Sunday, May 30, 2010

Progressives Take Note: Long-Term Unemployment

There seem to be many unique situations developing in our current economic era. You have probably noticed that, every few months, congress has had to extend unemployment coverage for workers who have exceeded the standard 27 months. That seems like a prudent thing to do in a recession. This virtually guarantees that every dollar goes immediately into the economy. I have to admit that I have not been paying sufficient attention to this issue. The number of long-term unemployed (unemployed longer than 27 months) has grown enormously, both as an absolute number, and as a fraction of the total number of the unemployed. This is a situation quite different than has been seen in earlier recessions. The Bureau of Labor Statistics provides copious tables of interesting data. Consider the percentage of the unemployed that are long-term unemployed during the current period.

12/08 22.9%

04/09 27.5%

12/09 39.8%

04/10 45.9%

These long-term unemployed represented 4.5% of the total work force in 04/10, a number that has not yet peaked. Compare this number with the peak fractions of the work force observed during previous recessions.

2004 1.4%

1992 2.1%

1983 3.1%

1977 2.1%

I believe these numbers indicate that we are entering into a new and unique economic situation. Clearly, keeping benefits flowing to these people is an important and expensive necessity. It is not totally clear from just these numbers what is going on. It would seem that the unemployed reach some sort of tipping point where the longer you are unemployed, the less interested people are in hiring you. If that is the case, I don’t see how the problem becomes self-correcting unless the total unemployment rate heads to low single digits. That is an unlikely occurrence.

So, progressives, what would you do in this situation? I don’t know either, but I promise I will begin to worry about it more than I have been.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Return of Drew Westen: The Political Brain

I saw a recent article claiming that Drew Westen had been hired as a consultant by some arm of the Democratic reelection machine. That seems like a positive step. Westen wrote the book The Political Brain: The role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation. It came out in 2007 during the endless primary battle between Clinton and Obama. Given that he set out to explain why Republicans almost always beat Democrats in presidential campaigns his book was very relevant. The first part of the book (Mind, Brain and Emotion in Politics) is a mixture of analyses of campaign ads and strategies, a description of how our brains function, and an explanation of why we act the way we do. The remainder of the book (A Blueprint for Emotionally Compelling Campaigns) consisted of Westen’s advice on how Democrats should present their views on various issues. At the time I thought the first part of the book was the most interesting. It seemed a bit presumptuous of the author to be drifting away from his technical field into writing campaign speeches. At the time Obama was my man and he seemed to have learned what he needed from Westen (Part 1) and was doing just fine for himself. Nevertheless, Westen did create a fascinating and important document.

I just finished reading Michael J. Sandel’s book Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? That was a rather good read, in general, but a few of Sandel’s comments made my blood pressure rise a notch or two. What got me started were comments by Sandel that science cannot address the issue of free will, and, more outrageously, he suggested that Supreme Court Justices were able to render decisions devoid of any bias or emotional attachment to the issues. After suppressing a gagging reflex, I ran to find my copy of Westen’s book.

Westen describes our current brain as being constructed through evolution of a sequence of additions to an existing structure. Each addition presumably gave "us" some evolutionary advantage. The earliest life forms were driven by purely emotional responses that were designed to protect the organism from harm and enhance its survivability. When the capability for rational thought evolved, it was developed on top of this emotional base and it was designed to work in concert with the emotional parts of the brain. One needs both of these functions working properly to produce what we would recognize as normal human behavior. The tricky part is that the emotions are somewhat autonomous in that they can be activated subconsciously. This is what you would expect from a mechanism that is designed to protect us from harm. It is the interplay of the emotional and rational brain functions in our decision processes that makes the book so interesting and justifies the author giving advice to a bunch of naive politicians.

On the issue of free will and the ability to make unbiased decisions, consider this statement by the author.

"In politics, as in everyday life, two sets of often competing constraints shape our judgments: cognitive constraints, imposed by the information we have available, and emotional constraints, imposed by the feelings associated with one conclusion or another. Most of the time, this battle for the control of our minds occurs outside of awareness, leaving us as blind spectators to our own psychodramas, prisoners of the images cast on the wall of our skulls."Westen quotes several studies designed to evaluate the degree to which established emotional responses are able to trump rational thought. The conclusion:
"The capacity for rational judgment evolved to augment, not replace, evolutionarily older motivational systems. The emotional systems of simpler organisms are ’decision making’ systems that initiate approach, avoidance, fight, or flight. The neural circuits activated during complex human decision making do not function independently of these more primitive systems. Freud analogized reason to a hapless rider on a horse, who does his best to channel and control the large beast—pulling it this way and tugging it that way—but ultimately, the power resides in the horse, not the rider."The author provides an even more succinct description of how citizens and politicians have behaved in the past.
"When emotion roared, reason buckled at the knees."An individual who is concerned about politics and current affairs will generally have developed emotional connections, and, in Westen’s terminology, will possess a "partisan brain."
"....allegiance to party—a largely emotional allegiance—remains the central determinant of voting behavior today. The same is true in most stable Western democracies, where political affiliation tends to be handed from generation to generation like a family heirloom."What does this mean quantitatively?
"....the political and legal decision makers precisely mirrored the general electorate, whose judgments could be predicted with over 80 percent accuracy from their prior emotional prejudices and predispositions, irrespective of the facts."This figure of 80 percent means that in any election cycle 80 percent of the people will vote in a way that cannot be modified by logical or emotional arguments. The good news is that 20 percent is actually a large number given that most presidential elections are decided by only a few percent.

Westen tells campaign managers and politicians that their primary goals should be to:
"...define the party and its principles in a way that is emotionally compelling and tells a coherent story of what its members believe in, and to define the other party and its values in ways that undermine its capacity to resonate emotionally with voters......maximize positive and minimize negative feelings towards its candidate, and to encourage the opposite set of feelings toward the opponent...."Westen provides many examples of what has and what has not worked in the past, and he provides numerous suggestions on how, in the future, to address issues near and dear to the progressive soul.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews by James Carroll

This book, Constantine's Sword, was published in 2001. I first read it about four years ago. The author is a lifelong catholic who was ordained as a priest, but left the priesthood after several years. He is a rather well-known professional writer now with a National Book Award to his credit. He is, in fact, an excellent writer. As history, this book details the long and shocking degree to which his church promoted anti-Semitism and actively participated in discrimination against Jews as well as institutionalized torture and execution. This book is also, in equal parts, a description of his struggle to maintain and justify his faith in the face of this unsavory aspect of his Church’s history. To be fair, after the Reformation, the Protestant sects continued the anti-Semitism unabated. This is a highly personal rendering. If you are interested just in learning the history you may find the book overly long and tedious. If you are interested in the author’s personal conflicts you will find it fascinating.

The extended history will not be detailed in this note. The focus will be on events related to the formation of the early Christian Church and the development of its sacred texts. The section to be discussed was labeled by Carroll "New Testament Origins of Jew Hatred." I thought of using this as the tile of this post but I didn’t want to scare people away. One cannot appreciate the appropriateness of the title without having read the entire book or having an unusual familiarity with Church history.

Carroll states that in order to understand the events that occurred leading up to and immediately following Jesus’ death one must understand the historical context in which events occurred. He believes that two things are often overlooked in trying to comprehend the historical progression: the fundamental fact that Jesus was a Jew, and the relevance of the brutal Roman repression of the Jews. Put in the proper context, many of the events recorded in the Gospels do not make sense to him. He attributes these presumed errors partly to the fact that the Gospels were written by people who were at least a generation removed from the events and restricted to whatever oral tradition had been transmitted over the years. He also admits that political considerations partly determined the final form of the Gospels

The reading of the Gospels would lead one to believe that Jesus was somehow different from other Jews and that he opposed or challenged the Jewish religious establishment. The author points out that while the Temple was in Judea (from which the term Jew is derived), establishing Judea as the central location for the regions populated by the people we refer to as Jews, each location had its own sects that practiced their religion in different ways. If Jesus was roaming the countryside preaching and attracting a small following, it would not necessarily be an unusual or particularly noteworthy occurrence.

