Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Flinging Magnetic Curses

So here's a random thought. What if for a long time capitalism was misunderstood and economic strength mismeasured? That is, what if everyone was impressed by tons of steel, miles of railroad track, etc., when really economic vitality was a function of much "softer," "squishier" factors? Basically people were in a sort of industrial, military mindset, ignoring the subtle work done by prices and incremental innovation. (The confusion could have arisen because associations were formed at a time when heavy industry really was at the cutting edge of economic growth.)

So everyone was subject to this delusion, but only the Communists had the misfortune to put it into action by centralizing their economies, building steel mills in their backyards, etc. My understanding is that Soviet accomplishments in heavy industry were actually quite impressive, though they weren't winning any sustainability awards. (It would be pretty awesome if they were, in fact, establishing and then rigging sustainability awards.)

But in the West, while people were generally just as deluded about what constitutes a strong economy, it didn't matter nearly as much: aside from a bit of protectionism, heavy industry was subjected to the same price discipline as everything else, and the economy kept advancing in spite of the misunderstanding.

I suspect this is anachronistic, and that in fact economists were pretty sophisticated about this stuff fairly early on. Keynes badly wanted to avoid wartime rationing by a program of forced saving, partly on the grounds that prices were still the best allocation mechanism, even in wartime. So anyway, just a thought.

Monday, January 23, 2012

5 Years of Solitude

Matt Yglesias! If you read the University of Chicago Law Blog, you could have written today's post 5 years ago, when Randy Picker broached the issue of a Peltzman effect in lightbulbs. 5 years!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Like Flies in Saucers

From Elif Batuman's The Possessed:

A famous professor of comparative literature had just read what struck me as an incredibly lame paper comparing a passage in Madame Bovary, in which flies are dying in the bottom of a glass of cider, to Babel's description of the death of Squadron Commander Trunov. (The similarity was supposedly that both Babel and Flaubert were aestheticizing the banal.) The moderator-my adviser, Monika Greenleaf-returning to the subject of those flies in the cider, had compared them to the inkwell full of dead flies at the miser's estate in Dead Souls, and also to Captain Lebyadkin's lyric about cannibalistic flies in a jar in Dostoevsky's Demons. I thought this was a much more promising line of comparison-in fact, Babel, too, had a passage about "flies dying in a jar filled with a milky liquid" in a Tiflis hotel. A beautiful passage: "Each fly was dying in its own way."
Perhaps the flies were unhappy.

But anyway, this reminds me of two further fly-related passages. The first is from "The Duel," by Chekhov:

And it seemed to her that all the evil memories in her head had taken shape and were walking beside her in the darkness, breathing heavily, while she, like a fly that had fallen into the inkpot, was crawling painfully along the pavement and smirching Laevsky's side and arm with blackness.
The second is from "The New Dress," by Virginia Woolf:

"We are all like flies trying to crawl over the edge of the saucer," Mabel thought, and repeated the phrase as if she were crossing herself, as if she were trying to find some spell to annul this pain, to make this agony endurable. Tags of Shakespeare, lines from books she had read ages ago, suddenly came to her when she was in agony, and she repeated them over and over again. "Flies trying to crawl," she repeated. If she could say that over often enough and make herself see the flies, she would become numb, chill, frozen, dumb. Now she could see flies crawling slowly out of a saucer of milk with their wings stuck together; and she strained and strained (standing in front of the looking-glass, listening to Rose Shaw) to make herself see Rose Shaw and all the other people there as flies, trying to hoist themselves out of something, or into something, meagre, insignificant, toiling flies. But she could not see them like that, not other people. She saw herself like that-she was a fly, but the others were dragonflies, butterflies, beautiful insects, dancing, fluttering, skimming, while she alone dragged herself up out of the saucer. (Envy and spite, the most detestable of the vices, were her chief faults.)

