- Holy shit! (great news)
- Hayek’s rapid rise to stardom | misunderstanding Hayek
- great write-up on Catalonia | a philosophical case for secession
- if colonialism was the apocalypse, what comes next? | should UNM replace its seal?
- do trees fall in cyberspace? | how to use Facebook better
- a pretty shallow deep throat | vulvæ in pornography and culture
I’ve been thinking about writing a short essay about some of the things going on in Brazil right now, especially concerning politics and economics, for my English speaking friends. I guess one can get really lost in the middle of so much news, and to the best of my knowledge, some left-leaning journalists are saying quite some nonsense already. So here we go!
President Dilma Rousseff was impeached over a year ago. Her party, the Workers Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, or PT in Portuguese) is officially a social democrat party, close to the European social democracy tradition, i.e., socialists who want to attain power through a non violent, non revolutionary path. In the end, as it happens with so many big parties, PT has many internal tendencies and in-fighting, but I believe the party can be summarized especially in two tendencies.
On one hand you have cultural Marxists, in the Frankfurt School but even more in the Antonio Gramsci tradition. Many people in PT and other Brazilian socialist parties understood long ago that they had to win a cultural war before they won the political war. And so, these factions are much more interested in feminism, gay rights, and minority rights in general than in anything else. To the best of my knowledge, this is a strategy that backfires somewhat: cultural Leftism is a self defeating philosophy, and so, cultural Marxists are more and more into a witch hunt that damages even themselves. They make a lot of noise, to be sure, but they can’t run a country.
On the other hand, many Brazilian socialists are almost entirely pragmatic. It seems that they forgot about Marxism long ago, and are somehow even convinced of the Washington Consensus. They know basic economics, such as money doesn’t grow on trees and there’s no such thing as free lunch. But they also don’t want to lose face, and most importantly, don’t want to lose position. So, they surely won’t take measures that really shrink the size of the state to a healthy degree.
Dilma’s supporters still say she was the victim of a coup. Of course, she wasn’t. She was impeached with overwhelming evidence of her wrongdoings according to Brazilian law. Other than that, it is hard to believe in a coup where all branches of government agree and the military are not involved in any way. Eventually her supporters sophisticated the argument by saying she was the victim of a “parliamentary coup.” It is nonsense, but if we take it with a grain of salt we can be reminded of something important in Brazilian politics – or politics in general. Dilma was not impeached because of her wrongdoings. Many politicians in Brazil have done similar or worse things than her. She was impeached because she lost support, mostly in the legislative branch. For the wrong reasons (opposition to Dilma), the representatives did the right thing.
One of the problems that Brazil faces today is that the same congress that impeached Dilma for the wrong reasons expects from her successor, Michel Temer, the political favors they used to get from Dilma’s predecessor, Luis Inacio Lula da Silva. But these favors are not cheap. Other than that, even if he is a crook, Temer seems to realize that Brazil can’t suffer any more socialism. In the end Brazil is facing some (sort of) free market reforms, but without really shaking the basis of a state too big to function properly.
This Wednesday, O Globo, one of the newspapers of greater audience in Brazil, leaked information obtained by the Federal Policy implicating president Michel Temer and Senator Aécio Neves in a corruption scandal. Temer was recorded supporting a bribe for former congressman Eduardo Cunha, now under arrest, so that Cunha would not give further information for the police. Aécio, president of PSDB (one of the main political parties in Brazil), was recorded asking for a bribe from a businessman from JBS, a company in the food industry. The recordings were authorized by the judiciary and are part of the Operation Lava Jato.
In the last few years Oparation Lava Jato, commanded by Judge Sérgio Moro and inspired by the Italian Oparation Clean Hands, brought to justice some of the most important politicians in Brazil, including formed president Luis Inácio Lula da Silva. However, supporters of president Lula, president Dilma and their political party (PT) complained that Moro and his team were politically biased, going after politicians from the left, especially PT, and never form the right – especially PSDB. PSDB is not actually a right-wing party, if we consider right wing only conservatives and libertarians. PSDB, as it name implies, is a social democratic party, i.e., a left wing one. However, since the late 1980s and especially mid-1990s, PSDB is the main political adversary for PT, creating a complicated scenario that PT usually explores politically in its own benefit. In any way, it is clear now (although hardcore Lula supporters will not see this) that Operation Lava Jato is simply going after corrupt politicians, regardless if their political parties or ideologies.
With president Michel Temer directly implicated in trying to stop Operation Lava Jato, his government, that already lacked general public support, is held by a string. Maybe Temer will resign. Other possibility is that the Congress will start an impeachment process, such as happened with Dilma Rousseff just a year ago. In one way or another, the Congress will have to call for a new presidential election, albeit an indirect one: the Congress itself will elect a new president and virtually anyone with political rights in Brazil can be candidate. This new president would govern only until next year, completing the term started by Dilma Rousseff in 2014. There is also another possibility in the horizon: the presidential ticket that brought both Dilma Rousseff and Michel Temer to Brasília is under investigation and it is possible that next June Temer will be declared out of office by the electoral justice.
