Saturday, October 15, 2005

sweet mysteries of life and death

“If you people wouldn’t have drunk it,” Dalitz said thickly, “ I wouldn’t have bootlegged it.” Moe Dalitz before the Kefauver Commission on organized crime, explaining why he sold liquor during the prohibition. From “The Money and the Power” by Sally Denton and Roger Morris.

The second mystery – see my Thursday post -- to which I want to point my showman’s cane (see it tremble in my palsied grip) is that of the developmental lag. I think this mystery complicates any simple conclusions we can make from the first mystery, which, if you will remember, is the mystery of how, as we become richer, we become collectively poorer. If there were only one mystery here, then the answer would be pretty simple. We’d just look to the tradition of class conflict for our answers. Unfortunately, the answer isn’t that simple. Instead, our two mysteries are enjambed, intertwined like two dogs in heat. They form a matrix. It would be nice for me to be able to say, well, Reagan was just an upper class stooge, and that’s how the investor class became dominant in America. Alas, it isn’t that simple. In fact, only by looking at both of the mysteries does one understand the brilliance, albeit limited brilliance, of the American response to the crisis of capitalism in the 1980s, and how that has played out to this day. Those mysteries explain a certain unexpected movement in the conservative revolution. Unlike conservatism in the past, this revolution was not wrapped about savings. Just the opposite. This revolution was about creating an economic culture in which the inclination to saving was systematically dissolved.

The mystery I am talking about is at the heart of globalization and the transformation of the welfare state into the guarantor state.

When I try to figure out how to put this in a simple post, I feel rather like I am trying to spoon out the water in pond with a net: the instrument is wrong and the goal is futile. But of course, this is what we do here at LI.

So-- lets get one thing straight right away. The difference between the economist and the non-economist is that the economist can think in terms of parts and aggregates, but never thinks of values in terms of emergent wholes. To put this in terms of an example: an economist can explain why the efficiencies gained by transferring manufacturing to low paying areas from high paying areas – for instance, from Michigan to the Mexican border – make up for the cost of increased unemployment in Michigan. The economist would have an easy time showing this by a sectorial analysis of the U.S. economy. What the economist does not include in the calculus at all are the intangible values in the blue collar culture of Michigan. It has no instrument to quantify that culture, and what economists can’t quantify, they can’t see. They are equipped with visual sensoria as delicate and peculiar as a fly’s – but they aren’t human. Similarly, the culture the emerges around low paying maquilladoras in Juarez is available, to the economist, only in terms of human capital, and not in terms of such emergent wholes that we can look down at the face of another slaughtered girl on the outskirts of Juarez and understand what is happening here (“ You've been with the professors/ And they’ve all liked your looks/ With great lawyers you have discussed lepers and crooks”).The quality of life, that phrase as tasteless as bubble gum foil, the culture that emerges around long term low pay labor intense areas can’t really be analyzed by the economist, even if they can make attempts to distinguish a frontier from a metropolis. But the culture does have an economic impact. In fact, economics, ideally, serves the culture. Marx thought the fact that the culture had come to serve economics was part of the systematic inversion of values in 19th capitalism that had to be inverted in its turn. Be that as it may, to approach the second mystery, one has to have some respect for the constraints under which these mysteries are communicated.

In 1996, Mancur Olson gave a lecture on the stubborn difference between developed and less developed economies entitled “Big Bills Left on the Sidewalk: Why Some Nations are Rich, and Others Poor.” Olson pushed an institutionalist view of economics. To make his case, he first attempts to take apart the neo-classical view – and its newest additions, via Robert Lucas, that the famous “residual” to which Solow attributed the major role in growth consists of knowledge which, for various reasons, is not a public good. At the end of Olson’s overview, he writes:

“If the countries of the world were on the frontiers of neoclassical production functions, the marginal product of capital would therefore be many times higher in the low-income than in the high-income countries. Robert Lucas (1990) has calculated, albeit in a somewhat different framework,[11] the marginal product of capital that should be expected in the United States and in India. Lucas estimated that if an Indian worker and an American worker supplied the same quantity and quality of labor, the marginal product of capital in India should be 58 times as great as in the United States. Even when Lucas assumed that it took five Indian workers to supply as much labor as one U.S. worker, the predicted return to capital in India would still be a multiple of the return in the United States.”

That paragraph is a little gritty – but I think that is says something that Balzac put, in the form of a metaphor and a parable, a long time before, in Pere Goriot, when Rastignac is pondering an offer he has had from another character in the book, Vautrin. Vautrin, you’ll recall, wants Rastignac to marry an heiress and turn over part of the fortune to Vautrin. In turn, Vautrin will murder the heiress’ brother – an unknown figure, to Rastignac – so that the heiress will inherit all her father’s fortune.

