Robert Mundell On Why The Market Is Feminine

Robert Mundell received the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1999 for his work in “monetary dynamics and optimum currency areas.” (He is currently professor of economics at Columbia University.) For as long as I can remember, I’ve owned a copy of his little primer, Man and Economics (McGraw-Hill, 1968; another edition bears the subtitle The Science of Choice.) Somehow, I’ve never gotten around to reading it. In this regard, Mundell’s book is exactly like many other books on my shelves.  But on Friday, I finally began to make my way through its pages, curious to see what it held within.

Man and Economics  was released in 1968, so I expected some aspects of its discussions of choice, supply, demand, inflation, money, currency rates, recession and unemployment, the gold standard etc to be just a little dated. As I read on, I noticed that what really gave the book’s vintage away was its choice of illustrative examples.

To wit, men are earners and women are spenders. The man brings home money, the woman spends it. This division and classification is then used to illustrate problems of liquidity, budget balancing, and so on. For instance:

There is a certain unevenness in spending and earning patterns . The husband may be paid for his services only once every week, fortnight, or month. Typically, the husband will deposit his salary in the bank every month, while the wife will go about the business of shopping every day or perhaps once a week. In this case, the cash balance will be high at the beginning of the month and gradually fall toward zero…toward the end of the month. Discipline is required at the beginning of the month, since it would be most unwise for the wife to spend a whole month’s income on rent, groceries, and other needs in the first two weeks. If this discipline is not present the family will suffer from a liquidity crisis toward the end of the month. Experience (or intrafamily strife) will teach the wife the expenditure pattern over time that is feasible with a given income, or the husband the income that is needed to maintain a certain expenditure.

But that’s not all.

Consider for instance, Mundell’s description of the language used to describe currency markets:

The language used by foreign-exchange dealers and operators responsible for supervising a market in which the government has a great stake may strike the reader as unusual. One speaks of the “feel of the market,” its “depth, breadth, and resiliency,” “strategy of penetration,” “getting in and out,” “slackness,” “looseness,” and the market “drying up.” It is the language of market intervention, but it all sounds like a scenario for a grand seduction. Indeed, one distinguished dealer from a very important central bank likens intervention to an exercise in applied psychology and manipulation of a market to the management of a woman. When it is troubled, it must be caressed; when it is quiet, it should be left alone; and when it gets hysterical, it has to be slapped. In that sense, the market is feminine.

Markets are temperamental creatures indeed.

NYPD: In New York, Protests Are A Terror Threat

There truly can be no police department more tone-deaf, more insensitive, more colossally, thickly stupid and offensive than the New York Police Department. Consider, for instance, its latest announcement, that of the formation of a special anti-terror unit:

A brand new unit of 350 NYPD officers will roam the city with riot gear and machine guns, trained specifically to respond to terrorist threats and public demonstrations, Police Commissioner Bill Bratton announced….

“[The unit] is designed to deal with events like our recent protests or incidents like Mumbai, or what just happened in Paris,” Bratton said Thursday. “It will be equipped and trained in ways that our normal patrol officers are not.”

He added that the unit would be suited up with, “extra heavy protective gear, with the long rifles and the machine guns that are unfortunately sometimes necessary in these instances.”

You got that? The ‘recent protests’ –i.e., those protesting the choking to death of an asthmatic man by a NYPD officer, the shooting of a teenager in Ferguson or a twelve-year old in Cleveland, are just like the killings of innocent people in Mumbai and Paris. That is, citizens exercising their First Amendment rights by marching on the streets, raising slogans, and blocking traffic, are a terror threat just like those who throw hand grenades and gun down men, women, and children.

The announcement of this special anti-terror unit has, I’m sure, has sent the more trigger-happy members of Bratton’s corps into quivers of firearm-induced  tumescence. But before those lads get a little too giddy in anticipation of watching and listening to things that go ‘boom’, and enjoying the spectacle of their targets flopping to the ground in convulsions of pain and agony, I have some questions to ask.

What does Bratton imagine his ‘special terror unit’ doing when a protest gets a little loud, when the slogans of protesters hit a little too close too home, when their die-ins go on a little too long, when their chants of ‘Hands Up, Don’t Shoot’ or ‘I Can’t Breathe’ get a little too aggravating? Will the officers in charge set up special machine-gun nests, arrange their ammunition belts in neat little stacks, and then open fire, making sure they distribute their payloads evenly and accurately so that the thousands of bullets they emit find their targets unerringly? Will they wait till they see the ‘whites of their eyes’? Will they keep firing till the barrels of their machine-guns overheat, or will they stop occasionally to let them cool off? Will they rely on snipers–like the kind glorified recently by Hollywood–to blow out the brains of those who have somehow survived the initial barrage of fire? Will we have to rename Union Square ‘the killing field’?

