My photo
Berlin, Frankfurt, Paris, Chapel Hill, Boston, Istanbul, Calgary, Washington DC, Austin, Tunis, Warszawa and counting

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Holidays on Ice

Eines meiner Weihnachtsgeschenke, Holidays on Ice ist kurze Sammlung von Kurzgeschichten von David Sedaris. Der amerikanische Autor gibt satirische Weihnachtsgeschichten zum Besten. Satire erscheint noch ein zu schwaches Wort, seine Helden (Heldinnen) sind bitterböse, betrachten das sie umgebende Weihnachtsgefühl mit einem Zynismus der kaum zu überbieten ist. Eigentlich scheinen diese Zutaten zu einem vergnüglichen Leseabend zu führen, aber leider ist dies nicht wirklich der Fall. Ich fand seine Charaktere einfach zu zynisch, zu bitter, zu böse und dadurch nicht mehr glabwürdig. Sedaris nahm dadurch allem ein wenig zu sehr die Spitze. Soweit ich Weihnachten verstehe gibt es kaum ein süßeres, stärker überzuckertes Ereignis in unserer (westlichen) Gesellschaft, warum sollte man dieses überziehen um sich dessen zu belustigen? Weihnachten als solches ist überzogen genug um, zynisch betrachtet, zu amüsieren. Indem ich diese Situation gnadenlos übertrieben darstelle, impliziere ich (in meinen Augen), das das normale, reelle Weihnachten nicht bereits kitschig genug wäre. Dies ist aber nicht der Fall. Etwas mehr Bodenhaftung wäre infolgedessen erfolgreicher gewesen.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Survival in Auschwitz

Primo Levi's account of his time in Auschwitz might be the best known novel by a holocaust survivor. Se questo è un uomo (If This Is a Man), as the book is called in its more poetic original title, is horrifying book. Levi tells of his life in a death/work camp, of how he got there, of what happens to him once he is there it and of how he survives in the end. It is a strong book, I can only recommend it to anyone. Levi is not begging for your pity, he does not even look for an explanation, he simply makes a picture of reality, he gives us a glimpse of life in the camps.

I am young (well, more or less), interested in history and have a German passport, all my ancestors and relatives are German, how can I not be obsessed with the Holocaust? I feel my understanding (in the broadest terms I don't think the word understanding can truly be used in regard to the Shoah, see also the quote at the end) of the Third Reich in general and the attempted destruction of European Jews is still lacking and no matter what I read this knowledge does not disappear. Maybe it never will.

A few more observations from the text. No particular order, just some food for thought.

  • That curt, barbaric barking of Germans in command. I wonder whether this stereotype (reality?) existed before the 1930s, whether it is a perception of the German language that was created through the evils of the past or whether it had always been there. Is it a subconscious connection of the language to a deed thus or is it simply an objective observation?

  • The Nazis ran these camps with very few people, mostly it was self-organized through an internal hierarchy from criminals, over political prisoners (these first two being mainly of German nationality) to Jews. Interestingly enough, a Kapo makes [less] trouble, [when] he is not a Jew and has no fear of losing his part.

  • A KZ in some sense seems to have precursor to some of the international meeting points of today with up to 15-20 languages swirling around with Yiddish, Polish and German being the most important ones. Levi at some point claims that survival depended at least to some extent (luck of course being another big factor) on one's ability to speak German.

  • Life in these camps portrays to some extent the social origins Hobbes or Montesquieue talk about. There is no justice, there are no morals, just a survival of the fittest. At the same time there was a booming economy revolving around bread, tobacco and any kind of usable tool.

  • The Greeks (Saloniki Jews of Spanish heritage which apparently spoke a mixture of Greek and Spanish) stuck together more than any other group and kept their inner-group morals intact the most. Maybe this was the case because they were less integrated in their society as for example the Italian Jews? I have no idea whether this is true, but it sounds like a decent explanation.

  • Was it even possible to survive Auschwitz without becoming a criminal yourself? Without turning from an upstanding citizen into a 'bad', selfish person?

  • The Germans love order, systems bureaucracy. Funny how nothing ever really seems to change.

