Archive for October, 2015

A Chinese-Jewish Wedding

October 26, 2015

Imagine a rabbi sermonizing and then saying, “Well, many of you don’t believe any of this stuff.”

130133We attended the California wedding of my nephew, Adam Choit, and Erin Li. Adam works in TV and Erin is a film-maker*, her family Chinese, from Taiwan. She’s the sweetest looking little thing ever, but speaks with deep gravitas. Adam is a droll fellow; when he picked up my mother’s decorative antique phone and pretended to have a conversation, I found myself almost hooked in.

Nearly half the guests were Chinese, while Adam is our one family member really into the Jewishness thing, so the wedding was conducted according to Jewish ritual. Everyone seemed perfectly comfortable with this cultural mash-up. It may sound corny, but isn’t that so very American? We shouldn’t take it for granted in a world where some people still kill others because they’re in the wrong sect.

WeddingYet during the ceremony I was struck by the oddity of half of it being in a language (Hebrew) nobody understood, full of references to a land (Israel) half a world away, and to a deity most attendees probably don’t believe in. So the rabbi’s quoted acknowledgement of this was a nice surprise. He said it matter-of-factly, with no tone of disparagement.

Unknown-2They had a string quartet (majority Chinese). When my wife whispered how nice a certain piece was, I noted with some amusement its being indeed a very pretty arrangement of “Don’t Know Much About History!” Later they played Darth Vader’s theme. Bit dark for a wedding, but nobody minded.

My mother, almost 95, has had a rough couple of years, but she’s an indomitable war-horse, had long looked forward to this wedding, and had a great time. She’s planning to fly out to Adam’s sister’s Long Island wedding next month. My mother has a repertoire of stories she loves repeating. Some are like “Just So” stories. A favorite, told several times during the weekend, is “Why Frank(ie) Grew His Beard.” Unknown-5You see, as a young lawyer, small and baby-faced, he’d be embarrassed when going out for drinks with the boys and the waitress offering him only a coke. No matter that I’ve never in my life “gone out with the boys,” nor ever drunk alcohol. (And grew the beard to get girls.)

“Is that what you’re wearing?” is something we husbands are known to hear. Well, I’ve never been a clothes horse. For the wedding I wore my one and only almost halfway passable suit, which I’ve had for literally half a century. (Yes, it still fits.) How surprising when, introduced to the bride’s with-it looking brother George, he said, “I like your suit!” imagesMy wife was floored. This put paid to her campaign for a wardrobe upgrade for the next (fancier) wedding. And that was before we learned George is in the custom clothing business. But, as a magnanimous concession, I told my wife the suit might be dry-cleaned.

The most enjoyable part of such outings, for me, is being with her and savoring her excellence. therese_edited-1I was flattered to be informed that a young lawyer visiting from Poland (my mother’s care-giver’s nephew), exactly half her age, was quite smitten by her beauty and charm. Sometimes during the festivities I’d experience a frisson of envy watching youthful Adam and his bride, but I only needed to glance over at my own bride for it to go away.

* To see one of her cool short films, click here and enter password keplerscreener888

What Is “Socialism?”

October 20, 2015

imagesBernie Sanders calls himself a “democratic socialist.” The word “socialist” has gotten much use in the past century. “Nazi” was actually short for “National Socialist.” Not that Sanders uses the word in the same sense as Hitler.

There’s a lot of effort to sugar-coat it, to persuade voters it’s nothing to fear. Sanders says it means nothing more than economic fairness. UnknownHumpty Dumpty said, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean.” One caller on a radio forum chirped, “Do you like the fire department, the police, military, run by government? Why, that’s socialism!”

Well, no. That’s simply government. Not everything government does is “socialism,” so that if you like government doing anything then you must be a socialist.

Time for some Political Science 101.

Why was government invented in the first place? Philosopher Thomas Hobbes explained: in a “state of nature” your neighbor could bash your head in and grab your food, or wife. Unknown-2Imagine people getting together to discuss this predicament. The answer is for each to give up his* freedom to bash a neighbor in return for others giving up theirs. Now you can devote less time and effort on self-defense, and tending your wounds, and more on getting food or nookie. But this system of law (the “social contract”) needs an enforcer. That’s government.

