David Brooks Puts Profits over Prophets

David BrooksBecause of a bit of a mix-up, I happened to read David Brooks’ yearly discussion of the Sidney Awards, The Sidney Awards, Part 1. There is nothing quite like reading David Brooks or Thomas Friedman or oh so many other major newspaper columnists to make a writer feel good about himself. With Brooks, one gets a beautiful combination of lazy thinking, boring prose, and intellectual pretense. And all of this comes together perfectly when Brooks discusses work by people who can actually think and write reasonably well without undue pretense.

In this collection, he tries to figure out if there is more to humans than just a bunch of electrochemical processes going on in the brain. Brooks is clearly divided on the issue. The religious part of him wants to think that there is something other-worldly about humans—that soul that’s gonna go to heaven and party until forever never comes. But the political part of him wants to think that humans are just a special kind of resource that businesses use to bring products to market. Having read him for years, I know where he comes down on all this. Profits over Prophets. I’ve never met a big time conservative who wasn’t perfectly clear on that issue. Profits over Prophets.

Does Science Explain All?

He starts by discussing two opposing essays by Steven Pinker and Leon Wieseltier. Brooks refers to them as “two intellectual heavyweights.” Well, he got that half right. Pinker is an intellectual heavyweight. Wieseltier is best described as a prominent fight promoter. These two guys tackle the question of whether science can or rather more correctly could some day tell us everything about everything. I haven’t read the articles and I have no intention of doing so. It would be hard to find a more boring question to think about. But the way that Brooks writes about the articles is so shamelessly biased as to be comical:

Pinker took the expansive view, arguing that, despite what some blinkered humanities professors argue, science gives us insight into nearly everything. For example, Pinker argues that science has demonstrated that “the belief systems of all the world’s traditional religions and cultures—their theories of the origins of life, humans and societies—are factually mistaken.” …

Wieseltier counters that few believers take Scripture literally. They interpret. Meanwhile, science simply can’t explain many of the most important things. Imagine a scientific explanation of a beautiful painting, based, say, on a chemical analysis of the paint. “Such an analysis will explain everything except what most needs explaining: the quality of beauty that is the reason for our contemplation of the painting.” The scientists deny the differences between the realms of human existence and simplify reality by imposing their methods even where they can’t apply.

That’s a knockout for Wieseltier, don’t you think? Of course, there are a couple of problems. One is that, in fact most believers take Scripture literally. A 2004 CBS poll found that 55% of Americans think that God created man literally as it says in the Bible. That’s not “few,” that’s “most.” This is the number one weapon in the arsenal of religious apologists. Well, no one really believes that nonsense! But of course, they do. And when they are all alone, they encourage each other to think that nonsense. But that’s a minor issue. Let’s get to the big problem.

No Profit in Prophets

Pinker is not talking about finding beauty in the chemistry of the paints used by an artist. He’s a cognitive scientist. When he says that science can explain everything, he’s talking about understanding the chemistry that goes on in the brain. Why does one painting cause the brain to release endorphins while another does not? I don’t know if Wieseltier is presenting this “chemistry of the paint” strawman to knock down, but Brooks sure is. And that’s where he leaves it.

If two intelligent people were going to discuss this kind of thing, they wouldn’t be talking about a human’s reaction to art. They would be talking about whether humans could ever understand why the universe exists. And by the way: it is possible that there is an answer to that question. I believe that certain findings of math indicate that some day we will be able to prove that such a question is beyond the power of a machine that is limited to the perfect intellectual potential of the universe. In other words, it might be possible to prove that nothing can ever fully explain itself. If Pinker wants to write a book about that, I’d be interested in reading it. I’m not sure Wieseltier is even capable of understanding the question. And I know that Brooks isn’t.

Do Elephants Have Souls That We Can’t Bother Defining?