"I feel like some dowdy, decrepit, horribly dingy old fly," she said, making Robert Haydon stop just to hear her say that, just to reassure herself by furbishing up a poor weak-kneed phrase and so showing how detached she was, how witty, that she did not feel in the least out of anything. And, of course, Robert Haydon answered something quite polite, quite insincere, which she saw through instantly, and said to herself, directly he went (again from some book), "Lies, lies, lies!"
The fly motif continues throughout the story. I find it incredibly compelling.

Tolstoy Vey

I've read that the Soviets promoted Tolstoy as the great Russian writer, presumably because of his ideological acceptability (perhaps they hadn't read Anna Karenina). I wonder how they felt about Hadji Murat during their adventures in Afghanistan.

While the World's Still Small

So it turns out that Elif Batuman once nearly told a dirty joke in front of Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky scholar and subject of David Foster Wallace's essay "Joseph Frank's Dostoevsky":

The joke involves the comic exchange between Thor and a farmer's daughter. "I AM THOR!" says Thor, to which the farmer's daughter replies: "I'm thor, too, but I had tho much fun!"

"So Thor comes down to earth for a day," I began, when I suddenly became conscious that Joseph Frank-the Stanford emeritus famous for his magisterial five-volume biography of Dostoevsky-had abandoned the lively discussion he had been having with a Berkeley professor about Louis XIII. Both were regarding me from across the table with unblinking interest.

"You know," I said to Anna, "I just remembered it's kind of an inappropriate joke. Maybe I'll tell you another time.
And but so, although he doesn't come out and say it in the essay, I get the sense that Wallace was a Dostoevsky partisan in the bitter Tolstoy/Dostoevsky debate. ("You need only compare the protagonists' final conversions in Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyich and FMD's Crime and Punishment in order to appreciate Dostoevksy's ability to be moral without being moralistic.")

(A macabre sidenote: DFW wrote the essay when Frank had published only four volumes of the biography, and DFW speculated about whether Frank would live to publish the fifth. He did - almost a year after DFW's suicide.)

Personally I don't think Dostoevsky can hold a candle to Tolstoy. This passage from Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman spells out the thoughts of a fellow Tolstoy advocate (a more ardent one than I):

Karimov turned to Madyarov.

'Leonid Sergeich, how can you reconcile your earlier hymn to Dostoyevsky with this passionate speech in praise of Chekhov and his humanity? Dostoyevsky certainly doesn't consider everyone equal. Hitler called Tolstoy a degenerate, but they say he has a portrait of Dostoyevsky hanging in his office. I belong to a national minority myself. I'm a Tartar who was born in Russia and I cannot pardon a Russian writer his hatred of Poles and Yids. No - even if he is a genius. We had more than enough blood spilt in Tsarist Russia, more than enough of being spat at in the eye. More than enough pogroms. A great writer in this country has no right to persecute foreigners, to despise Poles and Tartars, Jews, Armenians and Chuvash.'

The grey-haired, dark-eyed Tartar smiled haughtily and angrily - like a true Mongol. Still addressing Madyarov, he continued:

'Perhaps you've read Tolstoy's Hadji Mourat? Perhaps you've read The Cossacks? Perhaps you've read the story "A Prisoner in the Caucasus"? They were written by a Russian count. While Dostoyevsky was a Lithuanian. As long as the Tartars remain in existence, they will pray to Allah on behalf of Tolstoy.'

Viktor looked at Karimov, thinking: 'Well, well. So that's how you feel, is it?'
(Note: I can't vouch for the Hitler thing.)

Karimov's peroration reminds me of Elif Batuman's blog post on Michael Steele's mangling of the opening line of War and Peace, which includes this aside: "Note to self: could the entire dissatisfied-Muppet/ Grover relationship be based on the tense interchange between Oblonsky and the Tartar waiter?"

Batuman goes on to discuss DFW in the comments section to the post.


