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September 17, 2007

Busy Busy

Hi, everyone. I know I've sort of disappeared recently. I've been alternating between not having the time and not having the motivation to blog. I expect things will get back to normal within a few more weeks, though.

What's been happening? The most exciting thing from where I am is the bank run (1 2) on English bank Northern Rock. This is an actual bank run in a first-world economy! Wow! It kind of makes me want to watch Mary Poppins (but I'm weird).

Domestically, the stealth Fed rate cut has continued far longer than I thought it would. A quarter-point cut in the target rate is absolutely baked in, and many people are speculating that they'll cut more than a quarter point.

The credit crunch is still in its early stages. Troubles in the mortgage industry are going to continue for years. I've already read many stories of business credit drying up. There will be a recession… or, if the Fed overreacts, a burst of inflation.

I haven't decided the best way to invest for this. Since mid-July I lost $30,000 in one month and then gained it all back the next month. (I've been more fortunate than some.) I haven't made any investment moves in the past two months, instead just letting cash build up as I consider my options and look for new information. It's a lot easier to think of things to stay away from than to think of things to go into! It would be a lot easier to predict things if the Fed wasn't around tinkering with the system. Another reason to shut it down. ;)

In local event news, the Oregon Symphony is performing Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto at the end of the month. It's not sold out yet, although to my great disappointment I learned it is too late to get excellent seats.

September 11, 2007

Get Well Soon

My mother is in the hospital. She lives a couple thousand miles away from me so I'm not able to be directly involved. I can, however, throw some bad puns her way. (Every little bit helps!) Well-wishers are invited to leave kind words. Or more bad puns.

Hi, mom! I hope you're feeling back to normal soon. It would sure be a weight off your family's shoulders. This is an unfortunate turn of events, but know that you have a lot of support. I don't want to write a lengthy column about this because too many puns might make you crack up, so I'll compress my thoughts into saying simply: Get Well Soon. No pressure, though! Take it easy.

September 03, 2007

A Wasteful Investigation

The FTC has completed its investigation of high gasoline prices in the summer of 2006 and concluded that oil companies did not conspire to raise prices:

… price increases during the spring and summer of 2006 were attributable to six factors: (1) seasonal effects of the summer driving season; (2) increases in the price of crude oil; (3) increases in the price of ethanol; (4) capacity reductions stemming from refiners transition from the fuel additive methyl tertiary-butyl ether to ethanol; (5) refinery outages resulting from hurricane damage, other unexpected problems or external events, and required maintenance; and (6) increased consumer demand for gasoline beyond the seasonal effects of the summer driving season.

Quelle surprise. What a waste of taxpayer money. Any economist worth their salt could've predicted this outcome. This investigation was politically motivated grandstanding, as have been similar investigations in the past. It's outrageous that taxpayers have to fund this stuff.

The full report is available online, and is very interesting reading. For example, would you believe that ethanol was responsible for a significant part of the higher gasoline prices? Read the report!

There was one dissenter on the commission: Commissioner Leibowitz's dissent is also available online. It is one paragraph long and reads like a petulant sneer:

The oil industry, which posted record profits in 2006, should not view this Report as in any way a vindication of its behavior. Commission staff identified some plausible justifications for the unexpected and dramatic price spikes that bedeviled consumers in the Spring and Summer of 2006, and that raised the average price of gasoline to more than $3.00 per gallon in August of that year. The fact remains, though, that most of what we did here was develop a theoretical model for why gasoline prices likely increased. This is not an unreasonable approach, given that just last year we completed an exhaustive investigation into gasoline pricing in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. That investigation found price gouging by refiners under the Congressionally mandated definition and, beyond that, disturbing conduct by even more petroleum companies. But the question you ask determines the answer you get: whatever theoretical justifications exist don't exclude the real world threat that there was profiteering at the expense of consumers.

Commissioner Leibowitz presents no empirical support for his narrative, and not even a "theoretical model" to explain what happened. He simply asserts that "there was profiteering at the expense of consumers" despite evidence to the contrary, catapulting him into the pantheon of political gasbags drifting without tether to reality.

