Archive for January, 2014

George F. Kennan: Grumpy Old Man

January 31, 2014

UnknownGeorge F. Kennan (1905-2006) was considered one of our great wise men. A diplomat, he was a key architect of the cold war “containment policy” toward the Soviet Union. Because of his godlike repute, I picked up his 1993 book, Around the Cragged Hill, not a memoir but a volume of reflections. It was disappointing.

It’s written in an arch, portentous style, which perhaps he felt flattered his stature. It’s the style of “why use two words if four will do?”

And Kennan was the quintessential curmudgeon. I was reminded of one of my first blog posts, reviewing a book by Daniel Boorstin. images-1Like Boorstin, Kennan seemed to hate virtually everything about modern life – round up the usual suspects – the television, the car, urbanization. He hated the car for promoting suburban sprawl, yet he also hated so many people living in cities, and actually advocated trying to move them back to farms – even if that reduced farm efficiency. (We can feed ourselves with less than 2% of the population in agriculture). Unknown-1Kennan romanticized the farm life, but was himself a citified intellectual who wouldn’t want to live it. (You know the type.)

The basic problem is a failure to see the larger picture. Yes, everything about modernity has drawbacks, but also compensations. Life is all about trade-offs. I keep pointing to a 30,000 annual U.S. highway death toll – which, bizarrely, Kennan’s anti-car diatribe failed to mention! Yet we as a society evidently consider this a price worth paying for cars’ huge benefits. That’s not completely crazy.

Similarly myopic was Kennan’s view of automation as a job killer plain and simple. He opposed boosting productivity by replacing human labor with robots, etc., because, after all, people gotta have jobs. imagesSuch Luddism is again blind to the bigger picture, imagining a world full of factories spewing out products without employing anyone, so everyone starves. The absurdity, of course, is who would buy the products? It never plays out this way. Just as improved agricultural productivity freed the masses from farm drudgery, so they could be employed producing other things, thereby enriching everybody, improved industrial productivity likewise frees people to fill other needs, again multiplying societal wealth. That’s why global living standards rose five-fold in the last century.

Kennan was also down on immigration. His argument: poverty among nations, like water, will find an equilibrium level, so absent restriction, poor countries will export poverty to richer ones until all have equal poverty. images-2What’s wrong with that argument? Simply that there are reasons why Americans are richer than Haitians; America has a societal culture and infrastructure much more conducive to people being productive and thereby able to achieve higher living standards. Immigrants from Haiti don’t bring America down to Haitian levels; they raise themselves to American levels. More people being more productive in America, ceteris paribus, spreads wealth, not poverty.

The book ends with a run-down of America’s problems, proposing a “State Council” of distinguished Americans to make recommendations. As if that could actually solve anything. The proposal followed some lamentations that wise old-timers like him don’t get listened to enough. Which — judging from the content of this book — may be a good thing.

But there was at least one point in the book I agreed with. That will be a separate post, soon.

Momma’s Boy: “Elsewhere” by Richard Russo

January 26, 2014

UnknownRichard Russo is a novelist, author of Nobody’s Fool, Empire Falls, and other major works. Elsewhere is a memoir. He should have called it Momma’s Boy.

Russo’s actual title is a backhanded reference to his childhood home town, Gloversville, NY, which figures prominently in the book — “elsewhere” is where he’d much rather be. But the book is mainly centered upon Russo’s mother, Jean. As indeed was he, for most of his life.

Jean worked for GE; though we’re never told precisely what her job was, it was apparently a good one, making her that ‘50s-60s rara avis, a career girl. images-4Russo mentions several times her picture in a slick GE magazine — the epitome of a stylish woman.

Russo’s father, a feckless gambler and boozer, jumped ship early. But Russo kept some contact with him, and eventually he relates that, about age 21, his dad told him, “You know your mother is nuts, right?” It was meant literally, and Russo did know, though it was a shock to confront the truth so bluntly. Yet Russo continued to treat his deeply involved relationship with Jean as the most natural thing in the world.

