Aug 31, 2011

Wildlife

These are a bunch of mule deer out in my front yard. They're tame enough that I could probably kill one with a spear.

Ways in which South Africa is unquestionably superior to America



1. Television commercials. I had forgotten how thoroughly American commercials have been sanitized to reflect the dominant cultural mores.  South Africa has the occasional quite interesting commercial (see above), but more often they're just bizarre, which is still a fairly effective way of catching your attention.  American commercials are, on the other hand, simultaneously bland and irritating.

2. Public transport.  Out here in Colorado I have to drive everywhere.  As I've said before, the South African public transport system might be a bit uncomfortable at times, but it is still remarkable in its reach, cost, and speed.  Even a town the size of Cortez would have taxis leaving in several different directions at least once per day back in Mzansi.

3. Dynamic governance.  Clearly America has a bit less overt corruption (though South Africa has far superior financial regulatory bodies).  But coming home I can't escape the feeling of creeping political decay.  When I went to the airport to catch my flight home, I caught the newly-opened Gautrain. Putting aside the question of its value as a project, it was clearly quite the achievement: clean, fast, efficient, and cheap.  That, combined with the monumental feat of logistics accomplished during the 2010 World Cup, make for a country that, despite its many flaws and relative poverty, is clearly capable of vigorous action.

Meanwhile, in the mightiest empire the world has ever known, where real borrowing costs are actually negative (meaning people are paying the government to take their money), we're arguing about whether to save our largest city from a hurricane.  It's infuriating, but also just completely pathetic.  This is not how a great nation behaves.

Aug 29, 2011

Blog redesign

I wasn't satisfied with the way the header looked on the old one, so I've changed things up a bit. Let me know what you think!

What's it like being home?

After more than a week home, my thoughts are crystallizing somewhat, and I've got a few semi-coherent observations, in no particular order.

People are friendly.  This could be a result of hanging out in rural Colorado, but personally I don't believe it.  Even the immigration officer in Los Angeles was nice: "Welcome home!"  General human interactions are, on the whole, a lot more pleasant than in South Africa.

Colorado is beautiful.  After the bland, washed-out colors of my village, the vibrant greens, spectacular clouds, and rugged topography is like being clubbed in the retinas.  Quite the place to live.

Culture shock is powerful.  I'm feeling it mostly in little strong bursts.  I'm very glad to be spending at least a little while here in the old family abode where things haven't changed very much and I know lots of people; I reckon it will get worse again when I move to the city.  The worst episode so far was on the plane coming back, where I had a sixteen-hour leg from Dubai to Los Angeles.  The way the geography works out, you end up flying over the top, right past the North Pole.  To be sitting in a marvel of modern engineering, watching new movie releases on a little screen, with beautiful flight attendants waiting on me hand and foot, while we fly past the North Pole, made for a feeling of stupendous dislocation.  It was extremely hard to believe the little instant GPS readout you could access on the screen.

Talking about Peace Corps is hard.  The little Peace Corps handbook told us we'd have a nearly uncontrollable desire to recapitulate the experience, but on the contrary, I find that it's difficult to talk about my experience in a meaningful way.  I'd rather talk about the news and so forth, unless people have specific questions.  "What did you eat?" I can answer, while "What did you do in Africa?" gets a shrug.

Aug 26, 2011

I must be in Colorado

This, as you might guess, is a bunch of bear tracks on a dumpster.

Aug 25, 2011

Aug 24, 2011

Rick Perry and science

Jon Chait and Yglesias pile on to this staggeringly boneheaded article by Kevin Williamson in NRO.  It's actually kind of postmodernist:
The broader question, however, is: Why would anybody ask a politician about his views on a scientific question? Nobody ever asks what Sarah Palin thinks about dark matter, or what John Boehner thinks about quantum entanglement. (For that matter, I’ve never heard Keith Ellison pressed for his views on evolution.) There are lots of good reasons not to wonder what Rick Perry thinks about scientific questions, foremost amongst them that there are probably fewer than 10,000 people in the United States whose views on disputed questions regarding evolution are worth consulting, and they are not politicians; they are scientists. In reality, of course, the progressive types who want to know politicians’ views on evolution are not asking a scientific question; they are asking a religious and political question, demanding a profession of faith in a particular materialist-secularist worldview.

