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Monday, March 29, 2010
Recipes: Blue Cheese, Bacon, and Onion Salad Dressing or Dip
Just look at the ingredients—what's not to like?
|Bacon ||5 strips, about 70 g uncooked
|Danish blue cheese ||200 g
|Mayonnaise ||175 g
|Sour cream ||90 ml
|Green onion ||1 medium
|White vinegar ||1/2 tsp
|Lemon juice ||1/2 tsp
|Garlic powder ||1/2 tsp
|Ground mustard ||1/4 tsp
|Salt ||1/8 tsp
Fry the bacon in a skillet until crisp. Remove each strip, let drip into the skillet, then drain on a plate covered by two thicknesses of paper towel, patting with a paper towel from the top. Leave to drain, keeping the bacon fat in the skillet.
Mix vinegar, lemon juice, garlic powder, ground mustard, and salt in a small casserole dish with a cover. Stir with a spoon until well mixed and the powders begin to dissolve.
Clean the green onion (cutting off the roots, gnarly parts of the green ends, and stripping the outside layer if dirty or drying out), slice into 0.5 cm slices, then chop into bits. Set aside.
Add the mayonnaise (mayonnaise made with olive oil is best if you can get it) and sour cream (half-fat is fine, although given what else is in this recipe, it hardly makes any difference), and the bacon fat from the skillet to the casserole. Blend with an electric mixer or energetically by hand until it's well mixed. If you use a mixer, be sure to pause occasionally and scrape the edges and bottom of the dish with a spoon to mix in stuff the mixer doesn't get to.
Add the blue cheese to the mixture, then chop into medium sized pieces with a spoon (or, alternatively, crumble it by hand into the bowl; if the cheese is gooey in texture, chopping works better). Blend into the mixture until the pieces are broken up and evenly mixed. If you prefer a chunky texture, stop short of this point.
Place the strips of bacon in the casserole and chop into bits with a spoon, then blend into the mix, again scraping the edges and sides once or twice. Finally, add the chopped onion and stir it in with a spoon.
(Now here's the hardest part.) Cover and place in the refrigerator for 24 hours to allow the flavours to blend together. Stir thoroughly before serving the next day. Be sure to dispose of the greasy paper towels in a fire-safe way.
This recipe yields an extremely thick sauce, especially when refrigerated. If you prefer something thinner, blend in whole milk to obtain the desired consistency. When using it as a salad dressing, put a glop on top of the salad 15 minutes or so before serving; this will let it warm up and soften before tossing the salad. Besides, it's better at room temperature.
This Open Sauce™ recipe is under development. If you have any suggestions or comments after having tried this concoction, that's why there's a Feedback
button. If you prefer a pure blue cheese dressing, see SubMarie's
Sunday, March 28, 2010
Reading List: Consent to Kill
- Flynn, Vince.
Consent to Kill.
New York: Pocket Books, 2005.
This is the sixth novel in the
(warning—the article at this link contains minor spoilers)
series. In the aftermath of
Memorial Day (December 2009),
a Saudi billionaire takes out a contract on Mitch Rapp,
who he blames for the death of his son. Working through a
cut-out, an assassin (one of the most interesting
and frightening villains in the Vince Flynn yarns I've read
so far—kind of an evil James Bond) is recruited to
eliminate Rapp, ideally making it look like an accident
to avoid further retribution. The assassin is conflicted,
on the one hand respecting Rapp, but on the other excited by
the challenge of going after the hardest target of all and
ending his career with not just a crowning victory but a financial
reward large enough to get out of the game.
Things do not go as planned, and the result is a relentless grudge
match as Rapp pursues his attackers like Nemesis. This is
a close-up, personal story rather than a high concept thriller like
Memorial Day, and is more morality play than
an edge of the seat page-turner. Once again, Flynn takes the
opportunity to skewer politicians who'd rather excuse murderers
than risk bad press. Although events and characters from earlier
novels figure in this story, you can enjoy this one without
having read any of the others.
Vince Flynn is acclaimed for the attention to detail in his
novels, due not only to his own extensive research but a
“brain trust” of Washington insider fans who
“brief him in” on how things work there. That
said, this book struck me as rather more sloppy than the others
I've read, fumbling not super-geeky minutiæ but items
I'd expect any editor with a sharp red pencil to finger. Below
are some examples; while none are major plot spoilers, I've put
them in a spoiler block just in case, but also for readers who'd
like to see if they can spot them for themselves when they read
the novel, then come back here and compare notes.
