Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Double standards

Conservatives love to complain about double standards in the media, and sometimes it’s just whining and then every once and a while something comes along that makes you think they’ve got a point.

Sandra Bernhard, in a performance her one-woman show in Washington, D.C., last week said that Sarah Palin would be “gang-raped by my big black brothers” if she tried to campaign in New York city.

Hmmm. OK, let’s admit that Sandra Bernhard is an “edgy” comedienne and that she makes a living by provoking and that sometimes we need to be provoked and sometimes we even enjoy it. But still. That’s a contemptible remark. There’s no other word for it. Besides the almost pathological level of vituperation toward a mere political candidate, I think if I were a black man living in New York I might wish Bernhard had consulted me before making that claim on my behalf. A joke about black men gang-raping a white woman? You’ve got to be kidding me. Can Sandra Bernhard really get away with that?

When Don Imus made a vapid, offensive crack about “nappy-headed ho’s” he was run out of town on a rail. And the reaction to Bernhard’s remark? “The fact that the show has a few riffs like this does not — to my mind — make it a "disgusting show...," says Ari Roth of Theater J, the venue hosting Bernhard’s show. “We’re proud that she’s a new emblem and ambassador for our theater and our center... her large heart, her generous talent, and her big mouth are all a big part of who we are.”

As for Bernhard, she explained by saying, "I certainly wish Governor Palin no harm. I'd just like her to explain to me how she can hold such outrageous views - and then go back to Alaska."

Well, thanks for that. I’ll leave it to you to judge whether Sarah Palin’s views are more outrageous than Bernhard’s joke. Maybe you can catch Bernhard’s show in Chicago, where the Tribune gave her an extensive admiring profile on the eve of her appearance there. Apparently the consequences for Sandra Bernhard’s career are going to be, if anything, positive.

That’s too bad. It remains a truly appalling remark. Why are liberals, supposedly differentiated from conservatives by their greater compassion and decency, prone to such rants when faced with conservative females or blacks? Maybe because some liberals are shallow thinkers who cannot conceive of women or blacks starting from different assumptions or interpreting the world in a different way. They are outraged when blacks and women don't conform to their expectations of the correct political view. They assume that blacks and women must be liberals or else they're hypocrites and scoundrels. And if you’re a hypocrite or a scoundrel, you are beyond the pale.

I don’t mind Sandra Bernhard being edgy. I just want her held to the same standards as anybody else. Forget Sarah Palin-- if you’re a black man living in New York, Sandra Bernhard owes you an apology.

Sam Reaves

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Free Market Free Fall

It’s a tough time to be a proponent of free-market economics, with the financial system in crisis and the real economy heading into a recession. As markets plunge and the government reaches into taxpayers’ pockets to bail out the Wall Street crapshooters who got us into this mess, the triumphalism on the political left is growing. The narrative is that the ascendancy of free-market ideology beginning in the eighties has led to a worldwide crisis and a wholesome political backlash (as exemplified in Latin America), as victims of global capitalism begin to fight for their alienated rights.

A good summation of this position was the speech by Naomi Klein at the University of Chicago on October 4th opposing the establishment of an economics think tank named for Milton Friedman. In essence Klein accuses Friedman and his followers of peddling a utopian vision which has not stood the test of reality but has been imposed by force around the world to allow the rich to get richer while further impoverishing the poor. She calls it a “class war” and says that the rich have won but the poor are fighting back.

There’s no question that income disparities have grown as real wages have stagnated and tremendous benefits have accrued to the top income levels over the past couple of decades. Whether or not this constitutes a war on the poor depends on whether you are inclined to perceive intentional malice behind every negative social development. Karl Popper warned against this “conspiracy theory of society”, and I am inclined to agree with him.

One of Popper’s key philosophical insights was that we cannot, as a point of logic, know all possible implications of our statements, and in the real world this is amply reflected in the myriad “unintended and unforeseen consequences of our actions.” So I’m not inclined to believe that people in corner office suites on Wall Street sat there plotting to impoverish people; I’m rather inclined to believe that they sat there looking for ways to make lots of money. You don’t need a cackling, moustache-twirling villain to explain this scenario. You just need ordinary human failings.

