Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Boer Interviews Rising Star Julian Castro for TNR

She's too modest to brag about it, but last week Boer wrote a fantastic profile about one of the hottest stars in the Democratic Party firmament: DNC keynote speaker and San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro. The article was published on the website of The New Republic. An excerpt:
Of the twenty-nine state-wide offices in Texas, zero are held by Democrats—but Castro doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a “proud Democrat.” ... Still, Castro is a realist about the Democrats’ current prospects for state-wide office in Texas. “For me, or for any Democrat, something has to change in the state before a Democrat is going to get elected.”
Read the whole thing.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Amongst the Cyclists

I have a confession: I am afraid of bikes. The way some people fear lions or rabid dogs, I dread pedals and gears. When I was 15, I had a bicycle accident and tore off most of the skin on my left arm. I got some cool scars for my trouble. The incident pulled the bloom off of my budding romance with my bicycle. For about a decade afterwards, I refused to touch a handlebar.

But now I live in Greenpoint, where cycling is a custom, like greeting strangers with a handshake and binge drinking. Is it not time to face my fear? Since Friday, I’ve been vacationing in Naples, Florida, cycling capital of the southern U.S. On Friday night, when I learned that a local bike club planned to host a forty-five mile ride on Monday morning, I thought: Here is an auspicious opportunity to conquer an old nemesis.

So on Sunday afternoon I rented a bike. The next morning I rode up to the parking lot outside Moe’s Burritos for the 7:30 start time.

But when I arrived at the parking lot, I immediately knew that something was wrong. The scene was  unsettling: roughly 200 men and women, a mix of young and old, thin and sinewy, wiry and muscular, eyeing each other warily across the parking lot and flaunting their orange spandex bike suits.

There was also this: I’d been told to expect a slow, patient ride, with two groups, one slow and one fast, no speed guideline for the slow group, and the fast group averaging between 20-22 mph—roughly my top speed, which I can maintain for a few minutes when I pedal as hard and as fast as I can. And then I talked to the registration lady. “20-22 mph is the slow group. But don’t worry. We can start a 19 mph group.” It was clear: this was no pleasant jaunt along the Gulf Coast. I’d smuggled myself into a ritual gathering of the cycling ubermenschen.


In my experience, hard-core cyclists are mostly normal, non-psychotic people, at least in their everyday lives, until they band together; then, an inscrutable force takes over, trumping all usual social norms. It is the cyclist code, a collection of esoteric laws and minute distinctions of rank. Thus, the fast “A” group always maintains a safe distance from the slow “B” team. Both groups divide further by allegiance to rival bike clubs. In the parking lot, roughly half of the riders were wearing red and white spandex suits emblazoned with the words “Naples Cyclery”. Another subsection, perhaps a third, wore skin-tight red and orange adverts for “Naples Velo”. And within these bands, there were still finer gradations of status, possibly related to skill, income, age, and other factors that I did not know enough to discern.

One status signal is louder than the rest. I am referring to the bicycle. Each of the cyclists had an elite road bike, with one exception, a man with a graying ponytail and a mountain bike who was skulking behind an SUV. A road bike, it should be said, is an absurd machine. Equipped with ultra thin tires and very stiff suspension, it is good for one thing only, i.e. barreling down smooth pavement at full speed; it is over-specialized, like a strange flightless bird whose next evolutionary step is extinction. The bike I had borrowed was middle of the road, made of aluminum and retailing for about $1500. Most of my companions rode carbon-fiber space ships, the best of which weigh less than a small dog and cost upwards of ten grand. The main justification for this huge price premium is a ring of tiny ball bearings hidden in the center of each wheel. When these are properly made, the bike is almost frictionless. After you’ve accelerated to top speed, it’s easy to fly down flat roads at 22 mph. The seat is so much higher than the handlebar that you, the rider, are forced to lean far forward, flattening your chest until your upper body is nearly parallel to the road. You feel like a charging bull as you lead with your helmet, ready to gore anyone that should cross your path, like other cyclists.


