Thursday, January 31, 2008

The REAL Numbers

We all owe a great debt of gratitude to Ari Berman for explaining the role of superdelegates in the Democratic nominating process in an article, which will appear in the February 18 issue of The Nation and currently has a page on that magazine's Web site. Back on January 5 I ran a post that accounted for superdelegates, as well as those recently committed by the Iowa primary, according to the following sentence from an Associated Press article:

Overall, Clinton leads with 175 delegates, including superdelegates, followed by Obama with 75 and Edwards with 46.

Thus, by taking superdelegate numbers into account, Obama was hardly in a position to cheer after Iowa. Here is how Berman has updated those numbers:

Before Super Tuesday, Obama had sixty-three pledged [e.g. based on primary or caucus results] delegates, compared with Clinton's forty-eight. But as we went to press Clinton had a huge advantage in superdelegates, 184 to ninety-five, according to CNN.

The bulk of Berman's article goes into answering that eternal question first posed by Butch Cassidy, "Who are these guys?" The answer requires a history of Democratic National Conventions since 1968. It is a roller-coaster ride of all sorts of ups and downs; and, like many roller-coaster rides, it is likely to induce barfing among those who have not prepared themselves before reading it. However, as many of my teachers told me, much of the most important knowledge comes with pain; so don't chicken out from reading Berman's account! Nevertheless, at the end of the ride there is a direct answer to Butch's question:

They include all Democratic members of Congress and every governor, but roughly half of them are Democratic National Committee officials elected by state parties, who range from top party operatives to local city council members. Key interests in the party, like labor groups, can also name superdelegates.

Note that this is not strictly a definitive answer, and I suspect that the Democratic National Committee is going to labor long and hard to make sure that enquiring minds (like Berman's) never find out just how many superdelegates there really are and, aside from the governors and Congress members, who they actually are. Indeed, I would guess that the Rules Committee will come up with a way by which we never determine that number by, for example, subtracting the count of pledged delegates from the total delegate count. As to the "why" question that lurks behind the "who" question, Berman offers up a great quote from political scientist Rhodes Cook, who describes them as a "firewall to blunt any party outsider that built up a head of steam in the primaries."

If there is any good news to this story, it is that there appear to be approximately 400 uncommitted superdelegates; and it is far from clear how they are likely to decide. So, barf-inducing as Berman's ride may be, it does not end by dumping us in the Slough of Despond by convincing us that the whole process has already been rigged. Thus, I continue to believe that boycotting any primary or caucus will be counterproductive, as long as we bear in mind a simple caveat elector rule: Your vote counts for less than you thought. (On the other hand arguing over whether or not voting machines have been tampered may be counterproductive, since the numbers they yield may not have much impact on the "grand scheme of numbers!")

A Plague on Both Their Houses (different houses this time)!

I am glad to see that I am not the only one upset over Senators who assign more priority to campaigning than to doing the people's business on the Senate floor. As reported in the ABC News Political Radar blog, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has a lot of heavy lifting to do between now and February 15:

ABC News' Z. Byron Wolf Reports: Senate Democrats held a special meeting Thursday to decide on two bills both with a deadline of February 15. In between now and Super Tuesday.

No final decisions on either the FISA update bill or the economic stimulus package were reached, but afterwards on the Senate floor Majority Leader Harry Reid implied there won't be action on either item till next week. Not only does he need to woo Republican support to get the 60 votes needed to pass versions the Democrats prefer on both matters, but he needs to marshal his troops. Specifically, those conspicuously absent from the Senate with a case of '08.

Wolf goes on to note that it is not just the absence of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama that undermines Reid's strategic planning in preparation for these votes; having made his declaration of faith, Ted Kennedy is also out there on the campaign trail. It is unclear how those of us who vote on Super Tuesday can make the point that such negligence is intolerable. Boycotting the primary would probably be counterproductive. Maybe it will just take a few courageous souls showing up at rallies across the country and finding the right moment to shout, "Why aren't you in Washington doing your job?" If that kind of heckling makes it to the evening news, it might have some effect!

Globalization and the Discontents of Connectivity

The more connected the elements of a system are, the greater the robustness of the system, right? If some of the links break, there will be alternative paths; so the system can keep going while the broken links are repaired. That is a favorite mantra of Internet evangelists; and the principle is so simple that it is an easy matter to get everyone else saying the same thing (sort of like hearing "AFLAC" whenever a duck quacks). James Burke had another perspective though; and, while it was not the primary thesis of his Connections television series, it leaked out very early in his exposition. Burke pointed out that rich connectivity could induce fragility and vulnerability as readily as it could induce robustness. In other words assessing the consequences of rich connectivity is a bit like what I have called the "TBD of Crowds" problem: Whether or not a crowd is wiser or madder than any of its individual members depends on a bundle of subtle factors that James S. Coleman called collectively the "micro-to-macro problem." Thus, while the Internet may be robust enough to allow me to matriculate in a seminar on Marxist phenomenology (I thought I was making that up, but I just got 203 Google hits for it!) conducted at just about any university in the world, it is also vulnerable to a neo-Trotskyite infecting all participants of that seminar with malware, which will then propagate through every electronic mail message they each send. Needless to say, when we descend from the ivory tower of a philosophy seminar to the everyday world of work, things can get much more serious.

So it is that Al Jazeera English has compiled the following story from their wire sources:

Internet disruption effecting users in India and the Middle East looks set to trouble India's lucrative outsourcing industry and could in turn impact international businesses that rely on it.

India on Thursday struggled to overcome internet slowdowns and outages, which came after two undersea cables off the coast of Egypt were damaged.

The incident has halved India's bandwidth.

Outsourcing firms, such as Infosys and Wipro, and US companies with significant back-office and research and development operations in India, such as IBM and Intel, said they were still trying to asses how their operations had been impacted, if at all.

Rajesh Chharia, the president of the Internet Service Providers' Association of India, said companies that serve the east coast of the US and Britain had been badly hit.

"The companies that serve the [US] east coast and the UK are worst affected. The delay is very bad in some cases," Chharia was quoted by the Associated Press as saying.

"They have to arrange backup plans or they have to accept the poor quality for the time being until the fiber is restored."

That last sentence is the real kicker. It reminds us of just how naive most of us are about the need for precautionary measures, which I have previously associated with our fear of formulating worst-case scenarios. Furthermore, as the final paragraph of the Al Jazeera report reminds us, it is not as if we were totally unaware that problems like this could arise:

Such large-scale disruptions are rare but have occurred before. East Asia suffered nearly two months of outages and slow service after an earthquake damaged undersea cables near Taiwan in December 2006.

From a technical point of view, the problem may be that we have overloaded our trust in connectivity by overlooking the need for distributivity. It is all very well and good that India has become a "global hub" for providing service; but, whether or not you think the idea of having your customer service call routed half-way around the world is a good thing, why should there be a "global hub" in the first place? Why can the service burden not be shared by several sites distributed around the world, perhaps equally spaced according to time zones? (I know of at least one major business that has set up their software development centers in this way. You can have three sites, each with a unique eight-hour shift on a "global clock;" and, at the end of each shift, the work gets passed over to the next time zone.) In this case, if an entire site lost its connectivity, the other sites could extend their shifts to cover for it.

Of course we know the answer to that first question: A bunch of astute Indian entrepreneurs saw how they could turn their "home turf" into a "service center for the world," went for all the marbles, and succeeded in getting them. Probably they could have been just as good at designing, implementing, and running globally distributed service centers; but the local model may have been more profitable (possibly with government-based incentives factored into the balance sheets). So now, when a fiber cable off the coast of Egypt "catches cold," the whole world of Internet-based service sneezes (worse yet, probably all at the same time, sort of like all the toilets in the United States flushing during Super Bowl half-time)!

It has been a while since I have ranted about the fact that, for all our hollow words about being in a "service economy," we (and that, unfortunately, is a global "we") are far more ignorant about the nature of service than we have ever been about manufacturing, even when most of the world was drunk on the worst excesses of Frederick Taylor's "principles of scientific management" (which, I have also argued, seems to be the lens through which we try to view service). This is not to imply that understanding the basis of your economy makes you good (and profitable) at doing it. However, that understanding provides a good start when it comes to being aware of the problems you are likely to encounter; but, if we are going to be phobic about worst-case scenarios, will that really matter? So the next time you want to rant about the lousy service you are getting, just remember my own methodology and think about how we all got into this mess!

Power-Madness or Chutzpah?

Over on The Huffington Post, Mark Kleiman called it a move towards "a claim of dictatorial powers." I'm willing to call it chutzpah, particularly since it bumps President George W. Bush's count up to seven Chutzpah of the Week awards (and to think that he got his sixth only at the beginning of this month, which turned out to be a seriously chutzpah-laden month)! "It" is his latest signing statement; and we have to wonder whether or not he has decided to react to the media labeling him a lame duck with the what-the-hell attitude that has less to do with dictatorship and more to do with doing anything he damned well pleases without worrying about consequences. The account of this particular signing statement can be found on the Web site for The Boston Globe in a story filed by Charlie Savage. Here is his lead:

President Bush this week declared that he has the power to bypass four laws, including a prohibition against using federal funds to establish permanent US military bases in Iraq, that Congress passed as part of a new defense bill.

Bush made the assertion in a signing statement that he issued late Monday after signing the National Defense Authorization Act for 2008. In the signing statement, Bush asserted that four sections of the bill unconstitutionally infringe on his powers, and so the executive branch is not bound to obey them.

"Provisions of the act . . . purport to impose requirements that could inhibit the president's ability to carry out his constitutional obligations to take care that the laws be faithfully executed, to protect national security, to supervise the executive branch, and to execute his authority as commander in chief," Bush said. "The executive branch shall construe such provisions in a manner consistent with the constitutional authority of the President."

One section Bush targeted created a statute that forbids spending taxpayer money "to establish any military installation or base for the purpose of providing for the permanent stationing of United States Armed Forces in Iraq" or "to exercise United States control of the oil resources of Iraq."

That third paragraph is the mother-lode of the chutzpah in this story. It is also a sobering reminder that, while the text of the President's Oath of Office talks about preserving, protecting, and defending the Constitution of the United States, is says nothing about reading that document! Fortunately, on his own blog Kleiman has saved me the trouble of unpacking the text of the Constitution in this particular matter, applying my favorite strategy of citing chapter and verse. (With all of his professions of faith, you would think that Bush can do this sort of thing with his Bible; why can't he do it with the Constitution? My guess is that those professions of faith have little, if anything, to do with the Bible but are grounded, instead, on his direct communion with his God. This means he is not obliged to read anything, even his Bible!)

Of course we have been aware of the Presidential preference for signing statements for some time, so we knew that one of these would land him a chutzpah award sooner or later. If there is any good news about this, it is that the general public is more aware of signing statements than they ever were under any previous administration. This led Savage to close up his story with two interesting paragraphs. The first is a positive consequence of this increased awareness:

In 2006, the American Bar Association condemned signing statements as "contrary to the rule of law and our constitutional separation of powers."

The second involves another positive consequence, which is that the awareness has trickled into the current race for the White House:

Among the presidential candidates, Mitt Romney, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama have said they would issue signing statements if elected. John McCain said he would not.

I find this particularly interesting, since the media like to jump on McCain whenever he starts talking about war. After his failed rendition of "Barbara Ann" made him look like a clown, the general tendency has shifted to portraying him as a bloodthirsty warlord. Yet here he is, the only one of the "four survivors" willing to declare that he does not want to get his way by slipping through legal loopholes. Perhaps he sincerely saw his military service as an act of defending that Constitution, and perhaps he sees his service in the Senate in exactly the same light. I still believe that the first step in getting out of a mess is to understand clearly how you got into it in the first place; and just maybe McCain has a leg up on that first step compared to the other three contenders not yet "voted off the island."

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Will any Words Remain?

It was almost exactly one year ago that Senator Joseph Biden got himself into big trouble by describing Senator Barak Obama as "the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy." Beyond the way in which the entire phrase reflected a condescending tone, the single adjective "articulate" provoked a flood of commentary for carrying a particularly disparaging connotation. However, if the problem of what D. L. Hughley called "the last vestiges of racism" can really be folded into the usage of a single adjective, modern Germany apparently has to deal with a far more complicated problem concerning the vestiges of Nazism. This latter problem is so complex that, as David Gordon Smith has reported on SPIEGEL ONLINE, it can only be negotiated through an entire dictionary:

The "Wörterbuch der 'Vergangenheitsbewältigung'" ("Dictionary of 'Coming to Terms with the Past'") examines around 1,000 words and phrases -- everything from "Anschluss," used to refer to the 1938 "annexation" of Austria, to "Wehrmacht," the name of the Nazi-era armed forces -- looking at how the meaning and usage of the terms have developed since the end of World War II.

As the introductory summary to his article puts it, the terminology of the Third Reich has created a "linguistic minefield" for ordinary discourse in the German language.

There are two consequences of having to weigh the negative connotations of every word you utter. One is that you cease to speak altogether. (This reflects the joke about the ant asking the centipede how it coordinated all its legs. Upon stopping to think about how to answer the ant, the centipede was unable to take another step and died of starvation.) The other consequence is that you get tongue-tied whenever you do speak. I experienced this problem on my first trip to Germany to attend a workshop in Munich. On my way back to the airport, the cab driver asked me which flight I was taking; and I replied, "Luftwaffe." We both quickly recognized my embarrassment, he was willing to grant me no-harm-no-foul, and he dropped me off at the Lufthansa gate. Another auditor might not have been so generous.

What I enjoy most about German is the way in which complex and subtle concepts can be packaged into just the right word. "Vergangenheitsbewältigung" is not about simplistic classification in the four-legs-good-two-legs-bad style of Animal Farm (whose author probably had one of the deepest understandings of connotation in literary history); as the lexical unpacking of the word explains, it is about "coming to terms" with some of the ugliest memories that any culture has experienced. The present generation of German speakers is sufficiently remote from that past that, at the very least, they need to be aware of connotations that invoke such memories, particularly when speaking to those for whom those memories remain vivid and haunting. The question, however, is whether differentiating between an innocent mistake (as in my cab ride) and intentional malice must always be a matter of negotiating a "linguistic minefield."

There is also a related question about the basic project behind this dictionary. In general the primary function of a dictionary is to provide denotations. Connotations are rarely ignored entirely, but they tend to be of secondary interest. However, in this particular dictionary, the primary function is to provide and explain those connotations. The result is that the reference work can be used as a double-edged sword. While the intention was to provide a reference work for those who wish to be conscientious about dangerous connotations of the words and phrases they choose, the dictionary can also be used as a code-book for those who intend to provoke (functioning somewhat as a "dictionary of hate-speech"). Furthermore, even the provocations can cut two ways, as a "guidebook" for both neo-Nazis and those seeking rhetorical devices to ridicule those same neo-Nazis. One might say that the dictionary has made it harder to make "an innocent mistake" any more, just as too many Americans would no longer tolerate the use of the adjective "articulate" as "an innocent mistake."

This brings us back to those two alternatives: capitulating to silence or tongue-tied fumbling. Neither serves the social necessities of communicative actions, the primary actions available to us for trying (whether or not we succeed) to understand each other and thus manage in the life-world. This is not to say that this Vergangenheitsbewältigung is making a bad situation worse; but it is reminding us of how bad the situation is, which should be taken as a challenge to do something about it!

Choosing to do Something Useful with Your Life

The real story about John Edwards is not that he has left the race for the White House. In Nedra Pickler's report for Associated Press, the real story emerges through a couple of paragraphs about half-way down the page:

Edwards planned to announce his campaign was ending with his wife and three children at his side. Then he planned to work with Habitat for Humanity at the volunteer-fueled rebuilding project Musicians' Village, the adviser said.

With that, Edwards' campaign will end the way it began 13 months ago _ with the candidate pitching in to rebuild lives in a city still ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. Edwards embraced New Orleans as a glaring symbol of what he described as a Washington that didn't hear the cries of the downtrodden.

Yesterday I heard one of the guests on Democracy Now make the observation that Edwards was the only contender in the primary process who used the word "poverty" in his speeches. These two paragraphs demonstrate Edwards' decision that it is more important to do something about poverty than to be the lone voice talking about it in a political process that has reduced the phrase "public servant" to a bad joke. This means that my choice has now been narrowed to two candidates in the California Primary, both of whom received a Chutzpah of the Week award for disregarding the people's business through their absence from the Senate floor, choosing, instead, to spend that time on the campaign trail. Now that Edwards no longer holds nor seeks public office, he seems more intent on doing the people's business than any of those who are still "inside the system!"

