haul ass on even impossible to respond to shots. I have the body of a 61 year old – which is all well and good, since I am 61 years old – and its legs, its arms, its heart, its lungs, its lights have the usual wear and tear of 21st century man – not, I should say, the way they would bear that stigmata if I were a manual laborer. I did a reasonable amount of illicit substances when I was young, and drink a reasonable amount of wine now that I am old, and eat a reasonable amount of veggies and an unreasonable amount of fats, which makes me a sort of cog when it comes time for the medical examination, an uninteresting assembly line bourgeois widget. Perhaps the tide will change and I’ll become one of those leathery tanned types on a tennis court, those dinosaurs, those hale old men, but I think you have to make other choices than the ones I have made to end up there.

There is a tremendous literature about sports in the 20th and 21st century, but really little about the ball. The ball itself. Yet the ball is fascinating. A couple of years ago I tried to get into racket ball, and one of the things that fascinated me was the compression of the racket ball balls, their hardness, which is, paradoxically, part of their sharp bounce. They seem poised to slam off a wall. That is satisfying, but somehow I couldn’t ride those balls.

When I was a teenager, I even subscribed to a tennis magazine for a while, and scanned articles that were guaranteed to make me better. Back then, the new thing was Zen. The Zen of everything. In the case of tennis, though, the Zen approach oddly fit. If I lost myself in the ball, if I had that moment, it did seem, at least, that I played better. In tennis, sometimes you have a growth spurt – you play above the level of your play, you get it in a new way, the ball is your second self, your not so secret sharer. You sign a new contract.  But I could never climb to that level and stay there – that is, after a certain plateau had been reached. Not enough dedication. Even so, I knew that when I played well, it was about the ball. The racket, the beautiful racket, followed, obeyed, it was a part of you, but it wasn’t idiosyncratic, it didn’t have a free will, it wasn’t a ball.

It is odd that economists don’t consider the ball. All the activity, the immense labor, that is woven around balls. Because why? Because you want to win, and to win means doing your thing with the ball, which is the thing – the object and the symbol – between you and your opponent.

Balls have evidently been around a long time, but they don’t get the study that, say, coins do. They should, though. Take, for instance, the American football. That ball is grotesque. It is less ball than projectile. If Adorno had had a sportif bone in his flabby kritikdrenched body, he would have recognized the intimacy between the football and Hiroshima. In fact, football is a tremendously interesting game, but it is interesting the way the war in the Pacific, circa 1941-1945, is more interesting than the Thirty years war.

On the other hand, you have the baseball, which is all Renaissance, a thing of beauty that would have been recognized by Alberti or by da Vinci. The stitching and the whiteness and the generally regal bearing of that ball, the great materials it is made of, mystically color the entire game.

Yet even so – there is the ball – not the individual balls. In baseball, for instance, hitters will have favorite bats. Just as tennis players have favorite rackets. But a favorite ball – that doesn’t happen. Partly this is because balls are individuals in just the way methodological individualism imagines individuals – free, wild, and total substitutable. One doesn’t play a ball game with the individual ball in mind, although a crooked ball can interrupt play. For instance, in baseball there are cases when the ball has been subtlely and illicitly altered. There are, of course, balls that are fetishistically claimed – bowling balls, for instance. But mostly the balls are disposable in their very essence. You might try to live on the tennis ball during the game, you might try to clear your mind of everything else, but in the end, you have no affection for the ball qua that particular ball.
Children’s encyclopedia’s retail glorious myths about the invention of fire, or of the wheel, or the pully, or bronze – but they never bother to imagine the invention of the ball. The ball, in fact, seems part of nature. A pebble, a nut. Yet the ball is surely the very symbol of culture – it is the very symbol of the symbol. In itself, it is nothing. But in play, it becomes more than itself. It starts to mean. It is Victor Turner’s symbolic object, and as such, it defines spaces and limits. It creates a passage, traversing a space that is charged with meaning. But unlike those objects – human beings – who also go through passages, the ball can mean but it can’t express. This, of course, brings us back to the afore mentioned fact that balls do not earn our affection, as say a piece of furniture, a house, a car do. A ball is always being subsumed into the great collective of balls.
Having a ball. The whole ball of wax. There goes the ball game.
Enough about balls.  

