Too Much Money in Too Few Places

Other People’s Money: The Real Business of Ecance
John Kay

opm_kay“I’m just a banker, doing God’s work.”
Lloyd Blankfein, CEO, Goldman Sachs (11/2009)

“The culture of anonymous trading is divorced from economic context, devalues or eliminates personal relationships and fosters the self-aggrandising self.” (p. 269)
John Kay, 2015

American economists don’t make statements like the second  quote above. Doing so could be hazardous to their career health. Thankfully Dr. Kay is British and so is  willing to say the things his colleagues on this side of the Atlantic (and to be fair, many on his side as well), are unwilling to.

And what he has to say isn’t pretty.

Before we tun to that, though, let’s revisit the 7-syllable word that struck terror in the hearts of businessmen (and bankers) a couple of decades ago: disintermediation. That mouthful described the fearsome scenario in which a consumer, armed with a web connection, would do their own exploring and buy directly. Whole industries would crumble. Business would never be the same.

It wasn’t. And yet it is.

You can have a lot of fun illustrating disintermediation.

You can have a lot of fun illustrating disintermediation.

The d-word struck particular fear in bankers. What if borrowers shopped around instead of driving to the local branch? What if they did the economically sensible thing and looked for the lowest rate? How would banks make money?

In reality, banks had already begun changing the way they make money. And in no way were they disintermediated. If anything, the new models doubled-down on playing the role of intermediary in increasingly complex transactions that were of limited, perhaps even no, economic value.

This is, in its way, not terribly different from other business models. The darlings of the “sharing economy“–Uber, Airbnb and the like–aren’t unlocking previously inaccessible economic value. They’re acting as agents–intermediaries–for independent actors and paying themselves handsomely as they destroy local systems in favor of a software-mediated model. Invest in the stocks if you care to, just be honest about the destruction part of the equation because the creative part is actually almost as old as business itself.

Paul Volcker Chairman of the Federal Reserve from 1970 to 1987. A giant among men and central bankers.

Paul Volcker
Chairman of the Federal Reserve from 1970 to 1987. A giant among men and central bankers.

The same holds for banks. Paul Volcker, who is more responsible for the growth of the US economy in the 1980s than any policy proposed and implemented by the Reagan Administration or Congress, has famously said that the only useful financial innovation of the past quarter century was the ATM.  Professor Kay–and as a ringside spectator and adult who couldn’t escape it, I–would agree.

Here’s the condensed version of the Kay argument: banks (which for these purposes include investment banks) serve a few key purposes. First and foremost they operate the payments system. They fund government activity and home purchases by taking in the savings of individuals and redeploying them as mortgages and using them to purchase government bonds. And, in the rarefied air of Wall Street and the City, they help identify emerging economic opportunities and allocate capital.

That’s it and, in fact, the greatest number of people working for financial companies are doing work related to maintaining the plumbing of the payments system. This unglamorous, and, in terms of the financial sector, underpaid work is the lifeblood of modern economies. Professor Kay has convinced me that the system is essentially a public utility and perhaps should be operated as one.

Dick Kovacevich Architect of Wells Fargo and the banker who once noted, "Banking is necessary. Banks aren't"

Dick Kovacevich
Architect of Wells Fargo and the banker who once noted, “Banking is necessary. Banks aren’t”

That brings us to holding savings and what to do with the money. While banks write plenty of business loans the fact is that those loans are in large part a function of how the tax code treats debt. Most large enterprises are self-funding and could (and in the past many have) run their own banking operations.  In aggregating the savings of individuals Kay argues, bankers have a responsibility not to blow the place up.

His heroes in this regard are fictional: George Bailey, the lead character of “It’s a Wonderful Life and the appropriately named George Banks in Mary Poppins. Dr. Kay can complicate this as much as any PhD so it’s nice he chose to demonstrate it with widely-known examples. As a fellow social scientist I enjoyed his application of the Gemeinschaft/Gesellschaft dichotomy to the economic realm. I’ll feel much less inhibited now about occasionally borrowing from the economists.

