The Arts

I am in Delaware only briefly.  I have not covered the state before, so here are some of my picks:

1. Chemicals manufacturer: I think that one has to go to the Duponts, I enjoyed the Gerard Zilg biography of the Dupont family and history.

2. Economic historian: Alfred Chandler.

3. Monetarist who studied policy instruments and uncertainty: William Poole.

4. Semi-libertarian journalist: Dave Weigel.

Hmm…music?  I don’t like George Thorogood.  A quality novelist?  How about a painter or sculptor?  Some big time NBA star?  Biden is my favorite of Obama’s VPs.  It is claimed that the movie Fight Club is set in Delaware.  So many special dishes too, in the local cuisine.

The bottom line: Small wonder it is!

“A male artist in the room is — for women and men — cultural Viagra,” she says. “As for a woman, there may be one or two who are glad you are there but you don’t make the same impact.” None of this is said with bitterness. If anything, she values being left alone to concentrate on her writing. “For all my affability, I am also cold.”

That is from her Lunch with the FT, by Janan Ganesh, interesting throughout.

Almost all of the artifacts described as the oldest in the permanent collection of the Mexican Museum are either forgeries or cannot be authenticated to display in a national museum.

That’s the finding of a report commissioned by the museum board and submitted in late June by Eduardo Pérez de Heredia Puente, an associate of the National Institute of Anthropology and History in Mexico City.

According to the report, only 83 of 2,000 artifacts from the pre-Hispanic, or pre-Columbian, era could be certified as museum-quality by an independent team of museum curators who came from Mexico City to conduct the test. The other 1,917 are considered “decorative,” and will probably be given to schools or smaller museums before the museum moves from its temporary Fort Mason site to a permanent home in a luxury condo tower being constructed near SFMOMA.

Here is the full story.  Or should I just say “do not buy antiquities?”

Hat tip goes to Ted Gioia.

Ben was wildly charming and charismatic before the crowd.  My questions tried to get at how he thinks rather than the hot button issues of the day.  Here is the transcript, audio, and video.  We covered Kansas vs. Nebraska, famous Nebraskans, Chaucer and Luther, unicameral legislatures, the decline of small towns, Ben’s prize-winning Yale Ph.d thesis on the origins of conservatism,  what he learned as a university president, Stephen Curry, Chevy Chase, Margaret Chase Smith, and much more.

Here is one bit from Ben:

Neverland and Peter Pan is a dystopian hell. Neverland is not a good place. You don’t want to get to the place where you’re physically an adult and you have no moral sense, you have no awareness of history, you have no interest in the future. Peter Pan is killing people, and he doesn’t really care; he doesn’t remember their names. It’s a really dystopian thing. Perpetual adolescence is the bad thing.

Adolescence is special. We need to figure out how to use adolescence; it’s a means to an end. So that’s what the book’s about.

I am an Augustinian in my anthropology, but Rousseau is a romantic. I think he’s wrong about lots and lots and lots of things, but I think he’s really, really smart. You have to engage him, and you have to engage people who have ideas that are different than yours because you may ultimately be converted to their view, and you need to encounter things that are big and challenging and threatening to your worldview. Or you may sometimes come to believe you’re right and be able to respond to the counterarguments, while your argument will be better. You’ll grow through it, and you’ll become more persuasive to others through it.

So I think Rousseau’s fundamental anthropological understanding of why we feel that things are broken in our soul is, he’s got a reason to blame society for everything we feel is wrong in the world, and I think there’s a lot of brokenness deep inside all of us, and so, that’s the Augustinian versus Rousseauvian sense of what’s wrong.

But I think the Emile is brilliant, both because it forces me to wrestle with ideas that I don’t agree with, or mostly don’t agree with, but I think it’s also just an incredibly good read.

Then there was this:

COWEN: …Might one argue that the more one thinks and writes about sex, the more you’re led to Rousseauian conclusions that a certain kind of constraint will prove impossible, and then one is pulled away further from Ben Sasse–like conclusions.

SASSE: That’s a really fair question. I wanted to stay away from sex 100 percent, and then ultimately I couldn’t do it.

COWEN: There’s three pages in your book about sex.

SASSE: Yeah.

COWEN: And page 33 mentions it once.

