The Voice of the Limulus

On that lunch with Lloyd Blankfein piece

There’s an interview in the FT making the rounds on Twitter — Edward Luce went to lunch with Lloyd Blankfein, the once upon a time head of Goldman Sachs, who oversaw those bonuses for executives after GS received bailout funds from the govt. He isn’t there anymore, but he’s a worthy synecdoche for Wall Street bluster and impunity. And the highlights are something else:

  1. He implies that it’s more obvious that Donald Trump cares about the economy than Bernie Sanders does.
  2. He argues that Wall Street’s lapses that begat the Global Financial Crisis were examples of stupidity, not criminal intent, as though that forgiveness is ever extended to non wealthy ‘victims of circumstance’.
  3. He makes a joke that he’s not worried about climate change since he lives on the 16th floor of his midtown apartment building. (Is Columbus Circle really Uptown?)

It’s tempting for me to paint Blankfein as a villainous caricature, but this interview actually arrested my day for a bit on Friday. He claims that he doesn’t consider himself rich (just ‘well-to-do’), owing to his working-class childhood. What he presumably means is that he doesn’t consider himself an ‘elite’; I was not expecting him to argue implicitly that he relates more easily to elevator operators and taxi drivers than fellow high-finance types. If he’s being honest about this, it could explain why it’s so easy for Sanders and Warren to get under his skin by using him as a stand-in for billionaires and corporate elites writ large. But it doesn’t explain a lack of sympathy (let alone empathy) for the positions that Sanders and Warren represent in their primary runs for the Democratic nomination.

He also argues that the only reason social services such as public education in the 1950s were so great was because of explicit sexism, locking smart women in primary school teaching and nursing jobs. Antonin Scalia made this argument, too, some years ago. Never mind that Finland seems to do alright by its student by, ahem, paying teachers more. This blank spot in Blankfein’s thinking expands to include the argument that ‘dopey regulations’ are what really holds corporate progress and economic growth back in ways that inhibit keep all boats from rising. Maybe? He’s light on the details about this, and plenty else in the interview, and the nineties experience with financial deregulation was hardly an unqualified economic success on any number of levels.

I think what keeps me thinking about this is that in some ways it may humanize Blankfein, while in other respects, it illustrates an ideologically driven man, though I suspect he’d disagree. He approached this interview as an adversary, bringing his rhetorical A-game. Luce cites Blankfein’s degree in history as the subject calls up periods of instability in a cycle going back to the Dark Ages in the shadow of the Roman Empire, rather than, say, the emergence of the Gilded Age from the social chaos, innovation, and corporate development of the late 19th century, and how it was a precursor to the various reform and progressive movements of the 20th century. He compares rentiers to antelopes being eaten by lions, though he keeps mum on who, exactly, the lions are. Are they the 99% of Occupy Wall Street? The 47% mooching class Romney disdained? Bernie Bros and Warren Stans? Anyone paying attention to the stream of scandals in which Goldman Sachs has played a major or minor role that wants some semblance of punishment for a very well-off corporation that seems to continue to prevail? And by the end of the piece, there’s a weird digression about Samurai. Where did that come from?

It’s hard to imagine that Blankfein, who has a (perhaps) twisted sense of humor, some critical insight into the events of the past though I disagree with the interpretation, and what I interpreted as a genuine sense of class identity, could fail to see the irony in how he comported himself in the interview or appreciate the apoplexies rising to the surface of his presumably composed interviewer. It may just be a magnificent trolling exercise. (He does make a big deal about being retired.) Bloomberg’s annoyance with Democrats in the recent debate for not appreciating his donations in the past echo throughout this piece; so, too, do references to how Blankfein might serve in a Bloomberg administration. My best interpretation of this interview is as a warning: there are perils inherent to allowing Wall Street to play the tune for the Democratic Party. Centrists take heed.

On Eichengreen’s “Democratizing the ECB”

I was procrastinating by closing some of the open tabs in my browser when I got to Barry Eichengreen’s January 14th piece for Project Syndicate, “Democratizing the ECB” — it’s short, and relevant to some of what I’m working on, so I finally read it.

His key argument (it is a very short piece! I shouldn’t have waited close to a month!) is that the ECB should increase transparency by releasing governing council members’ votes, as central banks like the Fed, the Sveriges Rijksbank, and others, do. The key argument against releasing this data, he argues, is that it could force nationally appointed council members to vote more narrowly on national (contra supranational) interest; he also argues that this worry is overblown, since:

“Such cynicism underestimates Europe’s central bankers. They may have made mistakes, but they have not shown a readiness to bend to popular opinion in order to retain their jobs. As important as their vote, moreover, is their ability to convince their colleagues of the validity and integrity of their arguments. Blindly obedient central bankers who lack this integrity will be unable to persuade their colleagues. They will find themselves isolated and consistently in the minority.” (Eichengreen, 2020)

Is it true that they will find themselves isolated and in the minority? Monetary hawks on the council have tended to come from European countries that suffered least during the Eurozone crisis, and it’s telling that when they no longer prevail in ECB decision-making, they seem to lash out in different ways.

Sabine Lautenschläger, the former German representative on the ECB’s governing council resigned last fall in protest of overly loose monetary policy decisions under Mario Draghi; her action followed her strong vocal opposition, alongside council members from Austra, the Netherlands, and France two weeks prior. Nor was she the first German council member, and monetary official, to resign from either the ECB or the Bundesbank in protest of European decisions (Jürgen Stark and Axel Weber did so in 2011). German newspapers dubbed Draghi ‘Count Draghila’, complete with pictures of the former head sporting fangs and a vampire cape, with splashy headlines about how he wanted to suck German savers’ accounts dry. And Hans-Werner Sinn now gets to complain that the ECB is no-longer independent. (Though he’s been doing so since July, and who didn’t see that coming.)