"Judeans were dominant because the cultic center was in Jerusalem, yet there were Samaritans who, worshiping at their own Mount Gerizim instead of on Mount Zion, were disdained by Judeans. And there were the villagers of Galilee, whom city-dwelling Judeans would have looked down upon as peasants. In turn, Galileans would have regarded the Jewish oligarchs of Jerusalem both as near traitors for accommodating Rome and as idolaters for allowing images of Caesar to be venerated, if only on coin....Jesus was acting exactly like a Jew of his time when, apparently influenced by John the Baptist, he initiated yet another sectarian movement, and like a Jew of his place—Galilee—when he targeted the Herod-compromised Temple in Jerusalem as the site of his defining spiritual-political act."The author points out that we do not know exactly what happened in the Temple to cause Jesus to be arrested and executed, and that the Gospel accounts are suspect.

"It is highly unlikely that a Jew of Jesus time and background would have taken offense at money changing or pigeon selling in the Temple portico....those activities were essential to the Temple cult: Jews traveled here from all over the Mediterranean to offer sacrifices, the single holiest act of Jewish piety. At Passover, tens of thousands of Jews from throughout Palestine and beyond would have come to Jerusalem for just that purpose. They had to purchase animals and they had to pay the Temple tax, and they needed local currency for both. Money changers...allowed them to do so. Likewise, the pigeon sellers provided only what a devout pilgrim needed."Carroll also heaps disdain on the description of an equivocating Pontius Pilate hesitating to execute a trouble-making Jew.

"This procurator is remembered somewhat differently by the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, who lived when Pilate did, and wrote sometime around 41 C.E., that the Roman used ‘bribes, insults, robberies, outrages, wanton injuries, constantly repeated executions without trial, ceaseless and supremely grievous cruelty.’....Philo, Josephus, and the Roman historian Tacitus all single out Pilate ‘as one of the worst provocateurs.’....even by the standards of brutal Rome, Pilate seems to have been savage. When six or so years after the death of Jesus, he wantonly slaughtered Samaritans for gathering to venerate Moses on a sacred mountain they associated with him, Pilate was recalled to Rome."There is a tendency throughout the Gospels to downplay the ruthlessness of the Romans and blame the Jews, as if they were a unified, homogeneous entity, as the aggressors demanding the death of Jesus. That part may have in fact been true for any number of reasons since we do not know what actually transpired. However, consider this quote from Matthew.

"And all the people answered, ‘His blood be on us and on our children!’"That is truly a strange statement to come as a unified cry from a mob of angry people.

Carroll reminds us over and over again to be conscious of context. As for the crucifixion, that was the typical Roman way of dealing with Jewish troublemakers. There were constant cycles of rebellion by the Jews and brutal suppression by the Romans.

"The Roman means of execution, of course, was crucifixion, and Josephus makes the point that indeed the victims were crucified. That means that just outside the wall of the Jewish capital, crosses were erected—not three lonely crosses on a hill, as in the tidy Christian imagination, but perhaps two thousand in close proximity. On each was hung a Jew, and each Jew was left to die over several days the slow death of suffocation.....And once squeezed free of life, the corpses were left on their crosses to be eaten by buzzards."This was the Roman way. The descriptions from the Gospel can be believed as the literal truth if one wishes, but, as Carroll concludes, such belief is not required in order to maintain one’s Christian faith. What the ‘literal truth" does do, is to enshrine the notion that the Romans were not the bad guys, the Jews were.
After Jesus’ death his followers were apparently left with no plan to fall back on. They still considered themselves Jews and would continue to do so. The goal of these early years continued to be convincing the other Jews to accept that Jesus was the "Christ" or Messiah predicted in their scriptures. This effort required that the events in Jesus’ life be consistent with scriptural references. The author and some scholars question whether some of the events of Jesus’ life that eventually ended up preserved in the Gospels were biased or "spun," intentionally or not, to force a concordance with prophesies. Consider this discussion of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem provided by Elaine Pagels and Karen L. King in Reading Judas. Yes, there is a gospel of unknown authorship attributed to Judas.

"We noted earlier how the author of Mark’s Gospel tells the story: that Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, acclaimed by his followers as King of Israel. The author of the Gospel of Matthew noted, of course, that the author of the Gospel of Mark had Zechariah’s prophecy in mind when he wrote this scene, and he wrote several additional lines into the story. When the author of Matthew retells the story, he actually places directly before it his own paraphrase of Zechariah’s oracle in 9:9: ‘Tell the daughter of Zion, Look your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey’ (Matthew 21:5). But careful as the author was to track Zechariah’s oracle as he wrote, he seems not to have noticed that the last phrase of this prophecy involves the well-known literary device of poetic repetition. It appears that the author of the Gospel of Matthew was so intent on making the scene correspond to prophecy as close as possible that he changed the Gospel of Mark’s narrative to say that Jesus ordered his disciples to bring him both a donkey and a colt. The result is that the Gospel of Matthew gives a rather ridiculous picture of Jesus riding into Jerusalem straddling two animals at once: ‘The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them’ (Matthew 21:6-7)."There are many such suspicious occurrences in the Gospels that cast doubt on the literal accuracy of these documents. The motive of whoever wrote them is clear, however, at least in the early Gospels: Jesus is the Christ prophesied in scriptures of the Jewish religion. The only problem was that the Jews were not convinced.

Let us move forward in time now to the period of time when the Gospels were written. The Gospel of Mark is attributed to 68 C.E. The Gospels of Matthew, Luke and John are believed to have been composed in that order in the years 80-100 C.E. The Jewish followers of Jesus, over a span of a few generations, have not succeeded in convincing the Jews to join them in following Jesus. They have dispersed around the Mediterranean and many are in regions dominated numerically by non-Jews. Also note that in the years 66-73 C.E. the continued resistance of Jews to Roman rule led to rebellions throughout the region, not just in the traditional Jewish homelands. The Roman response was ferocious. The Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, which the Christians could ascribe to the wrath of God, and perhaps as many as 600,000 Jews were killed. A subsequent uprising in 137 C.E. led to an estimated 850,000 additional deaths. The Christian Jews were in an awkward and traumatic situation.

Carroll uses the word traumatic often to describe the state of the young and struggling Christian community. Clearly the Christians were in a precarious state. In 64 C.E. Nero had scapegoated the Christians, accusing them of being responsible for the fire that had devastated Rome. The subsequent violent persecution was noted by Tacitus and became the first recorded reference to the movement. Carroll suggests the Christians responded by laying low and trying to survive the current turmoil.

"They knew themselves not to be the violent threat to Roman order that Nero accused them of being. If the Gospels, just then starting to jell in their final forms, emphasized a relative friendliness to Rome, there was a reason for it. The followers of Jesus had been slandered, defined not merely as Rome’s mortal enemy but as violent insurrectionists. It was not true and the Gospels were slanted, in effect, to emphasize that followers of Jesus fully intended to render unto Caesar what was Caesar’s."Contrast that with the fate of the traditional Jews. They viewed the degree of homage demanded by Rome’s rulers to be of a kind that they reserved only for their God. This belief kept them in constant conflict with Roman authorities, ultimately leading to the two brutal Roman responses mentioned above. The two Jewish sects, Christians and "traditional," were moving in different directions politically, emotionally, and religiously—trending inevitably to separate histories. Carroll lays the blame for the subsequent Christian anti-Semitism on the Romans and the "trauma’ they induced.

"Rome’s murderous assault on the Jews of Judea would make Nero’s violence seem benign, and explode the boundaries against which Christian-Jewish stresses had begun to press. The trauma of bloodshed on an imperial scale, unprecedented for the Jews, is the necessary context for understanding what was happening in those years among the Jews. Christian anti-Judaism, in other words, is not the first cause here; the Roman war against Judaism is."While the Christians had had little luck in converting Jews, they were, on the other hand, finding the Gentiles to be more interested in their teachings. The problem was they had to convince the Gentiles that they should follow a leader who had been executed like a common criminal, and whose claim to religious significance was being rejected by his own people. This was not a compelling combination. They would ultimately have to decide to distance themselves from the Jews, not only to protect themselves from Roman wrath, but to create a narrative that would be acceptable to non-Jews. Consider the following passage provided by Carroll.

