30 November 2008

That mount's a rotten sneak

Since this is Sunday, I feel that I should offer a confession.

I have labored for years under an absurd misapprehension as to the lyrics of the sing "Kokomo."

It is the sort of misapprehension known as a "mondegreen," in recognition of an old Scottish folk ballad that includes the pathetic words, "They hae slain the Earl of Moray/ and laid him on the green." One reader, at least, thought that the "Lady Mondegreen" was assassinated along with the Earl.

Here is a link with further examples.

With that much cleared away, let me proceed to my confession. Kokomo, as you may recall, is a light-hearted Beach Boys' song in which the protagonist sings about his desire to get his lover alone at some warm island spot -- several enticing spots are listed in the chorus, thus:

Aruba, Jamaica ooo I wanna take you
To Bermuda, Bahama come on pretty mama
Key Largo, Montego, baby why dont we go

But in the midst of such geographical nuggets, I seemed for years to hear the odd expression, "to Martinique, that mount's a rotten sneak."

This seemed odd. But, hey ... who am I to question the wisdom of the Beach Boys as to the relative sneakiness of mountains on Martinique or elsewhere? My own worldly wisdom as to topographical trickery is sadly lacking.

Anyway, the sneaky mount is as much of a phantom as the unfortunate Lady Mondegreen herself. The line runs: "to Martinique, that Montserrat mystique."

Just wanted to get that off my chest.

29 November 2008

Critics and their art

How much does it matter to us that a critic is an artist him/herself?

If I commend a statue, or on the other hand if I compare it invidiously to another, does it matter that I have never taken chisel to marble in my life?

Does the taint of the dilletante disappear if I have tried my hand at it, failed, and then have used my appreciation of and study in the art to assess the contributions of others? Or is that worse from the point of view of my trustworthiness than if I had never tried at all?

"Those who can do, those who can't carp," is a common enough complaint by those on the receiving end of such criticism.

So we turn, at least in some moods, with some relief to critics who have "done it themselves," and done it successfully.

Still, they have their own set of vulnerabilities. If an active and successful sculptor criticizes the work of one of his competitors in that line, is he not an interested party? Isn't it a bit like Goodyear offering an appraisal of tires one might consider buying from Firestone?

So what kind of critic is ideal?

I don't know, but those thoughts came to mind recently when I encountered, through circumstances I won't bother to relate, a scholarly paper written in 1938 on the critical writings of Walt Whitman.

The author, Maurice O. Johnson, concludes in a manner that reminds me a bit of Goodyear and Firestone. Whitman's critique of other poets was always in the service of the idea that "the poet who was to combine all the prescribed virtues was Whitman himself."

28 November 2008

Justices to review Wardrobe Malfunction?

The US Supreme Court is now deliberating over whether the Federal Comm. Commission violated the pertinent statute when it fined broadcasters for the use of "fleeting expletives," especially in the contxt of awards shows, which by tradition are live broadcasts.

In the midst of this deliberation, the FCC last week threw visual imagery into the mix, asking that the high court review an appellate court’s decision to revoke its fine in connection with the "wardrobe malfunction" that exposed one of Janet Jackson's nipples during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show.

It was specifically the Third Circuit that threw out the $550,000 fine against CBS for airing Janet's breast ("Ms Jackson if you're nasty").

The Third Circuit said that the fine was based on an “arbitrary and capricious” change in policy. This was the same reasoning employed by the Secod Circuit in the Fox case over prohibited verbiage.

Accordingly, the FCC wants the issue of fleetingness -- for words and imagery –- disposed of by SCOTUS in one shot.

I think it is safe to presume that the FCC is making this argumnent because it has judged from the oral arguments in the Fox case that it has the votes at the SCOTUS level to re-assert its authority against the interference of these unruly appeals court judges.

I certainly hope that they are wrong in that judgment, and erroneous vote counting on the basis of oral arguments does occur.

I'll be hoping for the right decision, though bracing for the wrong, in the months to come, whether the two cases are combined or not.

27 November 2008

Marist College's Red Foxes

I'm an alumnus of Marist College, and I have to say I've just discovered something very peculiar -- evendisturbing -- on the website for Marist's intercollegiate sports.

