Archive for July, 2005

Henry James Joyce

p.s. I don’t understand why James doesn’t acknowledge Flaubert among the antecedents to his project of doing justice to a representative type of the young women who are “the frail vessels…[of] the treasure of human affection,” as Madame Bovary seems pretty obviously the most tremendous previous effort in this vein. Perhaps he wanted to blot out Emma Bovary and replace her with a heroine who evokes grandeur rather than mere pity. In any event, the world seems to have taken to Madame Bovary more on the whole, perhaps because James, in his effort to make his heroine grand, had to not only make her but repeatedly emphasize the fact of her being exceptional, a necessity at odds with the goal of rendering her representative, and Flaubert’s portrayal of the bourgeois tragedy of a fundamentally ordinary, typical woman is more in keeping with the spirit of the age and the nature of the project. Flaubert stared unflinchingly into the brave new democratic world, while James implicitly denied it by trying to create classic aristocratic tragedy out of modern materials, a notion as anachronistic in its way as James Joyce summoning up the shadow of Ulysses in the streets of Dublin.

p.p.s. After all these years I’ve finally found a way to link Henry James and James Joyce beyond just their names. Perhaps in this link one can almost pinpoint the moment when the “aristocratic” strain in literature switched from a function of the genuine aristocratic ethos to that of the academic.

Henry James and al-Qaeda

I have recently been simultaneously reading The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James and re-reading parts of Life at the Bottom: the Worldview that Makes the Underclass by Theodore Dalrymple. The contrast would seem to be complete, but it is in fact considerably more interesting than that. The subtlety and depth of James’ descriptive power is quite wondrous and genuinely intellectually gratifying, particularly living in a society that in general by no means prizes delicacy. However, I find the cumulative effect somewhat troubling, perhaps because it reminds me very much of “The Seducer’s Diary” from Enten-Eller (Either/Or) by Søren Kierkegaard, which is just as elaborate and sophisticated in style. “The Seducer’s Diary” was apparently a great success in the genre of littérature amoureuse when it appeared separately in France, which has sown a certain degree of ineradicable contempt on my part for French literary taste, because “The Seducer’s Diary” loses all meaning outside of its context, which by contrasting it with other literary fragments concerned with the life of a simple and moral Protestant vicar gradually shows us the shallow, aesthete amorality at the heart of the seducer’s sophistication.

To get back to the point, a whiff of the seducer also lingers in the work of Henry James. Although the value of the cultivated, idle lives he describes is constantly brought into question, their inevitability never is, and so an implicit acceptance of their way of living reigns. Jamesian characters only get to make choices within very circumscribed limits: they can choose whom to marry but not whether to marry. I can’t see his attitude as being that of a true critique because the good and virtuous characters take the social obligations and choices available to them just as seriously as the villainous and the fatuous. The result is a looming fatalism that compacts and lightens everything. This of course has a lot to do with the particular social situation of the quasi-aristocratic American expatriates that populate the book. They all have money and so belong to the leisured class, but being Americans are without aristocratic title, and living abroad a severe cultural disorientation and subsequent identity crisis engulfs them. They are, in short, without work or title or social norms to define them and guide them. As the seducer Gilbert Osmond puts it:

“I sometimes think we’ve got into a rather bad way, living off here among things and people not our own, without responsibilities or attachments, with nothing to hold us together or keep us up; marrying foreigners, forming artificial tastes, playing tricks with our natural mission” (Ch. XXIV).

The quiet despair of boredom, entrapment and weightlessness seeps more and more deeply into the description of the characters’ psychology. And here is where the comparison with the description of the underclass becomes capital. Granted, James’ characters come from the upper-class, but there are some striking parallels with the welfare dependents that Dalrymple describes (and, I might add, that Dalrymple’s style, while just as good as James’, is its opposite, perhaps morally as well: grave, direct, of consummate clarity). For example:

“In the welfare state, mere survival is not the achievement that it is, say, in the cities of Africa, and therefore it cannot confer the self-respect that is the precondition of self-improvement…The wealth that enables everyone effortlessly to have enough food…has created a large caste of people for whom life is, in effect, a limbo in which they have nothing to hope for and nothing to fear, nothing to gain and nothing to lose. It is a life emptied of meaning.”

