“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, August 09, 2008

Five theses on the state of the art in inequality

1. Inequality isn’t the result of contingent trajectories driven by an indifferent marketplace. Like everything else, inequality is a moneymaking proposition.
2. There’s a polite fiction, maintained across the political spectrum, that all of us are concerned about inequality and conservatives and liberals both want to lessen it. This is, of course, the ripest bullshit.
3. The rich will always use part of their wealth to maintain their socio-economic position. Strategies for doing this are various. For instance, there is the creation of various barriers to entry to block social mobility (which operate in many dimensions – for instance, denying dental care to the children of the poor and the lower middle class is an excellent way to mark them, physically, with a burden that will be hard to lift as they try to advance in life). For surprisingly cheap sums, the wealthy can buy a contingent of scholars whose careers are dedicated to defending the current position of the wealthy – and this attitude, suitably disseminated in the media, brings an amazing payoff. But of course the greatest weapon in the arsenal of maintaining inequality is the state. So far, the behavior of the wealthy here is as utterly predictable as it is utterly invisible.
4. The great majority of the goods and services produced in the U.S. is, of course, generated by the non-wealthy. The wealthy depend upon this. So here’s the question, from the point of view of the wealthy – is it better to employ a long term or a short term strategy to manage the share of the national wealth going to the non-wealthy? A long term strategy might depend on wages and salaries rising in tandem with rises in productivity based upon the notion that this gives us a solid consumer base, and in the long term this is of benefit to the wealthy, too. In the short term, though, what if you could have your consumer spending and crimp the rise in wages and salaries? in other words, what if you arrested wage increases and increased credit limits? Take a man who made 45,000 dollars per in 1995, say. Would it be better for his compensation to rise as it has traditionally done (at least in the postwar years), so that in 2005 he made 75000 per – or would it be better for the wealthy that his compensation rise by only 5,000 dollars, while his credit limit expanded as though he were making $75,000 dollars? The short term answer is obvious. Not only do the wealthy accrue a greater margin on the productivity of our 40,000 dollar man, but the indebtedness necessary for this man to lead a $75,000 dollar lifestyle in 2005 is almost pure gold for the wealthiest, frolicking at the other end of the 6 percent interest rate. This, then, is the most beautiful way to make money, and it has become the American way in the age of the Great Fly. Of course, if it were baldly put that economic policy was about slowing the compensation and expanding the endebtedness of the majority of Americans, and that both are golden revenue streams for the wealthy, this policy might not be so popular. This is why you will never read that this is the policy course we have followed for the past twenty years, and the central economic fact to which we all must respond. This is why, when the conversation turns to inequality, the first rule in the discourse is the pretense that inequality yields no benefits. The return on producing obfuscation on this crucial point has been impressive, and can, apparently, continue indefinitely.
5. However, although I hate to harsh the Great Fly mellow, there is a flaw in this beautiful story of fleecing the mass of little piggies who make the stuff and watch tv to tell them how to be good little piggies. It turns out that there is a cost to supporting a $75,000 lifestyle on $50,000. Our 50,000 man, homo stupeficus, has to find ever more desperate expedients to keep going, and eventually he breaks: with his fog, his amphetimine, and his pearls. Who’d have guessed? This can rapidly dry up the revenue stream to the wealthy. Not only that, but there is even, it turns out, a downside to the obfuscation and promoting a debased, slavish, vile and utterly corrupt picture of humanity – in the name, of course, of free enterprise. John Q. Public might start operating with the same dirty, disgusting, vile and sick means that the wealthy operate with. As Felix Salmon recently pointed out, when the Delay and Lieberman Congress gaily passed the debt slavery act, aka the Bankruptcy bill, making it nigh impossible to get rid of credit card debt, they produced a little trap for their big fat piggish selves. Because that bill makes it more economically rational to screw the larger debt of the mortgage via jingle mail than to quit paying Visa. Greed wrongfooted greed! As we are toted up, piggies all, in the debtmonger’s bag, it turns out the little piggies can shit with impunity on the banks in this area! Funny, eh? The piggies kicked! It is almost a revolution.

