Saturday, September 13, 2003


Readers should go to Business Week for several articles that gingerly sift through the budget debacle. Trying to be fair to the White House, the writers put in some mush mouth disclaimers about how the US could "carry" a deficit equivalent to 5% of the GDP indefinitely. Yes, we could, but if the experience of the 90s showed us anything, it is that we are better off not. It is true that a smoker can still do two packs even after they yank out one of his lungs, but it isn't, I hear, recommended. Of course, these kinds of things are always wrapped around comparisons with long term corporate debts. The argument -- the sound argument -- is that any large organization needs to borrow to maintain and expand its infrastructure. That seems right to me. But there really is no corporate parallel that fits what Bush has done. The production of this debt load is not derived from any sane project -- it is actually coming on top of the refusal to finance forseeable future liabilities. When a corporation borrows heavily to give its top managers raises, and tries to disguise the loans on top of it, what do you have? Even Tyco avoided peculation on that scale.

My favorite of the BW articles this week is the one that describes the magic trick/pick pocketing act that is being performed before our very eyes with Bush's famous 87 billion -- and by the way, don't you love that 7? Not 8, and not 6. Of course, we know that it will really be closer to 100 -- a round number -- billion, if that.

Howard Gleckman points out that the 87 bil isn't going to be inked into the Fed budget:

"Said the Office of Management & Budget on Sept. 4: "Only within such a fiscal environment can we encourage increased economic growth and a return to a balanced budget." Expect veto threats and perhaps even veiled warnings of a government shutdown if that $784.7 billion spending cap isn't met.

There's just one problem. While Bush and Congress are fighting over every dollar, they're going to pretend the $87 billion in Iraq money doesn't count as part of the discretionary budget ceiling, even though every thing else the Pentagon does is included.

This is an accounting gimmick that would shame even Enron. "We will hold down spending," Bush and GOP leaders on Capitol Hill will say. But next to that boast will be a little imaginary asterisk that says, "For everything, that is, but Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, a fistful of trust funds, and the war in Iraq." In truth, the government will spend more than $1.3 trillion next year -- close to twice the discretionay-spending target -- on stuff that doesn't count in Washington's debates over fiscal responsibility."

Now, you ask, how can they do that? The simple answer is: raw abuse of power.

"Watch for Bush to claim by the end the year that he held discretionary outlays to a 4% hike, even though spending will go up by close to 15%. The White House and Congress will just pretend it didn't happen.

And how will Uncle Sam pay for all these extra burdens? With real money that Treasury will have to borrow, creating real debt that your kids will be paying off for the rest of their lives."

Rumsfeld compares the war to the occupation of post-war Germany. The left compares Bush to Hitler or Mussolini. LI wants to introduce a different parallel (watch this meme sink, kiddies): this is Bush's equivalent of Versailles. Instead of a complex of palaces, our bewildered POTUS is setting up a 'theater of terrorism." Louis XIV never thought of that one -- he did pay for theatrical entertainments, but he was not a big thinker: he merely hired Racine and Moliere and the like. Kafka had a clearer instinct for the kind of big project Bush is pushing. Hence the Oklahoma Nature theater that comes at the end of Amerika. But even Kafka never imagined one country using a whole other country to set up a theater of terrorism. Is that a grand gesture or what? It's not hard to figure out why the natives don't like it -- they aren't civilized like we are. Otherwise, they'd be appreciative of our administration's artistic sensibilities. What an idea, after all: using their real flesh and blood for our adventure movie. Yee-haw!

Friday, September 12, 2003


This week the arts and letters website has been highlighting articles about the extinct art of book reviewing. This Poets and Writers article treads the same ground Clive James covered in the Sunday NYT. Same references - the Believer, Heidi J., Dale Peck - and the same dull stirring about the non-question: should reviewers diss the books they don't like?

Books, here, means solely fiction.

Myself, I have been a valiant reviewer of fiction for five years now. I am trying to end my association with that game - I haven't reviewed more than three books in the past two months. I am willing to do almost anything other than continue working as a freelance reviewer. Yesterday, in fact, yours truly went to Pacesetters, an employment agency that is geared towards the mentally disturbed and the perpetual on the move. It consists of a cavernous building located next to the downtown police station, and the joint is peppered with helpful signs advising that drug takers will be arrested, that backpack carriers won't be allowed to carry backpacks to job sites, and that there were police on duty on the premises. A hopeful kind of place.

It struck me as a distinct social and economic advance from freelancing.

