Labor Day Thoughts

My discussion question for today: In a world with global and highly-efficient transportation and communications…and billions of people who are accustomed to low wages…is it possible for a country such as the United States to maintain its accustomed high standards of living for the large majority of its people?…and, if so, what are the key policy elements required to do this?

Henry Ford did not establish the five-dollar day out of the sheer goodness of his heart.  He did it because worker turnover had become unacceptably high: people didn’t like assembly-line work, and they had alternatives.  Suppose Ford had then had the option of building the Model T in a low-wage country, say Mexico.  Maybe he wouldn’t have needed to bother with the American $5/day wage and the productivity improvements needed to support it. (Although Ford being Ford, he still might have implemented the manufacturing innovations and process improvements even without strong economic necessity to do so.)

America’s premium wage structure has, I think, been historically enabled by several factors:

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Seth Barrett Tillman: “What I Learned About the United States After Ten Years in Ireland”

This is an anniversary, of sorts, for me. I have now lived in Ireland for ten years. They were ten good years. During that time, I made some friends and worked with colleagues, who later became friends, and befriended some students, who later befriended me. During this time, I made one good decision, and one bad mis-judgment—and the two were related.

Worth reading in full.

Europeans and Americans

Simon Kuper, writing in the UK publication Financial Times, had an article a couple of months ago with the title “Why the US is becoming more European”…a rather smug article, in my view.  He asserts that for decades, influential Americans looking at other countries used to ask “When will they become more like us?”…and argues that this has not happened, is not going to happen, and that, on the contrary, the US is becoming more like other countries…”Much of American society is Europeanizing”…and he seems to feel that this is pretty much an unalloyed good thing.  The article reminded me, though, of a passage from an old science fiction story by Poul Anderson.  Published in 1953, it is perhaps the first story to focus on the use of computer technology for surveillance of citizens.  Here’s the passage that came to mind on reading Kuper’s article:

The intellectuals had been fretful about the Americanization of Europe, the crumbling of old culture before the mechanized barbarism of soft drinks, hard sells, enormous chrome-plated automobiles (dollar grins, the Danes had called them), chewing gum, plastics…None of them had protested the simultaneous Europeanization of America: bloated government, unlimited armament, official nosiness, censors, secret police, chauvinism…

(I reviewed and excerpted Anderson’s story, which is very interesting, several years ago:  Prefiguring the Hacker…and the American Surveillance Society.)  Simon Kuper, in his FT article, doesn’t raise any concerns about potential loss of American liberties..individual autonomy, freedom of expression…as a result of the projected Europeanization.  Topics he does focus on are: falling population growth rates..more abandonment of religion..falling American tendency toward violence (both lower violent crime levels and less support for military actions)…moving less frequently…less interest/dependence on automobiles…and what he says is a generalized disillusion with American exceptionalism.  “If you’re the only person driving down the motorway into oncoming traffic, you can either assume that you are exceptional and everyone else is wrong, or you can eventually conclude that you need to change.”  (Can you see why I referred to Kuper’s article as smug?)  He does admit that “some people argue that a more European US would be cease to be innovative” and admits that there may be something in that, but then goes on the assert that “the US in its previous social-democratic phase from about 1933 to 1980 remained innovative: it became the world’s first motorized society, built the atomic bomb, and landed men on the Moon”…and says “It’s doubtful whether more recent American innovations such as Facebook and Amazon increase the sum of human happiness.” America’s future, as he sees it, is to become a European-style ‘social democracy’.

The author thinks that American demographics imply that the Europeanization is rather inevitable…that “the Republican solution is to pass state laws aimed to disenfranchise Democratic voters.  The US of the future can have a Trumpist Republican rule or it can have a democracy, but it probably can’t have both.”  (He does not compare proposed Republican procedures for election management with those procedures in current use in Europe and other places, nor does he address the question of just how meaningful the word ‘democracy’ is when political communication and discussion is largely controlled by monopolistic and often-government-linked entities)

Kuper does make the valid point that the US has become more like Europe in some ways…and I’d also note the some influential American voices would also like us to become more like China.  But there is plenty wrong with his analysis.  Population growth, for example: while the US fertility rate is lower than it has been historically, it is still (IIRC) higher than any Western European country with the exception of France.  And immigration has been limited more by admission constraints than by demand: Kuper might want to check out what’s been happening over the few months since his article appeared.

The silliest thing in the article is this: “If you’re the only person driving down the motorway into oncoming traffic, you can either assume that you are exceptional and everyone else is wrong, or you can eventually conclude that you need to change”…here we have the true voice of Groupthink.  Traffic driving on the left or on the right is purely arbitrary and it really doesn’t matter as long as it’s consistent: evolution of national cultures, political structures, and economic strategies is something else entirely.

(An earlier version of this piece was posted at Ricochet about a week ago.)

Hedgehogs, Ideologues, and the ‘Woke’

Lance Morrow, writing at The Wall Street Journal, referenced a line by the ancient Greek poet Archilochus:  “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”  In a 1953 book, philosopher Isaiah Berlin suggested that the world is divided between hedgehogs and foxes—between those who believe in One Big Thing (one all-sufficient super-explanation), and those who are content with a more modest, irrational and even incoherent idea of history’s unfolding.