Take the question of global warming: Jon Huntsman was quick to declare his faith in the scientific consensus on global warming, and Rick Perry has been openly skeptical of it. Again keeping in mind that nobody really ought to care what either Huntsman or Perry thinks about the relevant science, both are making an error, and a grave one, in conceding that the question at hand is scientific at all. It is not; it is political. One might be convinced that anthropogenic global warming is a real and problematic phenomenon, and still not be convinced that the policies being pushed by Al Gore et al. are wise and intelligent. (Some more thoughts on that here.)

Progressives like to cloak their policy preferences in the mantle of science, but they do not in fact give a fig about science, which for them is only a vehicle to be ridden to the precise extent that it is convenient. This is why they will ask what makes Rick Perry qualified to disagree with the scientific establishment, but never ask the equally relevant question of what makes Jon Huntsman qualified to agree with it. So long as they are getting the policies they want, they don’t care. If you want to see how dedicated a progressive is to dispassionate science, spend two minutes talking about the heritability of intelligence. You’ll be up to your neck in witchcraft and superstition and evasion in no time at all.
Yglesias has the best response, for my money:
I can only assume that Williamson has extremely stupid parents, because this is rank nonsense. How are we supposed to know which environmental policies are wise if we’re not allowed to make reference to scientific evidence about climate change? Does it make sense to treat questions about the implications of different FDA rules for the evolution of antibiotic resistant bacteria as primarily questions about the viability of the Judeo-Christian moral tradition?
Williamson continues:
I have not argued that scientific knowledge does not matter. I have argued that the scientific opinions of people who do not know the first thing about science do not matter.

Scientific disputes are highly specialized, and meaningful participation in them requires a great deal of non-generalist knowledge. I’m generally skeptical of argument from credential, but there’s a time for it. For instance, a great number of scientists have a particular view of global warming. Richard Lindzen has reservations about that view. Professor Lindzen is an atmospheric physicist a full-on professor at MIT. Your average politician is not packing the gear to get in the middle of that fight. I’m not. Chait isn’t, either. Is Lindzen not a real scientist? Is he a kook? Is Jonathan Chait going to make that case? Given two scientists with different opinions about climate forecasting, why exactly ought I to consult Jonathan Chait, or Jon Huntsman? Chait ought to think about seizing one of the many occasions for humility that come his way.
Yes, Lindzen is a kook. It's a judgment call and I'm making it. Chait makes the correct point that a survey of actual climate scientists show that 97-98 percent of working climate researchers believe humans are causing global warming. (That study, incidentally, was done in part by an old high school friend of mine who is a Ph.D candidate at Stanford. Saw him two nights ago for the first time in years, which was great.)

Stepping back a bit, I think Chait and Yglesias are making this a bit too complicated.  The reason it's important that Rick Perry doesn't believe in basic scientific results like climate change and evolution is because those things are obviously true, and denying them reveals blinkered philistine pig ignorance that is extremely disturbing in a national politician.  Unlike Williamson, I do have a degree in science, and I say those principles are not particularly hard to understand, at least in general outline.  Climate change, understood in detail, is college freshman material, and evolution is seventh-grade material at most. Denying the latter, in particular, is as grave a mistake as denying heliocentrism.  Full stop.  Alleged liberal denialism in intelligence and so forth is much more scientifically controversial than Williamson makes out, but in any case it hardly excuses Rick Perry.  The president should be open to basic scientific results.