Politicians from the left, especially REDE and PSOL, want a new presidential election with popular vote. In case Temer simply resigns or is impeached, this would require an amendment to the already tremendously amended Brazilian constitution. This new election might benefit Marina Silva, virtual candidate for REDE and forerunner in the 2010 and 2014 presidential elections. Without a solid candidate, it is possible that PSOL will support Marina, or at least try a ticket with her. A new presidential election with popular vote could also benefit Lula, still free, but under investigation by Moro and his team. Few people doubt that Lula will be in jail very soon, unless he escapes to the presidential palace where he would have special forum.
Temer already came to public saying that he will not resign. Although a corrupt, as it is clear now, Temer was supporting somewhat pro-market reforms in Brazil. In his current political predicament it is unlikely that he will be able to conduct any reform. The best for Brazil is that Temer resigns as soon as possible and that the Congress elects equally fast a new president, someone with little political connections but able to run the government smoothly until next year. Unfortunately, any free market reform would have to wait, but it would also give time for libertarian, classical liberal and conservative groups to grow support for free market ideas among the voters until the election. A new presidential election with popular vote would harm everyone: it would be the burial of democratic institutions in Brazil. Brazil needs to show the World that it has institutions that are respected, and to which people can hold in times of trouble, when the politicians behave as politicians do.
Ordinary, rational Americans are watching with nervous disbelief the unfolding of the Clinton tragedy and low comedy combined. We all think the same thing: “Can’t last. Something is going to stop them. The Democratic Party will come to its senses eventually.” The columnist Peggy Noonan, who often comes up with original and credible analyses, said in last weekend’s issue of the Wall Street Journal that the Clintons are protected by their well-established corruption: Everyone already knows they are corrupt; there is nothing they do that will add measurably to this knowledge. This is an explanation that makes a sort of perverse sense. I dare not subscribe to it completely because it feels self-indulgent; this is a viewpoint few hard-line Republican partisans would dare publicize. It’s too good to be true! It’s too bad to be true!
Hillary Clinton, so far the only Democratic candidate to replace President Obama, is moving on slowly and apparently unperturbed. It matters not that she is a phony, so phony that she can’t even make her hand gestures match her words. She has told numerous lies, some of them transparent. She has lied on matters that could easily be verified, such as landing on a foreign airport under sniper fire. This kind of lie usually indicates mental imbalance; it’s fundamentally different from the ordinary CYA lie. Hillary Clinton failed to come through to protect her own subordinates and their CIA protectors in Libya. Then, she lied, covered up, and minimized the importance of their deaths. She gave constitutional Congressional authority the finger by destroying her email records. Reminder: This is something that never happens to anyone else that you or I know, right? Even the mid-level Obama IRS executive in charge of persecuting Obamanemies, she who took the Fifth Amendment, had the common decency to state that her emails were lost by mistake.
Hillary Clinton has teamed up with her husband in their family foundation to extract money from the most unlikely sources. The foundation pays out about 10% of what takes in. Its main outlays go to reward Clinton friends and facilitators and enablers, and also to help support the couple’s lavish life style. (This, although they don’t get paid a salary by the foundation; they use it it as an expense account.). The latest reports make it sound like the Clintons used Hillary’s term as Secretary of State to bring the US down to the level of your regular banana republic, where lavish gifts buy you influence for anything. “Lavish gifts ” go to the Clinton Foundation but they also include $500,000 speaking fees for Mr Clinton, for example, all in one single motion. I ask, how he can say anything worth half a million dollars when he is not even able to include the adultery and sexual abuses segments of his past?
When I mention”unlikely sources,” I mean, for example, the likes of the Algerian government, an oil and natural gas-ed state plutocracy. You would think that government would have plenty of worthy causes right at home in Algeria where the unemployment rate is “down to” about 10%. There are even better opportunities to spend Algerian oil money right south of the country, in the miserable Sahel countries. Why would it donate munificently to an ex-president’s foundation unless it were also because it was a current Sec. of State’s foundation? When his attention was drawn recently to such unseemly gifts, Mr Clinton’s only response was that there were no proofs, “no evidence.” How low can you get?
I worked out two scenarios about the future of the Clinton candidacy. Both are nightmare scenarios.
First, the upper reaches of the Democratic Party may be allowing things to take their course with Hillary in a sort of passive bait-and-switch. They let her gather attention on their party in the context of the 2016 presidential election and will persuade her to step down in time for a surprise candidate. That candidate is likely to be Elizabeth Warren. After all, she is a woman too; she is a Senator; she does not carry much baggage. The only significant piece of luggage is her identifying herself as American Indian, 1/16th or was it 1/32th? Democrat voters will easily forgive this whether it’s true or not because that was said to help her obtain an academic job she deserved anyway and that she might have been denied otherwise because she is a woman. Still with me? Besides, self-serving lies that are hard to contradict do not indicate mental imbalance, like an untruth about landing under sniper fire does, for example. Moreover, Ms Warren, unlike Ms Clinton, is a genuine leftist, not a pure opportunist. Besides, some centrist voters might be so relieved to be spared the walking Clinton debacle that they might become blind to Ms Warren’s small pimples. Nothing to lose there.