The ride started. We left the parking lot. A third pack, a C team, settled in behind the A and B groups, which I gratefully joined. As it turns out, I was actually a bit stronger than I had thought. I pushed to the front, settling a few feet behind the leader of the group, a sixty-year-old grizzly bear of a human being named Tom. Tom was a natural leader of men, boasting a grim stare and bright green skin-tight shorts. I followed him for the rest of the ride. We traveled on shoulder lanes converted into bike lanes along 8-lane commercial roads. We passed subdivisions, pet cemeteries, heavy wood sound barriers, sidewalks, shopping centers, towering highway lights spaced at regular intervals. We positively blazed along, averaging nearly 18 mph.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

The Prisoner's Dilemmas

Fiction has its limits, and economics seems to lie at the outer frontiers. The Shylocks, the Roarks, the critters in Animal Farm, in as much as they are meant to represent in literature the infrastructures and underlying principles of economics, fail horribly at doing that. It isn't their fault; it is impossible. A single character can only represent a small corner of the tableau of a particular economic scheme, and so each descends into his own allegory without ever capturing the real picture. Pip inheriting his money is as much a representation of a "literature of capitalism" as Tess going from dairy maid to reaper; a banker, a merchant, an aristocrat are just these and nothing more.

Why? Because capitalism is a system. It's made up of something called "rational actors". "Rational actors" are not the same thing as people, and fictional people, especially, are in general not "rational actors". They go about, each the protagonists of their own stories. But capitalism is the great aggregator of everyone's interactions with everyone else's; it does not allow for a protagonist. Capitalism has no center and "equilibrium" has no stories. Equilibrium is rather boring, and so are "rational actors"—no one wants to read about those (unless you like reading economics papers I suppose, which one might argue are an interesting sort of fiction themselves).

Yet there remain enough places where these problems might be avoided. Whence the Literary Bankers, you ask: they are all in Russia. In the contemporary Russia of fiction there’s all the middle-class existential ennui that in the West gets rather trite, but next to it you find also a particularly hellish breed of nastiness. Russian capitalism is far from equilibrium. Add to all this the strange romance of snowscapes and onion domes, and the surrealism that comes out of it all certainly lends itself to revealing some interesting things. A place as grotesque as alluring: isn’t that the basis of fascination?

The actors in A.D. Miller's novel Snowdrops, a Man-Booker Prize finalist from last year, are the closest thing to rational actors as seen in recent fiction (don't worry, they're interesting characters, too). Barrister Nick is engaged to be married, and Snowdrops is a confessional to his bride-to-be about the years he spent working in Moscow. "You're always saying that I never talk about my time in Moscow or about why I left. You're right, I've always made excuses, and soon you'll understand why."

We understand, because we can sense the squalor lurking beneath the glamour. We know from the beginning that the "snowdrop" of the title is not the early-blooming white flower, but its alternative definition: "Moscow slang. A corpse that lies buried or hidden in the winter snows, emerging only in the thaw." We can sense from the beginning that Nick's client, "the Cossack" is hardly an honest merchant. Nick knows it too—"lipstick on a pig," he tells us—but what can you do with suspicion? Can you predict what actually will go right or wrong? Something is clearly troubling about the Cossack's pipeline deal, but you can only do your job, fill out the right paperwork, and hope you have taken the right precautions.

It is a bit obvious to say that love is the absence of precautions—but that's the point, isn't it? To fall in love is to expose all one's vulnerability, and Nick, vulnerable Nick, quickly falls into love with beautiful, seemingly vulnerable Masha, whom he meets along with her sister Katya, extricating from a mugger in the subway. 

"She loves me too, I think," Nick says to a journalist friend. But like Nick, we cannot be sure. Are we to trust, as Nick does, or are we to be on our guard? "Listen," Nick's friend replies, "if she [tells you she loves you], she'll meant it. She'll mean it at the moment she says it. But twenty minutes later she'll mean it when she nicks your credit card. They mean everything." 

The cynicism does not seem entirely out of place. "Has she got you to buy her anything yet? Diamonds? Car? Tit job, maybe?" No: but soon enough Masha and Katya are introducing Nick to their aunt, Tatiana Vladimirovna, and have a favor to ask. Tatiana needs help acquiring an apartment on the outskirts of town, closer to the country; would Nick help with the legal process for it? "It's not a lot of work," Nick reasons. "It won't cost me anything."

But what is the cost of anything? Nick can’t answer that question—no single person can, because it depends on the actor at the other end of the equation. In a working marketplace, those on each end of the bargain come together, and determine an acceptable price; they each know the cost of the exchange relative to each. The Putin-era Russia of Snowdrops, however, doesn't work like that. 

A. D. Miller (not to be confused with another British author also named Andrew Miller) himself was The Economist's Russia correspondent during the time Snowdrops is set, and the setting of his novel is written to be "both accurate and distorted," but one imagines cannot be far from the mark. Here, no one can be certain what exchange entails.

