Nightcap

  1. In defense of Cortez and the Conquest of the Aztecs Daniel Rey, Spectator
  2. Race and empire in Meiji Japan (1868-1912) Ayelet Zohar, A-PJ
  3. The political legacy of World War I John Moser, Cato Unbound
  4. How working from home will spur creativity Nick Bilton, Vanity Fair

Nightcap

  1. Dangerous myths about nuclear weapons David Logan, War on the Rocks
  2. Honest putdowns Robin Hanson, Overcoming Bias
  3. “Sitting next to Sally” John Quiggan, Crooked Timber
  4. Hopelessness and the new capitalism Hans Eicholz, Law & Liberty

Nightcap

  1. Mourning in place Edwidge Danticat, NY Review of Books
  2. Is working hard good? Jason Brennan, 200-Proof Liberals
  3. When hard work doesn’t equal productive work Mary Lucia Darst, NOL
  4. The actual work of trying to formulate truly alien conceptions of life, consciousness, and thought is mostly yet to be done” Nick Nielsen, GSA

Nightcap

  1. Cancel Culture and the discourse of Ad Hoc-ery Irfan Khawaja, Policy of Truth
  2. Should we admire the Vikings? Rebecca Onion, Slate
  3. A new theory of Western civilization Judith Shulevitz, Atlantic
  4. Our brave new remote work world Robin Hanson, Overcoming Bias

The Revolt of the Baristas

For several weeks, nearly every night, I have a déjà vu experience.

First, I watch Fox News where I see crowds of younger people in dark clothing breaking things, setting buildings on fire, and assaulting police. (I infer they are younger people because of the suppleness of their movements.)

Then, I switch to French news on “Vingt-trois heures.” There, I see young people in large French cities, breaking shop windows, damaging and burning cars, and assaulting police.

The supposed reason for the continuing rioting in several major American cities is police brutality toward Blacks and racial injustice in general.

The rioting on wealthy business arteries of French cities was, as of recently, occasioned by the victory of a favorite soccer club in an important tournament. A week later, the defeat of the same soccer club occasioned the same kind of behavior except worse, by what I am sure were the same people.

No common cause to these similar conducts, you might think. That seems true but the behaviors are so strikingly similar, I am not satisfied with this observation. I have to ask, what do the rioters have in common on the two sides of the Atlantic. Your answer may be as good as mine – probably better – but here is my take:

Two things.

First, both youngish Americans and youngish French people are counting on a high degree of impunity. Both American society and French society have gone wobbly on punishment in the past thirty years (the years of the “participation prize” for school children). Used to be, in France (where I grew up) that you did not set cars afire because there was the off-chance it would earn you several years of your beautiful youth in prison. No more. The police makes little effort to catch the perpetrators anyway. The charging authorities let them go with an admonition, maybe even a severe warning. In the US, the civil authorities often order the police to do nothing, to “stand down” in the face of looting and arson. And they refuse legitimate help. Here, the elected authorities are part- time rioters in their hearts – for whatever reason. The local DAs in Demo strongholds routinely release rioters on their own recognizance. It’s almost a custom.

It seems to me that in any group, from pre-kindergarten on, there are some who will not regulate themselves unless they feel threatened by powerful and likely punishment. Perhaps, it’s a constant proportion of any society. Remove the fear of punishment, it’s 100% certain someone will do something extreme, destructive, or violent. I don’t like this comment but I am pretty sure it’s right.

The second thing the rioting in France and in the US have in common is that they seem to involve people who don’t feel they have a stake in the current social arrangements. In the French case, it’s easy to guess who they are (a strong guess, actually). Bear with me. In the sixties and seventies, various French governments built massive, decent housing projects outside Paris and other big cities (again: “decent”). I was there myself, working as a minor government city planner. The above-board objective was to move people out of slums. It’s too easy to forget that the plan worked fine in this respect. With rising prosperity, inevitably, the new towns and cities became largely occupied by new immigrants.

Those who burn private cars on the Champs Elysees in Paris recently are their children and grandchildren. The immigrants themselves, like immigrants everywhere, tend to work hard to save, and to retain the strict mores of their mostly rural origins. Their children go haywire because the same mores can’t be applied in an urban, developed society. (“Daughter: You may go to the cinema once a month accompanied by your two cousins; no boys.” “Dad: You are kidding right?”) Misery is rarely or never an issue. In the French welfare state, it’s difficult to go hungry or cold. I have often observed that the French rioters are amazingly well dressed by American college standards, for example. Incidentally, the same children of immigrants frequently have several college degrees, sometimes advanced degrees. But, fact is, ordinary French universities are pretty bad. Further fact is that in a slow growing or immobile economy like France’s, few college degrees matter to the chance of employment anyway. The rioters feel that they don’t have a stake in French society, perhaps because they don’t.

Seen from TV and given their agility and sturdiness, American rioters seem to be in their twenties to early thirties; they are “millenials.” I don’t know what really animates them because I don’t believe their slogans. It’s not only that they are badly under-informed. (For example they seem to believe that policemen killing African Americans is common practice. It’s not. See my recent article on “Systemic Racism” for figures.) It’s also that they have not specified what remedies they want to the ills they denounce. An “end to capitalism” does not sound to me like a genuine demand. Neither does the eradication of a kind of racism that, I think, hardly exists in America any more. The impression is made stronger by the fact that they don’t have a replacement program for what they seem bent on destroying. (“Socialization of the means of production” anyone?) Their destructiveness inspires fear and it may be its only objective.

I don’t know well where the American rioters come from, sociologically and intellectually. They are the cohort that marries late or not at all. It is said that many never hope to become home owners, that they see themselves as renters for life. Few buy cars (possibly a healthy choice in every way eliminating a normal American drain on one’s finances). I think that they firmly believe that the Social Security programs to which they contribute through their paychecks will be long gone by their retirement age. (I hear this all the time, in progressive Santa Cruz, California.) I hypothesize that many of those young people have had the worst higher education experience possible. Let me say right away that I don’t blame much so-called “indoctrination” by leftist teachers; leftists are just not very good at what they do. Most students don’t pay attention, in general anyway. Why would they pay attention to Leftie propaganda? Rather it seems to me that many spend years in college studying next to nothing and in vain.

Roughly, there are two main kinds of courses study in American higher education. The first, covering engineers and accountants, and indirectly, medical doctors and vets, for example have a fairly straightforward payoff: Get your degree, win a fairly well paying job quickly. Graduates of these fields seldom have a sense of futility about their schooling though they may be scantily educated (by my exalted standards). The second kind of course of studies was first modeled in the 19th century to serve the children of the moneyed elites. I mean “Liberal Arts” in the broadest sense. Its purpose was first to help young people form judgment and second, to impart to them a language common to the elites of several Western countries. For obvious reasons, degrees in such areas were not linked to jobs (although they may have been a pre-requisite to political careers). Many, most of the majors following this pattern are pretty worthless to most of their graduates. A social critic – whose name escapes me unfortunately – once stated that American universities and colleges graduate each year 10,000 times more journalism majors that there are journalism openings.

As a rule, the Liberal Arts only lead to jobs through much flexibility of both graduates and employers. Thus, in good times, big banks readily hire History and Political Science majors into their lower management ranks on the assumption that they are reasonably articulate and also trainable. Then there are the graduates in Women’s Studies and Environmental Studies who may end up less educated than they were on graduating from high school. It’s not that one could not, in principle acquire habits of intellectual rigor though endeavors focusing on women or on the environments. The problem is that the spirit of inquiry in such fields (and many more) was strangled from the start by an ideological hold. (One women’s studies program, at UC Santa Cruz , is even called “Feminist Studies,” touching candidness!) It seems to me that more and more Liberal Arts disciplines are falling into the same pit, beginning with Modern Languages. There, majors who are Anglos regularly graduate totally unable to read a newspaper in Spanish but well versed in the injustices perpetrated on Hispanic immigrants since the mid 19th century.

