Archive for September, 2012

“The Sins of Civilization”

September 27, 2012

 I had to go hear Peter Heinegg on this topic. He’s a Union College Professor whom I previously heard speak about his book, The Case for Pessimism, a catalog of everything bad in life; I asked him, why not just kill yourself? His answer (quoted in my own book, The Case for Rational Optimism): “Squeeze the damn fruit till it’s dry – why would I throw it out before I’m finished?” So this nattering nabob of negativism found life worth living after all.

Heinegg’s latest opus is an indictment of civilization. His foundational premise: that human beings are just machines programmed only to advance selfish interests, with civilization the unfortunate result.

True, people try to get the most they can for themselves, all else equal. But all else is never equal, and human life is vastly more complicated than that. I keep pointing out that we evolved in groups in harsh environments, where social cooperation and even some altruism was vital for survival, and this also provides a key for understanding human behavior. We are engineered by evolution to care not just for ourselves, but for others too.

Heinegg proceeded to his numbered list of civilization’s crimes – what I call The Litany – a drearily familiar rehash, presented as if it’s some insightful new revelation. And while Heinegg did inject some flashes of humor, his hit parade of well-worn whines quickly palled.

One point, I’ll admit, resonated: meat eating = animal cruelty. I am frankly conflicted here. As Homer Simpson said, “If God didn’t want us to eat animals, why did he make them out of meat?” However, that doesn’t justify inflicting needless suffering on feeling creatures, which the meat industry does. But, as are most problems, it’s a complicated one.

Heinegg’s facile pot-shots at popular culture (TV a “vast wasteland” and so forth) reeked arrogant elitism, looking down his nose at proletarian pleasures. I may not share those tastes, but try to avoid such condescension. A preference for porn over Proust is at least understandable. And I’m mindful that through most of history, ordinary people led squalid lives unrelieved by entertainment of any sort.

Such lack of historical perspective pervaded Heinegg’s talk. While many points had some truth, missing was any recognition of improvement. Civilization is a work in progress, actually a relatively new phenomenon, and we’re still getting the kinks out. We are changing, a lot, and mostly for the better. (Read my book.)

Take population. Heinegg regurgitated the tired old trope of an overcrowded world with population out of control, even positing a basic human desire to have as many children as possible. What utter nonsense. In fact, as people become more prosperous, they prefer smaller families, and hence fertility rates have been plunging all over the world, with some countries now facing a population loss problem.

One questioner asked Heinegg whether, after all his talk of problems, he had any solutions. He answered that people should “wake up” and repent their sinful ways. How lame.

Life is complex and always about trade-offs. Rarely is anything purely good or bad. Civilization was an evolutionary development that certainly has entailed problems, but it began, and has flourished, for the very good reason that it has been spectacularly beneficial in improving quality of life for ever greater numbers of people.

Hence my own question: Please describe what life would be like for your listeners if civilization had never happened (on the unlikely assumption that they’d even have survived to their present mostly graying ages).

Heinegg conceded that, on balance, civilization is not a bad thing for human beings.

Thank you; the witness may step down.

Hugo Chavez: Vile Thug

September 24, 2012

With best buddy Khadafy

There are those who are duped into admiring (or making excuses for) Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez* because he blusters about anti-capitalism, anti-colonialism, anti-Americanism, socialism, and flaunts supposed concern for the poor. Of course, that gives him a free pass for what actually amounts to the worst sort of fascism and shredding of human rights.

The difference between “right wing” dictatorships and the left wing sort is mainly in the rhetoric; but the leftist ones are actually more dictatorial, in trying to control more of the economy.

Chavez first tried to seize control through a 1992 military coup, for which he was rightly jailed. Winning power in 1998, he keeps it by following the Dictator’s Handbook (which I’ve blogged about): enriching his cronies and followers at the expense of everyone else, while crushing opposition by rigging the constitution, suborning the courts, emasculating stroppy local governments, relentless propaganda and lies, shutting down noncompliant newspapers and TV stations, imprisoning opponents on phony charges, confiscating their property, and otherwise bullying them with plain old violence. All the while posturing a bleeding heart for the downtrodden masses.