In its way, the Russia of Miller's Snowdrops is a society swallowed up in a game of the prisoner's dilemma. "Most [Russians] had a sort of automatic national pride, I'd discovered, even if they all wanted for themselves was to get the hell out of there and head for Los Angeles or the Cote d'Azur." Mother Russia is the prison, Russians its prisoners, and money the figurative policeman, holding the key to each man's escape. 

In a classic arrangement of the prisoner's dilemma game, each prisoner has a choice—either to betray his fellow prisoner by placing blame squarely with the other, or to play "trust" and accept the blame himself. If both prisoners play "trust," they both face a light sentence (i.e. are marginally rewarded); if one plays "betray" and the other plays "trust", the latter is heavily punished while the betrayer goes free; if both play "betray", both are punished. Neither prisoner knows what the other is choosing. 

In Snowdrops, Nick plays both. His seedy pipeline deal with the Cossack is an unapologetic pursuit for profit, betrayal against the public faith and the rules of fair economics; he plays trust in offer his services to do the paperwork, and arrange the payment for Tatiana Vladimirovna's apartment venture. But what are the other players playing?

The novel's denouement reveals, hauntingly, a place where playing "trust" leads only to punishment, for so much of society seems to be playing "betray", and playing it better—i.e. dealing out harsher punishments for those who trust, and greater rewards for the betrayer—than even the during the days of siege at Leningrad. "That particular Russian everyday war, the war of everyone against everyone else," Nick tells us. And yet, when the last man betrays, the punishment for all of society will be meted out with the greatest severity.

Though the story is told by Nick, in first person, we realize that this is not his story. It is the story of all the players of the game. It is the expression of an economic system through fiction. Yet it remains human; amidst all this are the things that make the system possible— an undeniable attraction, an unfatalistic attitude of hope the characters exude. "As long as we are alive, it is possible that one day we will be happy," Nick's Russian neighbor tells him, even as he frets about the disappearance of a friend, and the doleful state of his city. "Life is dangerous," says Masha, "no one [has] survived it yet."

The possibility of happiness, of danger, of the extremes of trust and betrayal—these are the siren song of Miller's Moscow. In such an environment it is impossible to hold steady to what we like to call morality. But it is impossible to betray everyone, all the time, and live still in any semblance of society. So in such a place, we become by turns vulnerable and duplicitous. We become, as Nick says of Masha’s sister Katya, "sort of innocent and grown-up at the same time.”

"You know what you need, Nick?" his journalist friend tells him. "You need to lose your moral bearings. Otherwise you're done for"; because "Russia... is like Lariam. You know, that malaria medicine that can make you have wild dreams and jump out of the window. You shouldn't do it if you are the kind of person who gets anxious or guilty, Nick. You shouldn't do Russia. Because you'll crack."

There is the grotesqueness, too: the topsy-turvy mixing of such an unpredictable world, an unknowable order of things, and the shock of revelation when the snow melts away. The Russia of Snowdrops—however colored by fiction, however close to the real thing—is undoubtedly as grotesque as it is alluring; where there is both, is that not also what allows the possibility of evil?

Posted by Boer 

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Capital Strike

I used to think that the notion of a "capital strike" was a right wing fantasy, grist for Ayn Rand novels but not to be taken seriously. Lately, I'm not so sure. Since 2009, instead of buying risky assets (stocks, for instance), which would help grow the U.S. economy, large institutional investors like pension funds and endowments have taken their ball and gone home. Or to be precise, locked it up in US government bonds which, unlike stocks, do not directly boost economic growth. You would have expected risk-averse investment behavior in the immediate aftermath of the Great Recession; in 2008, with demand weak and growth prospects low, the stock market was a particularly inhospitable climate. But it's gone on too long; today, three years later, investors are still buying up government bonds in droves; and in the meantime these bonds have become extremely unattractive investments. The key thing to know about bond buying is that you accept a relatively low return on your investment (yield) in exchange for the virtual guarantee that you will get your money back at the end of term (maturity). But in part because the federal reserve has driven its short term rate down to just above zero (to spur investment by reducing the cost of financing), the yield on 10 year U.S. treasuries is currently 1.68%. Assuming annual inflation of roughly 2%, buying a U.S. T-bill is now simply a guaranteed way to lose money.