"Elaine Pagels, in her groundbreaking study The Origin of Satan, showed how the antagonism between a Jewish establishment and the followers of Jesus evolved, in the experience of those followers, into a cosmic struggle between evil and good, with ‘the Jews’ defined as evil. In the earliest Gospel, Mark, dating to around 68, Jesus is locked in conflict with an embodied Satan who has possessed a man, who energizes the antagonism of the Scribes and that of his own family, and who even tempts Jesus through the mouth of his favorite, Peter. By the time Luke is written, a decade or more later, the enemy of Jesus is still the ‘evil one,’ but now he is identified with the leaders, ‘the chief priests and captains of the temple and elders.’ Pagels shows how, with the last Gospel, John, dating to around 100 and clearly reflecting the intensification of intra-Jewish sectarian conflict that followed the destruction of the Temple, the identification of ‘the Jews’ and Satan himself has become complete. This movement is reflected in the fact that the loaded phrase ‘the Jews’ appears a total of 16 times in the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, while in John it appears 71 John, Jesus himself identifies the evil one with the people. The ‘temptation scenes,’ which are played out in other Gospels between Jesus and Satan, are played out in John between Jesus and the people.....The climax in this movement comes in chapter 8 of John when Jesus is portrayed as denouncing ‘the Jews’ as the offspring of Satan. ‘You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning.’ Thus Jews have become not just the historical enemy but the ontological enemy—the negative against which every positive aspect of Christianity is defined."Carroll summarizes.

"’Christians,’ in addition to slandering ‘Jews’ about their role in the crucifixion of Jesus, began eventually—over the decisive years of the Roman war against the Jews—to define them as not just their enemy, or Jesus’, but as God’s. And that, when later, mainly Gentile Christians misread the story, is what made it lethal."Given everything presented in his book—all the uncertainties about the life of Jesus and his teachings, all the evil that flowed from the actions of his Church—Carroll maintains his faith.

"If I seem to be going to some length here to dilute, if not refute, the Jew hatred we so easily detect in the New Testament, and that would flower into anti-Jewish violence, it is to make the case that the Jew hatred that stamps the beginning of Christianity is not essential to this religion. If I believed it were, either to Christianity’s origins or to its development, I could, I repeat, have nothing to do with this religion. That is the point of distinguishing between the impulses and beliefs of a faithfully Jewish Jesus and his faithfully Jewish first followers and those of their traumatized successors."Implicit in Carroll’s retention of faith is the notion that the "aberrations" in the Gospels that led to "Jew hatred" were the only significant aberrations. He refers often to the ease with which facts can be misremembered. This potential source of error and the demonstrated enthusiasm with which the gospel writers tried to make the "facts" fit the prophecies might make one suspicious about what one can actually know about Jesus and his teachings. Carroll chooses to not go there.

This part of the story has one more turn to take before the finish. In the second century there were many writings in distribution claiming to reveal religious truths. Many of these documents were contradictory. A number of Christian leaders got together to bring order out of this chaos and ended up choosing four of these documents, or gospels, to be the canonized ones that have been discussed. They formed the core of what would come to be known as the New Testament. They then tried to have all non-included documents and gospels destroyed. A number of these other documents have been recovered over the years and present an interesting picture of how diverse early Christianity was. That is a tale for another day.

The Christian leaders still had to decide what to do with their Jewish origins. Some argued that the New Testament totally superceded the traditional Jewish scriptures and they should be ignored. The decision was made that the Jewish documents were required in order to introduce the prophesies that they needed to demonstrate Jesus fulfilling. Thus an Old Testament was included. One wonders if these "founding fathers" would have decided differently if the Protestant Reformation could have been anticipated. The Old Testament has gone from a near afterthought to being interpreted as the literal word of God by many Christians.

The act of using the terms "Old Testament" and "New Testament" could only mean to a Jew that his religion was considered dead and his heritage no longer had any meaning. There was no middle ground from which to negotiate. The option of "converting" Jews became essentially impossible without resorting to coercion. That is the point of departure for the bulk of Carroll’s book. The remainder is devoted to the subsequent history of the Christian-Jew interaction. There is much to be learned in his telling of that story.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Pro-Choice Versus Pro-Life

I just finished reading a book entitled Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? Michael J. Sandel. In this book he discusses concepts of justice that have been proposed over the years and concludes with his own view.

"Justice is inescapably judgmental.....questions of justice are bound up with competing notions of honor and virtue, pride and recognition. Justice is not only about the right way to distribute things. It is about the right way to value things."

Sandel states that you cannot define justice independently of the moral weights that people assign to certain concepts. He discusses the issues surrounding the contentious abortion arguments. The pro-life view claims that a fetus at any stage of growth represents a life, and an abortion is always a termination of a life—infanticide. The pro-choice argument appears as a way to dodge addressing this moral issue by arguing that the government should not get involved in making decisions that women should be allowed to make on their own. At the heart of the pro-choice argument is the notion that one cannot determine exactly when life begins so the government should not get involved. Sandel points out that this approach is not working, and that it shouldn’t work because it is a cop-out. He believes that if you want to argue a moral issue you have to address the moral issue. The concept of pro-choice avoids explicitly addressing it. In fact, polls seem to show that the percentage of people describing themselves as pro-life is growing.
Sandel has definitely provided some food for thought.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Why Talk About Religion?

It has become difficult to avoid religion in discussions of politics and current affairs. A majority of people would claim that religious beliefs are important in their lives and affect their decisions. Our country is rather unique in this context. Perhaps it is because we are about the only country that has never had to live under a state-sponsored religion. Most European countries have had to live under such a regime at one time or another. Most have responded by walking away from religion. That is not happening here. The recent health care debate, and the bill itself, were strongly influenced by people and groups wishing to project their religious beliefs (or disbelief) onto the lives of others. Such issues cannot be ignored. The feelings on both sides of the women’s choice issue are so intense that assassinations of health care providers have occurred. We seem to be moving in the direction of what might be described as a "social civil war."

There is no area in which argument is more futile than that of religious belief. To make a rational argument for disbelief is as productive as making a theological argument against the law of gravity. People are not moved. Why they are not—or cannot be—moved is an interesting discussion for another time. What can be discussed, hopefully, are issues that are not so much driven by religious beliefs as by cultural traditions. Religion and culture can be closely intertwined and over long periods of time the boundary becomes blurred. One of the obvious instances where culture and religion get twisted is in the role of women. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (chronological order) all have the same Semitic roots, and all have an orientation towards male domination. That is understandable, but coming from the same roots they end up with quite different views of how women should be treated. Within sects of a given religion the customs can also be quite different. My point is that while people can come up with doctrinal citations to justify whatever they are doing, in the case of women’s rights the treatment women receive is driven mostly by cultural preferences rather than religious imperative.

Religious documents are written by individuals and these individuals live within an environment and context that effects what they write. When these transitory biases become canonized into a religion’s teachings the results can cause a drift far away from fundamental principles and can have disastrous consequences. Take, for example, Christianity’s relationship with the Jews. The first Christians were Jews who continued to think themselves to be, religiously, Jews. A combination of historical and social events pushed the early Christians from that position to one in which the Jews, who would not accept Christ as their messiah, had to be viewed as an existential enemy. Enemies need documentation to prove that they are worthy of the description "enemy." One can see this transition occurring in the four canonical gospels. They who wrote these gospels were clearly representing their own changing environments. By the time the last gospel, attributed to John, was written, the Christian view was firmly moving in the inflammatory direction of emphasizing that Christ was killed by nasty Jews. One could argue that the Christian Church created and propagated anti-Semitism and is responsible for all the horrendous consequences that have followed. One could also argue that this outcome had nothing at all to do with the teachings of Christ and had nothing whatsoever to do with the basic tenets of Christianity.

I think it is valuable, perhaps necessary, to consider what scholars know about the foundation of the Christian Church and its evolution. Then perhaps we can begin to argue from positions of greater strength. I plan to discuss the book Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews by James Carroll. This will be followed at some point by discussions of early Christian writings and how the Bible was assembled. Finally there will be a discussion of how the transmission process has affected current versions of the Bible as teachings moved from an oral tradition to written documents, and then through multiple translations and much hand copying by scribes to the present.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

America's Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines by Gail Collins

Yes, this is the Gail Collins who is a columnist for the New York Times. If you enjoy her columns and appreciate her gentle but sneakily biting wit, you will enjoy reading this book, America's Women. The wit is more diffuse here than in her columns but she is not able to suppress it entirely. The history she covers extends from pilgrim days through the 1960s. The epilogue quickly brings the reader up to the millennium, but the details she has saved for a follow-up book that has been published (When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present, 2009). I have not read it yet but I intend to.