Those LA graduates who have trouble finding good employment probably don’t know that they are pretty useless. After all, most never got bad grades. They received at least Bs all along. And why should instructors, especially the growing proportion on fragile, renewable contracts look for trouble by producing non-conforming grade curves? The grading standard is pretty much the same almost (almost) everywhere: You do the work more or less: A; you don’t do the work: B. But nothing will induce disaffection more surely than going unrewarded when one has the sentiment of having done what’s required by the situation. That’s the situation on ten of thousands of new graduates produced each year. And many of those come out burdened by lifetime debts. (Another rich topic, obviously.)

Incidentally, I am in no way opining that higher education studies should always lead to gainful employment. I am arguing instead that many, most, possible almost all LA students shouldn’t be in colleges or universities at all, at least in the manner of the conventional four-year degree (now five or six years).

The college graduates I have in mind, people in their twenties, tend to make work choices that correspond to their life experience devoid of effort. In my town, one hundred will compete for a job as a barista in one of the of several thriving coffee shops while five miles away, jobs picking vegetables that pay 50% or twice more go begging. I suspect the preference is partly because you can’t dress well in the fields and because they, the fields, don’t provide much by way of casual human warmth the way Starbucks routinely does.

Go ahead, feel free to like this analysis. I don’t like it much myself. It’s too anecdotal; it’s too ad hoc. It’s lacking in structural depth. It barely nicks the surface. It’s sociologically poor. At best, it’s unfinished. Why don’t you give it a try?

A last comment: a part of my old brain is temped by the paradoxical thought that the determinedly democratic revolt in Belorussia belongs on the same page as the mindless destructiveness in France and the neo-Bolshevik rioting in large American cities.

Nightcap

  1. Searching for consolation in Max Weber’s Work Ethic George Blaustein, New Republic
  2. Keep doing what you love Federico Varese, Times Literary Supplement
  3. The conservative origins of British socialism Johnathan Rutherford, New Statesman
  4. The question that tormented Søren Kierkegaard Morton Jensen, American Interest

When hard work doesn’t equal productive work

In March 2020, David Rubenstein gave an interview in which he lamented the vanishing of a system in which “hard work” guarantees success. While the source of nostalgia is understandable, there is an epistemological problem with the conjoined assumptions underlying the concept of hard work and also what a “system” promises, i.e. if one works hard, then one become successful. The issue appears to be one of qualifying and quantifying “hard work.”

My previous article “An aspirational paradox” mentions Abigail Fisher and her failed lawsuit against University of Texas – Austin over her non-acceptance to the institution. The case was a painful example of the disillusionment which must follow when believers in the exceptionality of the commonplace are finally made aware of its mediocrity. The Fisher saga represents the modern tragedy of familial ambition: a child’s parents place her on a systemic path, promised by wise public-school teachers and caring guidance counselors to lead to success, only to discover that the end is the furnace of Moloch. Caveat emptor.

The strange, disembodied entity called “the system” doesn’t fail; what fails is individual and collective concepts of what the system is and what it requires. Mankind has a capacity for filling a void of ignorance with figments of its imagination. In general, such practice is harmless. But when a person believes his own creation and builds his future upon it, that is when the ‘systemic failure’ narrative begins.

Drawing again from my own encounters, for many years I knew a music teacher who believed that one must never listen to repertoire. Yes, you read that correctly: a teacher of an aural art form believes that listening to music is detrimental. The person had many long, pseudo-pedagogical explanations for this peculiar belief. His idea was atypical. Professors at the world’s top conservatories and musicians from major ensembles all emphasize listening as a crucial part of study. Listening as a formal component of music study dates to the invention and mass distribution of the phonograph in the early 20th century. Even further back, students attended live concerts.

This teacher had a pedagogical system built around his beliefs, which included that students should neither learn basic keyboard skills nor how to play with accompaniment. Unsurprisingly, students who adhered to his system didn’t progress very well. Problems ranged from poor intonation and lack of ensemble skills to arriving for college auditions with no grasp of appropriate repertoire. Feedback from competitions was kind but completely honest. The more students failed, the more obstinately he insisted that political maneuverings or class biases were to blame. “The system,” by which he meant auditions, was “broken,” designed to not give people a “fair chance.”

