Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Amherst College and the Source of American Greatness

I was unfamiliar with William Lewis until Teju Cole tweeted about him.  Lewis was a black lawyer who attended Amherst College and played football there—allegedly, this was the first integrated team in the history of football.  (I doubt this only because I think Amherst would make a bigger deal out of it if it were true.)  Charles Drew also attended Amherst and played sports, though I don't know whether he played football.

Anyway I think Amherst was generally pretty strongly in favor of civil rights.  (Henry Ward Beecher also went to Amherst, so Amherst was also presumably strong in a previous era, though I guess who knows.)  I've seen a picture of Kennedy's 1963 visit to Amherst College, where students held up signs saying something like, "Mr. President We Support Your Civil Rights Agenda."  (Only later did I learn that Kennedy's civil rights bill was being held up in part because he ignored LBJ's tactical advice on getting it through the Senate, which makes the students' idealism more poignant, I think.)

There was a long history in this country of Northern liberal sympathy for blacks, and the clash between the liberal Democrats of the North and the asshole Democrats of the South was a major headache for LBJ as he led the Democrats in the Senate in the 50s.  (It was thanks to LBJ that the assholes migrated to the Republican Party, where they sitteth today, though of course the assholes of today are nothing compared to the assholes of the mid-20th century.)  I urge you to read Robert Caro's Master of the Senate, which recounts LBJ's legislative struggles in detail.  I should note that at that point in his career, Johnson was struggling mostly to preserve his majority and his power, not to advance the rights of blacks.

Anyway, here is a passage from Master of the Senate (this describes Southern antipathy to civil rights in 1948, when Truman was trying to get civil rights legislation through the Senate—LBJ's civil rights bills come much later in the book):
When emotions rose, the southern senators couldn't even be bothered to conceal the fact that it was not "Nigras" alone whom they despised.  Mississippi's Bilbo addressed a letter to a New York woman of Italian descent, "Dear Dago."  The Magnolia State's other senator, James O. Eastland (who would some years later stare coldly down a committee table at Senator Jacob Javits of New York, a Jew, and say, "I don't like you—or your kind"), now said that if the FEPC [Fair Employment Practices Commission] bill was constitutional "ten thousand Jewish drygoods merchants represent a discrimination against the Anglo-Saxon branch of the white race" and Congress should therefore "limit the number of Jews in interstate business."  It wasn't only Italians and Jews whom the southerners wanted kept in their places.  While Jim Dombrowski of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare was testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Eastland repeatedly sneered at his "typically old Southern name."  And of course there were always the Native Americans.  Defending American businessmen who did not want to employ them, Senator Bankhead explained that "There is something peculiar about an Indian which causes the white American not to want to be too closely associated with him."
It so happens that I first read this passage on the subway to work on January 20, 2009—the day of Barack Obama's inauguration.  For some reason, the line about Dombrowski really got to me (my emotions were already running high), and I broke down in tears on the train. This idea that Southern-ness or American-ness is preserved for people with English last names is unbelievably toxic and un-American. But the Dombrowski's of the world won. LBJ (eventually) smashed the Southern senators' filibuster and set in course the chain of events that would make it possible for Barack Obama to become the 44th President, and to do it with the help of the electoral votes of Virginia and North Carolina. The fight isn't over, but it's fair to say that as a country we rejected the Southern vision and aligned ourselves with the right side of history.

Who knows what the other riders on the subway thought, I think I just covered my face and let the tears come.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Colonialism, Libertarianism, and Interest-Group Democracy

I am a big fan of democracy, not just in the lofty sense of legitimacy and consent of the governed and whatnot, but in the sordid sense of interest group politics.  For instance, I was struck by Steven Wilkinson's argument that communal violence is a function of the electoral role of minorities (PDF).  If Wilkinson is right, nominally decentralized violence is actually largely within the control of the government, and so communal riots are much less likely where minorities are in the government's electoral coalition or are "swing voters."  This isn't a straightforward reason that democracy is superior (minorities without electoral power remain unprotected), but it shows that democracy can be crucial to people's well-being completely aside from its abstract legitimacy.

Democracy can protect people mechanically, structurally. As LBJ said, "But we can't legislate human dignity—we can legislate to give a man a vote and a voice in his own government.  Then with his vote and his voice he is equipped with a very potent weapon to guarantee his own dignity."  (This is from p. 80 of The Years of Lyndon Johnson:  The Passage of Power, by Robert Caro.)