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Things Change over 25 Years

When I wrote that the last time I had heard the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam perform a symphony by Gustav Mahler was about 25 years ago, when Bernard Haitink was chief conductor and decided to take the work on a tour that included Carnegie Hall, I neglected to mention that Haitink tended to have a relationship as stormy as one of Mahler's tempo descriptions with the administrative arm of this orchestra. They were always looking for ways to cut the budget, Haitink always found the cuts intolerable, and he would inevitably threaten to quit if lack of budget would prevent the orchestra from living up to its well-deserved reputation. In actuality Haitink did not quit until 1988, and I do not know if he had just gotten tired to fighting the good fight over the operating budget. In retrospect, however, something started to go out of the Concertgebouw when Haitink left; and a descent that began with Riccardo Chailly now seems to be continuing with Mariss Jansons.

Perhaps it was just their misfortune to be performing Mahler's fifth symphony in Davies Symphony Hall just two days after Myung-Whun Chung performed his first symphony. However, viewed through the lens of other conductors bringing Mahler into "Michael's house," these two performances left me thinking about Michael Tilson Thomas from two different angles on the same focal point. Without any suggestion of mimicking Thomas' style, Chung helped me to understand what it was I liked about his approach to Mahler, because that was also what I liked about Chung's own approach. Jansons, on the other hand, only reminded of what I was missing while listening to that fifth symphony.

It comes down to two critical factors that are necessary to, as I put it in writing about Chung, "accept the decisions Mahler has made and let them stand." The first is to recognize that (as is also the case for, say, Hector Berlioz) those decisions are as much (if not more) about the very sounds that arise as the notes are performed; and the second is that getting to that sound involves a certain chemistry between conductor and orchestra the links the playing to the listening, not unlike the chemistry that must form among the members of a jazz combo before one can say that they are really playing jazz. Like Thomas, Chung had both an awareness of the power of sound in all its subtleties and the ability to forge the right kind of bond with the San Francisco Symphony to translate the sounds in his head into the sounds on the stage. In Jansons' case, on the other hand, I found myself wondering if he had sounds in his head or whether his only priority was to render the notes printed on the pages of the score. Certainly he did the latter dutifully enough, but there was a blandness to the experience when the only factors that really seemed to matter were the relationships among those notes determined by principles of harmony and counterpoint. Thus, with regard to the second point, Jansons seemed to know when those relationships were violated by wrong notes; but this was a matter of "quality control," rather than chemistry.

There was another sign that Jansons' approach to listening may have been more of that "one-way street" of "monitoring for quality;" and it surfaced at the beginning of the evening in the performance of "Don Juan," by Richard Strauss. This score has some very lush moments; and, when the orchestra was playing such an episode, Jansons' whole body reflected the pleasure of that moment. Unfortunately, the pleasure bordered on excess to such an extent that it reminded me of that admonishment by Erich Korngold's father, warning his son against "bathing." From my vantage point in the audience, the whole thing felt too much like a Whitmanesque celebration of the self, rather than a shared obligation of performers to share performance with the audience. Needless to say what happened during the Strauss happened much more during the Mahler and ultimately became a distraction from what was most important about Chung's approach to Mahler: recognizing the moments of climax and tuning all other moments to the ascent to and descent from that climax.

None of this seemed to phase the orchestra very much. They went about playing their notes dutifully (almost stoically) enough. Even when taking their bows (to an audience that had received them extremely enthusiastically, reminding me that, when I get into issues like these, I am probably just picking nits), they were a very subdued bunch. Perhaps that is just the way things are done in Amsterdam, in which case I am just as glad that I can enjoy they way they are done in San Francisco with greater frequency!

The High School Diploma: CUI BONO?

The value of the educational institution has been under fire for at least the last quarter of a century. Certainly, as far back as the Seventies, I remember representatives of major corporations, such as IBM, declaring that they really did not care what (if anything?) new hires had learned in college (or high school). If they were good enough to be hired, the first thing that would happen would be that they would be put through the wringer of a series of internal training programs. Regardless of any skills they had upon arrival, it was only after those training programs that they would be viewed as productive employees for IBM (or other corporations with a similar philosophy).

This was one of those dirty little secrets that you only learned once you entered the "real" world of work. However, in the United Kingdom the Gordon Brown administration has decided to pull this secret out into the sunshine, at least according to a Wiki News item, which appeared on Net News Publisher:

The government of the United Kingdom has given corporations like fast food chain McDonald’s the right to award high school qualifications to employees who complete a company training program.

Two other businesses, railway firm Network Rail and regional airline Flybe, were also approved. The decision was made by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, which oversees the national curriculum.

McDonald’s said it will offer a “basic shift manager” course, which will train staff in marketing, customer service, and other areas of restaurant management. Completion of this course will be the equivalent of passing the GCSE, the standard exam taken at age 16, or the Advanced Level, taken at age 18.

Network Rail plans to offer a course in rail engineering, while Flybe is developing a course involving aircraft engineering and cabin crew training. Passing Flybe’s course could result a university level degree.

Putting aside any reservations I may harbor over reading unsigned content on Wiki News, it is still worth entertaining these paragraphs as a hypothetical and then asking what they say about educational institutions, because what they basically say is what IBM was saying 25 years ago: The world of work cannot count on those institutions to provide basic knowledge and skills for being a productive worker. This, in turn, provides an even more chilling corollary: The only real value that educational institutions provide is that they delay the entry of "fresh blood" into the job market, giving the older employees more of a "grace period" over which to establish their own productivity and value.

The other side of the story is represented by Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, quoted as saying:

We are unsure whether those institutions would be clamoring to accept people with McQualifications.

I am sure that Ms. Hunt and her colleagues all appreciate the negative connotation of that last word; but, if McDonald's can actually be accredited with providing the equivalent of a high school diploma, then they know better than to let name-calling hurt them. My guess is that they can pass this accreditation test, because it is in their best interest to do so, just as it is in Flybe's interest to train their employees to the level of an undergraduate degree. Thus, what has long been a tacit vote of no confidence in educational institutions has now become explicit, at least in the United Kingdom.

Rather than inventing new epithets, however, Ms. Hunt might have done better to address this situation in terms of a short-term solution to a short-term problem that has long-term consequences. If this report is true, then we must read it in the context of a premise that I have explored from time to time, which is that all knowledge has a "half-life," by which I mean that, like radioactive materials, it loses its potency over time. The question is not one of whether or not knowledge "decays" but one of how rapidly or slowly it decays. A training program designed to meet immediate needs is likely to have a very rapid "rate of decay," in which case the real question is, "What happens to the worker when what has been learned in training is no longer valuable?" If the business has a commitment to "life-long learning," then that would require a training curriculum, which would not only be more extensive than that of any undergraduate program but would also be in ongoing flux, reflecting changes in the need for knowledge over time. IBM used to try to do this sort of thing, and I have no idea if they still do it. My guess is that McDonald's does not do it. I would not be surprised if the McDonald's philosophy is that, when the value of training has decayed below the level of productivity, one simply dispenses with the "obsolete" worker and replaces him/her with a new hire run through a new training program. Thus, the long-term consequence of this approach is likely to be an increase in unemployment as the job market fills up with people unable to compete for new jobs, not necessarily because they cannot be trained in those new jobs but because it is cheaper to hire and train candidates far younger than they are (which is why my eyes tend to roll up when I hear John McCain go into one of his speeches about the value of retraining).

Then, of course, there is the more dire long-term consequence, which is that intimate relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom. If this story really is valid, then we can rest assured that educational policy makers, whether they be Republicans or Democrats, will be giving it considerable scrutiny. After all, there is no political affiliation associated with the motto, "Desperate times call for desperate measures." The consequence we should fear is that the United States will choose to go down the same path; and this can only aggravate all the problems surrounding the "desperate times" of not only educational institutions but the world of work itself.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Proximity to the News

There was a telling episode in the first episode of the current season of The Wire. The scene is the conference room where the "budget meetings" are held, which determine which stories are going to appear in the following morning's paper. Several of the mid-level staff are staring out the window at a large plume of black smoke. Gus Haynes (Clark Johnson) comes in to ask what's happening; and someone shows him the smoke and says that there is a fire across town. His immediate reaction is, "Who's covering it?," which is met with blank stares.

Proximity to the news used to matter. If a reporter was sitting in his/her office and saw smoke out the window or heard sirens coming from the street, (s)he (or someone else) would run outside to find out what the story was. The very name "The Wall Street Journal" connoted an institution of journalism that would provide the most up-to-date and reliable "word on The Street" because it was "on The Street."