The point is that it’s the job of the banker to judge character and stay close to the customer; he or she does right by them so they can retire or pass along their savings to the next generation. There is in all this a sense of responsibility that stands in contrast to what’s actually happened in the last eight years. Kay points out that Richard Whitney, then Vice President of the New York Stock Exchange went to Sing Sing after the Crash of 1929. After 2008 we sent ‘Fabulous Fab’ Tourre to the pokey. You have to wonder if we’re serious or if the fix is in.

The epitomes of probity in banking.

The epitomes of probity in banking.

This should raise the question of just why all those bankers make so much money. Perhaps the first thing to realize is that the big paycheck earners are themselves a subset, a quite small subset actually, even of the finance industry. The 1% thing is real no matter how well paid your neighbor managing back office operations may be.

Kay convincingly demonstrates that funding new industries and allocating investment capital is the least part of what high financiers do. Mostly, he argues, they allow computers to trade–an activity with no real economic value in any textbook sense–and speak to what the markets think. Insider perspective on this echo chamber of questionable value is what the financial media and government types are seeking to tap into when they cozy up (some might say kowtow) to the financial bigwigs.

I'll never think about Wall Street's views on economics the way I used to.

I’ll never think about Wall Street’s views on economics the way I used to.

What’s a modern economy to do? Here’s where liberals, who will agree with much of the analysis to this point, will jump ship. Conservatives, locked in the delusion of a free marketplace, reflexively hate regulation so it might be more palatable for them. Regulation, avers the professor, is the enemy because all it does is spur a race to find the way around the newest regulation. Better to hold people accountable to standards and strip them of their loot and position when they fail the trust.

Oh, it’s also time to separate the games of the investment bankers from the utility-like function and savings preservation roles of the retail banking system. No one understands these banks, levered 30 to 50 to 1 on their equity nor would the bank lend to any business so under-capitalized. Sensibly limit the ability of these guys to blow up the world says the professor instead of thinking they know more than anybody else.

Maybe that’s a pipe dream but it’s one I can embrace. After all (and this is something I learned from Professor Kay), if we don’t think differently, we’re on board with what Larry Summers called “ketchup economics.” I have too much respect for political economists to ever do that.

 

 

 

Dig That Jazz Band Ball

Snoopy jazzMusic  gets me through the day and I can be a bit fascistic, especially when it comes to breadth. My kids don’t even get much TV since I think the radio is a better alternative. And the station they listen to most often is WBGO, the jazz station hereabouts.

I might be the most improbable person to listen to jazz since, in musical terms, I don’t know what I’m listening to. I just followed Continue reading

A Whizz of a Wiz

the_producer“Did you know there’s no Academy Award for producing?”-Stanley Moss in Wag the Dog

Years back I’d spend countless hours with a pair of Creative Directors I know trying to make sense of why the Grammy Awards needed to separately recognize the Song of the Year and the  Record of the Year.

The distinction we settled on was that Record of the Year was the producer’s award, which makes little sense once you realize that, unlike the Academy Awards, the Continue reading

Be Fire Next Time

Wildfire
Nelson DeMille

wild_fireWhat should we make of best-selling books bearing  cautionary author’s notes?

Under other circumstances I might not be diverted to pondering such a question. But the 45th President of the United States was sworn in the other day and he pledged to “unite the civilized world” in removing “radical Islamic terrorism…from the face of the earth”

Could this notorious non-reader have read this particular book? After all,  our scribe tells us before starting his tale, that sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.

This tale once again reunites us with John Corey who featured in a number of other DeMille books. Corey is a retired NYPD detective who finds himself working on the Federal Anti-Terrorism Task Force (ATTF). In reality there is no such thing but there is a joint task force that serves much the same purpose–putting members of competing law enforcement agencies on the same team in the hope of better results.

I bet the people who dream these things up think competition is the problem.

DeMille pens a one-man I love New York campaign. This time, we visit the Adirondacks.

DeMille pens a one-man I love New York campaign. This time, we visit the Adirondacks.

There’s a long-standing tradition in crime books, movies and TV shows of antagonism between the local gendarmes and the Fibbies. That’s the standard lingo for the FBI. The New York version always ladles in a healthy dose of bad attitude and loose lips.

