Sunday, October 31, 2004

It Doesn't Always Work

The New York Times > Magazine > Faith at Work

Chuck Ripka is a moneylender -- that is to say, a mortgage banker -- and his institution, the Riverview Community Bank in Otsego, Minn., is a way station for Christ...The bank opened 18 months ago as a ''Christian financial institution,'' with a Bible buried in the foundation and the words ''In God We Trust'' engraved in the cornerstone...

It doesn't always work. I spoke with one employee of the bank, who asked that her name not be used, and she told me that while she had been raised Catholic, she did not consider herself part of the bank's Christian culture. ''You will never find me going into Chuck's office to pray,'' she said. On the other hand, she said that the bank was a ''wonderful'' place to work because ''here the people are all nice -- it's a healthy environment.'' Another employee, a young man who until recently worked at a competing bank, also said that while he hasn't given his soul to Jesus, he liked the wholesome atmosphere of Riverview.

I can understand the appeal of the religious right's vision. I'd like to operate in a healthy environment, where people were fair, decent and compassionate, too. The world is a rough place and could use lots of improvement. But I don't think that personal transformation, whether religious or secular, can do the job.

I believe in Original Sin--"the only Christian doctrine that has knock-down empirical verification." People are not nice and no amount of prayer, meditation or psychotherapy will make them consistently fair, decent or compassionate. To make the world livable we engage in "self-binding" to prevent ourselves from acting on our tainted impulses and costly sentimentalities, like Odysseus who bound himself to the mast to avoid being lured by the Sirens. We bind ourselves through legally enforceable contracts because we know that we cannot trust one another, or ourselves, to keep promises. We vote for taxes to pay for public works and income transfers because we know that left to our own devices we will not be public-spirited or charitable. Only impersonal agencies and coercive regulations can make the world a minimally fair and decent place.

Maybe the real cultural divide isn't between the religious right and the secular left but between cynics like me and optimistic sentimentalists who image that they can make the world more livable by promoting personal responsibility, preaching love, teaching wisdom, strenghening families, supporting grass-roots efforts, running Christian businesses or establishing communes.

Saturday, October 30, 2004

Neopatrimonialism in America

What Karl Rove could not do, Osama bin Laden has done: he has thrown the election decisively to Bush.

Bush's posture as the tough guy who can protect America is the perfect judo tactic, using his opponents' weight to throw them. Every cock-up in the "war against terror" turns to his advantage: the worse things go (as a consequence of his incompetence) the more firmly the American people are convinced that they need a Strong Leader who will stay the course. I suppose the Kerry team is afraid to point this out to voters because they assume that most are too dumb to get it. Maybe they're right.

If they are, then it's unlikely that the disasters in store for the next four years will change their minds. If Iraq collapses into full-blown civil war, that will be all the more reason to support our Strong Leader; if Iraq is stabilized then the administration will claim that it was because we stayed the course. If working class Americans suffer economically they will be all the more convinced that they need more "tax relief" and can't afford to elect Democrats who, they believe, will sock them with more taxes and so further undermine their economic position; if they get a few scraps they will bless Bush for his largesse.

The forthcoming Republican victory will establish Neopatrimonialism in the US for the forseeable future. Under Neopatrimonialism--the Big Man patronage system--peasants support their patron, a Strong Leader, who in return protects their tribe and feeds them scraps. Big Men for their part stir up ethnic rivalries and tribal clashes to keep them afraid so that they will seek the protection of Strong Leaders and keeps the peasants poor and ignorant so that they will bless him for every miserable scrap they get.

Once Neopatrimonialism is established, even free, fair elections do no good because the peasants support it: their lives are lousy and, they reason, without their Big Man's patronage they will be even poorer than they are and vulnerable to attack. Apart from Mandala, anti-colonialist leaders in Sub-Saharan Africa set up as Big Men, established Neopatrimonialist systems that trashed their countries and, even within nominally democratic systems, stayed in power because the small, educated urban elites who opposed them could not muster enough votes to get them out.