And yet they keep buying them. Perhaps all of this so-called "risk off" behavior has less to do with rational pessimism about growth prospects than with simple petulance. Here is the context: free market fundamentalists have just seen the incineration of a key pillar of their worldview. The myth of the "bond vigilante" is busted: despite obscene debt ratios, U.S. and UK government debt pays negative real yields. At the same time, central banks are undertaking large scale intervention in the markets in an attempt to boost stock prices and discourage bond buying. The investors I talk to whine constantly about this, which they call "market distortion" and "financial repression". They make me think of a child's temper when a favorite toy is taken away.

For an example of an investor tantrum, read this Financial Times op-ed from Bill Gross, head of the world's largest bond fund, PIMCO:

Psst! Investors – do you wanna know a secret? Do you wanna know what Angela Merkel, François Hollande, Christine Lagarde and Mario Draghi all share in common? They want your money!
They’ve wanted it for years now but you are resisting by holding on to it or investing it at negative interest rates in Switzerland, Germany and a growing number of other countries considered to be European Union havens. They want you to be less frugal and more risk-seeking. They want your money as a substitute for theirs in Spain, Italy and, of course, Greece, but they don’t mention that any more. The example would be too off-putting. “Investors,” they plead, “show us your money!”

It's hard to imagine anything Gross could have written that would have more thoroughly validated the charge of financier petulance.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Language Problems

I wonder if Shakespeare is so feted in the English-speaking world because he might be the first to think about English in particular (and language in general, by extension) in philosophical ways, as per your Caliban and Miranda. The way that semantic understanding of language co-opts and precludes all other understandings is so interesting isn't it? That language, for each of us, takes on differently voice, and character, and most especially, meaning. That it is both the medium of thought and the enabler of thinking. I doubt that there can be devised a scale in which the degrees of truth of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis can be measured, but impact of this truth seems to me like it must always be felt. 

It strikes me, for example, that I am incapable of thinking these thoughts in my mother tongue, a language left behind at a much younger age, and so my command of it remains forever arrested in development. I imagine the same thing happens for any speaker of a second language, when that language has not lived and breathed next to you, when you have not co-existed and evolved with it. As time passes, it leaves you behind, and you cannot develop the faculties to manipulate it and to extract from it its humor, its little ironies and subtleties and furtive meanings even as you pronounce its syllables. 

A German linguist name Schleicher observed three "typological classifications" for languages: isolating language, like Chinese, in which words exist independently of each other, and are strung together in almost infinite possible permutations to form new words with new meanings; agglutinating language, like Turkish, in which this is done with a fixed root varied by identifiable affixations; and inflecting languages, of the Indo-European kind, in which roots are modified by conjugation.

It strikes me, too, then, that we speakers of a second language are rather bounded by the rules of category—to inflect when the language commands us to inflect, to affix when it is correct to affix. But the mastery of language is the mastery of rule breaking. Take English and make it isolating—that is wordsmithing, and how you get Shakespeare and "Spitzenfreude" and "creovation" and cryptic crossword clues (our British cousins, it seems, have quite a knack for it). Take Chinese and make it non-inflecting, and that adds to it irony.

I am no good at either, in either language. I wonder if that makes me not entirely in command of my own thoughts.

Posted by Boer

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Whence the Literary Bankers?

Last week my friend Robert sent me the following email:

The nineteenth century novel is the closest thing we have to a literature of capitalism. One of the stock characters was the businessman or his son who due to the vicissitudes of life, a run of bad luck, or weak character turns to gambling, becomes addicted and ultimately looses everything. In some novels a rich relative might bail them out, or wife and family might bring them to reason, while others ended in tragic ruin. The melodramatic and Weberian moral was obvious. Today we have a post-capitalist literature, which rarely deals with the virtues and vices of the business world. And yet here before us are all these bankers, addicted to gambling, relying on government to bail them out, with their decaying character laid bare before the public. Where are our Dickens, Balzac, Dostoyevsky, Trollop?

I replied:

What is our closest analogue—something like American Psycho by Brett Easton Ellis? That book belongs to a more confident (pre-lapsarian?) era in American finance. But then the scary thought is that perhaps, despite the crisis, nothing has really changed and the world of American Psycho still exists.
More recently John Lanchester wrote a book called Capital which takes the banking crisis as its plot fulcrum and which I have heard good things about but have not read. Also: Red Plenty, by Francis Spufford, whose subject is not banking at all but the promise and failure of the Kruschev era soviet system; but here the financial crisis is the obvious, if unmentioned, prime mover. It's curious: the book which says maybe the most interesting things about the financial crisis happens to be a book about communism.
Perhaps the failure of finance is too obvious and banal to make compelling fiction—like a mystery novel, if the identity of the killer is already clear after the first chapter.
I've heard people say that nowadays, the production of English language fiction is split between New York and London on the one hand, and Iowa (the most famous MFA program) on the other. If that is true, then the literary problem can be reduced to one of geography: half of our writers are too close to finance to write about it, while the other half are too far away.

