Thursday, May 31, 2007

Beer and Wine: Reflections on Iceland
Field Maloney was online at on Thursday, May 31, to examine the factors that have boosted wine's popularity over beer, the options brewers have for reclaiming the lead, and whatever other questions readers have about alcoholic beverages.

Gimme wine any day! Cheap wine is a glut on the market here in California and better than French vin ordinaire because, I'm told, software moguls with bucks retire early and set up gentleman farmers' vineyards. Good for them.

During Chaucer's time ordinary folk drank wine. Britain only became a beer/spirits culture during the Little Ice Age. Funny culture us--certainly not Mediterranean but not truly Nordic, a tertium quid like hyenas, neither dogs nor cats. Funny language, English, a Germanic language with a vocabulary that comes largely from Latin, either directly or via French--except for the most common vocabulary items and "little words"--and a grammar that veers toward Chinese. In China, our translator said that when Chinese linguists started working on developing a formal grammar for Chinese they took English as a model because it was the "big" language that had the grammar closest to Chinese--very analytic.

I became disillusioned about our Northern roots after, unexpectedly, spending 3 weeks in Iceland. My husband had a heart attack on the plane coming back from England, which was diverted to Reykjavik where I stayed while he was in hospital. The only thing I liked about Iceland was the weather--cold, very windy, dramatic and changeable. The language was terrible. The book I got cheerfully announced that almost all verbs in Icelandic were irregular. Even as a native English speaker with a little German I couldn't make out anything. I went to the University looking for the philosophy dept hoping to hook up and do something productive but I couldn't find it: you'd think "philosophia" or something like that but it turns out that philosophy is "heimspecki"--worldview. I kind of like that. At the hospital, my husband was in the "heartsdeild" (sp?)--the heart department: Icelandic doesn't pick up Latin or Greek for technical terms. I figured out that "kvennadeild," women's department, was gynecology--queen, woman, kvenna (genitive)--but it was only just before we left that I realized that "naturhereingangur" (sp?) on the sign above the entrance to the hospital I used didn't refer to some exotic disease but just meant "night entrance"--night's going-in doer.

The culture was worse--so near yet so far. I felt much more comfortable in Kenya. The Icelandic don't queue. It took me quite a while to figure out how to get served in stores as I politely held back while everyone else bumped ahead of me. They are also glum and observe long silences when they have nothing to say. I couldn't figure out what the doctors were trying to tell me because they seemed, by my lights, so pessimistic. In the US it would be, "Wow, you have terminal cancer, but don't worry, you'll live to be 100! This is a challenge! Make you a better person--what a jolly experience!" In Iceland it was more along the lines of, "Um, you have an ingrown toenail. Here are all the technical details. This will hurt."

The worst of it I remember was breakfast at the hostel where I stayed--which was a wonderful place Stay there if you visit! I got coffee, and saw two pitchers labled "mijlk" and "surmiljk." I immediately pored the surmilk into my coffee--obviously I thought, cream: the top of the milk. But it was some sort of "sour milk"--buttermilk or liquid yogurt. Beware of this stuff. It clots in coffee and tastes terrible. That was when I decided, unilaterally, that English was a Romance language and that our manifest destiny lay with the South. South! The climate is awful and they stand too close--though in my experience all non-English-speakers stand too close and also are not sufficiently bonded with dogs--but the language is intelligible, at least in writing, they don't serve this shit, and you can make out what they're up to even if you don't approve of it. Drink wine!

"The Greek empire extended as far as the olive--the Roman as far as the vine." And that definitely didn't include Icelend. The vine grew in England before the Little Ice Age and Romans ruled up to Hadrian's Wall. Even if we have a Germanic language, sort of, we're wops. Screw beer--drink wine!

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Multiculturalism and Social Capital

This is a mainly a note to myself. "Social capital" seems to be one of those trendy notions like "framing" that lots of us use without having in mind any clear definition but which are at least suggestive at the start for pointing toward a line of inquiry.