There are of course some rather vast differences between the two situations, but it is interesting to note that in both cases it is an excess of money, among the modern underclass as well as among the wealthy scions, without adequate commensurate reserves of discipline, of ambition, of self-control or of stabilizing social relationships which creates a disaster of adrift futility. Perhaps it is time that it be admitted that Western society as a whole is the modern aristocracy of the world. Some would take this to be just as inherently pejorative a judgment as calling it a fascist society, but I don’t mean it in that way, nor do I wish to imply either that the many hard-working folk in Western society have not earned what they have or that such benefits are denied to ambitious non-Westerners. I don’t believe either of those things to be true. What I do mean is that, much like in the aristocracy and moneyed classes of old, there is no absolute need to do virtually anything to carry on in relative comfort. Simply by being alive, at least since the advent of the welfare state, one is entitled to a degree of security and luxury which in certain respects would be denied even to the aristocrats of 100 years ago.

To simplify the issue, I ask that one put aside the question of whether generosity or denial on these terms is inherently better, and simply consider what is sustainable. Much as the Soviet Union inarguably banrupted itslef paying worker pensions it couldn’t afford, no matter how one feels about how much the pensioners deserved what they were getting, so I cannot help but concur with Dalrymple in feeling that any society that emphatically makes no moral discrimination in its uncritical generosity is inherently self-destructive insofar as it encourages the growth of what he calls “social pathology.” In short, this is no mere existential crisis, and for a more dramatic example consider that in Saudi Arabia, from whence of course 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers originated, more than 90% of workers in the private sector are foreigners (non-Saudi) and unemployment among those aged 20-24 is almost 30%. Once again, a nation practically drowning in money, money its citizens receive simply for occupying a certain piece of land, and one in which rather considerable numbers have the luxury (or the curse) of not having to work but rather remain in a state of frustrated dependence on their parents and family. As a “high-ranking” Saudi government official puts it:

“The hijackers were a direct product of our social failures–a generation with no sense of what work entails, raised in a system that operated as a welfare state. We allowed them to grow up in a pampered emptiness, until they turned to bin Laden extremists in an effort to find themselves.”

Oh, for the days of mere seducers!

p.s. I don’t understand why James doesn’t acknowledge Flaubert among the antecedents to his project of doing justice to a representative type of the young women who are “the frail vessels…[of] the treasure of human affection,” as Madame Bovary seems pretty obviously the most tremendous previous effort in this vein. Perhaps he wanted to blot out Emma Bovary and replace her with a heroine who evokes grandeur rather than mere pity. In any event, the world seems to have taken to Madame Bovary more on the whole, perhaps because James, in his effort to make his heroine grand, had to not only make her but repeatedly emphasize the fact of her being exceptional, a necessity at odds with the goal of rendering her representative, and Flaubert’s portrayal of the bourgeois tragedy of a fundamentally ordinary, typical woman is more in keeping with the spirit of the age and the nature of the project.

Leaky argument version 2.0

I found this article interesting because it is one of the few anti-sweatshop arguments I have heard that takes into account, and seeks to counter, the argument that boycotting sweatshop goods or even seeking to impose higher wage and work standards on sweatshops will result in higher unemployment. Fortunately the author is (implied to be) an economist so there is not too much appeal to hysterical weeping, but there is still something weirdly naïve and a little vacuous in his opinion.