Time will tell how being in the minority affects core EMU members’ attitudes about policy, and their willingness to tolerate and abide the new ECB head Christine Laguarde’s changes. And it’s far from obvious how loosening monetary policy across the EMU — let along fiscal policy! — is even against German interests vis-à-vis growth. I’m curious about how accurate Eichengreen’s predictions are.

Course Materials Update

New semester is upon us! I’m teaching a seminar on Globalization for the first time ever. I’m excited: this is the sort of topic I would have really enjoyed learning about as an undergrad, but somehow never found my way into the right courses.

If you check out the course materials section of this website, you’ll find my syllabus for the class. The first unit will be a brief review of fairly mainstream international economics — trade, finance, migration, who wins/loses etc from globalization, and should we ever argue against globalization. It will be an in-depth reading of chapter 18 in CORE’s The Economy, and I’m happy to have the time to give a dense chapter its due. The second half of the course is where I go nuts: students will be reading and discussing Immanuel Wallerstein’s World-Systems Analysis: An Introduction and Giovanni Arrighi’s The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power, and the Origins of Our Times. What I am hoping for is an anti-Guns, Germs, Steel experience for my students. We’ll see how it goes!

Last semester, my chief experiment was to let go of my death grip on a textbook for my Political Economy of Global Finance; when I taught the course as a new hire at URI and as a new prep, I was really hesitant to lean into non-textbook teaching. We covered far less technical material about exchange rates, and while I would have liked to review some of that material with them, I think on balance it was a better class. I also introduced shadow banking, tax havens, and money laundering for the first time to this syllabus, as well as a discussion of crypto-currency. I think it’s a fruitful arena to explore going forward, though I didn’t have enough time at the very end to really think about the international potential or implications of block-chain financial technology, or the problems with Bitcoin itself, rather than crypto-currencies generally. 

On Keynes and Socialism and the Primaries

An essay of mine comparing James Crotty’s newest book, Keynes Against Capitalism with Bhaskar Sunkara’s The Socialist Manifesto and applying their lessons to the Democratic Primaries, especially the grappling between the farthest left contenders (Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders), or, perhaps more accurately, their supporters, has just been published by Challenge. It has a very spicy title that I would never have chosen on my own: “Can America Truly Turn Socialist?”* However, that is kind of what the piece is getting at. Why these books together? Why Socialism, or anti-capitalism? It’s a meandering story, but it will get to the point.

As a grad student in a heterodox/radical program, I gravitated toward Keynesian ideas, particularly as espoused by my professor Jim Crotty. Some of this had to do with Jim the man: when we met, before I learned his name but after I learned that he had recently retired, I asked if he were a professor from a very different ‘camp’ (who, in my defense, was also recently retired). Rather than taking offense, Jim laughed (my cluelessness about the three ideological factions of the department must have been obvious), and then decided that he liked me after learning that I had played rugby as an undergrad. This earned him my undying affection, before I figured out that I agreed with him on a lot of other stuff too.

The three camps then, with only a little generalization: analytical Marxists (lots of models, high technical rigor, sometimes hard to distinguish from … neoclassical?); the other Marxists (post-modern and orthodox; lots of arguing about Capital and the Grundrisse and who was truly Marxist); and the Crotty types (some hodge-podge of Keynesian and Post-Keynesian leaning, a lot of critical macro along an empirical-institutional spectrum, and a substantial portion of whom just wanted to go work for a government or central bank somewhere). If you were there to study, say, development or economic history, you might observe arguments in the elevator warily; if you had really wanted to go to the University of Chicago, you might have transferred already. But if you asked Jim point-blank how he saw himself, he would tell you that he was a Marxist. No one else that I was aware of gave him credit for this.

If you cared about the camps, and you recognized yourself in Crotty’s, you were soft to your peers. You were reformist! You didn’t want to destroy systems, you wanted to make them kinder. Just like Keynes, an aristocratic ideological dilettante, who wanted to protect capitalism from the rabble. Maybe this only bothered you if you were inclined to talk to the revolutionary Marxist types, but on more than one occasion, I remember trying, unsuccessfully, to make the case that taken to their full potential, Keynes’s ideas could be radical. Still, though, I hung on to key ideas from Crotty’s lyrically named Macro 2 class: fundamental uncertainty, finance and crisis, euthanasia of rentiers (how could this be soft I wondered), fraternal and fratricidal competition, and … something about aggregate demand? I was working for the Graduate Employee Union at the time, and didn’t always keep up with the readings, but I liked them. The approach of integrating Keynes, Marx, Minsky, Schumpeter, and eventually Arrighi contra Brenner made sense. The pieces would come to fit together in my head years later as they tend to — a combination of teaching diluted versions of these ideas to undergrads, wrestling with them in my own work, and simple observation of the post-crisis period. Because, also, I happened to take his class in the fall of 2008, right as the shit was hitting the fan in the US, Iceland, and beyond. I remember meeting with him one morning when he looked extra spent; he’d just finished a two hour long interview with someone about the crisis, which his then current research on financialization had kind of predicted.