So, the Irish potato famine.  Throughout the famine (or at least for most of its duration), Ireland was a net exporter of food.  In other words, considered as a nation, Ireland was more than self-sufficient in food.  But of course, the food that could still be produced (presumably wheat, beef, that sort of thing) was in the hands of wealthy landowners, whereas poor people had no food and no money to buy it.

Had Ireland been self-governing, I have little doubt that it would have banned the export of food, just as Argentina banned the export of beef a few years ago in an effort to lower its price.  And had Ireland banned the export of food, the price of food would have likewise dropped substantially and it would have been more affordable for the Irish population.  It seems that this is what happened in 1782-83, with the predicted results.  But throughout the 1840s, no export restrictions were imposed and so Irish food continued to flow to English mouths while Irish people died of starvation by the hundreds of thousands.

A libertarian might respond along these lines:  Banning food exports would have been a violation of liberty.  The price system is the best way to allocate resources, and the price system was putting food beyond the reach of hundreds of thousands of Irish people.  Therefore the right outcome was for hundreds of thousands of Irish to die.  Any interference with this outcome would, by definition, have made the world worse off.  So, thank God Ireland was not self-governing over this time period.  (Note that in 1846 import restrictions were lifted, allowing the import of cheap grain from outside Ireland.  Libertarians would presumably endorse this reform, but even with cheap imports, prices were too high for many Irish and the famine continued.)

And so this is basically why I am not a libertarian.  It's not that liberty is unimportant, but rather that the free-market outcome is often intolerable.  The political allocation of resources means that it will reflect our values, or at least it will reflect the values of whatever constituencies control the government.  That is not always a good thing, but it makes it very unlikely that millions of people will starve to death while their country has an abundance of food. Again, this is a mechanical consequence that has nothing to do with abstract notions of legitimate government. If anything it is an interest-group result that involves trampling the property rights of the wealthy minority (the landowners seeking to export food). It is a matter of putting power in the hands of people so that their interests are very likely to be served. As Gladstone said in his Home Rule speech to Parliament (note, this was in 1886, long after the famine had ended):
You were prepared to make good laws for the Colonies [he means England's American colonies, I think]. You did make good laws for the Colonies according to the best of your light. The Colonists were totally dissatisfied with them. You accepted their claim to make their own laws. Ireland, in our opinion, has a claim not less urgent.
In other words, it is not enough to make good laws "according to the best of your light."  That is all well and good, but it doesn't prevent famines.  Self-government prevents famines.  Nothing in English civilization (despite its acknowledged greatness) was as powerful a force for human dignity as self-government. It was English blindness to this reality that prolonged its colonial occupation of India and its other colonies.

Now it is true that there are known pathologies of majoritarian government, including interest-group rent-seeking that makes society as a whole worse off. But the right way to control this is with a lower-case-c constitution that restrains rent-seeking and preserves a large role for the market in the allocation of resources. If you instead enshrine property rights and strip the government of any role in allocating resources, then you get obscene results like a famine in a country with a richly productive agricultural sector.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Starting Point for a Story

I have only changed one small thing in this passage from a New York Times story about the effect of the drought on cattle ranchers.  I think it improves it a lot:
Ms. Manning and her daughter Debbie Murray came to sell 160-year-old steers. There had been little winter snow to moisten the ground at their ranches near Lost Springs, and the spring was hot and dry. A wildfire burned three of their pastures. Now, with the summer sun frying what little grass remained and hay selling for $200 a ton, they decided to winnow the herd.
Sometimes the smallest changes yield the biggest gains in storytelling capacity.

The Complicated Feelings That Accompany Scientific Progress

For me, personally, one of the worst aspects of the emerging consensus that some races are superior to others is that it has injected a feeling of burning shame into my relationship with my parents.  The shame, I think, comes from a toxic combination of my thoughts and my feelings:

1.  Rationally, I know the racial supremacists must be right, and so I am ashamed to come from inferior stock.  (My parents have Irish blood, and so of course do I.) And even though I don't want to blame my parents—can't blame them—I also can't escape the awareness that I am inferior because they are inferior. For a long time, maybe to comfort myself, I refused to believe in a racial hierarchy, but as Will Saletan cogently argues (in the linked article), refusing to acknowledge that some races are better than others is like denying the theory of evolution. Since I believe in evolution, it follows that, if I am intellectually honest, I must accept that some races are better than others.

