Monday, June 30, 2014

Test Cases

“A government that robs Peter to pay Paul can always depend on the support of Paul.”
—George Bernard Shaw

For a while there it seemed as though I couldn’t listen to any call-in radio show or watch any panel of TV pundits without hearing someone say it. In any discussion of the bad economic conditions in America and/or Europe, someone would insist emphatically, austerity doesn’t work!

In context, the austerity in question was usually public austerity, that is, reductions in government spending. And the message was always clear from this particular chorus. Governments need to spend more, not less, to get their economies out of recession. If they run low on money, they should get it from corporations and the wealthy. Prominent among the chorus in the U.S. was Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman, who can currently be heard railing against income inequality from his $225,000-per-year perch at City University of New York, where his duties are to teach one seminar a year and participate in some events organized by CUNY.

So how is this “austerity doesn’t work” idea panning out in the real world these days? If we look at the most recent issue of The Economist we find two articles that provide an interesting pair of test cases.

In an article on Spain, we read that the country’s recession is over and jobs are being created. Says the magazine, “Growth is already boosting employment, opening the way to a virtuous cycle of increased demand and more job creation. Growth predictions for next year are being revised upwards, some to over 2%.” Investment is flowing back into the country. For those with short memories, Spain originally got into trouble, not unlike the country where I reside (Ireland), because of an uncontained housing bubble. The strategy for recovery that was adopted by its center-right government was widely derided as the kind of austerity that “doesn’t work.” And yet it has.

Make no mistake. There are still plenty of problems in Spain, and not everyone is feeling the effects of recovery. But it’s telling how surprised everyone is (economists always seem to be the most continually surprised of all observers) at how fast recovery in Spain started. Left-of-center critics can predictably move from their line of “austerity doesn’t work” to “the economy isn’t fair enough.”

The Economist also has an article on France, where things are a bit different. In contrast to Spain’s government, President François Holland has pretty much followed the advice of the world’s Krugmans. When people call Holland a socialist, it is not merely a derisive epithet but actually the name of his political party. He attempted to cut his budget deficit exclusively by raising taxes on companies and on the wealthy. The result has been two years that were economically flat and an economy that ground to a virtual halt in this year’s first quarter. Investment has dropped and French companies are looking for opportunities abroad. The government’s party was pummelled in local elections and, according to the magazine, among French presidents Holland is now “the most unpopular since polling records began.” Because no party seems to have a handle on what to do about the economy, it has provided an opening for more extreme candidates on the right.

One of the ironies in the French situation is that the condition of the economy has made academics and writers who advocate various forms of wealth redistribution pretty much irrelevant. Among these is an economist named Thomas Picketty, whose theories on the inevitability of wealth inequality in his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century are pretty much ignored in his own country. But he is something of a rock star these days in the United States, where he seems to be all over the New York-based media. His fans, which include of course Paul Krugman, seem undeterred—or perhaps unaware—of the UK’s Financial Times article, in which the paper crunched his numbers and concluded they simply didn’t add up.

Experience makes it pretty clear what works economically and what doesn’t. Why then do politicians and governments pursue policies that have no track record of success? A lot of it is human nature. People want to believe that there can be a free lunch, that a society can make money by spending money instead of producing. More to the point, the Paul Krugmans of the world find that they personally can make a lot of money by telling everyone else that spending money, rather than boosting productivity, is the way to prosperity. And politicians find it is easier to get voters to vote for them if your promises involve spending money rather than tightening the government’s belt. Given all these perverse incentives, it’s amazing any government ever manages to pull itself out of a recession.

So how is the American government doing with its economic policies? Well, the latest numbers for 2014’s first quarter weren’t great. They show the economy contracted at an annualized rate of 2.9 percent. Why, after all these years of being technically in recovery, is the economy not doing better? Well, there are lots of reasons. Surprisingly, there was some bad weather last winter, so a lot of commentators are saying that explains it. After all the Obama Administration certainly did its best to follow Professor Krugman’s advice with government spending to turn the economy around. But that darn Congress lost its nerve after pumping only $17 billion more into the 2009 stimulus bill than it did into the Iraq war.

Let’s be fair. It’s still a bit soon to judge how well the administration’s economic policies are working. After all, the president is only in his sixth year in office.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Fact and Fiction

When I left Chile in the late 1970s, I was consumed with a need to process what I had experienced and what I had thought I had learned. That processing took the form of having chats with friends and by writing. In particular, I wrote a series of articles for my hometown newspaper—which I began during my time abroad and continued after I returned.