Sadly, this man affected a large number of students, many of whom worked hard – practicing long hours, racking up credits, participating in multiple ensembles – only to discover that their “system” was a fraud. All of their hard work was for naught.

There was one particularly heartbreaking case of a young woman who applied to a fairly prominent private university. By her own account, her audition was catastrophic. In the lead up to the audition, she did her best to ensure success; she had two lessons a week, increased her daily practice time by an hour, and played along to background recordings. The amount of work she did, measured in terms of effort and time spent, was brutal. But she didn’t pass the audition and was understandably devastated.

A system she had followed religiously since fourth grade had failed her; moreover, her hard work was guaranteed to fail. There was no way for her to succeed based upon her training. In some ways, this girl’s story parallels Abigail Fisher’s history. For years both put in hours of effort only to discover that they had misjudged and misplaced their energies. Bluntly, these young women worked hard but not strategically.

The failure of these girls was unrelated to the broader “system,” whether that system was auditions or college applications. To argue that “the system” is broken on the basis that hard work is not rewarded is irrational, albeit understandable on an emotional basis. Before rushing off to denounce “the system” for not rewarding hard work, one should critically examine the foundational premise and ask: Was this hard work or was it productive work?

Nightcap

  1. What kind of war was the Second World War? Nick Nielsen, The View from Oregon
  2. The politics of colonial reparations (Tunisia) Al-Jazeera
  3. The UK’s economy is heading for disaster Chris Dillow, Stumbling & Mumbling
  4. How social skills improve group performance Deming & Weidmann, NBER

Foundering in academia

For the last couple of weeks, I have been reading and re-reading Gerard Klickstein’s book The Musician’s Way: A Guide to Practice, Performance, and Wellness. Klickstein is a musician and professor who has spent much of his teaching career helping other musicians recover from physical injury or overcome psychological issues, such as performance anxiety. Klickstein argues that the vast majority of musicians’ problems, physical and psychological, are a result of poor formation at critical stages of development. Reversing problems engendered by “unqualified,” i.e. incompetent, teachers is an overarching theme in the book. Reading Klickstein’s anecdotes in which many of his students are recent college graduates, one becomes alarmed at the sheer number of incompetent teachers present in “higher education.”    

Several summers ago, at a music festival, I sat with an opera singer friend and we assembled her audition book. An audition book is a selection of opera arias which a singer provides to producers during the audition process. My friend and I were deep into research and consideration, when another musician, also a singer, joined us. His contribution was to question us as to why we bothered with the book at all.

He went on to reveal that he wasn’t planning on attempting the opera house and festival audition cycle, nor was he considering trying for a choral ensemble. Instead, he was applying for faculty positions at small colleges. He was a recent doctoral graduate from a university which is overall relatively famous but not particularly well-regarded for its music school. At that time, the three of us were roughly at the same level. His experience and education were slightly above average for the types of small, regional institutions he was targeting.  

Behind his dismissive behavior lay a mentality of minimal effort. Why should he go to the trouble of researching roles, evaluating musical suitability, and learning parts when his résumé would satisfy the expectations of small, provincial colleges? He lacked the vocabulary to explain his vision, but what he described was a sinecure. Before the festival ended, he had secured a full-time position at an institution in a backwater of the American southwest.

One side of the proverbial coin says that the institution was lucky to have him – his background certainly was above anything the college could expect on the basis of its own reputation and musical standing; the other side of the coin says that it is concerning that someone like him could see academia as a safety net. 

Now American colleges have begun to furlough staff. As you can imagine, many of my Facebook friends are people who attended and are now staff at small liberal arts colleges and small state universities throughout the country. In the atmosphere of uncertainty, my own FB feed has filled up with people lashing out against a society, which, they insist, doesn’t value them. There is an underlying financial element; few can afford to be furloughed. But there is a deeper issue present: a professional inactivity that has pervaded American small liberal arts academia for the last few decades.  

