Sunday, February 14, 2010

Loss of culture

The Left has inflicted grievous damage on the transmission of our culture -- mainly via their control of education. The past for them is a bucket of ashes. Except that it isn't. It is an immense resource for all sorts of things. It is even a resource for fun and amusement.

Recently on this blog I used the expression, "Calloo, callah, callay". and I faintly hoped that at least one reader would say: Aha! I know where that comes from! But none did. I do hope that some did say so in their own minds even if they did not leave a comment or send an email. Because I was semi-quoting from one of the great fun pieces of English verse. See here.

Not to have learnt that at school -- as I did many years ago -- is in my view a serious deprivation.

Did anybody get my "bucket of ashes" allusion? I hope some did. If not, you have been robbed of your cultural past.


Intellectuals and Society

In 1980, during a debate for Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose series, Frances Fox Piven, of Cloward-Piven infamy, tried to lecture Thomas Sowell on race and economics. Her contention was that equality of opportunity had failed and what black people needed was a strong dose of socialism. “That’s why equality of results became an issue…for black people in the United States,” she said, “and they expressed their concern….”

“No, you expressed it, damn it!” Sowell shot back. “It’s what you choose to put in the mouths of black people.”

The moral of the story is that Thomas Sowell does not put much faith in Ph.D. degrees. Three decades later, at age seventy-nine, he once again pounces on armchair theorists and assorted ivory-tower types in his newest book, Intellectuals and Society. Sowell identifies his targets as “people whose occupations deal primarily with ideas.” In other words, ideas are the finished products of their labor. This category could include writers, philosophers, and the literature professor who thinks Hamlet is about a young man struggling with the horrors of capitalist society.

These intellectuals are different from others not only because of their interests, but because of their method of operation and the incentive structure that comes with it. Unlike carpenters, who produce tangible goods, or scientists, who produce theories that must be tested against results, the dealer in pure ideas is cut off from the normal feedback mechanisms that filter faulty notions out of the intellectual landscape. An auto mechanic who can’t fix transmissions is bound to go out of business, just as a civil engineer who designs a bridge that collapses is apt to suffer some problems with his career.

Not so with intellectuals. “Not only have intellectuals been insulated from material consequences, they have often enjoyed immunity from even a loss of reputation after having been demonstrably wrong.” Their insularity can also lead to dilettantism, as the intellectual is not constrained from wandering into fields completely outside his or her own. The pattern is clear: Chomsky the linguist becomes Chomsky the foreign-policy wonk. Michael Eric Dyson the minister becomes the expert on everything racial. Your anthropology professor becomes an expert on healthcare economics.

Though his main topic is focused, Sowell’s context is wide. He discusses economics, war, the law, the media, politics, and race. For decades, these subjects have been the canvases on which intellectuals have painted their grotesque portraits. Sowell documents not only the disastrous ideas themselves—straight out of the mouths of characters like John Dewey—but discusses why those ideas have failed so miserably.

Sowell is one of the greatest debunkers of our time, capable of laying waste to vast fields of demagoguery through slash-and-burn logic and empiricism. No one throws the wrench in the leftist chain quite like him. The most devastating chapter of the book is the one entitled “Intellectuals and Economics,” in which Sowell obliterates common claims about “income distribution,” poverty, and inequality. His bĂȘte noire is the person for whom evidence is merely optional filigree. (Who needs evidence when one is flying under the banner of “social justice”?) Bromides about the “widening gap” between rich and poor don’t consider that individuals are constantly moving between income brackets, as Sowell illustrates. Looking merely at statistical abstractions creates the illusion that “the rich” and “the poor” are merely static, immutable categories, rather than mere classifications through which many different people are constantly passing.

