Saturday, April 28, 2018

Drew Cloud - a fraud for our time

News on the fake news front:
"Drew Cloud is everywhere. The self-described journalist who specializes in student-loan debt has been quoted in major news outlets, including The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and CNBC, and is a fixture in the smaller, specialized blogosphere of student debt."
Now, I am wondering if the Washington Post will have a report on how, how, how they came to quote a fraud as a genuine source of expert opinion on student loans. The Chronicle of Higher Education article is very deadpan, which makes the explanations from various scroungers working for Student Loan Report, LLC , a company that wants to suck your blood after the first serving of your blood has been sucked by some other loan company - oops, I mean, a company which wants to explore exciting options in credit extension with former students! - very very funny. It turns out that making up a profile and persona was just a way of serving the public even better! "And on Monday, as The Chronicle continued to seek comment, Cloud suddenly evaporated. His once-prominent placement on The Student Loan Report had been removed. His bylines were replaced with "SLR Editor." Matherson confirmed on Tuesday that Cloud was an invention.
Pressed on whether he regretted deceiving news organizations with a fake source, Matherson said Cloud "was created as a way to connect with our readers (ex. people struggling to repay student debt) and give us the technical ability to post content to the Wordpress website. "Cloud had an elaborate back story. Before being scrubbed from the website, he was described as having "a knack for reporting throughout high school and college where he picked up his topics of choice." Since graduating from college, the site said, "Drew wanted to funnel his creative energy into an independent, authoritative news outlet covering an exclusive and developing industry.""

Read the article. Then preserve it. We need to put it in a time capsule so that our unfortunate descendants will be able to understand just how fucked up we were.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

who planted the apple seeds? a slam against the rich

Jerome Zerbe was, if not the original café society photographer, at least one of the most celebrated from the 30s to the 50s. He had a regular gig at the Morocco, which was the classier version of the Stork club in New York. He was born into wealth, although not Mellonian wealth, and as time went on and his Dad died, the wealth decreased – which is how he came to take up café society photography.

So, he was around a lot of rich people. In an article about him by Brendan Gill in the New Yorker, he tells an anecdote about WWII, where Admiral Nimitz took a shine to him and made him his photographer. Zerbe wanted to be promoted to lieutenant, and Nimitz sent several messages to FDR to have this done by presidential decree, as it was a promotion that required executive order. FDR asked his son, who knew Zerbe, whether he should do it. His son said, “don’t give it a second thought. Jerry [Zerbe] already lives like an officer…”

Gill asked Zerbe whether he remained friends with Franklin, Jr., and Zerbe gave a classic response: “Friends,” said Zerbe, but I’ve never forgiven him for what he told his father.  It’s what we talk about whenever we meet. Like all rich boys, Frank had no idea what the commission whould have meant to me in pay, pensions and the like. It wasn’t the rank I wanted, but the emoluments. I’ve never been rich, and all my life I’ve gone around with the rich, and I find that they lack imagination when it comes to how anyone less rich than they are gets along. They always mean to be interested, but somehow their attention wanders.”

Indeed. I thought of this anecdote when I read the howler of a column by Morgan Bank’s “global strategy expert”, Ruchir Sharma, in the NYT opinion page the other day. Like most opinions by people hired by banks to have opinion, it is all about how the rich have problems imagining how “anyone less rich than they are gets along.” Sharma starts out by pointing to the fact that things are so good economically we all should be dancing. The evidence for this is higher employment rates – after a decade of low ones – and low inflation. So, why aren’t we? Well, there’s nationalism, and populism, and people who aren’t rich turn out to be such haters that leaders like Trump, Macron and Merkel aren’t popular.

Absolutely absent from Sharma’s article are such things as wealth inequality, lifestyle debt, declining public investment, structural racism, and the effects of allowing the wealthy to inflect – or perhaps I should say corrupt? - the justice system, elections, and anything else in their path.
After all, to the eye of the Sharma’s of the world, all us underlings are “living like officers” – no matter that to keep up the lifestyle, we have to make up for minimal wage increases, losses of status that translate into losses of economic power, the end of job security and pensions, and the consciousness that the business cycle is not only sharp and pointy, but that the people who cause the downturn – the people who employ Sharma – get rescued when their games all fall apart, while the hundreds of millions they screw remain screwed.
“Practical economic outcomes” can be translated as – bonuses for the CEO class.
When the worms in the apples think they planted the apple seeds, it is time to upset the applecart. For “practical economic reasons.”