From The Possessed, by Elif Batuman:

While it's true that, as Tolstoy observed, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, and everyone on planet Earth, vale of tears that it is, is certainly entitled to the specificity of his or her suffering, one nonetheless likes to think that literature has the power to render comprehensible different kinds of unhappiness. If it can't do that, what's it good for? On these grounds I once became impatient with a colleague at a conference, who was trying to convince me that The Red Cavalry cycle would never be totally accessible to me because of Lyutov's "specifically Jewish alienation."

"Right," I finally said. "As a six-foot-tall first-generation Turkish woman growing up in New Jersey, I cannot possibly know as much about alienation as you, a short American Jew."

He nodded: "So you see the problem."

I note in this regard that apparently Joseph Heller chose the name "Yossarian" to emphasize the character's alienation. It seems that Heller was going to give the character a Jewish name, but that by the time the book was published, Heller didn't feel that a Jewish name would convey sufficient alienation from American society.

[EDIT: as I have joked before, it would be funny if Tolstoy gave Levin his name for the same reason. Apparently at one point he was going to call the character Lenin, which would definitely have changed the book and may have changed history.]

Sidetracked Down the Middle

So I guess add "campanilismo" to the list of words with surprisingly recent origins. I wish I knew how to embed the images properly, but Google Ngram Viewer supports the thesis that "sidetrack" and "campanilismo" emerged after the advent of railroads and time zones respectively: sidetrack and campanilismo.

By the way, I am not sure that Kindleberger correctly characterized the International Meridian Conference, but I am far too lazy to investigate further.

The Annihilation of Space by Time

Two passages on the innovation of time zones. First, from Nature's Metropolis, by William Cronon (which I cannot recommend highly enough):

The most dramatic proof that this new universe had extended its influence to the outside world came in 1883, when the major railroad companies imposed on North America new, "standard" times to replace the hundreds of "local" times which had previously been used to set clocks throughout the country. Before the invention of standard time, clocks were set according to the rules of astronomy: noon was the moment when the sun stood highest in the midday sky. By this strict astronomical definition every locale had a different noon, depending on the line of longitude it occupied. When clocks read noon in Chicago, it was 11:50 A.M. in St. Louis, 11:38 A.M. in St. Paul, 11:27 A.M. in Omaha, and 12:18 P.M. in Detroit, with every possible variation in between. For companies trying to operate trains between these various points, the different local times were a scheduling nightmare. Railroads around the country set their clocks by no fewer than fifty-three different standards-and thereby created a deadly risk for everyone who rode them. Two trains running on the same tracks at the same moment but with different clocks showing different times could well find themselves unexpectedly occupying the same space, with disastrous consequences.

And so, on November 18, 1883, the railroad companies carved up the continent into four time zones, in each of which all clocks would be set to exactly the same time. At noon, Chicago jewelers moved their clocks back by nine minutes and thirty-three seconds in order to match the local time of the ninetieth meridian. The Chicago Tribune likened the event to Joshua's having made the sun stand still, and announced, "The railroads of this country demonstrated yesterday that the hand of time can be moved backward about as easily as Columbus demonstrated that an egg can be made to stand on its end." Although the U.S. government would not officially acknowledge the change until 1918, everyone else quickly abandoned local sun time and set clocks by railroad time instead. Railroad schedules thus redefined the hours of the day: sunrise over Chicago would henceforth come ten minutes sooner, and the noonday sun would hang a little lower in the sky.

. . . .

The isolation that had constrained the trade and production of frontier areas would disappear in the face of what Karl Marx called "the annihilation of space by time," the tendency of capitalism's technologies and markets to drive "beyond every spatial barrier." Wherever the network of rails extended, frontier became hinterland to the cities where rural products entered the marketplace. Areas with limited experience of capitalist exchange suddenly found themselves much more palpably within an economic and social hierarchy created by the geography of capital.

