Thursday, August 28, 2014

Explaining August's nearly unbroken radio silence

Another month almost gone - the last in my favorite three-month stretch of the year (aka the true, as opposed to purely astronomical or even meteorological, summer) - and I have scarcely posted lately.  Thus, for example, I have yet to mention here the Burger King inversion story, although over the last couple of days I have been discussing it with members of the press.

I've been traveling for much of the month, first on vacation and then, as a parent, to help deliver a rising freshman to his college in southern California.  Two side benefits that I got from the latter trip were as follows.

First, I was able to fit in a trip to the Nixon Museum in Yorba Linda.  As a long-time Nixon aficionado, this was a treat indeed.  (I realize that no one under 50 can truly appreciate Nixon's astounding comic, dramatic, and literary greatness as a better-than-fictional character.)

Nixon's memoirs begin with the line "I was born in the house my father built."  Speak of great openings, although I never tried to read the rest as I gather it falls short of his most personally revealing work, "Six Crises."  But the house his father built is actually there at the library, at its original site, and I got to step inside.  Also at the Nixon Library is the famous helicopter from which he did his characteristic V-for-Victory pose before boarding to fly away from the White House after he resigned.  Other features include his and Pat's graves, a reconstruction of the White House East Room, and a fairly balanced review of his career.  (The National Archives now runs the place, helping to account for the balance.)

Rather a melancholic site, however, especially in light of Nixon's grandiose ambitions, along with the certainty that he must have felt, even as late as March 1973, that he had fully achieved them.  His ultimate disgrace not only is recounted there, but affects everything about the site.  Not for him the giant Pharaonic monument that I am sure he wanted.  For one thing, the money evidently wasn't there post-disgrace.  Instead, it is quite modest.  Presumably to help make ends meet, they have to rent out the place for weddings, real estate seminars, and the like.  You don't see that sort of thing in Napoleon's Invalides.

Biggest surprise: We got there just after it opened, and the parking lot was completely full, requiring us to park in the Quaker church lot (I think it was) across the street.  I had been joking all the way there about the giant lines we would face, and then was startled to see this evidently confirmed.  But not so fast.  It turned out that the reason for the full parking lot was a seminar offering pointers to real estate salesman.

Best comment: Standing just outside the main building during a tour, my wife and I saw a little field mouse race down a corner of the sidewalk and disappear into a small hole on the lawn.  She noted that seeing a rat on the grounds would have been more appropriate still.

On to the second side benefit of the trip.  It gave me a chance to read Balzac's Pere Goriot, discussed extensively by Thomas Piketty in Capital in the Twenty-First Century and to feature as well in the review that I am co-authoring with Joe Bankman for the NYU-UCLA Tax Policy Symposium on (and with) Piketty that will take place at NYU on October 3.  (Side-comment: We realized that this was Yom Kippur Eve when we scheduled the event, but it was the only mutually convenient date available).

I had previously read Pere Goriot and several other works by Balzac, back in the 1970s, when it in particular had made a strong impression although I didn't entirely like it, but hadn't been through it since.  Lots of boiling melodrama, long declamatory speeches, etc.  "What will Paris say?"  I must admit that I continue to strongly prefer two roughly contemporary French novels that I regard as similar in genre (i.e., bildungsroman featuring an upwardly mobile adventurer): Stendhal's The Red and the Black, which was published five years earlier, and Flaubert's Sentimental Education, which came out more than 30 years later.  But Balzac certainly has a rude and highly theatrical gusto, and if unfashionably unjaded he is certainly plenty cynical.

In our NYU-UCLA commentary, we will be quibbling a bit with how Piketty interprets Pere Goriot as a social document. But I'll save that for later - with luck we may reach the stage of posting the full piece on SSRN within a couple of weeks or even less.

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