The second scenario implies that Democrat strategists know something ordinary, politically conscious people like me don’t know. It may just be that they are making the bet that nothing disgusting anyone will bring up or discuss will do any harm to Ms Clinton’s candidacy for president. Just take for granted a union vote of 80% for any Democratic presidential candidate, of 90% for African-Americans (98% for black union members), 65% for Latinos promised a quick path to citizenship for illegals (whom they think – wrongly – are mostly theirs). (All figures made up but entirely realistic.) Then, think of the millions of female voters, and potential female voters who rarely or never vote, who take no interest in politics, who don’t know anything except that the candidate is a woman. How unlikely is it that such people can be made to vote this one time? With the frame of mind I am imagining, it’s even probable that any attack on Ms Clinton, no matter how justified, even direct, open sale of favors will be viewed as bullying, as ganging up on the girl.
Many women, even literate women, actually think that it’s the turn of a woman to be president. The affirmative action fallacy that gave us the Obama presidency may just be about to be repeated.
It may be too late for rational people to do much of anything against the broader fallacy of phony identity politics. It seems to me that they can gnaw at its edge – this time – by tirelessly contradicting the now common false premise that Ms Clinton is well qualified for the job of president. Even ignoring her many failures, she did not achieve anything either as Senator or as Secretary of State, no legislation, no international agreement, no treaty, nothing. Unlike the current president, she was not even good at being elected. She got her Senate seat from the Democratic machine from a safe district where she ran essentially unopposed. Her appointment as Secretary of State was such an obvious debt repayment between Democrat factions that anyone but a Clinton would have been embarrassed.
The pessimist in me nourishes a further nightmare: There will be a time soon when I miss the Obama presidency.
It’s six a.m., I am sipping my first cup of coffee on the small balcony near the tall coconut tree. It’s still dark but I can see a short stocky woman sweeping the ground of the open space in front of the hotel next door. Right away, I detect that something is wrong in the picture although I am not fully awake. The broom the woman is using is too short, its straw end is frayed. She is bending over more than should be necessary; some of her energy is being misspent because she pushes harder than she would have to with a newer broom. No big deal! Except…
Mexico is the kind of country where the dentist kisses you when you leave. (This particular dentist is a pretty willowy blonde.) Perhaps, Mexico is the only country of its kind. I don’t know; I have not been everywhere. No American dentist has ever attempted this maneuver on me, or on my attractive wife either. I have avoided French dentists since 1960. A dentist in Morocco once gave me a root canal with no anesthesia whatsoever. I forgave him long ago but I wouldn’t let him kiss me if you paid me. The universal amiability of Mexicans might color everything I say below. You are warned.
I just spent three weeks in Mexico, in the pleasant resort city of Puerto Vallarta. With a population of 250,000, it does not feel much larger than Santa Cruz, California with its population 4/5 smaller. Still it’s large enough to be considered a real place, not a boutique resort. I was staying in a small hotel on the beach, of course, which limits observation. But my wife and I did most of our own cooking and therefore, we had to shop often in an ordinary supermarket located in an ordinary commercial center. This is important as a kind of regular and forced immersion into normal local life. We did not have a car so, we took taxis several times a day. This is important too because cab drivers everywhere are a rich fount of information if you manage to steer them from small talk. Yes, I know Spanish, and not only in my imagination as described in my masterful “Foreign Languages and Self-Delusion in America” (if I say so myself) but for real. I understand everything that is said to me in that language; I am able to eavesdrop on conversations between strangers; I can read the newspaper; I listen to television news without effort.* In brief, I was in a reasonable good position to observe, interpret and ask questions.
This stay in Mexico was like a refresher course on a topic that occupied me professionally for about twenty-five years: Why some countries are poorer than others. (When you begin thinking seriously about this simple question, you quickly discover that the plausible answers are numerous and complex.) I used to do it in a rigorous, quantitatively based manner, estimating statistical models and the like. This time, I am indulging myself frankly in pop-sociology. It does not imply any rejection of my past endeavors.
Comparisons between the way things are done in Mexico and in the US come naturally because the surface similarities between there and here are obvious. Mexicans want what we want and they work openly for it and, in time, they get it. Material progress usually takes a familiar American form, from shopping malls to cineplexes, to the Discovery Channel…, you name it.
Mexico’s GDP per capita is less than one third of the American equivalent (about USD 16,500 vs 52,000, Purchasing Power Parity, a formulation which makes the two figures comparable) Mexico is a poor country but not one of the poorest by a long shot. Why would it be poor?
