Friday, July 24, 2009

You Call That A Recovery

Economic activity can be broken into 2 categories: production and trade. In abstraction, both can be analyzed identically because production is actually a type of trade.

Trade, as we typically think of it, creates value by putting goods and services into the possession of the people who value them the most. Trade effectively funnels products to their highest-valued use.

Through production, we trade basic resources for finished products. The other side of the production coin is destruction. The inputs are sacrificed so that we may have the output.

There is no guarantee, however, that the output is of higher value than the inputs. We must be careful what we destroy.

If a business loses money in the long-run (that is, if total cost exceeds revenue), that business is destroying value. We know this because costs can only exceed revenue if the group of inputs has greater value in some other capacity. Unfortunately, value-destroying processes enter into GDP positively; they are really a negative. GDP is a very poor measure of the health of our economy.

It is commonly believed that any production process adds value because the finished product can be consumed whereas the raw resource would sit idle otherwise. But that ignores the possibility of using those resources for something else. There is also value in having the option to use a resource in the future.

There will always be some waste in the economy. We do not have perfect foresight, so we are unable to limit our production to only those that create value. Usually they are a very small portion of total production. Recently, destructive processes (example: General Motors) have been a relatively large share of the total. The result: recession.

The proper response to a recession is twofold: acceptance and recovery. Acceptance means stopping the destructive processes. Recovery means taking the resources that were involved in the destructive processes and finding better ways to employ them.

Acceptance can be quite painful. It involves things like bankruptcies, job losses, foreclosures, asset price declines. But, it is a necessary pre-condition for recovery.

The paths of acceptance and recovery vary in different sectors of the economy and for individual economic agents, and they can coincide to some degree. But acceptance can also be mistaken for recovery.

For example, when a business increases profit by cutting cost (i.e. contracting production) that is acceptance. They are lessening or eliminating the destruction of value. This is why we should let failures fail gracefully instead of bailing them out.

Thus profit can increase as GDP contracts and, importantly, we are better off, on average, as a society as a direct result of this contraction. This might be what people mean when they say 'jobless recovery.'

Make no mistake, though, there is no such thing as a jobless recovery. Labor is the most important input to production, and employment is the best indicator that we have as to the real level of our output. If there are more willing workers sitting idle today than at the beginning of the recession, then we haven't recovered. If net job losses continue to occur, we haven't started to recover - because we haven't fully accepted our recession.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

In Defense of Failure

All advances that the human race has ever made are the result of trial and error. It is not a blind process; we learn from mistakes and from successes. We pass on knowledge. Our ideas are informed by our own experience and the experience of those who went before. We are smart people, but we are only smart because people have tried things with little or no foreknowledge of the nature of the results. They allowed themselves to fail, and did. But along the way successes appeared, and multiplied and persisted. The failures were thrown out, resurfaced at times and were thrown out again. This is the essence of economic growth. It is the essence of all growth.

If we fear failure, we risk stagnation. We miss the opportunity to expand our knowledge base and improve the standard-of-living. But if we come to hate failure we risk much more. The aversion to failure might not cause us to avoid risk but to dress up failure as a success, to allow bad ideas to persist. This causes us to move backward as it amounts to the destruction of welfare. It locks resources into unproductive pursuits.

La Boca

For my first few weeks in Buenos Aires I enrolled in a Spanish class at a place called Expanish. The students were a mix of laid-off bankers from the U.S. and Europe and global-soul type travellers from North America, Europe, and Australia. My teacher, Diego, is a local guy, a writer and father of two. He chain-smoked, hated to be in nature, and is a very bright guy overall. Outside of living in Madrid for about a year, he's only been outside of Greater Buenos Aires once, for a bus trip taken with his high school senior class. He knows a lot about Argentina, though not from experience, but he is encyclopedic in his knowledge of the city. A great deal of time was spent in these classes discussing things to do in the city. We were not only students of Spanish, but also visitors to a rich city.

La Boca is one of the primary tourist draws of Buenos Aires. More specifically, the caminito in the barrio known as La Boca. The barrio is also home to the famous football team, Boca Juniors. The caminito photographs well; you have seen it if you have ever looked through a tour guide on Buenos Aires. But the surroundings of the caminito are the streets of Buenos Aires with the reputation of being the worst for crime. The people here are poor; tourists with money come through regularly. A low cost way to make money is to buy a gun or a knife and take some of that tourist money.

