Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Get Thee to a Nunnery

The Corner That Held Them
Sylvia Townsend Warner

Naturally I wasn't expecting Jack Reacher-style action when I picked up this 399-page 1948 novel about three decades in the life and times of a humble 14th-Century English convent. And indeed, it is one of those books in which not much happens, at least for considerable stretches. There is a backdrop of big events, beginning with the Black Death, but poverty, sickness, and death were everyday features of life during those times and are treated without much drama. Nuns arrive and usually remain until their own deaths; each in a sequence of prioresses is more or less competent or unpopular than the last; over the course of the novel the convent finds itself under the more or less disinterested rule of three different bishops. After about 200 somewhat soporific pages I confess I nearly threw in the towel, but the exceptional quality of the writing and the sheer trueness of the storytelling kept me going; the second half of the book picks up narrative steam and is, in places, deeply moving. It is, in retrospect, a splendid book.

Perhaps unexpectedly in a novel by a feminist woman about a community of women, with a few exceptions The Corner That Held Them does not develop the characters of the individual nuns in much depth or subtlety– they often appear in pairs or as a gaggle. Indeed it is Townsend's goal to portray the history of a community, not individuals. The most vividly drawn character is the steadiest presence through nearly the entire narrative arc: Sir Ralph Kello, the (supposed) convent priest. A dreamer and scholar and a bit of a fool, he is both an outside observer and intimate participant in the affairs of the convent.

There is no conventionally linear plot, although the book is rigorously chronological. Rather, Warner presents a sequence of vignettes centered on the convent, but with much of the drama provided by a series of short journeys a few days' ride away, by one character or another.

It did not surprise me to learn that Townsend, in addition to being a novelist, feminist, and scholar of early music, was also a committed Marxist. If it is possible to write a historical materialist novel, this is surely it. Much attention is paid to the economic context of the convent, its finances and management– in a word, money. As an institution, the convent relied for revenue on its claims over streams of income from various endowments, assets, and modest landholdings, which might come as a dowry when a family committed a daughter to enter the convent as a novice. These sources of income were unsteady, and could be at the mercy of the granting family. When a nun died, did the revenue from her endowment continue, or revert to her family? Did her wishes in this respect carry any weight? There was also borrowing: one plot element even revolves around the prospect of consolidating and refinancing the convent's debt.

As any economic historian knows, the Black Death ushered in a period of high wages for the working class, as labor supply collapsed. But institutions reliant on rents found these to be harder times– the standard Ricardian logic dictated declining rents as the land-labor ratio rose. Such problems hit home for the prioress and her treasuress. Nunneries were also subject to oversight by the Church, with its interests both financial and theological. A meddling visitation by the new bishop Walter yields a scathing accreditation report and the imposition of a custos, the bishop's man, to keep tabs on the place. Thankfully, the appointed custos Henry Yellowlees is not a fan of the new bishop and not eager to make too much trouble for the nuns.

As a materialist, Townsend has no truck with miracles or the reality of the spirit domain, but she is respectful of religious experience, even when she has her fun with it. And the book is consistently funny, in its understated ironic fashion. It also finds beauty in the most unlikely places, for example when Henry journeys off to Esselby on behalf of the nuns, aiming to collect rent in arrears from one of the convent's holdings. En route he stays a night at a leper-house, where the chaplain happens to be a devotee of the Ars nova and enlists Henry to sing a kyrie of Machault, the third part sung by a leper, who is kept at a safe distance at the further end of the room.
... And as paradise is made for man, this music seemed made for man's singing; not for edification, or the working-out of an argument, or the display of skill, but only for ease and pleasure, as in paradise where the abolition of sin begets a pagan carelessness, where the certainty of Christ's countenance frees men's souls from the obligations of christian behaviour, the creaking counterpoint of God's law and man's obedience.  
It ended. Henry Yellowlees raised his eyes from the music-book. The rays of the levelling sun had shifted while they sang and now shone full on the leper. His face, his high bald head, were scarlet. He seemed to be on fire. 
'Again! Let us sing it again!'
This epiphany has a profound effect on Henry. Alas, not all goes well for the chaplain and his lepers. The convent, however, endures, at least to March 1382, when the story does not exactly end, but stops.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Would Non-Profit Utilities Cure What Ails California Electricity?

That is the title of Severin Borenstein's typically insightful and fair-minded overview of the issues on the Berkeley-Haas Energy Institute blog. He summarizes various more or less convincing arguments for preferring a publicly or cooperatively owned non-profit utility to a regulated private monopoly such as PG&E. His bottom line is well-hedged: "What’s clear to me is that converting PG&E to a public or cooperatively-owned utility would not be the silver bullet that creates a more efficient, reliable and safety-oriented electricity provider for Northern California. It would at best be just the beginning of a long road to re-invent the utility."