Aug 23, 2011

Droid heaven

I took this picture on my new phone, which has been a lot of fun to play with. Tomorrow I'm going to Durango to buy some new clothes and sandals. It's been a lot of necessary purchases but it still feels weird to be spending so much money.

Aug 22, 2011

Ways in which America is unquestionably superior to South Africa

1. Beer.  When I arrived in Denver after a marathon 24 hours in the air, I sat down at a pub in the airport and ordered a porter, and it was by far the best beer I've had in two years.  The taste of freedom.  Speaking of which...

2. Customer service.  The bartender at this place also had the best customer service I've had in two years.  Friendly, polite, cheerful, and very well-timed.  Quite a shift from the usual South African sullenness where you have to practically lay out bear traps for the waiter to get the bill.

3. Food.  My mother made some corned beef with vegetables, and a shortbread with Palisade peaches for dessert, and it was a workout my tongue hasn't experienced in some time.  There's good food to be had in South Africa, but more often it's a kind of red-headed stepchild of old British cuisine consisting of small variations on "boil it into an unrecognizable paste."

4. Construction.  Walking around my family home, designed and built almost entirely by my father, I notice that the standard of construction is substantially higher.  It's often in the details, but in my experience that's what makes a home feel very high-quality.  For example: all the doors are hung exactly right.  No falling open or closed.  All the taps, excuse me, faucets, are correctly and consistently labeled (that's a mistake you'll find even at high-end places in South Africa).  The house is designed so in the winter, the sun shines inside and warms the place, but in summer, it's stopped by an overhang.  I never saw a building in South Africa that was designed with the sun in mind.  As far as I can tell, a great number of the buildings were put up in the 70s and haven't been improved since then.

5. No roosters outside my window.  Good lord, that is a relief.  On a run this morning, I noticed that some of my neighbors out here in the boonies actually have roosters, but so long as I can't hear them from my bedroom, that's acceptable.  I don't imagine this will happen, but if I see any on my property, I'm gonna take em out with my dad's new varmint gun (which is great fun, by the way).

Aug 21, 2011

I'm home!

This is looking south from my family home where I grew up from about nine years old.  I took this picture with my mom's sweet new Android phone.  I don't have a phone myself yet, but I'll probably have one by early next week.  Over my left shoulder you can see Sleeping Ute Mountain, and over my right you can see Mesa Verde.

The flight was a 40-hour marathon and I still feel pretty frazzled, but a shower and some sleep did me a world of good.  I'm still processing the whole America experience, so I don't have much more to say yet, but more updates will follow as I manage to put words to things.

Aug 19, 2011

Goodbye, South Africa!

I feel an unexpectedly poignant note as I'm sitting in the airport waiting for my flight. Despite all my complaining, one can't stay in a place for two years without developing some kind of attachment. I learned a lot and had, on balance, a great time. Farewell Mzanzi, I hope we'll meet again.

I'm officially done!

I've turned in all my paperwork, gotten all my medical things squared away, and collected all my, er, samples. I am now a returned Peace Corps volunteer!

Aug 17, 2011

Being a banker must be nice

Trying to close my FNB (First National Bank) account here in South Africa I got a visceral reminder of what kind of service banks are providing the average customer.  First, just to close the account requires a fee of about R50.  I had left about R20 in there, but as it turns out FNB had charged me a bunch of fees that put me in the hole, and then a R88 "service fee" which I assumed was from being forcibly overdrafted.  I suspect there's some kind of automatic procedure that trips a bunch of fines if you ever let your account balance get to low so they can then charge you for overdrafting.  Anyway, I had to pay to get my balance up to the correct amount, and pay an additional deposit fee to allow me to put money into my own account.

The best part, though, was after waiting about twenty minutes for the deposit to go through, they had one more fine of R9.50 waiting for me on another screen, so I had to pay the deposit fee again to finish the process.  I considered throwing a howling fit, but it seemed unlikely to pay off.  In any case, be warned.

