Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

06 February 2009

Mirror of Tragedy


There are many ways to prove a point in human affairs. There are legal briefs, with their carefully organized arguments. There are government reports, with their carefully marshaled facts and compromised ideologies. There are, as Mark Twain put it, “lies, damn lies, and statistics.” But sometimes simple human stories provide the best proof of all.

In several posts on this blog (1, 2, and 3), I have argued that no one “won” the Cold War. Both sides lost. Both sides wasted enormous sums on world-destroying weaponry that, in 1962, almost ended civilization but in the end was never used. Both sides grew shells of hubristic, inflexible, nonsensical ideology that isolated them from reality and eventually destroyed their economies.

Our self-destruction just came a bit later than the Russians’. We are living through it now.

There are many ways to prove this point, which you can find on the linked posts. But up to now, we’ve lacked a simple, understandable, mutually tragic human story. This week it came.

The Russians’ side of the story begins 67 years ago, with the Siege of Leningrad. Nazi legions surrounded the great northern city. They did their damnedest to cut off everything: food, fuel, electricity, and clothing. Russians trapped inside the siege line fought back as best they could, with virtually no resources. Toward the end of the siege, in a bitterly cold winter, some even resorted to cannibalism to survive.

The Siege lasted 900 days, almost two and a half years. In the bitter winter of 1942 alone, 200,000 Leningraders died of cold and starvation. But in the end, Russian perseverance triumphed. The Red Army broke the Siege partly in January 1943 and fully a year later.

Three facts can help us Americans sympathize. First, Leningrad—once and now again called “St. Petersburg”—has been Russia’s real or second capital. It is a center of culture and intellectual life, proof of Russians’ “Europeanness.” Second, between 650,000 and 800,000 Russians died in the Siege—more than all our combat deaths in the entire Second World War. Finally, in those days, we and the Russians were fighting the deadly scourge of Nazi Fascism together. We were on the same side.

The end of the Russia’s side of the story goes back only a few years, to Vladimir Putin’s first term as Russia’s president. It was simple and tragic. In another of Russia’s bitterly cold winters, several fine old men, Heroes of the Soviet Union and survivors of the Siege of Leningrad, froze to death in their beds.

At that time, Russia’s news media enjoyed an unprecedented springtime of freedom. Vladimir Putin was a different man. He was eager to tell Russia’s tragic story and brimming with confidence he could improve it. Far from hiding the tale of Leningrad’s frozen heroes, he retold it. He used it to illustrate how Communism had wrecked his country.

I heard this Russian story with a mixture of horror and smugness. What kind of society, I wondered, lets its heroes, in their venerable age, freeze to death in their beds? Surely that could never happen here.

Last month, it did. A 93-year old World War II veteran in Michigan froze to death in his bed. When neighbors discovered his body, the temperature in his home was 32 degrees, the exact point of freezing.

The irony goes way beyond the icing of heroes. The causes of death are metaphors for the respective flaws of Russian and American society. In Russia, large parts of cities still subsist on truly “central” heating, generated far from individuals’ homes—a holdover from the Soviet era of centralized planning and construction. The pipes leading from the central heating facility broke, and no one fixed them in time, so the Heroes of Leningrad froze.

In our case, the causa mortis was even simpler. Our old hero had $1,000 in unpaid electrical bills, and his local utility had restricted his power. You might say that free-market “discipline” killed him.

Yet there is even more irony. Our old hero had plenty of money. Apparently he willed a local charity over half a million dollars. He was a skinflint and maybe senile. But in our heartless free-market economy, no one cared enough to ask.

Stalin once said that a single death is a tragedy, a million only a statistic. Maybe it takes single tragedies like these to wake us up.

Maybe some day we humans will realize that economics is a complex science, which idealized pictures of a glorious state or free-market miracles can never hope to capture. Maybe some day Russia will let private industry flourish and we will let government build an infrastructure and design a national industrial policy for the twenty-first century.

If that happens, these Russian and American heroes of humanity’s greatest and most devastating conflict will not have frozen to death in vain.

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