Friday, December 24, 2004
THE HORROR OF CHRISTMAS II The Social Pathologies of Our Grandest "Holiday" James S. Henry**
When I was a kid in Minnesota, my family had a huge Scandinavian feast every Christmas Eve, complete with more than two dozen relatives, three feet of snow, a mountainous evergreen that was trimmed to the top with popcorn balls, candy canes, tinsel, and hundreds of precious once-a-year decorations, a six-course dinner with lutefisk, ham, turkey and eight or ten pies, long-winded after-dinner stories about baseball, the space race, and World War II, and, of course, lots of brightly-wrapped presents.
It has taken more than three decades of rigorous training in economics and law and life on the East Coast for me to shake off the nostalgia of those warm, festive occasions. But I am now willing to say out loud what I expect many Americans are muttering all across the country at this time of year: Christmas is a real net loser as a socio-economic institution.
Although for decades the observance of Christmas has been justified on the grounds that it is “merry,” rigorous quantitative analysis proves that precisely the opposite is the case. Despite numerous claims by its proponents that this holiday promotes a desirable “spirit,” and makes people “jolly,” the hard data clearly demonstrate that the yuletide period is marked by environmental degradation, a sharp increase in unfortunate encounters with hazardous products, massive congestion, tedious, time-consuming travel, and the abuse and inefficient use of vast numbers of animals, birds, trees, and many other valuable resources.
Moreover, the number of people who are rendered truly “joyous” by Christmas is almost certainly exceeded by the number who are made to feel rather blue. Nor does Christmas truly fulfill its purported distributional objective: the transfer of gifts to those who really need them.
Finally, it turns out that this so-called “holiday” may make a significant contribution to America’s dwindling savings rate, unsustainable trade deficit, declining competitiveness, and the motivation for a great many property crimes.
In short, although Christmas may be an important source of religious inspiration for some, and a genuine source of wintertime fun for others -- mainly children, who would probably be having fun anyway -- it fails the test of social cost effectiveness. It is high time for those of us who are serious adults to take a good long holiday from this overblown annual ritual.
Christmas consumes vast resources in the dubious, really quite uncharitable pursuit of “forced giving.”
To begin with, let us recall the countless hours that we have wasted on Christmas – all that precious time spent searching for “just the right gifts” for people we barely know; writing and mailing cards or emails to “friends” that one ignores the entire rest of the year; hanging ornate decorations on so-called “evergreen” trees that will become un-decorated, un-green fire hazards in less than a month; attending all those semi-compulsory, over-produced parties that are saturated with cholesterol-rich food, drink, and false cheer; and the tedious task of returning all those mismatched presents after the New Year, just as their retail values plummet.
Assuming conservatively that each American adult spends an average of two days a year on such activities, this represents a wasted investment of 1.2 million person-years per season. At a per capita “shadow wage” of $38,000, that works out to a “deadweight Christmas loss” of $45 billion per year -- even apart from any extra spending associated with these dubious activities.
Just as important is the amount that Americans spend on gratuitous gifts each year - at least $50 to $60 billion per season, by my careful estimates. All this extra consumer spending is sometimes considered beneficial because it stimulates the economy. But a closer look reveals that this massive yuletide spike actually creates many harmful side-effects.
Misfit gifts are one key example. According to New York department stores, at least 15-20 percent of all retail purchases at Christmas are returned after the holidays. Allowing for the inability of young children to return undesired gifts, and the fact that many other misfit gifts are retained involuntarily because recipients feel obliged to disguise their true feelings, perhaps as much as a third of all Christmas season purchases may be unwelcome.
This means that Christmas is really a throwback to a barter economy, where people have to try and match each other’s wants to their own offerings. The whole institution of money was invented precisely to solve this inefficiency – the so-called “double coincidence of wants” problem. In the case of Christmas, one simple solution might be to require people to give each other cash. But that would expose the absurdity of the whole institution.
All this “forced giving” artificially pumps up consumption and reduces savings, since it is unlikely that all the silly, expensive presents given at Christmas would be given at other times of the year. One particularly noxious aspect of surplus consumption is “conspicuous giving” -- luxury gifts like Tiffany eggs, gold toothpicks, crystal paperweights, $30,000 sable stoles, and $15,000 watches. Such gifts are designed precisely for those who are least in need (e.g., “for the person who has everything”). And most of these high-priced gifts are given at Christmas. According to a sample of New York department stores, the fourth quarter of the year provides more than half of the year’s diamond, watch, and fur sale, and an even higher share of their annual profits.
