Thursday, August 28, 2014


Yes, it’s another set of mini-reviews. Once again I paired a newly viewed flick with a revisited DVD as a double-feature: 4 + 4 this time.

The Doom Generation (1995)
Back in July I reviewed cult director Gregg Araki’s Kaboom, which caroms from good to bad to so-bad-it’s-good and back around again. It is one of those films that make me waggle my thumb in both directions, so I was prompted to look at a couple more movies by Araki in order to make up my mind about his filmmaking. The first was The Doom Generation, and I’m still of two minds. He’d probably approve of that.

Movies with over-the-top violence have been commonplace since the 60s – often “sex-and-violence,” which is a puzzling combination really. (This, for whatever reason, is a rare combination in out-and-out porn, which is more likely to be totally violence-free than a PG movie.) Bonnie and Clyde is often cited as a game changer. In the 90s, in addition to the usual indie slasher flicks, there was a bumper crop of ultraviolent films from mainstream directors and studios: Goodfellas, Natural Born Killers, Pulp Fiction, and more. Few of the films were mindless; most had something to say amid all the blood and gore. Nonetheless, I get the feeling Gregg Araki found what they had to say pretentious. The Doom Generation by contrast is simply nihilistic. The meaning of its sex-and-violence is that it is without meaning. While the three main characters (two young men and a young woman) don’t go seeking violence, violence finds them. It fazes them very little. Nor do they take sex or sexual orientation seriously enough to evince even a twinge of jealousy in one another despite their intimate triangle. Their lives are frequently hell – whenever they buy something the price is $6.66 – but they shrug at that too. All the actors do their jobs well enough, but Rose McGowan (Jawbreaker) steals every scene. The film shouldn’t be taken altogether seriously, yet it is not quite a parody. I’d recommend this movie only to those with a particular kind of off-beat world view. A look on Rotten Tomatoes shows it has 61% approval, but those who hate it do so with a passion.

Kalifornia (1993)
Kalifornia is one of those 90s mainstream violent movies with a message. It is a very good one starring Brad Pitt, David Duchovny and Juliette Lewis. Its theme is the nature of evil. The difference between a “normal” person and a sociopath is not always obvious. Most of the time, they look, act, and talk alike. All of us can behave kindly, even sociopaths. All of us are capable of cruelty to another human being and of lethal violence if pushed sufficiently. But there is a difference. Not all of us are self-motivated to cruelty. Not all of us kill casually. Not all of us do it for fun. The distinction between those who do and the rest of us may be smaller than we generally like to think, but it is a crucial distinction nonetheless.

On a drive to California, a writer (Duchovny) and his photographer girlfriend (Michelle Forbes) plan to visit the sites of famous murders so they can publish a book about them. To save money on the trip, they split costs by sharing their car with a classless couple, not knowing that one of them (Brad Pitt) is as ruthless a killer as any about whom they plan to write. Brad Pitt perfectly portrays a truly terrifying character who seems unthreatening at first meeting but who easily can commit any violence. Duchovny’s character near the end (*spoiler*) himself commits what technically is murder, but at that point we don’t blame him. Neither do we worry he ever would murder casually or for profit.


Mysterious Skin (2004)
This is the Gregg Araki film best regarded by critics. Two young boys are molested by their coach. As is often the case in such circumstances, their feelings toward the coach are complicated; their admiration for him is what made his exploitation possible. Years later, the two boys as they near adulthood are on very different life courses. One (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) has become a male prostitute, apparently because pleasing older men is something he knows he can do well. The other (Brady Corbet) has repressed all recollection of those childhood events, avoids sex altogether, and has concluded that he was abducted by aliens during the blank in his memory; his belief is reinforced by dreams of a blue light and of a blurry presence. This defense mechanism fails when he seeks out Gordon-Levitt, hoping to find confirmation of the abduction, but instead learns the truth. (The blue light was a porch light that shone through the window.) Once again, choose the audience with whom you share this uncomfortable movie carefully, but it deserves its critical praise.