The conclusion is somewhat surprising. Whether we're beginning to
see a flowering of compassion in Mitch Rapp or just a matter of
professional courtesy is up to the reader to decide.
I'll cite these by chapter number, because I read the
, which doesn't use
conventional page numbers.
“The sun was falling in the east, shooting
golden streaks of light and shadows across the fields.” Even
in CIA safe houses where weird drug-augmented interrogations are
performed, the sun still sets in the west.
“The presidential suite at the
was secured for one night at a cost of 5,000 Swiss francs.
… The suite consisted of three bedrooms, two separate
living rooms, and a verandah that overlooked Lake Geneva.”
Even the poshest of hotels in Zürich do not overlook
Lake Geneva, seeing as it's on the other end of the country,
more than 200 kilometres away! I presume he intended the
And you don't capitalise
“Everyone on Mitch's team wore a
transponder. Each agent's location was marked on the screen
with a neon green dot and a number.” A neon dot would be
red-orange, not green—how quickly people forget.
“The 493 hp engine propelled the silver
Mercedes down the Swiss autobahn at speeds sometimes approaching
150 mph. … The police were fine with fast driving, but
not reckless.” There is no speed limit on
but I can assure you that the Swiss police are anything but
“fine” with people driving twice the speed limit
of 120 km/h on their roads.
Thursday, March 25, 2010
Reading List: Lincoln über Alles
- Emison, John Avery.
Lincoln über Alles.
Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing, 2009.
Recent books, such as
Liberal Fascism (January 2008),
have explored the roots and deep interconnections between
the Progressive movement in the United States and the
philosophy and policies of its leaders such as Theodore
Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, and collectivist movements
in twentieth century Europe, including Soviet communism,
Italian fascism, and Nazism in Germany. The resurgence of
collectivism in the United States, often now once again
calling itself “progressive”, has made this
examination not just a historical footnote but rather an
important clue in understanding the intellectual foundations
of the current governing philosophy in Washington.
A candid look at progressivism and its consequences for
liberty and prosperity has led, among those willing to
set aside accounts of history written by collectivists,
whether they style themselves progressives or “liberals”,
and look instead at contemporary sources and analyses by genuine
classical liberals, to a dramatic reassessment of the
place in history of Wilson and the two Roosevelts. While,
in an academy and educational establishment still overwhelmingly
dominated by collectivists, this is still a minority view, at
least serious research into this dissenting view of history
is available to anybody interested in searching it out.
Far more difficult to find is a critical examination of
the U.S. president who was, according to this account,
the first and most consequential of all American progressives,
Some years ago,
L. Neil Smith, in
Lenin”, said that if you wanted to distinguish a
libertarian from a conservative, just ask them about Abraham
Lincoln. This observation has been amply demonstrated by
the recent critics of progressivism, almost all conservatives
of one stripe or another, who have either remained silent on
the topic of Lincoln or jumped on the bandwagon and
This book is a frontal assault on the hagiography of Sainted
Abe. Present day accounts of Lincoln's career and the
Civil War contain so many omissions and gross misrepresentations
of what actually happened that it takes a book of
300 pages like this one, based in large part on contemporary
sources, to provide the context for a contrary argument.
Topics many readers well-versed in the conventional wisdom view
of American history may encounter for the first time here include:
Many of these points will be fiercely disputed by Lincoln scholars and
defenders; see the arguments here, follow up their source citations,
and make up your own mind. What is not in dispute is that the Civil War
and the policies advocated by Lincoln and implemented in his
administration and its Republican successors, fundamentally changed
the relationship between the Federal government and the states.
