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

27 February 2011

Fathers and Fire

How do you teach your children that fire burns? Parents have had to answer that question since the dawn of civilization, which has always relied on fire in one form or another.

Each parent has answered it in his or her own way. But most have found that experience is the best teacher. So they try to insure that the burns are at worst first degree, and not third.

As clear as day, I recall my own childhood learning experience. Our family had a waffle iron with a jewel-like faceted piece of glass. Its function was to let you see the red-glowing heating elements inside. That glass jewel looked so pretty, glowing red with light reflected from the heater. My mother warned me, but I thought I could touch it quickly enough not to feel the pain. I was wrong. The pain and my own howls taught me something about humility and degrees of heat.

Like everyone else, I often try to second-guess the President. At least twice, I have been wrong. So experience has taught me to respect his wisdom. At times (1 and 2) he has struck me as the only adult in the room. The more I think of how the President is responding to the “shellacking” last November, the more I think of fathers and fire.

No matter how imperfect our democracy may be, we the people, collectively, still hold plenty of power. No one―least of all a President still distrusted for his extraordinary erudition and his race―can lead us where we don’t want to go. And it was we the people, not the President, who elected the tidal wave of know-nothing newbies in the House.

The latest poll shows the state of our childish delusion. By large margins, we want to invest in education and health care. But by equally large margins, we don’t want to have to pay for them. We want a functioning society, but we want it all for ourselves.

This sorry state of mind is not the fault of John Boehner, Fox, or the GOP, although all helped create it and are exploiting it for political gain. It is our own fault. We are the children who need to grow up.

So as I watch the President jockey with the GOP to avoid a disastrous government shutdown that might throw us back into recession, I can’t help but think of fathers and fire. What minimum amount of pain will teach us the lesson that we need to know?

Obama is, above all, a realist. Unlike his predecessor, he moved to the center when he realized that we the people were not following his lead. He knows he cannot lead where we won’t follow. He knows that far too many of us are still looking for a free lunch. And he knows that we, not he, elected a frat-boy naysayer, whose sole and consistent contribution to public life has been to reject others’ ideas, as Speaker of the House.

The President knows we are going to have to touch that flame. The only question is how painful the experience will be.

So expect the economic pain to continue and maybe get worse. And hope it teaches us without permanent injury. That’s all any president or any parent can do.

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25 February 2011

Capitalism on Trial

Whoever thought that a critical trial of capitalism―at least of the unregulated, muscular, pre-twentieth-century variety―would come in Libya? Truth is indeed stranger than fiction, for that is what is happening right now.

That far-off north African nation suffers under one of the worst dictators left in an increasingly rational world. Now cowed by the US invasion of Iraq, Muammar Qaddafi is just a quiet madman. Unlike Saddam, he actually had a nuclear program designed to fortify his bizarre rule with nuclear weapons. But he gave that program up, voluntarily and seemingly of his own initiative, shortly after the US invaded Iraq.

So Qaddafi appears less of a threat to us and the outside world than, say, Kim Jong Il. But to his own people, Qaddafi is just a step behind Robert Mugabe in utterly moronic and merciless selfishness. And he’s a certifiable madman to boot, prone to giving extended nonsensical tirades that no one inside or outside his twisted regime can translate or understand. He’s a modern Caligula, alive and well in our own time.

Capitalism purports to be a rational system of distributing wealth―in this case oil wealth, which Libya has plenty of. So you would think capitalist markets would applaud the desperate street battles by which ragtag militias, army units and rival tribes are trying to take Libya back from this madman. He’s a vile creature whom only his mother and tribal members who depend on his patronage for economic survival could love. You would think free markets would exult at what appears to be his imminent demise, or at least his imminent removal from power.

But no, that’s not what the markets are actually doing. In the last week, free markets have pumped the global price of oil up 10%. What they are saying, in essence, is that they’d rather have a brutal, selfish, utterly mad tyrant in change of Libya’s oil than whatever coalition of more rational, sensible leaders Libya’s people can cobble together. Better to have a known quantity―even an utter madman like Qaddafi―in charge than an unknown rabble that might kill the goose that lays the black-golden eggs.