2.  Acknowledging our racial inferiority feels like a betrayal, though, and my emotions rebel against it.  In a hypothetical argument between my parents and skinheads who are yelling at them, I badly want to take my parents' side, even though I know the skinheads are, per Saletan, (A) right about racial supremacy and (B) genetically superior to me and my parents (so long as the skinheads are not, themselves, Irish).  I find my temper rising (such a typical Irish reaction) and I want to shout, "No, it can't be!  These skinheads are bigots!"

But if anything, I am the bigot.  My parents are doctors and I am a lawyer, and so I look down at poorly-educated skinheads, despite the scientific validity of their claims.  This is class bias, plain and simple, and of course it is wrong to indulge in it (as well as being highly self-serving).

And  this just redoubles my shame, because I know that this emotional need to believe that my parents and I aren't racial scum, racial vermin, is just like the emotional, anti-scientific response of creationists in the face of overwhelming evidence for evolution by natural selection.  The need to resort to slurs like "bigot" demonstrates how incapable I am of assessing the evidence coolly and accepting it regardless of its implications.  In short, my overheated, under-supported argument against racial supremacy is self-refuting.

And all of these feelings well up whenever I talk to my parents about the books they are reading, the beer they are brewing, the trips they are planning, the pride and love they feel for their new grandchild (my nephew).  Pinkt vi menschen, you might say.  Just like people.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

In Soviet Russia, Wood Gets Sorkin

So, here is James Wood, in How Fiction Works:
[A description of a baby's arms as "so fat that they seem tied with string"] is from Anna Karenina, and it is a nice example of self-plagiarism.  In that novel, not one but two babies—Levin's and Anna's—are described as looking as if string is tied around their fat little arms.  Likewise, in David Copperfield, Dickens likens Uriah Heep's open mouth to a post office, and Wemmick's open mouth, in Great Expectations—to a post office.  Stendhal writes, in The Red and the Black, about how politics ruins a novel in the way a gunshot would spoil a music concert, and then repeats the image in The Charterhouse of Parma.  Henry James wrote that Balzac, in his monkish devotion to his art, was "a Benedictine of the actual," a phrase he liked so much he used it later about Flaubert.  Cormac McCarthy writes, in Blood Meridian, "the blue cordilleras stood footed in their paler image on the sand," and returns to that lovely verb seven years later in All the Pretty Horses:  "Where a pair of herons stood footed to their long shadows."  Why shouldn't he?  Such things are rarely examples of haste and more often proof that a style has achieved self-consistency.  And that a kind of Platonic ideal has been reached—these are the best, and therefore unsurpassable words, for these subjects.
Got that? Self-consistency, Platonic ideal, best, unsurpassable. Now, how about this?

Our Irish, Ourselves

I have been thinking that in some ways Ireland is a neat little microcosm of U.S. history.  Or maybe not microcosm, maybe . . .  alternate history?

I say this in part because Charles Stewart Parnell (who was half-American!) bears an uncanny resemblance to our very own William Jefferson Clinton.  Of course, whereas Parnell's career (and basically his life) were destroyed by his relationship with Katharine O'Shea, Clinton survived his indiscretions somewhat better.  But   more strikingly, Parnell's alleged link to murder in Phoenix Park is heavily reminiscent of Clinton's alleged link to the death of Vince Foster in Fort Marcy Park.  (Some may not remember how tenaciously the right wing clung to the idea that Foster was killed in a conspiracy in which the Clintons were deeply implicated.  I lived in Arkansas at the time and can distinctly recall how poisonous this slander was.  Even today I get angry just thinking about it.)

But beyond the Parnell/Clinton parallels, there is this:  Parnell used his considerable talents to try to find a political solution to Ireland's structural injustice, and he very nearly succeeded.  So there is a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God dimension to the path that Ireland actually took:  Easter 1916, the Anglo-Irish war, the Irish civil war, Ireland's neutrality in World War II, the Troubles, and so on.  Something (very roughly) like this may have been in store for the United States if LBJ had fallen a little short.  Parnell's tactical genius (playing the Liberals and Conservatives against each other while essentially holding the swing votes in Parliament) was probably close to LBJ's, but conditions were not as favorable (and in any case, LBJ didn't significantly advance civil rights until he was President).  But so anyway, we took the path less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.

