Daily Office:
Friday, 22 October 2010

Exercising the Friday option, we hope to complete this entry by midnight.


¶ A story that’s really too good to be true: rather than pay “confiscatory taxes,” Boeing plowed its earnings into R&D, becoming the aircraft leader that has been for fifty years. Moral of the story? (Justin Fox at Felix Salmon)

So that’s it! High tax rates—confiscatory tax rates—spur innovation! Well, at least once in a blue moon they do. Which is an indication that there might be some important stuff missing from the classic economists’ view of taxation, as summed up by Greg Mankiw a few weeks ago:

“Economists understand that, absent externalities, the undistorted situation reflects an optimal allocation of resources. It is crucial to know how far we are from that optimum.  To be somewhat nerdy about it, the deadweight loss of a tax rises with the square of the tax rate.”

Somehow I don’t think that formula held true in Boeing’s case.


¶ In what amount to super-duper liner notes, Ian Bostridge writes about the three Eighteenth-Century tenors from whose repertoires he has fashioned a recital program, recorded for EMI. (Guardian; via Arts Journal )

Indeed, one of the issues in choosing music written specifically for three very different singers has been how to reconcile the specificity of this operatic troika with my own vocal and stylistic idiosyncrasies. While trying to bring alive their varied vocal personalities, and pushing at the boundaries, a total escape from my own possibilities and limitations would be impossible.

Choosing music sung by perhaps the greatest of these singers – greatest at least in terms of the music he inspired and the Europe-wide reputation he garnered – Francesco Borosini, brought this home with particular force. Looking in detail at the material we could garner from European libraries, it became clear that I would have to make a careful choice. While the two roles that Handel wrote for Borosini lie within a fairly standard baroque compass for a tenor – with an emphasis on sheer drama of expression that set them apart from the music written for Fabri – some of the music written for him by other composers for European courts and theatres ventured great leaps into the depths of the voice and up again, quite baritonal in their range and thrust. While I longed for the mad scene from Porsile’s Spartaco – mentioned in Grove’s Opera Dictionary but never, finally, located – there was plenty else to chew on, not least a wonderfully nonchalant Don Quixote hanging from a windowsill (written by the Italian lute-player Conti) and the forgotten arias Handel wrote for him in the rewritten role of Sesto (vengeful son of the murdered Pompey) in Giulio Cesare. Like Beard, Borosini ended his career as an impresario, running the newly built Kärtnertor theatre in Vienna (later the scene of great Mozart and Beethoven premieres).


¶ In three paragraphs, George Soros nails it. We are more flabbergasted by President Obama’s economic-adviser choices every day. (NYRB)

Without a bailout, the banking system would have stayed paralyzed and the recession would have been much deeper and longer. It is true that the stimulus was largely wasted in the sense that most of it went to sustain consumption but that was owing to time pressure. What the government had to do in the short run—keep the economy from collapsing—was the exact opposite of what was needed in the long run—correct the underlying imbalances, particularly between consumption and investment. Confining the initial stimulus to government investment would not have worked because it would have been too slow.

Where the Obama administration did go wrong, in my opinion, was in the way it bailed out the banking system. It helped the banks make their way out of a hole by supplying them with cheap money and relieving them of some of their bad assets. This was a purely political decision: on a strictly economic calculation it would have been better to inject new equity into the balance sheets of the banks. But this would have given the government effective control of a large part of the banking system. The Obama administration considered that politically unacceptable because it would have been called nationalization and socialism.

The decision to bail out the banks without exerting government control over their balance sheets backfired and caused a serious political backlash. The public saw the banks earning bumper profits and paying large bonuses while private citizens were badly squeezed by the interest rates on their credit cards jumping, in some cases, from 8 percent to nearly 30 percent. That was a major source of the resentment that the Tea Party movement exploited so successfully. In addition, the administration had invoked the so-called “confidence multiplier”: the idea that by inspiring confidence—for example through stimulus measures—consumers can be encouraged to spend and companies to invest and hire employees. When reality did not live up to the government’s promises and unemployment failed to fall, confidence turned to disappointment.


¶ What sort of myths would human beings develop if confronted with the binary star NN Serpentis, where a dim red dwarf would make its presence known to someone standing on one of its two planets every few hours, when it eclipsed the adjacent and brilliant white dwarf? Phil Plait asks just that at Bad Astronomy — after setting forth all the how-weird-is-thatness lying 1500 light years away.

What an incredible sight that would be! If alien life developed on a moon of one of those worlds, the only way they’d know of the existence of the red star would be due to the eclipses. Every 3 hours and 7 minutes, the primary star would suddenly disappear for a few minutes as the bigger but far less massive and bright star blocked it out. At that time, and pretty much only then, would the faint red star be visible at all.

Cultures all over the Earth worshiped the Sun for obvious reasons: bringer of light and heat, we depended and still depend on it. What sort of myths would have arisen had the Sun’s light been completely cut off a half dozen times a day?

And I have to wonder what other strange things await us as we discover more planets orbiting other stars. We have a pretty good idea of how stars age and die, but there will always be systems on the edge, ones we’ll have a hard time understanding. What new things will we uncover then? And what would the sky look like from those alien worlds?