But notice this is a faustian bargain. You give up your right to use violence, to government – which can now use it against you. That’s a terrible power, and you want to be very careful it’s limited. And while we have found many other worthy functions for government (like fire protection, mentioned by that caller), government doesn’t work by voluntary cooperation, but through its ultimate power to put non-cooperators in jail. Unknown-3With all the talk these days about “corporate power,” remember that no corporation can put you in jail.

What “socialism” really means is government performing not only its social contract function, via a legal system, and communal functions like fire protection, but also economic functions; in the lingo, “owning the means of production, distribution and exchange.” What, in a market economy, is done by people individually or, more commonly, grouped together in businesses. A purely socialist economy doesn’t even allow that.

Now, of course, just as we don’t have a purely market economy, and America actually is already partly socialist, so too one can imagine a socialist economy that isn’t pure but is still partly capitalist. But that doesn’t negate the basic dichotomy between the socialist and market economic concepts. Though you can have a mix, socialism means government taking the place of private business activity.**

images-1Sanders’s “democratic socialism” is really something of an oxymoron, because it is, once more, the essence of socialism to supplant private activity. And the more pervasive government becomes, in running society, the harder it is to be democratic. While a market economy entails numerous non-government institutions (importantly, businesses and corporations) as independent power centers, a counterweight to government power, a socialist economy undermines that power dispersal and concentrates power in government hands.

And so it has indeed been the experience that countries with basically socialist economies have not been what we would recognize as democratic. The two ideas are fundamentally incompatible. This is one key reason why the world so decisively turned away from socialism in the late twentieth century.

The other reason was that it just didn’t work. While the idea of socialism is purportedly to give ordinary people better economic outcomes, in practice it did the opposite. Government has proven itself incapable of creating wealth, as does a market economy of enterprises competing with each other to give consumers better products and services at better prices. You can redistribute till the cows come home, but without a market economy creating wealth in the first place, people will be poorer. Whine all you like about the unfairness, the “harshness” of capitalism fueled by greed, but the ordinary person is still better off than under socialism.

Unknown* One is supposed to use gender-neutral language nowadays. But of course women don’t bash anybody.

** Socialists talk of “common ownership.” However, in reality that means nobody except government owning anything.

Being Mortal

October 15, 2015

imagesHow would you like to spend your last days in a nursing home? In a tiny cubicle with no privacy, no autonomy, no possessions, everything gone that made life worth living, surrounded by people who . . . well, you know.

Dr. Atul Gawande’s book, Being Mortal, addresses such end-of-life issues. It’s very relevant for me. My mother-in-law, 86, was in “assisted living” but a recent series of falls messed her up. UnknownGawande notes that the gravest health threat for the elderly is simply falling. My mother, 94, continues living in her own home, fortunately able to afford a part-time nurse/caregiver. I’m 68.

At one point Gawande notes psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of human motivations, crowned by mastery of knowledge and skills, gaining reward for achievement, and “self-actualization.” But he observed that aging people tend to narrow their concerns, concentrating more on family and friends. Why the change? Gawande acknowledged several theories – but I instantly knew the answer, because even while at 68 I remain very on-the-go, my perspective on life has changed.

Unknown-1In my 30s I was all Maslow, with the rest of my life stretching ahead almost limitlessly, or so it felt. Now I’m very conscious of having used up most of it. Now I know that not even some freak of fortune will resurrect my youthful dreams of literary or political triumph. To so many things now I react with a zen-like mantra: “it just doesn’t really matter.” Because when I’m gone, nothing will matter at all to me. And the time interval between now and then seems a mere detail.

So the pleasures of the moment are more important than Maslowian self-actualization. How many more cookies will I get to eat? images-1The thought makes each one more to be savored. How many more times will I get to jump in a pool? Or make love?

One thing that struck me – as it did Gawande – is the degree to which an exaggerated concern over safety dominates and constrains the circumstances in which elderly people exist. (I didn’t say “live” because, as Gawande shows, for too many it really isn’t living). And the safety concern is not so much on the part of the elderly themselves, as it is their children and caregivers (and of course the latter have a big concern to avoid blame for an adverse outcome).