Aug 15, 2011

Quick update

I'm currently doing my end-of-service paperwork and various checkups, so posting might be a bit light for the next few days. In some strange weather, it's raining hard, something that doesn't usually start until November or so.

Aug 13, 2011

Intercape and creationist propaganda

Jesus-soaked movies are all well and good, but one thing that made me very happy to have books and music on this trip is the half-assed creationist "documentary" they're showing right now. It had a bunch of moldy-oldie anti-science nonsense about Piltdown Man and the supposed forgery of all archaeopteryx fossils. Good thing I'm taking off soon; I don't think I could stomach giving these cretins another single rand.

Goodbye, Kuruman!

I just said goodbye to a family in town here that are some of the finest people I've ever known. Now I'm on the bus to Pretoria for the last time. With luck, I'll be back someday.

Aug 12, 2011

This is the end

I have just left my village forever. It's been a great time, and an extremely valuable experience, but quite frankly I am sick to my back teeth of South Africa and cannot wait to get quit of the place.  Don't get me wrong, the country has a lot going for it, especially if you take a few steps back and look at the larger picture.  The government is stable, and the political situation, which looked only a few years ago to be heading down a Mexico-style single party state road, is improving.  Macroeconomic management has been head and shoulders above most countries in the developed world, especially the United States.  There is a strong national identity, and very little of the tribal conflict that characterizes many other African countries.

But the average, day to day existence quite often grinds at the soul. South Africa has a concept called "Ubuntu," roughly translated as "a person is a person because of people," similar to other brotherhood-of-mankind philosophies the world over.  It plays almost no role in everyday life.  Interactions with random people—in a queue, going to a restaurant, at the checkout counter, walking around the street—are often characterized by grievance, entitlement, greed, selfishness, and racism.  Even among friends and family, an attitude of naked reptilian calculation—what can I get out of this person?—is not uncommon.

Race is the squat and ugly troll in the collective unconscious, ready to poison any interaction.  I am sick of being called baas, of watching Afrikaners' attitude going from warm politeness to glacial irritation in a heartbeat depending on who is talking, of people making ten thousand incorrect assumptions based on how I look.  I want to blend in again.  US-style political correctness, for all its many annoyances, does have much to recommend it.  Even Rush Limbaugh has to disguise his prejudice in dogwhistles—he's not out on the street somewhere drunkenly ranting about the fokken kaffirs.

Though most volunteers I know here agree about the public culture here, my disgust with South Africa is markedly worse than most.  Like any place with a coarse and impolite public culture (New York City, for example), it is necessary to build strong networks of friends to defend yourself from galloping cynicism.  I did not manage this, which was partly my fault and partly Peace Corps' fault. Officials here put me in a stupendously inappropriate host family, alternately either empty or full of reeling drunks.  My usual instinct is to grit my teeth and bear it, and besides, it wasn't my family's fault.  They aren't bad people.  I wasn't unsafe.  To go to another village, though it probably would have been wise, would have been a sharp insult I wasn't willing to deliver.

Visiting other countries like Botswana and Zambia I was struck by the far friendlier public culture and the sunny positivity of Peace Corps volunteers and officials there,  It's obvious where this difference comes from: Apartheid.  The fairy tale of New South Africa, of Mandela and Archbishop Tutu, of sanctions and divestment and April 27th 1994, while near-miraculous in many respects, can obscure the fact the Apartheid did terrible and lasting damage to the South African psyche.  As Ta-Nehisi Coates recently wrote, "...having a boot on your neck, while deeply tragic, is not an ennobling experience."

