Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Subpriming with Michael Lewis

When I returned to the United States in 1990 after spending most of the previous six years in Africa, one of the first books I read was Michael Lewis's Liar's Poker. I wanted to catch up with a culture that had moved away while I was away. It boggled my mind; all I could think of was Sammy Glick, in Budd Schulberg's classic What Makes Sammy Run?

It turns out that I wasn't wrong to make that connection. Schulberg, who is now 94, has spent his life since creation of Sammy fending off those who would thank him for providing a roadmap to Hollywood success. The same thing happened to Lewis:

Six months after Liar’s Poker was published, I was knee-deep in letters from students at Ohio State who wanted to know if I had any other secrets to share about Wall Street. They’d read my book as a how-to manual.

Schulberg's father ran a Hollywood studio. Growing up in the business, Schulberg really did know it, inside and out. Lewis claims to have gone to Wall Street as the complete neophyte. He did, however, manage to learn how it operates, inside and out. And he still does, as his article in the December, 2008 issue of Protfolio proves.

It's an article everyone should read. Here's just a taste:

“No,” said Eisman. “It’s a zero. There is zero probability that your default rate will be 5 percent.” The losses on subprime loans would be much, much greater. Before the guy could reply, Eisman’s cell phone rang. Instead of shutting it off, Eisman reached into his pocket and answered it. “Excuse me,” he said, standing up. “But I need to take this call.” And with that, he walked out.

Stop reading here. Click on the link.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Build to Last

Monday, November 10, 2008

Appalachia On My Mind

“If it weren't for Appalachians, this would be a perfect country.”

That's what I seem to be hearing, these days, from many of my progressive fellow travelers. They point to a map in The New York Times that shows that Appalachia, essentially, is the only area of the country where Republicans gained in presidential voting.

Except for the southern Louisiana portion, this looks rather like the migration pattern of my family. So, what I hear when people criticize the people inhabiting the regions in red on this map is criticism of my own background. What I particularly resent is an underlying assumption that the increase has a simple, racial genesis.

Whether Obama is an east-coast elitist or not (I'd say not, but it doesn't matter), Appalachia has been stigmatized for a long, long time—and even more during the past eight years, when the “crackers,” “rednecks,” and “hillbillies” have been yoked (in liberal minds) to George W. The connection (like the current increase in voting Republican in the region) is used as proof that Appalachians are worthy of the disdain for them felt in much of the rest of the country.

There's a lot more going on here, however—and the contempt felt for Appalachia says to me (a displaced Appalachian, now a New Yorker) more about the liberals and progressives than it does about the people of my home region.

According to the U. S. Census Bureau, West Virginia, Kentucky, Arkansas, and Louisiana make up four of this six most impoverished states in the U.S. (New Mexico and Mississippi are the others). They also make up (with Tennessee, Western Virginia, and Western North Carolina) the part of the United States that has been continually scapegoated for American failing for more than a century (though Louisiana isn't really Appalachian, it has felt the scapegoating, too). When America fails, it has become easy to place the blame on “them,” for the image of the Appalachian has become as ingrained in the rest of America as the image of the African-American among white America (just witness how quick many were to accept Ashley Todd's accusations of assault right before the election).

The view of Appalachians (and those descended from the Scots-Irish in general) has little difference in background or in effect from the racism that much of the rest of the country faults Appalachia for. To make matters worse, the fingers pointing at racism in the mountains should be pointed back at their owners. Having voted for Obama does not absolve one from racist attitudes—any more than not voting for him makes one a racist.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The Two Cultures

One of the things I was hoping for yesterday was a breakdown of the walls we have been building up in this country. Sure, one did fall—or crumble a bit, at least—the wall between the races, but there’s another one, much stronger, that the election only seems to have shored up.

Look at the results. Of the states that went for Obama, ten plus the District of Columbia gave him at least sixty percent of the vote—a margin of twenty percent or more. Another ten awarded him better than fifty-five percent (but less than sixty), at least a ten-point margin. Those are huge numbers, huge wins. Much greater than the less than six point national spread.

For, on the other side, McCain bested sixty in six states, fifty-five in nine others.

Whatever the reason (and it is too facile to simply call it “race”), these numbers show that the gulf between red state and blue state is widening. A variety of factors tilted the result to the Democrats this time, but those will change at some point, and the other side will get back in. If this continues, we'll never achieve stability or real cultural progress. We'll have motion, yes, but it will be like that of a teeter-totter, up and down but going nowhere.