During Chavez’s time in office, Venezuela garnered around a trillion dollars in oil revenues, but typical of “resource curse” countries where such wealth serves only to keep bad governments bad, has little to show for it. Its economic growth rate has been lower than for all the other major Latin American nations, and the lowest of all the OPEC countries (which of course includes other resource-curse nations).

With best buddy Assad

But what do you expect from “socialism” which, Chavez or “Bolivarian” style, actually means destroying a population’s wealth-producing capabilities by undermining private property rights and rule of law, and any chance to get ahead except by playing the regime’s dirty game, while replacing competitive industry with state control bent to political purposes?

A recent Associated Press report capsulizes the rest of the story: “soaring murder rates, inflation, crumbling infrastructure, and poor government services. Venezuela now ranks among the most violent and corrupt places on earth.” Chavez has also been caught shipping weapons to the Colombian guerilla movement, actually a drugs-and-kidnapping gang.

Chavez faces voters on October 7. His opponent is Henrique Capriles, who seems capable, smart, decent, articulate, and well-intentioned. Government controlled media has been smearing him, including a strong anti-Semitic appeal (Capriles is Catholic, but with holocaust survivor grandparents). Chavez has probably bought off enough support, and bamboozled enough, that despite wrecking Venezuela’s democracy, economy, institutions, and society, he may yet actually win a fair vote. Though one can well question the fairness of any vote in today’s Venezuela given the many roadblocks faced by the opposition campaign and the climate of intimidation.

With best buddy Ahmadinejad

But Chavez has previously declared that an opposition victory, ending his “socialist” project, will simply not be permitted. Will he follow the playbook of Iran’s Ahmadinejad — one of Chavez’s typically disgusting best buddies — who lost a re-election bid but held onto power by killing enough objectors?

* Including Hollywood types like Sean Penn, Kevin Spacey and Michael Moore, and the usual gaggle of academic and limousine lefties.

“Muslim Rage” and Enlightenment Values

September 22, 2012

Someone just commented on my 2008 post, The Enlightenment and its Critics, calling me arrogant for saying (“Western”) Enlightenment values are good for other, very different societies. This is a standard multi-culti trope, denying progress. But what’s really arrogant is believing enlightened Western values are good only for us enlightened Westerners, and not for those other benighted brown-skinned people over there.

So call me arrogant, but I do say Muslim societies would be better – for the Muslims in them – if they were more like ours. All this “Muslim Rage” happens because their existing social constructs aren’t working for them the way ours do. Europeans and Americans don’t burn embassies, basically because we lead more satisfying lives and aren’t so insecure that we feel humiliated or threatened by some stupid You-Tube video or cartoons. The violent response of Muslims who feel “dissed” mirrors that of the young street tough who feels dissed. Both are powerless nobodies and know it, defending their honor because, from their perspective, that’s all they’ve got. People whose place in the sun is secure don’t behave that way. (And, of course, nothing degrades Muslims as much as crazy violence.)

It’s no coincidence that Western nations, with “Western” values, are far richer not only materially but intellectually and socially than most Muslim societies, backward in every respect. It’s because they haven’t yet gotten “Western” values – like democracy, openness, competition, rule of law, pluralism – and freedom of expression.

These are what historian Niall Ferguson calls the “killer apps” of Western civilization, that have made us so phenomenally successful in providing good lives for most of our people. Some Muslims act as though it would pay for them to be protected against the insults coming from free expression. It would not. Freedom from insult carries a very high price, in intellectual stagnation. An open market in ideas is a key factor propelling the West to so much progress and human betterment than less open, and less open-minded, Muslim societies. I love living in the kind of dynamic society where my beliefs are insulted every day.

But Muslims are not doomed to forever stew in their self-emasculating backwardness. Western society was not born with our killer apps pre-installed. We had a long road groping our way toward them, with some stumbles along the way, like the odd world war. Only lately have we finally gotten into the groove. Muslim societies aren’t there yet, but they’re not congenitally handicapped; they’re on the road too, if only farther back. We were not straitjacketed by our feudal past, nor are they eternally stuck in their dysfunctional present. Societies change; and, in the grand sweep of history, for the better.

 In fact, in just the last few years, some Muslim societies have made a lot of progress. Tunisia had elections, won by secularists. So has Libya; and thousands there, bless them, have marched against Islamic extremism. In Egypt, an elected president is pushing back against the army. And the embassy burners are, after all, small minorities. They are yesterday’s men, fighting against a tomorrow they cannot stop – because even most Muslims realize that “Western” values are human values.

