Thursday, September 22, 2016

Embracing Buddhism as a Society

Claudia Dreifus: Many Westerners have wondered why it is that nations with such large Buddhist populations have so often had such terribly violent rulers--Cambodia, Burma, Tibet?

Aung San Suu Kyi: Sometimes I wonder if the countries that embraced Buddhism did so because they needed it: because there was something violent in their societies that needed to be controlled by Buddhism.
The Passion of Suk Kyi

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Today's Free Lunch

As Paul Krugman taught us all more than 20 years ago, it makes little sense to apply the concept of competitiveness to countries, which can’t go out of business, unlike companies, which can. National prosperity depends not on competitiveness but on productivity.
from "Get real about competitiveness" by Martin Sandbu

Monday, August 08, 2016

High-Cultured Barbarism

Hans Hotter’s outstanding 1942 recording of Schubert’s Winterreise seems to call for an intentionally anachronistic reading: it is easy to imagine German officers and soldiers listening to this recording in the Stalingrad trenches in the cold Winter of 42/43. Does the topic of Winterreise not evoke a unique consonance with the historical moment? Was not the whole campaign to Stalingrad a gigantic Winterreise, where each German soldier can say for himself the very first lines of the cycle:

“I came here a stranger,
As a stranger I depart"?

[...]The obvious counter-argument is that all this is merely a superficial parallel: even if there is an echo of the atmosphere and emotions, they are in each case embedded in an entirely different context: in Schubert, the narrator wanders around in Winter because the beloved has dropped him, while the German soldiers were on the way to Stalingrad because of Hitler’s military plans. However, it is precisely in this displacement that the elementary ideological operation consists: the way for a German soldier to be able to endure his situation was to avoid the reference to concrete social circumstances which would become visible through reflection (what the hell were they doing in Russia? what destruction did they bring to this country? what about killing the Jews?), and, instead, to indulge in the Romantic bemoaning of one’s miserable fate, as if the large historical catastrophe just materializes the trauma of a rejected lover.
from "Lenin As a Listener of Schubert" by Slavoj Zizek

In my diary I called this phenomenon Goethe Oak, after the ancient oak tree on the Ettersberg, near Weimar, under which Goethe had supposedly written his sublime “Wanderer’s Night Song,” but which was then enclosed on the grounds of the Buchenwald concentration camp. Goethe and Buchenwald, the highest and the lowest in human history, together in one place. A place called Weimar. A place called Germany. A place called Europe.
from Timothy Garton Ash - "The File: A Personal History"

Addendum: Bach or Mozart? - a scene from Schindler's List

Friday, August 05, 2016

On Practical Political Reality

I had the sense that [Ignatieff] could not emphasize enough to an outsider—or, in another sense, entirely explain—how practicing politics was utterly unlike philosophizing about it at the front of a classroom or, for that matter, in the back seat of a car: there are no philosopher-kings, or even philosophical prime ministers. To praise something for being “undertheorized” was to address it in all its practical political reality.

“It’s a completely different role,” he said. “The thing that politics most strongly resembles is being on soccer teams and hockey teams when I was a child. It’s not a lonely writer in his den thinking thoughts. You’re mostly listening all day long to people, trying to take the measure of their personalities—their strengths, their weaknesses. It’s much closer to being a journalist. You sit with other politicians: what does this person really want? You hear what she’s saying. But what does she really want? That’s a political moment. You’re in a town hall with two hundred and fifty people, and you’re trying to get a sense of the room, of what makes these people tick. It’s a very different skill from being a writer. Isaiah himself was fascinated by the question: what is it that a great politician knows? What is that form of knowledge? Last night, Zsuzsanna and I were watching the Detroit Red Wings goalie, and he knows something: what is it that he knows? What is it that a great politician knows? The great ones have a skill that is just jaw-dropping, and I’m trying to learn that.”

Had it been a steep learning curve? I wondered out loud.

“Vertical!” He exploded in laughter. “Face of the Eiger!” Then he said, “As an intellectual, you can speculate, you can ruminate, you can muse about things. Can’t do that in politics. They want to know what you think, what you do. A lot of the time, intellectuals are engaged in the business of showing how clever they are. The public isn’t interested in how clever you are. It wants something very different, which is, Can I trust this guy? Does this guy understand me and will this guy be with me when times are difficult? There’s a totally different relationship between the politician and his audience and the intellectual and his audience.”
"The Return of the Native" by Adam Gopnik (the first article I read by him). And of course, let's not forget the "fire and ashes" that resulted from Ignatieff's leadership.