But to get to the point. Book reviews used to be read. Macaulay and Bagehot, to name only two Victorian sages, produced classic essays in the form of book reviews. In the twentieth century, Virginia Woolf and Edmund Wilson, among others, wrote book reviews that are still read. But over the last twenty years, as newspapers and magazines have been absorbed into an entertainment industry that is ferociously conscious of ROI, book reviews have been neglected. Monotony - and book reviews are generally tedious beyond belief, much more tedious than movie reviews - has naturally led to a fall off of readership. This takes place against a background in which the newspaper industry has been cutting its own throat -becoming a cheap guide to other venues of entertainment. It will never be cheap enough. This is a death spiral. As the newspaper reader is herded towards ever more cretinizing forms of Hollywood fantasy, the reader naturally loses the reading talent, or will to read. That will certainly includes newspapers. By their very structure, newspapers require a certain talent in reading. This seems to go over the heads of the owners of newspapers. That a newspaper is a thing to read, rather than a billboard to put advertisements in, is not a truth admitted in the boardrooms of Gannet or Cox. The reader, that mythical bearer of cultural goods, has fled to academia. The site of reading is now the classroom. This doesn't signify the death of literature, but it does signify a regression to the pre-modern era of reading and writing. The modernist impulse, which from the philosophes to the modernists depended on a network of independent readers and writers, is petering out. Independence was always a high wire act. Academia was never set up to foster it, and doesn't. But as the air is taken out of that cultural space, the newspaper, which was a creation of the modernist era, is dying. While most editors could care less about the book review section (for good reason), its corruption is a symptom - an ineradicable black spot, signalling the corruption and death to come.

If we look back upon the 19th century novel, one thing stands out: the site of reading - of finding the book, and then finding the next book - is not the classroom. The classroom has almost wholly taken over the educated readers ideal of the place of reading. When Book stores encourage reading by encouraging reading groups, the groups almost invariably become like classrooms. The classroom ethos is also mirrored in the standard book review, which is composed of two parts: plot and theme. The art of the novel is almost skipped - in the classroom, the subteties of art makes for bad tests. Much easier to ask for an essay (in five hundred words or less) about the theme of War and Peace than to ask for an essay about the construction of Prince Andrei as a character. Classrooms elicit themes the way factories produce cars. Libraries, if the witness of nineteenth century writers is any testimony, created complex day dreams. That day dreams could become political and social realities was the message of the two great events of the early nineteenth century: the French revolution and the rise of Napoleon.

I'll write more about this on some later post.

Here are three citations from three different 19th century writers, selected at random.

I believe I should have been almost stupefied but for one circumstance.It was this. My father had left a small collection of books in alittle room upstairs, to which I had access (for it adjoined myown) and which nobody else in our house ever troubled. From thatblessed little room, Roderick Random, Peregrine Pickle, HumphreyClinker, Tom Jones, the Vicar of Wakefield, Don Quixote, Gil Blas,and Robinson Crusoe, came out, a glorious host, to keep me company. They kept alive my fancy, and my hope of something beyond thatplace and time, - they, and the Arabian Nights, and the Tales ofthe Genii, - and did me no harm; for whatever harm was in some ofthem was not there for me; I knew nothing of it. It is astonishingto me now, how I found time, in the midst of my porings andblunderings over heavier themes, to read those books as I did.
-- David Cooperfield

For six months, then, Emma, at fifteen years ofage, made her hands dirty with books from old lending libraries.

Through Walter Scott, later on, she fell in love with historical events, dreamed of old chests, guard-rooms and minstrels. She would have liked to live in some old manor-house, like those long-waisted chatelaines who, in the shade of pointed arches,spent their days leaning on the stone, chin in hand, watching acavalier with white plume galloping on his black horse from thedistant fields. At this time she had a cult for Mary Stuart and enthusiastic veneration for illustrious or unhappy women. Joan ofArc, Heloise, Agnes Sorel, the beautiful Ferroniere, and ClemenceIsaure stood out to her like comets in the dark immensity of heaven...
Madame Bovary

"What did Missy want with more books? What must you be bringing her more books for?" "They amuse her, sir. She is very fond of reading." "A little too fond," said Mr Featherstone, captiously. "She was for reading when she sat with me. But I put a stop to that. She's got the newspaper to read out loud. That's enough for one day, I should think. I can't abide to see her reading to herself.

Tuesday, September 09, 2003


I must, I must stop writing about the War.

One last post -- and then, no mas. Not for this week. Sanity, I crave sanity...

