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Must-Reads of the Week: Krugman v. Ferguson, Ted Kennedy again, Hank Paulson, Sedaris, and Phreaking

This week there are quite a few good pieces to take a look at over the long weekend – in between games of beer pong, or BBQs…

Krugman v. Ferguson. Matthew Lynn in the Times of London wrote a feature on the “war” over the response to the economic crisis going on between the American Princeton Professor, New York Times columnist, Nobel-prize winner, and noted liberal Paul Krugman and British Harvard Professor, Financial Times columnist, and noted conservative Niall Ferguson. I had been following it closely already, but this article had a number of more details and conveyed the story arc well. Meanwhile, Krugman released another attack on Ferguson – indirectly though – in which he laid out his vision (as a kind of short intellectual history of economics in the 20th and 21st centuries) of what happened in the most recent crisis, why so many economists got it wrong, and why we’re taking the right steps now:

As I see it, the economics profession went astray because economists, as a group, mistook beauty, clad in impressive-looking mathematics, for truth. Until the Great Depression, most economists clung to a vision of capitalism as a perfect or nearly perfect system. That vision wasn’t sustainable in the face of mass unemployment, but as memories of the Depression faded, economists fell back in love with the old, idealized vision of an economy in which rational individuals interact in perfect markets, this time gussied up with fancy equations. The renewed romance with the idealized market was, to be sure, partly a response to shifting political winds, partly a response to financial incentives. But while sabbaticals at the Hoover Institution and job opportunities on Wall Street are nothing to sneeze at, the central cause of the profession’s failure was the desire for an all-encompassing, intellectually elegant approach that also gave economists a chance to show off their mathematical prowess.

The article is missing Krugman’s usual zingers and partisan swipes – and is really quite good. It also reminds you that Ferguson is an historian – not an economist.

Ted Kennedy, leaky vessel. Sam Tanenhaus writes about Senator Ted Kennedy as a kind of magnificent character, capturing him and the movement he led better than most others:

But if the art of governance did not redeem Mr. Kennedy, it irradiated him, and the liberalism he personified. At a time when government itself had fallen into disrepute Mr. Kennedy applied himself diligently to its exacting discipline, and wrested whatever small victories he could from the machinery he had learned to operate so well. Whether or not his compass was finally true, he endured as the battered, leaky vessel through which the legislative arts recovered some of their lost glory.

Hank Paulson. Todd Purdhum of Vanity Fair finally writes his piece about his many conversations with Hank Paulson before and during the financial crisis – a piece notable for the fact that Paulson seemed exceptionally forthcoming as he knew the piece wouldn’t come out until well after he had left public office.

The Wisdom of David Sedaris. A nice story from last week’s New Yorker:

[S]he invited us to picture a four-burner stove.

“Gas or electric?” Hugh asked, and she said that it didn’t matter.

This was not a real stove but a symbolic one, used to prove a point at a management seminar she’d once attended. “One burner represents your family, one is your friends, the third is your health, and the fourth is your work.” The gist, she said, was that in order to be successful you have to cut off one of your burners. And in order to be really successful you have to cut off two.

Pat has her own business, a good one that’s allowing her to retire at fifty-five. She owns three houses, and two cars, but, even without the stuff, she seems like a genuinely happy person. And that alone constitutes success.

I asked which two burners she had cut off, and she said that the first to go had been family. After that, she switched off her health. “How about you?”

I thought for a moment, and said that I’d cut off my friends. “It’s nothing to be proud of, but after meeting Hugh I quit making an effort.”

“And what else?” she asked.

“Health, I guess.”

Hugh’s answer was work.

“And?”

“Just work,” he said.

Phone Phreak. David Kushner in Rolling Stone features the story of a poor, fat, lonely, blind boy who finds a way to be happy as a phone phreaker (a kind of hacker on telephone lines.) The boy – Matthew Weigman – submerges himself in the culture, and due to his unique skillset is able to become an almost cartoon villain, without the manic desire to take over the world. Instead, he unleashes SWAT teams on girls who refuse to have phone sex with him, as he fakes calls from inside their house pretending he is holding them hostage; or ferrets out all the names and biographies of the team tracking him down, which he jovially explains to an FBI agent who comes to recruit him.

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