Aug 11, 2011

Man

It's my last day in the village, but I don't have much to offer but an atrocious case of hiccups and this Michael Lewis article. This graf in particular jumped out:
Jörg Asmussen offers the first hint of an answer—in his personal behavior. He is a type familiar in Germany but absolutely freakish in Greece—or for that matter the United States: a keenly intelligent, highly ambitious civil servant who has no other desire but to serve his country. His sparkling curriculum vitae is missing a line that would be found on the résumés of men in his position most anywhere else in the world—the line where he leaves government service for Goldman Sachs to cash out. When I asked another prominent German civil servant why he hadn’t taken time out of public service to make his fortune working for some bank, the way every American civil servant who is anywhere near finance seems to want to do, his expression changed to alarm. “But I could never do this,” he said. “It would be illoyal!”
Take home message? Hiccups suck. No, really.

Aug 10, 2011

US manufacturing is alive and well

Matt Yglesias flagged this study which should be required reading for the "we-don't-make-anything-anymore" crowd:
But even durable goods, which only account for about 10 percent of total spending, are mostly made in America — 66.6 percent to 12 percent for China with the rest coming from the rest of the world. In fact the only category of spending in which Made in the USA doesn’t account for the majority is clothing and shoes. What’s more, even a lot of the spending on imported goods actually reflects the cost of shipping them around the United States.
An easy mistake to make given the ubiquity of "Made in China," but a mistake nonetheless.

Aug 8, 2011

The financial reform bill has devastated the DRC?

I had no idea:
The “Loi Obama” or Obama Law — as the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform act of 2010 has become known in the region — includes an obscure provision that requires public companies to indicate what measures they are taking to ensure that minerals in their supply chain don’t benefit warlords in conflict-ravaged Congo. The provision came about in no small part because of the work of high-profile advocacy groups like the Enough Project and Global Witness, which have been working for an end to what they call “conflict minerals.”

Unfortunately, the Dodd-Frank law has had unintended and devastating consequences, as I saw firsthand on a trip to eastern Congo this summer. The law has brought about a de facto embargo on the minerals mined in the region, including tin, tungsten and the tantalum that is essential for making cellphones.

For locals, however, the law has been a catastrophe. In South Kivu Province, I heard from scores of artisanal miners and small-scale purchasers, who used to make a few dollars a day digging ore out of mountainsides with hand tools. Paltry as it may seem, this income was a lifeline for people in a region that was devastated by 32 years of misrule under the kleptocracy of Mobutu Sese Seko (when the country was known as Zaire) and that is now just beginning to emerge from over a decade of brutal war and internal strife...

Meanwhile, the law is benefiting some of the very people it was meant to single out. The chief beneficiary is Gen. Bosco Ntaganda, who is nicknamed The Terminator and is sought by the International Criminal Court. Ostensibly a member of the Congolese Army, he is in fact a freelance killer with his own ethnic Tutsi militia, which provides “security” to traders smuggling minerals across the border to neighboring Rwanda.
One more reason it is valuable to keep an eye on the experts out there with firsthand knowledge before enacting legislature that will affect faraway places few care about. For Congo, there's Texas in Africa, Congo Siasa (written by Jason Stearns, whose history of the Congo War is an excellent introduction to the current situation), and Congo Resources.

Any other suggestions are welcome.

Aug 6, 2011

One week and counting

A week from today I'm taking the bus to Pretoria for the last time.  Hooray!

Aug 5, 2011

Jesse Osmun, Peace Corps South Africa volunteer, charged with sexually abusing children

Dear god:
BRIDGEPORT -- Federal agents arrested a 31-year-old former Peace Corps volunteer on charges he sexually abused at least five young girls while working in a South African preschool.

Agents from the Peace Corps' Office of Inspector General and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested Jesse Osmun, 32, of Glen Street, Milford, on charges that he traveled from the U.S. to engage in sexual conduct with a minor. The charge carries a maximum 30-year prison term and $250,000 fine. U.S. Magistrate Judge Holly B. Fitzsimmons Thursday ordered him detained without bond.