Mexicans are not a short on entrepreneurial spirit. Every nook and cranny shelters a business of sorts. I enter a tiny corner shop in a non-touristy part of town selling I don’t know what. A toddler sleeps on a blanket on the cold floor. (It’s hot.) Against one wall, three cramped stalls offer Internet access. The owner, the toddler’s father, tells me he is opened from 7 am to 10 pm. He charges me forty cents to recharge my cellphone battery, not an especially low price considering his cost and the little labor involved. There are restaurants everywhere, also far from the tourist tracks. Some have only four tables. Most are still empty at 8 pm. Two social mechanisms seem at work. One is simple mimicry: The guy across the street has one. What does he know about birria that I don’t know? The other is a version of the Chinese eating place economic rationale: If people don’t come to dine here, my family can always eat the food; I have many children anyway. Nothing is going to go to waste. The economic risk is small. It can’t hurt. Perhaps, rents are low because there is not much alternative use for the relevant spaces.
Food is everywhere anyway. If someone goes hungry in Mexico, it’s somewhere else. Yet, food prices are low but not very low. Rice is cheap, avocados are cheap; apples are the same price as in California perhaps because they come from afar. This is an undeveloped capitalism, with poor infrastructures; moving foodstuff is still expensive. A cup of reasonable good coffee costs USD 1,40; that’s probably more than in an Arkansas diner. That’s what it means to be poor: Your money does not reach very far.
Three facts of possible economic relevance strike you quickly; two are concrete and easy to verify; the third is intangible, or kind of unsubstantial, but that does not make it irrelevant. First, nearly every shop is overstaffed by a significant factor. That’s easy to see when people perform identical jobs with identical technologies as in the US. There are twice or more salesladies in the clothing area of a department store as there would be in KMart, the perennially failing chain. In the butcher section of the supermarket, employees are waiting for you. That’s nice but it’s probably superfluous. I could wait two minutes instead, so could Mexican housewives. In the restaurants that actually have some business, the waitpersons (waiters and waitresses ) seem to be spending most of their time standing still.
The second observation concerns low individual productivity. It’s not that Mexicans don’t work hard. In Mexico as in the US, Mexicans are remarkable for working hard for long hours. They seem to know no coffee breaks and little even by way of lunch breaks. The problem is that you see everywhere people doing work for which they have received little or no training. I watched with increasing fascination, several times a day, a laborer failing to finish a simple brick path. He did not manage to complete in three days what I am ready to bet an American bricklayer would have done in less than a day. (Yes, I know something about bricklaying too.) That’s a big productivity differential. Even the pharmacists filling my prescriptions seemed hesitant. They did not exude the authority of American pharmacists with an advanced education. Since Mexicans in general rarely lack in personal authority and, by elimination, I am forced to hypothesize that my pharmacists where just sort of learning their job as they went along.
Incidentally, I have reasons to believe that this shortage of training does not extend to superior occupations: Mexican doctors and Mexican engineers are not inferior to their American counterparts, I am guessing. (The fast development of medical tourism into Mexico from both the US and Canada testifies to the quality of the former, I think.)
The third observation, which I called intangible is difficult to render, of course. It’s almost only an impression but one that is redundantly encountered. The information dispensed by the conventional Mexican media seems very thin. The nightly news program on major channel serves poor fare as compared to the Spanish language but American Univision. If there are new or substantive programs on radio, I have not discovered them. (I may very well have missed such.) I mean that I almost missed National Public Radio there ( a difficult admission for me, obviously). Whether you read the daily newspaper or not does not make much difference in your level of information. Here is a test case.
On a weekend day, there is a massive protest march in Mexico City. The demonstration is to protest the disappearance of 43 young people from the same teachers school. Everyone except their parents knows they have been murdered. The demonstration is both very large and quite orderly as compared to anything of the same kind in the US. The police uses tear gas but only sixty people are arrested. There is no mention of anyone seriously hurt.
I buy the Sunday version of what has been designated to me as the best national daily newspaper in the country (“El Excelsior“). A description of the demonstrations and photographs cover the front page, as you would expect. The two innermost pages are devoted to the same events. In addition to eyewitness accounts are included serious interviews of government officials, of protest march organizers and of several pundits. I make myself read every word. At the end, I have learned close to nothing and I have no new perspective on the crime, sociologically, politically or otherwise. I just get confirmation of the fact that the mayor of the town where the young men disappeared and his wife have been arrested. I turn to the “global” page and get a reading of events in Iraq and Syria that I would probably not understand absent my previous familiarity based on American media. In three weeks, I see and hear not a single reference to President Obama’s executive order concerning illegal immigrants about half of whom are of Mexican origin.
I think that Mexicans, including well-educated Mexicans, are not well informed unless the Internet makes up for the obvious deficiencies of the conventional press, which is hard to believe. I would be hard put to explain how this affects Mexican economic development except that it may result in a blindness to new economic opportunities. Mexican entrepreneurs dedicate themselves to old pursuits or they imitate the gringo model late and imperfectly, perhaps (perhaps). Even where a Mexican industry has experienced notable global success such as the brewery industry, it did not innovate much, if at all. No innovation, no temporary super-profits, no generous wages (as we see in Silicon Valley, for example). This is all speculation. Others may have written on the relationship between the general level of information of a population and its overall productivity and it may have escaped my attention or, I may have forgotten it. Maybe readers will come to my rescue on this.