All right. Let's do a review. The war was supposed to bring some benefits. There would be costs, there would be benefits. Now we have a better picture of both, and we have a sense of how -- from the American perspective -- they are defined. One of the great benefits of the war was the bringing down of Saddam H. The cost, in human lives and in dollars, hasn't yet been toted up -- on the Iraqi side it may never be -- but as of today we have some feel for it.

So, the Bush administration has defined the ultimate benefit in Iraq in terms of several abstractions and one pre-war claim. The pre-war claim is that Iraqi oil will pay for the war and the American contribution to Iraq. In other words, we are spending about 150-200 billion dollars on Iraq, but we will receive that money back. The abstractions can be boiled down to: a democratic, American friendly country. Like Iran under the Shah, only with elections.

Given these baselines, we can come up with combinations of possible outcomes, assign them probabilities, and ask which one will give us both 1) the greatest benefit and 2) the best odds.

I can think of five basic combinations.

1. American troops withdraw. We leave behind a stable, American friendly democracy, that pays America back its 200 billion dollars, with interest, in a timely matter.

2. American troops withdraw. The government that is left behind is less friendly to America than Kuwait, but more friendly than Iran. It is, however, stable, and has certain democratic aspects. The 200 billion dollars is not paid back.

3. American troops leave. The American friendly democracy that is left behind tries to repay the American debt, causing a nation wide rebellion. It is overthrown by a government that is hostile to America.

4. American troops leave. Iraq is riven with conflict. The 200 billion dollars is gone. The conflict lasts for a long time, is destabilizing, and no side in it is openly pro-American.

5. American troops don't leave, but have to stay indefinitely, due to conflict. Another 100 billion dollars is spent on Iraq, but the nation is riven with conflict. Casualties mount. No stability, no democracy, and increasing harm to American forces.

One can argue that there are innumerable subsets. There are. But I imagine each one simply enriches the detail of one or another item on this list.

The problem with the Bush solution is simple. It bets everything on 1. Myself, I think one has about the same chance as Dennis Kucinich has of being the next US president.

The second option is much more possible. But humans drive their own history -- it will definitely be made impossible the more Bush bets on 1. The other three options are progressively worse for American interests. And for Iraq.

So, rationally, for our 150-200 billion dollars -- money we are not going to see again -- I'd say the reasonable thing to do is to take 2 as a scenario and try to improve it. That means ... well, it means handing power over to the Iraqi cabinet, and letting Bremer tell rotary clubs in Indiana all about his splendid plan for an Iraqi constitution. It means getting real about the money -- this money isn't coming back. It means letting the Iraqis decide what kind of economy they want -- from the contractors they hire to repair oil wells to the market system they are comfortable with. Of course, the "Iraqis" don't operate in isolation. But we should certainly not get into a situation in which there is a puppet Iraqi elite that simply obeys Americans, and thus abruptly abridges its shelf life. The commentary I've read about Iraq is truly odd -- it is as if nobody even thinks about what happens when the Americans withdraw. The Americans are not going to enforce a permanent solution to the Iraq problem -- period. The arguments are all about the chaos that will ensue if we withdraw right now, and how we have to do this, and how we have to do that... But by the force of things (ah, Lucretian phrase!) the Iraqis are the ones who will be there when the Americans are long gone. The american exit strategy better be shaped with that reality in mind.

Monday, September 08, 2003


Here's what we said before the war, on March 14th. It seems relevant, in the light of W.'s speech.