Intellectuals’ perverse desire to see some sort of “plan” imposed on society has made for a decidedly sordid history of their ilk. The Progressives of the early twentieth century, for instance, were bona fide racists, and the academic extension of their ideas was the eugenics movement. It comes as no surprise, then, that the revolutionary creeds of Italian Fascism and German National Socialism were especially intriguing to the intelligentsia, despite their being mislabeled today as “conservative” or “right wing” movements. Sowell reminds us that these ideologies were originally considered left wing by the intellectuals themselves. Lincoln Steffens, who glorified Soviet Communism, also reserved praise for Mussolini. Other radical socialists who shared his sentiments included British novelist H.G. Wells and American historian Charles Beard.

Still more saw the ultimate promise of collectivism in the Nazi movement. During the 1920s, W.E.B. Du Bois, prominent black historical figure and devoted communist, became so fascinated with Nazism that he decorated the magazine he edited with swastikas. This love affair was not a one-night stand, either. As late as 1936, Du Bois remarked that “Germany today is, next to Russia, the greatest exemplar of Marxian socialism in the world.”

The ease with which intellectuals migrate from one squalid “ism” to another has necessitated some revisionism on their part. It was only after the West fully realized the horrors of the Italian and German dictatorships that the intellectual Left disowned them in a massive act of historical face-saving. Writes Sowell: “The heterogeneity of those later lumped together as the right has allowed those on the left to dump into that grab-bag category many who espouse some version of the vision of the left, but whose other characteristics make them an embarrassment to be repudiated.”

If there’s any weakness with the book, it’s that Sowell is himself an intellectual, making it easy for left-wing bloggers to dismiss him even if they can’t refute the book’s arguments. There are differences, however, between this book and the putrid machinations of a Noam Chomsky or a Cornel West: Those intellectuals are so sure of their ideas they have no doubt they’d make the perfect blueprint for society. Sowell, on the contrary, has never advocated anything except leaving people alone. Also, part of intellectuals’ decidedly anti-intellectual strategy, as Sowell points out, is their inoculation against empirical evidence. That socialism killed millions in the twentieth century, and that quasi-socialist policies have wiped out inner cities in America, makes no difference to the tenured cultural studies professor.

Sowell, then, while being an intellectual according to his own definition, is in practice far more scientific and accountable. His awareness of human fallibility is straight out of Burke or Hayek. The absence of this quality in radicals is what makes today’s intellectual climate so uninviting. Sowell writes: “Because the vision of the anointed is a vision of themselves as well as a vision of the world, when they are defending that vision they are not simply defending a set of hypotheses about external events, they are in a sense defending their very souls—and the zeal and even ruthlessness with which they defend their vision are not surprising under these circumstances.”


My own comments on Leftist intellectuals are here -- JR


America on the Rise

For much of the past decade, "declinism" - the notion that America is heading toward a deadly denouement - has largely been a philosophy of the left. But more recently, particularly in the wake of Barack Obama's election, conservatives have begun joining the chorus, albeit singing a somewhat different variation on the same tune.

In a recent column in The Washington Post George Will illustrates this conservative change of heart. Looking over the next few decades Will sees an aging, obsolescent America in retreat to a young and aggressive China. "America's destiny is demographic, and therefore is inexorable and predictable," he suggests, pointing to predictions by Nobel Prize economist Robert Fogel that China's economy will be three times larger than that of the U.S. by 2040.

Will may be one of America's great columnists, but he - like his equally distinguished liberal counterpart Thomas Friedman - may be falling prey to a current fashion for sinophilia. It is a sign of the times that conservatives as well as liberals often underestimate the Middle Kingdom's problems - in addition to America's relative strengths.

Rarely mentioned in such analyses is China's own aging problem. The population of the People's Republic will be considerably older than the U.S.' by 2050. It also has far more boys than girls - a rather insidious problem. Among the younger generation there are already an estimated 24 million more men of marrying age than women. This is not going to end well - except perhaps for investors in prostitution and pornography.

In the longer term demographic trends actually place the U.S. in a relatively strong position. By the end of the first half of the 21st century, the American population aged 15 to 64 - essentially your economically active cohort - are projected to grow by 42%; China's will shrink by 10%. Comparisons with other competitors are even larger, with the E.U. shrinking by 25%, Korea by 30% and Japan by a remarkable 44%.

