Critiques & Commentary


We fancy that our post-postmodern life operates at unforeseen rates of speed but I never cease to marvel how much ground the ancients traveled in their time in the course of a day. I subscribe to  a wonderful site that every day offers an entry for the same day of the month from Samuel Pepys’s great book. The way Pepys gets around London, here, there and everywhere, to and fro, back and forth, on foot or by boat and coach, simply amazes. I remember feeling the same about George Templeton Strong’s daily peregrinations the length and width of mid-19th Century New York, and earlier the same about the hero of Flaubert’s Sentimental Education in the Paris of the generation before Strong. Check it out:

No comment needed:

My friend Michael Hudson has just published a new book, J is for Junk Economics (Islet Press, available on Amazon). It has just arrived (paid for by me, I should add, I’m not a freebie-seeker) and I am keen to get to it. Michael combines common sense, inspired insight and erudition to an uncommon degree. Everything he does is worth close attention.  To give you a sense of the new book, here are some chapter headings: “F is for Fictitious Capital,” “P is for Ponzi Schemes,” “R is for Rentiers”. Also included are a number of essays and interviews on “divers matters,” as we neo-Augustans say. Buy – read – ponder: that’s my recommendation – even in an age when it is the unexamined life that rings the cash register.

Apropos of my Quest essay on the personal library:

About the only positive aspect of Trump’s arts and culture defunding is that it might spare us Marina Abramovic.

Why bad guys finish first. The name of the game in money management has for some time been “AUM.” Assets Under Management. It’s based on a principle that worked for decades for Las Vegas: if the handle is big enough, the house will never lose, only the players.  

I’m no Bannon fan, but I think this is stupid – and hardly makes its case.

One essential component of the examined life seems to have gotten lost along the way. Namely, Wisdom. It’s frustrating for me, for instance, to find no outlet – no demand or appreciation – for the fruits of 60 adult years of observing, comparing and pondering. What is wisdom? Perhaps it might be expressed in an algorithm encompassing a weighted convergence of experience, brains, learning and age. In any case, the  present ruling generations have no interest in what Shakespeare figured out at the conclusion of King Lear,  when Edgar laments:

The weight of this sad time we must obey.
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most. We that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.

Here’s a terrific piece by Vicky Ward:

Muirfield (the Honorable Company of Edinburgh Golfers) will be admitting lady members. About time – although I’m sure the news has my late friend, the incomparable, indomitable, impossible P.W.T. “Paddy” Hanmer RN Ret., the club’s long-serving Secretary, spinning. Of course, not the Arabs, and professional golf, where big money is on the line, remains spineless. 

Stupider and stupider: day by day the incompetence of the big-name Met board increases:

We needed our own Pecora.

I got my earliest – and abiding – definition of a hypocrite from my father: a person who says yes” when he means “no.”  I find articles like this pointless:

My own view, exactly. The writer as charlatan:










Well, I never! Never thought I’d agree with Bannon on any matter of substance, but in this instance I do.

Trickle-down prevarication:

Saw this today. Bit snotty. Still… About a week ago. I made the point that lower charges – but still charges – would make sense

There are four sharks bleep-bleeping on Twitter, and as far as I’m concerned “The Americans,” heretofore a favorite show, has jumped all of them. One sure sign is this sort of pompous, self-important critical blather. “Remora criticism” I call it, when the chinstrokers grab onto “a demon fish” that’s been o’er leaped. : Do not fail to read the comments.






3/14/17…No blizzard but really nasty outside…

So the CBO report on “Trumpcare” is in and the bottom line is that, over the next decade, 24 million people will drop off the insured rolls (some presumably dying for lack of affordable care), but $337 billion will be saved. That latter number sounds like it would go a fair piece toward making up for the revenues lost as a consequence of tax cuts for the big hitters, which I suspect has been the game plan all along – forget the fake populism. It’s easy to blame ignorance for the tendency of Trump’s “deplorables” to vote against their own well-being. The issue is, it seems to me, where are the people willing to protect these voters from the consequences of letting anger, resentment, and other retributive feelings cancel out common sense and a grasp of when they’re being played? Here’s one thought, from James Fenimore Cooper’s The American Democrat (1836), a book I return to again and again: “Whenever the enlightened, wealthy, and spirited of an affluent and great country, seriously conspire to to subvert democratical institutions, their leisure, money, intelligence and means of combining, will be found too powerful for the ill-directed and conflicting efforts of the mass. It is therefore, all important, to enlist a portion of this class, at least, in the cause of freedom, since its power at all times renders it a dangerous enemy.”