Corey could teach a master class in how to hold massive contempt and never miss an opportunity to share it.  Borderline insubordinate under the best of circumstances, he’s never more motivated than when he believes the workings of the FBI–he would probably say the career-building of FBI agents–puts lives at risk. Then he becomes that American archetype, the lone gunslinger meting out justice.

As I’ve said before, this genre works best when there’s a sidekick, someone to explain everything to. A couple of volumes back Corey picked up a live-in version–Kate Mayfield, his wife and colleague on the ATTF. Just to make it interesting, Kate is an FBI agent.  The possibility of conflicted loyalties has been front and center ever since.

Our heroes spend a lot of time driving on roads that must look like this one near Potsdam, NY, a locale they visit.

Our heroes spend a lot of time driving on roads that must look like this one near Potsdam, NY, a locale they visit.

At the outset, though, the Coreys seem almost irrelevant.  The plot focuses on another task force member, Harry Muller. Harry is also a retired NYPD officer and when we meet him he’s off for a weekend surveillance mission in the far off Adirondack mountains.

Harry can’t really explain his mission and it quickly goes wrong. The place he’s been sent is not a country cabin but an armed camp and he quickly triggers an alarm. That puts him in front of Bain Madox a Fortune 500 CEO with a penchant for freelancing national security issues.

This is the most tedious part of the whole book.  For 150 pages or so we have to listen to bad geopolitical blather about the existential threat the Islamic world presents to the United States . Mr. Madox, you see, runs a sort of secret Trilateral Commission of like minded souls, some in high government positions, who have a simple solution.

How the other half lives. The Vanderbilt's, ahem, "camp" in the Adirondacks, now a luxury hotel. The actin takes place at a newly-built place much like this.

How the other half lives. The Vanderbilt’s, ahem, “camp” in the Adirondacks, now a luxury hotel. The action takes place at a newly-built manse much like this without a lake.

This is where ten year old fiction starts to sound uncomfortably familiar. There is a top-secret government protocol for dealing with a WMD attack by Islamic terrorists in the US and it’s an old standby: MAD, less one letter.

You may remember we took a look at the logic behind MAD.  The updated protocol, code-named Wild Fire, triggers an immediate nuclear response against a wide-enough swath of the Islamic world to effectively create an Islam-free planet. Our commissioners think this is a good thing, they just need an appropriate triggering incident. Let’s not forget that our chief bad guy is a CEO. The triggering incident is in the bag.

There’s just one problem and that’s Harry. Corey knows where Harry’s been detailed, the gist of his official orders and when he’s due back. And so, while Harry is being schooled in the geopolitics of rich and powerful madmen by the chief nut, the Coreys are spending the weekend on the North Fork. It’s a nice break before they spend less than 48 hours traversing the Northern third of New York State in search of Harry.

If you're going to start a nuclear war having a private air force to transport orphaned (okay, purchased) nukes is convenient.

If you’re going to start a nuclear war having a private air force to transport orphaned (okay, purchased) nukes is convenient.

How do I say this kindly? Fiction isn’t always bound by the logic of real life. But the further an author stretches credulity the greater the risk of losing the reader no matter how artful the telling.

So as our heroes discover the unpleasant truth of what’s happened to their friend and make the acquaintance of the psychotic captain of industry bent on his own vision of saving the world, I found myself thinking of my Uncle Walter. I remember him saying, I think it was about Arthur Hailey‘s Wheels, “You really believe this guy grew up in the car business.”

I honestly wonder whether DeMille wore a watch when he visited the Adirondacks. I’m pretty sure he visited the area because his description of the public spaces and a particular room at  a resort called The Point are incredibly accurate–at least as far as I can tell from the website.

The Point, Saranac Lake, New York. These are some pretty fancy digs for a couple of Federal agents. Best selling authors can probably afford it.

The Point, Saranac Lake, New York. These are some pretty fancy digs for a couple of Federal agents. Best selling authors can probably afford it.

Still, Adirondack Park is the size of Massachusetts and the Coreys run in 70 mile plus circles that chew up time on the interstate let alone 2-lane roads. If they have a fix that gets past the laws of physics they should be running seminars not drawing sidearms.

