Critiques & Commentary

12/28/16…A journey to Hell…

Most notably on the opera stage, but in other high-cultural venues as well, it isn’t uncommon to update canonical works to the modern day, at least in terms of such externalities as mise-en-scene, costumes etc. Take, for instance, a towering masterwork with which most people over 50 have some familiarity and most of those below that age probably none. It’s the epic in which the narrator, having midway in the journey of his life found himself in a dark wood where the direct path was lost, is taken on a journey through the afterlife that starts in Hell and terminates in the Empyrean. Yesterday I had an experience that could well provide the basis for a transference of the great poem from the 14th to the 21st Century.

In my version, that narrator encounters a guide who promises to show him all eternity, but being a very postmodern positivist, urges that they start at the very lowest circle of Hell, after which things can only get better. And so the narrator is taken to a strange place, noisome and noisy, surrounded by odd shapes, many seeming to be little more that splotches of paint and clumps of plastic randomly dispersed. Among these aimlessly weaves a packed throng of confused beings of hideous dress and aspect, sending up a wailing babel of many tongues. The narrator, his agoraphobia and aural and visual sensitivities challenged to the boiling/breaking point, inquires of his guide: “What is this horrible place? It is the worst I have ever seen! I can hardly bear it!” His guide smiles: ‘It is the summit of this age’s culture,” he replies. “This is the Museum of Modern Art during Christmas Week.”

“Well, if it is,” the narrator exclaims, “I say the hell with it, no pun intended,” and with that he abandons his guide, rushes out of the dire place, and races back through the woods to Rimini, where he gets a job as a barista.

And that is that.

1.Now – to the day’s serious business, here’s David Pryce Jones on the current state of Brexit and EU affairs. He’s writing in The New Criterion, a magazine that lovers of best culture must read for Karen Wilkin, Marco Grassi, Kyle Smith and Jay Nordlinger, but which, in its political pages, is showing signs, post-Trump, of reverting to the right-wing looniness that characterized it back in the days of its Founder Hilton Kramer. That said, I feel Pryce Jones’s point is well taken:  “Nationalism is heating everywhere to a temperature already close to explosion. In the absence of any known cure, this [atient (the EU) must either recover miraculously or die. The watchers at the bedside do not know what is to be hoped for, or to be feared.

“Would-be doctors are coming off badly. One of the foremost among them is President Obama, who flew in to advise the British that in a referendum then about to occur, they should vote to stay within the European Union. The vote to leave, Brexit for short, exposed him as an airhead without influence or the prestige due to his office.”

2.Totally agree:  I would footnote Cuozzo’s diatribe with the famous remark by Ernest Thesiger. Returning to London from the Western Front in 1916, he was asked what it was like in the trenches. “My dears,” he replied, “the noise! And the people!”

3. The media are full of articles about how to combat Trump. This is typical: – especially since, to my recollection, the writer has never been more than half-right on any subject of importance (except, naturally, importance of the “self-” variety). In my view, the way to get to Trump is make him lose it, and the way to do that is to take him on at Twitter. Organize a Twitter “hit squad” of, say, 100 articulate people (I’ll volunteer) that will challenge his tweets (nothing will make him stop; he seems addicted)by fighting dirty in the 140-character format, inducing him tweet back and back again until he goes apeshit.

4. Indeed, sir, indeed: and this too, sir:

5. A couple of years ago, mainly as a favor and gesture of respect and affection for two friends, Scott McConnell and Taki, I took out a subscription to The American Conservative. What with one thing or another, I barely skimmed the issues, but I kept them and recently started to go through the stack. It’s an interesting magazine. Doctrinaire to be sure, but a grownup expects that, and there’s a lot of other good stuff in there. Taki’s on the back page, doing his thing (which I’ve described elsewhere as derived from the little boy in Alice… “who only does it annoy because he knows it teases”) and I have to say, judging from the intemperate reaction his latest screed elicited from the adjacent pillow, he succeeds. I consider myself a conservative progressive – one who examines the bathwater to see if there might be a baby in it – and I’ve followed a sort of backwards path through life: usually, one starts out young and relatively impecunious and then as one becomes wealthier, turns conservative (it’s the money, you see). But I had money when I was young, and therefore could afford to be idealistic despite my circumstances, and then as I’ve grown older, and relatively poorer, my idealism – compassion for others, mainly – has stuck with me because there’s been no incentive to go in the opposite direction.