Take the skin and peel it back/
Doesn't it make you feel better?

Friday, August 08, 2008

the october surprise in august

The october surprise came early this year. Did you notice it? Well, it began when it became apparent that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac might go belly up. In a sense, we can mark that as the end of the era of Cheney. It was at that moment that the money men, via the Treasury secretary, pulled the plug on the vanity next-war-in-the-making: Iran.

LI tries to remove himself from the painful spectacle of election year politics because, well, everything about it hurts. This year, in particular, we’ve watched the Dems watch the price of oil skyrocket. We’ve watched the press speculate endlessly about the cause of this, in one section of the paper, and report, in another section of the paper, about this or that statement or action implying that Israel or the U.S. is about to attack Iran. We’ve watched the crime in action, and we've watch the feebs that represent the opposition sit on their hands and seal their eyes. Did the Dems make a peep? Did they use this as a case study of the virulent blowback from pursuing a vain, egregiously stupid, manically male foreign policy in the Middle East, in contravention to the collective wisdom of the past eighty, gloriously oil fed years? Nope.

About three weeks ago, Bush changed course. There were no headlines – but the oil futures market could read what was happening. The signal was clearly sent – no war with Iran – and the security premium that had been inflating oil prices collapsed. Since then, the GOP seems to have started attracting, once more, its exurban constituency, the ones especially hit by the gas price jump. The exurbanites are also the ones that especially hate the environment – they are bred up to hate environmentalists, any limit to waste, and all the feminine frilliness that would keep them from growing fat in the ass and plunking that ass in an SUV. On the other hand, such is the ambient cretinousness that these same people are lovers of camping, hunting, and the great outdoors. Welcome to the moronic inferno of the 21st century. So, like the mouse people listening to Josephine the singer, they all swayed in unison when another stupid GOP-er, McCain, proposed destroying property values from coast to coast with pointless drilling – never mind the environmental havoc.

Of course, the opposition to the moronic inferno is caught up, still, in fantasies of unmotivated evil of its own kind. For them, preceding from the sound principle that the war class goes to war, they go to the unsound conclusion that the war class is a vast, planning organism that is going to bomb Iran tomorrow – in spite of our knowledge that such a thing would have the most evil effect on the moneymen who float the whole operation. As the planning for the occupation of Iraq shows, the new warmonger is not happy about war per se, but likes the vast corruption attendant upon pretend war. Plus of course the spectator value of being pretend warriors, exhibiting pretend bravery and pretend moral outrage all the way to the bank. That Iraq turned out not to be Panama is a bummer, dudes.

So the GOP did what it had to do – broke the back of the oil inflation monster. Since that is the most visible symbol of our economic shambles, who knows whether it will be enough to keep the exurban cretins in line. In one sense, that would be nice – let the fucks vote in ever more vile gangsters to pick their pockets and leave them out on the roadside, bleeding. But my more lamb-y, love side is against the rush of immediate gratification which this idea brings.

Put your raygun to my head - and please, press the trigger. Put me out of this misery.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Gundling, saint and martyr of all tenure track positions

On her blog, IT has often complained about the how academic departments are sliced, diced, roasted and toasted until all inspiration and genius are squeezed out of them and a tepid mediocrity, suitable for children and all future consumers, can be safely served up in Intro class dollops.

On the way back from Chicago, we were reading The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, and we came upon the story of Jacob Paul von Gundling. Gundling should surely be the patron saint of all oppressed assistant professors, lecturers and grad students, as he died for y'all's sins. So here is his story.