So, here you have it: skimpy training of ordinary workers, inferior tools, a poor physical infrastructure, an under-informed populace, together make for much lower gross productivity than what we are used to in the US. But, overall, in a sort of rough way, wages follow productivity. Mexican workers produce little and they get paid accordingly little. Note that the same factors of poverty interact with one another: Low pay encourages the hiring of a surfeit of workers; modestly paid workers may not be perceived as deserving good tools; an underdeveloped infrastructure buffers business decision-makers from all kinds of competition, including competition for workers, thereby keeping wages lower than they need be. Workers may not be well informed enough to struggle for higher wages. And, of course, workers with low pay make poor consumers. Among other things, they fail to fill the restaurants their entrepreneurially inclined neighbors open for them.
By now, you may wonder why something is missing from this story. I mean corruption, small corruption and especially, big corruption. Two reasons for this absence. The first is that, naturally, corrupt behavior is not readily amenable to casual observation. The second reason is that I am not convinced that corruption of any kind goes much way toward explaining Mexican underdevelopment.
Low level corruption first. In Mexico, it’s common to deal with an ordinary traffic transgression by asking the policeman who stopped you to pay the fine on your behalf because “I am too busy, sorry.” I am told that any amount of cash close to half of the amount of the official fine will do the trick. This sort of practice pervades Mexican life, I am still told. (I have not had a personal experience of it for twenty years myself.) It’s not clear to me that it has any relation to underdevelopment. In the above example, what is basically a tax gets diverted from the government to private pockets. Likewise, when building permits are sold by building inspectors rather than earned and deserved, a relaxation of anti-growth regulations takes place, doesn’t it ?
I don’t know, incidentally, that there is much private corruption in Mexico. I must have taken more than sixty taxis while I was in Puerto Vallarta. They have no meters but rates are fixed by zone. Only one tried to take me, for about USD 3. That’s an extremely low hit rate as compared to say, New York City.
Now, on to big-time corruption. By its nature, it’s hard to observe except if you read the paper carefully and with great, diligent constancy. (See above.) Here is one possible case that came to my attention while I was in Mexico. A big house on a golf course comes up for sale for USD 1.5 million. The seller is a police official described to me as not very high on the totem pole. Someone I know makes an offer. The asking price shrinks to USD 750,000 if he will pay cash. How did a police official get his hands on that house? Did he inherit a pile of money from his father, from a rich aunt? By insisting on cash, is he simply trying to avoid taxes or does he have a more sinister reason? I don’t know and here again, I am not sure it matters. Perhaps, it does in relation to the accumulation of capital; I wouldn’t know which way though.
People of libertarian inclination have to choose: If government is inimical to happiness in general and to economic prosperity in particular then, the suspension of government efficacy, as with corrupt government practices, must be for the better. Or, another, more benign theory of government must be developed.
* If you wonder at my linguistic prowess, don’t. First, Spanish is a dialect of Latin, like French, my native language. Second, I have been studying Spanish for a straight sixty years. It stands to reason that I have made some progress.
In Part One of Scholarly Conspiracies, Scholarly Corruption and Global Warming, I drew on my own experience as a scholar to describe how the scientific enterprise can easily become corrupted for anodyne, innocent reasons, for reasons that are not especially cynical. I argued, of course, that this can especially happen in connection with such big, societal issues as climate change. I concluded that the findings of scientists do not, as a matter of principle, merit the quasi-religious status they are often granted. It follows from this that the Left’s attempt to stop any debate on the ground that science has spoken is grotesque.
I should have added in Part One that at different times in my career, I may have benefited by the kind of corruption I describe as well as having been hurt by it. Of course, one thing does not compensate for the other. Corruption is corruption; it constitutes more or less wide steps away from the truth whether I profit by it or whether it harms me. These things just add up, they don’t balance each other out.
Once you open your eyes, it’s not difficult to find gross derailments of the scientific enterprise. To be more precise, the transformation of limited scientific results into policy often gives rise to abuses. Sometimes, they are gross abuses verging on the criminal.
A recent book describes in detail how the slim results of 1950s studies that were obviously flawed both in their design and with respect to data collection were adopted by the American scientific establishment as policy. They resulted in a couple of generations of Americans being intellectually terrorized into adopting a restrictive, sad, un-enjoyable diet that may even have undermined their health. The book is The Big Fat Surprise by Nina Teicholz .
For most of my adult life, I limited my own intake of meats because saturated fats were supposed to give me cardiac illness and, ultimately heart attacks. I often thought something was fishy about the American Heart Association severity concerning saturated fats because of my frequent stays in France. There, I contemplated men of all ages feasting on pork chops fried in butter followed by five different kinds of cheese also eaten with butter. Then, they would have a post-prendial cigarette or two, of course. None of the men I knew exercised beyond walking to shop for pâtés, sausages, and croissants sweating butter (of course). Every time, I checked – often – Frenchmen had a longer life expectancy than American men (right now, it’s two and half years longer.)
