The chart above is from Bloomberg, and it's an example of how much liquidity the Fed pumped into the banking system during the height of the financial crisis in 2008. Felix Salmon explains what it means:

Ladies and Gentlemen, this is what a lender of last resort looks like....On September 16, 2008, Morgan Stanley owed $21.5 billion to the Fed. The next day, that number doubled, to $40.5 billion. And eight working days later, on the 29th, the bank’s total borrowings from the Fed reached $107 billion. The Fed didn’t blink: it kept on lending, as much as it could, to any bank which needed the money, because, in a crisis, that’s its job.

Why is this relevant today? Because the European banking system has gone from bad to worse in just the last few days and Europe desperately needs a lender of last resort now. Unfortunately, it doesn't have one because the European Central Bank is either unable or unwilling to take on the role. Here is Wolfgang Münchau:

In virtually all the debates about the eurozone I have been engaged in, someone usually makes the point that it is only when things get bad enough, the politicians finally act — eurobond, debt monetisation, quantitative easing, whatever. I am not so sure....With the spectacular flop of the German bond auction and the alarming rise in short-term rates in Spain and Italy, the government bond market across the eurozone has ceased to function.

The banking sector, too, is broken. Important parts of the eurozone economy are cut off from credit. The eurozone is now subject to a run by global investors, and a quiet bank run among its citizens....Technically, one can solve the problem even now, but the options are becoming more limited. The eurozone needs to take three decisions very shortly, with very little potential for the usual fudges. First, the European Central Bank must agree a backstop of some kind....

Like Münchau, I've long been a member of the "when things get bad enough" school, but my faith is being sorely tested. This is likely to be a very, very bad week in Europe.

The Wall Street Journal has a piece up this weekend about the difficulty that many companies are having hiring skilled workers in certain areas. I don't doubt that this is true. For a variety of reasons, I imagine that the number of people willing to invest the time it takes to learn these kinds of jobs has declined in recent years. But there's more to this story than meets the eye. Here's a description of some skilled job openings at Union Pacific railroad:

When the railroad had openings for diesel electricians earlier this year, it took [Ferrie] Bailey 10 hiring sessions to fill 24 jobs....Known as "installation technicians," the workers are responsible for putting in and maintaining a sprawling network of cable, microwave relays and related equipment that enables the railroad to monitor 850 trains running daily along its 32,000 miles of track.

This doesn't require a bachelor's degree but demands technical skills gained either through an associates' degree or four years of experience in electronics. And it is grueling work. Technicians have to climb 50-foot communications towers, clamber up utility poles and work outdoors through Wyoming winters and Kansas summers. They put in 10-hour days, in clusters of eight or ten days, and are routinely away from home more than half of each month.

....Standing at the front of the room, Ms. Bailey described the deal. As installation technicians, they would earn $21.64 an hour, or close to $48,000 a year for the railroad's regular work schedule.

Then there's this:

After a website job posting, Ms. Bailey initially drew 58 applicants. Of them, she deemed about two dozen sufficiently qualified so that she invited them to take a $25 aptitude test, at their own expense.

Let me get this straight. Union Pacific is supposedly desperate for candidates and can barely fill all their open positions. And yet, when they identify 24 qualified applicants, they aren't even willing to maximize their hiring pool by ponying up $600 to make sure they all take the aptitude test. Then, later in the story, there's this:

Ms. Bailey faced more stiff competition at a job fair the next day, because then she was up against several other employers looking for the same sort skilled people as she was. "Make $70,000 - $80,000 the first year with FULL BENEFITS," read a sign at a booth right across from Ms. Bailey's at the job fair, put on by the U.S. Army in Fort Carson, Colo., largely to help departing soldiers ease back to civilian life.

So here's the story. Union Pacific is offering $48,000 per year for skilled, highly specialized, journeyman work that's physically grueling and requires workers to be away from home about half of each month. The competition is offering 50% more, but not only is UP not willing to increase their starting wage, they're so certain they can fill all their positions that they make qualified candidates pay for their own aptitude test. And despite all this, they filled all 24 of their positions in ten hiring sessions.

It doesn't sound to me like there's a huge shortage of qualified workers here. It sounds to me like Union Pacific is whining about the fact that it took them all of ten hiring sessions to fill their quota even though this is a really tough job and they aren't paying market rates for workers. It's as if they think that actually having to make a modest effort to attract job candidates is an inversion of the natural order or something. Speaking for myself, I think I'll hold off on breaking out the violins.