This may not be the case where Rupert Murdoch is concerned. While things have not progressed beyond the rumor stage, Josh Koblin of The New York Observer felt that the following item deserved recognition on his blog, The Media Mob:

News Corp. owner Rupert Murdoch wants to move his recently purchased Wall Street Journal out of Manhattan's financial district by the end of the year.

Mr. Murdoch is proposing that the Journal newsroom move out of its home at the World Financial Center adjacent to the World Trade Center site and into his News Corp. headquarters in the "canyon" on Sixth Avenue, according to newsroom sources.

One senior newsroom source with knowledge of the situation said that the move was "very likely" and it's something that Mr. Murdoch has been "strongly considering" for some time. Another source confirmed it should happen by the end of the year.

Editors and reporters at the paper have been discussing the possible move for some weeks now, but word hasn't gotten out. The source said that under the plan the editorial department would move into the News Corp building, while some business offices and other parts of Dow Jones would remain at the World Financial Center. One hang-up, said another newsroom source, was how News Corp. would reallocate space since News Corp. headquarters at 1211 Avenue of the Americas are already filled to capacity.

Is this an example of life validating an episode of fiction that recently appeared on television? Is it a validation that, in the current business of reporting the news, proximity to the story no longer signifies? One answer would be to hedge on the question, somewhat in the style that Bill Clinton made infamous, and say, "It depends on the semantics of 'proximity;'" but that is probably less of a hedge than we might think, particularly where financial reporting is concerned. Consider that a financial reporter probably has greater proximity to the substance of the news by looking through the window of a Bloomberg terminal than (s)he would have by being physically present on a trading floor. In other words the "action" is not, strictly speaking, "on The Street" anymore; it is flowing through the networks that are now responsible for implementing all major trading transactions around the world. So perhaps proximity really no longer matters for what The Wall Street Journal has to report.

However, this is just another brick in a wall that has been rising for some time. The first brick I personally encountered was last April, when, in the interests of my own cat, I was following the contaminated pet food story very closely. Then I discovered that one story about a recall of Menu Foods products was reported "by Sweta Singh in Bangalore!" Now Menu Foods was in Ontario, importing food products from China and selling them to distributors in the United States (who would, in turn, supply the place where I bought food for my cat in San Francisco). As far as I can tell, the only proximity Bangalore had to this story would have been through call center operations maintained for one or more Bay Area businesses! In other words this was a story composed entirely from looking at the world through a computer monitor. Is this any different from looking at the world of finance through a Bloomberg terminal? Reuters does not seem to think so; and, given how much work is still outsourced to where the labor is cheapest, I suspect that they are far from alone in whatever is left of the world of journalism.

I suppose The Wire is as good a place as any to learn about the world of journalism work these days. After all, in addition to this "parable of the window," we have been tracking the rise of a Stephen Glass in the City Room. We also have an ongoing saga of who is supposed to be covering what as the staff keeps getting cut and admonished to "work smarter." Do I find this more depressing than the "primary narrative" of day-to-day life being eroded away by the drug trade? I suppose I do, because, as more and more newspapers die this slow death of attrition, will anyone be left to tell those stories of day-to-day life that are so important to so many of us?

Sunday, January 27, 2008

An Awe-Inspiring Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Anyone who read Joshua Kosman's review of this week's San Francisco Symphony concert in yesterday's San Francisco Chronicle before going to Davies Symphony Hall last night was probably bracing for a Concert from Hell. Fortunately, those who read the review at the Web site had the advantage of observing that four comments had been submitted, all of which offered rather nicely written challenges to Kosman's description of the concert as "shockingly wan and ramshackle." Now, to be fair to Kosman, the comments seem to be written by attendees of the Friday evening performance, while Kosman covered the first performance, which was a Thursday matinee. In fact one of the comments even suggested that Olivier Messiaen's "L'Ascension" may have been underrehearsed, which is entirely possible; but the overall tone of the comments was that Kosman was so obsessed with looking for fungus on tree bark that he overlooked the entire forest.

Personally, I side with the comments. I had written my own farewell to the "Annus Horribilis" of 2007 by looking forward to the music I would be hearing in January, particularly the performances of symphonies by Gustav Mahler. At that time I made the following observation about this program's coupling of "L'Ascension" with Mahler's first symphony:

As a reader of William Blake, I have to wonder whether or not this evening will turn into a marriage of the heaven of Messiaen's mystical pieties and the hell of Mahler's stark worldly realities.

I have no idea whether or not conductor Myung-Whun Chung has any appreciation of Blake's poetry, but that does not particularly signify. This was a program of two worlds in violent opposition, each of which made its case to the listener with radically different forms of rhetoric. Chung assumed the podium with a total command of each of those rhetorical strategies so effective that, had we not had the luxury of an intermission, the juxtaposition of the two performances would have flirted with Multiple Personality Disorder.

Most important is that the phrase "mystical pieties" is a perfect fit for "L'Ascension" with absolutely no derogatory connotation. Each of the four movements of this suite is a meditation on the miracle celebrated by the Feast of the Ascension, and each is framed with a quotation from sacred text. In fact the text for the second movement comes from the Mass of the Ascension, while the remaining quotations are biblical, drawing upon both Testaments. The text for the third movement comes from Psalm 46, while the two outer movements both draw their respective texts from the Gospel According to Saint John, the most mystical of the synoptic gospels. The entire work is about half an hour in duration. The outer movements are very slow, drawing their strength not so much from melodic lines as from the sonorities that unfold through the scoring of those lines. The inner movements are faster but again develop their "logic of progression" more through sonority than through conventions of melody, counterpoint, or harmony. In my "prospective view" of this concert I anticipated that many of the challenges of performance would have to do with sound. I said this in part because, through my own experience with Messiaen, I have not felt that he gave much attention to musical phraseology. Things happen, but it is almost as if they are occurrences that arise from the meditative mind rather than being woven together with the thread of a logical mind. One might say that Messiaen's texts arise more through free association and repetition, rather than from a finely crafted discourse structure. Some would take this as grounds for dismissing Messiaen, but listening to his music can be very rewarding if you can just get your mind on the same channel as his.

Chung's approach to conducting music like this might be regarded as the musical version of stare decisis. Messiaen has pretty much made all the decisions that need to be made. All the performers need do is to "play it as it lays" and let the communion between music and listener work its course. A good metaphor would probably be that Messiaen has put the ship out to sea, and Chung's primary obligation was to keep it on course. He did this with what I felt was a concentrated discipline that was always informed by what he heard and could therefore concentrate on fine-tuning the details unfolding under a steady beat. The Symphony musicians did not appear to have any problems with "buying into" this strategy; and, judging from the audience reaction at the end of the final movement, there seemed to be quite a few people out there in the audience who achieved that communion with the music and sincerely appreciated the experience.

I have one final comment about the overall duration. As Kosman had observed, this is a relatively early work. It was Messiaen's fourth published orchestral work; and, about a year after it was completed, he reworked the whole idea for the composition into a version for solo organ (his primary instrument). What most interests me, however, is the extent to which the orchestral conception seems well suited to half an hour distributed over four movements. I say this as one who sat through the entirety of Saint François d'Assise at the San Francisco Opera several seasons ago and found the whole affair unbearable fatiguing. Since then, however, I have returned to my recording of this opera; and I have discovered that, from a point of scale, each of the eight "Tableaux" holds up perfectly well on its own, particularly in light of this objective of a communion between music and listener. Perhaps a true communion can only run its course beyond the cessation of the music; and "L'Ascension" knew when to stop where Saint François did not.

On the basis of the many sources I have read about Mahler, I doubt that he ever thought very much about such a communion between music and listener. Mahler is more of a dramatic actor who summons the entire force of a symphony orchestra to deliver a monologue. Many would dismiss this as exhibitionism of the worst kind. (Harold Schoenberg liked to call him a "cry baby.") However, as is also the case with Messiaen, anyone willing to buy into his strategy will find some of the finest orchestra writing over that period that links the end of the nineteenth century to the beginning of the twentieth. Mahler shared with Messiaen an uncanny sense of sonorities; but, unlike Messiaen, he framed those sonorities in long durations over which an unerring sense of phraseology unfolded. From that point of view, his first symphony provides an excellent opportunity to appreciate the cultivation of both of those senses; and, again, the challenge of the performance is to accept the decisions Mahler has made and let them stand.