Nurse Betty (2000)
Aaron Eckhart steals drugs and then foolishly tries to sell them back to their previous owners. Unsurprisingly, he is visited by enforcer/hit-men (Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock). Aaron’s wife is Renee Zellweger, who is oblivious to her husband’s criminal activities but chances to witness his murder.  She instantly represses her memory of the murder and of her own identity, too; instead, she convinces herself she is Nurse Betty, a character on her favorite TV soap opera. She heads off to California in a car in which, unknown to her, the stolen drugs are hidden; she plans to take up her position in the fictional hospital. In LA she encounters actors from the soap opera, but her delusion doesn’t break; the actors just assume she is a persistent actress angling for a part on the show by staying in character. Her husband’s killers have followed her to LA but they – Morgan Freeman in particular – are reluctant to cause her harm. The moral apparently is that it pays to be cute if you’re crazy. One suspects that if she didn’t look like Renee Zellweger no one from the soap opera would have talked to her and the hit men would have had less reluctance.


Adult World (2013)
This is the kind of indie film for which Sundance exists. Amy (Emma Roberts) is a Syracuse University student whose ambition is to be a published poet. Poetry is not a remunerative profession, generally speaking, and her middle – not a jot above middle – class parents are no longer willing to subsidize her. So, she gets a job in Adult World, a shop selling sex paraphernalia. She also starts to stalk a poet she admires (John Cusack), but for literary rather than romantic reasons. Whatever her motives, he still, understandably, is creeped out. At bottom, the film is a coming-of-age story, and it works. In the course of the film Amy grows up enough to know she still has more growing up to do, that her poetry is for herself, and that recognition if it ever comes is just a lagniappe. Thumbs up.

Rich and Famous (1981)
This film follows the evolution and maturing of a friendship over years. Pleasant but air-headed Candice Bergen always has looked up to her literary and academic friend Jacqueline Bisset, especially when Bisset becomes a critically well-received, albeit commercially unsuccessful, author. Bergen, almost on a lark, dashes out a novel of her own; the novel is utter trash, but it becomes wildly successful, landing her TV talk-show interviews. Their relationship somehow has to weather the different types of success and failure each experiences. This is a remake of the 1943 Bette Davis/Miriam Hopkins film Old Acquaintance, and both versions are worth a look.


The Pretty One (2013)
There is no shortage of movies in which one twin is mistaken for another. This one works better than most, in large part due to the engaging young actress Zoe Kazan who plays both twins. Zoe is best known for writing and starring in 2012’s well-regarded Ruby Sparks. Laurel is meek and a homebody while her sister Audrey is flamboyant and worldly. In an auto accident Audrey is killed; Laurel survives but for reasons that make sense in context she is mistaken for Audrey at the hospital. At first Laurel suffers traumatic amnesia and really doesn’t remember who she is, but on the day of the funeral her memory comes back to her. Because of the way people talk (and don’t talk) about the supposedly deceased Laurel, however, she decides to let everyone continue to believe she is Audrey. She leaves home and takes over Audrey’s life. But, of course, she isn’t Audrey and ultimately she only can live her own life. The trailer (below) is misleading: it makes The Pretty One look like a saccharine love story, but it is darker than that, which is to say it is better than that.

I Know Who Killed Me (2007)
This movie was released when Lindsay Lohan was splashed across the tabloids almost daily. Perhaps the old line “there is no such thing as bad publicity” is wrong, because I Know Who Killed Me bombed at the box office. When I first saw the movie in the theater on a Friday night, there were no more than a dozen other people in the audience. Most critics savaged the film, yet it is important to remember that this type of horror film is disliked by most critics on principle; had it starred a lesser known actress it wouldn’t have been reviewed at all in mainstream publications. Stephen Hunter at the Washington Post got this, and gave the movie a rare break: “So much notoriety fogs the drama of Lindsay Lohan's life these days that it's probably easier to review that than her actual movie. But, surprise, the not-screened-in-advance-for-press ‘I Know Who Killed Me’ is a credible piece of pop entertainment of the hottie-in-distress genre.”

