Sunday, February 25, 2007

Republican Columnist Sees A Lot of Pissed-Off Indians in His Future

Ben Stein watched TV in a hotel, fell asleep, and dreamt class war. Well almost. This is America, the classless society. But the New York Times's Ben Stein got upset nonetheless.

I recognize the experience: he doesn't watch much TV (at the moment I'm restricted to DVDs of last season's Battleship Galactica), he gets his news from places like the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, and then he's by himself in a Houston hotel and clicks on the TV:
I watched a show called “The Big Idea With Donny Deutsch.” It was about lavish parties. Now, you remember how we were having those tax cuts for the very rich so they could invest more and make America grow? Remember that?

Well, surprise! Some of that money is going to lavish Sweet 16 parties and $10 million bat mitzvahs, with Tom Petty and Kenny G and private jets flying the guests around. Five-hundred-thousand-dollar parties in New York and Malibu are no longer at all unusual. Even million-dollar parties for the rich are not out of the ordinary, according to the party planners on the show.

I started to feel hysterical. Is this what America is all about? We’re in a war and we cut taxes to stimulate the economy — and it probably did — and we are having million-dollar parties at home while our soldiers are paid starvation wages to offer up their lives in Iraq? We’re in a war and the government cannot afford to pay for adequate training for our soldiers, but the society at home is routinely having million-dollar weddings and bar mitzvahs?

Can anyone say “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”?

We are creating a debt that is about $3 trillion greater than it was when Bill Clinton left office, and one sequel is $10 million birthday parties? Is this what supply-side is all about? To obligate future generations so our generation can have $10 million parties for teenagers?
Yes it is, Ben, what's the matter with you! Our children will be much much richer than we are so who cares? In America, freedom means freedom to spend your money any way you want. So if you spend on a party in one day what it would take ten people making the average American wage of $1 million per year a whole year to earn, so be it. After all, the same free market that creates $10 million kid parties has brought the average annual wage in America to $1 million. So if ten people work a total of 3000 days for a one-day party, what's the problem?

Think of the alternative, like the socialist economies of Western Europe. If America had public services that burdened business - universal health care, good social security, subsidized mass transit, high-quality yet low cost universities, whatever - we would have a median wage somewhere in the socialist neighborhood of, say, $44,300 a year. That would mean, rounding off, that the same $10 million kid party would take 200 people working for one year to pay the catering and decorating and private jet bill, or one person working 200 years. This would violate the American spirit of fair play. Luckily, American wealth-creation has put $10 million parties within reach of the average worker, and the home equity in our $18 million average houses is more than enough to borrow against.

Just think how upset Stein would be if he woke up in Paris!

Sunday, February 18, 2007

A Dishonorable Schoolboy

I start most Sunday mornings by reading a Sunday sermon, usually Frank Rich’s New York Times column on the Bush Administration and its sins. Father Frank’s sermons resemble one another, which makes them very reassuring. The Bush people did last week more or less what they did the week before, which gives the world a certain horrible orderliness.

Father Frank was stressing the tangled web of alliances wrought by American stupidity, and my eyes wandered into the next column where everything is always perfectly simple - the column written by David “Schoolboy” Brooks. Schoolboy was expounding on some half-learned lessons from evolutionary biology (actually he’s doing evolutionary psychology, but whatever): the “content of our genes” make us do bad things, this has always been true, it will always be true. Hence the Schoolboy title, “Human Nature Redux,” and the capitalized clich├ęs from Steven Pinker and Thomas Sowell (lumped together with Adam Smith and Edmund Burke), half-baked together in a Schoolboy Pie.

I was reading along waiting for the pie’s razorblade to appear, but where was it. “Today, there really is no antinomian counterculture - even the artists and rock stars are bourgeois strivers. Today, communes and utopian schemes are out of favor.” What the hell is he going on about, I asked myself. I always approach Schoolboy knowing that he is actually the most ambitious of NYT columnists, since he does The Culture and is always saying We Moderns or We Americans or We Humans are Really Conservative. In other words, Conservatism has nothing to do with Bush, Rove, Iraq, or shortsighted, obnoxious, selfish financial elites. These for Schoolboy, never forgetting his intro philosophy class at the University of Chicago, are fallen faded images of Platonic Conservatism, which is infinitely great, and universally True.

Back to that paragraph about Today: “People are mostly skeptical of social engineering efforts and jaundiced about revolutionaries who promise to herald a new dawn.” Hmm, I think, Schoolboy has written that exact sentence in about 150 columns already. But then the razor-blade appears: “Iraq has revealed what human being do without a strong order-imposing state.” Ah ha! Schoolboy Sez: I didn’t chop down the cherry tree, an Iraqi did!

Of course the Iraqi debacle is the Right’s solo show, much more so than was Vietnam, and they have lied big time to make it happen. Now they are doing the most desperate, high-intensity, bullet-sweating blame-shifting in recent history. It wasn’t our clinically delusional stupidity and wholly wrong philosophy of life. It was the Iraqi People. Since Schoolboy is the Right’s pop philosopher, he deepens the stakes: It’s the weak, lazy, quarrelsome, violent Iraqi people, as tied to unpoliced human nature itself. The Schoolboy’s Solution is more force from above, not less. And since the Iraqis are living in a Hobbesian state of nature, that means more American force.

