Archive for November, 2011

“Arguably” by Christopher Hitchens: A Review

November 30, 2011

A couple of weeks ago I presented a review of Christopher Hitchens’s latest book, Arguably, at the Albany Public Library. The book is a collection of essays, many of them book reviews, and concerning mostly literary, political, and social commentary; and in typical Hitchens fashion, there is ample provocation in the book. (However, there is very little about religion.)

Doing my review was great fun, and I’m pleased to say the 30+ minute talk was well-attended and well-received. Since its length exceeds the norm for a blog posting, I have posted it at a separate website. You can find it by clicking here.

Still an Optimist? The BIG Picture

November 23, 2011

Rational optimism is not faith-based, but reality-based.

One of recent history’s great positive trends is the spread of democratic governance. Sure, there have been setbacks, human affairs are never linear, but the big picture has been increasing popular sovereignty. It’s a good thing. It would be good, in the abstract, even if it did not enhance quality of life; and some might say it doesn’t. But they forget that living in an open society, where one’s voice can be heard, and rule of law protects against arbitrary oppression, is itself important to quality of life. And I believe such a society is also ultimately better for material prosperity.

That latter claim might be challenged right now. Some would point to inequality. But just see what kind of equality dictatorship produces. However, democracy has run into a big glitch, with varying but related versions in the U.S. and Europe.

It’s the problem of liberalism.* It began, quite simply, when government started giving out money. Once on that slippery slope, there were powerful accelerators, and very weak brakes. People have found the cupboard is unlocked. Politicians have found it’s much easier to say yes than no; effectively, buying votes with money not their own. In addition, their votes are bought by every interest wanting something from government.

Those wants are usually bad for others; but no one is harmed in anywhere near the degree that the special interest benefits; so the special interest fights hard, and nobody else has sufficient motivation to fight back.

The acceleration heightened when tax-and-spend began to be supplanted by borrow-and-spend — anesthetizing taxpayers who seemingly didn’t even have to pay for the profligacy.

The upshots are playing out now — in the U.S., with our huge tax-versus-spending conflict, and in Europe, where they can no longer keep the bread and circuses going with borrowed money because lenders don’t want to be the stuckees (as lenders to Greece have already become).

Demographics will worsen it. In the developed world, population growth isn’t the problem, it’s population shrinkage (in most countries) and ageing (everywhere). The old model worked as long as there were plenty of productive workers to support non-workers. But, with declining birthrates and rising longevity, that ratio is souring.

Lenders realize this; it aggravates Europe’s debt crisis. America will follow if something drastic isn’t done about the looming gap between revenues from economic output and exploding Social Security and Medicare payouts. Voters seem clueless that unless they accept big retrenchments, the hit will be even bigger in the end. And no politician has the guts to bell this cat.

Boosting economic growth would help. It was strong growth in the postwar period that also helped make the old model work. But U.S. growth will lag, for some time, because 1) we’re still climbing out of a deep debt hole (which, nationally, is actually set to get deeper); 2) the housing bust/mortgage/foreclosure problem is not being solved; 3) high unemployment is becoming structural because too many people are simply no longer equipped to do the jobs needed; and 4) the looming future fiscal black hole, combined with political paralysis, makes for overall lousy economic weather.

Europe’s growth is crippled by the mentioned demographic crunch; the dire debt situation, which is forcing growth-killing fiscal austerity; plus sclerotic bureaucratized societies where red tape impedes starting and running businesses, and “social protections” for workers make it difficult and costly to fire them, so businesses are squeamish about hiring. And Europe’s voters are no more prescient about these things than U.S. voters; its politicians no more brave.

In their recent book, That Used To Be Us, Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum identify America’s challenges: the already mentioned fiscal imbalance; education; infrastructure; immigration reform; globalization; energy and climate change. For each area the authors have worthy prescriptions. But overshadowing them all is the issue of political dysfunction; and the role of politically powerful entrenched interests (e.g., education: the teachers’ unions). Our problems may indeed be solvable, which is why Friedman calls himself an optimist; yet realism makes me doubt we can summon the will to do any of the things he calls for.

