Pur Autre Vie

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

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Response to Stimulus

This slideshow is pretty impressive.  It depicts Ivanpah, a multi-billion dollar solar power project partly financed by the federal government (and built on government land).

So far, according to the accompanying blurb, $56 million has been spent relocating desert tortoises.  That's partly because the government carefully vetted the power company developing the project to make sure it is sensitive to environmental concerns.  I've obtained a transcript of the interview that Ivanpah's CEO, Leon Kowalski, underwent before obtaining the loan guarantee.  The interviewer is Tim Holden, a Democratic member of Congress from Pennsylvania:

Holden: You're in a desert, walking along in the sand when all of the sudden-

Kowalski: Is this the test now?

Holden: Yes. You're in a desert walking along in the sand when all of the sudden you look down-

Kowalski: What one?

Holden: What?

Kowalski: What desert?

Holden: It doesn't make any difference what desert, it's completely hypothetical.

Kowalski: But how come I'd be there?

Holden: Maybe you're fed up, maybe you want to be by yourself, who knows? You look down and you see a tortoise, Leon, it's crawling toward you-

Kowalski: Tortoise? What's that?

Holden: Know what a turtle is?

Kowalski: Of course.

Holden: Same thing.

Kowalski: I've never seen a turtle. [pause] But I understand what you mean.

Holden: You reach down, you flip the tortoise over on its back, Leon.

Kowalski: Do you make up these questions, Mr. Holden, or do they write them down for you?

Holden: The tortoise lays on its back, its belly baking in the hot sun, beating its legs trying to turn itself over but it can't, not without your help, but you're not helping.

Kowalski: What do you mean I'm not helping?

Holden: I mean, you're not helping. Why is that Leon? [pause] They're just questions, Leon. In answer to your query, they're written down for me. It's a test, designed to provoke an emotional response. [pause] Shall we continue? Describe in single words, only the good things that come in to your mind about: your mother.

Kowalski: My mother?

Holden: Yeah.

Kowalski: Let me tell you about my mother. [shoots Holden and flees]

Monday, June 11, 2012

A Few Misquotations from Paul Krugman's New Book

These misquotations are from End This Depression Now!, Paul Krugman's latest book.

In this first quotation, I merely changed one thing, and I think it made a big improvement:

"And it's very much the wrong question to ask when the economy is depressed even though the Fed has cut the interest rates it can control all the way to zero—that is, when we're in a liquidity trap, which we were in when [Niall] Ferguson delivered those remarks (at a conference sponsored by PEN and the New York Review of Books and which we are still in today)."

And here is Krugman on the origins of the European Union.  I haven't changed anything!

"The experiment began in 1951, with the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community.  Don't let the prosaic name fool you:  this was a highly idealistic attempt to make war within Europe."

Paul Krugman, always a delight.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Fourth Post on Europe: A Refinement

In my previous post I laid out a fairly crazy idea for internal devaluation in a country that does not control its currency (for instance, because it is part of a currency union such as the euro).  In this post I'll make a few more observations.  Since I am not an economist, you should take all of this avec un gros grain de sel.

Recall that the idea is for the government to adjust the wages of all workers simultaneously so as to achieve a rapid, one-shot deflation that restores the balance of payments.  The idea is that ordinarily prices are so sticky that it takes massive unemployment to attain sufficient deflation.  Moreover, the prospect of years of deflation induces people to hold cash rather than engage in economic activity.  If prices are forced downward by a large percentage, they will then start rising again, which will constitute inflation and which will induce people to spend their money.