6. Headed by prize asshole Larry Kudlow, certain people on the Trump transition team are arguing that his plutocratic choices for his Cabinet and inner circle are immunized by their wealth from any temptation to steal or to corrupt for pecuniary reasons. Based on my observations over 50-plus years, this is absolute bullshit. Indeed the reverse is true. While there are obvious exceptions, as a general rule, the richer one becomes, the more rapacious, avaricious, greedy and morally provincial one becomes. The word “enough” disappears from the vocabulary. The notion that with advantages come responsibilities is put out of mind. One becomes psychologically interwoven with one’s wealth to the extent that any diminishment of one’s pile will be like having a limb cut off. And since big hitters have easier access to piggy banks – pension funds, the taxpayers’ full faith and credit, corporate accounts etc – temptation is easier to yield to.

Signing off:




We took six hours yesterday to watch the second part of “The Hollow Crown,” a splendid mashup of the three Henry VI plays and Richard III done by a first-rate British cast led by Benedict Cumberbatch as the wicked king and Ben Miles as  Somerset, the treacherous courtier who betrays the waffling Henry VI (Tom Sturridge). Odd how these things go in cycles. It’s been some time since I encountered the Henry VI-Richard III tetralogy done whole (the last play , of course is fodder for scenery-chewers) but this year, in a relatively few months, I’ve seen it twice, the first time being “Kings of War,” a fine inventive version at BAM. Anyway, this production completed the cycle (the first, Richard II, the two Henry IV plays and Henry V done no less magnificently – Tom Hiddleston was born to play Hal/Henry V – was shown last year.) Engrossed as we were, and engaged, full of admiration for the production and the performers, we came away at the end with one thought above all: my God, Shakespeare, how did you do it! His language is, to my mind at least, as close as we poor mortals are likely to come to the voice of God!

Now impends the Age of Trump, and with each day – each hour, it seems – right-wing creatures are emerging into sunlight – the Obama winter of their discontent made glorious summer by this son of Queens, as the Bard would say -and flexing their rhetorical muscles. Today’s Wall Street Journal hearkens back to the glory days of Bob Bartley about how mean Obama has been to the banks and how, at this eleventh hour, he’s giving them a last sharp kick in the regulatory ribs. I concede the Journal  this much:  Obama has been hard on banks when he should have been harder on bankers – there’s a difference, you know – and while a certain amount of penalty money has been collected, some of it ridiculously (as in the case of Fannie and Freddy), the regulatory overload imposed has severely limited the ability of banks to perform their social function while effecting little change in Wall Street’s sociopathic thinking. And now we face the prospect of the Journal and others trotting back onstage and treating us to four years, at a a minimum, of ludicrous amateur fascism.

Speaking of banks:

1.Is Robert Harris – – channeling Morris L. West?

2.Fact or fiction? In Fixers the ex-CIA narrator is never told the source of the money that he’ll dispense to turn the 2008 Democratic primaries inside-out. I deliberately left that unspoken, although I confess I wasn’t thinking Putin. But if the ambiguity fits, wear it!



12/26/16….”Official” Christmas Day….

1.They used to say, Harvard Law School is for lawyers, Yale is for judges. Both, it seems, are for hustlers.

2.The world we live(d) in:

3. The Metropolitan Museum has come up with a new committee with an all-time name: The Multicultural Audience Development Initiative Advisory Committee


12/25/16…God rest us merry….

Last evening a lovely family time. Good food, good talk – everything possible to bring comfort and joy to this elderly gentleman. The grandkids have reached an age when I know what they most want for Christmas: small rectangular pieces of paper with my signature in the lower right-hand corner. My grandson Cooper, the Dartmouth-educated cartographer and world traveler and ever a delight to be with, has discovered Patrick O’Brien, so off he went having plucked from the shelves the five-volume boxed set of the Aubrey-Maturin novels. And yet….