So the Whitney Biennial “nails it.” I don’t know. Of course, we do live in an odd time when the illustrations to an article seldom have anything to do with the point the critic is trying to make (same as museums NEVER making postcards of the really interesting stuff in an exhibition), but still, what’s shown here strikes me as weird when it’s not ugly and not really either inspired or inspiring.

Today’s NYT Business section carries a piece by Wall Street dogsbody Andrew Ross Sorkin that exculpates Preet Bharara from accusations that he in effect went soft on banks in the 2008 crisis. As it happens, I agree with Sorkin. There are points where greed and stupidity verge on outright criminality but not under the letter of the law. But there are other forms of punishment. Appointment of a 21st-century Pecora to conduct high-visibility, highly-focused hearings (not so-called “investigative” hearings staged by bought-off members of Congress).  Conservatorship of afflicted institutions. Dismissal of their top officers and boards. Pricing bailouts in terms of shares (1% of the stock, say, for every $100 million of bailout money). Apropos of which: We speak of “moral hazard” in banking, but how can there be such when there’s no morality?

Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy:

I continue to ask: why should NYC “affordable housing” be located within “market rate” (ie luxury) deveopments with a fat tax deal for developers? For one thing, the “affordable” units located within luxury developments are the same size as the “market rate” units and once the “affordability-qualified” tenants are driven out by a variety of the means that high-priced real-estate lawyers are paid to develop, can be readily converted to taxpayer-subsidized market-rate units. Why not tax luxury developments and use the funds to create affordable housing in parts of the city outside the radius of immediate gentrification?

Starting back with Eric Ambler, I’ve loved spy novels, Le Carre etc.  I’ve recently read two. Charles Cumming’s A Divided Spy and Mick Harron’s Spook House (Slough Street). The first is unreadable. I started, quit, went back to it three times, finally quit for good. The second is marvelous: original, ingenious, gripping. Five-star.



Monday, Monday…

Interesting. I agree. What surprises me is that the writer fails (unless I missed it) to mention the most extensive look at Bharara’s impersonation of Gary Cooper in “High Noon”: Sheelah Kolhatkar’s Black Edge, about the “sheriff’s” in-vain pursuit of Steve Cohen. (four hours later) this was just posted:

No comment needed:

Good stuff from a sharp mind:

I must say that it seems to me that Rex Tillerson is going about his business in a way that is probably the best way he can, given the loudmouths he’s associated with, but in a sensible fashion: quiet, discreet, low profile.  The notion of the Secretary-of-State-as-diplomatic-rock-star that began with Kissinger and with one or two notable exceptions, has continued for the next 40-odd years through Kerry seems not to have produced much in the way of lasting success. I think Kerry did better than expected, considering that he had been responsible for one of the two most cringe-inducing performances by a politician in my lifetime, that ghastly moment when he advanced to the front of the stage at the 2004 Democratic Convention, and with his long face dialed into molto serioso, saluted and declared himself “Reporting for duty” (the other horror moment was, of course, Bush and “Mission Accomplished”.)

Trump Memo to Sean Spicer on Phony Jobs Data







3/11/17 – 3/12/17….

Good way to start a weekend:

In the interest of realism:

I haven’t read Gibney’s book – but on this point, as Cuozzo makes his case, I have always agreed. In a way, Vietnam alone incarnated the collapse of the tripartite historical claims for American hegemony: the cost of the war, the military stalemate and retreat and the moral obtuseness of the draft deferment:

This is strongly written and makes a good point: But here’s an effective rebuttal:  Personally, I can’t see that Wolcott’s “dude-bros” – ie the population of Williamsburg – elected Trump. They were too busy lining up at the latest cold-brew coffee boutique of the moment.