But consider the way people will behave prior to this massive, one-shot deflation.  Holding cash will be an amazing investment, because it may appreciate several percentage points over the span of a few months—an enviable rate of return.  So as long as people anticipate that the one-shot deflation may be coming soon, economic activity will be suppressed as people hoard cash.  This could be a big problem.  I think it means that you would want to do it quickly and finally, with no possibility of further downward adjustments to the government coefficient for the next several years.  And it might make sense to err on the side of going too far, which is somewhat counterintuitive but which ensures that immediately after the deflation everyone will expect prices to rise.  If you expect prices to rise, your incentive is to spend sooner rather than later.  This, along with the improvement in the tradeable goods sector, should boost aggregate demand.  (But who knows, you still have to deal with the fact that workers are earning less and will be reluctant or even unable to spend.)

In that regard, it would probably make sense to encourage businesses to cut prices on the day the coefficient is adjusted.  If wages are being slashed 10%, then businesses should be able to cut their prices by 7 or 8%, which will greatly alleviate the burden of lower wages.  And of course this is the whole point, not just to make labor cheap but to effectuate a broad-based drop in prices throughout the economy.  The only businesses that should not be expected to drop prices should be sellers of imports.  Their costs should not be falling much, whereas most businesses should enjoy (A) a huge drop in wage costs and (B) a drop in input prices as other businesses slash their prices.

But I am still worried about the way people will behave in anticipation that the policy will be triggered.  I am also worried that the government might not cut deeply enough, leaving prices above equilibrium and leaving some amount of deflation to be accomplished by grinding unemployment.

Finally, note that this policy seems as though it would work best for a small, trade-oriented country like the Netherlands (which I imagine doesn't need internal devaluation) or Ireland (which probably does).  It seems well-suited for Europe, which is generally made up of a quilt of small countries with highly interlocking economies.  It is probably not so well-suited for a country like the U.S., which does not really trade very much relative to its GDP.  But of course, the U.S. has its own currency and should never need to do anything like what I am proposing.

Third Post on Europe: A Modest Proposal

Finally, my crazy idea.  I want to emphasize that I think this is probably dangerous and in any case almost certainly an unworkable proposal.  But it is interesting, and that is enough of an excuse to blog about it.  As always, remember that I am not an economist, so take this gyda graen mawr o halen.

As we have been discussing, Europe faces a severe balance of payments problem that cannot be addressed by devaluation.  Instead, it is probably necessary to run differential rates of inflation in northern and southern Europe in order to restore balance.  Ideally this would be something like 5% inflation in northern Europe and 1% inflation in southern Europe, but it seems the northern Europeans will insist on 2% inflation in northern Europe and 2% deflation in southern Europe.  To achieve 2% deflation would require insanely high levels of unemployment.  This is not really feasible because it implies a collapse in (A) northern Europe's biggest export market, and (B) tax revenues in southern Europe—so in a sense the sovereign debt crisis is something that is being imposed by the northern Europeans.

In light of all this, here is my admittedly crazy proposal.  Assume that we need to achieve massive deflation in southern Europe (remember, I think this is a mistake, I think the right approach is to raise inflation in northern Europe).  And assume that, in the status quo, this will be achieved by subjecting southern Europe to impossibly high levels of unemployment.  Then, as a possibly better alternative, consider this:

Each southern European government legally divides wages into two components.  One is called the "market-determined wage" (I will call it the "market wage" for short), and the other is called the "government-determined coefficient" (I will call it the "government coefficient" for short).  Each person's actual wages are the product of the market wage and the government coefficient.  So by way of example, imagine we have an Irishman named Seamus who is paid €50,000 per year.  At the inception of the policy, we will consider his market wage to be €50,000 and his government coefficient to be 1.  His actual wage is the multiple of these two numbers, so his actual wage is €50,000 × 1 = €50,000.  To start, then, his market wage is the same as his actual wage.

Here's the key, though.  The government (or its central bank) controls the government coefficient.  So Ireland might, as a way of achieving high deflation without grinding unemployment, change the government coefficient to 0.9.  Then Seamus's actual wage is €50,000 × 0.9 = €45,000.  This is the amount his employer is legally required to pay him, regardless of what his employment contract says.  That is, employment contracts are treated as determining the market wage, not the actual wage.  Any attempt to evade the government coefficient would be unenforceable.  So if Seamus's contract says that his employer will "gross him up" (pay him his market wage instead of his actual wage), that provision of the contract will be legally void.  His employer discharges its contractual obligation to Seamus by paying him his market wage × the government coefficient.