Marist teams are known as the "Red Foxes." So a natural simple cheer would be "Go, Red Foxes!" right?

Unfortunately, somebody should have told the webmaster that you have to be careful when you run words together. "Go Red Foxes" run together as a single internet-friendly phrase can look indistinguishable from "Gored Foxes"!

And who'd want to cheer for a bunch of gored foxes?

If you follow the link you'll discover that not only is the URL "Goredfoxes.cstv.com but the phrase appears at the bottom of the page followed by the helpful suggestion that one might "permanently bypass this page." Yes, indeed one might.

Anyway, the Red Foxes (men -- basketball) played Delaware Tuesday and seem to have made a fine showing though losing in overtime, 88 to 83.

The Red Foxes (women -- basketball) went to Cambridge, Massachusetts Tuesday and defeated their Harvard counterparts 76 to 63. Go, Red Foxes! Three distinct words!

23 November 2008


Stoicism is a venerable philosophy with continuing resonance throughout the western world - and with analogs in eastern culture as well.

It comes to mind because I suspect if the economic circumstances are as bad as they seem, and as bad as some of the experts say they will remain -- a lot of us in the industrialized west are going to need to adopt stoical attitudes.

The heart of it then is this, from Epictetus:

"There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things that are beyond our will."

He and his fellow Stoics got there through the following steps.

1. Physics or cosmology. The Stoics were both materialists and pantheists. They saw the whole of the material world as a living being, whom one might well call God, Zeus.

2. Determinism. Associated with this cosmology is the idea of the future as unfolding with inevitability, i.e. a very strict fatalism.

3. Theory of knowledge. The Stoics were opposed to, and in turn opposed, the Skeptical trends of many of their contemporaries. They believed in what they called katalepsis, justified certitude about how the world works. They also believed that the acquisition of katalepsis has an element of consensus to it. This may have been analogous to an idea advanced in the 19th century by Charles Peirce, that truth is that which is fated to be agreed to.

4. Ethics. The Stoic sage, having achieved katalepsis about fate -- accepts that he can't change what will happen, and faces the world without passion. Passion, founded upon ignorance, is in turn the cause of misery. Thus we arrive at the sentiment of Epictetus with which I began.

The whole system of thought was sympathetically described by the novelist Tom Wolfe in A Man in Full.

I'm not advocating it, just putting it out there, in my lazy Sunday nothing-better-occurs to me kind of way.

Blame fate.

22 November 2008

Why doesn't the SEC just ban short selling?

Hello, Millwood!

At 5:12 in the afternoon Friday, my sitemeter tells me, someone at a computer in Millwood, NY typed into a search engine "why isn't the sec prohibiting short selling".

This person then ended up here but my October 2 entry appears not to have told him what he wanted to hear, because he soon surfed elsewhere.

So let me try to answer that question more directly, in case any one else ever ends up here by asking it.

The SEC can't just "ban short selling" because it has no such authority from Congress. It did try such a ban for certain stocks as a temporary and emergency measure recently, but that soon lapsed as emergency authority must.

Now, our Millwoodian friend might (I'm just guessing) want to respond that the SEC has the authority to make regulations effectuating the prohibition on securities fraud. It has the authority to do so not as a temporary and emergency measure, but in general and once-for-all.

Faille: But why is short selling inherently fraudulent?

Millwoodian: Because it involves selling what the vendor doesn't own!

Faille: That's irrelevant. Vendors sell what they don't yet own all the time. No law or regulation prohibits me from seeking a greengrocer who will promise me a delivery of apples one month from now. Or prohibits you from selling me that promise. What you're selling is the promise of later delivery of the apples, and that promise is yours to sell.

You need not own the apples yet. In fact I probably don't want you to own the apples yet because apples are perishable. I want the apples to be still green as of today, on a tree somewhere. I expect you to find them and delivery them to me one month from now.

Even if you don't, the failure isn't fraud. It is breach of contract, nothing more.

If you make a promise to deliver apples a month from now, and in order to get me to go along with this you assure me as a matter of fact that you own an orchard -- and if you don't own an orchard -- THAT may be apples fraud. Or analogous assurances may be securities fraud. But that has nothing to do with banning short selling per se.

