Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Triumph of Detective Alan Grant

The Daughter of TimeThe Daughter of Time is the second greatest detective novel ever written. (It's on the internet, it's true now!) Scotland Yard Detective Alan Grant is convalescing in a hospital after breaking his leg by falling through a trap door in a theater, in pursuit of a criminal. In order to help combat the prickles of boredom, Marta, his actress friend, brings him a collection of portrait postcards to examine. Ultimately, it is a portrait of Richard III that draws his attention because, from the face in the picture, Grant expected him to be a judge.
What follows is the story of Grant's investigation of Richard III, aided by an American scholar at the British Museum. Ultimately, Grant concludes that it was much more likely that Henry VI, not Richard III, murdered the princes in the tower. Serious scholars will recognize that Tey is novelizing several major scholarly rehabilitations of Richard III, but that rehabilitation is not really the point of the story.

The Daughter of Time is about how we come to hold beliefs and what we do in the face of information that contradicts them. One of the most revealing discoveries Grant makes is actually in an elementary school text book. On one page, the authors condemn Richard III as England's greatest monster for murdering two children, and on the next they list Henry VII's ruthless elimination of an entire family as though it were all part of normal government bureaucracy. Grant and Carradine (the scholar) also come up with the idea of Tonypandy; a totally fabricated or completely distorted historical event, like the strike in Wales in Tonypandy, the martyrdom of Covenanters in Scotland, and the Boston Massacre, that persist in the cultural memory despite irrefutable contrary proof. Though he never states it this way, Grant discovers that we often prefer the story to the history.

Through it all, Grant demonstrates the clarity of thought, skills in deduction, and adherence to facts that define detective fiction, but that is not his triumph. His greatest moment happens on page 194. Carradine enters completely deflated. “He looked young, and shocked, and bereaved.”

Here's the complete next two paragraphs.
       “Grant watched him in dismay as he crossed the room with his listless uncoordinated walk. There was no bundle of paper sticking out of his mail-sack of a pocket today.
        “Oh, well, thought Grant philosophically; it had been fun while it lasted. There was bound to be a snag somewhere. One couldn't do serious research in that light-hearted manner way and hope to prove anything by it. One wouldn't expect an amateur to walk into the Yard and solve a case that had defeated the pros; so why should he have thought himself smarter than the historians. He had wanted to prove himself that he was right in his face-reading of the portrait; he had wanted to blot out the shame of having put a criminal on the bench instead of in the dock. But he would have to accept his mistake, and like it. Perhaps he had asked for it. Perhaps, in his heart of hearts, he had been growing a little pleased with himself about his eye for faces.”

Emphasis is so totally mine. It's plenty easy to argue about the mechanisms of false belief when you are examining someone else's belief. But the second that lens is turned around all those mechanisms kick in and you have facts, not hearsay, you have certainty, where there is doubt, and your beliefs are grounded in fact and rationale and not in narrative and emotions. In short, the things that make everyone else believe in ridiculous things, make you do it to.

But not Alan Grant. He hasn't even heard the potential argument yet and he is ready to let go of his belief in the face of fact. To make it even more admirable, Grant further admits the limitations of his efforts, saying essentially that you can't just dick around in history and expect to be know more than everybody else. I don't know if there's a more repeated mistake in human consciousness than not seeing the flaws in your own beliefs, and Detective Alan Grant does not make it. And that makes him a hero.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Why I Wasn't (and Still Aren't) Worried About the Bruins

Things were looking a little grim for the Bruins. 3-7 and in last place in the Eastern Conference. Yes, that is technically worse than the Islanders. But I wasn't worried. Here's why.

The Quality of the Teams They Beat: Those first three teams were the Tampa Bay Lightning, now with a record of 8-5-2 and still sporting one of the most complete forward lines in the game with LeCavalier, Stamkos, and St. Louis. Then it was the Chicago Blackhawks who are now first in their division with a record of 8-4-3 and had such a successful and intelligent off-season that some analysts (Barry Melrose at least) are thinking about them as Stanley Cup favorites. Then, of course they beat Toronto who had won their first five games and still lead the division. The Bruins went on to beat Toronto again, dealing them their first home loss of the season, and stopped Ottawa's 6 game winning streak before beating up on the Islanders. It wasn't like the Bruins collected wins against the dregs of the league.