If Bratton could put down his video game controller and his armament requisition forms for a bit and address these questions, I, and many other citizens of this city, would be most grateful.

On Avoiding Company And Conversation

Yesterday afternoon, after I had finished teaching, as I hurried to the Flatbush Avenue subway station to catch a train for my evening workout, I saw a Brooklyn College colleague out of the corner of my eye. I walked on; I did not want to say hello; I did not want to stop and talk. This was not because I disdain the perfectly pleasant company of my fellow academic; rather, I simply did not have the energy to engage in conversation. Conversation would entail: first, the exchange of pleasantries and niceties, and then later, quite possibly, an intellectual engagement on which I would have to stay on my toes. Conversations can be exhausting. At that moment, all I wanted to do was sink into a seat on the subway and read a book. I meant no insult or rejection to my colleague. I just wanted to be alone.

I indulge in this sort of ‘anti-social’ behavior  quite often. Sometimes, I will see a neighbor on the street, and will walk past them if they have not seen me. Sometimes, I will carry out the same avoidance on campus, briskly threading my way through a gaggle of students that now provides cover for my escape. Sometimes, at that same Flatbush Avenue subway station, I will see a colleague sitting in a subway car, and will walk on to the next one. (Not always, of course; often, I enjoy catching up with friends whom I haven’t seen in a long time.) This avoidance behavior seems to occur the most often on trains; I suspect this is because my time on trains affords me some precious reading time and I’m loath to spend it on conversation. On occasion, it’s easier to justify this shrinking from social encounters: I enjoy varying degrees of comfort with the many acquaintances in my life, and with some of them conversations can suffer from some awkwardness, some shuffling of the feet, some looking for a quick way out. In those cases, it’s easy to justify my turning away, my pressing on.

I feel some guilt about this behavior. I seem to be disdaining encounters with fellow human beings, preferring my own company; I seem to prefer remaining lost in my own thoughts, my own reveries; I seem to prefer solipsism. It’s entirely possible that some of the folks I ‘ignore’ have seen me despite my attempts to remain incognito and have been offended. I may have insulted and slighted the more sensitive of my friends. I mean no harm, no offense. I’m a man of limited resources–emotional and intellectual–and conservation comes easily to me in these circumstances.

On those occasions when I do carry out such deft evasions, I am reminded that despite writing in public spaces and despite taking up a career that requires me to stand in front of groups of people and talk, I retain at the core of my being, traces of a self quite familiar to me: a shy person who often prefers the company of a book to that of a fellow human. Sometimes, I’m just too tired to talk, too tired to navigate the shoals of social encounters. Sometimes I’d much rather read.

Once again, no offense intended.

Claude Lanzmann’s ‘Shoah': The Holocaust Brought To The Present

One of the most distinctive features of Claude Lanzmann‘s Shoah is that it features no archival footage. Not a single second of it. There are no grainy, black-and-white flickering images of Jews being herded into train cars for shipment to concentration camps, pushed and shoved along by brutal, indifferent German soldiers, of camp inmates peering out from behind barbed wire, their bodies gaunt and emaciated, of mass graves being filled with the corpses of men, women, and children, of piles of clothing and other personal belongings belonging to the dead, of the gas ovens in which hundreds of thousands of Jews were executed, of the liberation of death camps by the Allied forces. There is no reliance that is, on a standard means of depiction of that moral catastrophe.

Instead, we have a series of interviews, one after the other, with survivors, bystanders and perpetrators. There are those who lost their entire families, those who watched trains full of deported Jews rolling past their villages, their passengers sometimes visible, on their way to almost certain death, those who saw the entire Jewish population of their town taken away, and those who supervised the deadly business carried out within the confines of places whose names have become a grim directory of death: Chelmno, Treblinka and Auschwitz-Birkenau. The interviews do not flow smoothly: Lanzmann speaks in French, his interpreter translates into Polish, the interviewee replies in Polish, the interpreter translates into French; sometimes its French to Hebrew or Yiddish; we watch the subtitles go by. Sometimes the interviewee does not want to talk; the memories of the past are too painful and he does not want to confront them again, but Lanzmann urges him on. Sometimes the interviews are conducted by way of subterfuge as in the case of former concentration camp guards who have to be kept unaware that they are being interviewed for a documentary movie. In both cases, we cannot look away; we remain transfixed.