What strikes me looking at this Wikipedia article is the absence of any discussion of how social capital adds up--if indeed it does--and more fundamentally what the bearers of social capital are: individuals, groups or what? We can think of individuals as having social capital to the extent that they're "connected" but the connectedness of individuals within various subgroups doesn't necessarily enhance the social capital of a society as a whole, if we can talk about societies as bearers of social capital. In fact the opposite seems to be the case: multicultural societies that consist of lots of cohesive clans or tribes are low on trust and public-spiritedness and high on corruption.

I think something like what I'm after is captured by the distinction between "bonding" and "bridging" social capital--the street gang vs. the block association. Groups that are bonded compete against one another and to that extent diminish the social capital of the larger society in which they figure; groups that embody "bridging" social capital enhance the social capital of the wholes of which they're parts.

"Think globally--act locally" assumes that local groups typically generate bridging social capital: (1) that they'll cooperate with other groups rather than compete and (2) be inclusive rather than exclusive when it comes to membership. We think of civic organizations, whole food coops, and such. Anyone interested in the activities or goals of the group can get in, and the group cooperates with other groups. But clans, tribes and ethnic "communities" are exactly the opposite of that. They're by their nature exclusionary since membership is based on bloodlines, and maintain their cohesiveness by exclusion and competition. "We take care of our own." We compete for turf and other scarce resources with comparable groups to benefit our members, and in order to provide significant benefits we have to restrict membership--there's only so much stuff to go around.

Maybe the fundamental mistake of multiculturalists who advocate the salad bowl rather than the melting pot is thinking of ethnic groups on the model of civic organizations, coops and the like, as repositories of bridging rather than bonding social capital. Each group will operate its own ethnic restaurants and produce its own float for the Fourth of July parade. But this is precisely NOT how ethnic groups operate: if they did they wouldn't be ethnic groups but voluntary cultural preservation societies. There's nothing objectionable about cultural preservation societies if they admit anyone who has an interest in ethnic cookery, dance and costume and if their business is participating in "ethnic faires," reading and discussing the history of their chosen group, learning about the language and so on. But real "ethnic communities" are not voluntary associations and, even if they engage in cultural preservation as a side line their main business is to access political power and gain economic clout in order to get apprenticeships, jobs, contracts, grants and other scarce resources for their members. To this end they promote bloc voting and operate patronage systems.

I know what this system is like because I was brought up with it and I can't think of any arrangement that's more effective in undermining public-spiritedness, transparency and trust--social capital on the large scale.

Monday, May 28, 2007

War Without End

[T]he nightmare of the Bush years won’t really be over until politicians are convinced that voters will punish, not reward, Bush-style fear-mongering. And that hasn’t happened yet.

Here’s the way it ought to be: When Rudy Giuliani says that Iran, which had nothing to do with 9/11, is part of a “movement” that “has already displayed more aggressive tendencies by coming here and killing us,” he should be treated as a lunatic. When Mitt Romney says that a coalition of “Shia and Sunni and Hezbollah and Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda” wants to “bring down the West,” he should be ridiculed for his ignorance. And when John McCain says that Osama, who isn’t in Iraq, will “follow us home” if we leave, he should be laughed at.

But they aren’t, at least not yet. And until belligerent, uninformed posturing starts being treated with the contempt it deserves, men who know nothing of the cost of war will keep sending other people’s children to graves at Arlington.

But would it fly? Of course not. The myth of the Bad Guys out to get us out of sheer malevolence, because they want to make us as badly off as they are, is too entrenched. It's rooted in the Christian tradition, articulated most powerfully in Paradise Lost and transubstantiated from theological dogma to political agenda during the Cold War. I remember what it was like as a child, imagining that the Communist world was a huge, prison camp, where everyone was under constant surveillance and masses of people in gray uniforms marched in lockstep to gray factories where they spent all their waking hours shoveling coal into furnaces: it was the conventional vision of Hell.

The myth remained intact after the Berlin Wall fell and it was inevitable that we would find some other Bad Guys to plug into the template. International Terrorism was it, and it was remarkable how quickly we were able to assign all the attributes of the Communist Enemy to the Islamicist Enemy. The Enemy wasn't motivated by ordinary human concerns or rational self-interest but by an insane sado-masochistic ideology so negotiation was impossible. The Enemy was out to obliterate all individuality so, just as we used to watch Soviet soldiers goose-stepping in parade, hoards of Chinese in identical pajamas waving identical little red books, we could watch masses of Muslims prostrating themselves simultaneously. The Enemy brainwashed its constituents by censorship, propaganda and the rote learning of ideological texts--the Marxist-Leninist canon, the Little Red Book or the Koran.

