Friday, November 28, 2008

The Mohican (a poem)

Here's a poem of mine, The Mohican:

Thursday, November 27, 2008

A night of tunes

I got to sing Wednesday night at a local club in town with some of our area's great musicians. We're blessed with some real talent around here. I'm working steadily towards a blues-rock CD of original material. However this night belonged to covers. And cover we did.

The kid on drums didn't know the Allman Brothers' Whipping Post. But he couldn't resist saying that he thought 'his parents had the album'. Little shit.

Inflation vs Deflation: Interminable Debate?

I find people discussing deflation versus inflation eventualities as though both terms express book-ended equivalents. Yes, the words differ only in prefix. However one might say the color black is existential. Whereas white is merely conditional, i.e. merely the absence of black. This fundamental inequivalence is routinely discarded. We often talk of black and white as though they are oppositionally equivalent --two sides of the same coin.

If one recalls the textbook definition for inflation, too much money chasing too few goods, the operable term, for our current debate, may be chasing. Deflation at its worst can mean the cessation of economic activity as people succumb to deflationary expectations and forestall purchases today, thinking goods will be less expensive tomorrow. When people stop giving chase to goods and services, the value of the money in their pockets increase.

So in one crucial sense, an economy suffering from inflation is preferable to an economy in deflationary collapse. That's because at least you have an economy where transactional activity is occurring (the chasing part, a measurement of which would be the velocity of money), which is to say, at least you have an economy. Deflation by contrast is a graveyard. Suddenly the macroeconomic debate veers towards more fundamental societal questions: Can a society exist in the absence of significant levels of commerce? Doesn't transactional activity serve as a sort of societal glue? This all suggests that deflation is a far more profound phenomenon. I’m wondering whether the truly biblical potential of deflation to shut down a modern economy (with possible resort to a non-currency based or barter system?) has been taken fully into effect. As Ambrose Evans-Pritchard said recently: “Deflation is sometimes likened to Dante's Inferno. "Abandon all hope" once you step into that Hellfire.” Even given his tendency towards purple prose, the danger of deflation seems incommensurate to that of inflation. In the context of ka-poom, I also wonder if the ka phase can be so culminating that the ‘relative luxury of high inflation’ –the poom-- never arrives.

We are finding there is little in the Fed monetary arsenal that can compel people to buy when they don't want to. The Fed can fight inflation. Fighting deflation however may be tantamount to wrestling a vacuum --or putting lightning in an empty jar. Thus there is an institutional fear of deflation as the powers-that-be discover themselves powerless to avert it. What master of the universe wants to ponder his impotency?Another frequent fallacy is that both forces seize an economy monolithically, that is, an economy suffers either inflation or it suffers deflation. Period. We won't even delve the variant strains, disinflation, hyperinflation and dis-deflation (a term I've seen bandied about on iTulip), nor the critical discussion of rates, trends and time intervals. In truth, all these forces are operating in different areas --and in different durations-- of the economy at any given time. There can be simultaneous price level increases in food and other staples AND asset deflation, as we seem to have had of late. But aren't we comparing income statement to balance sheet phenomena –a flow of funds as opposed to a reservoir of value?

After all debt deflation is not price level deflation. Clearly an aggregating methodology must be employed before we can decisively label an era 'inflationary' or 'deflationary'. But why pain over descriptive exactitudes if no advantage is gained from the descriptions? If it walks like a duck, then let it be a duck with no further ado. If you prefer calling it an elephant then that will do too. The debate would be almost entirely semantic if not for the fact that, in identifying certain phenomena, we are better able to apply prescriptive remedies or take defensive action in a portfolio strategy. Or as the cynic might say, armed with the proper description, the government can prescribe more surgically destructive medicines.Perhaps the aggregate is meaningless on a practical level.

If I am a buggy whip maker at the turn of the century, my market is collapsing. You can call it a profound hyper-deflation if you like. My livelihood is ruined --all against the backdrop perhaps of macro-level inflation. Maybe inflation and deflation are personal phenomena occurring, as in Tip O'Neil's politics, at the local level. I’m intrigued by how people keep interrogating anyone and everyone as to whether we’re in deflation or inflation. This is almost a semantic appeal. People need to name their devil as it restores some small sense of control.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Towards a 'Higher Synthesis'

In Web Del Sol's current issue of The Potomac, D.R. Thompson offers a fascinating Dr. Martin Luther King quote within an equally compelling essay "Emerson Meets Wall Street: Systems Think, the Citizen Dividend, and Economic Democracy":

"Communism forgets that life is individual. Capitalism forgets that life is social, and the Kingdom of Brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of Communism nor the antithesis of Capitalism but in a higher synthesis. It is found in a higher synthesis that combines the truths of both".

The Economic Convergence theory suffered a setback in 1989 with the fall of the Soviet Bloc. The Economy Professor website defines this theory as:

"The division between capitalist democracies in Western Europe and North America, and communist states in Eastern Europe, is fading. The nature of industrial society leads both types to converge towards a common centre. Capitalist societies are becoming more organized and managerial, communist societies more open to market methods and to greater political and civil freedoms."

As we discussed on a recent Point Taken TV program, capitalism (or was it Reaganism?) rushed into the 1989 vaccum, claiming an unfiltered victory for free markets. Convergence yielded to sycophancy as the East sought to copy the West. Alas this 'crushing victory' was shortlived (if twenty years can be called short --and it is, in historical terms).

Now it seems convergence has resumed with a vengeance. That, or the death of ideologies has indeed come to pass and we inhabit an age of renewed pragmatism. I'm thinking here FDR's credo of trying everything and keeping only what works. Let the professors catalog the conceptual inconsistencies. We have a world to restart!

