Daily Office:
Tuesday, 6 July 2010


¶ Like so many New York Magazine must-read articles, Jennifer Senior’s piece on unhappy parents, “All Joy and No Fun,” is touched by depravity. (“Kids, in short, went from being our staffs to being our bosses.”) But she seems to miss the connection between the problem (too many choices) and the solution (socialized child care).

One hates to invoke Scandinavia in stories about child-rearing, but it can’t be an accident that the one superbly designed study that said, unambiguously, that having kids makes you happier was done with Danish subjects. The researcher, Hans-Peter Kohler, a sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, says he originally studied this question because he was intrigued by the declining fertility rates in Europe. One of the things he noticed is that countries with stronger welfare systems produce more children—and happier parents.

Of course, this should not be a surprise. If you are no longer fretting about spending too little time with your children after they’re born (because you have a year of paid maternity leave), if you’re no longer anxious about finding affordable child care once you go back to work (because the state subsidizes it), if you’re no longer wondering how to pay for your children’s education and health care (because they’re free)—well, it stands to reason that your own mental health would improve. When Kahneman and his colleagues did another version of his survey of working women, this time comparing those in Columbus, Ohio, to those in Rennes, France, the French sample enjoyed child care a good deal more than its American counterpart. “We’ve put all this energy into being perfect parents,” says Judith Warner, author of Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety, “instead of political change that would make family life better.”

Of course we love our children because they’re ours. But burdening oneself with full responsibility for how a child turns out is as fantastical — and as true-blue American — as believing that “self-made men” really are self-made.


¶ The wonderful thing about “con” (“confidence man,” swindler) is that all you have to do is italicize it to produce an apt name for the victim. Michael Grann’s jolly good piece about Peter Paul Biro, a Montreal expert who authenticates art works by means of fingerprint identification (how scientific is that), suggests a story with a few as of yet unwritten chapters. (The New Yorker) 

Biro soon asked Ken Parker—whose late father and stepmother had won several million dollars from the New York Lotto—to make a much larger investment. Biro was part of an effort to launch a venture named Provenance, which would provide, as he put it, the “clever strategy” necessary to sell “orphaned” paintings for tens of millions of dollars. According to a business prospectus, marked confidential, Provenance would acquire art works that had been forensically validated by Biro and several colleagues, and sell them in a gallery in New York City. The company chose a thumbprint for a logo. The driving force behind the venture was Tod Volpe, an art dealer who had once represented celebrities, including Jack Nicholson and Barbra Streisand. Biro, who had suggested that Volpe might serve as the Parkers’ dealer, described him, in an e-mail, as “brilliant, resourceful, and extremely well connected.” Biro said that his brother, Laszlo—whose “knowledge was invaluable”—would also be a central part of the company. Once Provenance was established, Biro told the Parkers, “there really is nothing we can no[t] do.”

The plan called for raising sixty-five million dollars from investors, part of which would go toward buying J. P. Morgan’s old headquarters, on Wall Street, and turning it into a palatial arts complex anchored by a gallery. Surprisingly, at least five million dollars of investors’ money would also go to purchasing Teri Horton’s painting—even though Biro had authenticated the work and Volpe had tried to sell it. By capitalizing on the media interest surrounding the painting, the plan said, the work could be resold for between forty and sixty million dollars, maybe even a hundred million. Although Biro has always publicly maintained that he had no financial stake in Horton’s painting, Horton sent an e-mail to the Parkers saying that after the sale of her painting Biro would “collect” and that it would “set him for life.”


¶ Chicago’s Raghu Rajan makes a good case for the Fed’s raising interest rates soon. (And a quieter one for printing money to fund unemployment benefits.) (via  Marginal Revolution)

What many people forget is that interest rates are also a price, and shape not only the level of economic activity but also the allocation of resources and the relative wealth of buyers and sellers of financial savings. A sustained period of ultra-low interest rates will favor the segments of the economy that took us into the crisis – housing, durable goods like cars, and finance. And it will encourage households to borrow and spend rather than save. With policies focused on reviving the patterns of behavior that proved so costly the last time around, it is ironic that President Obama wants the rest of the world to change and spend more to displace the United States as spender of first resort, even while the United States is unwilling to make any changes itself.

Put differently, aggregate demand is indeed insufficient to restore the economy to old patterns of production. But that production was absorbed only through an unsustainable debt-fueled, asset-price-boom-supported consumer binge. And even if we think U.S. consumers have become excessively cautious (it is hard to see a savings rate of 5 percent as excessive caution, except in relation to the extravagant past), moving them back down the same path seems unwise.

More important, the United States also has a problem of distorted supply. Prices in the economy should reflect the past misallocation of resources and move resources away from areas like housing and finance. A lot of people have to be retrained for the jobs that will be created in the future, not left lamenting for the jobs they had in the past. A Fed that keeps real


¶ We haven’t been following Felix Salmon on the subject of wine, but his recent post, “The more you know, the better it tastes,” accords with Paul Bloom’s essentialist theory of pleasure.

That’s why so many wineries put so much effort into wine tours and that’s why you’re much more likely to enjoy your bottle of pinot noir if it has been preceded by a short explanation from the sommelier of who the winemaker is, where they’re from and what exactly they’re doing. There’s really no way of telling how or whether any particular part of the story affects the taste, but the simple telling of the story makes an enormous difference.