Reihan Salam directs us to an essay about labor unions by Alan Haus, an IP and employment law attorney in San Francisco. Haus thinks that conservatives ought to be more supportive of the power of labor unions in promoting higher wages:

There is much that could be said about the economic effects of promoting higher wages. For Republicans, the disadvantages should be trumped not only by the advantages but also by a vital consideration of political philosophy: the society of limited government to which most Republicans aspire will only come about in the real world if most Americans earn enough money to save for retirements and college educations, and provide for their long-term healthcare through substantially private markets. Achieving this requires some measure of support for a high wage economy.

But Haus is a lot less enthralled with every other aspect of organized labor:

....The central problem with private sector unions is that under current labor relations regimes they stifle economic innovation....[This] starts with the litany of subjects on which collective bargaining is not only permitted, but in many cases mandatory. The only mandatory subject of bargaining in the 21st century should be employee compensation.

Radically different employee associations that don't suffocate both their companies and their members need to be created....Congress should authorize employee associations that are easier to form than current unions, but which do not have the power to interfere with managerial prerogatives (which is pretty much every subject other than employee compensation as determined by a collectively bargained contract).

The idea here, I guess, is that there would be two distinct kinds of labor unions authorized and protected by law. The first kind would be the ones we have now, which are extremely difficult to create. The second kind would be restricted to bargaining over wages and benefits, but would be much easier to create. With this kind of "Union Lite" available as an option, perhaps Wal-Mart could finally be successfully organized?

I'm surprisingly sympathetic to this notion, though it's obviously pie in the sky. As Haus mentions elsewhere, existing labor unions would oppose it and therefore Democrats would oppose it too. Likewise, although perhaps corporations and rich people should be in favor of organizations that promote higher wages for the working and middle classes, they aren't. Therefore Republicans would also oppose this idea.

Beyond this, there are obvious problems with wage-only unions. I've long supported organized labor because it's the only large-scale countervailing power that promotes the economic interests of the middle class against the interests of the corporate community. At the same time, I've long recognized that telephone-book size contracts stuffed with endless picayune work rules are genuinely corrosive. But where do you draw the line? I agree that unions would be far more acceptable to management, and far more useful to their members, if they spent less time fighting for rigid job classifications and money-wasting featherbedding clauses. But what about safety regs? I'd love to think that we could just trust MSHA to enforce safe practices in coal mines, but that would be naive. It's the UMW that's been mostly responsible for progress on that front.

Still, this is an interesting suggestion. Whatever you think of them, unions in their existing form are dying, and there's little reason to think that's going to change. I acknowledged this when I wrote about unions earlier this year ("Why Screwing Unions Screws the Entire Middle Class") and argued that we needed something to replace them, "a countervailing power as big, crude, and uncompromising as organized labor used to be." Haus's proposal won't be adopted anytime soon, but at least it's a useful idea: a new union movement that trades a bit of power in one area (work rules) for more power in another (much greater density in the private sector). It's something to think about.

Hollywood vs. the NFL

I've been trying to figure out why my interest in pro sports has waned in recent years, and today's announcement of a possible agreement between NBA owners and players to end their lockout gives me an excuse to toss out a theory. I'm not sure I even really believe this, but I'm sort of wondering if it resonates with anyone else.

The theory is about money, of course. That part probably comes as no surprise. Basically, my problem is that pro sports franchises these days are so obviously mere businesses that it's hard to convince myself I should care about them as teams anymore. From strikes to lockouts to luxury boxes to free agency to government handouts for lavish stadium projects, the P&L permeates everything.

But here's what interests me: For some reason, I don't feel this way about Hollywood even though it's gone down exactly the same route. The studios are all corporate subsidiaries these days, stars are paid astronomical amounts, production companies routinely extort subsidies from states and cities, writers and others have gone on strike repeatedly, and newspapers sometimes seem to pay more attention to weekend grosses than they do to the movies themselves.

So why is it that the corporate nature of pro sports seems so obvious and so alienating to me, but Hollywood has, somehow, managed to embrace it in a way that doesn't bother me as much?

Note that I use the word "embraced" deliberately. My sense is that I dislike pro sports because at the same time that it's all become so obviously corporate, their marketing machine is based increasingly on the pretense that everyone is just playing for the love of the game and that's how fans should engage with their product. Hollywood, conversely, seems more honestly avaricious. It's all about money, but they celebrate it instead of pretending that we should engage with their product solely as art. It's not that they don't talk about their craft. They do. But it feels like they acknowledge the business side of things more openly and more boisterously, usually with a wink toward the audience. It's all part of the game.

I dunno. Have I just been traumatized by a decade of Frank McCourt and NFL mendacity in Los Angeles? Or does this actually make any sense?