Thursday, August 04, 2016

To Write History

To write history is to make an argument by telling a story about dead people [...] Historians tend to write in both expository and narrative modes. In the writing of history, a story without an argument fades into antiquarianism; an argument without a story risks pedantry. Rarely does any historian choose one mode to the exclusion of another, but how to balance these modes is a crucial choice.
Jill Lepore - How to Write a Paper for This Class

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

This and That: Sovereign Defaults Edition

When a country goes bankrupt
When a country defaults
How Greece restructured its debt
How Jamaica turned its debts around

The Economist explains: What happens when a country goes bust

The Economics of Sovereign Defaults
Public finances: A world of debt
"Financial and Sovereign Debt Crises: Some Lessons Learned and Those Forgotten" by Carmen M. Reinhart and Kenneth S. Rogoff

"A New Approach To Sovereign Debt Restructuring" by Anne Krueger
"Too Little, Too Late: The Quest to Resolve Sovereign Debt Crises"
"The Costs of Sovereign Default" by Eduardo Borensztein and Ugo Panizza

Free Lunch: Flat-pack sovereign debt restructuring
"Revisiting sovereign bankruptcy" by Lee Buchheit
Sovereign debt: Curing defaults
How Hedge Funds Held Argentina for Ransom by Martin Guzman and Joseph Stiglitz
The clause that wouldn’t die

Monday, August 01, 2016

Цитаты дня

В разные времена настоящее выглядит по-разному.
Память - сеть, которую не следует чересчур напрягать, чтобы удерживать тяжелые грузы. Пусть все чугунное прорывает сеть и уходит, летит.
То, что не помнилось, переставало существовать.
Юрий Трифонов - «Дом на набережной»

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Why America Should Become Great Again

SOMETIMES SMALL stories capture large truths. So it is with the fiasco that is the repair of the Anderson Memorial Bridge, connecting Boston and Harvard Square. Rehabilitation of the 232-foot bridge began in 2012, at an estimated cost of about $20 million; four years later, there is no end date in sight and the cost of the project is mushrooming, to $26.5 million at last count.

The Anderson Bridge is approximately one-sixth the length of the bridge Julius Caesar’s men built across the Rhine in 10 days in 55 BC. Caesar’s feat is admired not just for its technical mastery but also for its boldness. An allied tribe had offered boats to carry Caesar’s troops across the river, to avoid the difficult task of bridge-building. Yet Caesar rejected this offer, on the grounds that it would not be “fitting for the prestige of Rome.”
"A lesson on infrastructure from the Anderson Bridge fiasco" by Larry Summers
Peter Thiel pulled an iPhone out of his jeans pocket and held it up. “I don’t consider this to be a technological breakthrough,” he said. “Compare this with the Apollo space program.”
No Death, No Taxes: The libertarian futurism of a Silicon Valley billionaire.
There are ways that the government is working far less well than it used to. Just outside my office is the Golden Gate Bridge. It was built under FDR’s Administration in the 1930s in about three and a half years. They’re currently building an access highway on one of the tunnels that feeds into the bridge, and it will take at least six years to complete.
"A Conversation with Peter Thiel" by Francis Fukuyama
It’s hard to remember this, but our government was once high tech, too. When I moved to Cleveland, defense research was laying the foundations for the internet. The Apollo program was just about to put a man on the moon–and it was Neil Armstrong, from right here in Ohio. The future felt limitless.

But today our government is broken. Our nuclear bases still use floppy disks. Our newest fighter jets can’t even fly in the rain. And it would be kind to say the government’s software works poorly, because much of the time it doesn’t even work at all. That is a staggering decline for the country that completed the Manhattan project. We don’t accept such incompetence in Silicon Valley, and we must not accept it from our government.

[...] When Donald Trump asks us to Make America Great Again, he’s not suggesting a return to the past. He’s running to lead us back to that bright future.
Peter Thiel’s Speech at the Republican National Convention
You know what the trouble is, Brucey? We used to make shit in this country, build shit. Now we just put our hand in the next guy's pocket.
Frank Sobotka from the Wire
In the United States, Federal Net Infrastructure investment last year, was zero. That was the lowest level since 1947 and it was zero. That cannot possibly be rational at a time of epically low interest rates.
"Reflections on the Productivity Slowdown" by Larry Summers
It's no secret that the MTA has been having some difficulty maintaining its century-old infrastructure—track fires, signal problems, and all-around calamity plague morning, evening, and off-hour commutes on a regular basis. And in a video released this week, the agency shows off just how horrifically ancient the machinery that runs one of the world's largest subway systems—most of the machines date back to the 1930s or before, and upgrades have been few and far between.
The NYC Subway System Is Controlled By These Vintage Steampunk "Interlocking" Machines
The MTA has a thankless and extremely difficult job: They have to keep the trains running. They have to do it with equipment from the 1930s, in a hostile funding environment, as administrations come and go, as public interest comes and goes, in the face of storms and accidents and pieces of aluminum foil. This they manage to do. 1.6 billion people every year take the New York subway.
Why New York Subway Lines Are Missing Countdown Clocks