If one sets out to write a history of women in America one is faced with a variety of choices. A mile high picture would provide the details of women’s ever so slow and gradual evolution towards equal rights. On a minute scale one could track the trials, tribulations and occasional joys of being a woman, wife, and mother over this span of 400 years. These would be two quite different books. Collins has chosen to cover both in one volume and she pretty much pulls it off. The advantage of her approach is to make sure all the big picture events are placed in an appropriate context. It allows one to see clearly how truly exceptional the exceptional women of a given time period had to be. The other positive from this approach is that the author can pepper the reader with an endless stream of little tidbits about everyday life that will alternately frighten you, make you laugh or scratch your head in bewilderment. The disadvantage is that the book tends to be a bit on the long side. The chosen organization is to march linearly forward in time and at each epoch to scan laterally to look the details related to different classes of women or different social thrusts. For example, for the pre-Civil War period she has to deal with Northern women, Southern women, slave women and immigrant women. Their stories have to be blended with descriptions of the abolitionist movement, and numerous social issues.

My limited experience indicates that the author’s insistence on completeness will lose a couple of male readers, but the women won’t mind at all. Guys—if you expect to learn something good about your gender, you have come to the wrong place. The image of men that emerges from this work suggests they only had a few things on their minds: war, liquor, prostitutes, and tormenting women. My first thought was that this was a bit unfair. But, then again, I wasn’t there. I can only imagine us as the enlightened, progressive chaps we have become. Perhaps we have come a long way too.

I personally found the book fascinating but easy to put down. I ended up reading it in a large number of short sessions. And that was just fine.

Collins suggests in the Introduction a very useful approach to incorporating the history to follow into a single theme.

"The history of American women is all about leaving home—crossing oceans and continents, or getting jobs and living on their own. Some of our national heroines were defined by the fact that they never nested—they were peripatetic crusaders like Susan B. Anthony, Clara Barton, Sojourner Truth, Dorothea Dix. The center of our story is the tension between the yearning to create a home and the urge to get out of it."
Overlayed on this internal conflict were the external influences of a male-dominated culture, the overwhelming effort required to run a household over most of our history, and cultural biases that manifested themselves to women’s economic disadvantage. For most of our history economic considerations held women back. In the end, however, it was economics that set them free (approximately).

All the Semitic religions are male dominated. The early settlers in America were intensely religious and their religion told them that women should be seen but not heard— at least not outside of the home. One can encapsulate much of women’s history as a struggle to overcome this bias.

Some fraction of women was never quite satisfied with the role of wife and mother. Those slowly began to try to exert influence in other directions. While women were officially expected to remain silent on church issues, they discovered that the men were either busy on other matters or were just not very interested. Consequently, women began to play an ever larger role in religious matters. One of the first attempts to break out of their assigned roles was to gain entry into schools of divinity. This religious focus led naturally to activism on social issues such as care for indigents, abolition, and temperance. This process of breaking out was not a smooth one. There were many advances followed by partial retreats along the way.
As Collins so aptly put it:

"Whenever there was a sudden demand for literate workers at low pay, women were usually the answer." One of the first, long-lasting breakthroughs was in the field of teaching.

"But as always happened in American history, the dogma of appropriate gender roles gave way to necessity. There simply weren’t enough men available to staff the public schools while the pool of available educated women was huge. And the price was right. In 1838, Connecticut paid $14.50 a month to male teachers and $5.75 to women.....By 1870, of the 200,000 primary and secondary school teachers in America, more than half were women....Although the percentile of women working as teachers at any given time was tiny, a much larger number had the experience at some point in their lives. A quarter of the native-born women in pre-Civil War Massachusetts were current or former school teachers. Thanks to teaching, a large minority of American women knew what it was like to have earned their own bread....The teachers were all single—well into the twentieth century, school systems required women to resign when the got married."The women who found an outlet working as teachers were the lucky ones. There were other opportunities to utilize women as reliable workers at low pay.

"American employers were worried about creating a permanent class of rough, hard-to-handle industrial workers, like the ones who were causing so much trouble in England. Girls did not usually stay long enough to become troublemakers—after a few years, most left to get married. In the meantime they were cheaper than male workers, and easier to control. By the 1820s, New England was full of textile factories where virtually all the workers were women, each making $2 or $3 per week. (The supervisors, who were men, got $12.)"The movement to abolish slavery provided an opportunity for women to exert their influence in the politic arena in a manner and on a scale never seen before. It was an issue that resonated strongly with women, and there were plenty of well-educated and strong-willed women who seemed to be itching for a cause to which they could dedicate themselves. This was one of those periods where historic change was occurring and women’s perceived roles as well as their own view of their place in society would never be the same. As the author points out:

"The antislavery movement did a lot to liberate its female members as well as the slaves."The Civil War, and the political conflict leading up to it, would be a turning point for women. Wars unleash change—change in society, change in politics and change in technology. Of necessity, the war opened up the field of nursing to women.

"Until midcentury, nursing had been a job for men and lower-class women. Florence Nightingale made it respectable for ladies. She was a well-born Englishwoman who became an international heroine in 1855 when she reorganized the nursing care in the Crimean War, reducing the death rate in British field hospitals from 45 to 2 percent. When the Civil War began, one observer noted, ‘there was a perfect mania to act Florence Nightingale’......volunteers who took care of the wounded during the early parts of the Civil War were basically on their own. They determined where the fighting was, wheedled their way through to the front, and did what they could to help....In the first terrible years of the war, wounded men died on the battlefield after lying there for days, untended, in the hot sun. There was no organized system of getting them to a field hospital. It took an enormous leap for well-bred women to enter the gory army hospitals to tend the wounded men, and it’s hard to imagine the kind of daring they must have needed to get to the battlefield unescorted. Yet a number of them managed to do it on their own....After the war, [Clara] Barton became famous as the organizer of the American Red Cross, but her finest hours came in those hectic, disorganized trauma centers of the Civil War’s early years. Her face turned blue from the gunpowder, and her skirts were so heavy with blood that she had to wring them out before she could walk under their weight."Women again demonstrated that they were much more effective than men in caring for the wounded and another career path for women was carved out.

The period between the end of the Civil War and the start of World War I was a period of great economic change which provided new opportunities for women to work outside the home and support themselves if they so chose. The arrival of the department store changed women’s lives forever. Besides the obvious pleasures and advantages of browsing and shopping, many new jobs were created—jobs perfect for women. As usual, they were paid much less than men, but it was still much better than working in a factory. The growth in government bureaucracy and economic expansion created a large number of clerical jobs. This converged with the invention of the typewriter to lock in this kind of work for women. The coming of the telephone provided numerous openings for switchboard operators. These positions soon entered women’s portfolio when it was discovered that men had a hard time remaining polite with customers. The general expansion of educational availability increased the demand for literate people to work as librarians, another position ideally suited for the mass of educated but unemployed women.

We see here a pattern that persisted essentially to the mid 1970s. Women were a well-educated resource that had demonstrated a capability to do much more than they were given the opportunity to do. As society or technology or historic events created opportunities, women moved out of the home to take advantage of them only to be forced to retreat if it was determined that they were competing with men for jobs. But the retreats were only partial and the size of the female work force grew over time and continued to expand into new directions as forceful women broke down barriers in the professions. During this period society’s expectations of women varied considerably from period to period. These expectations seem to be determined by men. This male dominance would not begin to be broken down until economic forces intervened to make change inevitable.

The author stops her narrative at the end of the 1960s, but she covers the remainder of the century in a brief epilogue. The 1970s began a period of great societal upheaval. The idea of equal rights for women began to be taken seriously. High divorce rates and longer life spans left women wondering what they would do when their husband or children left home. However, the biggest change occurred due to economic developments.

"Much of this would never have happened—or would not have happened nearly as fast—if the economy had not required it. Just as society suddenly embraced women as the ideal teachers and typists when there was nobody else to do the job, the idea of women working through their lives caught on when the information era succeeded the industrial age. The vast number of educated women was too valuable a resource to let go once they began to have children. Meanwhile the consumer economy developed more and more things that families felt they needed, which they could no longer acquire on the salary of a single breadwinner."The trials, tribulations and triumphs of women entering this new era presumably are the subjects of the author’s subsequent volume.

I have chosen to focus on economic drivers in the evolution of women’s lives. One could have just as easily focused on the struggle for equal rights, or focused on the evolution of conditions for homemakers over the years. Collins presents all that so the readers may enjoy what most interests them.