In truth, financial concerns are more a symptom of professional inactivity than they are representative of some overarching truth about poor pay for teachers. I recall how one of my Columbia professors told my class never to rely on a single income stream. He would talk about how all breaks are opportunities to be productive. He told us about how when he was starting his career in the 1960s, he deliberately accepted a part-time position, rather than a full-time one, so that he could finish writing his first book. In terms of his career, the book was more important than his job at a small city college because the book paved the way for the big opportunities. To tell the truth, it didn’t matter that he taught at a small city college, outside of gaining some official teaching experience which he could have obtained through teaching just one class. There’s a difference between being professionally active and simply being busy or being employed.

There is a species of person who follows the same MO as the singer from the music festival. Academia is a safety net, and the goal is to rush into a full-time position and sit there for a lifetime. Their attitude is that of a career teacher, not a professor. They lecture and grade, however there is no professional contribution or creativity on their part. Such people tend to be barren of original thought and to react with hostility to new ideas or concepts. A quick search of academic databases shows that they don’t write articles, they haven’t written books (their theses don’t count), and they don’t write for think tanks or journals. An egregious example is a college professor who writes movie reviews for popular art enthusiast magazines; he’s been passing this activity off as “publishing” and “being published” for years. 

There is, I know, a perception of a double standard on some level. For example, Kingsley Amis taught English Literature at Oxford for the majority of his career. He published comparatively little on the academic side in contrast to some of his peers, and much of his lighter work took the form of reviews, essays, and opinion pieces for newspapers and magazines, such as the London Times or The New Yorker. But he averaged a novel a year. Recognized in his own lifetime as a giant of twentieth century English literature, no one questioned his publication record or his ability to teach the field.

The subtle stagnation at the liberal arts college level has contributed to a culture of belief in talent and luck, rather than good decision making and hard – by which I mean calculated and carefully weighed – work. There are many people today who would classify my Columbia professor’s story as one of privilege and make assumptions about a background of wealth that allowed part-time work. In actual fact, he did not come from a particularly “privileged” background: he simply settled on his priorities, thought ahead, and made his decisions accordingly.

One thing one learns very quickly in the arts is that one must create without expectation of immediate payment. Singers learn arias, instrumentalists study concerti, filmmakers shoot reels all so that when the moment is right, they can produce a piece that demonstrates ability and wins a commission. One tidbit my professor included was that he had to write several critically acclaimed books before he began to receive advances for his work. The principle is the same: create first then receive a reward. A person who works according to the parameters of payment is a drone, and it is unsurprising that such people do not create new works, make discoveries, or have groundbreaking insights. If one considers that American small colleges have populated themselves largely with professional drones, one must reevaluate their worth to education.    

Last Time You Heard of “Flattening the Curve”?

We were told that many or most Americans workers had to be idled to “flatten the curve” of contaminations. This means simply that it was desirable to avoid having a sudden upsurge of people infected so that hospitals would not be overwhelmed. Officials – including the president and the Gov of California, Nancy’s nephew – never gave us any other reason for confinement.

Notably, limiting the total, final number of contaminations was not the reason. Instead, and since no vaccine is in our short sights – herd immunity will save us. But the slower the rate of contamination, the later we will enjoy herd immunity. Thus, a policy of confinement may cause more deaths that it avoids. I am not saying it’s the case; I don’t know. It’s just plausible based on the info I am given, including by my government(s).

Well, I am reasonably sure that to-date, C-virus patients have not overwhelmed American hospitals except in New York City. How do I know? The end-of-time loving, Trump-hating media would make sure I would know it if any American hospital were in a catastrophic situation caused by an unexpected influx of patients. That main danger seems past. It does not mean that individuals should not take common sense precautions, including social distancing. I know I do (but I am old).

In the meantime, the American economy is undergoing an unprecedented disaster; I mean, unprecedented in my lifetime. No mystery: When people don’t work, wealth is not being generated. The solution to this problem is as obvious as it seems: More people have to go back to work. In this connection, I think it’s time to discuss something that should also be obvious: Working at close quarters leads to contamination, and thus, for some categories of the population, to death. Economic contraction leads to sectorial poverty which also kills people. Panic also kills people: surgeries and other medical interventions are being re-scheduled all over the country. No doubt, patients are dying as a result, indirect victims of the pandemics. (And many doctors are complaining of loss of income.)