That is the future of America. The lower classes will become poorer, more ignorant and more attached to Big Men who feed them scraps and promise to keep them safe from hostile tribes. If they become restless, Republican Big Men, like African dictators, will play the anti-colonialist card, cementing their alliance with the peasantry by denouncing the colonial powers of Old Europe and their collaborators at home--the educated, liberal, cosmopolitan upper middle class.

The US is anomalous amongst developed countries in having a conservative working class but the phenomenon isn't that surprising put in a wider context. When people distrust the government and rule of law they become attached to patronage systems. In Sub-Saharan Africa, colonial powers reinforced the patronage system by sub-contracting administrative tasks to local Big Men. In the US, the war in Vietnam, Watergate, and 30 years of conservative propaganda about the dangers of big government, high taxes and effete snobs out to undermine family values and the American way of life, have done the job.

Bin Laden Redux

October Surprise: Bin Laden's Reprise By Alexander Barnes Dryer

[T]he most important thing about bin Laden's speech is that he's addressing it to the American people. He's trying to explain why 9/11 happened, the idea and when it occurred to him, and also telling the American people loud and clear that, unless they do something about it, America could be attacked again... Basically, he is saying, "if we are not attacked, we won't attack anybody."

Right. Sounds reasonable but let us consider the proposal from the perspective of my geopolitical mini-theory, i.e. the Muslim world is an international slum where Bin Laden and other Big Men operate as gang leaders. Imagine how we should respond if the leader of an urban street gang told us that we could insure our safety in the future if we would only stop sending cops to interfere with his gang's activities.

The pitch is: leave us in peace to pursue our traditional barbarian way of life--shooting up the neighborhood for sport, beating the crap out of our women, and pursuing our drug smuggling, gun running and human trafficking businesses.

Bin Laden doesn't get it. He imagines that Americans are primitive tribal people like his followers, enlisted into their Big Men's turf wars, and does not see the nerve that Bush's rhetoric about bringing freedom and democracy to Iraq touches. But Americans who support the administration's policies don't get it either. They imagine illiterate savages living in mud-brick hovels are really just like good Americans under the skin and, freed from the oppressive rule of brutal dictators, will spontaneously organize a democratic society.

Military intervention is no more likely to bring "freedom" to the Middle East than cops, jails and three-strikes laws are to improve urban ghettos. In both cases the root problems are poverty and the "culture of poverty" and in both cases the solution (if any) is the same: buy off the barbarians, pump in money, and dismantle the culture.

Monday, October 25, 2004


Times Online - World

Several hundred tonnes of sophisticated high explosive have been stolen from a Saddam-era military facility in Iraq, despite repeated warnings from UN weapons watchdogs that US troops should secure the appears the explosives were looted in the period of lawlessness after last year's invasion..."It's very embarrassing for the Americans. The very thing the war was supposed to prevent, it has in fact facilitated."

But let's not exaggerate: it's not really "several hundred"--just 380 tons of high explosives that have gone missing. And let's be fair: most of us lose things--I used to lose my keys all the time until I put a little hook by the back door and got into the habit of hanging them up as soon as I got home. I admit I've never lost a stockpile of high explosives--but then I'm not the Commander in Chief.

Administration apologists are already doing damage control, dismissing Kerry's speech this morning as mere politicking. After all, they note, this business of keeping on top of things in Iraq is the responsibility of military on the ground--even if we credit President Bush with liberating Iraq, we can't blame him for the SNAFUs, least of all for losing 380 tons of high explosives. I understand this: I'm not to blame for all the things that go missing in my house--the cleaners put stuff in places where I can't find them, the dog walks off with things and buries them, and my kids make such a mess that no one can find anything. But then I'm not the Commander in Chief.