So it is. I Know Who Killed Me is a gruesome little film that sticks to the standards of the genre, which is the whole point of genre films. Lindsay Lohan plays twins separated at birth. Though they are ignorant of each other’s existence, they retain a psychic connection so strong that physical injury to one manifests itself in the other. When one is kidnapped by a sadist, the other is the only hope of rescue. I’m not always patient with paranormal plot elements, but these too are a common feature of horror films. Lindsay gives a convincing performance within the (limited) possibilities of the script in both her roles. It isn’t actually a good movie, but it isn’t terrible. Far worse than this play on the Chiller channel almost every night of the week; if that’s your alternative some evening, try I Know Who Killed Me instead.


If I had to pick just one of each set of 4 to recommend, it would be (oddly enough) The Pretty One from the new-views and Kalifornia from the revisits.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Yawns of August

I’m old enough to remember the 50th anniversaries of the beginning and end of WW1. In the 1960s there were still plenty of veterans walking around, of course, so in a way it was natural that the commemorations at the time would be highly visible. I can’t help but be struck, though, by the sleepy response to the 100th. True, not just the participants but all of the witnesses (save a few who were infants or toddlers) of the war are gone now, but we are still living with its effects today.

Arguably, the bulk of global history from 1918 to the present has been the clean-up of the unfinished business of the 1914-18 calamity. The line to WW2 in Europe and then to the Cold War was a direct one. Japanese actions against the German naval base at Tsingtao and German-held Pacific islands set the stage for further Sino-Japanese conflict and for tensions with the US. Colonial overreach at the end of the war doomed the colonial system. The trouble in the Balkans in the 90s stemmed from an unsatisfactory resolution of national issues in 1918. Some of the current boundary and ethnic issues involving Russia and neighboring former Soviet republics have their roots in the Brest-Litovsk Treaty of 1918. The ongoing strife in the Middle East is heavily shaped by the 1917 Balfour Declaration and by the post-war carve-up of the Ottoman Empire by the victorious powers. Yet, by and large, responses to the centenary are limited to weary shrugs and the odd documentary on cable TV History channels – and not just in the US, which entered the war late and suffered a “mere” 117,000 killed. Only in the UK does there appear to be much more than perfunctory acknowledgement. Even in Russia, which had more casualties than any other single combatant and was radically reshaped by the war, the commemoration, though not absent (a Putin speech is on youtube), is comparatively modest.

I think the reason for the widespread ignoration is precisely that the results were such a muddle. What is there to say about a blood-soaked event that appeared to accomplish nothing useful? That the whole enterprise was a futile waste was an opinion already widely shared by the 1920s even among the winners. Public reaction led to two decades of pacifism in the Western democracies and (curiously) militarism elsewhere. Who wants to remember that? Perhaps, though, that is the best reason to do so. It is a warning to pick one’s fights carefully; it is also a reminder that good intentions and great sacrifices are no guarantee of good or great results. It would be best if we didn't have to keep relearning this the hard way.

By the way, this month is the 50th anniversary of another widely ignored harsh memory, the Tonkin Gulf Resolution of 1964. If the US phase of the Vietnam war has an official beginning, that would be it. However, there already were 21,000 US troops in South Vietnam at the time due to mission creep – arguably since 1950 with supply deliveries to French forces, but especially since 1961 with the first 100 US Special Forces – so any date after 1950 is a bit arbitrary. The same lessons as for the other war apply.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Apocalyptic Dreams

In a silly mood last night, I spun a DVD of a giant bug movie titled Infestation (2009). Giant bug movies have a long lineage with their strongest showing in the 1950s: Them (1955), Tarantula (1955), The Deadly Mantis (1957), etc. Infestation follows the tradition though with a bit less earnestness; the flick is clever and funny with characters as well drawn as one reasonably can expect in such a movie. Infestation also is a post-apocalyptic cross-over: unlike most 50s flicks in which the heroes narrowly defeat the bugs, in this one the bugs already have won. The human survivors simply try to stay alive. Post-apocalyptic books and films are a genre even more well-established than giant bug movies. I’ve written one myself (see Slog).