You’ll have to read the whole thing to see where Ben took that line of inquiry, his answer was excellent.

In honor of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the United States here are four Indian movies, not movies about India, but Indian movies, that are well worth watching. Most are available on Netflix.

Kahaani is a Hindi mystery-thriller starring Vidya Balan as Vidya Bagchi (there is a funny scene involving the pronunciation of Vidya, I wonder if she gets that a lot?) a pregnant software engineer who arrives in Calcutta from London in search of her missing husband. A police officer offers to help her and they start following the clues. It soon appears that her husband was not the man she thought he was. The further they explore the more mysterious and dangerous the situation becomes. Calcutta is featured in a lovely way–many of the scenes were shot guerilla style on the street, during the festival for Durga. There are allusions to the films of Satyajit Ray. The tension between Vidya and the police officer, who grows to like and become attracted to her, even as they search for her husband, is nicely handled. The ending brings plot, theme and location together in a way that is cleverly foreshadowed. The director knew what he was doing.

Drishyam is a Hindi film starring Ajay Devgn as Vijay Salgaonkar, a successful family man and businessperson who runs a small cable TV service in Pondolem, Goa. Vijay hasn’t had more than a 4th grade education but he’s smart and he picks up things by watching people and movies. He’s respected in his town but he butts heads with Gaitonde, a corrupt police officer. At this point Drishyam seems like it is going to be a straightforward morality tale about a good man caught in a corrupt system but the story goes in a very different direction when his wife (the beautiful Shriya Saran) and daughter kill a young man. The young man is the son of the police inspector general, a tough as nails woman, played by the stunning Tabu. How is Vijay going to extricate his family from this awful situation? His love of movies will come in useful. Devgn drives the film forward with an excellent performance that reminds me of Gary Cooper. Tabu is superb as the police inspector who must be stronger than the men in her life but who is also the mother of the victim.

Drishyam has been remade four times, this is the fourth. I hope to convince my brother to make it a fifth time!

Court is a Marathi-language courtroom drama. It won the Best Film award in the Horizons category at the 2014 Venice International film festival and the Luigi De Laurentiis (Lion Of The Future) award for it’s first-time director Chaitanya Tamhane. It has won many other awards since, including a 100% positive tomatometer. But can I recommend it? Courtroom drama brings to mind Henry Fonda as the one person who turns around the jury of 12 Angry Men or Tom Cruise as the lawyer who pushes Jack “you can’t handle the truth” Nicholson to confess.

Court is not that. There are no great speeches, no climax, no triumph of justice. The great virtue of Court is that it shows you how ordinary people participate in the boring, tedious, and mundane production of injustice.  But that is also its vice. How do you show such a system? By being boring, tedious and mundane. Indeed, Court not only shows the mundane production of injustice it structures itself around that theme. Scenes drift on for longer than expected. The movie builds tension like a conversation with uncomfortable pauses. The audience begins to fidget and think “when will this be over.” That’s intentional. In a two-hour movie Tamhane makes you feel a little like what the people in Indian court must feel, trapped.

The nominal plot is about a people’s poet who is charged with encouraging, through one of his performances, a suicide by a sewer worker. I enjoyed the poetry slams performed by the defendant (the way these lively performances contrast with the other scenes is part of the message). This long piece on India’s sewer workers is good background that underlines the absurdity of the charges.

At the end of the day, I’m glad I watched Court, it has a lot to say about the Indian courts, caste discrimination, the strange carryover of British law (it’s notable that much of the movie is in English because courts operate in English, even when defendants do not) and the mundane production of injustice, the latter of which applies well beyond India. But I confess that I watched it on Youtube at 1.5 speed.

What makes Court interesting is not what happens when you watch it but how you think about it later.

Ok, Lion isn’t Indian cinema, it’s actually an Australian movie starring Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman but much of it takes places in India and it’s excellent. The movie is based on the true story of Saroo Brierley who as a five year old got separated from his brother and accidentally ended up on train that transported him from his small village to Calcutta, nearly 1000 miles away. Unable to find his way back home, Saroo ends up on the streets fending for himself until he is adopted by an Australian couple. Twenty-five years later and using every scrap of memory he has left, Saroo manages to deduce the location of his hometown using Google Earth.