I have to admit that what I found most pleasing were the little revelations and factoids that the author provided throughout the narrative—and her gentle wit. Here are some examples I found particularly interesting.

Have you ever wondered how colonial women handled the issues related to infants in diapers? Collins wonders too. It seems they tried to toilet train their infants by the age of one month. If you have trouble comprehending how that could be possible, for your enlightenment, the author suggests that a dog and a feather were useful in this task. You will have to read the book if you wish to learn more.

Do you have any friends who are or were librarians? The author extracts this from a journal dated 1891.

"...women who worked as library assistants should expect to make....about half what men made—and be able to write steadily for six or seven hours a day. They should know half a dozen languages.....understand the relation of all arts and sciences to each other and must have....a minute acquaintance with geography, history, art and literature. Women who aspired to be head librarians should expect to work 10 hours a day...but those who are paid the highest salaries give up all their evenings as well."I am sure that by now the average librarian must be up to a full dozen languages.

Women’s suffrage was one of the most significant social changes in our nation in the past century. Many women spent a lifetime pursuing this goal. The author contends that most of the women in the movement were more interested in temperance than in suffrage itself. They viewed acquiring the vote mainly as a means of voting in prohibition. Their hope was that passage would finally prevent men from spending so much of their income on liquor. What the women discovered was that their daughters didn’t want to prevent men from drinking; they just wanted to make sure they got to drink also. Their reward was to see their daughters spend their evenings in speakeasies.

Collins devotes a healthy portion of her history to coverage of slave women and their offspring. As property, slaves could be bought and sold at will. It was often the case that families would be broken up with the father shipped off to a new owner and never seen again. There is also the issue of what kind of role model could a slave father be to a slave son. What could he teach him? Subservience? I know this is a history of women, but I am left wishing to pursue the sociological effects of two hundred years of slavery and another hundred years of discrimination on African-American men.

The abuse women had to endure became more exotic and more extreme once male doctors became prevalent and began prowling for clients. In the early nineteenth century they pushed midwives out of business.

"For the mothers-to-be the change was not necessarily an improvement. The vast majority of births were not problematic, and a skilled midwife believed in letting nature take its course. That was better by far for both mother and child, since the medical profession had yet to embrace the concept of sterility. Anytime a hand or instrument was inserted into a woman’s body, she was in danger of becoming infected, with fatal results. Childbed, or puerperal, fever became epidemic at times in the nineteenth century, particularly in hospitals, where a single doctor could carry infection from one patient to the 1840 at Bellevue in New York, almost half the women giving birth during the first six months of the year contracted the fever. Eighty percent of them died."Collins points out that the sensibilities of the time often precluded allowing the doctor delivering the baby to look between the women’s legs. She points out that one of the most highly regarded obstetricians was actually blind. Medical students were not allowed to observe live births. They had to learn from textbooks or dummies. This apparently did not stop them from taking aggressive measures.

"They sometimes used forceps to speed deliveries, risking both tearing the mother and hurting the baby. A physician might also make use of one of the ‘heroic’ remedies of the day, like bloodletting. William Dewees, who taught at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote proudly that in one protracted labor he took ‘upwards of two quarts’ of blood from a woman while she was standing up. The woman, unsurprisingly, fainted, and after that, the doctor said, ‘everything appeared better.’ Bleeding women until they swooned stopped them from crying out, which must have been a relief for the doctor and family members waiting nearby."It was not long before "practicing" doctors were addressing other conditions with the same skill. The closest things they had to anesthetics were alcohol and opium. They soon discovered that their patients were more pleased with their service if they shot them up with opium before they left. Some of the "treatments seem utterly bizarre today.

"To cure nervous complaints, doctors injected water, milk and linseed into the uterus. For infections, they cauterized it with silver nitrate, or even a hot iron. They put leeches on the vagina, and even on the rectum. (A famous English gynecologist, whose work was studied by American doctors, advocated placing leeches right on the neck of the uterus, but he cautioned his readers not to let the leeches wander off into the organ itself. ‘I think I have scarcely ever seen more acute pain than that experienced by several of my patients under these circumstances,’ he wrote.) Leeches were actually a moderate approach compared with doctors who tried to bring down a patient’s temperature by opening a vein and drawing blood. Salmon B. Chase, Lincoln’s secretary of the treasury, watched doctors take 50 ounces of blood from his fever-stricken wife before she died."And then there were the surgeons. I have to recount this one tale that the author included because when I read it I had a hard time believing it.

"Other invalids suffered from an awful malady called vesico-vaginal fistula. During childbirth, the wall between their vagina and the bladder or rectum ripped, leaving them unable to control the leakage of urine or feces through the vagina. The condition had been recognized for centuries, but some historians believe that it increased when doctors began delivering babies and inserting their instruments into the womb."

"J. Marion Sims, an Alabama physician, devised an operation that successfully closed the fistulas and let these tormented women resume their lives. But the discovery came at a horrifying cost...He experimented with surgical techniques while the [slave] women balanced on their knees and elbows, in order to give them a better view of what he was doing....Four years later he finally succeeded in repairing the fistula of a slave named Anarcha....It was Anarcha’s thirtieth operation, all of them performed without anesthetics.....Sims claimed that the women had begged him to keep trying his experiments and it’s possible that was true....But they were still slaves with no real option to say no, and Sims chose to work on them in part because he believed white women could not endure the kind of pain he was inflicting."
The next time you think you’ve received some rough treatment from your doctor, just remember how it used to be.

Let us finish on a lighter note.

Collins takes great delight in skewering Thomas Jefferson. This take on Jefferson’s advice to his daughter is a good example of the author’s wit.

"Remember...not to go out without your bonnet because it will make you very ugly and then we should not love you so much" wrote Thomas Jefferson, demonstrating once again that he could always find just the wrong thing to say to a devoted daughter....(Admirers of Jefferson might best be advised to skip everything he ever wrote about women and restrict their attention to the Declaration of Independence.)"If you think modern problems are new problems, consider this description from the pre-Civil War era and think again.

"Worst of all was the corset, which was worn everywhere from the breakfast table to the ballroom in the perpetual and generally hopeless pursuit of the ideal 20-inch waist. Preadolescent girls wore corsets and old women wore corsets, and mothers-to-be wore corsets even in the advanced stages of pregnancy....One commentator claimed that it was not unusual to see ‘a mother lay her daughter down upon the carpet, and placing her foot on her back, break half a dozen laces in tightening her stays.’ Comparisons to Chinese foot binding were rife and stories were passed around about deformed babies born with corset lines imprinted in their flesh....While virtually everything women read told them that corsets were bad, everything they saw stressed how essential they were. Magazines pictured women with tiny waists and dresses that sported long, tight sleeves......"Or, how about this concern from the beginning of the twentieth century:

"The white middle class was worried about ‘race suicide.’ The best-educated native-born women were failing to reproduce while immigrant families had tons of healthy babies. President Theodore Roosevelt was a particular fretter: ‘If Americans of the old stock lead lives of celibate selfishness.....or if the married are afflicted by that base fear of living which....forbids them to have more than one or two children, disaster awaits the nation."Recall that the immigrants of that era were Irish, Italian, Jewish, German and Scandinavian. How many of their descendents remember that they were once considered undesirable rabble? How many of their descendents are today worrying that too many Hispanics having too many babies are ruining their nation?

I have presented a few of the insights and revelations contained in this volume. There are many more. Read it and decide which have the most meaning for you.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

A Thought on Immigration

One of the brief references in Gail Collins’ book, America’s Women, provided food for thought. Consider this issue that she referred to from the beginning of the twentieth century:
“The white middle class was worried about ‘race suicide.’ The best-educated native-born women were failing to reproduce while immigrant families had tons of healthy babies. President Theodore Roosevelt was a particular fretter: ‘If Americans of the old stock lead lives of celibate selfishness.....or if the married are afflicted by that base fear of living which....forbids them to have more than one or two children, disaster awaits the nation'.”
Recall that the immigrants of that era were Irish, Italian, Jewish, German and Scandinavian. How many of their descendants remember that they were once considered undesirable rabble? How many of their descendants are today worrying that too many Hispanics having too many babies are ruining their nation?

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Economics of Female Empowerment

I am still working on a discussion of Gail Collins' book America’s Women. My focus seems to be narrowing down to how economic issues dominated women’s history in this country. The focus on economics reminded me of several recent references to women’s role in the world that touch on inequalities between the genders.