21 November 2008


The cause of transparency in government won a victory this week.

As I observed in my November 14 entry, a federal district court last week held a hearing over a request by two newspapers for the unsealing of the materials on which the search warrants were based in the matter of Stephen Hatfill and the anthrax scare of 2001.

The newspapers won. This Tuesday, Nov. 18, Judge Royce Lamberth ruled that "a qualified first amendment right of access exists and the government has no compelling interest in keeping the materials secret."

Here's a link to the opinion.

The court laid a good deal of stress on the fact that the underlyig investigation is at an end, i.e. that government has declared that Buce Ivinsis the only culprit, Bruce Ivins is dead, QED there is no continuing investigation that can be compromised.

So: now that the materials are available, is there anything explosive in there?

We'll know soon enough. If nobody is shouting "eureka" in a year or so ... probably not.

20 November 2008

Edwin Hubble

Famed astronomer Edwin Hubble, namesake of the telescope orbiting above us all, was born on this day, November 20, in 1889.

After receiving an undergraduate degree in astronomy, he went to Oxford University on a Rhodes scholarship -- to study law.

In 1913 he returned to the US, and began the practice of law in Kentucky. Fortunately for the world of science, he soon realized he wasn't happy in that profession, and returned to his scientific passion. In 1917, he received a doctorate in astronomy from the University of Chicago.

It was Hubble who established that our own Milky Way is not the whole of the universe, just one galaxy among many, and Hubble who devised the classification system for galaxies still in use. Further, it was Hubble who noticed the redshift, indicating that galaxies are uniformly moving away from one another -- in short, that the universe is expanding.

Hubble died in 1953, two months short of his 66th birthday.

It's always fitting to remember the giants of our species, and Hubble belongs in that company. Indeed, Einstein visited him once in the 1930s to personally congratulate him on his accomplishments -- Einstein believed that the assumption of the constant size of the universe had been the greatest error in his own work on relativity and its cosmological implications, and that Hubble's observations had set him straight in this.

This anniversary of his birth is, I think, deserving of a limerick.

Here's to Edwin Hubble
in afterlife untroubled.
May your soul
Enjoy its stroll
Through galaxies unhuddled.

16 November 2008

An American Idol Fatality

It had to happen some time.

American Idol contestants come in different stripes. Some are genuinely talented individuals -- the ones who make it through to the final rounds -- and they're looking for their break in show business. Grabbing for your chance at a jackpot, the good old American way.

Some (especially among those eliminated in the early rounds) aren't cut out for show biz at all, are aware of this, and are another sort of American 'type.' They expect Simon to say something derogatory and they enjoy their moment in the spotlight.

A third sort though isn't "in on the joke." They ARE the joke. They aren't any good, but have somehow built up the fantasy that they are. Some of THESE in turn give the impression of being mentally ill.

And for much of the show's fan base, they are the attraction.

So now a former contestant is dead, apparently of a deliberate drug overdose

When she was on the program, she gave an off-key version of "Proud Mary." Randy Jackson said: "That was terrible. What was that?"

Simon Cowell criticized her braces, "I don't think any artist on earth can sing with that much metal in your mouth."

Paula Abdul -- who appears to have been the object of the contestant's fixations -- described herself as "speechless ... that's not a good thing."

Now she -- Paula Goodspeed -- is dead. A victim of whatever inner demons may have driven her, and of an environment that doesn't help ill people deal with their demons, but serves them up as a feast for millions to snigger at.

Just another high-profile instance of "the tearfulness of things".

15 November 2008

What is Gaddafi up to?

In March of this year, the head of state in Libya, Colonel Muammer Gaddafi, announced that he planned to dismantle most of the ministries of his government, leaving oly interior, defense, and foreign affairs.

With the savings from this radical cost cutting he would distribute money to the common folk. [Gaddafi's history notwithstanding: the proposal would sound good to me were I Libyan -- though I would prefer such enlightened government-reducing measures come about from the grassroots rather than by dictatorial decree.]

A story in The Financial Times yesterday suggests that Gaddafi (I use the FT's spelling of his name) is ready to back away from this proposal, though he is backing away in a typically theatrical manner.