But I had an urge to do more. I had been studying literature while in Concepci√≥n, and I was flush with enthusiasm for Latin American writers and the art of the novel. As some writers—mainly writers of fiction—like to say, fiction can get at deeper truths that straight journalism cannot. That may be overstating it, but certainly fiction can get at truths differently and can touch different levels of our minds than a simple documented accounting.

In the years after my return to North America, I had it in mind to write a novel about a Latin American country. It would deal with a political situation comparable to Chile’s in the years immediately preceding my time in that country. It would be about a country polarized between two different political cultures and belief systems and about a man who rises to become the leader of that country, thereby causing the level of polarization to rise to the point of violence—making him a martyr. And all of this would be seen through the eyes of a young North American named Thomas Dowd. Clearly, this character was inspired by the journalist/filmmaker Charles Horman, who was seized and subsequently killed during the golpe against Salvador Allende in 1973 and who would be the subject of the 1982 film by Costa-gavras, Missing.

That particular novel never got written. During the ensuing years, I always seemed to have jobs that made heavy demands on my time and mental juices. And, as time passed, my original story idea seemed less interesting. It wasn’t really the ideal vehicle for getting at some of the themes I was really interested in, i.e. the strangely symbiotic yet mutually alienating nature of the culture clash between Anglo America and Latin America and, particularly, the frustration (for the Anglo-Saxon mind anyway) of the persistent ambiguity in the Latin American world. Even though I lived in Chile only a few short years after the Allende presidency and resultant coup, while there I got completely different and contradictory versions of what had actually happened and how things had actually been, depending on whom I talked to.

The ambiguity one experiences by living in a place is in sharp contrast to the narratives spun by people who need to fit events into a political agenda. And in the Pinochet era, Chile was one of those places that got a lot of spinning. A vivid memory of my return to Seattle was a visit to an aunt whom I loved dearly. She was a very well read and very well informed woman, but she never asked me a single question about my time in South America. Instead, she handed me a copy of The New Yorker, which she had been saving, and told me that it had an article about Chile that I should read so I would truly understand the country where I spent the previous year. I found myself trying to tell my friends—especially my politically engaged ones—that Chile was a real place with real people, not a parable to be taught.

So my story idea evolved. Instead of seeing things through the eyes of Thomas Dowd, he would not actually appear in the novel. Instead, his presence would haunt it. The story would be about two acquaintances of his in the small California town he came from. They would be two teenagers looking for escape and who would decide, nearly on an impulse, to head south of the border in 1971 to look for him. We would experience a bit of Latin America through their young, somewhat naive perspective. Their 1965 Chevy would carry them on a journey down pot-holed Mexican roads more or less as Huck and Jim traveled the Mississippi on their raft.

I have finally finished that novel. You can find links to it by clicking here. I had a title for it long before it was completed. It is called Maximilian and Carlotta Are Dead. That was something a friend of mine happened to say once in response to some comment I had made about Mexico, and it stuck in my head. It was not only a nice shorthand for the fact that Latin America is well into its post-imperialism phase but also for the universality of our mortality.

With that mouthful of a title and the above summary of my book’s genesis, I have done my best to make it sound meaningful and profound. The fact is, however, that the book is really a bit of a romp. I gave it every bit of male late-adolescent testosterone that I had left. The characters are not very well behaved and they get into well more than the odd spot of trouble. I indulged myself in a fair amount of guilty pleasure by portraying behavior and attitudes that were politically incorrect even in that time, let alone now.

As I was writing it, the parallels with the current day were striking to me. Issues like border security, immigration, political polarization, privacy concerns and U.S. foreign policy hang over the story’s action—just as they still preoccupy people these days.

Mostly, though, the book turned out to be a cockeyed tribute to my childhood best friend. I want to be clear that the two main characters in the book are definitely not him and me, but a fair amount of his personality—at least as it was in his wayward youth—found its way into the character of Lonnie McKay. And there is more than a bit of our own personal inter-dynamics in the relationship between Lonnie and the narrator. But, sadly, we never went to Mexico together.

After some really bad luck in his life, my friend died last autumn. It’s too bad he never got to read the completed book. He would have gotten a kick out of it and would have given me a hard time over parts of it. But in my more spiritual moments, I think that he was the one giving me the push from the afterlife to finally get it finished.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Trying to Make Sense

The eruption of violence in Isla Vista continues to haunt.