Consider Niall Ferguson’s comments in his recent best seller The Ascent of Money.

"The great revelation of the microfinance movement in countries like Bolivia is that women are actually a better credit risk than men.....Indeed it goes against the grain of centuries of prejudice which, until as recently as the 1970s, systematically rated women as less credit worthy than men. In the United States, for example, married women used to be denied credit, even when they were themselves employed, if their husbands were not in work. Deserted and divorced women fared even worse. When I was growing up credit was still emphatically male. Microfinance, however, suggests that credit worthiness may in fact be a female trait."Dambiso Moyo also addressed this theme in her book Dead Aid. A general discussion of this book was posted earlier. Moyo explains how this concept of microfinance was implemented and grew to be so successful. She illustrates the approach of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh. In 2006, Muhammad Yunus was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in this area.

"Professor Yunus’s innovation was to find a way to lend to the poorest of the poor who have no collateral.....Looking across Bangladesh, Yunus realized that although many villages had no obvious visible asset, they all shared one thing—a community of interdependence and trust. The genius behind Yunus’s Grameen Bank (literally translated from Bengali as ‘Bank of the Village’) was in converting that trust into collateral."The way this works is to collect a number, say five, of applicants from a village into a team. An agreement is made with the team that the Bank will make a loan to one member of the team for that particular member’s project. If at the end of the loan period the loan has been paid off, then another member will have his/her project funded. If not, then no further loans will be made. This is the genius of the approach. There is tremendous peer pressure on the person receiving the loan to deliver, but there is also tremendous incentive for the other members of the team to help in any way possible. Moyo claims that 97% of Grameen’s loans are awarded to women, and loan defaults are minimal. She quotes a precise number of 5% for microfinance loans in Zambia.

There is an article in the May/June, 2010 edition of Foreign Affairs magazine by Isobel Coleman entitled The Global Glass Ceiling: Why Empowering Women is Good for Business. Coleman is Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy and Director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations. The theme of this article is that large commercial organizations are beginning to realize and act upon the knowledge that economically active women are good for business.

"When women are educated and can earn and control income, a number of good results follow: infant mortality declines, child health and nutrition improve, agricultural productivity rises, population growth slows, economies expand, and cycles of poverty are broken."In fact, there is at least circumstantial evidence to suggest that gender inequality is a cause of poverty.

"Entrenched gender discrimination remains a defining characteristic of life for the majority of the world’s bottom two billion people, helping to sustain the gulf between the most destitute and everyone else who shares this planet." The interesting news that Coleman brings is that large multi-national enterprises, acting in their own self interest, are contributing significantly to efforts in education, training, encouragement of entrepreneurship. One of the main reasons for hope in this area is that these organizations can deliver funds at an enormously higher level and often more effectively than traditional aid or charitable efforts.

"As multinational corporations search for growth in the developing world, they are beginning to realize that women’s disempowerment causes staggering and deeply pernicious losses in productivity, economic activity, and human capital....Not only does the global private sector have vastly more money than governments and nongovernmental organizations, but it can wield significant leverage with its powerful brands and by extending promises of investment and employment."Some of the organizations who are given props might be a bit surprising: Goldman Sachs, Walmart, Nike, and the United States military. Our military is trying to set aside funds for contracts with Afghan businesswomen to provide supplies.

"In Afghanistan, the United States has made strengthening the role of women in Afghan society a central element in its counterinsurgency strategy.....the U.S. military has held several training courses to educate Afghan businesswomen on how to meet quality standards and navigate the complicated ‘request for proposal’ process."Consider the potential power that Walmart can wield with its immense size and resources. Given that roughly 75% of its employees are women, it has a clear incentive to help its women become more productive. Besides training and education assistance, Walmart realizes that it would have a better business plan if it had more reliable local producers of products like clothing and foodstuffs.

"The potential for female employees and suppliers in the developing world is enormous: if Walmart sourced just one percent of its sales from women-owned businesses, it would channel billions of dollars toward women’s economic empowerment—far more than what international development agencies could ever muster for such efforts."It is nice to hear a positive take on capitalism and markets and enlightened self-interest. It has been a while in coming. The material presented here is complemented by the discussion of Moyo’s book, Bad Aid.

Friday, May 7, 2010

And God Created Woman

In wrestling with the task of how to organize my thoughts on Gail Collin’s excellent book America’s Women, I suddenly found myself possessed by a demon. She made me write the following.

If one wants to try to define a single theme for women to carry away from this book it should be "never again let your life be determined or defined by a man." The struggle for equality was basically a struggle to lift the heavy burden of prejudice and ignorance provided by a male-dominated society. Since the book starts with the pilgrims let us begin there also. Recall that the pilgrims came to this country not to create religious freedom but to eliminate it. Their preferred form of government was a theocracy based on Biblical teachings that told men that they were dominant and women were little better than indentured servants.

It should be noted that this "Christian" attitude toward women derives not from the teachings of Christ, but from the desires of early Christian men (actually, just about all Christian men) that that was the way they wanted it to be. These men were of course influenced by the misogynist traits of the Hebrews. Consider the story of God’s creation of man and woman. It was clearly written by a man.

There are those who look at nature and the complicated life that abounds and claim that its complexity is in itself proof that it could only have been created by God. God thus becomes the chief engineer proud of the cleverness with which he creates a world that will astound and mystify his creatures. We are then asked to believe that this God-engineer would design man as his ultimate creation and consider woman an afterthought. This is not very credible. If a woman had written that description it would most likely have gone something like this.

"And God created his creature and looked upon it with satisfaction. ‘The complexity, the functionality, every part has its purpose, and it is attractive in appearance. The exquisite chemical balance required for it to function properly will befuddle and astonish my creatures and leave them in awe at the cleverness of my design. With this creature I will propagate the earth with the multitudes that will honor me. I will call it woman.’ And then God paused and said ‘I have one more task to perform. I must create a vessel in which to carry seeds. I will call it man, a simple name nicely consistent with its humble and sole function’."Alas, this did not happen and men came to write the Bible and made a confusing mess of it. People have been killing each other over its interpretation for thousands of years.

And now back to our regularly scheduled programming......

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Thoughts on Regulation

James K. Galbraith made an interesting point regarding government regulations of business in his book The Predator State. While government regulations are usually posed as impediments to progress and a general nuisance, he points out that regulation can be the friend of both business and consumer.

"Regulation emerged, reached its high point in the Nixon administration, and survived thereafter because a large part of the business community was prepared to support it. And this was so because while regulation is a burden for some businesses, it is a competitive blessing for others. A functioning structure of regulation is the competitive instrument of the more progressive part of the business community, which wishes—for its own advantage—to force everyone to play by a common set of rules."

Playing by a common set of rules is the critical issue. Say you are a manufacturer of a product that is safe and robustly designed to be reliable and long-lived. These attributes do not come for free; they add to the cost. If there are no rules defining safety standards, then it is relatively easy for another company to come in with an inferior product that is less safe and less reliable, but at a much lower price. The lower cost item will take away some of the business and put pressure on the first business to cut costs to compete, and in the process also put out an inferior product. This competition could easily lead to a situation where the only product available is cheap junk and neither the business nor the consumer is happy. With regulation in place, the companies would have to compete on a basis that does not diminish the quality of the product. It would be more likely that the consumer would get a good product at a good price and that the most efficient company would be able to make a decent profit.

This idea of regulation providing a common set of rules that can benefit everyone comes up in the current debate about financial reform as well as the health care debate. Consider a financial outfit that is trying to be conservative in limiting its exposure to risky by maintaining a reasonable amount of capital to fall back on and cover any losses. It has to compete with an outfit that does not share those concerns, one whose debt-to-capital ratio can be enormous. When times are good that has been shown to be a way to make a lot of money. The conservative firm now has to explain to its shareholders why it is making less money. So it will come under pressure to leverage its transactions more heavily also. The lack of regulation then has pushed all the players into a risky situation. As we have seen when times turn bad they can turn very bad when this is the case.

Similar situations arise in health care. Many states have minimum coverage regulations which define what can and what need not be contained in a medical insurance plan. These are intended to protect the consumer from spending money on a plan that is essentially worthless. A lot has been said about allowing people to purchase out-of-state plans. The reason for doing this is to allow people to shop in states that have the least protection for the consumer. Once again you will have a rush to the bottom in terms of coverage if that is allowed to occur. Federal, nationwide coverage rules would eliminate this downward competition.

