The Voice of the Limulus

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!

On Needing a DVD Player After All

I learned about AS Hamrah from the NYTimes book review of The Earth Dies Streaming. The link arrived at a vulnerable time: I was under the gun to finish two presentations I would be giving the next morning, back to back, in the first two slots of the American Economics Association conference. I clicked the link to Jennifer Szalai’s laudatory review, which I read, and then opened an n+1 tab in my overloaded browser to find his available backlog of reviews. They delivered. With lines like the following, who wouldn’t agree?

Defeating these aliens requires dry-erase conspiracy charts, a trip-wired perimeter, homeschooling. It’s a paranoid fantasy for dads who want to move upstate. The family is Pinteresty and wholesome in a Kinfolk magazine way: sustainable-farm craftspeople who the director-stars John Krasinski and Emily Blunt have observed from their Brooklyn town house on the way to Court Street Grocers.” (on: The Quiet Place; November 2018)

Democracy dies in darkness, sure, but if Spielberg really wanted to make a movie about the fate of journalism in America, he should have made one about the founding of USA Today in 1982.” (on The Post; Spring, 2018)

Period-specific music from the Cure, XTC, and New Kids on the Block bolsters the tone, but with all the talk in the movie about how everything floats down here, it’s disappointing that the music supervisor missed Hüsker Dü’s “She Floated Away.” (on It; Winter, 2018.)

It wasn’t a bad way to develop a habit, but the timing was something less than ideal.

Since that night, which stretched quite long as I kept finding reasons to read one more review (finishing a slide here, struggling on some speaking notes there), I’ve made my way through the content n+1 made available for free to readers, mostly in stolen moments before needing to go to some meeting somewhere. But all good things must come to an end, and I didn’t want to handwrite every sentence I particularly liked to better remember them, so I ordered the book.

Reader, it’s everything I hoped. References that delight abound:

— to that particularly glum menace of Boston: “I’m sure that woman puts an orange traffic cone in her parking space in May” (Hamrah, 2018, 160)

Gasland’s presentation of “the new American landscape, where George Romero meets Henry Thoreau” (Hamrah, 2018, 249)

— the callback to a 2011 review of The Town in a review of Lion that leads with the words “Google Earth has finally made a movie” (Hamrah, 2018, 89)

If there’s a thread to be found (besides the very fine writing that everyone rightly recognizes on display), it is the subtle points about economics and humanity throughout Hamrah’s work. He describes scenes set “in the kind of nothing restaurant that is everywhere in the US but that is never shown in movies,” praises a “corporate promotional video made in the style of Michel Gondry (whom it mocks)” in Sorry to Bother You that nevertheless “leaves out the combination lavatory-abattoir where the workforce is imprisoned”, and teases the reader with the words, “Strange, since Michèle’s father, a mass murderer who dragged her to his homicides, killed people for being rude.” (Hamrah, 2018; 3, 9, 116)

If I came for words like, “Django Unchained is not so much the evil twin of the saintly Lincoln as its nasty, more clever kid brother,” (219) I stayed for the point that Hamrah, who:

“saw The Hateful Eight while the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge was happening, [where, holed] up in the middle of nowhere in winter, a group of armed men telling one another bedtime stories about the Constitution threatened to make a bloody mess. Outside, the nation tore itself apart because a large segment of the population refused to give up old myths.” (Hamrah, 2018, 158)

believes that “The Hateful Eight is Tarantino’s most timely film.” (Hamrah, 2018, 158) Reading this book with reverse sequence should leave you inclined to agree.

It’s been an inspiring read, and an affirmation of the value of movies, the good and the bad. Even when Hamrah pans a movie I enjoyed (Arrival made me cry, and I still want to know why Portuguese is so different from Spanish), I chuckle, not even grudgingly. His less than gentle critiques of the slide into family entertainment from movies with perspectives that had something, however unpleasant, to say about people or the world, which is often unpleasant, are restorative, and make me want to see movies like Good Time, despite other reviewers’ arguments that there is nothing redeeming about the experience. Having just watched and debated the relative conservatism of Quentin Tarantino’s vision for Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood (not for the first time, I assume), and having turned down opportunities to see other movies because I just didn’t want to feel gross, I feel both redeemed and challenged. (And by the way, his bit on Open Source about the newest Tarantino movie is well worth seeking out.) Hamrah is never priggish. I love his argument against animated movies for grownups who are not trying to appease tiny tyrants, and feel newly emboldened in my rejection of certain animated movies with my own.

As I worked my way through The Earth Dies Streaming the way one should (which is to say leisurely and without agenda; the cover is battered from my carting it around on weekend trips this summer), a new crop of Hamrah’s reviews posted on n+1. I noted on Twitter that “the only sad thing about a Hamrah post is knowing how long until the next one.” Hamrah himself kindly thanked me and suggested reading this book in the meantime. So I’m equal parts pleased and pained to share my discovery that he approved of 2007’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Sydney Lumet’s last movie before his death. I had anticipated its release in my first semester of grad school, was slammed with end of semester work while it briefly played at the local theater (just one weekend, I think!), and eventually watched it the following summer as my very first Netflix DVD rental. Remember those? Pleased, because I think he would appreciate the delayed reward in waiting to see something that delivers as one hopes (or fails to predict). But pained, because there are only 32 more pages to go, not counting the acknowledgements, which I’ve already read. To butcher the Shakespeare, I know that parting with this book will, indeed, be such sweet sorrow.