I hear first-and-second hand accounts of being mugged in La Boca regularly. A guy had a gun pulled on him, then was stabbed, supposedly in the touristy section. Most of the foreigners I know from the tango scene have not been to La Boca, even if they have lived here for months or years. Locals don't seem to be inclined to go either.

Diego says it's not dangerous if you act smartly. Busses can drop you off and pick you up at the caminito and if you stay off the backstreets, no one will bother you. Those who would rob others don't waste their time with Argentines. So Diego told us they'll say something like "Que hora es?" (What time is it?) when a stranger walks by. If he responds "no tengo reloj" (I don't have a watch) they leave him alone. If he says something like "I don't know Spanish," they rob him.

About six weeks after Diego told us this, I decided to spend an afternoon at the caminito. The 168 bus, which comes right by my house, goes to La Boca. My friend said she knows where to get off, so off we went. 45 minutes later, I learned that the 168 is not one of the many busses that drops people at the caminito. So we disembarked, walked across a park and then arrived at the backstreets of La Boca. Moreover, we did not know exactly how to get to the caminito.

I've walked down streets, at all hours of night, that would give my mother a heart attack if she saw them. But they could not inspire in me the dread I felt in the light of day here. Strange looking people lined the street, sitting on stoops, drinking and smoking, wearing hoods that hid their faces. I saw a taxi and almost got in it to travel about 2 blocks. We moved a meter or 2 into the street, and sure enough, I heard it, "Que hora es?" I didn't respond.

2 blocks away we made it to the football stadium. There were more people here and kids kicking a ball around. The atmosphere felt marginally better, but we still weren't sure of our direction. My friend had been trying to learn English and she spoke to me in English. "No quiero hablar ingles aca," I said to her in a low voice.

7 or 8 more blocks and we made it safely to the caminito. I like it. Sure it is touristy, but they present themselves well. We sat outside with a Belgian beer and listened to a bandoneonista, not watching the third-rate tango dancers. The music had more appeal for me. Down the road, dancers danced the chacarera and zamba, which are 100 times more entertaining for me to watch. Tango, the dance, for me, is an art form to be felt; I still do not enjoy watching it. Wax figures of Eva Peron, Carlos Gardel, and others I don't recognize look over the street from high balconies. There is some nice artwork as well.

The tango dancers very overtly asked us for money, which highly offended my friend, who is from Buenos Aires. At first, they seemed to think we were obligated. After we told them that we are tango dancers, they left us alone. I think they knew that we could tell they weren't so good. Most tourists, I guess, are happy to pay obscene amounts and the dancers get used to this. It is probably quite lucrative.

As for me, I was content to overpay for the beer.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Learning Spanish and Tango

To gain knowledge, a person must allow himself to feel stupid; to gain skill, a person must allow himself to feel incompetent.

It had been a long time since I knew how a child felt. In fact I don't recall knowing how a child feels. Now I think I have a good idea. The difference between children and adults is that, while neither can effectively and consistently control their emotions, adults can use words to generate the appearance that we can control emotions. Children, lacking speech altogether or sufficient vocabulary to communicate in a given situation, resort to crying, screaming, and flailing about in frustration when they fail in communication.

Trying to speak Spanish with a limited understanding of the grammar and severely limited vocabulary, sometimes, makes me want to scream and flail about. Or at least say something in English, if only to myself.

Tango is a language as well, like any dance. In some ways, it is much more complicated than our verbal languages. There are so many aspects that either mean something or generate noise, aspects that give cues and clues to the partner one way or the other, that will be interpreted as the dancer intends them, or, more likely, in some other way.

In each of these areas, a small bit of knowledge can take a person a long way. You can certainly talk to people with a short list of the most common verbs, knowledge of their primary conjugations, and a good list of nouns gives you roughly equal competence in both adjectives and adverbs. Likewise, you can dance for weeks with a good walk, a solid embrace, and 4 or 5 simple, well-executed figures.

But you cannot say everything, and a partner is unlikely to know why it is that you're not saying certain things.

In language, dance, or any other form of communication, it is the uncertainty of meaning that makes interactions meaningful. This is the source of all laughter, for example. Even with a well-formed thought, much can be lost in the transmission. Our partner's state of mind is unknown. What was she just thinking about? Why does he say that now? Oh no, she is pulling away from me. No amount of words can account for all possible misunderstandings.