A criminal complaint signed by Special Agent Joyce Shores, of the Peace Corps' Office of Inspector General, alleged that Osmun "provided a written confession" that "he engaged in sexual contact with three underage girls for approximately one year."
Reading The Looming Tower, I thought by the end that I could place Osama bin Laden in the human family.  He was an evil mass murderer, but Wright refused to take the easy way out and label him insane or inhuman.  To grapple with the fact of bin Laden, of Hitler, is to grapple with the depth of human depravity, of what we as a species are capable.  Bin Laden was evil, yes, and deserved his fate, but he was not crazy.  Mass murder is not that uncommon in history.

This is still fresh, but I cannot do that now.  This man commented on my site, back before he came here.  Like nearly all Peace Corps volunteers, he wrote a blog.  He had a completely normal, even clichéd, title: The Road Less Traveled.  He wrote normal posts about normal Peace Corps things.  I never met him, but he was notorious for self-righteousness; he even commented to that effect on the infamous post that got one of my best friends kicked out of the Peace CorpsHis blog is on my blogroll right now.  Yet while doing much the same thing as I have been doing for two years he was allegedly raping little girls.  Five years old.  It is too close.  All I can summon, as a defense mechanism perhaps, is a stunned, disbelieving horror.  The only thing that comes to mind is this, from Blood Meridian:
Aye. It's a mystery. A man's at odds to know his mind cause his mind is aught he has to know it with. He can know his heart, but he dont want to. Rightly so. Best not to look in there. It aint the heart of a creature that is bound in the way that God has set for it. You can find meanness in the least of creatures, but when God made man the devil was at his elbow. A creature that can do anything. Make a machine. And a machine to make the machine. And evil that can run itself a thousand years, no need to tend it. You believe that?

I dont know.

Believe that.
The horrible part is, of course, that raping young children, even babies, is also not that uncommon.

NB: Mr. Osmun, though he has apparently confessed, has not yet been convicted of anything. If this turns out to be a mistake—and I will be paying attention—then I will be first to call for his reputation to be rehabilitated.

Aug 4, 2011

The self-appointed experts

Aaron has a true, and hilarious, post:
This is where our self-appointed experts come in. As Mason talks more and more about this project (which has really taken off, by the way), the most common reaction when talking to either Azeris or PCVs or anyone, for that matter, is that Mason gets an earful of how to change things in CBT Azerbaijan. It’s a fascinating moment: “Hey, that’s a great idea! This is how you should change it!” I cannot claim to be innocent of this reaction. Inevitably, the proffered ideas are well-meaning but either have already been thought of or don’t really fit in with the goals and model of CBT Azerbaijan. You can see how this might become a little irksome.

That is mildly interesting. More interesting, however, is that this is almost exactly what we as Peace Corps Volunteers know is the wrong approach to making any sort of constructive changes with our local colleagues and organizations. I remember during Pre-Service Training talking about how to ask appreciative questions and how not to approach improving the organizations we work with. It doesn’t really work as we want, where we would just offer suggestions and have them quickly taken up. Instead, we need to ask questions and build relationships so that these nuggets of advice are not seen as attacks but as little packages of knowledge and experience and trust.

It works for both our Azeri colleagues and our American friends. As Peace Corps Volunteers, we probably too often get in this mode of thinking we are experts (and we may well be!) without taking a moment to ask a few questions and get to know a project before throwing out our advice haphazardly, inevitably leading to frustration. I can walk into AccessBank in Lənkəran and spit out a bunch of advice, but it will likely come out flat if I haven’t already shown an interest in whatever issue I’m pontificating about. Certainly, it’s a well-meaning reaction. Yet, we still have to remember to take that step back from our experience and realize how we are coming off to the recipients of our likely-unsolicited advice. I think it’s pretty clear that this goes for anyone, but since we’re talking about Peace Corps Volunteers whose training contains this lesson, expectations can probably be set a little higher for us in this regard.
I'm probably more guilty of this than nearly anyone on Earth. On a daily basis, I'm blithely opining about random crap in which I usually have zero background.  That's what being a blogger (or a pundit) is all about!  However, I have stumbled into a clever method of not letting this interfere with my volunteering: I never help anyone, start any projects, or give anyone advice.  I've tried that, and it only makes me a depressed failure instead of just a failure.  Instead, I bottle up my ideas, shake them into a nice froth, and spray them out online.  That way I only rarely get in trouble for running my mouth.