Verily, the pigs are resembling men, and the men, pigs. The Party of Mao has become the lender of last resort to the Great American Experiment as the latter embarks on an aggressive nationalization campaign of its financial system. Stay tuned for more ideological non sequiturs.

In the meantime, let's hope that MLK's dialectical vision (as opposed to outright economic collapse) looms in our future...

Giving Uncle Sam a partial break

In early 2006, I wrote an essay for Identity Theory called “Big Government and the Big Easy”.

The essay was an attempt to defend public service and to highlight its many accomplishments. It was also an attempt to rehabilitate the idea of spirited, competent public sector participation in a well-balanced society. Here’s an excerpt:

“Produce a private sector resume that boasts the equivalent of The Marshall Plan, The Manhattan Project, The Interstate Highway System and the Apollo Program, and this peon to public sector accomplishment will be abandoned forthwith. Think of that apocryphal moment in American achievement when a bunch of government bureaucrats navigated a near-inoperable Apollo 13 safely back to Earth. It's hard to recall a private sector accomplishment that rivals this moment of quintessential American genius. Stock options can only gnash their teeth enviously. Some pages from history demolish the best right-wing polemics.”

Now comes Jim Bianco of Bianco Research who has adjusted Uncle Sam’s more signature accomplishments for inflation. As it turn out (and thanks to Barry Ritholz’s blog for assembling this information), the cost to date of the current Credit Crisis bail-out, $4.6 trillion, now exceeds all of government's 'wasteful forays' combined. Ah yes, the power of unfettered markets indeed:

• Marshall Plan: Cost: $12.7 billion, Inflation Adjusted Cost: $115.3 billion
• Louisiana Purchase: Cost: $15 million, Inflation Adjusted Cost: $217 billion
• Race to the Moon: Cost: $36.4 billion, Inflation Adjusted Cost: $237 billion
• S&L Crisis: Cost: $153 billion, Inflation Adjusted Cost: $256 billion
• Korean War: Cost: $54 billion, Inflation Adjusted Cost: $454 billion
• The New Deal: Cost: $32 billion (Est), Inflation Adjusted Cost: $500 billion (Est)
• Invasion of Iraq: Cost: $551b, Inflation Adjusted Cost: $597 billion
• Vietnam War: Cost: $111 billion, Inflation Adjusted Cost: $698 billion
• NASA: Cost: $416.7 billion, Inflation Adjusted Cost: $851.2 billion TOTAL: $3.92 trillion

I am far from a gloating neo-Marxist. But folks, can we re-introduce some balance into the debate? An unregulated financial economy has led us to the brink. Moreover Uncle Sam’s track record is surprisingly impressive. What private sector can stand a comparison against Uncle's resume? GM? GE? Lehman Brothers? Citicorp?

Alas the private sector bumblers are too epic and too numerous to count. So is government the solution? Certainly not exclusively. Does it play a crucial role in the larger context of a functioning society? Absolutely.

When are free market apologists going to learn how to walk and chew gum at the same time?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

My Resume (in PDF)

John Thomas of the new arts and community website Ambush Arts has been kind enough to let my PDF resume reside at his site (complete with clickable links and chewable squares) where I will periodically update it.

Thank you John.


The macroeconomy has been a source of angst in recent months. Here are some of my recent, mostly grim, musings.

The Potomac: A Journal of Poetry and Politics
"When Currency Becomes a Fiat for Oxygen, All Breathing Must Leave the Room"

"The Home is the Temple of the Dole" (a satire overtaken by the farce of real-life)

Ambush Arts
"Sometimes, It Really Is Different This Time"

Houston Literary Review
"Fresh Hard Times" (music video with accompanying essay)

Bright Lights Film Journal
"Metropolis, Ezra Pound, Mammon And the Law of Too-Large Numbers"

The Frantic Force

I've been thinking about establishing a central waystation for my essays, poetry, videos and music. Currently, my 'web existence' consists of an isthmus here and an isthmus there. So I plan to create a reservoir --or unleash a hundred-year flood. Let's see what the tide brings in.

As a preface to a book-in-progress, I had this to say about the name of this blog, Frantic Force:

"In his 1986 Time magazine essay, Poetry and Politics, Roger Rosenblatt identifies a trait common to poets and politicians as, ‘the frantic force of their opinions. When either speaks his mind, he is like the Ancient Mariner; he seizes the public by the collar as if to say: Accept my perspective and be converted.’

In the popular imagination, the poet is an effete distant figure whose voice epitomizes, as Rosenblatt characterizes the misprision, ‘indirection and repose’. Rosenblatt is right. The poet is a polemicist, no less eager to drive a point -- his point -- home than is the politician or the overt political hack. True, the sublime is a realm poets love to wax from –but it’s usually just before they reach down and snatch your wallet. Camouflaging their bids for power in a velvet crush of roses, autumnal shades and periphrastic mischief, the poet is more artful at the dodge.

As for the powerful, they are either delicate flowers or they know a subversive when they read one. Witness the vitriol routinely greeting Merwin when he strays into ‘political relevancy’, or the two bullets Lorca earned for his anti-fascist exuberance. Sometimes the complexities of reality are an affront to the expectations of genre. When Robert Bly cited America’s ‘famous unconcern’ towards the Vietnam War’s atrocities during his 1968 National Book Award acceptance speech, there were more jeers than cheers for this uninvited polemicist. Where was the poet? Poets have always been in the fray. To quote Merwin: ‘all poetry is politics’..."