The story says that Gaddafi appeared on television this week to debate the merits of his plan with two of his own government officials: the governor of Libya's central bank, and the prime minister.

The bank governor warned that such a plan would cause inflation and create a balance-of-payments deficit.

The prime minister said that if Libyans are to receive such a payment, they should get it not in cash but in the form of stock in the country's banks, telecomm, and manufacturing companies, through portfolios to be managed on their behalf by its financial institutions.

Gaddafi sounded unpersuaded. Still: why did he feel it necessary to hold such an event? That is what the FT's Heba Saleh tries to figure out.

Her view -- expressed in typical reportotial fashion through quoting and paraphrasing the views of others -- seems to be that there is no enough of a technocracy in Libya that even a Gaddafi can't push through a Grand Plan in defiance thereof. He is preparing to back away frm his plan and, in so doing, he wants his constituents to know that he is doing so with regret.

In the words of Dirk Vandewalle, a Libya specialist who teaches at Dartmouth and whom Saleh quotes: "He is trying to portray a potential setback as a democratic move."

You don't have to be a weatherman to know ....

14 November 2008

Hatfill/anthrax documents

The federal district court held a hearing Wednesday over a request by two newspapers to see documents presently sealed in the matter of Stephen Hatfill and the anthrax scare of 2001.

You'll remember, if you were sentient and living on this planet at all at the time, that Hatfill was named a "person of interest" by those investigating anthrax scares - soon after envelopes containing the stuff were sent to news outlets and Congressional offices.

Hatfill (who has worked at the army's infectious disease laboratory 1997-99) was eventually cleared. Suspicion fell more recently on Bruce Ivins, who committed suicide this summer.

But let's stick with the Hatfill side of the case. The government searched Hatfill's home pursuant to a warrant, and authorities must have obtained that warrant by making a "probable cause" showing to a judge -- that is, a showing that there was probable cause to believe that they would find specified evidence of a crime or crimes if they looked in the specified place.

The New York Times and The L.A. Times have asked the court to see the documents on the basis of which that warrant was obtained.

As a general common-law matter, the court would weigh the government's interest (and Mr. Hatfill's privacy interest) in keeping these matters sealed against the value to public understanding and debate in having them made available. The government's interest in secrecy is considerably reduced by virtue of the fact that there is no ongoing investigation -- after Ivins' death, the US has said that the matter is closed.

I'm hoping these documents are unsealed. The reason? I think of an exchange at the press conference that the district attorney for DC held after Ivins' death:

Question: So there was at least a two-year delay between the forensic evidence
leading to Fort Detrick, and really focusing on Dr. Ivins. How big a factor
was Dr. Hatfill in that, and how did the FBI get so off-track in focusing on
him, apparently as the sole and primary suspect?

Mr. Taylor: Let me refer back to what I said: It was an extensive investigation.
In an investigation of this scope and complexity, the task is to follow the evidence
where it leads . . . .

Question: Was Dr. Hatfill under investigation at this time?

Mr. Taylor: Again, the evidence – they followed where it led. That’s all I’m
prepared to say at this point.


Somebody at some point should be able to say a good deal more. An investigation as important and high-priority as this hit a dead end for several years? focusing on the wrong guy? And the public, for whom the whole federal law enforcement apparatus works, isn't supposed to learn anything more about it? we're just supposed to be happy with anodyne remarks like "they followed the evidence where it led!"???

Bah. Humbug.

13 November 2008

Bear Stearns RIP

Cioffi/Tannin Discovery to Proceed: U.S. Attorney Rebuffed

Two former hedge fund managers, Ralph Cioffi and Matthew Tannin, have won a round in their resistance to enforcement actions both civil and criminal. The U.S. District Court for the eastern district of New York has denied a motion by prosecutors to stay discovery in the civil proceeding pending the completion of the criminal case.

Messrs Cioffi and Tannin managed the Bear Stearns High Grade Structured Credit Strategies Fund from October 2003 until July 2007 -- Mr. Cioffi was the senior portfolio manager, Mr. Tannin as portfolio manager reported to Cioffi. They created a related fund near the end of that period, calling it the Bear Stearns High Grade Structured Credit Strategies Enhanced Fund.

