Wednesday, October 31, 2012

the last book I ever read (Zadie Smith's NW, excerpt one)

from NW by Zadie Smith:

Lying in bed next to a girl she loved, years ago, discussing the number 37. Dylan singing. The girl had a theory that 37 has a magic about it, we're compelled toward it. Websites are dedicated to the phenomenon. The imagined houses found in cinema, fiction, painting and poetry--almost always 37. Asked to choose a number at random: usually 37. Watch for 37, the girl said, in our lotteries, our game-shows, our dreams and joke, and Leah did, and Leah still does. Remember me to one who lives there. She once was a true love of mine. Now that girl is married, too.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

the last book I ever read (Zadie Smith's The Autograph Man, excerpt five)

from The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith:

Alex didn't have ten pounds so he handed over some plastic, which made the woman suck her teeth, lift her leg off The Last Day of Socrates and go hobbling to the back of her box to get the mechanical swiper thing. She swiped, she passed it through, he signed, he passed it through, she held it up next to his card, he smiled. She looked at him with suspicion.

"Is dis yours?"

"What? Is there something wrong with it?"

She looked at the card again, at the signature, at the card, and then passed it back to him.

"I don't know. Mebbe wid you. You look like you sick or someting. Like you goin' to fall over."

"Sorry, Gladys, are you a doctor? Or a prophet? I mean, as well? Or can I go now?"

She scowled. Called for the next person in line. Alex grabbed his flask from the counter. Stalked towards the exit.

Friday, October 26, 2012

the last book I ever read (Zadie Smith's The Autograph Man, excerpt four)

from The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith:

Autograph collecting, as Alex is not the first to observe, shares much with woman-chasing and God-fearing. A woman who gives up her treasure with too much frequency is not coveted by men. Likewise a god who makes himself manifest and his laws obvious--such a god is not popular. Likewise a Ginger Rogers is not worth as much as one might imagine. This is because she signed everything she could get her hands on. She was easy. She was whorish. She gave what she had too freely. And now she is common, in the purest meaning of that word. Her value is judged accordingly.

Greta Garbo was not easy. If she put pen to paper at all, Garbo tended to use a pseudonym, Harriet Brown. Garbo would demand that her bank chase up the whereabouts of any check she had written that had not been cashed. She wouldn't let her name go, even on a receipt. A Garbo autograph, even a bad one, is still worth about six thousand pounds. Kitty Alexander signed even less than Garbo. Kitty was as awkward and invisible as Jehovah. She was aloof. The public hated her for it. And in time she was forgotten, for the public do not liked to be ignored. But Autograph Men are rather more masochistic than the public (the public are primarily sadistic); they enjoy contempt. The Autograph Men remembered Kitty, always. These are the same people for whom untimely deaths are good business, along with assassinations, and serial murders, and high-profile failures. Monroe's first husband, the third man on the moon, the Fifth Beatle. They have peculiar tastes. For a long time, Kitty Alexander's autograph has been one of the most sought-after scribbles in this peculiar world. Most Autograph Men have given up the hope of ever getting one. Not Alex. Every week since he was thirteen, Alex has sent a weekly letter to Kitty, to an address in Manhattan, her fan-club address. Never once has he received a response. Not once. Only a drawer full of form letters, signed by the fan club president. And therefore, therefore, it takes Alex a long moment, therefore, to remember why, how, by what means, a blank postcard with Kitty's autograph clearly written upon it has come to be pinned, like Luther's declaration, to his own front door. Carefully, he unpins it and holds it up to the light. It is exquisite. It is real. Or he is not Alex-Li Tandem. He presses the TALK button.

"Alex," says Joseph in his quiet way, "listen to me one more time. You did not receive it from God. Nor did you receive it in the post. You forged it, Alex; you were on a very bad trip. Everybody was. Listen to me. It wasn't real, it never will be real, and things do not become real simply because we want them to be so."

Thursday, October 25, 2012

the last book I ever read (Zadie Smith's The Autograph Man, excerpt three)

from The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith:

He crossed the floor and knelt down before the television. He retrieved The Girl From Peking from the video recorder. He put it into its case and felt a soothing pulse of happiness. Prompted by beauty. On the cover were the two beautiful faces of his favorite actress, the musical star Kitty Alexander. In the picture on the right, she was dressed as a Peking girl, her eyes Sellotaped into an approximation of his own epicanthic fold, wearing her coolie hat and cheongsam. She was lost on the streets of fifties Broadway. And then, on the left, the same girl but now made over, dressed as the toast of Hollywood, in a mushroom-shaped ball gown, with the little white gloves, the pink princess slippers, the coil of lustrous black hair peeking over one shoulder. The story of the film, essentially, was the progress from the picture on the right to the picture on the left. You had to read the video case backwards, like Hebrew.