With the limited knowledge of the early stages, we are doubly disadvantaged because we don't even know what we don't know. One area of Spanish that intrigues me are the great many words that are essentially the same in english (for example, paciencia and patience, tranquilo and tranquil). I find it easy to understand others who use these words, but difficult to incorporate them into my own speech. Perhaps because I think they are easy and do not require as much work as less familiar words.

In tango, the superficial layers are relatively easy to teach and commonly learned. Perceived mastery of these figures or steps (like ochos, sacadas, boleos, etc.) can lead one to believe he knows how to dance. But knowledge of the existence of those interior layers can lead the same person to wonder why those teachers were wasting time teaching figures to beginners.

Learning in these areas, and possibly in all areas, is not linear; it is circular. We must continually come back around, retracing the same path, looking for the things we dropped along the way. And for the things we failed to notice on our early trips.

A few very early beginners have asked me what I recommend for solo practice. "Put on Carlos DiSarli and walk," I say. Each time, I have gotten a look as if I've deeply insulted them. They have done boleos in "intermediate" classes. But no one walks perfectly, and truly advanced dancers do exactly that.

Enrico, one of my current housemates, puts it this way: If you go to a beginner class for the flute, the teacher will start with how to make a sound with air and the lips; If you go to a highly advanced class for the flute, a good teacher will start with how to make a sound with air and the lips. Daniel Diaz says that after his parents bought him a bandoneon, it was six months before his teacher let him touch it.

Great dancers make boleos and ganchos look easy. The reason is that they are easy. It is all the stuff that they are built upon which is difficult: stepping with the music, balance, dissociation in the torso, hip alignment, timing the rebound, and more. The list is long. Most people don't think of these things until years have gone by, if ever. Some develop competency by chance, others come from intensive dance backgrounds and already developed them. Many compensate (sometimes quite effectively) for weakness in some areas with strength in others, but sometimes this takes its toll on the partner.

All of the layers of foundation can be quite daunting. The euphoria of quick progress in the beginning can be addictive. It provides its own motivation. Moving from not knowing any Spanish beyond "sombrero" to being able to make small-talk with people who know no English is real and measurable. As is the ability to stand apart from the completely arhythmic on a dance floor. But pessisimism is not far beyond. As we become conscious of our own incompetence, the strength of ego yields to self-doubt. Making progress, getting around that circle a few more times, becomes a matter of feeling like we are getting worse.

And sometimes we really do regress. Partly due to a bad choice of teachers, as well as the adjustment to a new place, I'm almost certain that I really got worse through my first 6 weeks in Buenos Aires. Who knows, though, maybe I picked up a few things. And my Spanish definitely did improve during that time. How could it not?

Recognizing the myriad areas that need improvement, however, isn't all bad. In fact, I find it quite liberating. I enjoy tango more with each week that goes by, and finding big and little things about myself that need attention gives me confidence that I will improve and enjoy it more, and bring greater enjoyment to my partners, in the future. Life would get boring if mastery came early.

Recognition of this phenomenon is what keeps people learning late into life. We are all good at certain things, and it feels good to do those things. We get positive feedback from others; we feel smart when the conversation shifts to our areas of expertise. But this can be a trap. To broaden the skill and knowledge bases, we need to expand our comfort zones. When we venture far from what feels natural, often times we get slapped around, and the easy thing to do is go back to what we know. Why else would our society be so averse to unemployment (even though polls show that most of us dislike our current jobs)? It is at this point when human nature must be overcome. The cost of learning is great in the beginning; the benefits are enormous but they are largely in the future. We know this instinctively; otherwise we would not plant gardens and wheatfields.

Finally, I think a lot of people find motivation in focusing on an end goal. Maybe to read a novel in a new language, or write one. Or to dance in a competition or an exhibition at a weekly practica. Or to have that one great and beautiful dancer say yes.

I am sure this works for some, but I take a different route. It is good to see what is possible once in a while but I find great value, when progressing toward a destination, in keeping my head down. That is, focusing on the present rather than the future, on myself rather than some idyllic model, on details rather than the big picture. Yes, I like to have some idea about the big picture I am painting, but I never want the final product to be to clear in my mind. If my image is cloudy it is easier for me to divert. I can still develop that picture, but I am not locked into an outcome. I am free to explore other possibilities.

The sun is there even on the darkest of cloudy days.