No doubt all this gratuitous spending delights these retailers, and many other “dealers” in the Christmas racket. To the neo-Marxists in the crowd, this suggests that the holiday is explained by economic determinism -- what we have here is not just a coherent, self-sustaining religious ideology, but a powerful set of underlying economic interests, with a huge stake in perpetuating this season’s fatuous gift-giving mythology.
Lower Savings, Higher Debt
Meanwhile, for the nation as a whole, the fact is that Christmas just reduces our already-flagging personal savings rate -- now just a paltry 1 to 2 percent of personal income. It also adds to the burden of consumer debt. Almost a quarter of Christmas season sales are financed by credit cards or charge accounts, and January has become the peak month for credit card delinquencies. It turns out, in other words, that Christmas is quite literally a festival that we can no longer afford.
For parents, another exasperating aspect of Christmas binge spending is toy fetishism. The holiday season accounts for more than 60 percent of the US’ annual $31 billion expenditure on toys and video games. Much of this new toy capital depreciates rapidly, if it works at all. The surfeit of hyper-stimulating toys is no doubt a major contributor to the ADD scourge among young Americans, and to our pitifully low youth savings rates. It is also educationally unproductive. According to the National Toy Industry Association, the US now spends nearly three times as much each year on mindless video games ($10 billion), action figures ($1.2 billion) like the Hulk, Harry Potter, and Anne Coulter, and dolls ($2.8 billion), as on all retail book sales for children ($1.5 billion). Toys in the “learning and exploration” category account for a mere half billion dollars.
Over time, all this free-wheeling spending on unproductive child toys also encourages heavy spending on unproductive “adult toy capital,” like Porsches, J-120 sail boats, and synthetic Vice Presidential candidate action figures with Southern accents and really thick hair.
Since a large share of the leading Christmas toys in the US market are now made by Chinese companies, the toy binge is also making the US dangerously dependent on foreign toy imports. This opens the door to insidious, all-too-poorly-understood cultural influences that may take decades to reverse.
Many Christmas toys are also hazardous -- snowboards, skates, sleds, hockey sticks, Roller Blades, bicycles, baseball bats, boxing gloves, even iPods when put in the wrong hands. The US Consumer Product Safety Commission reports that last year there were 17 deaths and 203,000 emergency room admissions in the US due to hazardous toys. There were also more than 11 million toy recalls. If we allocate these deaths, injuries, and recalls in proportion to seasonal sales, Christmas is clearly the dominant problem. (The comparable figures for deaths caused by books and book recalls were zero and zero, respectively.)
Finally, one only has to visit any Toys ‘R’ Us or Walmart at this time of year to see the holiday’s negative impact on parent-child relations. The store floors are replete with distraught mothers and fathers dragging their tiny, toy-addled munchkins kicking and screaming away from the latest high-priced, must-have offerings. All this unproductive consumption would be much better spent on mathematical drill books, computer learning, alarm clocks, pencil sharpeners and green eyeshades.
Christmas creates massive congestion at the worst possible time of year.
At least in large urban areas, Christmas is by far the most unpleasant time of year to shop, travel, dine out, or visit a bathroom in a mall. Just when stores are the most crowded, shopping becomes mandatory; just when everyone else in the nation is making their de rigueur, mid-winter, cross-country trek to “be with” friends and family, we also are drafted into this forced march.
December 21 and 22 are the year’s peak dates for air travel, according to the Air Transport Association of America, with more 2.1 million Americans per day jamming the nations airports, (twice the annual daily average.) Nearly forty million people will travel during the period from December 17 to January 3, just when the weather is the worst, airlines, buses, and trains are charging the highest prices, and security threats from the growing ranks of our non-Christian enemies around the globe are peaking.
According to the US Postal Service, the volume of mail traffic triples at Christmas time, to more than 288 million letters and 8.6 million parcels per day during the week before Christmas. This batters a delivery system that is barely profitable to begin with, and has already been weakened in the previous two months by tens of millions of extra direct-mail catalogs and advertisements.