The Holocaust did not take place all at once. Its horror built up over an extended period, starting with the promulgation and internalizing of the virulent ideology that animated it, going on to crude massacres with traditional weapons, and finally reaching a grim crescendo in the death camps where the killing of Jews was transformed into a mechanical, grimly efficient process through the use of gas chambers. Shoah‘s structure and narrative mirrors this progression. It runs for nine hours and layers and layers of disbelief and horror accumulate as our viewing progresses.

Shoah‘s exclusive reliance on non-archival footage means that we are forced to reckon with the Holocaust not as the usual historical exhibit, one consigned to the past, standing as a relic of sorts. Rather, here they are: those who lived, but remember those who died, those who saw the living die or on their way to death, and those who killed or supervised the killings. This technique, this director’s choice, makes Shoah the singular act of remembrance that it is.

Springing Back To Teaching

I return to teaching tomorrow.

The 2015 spring semester kicks off at 9:30 AM with the first meeting of my ’20th Century Philosophy’ class. The class’ description reads:

This course will serve as an introduction to some central themes in the twentieth-century’s analytic, post-analytic (or neo-pragmatic), and continental traditions. Time permitting, the philosophers we will read and discuss include: Dewey, Du Bois, Russell, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Ayer, Gadamer, Sartre, de Beauvoir, Austin, Davidson, Foucault, Derrida, Rorty, Rawls, and MacIntyre.

Yes, this is a little ambitious, and I’m sure some of my readings will drop off the end of the queue as the end of the semester approaches. Besides, teaching some of the folks on that list makes me a little apprehensive; I have my expository work cut out for me.

Then at 11AM, almost immediately after I finish that class, I will hold the first meeting of my ‘Philosophical Issues in Literature’ class. (The fifteen minute break between classes, to put it bluntly, blows chunks; I barely have time to walk back down to my office, drop off my books, grab a sip of water, pick up the next set of books and then head out again.)

On Monday, my graduate class–‘The Nature of Law’–will begin at the CUNY Graduate Center. This  class’ description is as follows:

This course will serve as an introduction to theories of natural law, legal positivism, legal realism, critical legal studies, legal pragmatism, critical race theory, and feminist legal theory.  Some of the topics to be covered will include: the varieties of natural law, the Hart-Fuller debate, the relationship between legal realism and legal positivism, the political critique  of law mounted by critical legal studies and feminist legal theory, the legal construction of race (and science), law as ideology, the nature of pragmatic jurisprudence.  There will be, hopefully, an interdisciplinary flavor to our readings and class discussions.

The first half of the class has a conventional feel to it with the usual definitional debates taking center stage; the second half takes a critical look at the law.

Three classes; two new preps. The repeat prep is the ‘Philosophical Issues in Literature’ class, which I taught last semester. I had considered changing the reading list dramatically, but instead, dropped two novels–‘Canticle for Leibowitz‘ and ‘Dog Stars‘–from my original list and retained the remaining five. I did this for two reasons. One, I’d like to take a second crack at teaching these novels; even as I taught them last semester, I was aware my understanding of them had changed, and I was not able to cover all the issues they raise in their many different ways. Second, more prosaically, my two new classes threatened to swamp me with their reading lists; three new preps would have spread me out a little too thin.

The winter break–some of which I used to try to complete a book manuscript long overdue with its publisher–is over. There was some hopeful chatter about a snow day tomorrow, but truth be told, I’d rather get this ball rolling and get on with the business of making headway on the business of teaching. A winter break spent at home always makes me a little stir crazy. I’d much rather be walking to campus, getting in front of my classes and talking philosophy.

Famous last words: bring it on.

All Things Bright And Beautiful: The Sunshine Holiday

On a day like this, as the East Coast digs in and prepares for a blizzard, as my daughter’s daycare shuts down early and as Brooklyn College, my employer, preemptively calls for a closing tomorrow, I figured I might as well write about the time I used to get days off when the sun shone.

My ninth and tenth grades were completed at a boarding school in India’s north-east. (More precisely, in the town of Darjeeling, in the state of West Bengal.) Amongst other things, India’s north-east is famous for the quantity of its rainfall. The world’s wettest place, Cherrapunji, in the Indian state of Meghalaya, is in the Indian north-east. You get the idea.