There was a split in the protective plastic. Alex slipped his finger in and felt around, touching first one Kitty and then the other. Citizen Kane. Battleship Potemkin. Gone with the Wind. La Strada. It amazed him that so many people--in fact, it would be fair to say most people--were unaware that the 1952 Celebration Pictures musical The Girl from Peking, starring Jules Munshin as Joey Kay and Kitty Alexander as May-Ling Han, was in fact the greatest movie ever made. Carefully, he squeezed her into a fold of his bag.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

the last book I ever read (Zadie Smith's The Autograph Man, excerpt two)

from The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith:

Klein is the first to get to Him, then Rubinfine by pushing, and then Joseph and Alex--Li-Jin can't see where Adam is--and then the route closes up like the Red Sea in front of him and Li-Jin can get no further. He tells himself not to panic about Adam and concentrates instead on reaching up on tiptoe; he is in time to see Him ruffle Alex-Li's hair, punch him playfully on the shoulder, and take his picture for signing. As soon as the name's across it, Alex whips round, delighted, and jumps up looking for Li-Jin so he can show it to him, and Li-Jin jumps up too and tries to wave, but he is too small to get above a crowd like this and Alex's creased forehead is the last thing Li-Jin sees before his knees crumple beneath him and his head hits the floor. Once on his back, though, his eyes open for a few seconds. He sees the hall squidge, and then squadge. Sounds gloop. The light shrinks. He sees people. Many, many people. Nobody famous, though. No one familiar or friendly. No one to help. No one he knows.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

the last book I ever read (Zadie Smith's The Autograph Man, excerpt one)

from The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith:

When Alex was eleven, when Li-Jin first began to experience his headaches, a Chinese doctor in Soho diagnosed it as the influence of Alex-Li obstructing his father's qi. This doctor told Li-Jin he loved his son too much, loved him like the widower whose child is the last "mu qi" (maternal air) was excessive, blocking his "qi-men" (air gates). This had caused the disturbance. Nonsense. Li-Jin rebuked himself for ever succumbing to the superstitions of his own Beijing childhood; he never went to see this man or any other Chinese doctor again. Air gates? Everybody in Mountjoy had a headache. Plane noise, pollution, stress. The unholy trinity of Mountjoy life. It was vanity, surely, to assume that he had been singled out for something special, for the rare tumor, the underresearched virus. Vanity! Why would it be anything more? For a year after the encounter this clever doctor behaved like any one of his stupid patients. Telling himself it was nothing. No tests, continuous pain, muddling on. Even though, somewhere in him, he knew. He always knew.

Monday, October 22, 2012

the last book I ever read (In Search of Cleo by Gina Gershon, excerpt four)

from In Search of Cleo: How I Found My Pussy and Lost My Mind by Gina Gershon:

But that wasn't the worst of it. A short time later my sister's cat, Spotty, a female calico who was very prissy and never my favorite, got into a bit of a jam. Spotty was a drooler. A serious drooler. It was disgusting to me how much she drooled. You would pet her and there would be an instant drool puddle below her chin, dripping onto whatever was below. She was my sister's cat and so I never really got to totally love her. But we tolerated each other's presence. I thought she was a user and highly manipulative, and I didn't buy into her bullshit. She reminded me of one of those Park Avenue gold-digger girls who would marry someone just for money. She wasn't about love. She wanted quilts and tuna and to be pampered all day long. A taker. Never that considerate of anyone around her unless they had something to offer. But still, my sister loved her, so I was respectful.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

the last book I ever read (In Search of Cleo by Gina Gershon, excerpt three)

from In Search of Cleo: How I Found My Pussy and Lost My Mind by Gina Gershon:

My father died far too young, and I missed him terribly. He was a gregarious giant who stood six foot five inches tall and weighed in at two hundred fifty pounds in his underwear. Every time a doctor would put Dad on a diet, Dad changed doctors. Ever since he died, I've always been a sucker for big men hugging me, telling me that everything was going to be all right. The big guy introduced himself as Arthur. I should have been afraid, but maybe it was an omen that things were going to be all right. Arthur was the newspaper man, delivering the news to the people, and this was his beat. I gave him my number and he assured me that he would call if he saw any lost black cats.