Sunday’s NYT Sports section has an interesting and discouraging article about Rutgers’ athletic program. Quite apart from the specifics (including the interesting revelation that 30% of the university’s undergraduate curriculum is taught by “contract teachers”) it prompted the reflection that the largest single line item in this great republic’s GDP must be distraction, in every form from cellphone idiocies to bigtime college sports. The disproportionate share of economic activity devoted to the production and utilization of distraction of all kinds may account for the decline in national – perhaps even global – productivity, distraction being a virtual antonym to “productivity.”  Of course, this could be offset in the official statistics were they to include what must be the second-ranking item in the ledger of national output: corruption. The latter appears to be highly remunerative – hence productive – to those who practice it skillfully and efficiently, especially when the costs can be allocated elsewhere, as in the case of the U.S. Congress, which wastes no time governing when it can be out raising money and pleasing donors.

Bedtime story:




Reflection of the Day: This occurred to me almost twenty years ago, but I can’t see that much has changed: “To the children of the aspiring classes (by which I mean those economic levels where aspiration has some chance of being realized), and their parents, higher education has become little more than an agreeable if expensive way to fill in the inconvenient interval between puberty and Goldman Sachs.” 

Michael Hudson is never less than essential:

In my post yesterday about “trump foxholes,” I should have included the observation that on this side of the aisle, many if not most of those entrenchments are fortified with metaphorical sandbags, namely the soaring prices of equities post election. Most Trump supporters don’t – can’t afford to = own equities, which is an irony and all the more reason to keep one’s head down.

I must say that my Incomprehension Level is raised measurably every Thursday by NYT’s “Styles” section. Why are these clothes so ugly? Does anyone ever go out dressed like that? And why are women’s shoes so uniformly hideous?

Read this: And then read this: And then reflect on Pangloss, Voltaire’s personification of the Enlightenment’s “everything’s coming up roses” world view.

Further to earlier posts about upheaval at Met Museum. This, by a former director of the Walters Gallery in Baltimore, gets it right, I think:

Watching the film of A Dance to the Music of Time, available on Amazon Prime. Absolutely wonderful! Simon Russell Beale’s Widmerpool is for the ages.

I think that what bothers me most about Trump is his absolute lack of interest in and disregard for what we might call “the niceties” of the presidency. The ordinary civilities that in theory keep a lid on things. Not unexpected. This has characterized his entire life.


It seems to me that I’m less in touch with friends than I used to be and they less in touch with me. I find this puzzling – until I think I figured it out. I’ve concluded Trump’s election has triggered a bunker/foxhole mentality on the side of the aisle occupied by the so-called “bicoastal elite”. I use the term in its broadest possible sense, to include those of us who, for whatever reason, haven’t been hammered as badly as our red-state brethren by the cultural, financial and moral distortions of the past twenty years. Without necessarily deserving to have done so, we have on the whole made out better than roughly half the electorate. Those people, understandably if not in the main justifiably, hate us for it, even those of us who reject the notion that money can fend off all troubles , those of us who aren’t sociopathic amoral pigs like, say, Carl Icahn. We know this and it’s scary, this feeling that half the country is against us, this feeling that American life no longer operates within our understanding. Based on the votes, it’s hard to avoid the awareness that Staten Island would happily see the Upper East Side engulfed like Atlantis in the East River. And so we burrow into our own lives, hoping that when the pitchforks come out, as they may some day, the people wielding them won’t know where we live.

In view of the above, worth a ponder: I find this a very compelling piece by Michael Bloomberg. Not only for its specific policy observations and prescriptions but as a reminder of how few grownups there are in the media. Where are the Restons, Krocks, Lippmans, and Herblocks of today?

A consumer note: I’ve switched to Juno from Uber. Every driver I’ve asked says it’s a better deal for them, the service is every bit as good, and I feel less exploitative.

Try and figure out what the deeper cultural implications of this might be. Forget the administrative snafu, and ask what can we infer about museum attendance and what drives it? The magic of a name?

