Daily Office:
Tuesday, 21 September 2010


¶ If a recession officially ends in a jobless recovery, do we need to overhaul the definition of a recession? (The new thing that we learned about today was the Business Cycle Dating Committee, a branch of the National Bureau of Economic Research that doesn’t have its own Wikipedia page yet.) We think not: we need a new scale that looks at employment regardless of other economic factors. Catherine Rampell reports at the Times.

This new pattern of jobless recoveries has led to some complaints that employment should play a more prominent role in dating business cycles and to criticism that a jobless recovery is not truly a recovery at all. Business Cycle Dating Committee members have been reluctant to change their criteria too drastically, though, because they want to maintain consistency in the official chronology of contractions and expansions.

While all three recent recoveries have been weak for employment, the job market has to cover the most ground from the latest recession.

From December 2007 to June 2009, the American economy lost more than 5 percent of its nonfarm payroll jobs, the largest decline since World War II. And through December 2009, the month that employment hit bottom, the nation had lost more than 6 percent of its jobs.

The unemployment rate, which comes from a different survey, peaked last October at 10.1 percent. The postwar high was in 1982, at 10.8 percent. But the composition of the work force was very different in the 1980s — it was younger, and younger people tend to have higher unemployment rates — and so if adjusted for age, unemployment this time around actually looks much worse.

While we don’t hold the government responsible for maintaining a supply of jobs — not yet, anyway — we believe that if unemployment figures were approached as a singular problem, rather than as a consequence of business conditions, then the government would develop more effective and intelligent forecasts and associated policies.


¶ By curious coincidence, adjacent Arts Journal feeds concern the problem with reality that today’s Americans seem to be having, thanks in no small part to something called, heaven knows why, “reality television.” First, in a piece that seems motivated largely by disgust over Casey Affleck’s faux documentary, I’m Still Here, Patrick Goldstein resigns himself to the sway of the “mythmakers.”

I don’t mean to put all the blame on filmmakers and publicity seeking scam artists. If you pay any attention to world affairs, you could easily argue that all too many people are no longer swayed by fact-based authority of any kind. They believe what they want to believe, facts be damned, which is why zealots can go around thinking that Barack Obama is a Muslim while untold numbers of people across the Middle East are somehow convinced that no Jews were killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks because they were evacuated before the planes hit the Twin Towers.

When it comes to entertainment, we in the media are sticklers for attributable facts. When a Hollywood biopic stretches the truth, we are the first to raise a ruckus. But in Hollywood, the truth is seen as being much more elastic, in part because film and TV writers create drama for a living, in part because people in showbiz tell so many white lies every day that the notion of a bigger truth often eludes them.

For now, entertainment consumers have sided with the mythmakers. In today’s media-saturated age it is simply too bewildering to try to make sense of what is real anymore. If a reality TV show is totally manufactured–so be it. It doesn’t interfere with our enjoyment of the storyline or the characters. The lines between artifice and reality have become so hopelessly blurred that very few of us take offense at being manipulated anywhere. When it comes to entertainment, we’ve gotten into the habit of lying back and enjoying it.

Meanwhile, a study published in the Journal of Risk Research finds that everyone belongs to a choir and is looking for an agreeable preacher.

After surveying 1,500 people, the researchers found that those who were “egalitarian and resentful of economic inequality” were more likely to assume that there was scientific consensus that human activity is contributing to climate change, but not that it’s safe to dispose of nuclear waste underground. Those who were more “hierarchical, individualistic and connected to industry and commerce” were more likely to make the opposite assumptions.

According to reports from the National Academy of Sciences, human activity is contributing to climate change and nuclear waste can be buried safely in certain designated sites.

“It’s not that one group is paying more attention to what scientific consensus is,” said Dan Kahan, a law professor at Yale and author of the study. But there’s a pervasive tendency to form perceptions of scientific consensus that reinforce people’s values.


¶ Perhaps we’re wanting in seriousness, but one of the things we love about Joshua Brown is his drolly jaundiced view of homo speculator. He gives great graph, too. (The Reformed Broker)

There is a pattern in place that you may want to familiarize yourself with as history has just repeated itself six quarters in a row.  The pattern has been a run up in stocks at the beginning of earnings season’s opening month followed by the almost inevitable denouement as hearts are broken and focus is diverted elsewhere.