After my griping yesterday about the 340-ton boulder being installed above a trench in front of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Isaac Butler tweeted a challenge:

You're asking "why this work of art?" When someone takes you in good faith and tries to explain it to you, you then dismiss it. Is there any explanation of a work of art's value beyond surface pleasure that you see as valid? I find some art world discussion insular and pretentious, I feel you on that. But I'm genuinely curious as to what a valid discussion of a work of art's value (or art's value in general even) would look like to you.

This is totally a fair question. And against my better judgment, I'm even going to try to address it! First, though, some throat clearing and general defensive posturing. Here goes. (1) I don't know much about art and don't pretend to. My reactions are those of an ordinary schlub and I don't expect anyone to take me seriously. (2) The artwork in question, Levitated Mass, is privately funded, so this isn't a question of outrage over wasteful public spending. If rich people want to spend their money hauling a big rock to LACMA, that's fine. (3) None of us have seen the finished installation yet. It might well turn out to be far more powerful and evocative than we can guess based on a mere rendering.

But aside from the concept itself, I think it was LACMA's explication of the installation that really teed me off. Whether it was offered in good faith or not I don't know, but here it is:

Taken whole, Levitated Mass speaks to the expanse of art history, from ancient traditions of creating artworks from monolithic stone, to modern forms of abstract geometries and cutting-edge feats of engineering.

Even if I don't know much about art, I can still read English. This sentence makes three claims. Let's take them in order and try to decide if Levitated Mass really does speak to the expanse of art history:

  • "from ancient traditions of creating artworks from monolithic stone...." Is this historically illuminating? No, it is not. It's common knowledge among fourth graders. What's more, although ancient civilizations did indeed create artworks from huge stones, they actually created artworks. They didn't merely haul gigantic rocks around mindlessly.
  • "to modern forms of abstract geometries...." Does this say anything significant? No, it does not. It refers to the 456-foot trench the boulder is going to be placed over, but in what way is a 456-foot trench an example of "abstract geometry" in any serious or creative sense? This just perpetuates one of the great frauds of modern art: that merely drawing our attention to shapes and forms is sufficient.
  • "and cutting-edge feats of engineering." Is this true? No, it is not. There is simply no sense in which this installation is cutting-edge engineering. It is a monumental pain in the ass to transport it along city streets from Riverside to Los Angeles, but that's neither cutting edge nor a feat of engineering. The pyramids took decades to build and made a profound point about the civilization they were embedded in. This is just an expensive but fairly routine job of permitting and logistics that will take nine days to complete with modern machinery.

I understand that all professions have their own language. Not everything that professionals write is pitched toward laymen, and there's no reason it should be. Still, an enormous signature installation in front of a major public art museum ought to be explicable to more than a tiny minority of art aficionados. That sentence was LACMA's attempt to make Levitated Mass comprehensible to ordinary people, but it's just gobbledygook, the kind of artspeak that curators engage in when they have nothing real to say. It makes no sense on its own terms and certainly does nothing to help its subject create an emotional connection with its audience.

I don't expect to understand the nuances of great art without putting in some study. Honest. But installations like this are the kind of thing that's divorced the art world from the vast majority of modern-day audiences. Maybe, in the end, it will be awe-inspiring solely by virtue of its size. 340 tons is a big rock, after all. But why bother? There are already lots of awesomely big things in the world, and in the 21st century it's not really very profound to haul an awesomely big thing from one place to another. Artists and curators owe us more than that. They owe us art — something purposefully crafted to show what the human mind is capable of — and when they talk to us about their art, they owe us language that's neither insular nor pretentious. I don't really understand why that seems to be so much to ask for.

Faking Rape on the Tube

Amanda Marcotte wrote a piece a couple of days ago called "8 Obnoxious Cliches about Men, Women and Sex in Otherwise Good TV Shows." One of her items is about an episode of the teen sleuth show Veronica Mars in which campus feminists at Hearst college fake a rape in order to provoke a scandal that will damage the fraternity system:

A word to every television writer who thinks it’s clever to write a plot where a woman “cries rape,” is instantly believed, and turns out to be a liar: you’re not clever. That may be the stupidest cliché ever on television. To watch TV, you’d think all rape victims are instantly believed and comforted, and that the vast majority of them are lying. In reality, the percentage of rape reports that are false is 2-8 percent, in line with false reports of other crimes.

I don't watch enough TV to have any idea about this, but it got me curious, especially considering the vast number of crime shows on the tube. So tell me, commenters, is this true? Are rape victims on TV routinely depicted as liars who, for one reason or another, have made a fake accusation? How common is this trope? Inquiring minds want to know.

A few days ago I linked to a Washington Post story suggesting that the original Al Qaeda network was all but dead. It was late at night when I posted about it, so I didn't bother musing on the legal implications of this, but Robert Chesney picks up the ball and suggests that it matters. Sure, he says, the guys in Yemen might call themselves Al Qaeda, but the post-9/11 Authorization for the Use of Military Force doesn't care:

The AUMF, famously, encompasses at least the original al Qaeda network and those who harbor it. Whether it applies as well to entities like AQAP is a much-debated question, raising difficult issues regarding both how one defines the organizational boundaries as al Qaeda and whether the AUMF should be read to include, implicitly, authority to use force as well against organizations that can be described as the functional equivalent to co-belligerents (and, if so, what the criteria are for defining that set). With the potential demise of the “core” al Qaeda leadership, these questions will become still more difficult....I expect that this will become an increasingly significant set of issues in the years ahead.

In theory, this sounds right. In practice, we launched a drone war against AQAP in Yemen and no one blinked. Ditto for a military operation against Libya, which had nothing even arguably to do with al-Qaeda. In that case, Congress roused itself from its torpor just enough to growl slightly, but then fell immediately back into a coma. Legalities aside, virtually no one in Congress seems much interested in deciding whether the AUMF has had its day and should no longer be considered an all-purpose excuse for military action in any country that shares a majority religion with Afghanistan.

But they should.

Happy Black Friday! Or, in Inkblot's case, black-and-white Friday. Though even that might be overstating things a bit. According to the five-year-old who joined us for dinner yesterday, Inkblot is now officially "the white cat." You can see how he came to that conclusion compared to our other cat, but I'm not sure Inkblot was amused by the sudden youthful clamor that invaded the house last night.

Domino, on the other hand, is so preternaturally calm that a bouncing, running, excitable five-year-old did nothing to ruffle her fur. She's sort of amazing that way.

In any case, there's Inkblot on the left, obviously king of all he surveys. (This was pre-clamor.) On the right, Domino is striking the ever popular cat-in-a-bag pose. She looks suspicious of the camera, and with good reason. It flashed at her, something it normally doesn't do (we're fans of natural light here in the Drum household). But it was dark and her face is completely black. What are you going to do?

Via Alex Massie, Dan Drezner surveys the interest of the Republican field in foreign affairs and comes away horrified:

During the 2008 US presidential election cycle, the respected journal Foreign Affairs invited the leading prsidential candidates from both parties to outline their views of world politics. All of them responded with essays that, one presumes, they at least read if did not write. This year, ahead of next year's elections, Foreign Affairs has proffered the same invitation to the leading Republican aspirants. To date, they have all refused or not responded.

The problem here is simple: the tea party attitude toward foreign policy these days is about the same as Conan's:

Mongol General: Conan! What is best in life? 

Conan: To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women.

Since the tea party apparently controls the GOP nomination, this is basically what every candidate has to say. No nuance will be tolerated. It's pretty tiresome. But of course, even the dumbest of them knows that you really can't say something like this in the pages of Foreign Affairs. So they're best off punting. After all, if you stray too far from the Conan Doctrine, even accidentally, you'll lose precious votes, but if you stick too close to it you'll make a fool of yourself among Beltway elites that (no matter how much they deny it) really do matter to them. It's a lose-lose proposition.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is getting a new addition: a 340-ton boulder that will be suspended over a 456-foot slot dug into the earth. Today, the LA Times documents the mind-boggling logistics and expense of moving this piece of commonplace granite from a quarry in Riverside to a Wilshire Boulevard trench:

If all this seems excessive, the artist's assistant, Tim Cunningham, is quick to play devil's advocate. "I've found it amusing from what I've read in the press about the expense, the naysayers. It's as viable as any other public works project," he insists. "And this is creating jobs above and beyond the aesthetic appeal — for Emmert, the riggers, the truckers, the utility guys working overtime — and the country needs jobs."

So that's where we are: art as a jobs program. LACMA itself, of course, takes the usual turgid and pretentious art museum approach toward its new baby: "Taken whole, Levitated Mass speaks to the expanse of art history, from ancient traditions of creating artworks from monolithic stone, to modern forms of abstract geometries and cutting-edge feats of engineering."

At this point, I think these guys are all just laughing at us. Apparently, we're now willing to spend $10 million to haul a rock a hundred miles, plop it down in front of a building, and pretend that we're saying something profound. I guess I'd laugh too if someone were willing to pay me that kind of money to create, say, a room filled with 340 tons of blank books. And why not? It would be every bit as meaningful.