Looks like we have a dilemma here. Either the President is responsible for operations in Iraq or he isn't. If he is, then the current President has been remiss in his duties and ought not to be re-elected. If he isn't, then in choosing the next President we shouldn't worry about the situation in Iraq, which is the business of the military, but vote for the candidate who has the most to offer on the domestic front. The rest of the proof is left to the reader as an exercise.

As for the lost explosives, it may be time for a faith-based initiative:

St. Anthony, come around: 380 tons of high explosives are lost and must be found

Saturday, October 23, 2004

Kristoff on God and Sex

The New York Times > Opinion > Op-Ed Columnist: God and Sex

Over the last couple of months, I've been researching the question of how the Bible regards homosexuality. Social liberals tend to be uncomfortable with religious arguments, but that is the ground on which political battles are often decided in America...since Americans are twice as likely to believe in the Devil as in evolution, I also think it's stupid of liberals to forfeit the religious field.

I went to a reception for a city council candidate sponsored by our local homewoner's association. Plans are afoot to build high-rise luxury condos and office buildings in our heretofore unfashionable suburb I wanted to find out where he stood.

I'm keen on development. We're close the the downtown of a major metropolitan area--some glitzy high-rise development would yuppify our town and boost property values. But I discovered to my horror that the other homeowners were dead set against it and that the candidate--against whom I have just cast my absentee ballot--was their man. He promised to stop the high rises, fight city hall, and do what he could to maintain the character of our town--which has been described as "a trailer park without the trailers." One of his supporters, talking me up, noted that in another neighborhood which had been developed recently and become fashionable there was "nothing to do but eat at restaurants or go drinking."

This seemed good to me, but I see their point. While they're ok with the Starbucks that have moved in recently, they don't want the place turned into a latte liberal enclave even if it increases their property values. They want to live in what they perceive as safe "family" neighborhoods amongst people who maintain their preferred lifestyle. And that is what, I suspect, motivates the majority of Americans who vote against gay marriage--something that Kristoff does not get.

Even if a sizeable percentage of Americans claim to believe in the Devil and doubt evolution, very few are evangelical Christians who make a serious attempt to guide their lives according to Biblical principles. Most socially conservative Americans want to live in Dick and Jane family neighborhoods, in a world that looks right--where men do men's jobs, women do women's jobs, and guys don't hold hands in public. They support conservative churches and conservative political candidates who will secure the world that looks right from attack by terrorists and real estate developers--and affirm them in the face of contemptuous latte-drinking Liberals like one of Kristoff's readers who writes: "LOL. My husband just compared the fundies to the mudhens on our lake right now. They have the same little microchips in their little brains as the cooties do."

Kristoff's Biblical exegesis will not persuade them and so long as Liberals regard them as cooties Culture Wars will keep going.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004


Guardian Unlimited | The Guardian | It's in our interests to be nannied

The problem with critics of the nanny state is that they mistakenly equate non-interference by government with freedom...To maximise our freedom, therefore, we should be interested in creating a society in which we have the maximum power to make choices for ourselves. That may require us to limit the extent to which influences that are corrosive to freedom are allowed to operate.

According to the conventional wisdom, and political rhetoric from the right, conservative policies that restrict government "interference" maximize individual freedom while liberal policies trade off individual freedom for other goods.

Personally I hadn't noticed this, in fact it seems clear to me that it's the other way around. Without government support for schools and student loans I couldn't have gotten the education that provided a real choice of careers for me. Without the enforcement of equal opportunity and affirmative action regulations my range of options in the labor market would have limited to "women's jobs": teaching, typing, waitressing, cashiering and the "helping professions."

Without government interference I would now likely be trapped in 2 square feet of space for 8 hours a day operating a cash register or sitting at a computer terminal keying in data while my supervisor monitored every keystroke. Most women's jobs are like that--restricted mobility, interminable repetition and close supervision with few possibilities for achievement or advancement. I don't see how that counts as freedom.