Elephants Have SoulsBrooks next discusses Caitrin Nicol’s essay Do Elephants Have Souls? All I can tell from what he wrote is that Nicol thinks elephants do have souls, but isn’t really clear on what souls are. I don’t know what the big deal is. To me, the soul is the essence of a person. It is what I think I am that is distinct from the environment that I live in. But for religious folk like David Brooks, it is far more difficult. And his difficulty with the word takes him back to his unfair discussion of the Pinker-Wieseltier debate. But I don’t think it is just Brooks’ problem.

He quotes Nicol as writing “when we talk about it, we all mean more or less the same thing: what it means for someone to bare it, for music to have it, for eyes to be the window to it, for it to be uplifted or depraved.” Really?! That’s award-winning writing? Because I don’t think the eyes are the windows to the soul, I don’t think people bare their soul except in the sense that they always do, I don’t usually refer to music as having soul, unless I am referring to the music of the 1960s and 1970s that combined R&B with gospel music. I don’t think we all mean more or less the same thing. Most of the people I talk to think the soul is something that lives in the body and goes up to heaven when they die. I don’t think that at all. I’m sure that elephants have souls in the sense that I understand the term soul. But it doesn’t seem like Nicol and Brooks are clear enough on the term soul to say anything at all about elephants.

Did Aaron Swartz Die Because He Was Too Free?

Aaron SwartzIt seems that Larissa MacFarquhar wrote a “brilliant” profile of Aaron Swartz. That may well be. But clearly, Brooks has an ax to grind when it comes to the question of the brilliant and depressed Swartz. Brooks callously observes, “He began writing big books or starting great projects, but he usually didn’t finish them.” Well, I guess that’s one way of saying that he was an idea guy. He was Frank in “Frank, Frank turned the crank; Joe, Joe made it go.” But you could just call him a loser who didn’t finish what he started. Less than a year after his tragic suicide, I guess the “loser” definition is the reasonable choice to explain Swartz. He uses the story to argue in favor of structure and not allowing those kids too much intellectual freedom. No mention is made of a government “justice” system gone wild, pushing an already fragile “soul” over the edge. But who needs those details when Brooks has an important story to tell about the evils of freedom and the uses really smart people put that freedom to.

Can Interviews Reveal the Ghost in the Machine?

Finally, we get to Don Peck’s essay about better ways to hire people to become corporate cogs, They’re Watching You at Work. The old ways of hiring are not working. I have no trouble believing that. “In one study at Xerox, previous work experience had no bearing on future productivity.” What’s more, people are hired more for how they get along socially with the existing staff than anything else. (This isn’t how Brooks puts it, because he doesn’t think that deeply.) Now I guess some companies are making people play video games so they can get the perfect employee with “a strict work ethic but a loose capacity for ‘mind wandering.'” Brooks tells us that it won’t matter if you went to Harvard or Yale. Of course, Brooks doesn’t like this idea at all. He thinks the analytics can’t work because there is something special in there that you just can’t test for. So these video games can’t find that special Brooksian “soul” but graduating from Harvard or Yale or (Brooks’ own school) the University of Chicago can.

Toast in the MachineI can tell you one thing. If these computer analytics do take hold in corporate America, they will only be used at the end of the interview process. Management will first make sure that you are the right kind of person. If you are black, they will make sure you are the right kind of black. You know the drill. And then they will do a background check on you to see if you’ve ever be arrested for possessing half a joint. And then they’ll run a credit check to make sure yours is at least in the high 700s if not a perfect 850. And then they’ll give you their little analytic test. But at that point, who really cares? They know you’re the “right” kind of person and you’ll fit in fine.

It’s possible that there really is a “ghost in the machine” of us humans. David Brooks really wants to believe that. At the same time, all of his political philosophy just wants to treat humans like they are cogs in the business machine. Like most conservatives, the idea that humans are special and deserve dignity and respect is just dogma you recite for the hour or so per week when you go to your holy institution. The rest of the time, the world is a social Darwinian nightmare where the weak get eaten by the strong because that’s what really matters. Humans are really important in the mythical afterlife. But in the real here-and-now, humans don’t matter a bit.

Profits over Prophets.

