Monthly Archives: February 2009

Finding Feuchtwanger

Baruch Zacheim's library mural, Coit Tower

Photo by Sam Fam

Among the many, many volumes I inherited from my father’s library is a near-complete collection of the works of Lion Feuchtwanger. No one reads Feuchtwanger these days. As far as I can tell, only one of his books is still in print in English, The Oppermanns (4½ stars on Amazon.com), funnily enough in a translation by someone I know.

But there was a time when Feuchtwanger was devoured by left-wing readers in the US. My father’s library has a lot of books like that. The resonance of Feuchtwanger was brought graphically home to me this weekend, when my family took advantage of a crisp, sunny day to wander around San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill. Coit Tower, at the summit, has a famous set of murals, completed by the Works Progress Administration during the New Deal. There’s a distinct left-wing ethos to these wonderful works, by a number of different artists. Look closely, however, at The Library (above), painted by Baruch Zakheim, and you’ll find many of the authors from my father’s library. Including Feuchtwanger.

I really need to pull one of those volumes down from my shelves and see if the neglected Feuchtwanger holds up well.

Where are the State Department blogs?

I’ve been reading David Miliband’s blog since he started. Certainly in Britain it’s a first to have a minister as senior as Foreign Secretary truly blogging — and Miliband’s writing is certainly in his own voice. Because he pointed his readers to the British embassy’s blog from Harare, if we wanted to get a view from the ground, I’ve discovered a wealth of blogs from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

It’s a great way to bring some of the insights from a country’s diplomatic network to citizens. So what does my own State Department have to offer? There’s DipNote, the official blog of the State Department. And, as far as I can tell, that’s it.

Hillary Clinton wasn’t the most blog-friendly of candidates, so I don’t expect her first instruction to the diplomatic corps will be to let blogs blossom. But the people around the White House certainly know how powerful a distributed, informal network of communication and conversation can be (I was impressed that the British ambassador to Serbia not only writes, but seems to respond directly to comments). That would be a change I could believe in.

Readers and advertisers aren't at odds

Walter Isaacson, a former editor of Time, is keen on micropayments as the path to salvation for newspapers. Scott Rosenberg pithily explains the problem with micropayments and Kay Steiger explains some of the other problems with Isaacson’s view.

But what struck me was the misunderstanding Isaacson has about advertising:

Henry Luce, a co-founder of TIME, disdained the notion of giveaway publications that relied solely on ad revenue. He called that formula “morally abhorrent” and also “economically self-defeating.” That was because he believed that good journalism required that a publication’s primary duty be to its readers, not to its advertisers. In an advertising-only revenue model, the incentive is perverse. It is also self-defeating, because eventually you will weaken your bond with your readers if you do not feel directly dependent on them for your revenue.

I’ve run both ad-supported publications and subscription-supported ones. One of the basics of publishing I learned very early on is that the one thing you can’t live without is readers. No one will want to advertise in your magazine (or newspaper or website or what have you) if no one is reading it. So wherever your revenue comes from, you have to serve readers first. So there doesn’t need to be any weakening of the bonds readers feel.

Fake classicism

My friend Richard Edelman, in his Davos round-up, included this bon mot from Stephen Green, chief executive of HSBC:

“Business has to get on with being trustworthy. We need consistency of promise and action. We should be  engaged in dialogue to bridge differences.” He offered a quote from Tacitus, “Good people don’t need rules to tell them how to behave responsibly and bad people will always find the ways around rules.”

Those Romans, huh? They had the right phrase for everything. But I wondered, is that really something from Tacitus. Or is it fake learning, that somehow has found its way into some eager beaver’s repertoire at HSBC?

Well, here at Davos Newbies Towers we have a trained squad of classicists ready for any eventuality. I sicced them on the quote from “Tacitus” and, so far, they’ve come up dry. It might turn up eventually, but I wouldn’t count on it.

Incidentally, my erudite classicist reports that a “quote” from Cicero is also doing the rounds:

The arrogance of officialdom should be tempered and controlled, and assistance to foreign hands should be curtailed, lest Rome fall.

Perfect for Republicans in today’s Senate, surely. Except it’s confected. No Cicero was harmed in the production of the quote.

Irreplaceable

Tom Peters on the notion of an irreplaceable CEO:

If you sent all F500 CEOs and their #2s to St Elba, performance of their companies would not on average deteriorate. The “myth of the irreplaceable CEO” is just that—myth.

He also believes, old Navy guy that he is, that the pay cap for CEOs of government-assisted companies should be the rate of a four-star general or admiral, with seniority.

The difficult path of globalization quote of the day

From The New York Times’ fascinating look at Bolivia’s drive to become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium” (who knew?):

Over a meal of llama stew and a Pepsi, Marcelo Castro, 48, the manager overseeing the project, explained that along with processing lithium, the plant had another objective.

“Of course, lithium is the mineral that will lead us to the post-petroleum era,” Mr. Castro said. “But in order to go down that road, we must raise the revolutionary consciousness of our people, starting on the floor of this very factory.”

Why didn't economic rules apply in finance?

Further to my two-cents — and everyone else’s — on outrageous finance industry compensation, Kevin Drum asks an interesting question:

As for the financial industry, the long-term answer to their absurd pay packages is to figure out why the finance industry is so profitable. It shouldn’t be. Especially now, it should be a cutthroat business with tiny margins, vanishing arbitrage opportunities, and competition ready to underbid you at every opportunity. So why — the past 12 months excepted — isn’t it? Why hasn’t increasing competition wrung the profits out of the industry? If we figure that out and fix it, gigantic Wall Street pay packages will become a thing of the past for good.