Monday, August 23, 2010

An expert on money

I'm proud to be a graduate of the Harvard Extension School. I got a wonderful liberal arts education, and it wasn't even that expensive. Unfortunately, when it comes to economics the Extension School is just as bad as the rest of Harvard: worse than useless.

For example, this fall you can take ECON E-1452: "Money, Banking and Financial Institutions." According to the syllabus, "this course is an analysis of money and its role in financial markets and the economy. It considers the impact banks and other financial institutions have made in the United States and internationally, as well as the events leading up to the financial crisis of 2008." The course textbook was written by Frederic S. Mishkin.

This is the same Frederic Mishkin who was apparently paid $124,000 to write a paper which stated that "it [is] unlikely that there are serious problems with safety and soundness in the [Icelandic] banking system," and though a financial meltdown might be possible, such "self-fulfilling prophecies are unlikely to occur when fundamentals are strong, as they are in Iceland."

The Icelandic banking system subsequently collapsed. Mishkin never disclosed in the report that he was paid to write it by the Icelandic Chamber of Commerce.

Apparently one Charles Ferguson is making a movie about the financial crisis, and he interviewed Mishkin on the subject:

(The CV has since been changed to include the correct title of the paper mentioned in the video.)

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Wider Point of View

All fiction is a reflection of its time; only rarely does it poke its head through the mirror and take an active look around. Good science fiction is more likely to do this because its writers, like anthropologists, have internalized that the present is contingent, temporary, always provincial. Travel a bit in time or space, and the world is a different place, seen through alien eyes. But since fiction is a reflection of its time, often the same critical theme crops up again and again, the product of a particular soil and climate.

The last time I noticed this, the theme was the corruption of power. In book after book published in the same couple of years, thrillers and mysteries (all in the SF or fantasy genres) came to the same revelatory climax: the government or those in power were the villains. I'll omit the names of the authors for fear of spoilers.

This time the pattern I'm seeing is antagonistic reflections on religion, although the list of books is shorter so far. Stross' "The Fuller Memorandum" isn't quite as good as his previous two Laundry novels, although it'll still appeal to Lovecraft fans, and Ken Macleod's "The Night Sessions" (still!) hasn't made it to the US yet so I've yet to read it. Ian McDonalds "Ares Express" is quite good, as is China Mieville's "The Kraken", which I just finished reading. Strangely, the novel feels like Mieville is channeling Terry Pratchett, in his guise as humanist rather than humorist. There is some of the latter though, and Mieville can wield a sharp pun, e.g. in the climax of this short story.

All of these authors are British, though I couldn't say why. Perhaps now that religious discrimination is becoming fashionable in the US maybe we'll see some American authors chiming in. I do sympathize with the claim that religions whose members have been involved in religiously-motivated bloodshed should be looked upon with suspicion. The Spanish Inquisition, all the Jews slaughtered during the Crusades, the Protestants killed by other Protestants during the Reformation for believing in the wrong method of salvation (theological disputes are easy to win if the municipal executioner works for you), the Thirty Years War... violent bunch, these Christians. As one of many contemporary examples, there are all those avid readers of "The Left Behind" series (millions of copies sold!), excited about the impending death of my siblings in the coming apocalyptic wars in Israel.

Lets ban some churches first, and then maybe we'll talk about mosques.

Here's what Schaffer the Dark Lord has to say (or rather, sing) on the subject: