Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Golf - a long time ago

From biography of Herbert Asquith (British Prime Minister to be); when Asquith had just left college in 1875 and spent time as a reading member at St. Andrews:

“Even nearer to hand were the links of the Royal and
Ancient St.
Andrews Golfing Society, and Asquith there made his first acquaintance with the only sedentary game which was ever to arouse his interest.  It was a useful acquaintanceship, for although golf was then so little developed that he and his modest-living student companions were able to hire the services of the British Open champion to carry their clubs, the game was to become an almost essential accompaniment to Edwardian politics.  In the heyday of Asquith’s career, there was hardly a politician of note who did not seek his relaxation (and in some cases try to transact a part of his business) upon a golf links.”

Asquith, Roy Jenkins

There's a great picture of him from 1912 just after he's hit a drive in full golfing attire (hat, suit and tie, dress shirt with cuff links no less).  Looks like he favored a baseball grip rather than the vardon.

The character of Newt's intelligence

I don’t think there is any question that Newt Gingrich’s appeal in the Republican race comes down his perceived intelligence and that he’s not Mitt Romney.  On the former, I think it is highly over-rated (not least by Newt himself).  But even if his intelligence is conceded, it strikes me as a) not conservative and b) not well suited to the office of president.  The central characteristic of Newt’s mind is that it is prolific, but there is little evidence of it having any real depth or of any wisdom.  Newt is a philosophe.

In another context the philosophe was critically appraised as follows:

“First, an age of philosophisme implies a peculiar confidence in knowledge, indiscriminate knowledge…and he can only exist when there is a certain rude copiousness about the supply of knowledge which permits no suggestion of limit.  His is an inventive, ingenious, mildly perplexed and easily satisfied mind; there is vitality but no discrimination.  All knowledge appears equally significant…there is neither time nor inclination to learn anything profoundly…and when every suggestion is followed it is impossible to follow one suggestion far.

Second, besides his belief in encyclopedic knowledge, the philosophe is remarkable for his general credulity.  He does not know what it is to be perplexed; he only knows what it is to be ignorant.  And he is protected from the dilemmas of doubt by a tough hide of self- confidence.  Appearing to doubt everything and to be engaged upon the construction of a new world from the bottom up, he is really the most credulous of men.  For the philosophe the world is divided between those who agree with him and ‘fools’

Thirdly, besides his thirst for knowledge and na├»ve cast of mind, the philosophe is a rationalist.”

And it is this character of being a philosophe—“their minds replete with half-conceived ideas—which accounts for their completing so little of what they begin.”

Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, Michael Oakeshott, The New Bentham, page (132 – 150)

There are of course places for minds like this, but it strikes me that it is very far from what is required of a president.  A president is awash in ideas, what he needs is all those things that a philosophe and Newt lack, discrimination, judgment, patient consideration of circumstances, and wisdom.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The perils of having an effective agent

"He has been fixing me up solid.
Egbert blinked.
Doing what?
Fixing me up solid.  With the magazines.  He has arranged for me to write three serials and I don’t know how many short stories..
Getting you contracts you mean.
Evangeline nodded tearfully.
Yes, he seems to have fixed me up solid with almost everybody.  And they’ve been sending me checks in advance, hundreds of them.  What am I to do?  What am I to do?
Cash them, said Egbert
But afterwards?
Spend the money.
But after that?
Egbert reflected.
Well it’s a nuisance of course, he said, but after that I suppose you’ll have to write the stuff.

It is not the being paid money in advance that jars the sensitive artist: it is the having to work."

P.G. Wodehouse, Best Seller, Mulliner Nights

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

"Yeah, we've got that"

The incessant water running from the bathtub/shower faucet couldn’t be ignored so I called the building mechanics.  Taken apart I’m told I need a new cartridge and that no, I won’t be able to get it from any of the nearby hardware stores.  So an hour ‘L’ ride and short walk finds me in front of a nondescript, narrow brick building on N Elston. 

The Faucet Shoppe is not much bigger than my bedroom.  On the customer side of the counter are a multitude of toilets in various states of completeness.  Behind the counter stand two guys in what I presume are their mid-thirties taking care of customers in rapid succession.  Behind them are shelves and drawers from floor to ceiling.

I was told to tell them that my part is from a Kohler but this proves to be unnecessary becaude by the time I place it on the counter it’s identified and I’m told the part is “one of their best sellers” (good job Kohler!).  In the span of five minutes I have the replacement part, told the price—“yeah for that amount you’d think it’d be all brass, but Kohler isn’t what it used to be”—wished a happy thanksgiving and my charge rung up.

Well it is almost worth it to come across this business which is far more interesting to me than the type that gets covered in Business Week or Fortune.  There is only a hint of any kind of organization here, but these guys know where everything is and know the parts and repairs they’re dealing with cold.  And obviously business is good.  There were five customers before me when I enter and about two or three waiting when I’m done and this on a Tuesday afternoon.

I'd love to ask them what revenue and profits are, how the business got started (their dad or so I'm told) and how they keep a handle on inventory.  I'd also love to have a business just like it.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The problem with Movies

I happen to have a friend whose side career is acting, so we’ve had a number of conversations about the movies.  My line of argument has been that Hollywood is simply out of ideas and that part of the problem might be that people making movies are immersed in movies and otherwise don’t have much of a cultural repository to draw from.

Rushfield Babylon points to another problem; lead actors who can’t convincingly pass for adults.  The specific subject of the post is a new Gatsby film that will star Leo DiCaprio prompting this conclusion:

“Our young actors today, even the finest of them, are just too much of lightweights to carry off historical roles.   We are not capable anymore of portraying a time when people didn’t act like pouty teens well into their 50’s.
That is not a slam on their acting abilities.  Today’s actors are far more versatile and technically capable than actors of the golden age.  But it’s just who this generation is, who we are.  We can’t just put on maturity anymore than we could put tusks and be convincing wooly mammoths.   
Maybe it’s just that we favor actors with baby faces, but I don’t think so”
The poster goes on to draw a contrast between DiCaprio who is 37 and Cary Grant and James Stewart when they were 37. 
Well, I think he’s right and if anything understating the case.  With the possible/probable exceptions of George Clooney and Christian Bales, the standard male star of today (Depp, Damon, Maguire, Downey, Cruise) can still play young but can’t play old or come across as characters with any sort of gravitas.  A little digging around on IMDB reveals for instance that Matt Damon was the same age—32-- at the start of the Bourne movies as Sean Connery in the Bond films.  Connery comes across like, well James Bond, while Damon looks and acts like someone a few years removed from grad school or as essentially the same person as he played in Good Will Hunting  And this isn’t a minor problem as anyone who’s seen Tom Cruise play the German aristocrat Claus Von Staufenberg in Valkyrie can attest—there are after all limits to how far you can suspend your disbelief.
If you think about the next level of star the contrast is even greater.  Who is there today to play characters of experienced, suave sophistication that makes movie watching so enjoyable?  Again perhaps Clooney but he hardly compares to past actors that come to mind: David Niven, Ray Milland, Anthony Quayle, George Sanders, James Mason.
It is revealing that the movies have a hard time doing maturity.  A few months ago I picked up the Pat Moynihan book of letters and leafed through it to the center section of pictures.  What jumped out was how often the people pictured were smoking pipes and or wearing three piece suits.  It was almost as if there was a time not that long ago when adults were in positions of responsibility….and on the silver screen.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Negative campaigns and the Republicans

One of things that people consistently tell the media and the media tell us is that they hate negative campaign ads and negative campaigns.  But the logic of negative politics couldn’t be more obvious than it is in the current race for the Republican nomination. 

It would take a very sensitive instrument to detect any conservative enthusiasm for Mitt Romney.  But as has been evident for awhile and becomes clearer by the day is that Mitt’s challengers are simply not plausible as President. 

The current, not-Romney is Newt Gingrich who at least has held a high position in government before and is at least, compared to other politicians, a pretty good debater.  But Newt’s reputation as an intellectual has never been deserved.  Yes, he has ideas (rare for a politician) but having 15 ideas a day is actually not much more evidence of having a fine mind than having none.  After all it isn’t coming up with ideas that is tough, it is coming up with good ideas that is challenging, and Newt either ignores the quality aspect or can’t tell the difference. 