Around the same time, two political figures gradually came to my attention — this Elizabeth Warren who hated the banks (I hated the banks) and this Bernie Sanders who was a socialist (my then boyfriend, now husband, and his family, Vermonters, had been voting for him for years). Over the Obama presidency, they fought good fights: battling for the existence of the Consumer Financial Protection Board, persistently resisting attempts to neuter what would become the Affordable Care Act, among other struggles. I was sad not to get a chance to vote for either — neither was up for election or reelection to the senate in the years I was registered to vote in Vermont and Massachusetts. Both, to me, represented major change within and outside of the status quo of Democratic party politics. And both were crucial to farther left aims, when the Democrats in the Obama administration seemed so eager to compromise or roll over. This, to be fair, is also an unkind generalization. I believe that the Democrats failed to push hard enough, but I also remember arguments about this with Jim, who would gently note that sometimes getting something passed is better than getting nothing.

So, the books. Jim’s book — Keynes Against Capitalism — was a long-term project he’d been tinkering with in my last years on campus. Then a group of dedicated UMass students — current and from decades past — together with his colleagues in the economics department managed to encourage him to dust the manuscript off, revise it, and eventually send it off for publication. It highlighted the themes I remember from his classes — the radical potential of corporatism, the ability to set aside Keynes the man (Crotty always noted that he could appreciate the scholar’s contributions though Keynes would likely have disdained Jim for his Irish heritage) from the work on display, the far-reaching aspect of Keynes’s proposals — and introduced new ones that were compelling. The increasing urgency of Keynes’s recommendations, pleas even, for active planning by governments and a relaxation of the grievances that had shaped the punitive Treaty of Versailles, followed by the curious apparent cooling down of Keynes’s ardor for big change. Why would he turn down opportunities to publish high-profile reports or commissions that would fly in the face of the more conservative stand the British Treasury had taken in the previous years? Crotty argued that Keynes’s tactics — like his proposals — were subversive: they cloaked his radical goals in the language of incrementalism, and went out of his way NOT to humiliate government actors that had stood in his way before. The ends justified the means and the lack of public laurels in their pursuit.

Bhaskar Sunkara’s seems, from the outside, to be doing three things. First, it is trying to dispel negative connotations readers may have with socialism, by imagining a United States gradually transforming into a market socialist economy, distinguishing between the concepts of democratic socialism and social democracy, and presenting a very cursory introduction to Marx and Engels’s ideas about socialism. Next, it presents a whirlwind history of socialism in the world — mostly in the west, and a relatively narrow selection of western countries at that — with one chapter about socialist movements in the third world. This history aims to define the trade-offs inherent to both top-down implementation (in Russia and China, and to a much smaller extent, Cuba) and democratically elected (roughly speaking) strategies, and its portrayal of successes and tragedies attest to the difficulty of achieving something worthwhile that dramatically challenges the capitalist status quo. This section at the end charts the fall of social democracy and center left socialism in the west, outside of Russia anyway, and segues to the last section with a brief discussion of the rise of a new socialist (though it is vague on the specifics of what this socialist vision is) energy wave with Bernie Sanders’s dark horse candidacy in the 2016 Democratic primaries, and Jeremy Corbyn’s traction with the UK Labour Party in the mid-2010s. (Like my essay, elements of this narrative feel dated just by the pace of political change since the time of writing and publication; I empathize with Sunkara on this front.) The last section of the book gives the reader the manifesto promised in the title: it talks about what the left must do to break from a centrist rut that seems to have enabled different forms of right-wing pro-business interests to take power in the US and elsewhere, and this includes embracing the title socialist, accepting the need for universalist struggles on the left, and transforming political systems that disproportionately favor two-party systems and entrench partisan interests to the detriment of the public at large.

The two key takeaways I got from the political aspect of The Socialist Manifesto were (1) the reality of tradeoffs and compromise in any strategy to establish socialism, and (2) the unreliability of individuals. Without a broad movement to back them, an individual advocate, however charismatic, may be a John the Baptist type figure, with the potential to be ignored, exiled, martyred, or, perhaps worst of all, co-opted by antagonistic forces. If we prefer democratic means of establishing socialism, and I’m pretty sure Sunkara does, then we will be confronted by decisions about how or whether to prioritize material concerns, or broad-based revolutionary movements, and we will be challenged by how to achieve those goals at any scale of community. Sunkara and Crotty never pretend that these sorts of transformations are easy.

At the time I wrote the piece, Elizabeth Warren was surging in the polls, shortly before a debate in which she was attacked from all sides, and began to gradually fall in the rankings. I worry, in the piece, about antagonism on the farthest left end of the spectrum, between partisans of both Sanders and Warren; both sides worry that the other will lose the war for left. Sanders supporters worry that Warren will sell out the left if she receives the nomination, while Warren supporters worry that despite his reputation for political pragmatism, Sanders’s defiance in using the word socialist will lose the election for the Democrats. There is ample precedent in US history for both camps to worry, and there’s certainly no guarantee that either candidate would win the national election, or even that either candidate will win the nomination. Yet, the periods of the most fruitful gains for the left have also occurred — at least in the US — in the midst of the most heated debates about what the left wanted, whom it represented, and how it would achieve those goals. The active discourse — sometimes, dare I say often, unkind! — has a storied history too, and we should applaud the shared energy and passion both have for the outcomes they want, even if it all embodies contradictions.

What’s going to happen in the primaries? About the future, we simply do not know! And I’m loath to predict. But if the passion on the left sustains through the primaries, and prevails in the national election, it will be a Good Thing. (Though it will never be an easy thing.) If the left prevails in neither the primaries nor the general election, will we have the wherewithal to continue agitating? I sure as hell hope so.

*Here’s a link to the article, if you’d like to read it:

And if that link doesn’t work, and you are unable to access it, please let me know.

