Doctor Science Knows

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The inequality boom

Henry at Crooked Timber posted about the most recent issue of Politics and Society and its discussion of What Produced the Inequality Boom?. I commented:

I have to agree with Straightwood on the importance of propaganda and on a pervasive mental model of how the world should work. Ideology, maybe?

What I've noticed, especially in the last couple of decades, is that many Americans and almost all Republicans or libertarians have great difficulty assigning blame to rich people. In discussing any problematic situation or institution -- illegal immigration, for instance -- their first reaction is to see the source of the problem in the least powerful and wealthy people involved. In the example of immigration, if you bring up the complicity of major employers who want to hire illegal immigrants because they're cheap and exploitable, they'll nod and then ... it's as though their brains skid away and they start talking about anchor babies again. The idea that wealthy people have more power and thus may be more culpable doesn't seem to have an traction in their brains, it's a notion that doesn't seem to compute on some basic level. Wealth is the elephant in the room that *people can't actually see*.

From Henry's description of the articles, what stands out to me as an unconsidered aspect is something about the behavior of inherited wealth. It's not just that some people were able to get lots of money, it's that at least some people who started out with money -- Old Money -- didn't lose it in the time-honored fashion, but saw it grow in the way only New Money used to grow. See, for instance, a Wall Street Journal article about Charles Koch, which said he 'applied the "science of liberty" to become one of the world's richest men' -- apparently the "science of liberty" allowed him to make a very wise choice of parents.


It can't be just Calvinism, we've had Calvinism all along.

Currently, there's a discussion at Balloon Juice about Megan McArdle's piece in the Atlantic blaming the housing bubble on the 30-year fixed mortgage, because it
gives the consumer the power to shaft banks whenever it is to their advantage.
See Irvine Housing Blog for more evisceration.

McArdle is a useful idiot test case, because she so perfectly exhibits the attitudes I'm talking about. She's not a Calvinist; she calls herself a "libertarian". She's The Atlantic's business and economics editor, though it's thunderously obvious that she knows nothing about what Henry would call "economics".

What she *is*, is an MBA. As I recall, MBA programs became very popular and important in the late 70s, as the inequality boom was taking off. I wonder, now, if what these programs teach -- the mindset, the basic attitudes, what things are important and what aren't -- isn't where the Dives-blindness (or whatever it should be called) comes from. MBA programs, generally speaking, teach the wealthy to regard workers as tools, consumers as lawful prey. This is where our aristocracy is trained, and this is what they learn.

Now that I think about it, what has changed in how inherited wealth functions is that the scions of wealth are often expected to get MBAs. Dr. Hilarius @15 talks about how Old Money is tied up in trusts, etc., so the heirs can't spend it on hookers & blow, in traditional fashion. But since the 60s-70s the MBA has become a way to train heirs to a different kind of aristocratic tradition. You don't have to insulate your heirs from the money if you train them not to blow it, and that's why e.g. Charles Koch (who has an MBA) can be so obscenely wealthy. Gilded Age robber barons started small and made their businesses large; modern ones are Robber Dukes: they start with a large business and make it gigantic.

Labels: , , , , ,

Blogcomment record: "Julian Comstock" UPDATED

Paul Kinkaid reviewed Robert Charles Wilson's Julian Comstock.
Patrick Nielsen Hayden wondered if they read the same book. My comments:

I seem to have read the book pretty much the way DaveL@70 did, and the idea that Julian's homosexuality was "unnecessary" is boggling to me.

However, speaking of marked and unmarked states:

I am surprised that no-one has mentioned the unmarked elephant in this state room.

that the narrator, his wife, and Julian's lover are all what we would call "black", but that it's apparently without "ethnic" significance? It is, IMHO, a very marked unmarkness, a joke Wilson is pulling on the readers, to put a lot of black characters (not just one, as in Left Hand of Darkness, but a *lot*) into a story and see if anyone notices.

The fact that Paul Kinkaid was reminded of the US Civil War but didn't see the black people strikes me as hilariously revealing, but in fact when I skimmed through a bunch of reviews *no-one* seems to have noticed -- even though this is set in a North America in which *slavery* has come back.

But then, I haven't come across anyone who's noticed that the ruling Church in Julian Comstock already exists, which is why Wilson put its headquarters in Colorado Springs. Or that the back-to-the-1880s political philosophy they use is actually taken directly from a certain trend in modern libertarians.