− Where did you get that serious look? the medical student asked him as he took his arm to go walking on the quad.
− I am tormented by evil ideas.
− Of what type? You know, you can be healed of ideas.
− How ?
− By surrendering to them.
− Ah, you are laughing without knowing what this is about. Have you read Rousseau?
− Yeah.
− Remember that passage where he asks his reader what he would do given a case in which he could enrich himself in killing a Chinaman by a simple act of will, an old mandarin, without budging from Paris
− Yes.
− Well ?
− Bah ! I’m already on my thirty first mandarin!
− This isn ‘t a joking matter. Go on. Let’s say you were convinced it were possible and that all you had to do was nod your head. What would you do?
− Is this mandarin of yours an old man? But hell, young or an old paralytic or in health, my goodness! ... Well, no.
− You are a good boy, Bianchet. But if you love a woman enough to turn your soul inside out, and it was absolutely necessary to get money for her toilette, for her carriage, to cut a long story short, for all of her fantasies?

Olson, like many economists, makes the case that the superior political institutions in the West are what gave rise to the enormous wealth here. The other side of that coin is, possibly, that those superior political institutions are oriented to positively hold down 58 Indian workers and 31 mandarins. And that this held true for the era of the great boom in this country – from 1945 to 1980. In fact, Keynes worked, at Bretton Woods, to assure a place for the possibility that a nation could take autonomous economic action in order to make sure that those who were leading the pack – especially the British – would be able to retain the lead in the face of frontiers of neoclassical production functions. Unsurprisingly, the U.S. didn’t see things this way – in fact, one of the goals of the U.S. negotiators was to make sure that the British were never again able to set up a “sterling zone”, as they did in the thirties, blocking U.S. exports.

Mandarins and Indian workers, in the meantime, kept multiplying, and knowledge kept lowering transaction costs. Eventually, the law of comparative advantage was going to erode the institutions of the welfare state in countries that relied upon manufacturing goods that could be more cheaply manufactured elsewhere and, given the dissolution of trade barriers, shipped back to the richest consumer markets which had accumulated wealth precisely in the era in which their production functions were protected.

This mystery requires another post. Which I’ll put up next week.

Friday, October 14, 2005

the story that ran away with the reporter

PS -- Today (Oct. 15) the Times is finally running their explanation of the Judith Miller affair. It is wretched. It is written in the kind of restrained tone that is usually adopted at the dinner table after a fight with your spouse. It threads among the upsetting topics, and doesn't once mention the topic that has been discussed over and over again on the Net -- whether Miller wasn't using her position as a reporter to fight against Wilson. So: no mention of the report that Miller, in the newsroom, was telling people that Wilson was a liar. Surely if that was being said, the crackerjack NYT team that couldn't seem to pry a straight answer out of Ms. Miller could have asked about it. Instead, the NYT team simply preserved the pretence that this was wholly about a reporter doing her job -- although admitting that in this instance, the reporter was, actually, not doing her job. She wasn't reporting on Wilson, and she had information that she wasn't sharing with anybody in the Washington Bureau who was.

Until the NYT faces up to the accusation that Judy Miller was all about pumping and dumping a particular line from a D.C. cabal, it will not be able to disentangle itself from this tarbaby. The portrait of Judy Miller as Nancy Drew, ace reporter can't be maintained by NYT, but alternatives can't be explored, even gingerly.

I meant to write a companion post to yesterday’s. This will take a little longer to compose than I was planning on. Sorry.

Instead, I’ll write about something fashionable: Fitzgerald’s investigation of one of the shapes of the conspiracy that took us into the Iraq war.

It will be one of the ironies, looking back at this, that at the very time Judith Miller’s testimony proved to be highly inconvenient to the notion that she was doing anything compatible with conveying true, or at least probable, information to the citizenry, she is being given a first amendment prize. One of the media claims about its business is that it needs access to sources who are sometimes unwilling to be named in order to fulfill its function. This makes sense to me. But nested in that claim is a dimension that is as important to the designs of the governing class: that class needs the authentication provided by the news to fulfill its task of planning. The convergence of these needs in the run up to the Iraq war produced a pumping mechanism that was formally identical to the mechanism that swelled the bubble market in 1999 – the newspapers would take info from sources allied to a particular viewpoint, and then spokesmen for that particular viewpoint would quote the newspapers. Miller’s reporting made it possible for the pro-war Bush administration to pretty much quote itself to justify its claims. Instead of Cheney telling us that Saddam Hussein was close to building an atom bomb by citing Cheney telling us that Saddam Hussein was close to building an atom bomb, how much more convenient to have a story in a supposedly liberal paper built upon an unnamed source ultimately from Cheney’s office tell us that Saddam Hussein was close to building an atom bomb. This cozy relationship was threatened by Wilson – or the players in it felt themselves to be. In truth, the over-reaction to Wilson is what makes this reminiscent of Watergate: Nixon pretty much approved on a course of skullduggery that was completely unnecessary, given that he was crushing his opponent in the polls.