Their fateful Rubicon was a cross-country trip Russo made, to go to college, in Arizona — with Jean deciding to come along, making it their joint escape from hated Gloversville. She said, and maybe believed, a job was awaiting her at an Arizona GE facility. Not so; and that was when Russo began to realize his mom was “off-kilter.”

images-3But for the next four decades Russo was a B’rer Rabbit stuck to the tar baby of Jean and her idiosyncrasies — though he seemed oddly quite fine with it. This didn’t change with his young marriage to Barbara. There were really, as Princess Di famously said of her own situation, three in the marriage. images-5The book tells us very little about Barbara (which itself is telling), but she must have been either a saint or a masochist to put up with the supervening role that Jean, and Jean’s issues, played in their lives.

A particular torture was finding apartments for Jean, because so many it can’t be this and it can’t be thats did she posit that rare indeed was the apartment she’d agree to occupy. So Russo spent a major chunk of his life apartment hunting for his mother. And even seemingly perfect ones usually wouldn’t work out. And then, when at long last, he’s actually managed to get Jean well settled in a place she likes — he decides, for not very compelling reasons, to move the family. I was thinking, “This is nuts.” (As did Russo himself, before long.)

Richard Russo

Richard Russo

But “this is nuts” was a recurring thought of mine throughout the book. My own relationship with my parents (and, indeed, with my daughter) was/is frankly toward the other end of the spectrum. At least I haven’t had the kind of intergenerational conflicts that afflict so many people; but nor the depth of intimacy in Elsewhere. Only with my wife do I have such a close relationship. But maybe this is not exactly “normal” either. And while I was contrasting Russo’s situation against my own, I tried to refrain from judging his as bad or wrong. Russo didn’t see it that way, and after all it was his his life, which he actually seemed to find rewarding in a way, and missed when that aspect of it ended.

After Jean’s death, Russo’s daughter has a bout of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder; and when he reads up on it, he realizes that’s what Jean had too. And that he had handled it the wrong way, as an enabler, rather than trying to get her proper treatment. His retrospective feelings about his mother become mixed with guilt.

Only once, toward the end, does he ever say he loved her. But “love” is too simple a word anyway. Our connections with other people are tangled with complexities, and that’s what our lives are really all about. images-6In Richard Russo’s case, the focus of all that was his mother; that’s what his life was mainly about. It may not be exactly the kind of life that you or I would wish to live, but we’re not him, and his was, for all its seeming weirdness, a quintessentially human life and, in its way, a rich one.

Egypt, and the Future of Democracy

January 21, 2014

UnknownEgypt’s new constitution was approved last week by a 98% vote. When a vote is 98%, you know it ain’t democracy. In this case, no opposition campaign was even permitted; people were arrested just for hanging signs.

The result was nevertheless called plausible because most Egyptians are fed up with the turmoil introduced by the 2011 revolution. Yet only 38.6% turned out to vote. Meantime, that civic exhaustion is making the army chief, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, a popular hero for cracking down, and a shoo-in for the coming presidential election.

I endorsed the July coup, ousting President Morsi, because his undemocratic behavior seemed to legitimate it. But I expressed concern lest his successors emulate Morsi – that instead of working to ameliorate divisions in Egyptian society, they’d exacerbate conflict by trying to annihilate the Islamists. And so they have.

images-1We’ve seen this movie before – The Empire Strikes Back – the return of the so-called “deep state” – the military, the police, all the elements accustomed to control by force, together with all their powerful and corrupt economic cronies. The 2011 revolution seemed to shake this “deep state.” But it recovered its mojo and it’s back.

Presidential spokesman Ehab Badawi called last week’s constitutional referendum a vote “for a better economy, for social justice, for new legal protections expanding human dignity and liberty,” and “the dawning of a new Egypt.”

El-Sissi

El-Sissi

Mubarak

Mubarak

Orwellian verbiage if I ever heard it. The reality is precisely the opposite. Not the dawning of a new Egypt, but a fall back to the old one. Amid all this palaver about human dignity and liberty, it’s not just Muslim Brothers who’ve been rounded up and jailed, but also legions of the democracy and human rights advocates who were the vanguard of the Tahrir Square revolution, and the press is less free than ever too. When Senators Graham and McCain met with el-Sissi after the coup, they reported him intoxicated by power. Electing him president will reprise Mubarak and his stifling regime.