Telephone calls can reach more than 200 million per day during the month from Thanksgiving to New Years’ Eve, and there is also a seasonal surge in Internet traffic. At many businesses, stores and offices, costly second- and third shifts have to be added to handle the excess demand. All this “peak loading” means that airlines, Internet services, mail delivery, stores, banks, warehouses, telephone systems, roads, and parking lots must carry more excess capacity than if these activities were distributed more evenly throughout the year. This is peak load capacity that we consumers ultimately have to pay for – it is a waste of our nation’s precious capital.
Christmas destroys the environment, plus untold numbers of innocent animals, birds, and other wildlife.
These have perhaps not been mainstream concerns for hardnosed economists like myself. But if one takes account of all the Christmas trees, letters, packages, increased newspaper advertising, wrapping paper, catalogs and cards, as well as the millions of animals slaughtered for feast and fur at the holidays, it becomes clear even to an economist that this holiday is nothing less than a catastrophe for the entire ecosystem.
According to the US Forest Service, 23.4 million natural Christmas trees are now consumed in the US alone. This number has recently been growing fast, driven by resurgence in hard-shell Christianity and the trend toward more than one tree per household – related, in turn, by our rapidly expanding average home sizes. Americans also now use 18 million artificial Christmas trees each year, half of which are purchased brand new.
All this produces nothing less than an environmental calamity. Since natural Christmas trees have to be grown from scratch each year, millions of forest acres are now subject to an artificially-short rotation period. Recent evidence from countries like Denmark, now the world’s second largest producer of Christmas trees, suggests that the resulting “industrialization” of non-organic Christmas tree production creates massive problems with groundwater pollution. And the piles of needles these natural trees produce shorten the lives of untold numbers of vacuum cleaners and household pets.
Given the growing role of foreign tree producers like China and Denmark in the global Christmas tree trade – the emerging “tree cartel” – the resulting “Christmas tree gap,” on top of the “foreign toy gap,” also adds to our burgeoning trade deficit.
As for the impact on our feathered and furry friends, Christmas has become nothing less than a giant abattoir. This year, according to the Animal Protection Institute, 5.3 million foxes, 36 million minks, 100,000 polecats, 70,000 chinchillas, 330,000 nutrias, 352,000 seals, 4 million Persian lambs, and hundreds of thousands of sable, plus millions of leather-producing cows, will be butchered around the world just to satisfy the seemingly-insatiable human lust for real fur coats, stoles, hats, and leather coats and shoes. While many of these animals meet their fates for the sake of other occasions than Christmas, a disproportionate share are feeling Herod’s sword.
To anyone who has ever visited a turkey, pig, or chicken farm, Christmas and Thanksgiving take on a whole new meaning. Every single day during the run-up to these festivals, thousands of bewildered, de-beaked, growth-hormone-saturated, inorganic birds are hung upside down on assembly-line racks and given electric shocks. Then their throats are slit and they are dropped into pots of boiling water.
After they are cooked and on the table, a few poor dead animals do have an opportunity to take revenge on their human persecutors. According to one health expert, day-old turkey contains more than 2100 separate strains of bacteria. Even washing a turkey before cooking it just helps to spread all these bugs around the kitchen.
Christmas introduces seasonal fluctuations into the demand for money, and may also lead to a seasonal slump in labor productivity.
Christmas is the peak season for carrying big bills around in the wallet, and cash is also a very popular Christmas gift. The volume of currency in circulation peaks each year in December, then declines by 4 to 5 percent. As noted below, this probably helps to stimulate robberies at this time of year. It also forces the US Federal Reserve and the banking system to work hard to supply all this currency, and to cushion the resulting cycles in money demand.
As for work force productivity, many American companies completely shut down for the two-week period from Christmas to New Year’s. Even those that remain open often find that on-the-job performance suffers because of seasonal high jinks and absenteeism. Armies of illegal aliens from Mexico and Central America also sneak back across the border to their homelands just to visit their families at Christmas time – a costly subterranean migration that may be touching, but deprives us of cheap labor.
Meanwhile, our Asian competitors – except for the Philippines and South Korea, which have large Christian populations -- are insulated from these Christmas-induced distortions. They continue beavering away while we party.
Far from being “the season to be jolly,” Christmas is really the season of sadness and despair.
The season’s compulsory merriment, hyper-commercialism, heavy drinking, and undue media emphasis on the idealized, two-child, two-parent, orthodox Christian family makes those who don’t happen to share such lifestyles or religious sentiments feel left out, lonely, and even somewhat un-American.