There was an interesting post on Jay Rosen’s blog about the decline of the NYT. I think Rosen is right: the NYT has been a surprisingly drab paper during the Bush years. This isn’t a matter of ideology – the WP is to the right of the NYT, and supported the insanity of the Iraq adventure with all the hardon fervor of a deacon on the front pew. But the Washington Post has been much more open to disagreement, and much more noticing of disagreement, which has made it a more interesting paper. And it seems more on top of things, with a journalistic crew that is riskier and livelier. Compare, for instance, Dana Milbank and Elizabeth Bumiller, and you'll see what I'm talking about. The liveliest part of the NYT has become its op ed page. That’s rather ridiculous.

Joan Didion, in an essay on Woodward, wrote that reporters generally have a sense of who is ‘running a story.” Any one national story is usually run by a handful of reporters, with the rest coming after them. Obviously, Miller was one of those running the story in the pre-war buildup. Just as obviously, running this story meant running counterfeits, innuendos, misleading analyses, and all of the rest of it. In this case, the story ran Miller. And it is now running the NYT into a cul de sac, in which Miller’s increasingly bizarre testimony (her strange discovery of notes has a very Nixonian overtone), her possible lies before the grand jury, raise the question of the degree of consciousness of the NYT presidium in allowing itself to become the instrument of a foreign policy Ponzi scheme.

Harry has come up with the prototype Limited Inc products that we are soon going to be giving out to charitable readers. And that means that we are soon going to insert smarmy please send LI money messages in every post. Like this one. We’ll be posting pics of the shirt and (on Harry’s suggestion) the tote bag soon.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

the ductus of the zeitgeist

Every social order depends on a social mystery. The conservative wants to preserve that mystery. The Marxist wants to expose it. The liberal, like me, wants to palpate it a bit.

There are two mysteries in the current social order. One mystery is rather obvious bunk. The mystery goes like this: although Western economies are getting wealthier and wealthier, in comparison to, say, the economies of the 1950s, we are told that we are too poor to maintain the social welfare programs that we once took for granted. We are, in other words, getting richer and richer only to be collectively poorer and poorer. Now, one doesn’t have to be an ardent Marxist to question this story. Instead, one might ponder how we expect to maintain a social system in which the multiple of greater wealth taken home by upper management versus the average worker has zoomed from 12 times to about 400 times in the U.S. The increase in collective poverty is, of course, relative. Since this mystery has a readily understandable social cause, we should expect that the apologists of the social order – those who would like to see the wealth differential increased – will do their traditional work. Their traditional work is to blame the natural order. In this way, one can keep an exploitative system going … to the dogs. So, it turns out that demographics are the thing to blame for liquidating private and public pension plans, for zooming medical entitlement costs that are locked into a for profit medical and drug system, and so on.

The other mystery is different, but relates to the whole economic system of the West. Why is it that economic power hasn’t transferred much more rapidly and much more completely to the Third World? We will write about that mystery, with reference to Mancur Olson, in tomorrow’s post.


The WSJ article about the looming default of Delphi’s pension plan is a sort of map to the way the chattering classes give cover to the investment class’s big lie: the lie of our increasing collective poverty. The beginning is classic bizspeak:

“Delphi Corp.'s Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing represents more than just another Midwest metal-bender facing harsh reality. It marks a true reckoning for the traditional auto industry and the end of a 75-year-old way of life in America: that of the highly paid but unskilled worker. It was a noble concept, established largely by the United Auto Workers union in the 1930s. But it cannot withstand a global economy that has ended the UAW's labor monopoly in the auto industry, and a consumer body that won't pay more to subsidize costly employee benefits that most consumers themselves don't have.”

This is almost too brazen. In a world in which we’ve gotten used to CEOs taking home hundreds of millions of dollars in stock options, we’ve also gotten use to most consumers operating without a safety net. What this means is: ta ta, more consumers should be operating without a safety net. The logic here is superb.