Artist, Physicist, and Two Great Writers

Bartolome Esteban MurilloIt turns out that Paul Revere was really born on this day and not on 21 December, as I noted before. It’s that stupid Old Style and New Style date thing that screws me up all the time. Whatever. It’s not like he’s an important guy. If it weren’t for Longfellow’s poem, he wouldn’t even be in Wikipedia!

Speaking of founding “fathers,” on this day in 1752, Betsy Ross was born. I find her interesting for a number of reasons. First, she was married three times. Two of her husbands died in the Revolutionary War. Her third husband was in bad health and eventually died for whatever reasons. She knew George Washington because at the age of 21, she eloped with an Episcopalian (Ross was raised as a Quaker), who went to the same church as Washington. Anyway, the main thing she did with the flag was to change the stars from six points to the easier to create 5 point stars we know and love today. She and her husbands were very successful in the upholstering business. But what’s most interesting about her is how she has been used as a symbol in American life. See girls: you can be part of history too! Look, I think sewing and needle work and all that is very important. But the truth is that we had a terribly sexist society that stopped women from making the kinds of public contributions to society that they were capable of. (They made many, most untold, private contributions.) And the fact that we made a big deal of Betsy Ross when I was in school 200 years later is just pathetic.

E M ForsterThe great writer E M Forster was born in 1879. He is best known for writing A Room with a View and A Passage to India. But most people know him for having written the book that every Merchant-Ivory film was based on. Oh, I’m kidding! But sometimes it does seem that way. What I find most interesting about him is his short story “The Machine Stops.” One doesn’t much think of Forster was a science fiction writer, but there you go. The whole story is online, and I highly recommend reading it. It’s about 10,000 words long—so something even I could read in bed before going to sleep. And what is perhaps more interesting about it is that it really isn’t that different from A Room With a View in terms of its theme. Fundamentally, he was always writing about people trying to connect with each other. He may have been pessimistic about that much of the time, but he always held out the hope. Anyway, you can also watch a BBC production of “The Machine Stops,” although it will actually take less time to read:

The great theoretical physicist Satyendra Nath Bose was born in 1894. He is best known for his early work in quantum mechanics, especially Bose–Einstein statistics, which has to do with the ways in which a set of non-interacting bosons can arrange themselves in different energy states. Now what are bosons? They are one of the two classes of elementary particles that act according to Bose-Einstein statistics. The other kind of elementary particles are the fermions. It is probably easiest to think of fermions as the “stuff” of matter and bosons as the “glue” of matter. And before you ask, yes: at that level, our whole intuition of what matter is breaks down. Regardless, Bose was one of the greatest physicists of the 20th century and almost no one would even know his name except that another great physicist Paul Dirac coined the term “boson.” Bose, like the elementary particles named after him, was a kind of glue. He did the work that linked the earliest quantum mechanics of people like Planck with the “new” quantum mechanics of people like Heisenberg.

J Edgar Hoover and Clyde TolsonJ Edgar Hoover was born in 1895. More or less a villain of history, I have no real interest in his day job. I’m interested in his sexual proclivities. It is commonly assumed that he was a closet transvestite. I seriously doubt that. In fact, I think that is about as likely to be the case as it is that 9/11 was a government conspiracy. The claim is based only on the say so of one very unreliable person. And people continue to believe it because it is delicious. But that doesn’t make it true. What is almost certainly the case is that Hoover was gay. I don’t necessarily think he ever even acted on it. The man might well have died a virgin. But there is no doubt that he had a very special relationship with Clyde Tolson. Regardless of the details of that relationship, it was sweet. After Hoover’s death, Tolson’s health immediately deteriorated, and he was dead within three years. Hoover left his entire estate to Tolson and the two are buried together. Whatever their relationship, we need more like it. Above on the left is a picture of the two of them together, probably from the late 50s or early 60s.