Even in so-called normal families, media hype about the season’s merriments raises expectations beyond reasonable levels, and sets up many of us for disappointment. According to a leading East Coast psychiatrist, many women exhaust themselves trying to meet both the demands of full-time jobs and more traditional expectations about what holidays are supposed to be like - in many cases, established by their (non-working) mothers.
There is also a great deal of emotional stress associated with overspending and involuntary displays of affection. While it is apparently a popular myth that US suicide rates are higher during the holiday season, police, psychiatrists, and hospitals do report that there is a dramatic rise in alcoholic “slips,” drug overdoses, domestic quarrels, hotline calls, and emergency medical calls at this time of year. “Any redolent setting can be very sad for people who don’t have a dancing partner,” says the psychiatrist. “Christmas is one of those times.”
Christmas is one of the most hazardous times of the year for humans and our pets.
The combination of trees, lights, blazing hearths, yuletide passion, and other indoor festivities results in more household fires at this time of year than any other. The fire department in Washington, D.C., reports that fire calls in December are 40 percent above its monthly average; New York City had 2,600 residential fires last December, as compared with a 2,300-per-month average.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, December is the peak month for drunk driving and “DWI” arrests, which totaled 1.5 million last year. It is also the peak month for accidents-because of drunkenness, congestion, and bad weather - with more than 585,000 last year, compared with a monthly average of only 527,000.
In the three days around Christmas last year, 513 people died on the nations highways. The only consolation is that last year’s Thanksgiving was even worse, with 560 deaths. Of course bad weather is a compounding factor. For those of us in colder climes, life would be much easier if we could at least agree to observe Christmas in the summer, when the lutefisk is ripe.
December is also the peak month of the year for robberies, and a pretty good month for auto theft and burglary, too. Police suspect that much of this property crime is because many criminals are also motivated by the need to fill their families’ stockings. December also has a disproportionate number of murders -- almost 1500 last year – and aggravated assaults, many of which are committed by friends and families against each other in the course of holiday revels. “Christmas is a crazy season,” says one former police chief. “It’s a potpourri of emotional extremes -- either extremely quiet, or all hell breaks loose. There are more assaults, bar-room brawls, and family altercations.”
Excessive eating and drinking are used to compensate for all these Christmas tribulations. According to the Distilled Spirits Counsel and the Department of Agriculture, in the six short weeks from Thanksgiving through New Year’s, last year we consumed more than $20 billion of alcohol - including 109 million gallons of hard liquor - plus more than 2 billion pounds of turkey, and a huge quantity of ham, cookies, pies, eggnog, stuffing, plum pudding, and other trimmings.
All this indulgence does little for the nation’s waistline: the Christmas season is the single most important contributor to obesity. The average American consumes at least 3,500-5000 calories at Christmas Day dinner alone, a three-days supply of calories.
Naturally, January is the peak month for diet plans, many of which end up in failure and despair. This helps to account for the recent trend toward obesity in America – at last count, 65 percent of all American adults and 16 percent of all children were overweight.
Other Hazards to Adults
There are also many products associated with Christmas that are especially hazardous. For example, among those that are potentially very harmful to pets and small children are angel hair (spun glass), artificial snow (poisonous), plants like holly, ivy, mistletoe and poinsettia, the Christmas Rose, the Christmas Cactus, dieffenbachia, Lily, the Star of Bethlehem, Yew, Jerusalem Cherry, Hibiscus, and Jequirity Bean; tree decorations like tinsel, metal hooks, ornaments, and glass balls, candles, ribbons, aluminum foil, pine cones, and other packaging, electronic lights, turkey bones, and chocolate.
Furthermore, a high fraction of candles still have lead wires in their wicks, and many aromatherapy candles produce carcinogenic soot.
There is also a sharp increase in the number of household accidents at Christmas time, from scalded fingers and sliced thumbs to scissor stabs, bike spills, and ladder accidents. All this produces a sharp increase in Christmas-related hospital admissions each year. Among the vintage Christmas accidents reported recently:
1. Turkeys exploding in microwave ovens;
2. Children and pets swallowing Christmas tree bulbs whole;
3. Painful glass cuts resulting from attempts to Xerox one’s lower extremities at the annual office party;
4. Children who ran into the street and were hit by cars while their parents were distracted by Christmas shopping;
5. The fellow who drowned after he tried to walk on the “ice” – actually, open water -- after a few holiday party drinks.