For the past thirty years, our social order – or at least the economic dimension – has depended on reversing the ductus of the zeitgeist. Where we once read from right to left, from new deal to the social welfare state, we now read from left to right, from the social welfare state to gilded age levels of inequality. In April, LI was saying that the Bush administration’s attempt to loot social security with bogus stats about a crisis in the fund was a diversion from the true pension crisis, which was private. Since then, United has completed its robbery of its workers, Delta is working on a similar plan, and the CEO of Delphi, R.S. "Steve" Miller, is getting huge amounts of love in the business press because he has made tons of money taking companies into bankruptcy and dumping their pension obligations. Every once in a while, the oracles speak, and they reveal the ugly little truth that capitalism is class warfare. Warfare, of course, doesn’t have to be total. In the Keynesian order that lasted until the eighties, the truce that obtained allowed the investment class to accrue an advantage, but a smaller advantage, in the economy. This truce has been destroyed piecemeal since, but the price of that destruction has been delayed. We are going to be seeing what it means at a narrower distance to our own flesh in the coming decade, since the devil’s deal of the Reagan era is essentially unworkable: you cannot make a system in which the top one percent of households own 38 percent of the wealth and expect to continue to provide services based on a time when that upper one percent owned around fifteen percent. Obviously, the upper class knows this, and so its heroes are the innovators who draw the logical conclusion: let the dead bury their own dead, or: we can dump the costs of pensions for the workers on the workers and get away with it, cause nobody is going to call for some kind of giveback of upper management’s compensation packages, circa 1970 – 2000. Miller is a hero among business journalists because he’s up front about his thievery. The job, now, is to translate that thievery into inevitability. That, after all, is why we have a business section in the newspaper.

If I were to pick one image that typifies the ethics of the order that came after Reagan, I think the photo op of Bush, in Parkersburg West Virginia at the Bureau of Public Debt would do. That was the photo op in which he pointed to the “IOU”s accumulated by the Government by borrowing against the Social Security fund and laughingly remarked that they were merely paper. Since this paper had been borrowed against to finance his entire economic policy for the last four years, and since that economic policy consisted of throwing money at Big Pharma, war profiteers, and oil companies, this was a remarkable moment. A moment of truth, even. It told us who made money, how the machinery was designed for them to make money, and how criminally irresponsible that governing class was. It was a deeply moving moment, actually, like a frat house prank in a veteran's graveyard. One must consider the historic resonance: after all, the designers of the Reagan order were all in at the origin of that pile of IOUs, present at the creation, so to speak: Alan Greenspan, Reagan himself, the supply siders, all of them signing off in 1983. But a mere trillion to two trillion dollar rip off is not indicative of the whole splendor of this reactionary era’s deeper sicknesses. One has to really sift among the news of the private pension rip off and the way it is being managed as a p.r. coup to see the deeply sick bent of this order.

Here is the WSJ, making with the saliva about those lucky ducky auto workers:

For starters, the UAW's very success at obtaining job security and healthy pay for its members has put both achievements in mortal danger. Consider the benefits package, now worth some $40 an hour on top of wages, for workers at Delphi, GM and other Detroit car companies.

“The gold-plated medical benefits provide free choice of treatment with virtually no co-pays or deductibles. Retirees also get defined, and generous, pension payments for as long as they live, instead of the 401(k) accounts more typical nowadays. And workers can collect full pensions after 30 years on the job. Thus they can retire around age 50 and collect medical and pension benefits for more years than they actually worked. The contract forbids factory closings, and requires that laid-off workers get close to full pay and benefits while waiting in the "jobs bank" for real work. Delphi is paying out $100 million per quarter to 4,000 idled workers, Mr. Miller says. No wonder it was good while it lasted.”

And here’s something that is still good, and will last as long as the Bush culture can support it. From Money magazine, in 2003 (meaning that the compensation figures are a little short – CEOs get more now):

“While many Americans are cashing their final unemployment checks and wondering how they’ll pay next month’s bills, the top brass at our nation’s biggest companies could hardly pick a better time to be laid off.

Chief executives leaving S&P 500 companies pocketed a cool $16.5 million on average in the past two years on the way out the door. And there's little sign yet that the going rate for executive departure has come down.

That $16.5 million doesn’t even count juicy perks like gold-plated pension plans, rich stock option grants, health benefits, or use of corporate jets and company secretaries. These goodies can bump up the value of the typical executive severance package by an additional 50%. “

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

the revolt of the extras

In last week’s New Statesman – the one that is dedicated to the proposition that Iraq is a blunder that has metastasized into a cancer – there’s a review of a piece by a video artist named Omer Fast. Fast’s newest work, Godville, consists of interviews with re-enactors at Williamburg contrasted with shots of American suburbia. Before this, Fast made a video in which he interviewed Poles who worked as extras on Schindler’s list.