Morrow asserts that “The world’s hedgehog population tends to expand in times of stress and change. Lately it has exploded in the U.S. Hedgehogs are thick on the ground, all of them advancing One Big Thing or another—each peering through the lens of a particular obsession. At the moment, the biggest One Big Thing is race—the key, it seems, to all of America, to the innermost meanings of the country and its history.”  He asserts that Biden has gone full hedgehog: “President Biden, who spent almost 40 years following the ways of an amiable political fox in the Senate—exchanging pleasantries and now and then doing legislative business with Confederate mossbacks like Strom Thurmond and James Eastland —has, in his old age, signed on with the monomaniacs of the left.”  Apologies to the actual foxes for lumping them in with Joe Biden, even Biden of the past, but the point is a good one.

A letter in today’s WSJ suggests that “perhaps more should be said about where the creature (the hedgehog) has made his lair: the social-science and humanities departments of academia.”  The writer continues:  “As a student, I was a hedgehog. If you are curious about revolutions, all you need to do is read my 1966 master’s thesis: “Asceticism as a Form of Revolutionary Behavior.”  But I had to leave the campus and earn a living. I had to abandon the heady “truth” for the crazy quilt of unrelated, changing and sometimes contradictory truths. I became a fox.”

Hedgehog>>>fox is, a think, a common pattern of human development with age and experience.  Biden’s movement in the other direction is an exception.

The original article and the letter reminded me of a few things:

–Writer Andre Maurois asserted that those who are intelligent, but not in any way creative, tend to be eager adopters of intellectual systems created by others and to apply those systems more vigorously (rigorously?) than the creators of those systems would have.  Reasonably intelligent but not creative is, I think, a fair description of many denizens of academia–probably inevitably so, given the vast expansion of the university archipelago over recent decades.

–C S Lewis, in The Abolition of Man, describes a schoolbook whose authors, while representing their book as an English literature text, actually use it to propagate what seems to be a 1940s version of deconstruction.  Lewis notes that “literary criticism is difficult, and what (these authors) actually do is very much easier.”  It’s a valuable insight, I think.  Hedgehog theories spare one a whole lot of work in dealing with the specifics of a subject.  Becoming an acolyte of some all-encompassing theory can spare you from the effort of learning about anything else.

For example: if everything is about (let’s say) power relationships–all literature, all history, all science, even all mathematics–you don’t need to actually learn much about medieval poetry, or about the Second Law of Thermodynamics, or about isolationism in the 1930s. You can look smugly down on those poor drudges who do study such things, while enjoying “that intellectual sweep of comprehension known only to adolescents, psychopaths and college professors” (the phrase is from Andrew Klavan’s unusual novel True Crime.)  And at the K-12 level, teaching ‘woke’ math to 10th graders is surely easier than teaching them actual algebra, and similarly for other subjects. Laziness–intellectual laziness and just plain laziness–likely plays a significant role here.

–Arthur Koestler, himself a former Communist, described the nature of intellectually closed systems:

A closed system has three peculiarities. Firstly, it claims to represent a truth of universal validity, capable of explaining all phenomena, and to have a cure for all that ails man. In the second place, it is a system which cannot be refuted by evidence, because all potentially damaging data are automatically processed and reinterpreted to make them fit the expected pattern. The processing is done by sophisticated methods of casuistry, centered on axioms of great emotive power, and indifferent to the rules of common logic; it is a kind of Wonderland croquet, played with mobile hoops. In the third place, it is a system which invalidates criticism by shifting the argument to the subjective motivation of the critic, and deducing his motivation from the axioms of the system itself. The orthodox Freudian school in its early stages approximated a closed system; if you argued that for such and such reasons you doubted the existence of the so-called castration complex, the Freudian’s prompt answer was that your argument betrayed an unconscious resistance indicating that you ourself have a castration complex; you were caught in a vicious circle. Similarly, if you argued with a Stalinist that to make a pact with Hitler was not a nice thing to do he would explain that your bourgeois class-consciousness made you unable to understand the dialectics of history…In short, the closed system excludes the possibility of objective argument by two related proceedings: (a) facts are deprived of their value as evidence by scholastic processing; (b) objections are invalidated by shifting the argument to the personal motive behind the objection. This procedure is legitimate according to the closed system’s rules of the game which, however absurd they seem to the outsider, have a great coherence and inner consistency.

The atmosphere inside the closed system is highly charged; it is an emotional hothouse…The trained, “closed-minded” theologian, psychoanalyst, or Marxist can at any time make mincemeat of his “open-minded” adversary and thus prove the superiority of his system to the world and to himself.

Hedgehog tend to live in a mental world which is intellectually closed; information that may challenge the axioms on which the hedgehog centers his worldview are an emotional threat, and must be disregarded or ‘proved’ to be invalid.  Hence the ’emotional hothouse’ characteristic, which seems to apply very well to aggregations of the ‘Woke’.

Your thoughts?