Yet, such was the strength of my confidence (of our confidence) in the official medical-scientific establishment that I bravely followed my stern semi-macrobiotic diet even while in France. In my fifties, I developed Type Two diabetes. None of my four siblings who lived and ate in France did. I understand well the weakness of a such anecdotal evidence. And I know I could have been the one of five who hit the wrong number in the genetic lottery. (That would have been the inheritance from my grandfather who died at 26 of a worse illness than diabetes, a German bullet, in his case.) Yet, if there are quite a few cases like mine where siblings constitute a natural control for genetic factors, it would seem worth investigating the possibility that a diet high in carbohydrates is an actual cause of what is often described as an “epidemic” of Type II diabetes. If there are many more cases than there were before the anti-fat campaign, controlling for age, something must have changed in American society. The diet low on saturated fats pretty much forced on us since the fifties could be that societal change.
I am not saying that it is. I am saying it’s worth investigating, with proper design and normal rules of data selection. I am not holding my breath. I think the scientific establishment will not turn itself around until its biggest honchos of the relevant period pass away. Teicholz’s book may turn out to have many defects because she is more a journalist than a scientist. I am awaiting with great attention the rebuttals from the scientific establishment, or – you never know – their apologies.
And then, there is the old story of how it took twenty years for the American Medical Association to change its recommendation on how to treat the common duodenum ulcer after an obscure Australian researcher showed that it was almost always caused by a bacterium. (The story was told about twenty years ago, in Atlantic Monthly, I think I remember. You look it up.)
The de facto scientific establishment is not infallible but it usually wants to pretend that it is. It’s aided in its stubbornness by the religiously inspired passivity of ordinary people who were raised with misplaced all-around reverence for science and anything that appears, rightly or wrongly, “scientific.”
The climate change lobby, wrapped in a pseudo-scientific mantle still thrives in several policy areas in spite of most Americans’ relative indifference to the issue. Two of its main assets are these: First it is well served by irresponsible repetition of a simplified form of its message that amounts to constant, uncritical amplification; second, even well-educated people usually don’t pay a lot of attention to detail, don’t read critically because they are busy.
Now, I am not going to spend any time denouncing the myriad airheads with short skirts who add their own climate change sage commentary to their presentation of ordinary weather reports. (I am a man of vast culture, I listen to the same tripe in three different languages!) As I keep saying, I don’t beat on kindergartners. Let’s take National Geographic, instead, that justifiably respected monument to good information since 1888.
The October 2013 issue presents another striking photographic documentary intended to illustrate fast climate change. One of the photographic essays in the issue concerns, predictably, the alleged abnormal melting of glaciers. The talented photographer, James Balog, contributes his own completely superfluous, judgmental written commentary:
We know the climate is changing…. I never expected to see such huge changes in such a short period of time.
The guy is a photographer, for God’s sake! He has an undergraduate degree in communications. His credentials to pronounce on long-term climate change are…? Even the National Geographic, generally so careful about its assertions, couldn’t resist, couldn’t bring itself to tell him, “This is outside your area of competence, STFU!” Why not let the janitor also give his judgment in the pages of National Geographic? This is a free country after all. Most people simply don’t have the energy to notice thousands of such violations of good scientific practice.
Now to inattention, still with the venerated National Geographic. The September 2013 issue, entitled “Rising Seas” presents a truly apocalyptic future in case global warming is not controlled. As is usually the case with N.G. the article is chock-full with facts from studies. The article is also tightly argued. N.G. is normally careful about what it asserts. To make things even clearer, it offers a graph on pp. 40 -41 purporting to demonstrate a disastrous future for the earth starting very soon.
Being a leisurely retired man endowed with an unusually contrary personality, being furthermore well schooled in elementary data handling, I did the obvious with the graph, the obvious not one educated person in 10,000 would think of doing, or care to do. I took my desk ruler to the graph itself. Here is what I discovered:
Between 1880 and 2013, there was less than a one foot rise in the oceans level according to National Geographic. Of course, those 123 years cover the period of most rapid rise in the emission of alleged greenhouse gases. Imagine if National Geographic had an article entitled:
“Less Than Foot-Rise in Ocean in Spite of More than 120 Years of Greenhouse Emissions”
Many citizens would respond by thinking that maybe, possibly there is global warming but it’s not an urgent problem. Let’s take our time looking into the phenomenon more carefully, they would say. Let’s try and eliminate alternative explanations to greenhouse gases if we find that there is indeed abnormal warming. After all, how much of a rush would I be in even if I were convinced that water rises in my basement by almost one tenth of an inch each year on the average?
This is not an absurd mental exercise. The business of science is to try to falsify and falsify again. When you get interesting results, the scientific establishment (if not the individual scientist author of the findings) is supposed to jump on them with both feet to see if they stand up. Instead in connection with global warming, scientists have allowed the policy establishment and those in their midst that influence it to do exactly the reverse: If you see anything you like in a scientific study, try hard for more of the same. If you find something that contradicts your cause, bury it if you can, ignore it otherwise. You will get plenty of help in doing either.
Scientists have become collectively a complicit in massive anti-scientific endeavor with many religious features.