Romney Versus The 47%

September 19, 2012

I have previously criticized dividing Americans between a supposed 99% and the other 1%. Now we have Romney’s other 47%.

 Had he merely said SOME Americans pay no income tax and consider themselves victims, entitled to government taking care of their needs, with no personal responsibility, it would have arguably been a reasonable point; though actually few people fit that stereotype. But 47%?

True, around 47% don’t pay income tax (though they pay a lot of other taxes). But clearly it’s absurd to conflate that group with the much smaller moocher group.

I really hate the political catch-phrase “out of touch.” And the gotcha politics of “remarks.” But this Romney remark is out of touch.

Let’s be clear. Insofar as Romney was saying we have a problem with entitlement spending, he’s right. But it isn’t spending on the neediest. This very rich country can easily afford taking care of the disadvantaged. What we cannot afford is the welfare for the affluent.

So the problem isn’t with the 47% at all; it’s with the 53%!

But this is what you get with a political party already off the rails, beholden to religious fundamentalism (denying obvious realities like climate change and even evolution) and perverting a reasonable policy of minimizing taxes into a mindless intransigence — against any compromise despite half the country opposing them. As recently as four years ago, the party was still capable of nominating a sensible presidential candidate. But no longer.

Mitt Romney might actually have been such a candidate. But he seems to be suffering PTSD after running the gauntlet of the primaries, with the party’s reigning Torquemada wing literally beating his brains out.

The head of our local NPR station, Alan Chartock, in his usual conspiratorial-mindedness, thinks Romney’s 47% statement was actually a calculated ploy for a certain voting block. If only! Were Romney really that cunning, that would be ample reason to elect him. But the truth is that he spoke not with deep thought, but without thinking.

I had already given up on this election as lost, due to lack of a clear economic message. It’s not enough just to say Obama has failed; Romney has to explain why and how, and what needs to change. It’s not enough just to claim greater economic competence – especially while coming across as a bumbler. That might have been weathered had Romney actually articulated the bold and cogent economic message that so desperately needs to be heard. But now it’s probably too late.

 It’s tragic that the Republicans, trapped in their alternate universe, have failed to mount an incisive campaign against what is really a disastrous path the country is on. So now we’ll be condemned to four wasted years of Obama incapable of tackling our growing debt crisis (if he even wanted to, which he doesn’t). At least a Romney presidency might have been, if nothing else, a fresh start. (Especially with a Republican Congress, vesting full accountability in one party.)

Remember Ross Perot in 1992? He was a weird candidate with a shambolic third party campaign. Yet despite these handicaps, his message about the country’s unsustainable economic path really resonated, and he got a hefty 19% of the vote. Two decades later, the problem Perot was talking about is hugely worse. Just imagine if the Republicans had put aside their fetishes and fielded a grown-up candidate, treating voters as grown-ups, with a gutsy realist plan to save our economy from debt disaster, a plan that requires everyone to sacrifice something, because we just plain have to.

UPDATE October 5: Romney says his 47% statement was “just completely wrong.”

Reason Versus Emotion ?

September 13, 2012

Michael Riley was a British naval radar officer in the First Gulf War. He saw a blip that scared him, headed toward a U.S. battleship. Yet the radar profile seemed to match U.S. fighter planes he’d seen repeatedly. For forty seconds, he tracked it, trying to spot a difference, but couldn’t. He had to decide. “Shoot it down,” he ordered.

Riley was right: it was a missile.

Investigators reviewed the tapes, struggling to figure out Riley’s unexplained intuition. Eventually, they found the subtle clue in the timing of the blip’s first appearance on the radar screen.

Had Riley acted rationally?

I’ve mentioned how my wife twits me for supposedly believing in reason, when humans so often seem irrational. And a whole spate of books has shown, from a scientific standpoint, all the ways in which we make bad, irrational decisions and choices, because of specific quirks in how our minds work. (I recently read one, Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide.)

Plato saw reason and emotion as two horses pulling a chariot, with the charioteer struggling to make them work as a team. But while reasoned thought and emotional response are distinct mental modules that even operate in different brain areas, yet they do work together. For a normal person, they are so intertwined that it’s really a single combined process of mental functioning.

Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio studied people injured in specific brain localities responsible for emotion. They did become calm and emotionless. But not Spocklike paragons of rationality! In fact, their lives fell apart because they couldn’t make the simplest decisions. Because making any decision or choice entails serving some objective. That objective is supplied by emotion; indeed, it supplies the entire framework for everything we do. Remove emotion and we are not left rational, but adrift without meaning. Damasio’s patients didn’t even care that their lives fell apart.

And emotion is not the opposite of reason. It is a different form of it. When you experience the emotion of anger, it isn’t just something that happens to you; it happens for cause, and normally it’s a perfectly logical response to that cause. Emotion is always prompting us to serve and advance our needs and interests. Oh yes, it’s a crude tool, and frequently misfires. But in the big picture, emotions do an excellent job of steering us. Again, look what happened to Damasio’s patients without emotions.

The Riley and Damasio stories are discussed in Lehrer’s book. He also reports an experiment with fascinating implications:

Test subjects were given four decks of cards to pick from. Each card meant either winning or losing money. Two of the decks were overly loaded with losing cards. It took the average player fifty picks to start avoiding those “bad” decks, and eighty before he could say why. But here’s the stunning thing: after only ten picks, the player’s hand already showed signs of nervousness when reaching toward a “bad” deck.

In other words, a deep intuition figured out the game long before the conscious rational mind did. Michael Riley’s story is similar. Something in his brain spotted the signature of a missile, even though his conscious mind could not see it; and indeed, it was very hard even for the subsequent investigation to see it.

But isn’t this Rationality with a capital R? Wasn’t Riley’s unconscious intuitive mind being supremely rational? Wasn’t this true of the card pickers too? Their minds also reached a correct insight long before conscious thought could.*

This should not really surprise us. We evolved in a very challenging, threatening environment, which often required quick life-or-death decisions. We had to make those decisions as good as possible. Often there would not have been time to think them through with conscious rationality. That’s why we evolved the quick intuitive capabilities shown by Riley and the card pickers.

This also accounts for the thinking “defects” discussed in the books I’ve mentioned. A good example: when weighing potential gains and losses, we tend to overweight the risk of loss; a big cause of bad investment decisions. But it’s obvious why our brains are wired this way. For our caveman ancestors, a “negative outcome” might easily have been death, an excellent reason to be much more loss-averse than gain-hungry.

That particular vestige from our past probably does disserve us today, more often than not. But that’s only one of innumerable mental biases, decisional shortcuts which enable us to smoothly navigate through all the choices facing us continually throughout the day. If we had to analytically think our way through every decision, we couldn’t function. So even if some of those shortcuts sometimes work badly, in the ways the books say, as a package they serve us exceptionally well. And for us to utilize this package of intuitional, emotional mental shortcuts is therefore the height of rationality.

You might suppose that we humans are controlled less by instinct compared to other animals. But in fact, we have a far larger repertoire of instincts. That indeed is the depth of sophistication of our big brains; our range of complex behaviors not even requiring us to stop and think.

This doesn’t mean the prefrontal cortex – where conscious rational thinking occurs – is superfluous. To the contrary, it’s a great boon to have both systems, with the rational thinking module also far more developed than in any other creature. This means we are not slaves to our emotions and intuitions, but can take their benefits while also knowing – a lot of the time – when not to. Our best thinking is when we think about our thinking, to consider the reasons behind it, which enables us to revise it. Thusly using both systems together – reasoned thought and intuitive emotion – gives us much better results than would either alone.

All this is why I see humans as rational even when they’re not.

* Such intuitive decision-making is the subject of Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Blink.

Democrats and Disenfranchisement

September 12, 2012

Something happened at the Democratic convention that most seem to consider trivial or even, actually, downright funny. I’m not laughing.

Party powers-that-be decided they’d screwed up in forgetting to mention God and Jerusalem in the platform; so they scheduled a vote to fix it. A two-thirds majority was needed to change a platform already adopted. But delegates didn’t follow the script, and it seemed that more shouted “no” than “aye.” In consternation, Convention Chairman Antonio Villaraigosa called the vote a do-over. And when he got the same result, he tried a third time. And while the “no” votes still seemed the louder, he then simply announced that the required two-thirds had voted yes.