Eight* Stylized Facts About Deadspin (*Actually Nine)

  1. Deadspin helped me bond with the senior, by then emeritus, professor my chair convinced to be on my dissertation committee. My professor, originally from the Bronx, was a life-long Giants fan (football, of course, but also baseball from way back when; he’d long since adopted the Yankees, despite complicated class stuff). I decided that I would learn how to enjoy football, and couldn’t support the Washington team (the natural fit having grown up in Maryland), so I picked the Giants to watch. Why not. Deadspin’s mockery of Eli Manning and blistering critiques of the NFL coexisted with appreciation for the nuances and genuine enjoyment of watching a game. It showed me that you could love a team and hate it at the same time, and the two and a half years that I watched NFL games (and uh listened to the Giants broadcast on the radio) gave me a not-awkward entry point to talk with random people wearing their teams’ hats and jerseys. That was sport content that I will always appreciate.
  2. Maybe more importantly, Late Night with Deadspin was where I first saw the video for Mother by Danzig.
  3. Emma Carmichael, on tennis commentators refusing to explain why they thought Serena Williams and and Sloane Stephens should get along. Also, that time she dressed up like a Juggalo before an ICP concert.
  4. Barry Petchesky on everything, but especially on the fact that pelicans will mess you up, and by all rights a fantastic sports mascot. How about this rumination on making the sausage of investigative reporting?
  5. Albert Burneko as the anti-Smitten Kitchen and anti-Bon Appetit. Adequate Man and the point that no one needs to be precious about cooking to do it well (and for gods sake stop with the ‘whisper of this’ and the ‘slick of that’ it’s not porn). His pep talk about doing a birthday party for kids was a life-saver, and his writing about politics essential reading.
  6. Your Team Sucks! The perfect illustration of why the Patriots sucked for me was watching well-heeled New Englanders in expensive and boring clothing pick a fight with a janitor at BWI airport the Monday morning after their team had beaten the Ravens at [checks notes] M&T Bank Stadium. The Ravens are also the worst, but wait until you’re on the plane to Logan before dishing, Massholes. Drew Magary doesn’t, like, lack for publishing outlets, but goddamn I will miss how he complemented the rest of the crew at Deadspin.
  7. Deadspin didn’t ‘Stick to Sports’ because that’s a blinkered and political choice in itself. To go back to the football point from bullet 1, Deadspin also captured the queasy balance between enjoying a game and feeling morally culpable for doing so. I don’t watch football anymore, and while there’s more than enough to indict the NFL (its sexist, racist, and classist politics, in theory and practice, are front-runners here), my lizard-brain, which also enjoys of military histories of WWII, misses it.
  8. Deadspin was a respite from much of my indoor kid milieu, professionally and in-law-ly, and the best entry point to conversation with so many people (my dad, Jim Crotty, other dummies who liked the Giants on the customs line at JFK). I miss it so much.
  9. HOW COULD I FORGET THEIR BERATION OF DAN SNYDER. No, really, the Washington team is the worst, because its name is racist, but also, in a photo finish second, because of Dan Snyder.

Exeunt, followed by a bear.

Suggestions on Apostate Economic Pundits

I put a call out on Twitter this past week looking for suggestions of people like Paul Krugman, who recently argued in a Bloomberg piece that he and other pro-globalization economists had gotten it wrong in the 1990s and early 2000s, which is to say, public intellectual types who have admitted to interpreting the world — economically, primarily — incorrectly, and acknowledging the errors of their ways. Richard Posner did this to great effect back in 2009, with A Failure of Capitalism, in which he renounced his naive faith in the power of markets to bring about socially ideal outcomes. Ideally, I was hoping for a treasure trove of wonky types like Krugman who understood the economic models underpinning so many anti-government, low-tax, turbo-charged financial market wishful thinking, yet also were likely to be read by run-of-mill liberals like my parents, who are more likely to learn about these things by flipping to the Op-Eds in the New York Times than delve into minutiae on left policy twitter. People like Larry Summers and Olivier Blanchard — policy types who have worked with large International Financial Institutions like the World Bank — were in close second, as architects of policies based on bad (I would argue) priors, who have since recanted, of late, on the benefits of austerity and so forth.

Some good suggestions I received included:

— Dani Rodrik’s ‘The Sorry State of Macro‘ blog post in 2009

— Obamanauts — including Summers, I think — who have argued that they did not do enough during the Obama Administration, but not for lack of trying. How convincing they are in making this claim is one thing; it’s hard to prove a counterfactual that Summers himself wanted a larger stimulus than he felt entitled to ask for (he argued a version of this in response to a question from Pedro D’Acosta at the ASSAs back in 2013), and seems contraindicated by reflections by Democratic political aides. What’s also lame is that many arguments here blame Republicans; yes, the Republicans are intransigently opportunistic, but Obama still formed a bipartisan deficit reducing commission. But in these numbers, Larry Summers and Christina Romer at least have argued that they should have spent more, and Summers has argued that post-Keynesian economists (read, not mainstream) have more to contribute in explaining how economies work, and what should be done about them.

— Michael Jensen (proponent of shareholder capitalism indirectly cited in Wall Street by Gordon Gekko), who now argues that CEOs can go too far in that department, and the Business Roundtable, who released a statement in August that businesses had focused too heavily on shareholder primacy, to the detriment of business and the economy at large.

— and Paul Krugman, bringing me full circle.

I think the more interesting point made by the small number of responses was perhaps evidence of absence: not many people will go on the record to say that they were wrong, unless they can throw the opposite political party under the bus. But I’m very happy to be proven wrong! If you have suggestions of other economists to look into — mainstream economists drawing on the reserve army theory, for example — I’d love to know.