J D SalingerThe great writer J D Salinger was born in 1919. Look, I’ve had some very harsh words to say about the man. And if it turns out that he was working very hard all these years and he produced great stuff, I will take much of it back. I still find the whole thing obnoxious, however. The trolling for young English grad students is creepy. And I don’t buy the whole spiritual element of avoiding celebrity. For one thing, he certainly wasn’t against using his celebrity to get himself laid. What’s more, part of being a public writer is having a conversation with your readers. By cutting off all contact with his readers, he was snubbing the communal aspects of writing. And it is for this reason that I suspect when his work comes out we are going to find that it’s going to be some kind of bad Faulkner. But I’ll be happy to be surprised.

Other birthdays: actor Dana Andrews (1909); “Stymie” actor, Matthew Beard (1925); playwright Larry L King (1929); fine actor Frank Langella (75); comedian Don Novello (70); rapper Grandmaster Flash (55); and actor Verne Troyer (44).

The day, however, belongs to the great Baroque painter Bartolome Esteban Murillo who was born on this day in 1618. He is best known for his religious painting. And rightly so; it’s great. And that was where the money was in Catholic Spain of the 17th century. But in many ways, he is the successor of Diego Velazquez, another painter I greatly admire. And so I think we see Murillo at his best when he was painting the street life of Seville and Madrid. For example, here is The Little Fruit Seller, which he painted in 1670 in Seville:

The Little Fruit Seller - Murillo

Happy birthday Bartolome Esteban Murillo!

2013 Review: Part 1

2013 ReviewAs it is the first day of 2014, and I have already discussed the last year in a general sense, it seems natural to go back and look at what I spent the last year talking about. This is the first of a six-part series of articles about what we were talking about this last year.

January 2013

The first thing you notice about this month is that it is when my love affair with the movie Romantics Anonymous started. In the end, no political scandal, no amount of bad behavior by our supposed leaders is going to trump a movie that will continue to delight me for the rest of my life. The first time I wrote about it was on the first day of last year. Apparently, I spent new year’s eve watching it, which is about as good a way to spend the night as anything else I can think of.

I also first wrote about something that has become a bit of an obsession with me, Live Long and Eat. It’s about how it is most healthy to be a little bit on the fat side. All those skinny people we see in ads and movies are actually bad examples for us. Let me put it in terms that Curb Your Enthusiasm fans can understand: it is better to be Jeff Garlin than Larry David. And remember, Jeff Garlin’s feature film debut as writer and director was I Want Someone to Eat Cheese With. Keep right on eating that cheese, Jeff!

The beginning of the month dealt with the Fiscal Cliff negotiations and my anger that the Democrats (Obama specifically) were doing a terrible job with those negotiations. After all, if they had not negotiated at all, taxes would have gone way up. The Republicans were not in a position to allow that. So why even negotiate with them. Give them the offer and say, “It’s that or income taxes go up on everyone and it will be your fault.” But in the end, a deal was made that was much better for the Republicans than they could reasonably have hoped for. One thing that wasn’t part of the deal was an increase in the debt ceiling. And as a result, we are still dealing with that situation today. Otherwise, on the political front, I was talking a lot about income inequality and I really started pushing filibuster reform.

Aaron SwartzOn 11 January Aaron Swartz killed himself. That resulted in a few articles about our social injustice but also about how depression works. There was too much of people trying to turn the whole tragedy to their own benefit: mostly by exonerating the government’s attacks on him and by just trying to pass it off as the act of a depressed young man. It makes me think of that part of the Bible where it says you aren’t allowed to beat your slave so badly that he dies within three days. Sure, depression is a terrible thing and maybe Swartz would have killed himself at some point anyway. But being hounded by the government made it so much worse. It’s like our entire culture is determined to destroy the best of what we are.

One thing our culture has lost is any sense of irony. Last January John Kiriakou was given two and a half years in jail for leaking information about the CIA’s torture program. And how many people in the CIA have been punished for actually torturing people. Let me think, there was that one guy that… No. Not him. How about that woman who… Oh, that’s right! Not only has no one been punished, no one has even been indicted. That’s because in America, torturing people is just fine. But revealing government secrets, well, that’s the worst thing a person can do. As a truly patriotic American, I am disgusted with my country.

