Monday Reads from my Ivory Tower in the 9th WardPosted: January 7, 2013
I’m always looking for good books to read. I have to admit that I’m terribly old school. My favorite presents to myself are books, videos, and music cds. I do not trust anything I have to get from the internet given I’ve been without electricity and connectivity for extended periods of time.
I am not a Luddite. I saw the original internet “turned on” in the 1970s in high school. It was like some kind of print out on a huge printer from the closest university that had linked in to our Math Resource Center that said here we are … university (I remember it as Michigan U) and US government to select schools. I first had a personal connection to the internet in 1981 on my IBM peanut with a funky phone mouth/ear piece to modem connection. So, I’m aptly nicknamed “wirehead”. I’ve been connected for longer than Dr. Daughter has been alive.
However, I like the real thing. Call me old fashioned. I liked to write on my textbooks. I like the feel of selecting a video and having a long term relationship with it. I love the anime series Cowboy Bebop and have the complete episodes. I also have the manga and I love the feel of raised ink.
My first experience trying to copy an entire series over years was Upstairs Downstairs. I have the complete episodes on beta–yes that’s BETA–copied straight from my TV and my mom’s TV. It’s no wonder that Downton Abbey is my latest edition. I also have Treme (although my Katrina PTSD keeps me a bit edgy about watching it) and one another series. I passed my addiction to Criminal Minds to BB. The rest of my collection is an odd assortment of movies. My “cloud” is supplemented by a row of book shelves that line a hallway and my bedroom. They get dusty and old but then so do I.
I’ve discovered solar rechargers and hurricane lamps that run on lamp oil. This is my black out technology. The first thing I will do if I’m ever lucky enough to come into a huge amount of cash is go off the grid for everything. I also continue to build my little garden of herbs, vegetables, and fruit trees here in the ninth Ward so very near the Mississippi. Did I mention I can see oil tankers, cruise ships, and destroyers from my front porch?
I fully embrace my eccentricities but, I’ve lived without TV/cable for months and with sporadic electricity recently so I know I’m one storm away from the 18th century.
Reading has always been a safe haven for me. That and playing my piano. All of these things I do without electricity and with plenty of printed material. That’s another story but let me tell you, I still cling to music and a good book when I need to get through my life.
So, here’s a review of a book that sounds interesting. It’s about Life Among the Plutocrats. The exact title is “Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else” by Chrystia Freeland (Doubleday, Canada 2012).
Today’s plutocrats are the latest variation on an old theme, and at the same time they’re strikingly new in many ways.
Societies have supported plutocratic classes at least since ancient Rome, and the Gilded Age of the US after the Civil War presaged our own: A rising class of self-made men, imaginative exploiters of new technology and wider trade. Then it was the telegraph and the railroad; now it’s the internet and the container ship.
Freeland’s plutocrats are mostly self-made also, and overwhelmingly male; one very rich man suggested to her that women lack the “killer instinct” needed for real success. But they are not the idle heirs of rich parents. The “working rich” are a distinct class: smart, ambitious and often outsiders.
What’s more, they represent a dramatic change from the 19th and early 20th century, Freeland argues. Then, the conflict was between capital and workers, with workers doomed to lose because they couldn’t own the means of production.
The communist revolutions were supposed to transfer those means to the workers, but instead transferred them to a new class of upstart intellectuals and technical experts. She cites Milovan Djilas, Tito’s second in command in communist Yugoslavia. In the 1960s Djilas wrote “The New Class” to describe this phenomenon as a corruption of communist orthodoxy; Tito threw him in jail.
They didn’t come entirely out of the blue. Freeland documents the gradual but decisive shift in fields like finance, which since the age of the superstar had been regulated to the point of boredom. This came along with a new struggle: Now it wasn’t capital versus labour, but capital versus talent.Even more ironically, the same new intellectual class now runs capitalism — with the exception of the princelings of the Chinese Communist Party, the billionaire sons and grandsons of Mao’s old proletarian comrades. But elsewhere, smart young men got possession of ex-Soviet resources, or an operating system for newfangled personal computers, and within months were rich beyond imagining.
Those at the very top, Freeland says, have told her that American workers are the most overpaid in the world, and that they need to be more productive if they want to have better lives.
“It is a sense of, you know, ‘I deserve this,’ ” she says. “I do think that there is both a very powerful sense of entitlement and a kind of bubble of wealth which makes it hard for the people at the very top to understand the travails of the middle class.”
One standout moment Freeland recalls is a conversation with a billionaire who spoke with great sympathy about some friends who’d come to him for investment advice. “And he said to me, ‘You know what? They only had $10 million saved. How are they going to live on that?’ I kid you not, he was really worried about them.”
Today’s plutocrats come down across the political spectrum, Freeland says; there are definitely liberal billionaires. “It is, however, also the case that in the United States there has been a real shift away from Barack Obama, and a lot of these guys loved him in 2008 … They feel really angry at Obama, and it’s not just the question of taxes.” Freeland calls it “a profound emotional thing.”
“In America,” she says, “we have equated personal business success with public virtue. And to a certain extent, your moral and civic virtue could be measured by the size of your bank account.”
I also embrace my inner geek and outre scholar. You know that I absolutely hate the way politicians and many popular cult figures in conservative media demonize science, facts, and education. Here’s a bit on that worth reading in The New Statesmen:Brian Cox and Robin Ince: Politicians must not elevate mere opinion over science.