Friday, January 18, 2019

the social utility of fat cats

We need to discuss the social function of rich people. Besides the marginal entertainment and sports figures, I see two functions: administration and investment.
The social cost of administration has gone up considerably since corporations changed their nature, breaking the old post war pact between capital and labor. I am going to put to one side the growth of LBOs and private equity firms that developed new forms of looting corporations in the eighties, and concentrate mainly on the radical elevation in compensation for the highest levels of management, which occurred mostly in the 80s. They were abetted by neoclassical economists and the newly expanded power of business schools. Harvard Business school in particular boasted a team of scholars who cheered on the insane compensations of the new class of CEO with arguments having to do with “aligning” the interests of the organization and the management: the famous principle-agent problem, the solution to which was to massively bribe the leader.  The rationale for this was paper thin – one had only to compare the compensation for Japanese upper management in the seventies to  Americans in the eighties to see that corporate productivity and return on investment did not depend on giving the CEOs carte blanche and stock options out the wazoo.
One must keep in mind that historically, the lowering of the marginal tax rate as a result of Reagan’s first two years in office did precede the explosion in upper management compensation. The justification trailed a bit afterwards, as the nineties arrived and Clinton Dems showed they were ultra-satisfied with rich upper management types – donors! And after you get out of office, nothing is sweEter than being showered with millions by the people you supported while you were in office. So as the CEO class became more and more entitled, there was considerable trickle down to the political class, which became abettors and scroungers at the till.
Picketty targets the income derived from administration as as a major driver of income and wealth inequality. For a quick rundown of this, I’d recommend Mike Konczal’s excellent essay in the Boston Review in 2014.
Even so, if the exorbitant sums paid to administrators had resulted in a great increase in the pay to the median worker, it might be said that, on some level, it works. But this hasn’t happened.   The very wealthy have seen their income growing by about 6 percent per year since the seventies – in fact, the starting point seems to be 1973. The middle has grown, if at all – it flatlined during most of the 00s – by one percent per year.  The workers who comprise the lower eighty percent have seen their wealth, in Piketty’s phrase, “collapse”. This reverses the trends from 1945 to 1973, when it was just the opposite, with the wealthiest having less percentage gains than the middle.
The left argument here is we have no reason to pay these exorbitant costs for administration. There’s no evidence that these costs have been worth it to the average worker in developed economies. On the contrary, they’ve decisively shifted power away from workers, and power means the power to make their lives more comfortable, and to make their loved ones lives more comfortable, on down the generations, ad gloria mundi.
Along with administration, the wealthy play a positive social role by making investments. The argument here is, it is true, circular – we need to the wealthy to invest, and that investment makes them richer, making us need them more – but it isn’t bogus. Investment means that credit is available to the masses; the making accessible and available credit to workers, beyond the mingy terms of the company store, was one of the great capitalist victories of the twentieth century. The Soviet Union died for many reasons, but one of the unheralded ones was the persistent refusal of the Soviet planners to create an internal source of credit. This devastated the economy that recovered very well from World War II, but that, by the sixties, was in desperate need of credit to renovate and take advantage of the efficiencies offered by technological progress.
Read the rest at Willettsmag 

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Cocteau, fast motion film, and Ce Soir

I have a passion for old newspapers, which is one of the reasons I love the internet. You can find old newspapers all over the internet. It is as if all the old birdcages have shed their papers, for here is the news from London in 1778 to Paris in 1947. No longer does one need to get up, go down to the library, and search out the musty, lumbering volumes in the periodicals section, where the old paper dies a little every day. The internet is to the periodicals section as the book of forensic photographs is to the morgue: the bodies are in the latter, but the former captures their looks in their last agony.
What I especially like are the legendary papers: among which surely counts Ce Soir. It was set up with Louis Aragon as its editor in the mid 30s. It was supposed to be a communist paper, but it was as communist as Louis Aragon – which is to say that it would mouth communist verities, but its heart was in the intersection between the sensational and the glamorous. Full of great and gory murders, starlets running off with tycoons, and foreign correspondents reporting from distant battlefields, with the print flowing around big bold photographs, the newspaper looked exciting – an art lost in our time, with the bland layouts of all the serious papers. Even the tabloids don’t quite have that Weegeeish look.  Aragon had certain of his buddies write for the rag: for instance, Jean Renoir, the great director, who had a regular column. Jean Cocteau also had a column. I came across one of Cocteau’s pieces, The Branch of the Orange Tree, and looked around to see if it had been translated. It should have been. A short piece – this was after all a newspaper – it read like a premonition for his Orpheus film. Yet I couldn’t find the translation, so I thought: I’ll do it. Why not?
The Orange Tree Branch
Since the existence of time-lapse documentary films (films of the lives of plants), it is impossible to walk in a garden without an uneasy feeling, or to lean over the flowers with the soul of a young girl. Nothing is crueler than the plant world, or more erotic. A German film, which was banned by the French censors (certain passages in the film recall those movies that they show in Marseilles in certain seedy venues) denounces the horrifying habits, the mad mecanisms of a realm that man had previously believed to be immobile and uniquely preoccupied with pleasing us. The science and patience of the makers of the film, which let a plant live in its own rhythm and then brought it up to ours by accelerating it, proves just how unconscious man is.