The Dance – A Novella (page one)

Most of what happens in a moment slips away, and most of that never makes its way back. While the focus often remains on what is lost, the beauty reveals itself in that which lingers. Or that which, having concealed itself long ago, emerges from memory at some unexpected, perhaps unwelcome and inconvenient, moment.

As experience slips into obscurity, human nature sends us after it, as if grasping to hold on, having failed, can be outdone by a chase in which the chased has an infinite reserve of energy. Never looking back to taunt its hunter, it simply flees into a speck, then gets washed away by the noise of all the other specks.

A moment that is beautiful in itself, short but profound, loses all splendor when its experiencer attempts to hold on. Attempts to make more of it, to develop it, to analyze it looking for that one path leading not to a dead end but off into heaven. But only luck will find that door; it is just one leaf on the forest floor and it looks no different than the rest, those that hide their dead ends amidst the belief, the illusion, that the special one is not so special, easily found and attainable to him that will seek it.

The woman from Chicago watched the dancers. She took in all the stimulus. She reflected on its relevance. What does the movement mean? And what is its connection to the feeling in the heart. She would later remark that the most obvious aspect of the dance is the movement, the variety of bodily contortions, the volume of movement packed into space and time really. But that this aspect of the art is the first to fall away from her experience of the moment.

“What does it leave behind?” he asked her. Not knowing she thought of her own experience, how dancing with, and being with, this man has robbed her of certain pleasures. Their connection, while glorious, has deadened her desire to connect with others. Not that she would wish as grand a connection as is felt when with him, but there is room for simple satisfactions too. Short love affairs never spoken of but experienced 3, 5, or 10 minutes at a time. A smile she offers to a man jogging by, knowing that it gives him a euphoric moment of pleasure, and feeling that with him, enjoying it as it washes itself away, never to return in that exact form. The intimacy of a tango, no commitment, no expectation, no responsibility to make pleasure for the other. Simply enjoyment of what is.

He had thought of this before meeting that night, this idea that love is the absence of expectations. He caught himself remembering a previous rendezvous. When they met that evening his doubts had been shattered easily by a sensuous kiss. A surprise that easily and gracefully eliminated the need for lips to say anything. Now, with an even greater feeling of doubt, he wanted that again. Knowing the setting would be as it was before, he hoped with fervor that the kiss would say the same thing. Then, as if shocked to life by the reality of the cold ocean, he loathed himself, and punished his emotions for this perfidious breach of the beauty of love.

The dance evoked sadness. In her, and in him because he felt what she did. He found his own sadness comforting, a message to himself that the connection is real. He embraced it, feeling a sense of chivalry. She found this hard to take; it added to her own despair. Responsible now for the sadness of two, she lamented the connection, feeling selfish and lethargic. It was a cycle that peaked only 4 days earlier. They spent most of that day together. On an empty beach, in an empty café, the only people in the world. She felt comfort then, happy for his existence, his friendship, his love. Now, all she wanted was to be away from him.

To this man, the cycle is well known. Not understood but known. Intuition leads him to try to draw her out of the cycle, to cheer her, comfort her, offer his aid. But intuition leads man astray as often as the wind carries a seed to fallow ground. The situation calls not for tenderness but brutality. Do not draw her out, but plunge her down. The path is inevitable; the best way to cover these steps is quickly. Ride with her, at least be willing, but do not pretend it can be avoided.

What It Means To Be Sick

Okay, so the swine flu gods got me. I don't get sick very often, but this makes two significant knockouts in about seven weeks. So with my 6-8 waking hours each of the past 3 days, I have pondered the great question of the infirmed: Why me?

Now this is no great tragedy - a week's worth of strep throat followed 6 weeks later by what really amounts to a moderate dose of fatigue. No great after-school specials started this way.

But that's the point, I think. We all spend our lives doing things, some of us are more physical, some more cerebral, but we get into a certain routine and things hum along. Getting sick, be it major or minor, knocks us off the track.

I live in a place where I can effectively pursue two goals: improve my tango and learn Spanish. Outside of that, I find little reason to be here. So with 3 days lost I found myself wanting to go home. After all, it is 80 degrees in Seattle and the fresh mountain summer air would do me good.