First of all, he claims that it is presumptuous to assume that wage rates completely determine where international companies decide to set up factories, citing the fact that Nike, which manufactures in Indonesia, also has factories in Mexico, where industrial wages are about four times as high. A debateable point: while no doubt it is overall cost that counts, not just labor costs, I would be almost willing to guarantee, without having Nike’s total manufacturing outlay in front of me, that its industrial concentration in Indonesia far exceeds that in Mexico. I know that almost every athletic shoe I have ever owned was either made in Indonesia, the Philippines, or “Indochina” (and occaisonally, back in the ’80’s, Korea). Maybe raising the wages of factory workers in Indonesia from $2 to $2.50 per day would not necessarily result in all the multi-nationals uprooting and moving somewhere else, but it’s pretty hard to argue the general correlation between labor costs and industrial activity, and setting wages into a larger matrix of business costs should make that relationship more clear, not less so, as the author seems to think.

Which leads to a bigger flaw, or at least inanity, of the reasoning herein. The author’s attitude to wage reform is pretty much circular. For instance, he writes:

“Surely, Kristof and his allies are right that imposition of first world wage and hours standards on Asian and African workers would destroy jobs. Cost increases that are too great would cause rising prices and falling demand. But wages can be increased significantly without big price impacts. Sweatshop workers in Asia earn something like $2 a day, perhaps for twelve hours of work. Tratiwoon would love the opportunity for her son to earn that much. But does Kristof have any reason for assuming that, if Indonesian employers were forced to raise pay to, say, $2.25 or even $2.50 a day-leading to a big boost in workers’ living standards-this requirement would be so burdensome that sweatshop workers would lose jobs and join Tratiwoon in the garbage dump?”

By implication, his idea of a good wage reform would be the maximum wage increase which would not adversely affect the companies’ costs enough to fire the workers or leave. Therefore, his argument is essentially that raising wages will not cause workers to lose their jobs if wages are only raised just enough so that the companies do not fire them! This is maybe a pretty nice, humane idea. But he’s definitely kidding himself if he thinks that that is the essence of the anti-sweatshop movement. He writes:

“Today, organizational and financial support for student and consumer organizing comes from the labor movement itself. This gives rise to the charge that the demand for labor standards is not only self-indulgent on the part of spoiled, affluent college students, but is also protectionist, an attempt to keep investment and jobs from migrating to the third world. This charge is silly because the modest wage increases that might result from an effective international standards regime would not cause manufacturers to rethink their global sourcing strategies. No clothing assembler will move back from Jakarta to New York because of a requirement to raise wages from $2 to $2.50 a day.”

Yeah, no shit, but Third World sweatshops are hardly the only possible source of the products they manufacture. But I have talked to plenty of people who are opposed to “sweatshops” that think that the government should forbid the importation of sweatshop products or, barring that, that consumers should boycott them. I have seen ads on sites like the The Onion that advertise “sweatshop-free” clothing “made in downtown L.A.” It is obviously easier on the consumer’s side to simply eschew Third World-produced clothing altogether than to force the companies to move their operations (although the irony is that the U.S. is by no means sweatshop-free, and “made in downtown L.A.” is certainly no guarantee that the product wasn’t made in a sweatshop). Thus opposing sweatshops can dovetail with protectionist economic policy in ways other than the rather implausible possibility that factories will relocate to America from the Third World, and that opposition does not always confine itself within the bounds of the free market.