But, good Lord, who would have thought that Muslims could be plugged into that template? Muslims were Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, the Arabian Nights, sultans, vizers and harems, Omar Khyam, Saladin and Grenada, Casablanca and Il Seraglio, magic lamps, genies, golden domes and date trees--and, at their very worst, algebra!

Sunday, May 27, 2007

So much for democracy...

Bryan Caplan, an economist at George Mason University, has attracted notice for raising a pointed question: Do voters have any idea what they are doing? In his provocative new book, “The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies,” Caplan argues that “voters are worse than ignorant; they are, in a word, irrational — and vote accordingly.” Caplan’s complaint is not that special-interest groups might subvert the will of the people, or that government might ignore the will of the people. He objects to the will of the people itself...To encourage greater economic literacy, he suggests tests of voter competence, or “giving extra votes to individuals or groups with greater economic literacy.”

I'm on with that, though I'd be nervous about just what "economic literacy" is supposed to be. But would it be paternalism? Roughly, paternalism means preventing people from getting what they want "for their own good" but that poses the question of what is is to prefer a given option. If we go with ordinary usage I think people do operate according to an "informed preference" notion: we talk about what people "really" want and that assumes, if not perfect information, enough to make decent educated guesses.

Some people have enough information but make what most regard as bad decisions anyway. Some know the costs and risks of smoking but smoke anyway. Stopping them would be paternalistic. However if Caplan is correct, when it comes to policy most voters don't have a clue:

Caplan’s own evidence for the systematic folly of voters comes from a 1996 survey comparing the views of Ph.D. economists and the general public. To the exasperation of the libertarian-minded Caplan, most Americans do not think like economists. They are biased against free markets and against trade with foreigners. Absurdly, they think that the American economy is being hurt by too much spending on foreign aid; they also exaggerate the potential economic harms of immigration.

The foreign aid issue is the most glaring: some time back a survey indicated that the average guess Americans made about the percentage of GDP the US spends on foreign aid was 23% when it's a little over 0.1%. There was also a poll indicating that 17% of Americans believed that they were in the wealthiest 1% of the population and another 17% were confident that that some time in their lives they'd get there.

Now this is simply factual error that could easily be fixed--not a matter of religious beliefs, "values," or tastes. The remarkable thing is that politicians, obsessed with focus groups, spin, and propaganda have been so reluctant to set people right by stating, and repeating, simple facts. It would be easy enough to set citizens straight on these matters: charities make a fuss about how "for just pennies a day" you can feed a village or send a child to school--why don't politicians? Are Americans opposed to taxes as a matter brute fact or do they simply assume that taxation isn't cost effective? Seeing how it looks from the ground it looks like the latter. Here is the public, imagining that they pay almost a quarter of their income in taxes to feed, clothe and shelter ungrateful "natives" without much effect, and even more to finance local "welfare queens," while "for just pennies a day" private charities do a better job without waste and corruption.

Sometimes though it isn't simple facts but educated guesses about the consequences of various policies. Still, politicians seem peculiarly bad at getting inside the heads of voters and maybe more importantly refuse to recognize that they're rational choosers with legitimate goals. Americans recognize that the US health care system is broken but resist a single-payer system. Why? Because they imagine that it will impose a huge financial burden (not taking into account the savings on private insurance schemes and improvement in efficiency) and that what they'll get is rationed, meatball medicine: long waits for appointments and every visit to the doctor's office like a trip to the DMV, shuffled through an impersonal system, waiting in a grim holding pen to get perfunctory attention from government functionaries--like black-and-white films of immigrants on Ellis Island being screened for TB.