Friday, October 19, 2012

the last book I ever read (In Search of Cleo by Gina Gershon, excerpt two)

from In Search of Cleo: How I Found My Pussy and Lost My Mind by Gina Gershon:

The first time I fell in love, I was seven years old. I was leaving the school Halloween carnival when a pale, skinny man with dark eyeliner and a cloak came up to me outside as we were waiting to cross the street. My mom was with me and talking to a friend of hers. It was unclear whether he was in costume or just an oddball Goth guy. Ever since Dark Shadows, the original vampire series, I had become obsessed and enthralled with the undead, and I was excited by the fact that he was a possible vampire. He was staring at me intensely (the way Barnabas Collins would stare at Angelique) as he held out this tiny little black-and-white kitten in his long, skinny white hands. My breathing became shallow and I seemed to be in a trance. Goth Man looked me deep in the eyes and in a very confident manner said, "This cat belongs to you. It is yours." I had no choice but to silently accept his gift with a quiet nod of understanding. He slowly turned and floated away. My mother, who had missed the entire exchange, finally turned to me and, seeing the kitten in my arms, immediately began to protest. I quickly reminded her that in my hysteria of Harry the Third's death (I'll get back to him later), she had promised me a new pet, and the goldfish that were swimming aimlessly around in the plastic baggie in my hand were mere decoration and didn't count. There was no negotiating. My future best friend and I went home to the safety of my pink-and-red floral room.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Rhapsody Interview: Gina Gershon

so maybe this is a good time to explain the whole "last book I ever read" process:

I create these posts as I go, more or less one per weekday (sort of), and so when I create the posts the book really is "the last book I ever read," but by the time they actually appear it may have been six, maybe eight weeks since I actually read the book.

for instance, I read In Search of Cleo in preparation for my interview with Gina Gershon.

which is a roundabout way of saying, I'm as surprised as you are that I have two Gina Gershon blog posts in a single day.

the last book I ever read (In Search of Cleo by Gina Gershon, excerpt one)

from In Search of Cleo: How I Found My Pussy and Lost My Mind by Gina Gershon:

When I was just twenty years old my father died suddenly of a massive heart attack. Just like that, his heart stopped, and in that very same instant mine split in two. Slowly and tenuously, time and the thread of life began to stitch back together my ticker, and I tailored a world that I could safely wrap myself back up in. Years later, when the big breakup came with my boyfriend who I'd been living with for the past eight years, it was as though the crack reopened and deepened into a crevice of sadness. Before I could mend this wound, my uncle Jack (a bit of a second father to me) died unexpectedly, filling that sorrowful crevice with a cement-like heaviness. I happened to be in St. Petersburg at the time, and luckily plenty of vodka was easily accessible. Thankfully, big protective Teddy was there with me to hold my hand all the way back to L.A., doing his best as always to make me feel better. This was something he was extremely good at. He would compassionately listen to me, throw up my sorrows and fears, and then eventually get me to laugh about something ridiculous. He even had the ability to make me believe that I would fall in love again, convincing me at times to "not worry," that he'd help me "find The Guy." Meaning the Right Guy. The Guy who would help me heal and make my heart smile again. Fill it up with emotional helium.

Then a few weeks after returning from Russia to bury my uncle, Teddy--like my father--died suddenly of a massive heart attack. I was devastated. The crevice had now widened into a gaping black hole of despair. I literally, at times, was having a hard time breathing. I spent long, endless nights with only Cleo and the darkness, trying to fend off the unbearable, terrible anguish. Cleo would lay on my chest, over my heart, and lick my wounds, and oddly enough, it helped. And now Cleo was gone, too. Cleo, the only remaining piece of my heart that was still intact, was wandering somewhere, lost in the streets of L.A. I had no choice but to find him.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The 49ers at McSweeney's, episode three: Brian Hansen

the third installment of The 49ers: Oral Histories of Americans Facing 50 for McSweeney's is now live.

I talked to former NFL punter (the Saints, Patriots, Browns, Jets and Redskins) and current state director of the South Dakota Fellowship of Christian Athletes Brian Hansen in October, 2010, exactly one week before his 50th birthday.