Freedom, in the most basic sense, means the absence of physical constraint--not being trapped in a small space behind a check out counter or in a carrel answering phones. It means the chance to organize my own activities and more broadly, the available of a wide range of options from which I can choose, making trade-offs in accordance with my preferences. Government interference restricts the options of a few people while increasing the net freedom overall by liberating us from the constraints imposed on us by customs and traditions, the policies of non-government organizations, and the restrictions to our liberty that come from the unchosen circumstances of our lives.

Saturday, October 16, 2004

The PC Paradox and the Anglican Church

African dissent key to Anglican stance on homosexuals

[A]s the Anglican Communion wrestles with the continued furor over last year's election of an openly gay American bishop, attention is being focused on feisty Nigerian Archbishop Peter Akinola, who has threatened an Anglican rebellion if the American church goes unpunished..."We no longer need to look to Canterbury to become Christians," Akinola said during a recent U.S. tour. "If they want to create a new religion, good luck to them, but we don't want a new religion. What we have already is good enough for us."

I follow the furore in the Anglican Church closely because it's a striking case of the Paradox of Political Correctness. For over 30 years self-hating Liberals have valorized and patronized the Other and are now beginning to discover that a good many Others reject the core values of Liberalism and are fed up with being patronized.

When I was an undergraduate, most of the rich kids I knew wanted desperately to be poor (while, of course, virtually all poor people desperately wanted to be rich). We wore denim work shirts to express solidarity with the Proletariat. It came as quite a shock to the system when the proletarian Chicago cops, on whose behalf we were fighting the Revolution, bashed our heads in when we demonstrated at the Democratic Convention. It never really sunk in though until CNN colored the map red and blue and people started worrying what the matter with Kansas was. We discovered that the proles weren't harmless specimens: they disliked us, disagreed with us and wielded real political power.

Now the boom has fallen on Liberal clergy in the Episcopal Church, with the same resounding thump that the first Chicago cop's baton made when it fell on the first student head in 1968. Liberal clergy have discovered that African Anglicans are not harmless specimens, grateful for their tutelage and the contents of ECW mite boxes, but religiously committed adults who disagree with them and, at least within the Church, wield real political power. It was especially entertaining when the most liberal clergy, so shaken that they let their guard down, publicly opined that that the African bishops who objected to their agenda were ignoramuses "just up from animism" who didn't understand what Christianity was all about, conjectured that they had been "bought off" by American conservatives with "chicken dinners," and expressed outrage that after decades of financial support they had the nerve to get uppity. I am sure that the African bishops knew they felt this way all along and were amused to hear them express these sentiments publicly.

I disagree with Archbishop Akinola. But I disagree with lots of people, many of whom are smart and educated. I don't think that Archbishop Akinola is a crypto-animist who just doesn't understand what Christianity is all about or that he's been bought off by American conservatives. I would rather be disagreed with, and even hated, than patronized and I assume that Archbishop Akinola and his colleagues feel the same way.

Friday, October 15, 2004

Bush vs. Kerry--Again


Here we go again. By general agreement Kerry won all the debates--the last by 52% to 39%. The result: Bush now leads by 4%. Let's see: 39 - 52 = 4.

Who benefits from the conservative program? Certainly the ultra-wealthy who got the most benefit from Bush's tax cuts and sweetheart deals for big business. But no amount of advertising, propaganda or even tampering with voter registration could get Bush in without broad support from the bulk of the population who, one would think, don't benefit from his program.

Of course it depends on what you mean be "benefit." If benefit is preference satisfaction then, in addition to the plutocrats, the program benefits Americans who deeply discount the future (or possibly haven't heard about the future at all) and are prepared to take big risks to get a few extra bucks for consumer goods, whether through minimal tax savings or personal debt.