Friday, July 13, 2012

It Might Have Been Another Dresden

I have blogged before about Teju Cole's Open City.  Just want to quote, for emphasis, a key passage that reveals the meaning of the term "open city":
The houses, bridges, and cathedrals of Brussels had been spared the horrors visited on the low farmland and forests of Belgium, which had borne the brunt of the countless wars fought on the territory.  Slaughter and destruction, ferocious to a degree rarely experienced in history, had taken place on the Somme, in Ypres, and before that, out at Waterloo.
Those were the theaters, so conveniently set at the intersection of Holland, Germany, England, and France, in which Europe's fatal tussles had played out.  But there had been no firebombing of Bruges, or Ghent, or Brussels.  Surrender, of course, played a role in this form of survival, as did negotiation with invading powers.  Had Brussels's leaders not opted to declare it an open city and thereby exempt it from bombardment during the Second World War, it might have been reduced to rubble.  It might have been another Dresden.
Indeed.  Surrender and negotiation.  The crucial survival skills of history.

Anyway, sort-of on Grobstein's recommendation, I have been reading James Wood's How Fiction Works, which I like so far, and so I was disappointed to see that Wood wrote the review of Open City that I thought missed the mark by identifying New York as the "open city" of the title (and construing "openness" in a vague, unspecified way, whereas I take it to have a specific and crucial meaning).  Wood may have wanted to avoid "spoiling" the book, but either way his take on the book is very different from mine.  But, you know, it is our differences that make the world a rich place.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Tolstoy Then and Now

From Anna Karenina (a discussion on women's rights):

'You said "rights",' said Sergei Ivanovich, who had been waiting for Pestsov to stop talking, 'meaning the rights to take on the jobs of jurors, the rights of board directors, the rights of civil servants, members of parliament . . .'
'But if a woman can, as a rare exception, occupy those positions, it seems to me that you have used the term "rights" incorrectly.  It would be more correct to say "obligations."  Everyone will agree that in doing the job of a juror, a councillor, a telegraph clerk, we feel that we are fulfilling an obligation.  And therefore it would be more correct to say that women are seeking obligations, and quite legitimately.  And one can only sympathize with this desire of theirs to help in men's common task.'
'Perfectly true,' Alexei Alexandrovich agreed.  'The question, I suppose, consists only in whether they are capable of such obligations.'
'They'll most likely be very capable,' Stepan Arkadyich put in, 'once education spreads among them.  We can see that . . .'
'Remember the proverb?' said the old prince, who had long been listening to the conversation, his mocking little eyes twinkling.  'I can say it in front of my daughters:  long [on] hair, short [on brains] . . .'
'Exactly the same was thought of the negroes before the emancipation!' Pestsov said angrily.
'I merely find it strange that women should seek new obligations,' said Sergei Ivanovich, 'while unfortunately, as we see, men usually avoid them.'
'Obligations are coupled with rights.  Power, money, honours—that's what women are seeking,' said Pestsov.
So, a few notes.  This was written in the 1870s and yet the discussion seems almost modern.  I have no idea what Tolstoy actually thought about the question (he goes on to have the old prince suggest that if women are allowed to work, men should be allowed to nurse babies—a joke that Monty Python replicated in Life of Brian).  But it's hard to imagine that Tolstoy didn't put him there as a stand-in for his own views.  (Levin initially disagrees with Pestsov but changes his mind under the influence of Kitty.)

But of course, there is Pestsov's troubling use of "negroes" instead of a more respectful term like "African-Americans."  By putting such virulent language in the mouth of Pestsov, Tolstoy may have been pointing to the patronizing racism that underlies liberalism.  "Sure, we may associate ourselves with the struggle for black people's rights," liberals say, "but we will still call them ugly names."  And in this, Tolstoy presciently anticipated American liberals like LBJ.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Watched: Melancholia

Lars von Trier's Melancholia is available on Netflix streaming, and I watched it last night.  If you do not want to learn crucial plot points of Melancholia, then read no further.  (Though I must say, the most crucial plot point is dispensed with very early in the movie.)

The movie is a somewhat heavy-handed examination of the way we react to depressed people.  In the first segment of the movie, Justine's fancy wedding reception is ruined by her depression (in archaic medical terminology, "melancholia").  Her family and friends are mostly sympathetic, but they can't help being frustrated by her inability to cope.  At times the melancholia seems to recede, only to return with a vengeance.  There is a horrible inevitability about Justine's melancholia:  there is nothing she can do, it appears, to prevent its onslaught.  Justine is the victim of forces outside her control.

