Sunday, September 27, 2009

Selected Thoughts on The New Yorker Sept ember 21

Selected thoughts on the 21 September 2009 edition of The New Yorker:

Bench Press (by Jeffrey Toobin)
Toobin explores President Obama's choices for judicial appointments and asks whether his judges are really liberal. As a judicial realist, this is a topic of great concern to me. However, I think I also agree with the position (clearly held by Obama, and part of the reason he left the law and entered politics), that in general social change should come from political change, not legal fiat. This position, of course, is complicated by fealty to minority rates and a misplaced idealism in the enduring liberties guaranteed by the constitution.

Toobin's article largely focuses on Justice Sonya Sotomayor, her legal philosophy, and the politics around the confirmation process. It does, however, also get into more abstract question of judicial philosophy and what it means to be a 'liberal' in this age.

Eight Days (by James Stewart)
In this remarkable piece, Steward reconstructs the hour-by-hour narrative of what happened during the week in September 2008 when Lehman Brothers went bankrupt and the global financial system ground to a halt. It is unfortunate that the piece is only available to subscribers since this narrative is a must-read addition to our understanding of the (ongoing?) financial crises. There is some discussion of why and what, but the piece essentially is a reconstruction of what happened and when.

The hour-by-hour account is remarkably compelling, especially when one considers that it is mostly about conference calls and coffee-fueled meetings between bankers and CEOs. It focuses on the negotiations between Hank Paulson, the Secretary of the Treasury, Ben Benanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve, Timothy Geithner, then president of the New York Federal Reserve, and various players in the financial world (Lehman Brothers, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, etc). The drama and the stakes are huge--even without mention of Obama and McCain and the ongoing presidential campaign (with McCain's suspension, and their White House meeting with President Bush at the height of the crises).

Paulson comes out very well in the narrative. Stewart presents his decision to guarantee the money market funds as being key to holding the system together after Reserve Management Company broke the buck. The depressing thing is that it seems that nothing fundamental is really going to change with the way the system is run. And, more so, our the hard-won knowledge of how the system works is going to be left by the way-side.

Like many, over the past 18 months I have struggled to understand how the financial system works, and how it had gotten broken. The number of excellent articles and radio programs and blogs about this topic is quite remarkable. Stewart's narrative is a very welcome addition to this growing body of reporting and explanation.

It Happened One Decade (by Caleb Crain)
Crain reflects on how the Great Depression impacted the arts in literature in America. One of the basic questions is what does it mean to make art (particularly if you were fortunate enough to be paid for it) in a time of great economic suffering?

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