Archive for March, 2013

Even in Africa

March 29, 2013

high horseWhen William Easterly reviewed Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist, he called “disturbing” Ridley’s use of the word “even” regarding Africa, as in saying something good is happening “even in Africa.” Easterly, from a politically correct high horse, sneered at Ridley as “equality challenged.”

Strange perhaps that Easterly himself authored a book titled The White Man’s Burden” !

That’s a cheap shot – but so was Easterly’s. The fact is that most of Africa for decades was obviously, er, “progress challenged,” a graveyard for dreams; so to say that a positive trend is visible “even in Africa” is entirely appropriate. Is it somehow anti-equality to recognize the reality of Africa’s problems?

This blog has long expressed great optimism about progress and the human future. So let me now add too: even in Africa.



When in 2010 I heard news that Cote D’Ivoire’s President Gbagbo, who had lost a (long-delayed) election, was refusing to accept the result, I said to myself, “Here we go again. How many lives will this cost?” The answer was several thousand. But in the end, Gbagbo did not get away with it, and is now a guest of the International Criminal Court awaiting trial. His successor, Alassane Ouattara, a former IMF economist, seems to be responsibly working to tackle the nation’s problems. This is the new Africa.

It is portrayed in an excellent recent survey by The Economist. After colonialism ended, much of Africa was plunged into a morass of incompetent and corrupt, rapacious government by venal dictators, who did what they did because they were pushing on an open door; i.e., civil society did not have its act together sufficiently to stop them. But that has been changing; the door is finally closing, as seen in Cote D’Ivoire, and in many other African countries. Democracy is very much on the rise, more and more elections are being held, more and more fairly, and one by one the dictators have been going; and with them, a lot of the conflict and violence that such rule tends to propagate.

Even (that word again) in places like Sudan, Congo, Angola, and Somalia, no pillars of democracy, violent conflict has been ebbing. Somalia is beginning to rebuild itself as a functioning nation. Sudan’s split into two countries, I had feared, would spark a new war, especially over contested oil resources. But that situation too seems to be calming down.

UnknownAfrica has also seen a lot of material progress, with rising economic growth and incomes, falling poverty, more education, sanitation and better health, and a growing middle class. Real income per person rose over 30% in the last decade (compared to a 10% fall in the two before it). Opinion polls show almost two-thirds of Africans think this year will be better than last. (Only a third of Europeans do.)

This is an obvious consequence of reduced violence, and mainly reflects the overall better quality of governance that democratic politics brings, with officials accountable to voters. A key factor is the general abandonment of socialist and statist economic approaches in favor of more market-oriented, trade-oriented, and investment-oriented policies. It was a hard lesson to learn, but it’s finally being learned in Africa. (In this, Africans may be ahead of those advanced sophisticates in Europe.)

Unknown-2Such changes don’t “just happen.” There are great historical forces in play. The problems that befell post-colonial Africa entailed the basest elements of human nature, with the ascendancy of the worst people. Conversely, the turn-around reflects the efforts of that other and vastly greater segment of humanity, motivated to improve quality of life not only for themselves but for their fellows. Ultimately, that force is the more powerful, and must prevail.

Even in Africa.

New Pope Frankie

March 24, 2013

imagesSo, 520 years after the discovery of the New World, the Catholic Church finally gets around to choosing a Western hemisphere pope. (Not bad for an institution that took over 300 years to actually admit the Earth goes around the Sun.) A bit of marketing to perk up a tired old brand? (Of course, he’s still an Italian by ancestry.)

The very first thing I heard about him was that he believes globalization damages the poor. Such belief is indeed an article of faith for the anti-capitalist left. It’s just one of many articles of faith that defy reality. In fact globalization has been a tremendous force lifting a billion people out of poverty.

Well, even if he’s economically clueless, at least it’s nice that he wants to help the poor and oppressed. But it seems he was pretty quiet, as a leading churchman, during the ‘70s Argentine “dirty war” in which politically inconvenient people were tortured and thrown from airplanes into the sea.