I should preface the third fallacy, which is practical rather than theoretical, by nonetheless making a theoretical point. After listening and reading all last year to French pundits pulling out their hair over the question of whether socialism or liberalism are better systems for living, I finally concluded that that is an irrelevantly abstract way of thinking about the issue. The issue is not which one is “better” (and on what standard are we all to agree?) but which one will survive. Actually the scenario became all the more acute when I visited Russia, where plenty of people (including Putin, apparently) are still willing to blather on about how disbanding the Soviet Union was a mistake. To which I wanted to reply, what choice was there? The Soviet Union was bankrupt, and continuing on was not an option. I certainly concede that Russia and the international financial institutions have made a lot of mistakes, but one would think that eventually a lurid light would break in upon a darkened understanding and all the grumpy Russian pensioners would realize that the reason (well, one of the reasons) that the country was bankrupt was precisely because of that inviolable and untenable social and economic security for which they are always reminiscing. I bring all of that up merely to suggest that in thinking about these issues it behooves one to be more Darwinist and less utopian in thinking about these things. If something is not viable and sustainable, it doesn’t matter in the least how nicce it would be. Which is why the analogy that the author makes in the article between the “sweatshop era” in the U.S. and the current international scene is rather imperfect. He goes through a great show of facts and figures to demonstrate why the imposition of the minimum wage and various labor regulations in America was helpful to the workers and not harmful to commerce, while neglecting to consider that probably the only reason it didn’t cause major contraction in the industrial sector was that businesses were not yet international enough at that time to move their factories overseas to minimize costs (except maybe to Cuba or Puerto Rico). In those days businesses had to submit to regulation because they had no choice. That is no longer true when a multi-national facing higher costs in Indonesia is being offered all kinds of concessions and bribes to move to Sri Lanka. The author himself acknowledges that “the possibilities are remote that transnational regulation can improve conditions under which third world workers toil,” but fails to be perturbed by the fact that the only other way that, say, the U.S. government can effectively try to regulate international working conditions is through protectionist trade policies. And somehow the embargo on Cuba has failed to teach him that American sanctioning by itself is not sufficient to force even the smallest of countries to do its bidding (well, granted, the Soviet Union bolstering added an equally artifical and opposite factor, but that ended 15 years ago). And so who, basically, is going to enforce these standards even if everyone does agree they are a good idea?

Finally, he sneers at “free-marketers” for opposing wage regulation abroad while not being “noticeably vocal in opposition” to the minimum wage and thinks of that nature domestically. Well, I happen to know plenty of people who are at least partially opposed to the minimum wage and various other guaranteed workers’ benefits in the U.S. for precisely the same reasons. Just because France’s 35-hour work weeks are a national joke doesn’t mean that it doesn’t actually face 10-12% unemployment. It is regularly acknowledged in France that because of that it is virtually impossible to start a small business there, and yet journalists and intellectuals still wander around searching for “le secret du dynamisme” of the American economy as if it were the philosopher’s stone. Here’s a key, three simple words that they teach on the first day of intro. economics: “low entry costs.” And beyond even that, it’s more than a little annoying that these activists throw out wage figures completely out of context, without mentioning an average living wage in the countries concerned. Given that the average yearly income in India is about $1,600, for example, it is almost assured that the programmers making $24,000 per year are doing better than a $100,000 or even $150,000 per year programmer in the U.S., where the average income is about $40,000.

War for Votes

In a post from a few days ago, Patri Friedman points to a little back-and-forth between Alex Tabarrok and Brian Caplan about “freaky economics”. Therein, Tabarrok references a paper by Hess and Orphanides that suggests that presidents go to war to get re-elected:

If the economy is doing well, a sitting president is up on one score and without evidence can be assumed to be as good as the challenger in war-making ability. Thus, the president gets reelected. But if the economy is doing badly then an incumbent who cannot present evidence that he has superior war-making ability will lose for certain. Crucially, an incumbent can’t demonstrate war-making ability without a war – so when the economy is doing poorly and the President is up for reelection the model predicts more wars.

Hess and Orphanides define a war as “an international crisis in which the United States is involved in direct military activity that results in violence.” Using data from the International Crisis Behavior Project, they compare the onset of wars in first terms when there is a recession with (a) the onset of wars in first terms with no recession and (b) second terms. Stunningly, however, they find that in the 1953-1988 period wars are about twice as likely in first terms with a recession than in first terms with no recession and second terms (60% to 30%). The probability of this result occurring by chance is low.

Need I mention that the Hess and Orphanides model has proven to have predictive power?