The failure of the “supercommittee” is only the latest evidence; politicians cannot be expected to cut spending or raise taxes when voters won’t accept either. As David Brooks points out, the two parties are actually too weak to be brave. And even where voters do actually back reform, they can be bulldozed by implacable special interests like those teachers. So the U.S., too, seems to be getting sclerotic, with systems hardened in concrete, impervious to real change.

A really muscular and gutsy leader might conceivably be able to break through all this. But that’s practically a fantasy. (Obama is a wet noodle.) Meantime, we can already see, pretty much, the contents of the modern equivalent of Gibbons’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.**

(photo by Tajuddin)

So: wherefore my optimism? I am an optimist about humankind. I believe that human beings are far more good than bad, and that we are continuously getting better. That is the point of civilization: to civilize us: and, little by little, it’s working. And what we have done, in creating that civilization, rising up out of lives “nasty, brutish, and short,” is a stupendous achievement. The sources of that achievement – the human will for betterment, and the creativity to find the means for it – have not failed. Thus economic progress ultimately depends not on government but on human beings and their efforts to improve their lives. They will succeed in spite of governments.***

In the context of that really big picture, everything I’ve written about here is a mere blip. I remain confident that the great sweep of human history continues to be upward.

* “Liberalism” in its American, not classical, meaning. (Europe uses different language, e.g. “social democracy.”)

** Diocletian was a muscular and gutsy leader, who succeeded in reversing some of Rome’s pathologies; but only for a while.

*** Economic activity is exempt from the scleroticism of other institutions. That is the great virtue of the capitalist free market that so many demonize. Unlike in the realm of government and politics, business is acutely sensitive to changing exigencies, and consequently the business landscape is constantly in flux – just look at the rapid evolution in entertainment media. This is what economist Joseph Schumpeter famously called “creative destruction.”

Occupy Wall Street: The Endgame?

November 17, 2011

I am a strong believer in rule of law as a pillar of a free society. But, as I’ve also said (e.g., regarding Al-Awlaki’s killing), there are other valid concerns too.

Mayor Bloomberg, in ousting the Wall Street protesters from their encampment, was asserting the rule of law. The right to free expression does not include the right to live in a public park (preventing others from enjoying it; not to mention the other sorts of public nuisances the occupation entailed.)

Photo by Lucas Jackson, Reuters

We have the same issue here in Albany, with “occupiers” in a local park. The Governor wants to enforce curfew laws and evict them; but the local D.A., David Soares, doesn’t want to prosecute.

I am no fan of “Occupy Wall Street.” I don’t approve of dividing us between 99% and 1% or any other percentages, especially when the minority is deemed the enemy of the rest. The notion of “enemies of the people” has a foul historical odor that should make us cringe.

There’s also the idea that the rich get their wealth at the expense of the poor; that people who are struggling economically are struggling because a few have monopolized wealth. That is simply incorrect as an economic diagnosis.

And the idea that “profit” is a dirty word, that profits are a form of theft, and corporations make too much profit. (If so, how come my shares in big corporations have done so poorly?) “Corporation” may be a dirty word too – but if you think about it for two seconds, the vast bulk of what you buy from corporations you’re altogether happy to get, for what you pay. That is the essence of the “capitalism” the protesters denounce.

The Occupy movement casts itself as the mirror-image of the Tea Partiers, both manifestations of populist anger. But notice how different the two are in their modus operandi.

The Tea Partiers never “occupied” anything. Instead, they aimed their efforts directly at the political process, organizing as activist voters, supporting and opposing candidates according to their stances. They believed in America as a democracy. And certainly they gained considerable success, in the number of candidates elected, and the resulting impact on the course of events in Washington.

The “Occupy” movement, in contrast, seems to be engaged in an exercise in ‘sixties nostalgia, reprising the era of street protests. The absence here of actual political activity is striking – as though just demanding change can somehow make it happen, with nary a thought to what steps might be taken to actually achieve it. (Never mind the lack of clarity on just what changes they seek.) But I have the sense that (unlike the Tea Party), they don’t actually believe they can achieve anything.

Besides, if they did envision some alteration in corporate behavior, why not at least occupy a corporate headquarters (like their ‘60s forebears occupied campus administration buildings)? Or if there’s some legislative fix, why not occupy a capitol building? But no – they’ve occupied parks!

