Mailbag: Gas Prices, Scientology and Steroids
Well, holiday's over... got that hideous back-to-work feeling this morning, almost like a triple-Sunday.
Lots of interesting questions for the mailbag this week. Thanks to everyone who pointed out that The Long Walk is, in fact, being made into a movie, although the Colin Farrell factor makes me a little anxious. Also, all the Russian lit questions are great -- they'll help me ease into my inevitable future as a morbidly obese liberal arts academic teaching two sections a year on 19th-century novelists from St. Petersburg. In fact, in that regard, the first two questions are related:
My question is about The Brothers Karamozov. I wrote a paper on the book 40 years ago, but I've never read it. I'm considering doing that now, to sort of close the loop. I'd say it's to find out whether what I wrote bears any relationship to the book, but I really can't remember what I wrote. Anyway, is it worth the trouble? (Same goes for Moby Dick, if you have an opinion on that one.)
Thanks for your help,
I'll be at the bottom of the mailbag next week. But I've been wondering about your Russian Lit list for a while...
You never, ever mention Dostoevsky. I went through my Russian phase much earlier than you, ages 11-14 - frankly, before I was old enough to appreciate the material. I couldn't groove to Tolstoy at all, but I pored over every syllable of Crime and Punishment. Am I a loser? Genevieve Sabine
Loser! No, I'm kidding, it's just a matter of personal taste, right? I also really like Crime and Punishment and out of the rest of them I really enjoyed The Demons (I always liked Nabokov's description of this book -- "incredible nonsense, but it is a great booming nonsense"). But I couldn't get into any of the others and with some of them, like Brothers Karamazov, I'm pretty sure it's because a lot of what he wrote went totally over my head. I did love Crime and Punishment though, but that might have a lot to do with the fact that I love detective novels and that is a great one.
This is neither here nor there, but when I lived in Russia I briefly knew a former homicide detective named Nikolai Panshev who collected Dostoyevsky first editions -- he lived in a tiny apartment out in the sticks of Moscow and he had a massive collection he had accumulated over decades. One of his books was an Italian translation of Crime and Punishment that had been used as an investigative manual by Italian police in, if I remember correctly, the early 20th century. I always remember this story: we had a long drunken evening once when Panshev took out his priceless Italian edition and spent hours trying to explain to me that Dostoyevsky was modern civilization's great pioneer in the art of criminal detection, that the essential tools for any good homicide cop were all psychological, reading the subtle movements of the eyes, those portals to the unconscious, etc. Then late into the evening I asked him what a typical Moscow homicide case was like. He said, "Two guys get drunk in the kitchen, one stabs the other and then passes out on top of the body. Cuff him and drag his ass in." Always thought that was funny.
As someone who has been a constant critic of the financial reform bill that passed recently, I feel like you could give the least bullshit-laced answer to this question: What are the 2-3 reforms that made it into the final bill that will have the most significant positive impact going forward?
That's a good question. It's hard to tell yet what the most meaningful reforms will be. I'll name a few that people I talk to still have hopes for. One is the new whistleblower provisions that would theoretically provide bounties for those who expose fraud and the like. Another is the provision that would force banks to retain at least a 5% stake in the mortgage-backed securities they sell to investors, although, as with nearly all the reforms in the bill, there is already a major effort underway to riddle this provision with loopholes. The audit of the Fed was a huge historical hurdle for congress to get over, I thought, and I guess the partial ban on prop trading was significant. If I'm missing something, I'd love to hear from industry people what that is -- I just haven't heard from many of my Wall Street sources that their lives are changing in very many meaningful ways.
Hey Matt -
I know that you've covered a variety of subjects over your career, only having laid into the connection between finance, economics and politics more recently... I'm wondering if you plan to continue or move on to something else?
A lot of that is really up to my editors, obviously, but I think on the Rolling Stone side I'll be doing more with politics in the next years. Starting about a year from now I'll be going back on the campaign trail and I expect that this time around I'll be doing more on the web. But I love the finance story and would be happy writing about it for a long time. It's dirty, corrupt, and endlessly complicated, i.e. there's no shortage of horrible stuff to write about. I know this is the wrong way to think, but sometimes I thank God for a lot of those Wall Street-CEO types, I'm sort of in love with how much they suck.
What's your stance on the HOF candidacy of baseball players like Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire? Can we keep players out based on hearsay and (generally true) rumors about PEDs? Also, what's the deal with it being pretty much okay for football players to take PEDs but when our precious baseball is tainted, sports writers basically shit their pants? I guess what I'm trying to say is, why is it okay to "cheat" in football but not baseball?
I have a lot of trouble summoning any moral outrage about steroids in baseball and have always been amazed at the amount of energy sportswriters spend on the issue. This is particularly true when, as you point out, the NFL is basically one giant PED experiment where so many of the players are obvious juicers that it's literally laughable (check out Bill Simmons's amusing comment about a certain placekicker's remarkable improvement this year in the area of kicking touchbacks). Also: any member of congress who participated in those preposterous steroid/baseball hearings should be forced to eat one bucket of BP-oil-stained Gulf sand per day, given that they were apparently too busy flipping out over Sammy Sosa's homer totals to worry about environmental safety, the mortgage bubble, contracting fraud in Iraq, al-Qaeda or any of those other less pressing issues.