While before the Federal government was the creation of the states,
to which they voluntarily delegated limited and enumerated powers,
which they retained the right to reclaim by leaving
the union, afterward Washington became not a federal government but
a national government in the 19th century European sense, with the
states increasingly becoming administrative districts charged with
carrying out its policies and with no recourse when their original
sovereignty was violated. A “national greatness” policy
was aggressively pursued by the central government, including subsidies
and land grants for building infrastructure, expansion into the
Western territories (with repeatedly broken treaties and genocidal
wars against their native populations), and high tariffs to protect
industrial supporters in the North. It was Lincoln who first brought
European-style governance to America, and in so doing became the first
Now, anybody who says anything against Lincoln will immediately be
accused of being a racist who wishes to perpetuate slavery. Chapter 2,
a full 40 pages of this book, is devoted to race in America, before,
during, and after the Civil War. Once again, you will learn that
the situation is far more complicated than you believed it to be.
There is plenty of blame to go around on all sides; after reviewing
the four page list of Jim Crow laws passed by Northern states
between 1777 and 1868, it is hard to regard them as champions of
racial tolerance on a crusade to liberate blacks in the South.
The greatest issue regarding the Civil War, discussed only rarely now,
is why it happened at all. If the war was about slavery (as most
people believe today), then why, among all the many countries and
colonies around the world which abolished slavery in the nineteenth
century, was it only in the United States that abolition required a
war? If, however, the war is regarded not as a civil war (which it
wasn't, since the southern states did not wish to conquer Washington
and impose their will upon the union), nor as a “war between the
states” (because it wasn't the states of the North fighting
against the states of the South, but rather the federal government
seeking to impose its will upon states which no longer wished to
belong to the union), but rather an imperial conquest waged as a war
of annihilation if necessary, by a central government over a
recalcitrant territory which refused to cede its sovereignty,
then the war makes perfect sense, and is entirely consistent with the
subsequent wars waged by Republican administrations to assert
sovereignty over Indian nations.
Powerful central government, elimination of state and limitation
of individual autonomy, imposition of uniform policies at a
national level, endowing the state with a monopoly on the use
of force and the tools to impose its will, grandiose public works
projects funded by taxation of the productive sector, and
sanguinary conflicts embarked upon in the interest of moralistic
purity or national glory: these are all hallmarks of
progressives, and this book makes a persuasive case that Lincoln
was the first of their kind to gain power in the United States.
Should liberty blossom again there, and the
consequences of progressivism be candidly reassessed, there will be two
faces to come down from Mount Rushmore, not just one.
- No constitutional provision prohibited states from
seceding, and the common law doctrine prohibiting
legislative entrenchment (one legislature binding the
freedom of a successor to act) granted sovereignty
conventions the same authority to secede as to join
the union in the first place.
- None of the five living former presidents at the time
Lincoln took office (only one a Southerner) supported
military action against the South.
Proclamation freed only slaves in states of the Confederacy;
slaves in slave states which did not secede, including
Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri remained in bondage.
In fact, in 1861, Lincoln had written to the governors of
all the states urging them to ratify the
already passed by the House and Senate, which would have written
protection for slavery and indentured servitude into the
Further, Lincoln supported the secession of West Virginia
from Virgina, and its admittance to the Union as a slave
state. Slavery was not abolished throughout the United States
until the adoption of the
Amendment in December 1865, after Lincoln's death.
- Despite subsequent arguments that secession was illegal,
Lincoln mounted no legal challenge to the declarations of
secession prior to calling for troops and initiating hostilities.
Congress voted no declaration of war authorising Lincoln
to employ federal troops.
- The prosecution of total war against noncombatants in the
South by Sherman and others, with the approval of Grant
and Lincoln, not only constituted war crimes by modern standards,
but were prohibited by the
governing the conduct of the Union armies, signed by President
Lincoln in April 1863.
- Like the progressives of the early 20th century who looked
to Bismarck's Germany as the model, and present-day
U.S. progressives who want to remodel their country along
the lines of the European social democracies, the
philosophical underpinnings of Lincoln's Republicans and
a number of its political and military figures as well as
the voters who put it over the top in the states of the
“old northwest” were Made in Germany. The
supporters of the failed 1848 revolutions in Europe,
emigrated in subsequent years to the U.S. and, members
of the European élite, established themselves as leaders
in their new communities. They were supporters of a
strong national government, progressive income taxation,
direct election of Senators, nationalisation of railroads
and other national infrastructure, an imperialistic
foreign policy, and secularisation of the society—all
part of the subsequent progressive agenda, and all achieved
or almost so today. An estimation of the impact of
Forty-Eighters on the 1860 election (at the time,
in many states immigrants who were not yet
citizens could vote if they simply declared their intention
to become naturalised) shows that they provided Lincoln's
margin of victory in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan,
Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin (although some of these were
close and may have gone the other way.)