Now, based on psychological intuition, I don’t necessarily disagree with Hess and Orphanides’ conclusions. Nor do I necessarily disagree with the Mencken line Patri summarizes with: “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.” However, I do have an issue with the justification that H&O give for their theory (at least as summarized by Tabarrok; I can’t access JSTOR from home). First of all, why only use 1953-1988? The American presidency’s been around for over 200 years, so why only use 36 of the more recent years? My guess: because, given that those are the years at the heart of the Cold War, armed, international conflicts were far more prevalent and, therefore, indicative of the desired conclusion. Also, before I get into the above more deeply, note that the H&O model only predicts war if the economy is bad…but the 36 years being discussed were probably (I’m more or less just making this up, but I suspect the numbers would pretty much back me up here) the 36 years of greatest sustained large-scale growth in the history of the world and that, furthermore, arguably the worst period, economically speaking, occurred during the first (and only) term of Jimmy Carter, who was (again, arguably) the least war-like president of at least the last 7 decades or so.

Anyway, let’s be honest, here: those 36 years cover 9 election-cycles (which, depending on how you slice it, gives anywhere from 9 to 11 “presidential terms,” depending on how you classify 1964 and Ford’s time in office), which is a pretty damned small sample size to be drawing “predictive” conclusions from. This becomes more clear if we break it down more explicitly. I’m assuming that Johnson’s first year in office (after JFK’s death) isn’t really being counted as a first term, since he was still eligible to be re-elected in 1968. On the other hand, I’m assuming that Ford’s time in office does qualify, since, even if he had won in ’76, he wouldn’t have been eligible in 1980. Hence, we have the following terms and associated wars (as defined in the H&O paper and as I recall them; that being said, I’m sure I’ve missed some):

First Terms

  • Ike, 1953-56: Korea
  • JFK, 1961-64 (died 1963): Bay of Pigs, start/escalation (depending on how you look at it) of conflict in Southeast Asia
  • LBJ, 1965-68: Vietnam
  • Nixon, 1969-72: Vietnam
  • Ford, 1974-76: Vietnam (still)
  • Carter, 1977-80: None
  • Reagan, 1981-84: Lebanon, Grenada

Second Terms

  • Ike, 1957-60: None
  • Nixon, 1973-76 (resigned 1974): Vietnam
  • Reagan, 1985-88: None

So, by this count, we have “war” in 6 out of 7, or 71% of first terms (I’m guessing, in the paper, JFK gets put in the “no war” category, which is misleading, but, I suppose, technically correct, given their definition; anyway, that gives 5 of 7 or 57%, which rounds off to the cited 60%) and 1 of 3 or 33% of second terms.

Anyway, the point is, yeah, the percentages look pretty significantly different, but when you only have 3 items in the second category, it’s sorta hard to take those percentages seriously in terms of statistical significance.

Also note that if the paper had taken into account the years since 1988, things would look somewhat different. Each of the last five terms has included “an international crisis in which the United States is involved in direct military activity that results in violence”: Bush I had Iraq, Clinton had Somalia in his first term and Kosovo and Afghanistan in his second term (betcha forgot about Afghanistan, didn’t you?), and, obviously, Bush II has had Iraq and Afghanistan in both terms. If we include this period, all of a sudden the percentages become 8 of 10 or 80% for first-term presidents (or 90% if we include JFK) and 3 of 5 or 60% for second-term presidents going to war.

Viewed in that light, the apparent difference between hawks trying to get re-elected and dove-like sitting ducks (sitting doves?) begins to vanish. In fact, the truly cynical might look at those numbers and wonder whether the primary reason presidents get involved in violent international conflict isn’t simply that they have the capacity to do so. The cynic who holds such views might also note that none of the 12 aforementioned “wars” were waged under the auspices of a Congressional declaration of war. And the truly, incurably committed of such cynics might point this little factoid out not in the wistful if-only-we-would-go-back-to-the-Constitution way of knuckleheaded conservatives/Libertarians, but rather as a nod to someone with the initials JTK.