Have you read the latest Unwanted All Pro column by Gregg Easterbrook? I know you are taking a break from pointing out how big of a dipshit Thomas Freidman is but can you please write a few words about Easterbrook?
I had a fantasy once about Easterbrook getting an NFL head coaching job in Philadelphia and being beaten to death by Eagles fans after he went for it on 4th and 1 on his own 10 yard line, up 6 with two minutes left in the Super Bowl. (The AP account: "TMQ repeats: punting on 4th and short is chicken!" Easterbrook cried, shortly before he was engulfed by the mass of stampeding fans...). I'd say more, but sportswriting is trickier than it looks -- it's pretty hard to avoid sounding like an ass writing, for money, about a kid's game. If you do it and you take yourself even the slightest bit seriously, you're automatically an asshole. Plus, it's all in fun anyway; whaling on sportswriters reminds me of that Kurt Vonnegut line about dressing up in a suit of armor to attack a hot fudge sundae. But Easterbrook, Jesus, he's been writing like 7,000 words a week about the same three ideas for like ten fucking years, and they're not even good ideas. (TMQ hates blitzes!) Plus he's serially on both sides of every single fence. If a coach calls a pass play that doesn't work, there are 97,000 words worth of TMQ essays on the net for you to read about the NFL's recent overuse of the forward pass. On the other hand, if a coach calls a run in the wrong situation and blows a game, here come 100,000 TMQ words about how running on second down is gay and boring and -- TMQ says, fortune favors the bold, throw the pass!
I really enjoyed your book. It seemed fair to all sides and I plan to get more involved in public affairs. Since the level of ethics of our leaders has fallen so far as you rightly point out I found it amusing that you took a small stab at L. Ron Hubbard. You see, if ethics are lacking in a group no organization is possible and there is no way to achieve the groups goals. Ethics are first, as you seem to point out. Hubbard has written the same from the beginning.
Take and hour and read the moral code in, The Way to Happiness by Hubbard. If the people you describe in your book followed it, things might not look quite so bleak.
Again, a great book! Thanks.
True story: I once tried to do an expose on Scientology, back when I was with the Buffalo Beast. I went into the local Scientology office, gave a fake name and address, and tried to sign up and go through the test-taking process, etc., like an undercover thing. So I took the test and came in the next time, and before anything happened the guy running that office told me there was a problem with my paperwork. He asked me if the phony Buffalo address I had given him was my real address, and the reason he asked, he said, was because he had found another address for me -- and it was my real address from my Bard College days in upstate New York. In other words, they had somehow found out my real name without my giving it to them, and in this creepy way they were letting me know they knew what I was up to. I asked to go to the bathroom, snuck out, and never went anywhere the hell near a Scientologist again. What was it you wanted me to read again?g
"Oil industry expert" John Hofmeister told Norah O'Donnell on the Andrea Mitchell show on MSNBC that
prices were going up to $5 per gallon. He cited current American demand for oil at 2007 (pre-recession) levels, Asian demand and lack of American drilling as reasons for current prices which are at the highest levels since 2008, and which he predicts will almost double. Nothing at all about commodity speculation. What do you think?
I asked a friend in the commodities world about Hofmeister's comments. He points out that U.S. inventories have been steady all year at about 1.09 billion barrels, and that while there isn't much reliable data about Chinese consumption, there is some expectation that Chinese economic growth is actually expected to slow some this year. He also points out that the EIA (the Energy Information Administration) predicts gasoline prices at $3.00 and oil prices at $80-$90 a barrel. "So if Hofmeister's right about $5/g gas, that's a big gap from where EIA, the experts on fundamentals, are saying it should be," my guy says. "That gap needs to be accounted for somehow." And he points to the $50 billion in fund flow into commodities that Barclay's is predicting for this year. In general, and I get this question about commodities prices a lot, one has to remember that increased Chinese demand/reduced supply and increased speculative activity are not mutually exclusive explanations for rising oil prices. It's always going to be a combination of factors. But one thing that's consistent is that most of the experts on CNBC, and many public officials, are going to avoid pointing toward increased speculation as an explanation. Remember that in 2008 the CFTC officially blamed supply issues and increased Chinese demand as the official explanation for the 2008 price spikes -- then turned around the following year and admitted that this conclusion was based on "deeply flawed data" and that speculators played a role.
Like you I’m an American who works in media abroad; Seoul , in my case. Partly through coming here and realizing that the North Korea-South Korea situation was nothing like what was being reported in America , and partly through your writings and Ron Paul’s presidential campaign I came to realize that a lot of the political beliefs I had grown up with were really simplifications or outright falsehoods. Do you believe more aspiring American journalists need to spend time abroad and gain that perspective before they can accurately report on issues at home? Or is there some other way to get through to them so they don’t end up repeating the government’s talking points?
The Korea Herald
Whenever I meet young journalists who ask me for advice, the first thing I always tell them is to move overseas in their early twenties, learn a new language, live cheaply, have fun, get some perspective, meet girls/boys, and then come home much later on, after they've wounded their livers a little and broken in to the business doing the foreign-correspondent thing. Actually, that's not the first thing I tell them -- the first thing I tell them is to quit J-school and go into medicine or some other real profession. But if they're dead set on it, I agree, going abroad is the best way to go.
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