In other words the stare decisis strategy is as important to performing Mahler as it is to performing Messiaen, but the realization of that strategy is different. Georg Solti used to say that the most important thing about conducting Das Rheingold was recognizing where the biggest climax was and then making sure that everyone built up to it effectively, rather than jumping the gun or running out of steam before that moment. (Those last colloquialisms are my reading of Solti, not his words!) Mahler's first symphony is not as long as Rheingold, and it breaks down into four movements. However, what made Chung's performance so effective was his sense of where the climax was in each of those movements and how that climatic moment really rises above all the others. This was most evident in how he conducted the first movement, keeping a tight rein on all the energetic passages in order to make sure that "the big one" near the end of the movement was the peak expenditure of that energy. The fourth movement provides an even greater challenge, since it begins full throttle with frantic phrase fragments desperately trying to home in on a theme; but there are also breaks in the Stürmisch bewegt storm clouds. So there is plenty of time allowed in the overall architecture of the movement to let the climax be the climax, and Chung knew exactly how to make the final moments of the entire symphony play out in such a way as to summarize the listening experience of the entire symphony.

Here, again, Chung had no problem realizing his strategy through the musicians of the San Francisco Symphony; and, also again, the audience accepted it all with great enthusiasm. Rather than the Concert from Hell that Kosman tried to make it out to be, this may well be remembered as one of the high points of the current season. It provided a coupling of two composers rarely coupled and, for each composer, honored both the "letter of the text" of the composition and the spirit that motivated the compositional decisions that were made. Chung was, in every sense of the phrase, the "dutiful servant" of the music he was performing; and, by respecting his duties, he also allowed his own expressiveness, as well as that of the musicians he conducted, to shine forth in the best possible light.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Climbing Mount Bach

I am now on the final Volume of the Brilliant Classics Bach Edition, which contains all of the organ works of Johann Sebastian Bach. The means that I have now listened to all of the cantatas. My violinist neighbor, who is as interested in recorded performances as "live" ones, was asking me about my listening practices. I told her that my Bach Edition experience reminded me of an old Japanese proverb, which states that there are two kinds of fools: the man (accepting the cultural bias of the language of the time and culture) who has never climbed Mount Fuji, and the man who climbs Mount Fuji twice. This was my second traversal of the cantatas, the first having taken place when I purchased the earlier Bach 2000 collection; and, yes, I felt more than a little foolish on more than one occasion! After all, Bach wrote one of these every week. That means that they cover the church calendar for an entire year; and, if I remember my Schweitzer correctly, they actually cover about three cycles of that calendar. Meanwhile, while Bach 2000 basically followed the ordering of the BWV numbers, I have yet to figure out the logic (if any) behind the Bach Edition ordering. This really did not interfere with the listening; but it means that, if I want to listen to a specific cantata, I shall have to consult the data CD that comes with the package, because knowing the number of the cantata will not help me home in on its location.

Things are different now that I am in "organ territory," though. For one thing I already had three collections of the entirety of Bach's organ music, and I never felt this was a matter of "Fuji foolishness." The organist in the Bach 2000 collection is Ton Koopman. Then I wanted to replace my vinyl collection from the Musical Heritage Society recordings of Michel Chapuis, which came with notes by Harry Halbreich (originally written in French) that played a major role in my learning how to listen to Bach organ music. Then Archiv came out with the CD collection of their release of the recordings made by Helmut Walcha, which had been the favorite of the set I hung out with back at MIT; and Collectors' Choice Music made it available at a tempting discount. I have never heard of Hans Fagius, who is the Bach Edition organist; but I am perfectly happy to have him join the others.

The thing about organ music, of course, is that it always depends on the organ; and, as long as we eschew electronics in favor of bellows and pipes, no two organs are ever the same. This, in turn, means that no two performances of any work (by Bach or anyone else) on different organs need necessarily be the same and usually cannot be the same. Particularly when it all comes down to turning intricate counterpoint into sound, whether in a fugue, chorale prelude, or trio sonata, the organist has to figure out how to separate and then prioritize the individual voices; having made those choices, the organist must next figure out how to render them through the constraints and capabilities of both the "plumbing" of the organ itself and the acoustics of the space within which the pipes sound. (After all of those decisions have been made, then the recording engineer has to come along and make sure that his microphones and mixer board "hear" what we would be hearing, were we at a "live" performance.) Thus, in many ways the task of the organist is not that different from the task of a conductor facing a specific symphony orchestra in a specific concert hall. The result, then, is that there is considerable diversity both within and across these four collections; and I suppose this is one reason that I cannot get enough of the stuff, just as I cannot seem to get enough of performances of Wagner and Mahler.

How much is this true of the content of the "Keyboard Works" Volume, where I had previously suggested that most performance settings for this music are artificial or (to use one of the highly-charged words among musicologists) "inauthentic?" This strikes me as a two-sided coin. In Bach's day there was as much diversity among keyboard instruments as there was among organs; and those who choose to perform and record on such instruments face many of the same problems (even if on a smaller scale) that organists face. Thus, there is much to be gained from having multiple recordings. Piano making technology, on the other hand, has pretty much converged on a uniformity of the sound quality of the instrument; but this is where the performance of counterpoint again becomes an issue. The interesting pianists are the ones well-skilled in differentiating contrapuntal voices through dynamics, articulation, that mysterious quality of "touch," and other tricks of the trade. Thus, a pianist can experiment with different strategies for dealing with the complex relationships among the voices and apply each experiment on the same instrument. As a result, while my personal preferences do not, as a rule, run to recordings of Bach on piano (even by Glenn Gould), I have no problem with going to "live" piano recitals that include works of Bach (although I would probably still shy away from being obliged to hear the entire Goldberg Variations in a single shot).

From this point of view, perhaps I really do find myself in agreement with Hans von Bülow: Bach really is "the Father" of it all. It is from Bach that "all blessings flow" (perhaps I should not be writing this after deep-ending on so many of those chorales), not only in the discipline of composition but also in the discipline of performance, which had been the primary criterion for my "alternative Trinity." Of course all the music we hear can refine our "good listening" skills; but it remains surprising how many of the foundations of those skills can be found in what Bach has done for composition and the impact of those achievements on how we approach performance.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Banker's Chutzpah

While there was no end of chutzpah volleying and thundering in Davos (about as far as one can get from Tennyson's "Valley of Death"), my personal interest in "the uses of history for decision makers" compels me to assign the Chutzpah of the Week award to Jean-Pierre Mustier, head of Société Générale's investment bank for his comment about the post hoc investigation of Jérôme Kerviel's trading activities, which cost the bank $7.2 billion (as reported by Michael A. Hiltzik and Geraldine Baum for the Los Angeles Times, "The reasons are incomprehensible." Admittedly, as Hiltzik and Baum observed, Kerviel's accomplishment "swamps the previous high water mark for activity by a rogue trader set by Nicholas Leeson, who lost $1.38 billionin Asian futures and other derivatives at Barings Bank in 1995," which, they remind us, was enough to send Barings into bankruptcy. Leeson now manages a soccer club in Ireland and told the BBC that he was "shocked" by the size of the Société Générale loss. Still to hide behind incomprehensibility is to admit a total lack of working hypotheses in a time of crisis. This is either just plain dumb or it amounts to saying "none of your business" at a time when other financial analysts are hypothesizing that it was the knee-jerk liquidation of Kerviel's futures positions that provoked the global market chaos at the beginning of this week. Mustier's defensive posture amounts to making a bad situation worse, which reflects an opinion offered by Olivier de la Ferriere, a financial analyst at Richelieu Finance in Paris. One would have thought that the head of a major investment bank would know when is not a good time for chutzpah, but I guess that just makes his chutzpah all the stronger.

The Best Movie We May Never See

One of the reasons that I maintain an RSS feed for the film reviews on Variety is that they give me a chance to read about the films that no one else takes the trouble to cover. Even when a film gets screened at the Sundance Festival, as is the case with the review I just read, the sheer volume of the Sundance program means that much of that program is likely to slip through the cracks. However, Variety is a "trade publication," which means that distributors can count on it to let them know all of their options and offer up a bread-and-butter account of each option, rather than an extended essay that shows off how much the reviewer has learned about film theory. Since I am not "in the trade," though, I derive an entirely different benefit from these reviews, which is that they give me a chance to refute Walter Benjamin.