Jackie Brown and Robert Forster

To say that the news of Robert Forster’s death saddened me today would really understate things. He’s held a special place in my heart since I saw Jackie Brown as a particularly earnest ninth-grader who couldn’t wait to see the newest Quentin Tarantino movie, but despite his lengthy resume, I haven’t actually watched all that many of the movies or TV episodes he’d been in. As a result, the sensitive bail bondsman with a normie dad aspect is how he’s been preserved in my mind for more than twenty years now. I had been meaning to watch Jackie Brown again for a stupidly long time. Earlier this summer, I bought and read Rum Punch, the Elmore Leonard novel that it’s based on, and was struck by how thin the longer treatment of the characters felt compared to how I remembered the movie. (And I’m an Elmore Leonard fan too, for what that’s worth.) Then it was back to planning to watch Jackie Brown… until the news today.

Watching it confirmed my memories that this is one of my favorite movies of all time — the camera work, the pacing, and the acting are all amazing. As a portrait of nuanced characters, it is phenomenal — each character is part of a system, no character is all good or bad, and the movie manages to avoid a wishy-washy moral relativism that lesser films might fall into. Tarantino telegraphs the sexism of the law enforcement agents in two sentences, and echoes themes about the structural racism of law enforcement from Spike Lee and John Singleton’s work earlier in the 90s in a way that resonates today. Samuel L. Jackson’s character, Ordell Robbie, is an arms dealer, so there’s an added topicality to his discussions about demand for the different types of guns he is able to sell; while Ordell relays this information, Tarantino’s ‘Chicks with Guns’ movie, a feature in a feature that logically enough features women in bikinis shooting pistols and other semi-automatics in what looks like Nevada, plays on a small-by-2019-standards TV in the background.

And the other period details are lovely. A key plot piece takes place at a mall, where Forster’s character Max Cherry seems to routinely watch movies during his lunch break, Sears is one of the anchor stores, and the prices recited sound … really low. The amazing suit Pam Grier’s Jackie buys — which set in my 14 year old mind what I hoped I would one day dress like — is only $267? Fridges are small, cigarettes are everywhere, and key-less entry puzzles the newly released from prison character played by Robert Deniro. CDs and cassette tapes! The music in the movie is incredible, and the motif of Max listening to the Delfonics as his relationship with Jackie (and crush on her) deepens is chef’s kiss perfect. And oh, the Kangol hats. Yet despite the setting clearly being the mid-90s, the movie doesn’t feel dated, and I don’t think that’s just because norm-core brought Teva sandals with socks back into vogue.

Pam Grier and Robert Forster are magnetic; my crush on both from this movie is apparently undimmed, decades later. What passed me by as a high-school student was the vulnerability both evince in their discussions about age and the passage of time. This elegiac quality is present in the novel, but all of the characters seemed to be cliches: the Max of the novel is quiet, but tough and paternalistic; Jackie is effervescent, deftly manipulative, and very, very capable; Ordell is funny, but mercenary and cruel. Tarantino allows the actors to telegraph their insecurity and uncertainty in ways that heighten the poignancy of the story and increase the impact of the last few scenes. (And Jackson should have won an Oscar for this role. I’m just saying.)

Tarantino improves upon the book in other ways, too. Foremost is his decision to make Jackie Brown black. The stakes rise for Jackie in the movie, thanks to the institutional racism of the labor market and the justice system: her precarity in the opening scenes of the movie in which she is entrapped by the agents tracking Robbie thanks to a surprise inclusion of cocaine in the package of cash she is smuggling, the plausible charge of ‘intent to distribute’ from what looks like a really small sample (I’ll take Robbie’s word for it), and the challenge of finding a good job as a middle-aged black woman with a criminal record highlight the persistent and intersectional vulnerabilities that define many American experiences.

Though seemingly small, his decision for Jackie to buy a black pantsuit is also an improvement over the Leonard’s decision for her to buy some sort of mermaid skirt combo. A skirt suit is hard to run in — Tarantino shows us that in the opening scene of the film where Jackie rushes to make her gate on time — and undercuts the idea that she’s handy and practical. Tarantino’s wardrobe change also echoes the suits his male principals — Travolta, Jackson, and Keitel in Pulp Fiction, all the Mr.’s in Reservoir Dogs — wore as they went about their work. Jackie works non-stop through this movie; her ‘badass in the boardroom’ suit (a line I have loved since the first time I watched this) gives her the sartorial respect she deserves. (For a lovely exegesis on this particular suit, you ought to read this by Manuela Lazic. It delighted me, and I hope you feel the same way.)

Finally, Jackie and Max do not consummate their relationship in the movie! I can’t overstate this. Forster telegraphs Max’s longing in ways that will make you feel feelings; as we observe Jackie’s affection for him grow, the tension builds until the second to last scene, when they meet one last time. Jackie has the $500,000 that fueled the suspense of most of the movie and she’s about to leave town; Max took only the 10% cut owed a bail bondsman, and he still feels guilty about it. Jackie walks slowly toward Max, takes his hands, and they kiss four times. It’s unbearably chaste, and it broke my heart. His phone rings, and while he’s trying to calm a frantic parent down to learn the details, Jackie slips out the door. His gentle request to call the customer back in 30 minutes, the red lipstick on his mouth as he gazes at Jackie’s departing car, and his slow walk into his backroom are devastating, and I challenge you not to tear up as Jackie turns up Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th St” on her way to the airport.

For the time being, I’m content to sit with this as my lasting impression of Robert Forster. And I don’t think I’ll wait such a long time to watch Jackie Brown again. It’s a really good movie.