However, Seamus is free to negotiate for a higher market wage to the extent permitted by Irish law.  So when his contract is up, he can demand that his employer increase his market wage to restore his previous actual wage.  Moreover, if his employer wants to "gross him up" as a voluntary matter, it can pay him a bonus.  The point is that wages are out of equilibrium in southern Europe.  A one-shot, across-the-board wage cut for all workers would solve a collective action problem and make exports more competitive in one fell swoop.  If workers can then negotiate higher pay, it is because the government has over-shot and wages are actually below what they would be in equilibrium.  That's a (relatively) good state of affairs, because it means that the economy should be restored to something close to full employment.  Going forward, wages should resume their upward course.

First, note that Seamus is probably going to cut his spending, further worsening aggregate demand.  The idea really hinges on a rapid pickup in exports, and that may not happen for a variety of reasons.  Also, to the extent it happens, it implies a hit to demand in northern Europe as its tradeable sector gets hit.  All in all, it seems much worse than running higher eurozone inflation.  But remember, I am assuming that is not an option.

Note also how unfair all of this is to Seamus.  He has presumably arranged his affairs so that he can afford to live on €50,000 a year.  Now he is suddenly being asked to live on €45,000/year, but his debts are not adjusted downward.  If the policy is successful, his expenses will fall somewhat as Ireland experiences a rapid deflation, but there is no guarantee that his expenses will fall enough to make up for the loss of income.

Moreover, some employees have long-term contracts, and they may not be able to re-negotiate them for years, even if wages generally rise.  Probably all employees should be allowed to re-negotiate their contracts no later than 1 year after the government coefficient is changed, regardless of when the contractual term is up.

Finally, people would almost certainly look for ways to slip "gross-up" provisions into their contracts, and the government may not be able to identify them very easily as a legal matter.  This means there might be very unfair differences in the way different workers are affected by a change in the government coefficient.

But look.  You have to compare this unfairness and unwieldiness to the massive unfairness and human suffering that are entailed by the status quo.  To achieve the necessary adjustment is going to be disastrous in any case, but by taking all of its lumps at once, southern Europe can perhaps put its citizens back to work and hopefully stabilize tax revenue.  And once things are growing again, a lot of economic activity can resume.  Better to be growing from a low base than shriveling away from a somewhat higher one.  The big question in my mind is whether this quasi-devaluation would have the intended effect on employment in southern Europe.  Quite possibly not.  Quite possibly, aggregate demand would collapse as workers retrench.  But right now the official policy is to depress aggregate demand at a painful rate for the foreseeable future.  My proposal might not be quite as bad as that.

Second Post on Europe: History and Choices

In my previous post, I described how balance of payments problems can arise in the abstract and a few ways they can be resolved.  In this post I will be slightly more specific and describe my view of the situation in Europe.  As a reminder, I am not an economist, so take all of this met een grote korrel zout.

You can think of the euro as a bunch of currencies that have "fixed" exchange rates.  This is literally the case with the euro and the Danish krone, but it is conceptually the case throughout the eurozone.  So even though the euro is one currency, we can think of German euros as "foreign" currency for the rest of the world, including the rest of the eurozone.  It's just that while the exchange rate between German euros and U.S. dollars (and even, in theory, Danish kroner) can shift, the exchange rate between German euros and Spanish euros absolutely cannot.

After the euro was adopted, investors from "northern" Europe (Germany, Austria, the Netherlands) poured money into investment assets in "southern" Europe (Spain, Italy, Greece) and in Ireland (for simplicity, I will use "southern" and "northern" for the rest of my post).  A lot of those investment assets were related to real estate—mortgage loans, that kind of thing.