Regulation, thoughtfully applied, can be to everyone’s benefit.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Niall Ferguson's War of the World and our times

Niall Ferguson wrote a truly exceptional history of the twentieth century called War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West. What made his book so interesting was his focus on the causes of the extreme violence that occurred, not only during the World Wars, but throughout the century. He attributed this level of violence to three factors: ethnic conflict, economic volatility, and empires in decline. The reference to decline of empires refers to political volatility. Over and over again multiethnic configurations were destabilized leading to conflict and violence when there was a breakdown of political control. In fact, Ferguson points out that most of the violence of the century can be framed as a form of ethnic conflict. Interestingly, Ferguson’s focus is on economic volatility rather than bad economic conditions. Everyone suffers in bad times. In volatile times the winners and losers can change roles and uncertainty and change seem to be fearsome triggers for violent behavior. This role of ethnic conflict in recent history deserves a much more detailed discussion. The purpose of this note is to ponder the relevance of Ferguson’s conclusions to our current political situation.

If one looks at the behavior of the most visible and vocal of the politically restless groups, the Tea Partiers, it would not be much of a stretch to describe their behavior as a form of ethnic conflict. They appear to be predominately white in an ever more multiracial country. Their attacks on our non-white president are heavily laden with racial references. Their cries of "Give me my country back!" seem to be born out of fear that economic and political changes are occurring that will do them some personal harm. While there has not been overt violence, the shrillness of the discourse is certainly troubling, and there have been numerous incidents of politically motivated vandalism and threats of violence. There has been plenty of fuel for this unrest. Our economy has certainly been in a volatile state for the past few years. Clearly people who once considered themselves winners have now become—or fear becoming—losers. The state of our political discourse has taken a turn for the worse over the same time period, providing a situation in which many question whether the federal government can function effectively in its current state.

I believe it is reasonable to apply Ferguson’s analysis to our current state. Therefore, it is not too surprising to see popular unrest emerge. One can hope that a broad-based economic recovery and a little more cooperation between partisan politicians will diminish the volatility that may be driving the unrest and the sense of conflict will dissipate. One can hope.

James K. Galbraith On The Minimum Wage

Galbraith demolishes many pillars of the conventional wisdom in his book The Predator State. One of his more interesting discussions centers on the effect of raising the minimum wage. The conventional wisdom would predict that the effect would be to eliminate jobs and raise the level of unemployment. Galbraith argues that the data indicate just the opposite. When the minimum wage is raised unemployment actually goes down. His explanation for why this happens is not totally convincing at first consideration. He argues that making employees more expensive to employers requires them to use their employees in a more efficient manner. In principle, this can be a win-win situation: the employee ends up with a more satisfying and more responsible job, and the employer reaps the benefit of greater productivity. This claim becomes more credible when Galbraith describes what is referred to as "The Scandinavian Model."

"The Scandinavian countries are the most egalitarian capitalist economies on earth. They have nearly universal unions, high minimum wages, and a strong welfare state. But as trade campaigners often neglect to acknowledge, they also are highly open. They practice free trade. Business there is free to import, export and outsource. Business there is free to hire and fire, change lines of business, and otherwise conduct itself as it sees fit.....There is, however, one thing you are not free to do: you are not free to cut your wages. You are not free to compete by going after cut rate workers, either native or immigrant. You are not free to undercut the union rate. You have to pay your workers at the established scale, and if you cannot do that and earn a profit, too bad for your business. The effect of this on business discipline is quite wonderful."

Given this environment the Scandinavian countries enjoy prosperous economies and usually among the lowest unemployment rates in Europe.

This approach ties into the overarching issue of whether our economy should be producing more highly skilled jobs worthy of a living wage, or reducing tasks to their minimal scale so that ever cheaper labor can be sought to perform them. More on that later.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Bad Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way For Africa by Dambisa Moyo

The author was born and raised in Zambia. Her education there was interrupted by political unrest, causing her to depart for the US where she received a scholarship to continue her education. She spent two years as a consultant at the World Bank in Washington DC, two years getting a Master’s degree at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School Of Government, and four years getting a PhD in economics at Oxford. Subsequently, she worked for eight years at Goldman Sachs where her focus was on global economics and strategies. Given her background it is not too surprising that her solution to Africa’s economic and political problems is to rely on traditional, sound economic policies to foster growth. Her focus, of course, is on the nations of sub-

Saharan Africa. The aid under discussion is not the charitable aid or emergency aid provided in response to natural disasters, but the huge grants and loans that are made by countries and international organizations that can contribute large fractions of a nation’s governmental income. She makes compelling arguments that the aid that has been and is now being provided is not working. She goes further to claim that not only is aid not a solution, aid is the problem. The support for this latter claim is less obvious, but, after a series of variations on aid policies over the last 60 years that were intended to make things better and failed, the circumstantial evidence is compelling. The book is structured to show that aid is not working, illustrate why it is not working, and to provide a better path to economic and political self-sufficiency.

This is a slight book of about 150 pages, yet it does provide a number of interesting insights. It is quite readable and the economics is not too dense. There is a short but excellent forward by Niall Ferguson, the conservative economic historian, that provides a good summary of the author’s conclusions. These few pages are worth reading for those who are interested in the subject but do not wish to commit to the entire volume.

The first part of the book is devoted to describing the history of aid to Africa and the effect it has had on the African nations. It is not difficult to believe that there is something inherently wrong when one is continually bombarded with tales of corruption, civil strife, and poverty. Moyo provides some quantitative data that provides a more relevant context for judging the state of affairs.

"Africa’s real per capita income today is lower than in the 1970s, leaving many African countries at least as poor as they were 40 years ago."

"Adult literacy across most African countries has plummeted below pre-1980 levels."

"A World Bank study found that as much as 85 per cent of aid flows were used for purposes other than that for which they were initially intended, very often diverted to unproductive, if not grotesque ventures."

"....although not as extreme as Gambia or Ethiopia where 97 per cent of the government’s budget is attributed to foreign aid."

Moyo has the task of explaining why other countries have received aid, profited from it, and moved on to self-sufficiency, while many African nations have fallen into a cycle of seemingly endless aid dependency. The answer presented is that the examples where aid produced positive results were often in countries with a history of strong civil institutions, and the aid was targeted and time-limited and small compared to the overall size of the economy. The success of the Marshall Plan in Europe is the most noteworthy example. None of these preconditions existed in most African states. When aid money began flowing, most African countries were European constructs just emerging from colonialism and beset by an array of geographic, historical, cultural, tribal and institutional issues. The author does not allow these initial problems to excuse the current unsatisfactory state of affairs. She proceeds to demonstrate how the influx of large amounts of "free’ money actually inhibited the establishment of healthy governments and economies. Unfortunately, the explanation involves a confluence of factors that are not easily summarized, although this paragraph is a good attempt.

"Foreign aid props up corrupt governments—providing them with freely usable cash. These corrupt governments interfere with the rule of law, the establishment of transparent civil institutions and the protection of civil liberties, making both domestic and foreign investment in poor countries unattractive. Greater opacity and fewer investments reduce economic growth, which leads to fewer job opportunities and increasing poverty levels. In response to growing poverty, donors give more aid, which continues the downward spiral of poverty."

The author provides a number of interesting insights that provide a basis for this summary statement. For example:

"One of the features of the Cold War was the West’s ability and eagerness to support, bankroll and prop up a swathe of pathological and downright dangerous dictators. From Idi Amin in the east to Mobuto Sese Seko in the west, from Ethiopia’s Mengistu to liberia’s Samuel Doe, the competition among these leaders to be more brutal to their people, more spendthrift, more indifferent to their country’s needs than their neighbors were, was matched only by the willingness of international donors to give them the money to realize their dreams."

She provides some thoughts on how aid can help slide a country into corruption and tyranny.

"In most functioning and healthy economies, the middle class pays taxes in return for government accountability. Foreign aid short circuits this link. Because the government’s financial dependence on it citizens has been reduced it owes its people nothing."