So much to ponder in this money-bloated world, where so few have so much and so many so little, where Mammon has been allowed to run wild, trampling underfoot old, once solid-seeming friendships and values and the searing flame of greed has (as Marx put) melted all that was solid into air: poiluted air, need I add, stinking of carbon and exhaust fumes…hard – even on Christmas Day – not feel disgusted at what man has made of this world…

And was ever something invented to do worse by Christmas than Facebook, encourager of boastfulness, exhibitionism, possession- and advantage-strutting – bah!



12/24/16….Minus 1, forget Trump, think Santa…

Tonight we’ll welcome family, including two ex-wives and one about-to-be ex-husband, to our annual Christmas Eve party. T has handcrafted her holiday lasagna, the making of which has been daunting simply to observe. In our small way, we’re continuing the tradition imported in 1949, when my father married Poppi and she brought with her from the Engadine the European habit of celebrating Noel on Christmas Eve, which continued through 2000, her last Christmas Eve on this mortal coil. We’ll be thinking of her, and my father, and my brother, and of all those family celebrations – some of which got pretty weird, let me tell you, such as the one when Joe Thomas showed up in a hard hat and workmen’s coveralls on which was stitched “Impeach Mayor Lindsay.” The tree was decorated with real, live candles, with Nick, our superintendent, and I standing by with fire extinguishers. They were occasions that in some years were approached with exhilaration and expectation, others with deepest foreboding, feelings that would enhance the enrichment that my parental and step-parental relationships would bring to at least two generations of Manhattan psychiatrists (if I ever write the memoir my children are pressing me to do, the chapter on a generic haut-WASP childhood will be called “Orphans with Parents”). Like the US Postal Service not rain nor snow nor tropical weather (I’m not counting the odd Christmas Eve in Jamaica: the traditional ackee brought to table made for an interesting spin on Dickens’s plum puddings) deterred us from making the trip out to Old Brookville, and nothing will replace in memory the look on the faces of wives #2 and #3 when their stepmother-in-law bestowed on them the gifts they had given her just the year before. She was the Leonardo da Vinci of regifting. Poppi believed in a regimen of, shall we say, Swiss conservatism when it came to expenditure; she was ever alert to a bargain, which led to such Yuletide joys as when all females present received “pashminas” that had clearly been bought on the street.  Still and all, none of us would exchange those memories for anything. And so, everyone, God bless us all – and God help us. I have a hunch we’re going to need Him.


1.Just one post today: a footnote/gloss on yesterday’s bit on what’s taking away the jobs that Trump is vainly (and in my view cynically) claiming to restore:

2/Well, just one more: ESSENTIAL INFORMATION!

3.NYT Book Review has a big “books I liked” section that disgraces itself by including that pompous self-regarding asshole F. Zakaria, whose testimony is mostly about himself with a fleeting sidelong glance at Dostoyevski.

4. The great American art form: Usury.







12/23/16…Forget Christmas, forget New Year’s…it’s Trump minus 29 days…..

Last night the second of several family dinners, this time at a DELICIOUS Chinese restaurant,  Jan Lue Club on 20th just off 6th Ave, There were twelve us at table. This installment of holiday heaven is organized by my ex-wife Wendell Giard and her husband George. In our family, divorce is only the beginning!

1. Good question to start the day: I might add that the liberal elites, including our current president, whose eight years of yadayada self-congratulatory posturing have produced little, are also absconding with great amounts of our aural energy with dire predictions of the dystopian future yet to come and the villainous character of his Cabinet appointments. I have known one of these for thirty years, and while he’s not someone I’d rush to go on a cruise with, he’s done a hell of a lot more for the economic health of the country, speaking both nationally and regionally, than the entire editorial staff of The Nation. Obama opened the door for McConnell and his obstructionist friends when, just two weeks after the 2008 election,  his transition team, headed by that idiot Podesta,  leaked that he would be appointing  Summers and Geithner to lead his economic team. The stock market responded with a 1000-point two-day spike, showing its belief as to whose side Obama was really  on. You can read all about it in FIXERS,  as you can about how it wasn’t just chronological coincidence that in the immediate wake of his wishy-washy inaugural address – you were hoping for FDR? I was! – the GOP got together and pledged to oppose the new president’s every initiative. We can take this guy, they realized; he’s just a hot-air balloon, an exponentiated campus politician. And so, in largest measure, has it proved.