Fast seems to have latched onto George Saunder’s territory. The insight, to put it crudely, is that we are not in the age of celebrity. We are in the age of the extra. The ontology of extra-hood has yet to find its philosopher, but in Fast and Saunder’s it is finding its poets.

We haven’t seen Godville, but we definitely hope Fast takes it to Austin.

“The war” might mean Operation Desert Storm, today’s Iraq war, or the American war of independence. “Independency” and “occupation” turn inside out and back again: Godville’s hybridised personae,
in their immaculate costumes, exist both as ex-colonial subjects and citizens of an occupying nation. The potential significance of the word “freedom” oscillates wildly: one of Fast’s interviewees (a Baptist
preacher in real life) “lives” in Colonial Williamsburg as a slave.

Another role-plays a moneyed housewife. “I only know this little window of what . . . my family and my children tell me . . . what little bit my husband might share with me of the world of politics and business,” she admits in a bitter tone, noting that “when you think about it, you feel like you’re being property and not human”. Time-wise, this comment becomes even more ambiguous when we see her burst into real tears over her three imaginary sons’ “deaths” in the war against the British. Working in Godville looks like it entails heavy-duty emotional
labour. Fast’s editing conjures a sympathetic but fraught and angry persona from his original material. Courtesy of rapid, nervous jump cuts, his subject’s yellow gloves are on her hands one second and lie in her lap the next. Her hands flash from one gesture to another in an incoherent yet bizarrely expressive semaphore. Sliding
between historical co-ordinates, her discontent cannot be anchored to a concrete cause. How could it be? She is not a “real person” but a (heavily overdetermined) symptom born of collective past and present circumstances.”

A long time ago, in the Moviegoer, Walker Percy noticed the reality deficit at the center of celebrity culture. That was back in the days of Kennedy. Ah, those rank and odious days that have never died, but putrified among us, a big gaseous giant strung out among a nationwide mausoleum of golden oldies and classic rock stations. The problem, though, is always taken up as though it is the celebrities problem. It is what journalism is mostly about. It is what politics is mostly about. It is the national desire. The desire not to be an extra. But LI is so tired of this desire. We’d like to see a revolt of the extras – some throwing off of our parasitism.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

fundraising and t shirts continued

PS -- after this went to press, Harry informed us that our illustration was a very rough sketch. See his comment for more.

As we said a few days ago, LI is going to make another stab at fundraising a la the public radio way. Our friend Harry from Scratchings sent us the above design for the tshirt. (Sorry if it is a bit blurry). He also told us some stuff about pricing and sizing, suggesting the t shirts go for $30 and over, and that the logo be put either on the back or on the shirt pocket. Actually, we 'd like more comments about this.

The public radio model of fund raising is, we admit, a little bland and smarmy. KUT in Austin raises bucks with a bit about how you should imagine that there was no public radio – such an apocalyptic vision would presumably put you in such a sweat that you’ll be making out checks like mad. Well, LI has no similar grip on the throat of the world spirit. We live on our non-necessity, like a drug habit. We’d like this fund raising bit to be more in line with the Stop Snitchin’ movement, as featured in the NYT the other day:

The adoration of the outlaw is a durable feature of American culture, giving us romantic images of authority-defying individuals from Billy the Kid to Tony Soprano. And maybe this attraction has something to do with the recent and rather controversial success of a Boston clothier called Antonio Ansaldi, which has sold more than 10,000 T-shirts featuring a big red stop sign and the slogan "Stop Snitchin'."

Stop Snitchin' T-shirts are popular among young men in inner-city neighborhoods in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Jersey City and elsewhere - not just the shirts that Antonio Ansaldi makes but also a host of variations and knockoffs. Snitching, of course, refers to giving information to law enforcement that might result in an arrest for, say, drug dealing or murder. Last year, a DVD that circulated in Baltimore gained nationwide notoriety for showing self-professed drug dealers making explicit threats against snitches. Apparently opposition to cooperating with the police - and, by extension, to the rule of law itself - has a constituency. The Web site for Antonio Ansaldi features a group of unsmiling young African-Americans wearing the shirts under a graffiti-style sign reading, "Stop Snitchin': The Movement."

Unfortunately, the outlaw element of the Dopamine Cowboy Movement has not yet reached the attention of the gendarmerie, so don’t expect any similar, exciting drama from these shirts. No confronting the nightsticks of nativism, no being pulled over and harrassed. Sorry. But we suggest that you wear these shirts with sunglasses and an unsmiling demeanor, just to piss people off.

As for the contributions: you can use the Paypal thing. Or you can send checks to Roger Gathman, 615 Upson, #203 Austin Texas 78703. The main thing is to get your address to us.