Enjoy the entire: January 2013 Archive.

February 2013

This month saw the release of some of George Bush the Younger’s paintings. Some art “experts” even went to far to say that they were good. So much for the experts. Look, I’m not an artist, but I really like art and I learn as much about it as I can. And as a result, I can tell the difference between good art and really weak art. Bush isn’t terrible. But if he hadn’t been president, no one would take his work seriously. It is very much like the work done by men of his age and social class who take up painting late in life. This led me later to mistake some parodies of his work as the real thing. Such is the value I place in his work and his thinking. Speaking of which, I also wrote about Celebrity Painters. In general, I don’t like that kind of thing. But the fact is that Hitler really wasn’t a bad painter.

Most of the month, however, had me talking about income inequality in a lot of different ways. I wrote a lot about the minimum wage. The big thing about the minimum wage is that conservatives are always saying that it will cause companies to cut employment. The evidence just doesn’t support that contention. What’s more, as Dean Baker teaches us, prices are not set by the costs that companies pay to bring products to market. Just the same, employers don’t hire people to be nice. They hire employees because they need them. We get the same thing about the corporate tax rate. If you raise corporate taxes, they will just pass the costs on to the customers. No! That’s not the way the economy works and February was when I really started talking about the fact that conservatives really don’t understand economics or business.

Kathleen O'Brien WilhelmFebruary was also the month we first learned about Kathleen O’Brien Wilhelm. She is the Tea Party idiot who writes a blog for the Avon-AvonLake Patch. But you probably remember her as the woman who thought that deer crossing signs were a waste of money because, “Deer cannot read, do not obey the law and probably will cross where they wish.” I know, it sounds like an article from The Onion, but the woman is dead serious. I check up on her every couple of months and usually write something. But it gets harder because her articles rarely say anything. They are just the random “thoughts” of a committed Fox News viewer. Here most recent article for Christmas summed up, “Remember, this government has worked to take our guns, stifle our speech, and tear at our religious beliefs. It is time we stop them!” Yeah, those 80% Americans who are Christians are really being kept down. Oh, she also says, “As a Christian, do not turn the other cheek.” Because, you know, what Jesus said was important and all, but the NRA is really a high power.

The whole month shows a move on my part toward sarcasm. All of the talk about the fiscal cliff and the debt ceiling and the Sequester seem to have finally gotten to me. The Republicans were just talking gibberish. But the Democrats weren’t doing much better. I think this was the beginning of the end of my mostly positive relationships with relatively liberal writers like Greg Sargent and Ezra Klein and to a lesser extent Ed Kilgore. Someone like Matt Yglesias may annoy me a lot, but he never bores me; he never feeds me the Democratic Party line. Although I am a Democrat, that doesn’t mean I’m happy with it. Half of the party is useless. As I’m always saying, we have one good conservative and one good liberal party in the United States, and they are both in the Democratic Party. But to be a Democrat, you’ve got to maintain a sense of humor.

Enjoy the entire: February 2013 Archive.

Frankly Curious in 2013

Happy new year to all of you. It seems like a good idea to go back over the last year and look at what has happened to Frankly Curious. It would have been impossible for 2013 to have been as good a year for the website as 2012 was. During that year we went from almost nothing to a fairly widely read site. This was thanks to two other websites in particular: Crooks & Liars and then The Reaction with the other bloggers who write there. Readership went up by a factor of about five. It’s hard to beat that. But this last year, our readership has doubled. We now consistently get over 2,000 non-spam visitors per day.

What really impresses me is that the site has a loyal following. The average visitor drops by three times per month. And a shocking number come by every day. This really makes writing for the site a lot easier. I know when people first start writing a blog, the hardest thing is knowing that you don’t have an audience. But even when you do have an audience, the casual reader doesn’t mean nearly so much as the reader who is actively engaged with your work. So I’m really grateful that I have people who come back again and again. I know it doesn’t mean that these people are crazy in love with the site. But there is a lot of competition on the web and I’m touched that many of you think from time to time, “I wonder what Frank is ranting about today.” And I try not to disappoint. I try to constantly provide new ranting.

