Communism and reading

Below is an excerpt from my book I Used to Be French: an Immature Autobiography. You can buy it on amazon here.


My parents pro-Americanism must have been displayed often because faith in Communism was on the ascendancy during the miserable post-war years. That was when a significant fraction of French public opinion became mindlessly and reflexively anti-American, seemingly forever. Yet, rampant anti-Americanism hardly interfered with American cultural influence. The first movie I saw was a Charlie Chaplin, the first cartoon, Snow White. Every week, when I had been good, I had my copy of Mickey Mouse Magazine (“Mikay Mooze”), although there were excellent French and Belgian children’s periodicals. One of the best French-language children’s periodical had a Far-West serial, “Lucky Luke” that still amazes me for its historical and geographic accuracy. Somebody in the France of the fifties was an attentive student of Americana. Made-in-America action hero comics were forbidden fruits though. To this day, I don’t know why they were prohibited. Perhaps my mother thought them “vulgaires,” like many other things. Later, the first music I paid attention to was jazz.

Movies played a big role in shaping my world-view. I did not develop a sense for what was an American movie rather than a French movie until I was about fifteen. My real second language was thus the extremely bad, stilted French dubbing of American motion pictures. The dubbing is awful to this day. When the hero shoots the bad guy in the gut with a “Take this, you motherfucker!” it comes out in French like this: “This will teach you a lesson, mean man.” All dubbing is done in France by people who don’t know English well, I suspect. The same dozen voices are used over and over again. The dubbers are immortal, it seems. You might say that I was brought up in good part by a curiously distorted Hollywood.

Words and Actions of Trump the Horrible

I spent yesterday listening in horrified fascination to the mass media creating a crude amalgam of Trump’s sins in the so-called video, yes, that old video.

Nearly all the media, including, I am afraid, the Wall Street Journal, put together or often mix in the same sentence two elements of Trump’s objectionable aspects: words and possible actions. The two deserve completely different treatments. There is no excuse for confusing them except a desire to win at all costs.

Words first: Trump referred to women in obscene terms. This is not in dispute. Calling women “pussies” may tell you something about his present character. (Although that happened fifteen years ago, when he was a registered Democrat.) I don’t see what it tells you that’s new. The man is crude. He is crude in precisely the same way that millions of American men are. I am completely innocent of that particular sin myself (because I was raised overseas) but I have several friends who qualify. It’s interesting that they are, by and large, the same male friends I would describe as “pussy-whipped.” (This is another topic, an interesting one I can’t deal with here: Married American men are exceptionally submissive.) I think the brouhaha about Trump’s obscene words is completely hypocritical and massively promoted by media that lost their intellectual self-respect some time ago. Public discourse also stopped being sensitive a long time ago irrespective of what the current neo-Victorians would have you believe: A young woman I have never met except on-line a couple of days ago, a Clinton supporter, recently invited me on Facebook to “suck my dick!” (She meant her own non-existent appendage.)

Then, there are Trump actions as revealed on the video. Fact is, the video reveals no, zero, objectionable acts. Instead, it reveals Mr Trump bragging about engaging in sexually assaultive behavior. The report is not a fact. Fake confessions are legion, especially within a bragging context. Donald Trump may have never, not once, done the things he says in the video he does, not even the slightest crotch grab. Now, if he is guilty of this kind of boasting, characteristic of teenage boys everywhere, you may decide he is too immature for the job but he is not (NOT) an unpunished criminal.

A stupid braggart and a rapist are different creatures. If you think they are more or less the same, you are full of shit and we need someone like Trump to clean house, because of you, precisely. You are poison while he, Trump, is only moronic.

Let’s focus on various forms of sexual assault. Trump committed some, at least one, or (OR) he did not. There is nothing in between. The function of the amalgam I heard all day yesterday is to spread the credibility of the reports of obscene talk onto the supposition of sexual assault: It’s true that he referred to women in a sexually crude manner, therefore, (THEREFORE), he must have assaulted women sexually. This kind of verbal ploy sometimes actually works. It works with fools and with fanatics.