And from International Money, by Charles Kindleberger (confusingly, not available in a Kindle version):

A few years ago, the brilliant Swiss journalist Herbert Luethy wrote a book on France (in the American edition, France Against Herself), with the title in French A l'heure de son clocher (Each clock on its own time). The reference was to France before its postwar economic upsurge. The Italians have a similar expression, campanilismo, which emphasizes the separateness of individual villages, each regulated by the campanile, or bells of the village church. In primitive economies time stands still or goes its separate ways. In a modern, interdependent economy, by contrast, time not only flies or marches on; it does so in unison.

. . . .

At the micro-temporal level, the optimum time zone is smaller than the world but bigger than the locality. Greenwich Mean Time dates from 1675, but British cities continued to operate independently of one another chronometrically until about 1800. The clocks of Plymouth, in the west of England, for example, ran sixteen minutes later than those of London.

The railroads changed all this. G. M. Young has explained that railroad timetables rendered the English middle-class public conscious of precious time and disposed to carry watches. The twenty-four hour gate clock on the Royal Observatory building in Greenwich was installed in 1852 to measure time for Great Britain. North American railroads found it desirable to adopt not only the British standard gauge of track width, but also time zones based on Greenwich. Greenwich finally came into its own as the international time standard at a conference held in 1884 at Washington. The need for such a world standard arose from the increased speed of steamers equipped with screw propellers, which crossed the Atlantic in days instead of weeks.

Fixed time zones are analogous to stable exchange rates, and both were increasingly needed, in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, to accommodate the substantial and rising volume of world trade.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Only Thing that Justifies Our Presence on the Earth

Inspired by the two saddest songs according to Elisa, here are my own choices:

"Us Ones In Between" by Sunset Rubdown (ignore the sappy text, which is not by Sunset Rubdown - or don't):

"Cocaine and Ashes" by Son Volt:

Practically all of "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" by Wilco would also qualify. What can I say, downstate Illinois boys know how to make me sad.

Also Ashokan Farewell, but that is probably because of its indelible association with Ken Burns's Civil War documentary.

[Edit: damn it, I forgot some good ones, which I've added below]

"Carry Me Ohio" by Sun Kil Moon:

"MAPS" by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs:

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Train Queue

I hate Penn Station. I hate that it used to be beautiful and now it is a dump, but these things happen. What really drives me crazy is that it is not set up for people to queue. You actually wait in a huge room, and when the gate is announced, you join the crush of people forming a huge blob at the escalator to the train platform. It is hugely and needlessly stressful and unpleasant.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Rates of Change

Matt Yglesias works to bolster his detractors and undermine his defenders by failing to recognize the difference between prices and inflation. Yglesias quotes Richmond Federal Reserve Bank President Jeffrey Lacker saying that the Fed's job is to "keep inflation low and stable." In fact, Yglesias notes, the mandate is (per a FAQ on the Fed's website): "maximum employment and stable prices." Yglesias concludes that inflation should be steady, not necessarily low.

Okay, but. Inflation is a rate of change. If prices are to be steady, then inflation will need to be pretty low. One would not consider prices to be steady if they were increasing at a 1,000% annual rate, though inflation could be very steady in those circumstances.

Just . . . sigh.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Time is in the Air

Ramblings about time and politics are in the air, as Matt Yglesias speculates that time zones would be highly controversial if proposed today (to some extent Yglesias's point is about the dysfunctional nature of modern politics). Yglesias links to an Alex Tabarrok post noting his (Alex's) appreciation for daylight saving time notwithstanding that his ideology would probably lead him to oppose it a priori.

Time zones seem like an easy case to me, since most people like them, the benefits from coordination are significant, and they can be implemented in a fairly arbitrary manner without losing their benefits. They are a bit like driving on the right side of the road. Hardcore libertarians may think coordination would arise naturally in a decentralized market-driven manner, but most people like traffic laws, and the same goes for time zones.

Daylight saving time is a harder case, since a lot of people despise it (some political units actually opt out) and the public policy rationale is less clear. It seems fairly non-coercive to me, but one could argue that the coordination of expectations is one of the most coercive things a government can do. (As noted previously, the analogy to monetary policy is striking.)