Sunday, March 21, 2010
Reading List: The Last Patriot
- Thor, Brad.
The Last Patriot.
London: Pocket Books, 2008.
This is a page-turning thriller which requires somewhat more
suspension of disbelief than the typical book of the genre.
The story involves, inter alia,
radical Islam, the assassination of Mohammed, the Barbary pirates,
Thomas Jefferson, a lost first edition of
Don Quixote, puzzle boxes,
cryptography, car bombs, the French
the U.S. president, and a plan to undermine the foundations of
one of the world's great religions.
If this seems to cross over into the territory of a
Dan Brown novel or the
Treasure movies, it does, and like those
entertainments, you'll enjoy the ride more if you don't
look too closely at the details or ask questions like,
“Why is the President of the United States, with the
resources of the NSA at his disposal, unable to break a
simple cylinder substitution cipher devised more than two
centuries ago?”. Still, if you accept this book for
what it is, it's a fun read; this would make an excellent
“airplane book”, at least as long as you
aren't flying to Saudi Arabia—the book is banned
in that country.
A U.S. edition is available.
Monday, March 15, 2010
Reading List: The Strong Horse
- Smith, Lee.
The Strong Horse.
New York: Doubleday, 2010.
After the attacks upon the U.S. in September 2001, the author, who had
been working as an editor in New York City, decided to find out for
himself what in the Arab world could provoke such indiscriminate
atrocities. Rather than turn to the works of establishment Middle
East hands or radical apologists for Islamist terror, he pulled up
stakes and moved to Cairo and later Beirut, spending years there
living in the community, meeting people from all walks of life from
doormen, cab drivers, students, intellectuals, clerics, politicians,
artists, celebrities, and more. This book presents his conclusions in
a somewhat unusual form: it is hard to categorise—it's part
travelogue; collection of interviews; survey of history, exploration
of Arab culture, art, and literature; and geopolitical analysis. What
is clear is that this book is a direct assault upon the consensus view
of the Middle East among Western policymakers which, if correct (and
the author is very persuasive indeed) condemns many of the projects of
“democratisation”, “peace processes”, and
integration of the nations of the region into a globalised economy to
failure; it calls for an entirely different approach to the Arab
world, one from which many Western feel-good diplomats and politically
correct politicians will wilt in horror.
In short, Smith concludes that the fundamental assumption of the
program whose roots can be traced from Woodrow Wilson to George
W. Bush—that all people, and Arabs in particular, strive for
individual liberty, self-determination, and a civil society with
democratically elected leaders—is simply false: those are
conditions which have been purchased by Western societies over
centuries at the cost of great bloodshed and suffering by the actions
of heroes. This experience has never occurred in the Arab world,
and consequently its culture is entirely different. One can attempt
to graft the trappings of Western institutions onto an Arab state,
but without a fundamental change in the culture, the graft will not
take and before long things will be just as before.
Let me make clear a point the author stresses. There is not the slightest
intimation in this book that there is some kind of racial or genetic difference
(which are the same thing) between Arabs and Westerners. Indeed, such a
claim can be immediately falsified by the large community of Arabs who
have settled in the West, assimilated themselves to Western culture, and
become successful in all fields of endeavour. But those are Arabs, often
educated in the West, who have rejected the culture in which they
were born, choosing consciously to migrate to a very different culture they
find more congenial to the way they choose to live their lives. What about
those who stay (whether by preference, or due to lack of opportunity to
No, Arabs are not genetically different in behaviour,
but culture is just as heritable as any physical trait,
and it is here the author says we must look to understand the region.
The essential dynamic of Arab political culture and history, as described
by the 14th century Islamic polymath
Ibn Khaldun, is
that of a strong leader establishing a dynasty or power structure to
which subjects submit, but which becomes effete and feckless over
time, only to eventually be overthrown violently by a stronger force
(often issuing from desert nomads in the Arab experience), which begins
the cycle again. The author (paraphrasing Osama bin Laden) calls this
the “strong horse” theory: Arab populations express allegiance
to the strongest perceived power, and expect changes in governance to come
through violent displacement of a weaker existing order.