Now I imagine I might be on a jury regarding Mr Trump’s sexual assault(s) (one or several). I would not have the option to find him a “little bit guilty,” or “sort of guilty,” or “mostly guilty,” or “not actually guilty but he might have done it; look how he refers to women.” The only options available are guilty/not guilty. That’s it. For once, judicial conventions correspond well with logic: He did it (any “it”), or (OR) he did not. There are almost an infinity of offenses a person can be charged with so, there is no reason to come up with unclear verdicts. The prosecutor can charge with attempted sexual battery, sexual battery, aggravated sexual battery, different kinds of rape, etc., exactly so a clean verdict is possible without violating factual evidence. Those who do not know this to be true don’t understand either the US Constitution nor basic fairness. They are temperamentally fascists. (There are other forms of fascism on the Clinton side, following Mr Obama.)

What we see right now is a massive and concerted display of hypocrisy on the part of the bulk of the kind-of-educated class, beginning with the media. It’s so obvious that I think that if Jesus were around today, He would be for Trump. Fact is, there is no record of his speaking up against obscenity while he repeatedly and vehemently attacked hypocrisy.

PS I am wavering in my support of Trump. It’s not because Clinton has become less than a total horror but because he falls too easily into her traps. It bothers me.

Sexism, Trump, and American Media

Almost everything has been said about that rather boring first presidential debate on Monday. One observation missing: It’s amazing how the progressive-liberal narrative categories have invaded even Republican understanding and vocabulary. Two examples.

During the first presidential debate, the moderator unambiguously presented as racist the “birther” preoccupation, the belief that Mr Barack Hussein Obama was not born in the US. It makes absolutely no sense why this should be considered racist. If a presidential candidate of Polish ancestry with blue eyes etc… had presented himself for years through his literary agent as born in Cracow, there would be those who would doubt aloud his constitutional qualification to be president. Those so inclined would be considered racist? If the answer is “no,” are we facing a situation where any negativity toward a black person is by definition racist? If a black-looking person steals a parking spot from me and I call him an “asshole” that makes me a racist although that’s exactly what I have called several white persons who have done the same to me in the past? Are we drowning in absurdity? Have we collectively lost the ability to recognize simple sense? In the parking case example above, a better case could be made, given my intemperate verbal habits, that not calling the black driver an asshole would be racist.

Second example. At the very end of the debate, when he placed the accent on the fact that Mrs Bill Clinton is the first female candidate nominated by a major party, the moderator qualified as sexist the Trump statement that Mrs Clinton does not have the stamina to be president. Same problem of logic. If Mr Trump had said this of any male opponent it would have been considered legitimate. Making the statement about a female candidate makes the statement automatically sexist. But the statement is sexist only because it concerns a female. It posed the question of whether there exists any negative statement about a female politician that is not sexist? I think the answer is quickly becoming “No!”

The wing of the Democratic Party now on the ascendant is deeply totalitarian. It shows in the small things, as in the two examples above. It knows no dissent that is legitimate when it comes down to it. It’s important to stop them even if we have to take the considerable risks inherent in the Trump candidacy. One sure thing about Donald Trump: He is not coherent enough to become a Mussolini.

Immigrants’ Complaints

I can’t watch or listen to the liberal media without hearing reports of immigrants complaining about how badly they are treated by the wider American society. (Yes, I listen to National Public Radio nearly every afternoon. It’s my intellectual duty and also my secret vice.) Something does not add up in the oppressed immigrant narrative though. First, before I explain, forgive me in advance because I am about to transgress on good manners in two different ways.

First transgression first. I spent much of five years of my youth in graduate school learning not much more than the following: My own experience, basically a collection of anecdotes, proves nothing. Point well taken. But the anecdotes within my reach can sometimes pile up to the point that they make some questions unavoidable. Below is one such question.

I know many immigrants, and different kinds of immigrants. First, like everyone else who lives in California, I know many Mexican immigrants. I understand Spanish perfectly. (I mean, as well as English; you be the judge.) I speak it well because, like French, my native language, it’s just a dialect of Latin. I hang around the abundant Spanish language media often. If Mexican immigrants complained, it would have come to my attention. I only remember one such case, a young woman who had come to this country as a child. She confided that she thought my colleagues, her professors, favored “Caucasians” in grading. She was actually failing because her English was poor. I made her do an assignment in Spanish and I understood why she was frustrated. My colleagues were not unfair to her. Her English language self’s IQ was stuck at room temperature  (in F degrees) while her Spanish self must have been jumping around the 120 mark. No one had bothered to tell her the obvious: “You need to learn English better.” Not American society’s fault, except for having tolerated her without adequate language training, and for the university that had admitted her, ditto. (Incidentally that school’s affirmative action program was a success overall, I thought.)