On the whole, that’s a small complaint. It’s a typical DeMille story which means, the already mentioned lecture section aside, the tale moves. There’s plenty of Corey’s wiseass remarks and enough trouble with respecting authority to keep me happy.

I’m not going any further into the plot because I don’t want to spoil it. But back to that author’s note. DeMille is not sure a plan like Wild Fire exists, but if it doesn’t he thinks it should.

Here’s where he and I part ways. I just hope the incoming administration has thought beyond the unthinkable.

 

 

 

 

 

Solitary Man

One Shot
Lee Child

one_shotI don’t always interact with the popular culture on a timely basis. This year, though, I find myself hiding in best-selling books. I seem to do that every winter but this year, with the extra time I’ve gained from a career interruption, it seems the only thing I’m capable of.

Off to the library I went, intent on stocking up on the light stuff. Among my haul was a new, for me,  writer. That makes me clueless since Amazon says he’s the #17 author based Continue reading

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

Dinner with Edward: A Story of an Unexpected Friendship
Isabel Vincent

edwardIn a former life we’d play the film pitch game.   You know that one. You describe a recent (or yet unmade) film in terms of existing films. Allegedly it’s how business is done in Hollywood where seeing every movie ever made is evidently a requirement for employment.

You can do the same thing with books. Witness: the Continue reading

Like a Christmas Tree on Boxing Day

LPThe Year in  music: A Titular Playlist

It’s time for my annual listing of the songs from which I borrowed my post titles. And in keeping with an old C-90 era custom I’ve also provided a Spotify playlist.

This year, I toyed with the idea of adding a blurb to each song listed below. But I think some things ought to just speak for themselves. These are all really great albums, Continue reading

You Must be Real Far Gone

Exuberance: The Passion for Life
Kay Redfield Jamison

exuberanceHere’s a head-scratching editorial proposition for you: much of the psychological literature is about depressed states.  Our author suggests that going back to the time of the ancient Greeks, melancholy and other less-sunny moods have dominated thinking about, and interest in, mental health. So why not examine the opposite end of the spectrum?

The short answer was given in the first sentence: there’s a Continue reading

Everybody Hurts

Regarding the Pain of Others
Susan Sontag

sontag_painI have said before that I have a dead spot in my brain when it comes to that  iconic triumvirate of 60s writers,  Didion, Vidal and Sontag,  You may recall that I came up goose eggs when I ventured beyond Didion’s masterwork into Continue reading

Give ’em the Old Double Whammy

Double Whammy
Carl Hiaasen

double_whammyA holiday week calls for a holiday sort of book. So it’s appropriate that I’ve finally finished what was supposed to be my vacation reading this past August.

It’s even sadder that half way through I realized the book, which I’d checked out of the local library,  was already sitting on my shelf. Pitiful. And also instructive because as Continue reading

Hotel, Motel, Holiday Inn

Hotel Bemelmans
Ludwig Bemelmans

hotel_bThey left the house at half past nine
In two straight lines in rain or shine-
The smallest one was Madeline.

Those lines ought to be instantly familiar to anyone who’s spent time reading as, or to, a child. My love of Paris may have started with childhood exposure to the Madeline Continue reading

Your Soul to Keep

Faust Pt. 1
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, trans. by Randall Jarrell

faustBack to the heavy stuff.

As I’ve said before, there are books you’re supposed to read if you fancy yourself a product of the Enlightenment. That doesn’t mean mindless adherence to the canon but it does suggest you have to be more than merely dismissive of it.

Still, I am a busy, perhaps more accurately a lazy, man , and I Continue reading

A Good Job in the City

A Big Life (in Advertising)
Mary Wells Lawrence

big-lifeFall, it seems, exists so I can renew myself. I know, the light is dying, the sky is more likely to be gray than blue and the nip in the air will soon turn to unwelcome arctic blasts. Why that seems to turn me back to the literature of my trade will have to remain a mystery.

Enough about me, let’s talk about Mary. Continue reading

You Were Temptation

The Screwtape Letters
C.S. Lewis

screwtapeSin. What a quaint term. No one cares about sin anymore, do they?