When you look at things this way, many puzzles regarding the
Middle East begin to make more sense. First of all, the great success
which imperial powers over the millennia, including the Persian,
Ottoman, French, and British empires, have had in subduing and ruling Arabs
without substantial internal resistance is explained: the empire
was seen as the strong horse and Arab groups accepted subordination
to it. Similarly, the ability of sectarian minorities to rule on
a long-term basis in modern states such as Lebanon, Syria, and
Iraq is explained, as is the great stability of authoritarian
regimes in the region—they usually fall only when deposed by
an external force or by a military coup, not due to popular uprisings.
Rather than presenting a lengthy recapitulation of the arguments in
the book filtered through my own comprehension and prejudices, this time
I invite you to read a comprehensive exposition of the author's arguments
in his own words, in a transcript of a
hour interview by Hugh Hewitt. If you're interested in the topics
raised so far, please read the interview and return here for some
Is the author's analysis correct? I don't know—certainly it is
at variance with that of a mass of heavy-hitting intellectuals
who have studied the region for their entire careers and, if correct,
means that much of Western policy toward the Middle East since the
fall of the Ottoman Empire has been at best ill-informed and at
worst tragically destructive. All of the debate about Islam,
fundamentalist Islam, militant Islam, Islamism, Islamofascism,
etc., in Smith's view, misses the entire point. He contends
that Islam has nothing, or next to nothing, to do with the present
conflict. Islam, born in the Arabian desert, simply canonised, with a
few minor changes, a political and social regime already extant in
Arabia for millennia before the Prophet, based squarely on rule by
the strong horse. Islam, then, is not the source of Arab culture, but
a consequence of it, and its global significance is as a
vector which inoculates Arab governance by the strong horse into other
cultures where Islam takes root. The extent to which the Arab culture
is adopted depends upon the strength and nature of the preexisting
local culture into which Islam is introduced: certainly the culture
and politics of Islamic Turkey, Iran, and Indonesia are something very
different from that of Arab nations, and from each other.
The author describes democracy as “a flower, not a root”.
An external strong horse can displace an Arab autocracy and impose
elections, a legislature, and other trappings of democracy, but without
the foundations of the doctrine of natural rights, the rule of law,
civil society, free speech and the tolerance of dissent, freedom of
conscience, and the separation of the domain of the state from the
life of the individual, the result is likely to be “one person,
one vote, one time” and a return to strong horse government as
has been seen so many times in the post-colonial era. Democracy in the
West was the flowering of institutions and traditions a thousand years
in the making, none of which have ever existed in the Arab world.
Those who expect democracy to create those institutions, the author
would argue, suffer from an acute case of inverting causes and
It's tempting to dismiss Arab culture as described here as
“dysfunctional”, but (if the analysis be correct), I don't
think that's a fair characterisation. Arab governance looks
dysfunctional through the eyes of Westerners who judge it based on the
values their own cultures cherish, but then turnabout's fair play, and
Arabs have many criticisms of the West which are equally well founded
based upon their own values. I'm not going all multicultural
here—there's no question that by almost any objective measure
such as per capita income; industrial and agricultural output;
literacy and education; treatment of women and minorities; public
health and welfare; achievements in science, technology, and the arts;
that the West has drastically outperformed Arab nations, which would
be entirely insignificant in the world economy absent their geological
good fortune to be sitting on top of an ocean of petroleum. But
again, that's applying Western metrics to Arab societies. When Nasser
seized power in Egypt, he burned with a desire to do the will of the
Egyptian people. And like so many people over the millennia who tried
to get something done in Egypt, he quickly discovered that the will of
the people was to be left alone, and the will of the bureaucracy was
to go on shuffling paper as before, counting down to their retirement
as they'd done for centuries. In other words, by their lights, the system
was working and they valued stability over the risks of change.
There is also what might be described as a cultural natural selection
effect in action here. In a largely static authoritarian society, the
ambitious, the risk-takers, and the innovators are disproportionately
prone to emigrate to places which value those attributes, namely the
West. This deprives those who remain of the élite which
might improve the general welfare, resulting in a population even more
content with the status quo.