Cartoon by Danziger

Cartoon by Danziger

And let’s see how well this new guy deals with the ongoing problem of priestly pedophiles and their enablers. While the violation of children is disgusting enough, what always particularly struck me is this: surely any priest who molests children cannot possibly truly believe the fundamental tenets of the faith he professes to serve. So they are not just predators and rapists but frauds besides. Given this, it’s even more disgusting that they’re protected by higher-ups — who must likewise be frauds, traducing the faith they too claim to hold. So much for the idea of a God that sees all and punishes sin, with eternal roasting. Maybe the only ones who actually believe it are the poor schnooks in the pews.

And then there’s the scandal you don’t even know about: the huge Vatican bank scandal.

Another thing: all those who consider themselves good Catholics while rejecting key church teachings. Fine to reject such bosh, but a religion is not a mere label, it’s a set of beliefs, and if you don’t believe Catholic doctrine, maybe you can still be a Christian, but not a Catholic. According to its rules, Catholicism is what the Pope says it is. Admittedly, some of what popes say doesn’t make much sense. The whole celibate male-only priesthood thing, for example, is nowhere prescribed in the Bible, and actually just reflects some archaic fetishistic meshugass incompatible with the modern world. Pope Francis says it’s not doctrine but discipline. As if it makes priests better people. I don’t think so — and nor do all those scarred by the resulting priestly buggery. Changing this “discipline” would not destroy Catholicism; might just help save it.

Then there’s the birth control ban, again actually extra-Biblical, and reflecting a tortured casuistical twisting of ancient ideas that were barbarous to begin with. More unnecessary craziness that damages the church.

But here I am, violating one of my own basic principles: that in matters of religion, logic and reason cannot apply.

My New Book – Angels and Pinheads

March 21, 2013

cover copyMy new book is Angels and Pinheads: A Guide to Which is Which and What’s What. In 226 pages it packs 146 entertaining and provocative essays, commentaries, book reviews, etc., on a wide range of topics, skewering numerous sacred cows; the kinds of things you shouldn’t discuss at Thanksgiving dinner lest you wind up with gravy and mashed potatoes in your face.

The entries are selected as the best from this blog. Of course you can read them here, but the book provides a handy little package that you can enjoy at the beach or in the john.

It’s published by Verity Press International at just $9.95. For more information and ordering details, click here.

Why I am an Optimist

March 17, 2013

images-1You know the indictment of humanity: killing and raping each other and the planet. We’re not angels. Indeed, we are animals, and some pessimists actually compare us unfavorably against other, “innocent” creatures. But in the natural realm, from which we arose, morality does not even figure. That considered, we have not in fact done badly, building a world with some justice, kindness, and virtue.

Great Britain was once the world’s top slave trading nation. This was extremely profitable, but Britons came to realize it was morally vile. John Newton, a slave ship captain who repented, wrote Amazing Grace: “I was blind but now I see.” And, seeing, the nation outlawed slavery.

Such moral feeling is not just some superficial veneer painted over our animal nature. While evolution did give us all the nasty traits pessimists harp on, it also instilled social cooperation and even altruism, because that too was needed for our ancestors to survive. That was the foundation of civilization. And while we’re certainly capable of evil, that’s not what really matters. What counts most is what we actually do, in ordinary everyday life, and most of us behave, most of the time, with decency, honesty, and compassion.

Some religions tell us we’re sinners, promoting shame and guilt about natural human feelings; but we are growing beyond this, to arrive at a healthier, more rational, more life-affirming view of ourselves. We are entitled to happiness without a burden of unearned guilt. We do good deeds not from grim duty but from generous free choice. We find meaning through positive efforts, through love, and by using our creative gifts. We take responsibility for ourselves and our actions, making judgments and choices, between truth and falsity, good and bad. This is freedom: we are moral beings with the power to choose.

We’re perennially plagued by utopian idealism, dissatisfied with Man and his world, intent on remaking them. Always after much pain and blood this fails. Yet all the while, we individual human beings, from our own personal strivings, are continuously remaking ourselves. And thusly is the world too remade, in ways the utopian battalions never can imagine. No vast bludgeonings are required. Just let people be, and a new day comes.