One important point he makes, which I had not thought much about, is that there is a serious risk of rich, urban service areas peeling off parts of PG&E to form local public providers, shifting the bulk of the fire risk onto more rural, poorer areas:
It’s not a coincidence that the first area to advocate for making their part of PG&E territory into a public entity has been the city of San Francisco, an urban area in which the power lines pose very little wildfire risk. It is possible that PG&E is too big, and the best solution is to break it up, but it is certain that carving off the low-fire-risk areas will leave the more wooded and rural — and, on average, poorer — parts of its service territory where the fire risk is highest. No one is going to want to be the public (or investor-owned) power provider for those areas unless someone else covers the wildfire liability. Without a holistic plan to provide power in all of PG&E’s service territory, cherry picking what are now the low-cost areas will just create massive wealth transfers and exacerbate inequality.
He also points out that the dividing line between public and private is not so clear when an investor-owned firm is publicly regulated. In his view, justified skepticism about the quality of regulatory oversight under the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) ought to raise similar questions about the ability of a purely governmental entity to run the whole system safely and effectively:
In fact, many advocates for public or customer ownership are also the most outspoken critics of the CPUC. If they think that the CPUC, a state agency, is such a failure, why are they so confident that a government agency (or a non-profit coop) running the utility will be a success?
I take his point, snarky as it is, but there is a potentially important factor differentiating government-regulated from government-owned: the potential for "capture" of the regulators by the regulated. "Capture" is one word that one cannot find in Borenstein's post. I don't know enough about the CPUC to know whether its apparent failures in regulating PG&E are a function of incompetence, under-resourcing, bad luck, regulatory capture by the regulated entities, or some combination. But transferring ownership from rich investors with powerful interests potentially at odds with the interests of the public could improve things. On the other hand, capture of a state-owned enterprise by powerful stakeholders who are similarly conflicted cannot be ruled out...

Tuesday, November 5, 2019


That is Emma Watson's current status, self-described. Good for her. Reminds me of a song.

Medicare for all

Elizabeth Warren's plan.

Kevin Drum Mother Jones liberal suggests that you should view it as no more than a signal that Liz is a very serious lefty– a "lunatic," as he puts it: "...these M4A plans... should be treated like Republican tax cut proposals. Nobody bothers to analyze them (except for liberal think tanks, natch) because no one takes them seriously. They are meant merely as markers to show where your heart is."

Tyler Cowen libertarian wants you to take the plan quite seriously, at least to the extent that we should evaluate its fiscal (in)feasibility: "Can we spend another $52 trillion without raising middle class taxes? The question seems like a joke, right? Yet because so much of our elite media class wants Elizabeth Warren to win, they are contorting themselves into every possible direction to make this one sound coherent."

So, paradoxically, those sympathetic to Warren ask you not to take the proposal too seriously, and those who think she's a disaster ask you to take it very seriously.

Me? I wish the social democratic wing of the Democrats could find a more aspirational language that still treated the electorate like grownups– people who understand politics and appreciate that policy is contingent, and who thus don't require elaborate nudge-nudge-wink-wink plans that will never be enacted, supported by overly optimistic if not downright dishonest analysis. Something more like this: "I will work with Congress to ensure quality health care for all, which will build on Obamacare by offering a robust public option and implement practical cost reductions. I value the dignity of work and will leverage government to build skills and produce good green jobs through R&D and infrastructure spending, but I will also make sure that the safety net protects the livelihoods of working people who are innocent victims of the inevitable dislocations associated with modern technology and global markets. A universal basic income could play an important role here. Progressive policies don't come cheap. We expect everyone to pay their share, but I think simple fairness demands that the very rich pay a much bigger share of taxes than they do now, as they did 50 years ago: something more like the 50% of their income that they paid in 1960 than the 30% of today..." and so forth and so on.

Maybe I should take another look at what Mayor Pete and Senator Harris have to say for themselves.

Monday, November 4, 2019

Regressive state and local taxation

Here's an excellent post from Kevin Drum on the distributive burden of state and local taxation, comparing California and Texas. His point is that for the lower and middle classes (the majority), state and local tax rates are actually lower in California than in Texas. Only the top 1-5% really get slammed in California compared with Texas. So there's little reason to think that high taxes per se should be driving a large-scale exodus from CA to TX.

The source he links to, ITEP, has a particularly interesting map of states by tax regressivity. You might be able to make out some correlation between red states and regressive states, but if so it's not a strong one: Washington state is the worst, and South Carolina looks quite equitable. Food for thought.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

NYRB round-up

In addition to Black Wings Has My Angel, I've been reading some other New York Review Books novels. Time to catch up...

The True Deceiver
Tove Jansson
A chilly psychological novel set in a chilly place, it was worth reading, but not much of it has stuck with me.

The Alteration
Kingsley Amis
An alternate history in which the Reformation failed, and the Catholics are running England in the 1970s. Our hero is a choirboy with the voice of an angel and puberty not far off, which turns out is not a good situation if you want to avoid "the alteration." It's no Lucky Jim, but Amis has plenty of fun dropping names of historical figures whose roles turned out a little different (e.g. Pope Martin Luther) and keeps the plot moving.

The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe
D.G. Compton
A near-future dystopian 1974 novel about love, celebrity, privacy, media over-saturation, and death with dignity. Despite the heavy topics, it is touching, and charmingly quirky in its fashion. Perhaps the best of this batch.

The Chrysalids
John Wyndham
Two sci-fi books from the author of The Day of the Triffids. Both enjoyable reads, offering some food for thought; of the two, Chocky, about a boy with an unusual and not-necessarily-imaginary friend, is the lighter and perhaps more compelling story, while The Chrysalids (1955), with its repressive religious fundamentalists and post-nuclear environmental badlands, captures the obsessions and anxieties of its time... and ours.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Kadri Gopalnath, RIP

I mostly know of him by way of this great album with Rudresh Mahanthappa. Jazz fusion that really works, and a new way to hear the sax.