Stiglitz for the Public; Stiglitz for the Undergrads

Uli Volz has a great piece in The Mint about Joseph Stiglitz’s contribution to economic thought, particularly regarding his critiques of the Washington Consensus as Chief Economist of the World Bank from 1997 until 1999, and in his capacity as founder of Columbia University’s Initiative for Public Dialogue (IPD), which aspires to “broaden dialogue and explore trade-offs in development policy by bringing the best ideas in development to policymakers facing globalisation’s complex challenges and opportunities [while] striving to contribute to a more equitably governed world by democratising the production and use of knowledge.” (IPD, 2019) He is prolific: in addition to his work with great economists like Stephany Griffith-Jones and Jose Antonio Ocampo, a selection of his books for popular audiences in the past three decades includes Globalization and Its Discontents (2002); Fair Trade for All (2005); Making Globalization Work (2006); Freefall (2010); The Price of Inequality (2012); The Great Divide: Unequal Societies and What We Can Do About Them (2015); The Euro: How a Common Currency Threatens the Future of Europe (2016); and, most recently, People, Power and Profits: Progressive Capitalism for an Age of Discontent (2018). I’ve given copies of these books as gifts; my mother-in-law (not an economist) purchased People, Power, and Profits of her own volition; and some guy I went to college with posted a photo of himself reading aloud from Globalization and its Discontents at a party as his first Facebook profile picture.

Stiglitz’s body of academic work is likewise awe-inspiring. He won his Nobel Prize for his work on asymmetric information and market failure, and its relevance to labor markets, financial markets, and competition writ large, and has written quite a lot about development, the failures of globalization, the role for regulation, and crisis. In addition to his work with the IPD at Columbia, he is prominent within the Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET) both for his many different research projects as well as his mentorship in INET’s Young Scholars Initiative. And, as Volz mentions, in his time at the World Bank (which fueled his motivation to write Globalization and Its Discontents), he came under fire for the admirable reason of criticizing the IMF for requiring countries to impose austerity and high interest rate policies if they wanted aid to respond to major financial crises in the 1990s.

I greatly admire Stiglitz’s work. But my first introduction to him was way back in college, as a freshman taking Principles of Economics. My professor used Stiglitz’s then current textbook (probably the third edition from 2002, though I guess that hints at my age), and, tantalizingly for a globally conscious undergrad who was deciding between sociology, government, and economics as a major, that globalization book. To my dismay as a good if under-examined US-style liberal, most of that semester seemed to revolve around showing why minimum wages and rent controls were bad ideas if you cared about unemployment and access to housing, taxes were bad for consumers and the economy at large thanks to dead-weight loss, and regulation created so many perverse incentives that, like, why bother. It was a one-semester principles class, so my professor, a micro guy who was also my advisor, picked and chose the sorts of things he liked to teach, and all macro was reserved for the frenzied last month of the spring semester.

That’s when my professor deployed Globalization and Its Discontents — our one paper assignment of the semester asked us whether Stiglitz had contradicted his textbook. In hindsight, it was a brilliant troll: any left-leaning students taking an economics class because they wanted to learn about the monetary forces behind inequality and oppression (there were at least a few of us) had to confront the disconnect between the technical story Stiglitz’s textbook presented and the polemic he’d written in anger about what he’d observed on the ground at the World Bank, or at least as close to the ground as its chief economist ever gets. Wesleyan’s Principles of Economics classes had a way of filtering out most students critical of market dogma — students who thought econ was BS because it didn’t acknowledge real-world problems left for other social science majors, while students who remained mostly accepted the unfortunate “fact” that raising the minimum wage would hurt the precariate, or else they didn’t care much. I clung on — again, thanks to my advisor — and remember on occasion meeting fellow critics in the major by my senior year. We were a small group.

Why not refame that assignment? Why not ask what was wrong with the textbook we read in the first place? While it’s true that the most interesting work by most textbook authors is their articles, how many undergrads actually hang on to be assigned those papers, let alone seek them out on their own? How many technocrats keep up with the literature, let alone incorporate newer findings into their reports?

Alternately, why couldn’t Stiglitz have rebuilt his textbook from the ground up, knowing how tempting textbooks that package everything just so, with practice questions and test banks and everything, are for overtaxed faculty? And set the academics lucky enough to get tenure (or tenure-track or full time jobs) aside: how are adjunct faculty supposed to have the time to craft a nuanced treatment of economics in a semester that upholds diverse university and college standards of rigor and assessment, especially if they’re rushing from campus to campus to make ends meet?

I suspect that many of us who use textbooks do so with at least a modicum of guilt; we should, anyway. They’re expensive for students, and the supplemental sections with real-world examples that students don’t read anyway drive up the prices. But time is important, and the cheap or free textbook alternatives (I’ve been using CORE for a year and a half now — it’s fine but at least it’s free) often lack those amenities that facilitate evaluation. I also suspect that we choose our textbooks to signal our values — there’s no way I’ll assign a textbook by Glen Hubbard, and I resented how one university required me to teach with Mishkin’s Money and Banking textbook. But is Cecchetti and Schoenholtz’s book really better, even if I like their papers more, and they weren’t featured in Inside Job as captured by industry? I appreciate Paul Krugman and Daron Acemoglu’s work too, but the contrast between their textbooks and the books that they’ve written for undergrads’ parents (I have to assume) is great.

It’s worth noting that textbooks — successful ones with multiple editions, and international versions, too — are good business, if you can find it. Henry Farrell wrote as much in this Monkey Cage post with the apt title, “College Textbooks Are a Racket.” It’s easier to find reports on what Greg Mankiw has earned in royalties — in 2013, his publisher’s bankruptcy could have interrupted his receiving $1.6 million — than what Krugman earns, and it’s also worth noting that Paul Krugman refused to comment in his own blog post revealing that data.