Who should go back to work? A is always the case, this issue must be resolved as close as possible to those most directly concerned. In this case, it’s the employees themselves and their employers. This principle does not necessarily lead to the wisest decisions; it makes bad decisions less consequential than would be the case for decisions taken by government at the federal level. It makes rolling back bad decisions more likely.

During all this confinement period, my fellow-citizens’ general submissiveness horrified me. (I had two postings on this.) It seems that submission is over. There is a mass automobile protest going on in Lansing, Michigan as I write. It’s directed at the governor of that state, an extreme example of schoolmarmism gone mad. (“Why do I have to do it?” “Because I say so!”)

By the way, if you fear the rise of America fascism, don’t look for guns, look for ballpoints.

Nightcap

  1. Trump’s debt to Ron Paul? James Kirchick, NYR Daily
  2. The silver city that changed the world Peter Gordon, ARB
  3. The rise of the architectural cult Nikos Salingaros, Inference
  4. The ethics of the material world Glenn Adamson, Aeon

Mexican Productivity and Poverty: a Superficial, Street-Level View

I just spent three and a half weeks in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico (summer 2019). Below are some impressions. First things first; I have to give you the severe limits of my field of vision while I was there.

My wife and I stayed in an old-fashioned, 1950s low-rise hotel on the ocean with a pleasant faded kind of glory. (My wife Krishna does not let me go to Mexico by myself, for obvious reasons!) It was very hot throughout so, we did not go out much except that we had to shop for food every day at the mall across a broad avenue. We took taxis to and from the dentist about fifteen times. I always chat with taxi drivers; they gave us the foundation of sociology, I am sure! We spent a little time in the old touristy market district (where we have friendly acquaintances from past visits). We also walked some on Puerto Vallarta’s beautiful and interesting seafront (the “malecon”). I speak Spanish well, I understand everything in the language; I read it with ease. I read the paper a few times; I watched the Spanish language news on television a few times. I read free brochures on this and that.

There is much to like in Mexico, and especially Mexicans. They are low-key, unexcitable, stoical cordial, affable, and eager to help, and not only vis-à-vis this pleasant, well-disposed gringo, myself. Living for a short time in pleasant, clean Puerto Vallarta, it’s difficult to remember that Mexico’s homicide rate is three times the US rate. It takes the occasional sighting of a truckful of the new, nattily dressed National Guard with automatic weapons to jog your memory. (See notes from a previous visit: “Mexicans in Mexico,” 2017, )

Low productivity

My main observation is a repeat from what I recounted the last time I was there (See my “Mexican Underdevelopment: Pop-Sociology.”) It’s about productivity. For most of our stay, there was work going on on a brick path right beneath my windows. It was mind boggling. At one point, there were seven people working on the same two steps, including a master craftsman. They continued by restoring and cleaning a flat brick path. The thought stuck me that,in California, two, or two-and-a-half of the same Mexican workers (the very same guys) would have done the same work in the same time easily. And, yes, I know something about brick laying, both personally (I used to be very poor; now I am moderately poor), and as a customer. I am talking about a more than fifty per cent rise in productivity obtained by simply moving workers into a different environment. Bosses and economic leaders would easily kill for a change of such magnitude!

Of all the guys on the bricklaying and brick cleaning site, only one had a proper power tool, and it was only operational part of the time. The others labored by hand, mostly on their knees. No one had thought of giving them knee-guards. They had not themselves.

Moderate Poverty

The workers told me they were making about US$23 a day, or $115 for a forty-hour week. That’s not bad given that beginning professional positions – that require a university education – in thriving, manufacturing Monterrey are advertised for US$600 a month. Yet, and although most food, housing, gasoline, and health care are all cheaper in Mexico than in the US, this is still not much money on which to rear a family. But, this is also not dire poverty of the kind we used to see, and sometimes still find in India or in Africa. In that part of Mexico, everyone looks healthy, especially the children. Many adults are obese, more or less like in the US. Everyone is well dressed, by the admittedly low standards of central California where I live.