There have been a couple of changes on the site this last year too. One is that William Brown has started a blog, Will Fully. He’s still in that pre-addiction phase of blogging where he goes for long periods of time without writing anything. But I think he’s a natural. He understands the format and is always interesting. What I’d really like to see him do is write about consumer affairs. If I want to find out the best place to go to buy plastic wrap or a computer motherboard, Will is the guy I turn to. He is truly amazing. He’s also quite funny when he wants to be.

Sadly, Andrea English has gone onto better things. I helped her start her own new blog Nice Atheist Girl. We haven’t shut down Curiously Clever, but she’s reposted much of the material there and is not writing for it anymore. I do have some thoughts on how to keep her going with Curiously Clever, but I think for the time we have to assume that it is dead. On the positive side, her website is doing pretty well, and on Twitter, she’s got about ten times the number of followers I do. (In my defense, I’m not much of a 140 character kind of guy, as I think is clear.)

More experienced bloggers have cautioned me that I may burn out. I know what they mean. But I just can’t bring myself to become one of those bloggers who primarily quotes other writers. If I don’t have anything important to add to what someone has written, I’ll just tweet out the article and leave it at that. What’s more, I think people come here to hear my voice. So I think it is better to provide my own two paragraph overview of what someone else has written than to just quote them. I think it is more interesting for the reader, but I know it is more interesting for me. What’s more, in describing someone else’s thinking, I get to understand it better myself.

There is still the question of what will become of the birthday posts. I’m more and more inclined to change them into brief essays about a single person. As it is, the birthday posts are very personal. I skip people for my own reasons and even worse, I skip people because I don’t realize that it is their birthday. Two big examples of this are the theatrical director Joseph Hardy and and revolutionary Che Guevara. Both men weren’t even mentioned in last year’s birthday posts and I could easily get whole articles out of each.

Otherwise, what the future holds for Frankly Curious, I cannot say. Running the blog has been a great experience for me. It is often an ego boost. Recently, I was quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle, Walk on the Water Slide: Lou Reed played Marriott’s Great America in 1986. And it’s made me a better writer—at least of the kind of stuff I write here. But if it just fades away, that’s okay too. As I noted just two days ago, everything is ephemeral. The main thing is that it is fun while it lasts. And at least for me, Frankly Curious is still fun.

Austerity Is Not Working

Give to the WealthyI’m trying, as much as possible, to make my political writing more understandable. It’s very easy to throw around words that don’t mean much to most people. One of those words is “austerity.” In a general sense, there is nothing special in the word. I live a life of great austerity because I don’t have much money. And in a political context, it means much the same thing. Unfortunately, it implies a lot that is just nonsense.

In America and especially in Europe, people who call for austerity are really calling for deficit reduction. But as we’ve seen, it is not just any deficit reduction. When France reduced its budget deficit by raising taxes instead of cutting spending, European Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs, Olli Rehn was furious. Rehn and others claim that raising taxes is bad because it will slow economic growth while making poor people go hungry will not. You don’t have to know much about economics to know what nonsense this is. What’s really behind this is that Rehn wants budgets to be balanced on the backs of the poor because they aren’t his friends; he doesn’t want them balanced on the backs of the rich because they are his friends.

Austerity in 1937The idea is all the same, though: balanced budgets will lead to business confidence and the economy will improve. I’ve shown many times before that this just isn’t true. Let me repeat it here very briefly. When the economy is booming, government borrowing depresses the economy because private businesses have to spend more money to borrow so they can invest in and grow their businesses. But that isn’t the case right now! In fact, private businesses are sitting on trillions of dollars of cash and doing nothing with it. So all that a balanced government budget would do is take even more money out of the economy and make the economic downturn worse.