Choice reveals preference and, by their political choices ye shall know them. Inferring to the best explanation it looks like there are a mass of voters who regard poverty, drudgery and unemployment as inevitable facts of life, administered by the goddess Tyche, which no government program can ameliorate. They see liberal proposals to improve their lot as futile--or disingenuous, aimed at bankrolling parasites in state bureaucracies and the undeserving poor, and in any case degrading their standard of living and constraining their choices. They're floating on consumer debt and most mange to juggle car loans, credit card debt and second mortgages; they take advantage of creating financing to live well beyond their means. Why should they worry about the deficit?

Will four more years of this garbage persuade them otherwise? No, because given their fundamental assumption that insecurity and personal economic disasters are in the order of nature there is no way to falsify the hypothesis that Bush's program benefits them: if Bush puts $300 in their pockets, a month's payment on their car loans, they see it as pure profit and praise him; if they're laid off, slammed with catastrophic medical expenses, or just struggle monthly to make payments and take out new loans to consolidate their old ones, they blame it on Tyche.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Freedom and the Gender Gap

The New York Times > Opinion > Op-Ed Columnist: Not Just a Personality Clash, a Conflict of Visions

"Politicians from sparsely populated areas are more likely to say they want government off people's backs so they can run their own lives. Politicians from denser areas are more likely to want government to play at least a refereeing role, to keep people from bumping into one another too abusively."

David Brooks has a new 5-minute idea: people from sparsely populated areas are interested in freedom and so vote conservative; people from densely populated areas are concerned about social cooperation and so vote liberal.

The assumption is that the conservative agenda promotes freedom and individualism by getting government off people's backs. Women know better. The constraints that restrict our options don't come from government interference--they come from entrenched traditions and the customary practices of firms. The market is not perfectly efficient, and the labor market is pretty inefficient. Left to their own devices, employers will hire friends, relatives and people who "look right." This is fine if you have friends or relatives who are hiring or if you look right for the job but it is not fine if you are a woman--or a man--interested in a job for which you do not look right.

Before the government committed itself to promoting and enforcing equal opportunity regulations women's options in the labor market were limited to traditional "women's jobs." As a women, realistically, my only options would have been have been teaching, child care, social work, nursing or clerical work. When I first applied for job, in my teens, newspaper ads were classified as "Help Wanted-Men" and "Help Wanted-Women, " with a very few classified as "Help Wanted-Men or Women." Without government interference, I would have had very few options. Government interference liberated me.

Government "interference" expands people's freedom. Women, like me, know it. Blacks know it too--and vote accordingly. Before the federal government interfered they couldn't live or go to school where they pleased. Government interference greatly expanded our options.

Our aim is not to trade off freedom for cooperation, security or anything else. It is to maximize freedom. We just recognize that, for us, it is government interference that secures our freedom.

Saturday, October 09, 2004

Time to Retire the F Word

I regularly teach "feminism classes" with a colleague in econ. We've taught classes on women and work and, most recently, a course on the economics and ethics of gender in the developing world. Most of our students firmly maintain that they are "not feminists but"... believe that women should get equal pay for equal work and get a fair chance to do the same kinds of jobs that men do, that being male or female shouldn't impose constraints on ones opportunities and that men and women should be assessed according to the same standards. We've always found their disavowals of feminism puzzling since we assumed that leveling the male-female playing field and opening the whole range of available options to both men and women was what feminism was all about.

There are certainly tactical disagreements about how you do this. Conservatives have faith that the Market will do the job. Unrepentant Liberals, like myself, worry about market failure, feedback effects, and the brute fact that people just want things to look right--and so don't want to see women driving tow trucks or men working as receptionists at high-gloss firms. We believe that only government intervention can create genuine, de facto equality of opportunity. Tactics aside however most of us agree about the end--seeing to it that, insofar as possible, people's chances to get what they want aren't constrained by circumstance over which they have no control: not only sex but race, national origin, class and dumb luck. This makes me wonder: what it the problem with feminism?

Maybe the term "feminism" isn't useful any more and may in fact have become misleading. So it seemed to me after a class discussion and so I suggested to students that it might be time to retire the F word. This is what I wrote:

In our last class a number of students had questions and comments about “the Feminist Movement”—reminiscent of my own kids’ remarks about the way things were in my “day.”