They Were in Every Game They Played: With a couple of exceptions the Bruins played even or better against everybody. The “frustration” that everyone was talking about last week came from not winning games they deserved to. Whether it was goalies standing on their heads, fluky goals for their opponents, bad bounces, or a few key mistakes, the Bruins seemed to end up losing no matter how well they played. (OK, I was worried very briefly, after Ottawa, despite being beaten in ever aspect of the game, were ahead 2-1 at the end of the first period.) And to all you new Bruins fans, get used to this. For whatever reason, the Bruins under Claude Julien lose a lot of games they deserve to win. They make up for it, you know, winning the Stanley Cup and all, but in the moment it is face-radiatingly frustrating.

The Only Thing that Matters is Making the Playoffs. It has not been a good couple of years for the number one team in the Eastern Conference. It's been better in the West, but the top seeds have had their share of scares. Yes, home ice advantage is nice, and yes, you'd prefer to play a lesser team in the first round of the playoffs, but there hasn't been that much of a difference in terms of overall quality between 1 and 8, especially when some teams, no matter their overall quality, match-up well against other teams. (Bonjour.) The Bruins don't need to win the President's Cup to have a good shot at the Stanley Cup, they just need to get in.

Three More Reasons: Tim Thomas is still the best goalie on the planet. Zdeno Chara is still the shut down defenseman in the NHL and his puck skills have actually improved over the last three years. Patrice Bergeron is still the best all around, three zone, 200ft x 85ft, hockey player on the planet.

The Big Question the Bruins Need to Answer: What is the difference between Toronto and Montreal? The conventional wisdom is that Montreal's small fast forwards are the primary reason why the Habs have beaten the Bruins consistently over the last few years (but not when it mattered!) and there's a lot of truth to that. They're fast enough to out-skate the defensive structure and they seem to slip under and around Chara, Boychuk, and McQuaid. The only thing is Toronto has a couple of those small, fast forwards too. In fact, they might have the fastest of them all. Phil Kessel is the NHL's top goal scorer and he calls it a good game against the Bruins if he gets more than a shot or two on goal. So why do the Bruins lose to the Habs but beat (badly) the Leafs? My best guess: PK Suban and Carey Price. For some reason Carey Price plays really well against the Bruins. And, despite his reputation for wilting late in the season (wonder what percentage of Montreal games he's played over the last few years) he is a really good goalie, something the Leafs still don't have. And the Leafs don't have a defenseman who can skate the puck like Suban.

One Final Point: Holy crap Tyler Seguin! It's still early yet, but the improvement of his play off the puck is really encouraging. If he keeps improving, he could be the natural goal-creator the Bruins need to win a lot of those games that have slipped out of their grasp in recent years. And that line of Bergeron, Marchand, and Sequin could become one of the most dangerous in the league.

Friday, November 4, 2011

It's the Earnings

Despite what some might say, the reason for the whole Occupy movement, the 2008 crash in the first place, and the persistence of the recession, all boil down to one simple factor with a lot of complex causes. For the last thirty years, American wages have stagnated. Couple stagnation with inflation, rising health care costs and college tuition, and general increases in the cost of living, and the meaningful earnings of American workers has been going steadily down for thirty years.