They imagine that immigrants will turn their neighborhoods into dangerous slums, reeking of greasy food, with families sitting outside at all hours of the day and night screaming to one another in foreign languages, young toughs hanging on street corners harassing women and dirty little shops lining the streets. They believe that Bad Guys, domestically and abroad, are out to get them and that only brute force, and lots of it, will keep them in check. They believe that lowering the drinking age and legalizing marijuana will turn the country into the beach at Spring Break. They believe that strictness, corporal punishment and rote learning will make their kids decent, educated, productive citizens. They believe that taxes are little more than tribute to politicians and don't pay for any services that benefit them apart from police, prisons and the military, that government by its nature is corrupt and inefficient, that grassroots efforts, volunteerism and neighborliness will solve social problems, and that common people exercising commonsense can always do better than experts and careerists. They believe--judging from a pro-Walmart propaganda film--that Walmart is a benefactor of the working class and that rich elitist liberals, offended by Walmart on aesthetic grounds, want to close down cheap, efficient big-box stores to make way for over-priced boutiques and health food shops.

If I believed any of these things I'd vote differently--but I don't. Maybe I'm mistaken about some of the facts. One way or the other though it is a matter of facts and not of "values" or tastes, and that can be fixed.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

No Free Ride

Clark, Morgan Steiner, and others are telling women on the playground that they won't get trapped staying home and can always go back to work. Such good news -- if only it were true. In the only actual quantitative study (meaning the kind of data collected according to generally accepted scientific methods from a statistically meaningful set of subjects), Sylvia Ann Hewlett's Center for Work-Life Policy found recently that just a little more than half of women who wanted to return to full-time work ever found full time work at all. And these weren't just any potential re-employees. The women in the center's study were "highly qualified," meaning they had earned nothing less than bachelors' degrees with honors or professional or graduate degrees...Not only do highly qualified, eager women not always get full time work, other studies have shown that the women never get back full time jobs comparable to the ones they left. Hewlett's data shows that you lose 37 percent of your earning power if you're off more than three years. Morgan Steiner's article places the point of no return at ten years.

I figured that out when I was 17--why is it so hard? Working as a clerk-typist at a bus company it was pretty obvious that the only alternative to a career was a job. My co-workers were young women, trying desperately to get pregnant so that they could quit and middle-aged women, forced back to work when their kids were grown. I went to college, and grad school, and made a career for myself, to avoid ever, ever having to to a job again.

How can any woman smart enough to get a good BA or graduate degree imagine, in the teeth of all empirical evidence, that after ten years off she will be able to hop back onto the fast track, into an interesting, well-paid career? It's hard enough to get interesting work even if you're right out of school pushing full steam ahead. After ten years out, the luckiest women, who've managed to snag high-yielding husbands (and avoided divorce), will spend the rest of their lives assing around, selling real estate part time. Most though will end up doing boring, dead-end, pink-collar drudge jobs for the rest of their working lives. Most people, women and men, spend their lives doing rotten, boring drudge work--and the only way to avoid that is to fight like a demon for a career.

Maybe what bothers me even more than the idiocy of this fantasy is the sense of entitlement that of women who imagine that they can pick up where they left off--the implicit assumption that the rules are different, and should be different for women. No one imagines that a man who dropped out to bum around at 30 should be able to take up where he left off ten years later. There aren't enough good jobs or good lives to go around, and if you want one of those very few good jobs you have to fight for all you're worth and sacrifice. If you choose to take ten years off, you pay for it--and that is as it should be, whether you're male or female, whether you spend those ten years traveling around the world, chaffeuring the kiddies to soccer practice, or lying on the street in a drunken stupor.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

"Sopranos" wrap-up: Uncomfortably numb | Salon Arts & Entertainment

"Sopranos" wrap-up: Uncomfortably numb | Salon Arts & Entertainment
Tony flies to Vegas to get some peace. We see him eating dinner alone, sitting by a pool. Finally, he looks up a hooker who slept with Christopher, then tells her Christopher is dead. The two end up sleeping together (no surprise there) and then talking honestly. They smoke a joint, and suddenly it seems that Tony may be trying to crawl inside of Christopher's experiences. He asks the girl about the time she took peyote with Christopher, and then she and Tony take the drug together and hit the casinos, looking dazed. Instead of losing all of his money as you'd expect, Tony goes on a huge winning streak, then falls down on the floor, suddenly struck that Christopher is dead and gone and he can't even feel happy over his good fortune. Will Tony ever feel happy again?