*     *     *

But Egypt is not the only case of democracy in trouble.

images-2Bangladesh is a sorry mess, its politics for decades poisoned by a vendetta between two venal widows of former leaders (the “battling begums,” they’re called); the army tried stepping in, but only made things worse; now the civilian government of one of the begums has been dubiously re-elected after a vote boycott by the opposition, and seems bent on entrenching itself in (mis)government forever.

In Ukraine the citizenry struggles desperately against President Yanukovych intent on replicating Putin’s Russia.

I’ve written about Sri Lanka, whose President Rajapaksa finally defeated a long-running insurgency, but instead of building on this for national reconciliation, is gutting the nation’s democracy to cement control by his band of brothers.

images-4And I’ve written about Thailand, where Yingluck Shinawatra (no would-be tyrant, it seems) won a fair and decisive election victory; but the opposition “Democrats” (actually anti-democrats) refuse to accept it, and have been destabilizing the country, seeking in effect a minority dictatorship. To resolve this, Yingluck has called an early election – which the “Democrats” are boycotting (because they’d lose again).

It’s been my gospel that, in the big picture, the world has been undergoing a democratic revolution; that while nothing in human affairs is ever linear, notwithstanding zigs and zags democracy is rising because it addresses fundamental human yearnings (see my initial comments on Egypt’s 2011 revolution). But admittedly we’re seeing lately more zigs than zags. Egypt, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Ukraine – and there are others – together with the ostensible flourishing of authoritarianism in Russia and China – and its stubborn persistence in still other places like Cuba – all might seem to make my gospel as wishful as belief in Heaven.

Unknown-1Perhaps in truth the great wave of democratic progress, in the latter part of the 20th century, represented a harvest of “low hanging fruit;” in societies where (using a related metaphor) the soil was fertile for democratic seeds to take root; whereas the places singled out above are the tougher cases, with stonier soil.

A couple of threads run through all of them. The will to power is of course very strong; even stronger is the will to retain power once gained. Fettering that human ambition is a key challenge for any democratic system (as the writers of The Federalist recognized). And it’s very hard to do where civil society is weak. That’s true in Egypt, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, where democratic consciousness is not sufficiently developed to be able to thwart illegitimate power. Ukraine hangs in the balance on this. images-3A similar story is Venezuela, which couldn’t keep Chavez from shredding its democracy. Of course, he was originally elected, which points up another problem: where democracy is not mature, voters are too often suckered by the likes of Chavez, Yanukovych,  the begums, and el-Sissi.

Another factor is an ethos of pluralism. This means accepting that elements of society other than your own have a legitimate role to play, a right to participate in governance, and even to wield power if acquired through fair process. For all America’s partisan divisions, it would be unthinkable for election losers to go into the streets to overturn the result. We take that for granted; but such is exactly what Thailand’s election losers are doing. They don’t share our ethos of pluralism. The same is true of other nations I’ve discussed. This is particularly a problem in Arab countries like Egypt: a refusal to accept that segments of society other than one’s own have a legitimate role that must be respected and accommodated.

Unknown-3If that sounds childish, in fact it is. But people outgrow their childish traits, and most of us become mature adults. The world is still divided between childish and mature societies. But the former will, in time, grow up too.

Benjamin Franklin: Reason versus Romanticism

January 17, 2014

UnknownToday is Benjamin Franklin’s birthday.

Impressed by Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs bio, I thought I’d read his Benjamin Franklin – though familiar enough with the subject that another immersion might have seemed redundant. Not so.

Franklin was actually at one time the world’s most famous scientist. We all know the kite story. I’d recently read somewhere that it’s a myth; that Franklin wrote hypothetically about it but never actually tried it. Isaacson convincingly puts that to rest. Franklin was not an armchair theorist but a “hands on” scientist who loved tinkering and experimenting.

Painting by Benjamin West

Painting by Benjamin West

And the kite experiment was in fact very important, as it changed our understanding about electricity. Its immediate practical application was the lightning rod, a huge boon to mankind that made Franklin a global hero. But, more significant, as Isaacson explains, electricity was a curiosity when Franklin came to it; he left it a science.