Now recall that investment assets compete with tradeable goods for foreign currency.  The huge hunger for southern European investment assets made it cheap for southern Europe to borrow but difficult for southern Europe to export tradeable goods.  The northern European euros were all flowing into investment assets and there weren't many left for southern European tradeable goods.  As a result, southern Europe's tradeable goods sector shriveled, but its labor markets still did well because (A) in some cases, real estate speculation led to construction booms, and (B) in other cases, governments took advantage of cheap financing to run large deficits, generating fiscal stimulus.  In fact, southern Europe's workers did so well that labor costs rose faster than labor costs in northern Europe.  That is, southern European workers' productivity (on a per-euro basis) lagged northern European workers' productivity.

Then the asset bubble burst and suddenly southern Europe faced huge trade deficits that it could no longer pay for by selling investment assets.  So how will the balance of payments be restored?  Well, as we discussed, there are several ways to do this:

1.  Devalue southern European currencies relative to northern European currencies.  This is what Switzerland and Sweden did when they faced balance-of-payment problems.  Sadly, this is impossible for the southern Europeans because they are on the euro.

2.  Run a higher rate of inflation in northern Europe than in southern Europe.  As discussed in my previous post, this basically amounts to a slow-motion devaluation.  However, here we run into a dilemma.  On the one hand, you could achieve a decent inflation differential by running high (~5%) inflation in northern Europe while running low (~1%) inflation in southern Europe.  This would be an effective and relatively painless way to restore balance to Europe.  The problem is that northern Europeans fucking hate inflation with the passion of a thousand supernovas.  And the northern Europeans control the European central bank, for largely sensible reasons that have stopped making sense in this particular situation.

On the other hand, you could achieve the necessary inflation differential by running low (~2%) inflation in northern Europe while running severe (~2%) deflation (that is, -2% inflation) in southern Europe.  In fact, this is what we are doing, or trying to do.  The problem is that severe deflation can generally only be brought about by severe recession.  Basically, you make the labor market so terrible that workers will acquiesce in savage wage cuts, year after year.  This requires insanely cruel levels of unemployment.  Even as the southern European economies collapse, deflation has not been severe enough to restore balance (this is because prices are "sticky," particularly in the downward direction—deflation is fucking hard).  To achieve the necessary deflation, unemployment will have to go much higher.  Southern Europeans really really don't want this (and neither, honestly, do the northern Europeans, whose exports to southern Europe would collapse), but the southern Europeans do not control the European central bank.

In my next post, I will examine whether there is a better way to achieve deflation in southern Europe.  But the answer is almost certainly no.

3.  Improve the productivity of southern European workers.  This is what prostitutes whisper to German policymakers to get them really turned on.  The idea is that southern Europe should increase the skill of its workers and the flexibility of its labor markets so that its exports can compete with northern European exports.  The problem is that no one really knows how to improve the labor force's skills, and anyway it would take years.  And as for labor market flexibility, that has no real traction in a depressed economy.

Now, on top of the balance of payments problem, you have a sovereign debt problem, and it is really ugly.  But most of southern Europe would be okay (not great, but okay) if eurozone inflation were 3% higher.  Note, however, that in addition to alleviating the balance of payments problem, inflation would lower the real debt burden of southern Europe.  And to whom is that debt burden owed?  Northern Europe.  So part of the problem is that increased inflation would constitute a redistribution from north to south, as some portion of the debt would be inflated away rather than paid.  But it would be a mild redistribution, and far less disruptive and painful than the alternative.  Just note that northern Europeans tend to think of inflation in moralistic terms, and so even this mild redistribution pisses them off much more than it should.

First Post on Europe: Balance of Payments

I am going to try to explain what is going on in Europe.  I will start with a post explaining, in very simple terms, balance of payments.  I am not an economist, so take this all med et stort gran salt.