6. The fellow who tied a rope to the family car and around his waist, then climbed up on the roof and started down the chimney with presents. Unfortunately, he neglected to tell his wife, who got in the car and drove off.
7. The unfortunate would-be Chinese immigrant whose body was recently discovered in a shipping container filled with artificial Christmas trees.
8. The fellow whose sweater caught on fire when he fell into a tree with lit candles.
9. The 5800 other Americans who suffered injuries last year while decorating their Christmas trees – all of which were serious enough to require visits to the emergency room;
From a distributional standpoint, Christmas aggravates social and economic inequality.
This is because almost all gift-giving at Christmas time takes place within the family, or at least within the same social class, and doesn’t reach the folks who really need our help.
In fact, Salvation Army drum-beating aside, Christmas almost certainly reduces our capacity for charity, by draining us of wealth that might otherwise be given to the truly needy, and by exhausting our charitable impulses in costly bouts of spending, getting, and giving to “we happy few.” Having just spent thousands on gifts and dinners for Muffy, Ben, Mom, and the kids, we are not eager to make sizeable contributions to perfect strangers, no matter how deserving.
Presumably this is not the outcome that the Person for whom this holiday was named would prefer.
SUMMARY – STICK A FORK IN IT
Overall, the message is clear: Christmas is hazardous to our health and safety, imposes a huge efficiency tax on the economy, and does little to further social justice.
Furthermore, these harms may well be growing. An analysis of long-term changes in the seasonality of the US economy suggests that the Christmas buying season has been getting longer, more costly, and more intense.
Of course, Christmas commercialism really is a rather modern innovation. The ancient Christians did not even observe the holiday until the fifth century. Medieval Christians observed it much more modestly, and the Puritans quite sensibly refused to celebrate it at all. Only in the last fifty years, with the perfection of mass-market advertising, department store merchandising, and the commercialization and expansion of pop-Christianity, has Christmas become such a command performance.
In short, from a purely economic and social standpoint, Christmas is an experiment that has been tried and found wanting. In a sense, it has become the flipside of the positive contribution that the “Protestant Ethic” once made to capitalism: Christianity’s second highest holiday now almost certainly makes most of us worse off.
What is to be done? We have a modest proposal: a 3- to 5-year moratorium on the whole affair, to let us pay our bills and recover some of the fellow feeling that we’ve lost. After this interval, we can evaluate the “lessons learned” and the economic impacts again, and devise a new celebration strategy.
This may sound like tough medicine, especially to youngsters. It will also probably offend the many interest groups that have acquired a large commercial stake in this ritual, from bulb manufacturers and tree floggers to ambulance drivers, bar tenders, Park Avenue door men, professional Santas, tinsel makers, and booze peddlers.
But the truth is that the rest of us can no longer afford it. If we celebrate this holiday at all this year, we should do so mainly because it is over for one more year.
**This is an update and revision of an article by the author that first appeared as a cover story for The New Republic on December 31, 1990. Research assistance by Andrew Hellman. © Submerging Markets™, 2004.
Wednesday, September 22, 2004
Democracy in America and Elsewhere: Part III: How the US Stacks Up: - A. Qualifying Voters
We certainly wish President Bush much greater success than President Woodrow Wilson, who saw his own favorite proposal to “make the world safe for democracy,” the Versailles Treaty, throttled by Republican Senators who opposed the League of Nations, and suffered a stroke in the ensuing battle.
Knowing President Bush, he will probably not be dissuaded from his mission by this unhappy history, or by the fact that many other world leaders, like France's Chirac and Brazil's Lula, are now much more concerned about fighting global poverty and taxing "global bads" like arms traffic, anonymous capital in offshore havens -- an idea we first proposed in the early 1990s -- and environmental pollution than they are about neo-Wilsonian evangelism.
Before proceeding any farther with this latest American crusade to sow democracy abroad, however, it may be helpful to examine how the US itself really stacks up as a “democracy," relative to "best democratic practices" around the world.
One approach to this subject would be to start off with a comparison with other leading First World democracies like the UK or France. After all, at the outset, one might think that only such countries have the well-educated, politically-engaged citizenry, political traditions, affluence, and technical know-how needed to implement truly state-of-the-art democratic processes.