Please visit The 49ers Facebook page for further updates.

the last book I ever read (Twilight of the Elites, excerpt nine)

from Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy by Christopher Hayes:

Michael Lewis's masterful chronicle of the crisis, The Big Short, contains a remarkable, though largely unremarked upon, anecdote that gives a glimpse of just how social distance facilitated the greatest financial disaster of our age. One of Lewis's protagonists, a hedge fund manager, had an epiphany in a chance conversation with a domestic worker he employed to provide child care. An immigrant from the Caribbean, she mentioned to him that she and a sister owned six townhomes in Queens. At first it seemed to make no sense; he knew exactly how much she made and it was hardly enough to afford so much property. Eventually he unraveled the mystery. It turned out that mortgage brokers had been targeting immigrants for large mortgages on purpose. Since immigrants often didn't have much of a credit history, brokers could exploit a loophole in how creditworthiness was analyzed and more or less invent a credit score for them. This, in turn, made them look like much better credit risks than they actually were and facilitated feeding mortgages into the securitization machine that would then produce mortgage-backed securities that conferred a well-spring of money everyone involved in process.

Within the immigrant communities in New York, the ready availability of massive mortgages was common knowledge, but those same communities were entirely removed from the inner circles of Wall Street where these mortgages were transubstantiated into the asset-backed securities that generated trillions of dollars of revenue for it. So it took a chance encounter between a multimillionaire hedge fund manager and his baby nurse to connect the dots.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

the last book I ever read (Twilight of the Elites, excerpt eight)

from Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy by Christopher Hayes:

The problem was those left behind. As would be tragically revealed, hundreds of thousands of the city's residents did not evacuate. When the hurricane hit, as many as three hundred thousand people were holed up in their homes, or left to the deprivations of the overwhelmed Superdome. In the Katrina aftermath, some critics took this as a sign that those who had stayed behind, largely black and poor, deserved what they got or, at least, shouldn't have had quite the purchase on our sympathies that some had assumed. In 2007, Newt Gingrich, speaking at a large conservative conference, spoke of "the failure of citizenship in the Ninth Ward, where twenty-two thousand people were so uneducated and so unprepared, they literally couldn't get out of the way of a hurricane."

There's no question that some portion of the city's residents, hardened by a lifetime of warnings that came to nil, simply chose to ride out the storm with their belongings. But many, if not most, of those who didn't evacuate stayed behind for an obvious reason: They had no way to leave. One study found that 39 percent stayed simply because they had nowhere to go and no means to get there. "Where can you go if you don't have a car?" Catina Miller, a thirty-two-year-old grocery deli worker who lived in the Ninth Ward, asked a reporter. "Not everyone can just pick up and take off." "I've only got like $80 to my name," another woman told a public radio reporter, explaining why she stayed behind. "My job and my bank and everything like that is all in New Orleans."

Mobility is something that the majority of Americans take for granted, and that's even more the case for members of the elite. A variety of social science studies show that those with money and high levels of social capital are far more mobile in the most literal sense: they have cars, are able to pay for travel, and are more able to move to pursue job opportunities. In fact this mobility confers a very significant economic advantage as it is very often the case in large metro areas that the geographic locations of desirable housing with good school districts are far from the place where there are the best job opportunities.

Meanwhile, lack of access to a car is one of the most debilitating aspects of modern poverty, particularly for those in places where public transportation is scarce and unsteady. According to the 2000 census, 8 percent of Americans resided in a household without access to a car, but that number varies widely depending on class and location. Among the poor nationwide, 20 percent live in households that don't have access to a car, and among the poor in the city of New Orleans that number was 47 percent. What's more, the city was home to hundreds of thousands with disabilities, according to the 2000 U.S. census: fully 50 percent of residents over sixty-five had some kind of disability.

Monday, October 15, 2012

the last book I ever read (Twilight of the Elites, excerpt seven)

from Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy by Christopher Hayes:

The most vexing and incomprehensible aspect of the Catholic Church abuse scandal isn't the fact that there were priests who were pedophiles: any sufficiently large pool of men will contain a certain number of perverts and predators. Nor was it necessarily that the Church attempted to cover up the crimes committed by its representatives: an ancient and deep-pocketed institution will act ruthlessly to preserve its reputation and legal sovereignty at all costs.

But what is nearly impossible to understand is why Church authorities kept putting priests they knew to be child abusers in positions where they could prey on more children. Why not just exile the pedophiles somewhere away from children permanently? Or quietly kick them out of the priesthood and disown the scandal? "Not only did they cover up sexual abuse," says SNAP founder Barbara Blaine, "but they transferred the predators. It wasn't just allowing it to go on: they fostered the crime so that the predators could have access to more kids."