Chris Gerrib @ 77:

Actually, there are crumbs throughout the book indicating that the narrator and various other major characters are black. In particular, Wilson uses "tightly-curled" to describe what we'd call "black" hair. He's careful not to say "nappy", because he doesn't want the signal to be overt, he's *inclueing* the characters' race.

It's also not terribly relevant.

... um. You realize, don't you, that this parallels what Kincaid says about Julian's homosexuality. Indeed, I think one of the functions of homosexuality in the novel is to be the text while race is the subtext -- flipping the foreground/background in actual 19thC novels, where race could be text but sexuality had to be subtext.

No one else has spoken up, so I don't know if anyone here besides me perceived what Wilson does with race. I can't figure out which prospect boggles me more: that his clues were too subtle even for this group of very insightful readers, or that insightful readers noticed and thought it was trivial.

PNH @ 108:

Actually, it's more explicit than that: as Jeff Sharlet pointed out years ago, many important fundamentalist (and Dominionist) organizations have concentrated in Colorado Springs *precisely* in the hope that they can infiltrate/evangelize the Air Force. Focus on the Family is there, as is the New Life megachurch. In many ways, Colorado Springs already *is* the headquarters of Dominionism.

And yes, that's New Life Church as in "Ted Haggard", and that's why Julian Comstock's homosexuality is *crucial* to the story IMHO. Besides the Classic allusion, it's part of how Wilson shows that the tragedy of his future world is built from currently available ingredients.

OK, through the magic of, here are the descriptions:

a pink and radiant face, and large eyes whose color I could not at this distance discern, although I imagined them (correctly, as it turned out) to be a handsome chestnut-brown; and a crown of hair that coiled list a vast collation of ebony springs, the light behind her making a spectacular Halo of it.
Now, I admit that "pink" is suggestive of what we'd call a white woman -- but it's not clear if he's talking about someone like Beyonce, either. The hair, IMHO, is the crucial element in Wilson's descriptions of "black" characters, and when I read this I thought, "she's got a 'fro!" Throughout the book, Calyxa's hair is described as "coiled" (if not "spring-loaded"), and in the Epilogue when their daughter Flaxie is described:
her hair is as glossy and dark and tightly coiled as her mother's was.
Now, for Magnus Stepney, Julian's lover, the description is unmistakable:
lustrously dark skin and wiry hair.
While searching for these citations, I also came across the first description of Lymon Pugh, who has an "unruly knot of black hair" under his cap, and I wonder whether he, too, is supposed to be black ... or not.

Like all good humorous novelists, I think the author spent some time laughing at *us*, the readers.

Jo Walton@179:

I'm very glad to hear that you noticed, because I remember looking up your review after I'd finally gotten around to reading the book, and was both boggled and distressed that you seemed to have missed the way Wilson marks (or rather un-marks) race. I'm relieved to know that I can still trust your powers of observation, but distressed that you didn't feel you could talk about what you observed in a way that wouldn't be misconstrued.

The fact that issues of gender, race, inclusion, and all that are under *constant* discussion on livejournal/dreamwidth made it easy for me to notice what Wilson does, but it also made it easy for me to think and talk about it.

I was hoping that someone in this discussion would know if Wilson has talked/written about the way he handles race in "Julian Comstock". I basically agree with Terry @242: I think the idea that slavery could come back to North America and *not* have anything to do with race is preposterous. But writers are allowed one preposterous assumption per book, and I'm willing to go along with this one.

Marilee @255:

I completely disagree. I think Wilson is describing this kind of hairstyle, not sausage curls.

Remember, Calyxa's hair is like a *halo* -- that certainly sounds like a 'fro. And black african hair definitely coils naturally -- each hair is like a little slinky.

In general, too, sausage curls are a highly artificial, high-maintenance hairstyle, and it seems clear to me that, throughout, the narrator is talking about Calyxa's natural hair, which her daughter inherits.

But I'm not sure if I would have come to the same conclusion about Calyxa's appearence based on this passage, except that I was looking for other unmarked black people once I noticed what Wilson did with the narrator.

Labels: , , , , , ,

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Blogcomment record: Chinese characters

Victor Mair at Language Log posted about amnesia for Chinese characters -- about Chinese people losing the ability to write characters as they become more used to entering e-text. Apparently the most common method for entering Chinese text is to go through pinyin. I commented:

Meanwhile, James Fallows recently observed that written Chinese is ideally suited to Twitter, because a 140-character limit is, in Chinese, a 140-*word* limit, which isn't much of a limit. I hadn't realized, though, that pinyin is being used as the bridge between the keyboard and the display.