However, following the lead of former President Jimmy Carter’s brief comparative analysis of Peru in 2001, we find it more interesting to see how the US compares with younger developing democracies that lack all these advantages – much less access to the yet-to-be-created UN Democracy Fund.
In our case, we’ve chosen Brazil, the world’s sixth most populous country, with 180 million inhabitants, two-thirds of South America’s economic activity, a federal system and a long history of slavery (like the US).
As we’ll see, our overall finding is that while Brazil’s democracy has plenty of room for improvement, it already boasts a much more democratic electoral system than the United States of America.
While Brazil’s electoral institutions are by no means perfect, and its campaign finance laws and federal structure have many of the same drawbacks as the US, it has recently been working very hard to improve these institutions. I
Indeed, it turns out that Brazil is making remarkable progress toward effective representative democracy, especially for a country with enormous social problems, a high degree of economic and social inequality, and a per capita income just one third of the US level
Brazil’s new democracy provides a striking contrast along many dimensions – in particular, the processes and structures by which it (1) qualifies voters, (2) conducts campaigns, (3) administers voting, and (4) provides fair representation of voter preferences. The following essay focuses in on the first of these elements; the sequel will deal with the others.
1. Mandatory Voting/Registration
Actually “mandatory voting” is a misnomer – people are just required to show up at a polling station or consular office and submit a vote, which can be blank. There are fines for violators who lack valid excuses, like illness.
Brazil adopted mandatory voting in part to overcome the apathy induced by more than two decades of military rule. It is just one of many countries that have mandatory voting, including Australia, Belgium, Cyprus, Greece, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, one Swiss canton, Egypt, Fiji, Singapore, Thailand, Argentina, Bolivia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Uruguay, and Venezuela.
Mandatory voting in Brazil is facilitated by the fact that, as in 82 other countries, all Brazilians age 18 or over are required to obtain a national identity card, with their photo, fingerprint, signature, place and date of birth, and parents’ names.
These cards, which are now becoming digital, are needed to qualify for government services and to conduct financial and legal transactions. They also enable cardholders to vote at polling booths anywhere in the country, eliminating the need for a separate, costly voter registration process.
To encourage voter turnout, Brazil also makes Election Day a national holiday, and often holds its elections on Sundays. Any eligible voter may be required to assist for free at the polls.
Mandatory voting, plus Brazil’s proportional representation system (See Part IIIB), have yielded voter turnouts in recent national elections that have routinely exceeded 75 percent of the voting-age population (VAP).
By comparison, US voter turnouts have recently averaged less than 45 percent of the VAP.
Brazil’s mandatory system has also had many other benefits. It has probably increased turnout the most among social groups that have much less access to education and income, thereby boosting their “voice” in the political system. It has also placed pressure on public authorities to implement efficient voting procedures, and shifted responsibility for registration and turnout away from Brazil’s political parties, allowing them to focus on campaigning.
As one might expect, mandatory voting does produce slightly more blank votes as a proportion of all votes than we see in US elections. But the system also seems to have made voting more habitual.
Some countries, like Austria and the Netherlands, have recently abandoned the practice, and Brazil is also considering this, now that the population has re-acquired the voting habit. As Brazil matures, especially given its use of proportional representation, it may well be able to follow in the footsteps of these other countries and eliminate mandatory voting without sacrificing high turnout.
The US. Voting is entirely voluntary in the US, and there are no national identity cards or centralized voter registration systems. Originally, many states viewed voter registration as undemocratic. But in the course of the 19th century, growing concerns over vote fraud, combined with the desire in some states to curb voting by blacks and the lower classes, led to the widespread adoption of stricter voter registration laws. By now, every state but North Dakota requires voters to “register” before they can “vote.” US elections are also never held on Sundays, nor is Election Day a national holiday.
As we’ll examine closer in Part IIIB, the US’ “winner-take-all” electoral system is also highly inefficient, with more than 95 percent of all Congressional incumbents now re-elected, and almost all US House and Senate races now a foregone conclusion. So US voters are naturally not eager to participate in such “Potemkin” elections, which are approaching Soviet-like party reelection rates (though the US does have TWO Soviet-like parties.)