The mentioned change of perspective is relevant. It’s tragic to die with “your whole life ahead of you.” At ninety, not so much. The concerns are different. But putting oldsters in a safe environment often means restricting what they can eat, what they can do, what activities they’re permitted, etc. They are made prisoners of safety. Gawande says they’re given “a life designed to be safe but empty of everything they care about.”

imagesWe all want to be “safe.” But what does that really mean? Zero risk? Some people today actually seem to think so, embracing a “precautionary principle” on issues like fracking that rule out anything not proven riskless – as if anything in life ever could be. But there is a constant trade-off between safety and other important concerns. A true “precautionary principle” would not allow us, for example, to drive cars. But we reckon that a trip is worth the risk, and that’s rational. After all, no matter how safe you try to be, life always entails an irreducible risk factor. images-2You can eschew cars but still get hit by one crossing the street. And for all your safety efforts, your risk of dying will still be not zero but, actually, 100%.

That perspective seems missing from eldercare. As though the safety obsession will keep folks from dying. When in fact, at best, it will only keep them alive for what is really a relatively short time. I daresay many elderly people would accept a small risk of dying a little sooner in exchange for more freedom and autonomy – more quality of life – while it lasts. There’s not much value in a longer life if it’s “lived” as described in my opening paragraph.

After all, the point of living is not just to not die. It certainly isn’t to not die tomorrow rather than the day after.

Hollow Hillary’s Trade Terrors

October 11, 2015

Republican presidential candidates are falling over themselves pandering to a right-wing activist base that dominates party primaries – exemplified by Scott Walker advocating a northern border wall. Though he quit, so maybe that out-crazied the party’s crazy wing.

unknown-12The Democratic party has likewise been captured by a left-wing activist base, which explains Hillary Clinton’s disgraceful attack on President Obama’s TPP (Pacific nation trade deal), even though she advocated the concept while Secretary of State. It’s one of the few really good things Obama has achieved. That a big trade deal could be concluded at all in today’s complicated world is almost a miracle. Failure to approve it would be yet another blow to America’s tattered international credibility, while China’s role is growing. Recall how our friends all ignored Obama’s plea to shun China’s new regional development bank.

imagesAnd it’s a good deal for America – the benefits to our consumers through lower prices on imports will vastly outweigh any jobs lost – and that furthermore will stimulate more spending on other things, creating new jobs, making up for the ones lost. It’s good for the world too, making people in other countries more prosperous. A more prosperous world, with wealthier trading partners, is also obviously good for America.

But none of this registers with the anti-trade – frankly, anti-market – anti-economic-growth – Democratic left wing which Hillary feels she must coddle. At one time it was actually the Republicans who were the protectionists, while Democrats were for free trade, recognizing that protectionism was a scam to protect businesses from economic competition, and free trade benefited the broader public. UnknownDemocrats’ newfound hostility to trade trashes the good of the many for the interests of a few. How did they get their heads so far up their rears on this issue?

Hillary, trying to justifying her betrayal on the TPP, claimed its provisions are too cushy for pharmaceutical companies. Funny that when the deal was announced, pharmaceutical stocks plunged because those companies were seen to be screwed.

Things We’re Not Allowed to Say

October 7, 2015

imagesBlacks can say the N-word. Whites like me cannot. Not even in my own blog, nor even when talking of its offensiveness (as Christopher Hitchens once learned when a TV interview was abruptly terminated).

Issues of who can say what were a key topic at a 9/26 Skidmore College symposium with a panel packed with intellectual rock stars (Marilynne Robinson, Anthony Appiah, Orlando Patterson, Phillip Lopate, etc.).

Patterson

Patterson

The agenda was the interplay between ideology and belief. Patterson, a Harvard sociology professor, discussed the cultural legitimacy of beliefs, especially about groups. He noted that using group stereotypes is actually a biologically-wired survival tool – quick judgments could mean life or death for early peoples – but today, of course, it’s a no-no.