In was Benjamin, after all, in his essay on the works of Nikolai Leskov (entitled "The Storyteller"), who had declared (in 1936) that "the art of storytelling is coming to an end;" and, on this morning when San Francisco Chronicle Movie Critic Mick LaSalle seems primarily occupied with the complementary nature of the personalities of Rocky Balboa and John Rambo, it is not that difficult to appreciate what was bothering Benjamin some seventy years ago. It is only by seeking out such things as the films that fall through the cracks of the commercial production and distribution processes that we can see that, even if the art of storytelling has suffered no end of neglect, it is still far from dead; and Variety is one of the best windows available for keeping track of what has fallen through those cracks. So it is that I encountered a review of The Betrayal (Nerakhoon), a joint project directed and written by Ellen Kuras and Thavisouk Phrasavath. Kuras is primarily a cinematographer; and I first encountered her work when I saw Unzipped, Douglas Keeve's excellent documentary about Isaac Mizrahi and the nature of work in the world of high fashion. Like Kuras, Phrasavath has an IMDB page; but it is nowhere near as interesting as the account given by Variety reviewer Scott Foundas:

Back in Laos, Phrasavath's father had worked for the CIA choosing targets inside the country for U.S. bombing runs. Following the fall of the CIA-backed Royal Lao Army to the Communist Pathet Lao in 1975, the Phrasavaths became personae non grata, with Thavi's father being shipped off to a re-education camp and his mother fleeing the country with eight of her 10 children in tow.

After a brief period in Thailand, the family applies for asylum in the U.S. and lands on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, where their vision of a gold-paved promised land quickly gives way to the harsh realities of poverty, street gangs and a cramped tenement apartment shared with a Cambodian family of six.

Kuras had originally contacted Phrasavath to serve as a Lao tutor for a documentary she was planning about a Lao refugee family; but her appreciation for that art of storytelling alerted her to the fact that Phrasavath, himself, was an excellent subject. So began the project that resulted in The Betrayal. Those results interest me for two reasons.

First of all, one of the side-effects of my time in Singapore, which I neglected to mention in my recent account of "non-Western modernization," was the wealth of opportunities it offered for learning more about and visiting those countries that provided such a great embarrassment in foreign affairs: Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. I visited both Cambodia and Vietnam while living in Singapore and engaged the skills I had acquired from those trips in planning a trip to Laos after I had returned to the United States. Indeed, had I not acquired the basic skills of getting around in Vietnam and Cambodia by hiring a car and driver, I probably would not have appreciated that the easiest way to get from Laos to Vietnam was overland, since going by air involved a Byzantine chain of transfers involving both Phnompenh and Bangkok; and, had I not ridden the highway that descended from the terraced highlands of Vietnam along the Laotian border into Hue, I would have missed the opportunity to see the memorial erected at Khesanh, best described as a "fiasco" in Stanley Karnow's history of the Vietnam War. Put another way, this was the land of Presidential decision-making at its worst, at least until 9/11. Whether it was stopping to survey the grounds of Khesanh, driving across the Ho Chi Minh Trail, or seeing the building that used to be the American Embassy in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), from which we saw all that news footage of desperate evacuations, these visits taught me as much about American history as those trips to Independence Hall and Valley Forge. Like it or not, we owe it to ourselves as American citizens to see what we look like through the other end of the telescope.

This bring me to my second reason, which is what actually resulted from the collaboration between Kuras and Phrasavath. Here is the core of the description (in Foundas' Variety-speak, an argot I am pleased to see is still maintained):

The wounds inflicted by the U.S. military's covert Vietnam-era operations in Laos still run deep, as evidenced by "The Betrayal" ("Nerakhoon"), which details one Lao family's harrowing efforts to start a new life in America. More than two decades in the making, this heartfelt debut docu feature by veteran cinematographer Ellen Kuras brings an affecting personal dimension to a sprawling sociopolitical narrative, intimately detailing how the agendas designed to advance the interests of nations can destroy individual lives.

At a time when we seem to do all we can to avoid thinking about consequences, whether in our own get-rich-quick greed or in the more august settings of the World Economic Forum, it is important that the art of storytelling is still alive enough to remind us of how trying to change the world only makes matters worse. Indeed, there is a certain irony that Sundance should be turning its attention to Southeast Asia at the same time that the World Economic Forum is convening in Davos. After all, Henry Kissinger is still wanted as a war criminal by the Cambodian government; yet there he was on television (at least on the BBC), fat, happy, and introducing Pervez Musharraf (also fat but apparently not very happy), seemingly oblivious to the many charges of blood on his hands.

Needless to say, we should not be holding our breaths for a chance to see The Betrayal "coming to a theater near you." Regardless of any Chomskyan arguments of "manufacturing consent," this film is unlikely to figure in what Edward Jay Epstein has called "The New Logic of Money and Power in Hollywood." The good news is that the Sundance Channel has become one of the best places to see documentaries on cable. I have no idea whether or not Sundance Festival exposure can lead to an inside track on Sundance Channel programming; but, hopefully, support from Variety will help step in that direction. Meanwhile, we may just have to count on the blogosphere to "build the buzz." If the conferees of Davos persist in their fiddling, we owe it to ourselves to be aware of where things are burning.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

It's not Always a Joke: An Actor Goes to the Barricades

Bono may be content with making the joke a good one; but, when it comes to the balance between cheap talk and meaningful action, Danny Glover seems to prefer action. The Associate Press just released a report that he has been convicted of trespassing by a court in Niagara Falls, Ontario. This is the act that led to his conviction:

The 60-year-old actor took part in [a] protest as part of a larger campaign that aims to increase salaries and improve working conditions for hotel workers in the U.S. and Canada.

The protest was organized by UNITE HERE, which "represents 50,000 hotel, food service, garment and manufacturing workers across Canada and 450,000 in North America." Glover was convicted "along with UNITE HERE union representative Alex Dagg and Ontario Federation of Labour President Wayne Samuelson." Glover was not present in court for the conviction; but in my book this scores a lot more points than making jokes about the environment in Davos!

Make the Joke a Good One

I once heard a story (which may or may not be true) about a letter that George Bernard Shaw wrote to Leo Tolstoy. The story goes that he wrote something like the following:

Imagine, just for the sake of argument, that all of the known universe was created by some Divine Being as nothing more than a joke; would we not still be morally obliged to play our part in making the joke a good one?

I raise this point because, if the Grey Council that sets the agenda for the World Economic Forum views Bono as nothing more than "entertainment value," as I suggested yesterday; then, according to a dispatch from Agence France-Presse, the man certainly knew how to entertain his Davos audience. He shared the stage with Al Gore and seemed to have prepared a rather nice routine:

Acknowledging that a career in rock music was not always conducive to a green lifestyle, Bono compared a conversation with Gore to an act of religious contrition.

"It's like being with an Irish priest. You start to confess your sins," he said. "Father Al, I am not just a noise polluter, I am a noise-polluting, diesel-soaking, gulfstream-flying rock star.

"I'm going to kick the habit. I'm trying father Al, but oil has been very good for me -- those convoys of articulated lorries, petrochemical products, hair gel."

Bono and Gore were in Davos to push their respective campaigns for poverty alleviation and reducing carbon emissions.

So Bono scored some entertainment points (not to mention a rim shot or two); but what about Gore? Even with his Nobel Peace Prize, could it be that the Grey Council now loves him more for scoring at the Academy Awards? Is he, too, just an entertaining diversion, providing a break in a day full of collusions between governments and businesses?

Bill Gates in Davos: Will his Voice be Heard?

Bill Gates has done a clever thing in previewing his address to the World Economic Forum through an interview with Robert A. Guth, which was reported on the front page of today's Wall Street Journal. Most importantly, to the extent the this really is a forum for discussing ideas, rather than just declaring them, he has chosen the perfect medium to give his audience a foretaste of his speech; and Guth has assisted by provided data points that can be summoned in the cause of both warranting and refuting Gates' assertions. Furthermore, this article seems to be resonating at a variety of Web sites, meaning that at least the blogosphere will have an opportunity to draw upon the same data as the Davos conferees. This does not level the playing field in Davos itself, but it at least lets us know that not everyone is subscribing to Condoleeza Rice's playbook.

In light of what I wrote this morning about "The Growth Illusion," I have to confess that this is one time when I am at least sympathetic to Gates' position. This may best be illustrated by Guth's account of how Gates responded to a critic whose credentials are far more formidable than my own:

To a degree, Mr. Gates's speech is an answer to critics of rich-country efforts to help the poor. One perennial critic is Mr. Easterly, the New York University professor, whose 2006 book, "The White Man's Burden," found little evidence of benefit from the $2.3 trillion given in foreign aid over the past five decades.