Monday, October 10, 2005

goodbye schroeder

LI is pleased with the outcome today in Germany. The SPD’s eight cabinet posts include the foreign ministry, finance and labor. The “reforms” that are routinely urged on Germany – as if recently handed down on Mount Sinai – will surely be instituted with one eye on the one thing this election made clear: unlike NYT’s reporters, the Germans are not enthusiastic about Hobbesian homeopathy in the economy: make it easy to fire workers, make it harder for them to get unemployment, and let the rich aggrandize a larger share of the economic spoils. Firmly putting the brake on this Thatcherite nonsense is a good thing. A better thing is to take reflationary steps to strengthen the German economy, from loosening the credit markets to adopting Greenspan’s easy money policies. It is nice to read that the government is pledging to radically increase government supported R and D. The Germans are also obviously going to have to put a much larger percentage of it kids through college. Alas. Because the German industrial system hasn’t been pissed away, as it has been in the States and in the U.K., there’s an understandable incentive to trade years of education for well paying factory jobs. But it is hard to invent any scenario that would preserve or expand the manufacturing sector at its current level. We think that stuffing children into a system that is so inefficient at teaching them that it takes 22 years is not a good thing in itself – in fact, it is a standing inducement to educate poorly in elementary and high school – but it brings about good things. Most immediately, it soaks up a population that would inevitably increase the unemployment rolls (another American trick for keeping down employment, sending millions of people to jail for frivolous reasons, is not something we’d urge on the Germans). It also lends itself to making the labor markets more flexible.

Schroeder was by no means my ideal chancellor, but he did manage a difficult period in which the most powerful nation in the world was taken over by madmen. He did better on foreign policy than, say, Tony Blair, who chose the strategy of sympathetic lunacy over that of good natured resistance. However, with the SPD at the foreign ministry, Europe is still well guarded.

notes, four pages from chapter five

1. T Shirts. After starting and stopping this a year ago, I am ready to start again on this project. For every 50 dollar contribution to LI, I'll send you a t shirt that reads Dopamine Cowboy Movement on the back, Limited Inc on the front. I'm gonna put some kind of announcement up in the column on the right later this week.

2. The following is four pages from chapter five. Comments are always welcome.

Joan Malcolm’s first New Yorker article was published in 1979, when she was 20, and a junior at Vassar. When she was twenty one, she took a leave of absence to travel to Europe; in another year she was writing for far too many publications to write an essay comparing and contrasting Hobbes and Locke on Government, or a paper on the influence of Japanese prints on Whistler (use examples), or to memorize the dates of the Jurassic and Mesozoic periods and what plant or animal life flourished within each (name three). Then her book came out, My Circus Animals; then there was a gold ring on her finger from leftist journalist Alex Stitching (a B&W of the couple in NME, an announcement in the Vows section of the NYT, and an announcement in the Houston Chronicle – to say the least, a unique constellation of media); then there wasn’t a gold ring in her nostril (Joan, an early adopter of punk fashion, found that it got in the way when she interviewed people); then the coming back to the States to the mingled culture shocks of Reagan and MTV. She did return to Vassar, in 1990, but it was to teach a course on American non-fiction. This was an appellation, incidentally, that she disliked. On her first day she told the class that she was teaching American fact, which was capacious enough to fit fiction in its back pocket, and tough enough to make the angels weep bloody tears. Non-fiction, she added, dourly, was a term used only by narcissists and those unbearable memoirists of upper class heroin addiction that were all the rage in certain circles.

The germ of Malcolm’s ‘79 article had been planted when she flew down to Houston in ’78 to attend a party for the cast of “Urban Cowboy” at her parents’ River Oaks digs. Dr. Bobbie Malcolm, through one of his multiple connections, had secured the official title of Physical Therapist to the production.