Collected links

1. Republicans are trying to kill internet privacy for ever.  What a staggering surprise.

2. Books behind the fake "vaccines-cause-autism" scare.  These people indirectly killed children.

3. Are you horribly allergic to poison ivy?  You should get some of this stuff!  Apparently it's a near total cure if you catch it within an hour or two.

4. Ostensibly over some "spending" controversy, Republicans refuse to fund the FAA something like $25 million, which is costing the government $16 million every day in lost fees.  Of course, the real issue is union-busting.

5. Ethics blogging.

Aug 3, 2011

Things I will miss about South Africa, part II

 Continued from part I.

1. Public transport.  I know, I said I was looking forward to leaving taxis and buses behind.  Yet zooming out a little bit, the public transport system here is remarkably extensive and convenient.  One can get fairly reliable and cheap rides to even the smallest villages out in the hinterlands, and it's really a remarkable feat of logistics.  The bus companies, in particular, make for my money the best-organized, best-run, most efficient and most reliable system in South Africa.  I'm sure the options are better in Sweden, but they sure as hell aren't in America.

2. Long runs and walks alone.  My plan when I get back to America is to live for at least the next few years in Washington, DC, and while I'm sure there will be a lot of things to like about that, one of my favorite things to do here is wander around the bush alone.  I grew up in remote rural towns, and when I moved to New York, the crush of people definitely took some getting used to.  In my village, I can be walking alone in the riverbed inside of ten minutes, and the solitude in the wilderness is something I'm going to miss.

3. The countryside.  All irritations aside, South Africa is really a staggeringly beautiful country.  We've got plains, weird Utah-style desert (my personal favorite), developed world-quality cities, wetlands, imposing mountains, and a gazillion others.  Though I bitch about the climate all the time, if you could build a half-decent house, it would be totally livable.  Not really that hot or cold.  Plus, where I live at least, it's dry.  I find both dry heat and cold far, far more tolerable than the wet alternative.

Aug 2, 2011

The influence of financial elites

John Quiggin says the critical issue facing America is clawing back some of the money going to the top one percent; in effect, the super-rich have about the only good-sized pot of money out there, and if we're going to have reasonable public services, by gum the rich are going to have to pay for most of it.

Yglesias, on the other hand, says this focus is too narrow:
But a lot of the political dialogue I see online seems to consist of a slightly strange form of class resentment in which intellectuals, nonprofit workers, or public servants express bitterness about the high incomes of businesspeople whose lives they don’t actually envy. No doubt that are millions of working stiffs in America who really do envy Clarence Otis, Jr.’s life and career starting with many of the 180,000 or so other people working for Darden Restaurants. But by the same token, there are millions of Americans who envy the lives and careers of lots of other people who have “good jobs” that are good for reasons other than very high headline salaries. My job, for example, strikes me as a pretty damn good one even though my earnings are meager compared to the NYU professor. I don’t want to quit it and go work on Wall Street. That would be horrible. And it suggests to me that the questions of inequality and privilege in the United States are more complex than a simple chart of the income distribution suggests. What’s needed is to broaden the number of people with access to better lives across multiple dimensions.
These guys look to me to be talking past each other.  I would agree both that taxes on the rich, particularly on capital gains and other loopholes, should be drastically increased to pay for decent services and there are a lot of problems that are simply the result of foolish or inefficient policy—the war on drugs, for example.  But for my money the critical issue about ungodly wealth concentrations at the very tippy-top is what they mean about political influence, particularly in the financial sector.  I've just finished Fukuyama's The Origins of Political Order, and one of the themes running through the book is how societal collapse is often a result the state being unable to resist elites' efforts to entrench themselves and collect increasing rents from manipulating the political system.  It's what got the Mamluks, the Ottomans, old Hungary, Ancien Régime France, and Imperial Spain, among others.