Maybe they do. It’s hard to imagine that a trilogy about a lion and a piece of furniture is solely responsible for most of the works of a long-dead author still being available in Continue reading

Light in the Darkness of Insanity

The Economic Consequences of the Peace
John Maynard Keynes

consequencesOnce I read a novel, by Camilo José Cela, that was published under the most wonderful imprint ever to appear on a spine: Lost Books of the 20th Century.  Judging by the number of extant editions, the present work is anything but lost even though I’m thinking of Continue reading

Hello Old Friend

A Man Without a Country
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

amanwithoutacountryI hate giving up on people although I’m not quite sure why that is. I suspect that it verges on hopelessness and I have this deep, abiding belief that hopelessness is the greatest sin.

Still, you must know what I mean. Everyone has, lurking in their past, a person or two they were once close to and Continue reading

The Rush is On

Looking for Alaska
Peter Jenkins

alaskaGasoline. I couldn’t shake the thought that this entire book, if not the entire state of Alaska, existed only because of the availability of gasoline.

It was not what I’d expected when I set forth.

For decades now Alaska has loomed large in my imagination. In an earlier lifetime, when I had reconciled myself to existence as one half of a couple, I planned to Continue reading

In Walked Bud

Too Soon to Tell
Calvin Trill

too_soonI’ve visited with Calvin Trillin before and it’s usually a reliably enjoyable sojourn. The man is one of the more amusing fellows to peck at a typewriter, especially when the subject is food and/or travel.

Trillin is also one of those guys who is too versatile to be believable. Just when you think you’ve got him pigeon-holed as a humorist, you pick up his Civil Rights era Continue reading

Back in the Garage

Little pink houses have been known to come with built-in bullshit detectors.

Little pink houses have been known to come with built-in bullshit detectors.

We come from garageland….

Roget, were he alive, might be persuaded to list authentic as a synonym of garage.

That thought occurred to me this week as I crisscrossed the back roads of LSD. Prompted, as I often am, by a particular song I realized that there is one genre that Continue reading

The Living is Easy

DE_Beach_codeEndless Summer

Comes the middle of August, when the days are noticeably shorter and the light is longer and yellower, I yearn for the beach.  With the water at its warmest and the crowds beginning to thin there’s no better place to be.

Maybe next year I’ll kick  summer off with music. This year, I was set to thinking by a Mark Spitz post on Salon. Spitz has a late summer ritual built around a Continue reading

The Values that we had Once Upon a Time

Part of Our Time: Some Ruins and Monuments of the Thirties
Murray Kempton

time_kemptonIf print media are dinosaurs then newspapers are  apatosauruses .

But I grew up with these now-lumbering beasts. We were a two-paper a day household and my first job was delivering the now long-defunct Long Island Press, a broadsheet like the Times. Our competitor was Newsday.

I don’t know why we were a Press household. We also took the Daily News and that was the paper I preferred–it had better (and more) comics, including Bill Gallo in the sports section. Like Newsday, it was Continue reading

Fruit of Sweating Golden Inca

The Tupac Amaru Rebellion
Charles F. Walker

TupacWhat do a dead rapper, a failed group of urban guerillas and colonial era insurrectionists have in common? Stick around, you’ll find out.

History grabbed hold of my imagination more strongly than fantasy ever did. And if it happened in the western hemisphere I was on top of it. I honestly can’t keep all the dynastic nonsense and interminable warring of Europe Continue reading

Upside Down

Photo by Grey Villet/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images no infringement intended

Photo by Grey Villet/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
no infringement intended

When I was trying to get into the  ad business I quickly learned to be shameless. Wallflowers and polite young people taught to say Mr. and Ms. were at a distinct disadvantage.

So I changed my ways in order to get someone, anyone, with a job in advertising to hire me. A friend of a friend worked for legendary copywriter Tom Messner, pictured at right, who was part of an attempt to reconstitute the Tuesday Team, that group of top shelf ad guys who created Continue reading

When Your Bird is Broken

That Girl from Arizona

LRWhen it comes to writing about music I seem to find myself stuck in the 70s. Maybe it’s easier to make sense of the songs I’ve been listening to  for most of a lifetime.