The foreign-born Hispanics I know and meet are all in a wonderful mood in public. Of course earning in one hour what would take you a day in Mexico and two days in El Salvador would put anyone in a good mood. There are three or four bastards of them, Hispanics, who force me to wake at 6 every morning because they walk under my window guffawing and laughing loudly. As I have written elsewhere, on this blog, the evidence for Hispanics’ satisfaction is easy to find.

I also know Asian and European immigrants, who are mostly middle-class, and a handful of Middle Easterners. The latter, mostly Muslims, feel under siege, of course; it would be a miracle if they did not. It’s not really American society’s fault that nearly all the mass murderers of civilians in recent years insisted on shouting “Allahu Akbar.” Yet, even those immigrants sure as hell are not packing their bags, or, if they do, it’s in minute numbers. I would bet there is no exodus out of the country.

The Asian and Europeans I know tend to exult in their American residence; they often act smugly about it although all of them miss something from their country of origin, at least their relatives. (For me, it’s not so much relatives as blanquette de veau; look it up.) Nevertheless, many of those middle-class immigrants find a political home on the left of the American spectrum because they have never been exposed to the ideal of small government. Even the smart ones usually don’t realize that government is a predator. More anecdotic transgression: If I ask myself who seems to be happier, on the average of those I meet more or less daily, immigrants or native born Americans, the answer comes loud and clear: the immigrants.

So, I am seriously beginning to consider if the reporting of widespread complaints by immigrants is not fabricated, with the help of a handful of fairly sophisticated minority members of the media. I mean, for example, the blond, lying CNN Mexican-born anchor who can’t open his mouth without proffering a vicious untruth.

Here is my second violation of convention. I am only doing it because being an immigrant gives me special privileges (and being old also does). If there are really, really many immigrants with serious grievances I don’t worry much because they are all citizens, citizens of some other country, that is. It seems to me, most of them could pack up and leave and go home to where they are citizens. That’s except for the refugees from war. The latter don’t have much of a leg to stand on however. Whatever shortcomings American society has, at least, here, we don’t kill you on purpose unless we know you personally.

That’s a real advantage.

I wish we had a national program to pay for one-way tickets for disgruntled immigrants. It might not even require taxpayer money. There must be tens of thousands like me. I give money voluntarily to save tigers in the wild. Sending back bad immigrants into the wilderness is a good cause too. So, it could be done by free public subscription. Or this country could institute a small tax on in-coming immigrants to constitute a fund that finances one-way tickets on demand. It would be fair, like an assigned risk insurance pool is fair. My guess is that it would be one of the few government programs that does not overspend its budget. It would have, at least ,the merit of putting an end to the BS* in the liberal media.

Ah, but the Democratic Party won’t allow it! It would never permit such practical innovativeness because malcontents are its bread and butter.

Incidentally, the ambitious guy inside me wonders if we couldn’t have a second one-way ticket program, one for native-born Americans who hate America. Of course, I am thinking only about a voluntary program. It would have the merit of ranking all the dissatisfied who don’t avail themselves of the offer of  a one-way ticket as at least moderately satisfied. It would stop some of the implicit blackmail of America. It’s not a cruel proposal, I think the Canadians would take them.

* Note for my overseas readers: B.S. are the discreet initials for “bullshit” a colloquial term for an argument without merit. It’s unfair to bulls  that mostly mind their business and don’t argue much.

Brexit, free trade, and the EU

I posted this on Facebook twenty hours before the results were known:

The United Kingdom will not leave the EU. If it does, there will be concrete talks of a trade agreement between the UK and the Union within a week. Free trade is the best part of the EU anyway. It may be the only worthwhile part. At least, it undeniably works. The EU has a free trade agreement with Norway and with Switzerland already. I don’t see it denying the UK, not even out of collective pique.

My guess (guess) is that the UK will have done the EU a favor by pointing out that much of the European Union’s bureaucratic, abstract, nebulous project is simply overambitious. The UK taught the world democracy and soccer (football). It can teach its European neighbors pragmatism.

Obviously, I called the referendum wrong. The mistake I made was to guess that people who were going to vote for staying were more likely to lie to pollsters than partisans of Leave. That would have given an underestimate for the “stays.” I should not have called it. I am not inside British culture enough to make this kind of guess. I shouldn’t have. I won’t again.