I missed the first part of this episode so a complete literary critique will have to wait. But I want to go on record as betting that this Las Vegas episode is a fantasy. Tony gets to Vegas instantly, as if by teletransportation. Everything that follows is wish-fulfillment and yet hollow: the glitzy hotel, reminiscent of the hotel in purgatory after Tony was shot, great sex with a dark lady (always trouble for Tony), effortless gambling wins and a drug that gives instant insight into the riddle of the universe.

There are lots of clues. After telling the dark lady that Chris is dead, Tony leaves and the door closes but then, without any transition or explanation, Tony is in bed with her. And it turns out that she's working her way through college as a stripper--Tony's ideal woman. She's either the same actress or a reasonable facsimile of the Italian girl next door who Tony hallucinated years earlier. She's also a refugee from the Vietnam era youth culture that Tony missed: long dark hair, a couple of joints in a box by her bed and some peyote to spare. Tony takes an unconvincing drag on the joint and is immediately stoned: life isn't like that.

There's no plausible explanation for anything that happens other than Tony's own half-formed desires, uninformed, conventional notions about some life he's missed and a fantasy of recovering lost youth. It's a flat cartoon, like his notion of college: "fraternity parties, you know, frat boys--the way back to college for A.J." he tells Carmela. Tony's never been a frat boy or been to a fraternity party--he's just heard of such things. Here's the hippie college girl he heard of when he was young: instant sex with no hassles, providing drugs that instantly produce insight into "how it all works." Never tried these psychedelic drugs, but they give you insights into the Universe, right?

The only question I have is: where is Tony, really? Did he really kill Chris? I suspect he did. But did he really walk away from the accident? I suspect he didn't. Is he really in hell--at least temporarily? The story line is reminiscent of an old Twilight Zone episode where a gangster, who's a gambler, is shot and ends up in a dream-world where everything goes his way--he always wins at roulette and women fall into his arms effortlessly. After he realizes that it's perfectly awful, because without uncertainty or effort, none of this is any fun he dials up "Pip," the "guide" who took him to the place and asks why he ended up in heaven rather than "the Other Place." And Pip responds, "So what makes you think you're not in 'the Other Place.'"

Monday, May 07, 2007

The Sarkozian Buzz

What happens now in France is of crucial importance for all of us who wish to escape from the neo-liberal race to the bottom. Two choices face us, the emulation of the American model, long working hours, pitiful minium wage, zero welfare state, brutal exploitation and denial of citizenship to migrant workers, or the sort of resistance we saw last year in France to the CPE employment law.

Sarko wins--what a bummer.

I suppose everyone has to try sado-conservatism once. An occasional dose might not hurt: a little buzz of entrepreneurship and the adrenalin rush of risk-taking. The problem is addiction. Once the buzz wears off you want more to recapture the thrill and pretty soon there isn't any thrill--just chronic insecurity, endless drudgery and the costs of containing an unproductive, anti-social underclass: the American model.

At that point there's no turning back. Try to cut down and you get the shakes so you shoot up again, increasing the dose, just to avoid the withdrawl symptoms.

It's an expensive habit. A free-enterprise health care system costs more than the National Health and sado-conservative social programs for the lower classes--prisons and the military--are expensive in human as well as monetary terms. Americans however are prepared to pay much more for these programs, which they regard as a necessity, than for education and social safety nets. The lower classes clamor for them: prisons provide service sector jobs for unskilled workers and the military provides opportunities for education and training. Ambitious working class kids sign on for four years and, if they aren't shot dead, get funding for college when their hitch is up. Of course it would be a lot cheaper to provide these benefits without maintaining a massive standing army and going to war regularly to justify its existence. But who's counting? Not addicts, who are notoriously bad at weighing costs, benefits and risks.

No one thinks they'll become addicted when they shoot up. Apart from the underclass, who are socially isolated and don't vote, most Americans believe that they're in the top 10% of the population, the best and brightest, who will get the buzz and not the addiction--the few who will benefit from an inegalitarian, high-risk system rather than the many who will get stuck with the chronic insecurity and grinding drudgery, fighting to keep afloat.

