Posts Tagged ‘London School of Economics’

Must-Reads of the Week

Friday, May 8th, 2009

1. Inhuman. Andrew Sullivan, who has been one of the most insightful commenators on torture, discusses the term “inhuman”:

It’s odd, isn’t it, that we use this word to describe abuse and torture of prisoners. The reason it’s odd is that I’m not sure any animals torture. Yes, they can kill and maim and inflict dreadful suffering in the process of killing, eating or fighting. But the act of intentionally exploiting suffering, of lingering over some other being’s pain – using it as a means to an end – is not an animal instinct, unless I’m mistaken.

And so torture is in fact extremely human; it represents in many ways humankind’s unique capacity for cruelty.

2. 30 Rock. Jonah Weiner discusses 30 Rock’s odd conservative streak at Slate. The explanations he posits for this conservatism are perhaps beside the point, but interesting nonetheless:

Of course, 30 Rock was conceived during the reign of George W. Bush, which might help explain its ideological complexity. The show has been consistently critical of Bush, but perhaps 30 Rock began as a way to explore—and mine for gallows humor—the crisis of identity many liberals began to feel in his second term, when the Karl Rove playbook had seemingly replaced the laws of physics, when the “reality-based community” (including Liz Lemon’s Upper West Side) felt like an island populated by the marginal, flip-flopping, arugula-munching few.

3. Animal Spirits. Chrystia Freeland writes for the Financial Times that the Obama team seems to have accepted the premise of a recent book by behavioral economists about economic crises:

Judging by the upbeat economic message we have been hearing from the White House, the Treasury and even the Federal Reserve over the past six weeks, that is a shrewd guess. The authors argue that “we will never really understand important economic events unless we confront the fact that their causes are largely mental in nature”. Our “ideas and feelings” about the economy are not purely a rational reaction to data and experience; they themselves are an important driver of economic growth – and decline.

4. A Taliban Strategist Speaks. To The New York Times. Perhaps the most interesting article I have read about the Taliban’s plans in the Af-Pak region – though I have to wonder why this man would be speaking to a Western newspaper about the Taliban’s strategy. That said, you can judge the article for yourself. I pass it on as it seemed plausible to me:

One Pakistani logistics tactician for the Taliban, a 28-year-old from the country’s tribal areas, in interviews with The New York Times, described a Taliban strategy that relied on free movement over the border and in and around Pakistan, ready recruitment of Pakistani men and sustained cooperation of sympathetic Afghan villagers.

His account provided a keyhole view of the opponent the Americans and their NATO allies are up against, as well as the workings and ambitions of the Taliban as they prepared to meet the influx of American troops.

It also illustrated how the Pakistani Taliban, an umbrella group of many brands of jihadist fighters backed by Al Qaeda, are spearheading wars on both sides of the border in what for them is a seamless conflict.

5. Fool’s Gold. This one is actually a must-listen podcast of a talk given at the London School of Economics. Gillian Tett is a journalist for the Financial Times who recently wrote a book about the financial crisis and what led to it from her view as someone with a background in anthropology reporting who was reporting on derivratives before it was an exciting beat.

Bonus: Polar Insanity. Tim Wu writes in Slate about the perplexing desire of so many people – including himself –  to make the expensive trips to the polar regions:

Every so often, an iceberg floats by that is grander and more beautiful than any cathedral, though it lacks any history or even a name. What’s almost as shocking as its appearance is its anonymity: beauty untainted by fame. Most of these perfect objects will never be seen by human eyes. They float around and slowly melt by themselves, unappreciated and utterly indifferent to that fact.

Unnamed, plentiful beauty feels unearthly and almost decadent, like Sinbad the Sailor’s cave. It is alien to the typical human experience of finding everything we really desire to be scarce, expensive, or behind some temple curtain. It has always struck me that no one bothers to build museums in places of extreme natural beauty, and in Antarctica the effect is magnified. If an iceberg the size of Manhattan showed up outside town one day, why would you bother going to an art exhibit?

Profiling Holy Cross Grad Mark Walsh

Wednesday, May 6th, 2009

Devin Leonard for the Times wrote this weekend about Mark Walsh, formerly of Lehman Brothers. The article portrays him as one of Wall Street’s top deal makers whose decisions were one of the major factors that led directly to the fall of the bank. Yet the article is also strangely positive in describing Walsh. 

What stood out for me most were the numerous connections Walsh has to me. As the article describes his brief biography:

Mr. Walsh grew up in Yonkers, the son of a lawyer who once served as chairman of the New York City Housing Authority. He attended Iona Preparatory School in New Rochelle; the College of the Holy Cross, where he majored in economics; and, finally, the Fordham University School of Law.

And then a bit later:

He bankrolled Tishman Speyer in its purchase of the Chrysler Building in 1997.

I am a fellow alumnus of Holy Cross – a fact which by itself causes me to be irrationally positive about individuals, from Chris Matthews to Bob Cousy to Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau. He also went to Fordham Law – which is one of the schools I am considering. And I currently work in the Chrysler Building. All tenuous connections, but enough to make me root for the guy.

Of course, it’s hard to get around the damning nature of this reporting:

[I]t wasn’t long before Mr. Walsh found a way to do an even bigger deal with Mr. Speyer’s company. In May 2007, Lehman and Tishman Speyer offered to buy Archstone-Smith Trust, a $22 billion deal struck at the peak of an already dangerously frothy market. Tishman Speyer put up a mere $250 million of its own equity. Lehman, in a 50-50 partnership with Bank of America, put up $17.1 billion of debt and $4.6 billion in bridge equity financing.

The most enlightening aspect of the article were the way in which it spotlighted the oddness of what was going on. Leonard describes one of Walsh’s biggest clients pulling out his money saying that:

 [T]he real estate market — and, indeed, the entire financial system behind it — was becoming increasingly bizarre.

In an example of this from 1997 – well before this observation – Leonard describes one of Walsh’s coups – how he managed to steer Lehman clear of the financial crisis resulting from the failure of Long Term Capital Management that Nassim Nicholas Taleb had predicted at the time:

On the eve of the financial crisis brought by the near collapse of Long Term Capital Management in 1998, Lehman flushed $3.6 billion in commercial real estate loans through its securitization machine, avoiding some of the losses that crippled other firms, including Nomura and Credit Suisse.

I hate to say it – but I have no idea what that means. And that’s not unintional – at least according to a lecture given by Financial Times reporter Gillian Tett at the London School of Economics. (A lecture very much worth listening to – and which I will blog about later.)

But to demonstrate the oddly positive take on Walsh, here’s how Leonard concludes his piece:

His friends say they believe that Mr. Walsh will eventually emerge from the rubble of Lehman’s collapse and return to deal-making.

“Guys like this are very rare,” says Mr. Rosen, the developer. “He’ll be back. He picked up the phone and people listen. Nobody can take that away from him.”

Back in the game perhaps – but hopefully a bit wiser.