I am perplexed by some of the comments I heard all day in the US media. Perhaps as a result of a bit of psychological projection, American commentators state that anti-immigration sentiment played the main part in the victory of the “leave.” This may be the case; I don’t know enough to pronounce but I need to make a technical point that the pundits don’t seem to be completely aware of. Leaving the European Union can only lessen the flow of European immigrants into the UK: Polish (plumbers), Romanian carpenters, and tens of thousands of French citizens, at least. Since about one million Brits leave abroad and almost all in the EU, I see an exchange agreement in the making. Don’t you?

Leaving the EU will do nothing or nearly nothing to reduce the intake of immigrants of color and of Muslims. Those landed in the UK and continue to land there as a consequence of past colonial relationships. I say this because I suspect (I suspect; I don’t know) that Brits are more exercised about large numbers of dark-skinned Muslims than they are about fewer dishwater-white Catholic Poles. Call me a cynic!

Second technical point. Many of the American commentators I heard today, including those predicting Armageddon as a result of the British referendum, seem to have vague ideas about what the European Union actually is. It’s actually fairly complicated but I don’t excuse them. If they want to comment, they should do their homework. Anyway, the EU is first and foremost a free trade area and and free investment area. In this capacity, it works very well. I mean by this that any step backward would impoverish all Europeans to some extent.

I don’t see how British industry and British commerce can really face the possibility of meeting with tariff walls and other discriminatory treatments in a market of 27 countries until now wide open to them.

The Brits have two years to finalize their exit. I think (but I have been wrong before; see above) that they will say to the EU: We are leaving except that… we want to be included in your free trade and free investment area, like Iceland and like Norway. As I mentioned above, I also think they will want some mutual arrangement about citizens of the EU living in the UK and citizens of the UK living in the EU. I think there are going to be many rounds of negotiations around the theme: “We are leaving but…” It’s also possible that the most fervent Leave-ers will ultimately be satisfied with having made a rude gesture toward Brussels, the capital of the European Union. I am repeating (in fear this time) my prediction that the British referendum will cause the EU to reform itself. In fact, think it already has.

See also “Protectionism; Free Trade….” It was written for the intelligent uninformed.

When school shootings get made into horror films

Del Playa is an unreleased horror film directed by Shaun Hart which follows a conventional college, sex and murder Hollywood archetype. However, distinct from the humdrum influx of young adult horrors, Del Playa bears an uncanny resemblance to the Isla Vista rampage two years ago.

When Elliot Rodgers murdered six human beings and injured fourteen others in Santa Barbara, my first reaction was terror for my sister, who was studying at the state university down there. My family connected, everything was fine and national news quickly rolled in. His manifesto and Youtube uploads were publicly available for everyone to indulge in.

When Del Playa’s trailer came out, people instantly noticed the similarities. There’s a petition to halt the movie release with 30,000 signatures, citing it as “insensitive” and “untimely.” Shaun Hart has said the lead character of the film (which takes place in Isla Vista) is “not meant to portray anyone in particular [but admittedly] there is a connection of Santa Barbara.” Let’s proceed as if the movie is directly spawned by the real life massacre, which is most likely considering all the facts – it would just be horrible PR to admit.

Although the film is embedded in controversy and poor taste, it’s completely unremarkable in its subject matter. People are invariably intrigued by “true events” stories, documented by the rise in murder-porn television. (South Park, unfailing in cultural astuteness, made a great episode of this phenomena.)

With Del Playa and the like, it’s perhaps natural to feel revulsion. The reaction might be that murderers don’t deserve to be immortalized, or that the producers are simply profiting off a tragedy, which they certainly are trying to do. And serial killers of prolific body count or grotesque modus operandi often achieve cult status among the living. 

But Elliot Rodgers is not Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer or Dennis Rader; he’s not a Gacy or a Manson or a Berkowitz. Rodgers is not interesting. He’s not worthy of study or understanding. He was a misogynistic and narcissistic misanthrope incapable of any self reflection or profundity. Rodgers was pathetic and his ultimate motivation for killing human beings was petty jealousy. I’m so furious upon reading his manifesto, I went to smoke a cigarette for the first time in months. And I thought I’d quit.