I am finally proofing the print copy of my book:
97 % of scientists, blah, blah…. Ridiculous, pathetic.
Thus challenged, some people I actually like throw reading assignments at me. Some are assignments in scholarly journals; some, sort of. Apparently, I have to keep my mouth shut until I reach a high degree of technical competence in climate science (or something). I don’t need to do these absurd assignments. I am not blind and I am not deaf. I see what I see; I hear what I hear; it all sounds familiar. Been there, done it!
A long time ago, I accepted a good job in France in urban planning after receiving my little BA in sociology from Stanford. I was a slightly older graduate and I had no illusions that I knew much of anything then. I had some clear concepts in my mind and I had learned the basic of the logic of scientific inquiry from old Prof. Joseph Berger and from Prof. Bernard Cohen. I had also done some reading in the “excerpts” department including the trilogy of Max Weber, Emile Durkheim and Karl Marx. Only a couple of weeks after I took my job, my boss sent me to a conference of urban sociologists in Paris. Having been intellectually spoiled by several years in the US and conscious of my limited knowledge of urban planning, I asked many questions, of course.
In the weeks following the meeting, I became aware of a rumor circulating that presented me as an impostor. This guy coming out of nowhere – the USA – cannot possibly have studied sociology because he does not know anything, French sociologists thought. I had to ask how the rumor started. I was aware that I knew little but, but, I did not think it was exactly “nothing.” Besides, most of my questions at the conference had not been answered in an intelligible manner so, I was not convinced that my comparison set – French sociologists working in city planning – knew much more than I did.
Soon afterward, I wrote a “white paper.” It was about the eastern region where I had been tasked to plan for the future until 2005 (the year was 1967) as part of a multidisciplinary team. The white paper gave a list of social issues city planners had to face at this point, the starting point of the planning endeavor. As young men will do, I had allowed myself short flights of speculation in the white paper, flights I would not have indulged in a few years later. My direct supervisor, an older French woman who was supposed to be sociologist, read the whole ambitious product, or said she had, and made no comments except one. She took exception to one of my speculative flights in which I made reference to the idea that much societal culture rises up from the street. It was almost an off-hand remark. Had that part been left out, the white paper would have been pretty much the same. The supervisor insisted I had to remove that comment because, she said exactly, ”Marx asserts clearly that culture comes from the ruling class.” She told me she would not allow the white paper to be presented until I extirpated the offending statement.
In summary: The woman had nothing to say about the many parts of the report that were instrumental to the endeavor that our team was supposed to complete, about that for which she and I were explicitly being paid. She had nothing to say about the likely mistakes I exhibited in the report because of my short experience. Her self-defined role was strictly to protect what she took to be Marxist orthodoxy even if it was irrelevant. There was a double irony there. First, the government that employed us was explicitly not in sympathy with any form of Marxism. The woman was engaging in petty sedition. Second, Karl Marx himself was no lover of orthodoxies. He would have abhorred here role. (Marx is said to have declared before his death, “I am not a Marxist”!)
In any event, I was soon rid of the ideological harridan and I was able to do my job after a fashion. For those who like closure: I went back to the US to attend graduate school, at Stanford again. Two years later, my old boss called me back. He had come up in the world. He was in charge of a big Paris metropolitan area urban research institute. He begged me, begged on the phone to go back to France, and take charge of the institute’s sociology cell. He said that he understood not a word of what the “sociologists” there said to him. He added that I was the only sociologist he had ever understood. I yielded to his entreaties and I promised him a single year of my life. I interrupted my graduate studies and flew to Paris. In the event, I gave the sociologists at the institute one month warning. Then, I summoned each one of them to explain to me orally how his work contributed to Paris city and regional planning. (“What will it change to the way this is currently being done?” I asked.) They did not respond to my satisfaction and I fired all six of them. I replaced them with people who could keep their Marxism under control. My boss was grateful. I could have had a great career in France. I chose to return to my studies instead.
Three years later, having completed my doctorate, I found my self at critical juncture common to all those who go that course. You have to turn your doctoral thesis into papers published in double-blind refereed journals. (Here is what this means: “What’s Peer Review and Why It Matters“)
That’s a lot like leaving kindergarten: no more cozy relationships, no more friends assuring you that your work is just wonderful; the real world hits you in the face. The review process in good journals is often downright brutal. Anyone who does not feel a little vulnerable at that point is probably also a little silly. To make matters worse, the more respected the journal, the harder it is to get in and the better your academic career. As a rule, if you have not achieved publication in a first-rate journal in the first three or four years after completing your doctorate, you will be consigned forever to second-tier universities or worse.
Be patient, I am just setting the stage for what’s coming.
Much of my early scholarly work happened to take place within a school of research dominated by “neo-Marxists.” It was not my choice. I was interested in problems of economic development that happened to be largely in the hands of those people. My choice was between abandoning my interests or buckling up and taking my chances. I buckled up, of course. My first article to be published was innovative but a little esoteric. (Delacroix, Jacques. “The permeability of information boundaries and economic growth: a cross-national study.” Studies in Comparative International Development. 12-1:3-28. 1977.) I presented to a specialized journal and therefore not one that could be called “first tier.” It happened to contain nothing that would offend the neo-Marxists. It took less than six months to have it accepted for publication.