Or maybe I just can’t stand today’s Swedish-produced pop music.

In any case, no female performer from my teen years stands out more than Linda Ronstadt. More than once I’ve referred to her as the first Mexican-American girl I ever had a crush on. That ethnic bit is true. The Ronstadts were immigrant farmers from Continue reading

From Diego to tha Bay

Where I Was From
Joan Didion

Didion-WhereOver the course of my life I have, on more than one occasion, had the opportunity to meet a ‘native’ Californian, a rare breed that harkens back to covered wagons and geographic touchstones in the middle of nowhere in a way that certain New England families, even those of what might be termed a lesser station, trace their origins to the Winthrop Fleet or the Mayflower.  So aligned are the tales that one wonders whether the proper way into either is through a frame labelled immigration, flight or protest.

There’s a reason that paragraph reads the way it does that I’ll come back to. For the moment let us turn to this early 21st century work by Joan Didion, formally Joan Didion Dunne,  which she published in the year of her husband’s death. That event led Continue reading

It’s a Gas Gas Gas

Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt
Michael Lewis

flash_boys

In a perfect storm of coincidence the subject of this book was legitimized the week I finished reading it. Legitimacy is welcome since this is a tale, in part, about selling the immeasurable as the irreplaceable even though what it may really be about is behavior that is irredeemable.

That’s a lot of  words starting with im- and ir-. If I were you I’d be wondering just what had gotten  ahold of me.

The subject, once again, is Wall Street. Most of the time I Continue reading

I Must be Rhythm Bound

The Anthologist
Nicholson Baker

AnthologistI had novel-reading days. Great heaps of literary fiction inhaled at a ferocious rate. Then I stopped and I’m still not sure why.

Maybe I got to a point where the thrill of the first encounter was gone.  Maybe I was dismayed, having burned through all the writers I’d discovered whose work resonated with me. Maybe feeling I was always missing something finally caught up with me and I gave up.

So I stopped almost cold turkey. There were a few false starts, moments when I hoped I’d encountered a new voice–maybe one more Continue reading

Running into the Sun

The  Best American Sports Writing 2015
Wright Thompson, Guest Editor; Glenn Stout Series Editor

Best_Sports_15Cutting corners. It’s what we do to survive.

And yet I have a suspicion that doing so doesn’t sit easily with many of us. In my own case, blessed with the near-eidetic ability to recall every flub and deliberate act of incompleteness, it’s a glued-on hairshirt. Others, I  hope, have saner ways of coping.

Perhaps that explains the general  fascination with sports. I have said before that I have a complete inability Continue reading

My Grammar Ain’t So Good

grammarTrue confession: most of what I know about grammar starts with ABC. That’s why this post about language will devolve into math.

I’m certain that would be unwelcome news to the Sisters of St. Joseph who did everything in their power to make the prescriptive case for language. Their chosen texts, as I recall, were arranged in numbered sections, like a technical Continue reading

It’s Memorial Day: A Six Pack and Playlist

Park_Ridge_Memorial_Day_Parade,_May_2012On Monday morning, like many Americans in many towns, I’ll wander down the block with my son to watch the Memorial Day parade. For him it will be about the candy the paraders throw at the crowd (and it is a crowd). For me, though. it’s always about something more profound.

War is an ugly word. It draws out the worst in us and Continue reading

An Old Man Kind and Wise with Age

Sailor and Fiddler: Reflections of a 100-Year Old Author
Herman Wouk

Wouk_SailorAfter my mom died my dad took on more charitable activities. Already involved in Parish Outreach, he adopted, seriatim, a string of what he sometimes referred to as his “old ladies.”  The first of these was Ida.