The deeply pessimistic message of this book is that neither wishful
thinking, soaring rhetoric, global connectivity, precision guided
munitions, nor armies of occupation can do very much to change a culture
whose general way of doing things hasn't changed fundamentally in more
than two millennia. While change may be possible, it certainly isn't
going to happen on anything less than the scale of several
generations, and then only if the cultural transmission belt from
generation to generation can be interrupted. Is this depressing?
Absolutely, but if this is the case, better to come to terms with it
and act accordingly than live in a fantasy world where one's actions
may lead to catastrophe for both the West and the Arab world.
Tuesday, March 9, 2010
Reading List: The Housing Boom and Bust
- Sowell, Thomas.
The Housing Boom and Bust.
New York: Basic Books,  2010.
If you rely upon the statist legacy media for information regarding
the ongoing financial crisis triggered by the collapse of the real estate
bubble in certain urban markets in the United States,
everything you know is wrong. This
book is a crystal-clear antidote to the fog of disinformation
emanating from the politicians and their enablers in media
If, as five or six people still do, you pay attention to the legacy media
in the United States, you'll hear that there was a nationwide crisis
in the availability of affordable housing, and that government moved
to enable more people to become homeowners. The lack of regulation
caused lenders to make risky loans and resell them as “toxic assets”
which nobody could actually value, and these flimsy pieces of paper were
sold around the world as if they were really worth something.
Everything you know is wrong.
In fact, there never was a nationwide affordable housing crisis.
The percentage of family income spent on housing nationwide
fell in the nineties and oughties. The bubble market in
real estate was largely confined to a small number of communities
which had enacted severe restrictions upon development that reduced
the supply of housing—in fact, of 26 urban areas rated as “severely
unaffordable”, 23 had adopted “smart growth” policies.
(Rule of thumb: whenever government calls something “smart”,
it's a safe bet that it's dumb.)
But the bubble was concentrated in the collectivist enclaves where the
chattering class swarm and multiply: New York, San Francisco, Los
Angeles, Washington, Boston, and hence featured in the media, ignoring
markets such as Dallas and Houston where, in the absence of limits on
development, housing prices were stable.
As Eric Sevareid observed, “The chief cause of problems is
solutions”, and this has never been better demonstrated than in the
sorry sequence of interventions in the market documented here.
Let's briefly sketch the “problems” and “solutions”
which, over decades, were the proximate cause of the present calamity.
First of all, back in the New Deal, politicians decided the
problem of low rates of home ownership and the moribund
construction industry of the Depression could be addressed
by the solution of government (or government sponsored)
institutions to provide an aftermarket in mortgages by banks,
which could then sell the mortgages on their books and free up
the capital to make new loans. When the economy started to
grow rapidly after the end of World War II, this solution caused a
boom in residential construction, enabling working class families
to buy new houses in the rapidly expanding suburbs. This was seen
as a problem, “suburban sprawl”, to which local
politicians, particularly in well-heeled communities on the
East and West coasts, responded with the solution of enacting
land use restrictions (open space, minimum lot sizes, etc.) to
keep the “essential character” of their communities
from being changed by an invasion of
hoi polloi and their houses made of ticky-tacky, all
the same. This restriction of the supply of housing predictably
led to a rapid rise in the price of housing in these markets
(while growth-oriented markets without such restrictions experienced
little nor no housing price
increases, even at the height of the bubble). The increase in
the price of housing priced more and more people out of the
market, particularly younger first-time home buyers and minorities,
which politicians proclaimed as an “affordable housing crisis”,
and supposed, contrary to readily-available evidence, was a national
phenomenon. They enacted solutions, such as the Community Reinvestment
Act, regulation which required lenders to effectively meet quotas of
low-income and minority mortgage lending, which compelled lenders to
make loans their usual standards of risk evaluation would have caused
them to decline. Expanding the pool of potential home buyers increased
the demand for housing, and with the supply fixed due to political
restrictions on development, the increase in housing prices
inevitably accelerated, pricing more people out of the market.