Over-staffing

Here is striking fact: Wherever you go, you find overstaffed shops, restaurants, etc, often very overstaffed. I mean like three shop attendants doing nothing in the middle of the afternoon. There must be a reasonable number of exceptions because my dentist’s office makes good use of its human resources. The same young women who serve as assistants, also act as receptionists. (I know, know, comparative advantage; don’t get me started, this is not the time or place.)

Productivity and Income

Over-staffing and the failure to provide workers with the best tools matter a great deal if you think, as I do, that incomes roughly follow productivity though often with big time lags, and often not in a linear fashion. Although employers sometimes fail to share the product of productivity gains with workers, the fact is that they cannot share gains that have not occurred. Low productivity pretty much guarantees low wages.

Note what I am not saying. The Mexican work ethic is not the problem. The guys who worked in the hot sun of tropical Mexico for eight hours a day don’t need lessons from anyone on that count. Also, those of us who live in California remember well the recession years when the vegetable picking lines remained nearly all-Mexican (with a handful of Filipinos) while poor Anglos lamented the absence of jobs. Now that wages in the field have increased substantially because of a chronic farm labor shortage, still few college students are flooding in, California sky-high rents or not.

Going back to fairly prosperous Puerto Vallarta, where construction is thriving (because of Canadian refugees from the cold, I am told), there is also the mysterious fact of the invisible zealot pounding stakes close to my hotel at 5:30 AM. I am not complaining. I respect this instance of unreasonable industriousness!

Social Structure and Productivity

Mexicans remain poor, the Mexican economy keeps growing but only slowly. This is, at least in part, I think, because Mexicans have normative standards that do not feed high productivity. These standard maintain a permanent social structure that makes increasing productivity difficult. A vicious/virtuous circle is at work. Labor is cheap because of its low productivity. It’s so cheap that, why not hire an additional worker for the same job? The incentive to hire nonchalantly is probably high because of Mexicans’ high connectivity. Mexicans, even in a fairly new city like Puerto Vallarta appear much more interconnected than Californians. (I don’t know much about the East Coast of the US.) There are many more individuals in one’s life there to please by giving their relatives and liege a job than is the case where I live.

Take the lifelong relationship of “compadre” and “comadre” between adults who are usually not kin to each other. The titles denote the link between a man and a woman who are respectively godfather and godmother to the same child. It easily multiplies by two or three beyond actual relatives the circle of individuals to whom one is to some extent obligated. And, it does not end there. Why, there is even a word in Mexican Spanish to denote the relationship of two people who have the same first name! I forgot the word but I was charmed to discover that I was ##### to any number of “Diegos.” I can even imagine situations where someone would succeed in using that tenuous link to extract a small favor from me (with a probable intention to reciprocate).

High Connectivity not a Specific Feature of Mexico, and Over-Staffing

I don’t think this high connectivity is an idiosyncratic feature of Mexican society. I believe rather that something similar prevails in India (that I know a little). It seems to me that high connectivity was visible also, in rural Brittany when I was a child in the forties and fifties. It was largely absent in Paris by contrast where I lived most of the time (Order my book of socio-historical memoirs of that period: I Used to Be French: An Immature Autobiography; avoid the middle person, go through me.). Having obligations to few rather than to many is a salient feature of modernity (that includes also urbanization, small nuclear families, and a search for formal education).

I speculate that Mexicans, even in comparatively modern places like Puerto Vallarta, have a high tolerance for over-staffing because of the large social networks within which they exist. Over-staffing is thus a primary contributor to low productivity. Low productivity keeps many people poor. Poor people need a supportive network more than do the more prosperous. Long and short of it: to break the cycle would require a degree of de-humanization of Mexican society. It’s not inexorable. Mexicans may collectively choose a bearable level of poverty (see life expectancy below) over the destruction of the emotional comfort larger social networks promote.

Not Following in the Footsteps….

It seems to me that a high degree of familiarity with the negative example of American society next door with its low connectivity – in places – may guide them toward such a choice. In point of fact, I have met a strikingly large number of Mexican men who had worked in the US for several years and who had returned home under their own power, by choice, according to their narratives. (I also note with satisfaction that ten years ago, S. Nikiforov and I had evoked precisely that sort of preference in a big article on Mexican immigration: “If Mexicans and Americans could cross the border freely,” in The Independent Review, 14-1: 101-133 [Summer] 2009.)