The story of the past hundred years is one of unparalleled human advances, medically, technologically and intellectually. The foundation for these changes is the scientific method. In every room in your house, there are innovations that in 1912 would have been considered on the cusp of magic. The problem with a hundred years of unabated progress, however, is that its continual nature has made us blasé. We expect immediate hot water, 200 channels of television 24 hours a day, and the ability to speak directly to anyone anywhere in the world any time via an orbiting network of spacecraft. Any less is tantamount to penury. Where once the arrival of a television in a street or the availability of international flight would have been greeted with excitement and awe, and the desire to understand how those innovations came into being, it is now expected that every three months you’ll be queuing outside the Apple store for a new wafer-thin slab of brushed metal, blithely unaware that watching a movie in the palm of your hand has been made possible only through improbable and hard-won leaps in the understanding of the quantum behaviour of electrons in silicon.
With each new generation, the memory of appallingly high child mortality rates, tuberculosis and vast slums grows fainter and fainter. As the past becomes hazy, we start to believe that there can be no other sort of world. We become nonchalant about vaccines, to the point of seeing them as a lifestyle choice akin to a decision to eat only organically farmed fruit, because we attend fewer and fewer funerals of those who died too young. The technology and advances in knowledge that cosset us have removed, to a large extent, the need to use our ingenuity and to think rationally. Believing complete drivel was once selected against; now it gets you an expert slot on daytime TV.
Against this rather depressing introductory backdrop, however, there are faint glimmers of hope, because science, rational think-ing and evidence-based policy-making are enjoying a revival. Part of the evidence for this statement can be found on the pages of a certain type of newspaper, where the idea that there may be an adjudicator above opinion is treated as an affront to the ideology of the columnist. The adjudicator in question is nature, the universe beyond the Notting Hill basement kitchen, and the wonderful thing about nature is that opinions can be tested against it. The key to science is in this simple statement from the Nobel Prize-winning scientist Richard Feynman, who once remarked: “It does not make any difference how beautiful your guess is. It does not make any difference how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is – if it disagrees with experiment it is wrong.”
This brings me to my own field of financial economics and a blog post on science, politics, mathematics and finance. I do this as I play hookey–or procrastinate grading–while writing this blog post rather than spend time eyeballing the homework of my graduate students trying to figure out how to hedge FOREX exposure. I have to agree that models are a human construct, but still, there’s a need to sort things out in a systemic and provable way. So, the punchline to this blog post grabbed me. Is science an adjudicator of opinions as the authors above (C&I) aver?
BTW, if you haven’t ever heard of their BBC radio show “The Infinite Monkey Cage” you must get on line and find it now.
I also learned the benefits of good old fashioned radio when everything else goes off with the cable and electricity.
C&I base their science on observation, data, and the predictive models constructed on the basis of the data. However there appears to be an assumption that “science” will come up with the right models, modulo the approximation problem, given the data. However this approach makes some omissions: what data is collected and why (science does not work by collecting reams of data in the hope something will drop out), data analysis is subjective (is climate data a hockey stick or a bath – see McIntyre&McKitrick, what does the data say?), models are human constructions.
Making these observations does not seem relevant to C&I, but they are crucial in modern finance, an arena of people competing to select and interpret data and develop the best models. It is a microcosm of good science, and for this reason it should be taken more seriously by the scientific establishment. Not least because modern finance is more relevant, and therefore more interesting, to the public than cosmology or theoretical physics.
Yes, modern economics and finance are relevant and scientific. The problem is that politicians seem to think that faith/dogma based lies are infinitely more useful.
It’s officially Carnival 2013 in New Orleans. Sunday was 12th night and we began with a parade to honor Jone of Arc and a street car ride of a lot of drunks. The Joan of Arc parade is great visual feast since its participants wear medieval costumes. This week we feast on King Cakes. Lately, the King Cake infused vodka beckons.
“Joan of Arc honors the patron saint of New Orleans which was St. Joan of Arc,” Mardi Gras expert Arthur Hardy said. “Twelfth night is her birthday, so it’s very appropriate. It’s a new small walking club with some horse riders and now some marching groups.”
We are a walking parade open to men, women, and children, dedicated to historical costumery, artistry, handmade throws, and the celebration of New Orleans and her ties to France. Joan of Arc embodies the best qualities of New Orleans and her citizens: loyalty, faith, courage, and determination. We honor Joan on her birthday each year by walking in medieval and Renaissance costumes with horses, live music, a variety of quirky and quaint parade throws, medieval carts and banners, and gifts of king cake and champagne through the French Quarter, from the Bienville statue (representing the founding of New Orleans) to the Joan of Arc statue at Decatur and St. Phillip Street. At this time we have approximately 35 krewe members and will welcome another 10-15 new members this year. We enjoy being a small, family-friendly krewe with a parade that at this time lasts a brief 30-40 minutes from start to finish. Our parade begins at 6:00 p.m. at Bienville Park on Decatur, goes up Conti Street to Chartres, across Jackson Square in front of St. Louis Cathedral, and continues on Chartres up to St. Phillip where we turn towards the River to reach Joan’s statue, a gift from France to the City of New Orleans.
Oh, dear, was this really a newsy thread or just one of my esoteric set of links? JJ covered my archeology fetish yesterday so this will have to suffice for today. It’s a sweet break before we slippery slope towards the inability of Congress to pay for those things for which they voted. Now, if I could just get a better pay check for life in the ivory tower I would be just fine!!
Meanwhile, anything out there of newsy interest to you? Today, I think I will stay in my ivory tower and wish away the likes of our idiot political class. So, my point is that Joan of Arc makes for a great, romantic, showy parade and science makes for effective policy. Vraiment, mes amis!!
What’s on your reading and blogging list today?