Ida lived about 5 blocks from my dad, in a tiny house on a neat lot that I remembered from my childhood because my grandparents lived across the street. I have no childhood Continue reading

Amber Waves of Grain

The Pit
Frank Norris

the_pitOpen outcry. It may be the romance in finance, to turn the old Tiny Grimes lyric on its head,

Readers of a certain age may not even recognize the term. But from the earliest days at the buttonwood tree until about 10 years ago open outcry was a way, and for a very long time the only way, traders communicated with each other. A trading floor in full roar may be the ultimate Continue reading

And Men Plunder

Plunder and Deceit: Big Government’s Exploitation of Young People and the Future
Mark R. Levin

plunderEver since I was a kid I’ve enjoyed getting a package in the mail. Paradoxically, the mystery contained in the big envelope or box remains even when I’ve place the order myself.

So when I found a Jiffy bag on my doorstep one day last fall I was intrigued. I hadn’t ordered anything. What could Continue reading

Science is Mankind’s Brother

The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2012
Dan Ariely, Guest Editor; Tim Folger, Series Editor

Best_science_12Human beings love patterns. We seek them even when they don’t exist. So I’m not in alien territory when I wonder whether the pattern I’m stuck in with these science annuals is reading them at 12- to 18-month  intervals or picking volumes from  years divisible by two.

More likely there’s no pattern at all although I do have a common reaction which is that I cheat myself by not Continue reading

Turning Rebellion Into Money

Has it Come to This?
Rolling Stone’s 40 Greatest Punk Albums of All Time

14_ST_in_the_Day

The streetscape that defined an era. You can’t go back again. East 14th Street at 3rd Avenue, I think.
Photo (c) Ann Sanfedele and borrowed from Jeremiah Moss’s inspired blog ‘Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York’ with apologies. Click the shot to visit this fabulous site.

The first kid I knew who listened to punk rock was Danny Perlowitz. I have a distinct memory of him in 1978 bouncing on the balls of his feet, clad in a leather jacket that never came off and blue jeans, making his way through a crowded high school Continue reading

There is a Road

Tao Te Ching
Lao Tzu
Trans. by Stephen Addis & Stanley Lombardo

taoThere are three books I reread in more or less constant rotation. While you’ll never see them written about here they mean the world to me and keep me sane.

This is not one of those books.

It is however the basis for one of those books. More importantly, it is one of those books lying at the core of human civilization that we really ought to read. Think of the Continue reading

Social Structure Seemed a Simple Thing

Selected Works of Herbert Blumer: A Public Philosophy for Mass Society
Herbert Blumer, Stanford M. Lyman and Arthur J. Vidich, Eds.

Blumer

If you wait long enough, everything comes around again.

At least that’s how it seems to me. Those long gaps between acquiring a book and actually reading it are just me waiting for the zeitgeist to align with the author at hand and my interest of the moment.

So as soon as I picked up Blumer there he was in The New Yorker. Well not him, of course–Herbert George Blumer’s Continue reading

The Ghost of a Romance

Indian Summer
William Dean Howells

Indian_SummerI was raised on classic romantic comedies. True, you couldn’t escape the endless stream of WWII movies in constant rerun, but if there was a choice Mom always picked the chick flick. Which is why I have a weakness for the form.

William Dean Howells has convinced me that before we Continue reading

I’ve Got the Fever

Fever Pitch
Nick Hornby

fever_pitchI hate to say this, but I think my mom was wrong.

Growing up my mom was the reader in the house even though the demands on her time had reduced that to mostly newspapers and magazines with the occasional book borrowed from the local library.  The hard evidence was locked away in an antique oak bookcase with a glass door that lived in the basement. There stood several Continue reading

Ready to Tear Up the World

Wolf Hall
Hilary Mantel

Wolf_HallI grew up lost in historical fiction. Johnny Tremain,  was big. So was The Link Boys, set in London a bit earlier than 1700.  I can’t explain the fascination. I only know it faded sometime after I read Ragtime. Too many coincidences for one family, I thought.

And so, when I read a profile of Hilary Mantel I wondered what the fuss was about. In part it was the Continue reading

Oh Mickey You’re So Fine

The Reversal
Michael Connelly

reversalHere’s my crime fiction trifecta: Los Angeles, murder and an Irish Catholic writer. There’s something about the City of Angels and writers raised in such self-identified ethnic homes that makes for an entertaining read.

At least for me and at least when the writer is James M. Cain.