Leitmotif: Ne pas chercher à comprendre

So I guess this is my Christmas post. Frohe Weihnachten everyone. Whatever that may mean.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Réflexions sur la question juive

Un petit livre (même pas 200 pages) Réflexions sur la question juive de Jean Paul Sartre n'est rien que son titre promet. Sartre essaie de montrer que l'antisémitisme n'est pas seulement un avis politique (et légitime). J'ai trouvé cette discussion plus actuel parfois, peut-être je ne les connais pas seulement, mais je ne suis pas trop sûr s'il y a toujours beaucoup des gens (en Europe d'ouest en tout cas) qui pensent que l'antisémitisme est valable comme une façon de croyance politique.
Après il discute les effets du antisémitisme sur les juifs. Je trouve sa théorie ici comparable à celle de W.E.B. DuBois et son 'double veil.' Les juifs inauthentiques (ceux qui veulent s'assimiler et ne sont plus religieux) suppriment les caractéristiques qui on pourrait identifier comme typiquement juives. Important à la fin, ce n'est pas comment ils se voient mais surtout comment les antisémites les voient.
Même si j'ai trouvé la discussion intéressant, j'ai pensé qu'elle ne serait plus très important dans notre société d'aujourd'hui. Sauf qu'il y a deux/trois jours Le Monde avait un article sur Mandoff et les effets antisémite de la plus grande chaîne de Ponzi ayant été mené par un juif. Choquant, et peut-être Satre est toujours plus valide que je ne l'ai pensé.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Keynes, Steinbrueck and other follies

Three posts in one hour, all virtually about the same thing, I know. They are all different at the same time that they resemble each other so much though. I also should mention that I absolutely love the fact that for the first time in my academic career (wrong word, existence) actual political discussion has caught up to what I spend my days reading. Quite fun really.

The German government (notably Herr Steinbrueck and Frau Merkel) these days are criticized by virtually everyone for their economic management and I figured I should for once actually join the chorus. Let's disregard the fact for a second that Steinbrueck was still preaching about the fundamental soundness of the German economy when the financial crisis first appeared (reminding me of Hoover in an eerie manner) and concentrate instead on today's fiscal policy.

The whole world is clamoring for deficit spending only Germany, the third biggest economy in the world and the key to prevent a recession from taking off (great metaphor I know), remains fixated on fiscal austerity. The world currently seems to be headed towards a deflationary recession (the Great Depression and Japan are the most famous predecessors) with interest rates already low (especially in the United States) and the European Central Bank fixated on its fear of inflation (inherited from the Bundesbank by the way) a monetary expansion saving the day seems doubtful. Especially because such an expansion already took place in response to the financial crisis. What is needed then according to Keynes (and Posen and Krugman, even Milton Friedman agrees) is a massive fiscal spending program.

Now, why the only German government that could push this through without much fears of electoral punishment (the current grand coalition, which really doesn't seem as grand all of a sudden) refuses to even consider this simply because it wants to balance the budget in 2011(?), something which will become impossible anyway assuming a deep recession has arrived. Why a Finance Minister who is a social-democrat would attack a labour Prime Minister for his Keynesian policies. I have no idea. The only thing I like about this is that the German problem has become an economic one only.

So, Herr Steinbrueck, Frau Merkel, Herr Glos (where are you anyway?), I'll need to find a job in the summer. Doing so in a recession won't be fun. Listen to what virtually everyone else is saying for once (trust me I have a hard time with that too usually).

Restoring Japan's Economic Growth

The wonders of inter-library loans. I am not sure why I did not discover them early on in my academic career. Anyway, Adam Posen disects Japan's lack of growth through-out most of the 1990s after having given a scarce to the American right with its rapid qnd constant growth only a decade earlier. Basically, he applies Keynes to Japan and thoroughly analyzes why a fiscal push would help jump-start the country's economy. I don't want to go into too much detail on this, but he shows in a very convincing manner how what has been called fiscal expansions in Japan have in fact been mere collections of spendings already planned leading to a budget deficit lower than the Maastricht Criteria, lower than most Western European econolies at the time (none of whom had to deal with a major recession).

The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money

I spent a decent amount of time plowing through Keynes and I got surprisingly little out of it. His theory of course is fascinating, but his language just a tad too antiquated and complicated to make his book anything even close to a pleasure. Considering how relevant he seems to have become again it seemed like a good idea to have a look at him though.

Keynes basically wrote a criticism of classical econolic theory. He argued that Smith's invisible hand would not in fact provide market-clearing mechanisms for the employment market. In certain situations, an economy could get stuck at sub-equilibrium outpout and thus employment and welfare. Notably this were the case if future expectations lead to a slide in investment and consumtpion. In this case actions by individually rational actors lead to a sub-optimal aggregate outcome. In order to jump-start the economy the government needs to intervene either through monetary expansion or (if the former proves impossible) through fiscal deficit spending. It does not matter whether this budgetary deficit is sensibly spent ('digging for gold, building pyramides) pointless activities help create employment and in extension wealth.'