Mr. Gates said he hated the book. His feelings surfaced in January 2007 during a Davos panel discussion with Mr. Easterly, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and then-World Bank chief Paul Wolfowitz. To a packed room of Davos attendees, Mr. Easterly noted that all the aid given to Africa over the years has failed to stimulate economic growth on the continent. Mr. Gates, his voice rising, snapped back that there are measures of success other than economic growth -- such as rising literacy rates or lives saved through smallpox vaccines. "I don't promise that when a kid lives it will cause a GNP increase," he quipped. "I think life has value."

Brushing off Mr. Gates's comments, Mr. Easterly responds, "The vested interests in aid are so powerful they resist change and they ignore criticism. It is so good to try to help the poor but there is this feeling that [philanthropists] should be immune from criticism."

The idea that Gates would start to get emotional over the proposition that there is more to the health of the global economy than economic growth gives me considerable comfort. I figure that, even if the Davos crowd sees Bono more for his entertainment value than for anything else, they certainly do not see Gates in that same light. On the other hand they may well accuse him of being a dabbler when it comes to economic theory, mixing the Adam Smith blend of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations with more contemporary sources (which may suffer from "business school press breeziness"), without cultivating a historical perspective on how things got the way they were through the literature between these two extremes. Also, I am not sure how well Gates can defend himself against charges of being a shallow reader, cherry-picking when he should be reflecting. I write all this not to criticize Gates but only to suggest that the position he is taking is not likely to be cheered by his audience the way basketball fans cheer a last-minute slam dunk.

However, we have to take what we can get. In this case that means hearing a sympathetic voice unlikely to be ignored. If Gates' talk sets the Davos crowd to buzzing, even if the buzzes are largely grumbles, he will have made a worthy contribution to how we think about global economic conditions.

The Growth Illusion

Yesterday, I decided to climb out on one of those shaky limbs of conventional wisdom by asking "What is so important about growth that it should be the only criteria invoked for assessing economic health?" This morning Al Jazeera English added fuel to my fire by running two stories, both compiled from their wire services, within three hours of each other. Taken together they provide an interesting context for examining my question.

Here is the lead from the earlier story, released at 4:20 GMT:

China's economy continued to surge ahead in 2007, recording its fastest growth in 13 years with only a small slowdown in the final quarter of the year, leading officials to warn that overheating remains a danger.

The latest figures released among a slew of economic data on Thursday put growth at 11.4 per cent for 2007 – the fifth year in a row that growth has topped 10 per cent.

There you have it: China, the "leading engine of global economic growth," as Condoleeza Rice put it when she addressed the World Economic Forum yesterday in Davos. What, then, indicates the quality of life brought on by such a "leading engine of global economic growth?" One answer may be found in the subsequent story, which Al Jazeera English released at 7:38 GMT:

China is facing its worst-ever power shortage as winter weather puts pressure on dwindling coal supplies.

Officials say reserves are down to emergency levels with only enough coal to power the entire country for another eight days.

According to state media the shortage amounts to nearly 70 gigawatts, equivalent to about the entire generating capacity of the United Kingdom.

Across China 13 provinces including the southern industrial and export hub of Guangdong, have already begun rationing supplies, tiggering brown-outs across large areas.

That's right, a "leading engine of global economic growth," the sort that, according to Rice, sets the bar for our own economic performance, cannot even supply adequate electrical power to thirteen of its provinces. Those of us who enjoy the ironies of life will probably appreciate that one of those provinces if Guangdong, which, just to stretch the metaphor, many would regard as the massive boiler that powers that "engine of global economic growth!"

The moral behind yesterday's rant was that our priorities have gone dangerously out of whack. Since I tried to make this point by invoking the Preamble of our Constitution, by "our priorities" I meant the priorities of the United States; but this little narrative that emerges from the accidental juxtaposition of two news reports from China simply underscores that these are global priorities. This then raises the question of the week: If they really are global priorities, are they priorities on the agenda of the World Economic Forum? My guess is that they are not, not only because Rice's opening address rode roughshod over them but also because, as I also reported yesterday, the CEO of AT&T does not appear to give a tinker's damn about them either. This is not to say that those willing to think about such global priorities have been "banned from Davos;" but they probably have as much trouble being heard as Dennis Kucinich at a Democratic debate. Indeed, for all the honorable things that Bono has been trying to do, often to positive effect, one has to wonder whether his own presence in Davos is some cross between tokenism and entertainment value. The real lesson from Davos is that when governments and businesses speak with the same voice, then all other voices are reduced to insignificance; and all the rest of us get out of it is the opportunity to watch our ruling class dine on their own cheap talk, served on silver platters at tables covered with the finest damask linen.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

I Might Have Known

I just got done watching the BBC News on KQED World. Why was I not surprised to see Condoleeza Rice addressing the World Economic Forum in Davos, as the opening speaker, no less? Ironically, as I am writing this, I could not find a summary of her remarks on the BBC Web site. However, it is tomorrow morning in Sydney; and The Sydney Morning Herald is there with the Associate Press account. Here is the core of her remarks:

"I know that many are concerned by the recent fluctuations in US financial markets, and by concerns about the US economy," she said. "President Bush has announced an outline of a meaningful fiscal growth package that will boost consumer spending and support business investment this year."

She said US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, who cancelled his own visit to the World Economic Forum annual meeting at the last minute, was "leading our administration's efforts and working closely with the leaders of both parties in Congress to agree on a stimulus package that is swift, robust, broad-based, and temporary."

She touted the US economy as "resilient, its structure sound, and its long term economic fundamentals are healthy."

Rice also said the US would welcome foreign investment and free trade.

"And our economy will remain a leading engine of global economic growth," she said. "So we should have confidence in the underlying strength of the global economy - and act with confidence on the basis of the principles that lead to success in today's world."

Any sermon based on this text should touch on two key topics: credibility and growth.

Rice's name will never fit into the sort of neat little rhymed couplet that Grover Cleveland made up about James G. Blaine, but the credibility problems she faces are probably more suitable for the blank verse of Christopher Marlowe. (I have to wonder if she took in the performance of Tamburlaine by the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington!) Her ideological passions have always enabled her to take even the most far-fetched propositions to come out of the White House and make them sound plausible. Even when hard data points come to light that bring the chickens home to roost, she always seems to find just the right rhetorical constructs (not to mention chutzpah) to spin things in the President's favor. Given her facility in these matters over such issues as the "success" of our military activities in Iraq, just how are we to take her assertions about the state of our economy; and, more importantly, how will representatives of other countries take them when she declares them in a public forum of global experts, many of whom do not seem to have as much trouble talking about recession?

However, rather than labor the point of how credibility can get strained in the face of ideology, I would like to explore a deeper question, which may very well raise some eyebrows: What is so important about growth that it should be the only criteria invoked for assessing economic health? Granted, I have supported Isaiah Berlin's position that the "tragic flaw" of any utopia is that it is fundamentally static; but such a proposition does not logically imply that the only good dynamic system is one that is always growing. The problem is that we try to evaluate the quality of our economy on the basis of a number (such as the Gross Domestic Product); and then we assume that this number is only "good" if it grows at some rate (cooked up by economic theorists) from one year to the next. Does this number say anything about our quality of life? Does it say anything about the literal semantics of "social security," which, put in the bluntest of terms, is the risk that we may face having to go without food, clothing, and/or shelter? You do not have to be an economist to recognize that a Gross Domestic Product number says nothing about an overall quality of life, no more than the level of the Dow Jones Industrial Average does.

At the risk of sounding too didactic, let me propose that we, once again, go back to the text of the Constitution. The last time I did this was in search of the "job description" for the Presidency. This time, however, I would like to turn to the Preamble as a statement of why we need a government in the first place:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

What I am really asking is whether or not the growth of the Gross Domestic Product is an effective way to "insure domestic Tranquility" and/or "promote the general Welfare." If you look at the extent to which current White House policies have made our country "a leading engine of global economic growth" and the price those policies have paid in terms of their impact on domestic working conditions and global environmental conditions, then I do not think it is much of a stretch to conclude that those policies have not done squat for either "domestic Tranquility" or "general Welfare."

Now this should not be taken as a call to hurl our wooden shoes into the works of those engines of economic growth. It is only an argument that those engines should not be set up on some pedestal above all other priorities, such as the fact that every American citizen needs quality health care as much as every member of Congress does. Only misers evaluate their well-being in terms of how their economic resources grow. The rest of us think in terms of how those resources may be wisely applied to such things as feeding our families and sending our kids off to college. At least we want to think that way; but, as we saw in The Pursuit of Happyness, it is kind of hard to think that way when your highest priority is to get in line early enough to get a bed for the night at Glide Memorial Church.