Or Michael Connelly. Continue reading

History Never Repeats

This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly
Carmen M. Reinhart & Kenneth S. Rogoff

this_timeLong ago I took a class in economic history. It was taught in the history department, by visiting faculty not terribly well versed in economics.

Let me qualify that last  bit. Not terribly well versed in the quantitative, equation-driven neo-classical post-Samuleson economics most often taught in the Econ Continue reading

Could Spark Up Nostalgia

FramptonFrampton Comes Alive 
Peter Frampton
Originally Released: 1976

More than a few decades back it seemed like every high school-aged white kid in America was issued the same five albums. On Long Island, there was a bonus sixth record.

I owned most of them but even if you didn’t you couldn’t escape. None of us could and in certain precincts of the FM dial you still Continue reading

A Man With A Calling

The Charm School
Nelson DeMille

Charm_SchoolReturn with me now to those thrilling days of yesteryear. No, not the wild west, or even The Wild, Wild West, but to the days of East versus West.  Around these parts vacation means light reading and nowadays Cold War thrillers seems downright quaint.

This time Mr. DeMille takes us a little farther afield than Long Island, the site of the last Cold War tale we read from him. If you’ve been here before you know that one  of my Continue reading

Cos’ it Runs in the Family

The Politics of the Family and Other Essays
R. D. Laing

polticsI first encountered the title of this book’s central essay in college where it was used to label one of the courses in the nascent Women’s Studies curriculum. I sat in on a session, and opted not to take the class, but I did pick up a useful phrase and concept.

Eventually a First Edition of the original fell into my hands and I dove in. I already knew who R.D. Laing was. At a formative stage–actually I think I’m eternally in a Continue reading

I Ran So Far Away

Readling Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books
Azar Nafisi

Reading“There ain’t no such thing as a coinky-dinky.” I’m pretty sure Tennessee Ernie Ford, playing Cousin Ernie on “I Love Lucy,” said that. And whether or not I scrambled the facts in my Cuisinart of a memory, I think I’ve always sort of taken it as received wisdom.

So much so that I went to graduate school to get a degree in why that shouldn’t be so. Yet I remain the superstitious Continue reading

By Night Beware

Night Vision
Randy Wayne White

12v6_Night-VisionThere are probably worse jobs than professional fishing guide. Sun, sea, fish, fun.

I suppose, though, if the fish aren’t biting the customers might get unhappy. And bad weather probably directly affects your income. But all in all it’s like the bumper Continue reading

Another Year Over

The Year in Music: A Titular PlaylistLP

Earlier this year I started using song lyrics to title my posts. The first time was a fluke. But since I drive people crazy with lyrics I kept it up as a challenge to myself.

I’ve taken some time off to repair and enjoy my family. So the writing has diminished but the listening never does. So here’s a year-end present for you: a play list (on Spotify and Continue reading

A Walk on the Slippery Rocks

Memoirs of Socrates & The Symposium
Xenophon (trans. by Hugh Tredennick)

xenophonI feel sorry for philosophy majors.

Because somehow, somewhere along the line, philosophers came to be the whipping boys and girls of higher education. Who’d have thought it would ever come to that?

Quite some time ago, as a freshman, I had to take a year- Continue reading

There’s a Rat in Mi Kitchen

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
John le Carré

tinker tailorEspionage. It’s probably one of the cooler words we English speakers borrowed from the French even if we’ve had a word with a similar sounding root bouncing around since 1200 or so. (For the curious, that word is espy.)

A great word ought to serve a great purpose and so it does. At least when it comes to the 20th century version of the craft. You could be forgiven for thinking that the practice somehow emerged full-blown from the foreheads of the US and Soviet governments after Continue reading

Lies Lies Lies Yeah

Tangled Webs
How False Statements are Undermining America
from Martha Stewart to Bernie Madoff

James B. Stewart

tangledWe live in an era of truthiness and alternative facts. That makes me wonder if ether the title or the cover image of this book will  be recognized by all but a narrow, possibly aging, swath of the public.

For those who don’t know  the author, James B. Stewart has been found between hard covers for just about 25 Continue reading