With Nicole Kidman’s star power, Lion could easily have fallen into the trap of the white woman saving the brown boy but it rises above that and keeps its attention on Saroo and real emotion. It’s hard not to tear up more than once.

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is just one excerpt:

I see Trump as not a ruler but rather akin to the various fools, jesters or, in the case of Lear, the character of Edgar, who appears before the king in disguise and warns him of his enemies. Don’t interpret the word “fool” too literally here. The most common features of these characters is that they speak between the cracks in the action and utter sentiments that no one else dares  to voice. That’s Trump on Twitter. Would the word “covfefe” be so out of place in one of those poetic rants?

And:

And looking forward, what might a study of Shakespeare tell us to watch for in the evolution of the Trump administration? How’s this for a start?:

  • Blood may be thicker than water, but nonetheless power struggles can break family bonds rather easily.
  • Power cannot be given away and still retained.
  • Don’t overweight legitimacy and birth order in determining succession.
  • Love is a wild card.
  • There is no maximum limit to chaos.

Do read the whole thing.

Here is the transcript and podcast (no video).  Jill and I discuss Mary Pickford, Dickens in America, why the early United States did not blossom culturally, Steve Bannon as a character from a 19th century painting, what the Tea Party got wrong and right, H.G. Wells, her working class background, Doctor Who and Gilligan’s Island, Elizabeth Bishop, what Americans don’t like about New England, Stuart Little, how she got her start as a secretary at HBS, and many other topics.  Highly intelligent throughout, though note it is not easy to excerpt.  Here is one good bit:

COWEN: You’ve argued at times that people overestimate the connectedness of the present with the American past. It’s not just that the past is a foreign country as Peter Laslett suggested, but it’s indeed stranger in some sense. If we could undo those mistaken intuitions about, “Oh this is like the 1960s” or “This is like Andrew Jackson,” whatever the analogy may be, what’s a concrete example of how that could improve our understanding of the current world?

LEPORE: I like to think about it in a different structural way. That completely understandable desire to find a historical analogy is just like to take an accordion and compress it.

COWEN: Yes.

LEPORE: They make then just like now. So, “Oh I know, Trump is just like Andrew Jackson. It’s the same move. He’s appealing to the people. He’s unwilling to enforce the rulings of the Supreme Court. He’s overriding Congress in order to get the mandate.” Whatever it is that you want to say about those two people. And that seems to me really quite kooky.

A different move that I find much more edifying and historically defensible is to pull open the accordion and stretch it open as far as you can, so you can see the distance between now and Andrew Jackson, the distance between Trump and Jackson, and try to understand what happened between those two characters and those two presidencies that helps us to see transformation. It’s a little bit like some of the controversy over how to interpret the Constitution. Because originalism, to me, is like squishing that accordion all the way together. “What would James Madison think?” is the question that originalists want to ask. Whereas I want to know what happened between when Madison thought that and here where we are now. And that’s a very different kind of constitutional interpretation.

In 1987, when it was the 200th anniversary of the Constitutional Convention, there was a lot of hoopla. It was right after the Robert Bork nomination, and then originalism was very much the priority of the Reagan justice department under Edwin Meese, and there’s a lot of conversation about the filial piety of a bicentennial. And this is an exciting thing to think about, that 200th anniversary of the Constitution.

Thurgood Marshall, as you know, the first African American Supreme Court justice who’d argued Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 — he was asked, “Are you going to participate in the hoopla, the bicentennial hoopla of the Constitution?” He gives this incredibly powerful speech in which he says, “No. You know what I’m willing to celebrate, not that document, which was flawed. Let’s just understand the ways in which it was flawed. I will celebrate the 200 years since, the 200 years of struggle to make good on the promises of that document.” And it’s that kind of thinking, that kind of historical thinking that contributes to our popular culture and to our discussions of the relationship between the past and the present, more than that desire to really collapse things and say, “Oh it’s 2008; this is just like 1932.” It’s not. It’s really not like 1932.

And:

LEPORE: I remained somewhat befuddled by how a lot of things happen in the world.