Today, it’s the stock exchange. Obvious symbolism, but this too seems misdirected. How is this kind of agitprop going to advance their goals (as the Tea Party’s political action did advance its goals)?

The "Bonus Army," 1932

But, for all I’ve said, I do not approve of what Mayor Bloomberg did, or Governor Cuomo’s stance. Their efforts to invoke small-beer legal provisions, using armed force, to thwart a mass political movement, seem un-American to me. The heavy-handed manner of the NYC police action, in the dead of night, trashing the protesters possessions, was a brutal evocation of the shameful 1932 assault on the “bonus army” encampment in Washington, DC.

Again, rule of law is important, but is not everything. Freedom of expression is also a vitally important value, and in balancing between the two, I would bend over backwards in favor of free expression, with great care to avoid repressing it. In cases like “Occupy” I would make every effort to work with the protesters to find a resolution that would enable them peaceably to do their thing. I would certainly strive to avoid action that might be seen as confirming the idea of an American ruling class oppressing and stifling the proletariat. That, indeed, is not the America I know and love.

Francis Fukuyama: Why Civilization Is not Going to Hell

November 12, 2011

Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 book, The End of History and the Last Man, taught me a lot about the world. In 1999, he authoredThe Great Disruption.

Francis Fukuyama

This refers to the current, and third, major discontinuity in humanity’s way of life. The first was the emergence of agriculture; second, the Industrial Revolution; and now, transition to a more highly technological, “information society.” Each entails social disruption. Fukuyama sought to assess those consequences of our current civilizational upheaval.

He recognizes a lot of the downsides, in terms of what he calls “social capital,” basically characterized by levels of trust, order, and moral values, all of which are put under stress by the alteration of past societal norms and verities. It is indeed easy for social critics to lament everything seemingly going to Hell. But Fukuyama firmly rejects what he considers such a one-sided view.

The book’s basic thesis is that while “the Great Disruption” is indeed destroying a lot of it, social capital is not something merely handed down to us by our forebears, that we can either conserve or expend as the case may be. Rather, human beings are biologically programmed as social animals, adept at creating ever new manifestations of social capital, in continual adaptation to the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

Thus, while Fukuyama recognizes some ways in which morality has seemingly been undermined by our third big transition, he doubts this actually represents a permanent degradation of human moral values. “Both nature and rationality,” he says, “ultimately support the development of the ordinary virtues like honesty, reliability, and reciprocity that constitute the basis for social capital.”

The rise of free market capitalism, in particular, is widely seen as destructive to social capital and morality – “everything reduced to money” and so forth. But here too Fukuyama stresses the other side of the coin, arguing (as did Adam Smith) that, in fact, market economics promotes ethical behavior and trust, because market participants can thrive best if they are perceived by others as ethical and trustworthy. (This is indeed crucial in my own business of dealing in rare coins.) I would add that the ultimate touchstone for what is good or bad in moral terms is human welfare; and market economics enables more people to improve their welfare by giving them the money to do it with. Poverty is not moral. That is the deep ethical dimension of a free market economy.*

Fukuyama also flatly rejects, as absurd, the idea that declining religiosity must mean a fall in morality. Human beings, he argues, actually derive moral values from other sources.

While religion is definitely in retreat in the West (especially in Europe, but even in the U.S. too), some might say that globally it’s not, and may even be surging (especially among Muslims). In any case, Fukuyama is right that there’s no correlation between religious belief and moral behavior.

Biblical morality: Abraham's child abuse of Isaac, by Caravaggio

This begs the question of what is meant by “moral”? Some think the Bible is the rulebook. But in fact, while the Bible is stuffed with rules, practically none have any arguable moral or ethical import. Whether you eat shellfish is not a moral issue; it’s merely a question of following some arbitrary rule in an archaic book which may or may not have once had some probably misconceived rationale. And, regarding the few Biblical directives that do concern real morality, most of them actually get it wrong. It is not moral to kill a child for speaking disrespectfully (Leviticus 20:9), or to kill homosexuals (Levit. 20:13), as the Bible commands. It is immoral. As is slavery, warmly endorsed in the Bible (Ephesians 6:5). God’s role in the story of Abraham and Isaac was monstrous. Much of what God commanded Israelites to do would today be labeled war crimes and genocide.