In the second segment of the movie, a planet (named Melancholia) is hurtling toward Earth.  The same people who criticized Justine's inability to cope with the feelings of dread and hopelessness caused by melancholia can't deal with the feelings of dread and hopelessness caused by Melancholia.  One character commits suicide, something we never see Justine attempt.  At one point Melancholia passes by Earth and seems to be receding, but it returns and destroys everything.  And there is a terrible inevitability about Melancholia's approach.  Humans are the victims of forces outside their control.

[image from Wikipedia]

This summary makes the movie sound dreadfully preachy and on-the-nose, but it honestly didn't feel that way.  The visuals are stunning and the musical score is perfect.  The simplicity of the "message" does not extend to its execution (and anyway, the movie is complex enough to support many readings, this just happens to be mine).  I think the setting is perfect, too:  a beautiful countryside estate (in England?), congruent with the traditional "romantic" view of depression.  Von Trier smashes this way of viewing depression by showing its ugliness and devastation.

It is a good example of how powerful a movie can be, how its immediacy can be used to draw the viewer in, to make the viewer feel something that is otherwise hard to grasp.  It is not a fun movie to watch, but it feels much more lifelike than most other movies you will see.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

The Case for Oblonsky

In this post, I will indiscriminately reveal plot points from Anna Karenina, so, consider yourself warned.

When I first read Anna Karenina, I identified strongly with Levin.  And in fact, as I am re-reading it, I am finding its depiction of Levin very comforting.  A man like Levin can find a lifelong partner.  Or at least, he could if he was a wealthy landowner in 19th-century Russia.  To be a Levin is not to be a perpetual loser in life, at least according to Tolstoy.  This is something that some men, men who have been sexually humiliated, need to hear.  Or at least want to hear.

This time around, I have also found new respect for Vronsky, who does not have Levin's intelligence but does have a powerful love for one woman he wants to build a life with.  In a lot of ways things are more difficult for Vronsky, but he does his best.  His heart is big (though, luckily, small enough to dodge a bullet).  To quote Elif Batuman's The Possessed:

My mother's theory was that the double plot in Anna Karenina represents the two kinds of men in the world: those who really like women, and those who don't.  Vronsky, a man who really liked women, overwhelmed Anna and was overwhelmed by her—but some part of him was never committed to her in the way that Levin, a man who essentially did not like women, was committed to Kitty.
"That kind of makes sense," I admitted.
"Is Tolstoy saying that it's better for women to be with men like Levin?  Kitty made the right choice, and Anna made the wrong choice, right?"
"I don't know," I said.  I really didn't know.

I am not entirely on board with this reading, because I think Vronsky really could commit to Anna. It is Oblonsky who seems to like women without being able to commit to them.

So what about Oblonsky? I find his way of life to be disgusting. His romantic relationships mean nothing to him, or rather, they mean everything to him but the women are interchangeable. He deceives and betrays his wife. He is superficially friendly, but he easily forgets his loyalties and simply adheres to whoever is nearby.

So what is the case for Oblonsky? The case is this: not everyone can be a Levin, and not all women want to be with a Levin (or a Vronsky). People get joy out of different things. Some women, given the choice between being appreciated for their physical beauty or their other attributes, will choose physical beauty. They want men who like women. They want to be loved for their womanness, the shape of their bodies, the sounds of their lovemaking. They want to drive men crazy. Nothing else turns them on nearly as much.

They need men who will love them in exactly the way they want to be loved. They need men who will be overwhelmed by their beauty, who will do anything to sleep with them but won't pester them with inconvenient feelings of attachment, devotion, commitment.A lot of LBJ's mistresses probably never had as much fun with any other man.

It is a terrible mistake to take a woman like that and pair her off with a Levin or a (late-stage) Vronsky. Some women need an Oblonsky, and some men need that kind of woman. To return to my earlier point, sexual humiliation is almost inevitable when you pair up a Levin with an Oblonsky-needing woman. (Of course, sexual humiliation can also result when a man is simply inferior to other men on most/all dimensions, so let's not flatter ourselves.) Note that there is another way to go: Karenin could simply look the other way while his wife gets her sexual fulfillment elsewhere (at one point Karenin actually considers this). I imagine our society may go in that direction, since a lot of women presumably want both economic security and sexual fulfillment. So there are gains from trade/specialization to be had. One man provides the stable household, the other man provides the sexual excitement. But I don't think we are quite there yet.

