On Downgrades and Grades; or, Dude, Score Thyself

Yesterday, in a post on her New Yorker blog, Close Read, titled “Rioting Markets,” Amy Davidson, commenting on a surreal week in our markets and cities, a week when one wondered, like Yeats wondered, if the center can hold, said, “We lost our credit rating, after all, in large part because of a riot by ostensible grownups in Congress.” What Amy is saying is that the reason for the downgrade was S&P’s feeling that Congress was unable to lower debt by increasing revenue (i.e. raising taxes), and based on what S&P’s David Beers said following, that the Bush tax-cuts should be repealed, we agree with Amy’s comment, but, and while Yeats could not afford to quibble, the gyre widening as he wrote, quibble we must with Amy’s saying “we lost our credit rating,” for we did not lose our credit rating. We were “downgraded” from AAA to AA+. And even to call this change a downgrade, while accurate, misses an opportunity to talk about the incredible and arcane chicanery of the rating system. It’s like school grades, only worse.

Here are the possible ratings that Standard & Poor’s might assign to an organization: AAA, AA+, AA, AA-, A+, AA-, BBB+, BBB, BBB-, BB+, BB, BB-, B+, B, B-, CCC to C. Was there ever a school report card this complicated?

In the recent S&P downgrade, the US was rescored from a grade of AAA to a grade of AA+. For comparison, think of student grades, think A-. Still a good score, excellent, in fact, right? But the general reaction to the S&P downgrade bears some similarity to the grade inflation in US schools, for an A-, as Louis Menand has pointed out, means failure where “American colleges notoriously inflate grades, but they can never inflate them enough, because education in the United States has become hypercompetitive and every little difference matters.” Thus, students who receive a grade of A- may react as if they’ve just been given an F.

But what does AA+ mean in S&P’s widening gyre? Basically, the score is a stress test. The scores indicate what economic stress level an organization ought to be able to bear and still withstand default. So what is economic stress, and how is that measured? S&P’s explanation for a score of AA includes the ability to withstand a 70% decline in the stock market. That’s like saying you ought to be able to chugalug a 5th of Southern Comfort and still sing the alphabet song backwards.

Switch to an imagined conversation between Bill and Ted. “What’d you get on the big math test, Dude?” “BB, Dude.” “Most excellent, Dude! Rock on!” An S&P score of BB indicates the ability to withstand a 25% drop in the stock market. Dude, score thyself.

Writing and its Discontents: Lady Gaga to Replace McChrystal

I read with interest Caleb Crain’s recent post, about Freud, which begins with a doubt about blogging. Doubts about blogging can quickly reduce to an absurdity: why write at all? I’m beginning to suspect there are more readers than are being counted in the polls. The question is, what are we reading. Attendance at baseball games is down this year, but I still hear the hollow pop of the Whiffle ball in the street.

When Eric’s new Rolling Stone arrived in the mail earlier this week I again shied away from the hardball cover. I glanced at the contents, made note of the McChrystal article, thumbed through the Lady Gaga interview. I missed the scoop, for suddenly Rolling Stone and McChrystal were big news. A post headline occurred to me: Lady Gaga to Replace McChrystal. According to the cover, she appears to have the qualifying equipment.

I sometimes get the feeling professional writers would rather not have to blog. Hendrik Hertzberg’s post on the McChrystal story, at the New Yorker site, for example, argues that the McChrystal story is really about the fragmentation of journalism, the co-opting of stories by anyone with a laptop, and presentations carefully staged for a VIP audience, all of which creates a morale hazard for troops, a hazard which didn’t exist in previous wars. Hertzberg suggests that Rolling Stone and McChrystal conspired to pose the general and his cohort “…as really cool macho dudes.” Hertzberg says that “frontline troops nowadays are also online troops.” He thinks this is good, but how can it be good if at the same time, as Hertzberg suggests, we should still censor their mail? And why does Hertzberg conclude that McChrystal and his gang of on-line blogging-warriors “understood none of this”?

Why should we keep from the troops the true character of their leaders, even if part of that character is a desire to fictionalize and present itself as something it’s not? But I didn’t read the Rolling Stone McChrystal article as fiction. (The Lady Gaga interview – now that’s fiction.) Do we think we can protect the troops from knowing what war is really like?

Freud concludes his Civilization and Its Discontents with a discussion of ethics as a product of the super-ego to control “the constitutional inclination of human beings to be aggressive towards one another; and for that reason we are especially interested in what is probably the most recent of the cultural commands of the super-ego, the commandment to love one’s neighbour as oneself.”

It may have been a fictional account carefully orchestrated, but I liked the profile of McChrystal in the Rolling Stone. I liked that he’s always been a discontent, that he wrote fiction, that, in fact, he may not be a very likable guy.

Freud concludes: “One thing only do I know for certain and that is that man’s judgements of value follow directly his wishes for happiness – that, accordingly, they are an attempt to support his illusions with arguments.” Freud thought our capacity for destruction, and particularly for self-destruction, a bad thing, and worth thinking about. No doubt, but deconstruction is not the same thing as destruction. We may have lost a general (through his own tendency toward self-destruction) willing and able to deconstruct the war in Afghanistan. Now we’re left with more Lady Gaga.

Update, June 26: New Yorker editor Amy Davidson weighs in on her blog, Close Read, discussing the General of all bad comments, Patton. The comparison was inevitable. But Amy might have compared McChrystal to another WWII general, Omar Bradley (Patton’s nemesis and in many ways the archetypal opposite of McCrystal and Patton types) . The Google timeline (follow link) omits my famous meeting with General Bradley in front of the LA International Hotel, where I held a job parking cars at the front door, circa late 1960’s. The General came out in his dress uniform, having just addressed some dinner group. I’m sorry now that I don’t remember the exact date or the purpose of his appearance. But he stood at the curb in a waning Los Angeles beach evening (the hotel only a couple of miles from the water, at the east end of the airport), tall and stately in his dress uniform, alone, and so I walked up to him and introduced myself, and shook his hand. “General Bradley,” I said, “just wondering if I might say hello and shake your hand.” He shook my hand, and said, “of course.” “How are you, sir?” I asked. “I’m fine, thank you. It’s a lovely evening.” “Yes, sir.” His car (a small, chauffeured limo) by then had arrived at the curb and I opened the door for him and the car drove off. Not quite enough for a Rolling Stone article. Still, I was about to be drafted, but neither the prospect of my being drafted nor potential visceral evenings in Vietnam seemed to preclude a lovely evening in Los Angeles, then or since. Generals will always know more, and less, than their troops; reporters will always be most interested in what the generals knew they did not know.