The U.S. Attorney, Benton Campbell, filed indictments against both men on June 18, 2008, alleging securities fraud, conspiracy, and wire fraud. The central charge is that they made fraudulent statements regarding the prospects of these entities. The Securities and Exchange Commission filed a civil action the following day on the same theory.

Mr. Cioffi (but not Mr. Tannin) is also accused of insider trading, because late in March 2007, according to the indictment, he transferred approximately $2 million of the money he had personally invested in one of these funds to another hedge fund.

The arguments over a discovery stay

The U.S. Attorney moved to intervene in the civil action in August, and asked for a stay in the SEC’s action -- and so in the defendants’ ability to conduct discovery in that context -- pending resolution of the criminal charges. His filings claim that this will protect the secrecy of grand jury proceedings and in general “prevent the broad civil discovery available in the Civil Case from circumventing the more limited discovery that will be available to the defendants who have been indicted in the Criminal Case.” The SEC has taken no position on this motion.

Each defendant has retained his own counsel. Mr. Cioffi is represented by Edward J.M. Little of the New York law firm Hughes Hubbard & Reed; Mr. Tannin by Susan Brune of Brune & Richard, also of New York. Both have vigorously opposed the motion for a stay.

Defense counsel argue that such a stay is extraordinary, and that under the applicable precedents the government is required to make a specific showing of how the public’s interests will be prejudiced by the continuance of civil discovery. Mr. Little describes the discussion of prejudice in the government’s memo as consisting only of “a few weak assertions [that] simply parrot the usual, generic, and worn claims of prejudice,” e.g. that the defendants would obtain material in the civil case to which, in the criminal context, they are not entitled.

Further, as Little's brief points out, it was the decision of the United States to bring nearly-simultaneous proceedings in the first case that led to the difficulty under which the government now claims to labor. “The government milked all the advantages of initiating simultaneous proceedings -- holding joint press conferences to laud their dual enforcement efforts -- yet now seeks to evade any of the obligations that come with that choice.”

Ms Brune makes much the same point. “If any party has had an unfair advantage it is the government, which has already obtained extensive discovery, including from Mr. Tannin, for use in the civil and criminal cases. At the crux of the [motion for a stay] is the government’s effort to preclude Mr. Tannin entirely from investigating the facts and from defending himself.”

In a reply brief October 8, Mr. Campbell tried to make the argument that he isn’t obliged to provide a specific accounting of possible harms from civil discovery, because “there is no precedent to deny a stay where the government agrees to provide broad discovery in the criminal case.”

There’s such a precedent now

The court’s decision, filed by Senior Judge Frederic Block October 23, sides firmly with the defendants.

Judge Blank denied the USAO's motion. At the very least, he indicates, it is premature. “Neither defendant has answered the civil complaint and no discovery requests have been proposed. In this context -- or, more accurately, absence of context -- the Court cannot engage in any meaningful balancing of the competing interests at stake.”

He also echoed the arguments of the defense counsel about the deliberate choice of tactic on the government’s part. “Courts are justifiably skeptical of blanket claims of prejudice by the government where -- as here -- the government is responsible for the simultaneous proceedings in the first place.”

Discovery will go forward. The decision to deny a stay is without prejudice to the prosecution’s right to object to particular discovery requests.

Investors in the two Bear Stearns funds were among the early victims of the bursting of the subprime bubble, and Messrs Cioffi and Tannin were the first managers accused of crimes as a consequence. But the nature of their allegedly deceptive behavior is less clear-cut than that of a more typical fraud case, such as that which arose out of the collapse of the Bayou funds in 2005. The government isn’t charging that Cioffi and Tannin, like Samuel Israel and Dan Marino in the Bayou affair, pretended to the investors that the returns were positive when they were in fact negative.

The charge, rather, is that the Bear Stearns defendants misrepresented to investors “the financial prospects of the funds [and] their opinions regarding the financial prospects of the funds.” That sounds a bit slippery.

What is especially worrisome is the government’s reliance upon email conversations between the two defendants in an effort to establish that they weren’t always as cheerful as they let on when communication to investors. A pertinent question has come from Tom Kirkendall, a Houston-area lawyer who maintains a much-read blog on business law, “Do we really want a marketplace in which people are afraid of being candid and analyzing the market with associates for fear of criminal liability?”