The most comprehensive study of priest abuse found that 3.5 percent of priests accused of sexual abuse had allegedly molested more than ten victims. This tiny group of repeat offenders make up a staggering 26 percent of the allegations against Catholic priests. What this means is that hundreds, possibly thousands of children could have been saved from abuse if the most incorrigible serial offenders had simply been exiled to posts in which children were not present. Why didn't the cardinals and bishops take this obvious step?

The short answer is social distance. What you find time and time again in church documents is that when a bishop, cardinal, or fellow priest was confronted with an abused child and abuser priest, he extended unfathomable compassion toward his fellow man of the cloth, generating a laundry list of excuses or exculpatory details, while treating the victim with stony officiousness.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

the last book I ever read (Twilight of the Elites, excerpt six)

from Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy by Christopher Hayes:

Keeping up with the Joneses has been a staple of postwar American life, but the current generation has seen what was once implicit made explicit: competition is now the model for American life, and "winning" the model of success. Because competition is the central engine in the model of both meritocratic and capitalist achievement, affection for it and acclimation to its spiritual and psychological demands are inculcated from a young age. To be successful, one must never be satisfied, and so no one ever is. Our elites are conditioned to fight for every last inch of beach, to parry and thrust their way forward no matter how much they have already achieved, all of which produces two rather nasty psychological side effects.

One is that it tends to make people believe they have absolutely earned what they have achieved. A legacy student at an Ivy League university certainly doesn't feel as if she has coasted in on her father's coattails. She feels instead that she's killed herself for four years at her prestigious high school to earn her grades, her internships, and her postgraduate job opportunities. As was said of George W. Bush, it is tempting for those born on third base to believe they've hit a triple.

This means we are cursed with an overclass convinced it is composed of scrappy underdogs, individuals who are obsessed with the relative disadvantages they may have faced rather than the privilege they enjoyed. It is remarkable how under siege and victimized even the most powerful members of society feel, how much they tout their own up-by-their-bootstraps story. In fact, a basic ritual associated with entrance into the circle of winners is constructing a personal story about how it was through grit, talent, and determination that you fought your way into it.

Mitt Romney, the multimillionaire son of a car company CEO and governor of Michigan, told an audience at a 2012 Republican debate that if you squinted hard enough, he looked like a figure right out of a Horatio Alger tale. "And I--I mean--you know, my dad, as you know--born in Mexico, poor, didn't get a college degree--because head of a car company. I could have stayed in Detroit, like him, and gotten pulled up in the car company. I went off on my own. I didn't inherit money from my parents. What I have, I earned. I worked hard, the American way."

Friday, October 12, 2012

the last book I ever read (Twilight of the Elites, excerpt five)

from Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy by Christopher Hayes:

The members of today's elite have never been farther from the median worker and closer, in the literal sense, to their fellow meritocrats. And because of the primacy of money in our post-meritocratic culture, there is a ready path by which one can trade certain kinds of power for others: money can purchase influence, and influence can later be cashed out.

Just look at our elected officials. Getting elected to office requires such a large sum of money that you more or less have to be rich yourself so you can both fund your own campaign and know enough fellow rich people who can raise money for you. When recruiting candidates for the House of Representatives, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) looks for aspirants to raise so much money, so early--$250,000 in the first quarter the candidate has declared--that it's almost impossible to do without a massive personal or family bank account. "They'll say to you, you gotta be hitting 250," says one former congressional candidate. "And I was struggling to hit 100,000. You have to think out the actual economics of it. If you don't have a big bank account, then raising money has to be your full-time job," which means forfeiting your actual job and the income from that, "and if it's not going to be your full-time job, you better know a huge, huge number of rich people."

The results of this funneling process are clear in the composition of the country's least-trusted institution, the United States Congress: nearly half of all members of Congress have a net worth north of a million dollars, compared to just one in twenty-two households nationwide. Between 1984 and 2009, while the median net worth of American households remained essentially unchanged, the median net worth of members of the House of Representatives rose by 260 percent. Not only did the rich get richer, so did Congress.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

the last book I ever read (Twilight of the Elites, excerpt four)

from Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy by Christopher Hayes:

In most cases, of course, money does confer power: the ability to make decisions about which products will be made, what innovations will be nurtured or abandoned. Those with capital to lend exert tremendous dominion in their capacity as creditors (as we've seen during the foreclosure crisis): the International Monetary Fund's role as lender of last resort to developing countries has empowered it to issue decrees that completely remake a nation's social contract and domestic policy as a condition of its extension of credit.