Gundling had worked himself up to a pretty sweet position as the official historiographer for Frederick I, a man who loved nothing more than French ceremony. Alas, when Frederick died, he was succeeded by his son, the surely half mad Frederick William I, Frederick the Great’s Pa, who hated culture and all its accoutrements. Gundling scrambled, being in debt there in Berlin, and Frederick William soon had him working on economic policy. But he also decided that Gundling, being a prof, made an ideal court buffoon. Which entailed things like:

Having to deliver a lecture on the existence of ghosts while being forced to take regular draughts of strong drink – and as Gundling got too drunk to stand, he was frogmarched back to his room where he shrieked in drunken terror as one of the court retinue visited him in a white sheet;

Confinement in a chamber with a number of young bears, while fireworks were rained down upon his head;

Being forced to dress in a caricature of Louis XIV’s court fashion, including wearing a towering wig that used to belong to Frederick I;

Being force fed laxatives and locked in a cell;

And finally – “Gundling was forced to tolerate the presence in his bedchamber of a coffin in the form of a varnished wine barrel with a mocking verse:

Here there lies within his skin
Half pig, half man, a wondrous thing
Clever in his youth, in old age not so bright
Full of wit in morning, full of drink at night
Let the voice of Bacchus sing
This, my child, is Gundling...” (82)

When the poor Gundling died, he was propped in the barrel dressed in a wig hanging down to his thighs, and turned into a spectacle, briefly, that people could pay to look at. The funeral address was given by one of his bullies at the court.

So, consider Gundling, all ye who suffer from tenure anxieties, toil and spin in departmental meetings, and are heavy burdened with academic ennuie, and remember that it could be worse!

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Es sind nicht alle frei, die ihrer Ketten spotten.- Lessing

Mirror in the bathroom

Lichtenberg again.

From the history of culture jamming, here is an amusing sidenote. At midnight on January 6, 1777, Lichtenberg, with the help of his posse, consisting of a few amused officials and a bookstore owner named Dietrich, who later wrote an account of it, plastered Gottingen with posters that were supposedly written by a showman/magician, Philadelphus Philadelphia. Philadelphia had been raising money by subscription for his act – and claimed that he would unveil marvels if he could get 100 people to pitch in a Louis D’or a-piece.

(Amazingly, wikipedia actually has a translation into English of Lichtenberg’s “avertissement” – I don’t have to translate it!) You will notice that this is the kind of action which forms the basis of
The Trolls among us”, an article in last week’s Sunday NYT magazine which article shows zero knowledge of popular acts of “wild justice” – which range from practical jokes to charivaris to pograms – which have existed throughout recorded history.

I broke off in a post last week before I could get to Lichtenberg’s Samples of Curious Superstitions. But monomania never stops, people! And thus I come back to the subject – which is discussed by Tadeusz Zatorski here. Zatorski’s article emphasizes the contrast between Lichtenberg as an enlightener and Lichtenberg as a man whose own private life was riddled by obsessive searches for signs, omens, and irrational but significant patterns. Zatorski has collected a number of Lichtenberg’s own reflections about this: God almighty ... I have always preached against superstitions, and have always been the greatest reader of signs for myself. As N... lay on his deathbed, I allowed the outcome to depend on the flights of cranes as a way to comfort myself.” “One of the most remarkable features in my character is certainly the odd superstition by which I pull premonitions out of everything, and in a day make a hundred things into an oracle. Every creeping of an insect serves to answer questions about my fate. Isn’t this a curious thing in a professor of physics?"

Zatorski quotes an interesting literature over the question of Lichtenberg and superstition – including the opinion of Franz Overbeck, Nietzsche’s friend, that Lichtenberg understood the fundamental absurdity of accounting for being: L lets the absurd count as absurd, refraining from finding reasons for it [verzichtet auf seine Begründung] and thus strictly limits its domain.” This would make Lichtenberg a predecessor of the school of therapeutic nihilism – and indeed, the Vienna Circle was attracted to Lichtenberg, as to Schopenhauer.