This morning, Paul Krugman put together a great graph that shows how this is working in Europe. There are five countries in Europe that have been struggling the most: Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain, and Iceland. These countries are usually referred to as GIPSI (gypsy) or, by people who are jerks, PIIGS (pigs). For the last 5 years, these countries have been cutting their budgets like good little boys and girls, because the heads of the European Union have told them that this is the medicine that will fix their ailing economies. Well, how is that going? Not well:

State of the Euro

On the y-axis, we see that the countries can now borrow money at a lower rate. This is because the European Central Bank (ECB) decided, after a long delay that they would be the lender of last resort; in other words, the ECB is guaranteeing that the countries won’t go bankrupt. But look at the x-axis. Despite all the austerity: the budget cuts and “belt tightening,” the governments of all these countries now owe more than they did before!

How can that be? After all, aren’t they spending less than they were before? Well, yes they are. The problem is that by spending less money, they put less money into their economies. This meant that more people lost their jobs—both government workers and private sector workers. Consider an example. There’s some government worker who was planning to buy a new car. But now that he’s lost his job, he can’t buy a new car. That means the guy who was going to sell him that car didn’t make his commission, so he isn’t going to buy that flat screen television he was looking forward to. And on and on. By cutting government spending, the economy gets even more depressed.

But how is it that the government that is spending less actually owes more money now? Well, spending is only one side of the budget. If you cut your spending by 3% while reducing your revenue by 5%, you are going to owe more. All those spending cuts meant that people in the economy didn’t have as much money. As a result, they didn’t owe the government as much taxes. Thus, all the austerity—all the hardship placed on the working classes—actually made the problem worse.

What’s especially bad about this is that all of this was predictable and was predicted by a large number of economists. It isn’t hard economics. In fact, the economics used to justify such austerity programs was hard. Economists and politicians had to twist themselves into knots to justify how cutting spending in a depressed economy would help. They used an idea called “expansionary austerity” promoted by a guy named Alberto Alesina, who by all accounts is a very smart economist. Instead of the obvious idea that if people have money they will spend it, Alesina flipped this on its head. He claimed that if businesses see governments getting their budgets in order (But only through spending cuts, not tax increases!) then they will have “confidence” that will make up for the massive decrease in demand that budget cuts cause.

That’s fancy foot work. And I have to admit, as a non-economist but someone who is very good with math and all that, I’m impressed with the theory. It does take a smart guy to come up with a theory like that. But it fails the Ockham’s razor test. We already had a very simple model of how the economy works. And as is usually the case, the simple model was the one that was right, not the complex one with its loopy loops.

Yet here we are. Throughout Europe and the United States, conservatives are calling for more budget cuts. It doesn’t matter how much evidence piles up that this is exactly the wrong thing to do. But they aren’t pushing these policies because they work. They are pushing these policies because these are the policies that they always favor. And now they have an excuse for pushing the policies. The fact that the work of Alesina & Ardagna and Reinhart & Rogoff has been shown to be wrong doesn’t matter. They still use this work to justify their policies. They want to enrich the rich and impoverish the poor.

We declare our right on this earth to be rich, to be ever richer, to be respected as the rich, to be given the supreme rights of the rich in this unjust society, on this earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence by any means necessary.

Afterword

It was easier to parody Malcolm X’s quote than Sartre’s. Actually, Sartre’s quote is closer to what I believe. Malcolm X’s quote is almost plaintive, “We demand to be respected.” In our society he was thought to be so radical and scary. But what was he asking for? Just the simplest of things: human dignity and respect. Our society seems to have gotten worse since that time. Now Sartre better speaks to our larger problems, while Malcolm X’s demand still largely goes denied:

I was not the one to invent lies: they were created in a society divided by class and each of us inherited lies when we were born. It is not by refusing to lie that we will abolish lies: it is by eradicating class by any means necessary.

By the way: those means do no include armed rebellion. Modern war is the most unjust thing imaginable. If a group of people want to go to war, that’s their business. But they always end up harming those who just want to live their lives. These are the other 99%—Jesus’ meek. War makes things worse. War exists to perpetuate itself. It is not a form of politics.


Images are from a great cartoon by Brian McFadden in the New York Times. Check it out!