Thursday, 28 January 2010

J. D. Salinger 1919-2010

When a great writer dies, the most respectful response is surely to plug their merchandise. So if you haven't read The Catcher in the Rye yet, I advise you to get on with it before his estate allows some idiot to make a phony film adaptation.

It's one of my favourite books of all time, perhaps only bettered by a certain other book with 'catch' in the title. I particularly recommend it if you're a cynical adolescent, but cynical people of all ages will find plenty to admire. Plus it's still one of the most frequently banned books in America. What higher recommendation can there be?

I have to admit I've never got round to reading any of Salinger's other books. Partly it's because I'm scared they won't be as good as Catcher. If you've read any of them, let me know how they rate.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble

Whoever designed my 1996 GCSE history syllabus was, in hindsight, inspired. One of the modules was on the Roaring Twenties in the US. We learned about jazz, flappers, prohibition and so on, but also about the causes of the Wall Street Crash of 1929. As far as I can remember, it was a mixture of laissez-faire government and excessive hire-purchase of lawnmowers that did for them. But the main thought I came away with was this: how could they be so stupid? Why didn't they see it coming?

The inspired part came a bit later, in 2008. After years of economic hubris, we found out that we're not so very much more sophisticated than our predecessors after all. That's probably the most important lesson history can teach us (after "don't invade Russia"). So how could we be so stupid? Why didn't we see our crisis coming?

The truth, now as then, is that some people did. They just weren't listened to. This time round Paul Krugman was one of those people. Back in 1999 he wrote the first edition of The Return of Depression Economics. It talked about the financial crises of the time - those in Latin America, the fall of the "Asian tigers" (remember them?) and Japan's lost decade - and warned that we ignored them at our peril.

At this time the problem of regulating a developed economy seemed to have been solved. At its most basic level, raising interest rates would prevent it overheating, while lowering them would ward off recession. But in Japan's case in particular, these monetary controls stopped working. Their economic bubble burst, the economy slumped, interest rates fell to zero, but a recovery still didn't arrive. This is the realm of depression economics.

With the aid of a real-life model economy from a babysitting co-op, Krugman explains how this situation can come about. He then points out that all this would be familiar to Keynes and advocates a Keynesian approach to fixing it: deficit spending by governments and, failing that, controlled inflation by quantitative easing (i.e. printing money). If you believe that either of these things is a bad idea, you need to read this book. Preferably before voting.

The other strand of Krugman's argument is a failure of regulation to cope with the modern world of finance. In this our woes resemble the Panic of 1907 as much as the 1930s. What has happened is a shadow banking system has grown, based around exotic arrangements like "auction-rate securities", which allowed organisations like Lehman Brothers to perform bank-like functions without any of the pesky regulations that apply to ordinary banking. Without the costs of regulation, the shadow banking system gave higher returns and grew explosively. But when the economy went pear-shaped, the safety net provided by the regulations wasn't there to save the shadow banks. Instead the long suffering taxpayer has had to foot the bill.

Depression Economics is a well-argued and very clear analysis of our times. My only quibble with this revised edition is that it loses some of its power from looking backwards rather than forwards. It's now less of a warning that came true and more of an "I told you so". It also reads a little awkwardly, with the new events bolted on to the end and the earlier chapters buffed up slightly so they fit in. It's worth it, though, as the analysis of the current crisis in the context of the others adds a lot to the book (not least as it would be a very slim volume without it). It's shocking how our own two bubbles - in dot.coms and housing - and their collapse bear such an uncanny resemblance to the crises of the 90s.

If there's grounds for hope in this book, it's that those in power - and in particular the UK government (go us!) - were alert to the need for action this time round. It seems, touchwood, that we've done enough to prevent another Great Depression, not that the very severe recession we've got instead is much consolation. But if nothing else it's shown that perhaps we are able to learn from history after all.

The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008
by Paul Krugman
First published as The Return of Depression Economics, 1999
Revised edition published 2008
Krugman's columns and blog are available on the New York Times website.

Sunday, 3 January 2010

The trouble with jokes

Apologies to anyone waiting on tenterhooks for my account of Portland. Christmas intervened when I was still only half-way through Sometimes a Great Notion. But don't despair! My new year's resolution is to have it finished before its centennial in 2064.

Meanwhile I've been seeing some Christmas presents behind its back. Charlie Brooker's Dawn of the Dumb was a present from Mrs Tomsk, and is just the thing for the festive period when Great Novels don't really appeal. It's a collection of Brooker's Guardian columns: a mix of his 'Screen Burn' TV reviews and his writing on other weighty matters.

Brooker's columns are both puerile and misanthropic, and all the better for it. Above all they're very funny. I'm not a fan of tasteless humour in general but he has elevated it to an art form. If you're not familiar with his work, pause now and contemplate his 2006 end of year TV review. If you laughed at his summing up of Torchwood, you'll enjoy the rest of the book. If you blanched, perhaps best to stay away.

Dawn of the Dumb covers roughly the period from the start of The Apprentice to the point mid-way in 2007 when everybody in the world joined Facebook. This coincides with the first half of our stay in Germany, so it was fascinating to find out what I had missed on British TV. Thanks mainly to the joy of DVD box sets, the answer is not much: several series of Big Brother and The X-Factor, the return of Noel Edmunds and an advert for Apple Macs were apparently the big tickets. I'd trade that lot in for a stick of spargel any day.

Reality TV is the dominant subject of Screen Burn. Brooker professes hatred for the genre, which is all the funnier as he is clearly obsessed with it. My interest started to wane after the umpteenth discussion of a Big Brother series I had never seen, but for the most part it's entertaining even if you haven't watched any of the TV discussed (I only wish I could achieve the same with these book reviews). I can't say it's encouraged me to look out for repeats of any of the TV discussed though, except maybe Paul Merton's Silent Clowns (The Goat!)

The non-TV columns are just as good, if not better, and refreshingly eclectic, like a sorbet between chapters. Brooker also has a habit of being absolutely right on virtually every topic he turns to, whether it be the absurd length of the King Kong remake, the worrying love of torture in 24, or - speaking as someone currently suffering from a sore throat - his proof of the non-existence of God.

By now you'll have noticed that all of his columns are available online. So is it worth getting the book? Well, quite apart from avoiding the acute frustration of trying to navigate the Guardian's archives, reading them in dollops does work. It's a bit like those DVD box sets - you get a more concentrated hit. I wouldn't advise reading the whole thing in one sitting, but a couple of chapters a day won't overstretch your laughter muscles. Also, the index is almost as funny as the rest of the book.

The one concession to value-addedness is a section about his column on the Bush vs Kerry debates of 2004. This is not available online, because a reckless joke in it resulted in hundreds of outraged emails from rabid American neo-cons. A salutary lesson to all who write on the internet: hordes of lunatics are never more than a click away.

Brooker complains about how the protest was stoked by partisan websites, which is somewhat hypocritical given how he has since tried to do exactly the same to Jan Moir, no matter how much she deserved the opprobrium. The difference is that Brooker was joking - but in an audience of everyone, can any joke be guaranteed to avoid offence? Maybe it's best to confine yourself, Twitter-style, to what you had for breakfast. Just watch out for militant vegans.

Dawn of the Dumb by Charlie Brooker
First published 2007
Brooker's columns are available on the Guardian website.