Disaster Strikes

The retirement of Justice Kennedy is an unmitigated disaster.  We are now already virtually guaranteed a very right-wing court for a generation.  Roe v. Wade is toast, in spirit if not in letter.  If Trump or Pence gets to appoint a Ginsburg vacancy….

The Supreme Court is too powerful.  And its great power is combined with this very capricious system of lifetime appointments made at indeterminate times, times at which changing political conditions are all-important.  To my mind, the Court has been very largely discredited an an institution during my lifetime, the idea that the constitution can be applied as would be a translation algorithm that is better than any now in existence is completely preposterous, the Court is a thoroughly political institution.  Originalism is incoherent.  Even if it were coherent, it would be unacceptable politically.

I think the United States needs a new constitution, both as a political and as a legal matter.  There is going to be a very serious mismatch between the economic and social conditions prevailing in the country and the right-wing, plutocratic and oligarchic Supreme Court that is already in view.

It is ironic, to say the least, that the petty gangster occupying the oval office, a man who cares nothing for the rule of law, is going to be credited with reinstituting the strict construction of the constitution.

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The Dignity of the chef de l’état

François Hollande is a highly inept politician.  He is impossible to respect.

http://www.liberation.fr/france/2015/12/23/decheance-de-nationalite-itineraire-d-une-volte-face_1422728?xtor=EPR-500001&utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=quot

Let us deprive suicide bombers of their French nationality.  One can be sure that this deprivation will haunt them in their graves, or frighten future would-be terrorists into becoming law-abiding citizens.

The terrorists are simply criminals of a particularly dastardly sort, but one might as well consider depriving all felons of their nationality, or declaring that anyone who commits a particularly heinous act could not possibly be French, that criminality and French nationality are mutually exclusive.  And I would respectfully submit the following constitutional revision:  anyone found guilty of a violation of the French driving code that leads directly to the death of a person, including himself, within French borders, will be deprived of French nationality.  Because it it impossible that a French national could cause the death of a person by violating the French driving code.

My Turkish doppelganger

My brother sent me an email saying that a Turkish guitarist I had commended to him looks just like me.  There is, in fact, a strong resemblance.  I actually had not heard the fellow’s music until today, although I probably did commend him to my brother without having heard him.  So here is a picture of my Turkish doppelganger, Erkan Ogur.

erkan ogur

New French Book on Growing Inequality

It sounds like Thomas Piketty, who is French, has written an important book about the trends of distribution of wealth and income in 20th-21st century economies, primarily in developed economies.  The general story is that the “natural” rate of accumulation of capital is on the order of five-six percent per annum, while the natural rate of overall growth in GDP in advanced economies is 1-1.5 percent annually.   Thus, without major changes in political institutions, inherited private wealth will dominate the societies in advanced economies by virtue of the tendencies inherent in them.

I was alerted to Piketty by this column in the NYT:

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/29/opinion/capitalism-vs-democracy.html?ref=thomasbedsall&_r=0

Questions that will have to await reading of the book include the following.  (1) How independent is the rate at which private capital accumulates of political institutions?  That is, the implication is that capital will accumulate, over the long run, at five-six percent annually, when redistributive mechanisms are below some threshold.  What is the threshold?  (2) How independent are the rates of capital and GDP growth from the rate of population growth?  This second question is almost certainly not addressed in the book, but, in general, I think that macroeconomics should attempt to incorporate demographic analysis.  More generally, I speculate that those who are interested in reducing inequality of wealth and income should also be interested in reducing the human population, both within advanced economies of larger nation states and globally.

An introduction to the book by Piketty himself on French television can be seen here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=27oDSki8yGw

Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street”

I hope that the reader will allow me to offer a dissenting view of Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street.”  It’s too long, much of it is boring, and considered even as satire or black comedy it is unconvincing.  I did laugh heartily at a few points in the movie, in particular at the physical comedy of the two main characters overdosing on quaaludes.  I have done a short sampling of critical response and am somewhat baffled by the highly positive reactions engendered in the main by this film (although I am aware that not everyone liked it).

My problem with the movie, apart from its inordinate length, is that it falls into the same trap as many of Scorsese’s movies:  it has no moral compass and ends by glorifying empty and loathsome people, simply by devoting so much time and attention to them.  Just to pick on a comparatively minor point, but one which is telling, at no point in the movie does a salesman of a financial security fail to make a sale.  At the outset of the movie, Jordan Belfort, the anti-hero played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is hired to make cold calls at L.F Rothschild, he is looking for wealthy clients who will be new to the firm, and he is told by his immediate superior to get on the phone and to stay there all day.  But the tedium of this job, and the psychological toll it would take on the vast majority of people, is nowhere depicted, not at the beginning of the movie, not in its middle, and certainly not in its denouement.  The movie gives no sense, none whatever, of the reality of cold-calling.   So one of the few things that might actually seem to the informed and sensitive viewer to offer something redeeming about Jordan Belfort, that he is good at a very difficult job, is never shown.  Belfort never has to overcome obstacles.  Incredibly, on the one occasion, early on in the film, when Belfort is shown making an actual sale of a penny stock, the fish at the other end of the telephone line makes no objection, offers no resistance.  But nearly every sales course ever given is about overcoming objections and resistance from the “client.”  Speaking generally, a film so ungrounded in reality cannot be saying anything from which a sentient viewer can learn, or by which she could even be moved.