Fairly simple it seems (even though it isn't and I hope no one who reads this manages to call me out on any grave mistakes) and applicable only in the rare circumstances where output (employment) clearly lies above its potential (natural equilibrium).

Sunday, December 07, 2008

In Defense of Globalization

A bit of an overload today I realize that but I had to play catch-up. Just a really short critique of this book. Jagdish Bhagwati's In Defense of Globalization was something I had really looked forward to. He used to teach Krugman, is one of the elder statesmen of trade theory and I was really exciting to read a book by him, especially one with a title as aggressive as this one. Well, Mr Bhagwati let me down. Big time. Basically his book consists of a number of essays that are put together without much thought nor inherent logic. He mainly attacks globalization opponents, calls the demonstrators in the street out as being uninformed (really, the couldn't argue economics with someone with a PhD, that is surprising) and while he refutes some of the usual anti-globalization arguments he does so on a very basic level. Maybe he tried to educate the completely uninformed with this, I didn't really get anything out of his book.

The Great Crash 1929

Another one of the countless books in preparation for my economics exam next week (wish I could spend as much time simply reading literature/history, topics that I choose, no such luck though), John Kenneth Galbraith's The Great Crash 1929 is considered the classic study of this stock market failure. Considering the renewed interest in these subjects and the fact that financial aspects will definitely (possibly? I have no idea really) be part of my exam, I decided it would be a good idea to have read it.

The big surprise of this book basically was how much I enjoyed reading it, I finished it in less than 10 hours (in more or less one straight sitting) and never got tired of it. Galbraith provides a very detailed study, he does not try to overanalyze, but instead intends of providing his readers with enough information to pass judgment themselves. He shows the failure of market participants as well as regulators while also pointing out that the crash was inevitable and a market failure. Its size or impact could have been impacted by the Fed, the Treasury and a number of other actors, but they could have not prevented the bubble from bursting.

I find these economic subjects highly frustrating at times, simply because they are so inconclusive, everything is based on assumptions that might (or might not) be logically coherent but not necessarily true. Even if after reading this book I feel like I understand the nature of these bubbles, these crashes, better, it still seems to be such a superficial understanding, such a shallow knowledge. I guess there ain't nothing but to keep on reading.

Late add-on:
I just found my notes for this book again and just wanted to add a few comments:
  • Galbraith argues that 'cheap credit [is] not sufficient as an explanation for a speculative bubble' which I found highly interesting considering that's what Europeans claim the Americans did wrong these last few years (also I think this is what Greenspan usually is criticized for).
  • The high income gap in the United States before 1929 (low Gini-efficient) contributed to a dependency on luxury goods for continued economic growth. When the stock markets crashed a relatively low percentage of people were directly affected by this, but these were the guys that were needed to keep consumption at high levels. Basically (and this is me, not Galbraith), if the United States had been a more just (in terms of income) society the Great Crash wouldn't have had such an astounding (and long-term) effect. I wonder what that means for today's society, considering that thanks (to some extent) to Bush's economic policies the rich have gotten richer while everyone else stagnated.
  • 'The bipartisan emphasis on balancing the budget in 1932 worsened the developing depression.' Let's just say I hope that Frau Merkel is reading some economics texts too, I'd like to find a job next summer after all.
  • Highly amusing:
    'Persons high in Republican circles are beginning to believe that there is some concerted effort on foot to utilize the stock market as a method of discrediting the Administration. Every time an Administration official gives out an optimistic statement about business conditions, the market immediately drops.'

Histoire de la guerre d'Algérie

L'Histoire de la guerre d'Algérie de Benjamin Stora est un petit livre de 100 pages que je n'ai pas réussi à lire vite quand même. Le livre est écrit comme une introduction au sujet, dense comme une historiographie, toutes phrases pleines de chiffres ou de noms inconnu. J'avais du mal avec ce livre à cause de cela. Je ne savais rien sur la guerre en Algérie, peut-être moins sur l'histoire de la France à l'époque, beaucoup des noms, beaucoup des sigles ne formaient qu'une foule incompréhensible pour moi. Même si le bouquin apparaît être une introduction, je le trouve trop dense, trop intense pour l'être pour quelqu'un vraiment ignorant.

Au même temps le contenu de l'œuvre m'a choqué, je ne me suis pas rendu compte de cet histoire. Le nombre de morts, la violence des deux côtés, le comportement des militants de l'Algérie française (l'OAS), les Européens en Algérie et leurs manifestations, le fait que pendant que la France faisait la guerre en Algérie il y avait une immigration massive des algériens vers la France (la métropole si vous voulez). Quel bordel.