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Great books are not for finishing

My private criteria for sorting the great works from the less great is that the less great are built to be finished. I have read many a fine novel that tied up all its ends in a completely satisfying way. I’ve reviewed them. They are made to be reviewed. When one can say, without compunction, that I have finished x novel, then it is ready to be praised, reviewed, put in a list – 100 greatest books – and so on. Such is its fate, and I bear these books no grudges, and sometimes love them. But there are other books that lodge in me, much like, oh, the apple that was thrown at Gregor Samsa and that lay in his shell, rotting. I’ve never finished any novel of Beckett’s. I’ve read, it is true, Ulysses maybe ten times in my life, but each reading has given me  different book. To finish Ulysses would be like finishing looking at Notre Dame. There are, of course, the small, fierce books that one can finish, but that take a lot of moves from the unfinishable works. For instance, Kafka’s stories. Poems that I love are built on the unfinishable principle as well. Perhaps this is why I love waste literature – Lichtenberg’s scribble books, Rozanov’s fallen leaves, Ludwig Hohl, Wittgenstein. Waste is something thrown away and thus supposedly finished – but the waste book takes as its principle the idea that you can repress it, but it will return. It will return from the hind end and erode everything that is finished in a text, from the paragraph to the sentence to the punctuation.
I love that creeping corruption.

Monday, April 23, 2018

out of the woods - Dante, Rousseau, Marx

  “All European culture – intellectual not less than material – came out of the woods.” Werner Sombart, Moderne Kapitalismus, Vol. 2  

The symbolic key to Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of inequality is found in the circumstances of its writing, as Rousseau described them in the Confessions:  

In order to meditate at my ease on this great subject, I made a trip of seven or eight days to Saint-Germain with Therese, and our hostess, who was a good woman, and one of her friends. I count this excursion among the most agreeable ones of my life. The weather was beautiful. The good women took upon themselves the trip’s expenses and organization. Thérèse enjoyed herself with them, and I, without a care, I spent happy hours at mealtime, and for the rest of the day, plunged into the forest, I searched, I discovered there images of the first time, of which I proudly traced the history. I put my hands on the little lies of men, I dared to strip their nature naked, follow the progress of time and things which defigured them, and comparing man with natural man, show them, the true source of their miseries in their so called perfections. My soul, exalted by these sublime contemplations, was elevated to the side of the Divinity; and seeing from there my likenesses, followed, in the blind route of their prejudices, that of their errors, of their sorrows, of their crimes, I cried aloud to them in a feeble voice that they could not hear. Foolish men, who ceaselessly complain about nature, learn that all your woes come from you yourselves!”

The return to the forest makes the Discourse one of the great European forest books. In the vastness of its scale – that of universal history - Rousseau’s book resembles another book that also begins in a forest:
“Midway through the journey of life/I found myself in a dark wood/for the straight way had been lost”.

Dante’s story encompasses universal history as well, but it is not seen as such – rather, it is seen as a cosmological story, unfolding the great Biblical, classical and Christian events in the afterlife. In Dante’s beginning, the sign that the straight way had been lost is the dark wood; in Rousseau’s, of course, the sign that the straight way had been lost is outside of the forest of Saint German.

In Charles Olson’s reckoning with Moby Dick, he begins by highlighting the material importance of whale hunting to the economy of the United States in Melville’s time. An exhaustively materialist reading of Rousseau’s Discourse could, perhaps, due with an introductory treatise on the importance of forests to the economies of France and other countries in Europe in the 18th century. As Jean Nicolas’ sweeping history of peasant rebellions in that century makes clear, forest rights were no longer the central issue in village jacqueries – but in the 17th century, they clearly had been. Even so, wood, along with clothing and food, stood at the center of European life in Rousseau’s time.