Ha ha.

In Iran’s 2009 presidential election, the ruling gang, clearly having lost, said, “We counted the votes, and our guy won.” That’s the Iranian version of democracy. The Soviet version. I didn’t think it was the American version.

And this is the party that calls itself “Democratic,” the party of voting rights, with “disenfranchisement” a favorite buzzword. This is the party that (wrongly, in my view) insisted Republicans “stole” the 2000 election. This is the party that (rightly, in my view) insists Republicans are using voter ID laws to disenfranchise people.

 But what do you call it when elected convention delegates, in a formal vote on official business, vote one way and the party falsely declares that the vote went (by two-thirds) the other way? I call that disenfranchisement. I call it a violation of democracy. I call it Orwellian and un-American.

Democratic convention speakers repeatedly accused Republicans of lying. But what do you call it when delegates vote one way and the party declares that the vote went the other way? I call that lying. And it’s not just a rhetorical lie. It’s a consequential lie, depriving people of a tangible right – perhaps the most sacred of all rights in this free country – the right to vote, and to have your vote properly counted.

I’m not laughing.

Reading Lolita in Tehran

September 8, 2012

Azar Nafisi, an Iranian educated in Oklahoma, taught English literature at Tehran universities. Or tried to. Eventually that became impossible, and devolved into a secret seminar in her apartment, with a selected group of female students meeting weekly to discuss literature free from the regime’s tentacles. Her book is Reading Lolita in Tehran.

Azar Nafisi

We Americans know Iran’s regime is oppressive, especially toward women. Or sort of know. In truth most of us haven’t the faintest idea. So acculturated are we to our version of “normal” human life that we instinctively imagine even a nation like Iran as more similar than different. It isn’t. It’s a totally bizarro inversion of our “normal,” and Nafisi’s book shows this.*

One story concerned a group of girls on a brief seaside vacation together. Relaxing on a verandah, it was literally invaded by one of the “morality police” goon squads. The girls, properly dressed and all, even under Iran’s suffocating rules, were doing nothing “wrong.” Nevertheless, trolling for people to mess with, the goons accused them of acting “Western” and hauled them off to jail, where they remained for forty-eight hours, subjected to repeated virginity exams. After trial, they were each given 25 lashes. But this was actually a comparatively benign outcome. Such stories could end in execution.

Iran’s true believers are obsessed with “morality” – and its supposed lack in the “decadent” West. It’s all about sexual morality. And sexually they are fubar. Male-female relations, compared to ours, are mostly a bitter human desert. They act as though men can’t handle a glimpse of female hair or skin. Of course, they may not have sex with anyone not their wives; but a “temporary marriage” of an hour with a prostitute solves that problem. And supposedly a girl dying a virgin goes straight to Heaven; so they solve that problem too before executing any girl. I guess in such cases even the sham marriage is dispensed with. (Is Allah fooled?)

Khomeini — the real “Great Satan”

This is not sexual morality but perversion, virulent and pervasive.

And of course sex is but a narrow sector of morality; what is conspicuously absent in Iran’s “morality” obsession is any concern for actual human well-being. That is the true alpha and omega of morality and Iran reflects its very antithesis. Nafisi nails it: “Lack of empathy was to my mind the central sin of the regime, from which all others flowed.”

The book also usefully recaps the 1979 events. After the Shah’s fall, there was a window in which Iran’s future was up for grabs. Most people wanted an open, secular, democratic constitution. So how did that majority lose out to Khomeini and his medieval vision? Violence. Sustained, unrestrained, brutal ultra-violence. Many thousands killed. And why not? After all, it was God’s work. That sanctifies any and all horrors. “Lack of empathy” indeed!

Say what you will about America’s religious fundamentalists and their political assertiveness, they don’t even think of shooting opponents, and that’s a very big difference. Non-violent politics is so ingrained in America (and other advanced democracies) that we’re oblivious to how utopian this actually is.