Given such questions, every step forward in these twinned enforcement proceedings will come under careful scrutiny.

09 November 2008

A passage from Updike

I'm leafing today for no good reason through the Updike novel SEEK MY FACE (2002). The action of the novel consists entirely of a day-long interview. The only two characters, then, in the novel's present tense are an elderly artist, Hope, and a young reporter.

In this passage, about one-quarter of the way into the book, Hope is showing Kathryn her studio.

"Photographs of herself with others in other times goingback to Ardmore in the 'twenties, framed certificates of graduation and commendation ... the hideous trophies of crystal and painted metal one gets as tokens of recognition and public gratitude (the most ungainly of them handed to her sheepishly by the first President Bush, a tall and boyish Connecticut gent apparently as pleasantly surprised to find himself in the White House as she was; at lunch afterward, seated beside her, he pointed out for Hope to admire the daily flowers, the elegantly clad Marine guards, the splendidly imposing punctilio which momentarily surrounded them, two proper children of the fading Protestant hegemony): these souvenirs, still in the hasty order of an afternoon's arranging when the studio was newly built, attract Kathryn's attention less than Hope exected. Only the old photographs tempt the interloper to move closer, her neck craned forward in that unbecoming way: 'How pretty you were.'"

I love that. But in my lazy-Sunday fashion, I won't bother enumerating why.

08 November 2008

Collective bargaining

Should unions seek to expand talks with management beyond the traditional scope thereof: beyond wages, hours, pensions, etc.?

Maybe unions should concern themselves with the size of the bond issues by which their employer corporations are financed. The thought comes to mind while reading about the link between capital structure and corporate strategy. Before I delve further into it, let me do my bibliographic duty.

Elsevier, the Amsterdam-based academic publishing company, has come out with a new anthology on corporate finance, repetitively and undramatically titled, Handbook of Corporate Finance: Empirical Corporate Finance, Vol. 2.

Volume 1 of the set, out last year, covered banks, public offerings, and private sources of capital.

This second volume focuses on bankruptcies, margers, dividend policy and capital structure. [For those who don't know the lingo, the "capital structure" of a corporation is its mix of debt and equity financing, taking into account also the different varieties of equity -- preferred versus common -- and the different levels of seniority of debt.]

So this brings us back to "Capital Structure and Corporate Strategy," by Chris Parsons of McGill University and Sheridan Titman of the University of Texas, chapter 13 of this volume.

One question Parsons & Titman consider is the relationship between the indebtedness of a firm and its relationship with its employees. The empirical research -- most of it with a U.S. focus - suggests that firms with high leverage "pay lower wages, fund pensions less aggressively, and provide less job security to their workers during downturns," in their summary.

This makes intuitive sense. A company that has issued a lot of bonds relative to its equity may struggle to make the interest payments and thus be more quck to lay off employees in a downturn. Looking at it the other way, in industries where a good deal of the relevant labor requires a lot of training, or where sheer experience counts most, a company might want to "hoard" its laborers through a downturn. it might want to keep them on payroll so that it can take better advantage of the eventual recovery of demand for its products. If the company is going to hoard talented labor, it will want to limit its interest obligations. Industries where labor is talented (i.e. not fungible) are, interestingly, the industries most susceptible to unionization.

So I wondered as I was reading: why don't unions know about this research? And if they do know, are they pressing their employers to use more equity issuance, less debt issuance, in their capital structure? Dividend policy, after all, is discretionary. A company funded mostly by the sale of stock can withhold dividends during a downturn to hoard its labor. There's no discretion in interest payments.

Parsons & Titman address this issue only in a brief footnote, in which they say: "Labor laws specifically prohibit unions from negotiating over issues that do not directly influence workers."

That statement sent my head spinning. I do have memories of taking a course in labor law way back in my law school days -- more than twenty years ago -- and I must have passed it. I'd remember a fail. So I learned something, but nothing that stuck.