As for Trump, I discuss him with our housekeeper, a person of color and an immigrant. As she puts it, “You never can tell, just wait and see.” All this pre-inaugural bellyaching, all these pronouncements for evil days to come that reek with Krugmanesque punditical certitude, are simply pitiful examples of what my late friend Liquor Jack was wont to describe as “leaving one’s fight in the locker room.”

2.This post from Politico’s “Morning Money” caught my eye:

“In the lessons learned category, MM regrets not focusing more on the difficulty of an incumbent party hanging onto the White House for a third consecutive term, even with an economy at nearly full employment and trending in the right direction. Clinton’s weakness at connecting with younger voters and working class whites also could have used more examination. And never again will we believe that [insert outrageous gaffe here] will finish a political candidate. Trump blew that all away. Not that anyone not named Trump could pull it off. But still …

In the spirit of the season, we here at MM are hoping for the best for an incoming administration that will face enormous challenges in actually delivering on the promise of a manufacturing renaissance in the industrial Midwest and more broadly shared growth. Best of luck also in reducing the trade deficit in the face of a surging dollar. But those are stories for next year.”

It caught my eye because it speaks for the elitist viewpoint, which means that it’s deeply stupid. “Full employment” treats human beings as a statistic. But shouldn’t we be concerned as whether our workforce, both on the job or looking for work, is fully employed – which begs the question of whether the work is useful, or productive. Is that a word we can attach to a roomful of MIT or CalTech computer science PhDs squinting at monitors as they try to come up with an app that will engage the fantasies of 8-year-olds? Isn’t the economic yardstick that matters a comparison of what people earn with what they owe, with what it costs to house oneself? There will be no “manufacturing renaissance.” Why? Because when once we feared Yeats’s “rough beast…slouching toward Bethlehem to be reborn” now we need to fear our own “shining robot…clanking toward (fill in place name) to take over.” Read about the robots that are being installed in Amazon’s fulfillment centers. The jobs they’re replacing are as likely to be in Monterrey as Milwaukee.  This has got me thinking about stupidity (the act of doing or saying something stupid), which – like victory – has many fathers. One, of course, is simple ignorance. But another, to which we may not pay as much attention as we should, is intellectual arrogance.

3, I’ve been searching for years for an antidote to the poetry of Jorie Graham. Sound like this might be it:




12/22/16…Minus Four…

Three grandsons’ birthdays are now dealt with. How do you go broke? With three grandsons born within 24 hours of each other, slowly, then all at once!

2.FT interview with Nobel prize winner Of Obama, Deaton says, “The man has a lot of class. He may not have been a very effective president. But that’s beside the point now I guess.” That’s sort of my view, although mine is darker: I think O has squandered the greatest opportunity to set the country to rights that was ever vouchsafed a president-elect. And now we’ve ended up beached on the littoral of his conceit.

Speaking of which:

3. Interesting perspectives from smart people.  AND:




12/21/16…Minus Five…

Skipped yesterday without prejudice. Dentist, bank, lunch with kids, visit with an art-dealing friend: in this cold, my old bones get stiff, and my breath short, and by the time I straggled back across the East River, I was beat and in need of soothing comfort, which in this household hath but one meaning: “Midsomer Murders.”

So here we go. Back to the old sounding board:

1.James Kwak’s contributions to his and Simon Johnson’s “Baseline Scenario” are always worth reading. Personally, I won’t make up my own mind about the virtues of free markets until someone shows me one. In the 55 years since I first ventured onto Wall Street, every “free” market I’ve observed has been fixed, fiddled, faked, manipulated, distorted, you name it. Nor is it consoling to hear Phil Gramm praised. He was a lying piece of shit.

2.Patrick Coburn seems pretty reliable:

3.Ghastlier and ghastlier: But then: Even a stopped clock….

4. So far, my friend Graydon Carter is pitching a shutout in the versus-Trump contest. Here’s an example:  But Graydon does raise one intriguing thought. He describes the recent election as sending “the most ill-equipped president in history to the White House.” Certainly this seems true. But what are we to make of the fact that the election of 1856 sent perhaps the best-equipped president in history to the White House, and yet in 1861, with onshore ordinance sighting in on Fort Sumter, James Buchanan completed a single term in office that historians now rate as the worst in presidential history.  For better or worse, the White House can have a transformative effect.