A society that adheres to the Levin model and proscribes Oblonsky's behavior is a society that will make itself miserable unless it maintains a large sphere of privacy and sanctions hypocrisy. And this is basically the society that Oblonsky lived in, and that we mostly live in today. The difference is that we no longer take quite so harsh a view of promiscuous, non-committed sex. But still, in the ordinary course we expect most people to pair off and form stable, monogamous relationships. And this is stifling to some people, and so they need to be able to hide their promiscuity and adultery from the rest of us. This is why Posner is perhaps wrong to view privacy mainly as a shield for wrongdoers. Privacy may be an accommodation between our public morals and our private need for sexual fulfillment.

And let's face it, for most of us sex is one of the most important parts of life, presumably for evolutionary reasons. It is the most powerful, pleasurable, vivid thing that most of us will ever do. It is tyrannical to deprive people of the full expression of this part of life. This is one reason that increasing tolerance for gay people is a huge step forward for civilization.

And so that is my defense of Oblonsky. In a society that frowned on his sexuality, he (somewhat) discreetly built a good life for himself, and made a lot of women happy along the way. Better to be open about it, but that was not an option for him. If we openly tolerated Oblonsky's behavior, there would be a lot fewer miserable Levins and unsatisfied women in the world.

Won't You Please Consider Social Democracy?

A few years ago, as the Social Democrats went down to defeat in Germany, Hendrik Hertzberg wrote a touching tribute to Germany's oldest political party, which passed the most important tests of the 20th century with flying colors (the SPD resisted both Naziism and Communism in the face of intense pressure).  The SPD is particularly noteworthy, but the Social Democrats have played a major role in building the most successful countries of Europe.

Even in countries where the Social Democrats have not often been in government, their ideas have hugely influenced public policy.  Most of northern Europe is more or less social democratic.  So what makes social democracy so great?  Well, in my view, it strikes a desirable balance among the social institutions that we use to build a good society.  In a social democracy, a large public sector supplies public goods and redistributes wealth in such a way that the poorest in society are protected from abject poverty and are given opportunities to succeed.  This is why social mobility is much higher in social democracies than in liberal democracies—if you believe in equality of opportunity, you should take another look at social democracy.

But this is not statism—social democracies carve out a huge area of life free from government control.  This is presumably a major reason why they were so despised by the Nazis.  If you are pretty much any kind of minority, social democracy gives you the space to express yourself while treating you as a full equal.  In a social democracy, your sexuality is your own business.  Your religion is your own business.  Your political views are your own business.

The only thing that really isn't your own business is . . .  your own business.  Taxes are sky-high, and the private sector is undoubtedly crowded out to a significant degree.  In my view, the social democrats probably go too far in ignoring the benefits of the market system, and it is a good thing that their impulses have been kept in check by electoral competition with liberals.  I am a bigger fan of "flexicurity" than I am of the highly unionized and rigid labor markets that prevail across most of the social democracies.

But note that the social democracies are highly productive and wealthy, to a far greater degree than one might expect given the size and scope of their public sectors.  In a strange way, social democracy can facilitate entrepreneurship and market competition, because it makes competition and failure palatable.  And in fact, the social democracies routinely score very well on measures of economic freedom.  The market is allowed to function with relatively little interference, and then it is taxed at extortionate rates.  It turns out that this does not impair the economy as much as you might think.

And this underscores the real point:  markets are great, but we all recognize that they are arbitrary and amoral.  You can lose your livelihood because abundant natural gas is discovered in your country.  You can sink your wealth into a small business that then burns down, or becomes obsolete, or loses its customers when the neighborhood changes.  Your life is at the mercy of forces beyond your control.  And while imposing Darwinian natural selection on business firms is generally desirable, it would be monstrous to subject people to the same kind of selective pressure.

Social democracy promotes liberal values by protecting human freedom in most areas of life, and by allowing market forces to determine the allocation of resources.  But it tempers those forces as a way of injecting some degree of morality into our economic system.  And in so doing, it greatly facilitates both egalitarianism and the possibility for poor individuals to achieve prosperity.

In short, social democracy, nudged slightly toward liberalism, is the best social system we have devised, and the roster of liberalism-inflected social democracies reads like a Who's Who of the best societies on Earth:  Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, Canada.  Shouldn't we consider bringing social democracy to the United States of America?

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Flightless Bird, American Bridge

There's a documentary called The Bridge that depicts suicides jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge.  Here is a review from a Netflix user:
 It is fun to imagine that this was intentional.