I recently wrote about Pakistan’s being fubar too, again mainly by religious fanaticism. The latest story involves a mentally handicapped Christian girl, Rimsha Misah (said to be 11, her age is disputed), accused of Koran burning. Imprisoned with hardened criminals, she has been granted bail, but still faces the death penalty; her family is in hiding; local Muslims want to burn them all alive. Their imam says he can’t control them. While a Muslim cleric (same guy??) has been charged with planting the burned pages on Rimsha. Meantime the body of a missing Christian boy, Samuel Yaqoob, also 11, has been found showing hideous torture. (You really don’t want to click on that link.) And in Pakistan, most women incarcerated are there for the crime of – get this — being raped.

Western culture is incomparably more moral than Iranian or Pakistani culture.

Reading a book like Nafisi’s always poses the question: why not just leave? But it’s never so simple. Is leaving – and leaving behind all those who can’t leave – a cop-out? In today’s Syria, thousands choose to stand and fight rather than give up and leave. But in Syria at least there is a fight going on. In Nafisi’s Iran, no fight was even possible, and staying literally risked death. Writers and intellectuals are regularly murdered by the regime. Yet she considered it her home, and agonized over the choice.**

In Nafisi’s discussions of literature; of her favorite authors Fitzgerald, Nabokov, Austen, James; the theme of choice looms large. It is through making choices for ourselves that we live our humanity. In the end, Azar Nafisi did make her choice.

Welcome to America.

* She mentions a student who visited abroad and was shocked by the sense of freedom she felt there. In Syria! Everything is relative. (I remember a group of U.S. peace activists, years ago, returned from confabs with Assad and Iranian officials, burbling how decent they seemed. What fools, I thought.)

** My grandfather similarly took his family out of 1930s Germany; but for them, the fortunate ability to leave was hardly a choice at all.

KISS Politics

September 4, 2012

I wish the Republicans’ message, at their convention, had been gutsier. It’s fine to condemn Obama’s approach as failing (it is), but how exactly would Republican policies differ? By providing only generalities they let Democrats scare voters with dark fantasies about the GOP “Day After.”

Take taxes. I think it’s nuts to be talking about tax cuts now. Republicans seem to do so out of habit. Since (contrary to the picture Democrats paint), the rich already pay far the lion’s share of all income tax, any tax cut has to be mostly a ”tax cut for the rich” – again handing the Democrats the brush and canvas to paint Republicans as caring only for the rich. But as I understand it, Republicans aren’t actually saying the rich should pay less. They want to reduce tax rates, but offset that with eliminating deductions and closing loopholes. That would be terrific. But absent any specificity, any willingness to touch politically sensitive deductions (which is all of them), it’s all just useless talk.

Republicans have a compelling straightforward case to make against Obama (see my “Nobama” post), so why crap it up with dubious stuff? Why give opponents a field day mocking Paul Ryan for lauding the Simpson-Bowles plan which he himself voted against? And pointing to a plant closing that actually occurred under Bush? Couldn’t they have found one that happened on Obama’s watch?

 But I’m too sophisticated a political observer – much unlike the swing voters who are really the targets for all this. The picture of the thoughtful independent voter carefully weighing issues is largely a myth. Each side has around 47% of likely voters committed, and what’s left are mostly those who don’t much care or pay attention, and who will vote, if at all, based not on studious analysis but gauzy feelings.

Thus the Republican convention embodied a certain political logic – KISS politics – Keep It Simple, Stupid. And of course Democrats are at least as guilty – “Republicans will take away your Medicare” – never mind how to pay for it. (We can’t.) And so forth.

 H.L. Mencken famously said nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public, and politicians seem to heed him. George W. Bush certainly did, using the KISS approach to sell the Iraq war, rather than lay out a nuanced, multi-pronged argument, which he could have. That instance of underestimating Americans’ intelligence came a cropper when the sole pillar of Bush’s KISS argument (WMD) fell down.

In politics, KISS does make sense if, again, the “American people” is seen as coming down to a small percentage of the least informed. The winning strategy is to hold your base and seduce just enough impressionable others. And this has gotten us into our cul-de-sac of partisan war and gridlock. It won’t end, one Washington Week panelist recently said, until one side or the other gains a final victory.

Indeed, from the 1930s through about 1968, we did not have such partisan bitterness and dysfunction because one side – establishment liberalism – was decisively dominant. Previous periods saw similar dominance by a prevailing political ethos. But since about 1968, two increasingly antagonistic camps have battled more or less evenly for dominance.