This would have been enough to immortalize anyone. But Franklin was also a prolific writer – Isaacson says he was the best in the colonies. He also served as postmaster for them all, cutting a letter’s delivery time between New York and Philadelphia to one day (!). imagesAnd somehow Franklin also found time to spearhead foundation of America’s first lending library; a volunteer fire-fighting system; a militia system; a hospital; a police force; and the University of Pennsylvania – America’s first non-sectarian college.

In the latter effort, and the others, Franklin, ever the practical man, had scant use for religion. We constantly hear America was founded as a “Christian nation.” The founders would have gagged at that, as their intent was quite the opposite – Unknownto get as far as possible from the old world of dogmatic religion married to state power. Yes, you can find selected quotes giving lip service to conventional pieties – but Jefferson also wrote privately calling religion a form of insanity, and Washington apparently never in his life penned the name “Christ.”

“Deism” was the word of choice, to eschew formal religion while avoiding the dicey term “atheist.” And in those times, quitting God entirely was an intellectual leap very few could manage. Yet the only “religious” belief Franklin really held was to do good by others. And he it was who put “self evident” into the draft Declaration of Independence (in place of “sacred and undeniable”) – thus changing a religious slant to an assertion of Enlightenment rationalism.

Of course, I haven’t even touched upon Franklin’s greatest role: in public affairs as revolutionary, diplomat, and constitution maker. Isaacson quotes the French statesman Turgot: “He snatched lightning from the sky and the scepters from tyrants.”

As some of the civic initiatives noted above show, Franklin was a great one for creating associations, always believing more can be accomplished when people work together. images-1And he was really the progenitor of the greatest association ever: The United States of America. As early as 1754 the “Albany Plan of Union” was conceived by Franklin (who promoted it with our first and most famous political cartoon). That plan incorporated an innovative political invention of his: federalism.

Isaacson’s summation is eloquent. Franklin represents one of two main intellectual currents: reverencing down-to-earth middle class virtues (industry, honesty, temperance, sociability), versus despising them in favor of supposedly more profound and transcendent aspirations. It is Franklin’s Enlightenment ethos versus the romanticism that followed; reason versus feeling; head against heart. Not only have Franklin’s bourgeois values been mocked by sophisticate critics, but also his worldly metaphysics, by those spinning loftier spiritual confections (out of nothing, of course).

Mundane and even simplistic though Franklin’s philosophy might ostensibly seem, Isaacson instead sees something very deep indeed. Always eschewing lofty pretensions, Franklin’s insight grasped the core of what truly mattered: quality of life for the ordinary person. Everything he preached and did was aimed at that. And it was this Franklinism that built, very much through the assiduous personal efforts and influence of the man himself, our American society, so wonderfully conducive, above all others, to that worthy end.

images-4Well, after reading all this, mostly lying out in my lounge chair*, I say to myself that like Franklin I ought to get off my duff and do something.

Maybe tomorrow.

* I wrote this last summer; I have a backlog of blog posts.

“It’s a recession when your neighbor loses his job; it’s a depression when you lose yours”

January 12, 2014

imagesHarry Truman said that, and it’s relevant to the current debate over extending unemployment insurance (UI). The basic UI program is meant to tide people over during a bout of joblessness that’s assumed to be temporary – not as a welfare program for nonworking people (the “idle” as some newspaper headlines unfortunately call them). Thus benefits run for a set time and then stop.

However, in recessions with high jobless rates, it’s become customary to extend UI for additional months. The extension that recently expired was the longest ever. Now Washington is debating a re-extension.

The logic of such extensions is actually hard to understand. Either UI is a welfare program or it’s not. This is the relevance of Truman’s quote. UnknownRegardless of national economic conditions, for the person losing a job, it’s catastrophic. Though it may be easier to find work when the unemployment rate is lower, that doesn’t make less awful whatever time is spent unemployed. People should be helped, if at all, to mitigate their individual suffering. It’s wrong to say, “We’ll help if there are many in the same boat. If not, tough luck.” We must decide whether any one person’s long-term unemployment merits societal help — period.