Are people seeing "character amnesia" for reading as well as writing? Are literate Chinese just as able to *read* "sneeze" or "elbow" as they were before electronics, or is reading following writing?

Labels: , , , ,

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Blogcomment followup: Israeli conversion bill

More on the Israeli conversion bill. Haaretz reports that Netanyahu says he opposes bill because it will "tear apart the Jewish people. In the comments, "Jay" explained:
The origin of the conversion bill is by the secular Yisrael Beitenu Party consisting of recent Russian immigrants and mostly secular Jews or non Jewish immigrants. They live in Israel and appreciate having a conversion done in a way that will be accepted by all Jews.. Reform Judaism has nothing to offer to them. They live Jewish culture, celebrate Jewish holidays, and Judaismis their way of life. If they want to be Dati (orthodox) they can and if they do not wish to be Orthodox then they can be secular, Conservative or Reform Jews. The vast majority choose to be secular or Orthodox while a minuscule number choose to be "liberal " Jews. Unfortunately the intermarriage rate and assimilation of the non Orthodox Jews is creating a loss of future generations of Jews in the Unite States. We in Israel do not wish to import beliefs that will cause the loss of Israel as a Jewish Democratic State.

I replied:

Why is secular behavior not a problem for Israeli conversions?

Thank you for your explanation, now I'd like even more!

I'm an American Jew, and I'm having a hard time figuring out how the attitude that "Reform and Conservative conversions don't count because you don't live halachically" with the fact that many intended beneficiaries of the bill want to live as secular Jews, less observant than most Reform/Conservative/Reconstructionist Diaspora Jews.

You're talking about 5% of the population, right? This will only work if the conversions are exceptionally streamlined and quick, even slapdash, otherwise the backlog will *never* be cleared. Why are slapdash conversions without subsequent Dati behavior acceptable if they occur in Israel, but Conservative conversions in the Diaspora don't count?

Labels: , , ,

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Blogcomment record: Divorcing Israel

The Knesset is considering a bill that would give the Orthodox Rabbinate a monopoly on matters of Jewish identity. This would, among other things, make Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, and even many American Orthodox conversions "not count" in Israel -- only Haredi aka "Ultra-Orthodox" would pass their test.

Or, as Jeffrey Goldberg (normally a reliable cheerleader for the Zionist section) put it: Israel to Diaspora: Drop Dead. American Jews are *extremely* upset.

This is a summary of comments I left in Ta-Nehesi Coates' open thread, at a a Jerusalem Post article, at Tablet Magazine, and at Emily Hauser's; I also emailed Goldberg.

We non-Orthodox are like a woman who's been abused, insulted, stolen from, and betrayed by her husband. At last he's given her a get -- but it still hurts, to know how little she was ever respected.

A crucial aspect that both American and Israeli Orthodox (and secular Israelis) seem to be mostly missing is that non-Orthodox Jewish practice seems more *right* to us. We aren't interested in just being halachically "good" Jews, we want to be good people who are Jewish. We look at Israeli Orthodoxy and we see the same behavior and attitudes we see in Christian or Muslim or Hindu fundamentalists. We do *not* see the true foundations of our Jewish religion: Hillel's "one-leg Torah" (aka The Golden Rule), teshuva, tikkun olam, justice and wisdom, wrestling with G-d. Indeed, I think that to many of us Israeli Orthodoxy seems to make idols out of even the Torah and Eretz Israel, preferring to focus on these rather than the more difficult mitzvot: “Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the stranger or the poor", for a start. We let strangers into our congregations because we do still know the feelings of the stranger.

The NYT piece says:
Neither the Jewish diaspora nor Israel can afford a split between the two communities
I disagree. Diaspora Judaism *must* split, for the sake of our souls. In the first place, we’ve been handed our get, we need to recognize it, weep, and move on. In the second place, Israel was the wrong Bridegroom: there’s only One Who truly counts, and Who is the security of the Jewish people and faith.

Even when you've been kicked out, it's hard to walk away -- but I think that's what non-Orthodox Jews have to do to remain true to our Jewish obligations.

Emily pointed out that the law hasn't been passed, the divorce has not been finalized. There's still time for Israel to back away, to say "Oh baby, I never meant to make you *cry*." But I don't know how reparable the marriage is, at this point.

I invite my Israeli or Orthodox friends to persuade me I'm wrong.

Labels: , , ,