Recommended…

Proust as speculator

by on May 29, 2017 at 12:10 am in Books, Economics, History, The Arts | Permalink

Through a fast alternation of buying and selling, orders and counterorders, the end of 1911 marked Proust’s fastest plunge into debt exposure in his fifteen-year-long investing career. His patrimony amounted to about 1,522,000 francs, but more than 40 percent of it, precisely 640,000 francs, was tied up in forwards contracts—a crazy level of exposure for an amateur investor. In terms of American dollars, at this time Proust owned a personal fortune of $6,864,000 and had about $2,900,000 tied up in obligations to buy.

That is from Proust and His Banker: In Search of Time Squandered, by Gian Balsamo, via Ray Lopez.  Ray also passes along this from the book summary:

Focusing on more than 350 letters between Proust and Hauser and drawing on records of the Rothschild Archive and financial data assembled from the twenty-one-volume Kolb edition of Proust’s letters, Balsamo reconstructs Proust’s finances and provides a fascinating window into the writer’s creative and speculative process. Balsamo carefully follows Proust’s financial activities, including investments ranging from Royal Dutch Securities to American railroads to Eastern European copper mines, his exchanges with various banks and brokerage firms, his impetuous gifts, and the changing size and composition of his portfolio. Successes and failures alike provided material for Proust’s fiction, whether from the purchase of an airplane for the object of his affections or the investigation of a deceased love’s intimate background. Proust was, Balsamo concludes, a master at turning financial indulgence into narrative craftsmanship, economic costs into artistic opportunities. Over the course of their fifteen-year collaboration, the banker saw Proust squander three-fifths of his wealth on reckless ventures and on magnificent presents for the men and women who struck his fancy. To Hauser the writer was a virtuoso in resource mismanagement. Nonetheless, Balsamo shows, we owe it to the altruism of this generous relative, who never thought twice about sacrificing his own time and resources to Proust, that In Search of Lost Time was ever completed…
This sounds like a book I should read.

Is this a good idea?  A whole station devoted to Beatles music and Beatles music-derived products, plus a few early musical inspirations?  I ask as a fan, not a critic.  Based on about a week of listening, here are my impressions:

1. No Beatles songs were better live.  Paul McCartney had a few gems in concert, most notably the 1976 Wings over AmericaMaybe I’m Amazed.”  Oddly, “Magneto and Titanium Man” is also better live, perhaps because it was silly to begin with.

2. There are too many extant versions of “Here Comes the Sun,” though Nina Simone had a good one.

3. Ringo songs from the early 1970s, while you would never listen to them voluntarily, hold up OK in this context.

4. The worst feature of the channel is how they use short bursts of Beatle songs to advertise the channel itself.  To play only the first few chords of “Getting Better” is an abuse of the ear and maltreatment of the art, like seeing Mondrian designs on shopping bags.  Why can’t the station just advertise itself by…playing Beatle and Beatle-derived songs?  In their entirety.

5. The last sequence of “Rain” still seem to me their finest moment.  “Let it Be” remains the most overrated major Beatles song.

6. The early solo songs are what are most welcome to hear, at the margin.

7. The way this station operates doesn’t mesh well with the rest of satellite radio.  No single station on satellite radio is that good, except for the classical music station.  Yet the medium as a whole works because you can always switch to another station, especially with voice activation.  Yet one is reluctant to switch away from the Beatles station.  Even if the current song is bad, you feel something wonderful always might be coming up, and besides most of the songs are pretty short and so they will be over soon.  But if it’s just the Beatles you want to hear, you don’t need satellite radio to achieve that end.  So a funny kind of intransitivity kicks in, and maybe the Beatles satellite radio channel can nudge you away from satellite radio altogether, precisely because it is better than all the other channels, and it thus pushes you away from an approach based on a diverse menu of DJ-driven choice.

8. Would it hurt to play more Dylan, a major influence on the Beatles?

*Art Collecting Today*

by on May 23, 2017 at 2:19 am in Books, Economics, The Arts | Permalink

The author is Doug Woodham, and the subtitle is Market Insights for Everyone Passionate About Art.

I liked everything in this book, note that the author is a Ph.d economist, has been a partner for McKinsey and also held a major position for Christie’s.

That said, I felt it should have done much more to explain how art is used for money laundering, and also tax arbitrage through donations at inflated prices, based on corrupt appraisals.  Those are big reasons why art prices for highly liquid works have boomed so much over the last few decades.  Arguably art markets are some of the most corrupt markets in the Western world today.