Advocates of extending benefits argue that it boosts the economy and promotes job growth – because (even if opponents are right that UI makes recipients less keen to seek work) they will spend the money given them, and this spending will be stimulative, creating jobs to meet the added demand for goods and services. This too doesn’t quite make sense. After all, if government putting spending money in people’s pockets is economically beneficial, why limit it to just the unemployed? images-1Even Americans with jobs would spend most of any money given them (the national saving rate being close to zero). If giving out money to spend is a good thing, why not give it to all those others too?

Here is the fallacy. If you earn money, by creating goods and services that people pay for, and then you spend that money, raising demand for still other goods and services, that does boost the economy. That virtuous circle is economic growth that makes everyone richer. It’s not the same when government gives you money to spend by borrowing it from China (and since we still run large deficits, any added dollar of government spending is effectively borrowed). images-2This doesn’t make us richer; in fact it makes us poorer (for a host of reasons, including the interest cost on the borrowings and the damage to the value of the dollar).

That’s not to say we shouldn’t extend UI. But we should do it because it’s humane, and not kid ourselves that it’s somehow a way to bootstrap into prosperity. Prosperity only ultimately comes from people productively employed, producing things for which others willingly pay.

And our worsening problem in this regard has to be faced. The 7% headline unemployment rate is only the tip of an iceberg. It doesn’t reflect people underemployed, doesn’t count those not looking for work and, importantly, doesn’t count the huge and growing disability rolls (which I’ve written about). Their health, in too many cases, is not the issue; a recent NPR report highlighted how in practice “disability” benefits are often given to people because they’re just plain unemployable. The percentage of the population in productive work has been inexorably falling, not only  due to those already mentioned factors, but additionally because we’re living longer and spending more years in retirement (while, at the other end, spending more years in school too).

images-3So we have ever fewer people working to generate the cash to support on their backs ever more non-working people. That growing gap can’t be made up by borrowing ever more money from China. Not least because China itself will soon face the same problem.

Poverty and Inequality: The Business Cure

January 7, 2014

imagesPoverty has long been a cause celebre; inequality seems the cause du jour. The oceans of ink spilled on these topics are mostly finger-pointing, short on solutions, and the solutions are too often worse than useless. But three pieces in a recent issue of The Economist stood apart.

The “Schumpeter” business column, headed Not open for business, concerns why U.S. employment lags despite massive government stimulus. What government gives with one hand it smothers with the other. Start-up companies account for all of America’s net job creation,* and government is stifling them.

First, they’re starved for human capital. Our native students don’t acquire enough of the right skills; and when foreigners do, “the authorities do their best to drive them out of the country once they have been educated or to break their spirits on the visa treadmill.” Legions of foreigners who want to work here or start businesses wind up going elsewhere due to our suicidally restrictive immigration policy.

UnknownSecondly, there’s over-regulation. In 2009-11, Schumpeter relates, 106 new regulations were issued with projected annual economic impacts exceeding $100 million each. I’ve written about how legislation like Sarbanes-Oxley and Dodd-Frank imposes vast new bureaucratic requirements. Giant established companies, with armies of lawyers, can cope, but not small and starting firms. The dramatic decline since 2001 in new companies going public is no coincidence.

This is part of government’s war on business. You’d think, given the parlous state of U.S. employment, there’d be a cease-fire. And (notwithstanding all the anti-business rhetoric of “progressives”) neither the public nor the government actually wants this war. images-2Yet it goes on, because too few seem to grasp that for good jobs paying good wages you need good businesses earning good profits. Here in New York politicians like Gov. Cuomo talking “economic development” seem oblivious to the war. Recently the state sued a host of smaller firms because a workers compensation trust into which they’d long faithfully paid can no longer meet employee claims; many face being driven out of business.

If you want to redistribute wealth, first you’ve got to create wealth to redistribute.