But in a society as fully monetized as our, money is also crucial because it can readily be exchanged for all other kinds of power. Money can purchase platform: When Fox News mogul Roger Ailes bought an expansive estate in the Hudson Valley, he also purchased two local newspapers, which he used to crusade for changes to local zoning laws. ("Freedom of the press," New Yorker writer A. J. Liebling famously quipped, "belongs to those who own one.")

Likewise, money can grant you access to powerful social networks, whether on Park Avenue or in country clubs, because people with money tend to socialize with other wealthy people. These bonds of association lower coordination costs and make organizing toward some mutually beneficial goal easier and more effective.

Money can also buy political power: it pays for lobbyists, PACs, political donations, and the all-important access. In his book Oligarchy, political scientist Jeffrey Winters focuses on what he calls the income defense industry, made up of "lawyers, accountants, lobbyists, wealth management agencies" who "have highly specialized knowledge and can navigate a complex system of taxation and regulations, generating a range of tax 'products,' 'instruments,' and 'advice' that enable oligarchs to keep scores of billions in income annually that would otherwise have to be surrendered to the state."

Over the last decade, the political arm of the income defense industry has been wildly successful. The tax cuts passed by Bush and extended by Obama represent a total of $81.5 billion transferred from the state into the hands of the richest 1 percent. Meanwhile, hedge fund managers and their surrogates have deployed millions of dollars to lobbyists to maintain the so-called carried interest loophole, a provision of tax law that allows fund managers to classify much of their income drawn from investing gains as "carried interest" so that it is taxed at the low capital gains rate of 15 percent, rather than the marginal income rate, which would in most cases be more than twice that. It was this wrinkle in the law that helped Mitt Romney, a man worth an estimated quarter of a billion dollars, pay an effective tax rate of just under 14 percent in 2010. In 2008, 2009, and 2010, the House of Representatives passed a bill closing the loophole, only to see it beaten back by an intense wave of lobbying in the Senate.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

the last book I ever read (Twilight of the Elites, excerpt three)

from Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy by Christopher Hayes:

Former Wall Street Journal business reporter Dean Starkman undertook the most comprehensive analysis of the business press's coverage of the housing and financial sectors before the crash, combing through more than two thousand articles. "Business journalists as a rule are as smart, sophisticated, and plugged-in as they seem," he wrote. "And yet that army of professional business reporters--an estimated 9,000 or so nationwide in print alone--for all practical purposes missed the biggest story on the beat." He concluded that while there were many excellent articles about the underlying problems in mortgage markets, the business press was "a watchdog that didn't bark."

While proximity grants access to information others do not have, it also has a tendency to produce cognitive capture: reporters who spend all their time covering and talking to investment bankers come to see the world through their eyes and begin to think like investment bankers. There's nothing nefarious about this tendency--it's an inevitable outcome of sustained immersion--but what it meant was that when all the investment bankers were seeing a bull market and a securitization bonanza that would last forever, so were many reporters on the beat.

More perniciously, access is not something reporters can achieve unilaterally. In the highest circles of politics and finance, it must be granted by those who hold the power, and they are, for obvious reasons, more inclined to grant that access to those reporters they feel are sympathetic.

In practice this means that access and proximity don't simply confer superior insight or knowledge. They provide both benefits and costs that can be difficult to untangle.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

the last book I ever read (Twilight of the Elites, excerpt two)

from Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy by Christopher Hayes:

A society in which cheaters, shirkers, and incompetents face no sanction, where bad behavior meets reward, is a morally hazardous one. In economics, the term "moral hazard" refers to the perverse incentives that can arise when agents are insulated from the cost of their actions: A hypochondriac with a health insurance plan that covers the full cost of doctor's visits will make more appointments than one who has a sizable co-pay; a banker who knows at some level that the cost of catastrophically bad bets will ultimately be picked up by the government has far less incentive to avoid blowing everything up while in the zealous pursuit of the highest yield possible.

One way to understand the financial crisis is as the natural result of moral hazard: major financial institutions only took the risks they did because at some institutional level they assumed that if things went terribly wrong the government wouldn't let them fail. Whether or not that was the case before the crisis, it's undeniable that the unprecedented actions undertaken by the federal government after the crisis demonstrated definitively that the government will step in to prevent the failure of institutions big and powerful enough to bring down the entire system.