".... in a world of aid dependency, poor country’s governments lose the need to pursue tax revenues. Less taxation might sound good, but the absence of taxation leads to a breakdown in natural checks and balances between the government and its people"

"Africa is the most conflict ridden region of the world.....There are three fundamental truths about conflicts today: they are mostly borne out of competition for control of resources; they are predominately a feature of poorer economies; and they are increasingly internal conflicts......The prospect of seizing power and gaining access to unlimited aid wealth is irresistible."

Moyo puts the emphasis placed on encouraging democratic governments in an interesting light.

"What is clear is that democracy is not the prerequisite for economic growth that aid proponents maintain. On the contrary, it is economic growth that is a prerequisite for democracy.........In What Makes Democracies Endure Przeworski et. al. offer this fascinating insight—‘a democracy can be expected to last an average of about 8.5 years in a country with a per capita income of less that $1000 per annum, 16 years in one with income between $1000 and $2000, 33 years between $2000 and $4000, and 100 years between $4000 and $6000....above $6000 democracies are impregnable...’ It is the economy, stupid!"

If aid is so ineffective why continue to provide it? Again Moyo provides an interesting perspective.

"There is simply a pressure to lend. The World Bank employs 10,000 people, the IMF over 2500; add another 5000 for the other UN agencies; add to that the employees of at least 25,000 registered NGOs, private charities and the army of government aid agencies: taken together about 500,000 people, the population of Swaziland.....they are all in the business of aid.....their livelihoods depend on aid, just as those of the officials who take it."


The author provides a telling example of how short-term beneficial intervention can have unintended long-term consequences. She does not say if this is an actual example or an illustration.

"There is a mosquito net maker in Africa. He manufactures about 500 nets a week. He employs ten people, who (as with many African countries) each have to support upwards of 15 relatives. However hard they work, they can’t make enough nets to combat the malaria carrying mosquito.

Enter vociferous Hollywood movie star who rallies the masses, and goads western governments to collect and send 100,000 mosquito nets to the afflicted region, at a cost of a million dollars....and a ‘good’ deed is done....With the market flooded with foreign nets our net maker is promptly put out of business. His 10 employees can no longer support their 150 dependents (who are now forced to depend on handouts), and one mustn’t forget that in a maximum of 5 years the majority of the imported nets will be torn, damaged and of no further use."

This example is the point of departure for describing the path to African economic independence. The better solution, the long-term solution, would have been to support the extension of the local net making industry so that a sufficient and continuous supply could be made available and jobs would be created. Aid could be used in this way, but the country, and even the net maker himself, could also have accessed loans that could be used for this purpose.

The crux of Moyo’s plan is for African nations to wean themselves off of aid and establish for themselves a place in the world economy. The second half of the book is devoted to convincing the reader that this a practical path to take. Botswana is used as an illustration of a country that has greatly diminished the flow of aid funds and established a stable and growing economy by utilizing her approach. She lists and discusses six financing paths that can bolster African economies. They are, in rough order of importance or effectiveness: trade, foreign direct investment (FDI), capital markets, remittances, micro-finance and savings.

Moyo would argue that the first step a country should take to shed its aid dependency would be embark on the effort to obtain a credit rating so they can borrow money from the international financial markets. The advantage of this approach is that it requires the Africans themselves to do the planning and the marketing. The markets themselves will demand discipline from the Africans in terms of cost of credit or denying credit entirely if they establish a reputation for defaulting on loans. It is this demand for discipline and responsibility that has been lacking in the aid-dominated environment. Moyo argues that some African nations have already made this move successfully, money is available at moderate interest rates, and the economic benefits have been realized by both the borrowers and the lenders.

"...the beauty with bonds is that their very existence lends further credibility to the country seeking funds, thereby encouraging a broader range of high-quality private investment. More credibility equals more money, equals more credibility."

"The notion of a sovereign ceiling means that a company can never obtain a credit rating higher than that of its country. In places where a country has no rating the ability of companies to seek outside investment capital is hampered greatly."

" 2006, emerging market debt gave investors a return of around 12 per cent. The performance beat the 3 per cent return on US government bonds in the same year. Moreover, emerging-market debt has almost consistently outperformed international stocks over the past 10 years."

Foreign investment in African nations is clearly an effective way of injecting capital into a nation to create jobs and incomes. Unfortunately, Africa has not benefited from investment due to a number of factors:

"... wide spread corruption, a maze of bureaucracy, a highly circumscribed regulatory and legal environment, and ensuing needless streams of red tape."

In addition:

"In 2006, the $37 billion that Africa received as official foreign aid was more than twice the continents foreign direct investment, and today Africa attracts less than 1 per cent of global capital flows, down from almost 5 per cent a decade ago."

Moyo argues that a combination of business-friendly reforms by the African nations and a more aggressive stance by investors would be very profitable for both participants. Africa possesses some of the poorest countries on earth and yet is relatively wealthy in terms of natural resources. It should be an ideal candidate for foreign investment. She presents China as an example of a country that has made a concerted, and successful, effort to invest and trade with Africa and has had a profound effect on the continent. China has a vast need for energy and raw materials. Africa has an abundance of both. She argues that, acting in its own self interest, China is doing more to benefit African nations than are the western countries with their aid-based approach.

"Bartering infrastructure for energy reserves is well understood by the Chinese and Africans alike. It’s a trade-off, and there are no illusions as to who does what, to whom and why....Africa is getting what it needs—quality capital that actually funds investment, jobs for its people and that elusive growth. These are the things that aid promised, but has consistently failed to deliver."

" nearly all African countries surveyed, more people view China’s influence positively than make the same assessment of US influence."

Trade is perhaps the most straightforward way of improving the economic well being of a nation. Consider China’s approach compared to that of the western nations.

"In December 2005, at the Second Conference of Chinese and African Entrepreneurs, China’s premier, Wen Jibao, pledged that China’s trade with Africa would rise to $100 billion a year within 5 years. Forget the capital markets, forget FDI, forget the US $40 billion a year aid program, and forget trade with any other country in the world—this is trade only with 2015, just 5 years later, that would be $500 billion of trade income—50 per cent of the trillion dollars of aid that has made its way to Africa in the past 60 years. The difference is, of course, one is laced with bromide, the other steroids."

"Estimates suggest that Africa loses $500 billion each year because of restrictive trade embargoes—largely in the form of subsidies by Western governments to Western farmers.....EU subsidies are approximately 35 per cent of farmers’ total income. What this means is that each European Union cow gets $2.5 a day in subsidies, more than what a billion people, many of them Africans, each have to live on each day."

"Western farmers get to sell their produce to a captive consumer at home above world market prices, and they can also afford to dump their excess production at lower prices abroad, thus undercutting the struggling African farmer."

"But perhaps the most egregious examples come from Africa itself. African countries impose an average tariff of 34 per cent on agricultural product from other African nations, and 21 per cent on their own products."

The term "remittance" refers to the money that Africans living abroad send home to their families. This can be an important source of income to help in financing a country’s balance of payments. It is equivalent to a source of income for the families so blessed.

"...the money Africans abroad sent home to their families totaled about $20 billion in 2006. According to a United Nations report.....between 2000 and 2003 Africans sent home about $17 billion each year, a figure that tops even FDI which averaged $15 billion, during this period."

Finally, it is critical for Africa to provide its citizens with secure and effective financial institutions. Without them people will not deposit savings and make funds available to lend to entrepreneurs. The author is particularly impressed with the results attained through micro-finance approaches. She quotes a default rate on such loans in Zambia as being about 5 per cent. In fact:

"With the advent of Kiva, a California-based interface, pretty much anyone sitting anywhere with a keyboard can lend money to anyone across the planet. This is how it works: a woman in Cameroon goes on line seeking a $200 dollar loan towards her tailoring business. She makes her case, as best she can, and a man in Des Moines, Iowa lends her $25 of it, someone in Sweden lends another $25, and the balance is covered by someone in Japan. The loan is made for a set period, for a pre-agreed interest rate, and she regularly updates her lenders on her progress. In the week—just one week—leading into 19 April, 2008, over $625,000 was lent by almost 3000 new lenders....the default rates have been minimal. Thus far since Kiva’s inception in 2005, some $30 million has been lent, 45,000 loans made to people in 42 countries. A wonderful innovation—get involved."

This book has been an eye opener. Whether or not one agrees with all of the author’s conclusions, it will leave one with a new perspective, and perhaps, a new interest in the evolution of Africa and its diverse nations. It will certainly allow one to judge more

intelligently the Obama administration’s approach to Africa as it unfolds.


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