I learned these facts about my new location the hard way. Rainy, grey days were exceedingly common; these were accommodated by covered walkways between buildings, which facilitated easy umbrella-free transits between them.  Still, the persistent rain resulted in an all-pervading air of dampness all over and around the school; you couldn’t escape the odd soaking or two. We played our sports in the rain; our gear hardly ever dried in time for us to wear it again. You couldn’t get away from the mud, sometimes on your shoes, sometimes on your trousers. All too soon, you could smell the mold everywhere. It was very often, a miserable state of affairs.

A few weeks after I started school, on the morning of a day on which the sun had finally shone after several days of rain, I walked into the school chapel for our morning service, and noticed that the number of the hymn listed on the board next to the pulpit was 155. It indicated we would be singing “All Things Bright and Beautiful” during the service. On seeing this, some excited murmuring broke out around me. I asked a friend what the matter was. “We’re going to get a sunshine holiday”, he whispered back. I had no idea what that was.

A short while later, I found out. We were getting the day off. There would be no classes. Apparently, my school had a tradition: when the sun finally shone after a long absence, we were given the day off, and whimsically informed of the school’s decision to give us this little treat by indicating we would sing that Anglican classic during our service. Some games of intramural soccer were organized but other than that, we were left to our devices. We reacted to this news by sunbathing on lawns and the roofs of buildings, putting out moldy and damp clothes and linen to dry, and going for long walks around our campus. I don’t think I’ve ever welcomed the sun’s appearance as much as I did on those occasions. For a young lad who had just left India’s hottest city, my school’s response to the sun’s presence was an utter novelty. And a welcome one at that.

PS: On one occasion, as I worked in the chemistry lab, I noticed a strange bright glow outside and wondered what it was. It was the sun, making its appearance after a rain that had lasted sixteen days. It had shown up a little too late for us to get the day off and I never forgave that tardiness on its part.

Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia And The Insight Of The Depressed

There is a moment during the disastrous wedding reception that kicks off Lars Von Trier‘s Melancholia that you suspect the reason Justine the bride is being so mysteriously, bafflingly, awkwardly morose, is that she is aware of an impending apocalypse, the one made imminent by a beautiful blue planet approaching the earth on a collision course. She has good reason to be so sad, so distracted, so rueful. The world is coming to an end; how do marital bliss or discord, or effusive praise, or haute cuisine, or elaborately planned weddings, or anything else matter?

A little while later, we are made to realize Justine may well be a life-long melancholic, clinically depressed, sometimes to the point of catatonia, and that she is not the only one who is aware of the proximity of Earth’s new neighbor. Still, she might be the only one who has sussed out that the absurdity of existence must now be reckoned with, and cannot be postponed or consigned to the margins as is usually done. Perhaps the depressed have always known this. Which is why they cannot allow themselves to be distracted like those around them, who rush around engaging in one triviality or banality after another. They rightly perceive these activities as mere diversions. Perhaps it is the depressed who, when the time for death is at hand, find an equanimity that all too many ‘normal people’ find elusive. The worst is here; they have felt its shadow for too long; this final reckoning is at hand.

It is no surprise then, that in the second part of the movie, Justine and her sister Claire, who is worn down and edgy after years of sibling encounters with a mentally ill person, undergo changes in personality.  Claire becomes frantic and panicky; Justine is calm, matter-of-fact, serene. And Claire’s husband, standing in as the ostensibly cool, detached, skeptical and rational man of science, the one who has previously subjected his wife’s anxieties to some scorn and some invocations about the power of science to get things right, takes his own life, not deigning to involve his wife or son in this decision. The end of the world is here; what matter such niceties?

End of the world movies can emphasize both the triviality and banality of our daily lives as well as the primacy of simple human gestures and relationships; they can offer caustic commentary on our shallowness and pettiness and obsession with material reward as well as make poetic statements about the beauty around us that is soon to be consigned to the ashes. Melancholia manages to do all of this. We are reminded the world is a beautiful place, that startling glimpses of sublimity may be found all around us; we are reminded too, that such splendor often showcases conflict and discord and strife.

In the end, as Melancholia, the approaching planet, becomes malevolent, we find ourselves encountering a familiar question, one whose answer can only be imperfectly offered in the present without the actual grim reality of the end of existence upon us: How would we face such an eventuality? Would we put away pettiness and rancor? Would we remain distracted or would this concentrate our minds wonderfully?

Justine knows the answer: hold hands with the ones you love.