The most recent US edition of Stiglitz’s textbook came out in 2006, but international editions have been published in 2011 and 2015. Economics students that plan to go into business, policy, or academia and whose professors don’t want to assign Mankiw or Krugman will read these books. Who are Stiglitz, Krugman, and Acemoglu writing their popular books for? If the answer is policy-makers, they should think about the content of their textbooks. If the answer is voters, we are going to see a continued disconnect between the politicians we vote for, and the feasibility of their passing what they promise, if their staff have bought in to the ideas they learned about early on.

Volz’s piece ends with two discomfiting anecdotes. In 2008, Stiglitz chaired a UN Commission of Experts on Reforms of the International Monetary and Financial System to evaluate how the IMF should proceed in responding to the Global Financial Crisis; he also chaired a Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress, convened by then French president Nicolas Sarkozy. In these capacities, Stiglitz (and the Commissions) argued that the World Bank and IMF should prioritize financial stability through the creation of various macroprudential institutions, and that GDP was a flawed indicator of economic performance and social progress. (Stiglitz, Sen, Fitoussi, 2019) In 2013, the one division of the IMF released an Ombudsman report about how it had failed in its responses to the Eurozone crisis; its research staff continue to make pro-austerity proposals. And with some understatement, Volz notes that the second report “did not lead to any meaningful policy uptake.” (Volz, 2019)

Death Proof: Appropos of the Lisa Bloom Memo

On the Wednesday of the week before the current semester would start, I sat down and watched Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof for the first time. It had risen to the top of my consciousness for a few reasons — Zöe Bell and Kurt Russell played a married couple in Tarantino’s most recent movie; I had just been in Northampton, MA, where I remembered hearing someone talking about his plan to go see it the first day I ever spent much time there — a cold and snowy day in April, 2007 that happened to be opening night; and with the semester bearing down on me, I was in the mood to procrastinate. Also, I’d just committed to making an effort to watch movies that skewed scary and ambiguous, in response to what may be one of A.S. Hamrah’s key arguments in The Earth Dies Streaming.

The moment the movie came out was remarkable for personal and more universal reasons. On the release day — April 6, 2007 — I was driving from Vermont, where I’d been living with my then-boyfriend, now husband, down to my parents’ house in Maryland in a very liminal state. I had just quit my shitty first-job-post-college after getting into graduate school; I had no idea what to expect from my future commitment to life in the Pioneer Valley dedicated to economic academia; I was going to New Zealand for a month; and my now-husband and I didn’t know that we were going to stay together for the then foreseeable future. Twitter had been created the previous year, but was not yet the juggernaut of takes and opinion it would become, for better and worse; flip-phones reigned; and ride-hailing apps were a distant fantasy.

The movie itself was initially half of a double-feature with a Robert Rodriguez film (Planet Terror) under the name Grindcore; I don’t know which movie came first, since I worried at the time that it would be too scary. When I bought the movie, it was a standalone film, and so fleshed-out that I can’t imagine the story telling anything so rich in less than the current running time of 113 minutes. Needless to say, spoilers abound in what is left of this post.

In brief, Death Proof is a call-back to the ‘car-chase’ genre (you can learn a lot on Wikipedia), and a very Tarantino-esque exercise in the subversion of exploitation film-types from the 1970s. It follows two different groups of women who attract the malevolent attention of a drifter who calls himself Stuntman Mike, and may be a former stunt driver, though no one seems to remember any of the movies he claims to have performed in. In the first half of the movie, a group of girls — Julia, Arlene, and Shanna, are headed to a lake house in Texas, after getting hammered at a local bar; no boys are allowed. In the second half, a group of friends — Abernathy, a makeup artist, Lee, an actress, and Kim and Zöe, stunt doubles — working on movies filming in rural Tennessee, are catching up during a rare lull for all at the same time; the stunt doubles have a plan to test-drive a dead-ringer for the car from Vanishing Point (a white Dodge Challenger from 1970). Hi jinks — deadly! — ensue for both groups.

Here’s what you might successfully predict about the movie: there are a lot of bare feet; Quentin Tarantino plays a creepy dude who gets to put his arm around a lot of pretty young actresses (some of them even sit in his lap), and there are a bunch of callbacks to music in other Tarantino movies. He also imagines that a group of hip young women in their mid-20s will dance with abandon to deep cuts from his personal jukebox, which is cited in the credits.

Here’s what you might not: there is a loathsome spectrum of men onscreen and off. With the possible exceptions of a convenience store clerk who skeevily tells Rosario Dawson’s character Abernathy that he has a copy of Italian Vogue that he sells her at a markup and maybe the police officers interrogating Stuntman Mike in a Texas hospital, we have (in Texas) the guy at Warren’s (the bar run by Tarantino’s Warren) who whines about wanting to make out with Arlene, Julia’s hot friend in town from New York; his friend, the guy ordering Jäger shots for the hot girls in hopes of getting invited to The Lake House, and their other friend who just goes along with it; Shanna’s dad, who owns The Lake House, doesn’t want any boys there but happens to show up when Shanna and her friends are wearing swimsuits; Warren, who sends over a flight of &*(%ing Chartreuse shots (and if Warren gives it to you, you can’t say no); and the asshole guy not responding to Julia’s texts. In Tennessee, we get references to a guy who is not the Rock, who likes to hold Lee’s throat when they’re making out; the director flirting with Rosario Dawson’s character Abernathy, but still sleeps with the Daryl Hannah stand-in; and we meet Jasper, the racist who loans out the Challenger to Kim, Zöe, and Abernathy and gets to keep Lee as collateral. God knows what he does to Lee after that; we never see them again. In his own category, we have Stuntman Mike, the sociopath who stalks both groups of women and then mows them down (or attempts to) with his car in, like, really gruesome fashion. The movie is a good reminder not to stick your legs out a car window while in transit, anyway.