There is no law of nature that requires the people of less developed countries to retrace all the steps of their predecessors in development. The cellphone shows us that often, they don’t have to: Several African countries have phone landlines only in the center of their major city but 80% of their population has access to a cellphone. Trying to skip stages is the rational thing to do, of course. I would guess it’s most successful when it depends largely on a myriad of individual decisions, as with cellphones. Nevertheless, it seems to work pretty well – for some reason – even with collective decisions regarding health care, specifically.

Perhaps, societies can pick and choose what features of modernity they actually want thanks to a density of available information and a richness in inter-communications that was unimaginable forty years ago. (That was when I was studying underdevelopment with rigorous methods.) I can picture a partial national consensus forming that says, “We don’t need everything the big guys have; a little bit more of this and of that, and we are OK.” If this scenario is realistic, food, schooling, and health care will probably be its dominant themes. The Mexican food situation appears fine (I will consider contradiction on this.). In my subjective judgment, based on its products, on the average, Mexican K-12 is superior to its American public counterpart.

Illness and Health care

One component of socio-economic underdevelopment and also an obstacle to development in its own right used to be widespread illness. The morbidity figures I saw in the seventies about the situation in the fifties were horrifying. Illness also obstructed development indirectly because it destroyed family units through the death of parents or older siblings, even of aunts and uncles who might have provided. This is largely in the past. The present in poor countries is very different, greatly improved from the narrow standpoint of health. And, it turns out, the Mexican health picture, in particular appears fairly bright.

Single Payer Health Care

Something to think about for my conservative friends: Mexico has single payer healthcare for those who want it. It has a pretty poor reputation, it’s true. A private health network subsists side-by-side with it for the prosperous. (I like that.) Yet, yet, the life expectancy of Mexicans is only 2.6 years lower than that of Americans, same as the difference between the US and the Netherlands (WHO 2015, in Wikipedia). Americans live longer than Mexicans in the same proportion as the Dutch live longer than Americans. So, either, it’s possible to get fairly similar results health-wise at much lower cost than do Americans, or health care does not matter all that much, as far as not dying is concerned. (Hate to twist the knife in the conservative wound but the Dutch also spend much less money than Americans on their health care.)

Incidentally, I am well aware that there are non-economic arguments against entrusting what is now 17% of the US GDP to the government, to any government. But, perhaps, conservatives should restrict themselves to combating govt. health care on political and principle grounds alone. (End of digression.)

Where To?

So, where am I going with this, you may fairly ask? I am expressing my doubts that Mexican society – and other less developed societies – will be forced to undergo the dislocating social change that would be required to improve much its (their) productivity, according to the old schemes. I have to stop here, more or less, but it seems to me that Mexico is more likely to improve first its societal-level productivity by having more women join the work force. The preservation of a high existing level of connectivity – with its baked-in child care and food services – would ease, and facilitate such mass social change, of course.

Nightcap

  1. How a burning cathedral rebukes a divided Catholic Church Ross Douthat, New York Times
  2. Bombay’s 19th century factory workers Arun Kumar, Aeon
  3. Why the European Elections will be painful to watch for some Remainers Simon Wren-Lewis, mainly macro
  4. John Mearsheimer’s nationalist straight jacket Paul Miller, Law & Liberty

Nightcap

  1. From under the rubble (Solzhenitsyn) David Tubbs, Claremont Review of Books
  2. ‘I had to guard an empty room’ David Graeber, Guardian
  3. Regional bipolarity, the new global model Ralph Peters, Strategika
  4. The origins of the Second Cold War Branko Milanovic, globalinequality

Nightcap

  1. What it’s like to deliver packages for Amazon Austin Murphy, the Atlantic
  2. On being a female classicist Madeline Miller, LitHub
  3. Sing, Goddess Patricia Storace, NYRB
  4. Is nationalism really the future of conservatism? Rachel Lu, the Week