Zatorski’s point is that Lichtenberg’s self-observations led to a psychology of superstition. Or a social psychology. Not that the enlightenment philosophes did not possess a social psychological explanation of superstion: ultimately, they derived from fear. It was Justus Möser, in his articles directed against the French Revolution in the 1790s, who cast doubt on this explanation for a whole set of traditional practices. But Lichtenberg, too, didn’t see fear – and the inevitable chain of references leading to the chained and the unchained – as the one cause of superstition. Rather, he saw that (to put it in contemporary terms) the division between erudite and popular culture was neither absolute nor unchanging. I’ll end with these two paragraphs from Zatorski:

Even the relationship between superstition and science can, in Lichtenberg’s opinion, not so easily be brought under the rule of an unambiguous and simple formula, as it seemed to contemporary advocates of the enlightenment, who wanted to see in superstitions simply the continual “classical” opposite pole to reason. Really, superstition can be tied to diabolical evil, and even promote the emergence of infamies – Lichtenberg points her to the sad history of witch trials. But this doesn’t change the fact that, looked at more closely, especially when we see knowledge as a continually evolving whole, the borders between superstition and reason prove to be flowing and flexible on both sides: “The philosophy of the common man is the mother of ours, out of his superstitions we make our religion, just as we make our medicine out of his home remedies.” Even the concept “science” itself is observed to be highly unclear: “Where in the past one found the borders of science, we now find its middle.”
This demands a high degree of judgmental forsight. A quantum of distrust is evidently indispensable, but this means, at the same time, a certain distrust against dogmatic laws of reason. One would rather “neither deny nor believe.” For even the offerings of “rational” philosophy is nothing other than a treaty of peace that has come to stand “in the “counsels of men” – “superstition is itself a local philosophy, it also gives in its voice.” For this reason, even reason must remain continually conscious of the relative and time conditioned character of knowledge. Thus it would be adviseable to be very careful in labeling certain beliefs as superstitions, because what counts as such today can be transformed tomorrow into a serious theory: “There is thus a great difference between believing something “still” and believing it “again.” To still believe that the moon effects plants betrays stupidity and superstition, but to believe it again shows philosophy and reflection.” A researcher thus needn’t be ashamed of his interest in supernatural phenomena, so long as he observes these phenomena as like all others, requiring a completely natural explanation, even when one is not yet apparent at the moment: “Your letters on premonitions”, he wrote to the Hanover City official Wolff, “I have read with great satisfaction. I am not against these things, only I think, that one must not assume them, as long as there is space for the shadow of another explanation.” For even the doubt of everything, which seems to spring from the frame of a flat rationalism, must never be taken to a point beyond a certain un-preconceived vigilance, otherwise it can itself, in certain circumstances, degenerate into a kind of superstition. “By most people, disbelief in one thing is grounded in blind belief in another.” Then one is running the risk of tossing the baby out with the bathwater – out of fear of being laughed at as superstitious, phenomena are explained as non-existent, that still deserve to be fundamentally taken seriously and investigated by any science worthy of the name – an otherwise wholly understandable attitude in the case of a physics professor, whose greatest discovery, the “Lichtenberg Figures,” he could only describe, but not explain.”

Tuesday, August 05, 2008


LI bought the NYT in Ohare yesterday, and the first thing we thought about Solzhenitsyn’s death is – no headline? Truly, we survivors of the Cold War are slowly being forgotten.