Another reason I quit FB:

Howard Hodgkin has died. He’s at the top of my shortlist of truly great present-day painters, unlike complete mediocrities like Richter or Wool.

Lest we forget: and this:

Hard to disagree:


Yesterday Blake Gopnik, former (?) art critic of the Washington Post, reviewed the various prescriptice analyses of the managerial upheaval at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In the main I agree with Gopnik’s overall view. I think Tom Campbell began uncertainly, caught in a three-way bind between his art-historical instincts and training, his less-than-showmanlike personality (and thank God for that), and the mandate pressed upon him by the Board to become a contemporary-art-cum-digital impresario. I also think Campbell took the bound-to-be-unpopular initiative of bringing in his own people, a number of them English (as he is), and replacing a number of curators who, to be frank, had been at the Met dating back to Philippe de Montebello’s early days. The Met needs to create “Curator Emeritus” staff positions (modest stipend and retain benefits) in the way that retired senior partners at law firms become “Of Counsel” and the Met Board needs to be winnowed. Finally, I suspect – although I have no way of validating these suspicions – that Campbell received some odd and dubious internal advice (Macbeth, I, 1, less one player). Anyway, Blake Gopnik has another hack at the Met situation today. My own view, speaking as a Met alumnus with an abiding interest in the place, is that the Met should put in place a minimum admission charge ($10 individuals, $15 for couples and families, $5 for students and seniors) and a surcharge for exhibitions that demean the place (anything associated with Anna Wintour), which in any event should be moved to the Breuer.

Every day in so many ways, I am reminded of the truth of an aphorism I coined ever so long ago: “The problem with the Internet is that it gives millions of people with nothing to say a place to say it.”

I have been reading Tom Nichols’s The Death of Expertise (OUP). He strikes what I found to be a very congenial note at the outset: arguing against his own title, he writes “Our cultural and literary life is full of premature burials of everything: shame, common sense, manliness, femininity, childhood, good taste, literacy, the Oxford comma, and so on…While expertise isn’t dead, however, it is trouble. The United States is now a country obsessed with the worship of its own ignorance.” 

Good point, well made:


Good place to start:

Good stuff from Barry Ritholtz.

And from Bret Stephens:

In an earlier post, I expressed the thought (wish?) that Obama might emerge as the leader of an effective “loyal opposition.” Like a lot of people, I fancy that there’s more to Obama, more substance, more moral honesty, more idealism, than appears to be the case. The truth is, there’s no there there. Oddly, I got him right in Fixers, where the narrator expresses his doubts about the man from the outset. Read this; see what you think:

Chris Hedges at the top of his game:




Why we are the way way we are now:

From POLITICO:  “FROM WAPO’S TICK-TOCK ON THE LATEST CHAOS -” ‘The president has been seething as he watches round-the-clock cable news coverage. Trump recently vented to an associate that Carter Page, a onetime Trump campaign adviser, keeps appearing on television even though he and Trump have no significant relationship. Stories from Breitbart News, the incendiary conservative website, have been circulated at the White House’s highest levels in recent days, including one story where talk-radio host Mark Levin accused the Obama administration of mounting a ‘silent coup,’ according to several officials.’ If this isn’t a must read I dunno what is.” Trump reminds me of a stock cartoon character: an ancient grump screaming at the TV from his Barcalounger.

There are high-grade worries and then there are REALLY high-grade worries:

This is an interesting notion: I’m the father of four boomers and the husband of a fifth, not a single one of whom displays the “sociopathic” characteristics that the author points at. I suspect “boomerism” (let’s call it), has a great deal to do with attitudes toward money and with the notion that wealth is the truest, best measure of personal value. Need to think about this.

I must say, that when I read Wolcott’s Vanity Fair column, here nicely eviscerated by Yves Smith, I was completely at sea about what he was getting at and why he was getting at whatever it was. I thought it pointless and pandering, which seem to go together these days. There are certain bright, (possibly over-)educated people who should never be permitted to discourse on matters civic or political. Hilton Kramer was one. Wolcott is another.

Diogenes would be pleased. The best sort of argument for close, honest reading.

Oh joy, oh rapture!