Politicians responded to this problem by encouraging lenders to
make loans which would have been considered unthinkably risky
just a few years before: no down payment loans, loans with a
low-ball “teaser” rate for the first few years which
reset to the prevailing rate thereafter, and even “liar loans”
where the borrower was not required to provide documentation of
income or net worth. These forms of “creative financing”
were, in fact, highly-leveraged bets upon the housing bubble
continuing—all would lead to massive defaults in the case of declining
or even stable valuations of houses.
Because any rational evaluation of the risk of securities based
upon the aggregation of these risky loans would cause investors
to price them accordingly, securities of Byzantine complexity were
created which allowed financial derivatives based upon them, with
what amounted to insurance provided by counterparty institutions,
which could receive high credit ratings by the government-endorsed
rating agencies (whose revenue stream depended upon granting
favourable ratings to these securities). These “mortgage-backed
securities” were then sold all around the world, and ended
up in the portfolios of banks, pension funds, and individual investors,
including this scrivener (saw it coming; sold while the selling was good).
Then, as always happens in financial bubbles, the music stopped.
Back in the days of ticker tape machines, you could hear
the popping of a bubble. The spasmodic buying by
the greatest fools of all would suddenly cease its clatter and an
ominous silence would ensue. Then, like the first raindrops which
presage a great deluge, you'd hear the tick-tick-tick of sell
orders being filled below the peak price. And then the machine would
start to chatter in earnest as sell orders flooded into the market,
stops were hit and taken out, and volume exploded to the downside.
So it has always been, and so it will always be. And so it was in
this case, although in the less liquid world of real estate
it took a little longer to play out.
As you'll note in these comments, and also in Sowell's book, the
words “politicians” and “government”
appear disproportionately as the subject of sentences which
describe each step in how a supposed problem became a solution which became
a problem. The legacy media would have you believe that
“predatory lenders”, “greedy Wall Street firms”,
“speculators”, and other nefarious private actors are
the causes of the present financial crisis. These players certainly
exist, and they've been evident as events have been played out,
but the essence of the situation is that all of them are
creations and inevitable consequences of the
financial environment created by politicians who are now blaming
others for the mess they created and calling for more “regulation”
by politicians (as if, in the long and sorry history of regulation, it
has ever made anything more “regular” than the collective
judgement of millions of people freely trading with one another in
an open market).
There are few people as talented as Thomas Sowell when it comes to
taking a complex situation spanning decades and crossing the
boundary of economics and politics, and then dissecting it out
into the essentials like an anatomy teacher, explaining in clear
as light prose the causes and effects, and the unintended and
yet entirely predictable consequences (for those acquainted with
basic economics) which led to the present mess. This
is a masterpiece of such work, and anybody who's interested in the
facts and details behind the obfuscatory foam emerging from the legacy media
will find this book an essential resource.
Dr. Sowell's books tend to be heavily footnoted, with not only
source citations but also expansions upon the discussion in the main text.
The present volume uses a different style, with a lengthy “Sources”
section, a full 19% of the book, listing citations for items in the
text in narrative form, chapter by chapter. Expressing these items
in text, without the abbreviations normally used in foot- or end-notes
balloons the length of this section and introduces much redundancy.
Perhaps it's due to the publisher feeling a plethora of footnotes
puts off the causal reader, but for me, footnotes just work
a lot better than these wordy source notes.
Monday, March 1, 2010
Reading List: City of Thieves
- Benioff, David.
City of Thieves.
New York: Viking, 2008.
This is a coming of age novel, buddy story, and quest saga set in the
most implausible of circumstances: the 872 day
Siege of Leningrad
and the surrounding territory. I don't know whether the author's
grandfather actually lived these events and recounted them to to him
or whether it's just a literary device, but I'm certain the images you
experience here will stay with you for many years after you put this
book down, and that you'll probably return to it after reading it
the first time.
Kolya is one of the most intriguing characters I've encountered in
modern fiction, with Vika a close second. You wouldn't expect a
narrative set in the German invasion of the Soviet Union to be funny,
but there are quite a number of laughs here, which will acquaint you
with the Russian genius for black humour when everything looks the
bleakest. You will learn to be very wary around well-fed
people in the middle of a siege!
Much of the description of life in Leningrad during the siege
is, of course, grim, although arguably less so than the factual
account in Harrison Salisbury's
The 900 Days (however, note
that the story is set early in the siege; conditions deteriorated
as it progressed). It isn't often you read a historical novel in