In their haste to titter about the drama to which Guido Menzio was subjected the other day at Philadelphia International Airport — the University of Pennsylvania economist was pulled off his flight and briefly questioned by the FBI, before he was allowed to reboard, because he had been spotted scribbling differential equations in his note pad — the journalists (and the FBI agents as well, apparently) neglected to ask the obvious question: were his equations blueprints for what Warren Buffett called “financial weapons of mass destruction?”
The answer: apparently not. Menzio, who is linked to the author of this blog by seven degrees of separation,
is a specialist in the equilibrium of job search models, not in financial derivatives. The journalists nevertheless squandered an opportunity to remind their readers that economics can be no less life-threatening than suicide bombers and that a quantitative comparison of their relative dangers is urgently needed.
I first encountered Frédéric Lordon’s elegantly ironic prose in the pages of Le Monde Diplomatique, probably in 2004, when he was already writing about the destructive effects of finance, long before the crash of 2008 showed him in retrospect to have been a prophet. As the warning signs of the coming catastrophe accumulated in 2007, Lordon was there to point them out; when the crash finally did arrive, I immediately turned to the book Lordon had completed, a few weeks before the Lehman Brothers collapse, for an explanation of what had brought the world’s economy to the brink of disaster. Lordon’s book contained an introduction to what was then the arcane superstructure of MBSs, SPVs, CDOs, and CDSs that the “mad mathematicians of Wall Street” had erected on what would soon be the smoking ruins of what is politely called the “real economy,” and although MWA didn’t cite Lordon explicitly, I regret not including his book in the bibliography, since Chapter 4 could not have been written without it.
My next post will translate an excerpt from Lordon’s 2008 book of particular relevance to mathematics and mathematicians. The witty and multiply-talented Lordon has since gone on to write many articles in Le Monde Diplomatique as well as many books, including what must be the only comedy in rhyming alexandrine verse (since made into a film) about the subprime crisis:
Monsieur le Président, votre haut patronage
Nous offre l’occasion de multiples hommages.
A votre action d’abord qui fut incomparable
Et victorieusement éloigna l’innommable.
Mais à votre sagesse nous devons tout autant
La grâce que nous vaut le parfait agrément
De vous entretenir et d’avoir votre oreille,
Pour éloigner de vous tous les mauvais conseils.
Le quatrième banquier
Nous savons le courroux qui saisit l’opinion,
Tout ce que s’y fermente, toute l’agitation.
Nous entendons la rue rougeoyant comme forge
Vouloir nous châtier, nous faire rendre gorge.
Le peuple est ignorant, livré aux démagogues,
Outrance et déraison sont ses violentes drogues.
Il n’est que passion brute, impulsion sans contrôle,
Un bloc d’emportement, et de fureur un môle.
Le troisième banquier
Mais nous craignons surtout que des opportunistes,
Sans vergogne excitant la fibre populiste,
Propagent leurs idées, infestent les esprits.
Ils ne nous veulent plus que raides et occis.
Même les modérés sont assez dangereux.
Incontestablement ils semblent moins hargneux,
Et s’ils n’ont nul projet de nous éradiquer,
Ils ne veulent pas moins nous faire réguler…
In recent years he had switched his attention (and his academic affiliation) to philosophy and was calling himself a Spinozist — the only one of his books translated into English is entitled Willing Slaves of Capital: Spinoza and Marx on Desire. But when le peuple began their nightly occupations of the Place de la République in Paris, calling themselves Nuit Debout,
Lordon was acknowledged as an intellectual reference — a maître de penser, according to Le Monde. The image at the top of this post is a screen capture of his (seated) intervention at a mass meeting around the corner from the Place de la République devoted to the “next step.” The passage that starts at about 7’05” is particularly recommended. I translate the climax (from 7’50” to 8’20”):
When the liberals say TINA, There Is No Alternative, it is objectively true. But it is a conditional truth. Yes, it is objectively true that, when one has set up the frame of all the neoliberal structures I just mentioned, there are no longer alternatives, and the frame is designed precisely to rule them all out. However, if there are no longer alternatives within the frame, there is always the alternative of changing the frame.