Monthly Archives: November 2011

of towel-snapping

Mark Liberman, over at Language Log, has a totally brilliant post: Towel-snapping semiotics: How the frontal lobe comes out through the mouth. He closes with this essential HL Mencken quote, perennially useful:

… more than anywhere else that I know of or have heard of, the daily panorama of human existence, of private and communal folly–the unending procession of governmental extortions and chicaneries, of commercial brigandages, and throat-slittings, of theological buffooneries, of aesthetic ribaldries, of legal swindles and harlotries, of miscellaneous rogueries, villainies, imbecilities, grotesqueries, and extravagances–is so inordinately gross and preposterous, so perfectly brought up to the highest conceivable amperage, so steadily enriched with an almost fabulous daring and originality, that only the man who was born with a petrified diaphragm can fail to laugh himself to sleep every night, and to awake every morning with all the eager, unflagging expectation of a Sunday-school superintendent touring the Paris peep-shows. [“On Being an American“, 1922]

I’m currently enjoying Colin Woodard’s American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, and this fits right in.

a modest education in economics

via Crooked Timber, Cosma’s engaging fable Dives, Lazarus, and Alice. A couple of bits to whet the ummmm appetite:

…Gloomy, snarky, heavy-handed, academic, and obvious to anyone who knows enough about the subject to care…

…The larger point is that while what is technologically efficient depends on facts of nature, what is economically efficient is a function of our social arrangements, of who owns how much of what. Economic efficiency may be a good tool, but it is perverse to serve your own tools, and monstrous to be ruled by them. Let us be thankful for the extent to which we escape perversion and monstrosity.


John Lanchester’s review of Michael Lewis’s Boomerang in NYRB is worth a read today, as markets head south. A few trenchant quotes:

A writer making society-wide generalizations is picking up a big and very full bag by a single handle; in that position, it’s easy to end up writing about the handle, because it’s the thing on which you have a secure grip…

…“There was no credit boom in Germany,” an official told Lewis. “Real estate prices were completely flat. There was no borrowing for consumption. Because this behavior is totally unacceptable in Germany.”…

This one is ostensibly about Greece and Greek monetary delusions, but is uncomfortably relevant to contemporary American civic culture:

But the place does not behave as a collective…. It behaves as a collection of atomized particles, each of which has grown accustomed to pursuing its own interest at the expense of the common good. There’s no question that the government is resolved to at least try to re-create Greek civic life. The only question is: Can such a thing, once lost, ever be re-created?

And here’s another passage (the Envoi) with Goose over Grave frisson, in which one just might try substituting ‘politics’ for ‘economics’ and perhaps ‘truth’ for ‘money’:

The collective momentum of a culture is, for more or less everybody more or less all of the time, overwhelming. This is especially true for anything to do with economics. The evidence is clear: it is easy to mislead people about money, and easy to lead members of the public astray both individually and en masse, because when it comes to money, most of us, most of the time, don’t know what we’re doing. The corollary is also clear: the whole Western world misled itself over debt, and the road back from where we are goes only uphill.

Some quotage

from Tom Dispatch:

The outrage that it has transformed into activity is over those who are still living high and profiting off that world’s demise — the privateers, looters, subprime hucksters, corporate grifters, Wall Street gamblers, and all those willing to take a buck to shill for them, to make sure in every way that they thrive as other Americans crash and burn.

From Jeff Madrick in New York Review of Books:

…compensation tied to stock options along with unusually high profits by financial firms, much of which was passed on to their executives, seems to be the overriding factor. This is probably now the main driver of what we call income inequality in America and what we should more accurately call runaway incomes at the very top…

…This may seem counterintuitive at first. After all, analysts have long painted a picture of growing inequality over the past few decades in which the top quintile’s share of the national income has risen while the share of the other 80 percent has fallen. But almost all the gains for the top 20 percent was for the top 1 percent. And half of that is accounted for by a tiny group within the top percent—those earners in the top 0.1 percent. Meanwhile, for the four quintiles below the 80 percent level, the share of total income fell significantly. For those from the 80th to the 99th percentile, the share rose only slightly (a little more rapidly as you go higher up). In other words, Occupy Wall Street’s claim that “We are the 99 percent” is dead on right.

Concise advice

from World Wide Words:

Let your conversation possess a clarified conciseness, compacted comprehensibleness, coalescent consistency, and a concatenated cogency. Eschew all conglomerations of flatulent garrulity, jejune babblement, and asinine affectations. Let your extemporaneous descantings and unpremeditated expatiations have intelligibility, without rhodomontade or thrasonical bombast. Sedulously avoid all polysyllabical profundity, pompous prolixity, and ventriloquial vapidity. Shun double-entendre and prurient jocosity, whether obscure or apparent. In other words, speak truthfully, naturally, clearly, purely, but do not use large words.
[Notes and Queries, 11 Feb. 1893.]

(see here for more)