Here is the basic idea.  Imagine two countries that trade with each other a lot.  Each country has its own currency.  So a cross-border transaction consists of two parts:  the conversion of the buyer's currency into the seller's currency, and the transfer of the purchase price from the buyer to the seller.  (Why does the seller insist on being paid in his own currency?  Because that is what he must use to pay his workers, suppliers, etc.)  So there is a "goods" market and a "foreign exchange" market.

You can think of the price of importing something as consisting of two parts.  First, there is the price of buying the seller's currency, determined in the foreign exchange market.  Then there is the price of the goods being sold by the seller (denominated in the seller's currency), determined in the goods market.  Imports can be expensive either because the foreign currency is expensive, or because foreign goods are expensive (or both).

Now we need to add one more market.  Let's say there's a mismatch in the value of goods exported by each country.  The country that is a net importer must pay for the excess somehow.  (I don't mean that the government must pay, just that the country as a whole must pay for the goods it imports.  Throughout this post I will ignore the possibility that one country will simply donate money or goods to the other country for free, as sometimes happens with foreign aid or remissions remittances [UGGGHH I AM A FUCKING IDIOT] or disaster relief or something.)

The way that the net importer pays for its imports is by selling investment assets.  Those investment assets could consist of almost anything:  stocks, bonds, real estate.  They could just consist of loans:  a loan is an asset from the perspective of the lender.  People in one country could borrow money from people in the other country.  This amounts to selling an investment asset.

And so a country obtains the required amount of the other country's currency by selling goods and investment assets, and so you can see how things balance.  Each country will export the same value of (goods + investment assets), but the mix could be different.  In a sense, financial assets compete with the export sector for foreign currency.  Some people think the U.S. runs a persistent trade deficit largely because the quality of its financial assets is so high that they out-compete its export goods in the market for foreign currency.  We will return to this possibility later.  I will note that one particularly important type of asset is sovereign debt—notes issued by the government when it borrows money.  If a country's government runs a large budget deficit, it will flood the market with its notes, which will compete with the country's export sector for foreign currency.  This helps explain the "twin deficits" phenomenon, in which large budget deficits cause large trade deficits.

But back to the mismatch.  Let's say that Country A has cut its labor costs somehow (so it can make more stuff per hour worked [EDIT: or more stuff for the same amount of money]).  This could happen any number of ways.  It could be improvements in technology, improvements in education, fewer labor market distortions from bad policy.  But it could also be something like a simple decline in wages, maybe because unions have been disempowered.

Whatever the cause, when a country's labor force produces more stuff per dollar unit of currency [oops], the country's goods become relatively cheap.  This boosts Country A's tradeable sector while hurting Country B's tradeable sector (the tradeable sector is just the sector of the economy consisting of things that can be traded across borders—cars are tradeable, haircuts are generally not).  Country B experiences increased unemployment, while Country A has a boom.

Remember, though, that the relative price of goods is a function of both the price of goods and the price of each currency.  Country B could devalue its currency relative to Country A's currency, with the result that the trade balance would shift back in Country B's favor (partially or entirely erasing the earlier shift in favor of Country A, or maybe even over-shooting).

So a devaluation of Country B's currency cools off Country A's tradeable sector and heats up Country B's tradeable sector.  But it also benefits consumers in Country A, because they can now buy stuff from Country B for a lower price.  It hurts consumers in Country B, because they have to pay more for imports from Country A.  You can think of it this way:  Country A is going to get some kind of benefit from its increase in productivity.  It can take that benefit in the form of a booming export sector (if the currencies do not adjust), or in the form of increased purchasing power for its consumers (if Country B devalues its currency).  As a side note, for many years China "took its benefit" in the form of a booming export sector, angering its trade partners.  Now its currency has appreciated considerably, to the benefit of its consumers and the delight of its trade partners, but to the detriment of its export sector.