UnknownThus, while the past century was full of horrors, its far bigger story was of astonishing human gains. Worldwide average life spans more than doubled and incomes grew fivefold. People are living longer, healthier, and better. There is less poverty and hunger, more sanitation, less pain and disease, more education and literacy. Now, at long last, ordinary people in their billions are able to not merely survive but actually enjoy life. And this all occurred while population rose at unprecedented rates. The explanation is that adding people doesn’t add just mouths to feed, but also hands to work and minds to create, and most people produce more than they consume.

Knowledge, science, and technology are crucial. Population has not outrun the food supply because farming advances made the opposite occur. Our working hands and minds become ever more productive. That spreads wealth and raises living standards, widening our choices and ability to control our lives. It’s a virtuous circle. More prosperity impels people to insist on more democracy. More democracy means less war. As Francis Fukuyama wrote, democratic life and free markets allow people to finally satisfy the age-old human hunger for recognition and self-worth, reducing conflict. Less war means yet more affluence, which in turn slows population growth and enables more education. More education and knowledge means yet more technological advancement and spreading prosperity. Society grows not only richer, but more open, tolerant, humane, and fair.

The German philosopher Hegel said that history shows rationality and freedom on the ascent. It’s remarkable he could see this two centuries ago; even more remarkable that some deny it today, when it’s so much more evident. Progress is not some mystical force pushing us forward, it’s driven by our own efforts. It’s no coincidence that modernity has seen explosive growth in human understanding, and at the same time huge improvements in the human condition.

It is true that all our gains have a cost; there’s no free lunch, hence our environmental challenges. But increasing knowledge equips us to cope with them too. And never forget that this is the unavoidable price for the lives we enjoy. We could never have risen from the caves while leaving the planet unspoiled. Humanity’s central story is our battle with that environment, to overcome its limitations. Our achievement has been stupendous. Be proud of it.

imagesWe arrived here as naked animals, starting with nothing, daring to quest for the great prize of knowledge. By toil and tears, we are getting it. And we are using it to improve the world. Today’s is the best ever; tomorrow’s will be better still.

Trust, Honesty, and China

March 12, 2013

imagesSo, China is going to eat our economic lunch and dominate the globe? True enough, China has much going for it, mainly hugeness, but also what’s really the world’s most unrestrained free market capitalism (the non-state-owned sector, that is). But not so fast. One element that helped make capitalism so successful in the West seems distinctly weak in China. That is an ethos of trust and honesty.

Sneer cynically if you like, but the fact is that commerce could hardly function at all without a basic level of trust and honesty among participants, and its lack is punished by the market. That’s certainly illustrated in my own business of trading in coins. In dealer-to-dealer trade, especially where authenticity of merchandise is an issue, trust is extremely important. A sleazy dealer soon gets a rep, and weeded out. And we keep each other informed about untrustworthy customers too. They’re actually rare. I send nearly all my orders in advance of payment, with only a tiny percentage of problems. Businesses don’t thrive in the long run by ripping people off, but by catering to their needs. This ethos is embedded in our DNA. In the West, at least.

images-1The Economist recently reported on Yale’s baleful experience setting up shop in China. Now, of course cheating is a real problem in American schools. But it seems Chinese students carried it to a whole new level. Most were literally amoral: getting ahead was all that counted, and the means didn’t matter. Thus plagiarism, for example, was endemic. And an essay by NPR’s Louisa Lim, in the Times Book Review, made a similar point about Chinese culture with regard to how government operates at all levels, with pervasive corruption, bribery being central to the Chinese way of life.

Recently too we learned of the Chinese government’s large scale cyber hacking operation, stealing sensitive information from foreign businesses. Now, Western companies are not all angels, and corporate espionage does happen. But for the government to create a whole bureaucracy to do it?

Cartoon by Dave Granlund

Cartoon by Dave Granlund

And, when caught out, to simply brazenly lie? All this bespeaks a mentality very different from ours.

Columnist David Brooks has observed that it reflects China’s seeing world economic competition as akin to war, with deceit and skullduggery being natural weapons. However, Westerners would regard this as self-defeating, because it destroys the trust that lubricates free exchange. But Brooks fears what he calls a “brutality cascade” in which the rules of the game tend to become those of the most ruthless player.

Yet, he says, there’s another path: strive to establish norms of legitimacy upheld by the broadest possible coalition, isolate the violators, and make it clear that joining the “friendship circle” pays great benefits while staying outside will prove costly.