Such senseless events always sicken us, but it hits a little harder when it happens in a place that you know well. I was an undergraduate at UC Santa Barbara, and for a few years Isla Vista was my home. I lived a few short blocks from where the killings happened and frequently passed by the various locations involved. All these years later I could still see them vividly as I heard the news a week ago last Friday.

One is horrified by the senseless violence and the unfairness of it all, and our hearts go out to the victims, their families and their friends. It defies our comprehension.

As a densely populated student community next to a Southern California beach, IV normally begs to be described with words like fun, carefree and party central. Part of the charm was a strong element of unabashed leftist politics. A few years before my arrival, the Bank of America branch had been burned down. I witnessed a mass party in the streets in honor of Vietnamese victory over the United States, and I recall locals taking pride in the (unfounded) rumors that Patty Hearst was being held captive by the Symbionese Liberation Army in the basement of a place called Das Institut.

Sadly, mass shootings happen often enough that there is a bitterly familiar set of rituals to be expected in the aftermath. In their sorrow and anger, survivors, commentators and individuals cry out for ways to avoid a recurrence. Usually, the loudest of these are calls for new gun control measures, and certainly the anguished cries of one victim’s father couldn’t help but move everyone who heard them. But I have heard surprisingly little media discussion about gun control in the weeks since—certainly much less than what followed the Sandy Hook school shootings. This may be a recognition that, at least for now, the gun control issue is settled in America. If it couldn’t get anywhere in Congress after Sandy Hook, then it’s not going to happen unless and until the country changes. As much as any of us would love to be able to pass a law and stop it from happening again, the inescapable fact is that California already has some of the strictest gun laws in the country. Gun control will only be effective if the government were actually to confiscate all the guns in private hands, as Australia did, and any political party that proposes that in the United States would be committing political suicide.

There has been some discussion about mental illness, but not nearly as much as there should be. This is probably because it is such a hard topic to get one’s head around. In the Isla Vista case, it is hard to fault the killer’s family (he was after all a legal adult and they were on their way to intervene at the time of the shooting) or the sheriff’s department (they reacted extremely quickly and effectively). Ultimately, we get to the conundrum of asking, when is an individual mentally ill and when is he simply evil?

One line of discussion that has persisted since the shootings and which has intrigued me is the one on misogyny. I had been aware of instances of women encountering abusive backlash in certain online forums, for example those having to do with gaming. But it was a revelation to hear of online forums styled as “men’s rights” engaging in extremely hateful discourse. Apparently the Isla Vista killer frequented such groups.

Working to get people with dodgy attitudes and wrong thinking to see the harm in their beliefs can be something positive that can be done to help avoid future violence. Having said that, it’s not clear to me that the IV killings grew out of actual hatred as opposed to mental derangement pure and simple.

My other question about the misogyny discussion is: how it will lead to some sort of solution or improvement? Personally, I am mainly aware of it because I heard an interview on National Public Radio with Laurie Penny, who wrote an article about it in The New Statesman. These are outlets where practically every reader or listener will already agree with her. What struck me about the NPR interview was these comments from Penny: “One of the most horrifying [reactions] has been the pushback that ‘not all men do this,’ ‘not all men think like this.’ Well, of course, not all men are killers, not all men are violent misogynists. But the idea that before we speak about misogynistic extremism we should take men’s feelings into account and make sure no man listening to that conversation feels threatened or has his ego bruised, that’s really, really dangerous.”

I’m sorry, but how exactly is that dangerous? If the discussion were about violence perpetrated in the name of Islam and someone pointed out that not all Moslems are terrorists, can you imagine someone else calling that dangerous? Or if, in a discussion of inner city crime, someone pointed out that not all African-Americans are criminals and was told that we shouldn’t be worried about bruising that group’s feelings? As I read the readers’ comments on the NPR web page with the Penny interview, I was amazed by how many commenters echoed that they felt angry when people pointed out that not all men are abusers of women because it wasn’t “helpful.”

Frankly, I was hard pressed to find anything in Penny’s interview that seemed to me to be helpful. Perhaps, if she listened to Bob Garfield’s interview with Forbes staff writer Kashmir Hill on On The Media, she might have taken some comfort in Hill’s finding that, on some of the forums where the killer posted anti-woman messages, there were fellow users actually pushing back on his attitudes. Or maybe she wouldn’t find that helpful either, since it doesn’t fit her narrative.

To be sure, violence against women is everyone’s problem. Beyond that, violence against anyone is everyone’s problem. Yes, the IV killings were spurred by a sick attitude toward women. At the same time, while it may not be “helpful” to point this out, let us not forget that, counting the killer himself, five of the seven people he killed were male.