Of course, I figured the obituary would be cast in the usual triumphal anti-communist speak. For liberals, Solzhenitsyn posed problems that weren’t apparent at the time the Gulag Archipelago came out. Liberals expect that the exposers of systems, the revealers of mass murder, will be liberals. For a liberal like myself, the Medvedev brothers were the perfect dissidents. Solzhenitsyn, on the other hand, was obviously a reactionary of a certain type – as Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a socialist legislator in France, impoliticly pointed out. But no one is made to be a hero for all occasions. Solzhenitsyn, supporter of the U.S. in the Vietnam war, supporter of Pinochet and nuclear missiles, was politically a disaster. But this doesn’t discredit what he did. That the Soviet government of the Brezhnev era felt that their regime in its entirety was discredited by the Gulag was a sign of their senility and coming fall. However wild Khruschev was, he was right that the only way forward was to thoroughly air out the crimes of the Stalin era. Of course, no country likes to do this. Rightwingers will come up with the most absurd justifications for slavery and apartheid – the British have never reckoned with the crimes of Queen Victoria’s reign, although the terror famines in India are surely the template for Stalin’s policies in the 1930s, just as the concentration camps in the Soviet Union started out in imitation of the French and British penal systems - if one wants to find the roots of mass murder in the Soviet Union, it is pretty easy to find them in the imperialist and penal systems developed by the Europeans and the Americans in the 19th century. Solzhenitsyn's notion that it all sprang from the French revolution is sadly deluded.

Still, one can’t measure the moral import of the denunciation by the moral character of the denouncer – the best denunciation of the British policy of letting Irish die in the potato famine was written by John Mitchel, who valiantly tried to overthrow British rule and was sent to Australia as a political prisoner. But later in his life, Mitchel, escaping to the U.S., became an ardent racist and defender of the Confederacy.

What does get me about the obits is the obligatory comparison to Tolstoy. Solzhenitsyn was never more the Stalinist bred than his notion that to be a great writer, he had to imitate Tolstoy – a notion he shared with Sholakov. In reality, Solzhenitsyn’s politics were nothing like Tolstoy’s – imagine the defender of the Doukhbors and the Chicago anarchists making a defense of the U.S. in the Vietnam war! Solzhenitsyn’s politics were much closer to those of the Holy Synod, who excommunicated Tolstoy in 1901.

Perhaps I should read the proverbially unreadable Red Wheel for my investigation into alienated reactionaries. The Gulag by pure coincidence, sounded in parts like Celine getting in a lather. There is an image in it of being shoved into a pipe, the interior of which is lined with sharp hooks that was so close to Celine... hmm, let’s see if I can find that on the Net...

“The exceptional character which written and oral legend nowadays assigns to the year 1937 is seen in the creation of fabricated charges and tortures. But this is untrue, wrong. Throughout the years and decades, interrogations under Article 58 were almost never undertaken to elicit the truth, but were simply an exercise in an inevitably filthy procedure: someone who had been free only a little while before, who was sometimes proud and always unprepared, was to be bend and pushed through a narrow pipe where his sides would be torn by iron hooks and where he could not breathe, so that he would finally pray to get to the other end. And at the other end, he would be shoved out, an already processed native of the Archipelago, already in the promised land. (The fool would keep on resisting! He even thought there was a way back out of the pipe).”

I don’t know if it is my imagination, but it seems like the cheering even on the right about Solzhenitsyn is muted. Perhaps it is the embrace of Putin – how funny! They loved him when he praised Pinochet, but Putin – because America needs a new cold war, god damn it – has cast old Solzhenitsyn out of the club. But Putin and Solzhenitsyn were bound to converge - the ex KGB chief and the chief denouncer of the KGB.

the return!

I’m back (said he, having dealt with a private matter in a dark corner).

LI’s first encounter with Chicago was a hit and miss affair, punctuated by mucho traffic, communications breakdowns between all the bossier members of my family, a fiesta of pink satin dresses, tan shoulders, blondness, tuxedos and priests at the wedding of my nephew, and my famous Puck dance at the reception – which consists of an attempt to fly to the bodacious rhythm of “Magic Stick”. The highlights of the trip were: the astonishing Field Museum, which puts the American Museum of Natural History to shame – my two astonishing nephews, with whom I renewed acquaintance – my afternoon with my friend Janet, a perfect rendez vous, ending, as all such things do, in wine and seafood – and the Indiana Dunes, where my bros, on my insistence, shot a photo of me climbing up one of the dunes on my belly, because I thought it would look like a classic New Yorker cartoon and make LI’s readers laugh. See how I think of y’all? This I will post later.