Next there’s a book review – The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality by Angus Deaton. In a nutshell, much of the hand-wringing over supposed rising inequality overlooks non-money factors, most notably health and longevity, where the gap between rich and poor has been narrowing significantly. Deaton does recognize the billion or so in poor countries still excluded from this trend. Should we give money to help them? His answer is basically no; while some targeted health programs are effective, most foreign aid does more harm than good because the key problem is not lack of resources but bad governance. And aid tends to keep bad governments bad.

Unknown-1Which brings us to another book review: of Paul Polak’s and Mal Warwick’s The Business Solution to Poverty. You read that right: capitalism, which so many (so wrongly) blame for poverty is really the solution. Rather than seeing the poor as victims needing handouts, the authors see them as potential workers and customers.

They write mainly about the latter role, and how products and services can be targeted to the needs of poor people, which if done right not only generates profits but also improves life for the purchasers. We see, yet again, the error of viewing business as merely exploitive. What business is instead really all about is profiting by satisfying others’ needs and wants.

Unknown-2And, more broadly, again it is capitalism, business, industry, commerce, enterprise, that is the answer to poverty: not people given money but earning it. Rich countries, and rich people, in the main, are rich because they produce things that better the lives of others. That’s how the whole world gets richer.

* I.e., among other employers, job gains and losses cancel out.

Our New Year’s Inaugural Diversity Bath: A Great Country Altogether

January 2, 2014

imagesYesterday, I was an invitee at the inauguration of Albany’s new mayor, Kathy Sheehan. After 43 years here, it was the first time I didn’t feel like some kind of outsider. Indeed, what struck me about the event was the broadness of representation (especially the great number of blacks commingled): not a segment of the city, but the whole city, as it were, come together as a community celebrating our new day.

I sat next to a former black elected official, outspokenly left-wing; but she recited the pledge of allegiance, and even sang along with the national anthem, without irony.

Much was made of Sheehan’s being our first woman mayor, and in her speech she spoke of diversity’s virtues. “E pluribus unum” (“one out of many”) is our national motto; and I take it to heart, as one who is here only because some other country had a very different attitude. The Albany inaugural event was an embodiment of that motto’s spirit. While the simultaneous mayoral installation in New York City was striking a different note: not of inclusivity but divisiveness, all but declaring some citizens the enemies of the rest; to me an echo of that other country.

Before

Before

At the reception I was glad to encounter newly elected city councilman and community activist Mark Robinson. I told him my name and that I didn’t think we’re related (he’s black). Then I said, “I only know about you from the newspaper. But I think it’s a great country altogether when you could go from where you’ve been to where you are today.”

He seemed deeply appreciative. Where he’d once been, in fact, was prison, for drug dealing. Was it F. Scott Fitzgerald who wrote, “There are no second acts in American life”?

“A great country altogether” is actually another line from literature, the penultimate line from Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes. He said it about America, upon his arrival here at last, for something seemingly frivolous that greeted him. But that surface frivolity bespoke something far deeper about the character of this country that, again, was much in evidence at our inaugural event. We are a free people; and a community of free people. The two ideas are not antithetical.

Pertinent to this theme, with another attendee I compared notes about the New Year’s Eve party we’d both been to, hosted by our mutual friend Geraldine, formerly Gerald.*

“I think there were only three males,” I said, “best I could tell.”

“Well, let’s see: you . . . Jack . . . and Melissa.”

“So Melissa is still a man? OK; but what about Ryan?”

“Ryan is a girl.”

“I thought so too, until he was introduced to me as Melissa’s son.”

“That’s because Ryan is becoming male — while her father is doing the opposite.”

Melissa’s wife was there too; as well as another cheerful married female couple, of whom one had apparently started as  husband.

Welcome to Twenty-first Century America.

Not that all this is exactly normal. But the better word to use is common. It isn’t common, of course, but it’s up to the individual to choose how to live, and that includes the most essential aspects of our identities. And in this country, in this time, at long last, glory Hallelujah, people can do exactly that. There were some straight people at the party too but we all had a fine time together.

And after the mayoral bash, my wife and I went to the annual New Year’s party of a local activist poet, yet another convocation of non-conventional people, rounding out our diversity immersion.images-3

Isn’t this a great country altogether?

‘Tis.

*The names in this story are changed.