The results of their espionage work would astonish the romanticism that sings “phlegm”, the haughty attitude of nature and would furnish new bases for its inspiration. For it is not only an affair of a difference of rhythm, speed, “tempo”. The secret has been well guarded. Thanks to the extraordinary slowness of the gestures of a tree in comparison to ours, a park could lead a ferocious life under our eyes, a curate’s garden could make love, do its make up and its murders without anyone having a clue.
In fact, no witch’s sabbat equals what happens in these gardens where the vegetation overlaps. A prodigious erotic activity directs the flows of life and the explosive pollen. The stems curl, the petals grimace, roll out and in, the leaves contract and the scents, the nuances that transport beautiful dreamers appear to us suddenly like the violent signs of an erotic fever.

At Promousquier where I live, I see outside my window, on the little terrassed plot that juts out over the sea, three orange trees. These are old acquaintances. After eighteen years (I think of them and ask myself – are they still living) I always come back to them with emotion. They were in their pots and now they have been planted in the earth, in the same place.
These wild oranges have little by little ceased to be wild. They’ve been domesticated. Certainly the oranges they bear are bitter, but the flowers emit a powerful scent. Not having to defend themselves against mouths and muzzles, the branches only grow rare and short thorns. Certain branches are defiant, but the majority have renounced these habits.
 And now, now the films that I mentioned have put us on guard and made us look at bushes in another way concerning a strange detail which teaches us something about the intelligence of the vegetable kingdom. Not that we have to suppose that the plants are geniuses because they astonish us with their obscure mecanisms. I will continue to be very simple about this. A palm tree keeps the sunlight off one of my little orange bushes. Alas! I pruned back the palm tree too late. The branch died. But hardly did it feel itself in danger when it “defended itself with all its forces”, silently, blindly. For, alone of all the branches of this orange tree, this branch boasted thorns as long as my finger. Thus, it told me of its struggle. I leave to the readers, to those who love trees, and who are intrigued by nature, this mysterious witness of a struggle against the unknown. A bitter, solitary fight, which recalls Daudet’s story of the fight between M. Seguin’s goat and the wolf.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

The Zarquawi effect in France

In the movie Vice, which I saw this Christmas and heartily recommend, there is a sequence on how Zarquawi, an Iraqi thug who called himself al qaeda's representative to Iraq, went from being a small time delusional to being a major player in the creation of Islamicist paramilitaries by way of D.C.'s intentionally aggrandizing view of him (with the purpose of linking Saddam H. to Osama bin Laden) in 2003. By making him seem much more important than he was - I mean, this is Washington D.C. making you a supervillain! - he attracted thousands who figured, if it pisses off the Americans, it must be good. As Vice shows, this tactical move in the propaganda war to get the American public to accept an unnecessary and stupid invasion bore terrible fruit - among them, ISIS.
It is interesting that the Macron government is playing the Zarquawi card with the Gilets Jaunes. From the beginning, instead of treating these people as citizens with complaints - which are supported, incidentally by about twice as many French people as support Macron, 55-60 percent vs. 23-28 percent - the government treated them as hooligans. As it amped up the hooligan image, and as the compliant press, lorded over by corporate heads who benefit massively from Macron's tax cuts, conveyed the government's rhetoric, there arose a considerable cohort of real casseurs. They came to the call. Now, of course, having tried to cast the GJ as hooligans, the Zarquawi effect is in stage 3: using the violence the government provoked to legitimate clampdowns on opposition to the government. As a bloomsburg article today shows the laws being proposed by Edouard Phillipe to allow the government to patrol, control, and surveille the opposition are harsher than those imposed by the Putin government in Russia. Particularly beautiful is the law against covering your face. For really, if the gendarme lob tear gas at you and you cover your face, you are violating your duty to endure pain for the state, citoyen!
I don't think this will end well.

Sunday, January 06, 2019


The ancient Greeks, those great nomenclaturists, had a word for the tale in which the hero came home after many adventures: nostos. There’s a very fine essay by Anna Bonifazi in the American Journal of Philology, Winter, 2009 – your fave journal, reader, and mine too – that explores the way this word played out in Greek literary culture.

“From the literary point of view, a nostos tale basically concerns a sea voyage, including a storm that causes a shipwreck, a landing in an unforeseen place, and the survival of the one who experiences all this. Even before the Odyssey narrative was conceived, nostos tales and Odysseus' nostos tales were presumably widespread.”