And then there is the whole electability question.  Apart from his messy personal life, reputation for being a loose cannon, and limited ethical scruples (current example his consulting income from Freddie Mac) there is the small matter that when he was last in the political limelight he was despised.  Indeed I would argue that Gingrich would be the most disliked party nominee since Nixon.  But you say Nixon won.  Yes he did by a narrow margin and recall the other party had a televised riot during their convention.  Probably not wise to bank on a similar spectacle in ’12.

Looking at the field it’s clear that the case for Romney boils down to a simple question.  Have you looked at the others?  Case closed.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Thomas Sowell, wide wide of the mark

Will the GOP Blow It might be the weakest thing I’ve read or heard from Thomas Sowell.  He points out that 1) despite a weak economy Obama can still be re-elected (correct); 2) that conventional wisdom is always saying that Republicans need to choose a moderate that will appeal to independents in order to win but the record doesn't bear that out (correct); 3) it is that conventional wisdom that is behind the selection of Mitt Romney (yes and no); and 4) Republicans need to get behind a true conservative candidate—Bachman, Perry, or Cain.

In Sowell’s words:

The question now is whether the conservative Republican candidates who have enjoyed their successive and short-lived boomlets — Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Herman Cain — are prepared to stay in the primary race to the bitter end, or whether their conservative principles will move them to withdraw and throw their support to another conservative candidate.

There has probably never been a time in the history of this country when we more urgently needed to get a president out of the White House, before he ruined the country. But will the conservative Republican candidates let that guide them?

Ah, no.  That is not the question at all.  The question is whether any of the conservative candidates running for the nomination is competent enough to be President and the answer to that is, alas, no.  As is said in card games, read ‘em and weep.

Do I Get an Assist?

Fox’s Special Report has been including a center seat segment where the Republican candidates go on the program and are asked questions by the regular panel.  I was watching on Nov. 7th when they announced that Mitt Romney—alone I believe—had declined their invitation to appear.  Well so much for my sense that Romney belongs on the all surface no substance all star team.

So with that in my head I went on Twitter on the 8th and posted on Romney’s decision: “’Why does baloney reject the grinder’ reprised” which is a reference to a Bill Buckley comment that was made when he was asked why Robert Kennedy refused multiple invitations to appear on Firing Line.  A little later my comment was retweeted by Jonah Goldberg who happens to follow me on Twitter.

So you’re asking is there a point to this?  Well nothing as substantial as a point but I just finished reading Jonah Goldberg’s column on Newt Gingrich (worth a read by the way) which includes the following:

“In each debate, he keeps mentioning how he wants to challenge the president to as many Lincoln-Douglas-style debates as possible. And if the presidential baloney won’t march into the Gingrichian grinder? Well then, the grinder will come to the baloney”.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Trying to understand Penn State

Like I suspect many of you, an understanding of Penn State is eluding me even though I’m a life long pessimist.  The ongoing scandal has resulted in the firing of coach Joe Paterno, the athletic director, the President of the college and leave of absences for others.  The football program will almost certainly take a major perhaps crippling hit, and law suits against the university are certain to follow.

First by way of context, let me say that while I consider myself a sports fan I am in no way a rabid fan.  Second, the general cult status of successful coaches has for a very long time struck me as ridiculous.  The adoration for Joe Paterno is, to put mildly, over the top [only Bud Grant deserves that kind of reverence]

That said, what I find missing in the attempts to understand why no one did anything [here for instance] is any reflection on what would’ve happened if people had acted correctly.  I certainly don’t intend for this to in any way excuse the actions of those involved, but I think we are missing something crucial if we think the ramifications on Penn State and its officials is the result merely of their not acting appropriately here.