So I asked a lawyer friend, Henry. This isn't his field of expertise (he's a first amendment maven), but I was confident he'd know someone whose expertise it is. I was right. Thanks then, to Henry and thanks to the recipient of the passed buck, Vince, for enlightenment on this point.

That brief footnote was, it seems, excessively simple. Labor laws in the U.S. prohibit employers from REFUSING to negotiate with unions over certain subjects. These mandatory subjects of negotiation are the matters that "directly influence workers" as the above footnote phrases it -- wages, hours, conditions of employment. Some subjects are prohibited: the two sides aren't supposed to discuss requiring union membership as a condition of employment. But in between there is a region of "permissible" subjects.

It seems to me, if I understand Vince right, that capital structure would fall into the permissible range. If a union had enough "juice," or if it were willing to make concessions elsewhere, it might well persuade an employer to talk about the matter and to limit its equity-debt structure.

Ah, concessions elsewhere. That's the rub. There's always a trade-off.

I'm reminded of an episode of The Sopranoes. Tony is talking to Dr. Melfi, after watching some educational/historical television show. He says, "Do you know that the United States is the only country that mentions happiness in its founding document? Well, where's my fuckin' happiness, eh?"

Melfi: "It says 'pursuit'."

Tony: "There's always a loophole."

07 November 2008

Three deaths

Pragmatism Refreshed bids a fond adieu to editor and critic John Leonard, novelist Michael Crichton, and Mexico's minister of the interior, Juan Camilo Mourino.

These men have little in common other than they have all happened to die in recent days. Still, each had his moment in the sun, and it is worth our while to bid them all farewell, sic transit gloria mundi. That phrase roughly translates into English thus: "Poor Gloria, she's always in the bus station."

For Minister Mourino's untimely demise, I refer you to the news story here.

For a photo of Michael Crichton with a random fan at an autograph signing the Star-Tribune has the story.

And for hearts-and-flowers for John leonard's tenure as editor of The New York Times Books Review, I refer you to SLATE.

Cheers to each, and have a fine voyage to wherever you're going.

06 November 2008

Obama and Schlesinger

Emotionally distant, analytically engaged.

Though it all leaves me emotionally cold, this week's election results do have some appeal as an object of analysis. And in intellectualizing about Obama's victory, I find myself torn between two cyclical theories. According to one view, the subprime crisis that began last year will be a transformational event, akin to the stock market crash of 1929 or John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry in 1859. On such a reading, Obama is necessarily cast as Lincoln or Roosevelt.

According to another possible view, though, he isn't the beginning of anything. He is the end of something. I'll devote the remainder of this blog entry to that possibility, which depends upon a grasp of the 30-year cycles in American political history identified by Arthur Schlesinger.

Of course, the number 30 isn't divisible into 4. So in presidential election terms, on which the mind is focused today, a cycle must be either 28 or 32 years long. Let's look at the recent ones.

1. There's a reform election, in which a party (in recent cycles, always the Democratic Party) takes office -- executive and legislative -- promising sweeping change, generally leftward.

1932 was the classic reform election.

1960 (28 years later) was another.

1992 (32 years later) yet another.

2. Then there is a confirming landslide. Four years after electing the reforming Dems, the public says, "you're doing a good job," and the Republicans lose in a really big way. Consider in this light: 1936, 1964, 1996.

3. But the initial liberal-reform impetus has lost its strength by another four years out. The Republicans make a comeback to some degree, perhaps in alliance with discontented Dems who think the reformists have 'gone too far.'

1940 (preparedness issues had replaced domestic Reform on the Roosevelt agenda by this time, and Wilkie did much better than his two GOP predecessors had).

1968 (Eight years into the New Frontier/Great Society era, Nixon -- who had lost the election that began that era, deals it a blow, because Humphrey is unable to keep the George Wallace voters in the Great Society fold).

2000 (eight years after the Man from Hope, the advent of the man from Kennebunkport by way of Crawford).

Call these the loss-of-impetus elections.

4. Eight years after that loss-of-impetus election, the Democrats win in a quite distinctive way, with a relatively obscure figure who seems to many to have come from nowhere. A haberdasher from Missouri. A peanut farmer from Georgia. A community organizer from Hawaii by way of Chicago.