Karl Marx died in 1883, Friedrich Engels in 1895. Neither lived to see the twentieth century, let alone the peaceful rise of a labor movement based not on revolution, but on collective bargaining, or the triumph of regulated capitalism under FDR. Neither lived to see the logical conclusion of the abstract system of Communism he had proposed: Josef Stalin’s Terror. Neither was a scientist or quantitative thinker in any modern sense of those words. Both were essentially creative writers reacting spasmodically to the evils of an unregulated, winner-take-all capitalism that created Dickensian England and far worse squalor and oppression in less enlightened places around the world.

So it is not surprising that virtually none of their predictions came true. Their theoretical prescription for human societies was “From each according to his ability. To each according to his need.” Charles Darwin, whose immortal work of painstakingly pure science was just beginning to be generally understood, could have told them that is utter nonsense. Apart from a few, relatively rare instances of symbiosis, life is a selfish struggle for survival and resources. Living organisms, ourselves included, are just not the selfless, altruistic creatures that Marx and Engels posited. Millions of years of evolution made us different. To remold us in Marx’s and Engels’ image required force: hence Stalin's Terror.

So the central tenets of Marx’s and Engels’ creative writing have fallen into the dustbin of history, where they belong. They remain alive only for right-wing zealots to trot them out every once in a while for target practice.

But one single prediction of these two misguided creative writers still remains unproven and unrefuted. From their perch in the late nineteenth century, they foresaw that something might replace the rapacious, oppressive, robber-baron capitalism of their time, which was the only kind of capitalism they knew. They could not bear the thought of squalid mines and factories, with their incessant accidents, injuries, pollution, dirt, grime, injustice and child labor, becoming the permanent State of Man.

They could not foresee the glorious, equitable consumer society that intelligently (and strongly!) regulated capitalism would produce in America in the mid-twentieth century. And so they could not conceive that a better system might arise without the sort of violent revolution that tore Russia apart and stole its mind and soul for seventy years. Nor could Marx and Engels foresee the State of Man then yet to come, in which dying empires (first Britain's, then ours) would attempt to exploit the globe and its natural resources by manipulation, stealth and force, maintaining marvelous, advanced consumer societies inside their borders at the cost of vile despotisms and economic injustice abroad.

That’s why the markets are reacting so anomalously to the imminent demise of Qaddafi’s mad rule. For most of the twentieth century, the great capitalist empires of the West created the next best thing to Paradise on Earth inside their borders, at the cost of not just tolerating, but actively perpetuating, the most vile tyrannies abroad. Democracy and free markets, it seemed, were good enough for the home team but not good enough for the foreign rabble.

That was, and is, an inherently unstable global system. It was, and is, as bound to fail in the long run as monarchy, totalitarianism, and the child-labor sweat-shops of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It is failing right now, before our eyes, throughout the Arabic and Islamic world.

The tragedy and irony is what the markets are signaling they just don’t understand. Nothing in capitalism or free markets requires failure of that oppressive regime to harm advanced economies like ours, or even to rile markets.

What the markets appear to be saying, in essence, is that ordinary people in numbers cannot be trusted to manage resources rationally in their own interest. They require a despot, however mad he may be, to manage it for them, supported by arms, spies and clever propagandists trained and supplied by our very own military-industrial complex. People must be stomped on, their children and their futures made casualties, so that the oil can flow.

That proposition, of course, is self-evidently absurd. In a global free market, the price of oil will rise ineluctably because there is only so much on our planet where we can reach it, and because more people will use more and more of it (unless we develop alternatives) as the good side of global capitalism improves the lots of hundreds of millions of people who previously knew nothing but poverty and disease.

But that sort of Malthusian price rise won’t happen in weeks. It won’t depend on whether or not a madman like Qaddafi stays in power to keep the oil flowing by force.

Unfortunately, far too many unthinking boors in high places, including our State Department and multinational corporations, believe the contrary. They can’t conceive of any way foreign peoples could manage a scarce and valuable resources like oil rationally, in their own interest, despite the fact that global capitalism has created the free markets and modern technology of exploration and distribution for precisely that purpose. They don’t trust the very system they have spent their lives and fortunes building.