In each of the last six quarters, the Dow Jones was up on average seven of the first ten days of the first reporting month (Jan, Apr, Jul, Oct).  Each of these rallies ended up succumbing to selling, even during quarters with high percentage beat rates.  This action is both a commentary on our Twitter-addled attention spans and a classic embodiment of a Wall Street law so old that Hammurabi himself may have written it -Buy on the rumor, sell on the news.


¶ At Wired Science, Lisa Grossman writes about clouds, and how they’re made up of — plants, mostly. Except, that is, when they come from man-made particulates. In which case, they’re bigger, whiter, more reflective and — get this — therefore tending to cooling the atmosphere.

The team also found that clouds and rain in the region mostly came from the plants. Plants emit gases from their leaves and sap, which is one reason why they have distinctive smells. When those gases interact with sunlight, their chemistry changes such that they condense from diffuse gas to liquid droplets less than one micrometer — a thousandth of a millimeter — in size. These droplets then serve as the nucleus of a cloud.

Particles larger than one micrometer, which are important in forming ice crystals, also came from plant matter like pollen, fungus spores and bits of crumpled up leaf.


¶ What we like most about the Internet is the way it captures what’s best about going to a good school: interesting people talk about interesting things that you may or may not ever know more about. It wouldn’t have occurred to us to say so when we were in school, but now we’d say that knowing someone like Steerforth, the English used book dealer who shares what passes through his hands, is a super way of expanding one’s mental map of the Known-About Universe — which in our humbler moments we call the Map of Ignorance.

The other day, or thereabouts, Steerforth encountered the journalist and novelist Philip Gibbs, who was born when Daniel Deronda was “recent fiction” and who died when the Beatles were getting going.

A liberal by nature who, in addition to his anti-war views, had also been a keen supporter of the suffragettes, Philip Gibbs was a controversial figure at times. But his prominence opened many doors and in the 1920s, he became the first journalist to interview the Pope (Gibbs was a Catholic, which must have helped).

By the time of his death in 1962, Philip Gibbs was one of the most well-known writers of his day. He left a huge body of work, consisting of over 40 novels and around a dozen non-fiction books, which in their day were bestsellers. So why has his name been forgotten?

It could be argued that Gibbs’ obscurity says more about the ephemeral nature of journalism than his gifts as a writer. But George Orwell didn’t suffer the same fate, so perhaps Gibbs’ books just weren’t that good.

During the last few months I’ve read two works by Philip Gibbs: a novel called Blood Relations and an autobiography called The Pageant of the Years. Both books were flawed, but highly enjoyable reads. Neither book deserves to be out of print.


¶ Status Update: European Royals, Scandals Notwithstanding, Aren’t Going Anywhere. (But they’d better be better at royalishness.) Monarchs are merrier (than politicians)! Patricia Treble, reporting at Macleans, finds that the Swedish crown princess’s consort has an ordinariness problem. (via Real Clear World)

The Swedish backlash, though, offers a surprising clue as to why neither the public nor politicians are throwing dust cloths over Europe’s thrones just yet. Asked why the royals were down in the polls, Joakim Nergelius, a constitutional law professor at Örebro University, suggests that one major problem was the groom. “He came from an ordinary Swedish family,” Nergelius says. “There is nothing special [about] him. He’s not extremely talented, so he’s too boring and people think it makes the monarchy less exciting.” The problem, in other words, was that in egalitarian Sweden, Westling, a gym owner and personal trainer, wasn’t aristocratic enough—not even with a new wardrobe and haircut, training in the crucial art of small talk and a fancy title, duke of Västergötland.


¶ As readerly people continue to ponder the fate of David Markson’s library (which also doesn’t have its own Wikipedia page yet — but that’s why there’s Google) — we begin to think that it’s the right fate.The books that Markson owned and annotated were cast to the winds, as it were (and not just after his death; he sold plenty of books just to raise pin money. Having passed through the hands of readers, some of whom will be enriched by having possessed the “Markson edition,” they’ll be collected, in a fine game of acquisitive scholarship, for some university library. Craig Fehrman reflects on authors’ libraries generally, and Markson’s in particular, at the Globe. (via The Morning News)

Selling his literary past became a way for Markson to sustain his literary future. In ”Wittgenstein’s Mistress” and the four novels that followed, Markson abandoned characters and plots in favor of meticulously ordered allusions and historical anecdotes–a style he called ”seminonfictional semifiction.” That style, along with the skill with which he prosecuted it, explains both the size and the passion of Markson’s audience.

