The Dignity of the chef de l’état

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

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:

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:

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.”

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

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).

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.

Our Most Recent Night in Marciac (last night)

We had received a letter from “Jazz in Marciac” notifying us that the order of appearance of the two groups to appear in the concert of July 28, for which he had purchased tickets, had been changed.  The headlining group, “The Bad Plus with special guest Joshua Redman,” would now be appearing first, at 21:00, and Esperanza Spaulding would appear with her 11-piece supporting band (12 musicians in all), “Radio Music Society,” second.  It seemed odd that this change would occasion a mass mailing, but at the same time very considerate.  The presumption must be that a few paying customers might change their schedule and arrive late based upon this information.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone arrive more than a few minutes late for one of these concerts in a large tent, which seats over 4,000 people.

We had assumed that the change had something to do with the perceived status of the musicians, with finances and contracts, but it now appears that the change was instituted to accommodate the visit of François Hollande, who was in the audience for the first set and seems to have left very discreetly thereafter.  Is Hollande a particular fan of the “Bad Six with special guest Joshua Redman,” or was it just that the festival organizers thought that he might prefer this group or that the President should hear the headliners?

Both Georgiana and I thought that Joshua Redman’s serious demeanor throughout most of the first set might indicate a displeasure with the  change in the ordering.  But I also cautioned that he usually looks serious.  Then the video cameras for the three giant-screen projections which attend these concerts at some point well into the set panned to Hollande sitting in the front of the audience, and our hypothesis about why the order of artists had been changed was revised.

If we make no navigational errors, and if traffic is light and the weather is good, we can get to Marciac, which is deep in the agricultural southern Gers, close to Spain and the Pyrenees, in 1.25 hours from our house.  But it can take much longer than that.  This year, for the first time ever since we bought our house in the Gers, the jazz festival in Marciac overlapped with a festival of Latin music in the town of Vic Fecensac, which is on our normal route to Marciac.  We were blissfully unaware of this overlap until we got to Vic, where the narrow streets were jammed with people and the center of town ought to have been completely closed to traffic, but was not.  So on our way to Marciac, we were lured unawares, by the absence of the customary detour signs that accompany events like this in France, into a horrible traffic jam in the center of Vic.  Here the reader should pause to wonder at the fact that there are large overlapping music festivals (because Tempo Latino in Vic Fecensac includes a healthy dose of salsa and Latin jazz) in the southern Gers.  We had prudently allowed just over two hours to get to our seats in Marciac, so we were still able to arrive in time for the beginning of the concert with a few minutes to spare.  But since the concert finally ended at 01:00, we did not have the energy to plan a route home that would avoid Vic completely, as we ought to have done.  I did look at our Michelin atlas, and it appeared to me that we could take a reasonably direct route home through Vic, but not through its center.  Wrong.  We were again lured unawares into throngs of inebriated revellers and felt like we could have been trapped there for hours.  Then, we managed to get out of the center of town and got onto a big road that would take us somewhat out of our way, but after about 10 km of driving we come to a small town where we plan to turn to head north and there is a huge traffic jam at 02:00 in the morning.  The national police are stopping every driver on this highway to give breathalizing tests.  This is the third time in ten years that I have been randomly stopped in order that a breath test be administered.  But apparently this is not enough times for me to have remembered how to take a breath test.  Finally, after at least two failed attempts on my part, the young gendarme explains in detail how to do it (“Take a deep breath, then breathe continuously into the device for three seconds…), and I get a perfect bill of health, zero alcohol detected in the breath test (and I had, in fact, had zero alcohol or any other intoxicant on this day).  So we finally arrived home at 03:00, another two-hour transit for a 1.25-hour drive.  Meanwhile, I am swearing about the utter irrationality of not having any noticeable security for the festival in Vic, of not having put any detour barriers around the center of town, and then posting these policemen 10 km away in order to check for drunk drivers.