1948, 1976, 2008. Call this the guy-from-nowhere phase of the election cycle if you like.

One crucial thing to remember: the guy-from-nowhere election isn't the start for something. It is the end of something. It is the last win for the liberals/reformers/leftists/whatever within that cycle.

After the reformers of this cycle have had their say, there is usually a period in which the desire for "normalcy" and stability governs. After Truman's one term in his own right -- the final New Deal victory -- came Eisenhower. After Carter's single term -- the final New Frontier victory -- came Reagan. Then, eight or twelve years later, the cycle kicks up again with another reform election. But that's waaay ahead of us. For now, we face a guy-from-nowhere Presidency, with quite likely the usual issues and dissatisfactions of such a Presidency. Then Huckabee (or whomever) will pick up the pieces.

On this view, Obama's win is simply the final victory for the reformists who first won in 1992.

So: which is it? Is he more fittingly seen as the start, or as an ending? I don't know, since I've long managed to hold both of these cyclical views in my head simultaneously. Eventually, I'm gonna have to choose between them.

02 November 2008

Good and Evil

The poet W.B. Yeats wrote Ideas of Good and Evil, a volume of prose essays, more than a century ago.

"At Stratford-on-Avon," was among these essays. It aimed at portraying Shakespeare's "untroubled sympathy for men as they are, as apart from all they do and seem."

An intriguing portion of that essay concerns the character of Henry V, not as "Prince Hal," foil for Falstaff in the plays named after Hal's father. But Henry V as he appears in the play named for himself, the play whence many of us derive our understanding of the battle of Agincourt.

This King, Yeats tells us, "has the gross vices, the coarse nerves, of one who is to rule among violent people, and he is so little 'too friendly' to his friends that he bundles them out the door when their time is over. He is as remorseless and as undistinguished as some natural force, and the finest thing in his play is the way his old companions fall out of it broken-hearted or on their way to the gallows."

The St. Crispin's Day speech is deliciously ironic. A man who could coldly send his old drinking buddies to the gallows could promise the rank-and-file of this battle, "he today that sheds his blood with me/shall be my brother."

This was a prophecy that could only have inspired those who didn't know their King. And the speech inspires today only because we manage to forget that everything won at Agincourt was lost again within a generation. Shakespeare's original audience was surely aware of that.

There have always been those who have missed the irony, and the story makes great cinema without it. Indeed, the contemporary scholar Harold Bloom writes of the two famous movies of this play -- Olivier's and Branagh's -- as "patriotic romps, replete with exuberant bombast."

I don't like the title of Yeats' book, since I dislike profoundly the idea of reviewing literary works in order to pick out the writer's (or the characters') ideas of good and evil. Still, Yeats gives a deep and impressive reading.

01 November 2008

"I do believe in spooks"

The headline of this entry is of course the affirmation of the Cowardly Lion, as Dorothy and her three allegorical companions walk through the scary forest surrounding the witch's castle. An affirmation appropriate to yesterday's holiday, surely.

I might have had my say on this holiday yesterday, but I was just bursting with amazement at the strangeness on display Thursday on CNBC.

The 19th century German logician, Christoph von Sigwart (1830 - 1894), didn't believe in the Lion's affirmation. Well ... presumably he had never walked through that particular forest. Still, let us record that he wrote: "No amount of failure in the attempt to subject the world of sensible experience to a thorough-going system of conceptions, and to bring all happenings back to cases of immutably valid law, is able to shake our faith in the rightness of our principles. We hold fast to our demand that even the greatest apparent confusion must sooner or later solve itself in transparent formulas."

The "we" in the second of those sentences is the western post-Renaissance scientific spirit, inclined to put facts into tables and draw conclusions, then impute those conclusions to God or (what is the same) the nature of things.

As Dostoyevsky knew, as his "underground man" expressed with eloquence at about the time that Sigwart was writing those words, there is also that within "us" that rebels against the "transparent formulas" in which "we" have such faith. So let the thorough-going system of conceptions have the other 364 days of the year. This one is given over to defiance, to sensible experiences that aren't so sensible, and aren't interested in "solving themselves." To flights on broomsticks and knocks on the door though nobody is there.

To the unenlightened belief in spooks.

Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.