“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Saturday, March 13, 2004


I’ve been having an interesting email fire fight with my friend B., a Bush supporter. Yes, Virginia, I know Bush supporters. Plenty of them. Some people I know have expressed shock -- myself, I think if you don't know anybody who supports Bush, you are living in a bit of a bubble, no? Anyway, like other Bush supporters I’ve met, there is one area in which they respond as though bitten by a snake: that is the accusation that Bush has displayed vast incompetence as a military leader.

It has become a default in American politics that Republicans are strong on defense, as the press likes to say – strong War-makers, to be less euphemistic – and we are worried that Kerry, who is a process Democrat, is going to let that reputation go unscathed. He shouldn’t. He should scathe it every chance he gets, and stuff his inclination to reference the U.N. like a maniac every time talks about U.S. Foreign Policy. Process is for cheese sandwiches, Senator. Attack is what is called for.

The latest NYT story about the selling of weapons by Pakistan is a perfect illustration of the Bush administration’s failure to mount a competent war. Our critical dependence on Pakistan has been aggravated by Bush’s decision virtually to suspend the hunt for Osama bin Laden, and the difficult work of capturing important Al Q operatives, in order to invade Iraq. Bush’s decision was made all the easier by the process politics favored by the Dems. Instead of sustaining a count down, on the model of the hostage crisis count down, of days that Osama bin Laden has escaped the force Bush promised would bring him in, dead or alive, the Dems have basically given Bush a pass. That pass is going to cost them in this election.

It doesn’t have to. Here’s how Bush's masked timidity has played out in the crucial Central Asian area.

1.By allowing Osama bin Laden to play the traditional game of bandit leader, Bush's victory over the Taliban looks increasingly hollow. Don't mistake me -- that the Taliban regime no longer rules from Kabul is a good thing. But the Taliban was a secondary goal. They never attacked the U.S. -- they confined themselves to bombing age old and precious statues of the Buddha. Their sole role, in this game, was to protect Al Qaeda. That is why they went down. Al Q. didn't. The bandit leader wins, in this game, by transforming his mere survival into a symbol. After Osama's group attacked on 9/11, the world, and especially the Central Asian world, expected Osama's group to suffer. They have, but in proportion to their crime, they remain remarkably intact as a force. And that survival is a recruiting advantage. Bringing down Osama bin wasn't going to end attacks against the U.S, but it would make them look increasingly ridiculous. Instead of pursuing this course, Bush has presided with his usual sublime oblivion over a spate of violence that has extended, now, from Saudi Arabia to Madrid. His only response has been to assure Americans that two thirds of the Al Q. force has been captured or killed. Unlikely, we reply. The main issue is to discourage Al Q. -like groups from multiplying. That Al Q. itself is wounded means little, if its spin offs, using the same networks, are able to work within the umbrella of its symbolic power.
2. Osama is not the only beneficiary of the hiatus in the war against Al Q. Think the Pakistan military. With the withdrawal of focal American forces to fight in Iraq, we have been thrown on the tender mercies of the most sophisticated network for diffusing under the table nuclear materials in the world. Of course, God knows what else they have diffused. Or no... we don’t have to consult the almighty on the question of diffusing aid dollars to Swiss bank accounts. We’ve known about that for some time.
3.So now we are in a political season in which Bush is surely going to rekindle the search for Osama, meaning that he is stuck sucking up to the Pakistanis, with the full approval of a Republican propaganda machine that went into motion against Saddam because of a vague threat to assassinate an ex president ten years ago. Well, in comparison, the incineration of Tokyo is peanuts. It is easy to predict that the lag between threat and realisation has allowed Osama to accrue the kind of symbolic power that will make the result of his capture destabilizing. Unlike Saddam Hussein, Osama is a hero in some parts of the world –namely, among the poorer people of Pakistan. Capturing Osama might well read to such a revolt in Pakistan that the leadership could either be damaged or brought down. We all know that Bush’s hopes reside on some outstanding reminder, to the American people, of how successful he has been as a War leader. The affection that will flow to Bush from the capture of Osama could certainly carry him into a second term. But that capture, if it isn’t timed right, could easily be overshadowed by the unexpected consequences deriving from his real incompetence – from the lag between the vow to capture Osama and the reality of the capture.

Kerry can’t counterpunch Bush by reverting to the genial mush of foreignpolicy speak. If he doesn’t use this time to frankly mount those attacks on Bush’s foreign policy leadership that will impact here, at the crux of the issues that engage us emotionally, Bush will Aznar him – polticize a terrible mistake into an electoral victory.