¶ Kassia Karr is no match for the wily chancellor of an aspirational engineering college in Tamil Nadu. Having asked her to speak to “ten or twenty” students, he hauls her up before two hundred, and proceeds to translate her multicultural politeness right into thin air. (The Bygone Bureau)

Finally, a young man in the audience stood up.

“Why do you think the American way of eating food is better than the Indian way?” he asked.

For a half-second I was baffled — when had I said that? I quickly realized that the chancellor had been putting opinions in my mouth when he was translating for me. I went to the mic to try to clear up the confusion. “I do not think America’s customs are better than Indian customs! I like them both the same,” I said, almost pleadingly, trying to indicate the mix-up with an exaggerated expression of worry. But then the chancellor started translating for me again, and I did not return to the podium again as he regaled the students with his opinion on why eating with a fork and spoon, American style, was more proper and more hygienic than the Indian way of eating with hands.


¶ Landon Thomas reports on Turkey’s healthy economy — more Euro-worthy than many in the Eurozone itself. It’s only initially surprising that the boom  is attributable in no small part to the socially conservative but more sincerely democratic administration of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AK Party.

Mr. Ak, the car leasing executive, exemplifies this new business elite of entrepreneurs. He drives a Ferrari to work, but he is also a practicing Muslim who does not drink and has no qualms in talking about his faith. He is not bound to the 20th-century secular consensus among the business, military and judicial elite that fought long and hard to keep Islam removed from public life.

On the wall behind his desk is a framed passage in Arabic from the Koran, and he recently financed an Islamic studies program just outside Washington at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., where Mr. Erdogan recently spoke.

Whether he is embracing Islam as a set of principles to govern his life or Israeli irrigation technology for his sideline almond and walnut growing business, Mr. Ak represents the flexible dynamism — both social and economic — that has allowed Turkey to expand the commercial ties with Israel, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Syria that now underpin its ambition to become the dominant political actor in the region.


¶ We’re not running out and buying every cool-sounding novel anymore, but we’ll be watching to see what other people have to say about Jenny Hollowell’s Everything Lovely, Effortless, Safe. Valerie Brelinski’s somewhat uneven review is studded with memorable images. (The Rumpus)

In L.A., Birdie meets her match in Redmond, a man even more coolly pragmatic and self-protective than she, who wisely refuses to sleep with Birdie, all the while recognizing her unusual beauty or star-quality. Redmond becomes her agent—he finds her work and a place to live, he takes her to important parties and makes sure she meets the right people. These star-lit parties are almost Gatsby-esque in both their descriptive glamour and frantic unhappiness. It is in these scenes that Hollowell frequently does her best writing, infusing the gorgeous California evenings and the beautiful people drifting through them with a sadness as palpable as the lemon-scented air.

Hollowell also perfectly captures the humor and the horror inherent in Birdie’s climb toward fame. During her nine-years sojourn in L.A., Birdie makes the requisite sacrifices required of young attractive females in Hollywood. She laughs at unfunny jokes and performs at humiliating auditions and fucks unfuckable men, all for the dubious honor of starring in a tampon commercial (“Ultra-extra-mega-dry”) and as an “ass double” for more famous actresses. Though Redmond keeps promising that soon, soon she’ll land the part that will change everything, all Birdie knows is that she is getting older. And sadder. And less marketable.


¶ Evgeny Morosov. reviewing The Shallows, Nicholas Carr’s alarmist book about the Internet, echoes our thoughts about the drift of the Web, from geeks’ toy to social resource. (Prospect; via  Marginal Revolution)

Then there is the question of the internet’s political economy—a subject that, judging by his blog, Carr understands well, and yet The Shallows fails to analyse in any real depth. Internet users spend their time clicking on link after link, but this is not an inevitable feature of the web. Google and other companies create these “link traps” to entice us to click again and again, as the more is known about what interests us, the better the companies can customise adverts and other services. Our distraction is not pre-determined; it is the by-product of a bargain in which we have agreed to become targets of aggressive and intrusive advertising in exchange for free access to the internet’s goodies. In the future one could imagine Google offering a premium version of its service, where users would be charged a penny for each search but wouldn’t be shown any of the ads. Similarly, one can imagine the website of the New York Times that did not include links to external sources. This, in fact, is what it looked like ten years ago—and how the Kindle edition of the newspaper still looks today. For all his insights into the plasticity of the brain, Carr is blind to the plasticity of the internet itself. Today’s internet—with its profusion of hyperlinks, widgets, tweets, and pop-ups—is only one of the possible “internets” in the future. Equally, the level of concentration we can expend on reading the New York Times only matters as long as there is someone willing to publish it. To attack the net for ruining our concentration while glossing over how it disrupts the economics of publishing is like complaining about too many calories in the food served on the Titanic.

Have a Look

¶ Time‘s Best Blogs.

¶ Tyler Cowen on Hamburg’s HafenCity. (Marginal Revolution)

¶ Dead Malls. (The Morning News)

¶ Being Tyler Brûlé junkets at Schloss Hubertuslöhe. (Audio alert!)