"Given this, here is the primer for the upcoming catastrophe:
1. Occupation is not peace. The media has defined the war as having a beginning -- when Bush declares it -- and an end -- when Saddam Hussein is dissolved. Now, the beginning, as we all know by now, has not been clear. In fact, it is unclear what Bush will declare, if we are actually engaged in warlike hostilities now, and who will be responsible for the war -- as in, you know, the marquis. Is it the UN vs. Saddam, the U.S. vs Saddam, or the Coalition of the Willing vs. Saddam? Similarily, the dissolution of Saddam ends only one phase of the war. The next phase, if the post-Saddam history of Northern Iraq is relevant, begins with squabbling between hostile factions that soon escalates into shooting. Plus, of course, with a soldiery strung out in Iraq and no central authority besides that army, the terrain and disposition of forces is ideally suited for suicide bombers.
2.You can't give what you take. As we've pointed out before, Paul Wolfowitz has testified that we intend to pay for the war with Iraq's money. At the same time, we intend to reconstruct Iraq. Those are mutually cancelling propositions. This is when the lesson of Afghanistan kicks in. There is no constituency in this country willing to see a transfer of about one hundred billion dollars to Iraq. And if the economy continues to suck, the pressure will be overwhelming to subsidize this war with the spoils.
3.A democratic government won't last if its strips the country of its wealth. Stripping, here, is pretty direct. We aren't talking fancy Swiss bank accounts. We are talking oil money going out in ways that everybody sees. If this is the American strategy, be prepared for a guerilla war.
4 The current civil society in Northern Iraq is endangered by American adventurism. Northern Iraq, and the Kurds, have become the stuff of propaganda lately. That there was no outpouring of admiration for their civil ways before 9/11 had a simple cause: for the first five years of the No Fly Zone, Kurdish factions killed each other. They also gave shelter to the PKK, a guerrilla group in Turkey that was as dirty as they come. This isn't to say that Northern Iraq hasn't made progress -- they have. They've done it in the way that progress is made -- it is a grassroots effort, and it takes security, money, and time. If the U.S. expects to 'integrate' Northern Iraq, by force, into its idea of Iraq, all of that progress will be undone.
The NPR interviewed Gordon Adams about the cost of the war a while back. Gordon Adams is some defense analyst. Here is his comment: "In Gulf War I, we paid $60 billion to fight the war. Our allies gave us back all but about $10 billion of that money. So it was--you know, Gulf War I was subsidized. Gulf War II will not be subsidized."


We were going to do a little thoughtful post about reviewing  -- which, the god of coincidence being a faithful reader of this stream of fluff, is made easier by a hook: Clive James' op ed in the Sunday NYT.

"Over the course of literary history some legitimately destructive reviews have been altogether too enjoyable for both writer and reader. Attacking bad books, these reviews were useful acts in defense of civilization. They also left the authors of the books in the position of prisoners buried to the neck in a Roman arena as the champion charioteer, with swords mounted on his hubcaps, demonstrated his mastery of the giant slalom. How civilized is it to tee off on the exposed ineptitude of the helpless?

"Back in the early 19th century, the dim but industrious poet Robert Montgomery had grown dangerously used to extravagant praise, until a new book of his poems was given to the great historian and mighty reviewer Lord Macaulay. The results set all England laughing and Montgomery on the road to oblivion, where he still is, his fate at Macaulay's hands being his only remaining claim to fame. Montgomery's high style was asking to be brought low and Macaulay no doubt told himself that he was only doing his duty by putting in the boot. Montgomery had a line about a river meandering level with its fount. Macaulay pointed out that a river level with its fount wouldn't even flow, let alone meander. Macaulay made it funny; he had exposed Montgomery as a writer who couldn't see what was in front of him."

Clive James' piece is occasioned by the now distant racket that was made in May, on the appearane of Heidi Julavits' piece, in the Believer, entitled "The Snarky, Dumbed-Down World of Book Reviewing." Since we have made almost all our money in the past year book reviewing, you would think we'd have commented in a more timely fashion about what couldn't have been more relevant to us. However, at the time we were in a constant state of sweat over Iraq, and theories of bookreviewing just didn't urge our commentating instincts. However, James' piece did send us back to Julavits. Not to her essay, so much, but to the interview in the NYObs, which was, to the detriment of the moral betterment of book reviewers everywhere, so much more fun to read.

During the course of the interview, Ms. Julavits (to use Observerspeak) morphed into a rather bizarre semblence of Jerry Lundegaard, the car salesman character in Fargo. Or at least linguistically. For instance: in her article, Ms. Julavits apparently attacked one Sam Sifton, whose review of some novel in the New York Times attracted her attention on account of its untoward snarkiness.Now this Sifton, according to the Observer, is not entirely unknown to Ms. Julavits. In fact, he was the best man at her inauspicious wedding to her first husband, who has, in another magazine, recollected in detail the vices that drove his bride from the house and from the marriage. Here is the interviewer presses Ms. Julavits on this unhappy topic:

At the mention of her personal connection to Mr. Sifton, Ms. Julavits darkened. "Unfortunately, Sam is someone whom I really, really, really like," she said, sitting up in her chair. "So if it�s not dispassionate, I guess it�s that I read that review, and I was just so upset the whole time I was reading it�and then when I saw who wrote it, it was devastating, because I respect him immensely."Ms. Julavits didn�t see her attack on Mr. Sifton as personal, but she admitted that the connections were a bit odd. "It�s definitely bizarre," she said, "but Dave Eggers is friends with Sam and whatever, so it�s all�everybody knows everybody in one way or another."