But no matter where I am, I get a bit of this whenever I am sick. I call it depression. To me, the physical symptoms are not nearly as relevant as the emotional ones. And those stem from uncertainty. Doubt takes over the mind when pathogens take over the body. What is wrong with me? It is a perfectly reasonable question. But there need not be anything wrong. Maybe this is just the natural consequence of sharing the earth with microorganisms. Or maybe some other god is just telling me to slow down.

Logical explanations aside, the mind still wonders. After all I live in a house with 7 other people. About 12 boy- and girlfriends come and go regularly. We all make our life in the same dirty city, but only one of those 20 has gotten sick at this time - me. They even appear immuned to my disease-carrying forays into the kitchen.

For me, sickness brings about loneliness. Don't get me wrong, I like to be alone at times; sometimes I need to be alone. What I don't like is to feel lonely.

People are nice. One person I talked to immediately started with the advice: go to a doctor, take your temperature, take lots of fluids, and on and on. All worth appreciating, but all entirely predictable. What I really wanted (but didn't have the strength to interrupt) is to say that I don't feel so good in my heart and then to hear the entirely unpredictable response.

About a year-and-a-half ago, I had a nasty fever and was on the phone with a long-distance girlfriend. I told her what I was honestly feeling at the time: "I feel like I am dying." Her immediate reaction was to laugh at me (worst girlfriend ever). I don't know what exactly I wanted - a bit of sympathy, to be told that I'm not going to die, or something else - but what I got was pure pain, pure misunderstanding, pure rejection. After all, I wasn't going to die; the suffering caused by my illness was secondary, but it magnified the heartache - the feeling that nobody cared.

We don't know much about what goes right and wrong inside our bodies. I happen to believe that better understanding in this area could really mitigate the emotional pain of physical suffering. After all, each of us has, at least once, felt worse than she has ever before felt in her life. Some reason to believe that the chances are good we'll make it through more or less unharmed could really hit the spot at a time like that. If we could find some sense in suffering; maybe we could deal with it more easily.

It was this idea that, years ago, formed my primary motivation to pursue medical school. The interviewers at the University of Washington appear not to have agreed with me. Maybe they were right; maybe there is no sense to be found.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Swine Flu Grips Buenos Aires Tango

La Gripe Porcine, the swine flu, has made its way into the minds of tango dancers. The winter flu season has arrived, and with it, an increase in the number of infections and deaths in Buenos Aires caused by swine flu, or whatever you want to call it.

Every day I see more people on the subway with masks "protecting" them from swine flu. Others hold a scarf or sweater over their mouths and noses. Last Thursday the Puntocero milonga, downtown, was cancelled on short notice. There is a nice free milonga 3 blocks from my house on the first saturday of the month, but that was cancelled as well. And now, the once-proud Practica X has shut its doors for the entire month of July.

School vacations have been extended by about 3 weeks, and I have heard rumors that the government will mandate cancellation of all cultural events.

At the risk of angering the swine flu god, and apart from the air of sadness that comes with observing a terrorized society, I've found some positives. Last night, I had the most enjoyable milonga experience since arriving in BsAs. I discovered Club Fulgor de Villa Crespo, which has a good dance floor (rare) and a light atmosphere (more rare). But also, while many lamented the light turnout, I found it perfect. There were enough seats for everybody, enough space to dance, and enough people to make it fun. I stayed late and slept well afterward.

One of my teachers, who has resigned herself to staying away from public gatherings, told me that, after every dance I should wash my hands and... gargle with salt water.

That's a bit excessive for me. I must admit I wash my hands more often these days but beyond that, I'll rely on my immune system and regular sleep to carry me through.

I have to wonder what it is about swine flu. I guess public health officials worry about the infection rate going parabolic, but what does the average Joe worry about? Far more people die from "regular flu," not to mentions the hundreds of other prominent dangers that surely outkill swine flu by a long shot. No one appears to be to concerned with, for example, malaria or automobile accidents.

I think that our minds are drawn to things that are new. We've lived through regular flu, and malaria. And we understand that cars in the street are dangerous, but we have outsmarted them this long. Each of us has proven that we can live in a world with all the diseases that exist in the world; but we don't yet know how this whole swine flu thing will play out. It is the uncertainty that fills our mind with dread more than the presence of certain danger.

My guess is that in a few months or a year, swine flu will be as big a problem or greater than it is today. But, except for a small number of unlucky individuals, no one will care.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Price Increase

The price of facturas (more or less, breakfast pastries), at the panaderia around the corner, went up today from 90 centavos to 1 peso.

No me gusta.