The disgust at Del Playa, however, is greatly misplaced. It’s equivalent to getting personally angry at the police for arresting harmless pot smokers: it’s completely unreasonable because they’re following the demands of a law (theoretically) democratically derived. Now, Del Playa is likewise derived by demand. Be disgusted at the consumers, not the enforcers or producers. Although the film might be unseemly, the distribution and buying of tickets is a voluntary transaction between consenting adults, and no one has the right to stop this product from being manufactured. It’s an issue of freedom of transaction, not morality.

Even if the writers penned Del Playa directly after the massacre, in an act of pure insensitivity and cynicism, they have the right for an audience, and the audience has the right to see the film.

La Bêtise et la langue française.

J’ai eu des ennuis de santé occasionant une absence de ce blog. J’aimerais bien pouvoir dire qu’il s’est agit seulement d’un accès de priapisme, mais ce serait exagérer.

En tous cas. il est temps que j’y repique. Ce sera pour maugréer, bien sur.

Je viens de regarder pour la seconde fois le beau, l’étonnant documentaire de l’émissions TV française Thalassa sur Saint-Malo, une ville et une région qui me sont chères.

A un moment, le narrateur mentionne que le grand corsaire malouin Surcouf s’était livré à la traite des Noirs, donc, au commerce des esclaves africains. Le sous-titre en Anglais rend cette simple affirmation par ces mots époustouflants:

“Surcouf respected the Black Treaty,” “Surcouf respectait le Traité Noir.” !

Comment peut-on être aussi ignare; et surtout, comment peut-on être aussi con?

En effet, ne pas connaitre un mot ou une expression specialisé n’est peut-être pas un crime (mais encore, pour un traducteur également spécialisé?) mais laisser en place un expression qui ne possède aucun sens, en aucune langue c’est contribuer à l’abêtissement des foules, téléspectateurs, autant que lecteurs.

Pourquoi cette carence de contrôle de la qualité dans un émission de télévision bien considerée depuis déjà trente ans? La réponse probable est une profonde indifference aux faits. La photo est splendide; le narratif captiv vant si on n’y fait pas trop attention. Pourquoi s’en faire?

J’ai remarqué ailleurs que cette indifférence me semble être liée à l’usage de la langue francaiss. (Voir mon recueil d’histoires: “Les Pumas de grande-banlieue: histoires d’émigration.” sur Amazon.) J’ai du mal à imaginer ce genre de bêtise en Anglais, sauf dans des journaux de très bas niveaux, genre l’ancienne “France Dimanche.” Le Francophones disent n’importe quoi; ils possèdent une grande tolérance vis-à-vis de la bêtise qui sonne bien, et meme envers la connerie tout court.

Moi, il me semble que lorsqu’il y a trop de poubelle débordantes dans l’espace intérieur intellectuel, on ne peut plus penser clairement. La fameuse rigueur francaise, “cartésienne” dont les Francais, en particulier, se targuent toujours a simplement disparu, je crois. Les autre francophones ont été éclaboussés simplement parceque la production culturelle française domine de beaucoup la francophonie de par son poids.

Dites-moi que j’ai tort!

BC’s weekend reads

  1. Our own Edwin van de Haar being interviewed about Degrees of Freedom (audio interview)
  2. Does Gun Control Work? Ben Carson Says Yes. ADL Says No but Yes
  3. The Vanishing Europe of Jürgen Habermas
  4. Leviathan (movie review)
  5. Thinking Anew | What, precisely, changed in the 18th century? (book review)
  6. This Is What Russia REALLY Fears in Syria

Musings About Statism and Cultural Production

I have not fed this blog for a while. First, I am lazy. Second, I am finishing a serious writing endeavor. It’s entitled: “Indecent Stories for Decent Women: Poaching.” You can just imagine what it’s about. Third, I have a critical project in mind and I am not sure I want to dive into it. The problem is that I think it needs to be done and I don’t see who else can do it. Yet, I hesitate because it could easily consume weeks. The topic below.

I spend a lot of time watching  TV5, the international French language channel. I watch movies including old ones, some from countries other than France; I take in the news and also documentaries. In addition, I read a centrist French newspaper on-line pretty much every day. I look at Le Monde when needed although I detest that French version of the New York Times. I read novels in French haphasardly, according to what the tide brings in. Every so often, at completely unpredictable intervals, I find old to very old French classics at Logo, the excellent local used books store.