Friday, March 12, 2004


Our friend B. writes from Spain (B. asked us to clean up the grammar of this letter. No need to. It is perfectly clear as is):

"Aznar wishes it is ETA, but it does seem to be Al
Qaeda now. It is the Spanish Gov. the one that is
actually bombing us with lame propaganda. The reason
everyone believed immediately that it was ETA is
because of the escalating tension that we have been
living in during the electoral campaign (Elections
this sunday!). My reading is that this terrorist
attack is Ben Laden getting back at Aznar for his
support to Bush. This afternoon Aznar gave a pathetic
press conference: he had to read a paper, because he
was not even capable of memorizing a few sentences. He
sounded like it was his goodbye speech, thanking the
police for their great job (!) against ETA during
these past eight years... This is the image that he
will leave behind. Today he was reaping the fruits of
his policy. The National TV is still intoxicating us
with interviews about ETA, people complaining about it
and so forth while INTERNET is already carrying the
news that Al Qaeda has lready called an Arabian paper
in London to acknowledge this attack.

The ETA subplot here began in January 4th. A Catalan
leftist politician (the equivalent of a PRIME MINISTER
of the Catalan Gov.) had a secret meeting with ETA in
Southern France. This rendezvous was later denounced
by a Spanish newspaper ABC, and the Catalan prime
minister had to resign. The funny thing is that he
left the government to run for the current elections
for the Spanish Congress. This infuriated Aznar. A
week later, ETA announced a special truce only for
Catalonia. This is new in ETA history. They had never
singled out a territory before. They claimed that we
were cool because our government was leftist and
independentist. This, as you can imagine, infuriated
Aznar even more. Last week, this is the third turn of
the screw, the Spanish police arrested two ETA
terrorist who were heading towards Madrid, driving a
van full of dinamite. They had plans to bomb Madrid.

This is why everyone assumed it was ETA right away.
The question is if ETA has emulated Al Qaeda by
bombing without warning (they usually warned before if
they attacked civilians) and by planning a massacre.
More people died in Madrid today than were killed by
ETA in the last 20 years, I think.

This is the story so far. Spain has not finished
fighting an inside demon and is already facing a new
screen, a larger scale terror. Aznar will pay a big
price for it."

Note: the Economist mentions a similar set of facts (although B. is the first to put them in English, that I am aware of).

Thursday, March 11, 2004


We don’t understand what happened in Spain.

Politics promotes a certain emotional viciousness, which consists in the immediate assimilation of an event into an intellectual scheme. And that scheme gives us, automatically, villains and victims. The scum who did it – always scum, always the name hurled after the bomb.

We don’t understand why the train station was bombed. We don’t understand why instant understanding is conveyed in the reports of the bombing, as if we already knew all about it, as if we already knew that ETA did it, as if we already knew the bombs were there, as if we already knew the number of victims and their names, as if we already knew about every wound, as if we already knew all about the shock, as if we had already read the script, as if we were already bystanders and survivors, as if we already knew all about surviving, as if we had earned any of this.

We already know so much about 9/11 that we have no interest in knowing about 9/11 – and so the story of how that happened, and what happened, and how they did it, a story that has deviated more and more from what we already knew (as in, for instance, just what weapons Mohammed Atta’s group possessed) doesn’t concern us.

And so we will already know in the weeks ahead all about the bombing in Madrid. Such endless knowing, such endless ignorance, such an endless train of ghosts.

Tuesday, March 09, 2004


Bring back Gustavus Meyers.

When LI was a young and impressionable pup, he read an abridged version of Gustavus Myers “History of the Great American Fortunes.” It was, we believe, the Modern Library version. The book made a great impression on LI. It is always a great moment when a man finds words spelling out his obscure resentments -- it always leads to religious conversion or politics. For LI, it lead to politics. And here we are today!

This has all come back to us since finding a Myers devotee on the web – one who has actually put up whole books of Myers, such as his history of Tammany Hall. As well as the beloved, muckraking “American Fortunes.”

Gustavus Meyers was a rather unique combination of historian and muckraker. A brief bio exists his website. His great period was coincident with the great muckraking period – 1900-1917. His preferred rhetorical approach was the diatribe. Here’s a typical Meyers graf. He begins his history of Great American Fortunes with the first great American millionaire, John Jacob Astor. Astor made his money, originally, in the fur trade. Meyers provides a scoriating account of the way Astor’s company pursued the beaver pelt and the Indian in his first chapter. His second chapter begins:

“While at the outposts, and in the depths, of the Western wilderness an armed host was working and cheating for Astor, and, in turn, being cheated by their employer ; while, for Astor’s gain, they were violating all laws, debauching, demoralizing and beggaring entire tribes of Indians, slaying and often being themselves slain in retaliation, what was the beneficiary of this orgy of crime and bloodshed doing in New York ?”

Unfortunately, nobody writes like Myers any more. Nicholas Hoffman used to, but Hoffman is generally a clumsy butcher. There are times that his whacking is inspired, but compared to Myers it is as weak as is an apprentice homicide’s weekend in contrast with a night of Jack the Ripper's.