¶ Abe Sauer waxes feisty on the subject of Juan Williams’s NPR termination. Not only ought the network dump anyone who appears regularly on Fox News, but it ought to dump its public funding as well. (The Awl)

And now come the threats to terminate NPR’s government funding. NPR should respond by telling the blowhards to bring it on. Federal funding makes up about 2 percent of NPR’s budget. Even by the most extreme maximum estimates, including indirect sources, less than 10 percent of NPR’s annual budget is from the kind of federal funding its enemies like to say it depends on. Losing that (still-valuable) 10 percent might be worth finally being rid of the “publicly funded” albatross that has plagued the NPR brand.

It’s also possible that the anti-NPR activists are underestimating the number and devotion of NPR’s fans. Keep in mind, O’Reilly may pull just over 3 million viewers a show, but Prairie Home Companion bests that by a million. Even Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me has as many listeners as Bill has viewers. Recently, O’Reilly’s audience surged to over 4 million following the hissy fit on “The View.” That’s a regular week for Car Talk, listened to and loved by 4.4 million. Even gratingly twee This American Life (1.7 million) pulls just about the same numbers as Fox News superstar Glenn Beck.

One of the leaders of a proposal taking away NPR’s federal allowance is Jim DeMint. DeMint, it seems, has proposed cutting a number of other things during his political tenure. The Republican Senator from South Carolina has proposed that openly gay Americans should be barred from teaching in public schools. DeMint has also proposed cutting teaching jobs for single mothers who live with men out of wedlock. Another proposed cut by DeMint? Access to adoption for gay couples. What a political legacy Mr. DeMint is constructing, opposing teachers, adoptive parents and The News from Lake Wobegon.


¶ The advent of gold bullion ATMs has us wondering when someone will be smart enough to install GOLD BUBBLE gum vending machines. (Guardian; via The Morning News)

Since the first was installed in May, in the lobby of Abu Dhabi’s Emirates Palace hotel, 20 gold-to-go machines have been installed across Europe. Germany already has eight, with a ninth due to open at a luxury shopping centre in Berlin today. Next month the first machines will open in the United States, in Las Vegas and Boca Raton, Florida.

Geissler is also meeting representatives of Harrods to discuss launching the first UK machine in the next few months. He plans to have launched 45 worldwide by the end of the year.
[Since publication of this article, Harrods has said no meetings with Geissler are scheduled.]

“Our customers are those who are catching on to the idea that gold is a safe haven at a time of financial instability,” he said. Those who say it is just a bubble, he insists, tend to be those who have not invested in it.

“We notice the sales peak whenever there are signs that the markets are wobbling. When the Greek crisis was revealed in its entirety, our sales went up 10-fold. With the current troubles in currency markets, gold becomes even more attractive.”

He said it was no accident that the machines have taken off so well in Germany: “Just look at history,” he said. “Germans are still traumatised by the hyperinflation of the 1930s, when people walked around with wheelbarrows full of notes, while Americans are still traumatised about the depression.”


¶ We thought that we’d heard everything, on the subject of Tao Lin, author of Richard Yates, but a comparison to Jack Kerouac was sort of beyond our wildest dreams. Or maybe way this side of them. “Whatevs.” (LRB Blog)

It was Lin’s poetry, which seems less shaped and more spontaneous than his fiction, that first made me think of Kerouac (Kerouac’s verse is, I think, worse than Lin’s; both are better suited to prose). It occurred to me then that, in his fiction, Lin presents his own life as openly and transparently as Kerouac did, and that Shoplifting from American Apparel, the book of Lin’s I like best, shares with On the Road (which is much more rambling and long-winded) a kind of sense-making shapelessness. Neither writer tells moral tales, not even in the muted post-Chekhovian manner of most contemporary fiction; both simply depict stretches of life. That similarity seems connected with another: Lin, like Kerouac, espouses in interviews a quasi-Buddhist acceptance of all things.


¶ In our ongoing uplift campaign, hoping to demonstrate that the world is not going to hell in a handbasket if only because it is already there, we report on the sad case of our Upper East Side neighbors, Karim and Tina Samii and Daphne Guinness, who have felt obliged to go to law over (or under) an overflowing bathtub at the former Stanhope, where, presumably, they both (so to speak) bought “floor throughs.”

The most recent downpour allegedly occurred less than two weeks ago, when “water again poured heavily” into the bathroom, which had only recently been repaired.

The superintendent this time found Miss Guinness’s “personal assistant and another female attempting to dry the floor with bath towels”. The Samiis accuse Miss Guinness of a “lack of care and reckless disregard for the consequences of her behaviour”. As well as $1 million (£635,000) for repairs, they are seeking an unspecified amount in damages.

They are also attempting to obtain an injunction against Miss Guinness taking a bath until she completes “all remedial measures necessary” to ensure it will not overflow.

A spokesman for Miss Guinness said: “We have no comment on this. It is a personal matter.”

We wish that we could sit in on the chat that Ms Guinness’s great-grandmother and her great-great aunt (Mitford sisters) might have had about this brouhaha. Or, better, the exchange of letters. (“The Stanhope?)

Have a Look

¶ The melting pot that is New York: IRT, BMT, IND. (NYT)