Culture

Michael Lewis's 'The Big Short'

I borrowed The Big Short by Michael Lewis from a friend the other day and am rapidly reading my way through. I'm glad I waited until now to read it, because it makes for a smoother ride having already tried to digested the mechanics of Goldman Sachs's Abacus deal and the Magnetar trade. Some of it was familiar from my Portfolio days as well. The book masquerades as an aw-shucks account of some of the people who figured out that all the subprime lending made for a titanic house of cards and how they managed to get rich from their insight, but beyond that it's a pretty far-reaching critique of financial capitalism.

The way ideologues defend the inherent instability of the capitalist system ("creative destruction," etc.) is that competitive innovation may destroy individual firms but overall society reaps benefits from their espousing better ways of doing things. A firm that makes, say, steel cheaper buts the inefficient steelmakers out of business but lets society do more with steel.

But when capitalism is dominated by finance (and finance by 2007 was responsible for over 40% of all business profit in the U.S. by the mid-00s), competition and innovation become a matter of merely betting against fools rather than fixing the system that produced them. Financial innovation didn't allocate capital for the betterment of society; it allocated capital for the enrichment of Wall Street douches.

The people Lewis writes about don't seem especially douchy, and Lewis tends to try hard to make them sympathetic Cassandra figures who were on a quixotic quest to expose a financial system that had become systemically irrational. And they were merely acting on the basis of the prevailing ideology when they recognized that the whole financial system could meltdown but did nothing to prevent it and everything they could to profit from it -- their profiting from it, according to capitalist ideology, was supposed to be an expression of the system fixing itself. In reality, their wisdom that could have prevented financial calamity instead helped enable and intensify it. The glorification of markets presumes that everything of social worth and everything about human behavior is a matter of incentives, and anything worth doing will ultimately be incentivized. But there was no way to incentivize the prevention of financial disaster.

So Lewis's protagonists could have been heroes, might have mitigated a catastrophe, but instead fomented a profitable disaster because capitalism suggests that heroism is measured in profit and that profit can't be wrong. And many people probably still think that (what could be wrong with making money?), despite all the collateral damage to those who had nothing to do with subprime lending but ended up out of a job anyway, or the people who are still paying off an oversize mortgage on a house that got to be way, way, way overpriced thanks to the investment bankers' heedless rapaciousness inflating housing bubbles with insanely easy credit.

Market fundamentalists still probably think it's better to let a "self-regulating" system crash completely -- making a few winners and a society of losers -- then to have regulation (of derivatives, of rating agencies, etc.) designed to prevent such things from happening. That's the essence of Goldman's eagerness to hide behind the "sophistication" excuse that Thomas Frank points out in this WSJ op-ed. Nothing could be wrong with the gambling proclivities of sophisticated, consenting bankers, regardless of the collateral damage of their actions, which they seem simply to ignore as irrelevant. Lewis's book reveals that no matter how smart investors were, nothing they could do would prevent economic disaster. Frank's op-ed (a recapitulation of some of the arguments he made in One Market Under God) points out how the supposed sophistication of players in financial markets is used as an excuse to eschew regulation.

If the public is "smart," then who needs the nanny state? Meanwhile, as the familiar expression goes, those who support regulation "think you're stupid." So: Goldman Sachs builds up the "sophistication" of its counterparties because that, apparently, is what will get Goldman itself off the hook. And the boosters for the broader market build up the "sophistication" of small investors because that will get the market generally off the hook, by summoning up an "investor class" that will carry on Wall Street's war against the regulators.

(A variant on this is the idea that regulators are inevitably the people too stupid to hack it at the banks they are hired to regulate, so it all is a big waste of time.) Regulation, the banks allege, prohibits smart people from acting on their intelligence in the markets, thus wasting it. But what really happened in the past decade was that all the sophistication deployed in markets led only to making a bigger and bigger meltdown. The sophistication on various sides of trades doesn't balance out and produce optimal outcomes; it swirls and eddies and produces economic death spirals. Everyone tries to find the bigger fool, and everyone ends up getting made a fool of.

Paul Krugman argues here how regulation could have prevented what Lewis describes -- what Krugman calls "white-collar looting." And in this statement to a congressional subcommittee, Jamie Galbraith explains how the assumptions of market fundamentalism provided ideological cover for fraud.

Latter-day financial economics ... necessarily treats stocks, bonds, options, derivatives and so forth as securities whose properties can be accepted largely at face value, and quantified in terms of return and risk. That quantification permits the calculation of price, using standard formulae. But everything in the formulae depends on the instruments being as they are represented to be. For if they are not, then what formula could possibly apply?

Further discussion from James Kwak of the pros and cons of the financial regulation debate taking place now in Congress can be found here.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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