If no one on Wall Street is held accountable for the crash, then what incentive is there not to grab another stack of chips and sit back down at the poker table? The same principle extends beyond Wall Street: an institution that rewards the reckless will act as a spawning ground for recklessness.

Monday, October 8, 2012

the last book I ever read (Twilight of the Elites, excerpt one)

from Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy by Christopher Hayes:

When you bring your car to your mechanic because it's making a worrisome noise, you trust that he's knowledgeable enough to figure out what's wrong and scrupulous enough not to rip you off. On all things auto-related, your mechanic is an authority. In public life, our pillar institutions and the elites who run them play the mechanic's role. They are charged with the task of diagnosing and fixing problems in governance, the market, and society. And what we want from authorities, whether they are mechanics, money managers, or senators, is that they be competent--smart, informed, able--and that they not use their authority to pursue a hidden agenda or personal gain.

We now operate in a world in which we can assume neither competence nor good faith from the authorities, and the consequences of this simple, devastating realization is the defining feature of American life at the end of this low, dishonest decade. Elite failure and the distrust it has spawned is the most powerful and least understood aspect of current politics and society. It structures and constrains the very process by which we gather facts, form opinions, and execute self-governance. It connects the Iraq War and the financial crisis, the Tea Party and MoveOn, the despair of laid-off autoworkers in Detroit to the foreclosed homeowners in Las Vegas and the residents of the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans: nothing seems to work. All the smart people fucked up, and no one seems willing to take responsibility.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

the last book I ever read (Marcus Samuelsson's Yes, Chef, excerpt ten)

from Yes, Chef: A Memoir by Marcus Samuelsson:

The stress of the show, combined with the stress of the state dinner, was intense. As if on cue, my back gave out. The pain was unreal, but I couldn't give up. Being a chef is an incredibly physical job. Standing for hours on end, the brutality of the kitchen heat, the burns, the fires, the lifting--Mario Batali wears those Crocs everywhere not because he's a fashion victim but because they give him some physical relief. I'm strong because I'm a runner but my back is liable to give out on me at any given time. It doesn't happen often but when it does, when I'm on the floor and I can't move, I can hear my mother berating me when I came home from Belle Avenue after hours of lifting huge sacks of flour, potatoes, and trays and trays of meat. "Macke," my mother said. "Are they working you too hard?" And it's true: Everywhere I worked from Belle Avenue to Victoria Jungfrau to Georges Blanc to the cruise ships to Aquavit, they worked me too hard. And I was glad for it. It's what I signed up for. I manage to look young and strong in photos. But my back, the premature arthritis in my hands, the way my teeth are literally falling out--they tell the story of a lifetime of service. A chef's life is one of service, even in the age of Top Chef and Food Network stars. It doesn't matter if they send a fancy town car to pick you up, you can't sit on your butt in a comfy leather armchair and cook an incredible meal.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

the last book I ever read (Marcus Samuelsson's Yes, Chef, excerpt nine)

from Yes, Chef: A Memoir by Marcus Samuelsson:

Meeting my father, and knowing that I had been loved by him despite his decades-long absence, gave me the courage to meet my daughter. Not that I didn't want to meet her before, it was just that it had to be on my terms. Chefs, after all, are well-known control freaks. And so I wanted to make sure that my first meeting with my daughter went off with the precision of a four-star, seven-course meal. I felt like I had to perfect myself before meeting her, so that she could find no fault; that's the chef's mentality. But after traveling to Ethiopia, to a village that did not exist on any map, and sitting with my father in his dirt-floored hut, something changed: I realized that meeting my daughter not at all like orchestrating the perfect restaurant meal. All I needed to do was give Zoe what my father had given me: my own flawed self, without excuses or promises.

Friday, October 5, 2012

the last book I ever read (Marcus Samuelsson's Yes, Chef, excerpt eight)

from Yes, Chef: A Memoir by Marcus Samuelsson:

At birth, I was named Kassahun Tsegie. I was the third child of a farmer and his wife, and we lived in the Ethiopian highlands, in a small village outside of Addis Ababa, the country's capital. Most Ethiopians farmed or raised livestock; my father did both. He grew lentils and chilies and had cows. Their first child, a son, had died, and after him came Fantaye, my sister Linda, a girl with big round eyes and full brows like our father's. And after Fantaye, I came along. We belonged to the Amhara ethnic group, not as large as the Oromo, who dominated our area, but still one of the largest of the many, many ethnic groups that made up the country's population. I was born in 1971--not 1970 as I originally believed--when the country was in the midst of great turmoil. The Eritrean was of independence had been raging for ten years, and Emperor Haile Selassie's four-decade reign was gasping toward an end while potential successors jockeyed for position. Political strife aside, the country had been ravaged by malnutrition and a tuberculosis epidemic that had infected nearly eight hundred thousand people. If left untreated, more than half of the people who have active TB will die. In Amharic, TB is called sambra necarsa, cancer of the lung.