5. I feel the same way about John le Carre. Been reading books I bought, tried and hurled from me with impatience. Our Game, Absolute Friends etc. Still the best at what he does well, but MUST NOT be allowed to write about ideology.

6. Why I am glad to see the backs of this couple. The corollary to the Clinton conviction that the rules don’t apply to them is their other life-governing tenet: If everyone’s lying, no one is.

7. Final question: has M.Dowd left NYT? Never appears and the legend “Maureen Dowd is off today” no longer appears.

8. The confusions and conflicts inherent in Obamacare overwhelm its virtues. So it seems to be in foreign policy:

9. So what’s new, pussycat? Forty ears ago, I sat in on a meeting when exactly this kind of pay-to-let-play transaction was discussed by two men, one a city official, the other a money manager, both of whom went on to scale the heights of wealth and respectability.





12/19/16…Counting Down: Minus 6….

1.I started my day with this, and you might get a kick out of it too. My admiration for Michael Lewis grows apace, writer for writer, person for person  – the latter not least because, although he’s one of the best-paid writers in the country, he sends his daughter to a big urban high school where she will encounter all kinds of different people.

2. Very interesting. Here’s the money quote:

Instead, the explanation may be related to public policies and the formal protection of certain occupations. In the United States, a rather small fraction of the top one per cent of earners comes from high-tech industries such as ICT and manufacturing. The bulk of top earners are lawyers, doctors, dentists and financial sector professionals. Some of these industries enjoy a relatively high level of protection, while the impact of technological change may still be comparatively modest. Europe tells a different story. In many European countries, a much higher share of the top one percent of earners than in the United States is in the manufacturing sector.

I don’t agree about the nominal impact of technological change on finance. As one old boy in Fixers observes, “With computers, it’s become possible to profitably trade obscenely small fractions of money!”

3. An interesting experiment that may yield insights on the pros and cons of “helicopter money.” In my view, the most efficacious method would be to pay down their installment debt.

4.Going back almost 40 years, to the infamous “Powell Memorandum”, the GOP “relocalized” politics from the ground up. You begin by corrupting the smallest influential political units – by, say, gerrymandering voting districts – and move up the chain link by link through state legislatures and statehouses all the way to Washington.  You end up with Nixon, then Reagan, then Clinton (GOP in Dem clothing), finally Trump. I’m wondering now why progressives can’t do the same thing, by localizing social media: creating geographically compact cells – FB users in, say, Buffalo – of like-minded individuals, institutions and media to stop whining about national issues and instead to concentrate their power to investigate, harry, harass and otherwise torture and drive from power the local bad guys. Just a thought.

5.This is the sort of thing that in my opinion (and on my personal list) will earn Obama – Mr. “Hope & Change” – a place on the list of the country’s worst presidents.

6.Pretty good stuff:

7.Politico’s “Morning Money” making uncommon good sense:

MM REAL TALK – There are two equally maddening political positions popular in the land right now. On the left: Trump’s win shouldn’t count and the Electoral College should reject him. On the Trump-right: The president-elect’s thin electoral margin and popular vote loss don’t matter and he should do whatever he wants. Both are completely bogus. Trump won. Did the Russians help? Probably. Does that kind of suck? Sure. But who knows if it was decisive.

Hillary Clinton had many problems. She lost states she needed to win. Trump’s presidency will be perfectly legitimate. But losing the popular vote matters in terms of approach to governance and conciliation with political opponents. More people dislike Trump’s policies on immigration than embrace them. There is no mandate for rounding up the undocumented en masse and evicting them from the country. Trump so far seems to get this even if some of his ardent supporters do not.

BUT, as I keep pointing out, and no one seems to want hear, of HRC’s 3 million plurality in the popular vote, 5.0 million was racked up in NY and CA. How will that affect “governance”? On verra. 

8.People wailing, keening and rending garments over whatever influence Russia (considered broadly) may have had on the recent election will have some embryonic idea of what Iranians must have felt in 1953 when the CIA engineered the downfall of a popularly-elected prime minister (Iran was then a parliamentary monarchy) and strengthened the hand of the Shit – sorry, the Shah – of Iran.