There are three recurrent shows I like on TV5. Plus, some of the network’s offerings from bilingual African countries are novel. I dislike pretty much everything else there. One might ask why I submit to this regime of daily torture. The answer is that  I am engaged in a mental parallel study of  cultures. There are millions of bilingual immigrants who could do the same but few have the leisure, or the mental equipment, or perhaps, the inclination to become involved in such an amorphous task. One problem I have is that I don’t know who else is interested in the results of my cogitations.

My astonishing dislike of contemporary French culture is my starting point, of course. My mind runs on two explanatory tracks about this. The first track, fairly anodyne, is simply that I am paying the price of age. I am sick of seeing the same mediocre movie over and over. This is not just about French culture: If I read another daily paper article about the dilemma of American middle-class women who are forced to chose between children and career, I will scream (scream like a girl, that is). This detestation applies especially hard to French culture however, I think. This is subjective, of course, but I believe French culture has accomplished just about nothing in thirty years. It has retreated concretely in several areas.

The second track is the potential relationship between statism and cultural production. France is a good example of a statist society where, at any one time, out of one hundred euros, sixty are in the hands of some government entity or other. I have the intuition that the French have been paying for their cradle-to-grave welfare state with tremendous cultural sterility.

Speaking of that second track, specifically, I have several concerns. First I don’t know if it has already been done extensively and the fact just escaped my attention. Second, I am not sure if anyone would care if the relationship I posit existed. Third, there is a possibility that my specific access to French cultural production gives me a bad sample of what’s really going on there.

I have dealt with these second track issues before. I will give the references soon.

Mexican Underdevelopment: Pop-Sociology

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.

Buddhist Lobbyists Push for Legislation Targeting Muslims in Myanmar (UPDATED)

The story is here.

I’ll be straight with you: I hate arguments that try to pinpoint Islam and Muslims as more prone to violence or bigotry than other faiths. Aside from lacking any evidence whatsoever to support such a claim, they contribute to hostility and bad faith when this conversation – about religion and society – could easily be used to contribute to tolerance and a better understanding of why government sucks.

All religions are exactly the same when it comes down to it.

Politically and organizationally, lobbying efforts on behalf of religions are necessarily going to aim for shoving its particular beliefs down the throats of everybody else. This is why separation of church and state is so important (church and state, not church and society; I could care less how people organize themselves in the non-political arena).

So, for example, the censorship we have here in the United States, on television, is the direct result of Christian groups that were able to successfully lobby the government to stifle free speech (see this excellent essay in the Freeman by BK Marcus on how the television markets are now changing thanks to deregulation). Can’t buy beer in your county on Sunday or after 7:00 pm on weekdays? Thank your local Christian lobby (or, if you’re in parts of India, your local Hindu or Sikh lobby, or…).

The extremity of the lobbying groups depends not on religion per se, but on the institutions that a state has in place. Anybody who argues that the Middle East is a more violent place than sub-Saharan Africa – the other region of the world that largely adopted Leninist socialism after independence – is a charlatan or a fool. It is, unfortunately, not a well-known fact that heavily Muslim, predominately Arab states are anti-capitalist, and staunchly so. This anti-capitalistic mentality has led to poverty, of course, and isolation (“cultural stagnation”), but it has also had an adverse effect on these states’ political institutions. Instead of becoming more open, and more inclusive of various factions (“lobbying groups”), political institutions in the Muslim world have been built around the executive branch – the Strong Man –  and as a result the more populist a lobby’s message is, the more it is likely to receive support from the Strong Man (the oil states in the Gulf are considered wealthy, but they are still anti-capitalistic).

In a world that is dominated by a secular hegemon that often supports bad people in the name of savvy geopolitics, the popularity of Muslim populism is not hard to fathom.

Meanwhile, in Myanmar, the Muslims being targeted by legislation are mostly illegal immigrants fleeing Bangladesh. The most prominent lobby pushing for the bill, the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, is headed by a Buddhist monk (of the Theravada sect if I’m not mistaken).

In other news I still come across Americans, my own age, that support the Castro regime in Cuba (“because free health care and equality”). What kind of sick world do we live in?

EDIT: I had to edit this thing for clarity. Jesus donkey smears.

UPDATE (11/2/2014): Wait a second Brandon, did you just write that the Buddhist zealots are lobbying the state of Myanmar for legislation aimed at Muslims? How can this be? Myanmar is a known authoritarian state. Doesn’t the junta do what it wants, when it wants?