Instead, the viewer is led to believe that Belfort’s sales rhetoric is so mesmerizing that hordes of salesmen follow his prescriptions with unquestioning zeal and hero-worship.  This has nothing to do with the real world, where salesmen of financial assets are likely to be cynical, back-biting, treacherous, and envious of their bosses or of more successful salesmen.  People around the world are now engaged in telemarketing, they interrupt me at the lunch or dinner hour at least once a week in rural France.  In Scorsese’s topsy-turvy world, however, every cold-call results in a sale and leads to financial success for the salesman.  Scorsese trivializes everything he touches.  Most of the crimes he depicts are victimless, in the sense that the harm done to the victim is not depicted.

The role given to Kyle Chandler, as the FBI agent pursuing Belfort, after Belfort has become a successful white-collar criminal, is a comic-book caricature of the G-Man who refuses to be bribed.  Yes, Scorsese does not flee from telling us, in a brief concluding scene in which Chandler’s character is shown riding home on the New York subway (the only occasion in the film when this character is given the slightest hint of depth), that it might be unreasonable to expect people who are not paid very much to resist the blandishments of wealth.  There are other moments of modest ethical significance.  It is gratifying to see Swiss bankers engaged in money laundering depicted as the sleazy crooks they are, but the point is made so offhandedly and light-heartedly that one barely notices it.

Nothing about this movie contains enough psychological or socio-economic weight to make it believable, even as metaphor.  It’s just a highly self-indulgent romp, and it is painful to see so much time, money, and talent wasted in this excess.  If I want to watch a movie about salesmen, I would rather watch “Glengarry Glen Ross” ten times than be forced to endure having to watch this bloated entertainment more than once.  Once was more than enough.

I suppose that the performances of the principal actors are good.  I certainly will not say that they are bad.  On the other hand, this sort of broad black comedy does not strike me as being particularly demanding of actors.  There is no subtlety to be had anywhere here.  This is an excessive portrayal of materialistic and sexual excess, but it is simply not believable and therefore not really engaging.  I was bored.  Too many of Scorsese’s movies (“Goodfellas,” “Casino,” and the hugely overrated “Raging Bull”) are exactly like this.  This is not my idea of entertainment, and it is certainly not my idea of art.

I cannot say whether the memoir or novelistic memoir which formed the basis for the film script could have been made into a much better movie than the present one.  Certainly, it could have been made into a shorter movie.  Why does a movie that has so little to say have to be so long?  At the risk of sounding like a moralizing prig, Scorsese is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

A visit from strangers

I happened to be picking plums from our orchard this afternoon when I was hailed from afar by a man of some years, accompanied by two ladies who were also on in years.  “Do not be alarmed,” he said.  He had worked on our property as a boy and wanted to see what had become of it.  So I invited the party to refresh themselves on our terrace.

The man had worked on our property for about four years between the ages of 12 and 16 during the wars years, 1940-1944.  There was no electricity in our region then.  There had been about forty farm animals on the farm that has become our house at the time.  In front of the old farmhouse there was a marsh that was used to feed the cows, and an old well, which never ran dry, has also disappeared.

There was a baker and a blacksmith in our village then, where there is no commerce now.  He lived in the farmhouse which later sank into ruins and from whose old materials our house was built.  The bedrooms in the two-story building were reached by ladder, apparently, there was no staircase.  He lived in a bedroom on the ground floor.  The owners of the farm were a family of Italian origin.  They were poor, according to our visitor.

Nearby there was a farm that belonged to Italians from the region of Trieste, and these people were apparently quite big and strong.  For the beating of wheat, the young man had to rise at four in the morning, walk a certain distance, and then harness three pairs of oxen to the metal implement that beat the wheat, and there was often trudging through mud.  He did not have boots for doing this work.  I think he was saying that they had a kind of wooden clog.  The trio now HRS w visitors from Montaubanlive in Montauban, a small city about sixty miles away from us.

They were very pleased with our American hospitality.  I was told that I have virtually no accent in French, which is not true, but sometimes I am told this, and it is always a pleasure to hear this.   It was a great pleasure for Georgiana and me to meet this trio of people, one of whom had such old ties to our property.

Race far from dead as major issue, the South far from new

Recent Supreme Court décisions occasioned the following excellent contributing editorials from liberals in today’s “New York Times.”

Thomas Edsall on the marginalization of blacks in the South via gerrymandering and “bleaching.”

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/07/10/the-decline-of-black-power-in-the-south/

Linda Greenhouse on Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s dissent in Fisher vs. University of Texas:

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/07/10/the-cost-of-compromise/?hp

All of this gives the lie, in my opinion, to the complacency of the likes of John McWhorter and Glenn Loury (see their recent discussion as regards the status of Afro-Americans in the USA).

http://bloggingheads.tv/videos/19417

No doubt, McWhorter and Loury will place their hopes for Afro-American advancement in the political process.  But the political process is broken, as the US becomes ever more polarized into red and blue states and is weakened by its absurdly outdated federalist system and too-powerful senate, which gives hugely disproportionate power to voters in rural states.  On this, see Robert Reich.

I hope to revive this blog.