By my first birthday, I had contracted TB. So had my sister. So had my mother, and her case was the worst of all. There was no medical help in our village, so the three of us set out, by foot, for Addis Ababa, where there doctors and modern hospitals. My mother worked some unknown miracle to get us through the lines of sick people outside the hospital to get us the care we needed.

My mother died in that Addis hospital and there was no record of our birth father, just a rumor that he had died in the war. Fantaye and I must have had less severe cases of TB, or maybe we found help--in the form of antibiotics--before our symptoms progressed too far to be put into check. We were taken in by the hospital, nursed out of crisis and back toward health. However long it took, we had beat tremendous odds. Months later, when we were well enough to be released, the hospital staff faced the question of what to do with us. One of the nurses, Ayem Alem--whose name meant "eye of the world"--stepped up.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

the last book I ever read (Marcus Samuelsson's Yes, Chef, excerpt seven)

from Yes, Chef: A Memoir by Marcus Samuelsson:

I had cooked with Gordon Ramsay once, a couple of years earlier, when we did a promotion with Charlie Trotter in Chicago. There were a handful of chefs there, including Daniel Boulud and Ferran Adriá, and Gordon was rude and obnoxious to all of them. As a group we were interviewed by the Chicago newspaper; Gordon interrupted everyone who tried to answer a question, craving the limelight. I was almost embarrassed for him. So when I was giving interviews in the lead-up to the Lanesborough event, and was asked who inspired me, I thought the best way to handle it was to say nothing about him at all. Nothing good, nothing bad. I guess he was offended at being left out.

To be honest, though, only one phrase in his juvenile tirade unsettled me: when he called me a black bastard. Actually, I didn't give a fuck about the bastard part. But the black part pissed me off.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

the last book I ever read (Marcus Samuelsson's Yes, Chef, excerpt six)

from Yes, Chef: A Memoir by Marcus Samuelsson:

On August 11, 1996, my father, Lennart Samuelsson, passed away. He was at home in Göteborg; I was at work in New York. He'd been struggling with the aftermath of a stroke, but then he took a sudden turn and was gone. I couldn't leave the States to go to his funeral without jeopardizing my immigration status. My mother said she understood, my sisters said they understood, but honestly, it would take me years to say that I understood the choice I made. All I know is that I did what, by now, came naturally: I crammed my grief and fear into a little box and closed it up until I was ready to deal. There was no time, I told myself, to make a meal out of this misery. Nothing could get in the way of my cooking.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Tell Me When It's Over, #22: Jay Bell

and we say goodbye to the 2012 regular MLB season with this Tell Me When It's Over interview with former Cleveland Indians, Pittsburgh Pirates, Kansas City Royals, Arizona Diamondbacks and New York Mets infielder Jay Bell..

the last book I ever read (Marcus Samuelsson's Yes, Chef, excerpt five)

from Yes, Chef: A Memoir by Marcus Samuelsson:

We all pressed on and then, boom, one day in late September we found out we were going to be reviewed by Ruth Reichl, the top critic for The New York Times. The night before, a few of us gathered in Håkan’s apartment to watch a local news channel that gave a preview of the review. The minute they announced that Reichl was giving us three stars, Håkan and the rest of my coworkers jumped out of their chairs and shouted. I would have been thrilled with two stars: Three was beyond anyone's expectations. There were toasts, there was back-slapping, there was some fist pumping. I was happy because they were happy, but the import of the review didn't sink in.

The day after the review came out happened to be one of our wine society dinners. The head of the society stood up to make his opening remarks, and after attending to the society's announcements, he brought up the review.

"When I met Marcus," he said, "I knew he would be the one. I knew when I picked this place for our dinners there was magic in the air."

I thought, This is great; let's all just get back to work. But the truth was that as soon as the review came out, it was magic. I had dreamed of success for so long. I'd left restaurant after restaurant, from Belle Avenue to Victoria to Georges, because I knew I could do better.

But the truth is that I had no idea what success would look like, feel like, taste like.