Calling Brooks “Schoolboy” makes him far more innocent than he actually is. He’s a product of the Right’s think tank networks, which produce knowledge that justifies preconceived conclusions: funders endow these think tanks knowing that all research will confirm conservative doctrine, or at most update it. It’s this same process of fixing the facts around the policy that delivered Iraq on a silver platter. Schoolboy has been operating like this since he graduated from college. So today he writes a column that is a justification for the failure in Iraq, but makes it sound like a scholarly mediation on human nature.

Why does this crap work as well as it does? Well as my friend Andi says, “People Is Dumb.” I would add that Americans is dumb about social causality. Schoolboy can be a great cultural philosopher because thirty years of Schoolboy-type pseudo-scholarship has cut our cultural IQ in half. He’s so much more pleasantly brainless than Father Frank.

Fr. Frank has a causality tale to tell, but first you have to read 14 paragraphs of fairly intense prose. Here’s the good father main point: “What makes [Mr. Bush’s] spin brazen even by his standards is that Iran is in fact steadily extending its influence in Iraq - thanks to its alliance with the very Iraqi politicians that Mr. Bush himself has endorsed.” What! That’s quite a neck-snapping Space Mountain hairpin turn, Fr. Frank! Fr. F. spends the next paragraphs explaining himself by discussing the only slightly hidden anti-U.S. political ties of Bush pal Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, Iraqi president Nuri al-Malaki, and the former US-installed Iraqi prime minister Ibrahim al-Jafaari. Are we actually Schoolboy dumb enough to be unable to take this in? Delivering us therefore to “Iraqi Redux,” aka war with Iran?

My Sunday thanks is as follows; thank you, Fr. Frank, for trying to save us from being Schoolboy dumb.

PS. For another exercise in Recovered Causality, see today’s Louis Uchitelle’s NYT Week in Review piece, “Nafta Should Have Stopped Illegal Immigration, Right?” Turns out that free market economics didn’t revive the Mexican economy but hurt it. Turns out that the free market didn’t reduce illegal immigration to the U.S. but increased it. Woah, Fr. Louis, too fast, you’re hurt my neck!

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Losing Our Way

Last weekend I was in Durham, NC and this weekend in Nashville Tennessee. Both times I’ve gone to these heartlands for the universities - to give a lecture in a conference at Duke and to see friends that teach at Vanderbilt while Avery speaks at a conference. Things in America don’t look any more normal from here.

My pal Jan opened the Duke conference by saying that the American university has lost its way. True, and the same could be said of the country as a whole. But it could also of my friends as a group. They are some of the best educated and most brilliant people around, and yet its hard not to feel like they’re going through the motions. They have all this knowledge but what is it for? They know these things but what good does it do? They say all these things but who is listening to them?

All around us people who know nothing have tremendous effects, supporting leaders who as my Republican dad pointed out in 2003 “kill people for no reason.” Now every week the dying gets worse in Iraq, in Gaza, in other places we meddle and lend our support. And at home we are pretty sure there is nothing we can do.

My Nashville hotel window faces south. It snowed last night but that has melted away. In every direction I see cranes and half- buildings. They will join the hodge-podge of old brick buildings - 3 and 4 stories mostly - and new condo and office stuff whose color you can’t remember five seconds after you stop looking. Buildings are scattered here and there, and there’s a church’s gothic tower, and the white dome of a quad building on Vanderbilt’s campus. But the idea of coordinating anything wouldn’t arise - it would take concentration, it would take planning, it would take thinking.

A few people are still doing that. They are mostly inside corporations. My friend Dana’s husband Tom tells me as we drive towards downtown that they are going to build a new tower that’s just eight stories shorter than the Sears Tower in Chicago, making it the second tallest building in the U.S. Well why not add 9 stories and go for number 1, I laugh? The buildings they have now are what, 35 stories at most? That’s going to look pretty desperate. We pooled all our money and built the second tallest building in America, where it stands out like the Washington Monument in a lagoon.

We drive by an abandoned 1 story brick strip that could offer street life and shops - the kind of things Americans fly 8000 miles to Paris to get. It could even be connected to another block just like it, and to a couple of others, and with 5 blocks of shops pretty soon you’d have a town. They have some stuff like that down by the river, 2 or 3 blocks of restaurants and bars. Nobody will pay to paint the little buildings, but they’ll build a tower 5 times taller than anything else now in town. We walk across a bridge by the Country Music Hall of Fame. It crosses the Cumberland river, and there’s the new stadium for the Tennessee Titans. Tom tells me it’s built on 10 Indian burial mounds. They saved two in the foreground. I take a picture. Then I take a picture of them, with the Nashville skyline behind, minus its Sears Tower to come.

I liked the Country Music Hall of Fame OK, but it needed a lot more about the culture and the business the music came from. There was a lady in there who opened all the doors on the gold and platinum album displays to hear the song inside, and she tapped her feet and said some of the words to every one. She was the only one of us that wasn’t kind of wandering aimlessly. Where have we come from? What have we done?

Personally, I don’t know what this country’s trying to do other than make money, enormous money, money that buys the immunity of a private island. One half of our elites go around destroying stuff . The other goes around making more money than any group in the history of the world. People who are trying to do something other besides making money seem as lost as the country’s foreign policy. We don’t think anyone’s waiting to hear from us. We go about our business, and work at staying happy.