Measured by the number of Instagram followers, the three biggest artists in the world today are Banksy, JR, and Shepard Fairey.

For deceased artists, the Twitter hashtags game is won by Warhol, Picasso, Dali, and van Gogh, with da Vinci, Monet, and Michelangelo coming next.

Of the 25 highest priced artists in the world today, as measured by auction sales, 8 of them are Chinese.  How many of them can you say you are familiar with? On that list are Cui Ruzhuo, Fan Zeng, Zhou Chunya, Zhang Xiaogang, He Jiaying, Huang Yongyu, Liu Wei, and Ju Ming.

Here is more by Zhou Chunya.

Oscar Wilde once said: “When bankers get together for dinner, they discuss art.  When artists get together for dinner, they discuss money.”

I can gladly recommend this book, noting it tells only part of the story.

Yes, the Garry Kasparov, here is the link to the podcast and transcript.  We talked about AI, his new book Deep Thinking: Where Machine Intelligence Ends and Human Creativity Begins, why he has become more optimistic, how education will have to adjust to smart software, Russian history and Putin, his favorites in Russian and American literature, Tarkovsky, his favorite city to play chess in, his match against Deep Blue, Ken Rogoff, who are the three most likely challengers to Magnus Carlsen (ranked in order!) and who might win.  Here is one excerpt:

GK: The biggest problem, and I’ve been talking about for quite a while, that we’re still teaching very specific knowledge in the schools. Instead of teaching what, we have to teach how because this knowledge may be redundant 10 years from now. We are preparing kids for the world that will change dramatically. By the way, we already know it will look different. So what’s the point of trying to teach kids at age 10, 11, 12 without recognizing the fact that when they finish college, when they will become adults looking for jobs, the job market will be totally different?

And:

COWEN: …If we look back on centuries of Russian history, do you think there’s something in Russian geography or demographics or geopolitics — what has it been that has led to such unfree outcomes fairly systematically?

Where do you find the roots of tyranny in the history of Russia? Is it a mix of the size of the country, its openness to invasion, its vulnerability, something about being next to a dynamic Europe, on the other side, China? What is it?

KASPAROV: It’s a long, if not endless, theoretical debate based on our interpretation of certain historical events. I’m not convinced with these arguments about some nations being predetermined in their development and alien to the concept of democracy and the rule of law.

The reason I’m quite comfortable with this denial . . . We can move from theory to practice. While we can talk about history and certain influence of historical events to modernity, we can look at the places like Korean Peninsula. The same nation, not even cousins but brothers and sisters, divided in 1950, so that’s, by historical standards, yesterday.

And:

Let’s look at Russia and Ukraine, and let’s look, not at the whole Ukraine, but just at eastern Ukraine. Eastern Ukraine is populated mostly by ethnic Russians. In the former Soviet Union, the borders between republics were very nominal. People could move around, it was not a big deal. Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the official state border between Russia and Ukraine was respected, but people still could move around. They didn’t need special visas.

When we look at ethnic Russians born and raised in Kursk and Belgorod on the Russian side and across the border, say in Kharkiv and Dnipropetrovsk on the Ukrainian side, there were people that could be hardly separated anything. They read the same newspaper, Pravda, watched the same television, spoke the very same language, not even accents. But somehow, in 2014, after Putin’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine, we saw a huge difference. Most of ethnic Russians in Ukraine signed for the Ukrainian army, fighting against Putin’s invasion, against the same Russians that came from the other side.

It could be a long debate, but I would say that one of the main reasons is that Ukraine experienced in 1994 a gradual transition of power from one president to another after sitting president Leonid Kravchuk lost elections and walked away. Ukrainians somehow got an idea that power is not sacred, and government can come and go, and they can remove it by voting.

And even despite the fact that Ukraine never experienced higher living standards than Russia, people realized that keeping this freedom, keeping this ability to influence their bureaucrats and government through the peaceful process of voting and, if necessary, striking, far more effective than Russia’s “stability” where the same leader could be in charge of the country with his corrupt clique for a long, long time.

On computer chess, I most enjoyed this part of the exchange:

KASPAROV: But I want to finish this because what we discovered in this process . . . I wouldn’t overweight our listeners with all these details. I don’t want just to throw on them the mass information.