The Japanese experience best illustrates how wrong punditry can be. Back in the 1970s and 1980s it was commonplace for pundits - particularly on the left - to predict Japan's ascendance into world leadership. At the time distinguished commentators like George Lodge, Lester Thurow and Robert Reich all pointed to Europe and Japan as the nations slated to beat the U.S. on the economic battlefield. "Japan is replacing America as the world's strongest economic power," one prominent scholar told a Joint Economic Committee of Congress in 1986. "It is in everyone's interest that the transition goes smoothly."

This was not unusual or even shocking at the time. It followed a grand tradition of declinism that over the past 70 years has declared America ill-suited to compete with everyone from fascist Germany and Italy to the Soviet Union. By the mid-1950s a majority were convinced that we were losing the Cold War. In the 1980s Harvard's John Kenneth Galbraith thought the Soviet model successful enough that the two systems would eventually "converge."

We all know how that convergence worked out. Even the Chinese abandoned the Stalinist economic model so admired by many American intellectuals once Mao was safely a-moldering in his grave. Outside of the European and American academe, the only strong advocates of state socialism can be found in such economic basket cases as Cuba, North Korea and Venezuela.

So given this history, why the current rise in declinism? Certainly it's a view many in the wider public share. Most Americans fear their children will not be able to live as well as they have. A plurality think China will be the world's most powerful country in 20 years.

To be sure there are some good reasons for pessimism. The huge deficits, high unemployment, our leakage of industry not only to China but other developing countries are all worrisome trends. Yet if the negative case is easier to make, it does not stand historical scrutiny.

Let's just go back to what we learned during the "Japan is taking over the world" phase during the 1970s and 1980s. At the time Dai Nippon's rapid economic expansion was considered inexorable. Yet history is not a straight-line project. Most countries go through phases of expansion and decline. The factors driving success often include a well-conceived economic strategy, an expanding workforce and a sense of national ,lan.

In the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s Japan - like China today - possessed all those things. Its bureaucratic state had targeted key industries like automobiles and electronics, and its large, well-educated baby boom population was hitting the workforce. There was an unmistakable sense of pride in the country's rapid achievements after the devastation of the Second World War.

Yet even then, as the Economist's Bill Emmot noted in his 1989 book The Sun Also Sets, things were not so pretty once you looked a little closer. In the mid-1980s I traveled extensively in Japan and, with the help of a young Japanese-American scholar, Yoriko Kishimoto, interviewed demographers and economists who predicted Japan's eventual decline.

By then, the rapid drop in Japan's birthrate and its rapid aging was already clearly predictable. But even more persuasive were hours spent with the new generation of Japanese - the equivalent of America's Xers - who seemed alienated from the self-abnegating, work-obsessed culture of their parents. By the late 1980s it was clear that the shinjinrui ("the new race") seemed more interested in design, culture and just having fun than their forebears. They seemed destined not to become another generation of economic samurai.

At the time though, the very strategies so critical to Japan's growth - particularly a focus on high-end manufacturing - proved highly susceptible to competitors from lower-cost countries: first Taiwan, Korea and Singapore, and later China, Vietnam and more recently India. Like America and Britain before it, Japan exported its unique genius abroad. Now many companies, including American ones, have narrowed the technological gap with Japan.

Today Japan, like the E.U., lacks the youthful population needed to recover its mojo. It likely will emerge as a kind of mega-Switzerland, Sweden or Denmark - renowned for its safety and precision. Its workforce will have to be ultra-productive to finance the robots it will need to care for its vast elderly population.

Will China follow a similar trajectory in the next few decades? Countries infrequently follow precisely the same script as another. Japan was always hemmed in by its position as a small island country with very minimal resources. Its demographic crisis will make things worse. In contrast, China, for the next few decades, certainly won't suffer a shortage of economically productive workers

But it could face greater problems. The kind of low-wage manufacturing strategy that has generated China's success - as occurred with Japan - is already leading to a backlash across much of the world. China's very girth projects a more terrifying prospect than little Japan. At some point China will either have to locate much of its industrial base closer to its customers, as Japan has done, or lose its markets.