I want to be clear that not all Chinese are amoral. I’ve done business with many good people there. But it’s obvious that there’s an important cultural difference, that I believe will handicap China in building its world economic role. Dishonesty and corruption creates a foundation of sand for an economy. If China wants to become the global economic kingpin, it will have to grow up and become a responsible adult.

As Chinese author Wang Xiaofang has written, quoted in the Times essay, “The habit of falsehood is fatal to a culture. But to us, falsehood is the essence.”

No Fan of “A Fan’s Notes”

March 6, 2013

UnknownA Fan’s Notes is Frederick Exley’s famous 1968 “novel.” I finally read it because it keeps appearing atop all those “best books” lists. I don’t see why.

It’s a memoir cloaked as fiction. Partly it concerns Exley’s football fandom, particularly an obsession with his ex-classmate Frank Gifford.

But mainly it’s a drunk memoir. Yes, yet another drunk memoir. Reading the Times Sunday Book Review, I keep asking myself, how many substance abuse memoirs must we endure? Didn’t Malcolm Lowry and William Burroughs, among others, cover that territory quite adequately? Yet it seems there’s a new one every darn week, which the Times remorselessly deems worthy of sober attention. Similarly prolific are the bad parent memoirs. Some even combine the two genres (vide Domenica Ruta’s new book, With or Without You). Do we never tire of reading about drunks, addicts, and lousy childhoods? Is it schadenfreude?

While Exley offers his book as fiction, it actually follows his own life pretty closely, in all its yucky glory. Yes, the writing is quite droll, occasionally piquant and amusing, sometimes “searing” or “gut-wrenching,” the usual type of adjectives applied to such books, but in the end it’s just another drunk memoir. And given what a thorough and thoroughly useless drunk Exley actually was, the only edifying thing about the book is the bare fact that someone leading so disorderly a life was able to get it written, and published.

The later Exley

The later Exley

One could possibly read it as a morality tale – this is how not to live. The downside is certainly vivid here. And yet the narrator seems to be having more fun than suffering. Even thrown in the insane asylum, even while undergoing insulin shock and electroshock treatments – sometimes simultaneously – he still basically seems to be enjoying himself.

Also, considering what a full-time drunk Exley was, his life was quite successful, in its way. It’s amazing how many jobs he was actually able to land, and how many people willingly catered to his fecklessness, how many folks’ couches he was able to literally domicile on.

And then there’s the sex. Even when Exley is drowning in drink, living on someone else’s sofa, unshaven and unbathed, he’s still getting chicks galore. And not ones the cat dragged in, mind you. imagesOne time, he has awesome sex with an awesome beauty, who insists he write down her address and phone number. What was his appeal? I guess you had to be there. But afterwards, so cocksure is he about his ability to repeat such conquests at will that he ostentatiously crumples and throws away the paper. This he later regrets, horribly; but of course horrible regret does go with the territory.

To be sure, the book is not given under oath, and presumably the sex escapades are somewhat fantasized. Still, these aspects of the novel, and others too, serve to glamorize the life. For all the offsetting awfulness, Exley seems to be saying he was really living – in contrast to the drab semi-existence all us normal dopes experience (derisively portrayed by the author). Thus it’s a subversive book (not in a good way).

One might imagine that achieving, in spite of everything, serious literary acclaim, would have made some difference in Fred Exley’s life. It did not. He was not detoured from his true vocation: booze. He continued exactly as before. Exley managed to survive another quarter century of this, dying at 63 after congestive heart failure and a couple of strokes. His further literary efforts were feeble failures (probably because they were, typically, not efforts at all).

Unknown-2My main reaction to this book was: what a waste. Because, as my previous comments indicate, to have negotiated through life, and loves, not to mention publishing’s shark pool, as Exley managed to do, all the while saturated in alcohol, must have taken some prodigious talents and resourcefulness. Just imagine if such talents had been put to better use.


March 3, 2013

UnknownI propose that the United States Constitution be amended to add the following provision:

“It shall be the duty of every citizen to develop the scientific temper, humanism, and the spirit of inquiry and reform.”


Now, you may say I’m a dreamer. But I’m not the only one.

In fact, these exact words are already included in the Constitution – of INDIA! (Section 51A(h))