There are relatively few books and films that end with a total apocalypse (e.g. On the Beach [1959], Last Night [1999], Kaboom [2010]); those few typically do so for surprise value or to make some political/philosophical point. Overwhelmingly, though, books and films about the end of civilization are post-apocalyptic and focus on how survivors deal with situation. HG Wells, as so often in SF, set the standard: in print with The Time Machine (1895) and in film with Things to Come (1936) for which he wrote the screenplay. Both of those are ultimately optimistic – heavy-handedly in the case of Things to Come. This too set a pattern. In World without End (1956) 20th century astronauts, flung into the future in a time dilation accident, teach the effete civilized folks living underground to stand up to the murderous mutants on the surface; in Logan’s Run (1976) fugitives from the domed city learn there can be life after age 30; in 2012 (2009) a nucleus of humanity saves itself; in World War Z (2013) a way is discovered to trick the zombies; in Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse (novel, 2008) civilization is down but not out.

Attempts to explain the persistence of this genre have wrinkled more than few brows over the years, but I think the key is the way the protagonists generally prevail. The end of the world is a metaphor for our own mortality, and the suggestion that it is in some sense survivable remains a popular one. Then there is a less admirable reason. Our fellow humans and their social structures can be pretty annoying, and it is fun to imagine their destruction – imagine, mind you, not effect it. On the other hand, it would be lonely all by oneself, so a smattering of other survivors is good for spice and drama. Besides, among a small number of people, one can’t help but be important. At least as a fantasy, the prospect seems to please audiences.

Today for me has been a troublesome one requiring tedious and expensive navigation of some of those aforementioned social structures, so perhaps tonight is a good to sit back and watch Radioactive Dreams (1985). Here’s hoping, though, that those dreams don’t come true.

“If your heart is in your dream/No request is too extreme”
Glenn Miller - When You Wish Upon a Star

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Back to School

The back-to-school sales in local stores hint that the eerie absence of kids on which I commented last month (Not Seen and Not Heard) is about to end. They soon will reappear at school bus stops and in passing soccer vans. The sales also bring to mind an anniversary, the ordinal number of which seems altogether improbable to me.

I had been an indifferent student at the public elementary school. This did not go unnoticed by my mom, so 50 years ago (yikes!) this month she asked me if I wanted to attend the nearby St. Bernard’s School instead – at that time a grade 7-12 secondary school. (It is now called Gill/St. Bernard’s and has expanded to K-12.) I said yes, though not for any academic reason: I was aware that horseback riding was offered in the sports program, and that was reason enough. In the pic below, I’m the kid in the hat on a black mare named Anthracite.

I took and passed the entrance exam, though I’m pretty sure my parents’ ability to pay the tuition was a bigger qualification than any exam results. A few weeks later classes began. As it happened, I was the youngest student in my class and therefore on my first day was the youngest on the entire campus. I wasn’t youngest by much – I was no prodigy – but at age 11 even a few months have significance. This was in the days before the popularity of redshirting. [Redshirting: enrolling a child in kindergarten a year later than the minimum entry age in order to give him or her a developmental advantage throughout school.] The difference between me and the others generally ranged from a few months to more than a year. I'm back row, last on the right.

Was age in fact a disadvantage? Not academically, but maybe a little here and there otherwise. Purely for reasons of physical size, it might have extended by a few months the sort of bullying by upperclassmen we considered normal back then: stuffed in a locker, sprayed with a fire extinguisher, hung over a porch rail by my feet, and the like. I didn’t think much about it since it wasn’t really personal: I was just handy. On balance, though, I liked being youngest. To this day I haven’t quite adjusted to being the oldest in most crowds. During an all-class reunion in 2010 I was (at least for the hour I was there) the oldest alumnus present on the entire campus. It was not an altogether welcome reversal.

I liked my 6 years there. That’s not simply nostalgia speaking: at the time I enjoyed returning to school in September. Nor is this purely an idiosyncratic response. Out of the blue the other day, upperclassman (I still think of him that way) George Coulthard gave me a call for the first time in about 20 years. He said his years at SBS were the best of his life. I wouldn’t go that far. I’ve had many much better years since then, but those 6 were pretty good. During that time period, the alma mater apparently was doing something right. (Whether it still does, I couldn’t say.) Was it superior academically to the local public high school? No, not really. They were comparable, but there is something to be said for not making students miserable while achieving comparable results. Somehow, the curious mix of formality and informality that prevailed at the time, along with the small student population that allowed you to know everyone by name, did that – for most of us anyway. Thanks, mom.

Aside from former sports heroes and prom queens, most people tell me they hated their high schools. Peter Grey, professor at Boston College, advocate of unschooling, and author of Free to Learn, describes why vividly:

“Imagine a job in which your work every day is micromanaged by your boss. You are told exactly what to do, how to do it, and when to do it. You are required to stay in your seat until your boss says you can move.  Each piece of your work is evaluated and compared, every day, with the work done by your fellow employees.  You are rarely trusted to make your own decisions… School, too often, is exactly like the kind of nightmare job that I just described; and, worse, it is a job that kids are not allowed to quit.”

That does sound pretty awful. It gives me new sympathy for the current crop of students starting high school. The good news for them: before they know it, the experience will be 5 decades in the past. I suspect, though, they won’t consider that good news if I pass it along.


Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Abe, Marilyn & Robin

The first death of a media personality (in this case also a statesman) to have left a record of having caught the direct attention of a member of my family was that of Abraham Lincoln. My great grandfather Wilhelm Meyers (b. 1856), resident of Clark NJ, stood by the train tracks to pay his respects to the funeral train on its roundabout route to Illinois. The occasion made enough of an impact on the 9-year-old for him to have repeated the story throughout his life, so that all of his descendants are still aware of it.

Mass expressions of grief for pop culture figures didn’t occur with any frequency until the 20th century. They had to await movies, records, radio and other mass media that could make an entertainer familiar to millions of people. The first truly modern event of this type was upon the death of film star Rudolph Valentino on August 23, 1926. 100,000 onlookers showed up at the NYC funeral and rioted. There was a rash of suicides; Jean Acker, Rudolph’s first wife, scored a hit record with her tribute song There’s a New Star in Heaven. Despite the greater tragedies that at all times are present in the world, such outpourings aren’t as frivolous as they may seem. These people influence our lives every bit as much as politicians. Their songs, films, and personas are intimately connected with our memories and sense of self. We employ them as symbols of our own aspirations and fears, and when they die we are reminded of our own mortality. It is not quite like losing a family member, but it is something akin to it.

The first celebrity death which impinged on my consciousness in a significant way was that of Marilyn Monroe when I was 9. I recall the TV news flash announcing it, and my dad’s immediate comment, “She was only 36.” (For whatever reason, my dad was aware she was the same age as he.) A cascade followed in the next several years, some leaders with gravitas (JFK, MLK, RFK) and some pop culture icons (Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and others). Nonetheless, while I appreciated the social significance of those deaths, it wasn’t until Elvis that I felt the nostalgic twinge of personally having lost something from childhood.

In the years since I’ve lost actual friends and close family members, as we all do in time. The passing of public figures grows less surprising, less personal, and, by comparison, less disconcerting. Still, we never lose that twinge entirely, this time for Robin Williams. I have nothing to say about the circumstances of his death, but I remember the days of which his performances were a part. For those, a tip of the hat, Robin. (I have hat around here somewhere.)

Freud said that it is fundamentally impossible to conceive of one’s own death, for when you try you necessarily do so from a live perspective. I know what he was getting at, but the point is an academic one. We can conceive of limits to existence superficially, and that is quite enough. It’s hard to imagine a better motivation to try to enjoy the days that remain.

1962 Newsreel

Thursday, August 7, 2014


Few notable authors are as interesting as their works. Their creativity shows up more on their pages than in their lives. Lord Byron was an exception. Ovid was quite the man about town, and I’d still like to know what he did in 8AD that got him exiled to Tomis, present day Costanta in Romania. His only surviving comment on it is “carmen et error” (a poem and an error); the error might have involved Augustus’ granddaughter Julia. Fitzgerald’s life is a cautionary tale. Hemingway tried way too hard to be as interesting as his books.

Most successful authors, however, are pretty ordinary folks likely to have soporific (auto)biographies. So, there were only two reasons I picked up Tibetan Peach Pie by Tom Robbins. One was that it was written by Tom Robbins, and I like the way he writes regardless of topic. The second was the capitalized disclaimer on the back cover, “THIS IS NOT AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY.” He adds, “I’d like to think Tibetan Peach Pie isn’t a memoir either, although it waddles and quacks enough like a memoir to be mistaken for one if the light isn’t right.” Robbins is entitled to like to think anything, but in truth Tibetan Peach Pie is a memoir in any light. That’s OK. His prose is still fun to read and the book contains enjoyable factual curiosities about his Depression-era Appalachian childhood, his attempts over decades to live by writing, and his travels while researching books. It even offers the odd tidbit of advice, such as how to have a better appearance than he did on the Jon Stewart Show. The night before his appearance the producer called him and they talked at some length. He thought she was just getting a general feel for the personality of the guest. “In my foolish innocence, I hadn’t realized that the banter between hosts and guests on late night TV – all light night TV – is to some degree scripted.” Jon Stewart tried to recap Robbins’ chat with the producer from his notes while Robbins wanted to talk about other things entirely. It didn’t go well. Good to know. Nonetheless, while the book has its charms, become a fan of Tom Robbins’ fiction before you pick up Tibetan Peach Pie. The waddles and quacks might not catch your eyes and ears otherwise.

Robbins’ career does give hope to literarily ambitious late-starters (often alarmingly defined as over-30) who sigh whenever they see some wunderkind reviewed in The New York Review of Books. Robbins published his debut novel Another Roadside Attraction in 1971 at age 39. There are older debut novelists, of course, including James Michener (40), Henry Miller (43), Margaret Walker (51), Raymond Chandler (51), and Laura Ingalls Wilder (64, the Little House series). Keep in mind, though, that nearly all of them wrote in some other professional capacity first, journalism being a favorite. Robbins wrote art and theater reviews in Seattle prior to writing fiction.

If you read only one Tom Robbins novel, my recommendation is Jitterbug Perfume about the search for immortality, sexuality, scent, beets, and Pan. There are four storylines set in ancient pagan Bohemia, modern Seattle, Paris, and New Orleans. Erudite, accessible, adventurous, deep, frivolous, and funny all at the same time, Jitterbug Perfume is a marvelous romp, full of turns of phrase that you’ll try to remember in order to spring on people at parties. Even Cowgirls Get the Blues is a pretty good read also, but the movie should be avoided at all costs (22% on Rotten Tomatoes).

Book Trailer Jitterbug Perfume

Friday, August 1, 2014

Bear Baiting

Yesterday the drop in the Dow wiped out the entire prior stock market gain in 2014. As of this moment it is down another 36 today. There is nothing unusual in this. Nor does it indicate anything about where the number will be at year’s end, though the very fact that the market is near an all time high can’t help but be a cause for worry. The worry itself makes a bigger correction more likely, humans being what they are. In the case of coin flips, after 10 consecutive “heads” it is the rare gambler who will bet on “heads” again even though the odds for the next toss remain 50/50. After a string of stock market advances wary investors start eyeing the exits, and one bad news day that once would have been ignored can cause a stampede.

Stock market corrections don’t necessarily entail downturns in the general economy, especially if they don’t reflect real underlying imbalances. The truly big ones usually do both, but the size of the market drop doesn’t tell you much about the size of the general downturn. The October Crash of 1987 was proportionally bigger than the one of 1929, but, instead of preluding another Great Depression, the recession was delayed and modest. The recession following the comparable 2001 crash precipitated by the dot-com boom/bust was the mildest since WW2 despite the other events of 2001. The one thing we can be sure about is that crashes and recessions will happen again. (See my 2011 review of This Time is Different by Princeton economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff in which they tell us that this time is never different and that every type of financial system is at risk “no matter how well regulated it seems to be.”)

During the 1987 and 2001 crashes, Alan Greenspan was at the head of the Federal Reserve. Largely because the US economy rebounded in both cases without lasting damage, Greenspan was the most respected central banker in the world right up to his retirement in 2006. Nowadays he catches heavy fire from both Right and Left, with both inclined to misrepresent his views and to quote him out of context when he acknowledges his mistakes. Yet, those two market collapses troubled him at the time, not only for their real world effects, but because they were hard to explain by prevailing economic theory: crashes of that scale were happening too frequently. It long has been known that what John Maynard Keynes called “animal spirits” amplify the number and size of what would be low-probability economic events if producers, savers, and consumers – otherwise known as people – behaved rationally; these give the bell curve “fat tails” as people follow the herd instead of assessing the economic fundamentals. After 2008, Greenspan became convinced of what he suspected earlier: the tails were not just fat but “positively obese” beyond anything that had been recognized, especially on the downside. Fear evokes a stronger herd response than greed.

In his book The Map and the Territory (2013) which I have in hardcover but which will be in paperback next month, Greenspan says the good news is that these factors can be incorporated into economic models. “I have recently come to appreciate that ‘spirits’ do in fact display ‘consistencies’ that can importantly enhance our ability to identify emerging asset price bubbles in equities, commodities and exchange rates -- and even to anticipate the economic consequences of their ultimate collapse and recovery." The bad news is that bubbles and collapses will happen anyway. However, there are ways to limit the damage.

Why was 2008 so much more devastating than 1987 and 2001? Unlike those previous years, banks and shadow banks were heavily leveraged, so that, when the runs started, short term credit utterly dried up in a way unseen since 1907. There was too much debt, he says, and what banks counted as assets (e.g. mortgage backed securities) were often highly vulnerable securitized debts. Greenspan exhibits no confidence in lengthier laws (beyond those against actual fraud) and more numerous overseers to do anything useful to prevent a repeat of events. He notes that regulators failed to foresee any of those crashes, and in the run-up to 2008 actively promoted the housing bubble that burst so destructively. His prescription is simpler: capital requirements need to be larger so that banks and other financial institutions can survive the inevitable bursts of asset bubbles. He thinks reserves are still far too low, and says he had been seriously wrong while Fed Chair about the risks and reserve requirements.

Even if he is right, his prescription makes it easier to pick up the pieces; it doesn’t prevent the smashes. I certainly have no clue when the next one will be. No one else does either (unless the Illuminati really do run things, in which case send me an invitation). As for my personal approach to choosing individual stocks, I’ve never found any advice to be better than what I got years ago in a college business class: throw darts at the stock listing pages of The Wall Street Journal. On average it works as well as any other strategy.

Animal Spirits – from Trading Places (1983)