 It may be hard to see how either side can defeat the other once and for all. May be. But remember Harold Macmillan’s citing the salience in politics of “events, dear boy, events.” (What, you don’t remember?) In fact, we can’t go on like this for very much longer, because a gigantic storm cloud is gathering on the horizon – a cloud of debt.

Listening to their convention, it’s obvious that Democrats inhabit a parallel universe of clear blue skies (and where prosperity and good jobs are produced by, well, good intentions; certainly not by competitive companies earning profits). Republicans do see reality, and know what has to happen, but are squeamish about it.

I actually think that KISS politics is mistaken. That the American people – as a whole – are smart enough to understand what’s really at stake. They are gravely disserved by the political class’s lack of trust on this. I think there is a huge potential constituency for a “grand bargain” politics that tells the truth, and seeks responsibly to deal with the grave threats to the nation’s economic future, asking us all (especially the affluent majority) to make some sacrifices for the greater good. That this, indeed, could also potentially be the decisive coda to the current long era of political stalemate.

On this score, I frankly believe Romney and the Republicans have far the better story to tell. If only they had the courage to really tell it.

Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina

September 1, 2012

My wife and I went for a few days to Buenos Aires, visiting our daughter Elizabeth, who spent the summer (their winter!) working as an intern for an NGO. She was a great and gracious guide.


Argentine culture is distinguished by a number of ubiquitous elements. Monopolizing TV is an activity in which men in funny shorts try to kick a black-and-white round object. I never figured that out. I was also puzzled by the prevalence of Che Guevara images until I recalled that he was Argentine-born. Also frequently seen was Mafalda, a cartoon character resembling the Little Lulu of my childhood comics. And tango images.

Perhaps surprisingly in this electronic age, reading and literature appear very much alive and well in Buenos Aires, judging from the number of bookstores, and kiosks on practically every block selling newspapers and magazines as well as books. Writers are venerated far more than anywhere else I’ve seen, real cult figures; the premier one being Jorge Luis Borges, who was everywhere, despite being a DWM who wrote somewhat weird works and never got a Nobel Prize. There was a very nice Borges Cultural Center that we visited.

But they don’t read only their own writers. It was amazing to see the vast numbers of books that have been translated into Spanish. (How many books get translated into Arabic? A tiny trickle in comparison. This speaks volumes about the respective cultures.)


Buenos Aires also richly fed my connoisseur’s taste for political graffiti. Mostly left wing of course; classical liberalism has never gained much traction in Latin America, where “the right” generally means “military.” Many graffitos were neatly produced from stencils. One I appreciated said “Free Liu” with a string of Chinese characters. Another read “Tenemos Hambre Por Libertad.” (We are hungry for liberty.) At any rate, it was clear that freedom of expression is thriving.

And then – yes, above all other cultural features – Evita. Eva Peron, who died sixty years ago at 33 seems to occupy a place in the popular imagination, as a civic saint, without any parallel I can think of. This is actively promoted by the government, which is still dominated by the Peronist party.* The Presidential Palace itself is in part a shrine to Evita; and outside the Congress building one saw a series of surrealistic hagiographic Evita paintings, one of which features her spanking, over her knee, a naked child with the head of Lenin.

Elizabeth commented that Argentina feels like a country whose best days are behind it. Indeed, around a century ago, it stood far higher in the rankings of rich nations. Buenos Aires still has many tall buildings in Belle Epoque style, but also some shabbiness. Our hotel was very modern and nice, but the view from our window was seedy and rubbish-strewn. The country has long failed to get its economic act together, as exemplified by the impossibility of changing Argentine money into Dollars; an inflation problem for which the government’s main strategy is cooking the numbers; a paternalistic state sector tied in with labor unions; and a bad attitude toward free trade.

If you want the Argentine “full Monty,” Elizabeth has produced a super blog giving more extensive impressions of life there. Click here.

* Husband Juan Peron was president from 1946 till overthrown in a 1955 coup. As a kid collecting autographs in 1967 I wrote to him asking his view of the Argentine government. He replied that his exile in Spain was conditional on his political silence. Yet his letter nevertheless went on to a lengthy and blistering critique of Argentina’s politicians. In 1972, near 80, Peron returned triumphantly and was elected president again, but died soon after. Anyhow, I consider that his personal letter puts me within two degrees of separation from Evita.