The second published paper out of my dissertation struck at the heart of neo-Marxists convictions. It demonstrated – using their methods – that the parlous condition of the Third World – allegedly caused by capitalist exploitation – could be remedied through one aspect of ordinary good governance. I submitted it to one of the two most respected journals (the American Sociological Review). All the reviewers who had the technical skills to review my submission were also neo-Marxists or sympathetic to their doctrine. The paper reported on a study conducted according to methods that were by now common. Having the paper accepted for publication took more than three years. It also took a rare personal intervention by the journal’s editor whom I somehow managed to convince that the reviewers he had chosen were acting unreasonably. (The paper: Delacroix, Jacques. “The export of raw materials and economic growth: a cross-national study.” American Sociological Review 42:795-808. 1977.) No need to read either paper.
Am I telling you here a story of conspiracy or a story of academic corruption? Yes, I faced a conspiracy but it was not a conspiracy against me personally and it was mostly not conscious. The only people – but me- who had the skills to pass judgment on my paper were not numerous. They were a small group that shared a common understanding of the reality of the world. It was not a cold, cerebral understanding. Those people formed a community of sentiment. They believed their work would contribute to the righting of a worldwide injustice, a “global” injustice committed against the defenseless people of underdeveloped countries. Is it possible that their ethical faith influenced their judgment? To ask the question is to answer it, I think. Did their faith induce them to close their eyes when others from their own camp cut some research corners here and there? On the contrary, were their eyes wide open when they were reviewing for a journal a submission whose conclusion impaired their representation of the world? In that situation, did they overreact to an uncrossed “t” or a dotted “i,” in a paper that undermined their beliefs? Might be. Could be. Probably was. Other things being equal, they may have just thought, it would be better if these annoying Delacroix findings were not publicized in a prime journal. Delacroix could always try elsewhere anyway.
So, yes, I faced corruption. It was not conscious, above-board corruption. It was not cynical. It was a corruption of blindness, much of it deliberate blindness. The blindness was all the more sturdy because it was seldom called into question. Those who would have cared did not understand the relevant techniques. Those who knew them shared in the blindness. This is a long way from cynical, deliberate lying. It’s just as destructive though. And it’s not only destructive for the lives of the likes of me who don’t belong to the relevant tribe. It’s destructive of what ordinary people think of as the truth. That is so because – however unlikely that sounds – the productions of elite and abstruse journals usually find their way into textbooks, even if it take twenty years.
Are the all-powerful editors of important journals part of the conspiracy? Mine were not but they tended to adhere to imperfect rules of behavior that made them objective accomplices of conspiracies. Here is the proof that the editor of the particular journal tried to be impartial. Only a month after he accepted my dissenting paper, the editor assigned me to review a submission from the same neo-Marxist school of thought that trumpeted another empirical finding proving that, blah, blah…. After one reading of the paper, my intuition smelled a rat. I spent days in the basement of the university library, literally days, taking apart the empirical foundation of the paper. I found the rat deep in its bowel. To put it briefly, if you switched a little thing from one category to another, all the conclusions were reversed. There was no imperative argument to put that one thing in one category rather than in the other. The author had chosen that which put his labor of love in line with the love of his neo-Marxist cozy-buddies. If he had not done it, his pluses would have become minuses, his professional success anathema. In the event, the editor agreed with my critique and dinged the paper for good. Nothing worse happened to the author. No one could tell whether he was a cheat. Or, no one would. No one was eager to. The editor was not in appetite for a fight. He let the whole matter go.
Myself, I came out of this experience convinced that it was likely that no one else in the whole wide world had both the skills and the motivation to dive into the depth of the paper to find that rat. It’s likely that no one else would have smelled a rat. It’s possible that if I had not still been smarting from three years of rejection of my own work, I would not have smelled the rat myself. The editor had the smarts, the intuition fed by experience, I would say, that he could put to work my unique positioning, my combination of competence and contrariness. He put it to work in defense of the truth. That fact is enough to exonerate him from complicity in the conspiracy I described. To answer my own question: Do I think that powerful scientific journal editors are often part of a conspiracy of the right thinking, of an orthodox cabala? I think not. Do they sometimes or often fall for one? Yes.
For those who like closure: My interests switched later to other topics. (See vita, linked to this blog’s “About me.”) I think the neo-Marxist school of thought to which I refer above gradually sank into irrelevance.
After that experience, and several others of the same kind, do I have something better to propose? I don’t but I think the current system of scholarship publication does not deserve anything close to religious reverence. Even if there were anything close to a “consensus” of scientists on anything, that should not mean that the book is closed. Individual rationalism also matters. It matters more, in my book.
What does this story of reminiscences this have to do with global warming, climate change, climate disruption , you might ask? Everything, I would say. More on the connection in part Two. [Update: Here is part 2, as promised! – BC]