Patterson cited Lawrence Summers, whose words about women’s under-representation in science got him ousted as Harvard’s president – “rightly so,” Patterson said, to my surprise.

Summers

Summers

Because Summers was making an almost indisputable evidence-based point, about differences in how male and female brains work, that actually echoed claims by feminists who were lionized for it. Thus a perfect example of some being allowed to say what others aren’t.

This epitomized liberal censorship – their talk of “free expression,” “open inquiry,” and “academic freedom” is too often hypocrisy when they really mean freedom of expression only for themselves and views they favor.

Moynihan

Moynihan

Patterson discussed Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous 1965 report on black family breakdown (which Patterson, author of award-winning books on slavery, later blamed on slavery – even though black marriage rates through the Jim Crow era and even the Depression were no lower than for whites, and only plummeted a century after slavery’s end).

Anyhow, said Patterson, Moynihan-style attempts to connect behavior to cultural differences became seen as illegitimate – the “Typhoid Mary” of sociology.

Mary

Mary

Indeed, some denied that black single parenthood was even a problem, calling it not an inferior but merely a different family model (despite mountains of data showing how much better children do with two parents). Patterson labeled all of this “crippling” for sociology.

The 1980s finally saw a “slow, cautious return” to a more honest ethos. But you were still supposed to emphasize racism to explain sociological differences, with cultural explanations remaining suspect (except respecting racial IQ test disparities). More generally it was now okay to talk about culture, “but only what’s nice about people’s culture.”

Patterson ended by decrying what he sees as a “new victimism” (referring to police-versus-blacks issues), exemplified by Ta-Nehisi Coates’s much-discussed book addressed to his son, telling him his black body is an object of hate – “child abuse,” Patterson said.

Jim Sleeper (author of Liberal Racism) commented on the role here of “moral self-justification.” He made an analogy that while communism was bad, anti-communism also sometimes entailed bad things – and the same is true of anti-racism.

Miller

Miller

Epistemology (how and what one knows) loomed large in the discussion; in particular, what one chooses to know. Here again, liberal censorship. Patterson spoke of how information on black family breakdown was in effect whitewashed, and Jim Miller (former Director of Liberal Studies at the New School for Social Research) told how, when surveyed, his certifiably politically enlightened students mostly said they would not want to know hypothetical scientific data showing a group’s cognitive disability.

Relevant to belief differences entwined with knowledge differences, David Steiner, former (2009-11) New York State Education Commissioner, talked of attitudes toward charter schools. In Harlem he saw “tears running down the cheeks” of parents whose kids lost out in lotteries to attend charter schools – knowing those schools meant a likelihood of getting to college seven times greater. But a different narrative is evident in Baltimore where no charter school alternative for comparison exists because teacher unions have succeeded in protecting their monopoly and demonizing charters. Steiner wondered whether black Baltimoreans are cognizant of how bad their public schools are.

Steiner

Steiner

(I got to chat with Steiner afterwards. He said that nationwide, public schools outperform charters – because the latter are dragged down by results in a proliferation of what he called “mom and pop” schools, while larger, more professionally run charters do much better. One might add that inner city public schools tend to do much worse than national averages.)

Again, the headline topic was the interplay of ideology and belief. Patterson alluded to the problem of what it really means to “believe” something. People can “believe” in Heaven yet cry at funerals. Self-interest and self-regard are also distorting factors. I suspect O.J. Simpson believed himself innocent. Then there’s politics and ideology. China has bitterly denounced Japan’s recent adjustment of its pacifist strictures as a “return to militarism” – while China bullies its neighbors over territorial claims and its military build-up way outstrips Japan’s. Yet do Chinese authorities believe their rhetoric? Possibly.

A second session began with a talk by Yale Professor Seyla Benhabib which I think was about public versus private selves (not the scheduled topic) but was so encrusted with academic-ese that I got little from it. She tossed in some irrelevant bombs denouncing “neoliberalism” (a derogatory term by lefties for what is really a return to classical liberal principles) and how everything today is all about money, yada, yada, yada.