It was one of those Houston spring nights, when the atmosphere gets fat and sweats and pants and drinks. You think, you wish, that any minute it will rain. It merely sprinkles at 2 a.m. The raindrops feel dirty. There was a noisy crowd in the back yard, wolfing canapés, drinking up the wine, smoking joints. A lot of sniffing, too, a sound that had become common at all the parties Joan attended that year. And, for that matter, the year after, and the one after that. The great Age of Snow. Traffic of partygoers coming from the yard back into the house was greeted with formidably polar temperatures insinuated into all corners by the very effective central air, which was guided by a new and very expensive sensor system that monitored for different gradients of temperature across the house. A light suet of sweat would quickly form on skins; damp patches appeared under armpits of 100 % cotton shirts and silk blouses; salty beads would dribble down from foreheads into eyes; contact wearers would blink and squint, images becoming briefly aqueous before them. Those who remained in the back yard listened to a band performing on a stage that had been hastily erected back there by workmen earlier in the day, over the spot where the swimming pool had been filled in two years before when a neighbor’s kid drowned in it. The singer was a short man with a pale face and ink black, curly hair that came to a pointy crest in the front. Whenever he hit a high note, he opened his mouth so wide it threatened to split his face. He threw back his head. He pitched the note out. Then he would return to the song with a little bobbing motion, not missing a beat, flashing a white grin that showed an astonishing number of teeth. This was a game. There was too much money to keep fighting about the songlist, plus there were names here, his girlfriend had particularly underlined the names, she'd particularly hinted about lack of bread, squandered opportunity, self-involved musicians, the law student her mother had dug up just dying to go out with her. Some danced in front of the stage, cheek to cheek. Some waited for the high notes and applauded. Some wanted songs from the movie. The singer had been given a list by the party manager. None of the songs were country. There was Hit the Road, Jack, there was My Funny Valentine. The party manager had emphasized, stick with the song list. Lights spilled out of the big house onto the yard; wild, reeling shadows mixed with swaying clusters of partygoers.

Bobbie and Lettie Malcolm were at the summit of their power couple-dom in the spring of 1978. They had rather shocked Houston’s vieux garcons, the Farish and Hobby crowd, by tearing out a room in their 10,000 square foot Staub mansion and having it redesigned as a “Futurist Fitness space” (blue velour sofas and wall matting; a new thing called a personal computer –Bobbie was always an early adopter! – on a C curve, Vermont maple desk unit; five pieces of excruciating-looking exercise equipment, a study in chrome, silver, rubber, plastic which made the human body itself look like a thing that was both miserably designed and constructed of substandard material). Lettie could be seen, draped in a Versace sarong dress, her exquisite shoulders bare, among murders of de la Renta at the fundraiser for the Museum (or the Republican congressman, or Cambodian refugees in Thailand, or the expansion of the Zoo, or the symphony, the opera, green urban spaces, the summer Olympics in 1984 association, etc. etc.), but Lettie wasn’t dense: she knew that was still the poor girl at St. Katherine’s Episcopal School for Girls to River Oaks gentry. She’d heard the rumor that she was a charity girl. Charity my Texas ass, she would say. Bobbie would just look bemused, his large, assertive face above the chicken Cesar salad. Wilson Scholes paid in full so that his daughter could learn art appreciation, the history of Texas, and Shakespeare’s dramatic art at St. Kath’s. Leticia Scholes never starred in one of the drama club productions, she ran for editor of St. Kath’s Gazetteer and lost by a humiliating hundred votes (out of one hundred twenty cast), and as a lady in waiting to the Queen in her last year she was a good ten girls and who knows how many yards of gauze from the central royal personage; but by that time she’d discovered cigarettes, boys, and fast cars, and had staged her own Queen for a day with two boys the weekend before the prom. That led to a discreet visit to a Matmoras doctor two months later, about which the less said, the better.

Unlike Lettie, Doctor Bobbie did not trail family credits and discredits into this or any other Houston party, since Bobbie Malcolm was not from Houston, or New Orleans, or any part of Texas. This fact would be brought up in conversations three weeks from the night of the party, when the newspaper was full of Doctor Bobbie disappearing, a story that receded to the B section three weeks after that when it was reported that he’d fled to Venezuela on a fake passport. Meanwhile, his empire was falling in a ruin of fraudulent accounting and Las Vegas gambling debts around Lettie’s still delectable ears, the whorls of which had first borne the delicate explorations of Bobbie’s tongue so many years ago, and around the 2000 ears of his employees, and, finally, the fifty somewhat hairy and reddish ears of his partners. Once Bobbie reached Latin America he didn’t look back. Joan received five mysterious postcards (Love you, scribbled on the back of a picture of a mountain and a lake, an Indian and his pottery) over the next two years. Lettie claimed to have received a long and involved midnight call, once. Unofficially, the FBI agent on the case in Houston thought this was bullshit. The FBI claimed, two years later, to have tracked the absconding doctor to a small town on the Venezuelan-Colombian border, and to have been shown a badly decaying corpse that had been Gustave William , which was the name on Bobbie’s fake passport. The FBI failed to confirm this ID with extracts of bone, or tooth, or hair, since the body disappeared the next day. Agent L. Howard filed one last report; perhaps the fumbled business with the so called corpus delecti was not unconnected with the Cayman Island bank account Agent Howard opened two months later.