Of course, in a sado-conservative society admitting, even to yourself, that you are in the bottom 90% rather than the talented tenth at the top is taboo. Once the system is established, no one (except socially isolated, politically inert members of the underclass) dares to think that they might benefit from social safety nets and more egalitarian arrangements, so the system perpetuates itself, promoted by the overwhelming majority of Americans who believe that only the Other ("welfare recipients," the poor, minorities, immigrants) will benefit from a welfare state.

Our Founder said: "know thyself." For any individual, the odds are 9 to 1 against his being in the talented tenth so, for any given individual, there is a very high probability he will do better in a more secure, more egalitarian system. Taking Our Founder's wisdom to heart, I think it's highly unlikely that I am a member of the minority (whatever its size) that would do better in an high-risk sado-conservative meritocracy than in a welfare state. I want those social safety nets and leveling programs, that social engineering, state interference and regulation for me--not for some inferior or "disadvantaged" Other.

Watching Sarko's triumphant motorcade through Paris I see that the French are getting that first rush. Lucky for them that they despise us and so are unlikely to emulate the American model or go on to full-blown addiction.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Foreign Policy: Seven Questions: Between God and Atat�rk

What is Secularism?

Foreign Policy: Seven Questions: Between God and Atat�rk

FP: In the West, it is usually assumed that modernization, secularism, and democracy naturally go together. Is that the case in Turkey?

AM: Turkey is rather different in this way. It differs from a lot of Western countries in that the religious tend to come from poorer segments of the population. And obviously because the secularized minority realizes that it is a minority, it wants the powers of the majority to be somehow or other circumscribed. It wants limits to be set.

Sounds familiar here in the US. But what does it mean? In the US, with separation of church and state on the books for over 200 years and, perhaps more importantly, a free church tradition and the legacy of Protestant pietism, we don't regard political secularism as a threat to religious belief or practice. Religion in this tradition is personal matter, detached (at least in principle) from politics and public policy--a matter of metaphysics and "private morality."

I don't understand what "secularism" is supposed to mean within the context of Turkey or the rest of the Muslim world or, for that matter, in France, as cited in the article. Does it mean the repudiation of metaphysical claims and religious practice or just anticlericalism and the relegation of religion to the private sphere? Does that distinction even make sense to people in the Islamic world, in traditionally Catholic countries or other places where religious belief and practice are inextricably bound up with clericalism and social/political agendas set by religious authorities, without a history that comes from the Reformation and the whole Pauline/Kierkegaardian take on religion as "inwardness"?

My oldest kid shared a grad student office with another grad student from India who had two questions about the US: "what is religion?" and "what is curry?" Curry powder, according to Amartya Sen is a British invention: there are lots of spicy Indian dishes that we call "curry" and subcontinental chefs operating in the UK and elsewhere keep inventing more to appeal to Western tastes, but the idea of curry as a particular kind of dish is alien in South Asian. The idea of "religion" as a package of metaphysical beliefs, cultic practices and a code of personal conduct, detached from ethnic affiliation and a social/political agenda is apparently alien too. It would have been alien also in classical Greece and, I suspect, may still be alien in regions where Protestant Christianity never took hold.

Funny business. Liberal Protestants used to condemn conservatives as pietistic and "escapist," for being obsessed with personal experience and personal "salvation" to the exclusion of social or political agendas. Real Christianity they said had a social and political agenda. But when conservative Christians announced their social and political agenda, commandeered the media to promote it and engaged in political activism, liberal Protestants were outraged because it was the wrong social and political agenda.

I used to fantasize a dream world of Mediterranean Folk Catholicism, with churches and shrines thick on the ground, processions in the streets, legends of the saints, lawn statuary, holy days and customs, icons, myths and a thousand pretty little pieties--religion as a system of outward and visible signs. But religions that are attached to outward and visible signs become inextricably linked to secular social arrangements; and more often than not they get hooked into political agendas and develop authoritarian systems. It takes professionals to put on the show and money to keep it running. Moreover if social arrangements collapse or there are political realignments, if the rules change or the authorities are discredited, religion does down. When the Greek city-states collapsed, the classical Greek city gods went down; when the power of national churches was broken in "old Europe," religious belief and practice declined to the vanishing point.

Is it possible to have Mediterranean Folk Catholicism or a reasonable facimile in a secular state?