Myers was incensed that wealth had bent the American democracy to fit its oligarchic ends, and he trumpeted that belief from one end of his work to the other. He would find our current predicament, with a weak minded pawn of the malefactors of great wealth leading our country into a fiscal debauch from which the middle class is only going to escape by the skin of its teeth, grimly amusing – didn’t he tell us? Over and over again, he told us. Here is an observation about Astor’s contempt for the law that is quite contemporary:

As applied to the business and landowning class, law was notoriously a flexible, convenient, and highly adaptable function. By either the tacit permission or connivance of Government, this class was virtually, in most instances, its own law-regulator. It could consistently, and without being seriously interfered with, violate such laws as suited its interests, while calling for the enactment or enforcement of other laws which favored its designs and enhanced its profits. We see Astor ruthlessly brushing aside, like so many annoying encumbrances, even those very laws which were commonly held indispensable to a modicum of fair treatment of the Indians and to the preservation of human life. These laws happened to conflict with the amassing of profits ; and always in a civilization ruled by the trading class, laws which do this are either unceremoniously trampled upon, evaded or repealed.

For confirmation of which sentiments, go to the Biz section of today’s Times – any day’s Times since we’ve been keeping this website. Let’s see: for today, we have Martha Stewart. We have the bilking of Shell’s investors by the management. We have labor’s doldrums, which are partly the result of the labor gerontocracy’s refusal to confront the government on the laws designed to suppress unions. And we have the Tyco case, with its million dollar birthday party for Tyco’s ex-CEO.

Vernon Lewis Parrington’s Currents of American Thought has a nice little essay on the Muckrakers and Liberalism, which has been put on-line here.

Sunday, March 07, 2004


As readers of my previous post can tell, LI is in a bit of misery right now. Free fall, hysteria, calls to my brother, walks over bridges with an eye to trajectory, fall, unconsciousness, drowning.

But let’s get away from the personal, shall we? And take up the subject of models. Economic models.

In the Summer of 2001, the Journal of Social Research published a special issue on numbers and economics. This turns out to have been a timely topic, for at the moment, we are seeing economic numbers bifurcate in an unusual manner. On the one hand, we are in the midst of a strong business recovery – on the other hand, we are in the midst of a credit bubble, a wage meltdown, and a growth in unemployment and partial employment that is effecting us all – LI’s desperation, which see.

One aspect of this disturbance in the global economy is the three year collapse of economic forecasts. Although the Bush tax cut model was really not about sustaining us in a recession, the forecasts that have emanated from the White House are not just mendacious. They are underpinned by orthodox economic models. If the economy was recovering from a post-World War II recession along regular lines (given the absence of anything like an oil shock), we shouldn’t be seeing the sluggishness in the job market, or the slowdown in income increases, that we are seeing. Everybody, I think, agrees about that. In the Outlook section of the Washington Post today, there is an amusing article that uses Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash as a template for understanding the current anxiety about outsourcing. In Stephenson’s dystopic America, the only things that Americans produce competitively, any more, are micro-coding, t shirt slogans, and pizza delivery. As the author, an editor at U.S. News remarks, we might not be producing micro-coding competitively any more.

Read WP's article along side this thumb-sucker from the NYT. The pizza deliveryman future is no joke. The article cites Bill Gates recent campaign to get more students in IT classes:

[Gates cites] recent Bureau of Labor Statistics projections for 2002 to 2012 indicating a 57 percent increase in the number of jobs (up by 106,000) for network systems and data communications analysts and a 46 percent rise (up by 179,000) in positions for software engineers in applications.

But some economists point to those same federal forecasts to poke holes in the argument that the key to job creation is more sophisticated education and knowledge. Yes, the greatest increase is expected to be for registered nurses (an increase of 623,000 jobs) and college and university teachers (an increase of 603,000).

But according to forecasts issued last month by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 7 of the 10 occupations with the greatest growth through 2012 will be in low-wage, service fields requiring little education: retail salesperson, customer service representative, food-service worker, cashier, janitor, waiter and nursing aide and hospital orderly. Many of these jobs pay less than $18,000 a year. Forecasting an increase of 21 million jobs from 2002 to 2012, the bureau predicted 596,000 more retail sales jobs, 454,000 more food-service jobs and 454,000 more cashier positions."

LI, when not hitting the walls, is curious about the deep structure of the theoretical problem here. What are economic models, anyway?

In Measure for Measure: How Economists Model the World into Numbers, by a Dutch economist, Marcel Boumans, the answer is: models are instruments for seeing.

Here’s how he states his argument.

“This paper will argue that in economics, models function as such instruments of observation--more specifically, as measuring instruments. In measurement theory, measurement is the mapping of a property of the empirical world into a set of numbers. This paper's view is that economic modeling is a specific kind of mapping to which the standard account on how models are obtained and assessed does not apply. Models are not easily or simply derived from theories and subsequently tested against empirical data. Instruments are constructed by integrating theoretical and empirical ideas and requirements in such a way that their performance meets a previously chosen standard.”

