Thursday, March 28, 2013

Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes - The Yanomamö and the Anthropologists by Napoleon Chagnon

Napoleon Chagnon's title promises a visit to two dangerous tribes: the Yanomamö and the Anthropologists. He provides a disjointed treatment. The larger part of the book takes the form of memoir, a return by Chagnon to the people he studied over the greater part of his career. The later chapters address the academic scandal surrounding Chagnon's work - and his place within the evolving discipline. Chagnon defends himself here - but he does not 'scientifically' study his anthropologist accusers: their violence (as opposed to that of the Yanomamö) is not explained.

Chagnon made the Yanomamö famous: his monograph (subtitled "The Fierce People') was widely studied (it was a highlight of the undergraduate Cultural Anthropology course I took). And of course the Yanomamö made Chagnon famous.

Chagnon's work was always controversial. He presented the Yanomamö as among the world's few remaining "Stone Age" people, largely isolated in the regions dividing Venezuela and Brazil. From here they subsistence agriculture from ever shifting villages. The Yanomamö were hardly unaffected by encounters with the outside -- they grew plantains and other crops that had been introduced to South America and prefered modern tools (including the machete and shotgun). Chagnon depicted the Yanomamö as a violent society, characterized by treacherous killings, inter-village raids, and systematic abduction of females. The Yanomamö were not Rousseau's noble savages.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Bull by the Horns: Trying to Save Main Street from Wall Street and Wall Street from Itself by Sheila Bair

Bull by the Horns is part defense of past action, part call-to-action. Sheila Bair served as chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, one of the chief federal bank regulators, from 2006 through 2011 -- and thus rode the entire wave of the Financial Crisis. By her own account, she clashed with officials of both the Bush and Obama Administrations (in important cases, these were the same individuals). And throughout these times she was the most prominent woman in United States financial regulation.

Bair becomes the FDIC in this story -- she absorbs its mission and makes it her own. The FDIC has a peculiar mission -- and it has never been the only law in banking. Bair believes in deposit insurance but not bailouts. Deposit insurance is paid to depositors in the event of bank failure; bailouts are payouts to shareholders, bondholders and management in the same circumstances. There is a distinction here -- but perhaps not as self-evident a one as Bair imagines. Both deposit insurance and bailouts (under the Too Big to Fail doctrine or otherwise) create moral hazard. Bair though sees banking policy through the FDIC lens -- depositors (up to the FDIC limits) are to be given continuous access to their funds in the event of failure; shareholders and bondholders are to be wiped out and -- at least in most cases -- bank management is to be fired. All very by the book. Which is to say, Bair wants the bank resolution system to work as it is promised to work -- which of course is not at all what happened following the Financial Crisis.

Moreover, Bair seems to have little sympathies for the other agencies involved in federal banking regulation, unless their objectives accidentally converge with those of the FDIC. The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and the Office of Thrift Supervision are consistently dismissed as completely captured by the institutions they regulate; the Department of Treasury is a political instrument of the White House (although Treasury is often portrayed as a rogue department under Timothy Geithner). The Fed is okay most of the time -- Bair is generally admiring of Bernanke -- but the New York Fed is a different story. Throughout the book, Bair signals which players were friends and which -- the greater number -- were enemies. In all, it is a very personal book: Washington is a field for contesting personalities.