Our return to Atlanta did not, thank God, include shipwreck or the culling of our crew by one-eyed giants. But as in any return home, journey’s end puts in question the identity of the endpoint – of “home”. In fact, my relation to Atlanta – or more properly, the Atlanta metropolitan area – is not that of a native. I wasn’t born there. I was raised there. On the other hand, my mother, father, and father’s parents have all died there – it is the country of all my significant ghosts. It is where my brothers and one sister live. It is the place I left, when I was eighteen, and have come back to for variable stays, but always with the plan to depart. And maybe, maybe that really is home – it is where one plots one’s departure from. Odysseus did not want to leave Ithaca – he pretended to be mad, when the proposition was put to him that he should join the insane Greek expedition to return Menelaus’s wife to him by main force, but was found out and forced to go along. Yet when he returns, and rejoins his wife Penelope (“journeys end in lovers’ meetings”), he sets off again on a journey whose purpose is only to fulfill an oracle.

Atlanta, I think, is actually a very fine place to call home. When I was a disconsolate adolescent – moaning for arty circles and bohemian parents, like the worst snobbish teen you can imagine – I thought of Atlanta as a provincial place, where the ethos would always be Lennard Skinner. Now, so many eons later, I see that the provincial was myself. Atlanta is an amazingly diverse place: unlike Los Angeles, it is not a place, for the most part, of ethnic conclaves. The distant metro suburban counties, Cobb, Gwinnett, or even Dekalb, which in my youth were white flight chickenhouses, have long become rainbow: black, Asian, Latinx, white, jumbled together as in some advertisement or sitcom. Our last afternoon in Lawrenceville (the county seat of Gwinnett, most famous for being the place where Larry Flynt was shot by a person unknown, or at least unprosecuted - although Joseph Franklin later confessed to the deed) was spent, given the sogginess of the afternoon, going to Sugarloat Mills Mall – which turned out to be a wonderful place. The Mall’s great anchor store is a huge depot of sporting goods that stocks boats, fishing poles, bows and arrows, a huge aquarium stocked with bass and gar, and guns. Adam, in fact, got to shoot a play gun at targets in one of the store’s dioramas, and so did I. The Wikipedia entry on Sugarloaf Mills describes it, unkindly, as “struggling” and catering to “low income” shoppers. Whatever. To my mind, it was infinitely superior to the shopping mall at the end of Third Street in Santa Monica, where you couldn’t get a shirt under one hundred bucks or a belt under forty. Fuck that, as they say at Sugarloaf Mills (not really – politeness still reigns in the South!). Here, you can get that shirt for ten dollars and they will throw in a belt that is just as good as any you can get at Nordstrom for five. But what you can do, besides, at Sugarloaf mills is sit on a massage chair for five bucks, experience virtual reality at the virtual reality kiosk, play weird childfriendly variants of miniature golf, have a medieval theater dinner, race toy cars in a shop that is laid out in the most economically inefficient way possible (seemingly the shop can only accommodate five racers at a time, which means that even on the best of days, they cannot make more than a few thousand dollars – which made me wonder, as we raced cars there, how they can afford the upkeep), watch a discount movie or shop, miraculously, for books – or even get mild head shop-ish paraphernalia. I know that Walter Benjamin would pick Sugarloaf over Santa Monica’s mall every time. I’m with Walt.

The Christmas week was soggy. About five -ten years ago, Georgia and the whole southeast was suffering such a drought that Alabama, Georgia and Florida nearly came to armed battle over who got dibs on the Chattahoochee water flow. Now – according to the Viconian rule of corsi e recorsi that rules the Gods, the stars, and mankind – Georgia has an overabundance of the stuff that W.C. Fields so despised. We sortied out to several parks during intervals of non-sogginess and saw the landscape, which gave me a deep satisfaction. I’ve always liked the Northern Georgia forests – even when I was a teen, I would apply to them that line from Yeats: “The trees are in their autumn beauty”. Melancholy was my fave teen mood – followed by brooding and above it all. Hey, I was a snot, what can I say? Everyone to their own teenage emotional shell, and devil take the hindmost. I retain, as a merry old man, my liking for oaks that are bluesing their loss of leafage. We went out and saw plenty of that action. We also surveyed the new developments around Emory University, thus upsetting my mental map of the area. In contrast, the area around Stone Mountain and Lithonia seems still to be in the era of Flannery O’Connor. While my hometown, Clarkston, long ago became an emblem of immigration and change. Never in my wildest dreams – when I was a teen – did I imagine that the most vibrant religious denomination in Clarkston in the 21st century would be centered around a mosque. My sister told me that the Baptist Church in Clarkston, amazingly, has been sold to some other denomination. There goes the very symbol of everything I rejected when I first read Nietzsche. Somehow, I feel it is a case of lese majeste – they can’t do this to Nietzsche!

Adam was a great hit with my family. And they were a great hit with him – at a certain point, he started complaining about how “boring” Paris was compared to Atlanta. It is true – your kids are your parents revenge on you.

And then we came back to Paris. Hope this New Year is better on every dimension than 2018 for all who read this – and for all who don’t!