Lears

Lears

So Rutgers Professor Jackson Lears chimed in with an equally off-topic anti-capitalist rant. I was glad Jim Miller (“Liberal Studies,” remember!) called him on it, saying such burblings are empty because their devotees have no alternative to the economic arrangements they condemn (save perhaps a Soviet style command system, and we know how great that worked).

Lears shot back calling Miller’s comments among the most bizarre he’d ever heard, and that in thirty years he’d never been associated with the Soviet Union (something I doubt). Lears said the alternative system is “social democracy – it’s that simple – social democracy.”

Social Democracy

The alternative to free market capitalism

A catch-phrase totally devoid of substantive content. Might as well say the alternative is pie-in-the-sky.

The End of the Man on the White Horse

October 2, 2015

imagesThe Man on the White Horse is a hoary staple of the political imagination. The hero, with integrity, ideals, and vision, the leader who will put things right. We all fall for it, at different times. And then wind up disillusioned.

Exhibit A is, of course, Barack Obama. I didn’t vote for him (my 2008 evaluation seems prescient now) yet grasped what his election meant to so many – who hoped he’d be a transformational leader. He is not that; not even an effective one.

But this is not just about Obama, it’s larger than him. The hopes we put in political leaders seem systemically doomed to disillusionment.

Widodo

Widodo

I was prompted here by reading about Indonesia’s still fairly new president, Joko Widodo. Seemed a really good guy, decent, honest, able. It was hugely encouraging that he beat a military blowhard cut from a mold that’s proven awful elsewhere. Alas Widodo so far seems a lackluster president and disillusionment is fast setting in.

I’ve written of Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto, who also raised great hopes and started strongly. His administration is now floundering. And of a wonderful election in Sri Lanka unexpectedly throwing out an autocrat; but the new administration is floundering there as well.

Modi

Modi

And I wrote of Narendra Modi, with potential to lift India from its daft economic policies. But he seems to be operating on the theory that just being Modi will energize India’s economy, without his actually doing much; certainly not anything politically hard.

images-2Yet another Man on a White Horse who will probably go out on a donkey.

Now many U.S. voters are bedazzled by some truly ridiculous candidates (Trump, Carson, Sanders – yes, anyone labeling himself “socialist” today is ridiculous), imagining they could somehow march in and set the country right. How very silly.

*     *     *

The syndrome does appear systemic. Francis Fukuyama’s recent book, Political Order and Political Decay (see my commentary) sheds some light.

Bismarck

Bismarck

In past epochs leaders had scope to be more radical and achieve big things. But modern states do not allow for Napoleons or Bismarcks.

There are two big factors. The first is political structure. Some see today a concentration of political power, undermining democracy (the false notion of “buying elections”). But the greater truth is exactly the opposite. Advanced modern democracies disperse power so widely that nobody can get very much of it, including presidents. Proliferating opportunities for some interests to block others produce what Fukuyama called a “vetocracy.” So a president does not run the government, he’s merely an administrator. Obamacare was really just a modest tweak of our healthcare system, not a fundamental overhaul.

And voters may profess anger at the status quo but actually vote very conservatively to lock it in, timorous toward any real change, lacking imagination, and suckered by tired old formulas. Luxembourg’s Prime Minister Juncker famously said, “We all know what to do, we just don’t know how to get re-elected once we’ve done it.” So Brazilian voters last year confirmed a dysfunctional statist model, rejecting a classically liberal alternative, and the nation’s rot predictably deepens.

The second factor is the nature of government itself in advanced modern states, its sheer hugeness and complexity, forming a political interest and power center in its own right which is also, by nature, highly resistant to any reform or change.

Unknown-1The combination of these two factors makes any major policy effort like trying to turn around the Titanic. (Worse – the Titanic’s captain could change its course, slowly.) Already six decades ago, Truman said, “Poor Ike. He’ll sit there and say, ‘Do this! Do that!’ and nothing will happen. It won’t be a bit like the army.”

Government has a role in a modern society. We cannot get rid of it. Yet it is a fundamental mistake to look to government for solutions to societal problems today. Once that was reasonable, but no longer. We need ways of addressing issues that bypass government. Unfortunately, those are far from obvious.

images-4Well — at least no one can have any illusions about Hillary as a Woman on a White Horse.