(And if morality comes from God, how does HE determine what’s right or wrong? If he has reasons, then those reasons would be enough to ground morality for us too, and God is merely redundant. If he has no reasons, and his morality is just arbitrary, what is the virtue in obeying it? We can do better.)

After a lifetime of pondering it, I believe that all of morality boils down to a single precept, with all else being corollaries. The precept is, harm nobody without just cause. To the extent the Bible teaches this (in a few isolated sentences, rare exceptions to its general barbarity) – fine. But we don’t need religion for this. It comes from our reasoning minds, and is actually wired into our brains by evolution.

* If you are sniggering here, “What? Capitalism makes us poorer,” you are woefully misinformed. Click here!

Altruism, Politics, and Class War

November 5, 2011

“Man is wolf to man,” the saying goes. It’s true, but far from the whole truth. There is another side to human nature which, in our everyday interactions, overwhelmingly predominates.

That is empathy, cooperativeness, and even altruism. Some skeptics query how such traits could have emerged through “selfish gene” evolution where individual survival to reproduce was the only thing that counted. This idea feeds the pessimistic, misanthropic view that people really serve only themselves.

But it’s incorrect. In our evolutionary past, individual survival was not all that counted. An “every man for himself” tribe would have fared worse than one with an ethos of cooperation and even self-sacrifice. More individuals in the latter tribe would survive to reproduce, so the genetic disposition for altruism would have spread throughout our gene pool.

This resulting deeply embedded altruistic instinct is so obvious in so many aspects of human life that enumeration would be banal. But the question arises: why don’t we see it in politics?

Of course, we do see it in political activity: people cooperating to organize, and selflessly giving time and money to causes — including advocacy of sacrifices for the common good. But what we don’t see is much willingness to actually make sacrifices for the common good. Millions volunteer in campaigns and contribute to candidates, and thousands demonstrate against Wall Street. But nobody seems willing to pay a cent more in tax or give up one iota of government-conferred benefit. (Indeed, the anti-Wall Street protesters call for sacrifice by others, but more benefits and subsidies for themselves.)

Why, for all the rhetoric about sacrifice, are so few willing to actually do it? A simple answer may be because they aren’t asked to, or aren’t properly asked. Instead, politics seems to proceed according to George Bernard Shaw’s dictum that “a government robbing Peter to pay Paul will always have the support of Paul.” So we become a nation of Pauls.

In other words, politics is dominated by appeals to selfishness rather than generosity, on the cynical assumption that, human nature being essentially selfish, that’s what works best. The assumption may not in fact be true; but nevertheless the proposition is so widely asserted that most people think it’s true, with the resulting baneful effect in politics. A candidate trying to buck it is dismissed as suicidally foolish.* This is what we get from the fundamentally pessimistic viewpoint I’ve tried so hard to combat.

But I believe there is a very deep well of altruism in the human heart that politics could tap, if only more people would actually believe it, and more political advocacy were targeted toward generosity rather than selfishness.

One might think that lefty politics, at least, would be steeped in altruism, with all the talk of social justice, compassion, and concern for the needy and downtrodden. But unfortunately this is undermined by admixture with large dollops of envy, resentment, and hostility. The talk of “social solidarity” applies to only a segment of society, not the whole, with a part being not only disincluded but denounced. They scoff at charges of class warfare, but what can you call it when one group is virtually deemed criminal enemies of the rest? It might be less consequential if the 1% demonized on behalf of the 99% were some insignificant population segment, like numismatists, who could be abused with impunity; but when it’s a 1% that holds a sizeable chunk of the nation’s wealth (and, inevitably, of power and influence) why, it’s practically a call for civil war.

We are told: “The rich are greedy bastards who got their lucre by ripping us off, so we are justified in demanding more from them.” The premise is basically untrue**; the conclusion reeks of rapacity***; and this attitude of contentiousness helps us not at all.

What if instead: “We have a problem, all of us, and we all must make sacrifices to solve it. We ask the rich to do what they can. If we all do this, we’ll all be better off in the end.”

Which approach is more likely conducive to the kind of politics we need?