Doctor Bobbie came from the great Midwest, where broad faces and a certain Protestant wryness are dominant traits. The wryness is a bleached, distant remnant of Luther’s doctrine of free will – that torturous negotiation between the all too human heart and God’s insistent omniscience – and it offset, in Bobbie, a surprisingly amoral opportunism, as well as a general happiness in human company. Unlike Lettie, Bobbie was energized by high school – as, in life, he was energized by most things. He was the class president of Herbert Hoover High in Ames, Iowa, and in the speech he gave his fellow graduating seniors he reminded them that the future was before them. It was 1952, and heartland optimism struggled with the general perception that the world would blow up in the next decade. Two of the boys he addressed would go to Korea. One would die there. World events did not interfere with Bobbie, however, who rose, almost effortlessly, upward. As a young man, he inclined to bulkiness. Bulkiness, as every Lutheran knows, leads to fatness, but Bobbie was ahead of the curve on the whole weight issue. He lifted weights, he swam, he ran, he joined the college wrestling team and had his share of victories. No trophies, though. He was a good, reliable brother in his frat, the one who kept the keys at the party and drove the car home at the end of it. His first girlfriend was a banker’s daughter, and with her he experienced the golden delights of sex for the first time. In his junior year, they broke up, and Bobbie spend his golden delight on a series of other fine looking girls. To his credit, he never held the fact that he’d fucked a girl against her. That put him in a distinct psychological minority in his frat house. Bobbie’s idea was simply spread the pleasure. The key to Bobbie’s later exercise empire was that he never regarded exercise as a discipline. He never saw it as a form of punishment. He always saw it as a form of pleasure. He wanted the body to “get off” on it. That was his mantra. Get off on your jogging. Get off on your weights. Get off on the bicycle machine. Bobby never said what “getting off” actually meant, though.

In later years, Bobbie forgot exactly why he chose to pursue medicine at Rice; Rice is located in Houston, and Houston is hot, coastal, touched by Mexico and New Orleans, homicidal, sprawling, greedy. It was not a Herbert Hoover High kind of place, which for urban excitement went to Chicago, and never really ventured below St. Louis on the assumption that the South meant the Negro, and where the Negro agglomerated in too great a number, civilization was impossible. At Rice, Bobbie met an art history student. She wasn’t just Iowa pretty – with that stolid acceptance of the flesh in every working pore, ‘well put together’ as though pretty was just another product of the Protestant work ethic – but sexy. Her dyed blond hair was sexy; the way her miniskirt rode her rump was enough to give a doctor’s stethoscope a hard on; her eyes could suddenly go distant and Hollywood over a steak dinner in the Rice Club; she used her mouth, in their long sessions of lovemaking in Doctor Bobbie’s apartment in the University district, like she immensely enjoyed whatever she put in it; and in short, Lettie Scholes was the best thing since white on rice. Bobbie got a sense that her family was Houston gentry. As he was to learn, however, the doctrine and practice of Houston gentry is a collection of inscrutable clauses almost impossible for the outsider to understand. Bobbie quietly decided it was bullshit. Some nights, he almost convinced Lettie that he was right. It was money that counted, in the end, he told her.

In 1978, Bobbie Malcolm was forty five. His face, arms and legs were well known to that segment of Houston which rose early , due to an exercise show he hosted that came on at 6 a.m on Sundays. He had induced many a fifty year old woman to engage in physical contortions that would, in other circumstances, have given her husband grounds for divorce under Texas State Law, or even a sudden, justifiable blast of buckshot; the Melrose Bid a Wee Home for the aged swore by him, falling into collective frail windmills under his telegenic suggestion. He had a big face, a big neck, a burly chest, admirably solid thighs. His eyebrows were bushy and expressive, his grey eyes bulged slightly, his nose was a thick fleshy foothold, his cheeks were extensive. In season and out, his skin was the rich color of the ripe acorn. His hair was silvering nicely. His company, RYB, Inc., had added two franchises just in the past two months. Since founding the physical therapy service in 1971, Bobbie’s company had jumped from one unit in Houston to twenty, twelve in Houston and the rest across the state. RYB was planning on jumping the border into Louisiana. It was also planning on a unit in Las Vegas and a unit in Los Angeles, for which reason Doctor Bobbie was spending time out there. Lettie and the papers and the police discovered, too late, the gambling debts in Vegas, the phony expenses, the chippy in LA, all set up and (‘classic,” as Lettie liked to say, later) even taking acting classes. Doctor Bobbie was tapping his company, and had been for years. It was almost impossible to understand the accounting. It was almost impossible to track down all the places where the money was hidden. An S & L in Phoenix, a mutual fund out of Montreal, a shell company with headquarters in Panama City, Panama.

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