Monthly Archives: January 2008

Milquetoast, milk-toast

Since I only write about issues of global importance on Davos Newbies, I was struck by this line in Jeff Garten’s Financial Times op-ed this morning:

When it comes to foreign investment by state-owned companies or from sovereign wealth funds, the US and the EU need to set common standards for transparency, ownership and reciprocity. The rules should be enforceable – not milk-toast, voluntary guidelines.

Oh, Jeff. Milquetoast isn’t a word that means soggy toast. It means a sissy. It originates from a cartoon character, Caspar Milquetoast. Someone at the FT should have known that.

Other than language issues, I wonder if Garten is right to tie the growth of sovereign wealth funds and what he calls state capitalism so explicitly to greater regulation. Here’s his worry:

While prudent regulation in selected areas can be justified, the new zeitgeist is likely to produce too much government intervention, too fast. We can expect less productivity, less innovation and less growth, since governments have many goals that the private sector does not. These include employment generation, income redistribution and the aggrandisement of political power.

I think goals of employment generation and income redistribution are exactly what government policy should work towards. And some of the regulations that Garten decries in his piece, such as environmental regulations, strike me as good for individual countries and for the world at large. You don’t have to be a free trade fundamentalist to think free trade is a good thing.  Advocating sensible regulation doesn’t make you a milquetoast.

Oh no, Schoenberg

I’m not quite half way through Alex Ross’ excellent The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century. With that frame in mind, I was struck dumb by an advertisement in yesterday’s New York Times arts section. “I Can’t Believe It’s Schoenberg!” was the copy line, promoting a concert that features Verklärte Nacht. Verklärte Nacht was written 108 years ago. What a sad comment on conservative musical taste.

If you’re thinking of reading Ross I’d recommend it only if you have a reasonably good musical background. The writing is excellent and the history is fascinating, but if you either haven’t heard the works he discusses or can’t follow some fairly basic musical discussion I think you’d find the book pretty frustrating.

The US electoral compass

Electoral compass

I remember reading about the Dutch electoral compass, a web-based tool to compare your own views with a candidate’s platform. It turns out that Andre Krouwel, the political scientist who created the compass, has prepared a version for the US election. (Via Crooked Timber)

I answered the 36 questions and it returned the result above – I’m in the upper left quadrant, socially liberal and on the economic left, nearest to Barack Obama. What interested me about the questions and my responses is how often I either strongly agreed or strongly disagreed. There were very few issues I felt lukewarm about. I guess that accords with my Berkeley residency.

The California primary

I don’t usually read the UK’s Prospect for analysis of American politics. (This item on why neither Clinton nor Obama can win the presidency the other day was particularly woeful and not just because I didn’t like the message. If you call yourself Prospect, surely you shouldn’t encourage analyses that rely on looking backwards.) But I found the declaration that California is the New New Hampshire resonant. It’s exciting that my primary vote on February 5 is likely to be meaningful when a week ago I expected it to be a formality.

Still, I don’t expect to see Obama chatting with breakfast goers at the Rockridge Cafe or Clinton greeting shoppers on College Avenue. The collision of so many primaries on February 5 and certainly the scale of California means we will experience very little of retail politics. Instead I expect to be bombarded by very, very expensive television ads that I used to access only through YouTube.

Why Britain still has a monarchy

One of my most inspiring teachers at university was a Miltonian, so circa 1976 I was deeply into Paradise Lost. But I never considered this:

It could be said that the monarchy is the price England has paid for the existence of Paradise Lost.

Read Philip Pullman’s explanation.

(And in an illustration of the wonders of the Internet, I discover that my teacher sold his magnificent Milton collection – which he happily let us acolytes browse through – for a pretty penny to the University of South Carolina last year. And a scandal in which he was involved.)

The Harvard euphemism

Every morning I take two casual carpool passengers into San Francisco on my commute. Part of the etiquette of casual carpooling is that drivers should initiate any conversation, and since I generally don’t want to impose, I keep schtum. This morning, however, one of my passengers commented on a radio discussion about funding of California community colleges. This started an interesting discussion about comparative costs of public universities versus private and the differences between the respective educations.

My passenger kept referring to her “private college” so I asked, “Where did you go to college?” “I went to Harvard College for my undergraduate degree,” came the reply.

My college years are sufficiently distant that I’d long forgotten this euphemism, which I think is particularly common among Harvard graduates, at least of my generation or thereabouts. Since you don’t want to appear elitist – which, the implication is, being a Harvard grad would immediately label you – you refer vaguely to your college or, in this instance, your private college. I suspect Reagan era or later students, schooled during a time when greed was good and naked ambition a valued asset, would be less likely to skirt the subject.

I’m generally happy to tell people I went to Princeton (and latterly Oxford), but then I guess I’m not afraid of being labeled elitist.

Another new year discovery: bojagi


If I had the personality and the lack of encumbrances of my older sister I’d be on a plane to Seoul tomorrow.

Why? I’ve just discovered bojagi (sometimes transliterated pojagi) and I want to see more and, if possible, buy some. What are bojagi? They are traditional Korean wrapping cloths, which were apparently made for both everyday and ceremonial use. The few examples on display at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum were breathtaking. They share with patchwork quilts a colorful exuberance but, in a smaller form, have an intensity all their own. (My mother was a fabulous collector of patchwork quilts, before many people recognized them as an art form.)

I bought a good book on bojagi in the museum store, but web resources seem scanty at best (although there are a lot of sites that are about helping modern-day quilters make their own bojagi, which holds no interest whatsoever for me).  I need to see more.

The caucus experience

Like every other political junkie on the planet, I’ll be watching the coverage of tonight’s Iowa caucuses and goggling at the attempts to read the very weak tea leaves the event represents. Four years ago, I participated in a caucus that was almost equally irrelevant in terms of delegates to the Democratic National Convention. Here was my conclusion then:

If election observers watched a caucus in a so-called emerging democracy, they would decry its failure to observe basic democratic norms. Forget the right to a secret ballot. Forget the right to your unimpeded choice.

What’s remarkable about tonight, of course, is that this idiosyncratic, minimally democratic event will have potentially global significance. The vicious circle of media hype and month after month and million dollars after million dollars of candidate resources provides prima facie evidence that Iowa is important. After all, if it were merely an odd way to select a handful of delegates who will hold no sway at the national convention, no one would pay any attention, would they?

A strange way to pick a presidential candidate, to be sure.