First, somewhat aside from my point here, I’m at a complete loss as to the conduct of the graduate assistant.  On hearing a rough outline of events I thought of giving him a sliver of pass for being young, but have since found out he was 28 at the time.  At that age I was seeking out arguments with the higher ups and ruining my career.  Moreover, he was a football player himself, so physically handling Sandusky without assistance should’ve been no problem for him.  One extenuating circumstance is that as a football player he probably hadn’t developed an adequate network of people he could contact and run things by who would provide him with sound advice. 

But to my main point here, I would contend that if Paterno and the AD had gone to the authorities as they should have the results would most likely have been:

a)      A major scandal, particularly as the earlier incident with Sandusky came out with program being severely damaged.
b)      Paterno wouldn’t have been fired, but he would’ve been asked to retire at the end of the year.  He was after all in his mid-70s.  The incident in the shower involving a former assistant coach would’ve shown that he was no longer up to his duties.
c)      Penn State would’ve been subject to one or more lawsuits
d)      The football program would’ve been severely damaged, it’s reputation for propriety shattered.

Again, I don’t think there is any excuse here for not turning Sandusky in immediately.  But I think we are missing something crucial here if we don’t realistically consider what the results would’ve been from doing the right thing.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Tea Party and the Reformation

Federal employees whose compensation averages more than $126,000 and the nation’s greatest concentration of lawyers helped Washington edge out San Jose as the wealthiest U.S. metropolitan area, government data show.  Bloomberg News

History doesn’t repeat and because certain things are constant it is probably a mistake to draw historical parallels.  Still in reading Jacque Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence, 1500 to the Present it is tempting to note the similarities between the emergence of the Tea Party movement and the reformation. 

In our day the government is the dominant institution, in the 1500’s it was the Catholic Church.  Luther posting his 95 theses was prompted in part by the practice of selling indulgences.  As Barzun explains the belief was that buying an indulgence enabled the holder to finesse penance and shorten his or her time in Purgatory.  Today we have, to cite just a couple of examples, a Secretary of the Treasury who was allowed to correct “mistakes” in his tax filings, and numerous firms who have been granted the privilege of opting out of Obamacare.  What is crony capitalism but a variation on the practice of selling indulgences.

The Reformation’s response to the perceived corruption and decadence of the Catholic Church was a call to return to the basics; “for the early church the gospels had been enough and so it should be still.”  Another simplifying idea “was that every man was a ‘priest’, he does not need the Roman hierarchy as middleman, that top heavy apparatus, a burden throughout the West, is useless.”  Here again the echoes are evident.  The Tea Party is a call to return to the basics of limited government, it is focused on the constitution and the founding documents, and it is individualist—every man a “sovereign”.

Then as now changing technology played a key role in disseminating the idea.  Luther’s critique was able to spread where others hadn’t because of the advent of movable type.  Today the internet, social media, and the proliferation of cable news channels allows the Tea Party movement to gain traction that would’ve been impossible in the earlier mass media controlled era.

Finally, consider the following descriptions of the Reformation and its causes from Barzun and see if you don’t see the parallels to our times and the Tea Party movement:

Of the church hierarchy: “it had done nothing to reform the Church, which many agreed must be rid of abuses, but everyone stood firm—yes, but not my privileges.”

Of the impetus towards revolt “when people feel that accretions and complications have buried the original purpose of an institution, when all arguments for reform have been heard and failed, the most thoughtful and active decide they want to be ‘cured of civilization’.”

On the source of the complaint: “moral turpitude concealed a deeper trouble: the meaning of the roles had been lost.  The priest instead of being a teacher was ignorant; the monk, instead of helping to save the world by his piety was an idle profiteer; the bishop instead of supervising the care of souls in his diocese was a politician and businessman.”

And more concretely of the changes brought and source of complaint: “It threw off Everyman’s shoulders a set of duties that had become intolerable burdens.  The ‘works’ denounced by the Evangelicals took a daily expenditure of cash, time, and trouble.  The service of the Mass had been free, but celebrating the other milestones of life—a child’s christening and first communion, a couples marriage, and the final rites at bedside and gravesite—cost money.  The good Christian must give alms regularly and pay for votive candles or special masses for the sick and the dead.  Then would come the ‘Gatherer of Peter’s Pence’ to help the pope rebuild St. Peters in Rome; and next, the begging friar knocking at the door….It was galling too, to see one’s tithes (the 10 percent church tax on land) going not to the poor parish priest but to the prosperous monks nearby, who did little or nothing toward saving the souls of the taxpayers.”