But if Markson’s library–and a potential scholarly foothold–has been lost, other things have been gained. A dead man’s wishes have been honored. A few fans have been blessed. And an author has found a new reader. ”I’m glad I got that book,” Annecy Liddell says. ”I really wouldn’t know who Markson is if I hadn’t found that. I haven’t finished ‘White Noise’ yet but I’m almost done with ‘Wittgenstein’s Mistress’–it’s weird and great and way more fun to read.”

Markson’s late style also explains the special relevance of his library, and it’s a wonderful twist that these elements all came together in the campaign to crowdsource it. Through a Facebook group and an informal collection of blog posts, Markson’s fans have put together a representative sample of his books. The results won’t satisfy the scholarly completist, but they reveal the range of Markson’s reading–not just fiction and poetry, but classical literature, philosophy, literary criticism, and art history. They also illuminate aspects of Markson’s life (one fan got the textbooks Markson used while a graduate student) and his art (another got his copy of ”Foxe’s Book of Martyrs,” where Markson had underlined passages that resurface in his later novels). Most of all, they capture Markson’s mind as it plays across the page. In his copy of ”Agape Agape,” the final novel from postmodern wizard William Gaddis, Markson wrote: ”Monotonous. Tedious. Repetitious. One note, all the way through. Theme inordinately stale + old hat. Alas, Willie.”

Markson’s letters to and from Gaddis were one of the things he sold off–they’re now in the Gaddis collection at Washington University–but Johanna Markson says he left some papers behind. ”He always told us, ’When I die, that’s when I’ll be famous,’” she says, and she’s saving eight large bins full of Markson’s edited manuscripts, the note cards he used to write his late novels, and his remaining correspondence. A library like Ohio State’s, which specializes in contemporary fiction, seems like a good match. In fact, Geoffrey Smith, head of Ohio State’s Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, says he would have liked to look at Markson’s library, in addition to his papers. ”We would have been interested, to say the least,” Smith says.


¶ What’s the matter with populists, liberals are always asking. Can’t they see that the plutocrats who control the parties of the right are out to oppress them with monopolies and joblessness? In an astringent rebuttal, William Hoagland suggests that the only difference between liberals and plutocrats, in the populist view, is the liberal’s annoying sanctimony. (Boston Review; via 3 Quarks Daily)

The anti-intellectual evangelicalism that Hofstadter saw as inherent in populism and that so upsets liberals today may be witnessed in Bryan’s opposition to teaching Darwin’s theory of the evolution of species, a conservative position that brought Bryan’s career to a dramatic end in the famous Scopes “monkey” trial. Bryan’s antipathy toward teaching evolution—really toward evolution itself—might seem to foreshadow populism’s fateful shift from left to right, when populists began promoting cultural conservatism instead of economic fairness. That is the shift lamented by writers such as Frank and traced by Michael Kazin in The Populist Persuasion, Rick Perlstein in Nixonland and Before the Storm, and Joseph Lowndes in From the New Deal to the New Right.

For Bryan, however, there was no shift. His anger at corruption in entrenched capital was identical to his anger at blasphemy in Darwin’s theory. In Bryan’s populism, the plain people are by definition the last arbiters of truth. On monetary policy, the people rendered their judgment against gold and in favor of silver, and Bryan delivered that judgment to the establishment. On the nature of creation, the people judged against evolution and in favor of the literal truth of the Bible; Bryan delivered that judgment, too. His argument against Darwin’s theory also had an economic element. It outraged his sense of justice to imagine humanity ascending by the survival of the fittest and the destruction of the least fit, the strong forever preying on the weak, the endless quest for dominance he associated with human hatred, greed, and corruption. He saw scientific Darwinism and social Darwinism as one and the same, and he called for a society and a conception of creation based on love, not hate.

Have a Look

¶ Living in Io sono l’amore. (Design Sponge)