Perhaps as a way to distract myself from the colossal meltdowns that occur regularly at our house each evening between, say, 7:30 and 8:30, I’ll here post about two fantastic articles by Michael Lewis – the author of Liar’s Poker, Moneyball, and some other good stuff – on the financial meltdown:

“The End,” Portfolio, December 2008

An engrossing and shocking look at the deep and wide pool of stupidity that was Wall Street during the boom -and the recent bust.

“Wall Street on the Tundra,” Vanity Fair, April 2008
A long examination of how Iceland, without even really understanding what it was doing, remade itself as a capital of world finance, and is now suffering a calamity of its own creation.


Continuing my goal of achieving convergence between this blog and Facebook, here is my response to the Facebook “meme” on the fifteen (give or take) albums which have been important to my life…

The only albums I can really remember from childhood (ours was not a musical house) are Johnny Horton, “Greatest Hits,” and Kenny Rogers, “The Gambler,” which I played on our giant old record player/stereo. “The Gambler” speaks for itself as a peak of 20th century cultural production, but Horton’s “Sink the Bismarck” is probably the main reason that I was ever interested in history. You can draw a straight line from that song’s opening drumbeats to my dissertation on World War II shipbuilding. I’m not even kidding.

In junior high and high school, I slowly discovered, thanks to WIMI radio in Ironwood, Michigan, and then the Musicland in the Copper Country Mall, Houghton, that many people listened to a lot of music, much of which was pretty damn interesting. In high school, I basically burned out my tapes of R.E.M.’s “Document” and “Green” (only later working backwards to the earlier, better albums) and two rap albums: Public Enemy, “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” and N.W.A., “Straight Outta Compton.” The former album opened me up to all kinds of politics, and put me on to reading everything from The Autobiography of Malcolm X to histories of Marcus Garvey and slave rebellions. The latter album, I played incessantly while driving around and around and around downtown Houghton.

I brought those albums with me to Macalester in 1991, but literally from the first day on campus I started listening to stuff that they didn’t even carry at that Musicland, much less play on the radio in the U.P. The tattooed guy next door lent me his copies of Nirvana’s “Bleach” and “Nevermind,” both of which I immediately bought at Applause in St. Paul – a store that dwarfed Musicland in every important way. From various friends, I discovered, among other music, the Pixies, “Trompe le Monde,” the Smiths, “Louder Than Bombs,” Jack Logan, “Bulk,” and especially the holy quartet of Uncle Tupelo albums: “Still Feel Gone,” “No Depression,” “March 16-20, 1992,” and “Anodyne.” The first two UT albums were the first pieces of music that really spoke to my experience growing up in a depressed, alcoholic Midwestern town that seemed fit only for escaping – and they fucking rocked, too. “March 16,” on the other hand, sent me backwards to classic American music: the Smithsonian folk music collections, Leadbelly (whom, I was happy to discover, was also a favorite of Nirvana), the Carter Family, Johnny Cash, and especially Hank Williams. I never acquired much Hank, but a cheap copy of his “40 Greatest Hits” has been a constant companion ever since.

Moving to Chicago immediately after college, I tried and mostly failed to keep up with the music scene. Coincidentally, the UT successor band Wilco located itself in Chicago around then, as well, which made it easy to follow their development. Just as UT had sent me to the historical record of American music, “Being There,” “Summer Teeth,” and “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” sent me out to weirder contemporary stuff, including especially Radiohead. I had no idea what to make of “OK Computer” when I bought it on the spur of the moment at (oddly) a Musicland store, but my god it was fun to contemplate as an underemployed 20-something and then as an impoverished grad student. I loved (love) all of Radiohead’s later albums (“Kid A,” “Amnesiac,” “Hail to the Thief”) too, but “OKC” was and still is it: “For a minute there, I lost myself.”