That is the trial of capitalism now going on in Libya. Can rationality prevail long enough to let the Libyans themselves, at the cost of their own suffering and more-than-occasional deaths, wrest a more comfortable form of government from their mad leader’s tribe? Can rational, global free markets accommodate and assist their striving, and show them―not by force but with helpful aid and instruction―how to keep the oil flowing, at global (and ever-rising) free-market prices, for their collective benefit?

In the long run, the oil will run out and our species will survive or suffer depending upon its ability to develop alternative sources of energy. In the long run, popular rule will prevail virtually everywhere, or war, pestilence and famine will render our habitat, the Earth, largely uninhabitable. So this present trial of capitalism now going on in Libya affects only our species’ immediate future: your children’s and theirs’. For all their sakes, let’s hope we can at least get this passing phase right.

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08 February 2011

I Am Egyptian

[For brief comment on the successful, peaceful revolution, click here. For an earlier update on this short piece, click here.]

I am an American and a Jew. I am also a capitalist and a liberal Democrat---one of that rare hybrid species that is endangered but not quite yet extinct.

But today, most of all, I am Egyptian. As I tread the streets of a country far from Egypt that is not my own, my thoughts are with you, my brothers and sisters in Tahrir Square.

I know that you are not alone. I know that Liu Xiaobo is with you, as is the nameless man who stopped the tanks in Tiananmen Square, if still he lives. I know that Nelson Mandela is with you. I know that Mikhail Gorbachev is with you. I know that Lech Walesa is with you. I know that Václav Havel is with you.

And those are only the living. If you believe in life after death, or in the remanence of souls, you can see a whole host of great men and women lining up behind you. Over there are Corazon Aquino, Benazir Bhutto, and Mahatma Gandhi. Next to them are Boris Yeltsin, Bishop Tutu and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. Further back in the long queue are Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson.

The powers that be want you to think that you are a rare and endangered species, like liberal Democrats in America. They want you to think that you are misguided troublemakers. But you are not. You have only to recite this list of names, and add the ones I omitted or never knew, to see the lie.

You are the future of the human race. Your like will multiply and prosper, and the despots and grand manipulators will fall. You will demand your freedom, as have so many others before you. And if you stand fast, you will get it.

That is the lesson that so many great men and women taught us all, some with their blood and all with their courage.

Do not listen to the nay-sayers. When you falter, recite this list of names, adding ones that you know better than I. And when the time comes to choose your own leaders, may you choose ones like them.

God be with you. I know I am.


As I watch the response of our government to the ferment in Tahrir Square, I am ashamed.

Being ashamed to be an American is an odd, uncomfortable feeling. It’s like being an adopted child wondering who your real parents were.

When I was born in 1945, the future was ours. We were rebuilding a war-devastated Western world under the Marshall Plan. Popular magazines blossomed with confident predictions. They served up visions of spotless electrical appliances, sleek cars that could fly through the air, and cities with aerial roads. Global peace and prosperity, wrought by American ingenuity and leadership, seemed just around the corner.

But look at us now. Those of us that still can see and think understand that the revolution in Tahrir Square is the best that modern Egypt can offer. It is peaceful. It enjoys wide support. All the leading minds of that proud and ancient culture seem behind it. Evidence of Islamist violence and subversion is nil. This is the best chance for reforming the nearly one-quarter of the human race that derives its culture from Islam and Arabia that we have seen since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, or that we may ever see.

So what do we do? We quake with fear. We heed the worst when we ought to back the best. We let despots and right-wing Jewish fanatics whisper hatred and terror in our ears. We cling to the old order not because it is good, but because it is there, and because we depend on it abjectly.

We do this despite the painful lessons of the French and Russian revolutions: that human yearnings too long contained can cause bloody explosions. We do this despite the lesson of modern Russia, which threw off its yoke of tyranny unaided, with minimal bloodshed. If our erstwhile Cold-War rival can learn so spectacularly, why can’t we?