A lot of liberals are well aware of the unfairness of having a huge and increasing share of national wealth going to a Russian-style oligarchy, but what we are less aware of is: that concentration of influence can destroy a country.  In some cases, elites prevent the state from responding to a changing environment.  In pre-revolutionary France, Louis XVI, facing deep financial and economic problems, attempted to institute reforms under Turgot and Malesherbes, but nobles forced them out, paving the way for the French Revolution.  In other cases, elites hamstring the state so badly that it cannot even defend itself, which is what did for the Kingdom of Hungary in 1241 when it was conquered by the Mongols.  In essence, elites can behave so selfishly that they pull the temple down on everyone's heads including their own.

Obviously, we're not going to be conquered by the Mongols.  The most hazardous domain today—not coincidentally, the area where elites have basically complete control—is the financial sector.  With the drastic acceleration of the flow of information the internet has brought, financial bubbles can be inflated at a staggering rate.  In 2000, subprime mortgage lending was $130 billion per year, $55 billion of which made it into bonds; in 2005, $625 billion of subprime lending was packaged into $507 billion worth of bonds.  That towering pile of imaginary money crashing down is what caused the Great Recession.

Basically, my point is that if America doesn't get a good firm grip on the throat of the financial sector, there's not going to be a prayer of decent public services, or anything else worth a damn.

Aug 1, 2011

Things I won't miss about South Africa, part II

Continued from part I.

1. Begging.  I hate that shit, and it never lets up.  Today I stepped out of my room, and in the 50-yard walk to school, no less than five people asked me for money.  Four children and one adult.  It's completely routine.  "Hello, Thabo," says the person.  "Hello," I say.  "Mpha madi," he says, holding out a hand, meaning "give me money."  When I say no, often the person is angry.

2. Taxis and buses.  The public transport I usually take is cramped, uncomfortable, usually miserably hot or cold, takes forever, and is often terribly dangerous.  Drivers are sometimes equipped with well-maintained vehicles and drive conservatively, but more often they're aggressive maniacs zooming around in seat belt-less rusting contraptions held together with band-aids and bailing twine.  On vacation, having my own rental car was a terrific feeling of freedom.

3. Teaching.  This isn't to say that I have forever forsworn teaching, rather that teaching in my South African village, especially for a relative amateur, really sucks.  There's no accountability, no institutional support, no culture of learning, and the Peace Corps training in this area was, well, not to put too fine a point on it, utterly and completely worthless.  I firmly believe that with the bad habits I've picked up here, I'm a far worse classroom teacher than I was when I started out.  At the very least I'll never teach any classes younger than 14 or so ever again.

War gaming a constitutional crisis

Yglesias, talking about the French Fifth Republic (the current government):
In practice, the resulting situation seems pretty similar to our divided government. But there’s a very important difference. The president can fire the prime minister, dissolve parliament, and call a new election. This, in practice, has made a world of difference during cohabitation periods. The upshot is that instead of the prime minister and the president constantly deadlocking, the prime minister basically just governs (on domestic matters). But he needs to be constantly worried about overreach. He could try to enact sweeping, super-controversial measures that the president opposes, but he’d be running the risk of being dismissed and losing the election. So he legislates with a much freer hand than John Boehner has, but he’s also in practice much more restrained.
I've been aimlessly speculating what might happen were this debt crisis to turn into a full-blown political collapse. In France, de Gaulle levered his massive credibility as a WWII leader and a coup attempt from Algerian extremist settlers to pretty much single-handedly impose a new constitution, though he did get a legal imprimatur from the National Assembly and nearly every major political leader. Any ideas how this might play out in the US?