Nor was Rousseau the last of the writer’s of forest books. We think of certain classic American writers as creatures of the wood – Cooper, for instance, and, supremely, Thoreau. This makes sense: one of the driving commercial forces in the European expansion into North America wa all that forest, yearning to be chopped down, burned, made into ships, houses, pulped up as paper, etc. But back in Europe Marx, too, begins his real career by entering a forest – or at least entering into the issues that swirled around forest property rights, as he saw them being reshaped in Köln. Wood theft, according to the two scholars who have studied it in the German context (Blasius and Mooser) was one of the central crimes against property in the 19th century, from the 1830s to the 1860s – over about a generation. Marx’s five articles about the laws concerning wood theft are not, then, about an eccentric issue. And, as much as wood “theft” is an issue in the history of crime, it is also an issue in the creation of property –which is how it opened Marx’s eyes, as much as they were opened in his classes in property law at the University of Berlin.

It is here that we find Marx dealing with the kind of enclosures that were central to Polanyi theory of the Great Transformation. Private property was not, on this account, merely guarded by the state – the still reigning liberal myth. Rather, it was through the state that private property was defined. To separate the state from the private sphere is to move from historic fact to ideological myth, since they overlap, they are imbricated together, and it is impossible for one to exist without the other. Why that myth is important is another matter. What Marx saw happening was important in the way he came to see understand class, rather than remaining with Stand – a word that is hard to translate. Status, station, estate – those are the English equivalents.   In 1858, in the preface to the Contribution to a Critique of Political Economics, Marx wrote:

My major was jurisprudence, that I nonetheless only took up as a subordinate discipline near philosophy and history. In 1842-1843, as the editor of the "Rheinischen Zeitung", I was embarrassed for the first time to have to discuss so called material interests. The Rheinische Landtag’s treatment of Wood theft and the parceling out of land properties, which opened up an official polemic between Herr von Schaper, at that time the president of Rhein province, and the Rheinischen Zeitung over the situation of the grapegrowers, debates finally about free trade and tarrifs, gave me a first occasion to deal with economic questions. On the other hand the good will to go further into this further made up for a lot of special expertise, and a weak philosophically colored echo of French socialism and communism could be heard in the Rheinischen Zeitung. 

I find it significant that Dante, Rousseau and Marx, setting out to write, on the broadest of scales, the history of human civilization, begin in the forest. Surely this must be an intersigne, an exchange happening in the basement below universal history, where all the dealers in codexes are busy cutting them up and mashing them back together. One way to look at Capital – a bleak way, granted – is that it is the first European book to envision a world completely out of the woods, a human world which has put the woods behind it.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Marx in the theater of power

“… he himself was known as the Moor or Old Nick on account of his dark complexion and sinister appearance.” – Isaiah Berlin, Karl Marx, his life and environment.

The sinister appearance is, of course, Berlin’s own sly Cold War addition to the reasons given after Marx’s death, by Mehring and Liebknecht, for the nickname that had attached itself to Marx in his student days in Berlin – and one he was apparently fond of. In one of his last letters to Engels, he signs himself, “Old Mohr.” Mehring claimed that this was his nickname among his daughters and his wife. Jerrold Siegel, in Marx’s Fate, makes an intriguing argument that the nickname is overdetermined – referring as much to Karl Moor – the disenfranchised son in Schiller’s The Robbers, as to Marx’s skin color. Marx as the Moor and Marx as Karl Moor the robber – it is as if the spirit of Marx future passes over the face of Marx past and present, as the Mohr and the Moor keep signifying, the perpetual alien in the midst of the great transformation – that opponent on the edges to imperial power – and the more fairy tale like robber chief, out of the peasant’s mouth. 

