BC’s weekend reads

  1. What equivalent claims (if they could be established) would falsify your political position?
  2. White males may enjoy a great deal of privilege, but they still have rights, and when those rights are violated, they ought to be rectified.
  3. […] actually, the whole country of France is like an attractive museum that would have a superlative cafeteria attached.
  4. They worked hard to look like they weren’t working too hard.

SMP: The Macro Bifurcation

One of the major issues in contemporary macroeconomics concerns monetary policy since the 2008 crisis. For many, if not most, of the major central banks, the conventional channels through which the money supply changes do not work anymore. For instance, by paying interest on reserves, the Federal Reserve has moved from adjusting the money supply to influencing the banks’ money demand. Some central banks have even maintained that money supply does not affect inflation anymore.

Continue reading at the Sound Money Project.

Tocqueville on the Russians

There was a winter storm that blew through Austin last night. The entire city, which isn’t big population-wise (1.5 million give or take) but large geographically, shut down and I have the day off. So, I am working hard on my weekly column for RealClearHistory, and came across this sociological gem of Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote the best book on America, ever:

The American struggles against the natural obstacles which oppose him; the adversaries of the Russian are men; the former combats the wilderness and savage life; the latter, civilization with all its weapons and its arts: the conquests of the one are therefore gained by the ploughshare; those of the other by the sword. The Anglo-American relies upon personal interest to accomplish his ends, and gives free scope to the unguided exertions and common-sense of the citizens; the Russian centres all the authority of society in a single arm: the principal instrument of the former is freedom; of the latter servitude.

Keep in mind that Tocqueville’s book was published in 1835. During the Cold War, this passage, which is the last paragraph in Volume 1 of Tocqueville’s 2-volume treatise, this passage was almost a necessary introduction to anything related to Soviet-American interactions.

Now, I fear, my generation must also heed Tocqueville’s prophecy about Russian and American society. Trump is a loudmouthed demagogue, but he is restrained by the people, most of all his base, which, for all its many faults, is democratic in its mores. Free-thinking Russians left Russia en masse while they could, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, for the West and their children and their children’s children will grow up free. The Russian people will continue to serve a despotism they think they need to survive. There is a conspiratorial, somber, and pessimistic tone in the voice of most Russian authors, even those who have managed to make a life for themselves in the West, and I get it.

When I think of Russia, with all its beautiful biodiversity, its people, and its potential, I brood.

Shitholes: Where the President is Wrong

I am both a brilliant social scientist and a sensitive moralist. Both facts force me to wade into the “shithole” controversy. I will try to diverge from what has been said ad nauseam in the media but I cannot avoid some repetition.

First, I would bet 60/40 that he said it, just as reported. The president is a sort of verbal pervert, an addict. He gets so much pleasure from scandalizing the prim liberals that he can’t stop himself. Policy successes only encourage him; they give him room to maneuver, so to speak. I can certainly empathize. So, I don’t want to deny him but I wish he had not said it. See why below.

Second, yes, some countries are shitholes. That’s why so many, NOT displaced by war, are eager to risk drowning in the cold winter Mediterranean to escape. That’s why some escape a couple of unnamed countries in the Caribbean by floating on inner tubes. That’s why Venezuelan border guards are unequal to the task of keeping immigrants out. (I made this up. I want to make sure you are paying attention.) All the same, there are plenty of good people who live in shithole countries, friends and potential friends of America. The president should avoid making them feel worse than they already do.

Third, there was rush, a veritable melee, to charge President Trump with racism because of the comment. Rude and crude is not enough because not enough Americans care. (Many of us are both; many more are one or the other, at least occasionally.) The president has to be a racist; that’s important. So, this leaves me pondering: If Mr Trump had called, say, Russia a shithole it would have been OK because Russians are 97% white? Do you see the credibility problem here?

What provided the steam, the power in this matter is Mr Trump’s infatuation with merit-based immigration. His eruction took place shortly after Mr Trump had declared the US needs more immigrants from countries such as Norway (where many people must have merit, obviously).

I think that here his logic is dead wrong or, at least, mostly wrong.

For whatever historical reasons or because of their own current virtues, or because of their oil deposits, Norwegians live very well. I think it’s all Norwegians. Even poor Norwegians have it good. Possibly, it’s especially poor Norwegians who have it good because of an insanely generous social safety net. I hate to tell you but Norwegians have both a GDP/capita higher than Americans AND a welfare state. The only weak spot is the climate but then, they are used to it, what, after centuries, and many are rich enough to go south for part of the winter anyway.

Given all this, what kind of Norwegians would think of emigrating to the US? I think, two kinds. First, there would be adventurers and very ambitious entrepreneurs. Second, there would be the scum of Norwegian society, including a large criminal element not satisfied with the lifestyle the dole provides.*

Now, think of a society that is less than rosy. (I won’t call it a bad name because I follow my own advice.) I am thinking of a society where there is no escape from garbage and even from human feces except deep in the tropical forest. Would the well educated, decent people with middle-class aspirations from such a society wish to come to the US? You bet! That society has given us thousands of quality entrepreneurs, many dedicated and hard workers, and talent in every segment of American society, including academia, the judiciary, and literature. I am thinking of India, of course.

So, here is the question: Would we rather have the cream of an objectionable society such as India or the scum of a good society such as Norway**. I think that’s the real choice and Mr Trump does not begin to understand it.

* I use the conditional here because there is currently practically no way for a Norwegian to emigrate to the US except by marrying an American.

** I understand that there are moral objections to skimming off the cream of poor societies such as India. Another topic, obviously.

What is the best book about Argentina?