Although I remember the 50’s feminine mystique, Betty Friedan’s attack on it and subsequent changes in the social and economic role of women, I don’t recall a movement. To the extent that I remember the ‘60s, I remember an antiwar movement, which staged public protests, swung public opinion and ultimately helped change US policy. I don’t remember a feminist movement.

Things changed. The economic bubble of the ‘50s began to deflate. Real income for white males flattened out and it became increasingly difficult for families to maintain the ever-rising standard of living they expected on one income; meanwhile the growth of traditional “women’s jobs” in the expanding service sector drew women out of the home and into the labor force.

The Pill made sexual activity less risky for women: during the ‘50s conservative moralists denounced pre-marital sex on the grounds that it carried a risk of pregnancy, a decade later they denounced the Pill for making pre-marital sex virtually risk-free. The “traditional family” and the code of sexual conduct that went along with it were collapsing, without any help from a feminist “movement.” Moreover the civil religion that supported them was imploding. Most of all, perhaps, people just got sick of the ‘50s.

If there was ever a feminist movement it was epiphenomenal. Women’s roles were changing and, in an age of ideologies and revolutions, it was perhaps inevitable that that a movement should be invented to explain why.

Feminism is a very odd sort of ism. Most isms are either controversial political views, peripheral theologies, or physiological anomalies—Libertarianism, Arianism, astigmatism. If there is such a thing as feminist doctrine it is the claim that men and women should have the same opportunities at the same costs, that being male or female should not be a constraint.  This is neither peripheral nor anomalous, and it is hard to see why it should ever have been controversial.

Femimism seems more in the line of Literatism, the doctrine that children should learn how to read, or Dentalism, the doctrine that people should brush their teeth and see their dentists regularly.
I suppose “Literateism” and “Dentalism” weren’t invented, until now, because there is no work for them to do. When it comes to these doctrines, we don’t need to argue about them, anathamatize them or fix them so we don’t need to name them.

I am not sure that “feminism” ever did any useful work. Even if it did, it may now be time for retirement.

Friday, October 01, 2004

Bush v. Kerry: Round One

Large Stupid Men Tee Shirts - LSM

Americans by a margin of more than 2 to 1 believe that Kerry won last night's debate on Iraq, terrorism and homeland security, but the polls haven't changed and the majority still believe that Bush would do better on Iraq, terrorism and homeland security than Kerry.

Is this consistent?

Yes, if you assume that the ability to speak articulately about the issues and win arguments has no bearing on performance. This is indeed what a significant number of Americans believe and it is why Kerry's performance in the debates, even if it were stellar, would make little difference. Bush's supporters view debating skill as nothing more than a clever trick and take Bush's inarticulate grunts, repetition, and posturing as signs of strength.

The source of this extraordinary view is lower class sexual dimorphism. Both Republican and Democratic campaigns feature elite women in suits doing the same jobs as their male counterparts and behaving in much the same way as elite males. But further down the social scale, sexual dimorphism becomes salient.

Working class men do the grunt work; working class women do the paperwork. Even in pink-collar clerical and service work women need to be literate, articulate and socially presentable. Working class males just need to lift heavy things. They regard fluency, social finesse and even intelligence as womanish-- signs of weakness that disqualify man from leadership.

Prima facie the Republican Campaign was insane to make military leadership an issue when Kerry was a decorated war veteran and Bush was a National Guard drop-out. But they knew their base constituency--dumb white men. It didn't matter that Kerry served in combat, that he was 5 inches taller than Bush or even he was a booming bass to Bush's reedy tenor: the mere fact that Kerry spoke French made him, in the eyes of working class males, a wimp.

Bush gets macho points for being inarticulate, simple-minded and dogmatic: working class machismo isn't a matter of what you can do but a matter of what you cannot or will not do. Heavy lifting is optional, so long as you're not very smart.