Deutsche Bank and Potato Salad

This Financial Times piece about Deutsche Bank — “The Day Deutsche Bank’s Boss Decided on a Radical Solution” — from a bit more than a week ago was a trip. It’s about CEO Christian Sewing’s recognition that the music had stopped under increasingly tawdry circumstances (police raids looking for evidence of money laundering aren’t nice, and earnings had been falling…) “[emboldening him] … to call time on a two-decade attempt to conquer Wall Street.”

Invoking schadenfreude for DB is cliche at this point: a quick search finds three references in headlines, and many more textual references in the substance of articles, commentary, and blog posts. But … come on. How much blame does Deutsche share for the current US president? How about the subprime mortgage crisis? And what about those backdoor bailouts funded by peripheral EMU governments in the context of the Eurozone Crisis? I could be here all week, folks, and I’m barely touching the role this bank (and the other large private ones) played in the indirect hit job on German Landesbanks, the rise of securitization and globalization of finance, and the decline in boring lending by the largest pillars of German finance, exposing German finance and the economy to billions of risky assets that did not fare well after 2007.

This story is something else though! We are set up to pity Christian Sewing for making these tough decisions in the wake of the failed (and maligned) merger with Commerzbank, the bank employees set adrift by Sewing’s decision to unwind, and board members’ annoyance with shareholders’ anger at the meeting revealing all of this information to them, despite the bank’s having provided sausages and potato salad for the meeting.

“‘It would have been nice if the markets had applauded,’ admits one supervisory board member. ‘But Deutsche remains a ‘show-me’ case.'”

Is there a German word for chutzpah?

Other sources, if interested:

Deutsche Bank Signs $7.2 billion Deal with US over Risky Mortgages

Deutsche Bank Mortgage Settlement Steers Away from Helping Distressed Homeowners

Deutsche Bank Faces Criminal Investigation for Potential Money Laundering Lapses

Clement Bank: “Frankfurt’s Double Standard” — Cambridge Review of International Affairs — 2018

Emiliano Grossman: “Bringing politics back in: rethinking the role of economic interest groups in European integration” — Journal of European Public Policy — 2004

Daniel Seikel: “How the EC Deepened Financial Market Integration: The Battle over the Liberalization of Public Banks in Germany” — Journal of European Public Policy, 2013

A thought or two about CBA, but mostly about Frank Ackerman

I took what felt like a more drunken path than many of my grad school peers to what I eventually settled on as my field of study. At different points, I assumed I would work on environmental justice issues, urban dynamics, environmentally sustainable wool production, the New Deal… I couldn’t have predicted a trajectory ending with my work in applied macroeconomics, finance, and political economy. The downside of writing a dissertation, book, and papers that had little to do with my coursework were mainly efficiency related — I learned a lot about finance, political economy, and crisis from books, and I still managed to graduate in the median number of years for my department (somehow).

One upside, though, was learning about Frank Ackerman’s work. I first encountered it in James Boyce’s Political Economy of the Environment class, back when I thought that would be my thing, and then somehow I kept circling back to it, with an internship here, teaching an environmental economics class there, and the beckoning siren call of a career in policy. The book he co-authored with Lisa Heinzerling — Priceless: On Knowing the Price of Everything and the Value of Nothing — left an indelible impression. It confirmed to me that despite the opportunity costs, a PhD of indeterminate length was valuable for teaching the Pareto Optimal underpinnings of Cost Benefit Analysis (CBA) alone.

In brief, CBA argues that policies (or any action) can be evaluated by comparing the costs (however they are measured) with the benefits of a given course of action. This is fine if I’m deciding between getting takeout or cooking dinner when I’m stressed about work, but it gets insidious when costs and benefits accrue to different parties. Taken to its extreme, an action can ‘pass’ CBA if the beneficiaries are well enough compensated that they could compensate the losers for the costs… but there’s no requirement the winners do so. Under this rubric, polluting the environment while I extract its material benefits and then moving my family out of the danger zone will pass, if I could theoretically pay off all the residents for their trouble.

Learning this was a red pill/blue pill moment for me as a first-year grad student who sometimes wondered what I’d gotten myself into. Priceless has much more to recommend it — it takes on the dirty details of how value is ascribed to the priceless, considers political implications, etc etc — and for a sophisticated dive into valuation theory, it’s also a great read. Ackerman’s work — a tiny sampling includes work on recycling, climate change policy, institutional design — is smart, humane, and worthy of your time.

I was also lucky enough to meet Frank on a few occasions. He gave several seminars at UMass while I was there, and they were always smart, funny, and devastating, as soon as you wrapped your head around the implications. He was a kind and brilliant guy, and the world is a poorer place since his passing on July 15, 2019. I miss him already.