If the nominal exchange rate does not adjust, then eventually Country A's booming tradeable sector will lead to inflation, while Country B's depressed tradeable sector will result in deflation (or at least lower inflation).  This will have roughly the same effect as a devaluation of Country B's currency relative to Country A's currency.  As Country A's currency inflates faster than Country B's, its relative labor costs rise and the trade balance shifts in favor of Country B.  Note that Country A's purchasing power still increases relative to Country B's, because while Country A's currency is inflating, the nominal exchange rate is staying the same.  Basically, the price of everything except imports from Country B is rising.  You can see why that would improve Country B's trade balance.

Alternatively, of course, Country B could try to imitate Country A and increase the productivity of its workforce.  If Country B's workers can become as productive as Country A's, then trade can be balanced without any need for currency adjustments or relative inflation.  We'll return to this, but for now just bear in mind that it may be difficult, painful, or even impossible to do this.

What I just described in the last two paragraphs is essentially what has to happen if Country A and Country B use the same currency.  In that case, there is no such thing as "devaluation," and so adjustments must be made in other ways (relative inflation or relative productivity gains).  But this post is long enough, I will describe my view of the European situation in the next post.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

The Importance of Being Earnest

So, New Sincerity.  I can't really write anything about New Sincerity, since that term refers to some sort of literary movement that happened years ago and with which I have no familiarity.  Elisa wrote a blog post discussing New Sincerity, and you can see things play out in the comments section of that post.  Elisa's post linked to a lengthier blog post by A D Jameson.  He later wrote a follow-up post, and has promised to write more.

So far my knowledge of New Sincerity goes, and no further.  But I was intrigued by this tweet by Elisa:

If we don't care what people mean, there can be no irony, and all texts are sincere.

(You can see an earlier expression of this sentiment, and of the opposite sentiment, if you read through the posts I have linked above.)  I responded, eventually, "The text can have both [a literal and intended meaning] without regard to the author's subjective state."  That is, the text is all you know on earth, and all you need to know.  It's sort of like a metaphysical anti-realist position.  The author is dispensable, superfluous, analogous to the noumenal world.

And I think this is basically what I believe.  You can spend a lot of time thinking about what an author "really meant," or what an author's viewpoint "really" was.  I am not denying that this can be worthwhile—surely it can bring valuable insight.  And you could, in theory, define irony and sincerity as a function of the author's intent.  This, I think, is less fruitful.  If we were to learn that Catch-22 had been written by an advanced computer algorithm designed only to maximize book sales, we would not then conclude that it does not contain irony after all.  (Again, this does not mean that its origins would be uninteresting.)

At this point I should re-emphasize that I have no familiarity with "New Sincerity."  I just have an idea in my head of what it could mean, in a perfect world.  So the following bears only accidental resemblance to reality, if any.

I think there is a terminological problem right from the start.  I wouldn't use the term "sincerity," I would use the term "earnestness."  Sincerity has connotations of honesty, which is not quite what I think is called for.  What I am looking for is emotional straightforwardness.  I am looking for hearts on sleeves.

And while I am happy to argue that irony—true irony, not dramatic irony—is detectable even with no insight into the author's mental state, irony is not the right term for what should be cast aside.  Rather, what I wish people would shy away from is detachment, which is so often accomplished by ironic distance.  What I want to banish is deniability.  I don't care how you render yourself capable of being pinned down, I just want you to do it.

Maybe an analogy will help.  You are discussing something with your friends.  One of your friends simply mocks what other people say and looks for opportunities to be clever.  Another friend takes positions, defends them, re-examines them, engages with you.  This is the difference between detachment and earnestness.  It doesn't have to do, specifically, with the deployment of irony.

So you can imagine a pamphleteer writing an argument that is sarcastic throughout, and yet is entirely earnest.  This is not a contradiction in terms unless you take earnestness to be simply the absence of irony.