It would be bad enough if our stupidity came from simple plutocratic clannishness, like the Bush clan’s obsequious friendship with the Saudis. But Obama is not of that clan (which is why we elected him). So what is holding us back?

It is fear for our own future. We fear a future without cheap oil whose use we can monopolize. We fear a future of electric cars and high-speed rail. We fear the nuclear power that we invented but now refuse to perfect. We fear the windmills that China, Germany, and Spain now make in abundance and import for our use.

We are too lazy and stupid to grasp the future with both hands, as we did when I was growing up. And if the truth be told, we have infected ourselves with the fear of ignorant American Jews, the ones who cannot envision a future without a beleaguered fortress Israel.

I feel sorry for American kids today. They don’t know what it was like in my youth. They don’t know that feeling of mastery that comes from being on top of the world’s educational and industrial food chain. They cannot experience the deep feeling of confidence that comes from actually knowing something. They swim in an endless sea of twittering trivia, gossip and historical irrelevancies, without the faintest direction or understanding. So they know only the fear of losing what they have, and their fearful parents reinforce their timorousness.

The future of the human race is now crystal clear. We will welcome the nearly one-half of the human race that speaks Chinese or worships Allah into our international community with open arms, and we will seek the future with them. We will control our population as the Chinese have theirs, and we will get used to having fewer but better-loved children. And we will go on to the stars.

Or, in a dark alternative universe, we will outgrow our habitat and suffer the inevitable consequences of ineluctable biological law: war, famine, and pestilence. We might become extinct.

Can we Americans help attain the brighter future and avoid the dark? Today that outcome seems doubtful. If we turn our backs on Tahrir Square, we will have thrown away the best chance in a generation to solve the “Islamic problem,”---one of the three great remaining problems of our species (the others being energy and a peaceful transition to Chinese leadership).

If we cannot lead, then we ought at least to get out of the way. Then we ought to follow the example of China’s next premier, Xi Jinping, who said, “First, China does not export revolution; second, it does not export famine and poverty; and third, it does not mess around with you. So what else is there to say?”

If we cannot at least heed that credo of non-intervention, if we must “mess around with” Egypt by helping suppress a peaceful popular revolution, then we will not just have lost our global leadership to the Chinese. We will have forfeited it.

Ordinary People Matter

The message of the peaceful revolution in Tahrir Square is a simple but powerful one. Ordinary people matter.

It was easy for us Americans to miss the message, because ordinary people matter less and less here. What two centuries ago was a light unto nations―our own country―has become a static, artherosclerotic symbol of the status quo. Or own long-ago enlightened revolution has devolved into selfishness abroad and subtle repression and economic injustice here at home.

But forget about our government. We ordinary Americans missed the message, too. Why? Because we are ignorant and live by stereotypes. Aren’t those oddly-dressed Muslims just terrorists in waiting, who care about nothing so much as destroying Israel and the West? So many of us thought.

But the answer, as it turns out, is no. They are people just like us. They don’t like having their homes, restaurants, favorite stores and neighbors blown up any more than we do. So slowly, imperceptibly, and utterly unbeknownst to us, they have turned away from terrorism and Al Qaeda and toward improving their own lives.

And just like us, they don’t like a system in which a few old men control wealth and progress and crush their children’s futures like delicate flowers in a fist. So, with more courage than we Americans have shown at home in two generations, they acted.

That is the meaning of Tahrir Square. The word “Tahrir” means “liberation.”

Not only did Tahrir Square liberate the Egyptian people from a thirty-year-old dictatorship. It may also have liberated us from our own stereotypes and paranoia. It may have freed us from the notion that women who wear head scarves or veils, and men who wear beards or turbans, are somehow fundamentally different from the rest of us.

Now we know better. And now, with the ennobling vision of Tahrir Square before our eyes, maybe we ordinary Americans can find the courage to stop hating and fearing others. Maybe we can understand that they are just like us. Maybe we can turn our efforts and what is left of our intelligence to improving our own society and the lives of our own ordinary people before we fall irrevocably behind. Inshallah.

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