A couple of days ago, Tyler Cowen asked which is “the best book about each country:”

To count, the book must have some aspirations to be a general survey of what the country is or to cover much of the history of the country.   So your favorite book on the French Revolution is not eligible, for instance…

He explicitly skips South America. I can’t blame him, as I’ve never found a book that fully captures (the interrelationship between) the five things that make Argentina Argentina:

1. The fight between Buenos Aires and the Interior for fiscal resources. This was the main cause behind the civil wars of the XIXth century, and the eventual solution — the creation of a federal state that could check the power of Buenos Aires, and where the provinces of the interior would be politically over-represented — continues to be a defining feature of the country’s political economy to this day.

2. The division between “unitarios” and “federales,” which also began in the XIXth century. Although this cleavage was ostensibly about how to organize the country territorially, we should not forget that “politics is not about policy:” the actual division was about the relative status of different social groups. Specifically, he federales fell in the “Trumpian” side of the spectrum, praising the common, unsophisticated man “from here” as opposed to the high-brow cosmopolitanism promoted by the unitarios. Again, this division did not end in the XIXth century; Argentina’s political history during the XXth and beyond — and most notably the phenomenon Peronism — simply cannot be understood without making reference to this opposition.

3. The great immigration. Between the end of the XIXth and the beginning of the XXth century, Argentina embarked in a great social experiment that sought to transform the country by importing huge numbers of European immigrants. During this period, Argentina was the country that most immigrants received as proportion of its population, being second only to the US in the absolute number of immigrants it received. The assimilation of such immigrants was mostly successful, but also had profound consequences in terms of demographics, language, culture, cuisine and surnames (where do you think mine comes from?), as well as the way Argentineans perceive themselves: as a middle-class country of immigrants in which hard work allows you to get ahead in life.

4. Nationalism. One of the unintended consequences of the great immigration was the (government-sponsored) construction of a new national identity, defined in terms of territory rather than blood, race, or national history. This is the origin of Argentines’ sickly relationship with national boundaries, most patently seen in relation to the Malvinas/Falklands issue.

5. Pretorian politics. Between 1930 and 1983, Argentina was governed by no less than five different military regimes (in 1930, 1943, 1958, 1966 and 1976, respectively). The last of them (1976-1983) was especially murderous, as the military  systematically “disappeared” thousands of guerrilla members, political activists, union leaders and Left-wing sympathizers in a vain attempt to engineer a new political system. It is impossible to make sense of the political, social and cultural attitudes that have predominated in the country since 1983 without understanding this past.

Unfortunately, no book comes even close to capturing all these factors simultaneously. That said, the ones that best approach this ideal are the following:

1. Juan José Sebreli, Crítica de las Ideas Políticas Argentinas [A Criticism of Political Ideas in Argentina]. As far as I’ve seen, it’s only available in Spanish, however.

2. Larry Sawers, The Other Argentina. The Interior and National Development. As far as I know, it hasn’t been translated; please tell me I’m wrong.

3. Nicolas Shumway, The Invention of Argentina. There is also a Spanish edition.

PS. If you’re going for some XIXth-century work, don’t get swayed by the beguiling prose of Sarmientos’s Facundo; it’s too dominated by mood affiliation. Juan Bautista Alberdi’s Bases y Puntos de Partida para la Organización Política de la República Argentina [Bases and Starting Points for the Political Organization of the Argentine Republic] is a far better choice.

Lunchtime Links

  1. High Hitler (drugs, drugs, drugs!)
  2. every generation gets the drugs it deserves
  3. Lawsplainer on federal and state marijuana laws
  4. why illegally obtained evidence is generally inadmissible in court
  5. Putin and patriotism: national pride after the fall of the Soviet Union (excerpt)
  6. long, fraught history of Pakistan and the US
  7. Old Dogs, New Tricks: Turkey and the Kurds
  8. Good piece, but I’m still waiting for a great book (or article) on the Hanseatic League. All the great ones are probably in German…

A quick update, then liberals and democracy, followed by racism and rectification

I have been busy. I picked up a gig at RealClearHistory as a ghost editor, and I also write a weekly column there. I have a baby daughter (she’s 8 months old). My musings here at NOL have been sporadic, but I have been learning a lot. Bill (morality) and Federico (law and liberty) continue to make me smarter.

Tridivesh’s thoughts here so far have a heavy element of “democracy-is-best” in them. I find this to be the case for most South Asian liberals. I wonder if this community has had the time to ponder Fareed Zakaria’s The Future of Freedom…, which laments the fact that most liberals worldwide have eschewed the “liberty” in the phrase “liberty and democracy.” One is surely sexier than the other, and there are probably many pragmatic reasons for this phenomenon, but it’s worth repeating here that you can’t have liberal democracy without liberty. China holds elections all the time, but this doesn’t mean the Chinese are free.

Michelangelo’s most recent note on race is interesting, as always. If it’s just the US Census then I agree with Thomas: eliminate the race question. Matt’s idea, to leave it blank and let people fill it in themselves, is a good idea, too, provided the Census continues to pry too much into the lives of people living in the US. As far as race goes in general, the American system of classification is ridiculous (to be fair to us, I’ve never come across a good one). However, the US government has committed some heinous crimes based on racist classifications and as such I do think there is a need to continue asking race-based questions. My approach would be much simpler, though. I’d ask:

  • Do you identify as African-American?
  • Do you identify as Native American?
  • Do you identify as Japanese-American?

That’s it. Those are the only 3 questions I would ask about race. These three groups are groups because the US government, at some point in time, classified them as such and then proceeded to implement plans that robbed them of their labor, or their land, or their freedoms, and justice has yet to be delivered.