The new era that Barzun chronicles begins with Luther and the Reformation and takes readers to present times which he argues is in a similar state of exhaustion and decadence.  There is no one comparable to Luther in the Tea Party which to date seems leaderless, but the complaints or motivating force behind it strikes me as very similar.  In particular the feeling quoted above “that accretions and complications have buried the original purpose of an institution, which in this case is government.  We are living I’m afraid at the change over from one era to another.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Sizing up the Republican field

During tonight's debate Dave Weigel tweeted "there are people who catch leprechauns who are less lucky than Mitt Romney this year." 

Yep.  McCain in '08, Romney in '12.  It's great to be a Republican.

Behavioral economics - Daniel Kahneman

In my two years at Cornell the Professors that stood out were Harold Bierman who taught finance and Richard Thaler who taught economics.  From the latter the course of note was on behavioral economics of which he was a leading light.  The field drew heavily on the research of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. 

Behavioral economics essentially contends with the assumption of economics that people are rational actors, and through experiments finds how people consistently contradict what they would do if they were truly rational. 

Examples that I readily recall is that the people’s cost/benefit functions aren’t linear but rather curve so it is steeper to start and then tails off.  In time for the Christmas holidays this suggests an optimal strategy of wrap your gifts separately and pay in one bill (or in the lingo segregate your gains, consolidate your losses).

The other was the market anomaly—at least at the time—that markets tended to go down first thing on Monday, and go up towards the conclusion of trading on Friday.  This was a blow to efficient markets theories that always amused me (when are you in a better mood, at the start of the work week or its conclusion?).

What prompts the above is an article in Vanity Fair by Michael Lewis on Daniel Kahneman
As I’ve remarked on occasion MBAs are far from knowing everything, but that shouldn’t lead you to believe that they don’t know anything.  Behavioral economics was one of things I took away from Cornell’s Business School and have carried with me since the late 80’s.

Steyn nails it

Mark Steyn neatly summarizes our current political situation today.  First he quotes Gerald Ford as saying “a government big enough to give you everything you want is big enough to take away everything you have.”  Well maybe.  But Steyn’s rewrite of the quote is spot on: “a government big enough to give you everything you want isn’t big enough to get you to give any of it back.”

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Herman Cain in light of the harassment allegations

On Herman Cain, a few observations

  1. Herman Cain reminds me of a business colleague of mine who went through an executive evaluation.  He passed along to me—because he knew how much I’d enjoy it—that on intelligence he came out on the high end but compared to high level executives he was off the charts.   Cain strikes me as a CEO to the nth degree, affable, charming but not someone who is going to wow you with his smarts.
  2. In last Friday’s G-File Jonah Goldberg noted Cain’s tendency to say in a pinch that he’d consult the experts.  That you can turn over government policy to the “experts” is a progressive not conservative idea.
  3. The truly damning allegation isn’t Cain’s apparent attempt to corner the Bill Clinton vote, but rather that he thought of running in 2001.  Think about that for a second.  That Cain isn’t very conversant with the issues, particularly foreign policy, is scary enough but that he evidently did nothing over a ten year period to fill in the gaps should be a deal breaker.
  4. The conservative attraction to Cain illustrates the movement’s current predicament.  It distrusts the elites, but in looking for alternatives outside the credentialed conservatives run the risk of adopting those who aren’t qualified. 

Saturday, November 5, 2011

P.G Wodehouse and current affairs

"A feeling is gradually stealing over me," he writes, "that the world has never been farther from a war than it is at present … I think if Hitler really thought there was any chance of a war, he would have nervous prostration."   [1939]

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Republican nomination, where we're at

On Twitter, Rich Lowry asks “has a presidential nominating contest ever been so farcical?”  Meanwhile Jonah Goldberg observes that “many conservatives are reconciled to a Romney victory the way they are to the inevitability of catching the seasonal flu.”