None of this has helped to encourage voter turnout. Not surprisingly, therefore, for the entire period 1948-1998, US voter turnout averaged just 48.3 percent as a share of VAP, and ranked 114th in the world. This was the lowest level among all OECD countries -- forty percent lower than the average turnouts recorded in First World countries like Germany, Italy, Sweden, and New Zealand. Even if we omit the 17 countries like Brazil with mandatory voting, it is hard to make this track record look like an achievement.
One can argue that relatively low turnout is precisely the point. Indeed, participation by ordinary Americans in their political system has always been a bit trifle unwelcome. For example, just 6 percent of all American citizens – 20 percent of whom were slaves -- participated in George Washington’s election in 1789. This was mainly because most state legislatures at the time had decreed that voters had to be white, propertied, male, Protestant and at least 21 years old. Studies of 19th century voter turnout in the South also show that turnout, which once exceeded 60 percent in the 1880s, plummeted sharply in the next 30 years under the impact of tougher registration laws that targeted black voters. To this day, the Neo-Republican South still boasts the lowest turnout rates and highest black population shares in the country.
Some cynics argue that low US turnout rates are just a sign of how deeply “satisfied” American voters are with the way things are. However, these turnout rates have declined sharply over the last three decades, at a time when it is hard to believe that Americans have become more and more satisfied with their political system.
In 1968, for example, 73.2 million Americans voted, a 61 percent turnout level. Thirty years later, in 1998, the number of Americans who voted was still just 73 million -- despite the fact that US population had increased by 40 percent.
Beyond voting, as of 2002, one US citizen in three (33.6 percent) did not even bother to register to vote. And that proportion was higher than it was in 1993, when Congress passed the National Voter Registration Act, which was intended to facilitate voter registration.
Evidently a majority of American voters have now become so “satisfied” that they no longer choose to participate in it at all. According to this bogus "apathy" theory of non-registration, the most “satisfied” groups of all must be blacks, other minorities, youth, the poor, and residents of Southern states, whose turnout rates are all miserably low.
In 2002, in four states (Texas, West Virginia, Indiana, and Virginia), less than 40 percent of all eligible citizens of voting age voted. Of 24 million Americans between the ages of 18 and 24, 38 percent registered, and 4.7 million, or 19.3 percent, voted. Just 27 percent of unemployed citizens, 30 percent of Hispanic citizens, 30 percent of Asian American citizens, 30 percent of the 35 million disabled Americans, 35 percent of all women ages 18 to 44, 37 percent of high school graduates, and 42 percent of all black citizens voted.
In fact, as we’ll examine later, there are very important structural reasons that help to explain why these groups fail to register or vote.
In the case of black males, for example, prisoner and ex-felon disenfranchisement may account for a substantial fraction of their relatively low participation rates. And 70 percent of those who registered and didn’t bother to vote in 2002 blamed logistical problems – transportation, schedule conflicts, absence from home, registration problems, homelessness (2.3-3.5 million adult Americans, depending on the year), the failure to get an absentee ballot on time, inconvenient polling places, or illness (including 44% of non-voting registrants age 65 or older).
All these obstacles affect poorer, less educated, older voters more than others. Most of them might easily be addressed with improved voting technology, if this country’s leaders, despite their putative concern for democratization around the world, were really serious about implementing democracy at home.
Meanwhile, in 1998, some 83 million Brazilians voted – 5 million more than in the entire US, which has about 100 million more citizens. Brazil’s voter turnout increased dramatically since the 1960s, from 37 percent of VAP in 1962 to an average of more than 80 percent in 1994-2002. In 2002, while 88 million Americans were proudly exercised their right to vote, so were 91 million Brazilians – for an 81 percent turnout. On the “satisfaction” theory, all these Brazilians must be nostalgic for the dictatorship.
After the 2002 Congressional elections, some US political pundits were impressed because voter turnout had increased slightly, from 41.2 percent in 1998 to 42.3 percent (46.1 percent of all citizens).
From an international perspective, however, that merely put the US on a par with Haiti and Pakistan –- just half of Brazil’s level.
Overall, the US trends described here are hardly indicative of “voter satisfaction.” Rather, they are a very disturbing sign that there are deep structural impediments to voting in America. Furthermore, the grass roots organizing power that has always been essential for getting out the vote in this country, much of it supplied by parties and unions, may have been waning.