Now, as it also happens, I was not supposed to be driving on this night, Georgiana had agreed to drive and did drive to Marciac and began the drive home.  But then I became unhappy with her driving, and I wanted to get home as quickly as possible.  I am in a five-day legal window for having some points reinstated on my French driving license.  A French adult driver has twelve points on his license.  Points can be deducted for committing infractions.  But Georgiana and I, despite having been licensed drivers in the United States since we were teenagers, i.e. for close to fifty years, began our licensed driving careers in France with only six points, because we are not citizens of the European Union and the state of California does not have a reciprocal treaty with France about the mutual recognition of driving licenses.  So we had to go through a lengthy, arduous, and expensive process of obtaining a French driving license that carries only a probational six points for a period of three years.  Nine US states have an agreement with France that allows their licensed drivers to surrender their licences for a valid 12-point French license (subject, perhaps, to legal residency in France, I’m not sure), but only one of these states is populous, I think, and none of them is California.  But then, in addition, I got my probational license during a particularly unlucky time, prior to a change in the rules, that has some egregiously irrational provisions.  The only way I can ever obtain the full allotment of 12 points for an adult driver is to drive for three years without an infraction.  No other method is legally possible.  My last infraction was almost exactly three years ago, July 26, 2009.  But for these purposes, is it the date on which the infraction occurred that is determinative, or is it the date on which the ticket was issued, which, in my case, was three or four days later than the infraction?  I do not know.  So I did not want to drive last night, because I am very close to achieving the three years, even under a worst-case reading of the law.  And the last thing I wanted to do under these circumstances was to be forced to submit to a breathalizer test.

It is important that the reader understand that it is extremely easy to be cited in France for an infraction.  No one who is not handicapped and who does any significant amount of driving could possibly obey all the French driving laws all the time, it is almost literally impossible.  I have been caught by radar three times in ten years for speeding, twice when I thought the speed limit was higher than it was, on the ring roads that surround Bordeaux and Toulouse, and once near Marciac, several years ago.  On that occasion, I was caught going 97 in a 90 zone, i.e. less than five miles per hour over the speed limit of about 55 miles per hour.  For every time I pass another driver in France, there are probably between five and ten times when I am passed.  Generally, I am driving slower than the flow of traffic, and I am frequently tail-gated in an unnerving way.  It is also possible to receive a speeding citation in the mail without knowing that you have been caught by radar exceeding the speed limit.

Back to the concert, then.  The Bad Plus with Joshua Redman were great, and they were very warmly received, although what they played was challenging, mostly on the border between “inside” and “outside,” but veering more to the outside than the inside.

Esperanza Spaulding was also very well received in the end, but a lot of people left throughout her set, so there was a sort of skeleton crew left for the end of her three encores at 01:00.  She is a musician of great virtuosity, but I did not like most of her set that much, despite the fact that she has all the ingredients of someone I should like quite a bit.  She plays the bass and sings “songs” of her own composition, with musical punctuation from a seven-piece horn section and one dedicated backup singer (a female trumpet player also doubles on backup vocals).  The songs tend to be relatively formless affairs, with very difficult melody lines and challenging harmonies, highly influenced by bebop and fusion groups like Weather Report.  Her singing is great from a technical point of view, as is her bass playing, but the lyrics sounded sort of stupid and self-indulgent and meandering, it was hard to tell, because it was hard to pay attention to them, and the songs just lack structure and mostly lack catchy hooks.   Another singer/bass player on the contemporary scene is Richard Bona, who is also an incredible musical virtuoso.  I prefer Bona.  I’ve seen Bona work mostly as a supporting bass player, in jazz guitarist Mike Stern’s band, and I’ve seen him work mostly solo as a singer-songwriter accompanying himself on the bass, sometimes using loop pedals, and doing material that is mostly deeply rooted in African traditions.  Now I’ve also seen him on TV leading a Cuban jazz band in which he both plays bass and sings.

I was very struck by how uncompromising Esperanza Spaulding’s set was.  I thought it was going to be far more obviously commercial than it was.  She incorporates a dramatic premise into the show that involves a large cardboard or paper mache radio, and there is some narration between the tunes by Spaulding herself that sometimes involves the emotions that listening to the radio evokes, but the only place one would ever hear the music she played on the radio would be on an alternative radio station in the middle of the night.  The music is pretty out there.  It’s a very strange amalgam, because the music incorporates several elements that are not dissonant in themselves, and which, if listened to in isolation, could almost strike one as mainstream, but the overall effect was more often one of a weird and often dissonant pastiche.  I still want to get the recorded version of the set I heard, because it was filled with very inventive bebop-influenced melody lines, there were far too many to count, in fact.  As an artistic whole, though, I think the whole concept needs a lot of work.  Another influence I was hearing a lot was the jazzier Joni Mitchell, but I suspect that the lyrics are a lot less interesting than Mitchell’s were.

I was glad to have shared at least part of the evening with the newly elected president of France.