It is hard to read this without thinking of William Macy's worried face -- Macy is the guy who played Lundegaard -- and thinking of what he'd do with these lines. They are golden, these lines. Especially "Sam is someone whom I really really really like..." Ms. Julavits' way of speaking -- the Midwestern nice that wraps around a rubber dagger, or at least a bad review of a bad review -- has that Lundegaard twitchiness, that discontent. The interview includes a citation of Ms. Julavits really pouring on the harshness, taking on the negative reception accorded to Rick Moody's The Black Veil. The "cautionary underlying message" she found in Mr. Moody�s bad press�most famously, a blistering attack by Dale Peck in The New Republic�was this: "If you try to be overly ambitious and fail, you will get the heck spanked out of you. You will be mocked."

Jaa, gettin' the heck spanked out of you. It happened two years ago, over to Lake Crane I think it was, you remember Marge, when the danged dog ate the snowplow tires...

Well, our own thoughts about reviewing have not been crystalized by Julavits. Rather, we've been thinking of the malign influence  of Pauline Kael. We've been thinking of resentment. We've been thinking of how the site where literature is processed -- chosen, read, discussed -- has changed over the last century from the library to the  classroom. We've been thinking of crowds. Our next post will take some of this up. Or it won't

Ah, pity the poor right wing draft dodgers. Deprived of their share of military glory, and forced to take on domestic tasks, such as bringing down a 100 grand on that first job, and fighting real hard, and successfully, at the office, to be promoted over the deadwood, they have longed, longed for their own war -- not one, mind you, where they would have to be consigned to those yucky barracks at the airport and made to eat that yucky army food (puh-leeeze), but an in and out kind of thing -- sort of like an extreme vacation. The newest status symbol isn't climbing Mount Everest any more (with the natives bearing your lap top so you can hook it up and email your friends) -- no, it is going to Iraq and reporting on the "amazing progress" we are making there.

Following in the footsteps of Donny Rumsfeld in Iraq is Max Boot, WSJ author and general authority on all things military. He's at his best telling us how we are in the midst of being stabbed in the back by the media again, while Iraq is going our way! And how did he discover this? By making a tour exclusively with an army unit. A US army unit. Here's some derring do on the part of Monsieur Boot. First, in excited tones, he announces what counterinsurgency is all about:

"The success that both divisions are having is based on a smart counterinsurgency strategy that combines carrots and sticks. Both are careful not to use indiscriminate firepower that would alienate civilians. Their raids are carefully focused so that they hit Baathist safe houses while minimizing inconvenience for and humiliation of the innocent."

Yeah, those innocent. I'm sure they are all psyched about that minimizing of inconvenience and humiliation. Those are bummers, man.

But -- oh joy! -- the second, action part of Boot's exciting Iraqi vacation comes about when he gets to go out with real men! Yes, the boys in the Marine Corps invited him along for a ride. All that working out in the gym in New York has paid off! Here, our great white hunter encounters the little brown enemy himself!

I went with the Marines' Task Force Scorpion on one such raid, in a Sunni neighborhood south of Baghdad. As we drove, three remote- controlled bombs went off on the roadside. Luckily no one was injured; the blasts missed our vehicles. The Marines immediately got out and searched for the perpetrators. One suspect tested positive for explosive residue on his hands. He was plexi-cuffed and stuck in the back of an armored vehicle next to me. A corporal asked me to cover him with a 9-millimeter pistol. I was happy to comply. The next day, the task force caught four suspected Fedayeen who had explosive devices. Through such successes, Scorpion has managed to dramatically reduce terrorism in its area."

This, of course, is a city that the belligerent crowd insists is as safe as D.C. -- you know D.C, the city where they blow up embassies and police stations and shit. Now, Boot's experience seems to be of a dramatic increase of terrorism, since it is happening, on his account, in broad daylight. But why believe your own 5 senses when you can believe the Pentagon! -- think, too, of his trembling excitement, covering the bad guy with a 9-millimeter pistol! Yes indeed, if today's new, free market army could market this as a vacation package for your alpha Wall Street male, we are in business!

Ourselves -- well, LI advises our readers to drain that drop of alpha blood in your veins. It only leads to a lifelong and dubious puerility.

olivier blanchard and the free lunch: a comedy of errors

  The neolib economist Oliver Blanchard tweeted a very funny comedy bit, in which he played the part of “social democrat”. And he wrote: “As...