Boumans’ first section starts with an intriguing quote:
“…Morrison and Morgan (1999) have shown that models in economics still function as if they were physical instruments. They can function as such because they involve some form of representation. This representative power enables us to learn something about the thing it represents. But,
we do not learn much from looking at a model--we learn more from building
the model and manipulating it. Just as one needs to use or observe the use
of a hammer in order to really understand its function, similarly, models
have to be used before they will give up their secrets. In this sense, they
have the quality of a technology--the power of the model only becomes
apparent in the context of its use (Morrison and Morgan, 1999: 12).”

This is a deconstructive moment. Boumans has presented the model, in his abstract, as a way of seeing – but what he seems to be tending towards is a way of reading. The conflation of reading and seeing is at the heart of the Derridian renewal of ecriture – a renewal that seems to have been forgotten, even among Derridians. That it is forgotten is generated by its structure – the difference between seeing and reading functions, in the Derridean version of Western metaphysics, as a self-erasing concept – it emerges only to vanish. The problem with the deconstruction is that it seems impervious to historical contingency. Actually, we think that deconstruction’s a-historical structures can be usefully historicized, and that Derrida’s attention to privileged metaphors and examples reflects the way the structure is historicized. Hence, that Heideggerian hammer that turns up, unexpectedly, in Morrison and Morgan’s quote.

But let’s not go that route. Instead, let’s go to sections 4 and 5 of Boumanss paper, on calibration. Here, again, there is a dominant instrument – a familiar one – the clock. The clock is an example of what Herbert Simon, and Boumans, calls the artifact:
“To clarify this definition of an artifact, Simon uses the example of a clock. The purpose of a clock is to measure time. The inner environment of the clock is its internal construction. Simon emphasizes that whether a clock will in fact tell time is also dependent on where it is placed. The artifact is molded by the environment: a sundial performs as a clock in sunny climates, but to devise a clock that would tell time on a rolling and pitching ship it has to be endowed with "many delicate properties, some of them largely or totally irrelevant to the performance of a landlubber's clock" (6).
The designer insulates the inner system from the environment, so that an
invariant relation is maintained between inner system and goal, independent
of variations over a wide range in most parameters that characterize the
outer environment (9).
In contrast to physics, in which one is able to create stable environments for measurements, in economics one has often to take measurements in a constantly changing environment.”

If the environment keeps changing, the example of the clock suggests putting things into models that don’t change – invariants. Boumans provides a very interesting discussion of what those invariants consist of, and how they were formulated in the post War era. He touches on one set of invariants that proved very popular: Kaldor’s “stylized facts” of growth. Kaldor developed this typical pattern of growth, supposedly from comparing the paths of development in capitalist economies, and inscribed it in a template. This template then became a regulator – the parametric invariants to which models of business cyclic behavior would refer.

The problem, as Boumans acknowledges, is the deleterious effect of stylization on ‘fact.”

“Although we have seen that equilibrium business-cycle modelers aim to model from invariants, the choice to take these stylized facts as empirical facts of growth is dubious. Solow already remarked that "there is no doubt that they are stylized, though it is possible to question whether they are facts" (1970: 2). The danger is that stylized facts may turn out to be more stylized than factual. Hacche provided an account of the British-American evidence relating to Kaldor's six stylized facts and showed inconsistencies between economic history and Kaldor's stylized facts:
the data for the United Kingdom provide little support for the hypothesis
that there is some "steady trend" or "normal" growth rate of capital or
output or both running through economic history--which is what Kaldor's
stylised facts suggest--unless the interpretation of the hypothesis is so
liberal as to bear little meaning (1979: 278). “

It seems to us that we have run into a problem in the last three years – and really, a problem stretching back into the nineties. It is that the stylized facts of growth, derived from the Depression through the Reagan years, no longer give us accurate readings.

Boumans ends his paper on an excessively modest note: “To come back to the title of this paper, now put as a question--"How Do Economists Model the World into Numbers?"--my answer is that economists, after a century of mathematical modeling, now prefer very simple mechanisms with the faith that they will be calibrated in the future.”

Ourselves, we think that the essence of the problems now facing us come down to the problem of composition. That is, given the equilibrium models economists use to forecast the effect of policy, we have ignored, for too long, as an effect that can be theoretically cancelled out, shifts in the composition of an economy. These shifts, both in the relative wealth that defines the class structure and in the economy’s mechanisms for production and consumption, have been considered by economists to be secondary correlates, infinitely permeable, that derive from flows of capital that happily obey the equilibrium models economists set up.

Well, we are now seeing the revenge of composition on the models of the economists. A rare and terrible moment.