Remember, Schiller was, as well, Dmitri Karamazov’s poet – as well as the critic Grigori’ev, on whom Dmitri was partly modeled, the theorist who divided Russia into predator and prey, the alien aristocracy and the authentic Russian people. The Old Mohr ‘s bent towards seeing politics in terms of theater was more than a favorite metaphor – or rather, one might well ask why it was a favorite metaphor. I have doggedly but intermittently pursued the notion of the adventurer – not a category resolvable into the division of labor, or of class, but one that traverses classes – as a ground form for the artist and the politician. Marx’s own sense of the theatricality of politicians – and his lack of a sense, at least until the 1870s, for politics as an institution distinct from class interest – is an important element in Marx’s political writings. Often, the enemy – Palmerston, for instance – is appreciated in literally theatrical terms:“In the last weeks, "Punch" has fallen into the habit of masking Lord Palmerston as the clown of a puppetplay. This clown is a well known disturber of the peace by profession, a lover of drunken beatings, a hatcher of scandalous misunderstandings, a virtuoso of brawls, only at home in the midst of general confusion, that he directs, in which he throws the wife, child and finally even the police officer out the window, in order in the end, after much ado about nothing, he slips out of the noose himself, more or less unscathed and with teasing ‘concern’ about the course of the scandal.” – Marx, 1855, "Neue Oder-Zeitung, my translation.

Where would Marx have seen this puppetplay? Hampstead Heath, to which he and Jenny and the daughters would repair on Sunday outings, according to Wilhelm Liebknecht (who also called him Mohr). Marx, after all, came from a generation of German intellectuals who read their Wilhelm Meister, and knew that all the old gods were behind the puppet play. In the fifties, Marx developed his greatest analysis of politics as theater in The fourteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon. Here, and in his articles for the New York Tribune, Marx sets forth his idea that politics is the expression of class interest. His theatrical metaphors always point to the fact that politics lacks any structure of its own. There are the players, and there is the audience. Aesthetics and politics melt together: Men (Die Menschen) make their own history, but they don’t make it out of free pieces, nor under self chose circumstances, but rather under immediately found, given and inherited ones. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living. And when they seem busy overturning themselves and the things, in order to create what hasn’t yet been, even in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they fearfully conjure (beschwören) the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing their names, battle cries, costumes in order in these worthy garments and with these lent speeches to make new scenes of world history [neuen Weltgeschichtsszene] Thus, Luther donned the mask of Apostle Paul, the Revolution of 1789-1814 draped itself alternately in that of the Roman Republic and Empire, and the Revoluton of 1848 knew nothing better to do than here to parody 1789, there, the revolutionary tradition of 1793-1795. [My translation]

Similarly, when giving political advice, Marx does not think of parties – he thinks directly of worker’s associations. In his address to the Central committee of the Communist League [Bund] of 1850, Marx’s advice is given not in terms of parliamentary procedures, or in terms even of a party – though we might retrospectively suppose that the Bund was just that. Rather, this is the snare of the petty bourgeois democrats, who want to enroll the workers in “a party organization, in which general social-democratic phrases dominate, behind which their particular interests are hiding, and in which the specific demands of the proletariat for the sake of dear peace must not be brought forward. The outcome of such a union will be wholly to their benefit and wholly to the disadvantage of the proletariat.”And so it is through theater that the true interest of the workers, in the political sphere, are lost – although it is also through theater that the fearful revolutionaries, who have appeared in spite of themselves on the world historical stage, give themselves the courage to act. Certainly one could argue that Marx was right, in regard to the interests of the working class. But it is just on this point – the point of interest, the point of defining classes by their interest and politics as an instrument of interest – that we have a gap in the analysis. Why, exactly, is theater called for here? How is it possible, if politics is simply costume and masking, to ‘fool’ the audience? While Marx certainly has the fundamental elements in his hands in the 1850s, what he doesn’t have a comprehensive sense of interests yet. He has, instead, a strong, Machiavellian sense of politics as theater, and a growing sense of how the capitalistic economic system works. In order to gain an anthropological and sociological – rather than theatrical – sense of politics, he needs something more than the Enlightenment theory of mysterious superstitions, or the idea of religion as a palliative for pain – the opium of the people. He will have to root out from himself, in making his universal history, certain assumptions about interest – about benefits (Vorteile) and disadvantages (Nachteile). He will have to learn to measure on multiple scales.

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...