Now you might say, "But James, if you want the author to wear his heart on his sleeve, then you must care about what the author really means."  I'm not sure that's right.  Again, I think one can be a metaphysical anti-realist about this and concern oneself only with the text itself, the "voice," the feel.  Tolstoy's description of how Kitty feels when she attends a ball is earnest, though it is hard to imagine that the man himself authentically felt what it was like to be a Russian debutante.  Or to follow my analogy, in a discussion, someone could take a position provisionally, or for the sake of argument.  As long as he does his job properly, the discussion can be fruitful regardless of what he really thinks.

But I am not sure I am right about this (being way out of my depth).  I offer one of my favorite passages from Infinite Jest as an example.  It is sufficiently problematic, I think, that it could be cited for or against my position.  Pemulis is trying to comfort Possalthwaite, who keeps saying that nothing is true.  (His father has somehow betrayed him, I don't remember how.)  From footnote 324:

Pemulis compulsively zipped and unzipped one of the covers.  'Take a breather, Keith.  Todd, trust math.  As in Matics, Math E.  First-order predicate logic.  Never fail you.  Quantities and their relation.  Rates of change.  The vital statistics of God or equivalent.  When all else fails.  When the boulder's slid all the way to the bottom.  When the headless are blaming.  When you do not know your way about.  You can fall back and regroup around math.  Whose truth is deductive truth.  Independent of sense or emotionality.  The syllogism.  The identity.  Modus Tollens.  Transitivity.  Heaven's theme song.  The nightlight on life's dark wall, late at night.  Heaven's recipe book.  The hydrogen spiral.  The methane, ammonia, H2O.  Nucleic acids.  A and G, T and C.  The creeping inevitability.  Caius is mortal.  Math is not mortal.  What it is is:  listen:  it's true.'

. . . .

Pemulis unzipped the cover.  'The axiom.  The lemma.  Listen:  "If two different sets of parametric equations represent the same curve J, but the curve is traced in opposite directions in the two cases, then the two sets of equations produce values for a line integral over J that are negatives of each other."  Not "If thus-and-such."  Not "unless a gladhanding commercial realtor from Boardman MN in $400 Banfi loafers changes his mind."  Always and ever.  As in puts the a in a priori.  An honest lamp in the inkiest black, Toddleposter.'

. . . .

'. . .  Only that at times like this, when you're directionless in a dark wood, trust to the abstract deductive.  When driven to your knees, kneel and revere the double S.  Leap like a knight of faith into the arms of Peano, Leibniz, Hilbert, L'Hôpital.  You will be lifted up.  Fourier, Gauss, LaPlace, Rickey.  Borne up.  Never let fall.  Wiener, Riemann, Frege, Green.'

. . . .

'Never trust the father you can see,' Pemulis told Possalthwaite.

[A little context is needed.  Pemulis's math skills are questionable, and his relationship with his own father is troubled.  And so, you know, DFW has the requisite detachment from the emotion that is being expressed.  But still.  Possibly bearing on this question:  DFW was a sort of math half-nerd, having written an error-prone book (PDF) on the subject of infinity.]

Thursday, June 07, 2012

No Reservations

We're all looking for life worth livin'
That's why we drink ourselves to sleep.
-Uncle Tupelo, "Life Worth Livin'"

I think it's easy to become pessimistic about life.  The cynical view is so often vindicated, and things so predictably turn to shit.  Once you get past a certain stage of intellectual development, you lose the ability to see anything as straightforwardly good.  For instance, breasts.  This is a major loss, much like the loss of knowledge caused by increased methodological rigor, except that there is no prospect of reclaiming innocence once it is lost.

There are ways of dealing with all of this, and an important one involves being willing to make judgments in spite of the fact that those judgments can never be entirely right and can never be entirely justified, or even defended (except as a pis aller).  But while those judgments are necessary, they are hard to embrace.  You have to lack a certain self-awareness in order to make judgments with the strength necessary to carry them out. It was said that in East Germany, "Of the three features–personal honesty, sincere support of the regime and intelligence–it was possible to combine only two, never all three."  Similarly, in life you can never combine (A) an awareness of the limits of your worldview with (B) a worthwhile course of action and (C) sufficient confidence in (B) to pursue your chosen course of action in the face of obstacles/objections.  You basically have to suspend (A) for a while in order to get things done, and, crucially, you will never know whether this was the right choice.  "Do I dare disturb the universe?" is not a trivial question.