In his classic essay “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution,” C. P. Snow writes:

Between the two a gulf of mutual incomprehension—sometimes (particularly among the young) hostility and dislike, but most of all lack of understanding. They have a curious distorted image of each other. Their attitudes are so different that, even on the level of emotion, they can’t find much common ground. (4-5)

Snow was writing of the divide between two academic cultures, between literary intellectuals and scientists, but his words could as easily refer to conservatives and liberals in the United States. We don’t understand each other, and we make little attempt to do so.

In victory, in 2000 and in 2004, the right put little effort into crossing the divide between the two cultures. There was talk of a ‘permanent Republican majority’ and an attempt at marginalization of the liberals to the extent where they could be safely ignored. The conservatives were wrong to think in this way, and those chickens came home to roost last night.

The question now is whether or not we on the liberal side will show ourselves better in victory than the conservatives were. Certainly, our country deserves better—but can we live up to its demands? Can we, for example, stop insulting red-staters, calling them “crackers,” “rednecks,” “hillbillies,” and the like, talking down to them as though they are so many under-educated bumpkins? Can we start taking them and their ideas seriously in ways that they never did for us?

Last night in their speeches, both McCain and Obama gave us room to move towards reconciliation—not by conceding to the demands or philosophy of the other, but by beginning to learn to respect difference and the ‘other’—a hard task, certainly, but one that can be accomplished, given the right climate. And McCain and Obama have provided just that, a space between the rain and the snow when we can come outside and look at each other and see to our surprise that the ‘other’ is no devil, just ‘us’ in another guise.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Part for the Whole?

The showing of Synecdoche, New York I attended was packed. Half the audience members were people my age and older (the more ancient end of the baby boom); half, as could be expected at the Sunshine Theater on Houston St. in Manhattan, were rather too cool to admit to looking more than, say, twenty-five. All were rapt through the movie’s two hours and four minutes (about thirty-four minutes too long for the plot, I’d say). Yet, when the final word of the movie was voiced (a word predictable from early in the scene), there was a collective sigh of relief.

Don’t get me wrong: I like the movie. In fact, I like it quite a lot. But, like the life of Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), it is a mess.

Such a mess, in fact, that it may actually give a message counter to what director/writer Charlie Kaufman intended.

No matter.

Even Kaufman would probably say, “No matter.”

Like the movies he’s known for having written, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation, and Being John Malkovich, this one seems to be an exploration of the divide/bridge between life and art. It is this area between the two that Kaufman clearly stakes out as his playground—and it surely is tailor made for the creation of sandcastles, moats, mountains, and roads. Or battlefields, as My Uncle Toby constructs in Tristram Shandy.

Laurence Sterne’s novel, first published some 250 years ago, explores the intersection in more ways than continual reworking of one siege. There’s the narrator’s guilt for leaving My Father on the stair with one foot up for some fifty pages. There’s the black page after the death of Reverend Yorick (the stand-in for the author). It’s fun; it makes for one of the best novels in English, one that will survive when most of what we are reading at the moment is long forgotten.

Kaufman’s movie is fun, too. But, as I said, it’s point may not be the one Kaufman intends to make, that art and life are inextricably mixed.

No, it makes another point: Art is not life, and when we confuse the two, we do it at our peril.

Art, ultimately, is entertainment. Life is not. Art removes us from life, even if the remove is one meant simply for allowing us to observe life more accurately.

Art is a rabbit hole that we dive into metaphorically, though Kaufman would have us think that we live there, each of us. Like the professor at Barnard (I can’t recall her name) who used to point at students one by one and say, “Your life’s a novel,” Kaufman wants to imagine each of us as art.

But we aren’t. We’re people. And art, no matter how much we want it to be more, will never be but a part—a part representing the whole…

Err… wait a minute… maybe this is Kaufman’s point. Maybe he does understand that art isn’t life. Maybe that’s why he makes films and not little performance art pieces that don’t even need audiences…

Maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about.

But then, maybe Kaufman doesn’t either. (So there!)

Maybe it doesn’t matter, in either case.

To hell with it. See the film. Perhaps it’s too long, but it’s a hell of a lot more interesting than most anything else out there right now. And it will be viewed for a long time. Maybe not as long as Tristram Shandy is read, but long enough.