COWEN: It’s amazing what people will enjoy, though. You’d be surprised.

Self-recommending!  We cover many other topics as well, again you can read or listen here.

And I strongly advise that you buy and read Garry’s wonderful new book Deep Thinking: Where Machine Intelligence Ends and Human Creativity Begins.

Here is a link to the download and partial transcript, Russ is one of the very best interviewers and of course he is a pioneer in the podcast genre.  Here is one excerpt:

Tyler Cowen: And I think overall academics are among the most complacent of the complacent groups in American society.

Russ Roberts: Fair enough.

There is more…

Roberto emails me:

There is another aspect that corroborates your theory on how casual dress is somehow connected to less mobility. Dressing in a casual but very good way is economically and “socially” expensive. When I was a young associate at the biggest law firm in Rome, casual friday was the time when my Sicilian provincial middle-lower class background was most transparent. I didn’t have the money for smart but impressive casual clothing. But above all I didn’t have the cultural and social capital to know how to dress casual in the right way. My casual dressing was made of nerdy, unfashionable and cheap clothes: you could immediately say that I haven’t accomplished anything. And I didn’t even know that there was a “rich” way to dress casual. A decent suit and tie is not that expensive but, above all, is socially and culturally accessible in a very easy, standard and replicable way.

Perhaps this is a problem that affects women more seriously than men, exactly for the same reason: women’s formal clothing is not as standard and replicable as men’s. For women, even formal business dressing reveals a lot of background.

Loving winning and hating losing are two fairly distinct motivations.  For instance, a fairly joyless person may nonetheless be motivated by the humiliation of a loss, or a non-envious, non-spiteful type could receive great pleasure from being number one, while not minding if someone later climbs higher yet.

If you both love winning and hate losing that is especially useful in one-on-one, zero-sum competitions, such as chess and tennis, and also in most team sports and perhaps securities trading as well.  Such people are more motivated, and motivated from more sides of their being, and if one of the emotions flags a bit the other is there to step in and maintain the pace and focus.

In venture capital, I suspect that hatred of losing may be a disadvantage.  No matter how successful you may be, most of your individual investments will lose money and hatred of losing may make you too risk-averse.  It might be better to have the ability to simply forget your losses and put them behind you.

For academics, it is more important to love gains than to hate losses.  Provided they don’t embarrass you, your forgotten articles just aren’t that big a deal and everybody has them, including Nobel Laureates.  A single key piece can make your career, however.

Is hatred of loss also unnecessary for book authors and music stars?  Ideally, you would think they should take lots of chances, but the exact tracking of sales makes them more risk-averse and thus boosts the relative status of the loss haters.  If they release a clinker book or album, the intermediaries are less keen to promote them next time around.  To the extent intermediaries become more important, that boosts the loss-hating performers, because intermediaries themselves are somewhat loss-hating.

What is the correct mix of gain-loving and loss-hating for a Navy Seal?  For a journalist?  A lawyer, programmer, or engineer?

In a job interview, what question should you ask to discern if someone is a gain lover or a loss hater or both?  Or neither!

Here is Rufus Wainwright:

What’s the biggest financial mistake you’ve made?
Signing a publishing deal years ago and asking them to throw in a piano. I thought they were gifting me a piano, when in fact I was just paying for the piano. I was confused by the big leagues—financially, it was a no-man’s land. That happens to most musicians. They get screwed by the industry. It’s a rite of passage. Don’t ask for a piano!

Here is Lee Daniels:

What do you wish you’d known about money before getting into showbiz?
That half of it goes directly to the government. And another 20 percent goes to your representatives, so that’s 70 percent of your income right there. You’d better make some money, honey! You’ve got to put $15 of that $30 away for your retirement.

Is that what you did?
No, of course not! That was the learning experience. It took me 34 years to find that out!

It is striking that none of them refer to “The d word,” namely diversification.  (Priyanka Chopra does mention she bought land in Goa and Mumbai, and that it worked out very well for her.)  Though you also have to wonder if that is not part of the reason why they rose to the top of their respective crafts.  Rather than setting for a sufficiently happy and complacent normal existence, perhaps many kept doubling down on what might have been fundamentally unsound bets.

Here is the full piece from Bloomberg.