Author: James Livingston

The Modern Decameron, Books IV-VII

Now we’re in the thick of it, now we know God himself is on trial, because his representatives on earth are so cunning, lustful, stupid, and wise.  These four “novels” compose a suite, a kind of story within a story–within a story–that tells of how the men of the Church have betrayed its promises, and will, accordingly, soon lose their hold on the hearts and minds of the masses.  Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” are the contemporary complement (and remember that Geoffrey stole from Giovanni). Dioneo (Boccaccio’s stand-in) tells the story of the monk and the abbot, the man who, caught by his superior in sexual shenanigans, exposes the boss to the same temptations and, having recorded the sordid results, prevents his dismissal from the monastery and guarantees his future as a cleric.  How to succeed in business without really trying.  Fiammetta (Boccaccio’s nickname for his real-life lover) follows with a lesson in how to say “No” to a man with superior standing and powers.  It ain’t easy.  Emilia then explains why charity–philanthropy, we call it, that’s how we dress it up these days–is worse than death without last rites.  How so?  And then Filostrato the straight arrow tells us stories of men who admitted their sins of greed, who tried to “give something back” (of what they had previously taken from others), having been embarrassed by their own greed.  Would that...

Read More

On Lenox Ave

My girlfriend and I are holed up in Harlem, just south of its epicenter at 125thand Lenox Ave, a.k.a. Malcom X Blvd.  Since there are no delivery dates available from any purveyor until far into next week (I write on March 31), I’ve been going out to shop for groceries every three or four days at 7:00 AM, when Whole Foods opens its doors for one hour to customers 60 years and older, then lets the less vulnerable in to hunt and gather. There’s a police-style metal barricade that runs 50 feet west on 125thStreet from Lenox, channeling us senior citizens into a socially-distanced single file so that security guards can check our ID.  Once inside, it’s clear sailing–the aisles are bustling with employees stocking the shelves or filling carts with food for delivery, but the masked customers are few, no more than 20 percent of the store’s current population. Outside–a security guard has to let you out–there are even fewer civilians.  Used to be that at any given morning hour, dozens of addicts of all kinds would be gathered on the corner of 124th, waiting for the rehab/detox clinic behind Whole Foods to open.  Not yesterday.  Maybe three or four old guys waving canes, talking trash, smoking cigarettes.  The hallal truck wasn’t there, either, nor the tented vegetable stand.  Suddenly you can feel a lot of social distance...

Read More

The Modern Decameron, Book 1

In Boccaccio’s Decameron, there were seven women and three men, self-quarantined in the time of plague, Florence, 1348.  The women were Pampinea, elected queen by her peers because she was so decisive, insightful, and cheerful; Fiammetta (Boccaccio’s nickname for his lover in real life); Filomena; Emilia; Lauretta; Neifile; and Elisa.  The men, all dashing and handsome per Boccaccio’s specifications, were Pamfilo, Filostrato, and Dioneo (the last a stand-in, according to Rigg’s translation, for Giovanni himself).  Book/Novel 1 commences when Pampinea commands the bashful Pamfilo to start the stories that will become The Decameron. He rises to the occasion and tells us, with surprising eloquence and detail, of a man, Ser Chiappelletto (the Cheater) who lived a life of crime and died a saint.  This is my retelling for our plague time. ____ Now that I’m locked up with you, ladies and gentlemen, I withhold the compliment when it comes to these two punkass motherfuckers, men who still carry their weapons as if  they might protect their impoverished souls against the pestilence that waits outside the doors of this church, now closed against a disease that would waste the world, yes, now I will, as commanded, tell the story of a man whose transgressions made him a saint, a man whose sins became virtues, a man so steeped in the foul sewage of iniquity that he could say shit you...

Read More

A Referendum on Capitalism

By James Livingston I know a financial planner who meets with his clients every quarter, to review and revise their portfolios. He recently met with one, a retired executive, who said (I paraphrase), “Donald Trump is a pig who turns everything he touches to shit.  But he’s made me a bundle this quarter.  OK, you have, by keeping me in equities.  I gotta vote for him.  Especially since if Bernie’s elected, the stock market loses 20% overnight.  You said that.” These remarks capture the mood of the majority just now.  Nobody I know–except my friend the financial planner and his ex-wife–is deeply or directly invested in the stock market, but 59% of Americans say they’re better off than last year, and fully 76% expect better things to come.  And this, according to Gallup and the Pew Research Center, even as concerns about jobs and the economy keep rising, making them the principal issues for Republicans and Democrats alike–and as, meanwhile, Bernie Sanders, who proposes to finance M4A with a tax on stock trades, remains the leader among Democratic presidential candidates. What’s going on here?  Only 10% of stockholders own 84% of shares traded on the NYSE.  The rest of us occupy Wall Street at the distance of our pension funds, if we’re lucky enough to have one (most of us do not–see below).  Why does anyone treat the stock market...

Read More

Backstreet Boys

I don’t want to spend a lot of time on campus, nobody does unless they’re a dean of something, and my teaching schedule validates this desire.  Being a professor is a pretty cool gig because most of the work you’re expected to do—read and write books—happens off campus, outside the classroom. Wednesdays are the exception, when department meetings happen. Then I’m there all day, from 9:30 AM to 7:30 PM.  I get home around 10:00.  Ah, poor me, gotta work for a living, and part of that work is dealing with the colleagues, in meetings.  But this is not what I imagined!  Precious me, I thought the life of the mind exempted me from tiresome routine. I was wrong about that, of course.  The life of the mind just is a tiresome routine.  You rehearse what has been said, and then you try to say something new, but the rehearsal is everything. G. L. S. Shackle—now there’s a name—honored this captivity in The Years of High Theory: Invention and Tradition in Economic Thought, 1926-1939, a wonderful, unreadable book that traces a revolution in economic theory, from Piero Sraffa, who made sure that Antonio Gramsci’s book orders got placed, and Joan Robinson, who made sure that Michal Kalecki got taken seriously, on toward John Maynard Keynes, who made sure that Say’s Law got displaced.  All Cambridge alum.  Beautiful trouble. Here’s...

Read More