This is just an unpleasant fact about life, but every once in a while you find something that brings some lightness to life, some Belgian yeast (or, inshallah, bacteria) into a sea of light lagers.  Elisa points us to a phenomenal episode of Radiolab that you can enjoy without reservation.  William Gladstone!  Homer!  the perception of color!  As a human, you have been given the ability to play with ideas, to turn them over in your head, to prod and admire them.  Use it tonight!

Monday, June 04, 2012

Front Door

Today's XKCD is funny:

But it's worth remembering what a court reporter said in the NY Times City Room's "Ask a Court Reporter" series.  A reader asked:

"Has anything you’ve ever heard/witnessed in a courtroom affected you in such a way that made you change something about your life?"

And the court reporter answered:

"Yes, Josephine. Something specific that comes to mind is when I was working at the Manhattan district attorney’s office, unfortunately there were many women who came to testify about being sexually assaulted. A lot of the attacks would happen late at night as the woman would unlock the front door to her apartment building, and the attacker would come up behind her and push her into the building. At that time, I was living in a ground-floor apartment in Brooklyn, and hearing victim after victim testify to being pushed into their apartments without even seeing the perpetrator coming up behind them significantly changed the way I entered my own apartment."

So trust your instincts.  Look around before you unlock the door, and then quickly get inside.  There is no reason to feel embarrassed about being careful and safe.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Teju Cole's Open City

Teju Cole's Open City is one of the most effective examinations of privilege that I have ever read.

Some reviews take the title of the book to refer to New York City.  For instance, James Wood's review in the New Yorker describes New York as open, "but perhaps only in a negative way:  full of people bumping their hard solitude off one another."

To me, this reading of the title seems overly generic and literal.  It is like using "fellow traveler" to mean a traveling companion—that's not wrong exactly, but it misses quite a lot.  To be precise, an open city is a city that announces that it will not resist an invading army, in the hope that the army will spare it.  Brussels is the literal open city of Cole's book, having yielded to its Nazi occupiers without a struggle.

If Brussels was an open city, Stalingrad was the opposite, and their divergent fates illustrate what is for me the key theme of Open City:  privilege that consists of ignoring the moral demands that the world would otherwise impose on you.  The ability to abstain from the struggle, the ability to remain aloof.  Brussels made its compromise with evil and gave the Nazis little trouble.  Stalingrad fucking bled them.  But Brussels preserved itself, keeping its pleasant medieval buildings and streets intact, while Stalingrad was utterly destroyed.

To Brussels, the war was something that largely happened somewhere else, in cities like Rotterdam and London, Dresden and Tokyo. Being an open city meant not having to think about tragic choices like the British decision to destroy the French fleet at Mers-el-Kébir, or for that matter Churchill's decision to wage total war on the Nazi regime, a decision which entailed losing the British Empire.

And as the narrator of Open City suggests, there is something a little insane about going the way of Stalingrad.  Amsterdam will always be considered a greater city than Rotterdam, partly because it acquiesced in evil.  So wasn't that the healthy choice?  And how often must Amsterdam even consider whether it did the right thing?  Open City reminds us of the disturbing fact that one of the features of privilege is that it is not required to recognize itself.  To a large degree, privilege consists of things that don't happen to you, choices that never present themselves, facts that don't seep into your awareness.  Not only will the privileged be spared the horrors of war, they will not even have to confront their own abdication.

It's a disgusting lesson, so Open City is not always an enjoyable book to read.  But in a way it is its own antidote:  it sheds light on privilege, stripping from it that character of self-ignorance that is so repugnant.