Postscript: I note in New York recently a state worker union voted two-to-one for a contract imposing concessions, as a condition for averting layoffs of a small designated minority. The great majority voting yes were in no personal danger of layoff, but accepted the sacrifice for the benefit of others.

* We remember Mondale promising to raise taxes, and being crushed in 1984. But a) he failed to make a good case for higher taxes; b) as a “tax-and-spend” liberal poster boy, he had no credibility on the issue; and c) he lost for other reasons.

** Inequality is not a problem of the success of the rich; by and large, they don’t get wealth at the expense of the rest. The real problem is lack of success at the bottom – all the people who don’t even finish high school. Of course their incomes are low! That’s where we should work to reduce inequality – not by tearing down those who are successful.

*** I never understand how taking the earnings of some people and giving them to others constitutes social “justice” or any other kind.

Europe: Utopia’s End

November 1, 2011

Until today, I thought that break-up of the Euro, or the European Union itself, would happen when pigs fly. Now I hear wings flapping.

With the Greek crisis, we see the chickens of the much-vaunted “European social model” coming home to roost. Greece was just like the other main-line Euro nations, only more so: ever expanding state hand-outs and subsidies, bureaucratized over-regulation in the supposed name of social solidarity gumming up labor markets and hobbling economic growth, unwillingness to pay the taxes necessary to prop up this shaky system, and hence running up unsustainable debt. (If any of this rings an American bell, it should.)


The music stopped when the Greek government woke up to find it could no longer borrow by selling bonds (except at eye-watering interest rates) – because bond investors had woken up to Greece’s inability to repay. So Prime Minister Papandreou said the days of wine and roses were over. And the people said, “No! We won’t stand for it!” They would accept neither cuts in government profligacy nor higher taxes. And so they went into the streets violently protesting.

For months, the other Europeans, mainly the French and Germans, tried to bail Greece out with new loans to help it pay its old loans. Though the thrifty Germans in particular resented that they, with an (early) retirement age of 65, should pay so spendthrift Greeks could retire at 57.

Greek public opinion blamed the mess not on themselves, but on the bond market, for its unwillingness to throw good money after bad, and upon the other European nations – Germany, in particular! – that were bailing them out! As thanks for their pains, Germans are now hated in Greece.

And, like so many other Europeans (the French especially), the Greeks also hate the free market, and the whole idea of business and commerce. They think it’s grubby, vulgar, and immoral. They think the wealth they want redistributed falls down from the sky; they don’t understand the concept that it must be earned before it can be distributed. (Does this ring any bells too?)

Defending the indefensible in Athens (

And the bailouts weren’t even enough to keep Greece solvent. So the next step was last week’s deal, allowing Greece to pay only 50% of what it owed. The suckers who had lent to Greece would be screwed. Did the Greeks appreciate this gift? No, they went back into the streets to protest – effectively, against paying any of their debt.

The 50% nonpayment deal, finally, appeared likely to actually solve the problem. And to this point Papandreou had seemed almost a hero, trying to do the right thing in spite of literally violent opposition. But now, suddenly, he has declared that the deal will go to a referendum — in a couple of months – prolonging the agonizing uncertainty, at a minumum. And Greeks would almost certainly vote against the deal. Papandreou’s referendum move is just stupendously irresponsible, and potentially sets in motion not only Greece’s national economic suicide — expulsion from the Euro and maybe the European Union – but possibly the destruction of both altogether – not to mention the whole world economy. (Italy, with a good slug of Greek debt, burlesque Berlusconi holding the reins,  and wobbly even before this, could be the next and much bigger domino.)

Papandreou evidently pulled his referendum stunt to save the electoral prospects of his Pasok (socialist) party. Yes, even in this extreme Gotterdammerung situation, the jockeying for political advantage could not be put aside. One must ask, if this is the price Papandreou must pay to get re-elected, why would he want to keep his office and thereby preside over the resulting disaster? But meantime, Papandreou’s gambit has provoked an imminent parliamentary vote of no-confidence which, if it succeeds, will collapse his government, and going down with it, immediately, would be the recently agreed 50% deal – leaving Greece to just default willy-nilly on its debt – with the further consequences I’ve mentioned above.

What a horrorshow. And all because Greeks could not restrain their appetite for free lunches that of course, in the end, are never free.

I might have to change the name of this blog.