More important still are massive internal problems. Japan, for all its many imperfections, was and remains a stable, functioning democracy, open to the free flow of information. China is a fundamentally unstable autocracy, led from above, and one that seeks to control information - as evidenced in its conflict with Google - in an age where the free flow of information constitutes an essential part of economic progress.

China's social problems will be further exacerbated by a huge, largely ill-educated restive peasant class still living in poverty. Of course America too has many problems - with stunted upward mobility, the skill levels of its workforce, its fiscal situation. But the U.S., as the Japanese scholar Fuji Kamiya once noted, possesses sokojikara, a self-renewing capacity unmatched by any country.

As we enter the next few decades of the new millennium, I would bet on a more youthful, still resource-rich and democratic America to maintain its preeminence even in a world where economic power continues to shift from its historic home in Europe to Asia.




Amy Bishop, the socialist professor who shot and killed 3 UAH colleagues recently, had been a killer previously. She should have been in jail. Police released Bishop in 1986 after they received a call from district attorney William Delahunt, now Rep. Delahunt (D) of Massachusetts. She shot her brother 3 times in the stomach with a shotgun during an argument but the incident was written off as an accident. Nice to have corrupt friends in high places. Sad for the 3 dead professors, though. See here and here

Blue chip companies running from Leftist Britain's tax greed: "Half of Britain’s 30 largest companies have studied shifting their tax base offshore, with a handful saying they are actively considering a move, a survey by The Sunday Times has found. The findings underline the threat of an exodus that could cost the state billions of pounds. They come a week before a crucial meeting at the Treasury where reforms to the taxation of foreign profits — a bone of contention for multinationals based here — will be thrashed out. Of the top 30 companies in the FTSE 100 index, 15 said they were keeping their tax domicile status under review. Three — speaking on condition of anonymity — said they were actively considering a move. Some, such as Xstrata, the mining group, are already offshore, while others, like BAE Systems, the defence contractor, are unlikely to move because of their involvement in large government contracts."

Obama scrambling for a way out of terrorist trial dilemma: "The word is that Holder and Obama "never expected" the kind of pushback against holding a civilian trial for 9/11 plotter Khalid Sheikk Mohammed. This is pretty clueless in and of itself. How tone deaf do you have to be in order to be caught unawares when such large majorities favor keeping KSM from using a civilian trial as a propaganda tool? So now, Obama is frantically looking for a way out - keeping the idea of a civilian trial open but moving the venue somewhere else. This is probably a dead end and there are even many Democrats who believe the president will cave on the issue and have KSM tried by a military tribunal. According to this article in the Washington Post by Anne Kornblut and Carrie Johnson, the president has "inserted himself" into the decision making process"


List of backup or "mirror" sites here or here -- for readers in China or for everyone when blogspot is "down" or failing to update. Email me here (Hotmail address). My Home Pages are here (Academic) or here (Pictorial) or here (Personal)


The Big Lie of the late 20th century was that Nazism was Rightist. It was in fact typical of the Leftism of its day. It was only to the Right of Stalin's Communism. The very word "Nazi" is a German abbreviation for "National Socialist" (Nationalsozialist) and the full name of Hitler's political party (translated) was "The National Socialist German Workers' Party" (In German: Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei)



CrisisMaven said...

If it's a consolation: China is going to age even faster than the US due to the one-child policy. There will be much more hardship soon with a looming Chinese collapse bigger than the Soviet Union's.

Mark @ Israel said...

I believe that America can still survive and maintain its preeminence as an economic power in the future if it continues to be dynamic. Without the willingness to keep up and change with the times, the American government and the people will be left behind. As for Obama's meddling with the terrorist trial decision making process, he should have kept himself out of it.