Robert sent back:

The thing about capitalism in nineteenth century novels is that it was very much the environment in which the character existed. Nicholas Nickleby has characters that are involved in making loans to businesses, there is a great deal of information about what they are doing as it is part of the plot, Also Dickens did have strong opinions about people who lived only to make money but functioning in the business world was a part of the story. The French are thick with business Stendhal, Balzac, Flaubert all have capitalist characters central to their stories.
In the 20th century John O’Hara often wrote with a strong capitalist business background as of course did Sinclair Lewis but not Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck (East of Eden???), Faulkner, Nabokov, Proust, Forester, …

What do you think?

Posted by Jarad

Sunday, July 15, 2012

We Calibans

Two weeks ago, on a Thursday, I got off the Subway and it was raining. I went walking down to the Williamsburg waterfront. The place was empty, although on a clear night, strollers block the paths and couples pack the benches. Across the East River, the Empire State Building had been lit purple, blue, orange, yellow, and green for pride week; to the left, trains crossed the Williamsburg Bridge. It was close to midnight and I walked past the open lot where the flea market sets up every weekend and past the ferry, down to the rail at the edge of the water. I found a dry place to sit on the ground, facing the river, cross-legged under a rain shelter for ferry passengers. I had decided to bring The Tempest with me to read.

I get to the passage where Miranda recalls teaching Caliban to speak:

... I pitied thee;
Took pains to make thee speak, taught thee each hour
One thing or other: when thou didst not (savage)
Know thine own meaning; but would gabble, like
A thing most brutish, I endow’d thy purposes
With words that made them known...
You taught me language and my profit on’t
Is, I know how to curse: the red plague rid you
For learning me your language.
And I thought to myself: What a virtuoso passage! Aren’t we all always Miranda, and Caliban too? Don’t we strive restlessly to give opportunities to ourselves, to better ourselves? And don’t we all misuse or squander the opportunities?

But then I realize the brutality of the comparison. For Caliban, who is trapped, and whose physical freedom is exterminated, can language amount to more than an extra facet of enslavement? There is a technique of colonial management that was developed to maximum sophistication by the British, who taught the Brahman elites of colonized India to speak and read English. The deliberate aim was to create a class of Indians who “thought British.” Nietzsche said that all thought is trapped in the “prison house of language,” meaning that thought always flows through language’s canals and channels. If that is true, then Miranda did not only teach Caliban language, but also, perhaps, dug furrows in his mind.

Language could rebound to Caliban’s advantage; the colonizer’s weapon could always fall into the hands of the colonized. Yesterday in 1789, the French third estate stormed the Bastille, shouting: “liberté, égalité, fraternité.” Two years later, the black slaves working the sugar plantations of Haiti used the same slogan when overthrowing their French masters.

Language has a finite number of combinations, but infinite speakers—that's the trouble. It is like the subway, which has a fixed set of routes but endless riders. You are inevitably reusing lines already used millions of times. When you are taught a language you are shackled to the language’s past. For Caliban, that past is decidedly inhospitable. And Caliban will never develop his own language, for the teacher has what the game theorists call “the first proposer’s advantage.” The first solution to a problem gets adopted a high percentage of the time, even if the proposal is unfair. Proposing an alternative solution is a perverse waste of resources—reinventing the wheel.

The only appropriate response is defiance: “the red plague rid you / for learning me your language.” Brooklyn is full of Calibans: rebels against an inherited way of being, who will ultimately wind up disappointed repeaters of the past. 

Posted by Jarad

Saturday, June 30, 2012

What We Like

With some friends, you find an endless supply of things to talk about, beyond the quotidian. This should not be impeded by being at a distance. So we friends who are now separated in geography by a few hundred miles of the American eastern seaboard will pontificate, argue, address, and enjoy the subjects of our mutual (we hope) interests by pontificating, arguing, addressing, and otherwise doing so via the internet.

And what is it that we like? Books, articles, arts, markets, sports, leisurely things of not much less practical use than our respective day jobs (although that might just be my feeling). Jarad is an editor, and I am a consultant. We hope to occasionally have other friends join, too, or at least to read what we think is clever commentary and astute observation (but we would think that, wouldn't we?) Whatever the case, we think it will be great fun.