I even believe that at least some of those Wall Street titans thought about the poor occasionally. They probably thought that by paying taxes, giving to charity, and, most importantly, helping to mobilize capital to create new jobs, they were helping the poor. This may well have been self-serving delusion. But the only sensible question to ask is whether, in fact, they were right or wrong in their belief. I don’t think that talking about a war on the poor contributes to our understanding of what alleviates poverty. But it gets a gratifying reaction from an audience.

I don’t know whether Naomi Klein endorses the conspiracy theory of society, but she certainly believes that Milton Friedman’s ideas have served primarily to justify an illegitmate, anti-democratic wealth grab. She is raising legitimate questions about the consequences of the ideas Friedman espoused, and those of us who tend to agree with Friedman have to answer them. We have to take a hard look at what we believe and whether real-world experience bears it out. Another thing Karl Popper said was that the scientific attitude is the critical attitude, and we can (and should) subject even our basic assumptions to criticism.

Whether you think current events are refuting your position, of course, depends on how you frame your position, and the temptation always is to do some rapid tailoring of your position as events overtake it. (“I never said that! I only claimed...“ etc.) I’ll try to be as honest as possible about what I believe and how events are affecting that.

There’s no doubt that the current financial crisis has to make us think twice about the wisdom of the current regulatory structure. In particular, it’s getting tougher to defend the decision in 1999 to repeal the Glass-Steagall Act, which separated investment banking from commercial banking. When the act was repealed, I remember thinking, “Well, why not? Won’t this allow banks more freedom to innovate?” Well, I guess it did. If you’re paying attention to the real world, I think you have to reconsider this one.

But I’m going to plead innocent, on behalf of market advocates, to one big charge that Klein implicitly made in her U. of C. speech. At several points she seems to conflate two different propositions: that markets are the best way to allocate economic resources and that markets should be totally unregulated. These are two very different propositions, and I only support the first one.

The first proposition has, I think, been amply borne out in the real world. Centralized economic planning has failed wherever it has been tried, because no bureaucracy can possibly match the demand for and supply of the millions of products that modern life involves. Only a relatively untrammeled price system can do that. (Friedman was far from the only economist to make this point and it is, I think, not widely contested among the economically literate.) Further, the attempt to exercise serious control of an economy must at some point devolve to authoritarianism because it criminalizes consensual economic acts.

This is the proposition I have come to support—that the free market is, by and large, allowing for some real-world cases of market failure that can be remedied without vitiating the principle, the best way to provide for people’s material needs. And I think real-world experience bears this out. Millions have been lifted out of poverty in the past couple of decades as planned economies have been liberalized and market principles have spread.

But I have never believed that markets should be completely unregulated. And I don’t know of many who do. There is a faction of capitalist anarchists out on the libertarian right (or would that be left?) who oppose any kind of state whatsoever, but they are a lonely few.

Laissez-faire does not mean no regulation, as Klein seems to believe. It means that the government should let the price system work to direct resources to where they are most in demand. It means, for example, that the government should not subsidize some products (like ethanol) and penalize others (like textiles from poor African countries). There’s a lot in the free-market position that even the left should be able to get on board with, like opposition to corporate welfare. The phrase laissez-faire applies to resource allocation. It doesn’t mean turning a blind eye to abuses.

Even most Wall Street capitalists think they should be regulated. Here’s what one of them has to say in the current edition of the National Review: “ proclaim that free markets are always their own best regulator is not only to fly in the face of history and common sense but also to ensure that the debate will be lost.” That’s Andrew Stuttaford, in a good discussion of right and wrong regulatory responses to the crisis.

The current crisis is the result of a catastrophic failure of regulation. And it’s possible that it was the product of the same mistaken conflation of propositions by people on the right that Klein makes out on the left. If our politicians took the free-market position to mean that the government should abdicate its responsibility to oversee our financial and economic system to insure its smooth and honest functioning, they were in error. But nothing in the current crisis makes me doubt the basic wisdom of Adam Smith’s or Milton Friedman’s insights into the efficiency of markets in providing for our needs.

