Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Monetary Predicaments

Athena Street, AD 2000

Sovereign Wealth and Debt

We take such a drubbing from our legistlators’ speeches.  They seem to be composed, like the lamest, latest interpolations into the Homeric epics, of threadbare fragments all of the same platitudes.  By now one is convinced that the quotations of strings of huge numbers really mean nothing in these persons’ mouths.
One Representative says, “a lot o’ things we’re doin’ we can’t afford to do” and never specifies what we’re doing and can’t afford.  No matter.  We’ve been hammered with this stuff so relentlessly that we know that it merely encompasses whatever the opposing political party thinks worthy.  No need to spell out anything.  It’s like the members of the insane asylum in the old story, who knew all one another’s jokes so well that they just said the number of each and laughed or groaned accordingly.
But I care deeply about economics, and I’ve been working to master the vocabulary, at least, for the last four years.  More.  Ever since Enron was victimizing California more than a decade ago, and I began to learn a bit about ‘creative’ accounting; one had to digest the fact, that such disrespect for the ideals of real wealth could go uncorrected for so long.  Yes, one knew that ever since the end of antiquity money has been ‘debt’ money (even where some governments managed to maintain gold and silver reserves to back it up), but in school they taught us that the arithmetic of the Gross National Product had to be correct.  When one of our own, USA, newsmen today remarked that Christine Lagarde would be able to speak truth to nations who hadn’t faced it, another observed that he hadn’t meant Greece but ourselves.  That’s just what I’ve been thinking, how Greek we all are, how philotimoi, not to say vainglorious, with our Great Nation stuff.  We have lived way beyond our means.  We have believed our stock-market averages, and so forth.
We have let those most capable of paying taxes pay least.  For let no one think that wage-earning Greeks do not pay taxes, but they can’t pay enough to cover the expenses, the legitimate expenses, I mean, of their nation.  Just our own problem: school teachers and bus drivers and builders, and all, no matter how late they wait to retire, have paid for and must have something to live on when they can no longer work.  And that is the least of what a nation must pay for.
Why do we bad-mouth Greece so?  We don’t bully Iceland so badly.  We forget that UBS (to name the most eminent) had some of the Madoff stuff.  He made it, but they ought to have known better, surely, just as our banks ought, than to be tempted by it. 
I take for granted that our own economists as well as Greece’s Papandreou know better than I do, just as surely as Swiss or Scotch bankers do.  But that means that our presidents and premiers and prime ministers may be practically helpless relative to the banks and brokers.  I take some hope, even so, from knowing that Papandreou is a very sound economist.
But I headed this post “Sovereign Wealth”.  That was the first term that I had to look up in 2008.  I gather it is analogous to Capital relative to Income, which persons who are not wage-earning workers refer to in old novels: nice people live on their incomes.  As I recall, however, when I looked it up, only one European nation, Switzerland, had sovereign wealth and only one American State, Alaska.  It seems that sovereign wealth is a good thing to have.  I guess that the USA, even more than one of the large South American nations when in money trouble, has a store of natural resources such as Greece lacks.  Of course, as one who professes Greek art and archaeology, one who loves Greece second only to my own country (without supposing that either of them is faultless or superior, intrinsically, to any other place), I have been agonizing over Greece for months, and I am angry when transalpine nations speak of Greece condescendingly.  It is painful even to a mere philhellene; think how Greeks must feel.  I read their newspapers on line every day, and I am proud of them.  If only I knew the real resolution of all these problems, which (of course) are ours as well as theirs, both in their causes and in their possible effects.  I hope that Christine Lagarde can help.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Taking Positions


Is this why the radical 1960s called me wishy-washy liberal?  It almost always seems to me that questions, or “issues”, as stated in the media, can only be debated in terms that preclude obvious reasonable solutions.  Is it only because these seem to be politically impossible that they are carefully avoided?
Let me take one question prominent in the News over the last weekend, that of gay marriage.  The word, marriage, itself does not imply a religious rite or consecration, but in common parlance it is felt to entail a divine blessing and a holy vow.  Fine.  A word’s meaning is not necessarily identical to its etymology.  Be that as it may, the question seems to me simply a question of the separation of church (vel sim.) and state:
(a) the state cannot demand of a religious institution that it consecrate a civic right or privilege.  Thus, a church, such as the Roman Catholic (but not her alone), cannot be required to give its sacraments to those outside of it and/or at odds with it, whether it be a sacrament such as communion or marriage or last rites or burial in cemeteries of its own, consecrated to the use of its members.  Also,
(b) in a pluralistic constitutional democracy (in our instance) none of the faiths that are free to worship as they believe has the right to impose its own institutions on the citizens, whether many or few, who believe otherwise.  It is the state that determines what is necessary to keep us civilized.  Nor can the state privilege any one religious institution’s social traditions.  All of the rights of citizenship as such must be available to all.
Thus, if everyone must register their marriage irrespective of their religious beliefs, if any, and obtain divorces, when needed, in the legal way, those who wish the wedding consecrated by the religious faith that they adhere to will arrange for the religious rite of their own kind; and if divorce or non-belief or their sex should preclude the consecration of marriage or the administration of last rites, or whatever, religiously, so be it.  The religions in a pluralistic democracy decide what is essential to each of them.
But I can just hear the claims during a political campaign: that would be requiring a “Soviet union” of everyone.  Is that why the obvious solution is politically impossible?
Can it be (I don’t know) that our president is afraid of alienating the Baptist churches?
Therefore, I do not rehearse in my blog postings what seems obvious to me.  After all, I am too old for the question of marriage to be urgent for me, and I come from a part of this nation where partnerships are just as respectable as marriages.  I am sure that questions such as inheritance could be worked out legally, in any case.  I confess, in fact, to being a little leery of marriage, since my parents made a rather poor job of it, but that is no reason to deny its excellence to others.

Monday, June 6, 2011

The most amiable author

The Kritian Boy

For two weeks now Book TV (C-Span 2 when the House of Representatives is not in session, and every weekend) has invited listeners to send in their current choices for Summer Reading.  The most astonishing variety of readers choose a book that I, too, have read with great pleasure, by everyone's favorite conservative, David Brooks, The Social Animal.  It is not original, ground-breaking neuro-science and social science.  It is just awfully well done and perfectly candid without being ickily confessional.  It is just like himself, whether writing columns or talking with Jim Lehrer and Mark Shields every Friday on PBS.  I enjoyed it so much that I read it in two sittings.
What is it, though, that I like so much about David Brooks?
I realized that it is his recalling a face that I've known for more than sixty years, indeed in the same photograph that is older than I am.
It is the face of that most candid and kaloskagathos from the Athenian Acropolis, the Kritian Boy, which may actually be Kritian, if you agree that it resembles the head of Harmodios, the young Tyrant-Slayer.
How can one possibly not like and trust a man who, in middle age (he is the same age as our President Obama), has all the candor of that most open-faced of all adolescent Athenians?
Besides, may I take this occasion to recommend his book, The Social Animal, to you all?  It is unpretentious and utterly free of malice.