Simply put, most Americans have a lot less truly discretionary money than they used to. It's easy to connect that to the financial collapse of 2008. That collapse was caused by a financial market based in the trading of financial products based in sub-prime mortages, i.e. mortgages that, because of the borrowers credit rating, income, or other factors, had a high risk of not being paid off. If wages had kept pace with profits, productivity, cost of living, or even just inflation, more Americans would have had enough money to actually afford homes, and thus, not be sub-prime borrowers in the first place. This inability to afford homes, was, of course compounded by the amount of credit debt most Americans carried and carry. If wages hadn't stagnated, fewer Americans would have had to go into credit card debt in order to make ends meet. That debt, also contributes a great deal to the persistence of the recession, as paying down credit card debt, or really any debt, does not create any new economic activity because it is not new spending. And no matter what the other factors are, people can't really spend money they don't have at a rate needed to jump start a sluggish economy no matter how easy credit might be.

To put it in an almost tautological sound byte, America is in a recession because Americans don't have enough money.

It would be one thing if wage stagnation were part of a long downturn in the American economy. But over that same time period, both productivity and corporate profits went up. It would also be another thing if Americans, for whatever reason, started working less, but Americans now work more than anybody else in the world. We work more than Japan. Remember when it was kind of a joke how hard the Japanese worked?

There are a lot of different factors that caused the wage stagnation including; weakening influence of unions, globalization of labor, transition to a service economy, stagnant minimum wage, and a change in executive culture. Recent executives seem to have developed a radical short-sightedness that focuses only on this quarter's dividends and this year's executive bonus. This is in contrast to the radical, liberal, socialist, east-coast, VW driving, hippie, elitist, Henry Ford, who paid his workers fairly well, under the radical belief that if you want to sell something, people need to have enough money to buy it. The easiest way to ensure that at least some people had enough money to buy his cars was to pay his workers enough money to buy his cars.

And that speaks a little to a possible solution to the problem. This wouldn't need to be a government solution if executives paid their workers well, reflecting the growth of profitability and productivity, the increase of cost of living, or even just inflation. (And corporations now have more cash in hand than perhaps any other time in history, so the money is there for this.) Consumer spending would go up, Americans could get a handle on their debt, whether its mortgage, credit card, student loans or all three, and that would be it for the recession. Obviously not every company is in the position to do this, but those that could and do would stimulate spending in other parts of the economy, contributing to its overall health. But as we learned the last time we went through this, if a behavior is making money right now for the right people, no matter how bad that behavior might be in the long term for everybody, even the companies and shareholders in question, the private market will not correct this behavior. You'd think you wouldn't have to pass a law to tell companies that filling out their “medicine” with rat poison is bad for society and their industry but you do. You'd think you wouldn't have to tell investment brokers that it is a terrible idea to build an entire financial structure on loans that are, by definition, most likely to be defaulted on, but apparently you do. And you'd think you wouldn't have to re-teach American executives the lessons of Henry Ford, but you do.

And this is why responsibility for the 2008 crash rests not only with the investment banks. It is shared by every American corporation that depressed earnings by shipping jobs to countries with less just labor laws or only hiring people part time employees to avoid having to pay benefits or slowly reducing the benefits that help reduce cost of living or laying off workers to maximize short-term profits. The banks just provided one final I-can't-believe-anybody-would-build-a-financial-market-out-of-mortgages-likely-to-be-defaulted-on straw on the camel's back. And this is one of the reasons why the Occupy Wall Street movement is diverse and diffuse and should remain so. Wall Street is a convenient organizing metaphor, but the problem is spread throughout our entire economy.

This means it has to fall back on the government, and I still think the best way to accomplish, productively putting more money in more Americans' pockets is a big old infrastructure project. It injects capital into the consumer economy while improving our economy's ability to transact business. And it doesn't just have to be roads and bridges. Does your company use the Internet? Then it benefits from a government investment in technology and infrastructure in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Federal investment now in the technological infrastructure, like say, a modernized electrical grid to maximize the impact of subsequent renewable energy technology, will stabilize the economy in the short term and lead to economic growth in the future.

And if we have to raise taxes on the top 1% to do it, well; as I said earlier, American wages stagnated while American profits rose, this means there had to be a surplus, and I'm pretty sure we know where it went. A modest increase in tax burden seems like a pretty reasonable thing to ask after the top 1% have spent the last thirty years hoarding the largess of everyone else's hard work.