The movie is great. I was surprised by how much I liked it, and how little critical praise I’ve heard for it.

Genius decision #1: Tarantino makes Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell!) hot, in a way echoed by Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth in Once Upon a Time, and very not echoed by Russell’s character in that movie. If Cliff Booth could be Aldo Raine from Inglourious Basterds some time down the line, I could imagine Stuntman Mike as a much later iteration of Cliff. You might imagine Stuntman Mike as some sort of proto-Incel character; I think you’d be wrong. Though a prominent early shot of Mike has him eating a platter of bar nachos that leave his face covered in grease, I could see the appeal he might hold for an unsuspecting target. And he’s funny, when he’s not trying to kill people by ramming his car into theirs. Russell’s imitation of John Wayne is fantastic, and foreshadows his delivery in The Hateful Eight.

Genius decision #2: the women are human. They’re not depicted as guilty for their decisions to (1) get drunk at the bar, (2) go sans-men to the Lake House, (3) have raunchy conversations about what they’re doing with their love and sex lives, (4) make dumb decisions about stunt driving in a borrowed Dodge Challenger, and (5) accept a ride from someone that turns out to be a serial (spree?) killer. It’s clear that Mike decides early on with both groups that he is going to kill them with his car; Arlene’s decision to give him a lap dance has no bearing on his actions later. Why does she give him a lap dance? Long story, but it stems from a mean trick Julia played on her; the point is that Stuntman Mike picks his victims regardless of their backstory or immediate actions to him.

Genius decision #3: Stuntman Mike’s reaction to having the tables turned upon him in the second half. He massacres the women in the first half; he doesn’t know that the women driving the car in the second half are trained professionals. When they regain control of that Challenger after nearly being run off the road by him, Kim manages to shoot him in the shoulder, and then they successfully chase him into submission. What happens when he’s the victim? He sobs; he shrieks that he was just joking; he pleads that they should just get along and leave him alone. It is an amazing display of toxic masculinity called out; Russell crumples into a hysterical display of victimhood. It’s dramatic, exaggerated, and full of poetic license, but it immediately reminded me of the antics of men accused in the Me Too era. Did I mention that he’s laughing in his initial murderous pursuit scenes? (Thinking about it now, there are some parallels with Christine Blasey Ford’s memories of young Brett Kavanaugh at the high school pool party laughing as he assaulted her, and Kavanaugh’s histrionics during the Judiciary Committee hearings.)

Oh, and the three women beat him to death when he staggers out of his flipped-over car. Like I said: the movie’s fantastic.

Were there things I didn’t love? SURE. The underwear, the midriffs, the lap dance, the n-word usage in the discussion about a Chekhov’s gun in a diner, that Quentin Tarantino apparently touched Dawson’s feet per the set stills on IMDB — I don’t know; it’s a genre movie? I’ve taken a college literature class; I understand that imagery ‘does work’. Watching this I thought about arguments I’ve had with people I love (sorry guys) about every Tarantino movie since this one: should we show Jewish soldiers bashing in Nazis’ heads with baseball bats? Wasn’t that a lot of times to have racist Antebellum/Reconstruction era characters say the n-word? Why should we give those deplorable losers a chance to redeem themselves by killing some dirtbag hippies? Why do we have to keep looking at cute actresses’ feet?

Does pervy cinematography enable lesser talents to make exploitative movies? Probably — I’ve suffered through plenty of Reservoir Dogs Lite. But (one) the world is full of nuance and so, too, good art; (two) a group of women beat a misogynist serial killer to death at the end of this; and (three) exploitation movies subvert norms at their best by portraying the world at its worst. Shakespeare had Problem Plays! Film scholars and other critics of the humanities will write — indeed, have written — about this far more eloquently than I could ever hope to. What struck me most watching this movie (apart from the scene where Julia laboriously taps out a text message complete with punctuation marks on her flip phone) was the magic of its timing. Can you imagine the hot takes and twitter tectonics following its release if it had come out in 2017?

I compulsively check cast details on IMDB while watching movies; it’s a bad habit. But the most jarring thing about this movie (which shows in graphic detail what would happen to four people in a tin-can with wheels if a super car plowed into it head-on at 200 mph) was seeing the publicity photos with Harvey Weinstein smiling and putting his arm around Quentin Tarantino. Rose McGowan looks radiant in pictures from the same events; she’s smiling because she’s at work, and she understands the game. Knowing what we know now, the greatest horror of this movie is that despite its brilliant portrayal of toxic masculinity, it was produced by a next-level predator in his own right.

Wait what day does the semester start

The stress dreams about finding myself supervising a midterm in November for a class I’ve never shown up to teach are starting, so I took some time today to wrangle my syllabi into working shape for the semester. I don’t regret waiting until now, actually, since every time I’ve tried to anticipate a semester’s worth of work, I’ve spent more effort adjusting everything to the natural rhythms of teaching a new group of students with their own strengths and idiosyncrasies.

Nevertheless, it feels good to do it… I’ve posted some of my teaching materials for the coming semester, namely syllabi for my principles of macroeconomics class, and my political economy of international finance. Despite my appreciation for interdisciplinary economics, teaching in a format that leaves models and quantitative problems aside is intimidating! How do you history, soc, IR, and political economy types deal with that abyss of waiting for students to talk? That said, I’m excited to talk about blockchain and offshore finance for the first time with my finance students, and to delve more into the ‘is it tech? is it globalization? is it unions?’ debates with my principles students. We’ll see!