The short answer is “No, it can’t.” Authoritarian regimes are constrained by choices and popular opinion as well. One of the main differences between authoritarian and democratic states is the number of factions involved in the lobbying process. In democratic states, any faction can lobby the government for any reason it wishes to. Everybody has equal access (if not equal influence). This equal access (which, again, does not translate to equal influence) is, in part, what classical liberals and libertarians mean by political and legal equality. In authoritarian states the number of lobbying groups tends to be a lot smaller than in democratic states. I’ll let you figure out why this is.

It’s worth noting that calls to limit lobbying efforts by repealing Citizens United is, in its barest form, an authoritarian urge. For what is this repeal movement, if not an attempt to shut some factions up using the power of the state? The excuses always vary (in this case it’s “money”), but the pattern of authoritarianism through limiting choices remains the same.

The difference in understanding of equality between libertarians and conservatives/liberals strikes at the heart of American politics (I can’t speak for other places). Yet it also illustrates why libertarianism’s conception of equality is superior to that of the conservative/liberal. If there is a successful attempt at leveling out influence so that it’s equal in some measure (though conservatives/liberals are ambiguous on what they mean by ‘influence’, not to mention ‘equality’), then equal access has to be denied or else some factions would tip the balance of influence. Attempting to guarantee equality of influence would also lead to cronyism. Instead of lobbying the government for favors, factions would end up lobbying the committee that picks lobbying groups it deems worthy of lobbying for government favors!

On the other hand, if equal access is protected then everybody has a shot and no influence is guaranteed.

UPDATE (11/03/2014): The more I think about it, the more the Muslims-are-more-prone-to-violence canard sounds an awful lot like the Jews-secretly-run-the-world canard. People point to outbreaks of collective or individual violence perpetrated by Muslims or a Muslim and say to themselves “Well, this isn’t surprising, as their 7th century founder was a war chief.”

Disgusting. And, I suppose, Jews really are running the world because Judas stabbed poor ole Jesus in the back for 30 pieces of silver in the first century. The logic is exactly the same.

The Jews-secretly-run-the-world canard hides a nasty prejudice against Jews by creating a half-baked, pseudo-scientific rationale that can be used in public (this canard does not hide such a prejudice very well, at least to others; it may hide well from himself the intolerance and ignorance a person has in the form of rationalizing his prejudice). The Muslims-are-more-prone-to-violence canard is most often used by proponents of overseas military intervention in Muslim regions of the world.* Like the anti-Jewish voices, the anti-Muslim voices are not interested in Truth but in forcing their own deeply hostile beliefs down the throats of others. Hence the libertarian’s task of delicately balancing religious skepticism with the protection of religious believers from vulgar conspiracy theorists.

* There is a small cadre of religious skeptics and secularists who also use the “violence” thesis, though this faction, which includes myself, is more easily swayed by evidence.

The political Left and violence: An uncomfortable, subconscious symbiosis

I recently set up a Twitter account (you can follow me here; you can follow Notes On Liberty here) and after a couple of days of using its newsfeed I’ve decided to tally up the number of tweets from Leftists that either call for outright violence or allude to violence against their political enemies. Now obviously these guys are joking and I don’t think that any of them actually mean what they say, but the fact that this project even struck me as something to do is flabbergasting.

I think the fact that there are so many allusions to violence – against political enemies – in my newsfeed, combined with the recent labors of the media to rid the Colorado school shooter’s political leanings from the narrative of that particular story, has put me at unease* and made me particularly sensitive to the culture of ‘high’ media.

The allusions to violence harbor an authoritarian tendency that I think often goes unnoticed. I didn’t notice anything until a couple of days ago. Yet they are there, in plain sight. You can find these appeals and allusions to violence on the Right as well, but not from the people and organizations I follow on Twitter.

For example, I don’t follow rednecks or Party activists but rather professors, journalists, wonks and publication outlets that I think provide great, in-depth insights into the world around me. Most of these individuals and organizations are Left-leaning, and I have yet to ever (ever) see an appeal to violence coming from an intellectual conservative or libertarian organization. I see it from the intellectual Left so often that I am now going to start tallying such outbursts.