Of course when Rice preaches the gospel of economic growth in Davos, she is, as they say, preaching to the choir. The problem is that most of us do not worship in that church. Indeed, most of us are probably not even allowed through the doors of that church, from which we should conclude that we should simply reject that church in favor of another one. We should reject the gospel of economic growth in favor of national goals that are more consistent with the Preamble of our own Constitution. If there are enough of us who do this during the Primaries, we may yet get back to having a President that can not only get us out of the many messes we are now in but also return our eyes to the prize of that government that our Constitution initially envisaged.

Everything I Learned about the Economy Came from the Sports Page

Senator Charles Grassley may be disposed to speak of economic recovery in terms of chickens and eggs; but, now that globalization has been shoved down our throats, whether we wanted it or not, it seems more appropriate to think of the international markets as bases on an enormous baseball diamond. Think of it his way: The mortgage industry connects with a sinker resulting in a ground ball hit directly to the shortstop (Tinker in America), who easily fields it and tosses it to second base (Evers in Asia), who forces out the runner from first base with plenty of time to then throw to first base (Chance in Europe), thus completing a double play (with apologies to Franklin Pierce Adams). Think of the batter (and the man on base) as being on our "home team;" and think of the financial markets as our opponents, who only win when we lose. With that kind of metaphor, what need have we for the barnyard economics of a Republican senator from Iowa?

Is Impatience a Virtue?

As Groucho Marx used to say, "The secret word for the night is 'bargain-hunter.'" Contestants on You Bet Your Life worked as a pair. Before the quiz part began, Groucho would engage them in conversation, usually making jokes at their expense (jokes that he had prepared in advance while reading biographical background cards). If a contestant said the secret word, a duck with all the necessary Groucho features (mustache, glasses, cigar) would drop down; and the contestants would share a prize of $100 (which tended to be viewed as a lot of money in those days).

AP Business Writer Madlen Read said (actually, wrote) the secret word in covering today's market news:

Wall Street bounced around in extremely volatile trading Wednesday, as bargain hunters entered the market and lifted stocks up from their steep losses. The Dow Jones industrials shot up nearly 250 points in late trading after falling more than 320 earlier.

Many would probably think it was a bit early in the downturn for bargain hunting. They might wonder if this was closer to one of those last-ditch buying spurts that took place before the bottom really fell out on Black Tuesday (October 29, 1929). One of those more cautious interpreters may well be Art Hogan, chief market strategist at Jefferies & Co, who is more interested in volatile swings than in the directions those swings take. Here is how Read quoted him:

Volatility is certainly the norm now and not the exception. We have had 14 trading days so far this year and only two of them have been without a triple-digit swing. Three of those days have had 300-point swings.

It was only a few decades ago that physicists got caught up in the study of conditions in which volatility was the norm; they called their research "chaos theory." Some of them got to publish some intriguing papers on the topic, while others discovered some new ways to draw some really cool computer graphics. Nevertheless, chaos seemed far more attractive when observed from the outside, rather than experienced from the inside. Since Adam Plowright of Agence France-Presse has reported at least one delegate at the World Economic Forum willing to utter the word "recession," one wonders whether any members of that Grey Council would see fit to speak of chaos when, in true Nietzschean fashion, it stares them in the face.

Meanwhile, for those who try to track every detail of every instant, here are the numbers from Read's report:

In afternoon trading, the Dow was up 241.92, or 2.02 percent, at 12,213.11 after having been down 323.29 in earlier trading.

Broader stock indicators also turned positive. The Standard & Poor's 500 index rose 25.85, or 1.97 percent, to 1,336.35, and the Nasdaq composite index rose 25.86, or 1.13 percent, to 2,318.13.

Advancing issues were ahead of decliners by about 3 to 1 on the New York Stock Exchange.

At this point, it is unclear whether the stock market is close to a bear market or bottoming out before a recovery.

That last sentence may deserve a prize for discreet understatement! Read also provided the following numbers:

Bond prices, like stocks, were volatile Wednesday. The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note, which moves opposite its price, fell in earlier trading but then recovered to 3.41 percent, the same as late Tuesday.

The dollar was mixed against other major currencies, while gold prices fell.

Crude oil fell more than $2 to dip below $87 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Lower oil prices help debt-burdened, cash-strapped consumers, but they dampen oil company profits. Chevron Corp., ConocoPhillips and ExxonMobil Corp. shares fell sharply Wednesday.

I am sure this will provide food for much of the conversation in Davos, both on the stage and over meals. How can object to all that talk with no promise of action? After all, talk is cheap; and we are in tight economic times!

Language and Fear

I very much enjoyed reading the comment that America Jones posted in response to "Innovation and Regulation." For some reason I found myself free-associating on the title of the collected nonfiction by Joan Didion that was published in 2006, We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live; and from there I free-associated to a reading that Roy Blount Jr. had given from his book Be Sweet at the Stanford University Bookstore, which included the sentence, "When I was a child, one definition of 'telling a story' was lying." Is this how we live then, telling each other (and ourselves) stories, whether in the high council of the World Economic Forum, on our video screens, or at the bedside of our children before they go to sleep; and, if it is how we live, why do we live that way? Accepting the truth of the proposition, the explanation may lie in that "culture of fear" that emerged towards the end of the "Innovation and Regulation" post: We tell ourselves stories to keep fear at bay. This is blatantly evident in the news reports we are currently watching, filled with "experts making up stories" about our dire economic straits; but we also saw it in the reports leading up to the convening of the World Economic Forum. When we talk about innovation, we are doing little more than making up a story, just like those experts making up stories for those to whom, as America Jones put it, "the stock market represents a comfortable retirement rather than a fancy roulette wheel."

Blount was, of course, milking the humor out of a single interpretation of the phrase, "telling a story;" but then that's his job. Perhaps a more accurate (if long-winded) way of putting it is that we tell ourselves stories to convince ourselves of propositions without bothering over whether or not they are true. Consider, for example, this Associated Press report on the address Randall Stephenson, CEO of AT&T, gave in Davos in light of those "stories" about "collaborative initiatives," which were supposed to be a key theme:

AT&T Inc. is still evaluating whether to examine traffic on its Internet lines to stop illegal sharing of copyright material, its chief executive said Wednesday.

CEO Randall Stephenson told a conference at the World Economic Forum that the company is looking at monitoring peer-to-peer file-sharing networks, one of the largest drivers of online traffic but also a common way to illegally exchange copyright files.

"It's like being in a store and watching someone steal a DVD. Do you act?" Stephenson asked.

AT&T has talked about such plans since last summer. They represent a break with the current practice of U.S. Internet service providers, who are shielded by law from liability if their subscribers trade copyright files like movies.

If ever there were a need for a "collaborative initiative," it would be to address the problem that the Internet has rendered the traditional concept of copyright obsolete; yet here is a key "player" in the global economy telling his fellow conferees that he is gathering the wagons in a circle and getting out the rifles. He wants to believe that the aforementioned "traditional concept of copyright" is still alive and well and that the Internet is nothing more than an attack on salt-of-the-earth pioneers straight out of a John Wayne movie; and, dammit, there he is telling a story to convince himself (and everyone else).

This is what CEOs do. They do it on an annual basis at shareholders' meetings. They do it when analysts come to prepare their reports that brokers will then pay good money to read (so that they can then tell those of us with retirement portfolios stories based on what they have read). Some of them even do it when testifying before Congressional committees.

This takes us back to the fear factor. As I have suggested, the stories we tell are desired truths, regardless of whether or not they are actual truths; and we have to tell them when we are afraid to face those actual truths. We tell stories about terrorists because the thought that our own culture may be giving offense to others is too horrible to contemplate. We tell stories about expected value because we are afraid to formulate a worst-case scenario around what happens when our best-laid investment plans go south. We even tell stories about risk to convince ourselves that preparing worst-case scenarios is a waste of time; and, on top of that, we tell stories about government safety nets, just in case the stories about risk go south.

My favorite line from William Shakespeare's The Tempest is delivered by Caliban:

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!

Caliban almost got it right. By learning language, we know how to tell stories. Through telling stories we need neither to cringe from our fears nor to curse them. We simply cover them over with those desired truths, at least for as long as others are willing to listen to and accept our stories; but, every now and then, that dreaded "sense of reality" intrudes on the day-to-day stories we hear and tell. Then our bubbles burst and we are reduced to a blather of cringing and cursing over a mess that surrounds us, when we should be collecting our thoughts (whatever may be left of them) to start deliberating on how to get out of that mess!