Well, it's as I said three years ago… anger over "price gouging" isn't about economics.

September 02, 2007

On the Meaning of Jewelry

Gifts of jewelry have always been associated with love, but the connection between the two was never explained to me. I appear to be in good company. There are women who want jewelry simply because it's pretty, and men who give it only because it's customary or because she asked for (or demanded) it. To other people, jewelry is just a status symbol, a public display of their apparent worth. Then there are people who grasp that there is a connection between jewelry and love but who scorn jewelry as expensive and impractical. "Just tell her you love her. Don't waste money on jewelry."

All these attitudes are tragic. The relationship between jewelry and love is important and meaningful and underappreciated. It should be more widely understood. I want to share with you the things I have come to understand about the meaning of jewelry from a man's perspective. I welcome comments about what I have missed, and particularly on the meaning of jewelry from a woman's perspective. (This is necessarily an introspective topic, and I simply do not have a woman's perspective.)

The most important aspect of jewelry is that it is an ornament — it is meant to be worn, not stored. This is obvious on a superficial level, but it is also the key to the jewelry's deeper meaning. Every part of a man's desire to give jewelry derives from the woman actually wearing it. (Women, if you take away only one message from reading this, it should be: "Wear the jewelry he gives you.")

I deliberately wrote above of "a man's desire to give jewelry" and not of a woman's desire to receive it. To a man who understands the meaning of jewelry, the woman's desire for it is frankly beside the point. He has his own reasons for giving it.

Anything a man makes or buys for a woman will, when she uses it, strengthen his sense of being a provider for her, and this is important to his feeling of masculinity. For a man, providing for a woman is an expression of love. Jewelry has a special role in this because it is an item of purely aesthetic, not utilitarian, value — a proclamation that he can give her more than she needs. And in contrast to other things of aesthetic value (e.g. a painting), jewelry's purpose is specifically to adorn the woman — to accentuate her loveliness. A gift of jewelry is a means for a man to be a provider in a manner completely focused on the woman herself.

It is important to a man to have a sense of possession toward the woman he loves. She is not just a woman, she is his. Even though she is not property in any literal sense, he feels that she is his most prized possession. When a woman chooses to wear jewelry a man gave her, it signals her acceptance of that role. By the act of giving her jewelry, the man is proclaiming "you are mine" — and by wearing it, the woman responds "I choose to be yours". A woman's choice to wear jewelry is a reflection of her choice to be with the giver. The aesthetic nature of jewelry is again important: Unlike an item with utilitarian value that she would use anyway, wearing jewelry is optional, so this symbolism is not diluted by practical considerations.

Jewelry is highly visible and therefore often noticed. This is deliberate; the man wants it noticed. Whether other people comment on the jewelry, or the wearer thinks about it on her own, the jewelry is strongly associated with the man who gave it to her. A man who loves a woman wants her to think of him frequently, and jewelry is effective at keeping him in her thoughts.

The fact that jewelry is close to a woman's body is richly symbolic. It represents the physical contact that a man constantly craves. Jewelry is a surrogate for a man's hands, touching her even when he cannot. A bracelet holds her hand, an earring caresses her face, a pendant lies by her breasts. The continuity of contact is important, too: A man cannot keep a woman encircled by his arms all day, but with jewelry he can express his desire to do so. Jewelry is not merely pretty, it is sensual.

It is a great pleasure for a man when a woman wears his jewelry, even if he is not present to see it. Although he enjoys seeing and contemplating her beauty, and particularly so when it is enhanced by his jewelry, his primary reward is simply in knowing that his jewelry is being worn. The sight of the bejeweled woman is pleasant, but the implications of her choice to wear his jewelry are much more important. (He wants his jewelry worn even if it doesn't match her outfit!)

It may be true that most people do not have these things in mind when they give and wear jewelry. Their shallow imitations do not diminish the meaning of jewelry for those who do understand it. You may think I have a silly romantic notion of what jewelry can be and ought to be… but if it can hold such meaning, then a reverence for the ideal of romantic love demands that jewelry ought to mean these things.

Tiny Island