The problem is to get regulation right. Financial innovators are always one step ahead of the regulators. And sometimes they need to be reined in. But regulation can be too heavy. And deregulation is not always bad. Real life involves trade-offs, and there’s an optimal point in the trade-off between freedom and prudent restriction which is hard to locate. Whether you incline more to the freedom end of the scale or the restriction end is part of what defines you politically. People can differ about this in good faith. It ought to be an empirical question. The right and the left can talk to each other if they avoid demonizing each other.

In her speech at the University of Chicago, Naomi Klein talked about the way Marxists were disillusioned by the Gulag, how the left had to undergo a healthy process of re-thinking in the wake of the manifest failure of communism. That doesn’t seem to have made her abandon the left; she just wants the left to be smarter. In the same way, those of us who believe that a great degree of economic freedom is a good thing need to be alert to real-world wake-up calls. We can re-think some things without abandoning the central insights of the free-market position. When all the shouting is over, I think we’ll still be on firmer ground than those that think the government should be in charge of distributing economic resources.

Sam Reaves

Sunday, October 5, 2008


The Chicago Cubs have done it again, collapsed in futility in their first playoff series for the second year in a row after winning the National League Central Division race. After a lot of hoopla about how things were different now and a genuinely good Cub team had a chance to break the century-long curse and go all the way, the whole thing turned sour and depressingly familiar.

I watched the second and third games in a bar, surrounded by twenty-somethings who reacted to the unfolding disaster with curses, bowed heads, hands thrown up in despair. Me, I laughed. And I was rooting for the Cubs. I told one of them, “Son, I’ve been watching this kind of thing for forty years.”

I decided in 2003 that I wasn't ever going to let this team depress me again. I’ve been a Cub fan since 1967, when my father took my brothers and me to a game in Wrigley Field and the Cubs beat Juan Marichal and the Giants on two Billy Williams homers and a clutch Ron Santo triple. I was hooked, and I thought I was on to a good thing. Little did I know. I lived through the 1969 collapse, the 1984 collapse, the 2003 collapse. I’ve been watching the Cubs collapse for a long time. I finally realized I don’t have to let it affect me. I'm happy when they win, but when they lose I don't have to care. My kids still love me, I don't have any less money in the bank... I don't give a damn. Life is easier that way.

The Florida Marlins have won two World Series titles in little more than a decade of existence; the Arizona Diamondbacks have won once. Meanwhile the Cubs have had one miserable season after another, with occasional brief spasms of competence ending in excruciating failure in post-season action. How do you explain this? What gives? How can this happen again and again? This is anomalous, eye-catching, epic, spooky failure.

I don’t think there are any curses involved. I think at this point the weight of past failures is so heavy that any Cub team going into the playoffs just can't avoid being tight. They can't just relax and play the game like any other team. It's like thinking about breathing. When you start to scrutinize what you normally do on reflex and muscle memory, it's over. And that's where the Cubs are at this point. Any little thing that goes wrong makes them start to think about what they are doing, and it just goes downhill from there.

I don't expect to see a Cub title in my lifetime. It's just not ever going to happen. It's not a curse, it's just psychology. Each failure makes further failures more inevitable.

But, of course, I don't care any more.

The pity is that this was a really good Cub team-- they won the division, and that's what you put a team together to do. There is a large element of chance in baseball-- you can nail one and have it go into a fielder's glove or nub a dribbler that gets through for a hit. That's why they play series-- one game can be decided by chance, but over a series of games the breaks are supposed to even out. And the more games are involved, the more chance there is that the best team actually wins. That's why the old-fashioned pennant race was a better test of who the most talented team really was. In a short series, anything can happen, and mistakes get magnified.

So give the Cubs credit for being the best team in the National League over the course of the year, and the worst in baseball at handling pressure that will only get worse each time they make the playoffs. I’m not making excuses for them—it’s called choking, and they choked big-time, once again. But I’m starting to think that choking comes with the territory for this old, tired, sad franchise. If this Cub team couldn’t handle the pressure, what Cub team ever will?

If you are a Cub fan, you just have to accept this.

But, of course, I don’t care any more. I’m laughing...

Sam Reaves