Friday, September 27, 2013

Summer Reading in One Town or Another

With the inmates of the public school system on furlough, our funding source for greens fees was necessarily curtailed during the summer months, so we indulged in a cheaper, but not less loved, pastime.

By the way, we were recently reacquainted with the young scholars and are here to report that boxer-revealing jeans for lightfoot lads and the skinny variety for rose-lipt maids are still the fashion, as is their disdain for a sophomore curriculum that begins with the sermons of Jonathan Winthrop. 

However, our reading addiction remained a demanding mistress this summer.  She led us to a variety of leafy glades and sunny perches.  A favorite was a public bench in front of a Southern state capitol shadowed by a monument to the Confederate soldier, the decorative flora of which, we observed, was tended by the descendants of American slaves.  This is called irony, a device we have tried to explain with little success to the denim-clad lightfoot lads and rose-lipt maids.

Before we turn to handicapping college football and the Federal Reserve, we take a minute to look back at a summerful of books under buttery buckets of sunshine.

We kicked off with an almost forgotten American novelist, James Gould Cozzens.  We had read “The Just and the Unjust” many years ago at the behest of a professor also smitten with Cozzens.  This go-around we picked up “Guard of Honor,” Cozzens’ World War II novel set on an Army Air Force base in Florida.  Sinuous revelations of character sans authorial comment -- from the meretricious to the noble, the weak and the strong -- wash against the background of race relations circa 1943.

It seems all our summer reading was invested in works exploring the variety and universality of the human condition.  We found both in Katherine Anne Porter’s “Ship of Fools” (aren’t we all?), whose cast of characters run from nattering Nazis to Spanish whoredom.  Losers take all in this one.

We also resumed our habit of reading deeply of a writer we have neglected over the years.  We had read Henry James’ “Daisy Miller” and “The Turn of the Screw” and were not inspired.  That was a mistake of callow youth.  In our dotage, we embarked on a gluttonous Jamesian journey through his earliest works:  “Watch and Ward,” “Roderick Hudson,” “The American,” “The Europeans,” and “Washington Square.”  All delineate the interior life exposed in love thwarted and requited.  Our favorite by far was “The American,” in which character is revealed by a self-made Westerner’s courtship of a young Parisian widow from a shabby noble family with a dark past.

For the coward in us all, we met another tortured soul in Conrad’s “Lord Jim.”  The inwardness of Jim rivals that of Hamlet, which we re-read this summer.  The story is told by Marlow, the narrator we encountered years ago when we read “Heart of Darkness” after seeing “Apocalypse Now.”

Speaking of movie-inspired reading, we re-read Fitzgerald’s “Tender Is the Night,” after seeing the re-make of “The Great Gatsby,” a failure, we thought, though DiCaprio was very good.  In any event, we wanted to revisit “Tender,” having re-read “Gatsby” in the spring.  The last lines of the former resonate deeper with us than the iconic close of the latter.

Dr. Dick Diver has lost his troubled rich wife and children to another man after expatriate escapades in France that include a young movie actress, a sodden musician, a fatuous novelist, a duel and some serious mental health issues:

“After that he didn’t ask for the children to be sent to America and didn’t answer when Nicole wrote asking him if he needed money. In the last letter she had from him he told her that he was practising in Geneva, New York, and she got the impression that he had settled down with some one to keep house for him. She looked up Geneva in an atlas and found it was in the heart of the Finger Lakes Section and considered a pleasant place. Perhaps, so she liked to think, his career was biding its time, again like Grant’s in Galena; his latest note was post-marked from Hornell, New York, which is some distance from Geneva and a very small town; in any case he is almost certainly in that section of the country, in one town or another.”

Monday, September 23, 2013

Why the Fed's Non-Taper Is Depressing

Forgive our crowing, but occasions to indulge are so few and far between that the temptation is irresistible.  The Fed’s decision this month to keep its quantitative easing pedal to the metal came as a surprise to most everyone but us (see our Aug. 2 post, “Taper Tigers…”).

The reasons for the Fed’s reluctance to quit printing money have been printed almost daily in economic statistics from job creation to personal consumption and boil down to this: steady erosion that threatens to turn into a landslide as sequestration bites harder and the suicidal impulses in Washington gain traction.

But we think an even more depressing development is persuading the majority of policymakers to believe it is the last, best hope for keeping the American glue from melting.  We’re talking about the uncomfortable reality that nobody but Jamie Dimon and A-Rod are getting ahead.  Wages remain stagnant and nearly all the fruits of the recovery that began in 2009 have gone to those whose plates are already full.

The most disheartening evidence of this comes from the recent walk-outs by fast-food workers and Wal-Mart “associates” seeking higher wages.  This is depressing not because they will almost surely fail but because the mini-strikes speak to the growing realization that opportunity will likely not be knocking down the road. 

Frying hamburgers and stocking supermarket shelves were once transitional jobs filled by students looking for gas money, prom dresses or tuition.  They were way stations on the road to better things.  Indeed, that’s the way the Wall Street Journal opinion spinners and the like-minded still view them when arguing against raising the minimum wage.

But large numbers of employees obviously see themselves going nowhere.  If this is their last stop along the food chain, their only way up is more do-re-mi for singing for their suppers at the Losers Lounge.  Add to that the rotten tomatoes Tea Partiers are throwing at them in their uber-churlish desire to derail affordable health care for low-wage families and you have one nasty commonweal.

Which brings us to the Fed.  More than anything, Ben Bernanke and his team must view themselves as social workers.  To remove the only brick keeping the Losers Lounge from cratering would be dereliction.  Wall Street’s prognosticators didn’t see it even though the data the Fed said it was looking at should have made it clear.
Now there is talk that the Fed will taper its bond buying program next month.  Could be, but if inflation remains quiescent we wonder why it would take the chance.