This is worrisome for a bunch of reasons, but three stand out to me:

  1. Joking about violence is not very funny; Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert don’t do it, and now we know why
  2. The hypocrisy coupled with the veiled and not-so-veiled threats against political enemies is nothing short of barbarism
  3. It convincingly shows just how shallow Leftist thought has become; resorting to violence in an argument is, as we all know, a sign of defeat

Added together, these three major reasons make a solid foundation for a fascistic political movement. Look at my most recent ‘favorited’ tweet, from an assistant editor for The New Republic:

“If I were running Bloomberg View…the thing I would most want would be for Bloomberg to get hit by a bus.”

Ha. Ha. This is hilarious, right?

These are the same people who, in the wake of many mass shootings, have claimed that one of Sarah Palin’s campaign websites was indirectly responsible for senseless acts of violence (because of animated target signs that hovered over a map).

Disgusting, and yet there is a definite silver lining in all of this. Reason #3, as outlined above, is largely responsible for the intellectual Left’s impotence and fetish for domestic political violence.

Violence and the lust for power have gone virtually hand-in-hand with Leftism since the mid-19th century, of course, and this is largely because their plans for humanity are simply not feasible. And these plans, in turn, are not feasible because they are not congruent with reality.

Let me see if I can illustrate my point by digressing for a moment. Benito Mussolini was a Leftist his entire life. National socialism for German workers was a child of the Left. Maoism and Leninism were Leftist to the core. All were violent. All failed miserably and yet I see the underpinnings of these philosophies – these worldviews – in the rhetoric of the present-day American Left.

Not good. Nor is it good that the present-day Left denies its own bloodlines. Conservatives and libertarians are often quick to fess up to any historical misdeeds done in the name of their ideologies. Not so with the Left. I think this may have to do with the fact that while Leftist regimes were responsible for hundreds of millions of unnecessary deaths in the 20th century alone there are very few historical misdeeds perpetrated in the name of classical liberalism.

At any rate, I’ll keep you all updated on my tally. In the name of justice I will also keep a tally on tweets of violent fantasies that go out in the name of libertarianism or conservatism. My sampling size is small, of course. I only follow intellectuals and publications that give voice to intellectuals. This will be interesting.

* The fact that an evil person’s political views have been marginalized is not what is important. I think such views (if any) should be, as there is obviously something other than a shooter’s political leanings that is responsible for the horrific violence. What is important is the fact that if this shooter had been a self-identified conservative or libertarian it would have been plastered all over the news and it would still be getting air time as you read this.

Around the Web

  1. The media’s shooting bias. An excellent take on the hypocrisy of the media. (read David Henderson’s take, too)
  2. Conservation Native American style (grab a cup of coffee)
  3. The mission to decentralize the internet; interesting argument, though I don’t think the internet is as centralized as the author makes it out to be.
  4. Doug Bandow on North Korea’s ongoing purges
  5. Blast from the past: What did Marxism look like in Mozambique in the 1980s?

Around the Web

  1. The Reality of Feel-Good Government. James Bovard on “federal service” programs
  2. Will Wilkinson says “I smoke pot and I like it” (there’s more to the piece than just a confession)
  3. Map of police officers per 100,000 people in Europe
  4. Filming North Korea’s Film Industry
  5. Stephen Walt weighs in on the Snowden affair: What, me worry?
  6. Sex in the Arab World. An interview with Shereen El Feki

America and Firearms (Explained to Overseas Readers)

The other day, I am watching the news on TV5, the international French language network. I am doing this to get away from the spectacle of the impending economic disaster in the US where I live. This is shortly after the massacre of school children in Connecticut. One item draws my attention: The cute, airhead French female announcer (or “anchorette”) states that last year about 28,000 people in the US lost their lives to guns.

Here we go again, I think. More half-assed information that is worse than no information at all. I have witnessed European media disseminating misleading information about the US for more than forty years. This time again, I have to intervene to help overseas of observers of the international scene who want to know about reality and who might happen to read this blog.

I can’t tell you how often I have witnessed the following: European commentators making sarcastic, superior comments about some American event or custom, or some American way of doing things and then, their society adopting uncritically the same American event, or custom, or way of doing things ten years later, or even later. Right now, for example, I would bet you anything that one of the novelties on French radio is 1990s American popular music. That would be especially true on the channel that calls itself without batting an eye-lash, “France culture.”

The tendency of Europeans to copycat the United States is so pronounced that it even affects social pathologies, the last thing you should want to imitate. Accordingly, it seems that the French expression for “serial killer” is: “serial killer.” N.S. ! (Would I make this up?) Continue reading