The Straussian interpretation of the Republican Convention is the correct one, which is perhaps one reason why Peter Thiel will be speaking there. They are not saying what they are saying, in fact they are saying “the world is going to hell, and many of those amongst us have been traitorously disloyal. That is why we scream out stupidities, debase ourselves, and court attention by waving our arms in ridiculous ways. We are a small church seeking to become larger.” Is that not how many smaller churches behave? Is that not how some of the early branches of the Christian church behaved? Did they have any influence? See also the remarks of Cass Sunstein.
"Does Lucifer in fact inhabit the corpus of Hillary Clinton?" by Tyler Cowen

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Contrasting Argument

In the UK, and other common law jurisdictions, the executive and legislature are closely entwined. The Prime Minister and a majority of his or her ministers are Members of Parliament and sit in the House of Commons. The executive is therefore present at the heart of Parliament.

By contrast, in the USA, the President may not be a member of the legislature (Congress), and is elected separately from congressional elections. This may result in the President being a member of a different political party from the majority of members of Congress.

The UK’s integration of executive and legislature is said to provide stability and efficiency in the operation of government. It has been described as “a system that intentionally promotes efficiency over abstract concerns about tyranny”. For example, the Prime Minister is usually both head of the executive branch and leader of the majority party in the legislature, which gives the executive branch much more freedom of action than a president usually enjoys in a presidential system of government.
Briefing on the separation of powers from the Parliament of the UK

Monday, July 25, 2016

The Wisdom of Larry Summers

Lessons from Government Service 

KRISTOL: Any special tips you would have for people? I was at a much lower level position of having been a professor and suddenly being in government and having to do things and take responsibility for things. Any advice anyone gave you that was particularly useful? Any book you read that you would tell some 35-year-old Harvard or anywhere else professor who’s now going into the next administration to think about? Or just your own advice?

SUMMERS: I’d say some lessons I learned, Bill, are people – you should maintain a very strong presumption that people are acting reasonably by their lights. And that if it seems to you that somebody’s taking a position that’s completely stupid or unreasonably, it’s probably not because you’re smart and they’re stupid and you should just explain it to them.

It’s probably because given where they sit, given where they sit as part of the government of Japan or given where they sit as part of the Department of Commerce, or given as where they sit as part of General Electric, or given where they sit as a person with responsibility for getting reelected in six months, and that you will achieve your objectives much more effectively if you try to understand why other people are taking a position different than yours. Rather than just simply tell then they should take your position and take more arguments.

That was probably the most important lesson that was uncongenial to me. That in academics what you do is your persuade people with intellectual argument, and what I realized was people probably were taking positions that corresponded to their interest and you had to figure out how to make it work given their interest. That was probably the most important initial lesson learned.

Getting Stuff Done

Graduate school has provided you world-class training in quantitative skills. You are well versed in data analysis, game theory, decision matrices, and linear regression models.

This training offers an excellent foundation.

But what is really exciting about making public policy isn’t evaluating and analyzing and predicting.

It’s getting stuff done.

And if you really want to get stuff done outside the classroom, quantitative analysis needs to be to be complemented by qualitative analysis – the political, bureaucratic, behavioral, social, cultural, and ethical skills.
from “Getting Stuff Done” by Robert B. Zoellick

Addendum: An Insider’s Advice for Obama’s New Team

À une heure du matin

At last! I am alone! Nothing can be heard but the rumbling of a few belated and weary cabs. For a few hours at least silence will be ours, if not sleep. At last! The tyranny of the human face has disappeared, and now there will be no one but myself to make me suffer.

At last! I am allowed to relax in a bath of darkness! First a double turn of the key in the lock. This turn of the key will, it seems to me, increase my solitude and strengthen the barricades that, for the moment, separate me from the world. [...]

Dissatisfied with everything, dissatisfied with myself, I long to redeem myself and to restore my pride in the silence and solitude of the night. Souls of those whom I have loved, souls of those whom I have sung, strengthen me, sustain me, keep me from the vanities of the world and its contaminating fumes; and You, dear God! grant me grace to produce a few beautiful verses to prove to myself that I am not the lowest of men, that I am not inferior to those whom I despise.
from Baudelaire's Paris Spleen (Louise Varèse's translation)