Around that same time, I started to discover jazz, thanks to a confluence of forces that included some worldly grad school classmates and friends, a great jazz scene in Chicago, and a deeper appreciation of the heritage on which Wilco and Radiohead were building. A grad school prof suggested that I try Charles Mingus, “Mingus Ah Um” first, owing to its deep connections to the history of 1950s and 1960s, and I was hooked. It was easy to slide over to other great jazz, like Bill Evans, “Portrait in Jazz,” and of course Miles Davis, “Kind of Blue,” and to pick up newer stuff like the Brad Mehldau Trio, “Places,” or the Bad Plus, “There Are the Vistas” and “Give” – all of which are notable not only for being excellent jazz but for covering tunes by the Pixies, Nirvana, and Radiohead. When the Bad Plus cover Johnny Horton’s “North to Alaska,” I know my musical history will have come full circle.

D.C. United

After yesterday’s travel debacles, I made it to “the District” this morning around 10:30, at which time I discovered a city pretty much locked up from Sunday’s snowfall. Relative to Minnesota’s recent storm, this one wasn’t much, but it was obvious that the city’s not equipped to handle it. The streets were slush ponds, the sidewalks were iced over, and people were bundled up for Arctic expeditions.

And but so, my taxi ride to the conference hotel took about ten minutes over the empty streets, allowing me to check in, unpack, and still make it to the afternooon conferene sessions.

Lemons thus made into lemonade, I was pleasantly surprised to find the sky still full of light when the day’s sessions ended at five. Spring is coming! I headed directly to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, of which Julia had asked me to take a picture. The first and second times I had been to the see the White House (last March and in October 2000), the people on the sidewalk across from Lafayette Park were businesslike, solemnly taking the requisite pictures.

This time, I snapped my pictures as part of a shifting group of twelve or twenty other people, all grinning happily and all taking pictures like crazy. My favorites were  three French-speaking black hipsters who each took a turn standing at the fence directly in front of the White House portico, counting “Un… deux… TROIS!” and then leaping into the air while the others took pictures. While they were having a great time, everyone else (except maybe the cop who was cursing at his squad car’s steaming engine) was having a good time, too, even four months after the election and six weeks after the inauguration.

Rolling Up the Sleeves

Remember the silly kerfuffle a few days ago when Andy Card, W’s chief of staff, insinuated, on the basis of the already-famous photo of a jacketless Obama working at the Oval Office desk, that our president probably didn’t have the right amount of respect for the presidency?

It was stupid for Card to say in the first place, but it’s all the more stupid now, when one can see – thanks to some research by our friends at the Huffington Post – several other jacketless presidents at the same damn desk, including

St. Ronald

Jacketless Reagan
Jacketless Reagan

And the Worst President Ever, right after his first inauguration, chilling with Harriet Miers.

Bush: No Jacket Required
Bush: No Jacket Required

(Link to the source via the great Apsies microblog.)

Inaugurated Out

I think I’m a little bit worn out, after yesterday’s frenzy of texting, Facebook posting, and blogging – just on the production end of things. Today was all about consumption, and here are three things worth your time.

The new president, working in the Oval Office (from a slideshow by the Chicago Tribune):

Obamas Oval Office
Obama's Oval Office

Elizabeth Alexander’s brilliant inauguration poem, “Praise Song for the Day.” The last lines get me:

In today's sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,

praise song for walking forward in that light.

My friend Rob Hardy’s equally brilliant response poem, “Praise Song for January 21, 2009.” Again, the last lines:

Today is a new day,
like any other.
Today we must stop
congratulating ourselves.
Today we must stop saying
that history’s been made.
We must start making it.

Things are better today than they were on Monday night, or even on Tuesday night. On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp…

Reputable, Fair and Balanced

My day started well: my morning email included a link to an article by Larry Beinhart in the Huffington Post that briefly quotes a refereed essay I wrote a few years ago, “The American Economy during World War II.”

Arguing for massive public spending to curb and reverse the current recession, Beinhart uses my essay to round off two conservative interpretations of the effect of World War II on the Great Depression, quoting my line that “The war decisively ended the depression itself” and calling my essay “a more reputable, fair and balanced source” than the two conservative ones ( I happen to agree with one of those interpretations, though I dunno if that qualifies me for all those adjectives.)

Oddly enough, this is the second time this week that my essay has shown up in the political blogosphere. On Monday, the progressive writer Sam Smith used a long quote from the essay to make essentially the same point as Beinart – spend now, spend fast.

I don’t disagree.