From this angle, it will be very interesting to see whether this November’s contest, and the elaborate new organizing drives that have been mounted to increase US voter turnout and registration, will reverse these trends. No doubt turnout will be higher than it was in the dismal 2002 off-year election, but that's not saying very much. A more telling indicator will be to see whether turnout surpasses the (relatively modest) 59 percent median VAP turnout rate that the US recorded in nine Presidential elections over the whole period 1968-2000. We would love to see it happen, but since that would amount to a 10 percent improvement over the turnouts recorded in 1996 and 2000, we doubt it will happen.
2. Voting Rights for Prisoners and Ex-Felons
Brazil. Disenfranchising prisoners and ex-felons is unfortunately a longstanding, widespread departure from “one person, one vote” -- a legacy of the age-old practice of ex-communicating social outcasts. Worldwide, there is a growing trend toward discarding this medieval practice, with 32 countries now allowing all prisoners to vote and 23 more that allow certain classes of them to do so.
Brazil is one of 54 countries that prohibit prisoners from voting while they are in jail, but it permits them to vote after they are released, or are on parole or probation.
The US. The American approach to prisoner voting is much more restrictive than Brazil's. All but 2 (Vermont and Maine) of the 50 states disenfranchise all incarcerated prisoners, including those awaiting trial. Thirty-four states disenfranchise all felons on parole, while thirty disenfranchise those on probation.
Furthermore, the US is one of only 8 countries where ex-felons are temporarily or permanently disenfranchised even after they have completed their sentences, unless they successfully petition the authorities to have their voting rights restored. In 7 US states, felons are disenfranchised for several years after serving their sentences – for example, 5 years in Delaware, or 3 years in Maryland. In 3 states – Arizona, Maryland, and Nevada -- recidivists are permanently disenfranchised. And in 7 other states – Alabama, Nebraska, Kentucky, Mississippi, and the “battleground states” of Iowa, Florida, and Virginia – all ex-felons are permanently disenfranchised.
Many of these rules date back to the Ante-Bellum period of the 1880s, when they were enacted by Southern and border states to maintain control over the newly-freed blacks -- contrary to the spirit of the 15th Amendment.
The impact of prisoner and ex-felon disenfranchisement on electoral outcomes is much greater in the US than Brazil, because of the electoral college system and the size, composition and location of the US convict population. Indeed, while Brazil's prison system is horribly overcrowded, its entire prison population is just 285,000 inmates -- .2% of Brazil’s voting-age population.
The US, in contrast, now has the world’s highest proportion of its population in prisons, jail, on probation or parole, or under correctional supervision, outside jail. As of August 2004, this “correctional population” totaled 7.2 million adults, 3.3% of the US VAP. Relative to population, as well as in absolute terms, this is the largest US prison population ever. It is also by far the largest prison population in the world, well ahead of the US’ closest competitors, China and Russia.
There are also another 3.2 million American citizens – 1.4% of the US VAP -- who have served time in state or federal prison for felonies and are no longer in correctional programs. Depending on their states of residence, they may be subject to the voting restrictions imposed on former felons in the US.
Both these totals have soared since 1980 because of stiffer drug laws and sentencing laws -- the “correctional” population as share of VAP has almost tripled, from 1.17% to 3.3%. (See Figure 3A-1.) (See Figure 3A-1.)
Furthermore, compared with 1980, when a majority of state and federal prison inmates were serving time for violent crimes, a majority are now either awaiting trial because they cannot afford bail, or are serving time for non-violent offenses, more than a quarter of which were relatively minor drug-related offenses.
Drug Offenses and Disenfranchisement. As other analysts have recently noted, such drug offenses rarely involve “victims,” and there is a high degree of prosecutorial discretion. This makes them especially vulnerable to racially-discriminatory arrest practices. For example, recent studies of drug arrest rates show that black arrest and conviction rates for drug-related offenses are way out of proportion to drug use in the black community, and that the disparity between black and white arrest rates for drug use has been soaring because of policing practices, not because of greater underlying criminality.
The resulting steep rise in the US prison population since the 1980s provides a strong contrast with European countries and leading developing countries, where per capita prison populations have been stable or even declining. Not surprisingly, the disparity is also consistent with the fact that Europe’s drug laws are much less punitive.
Unemployment Impacts.The increase in the US correctional population as a share of the population since 1980 has not only reduced the ranks of poorer voters. It has also reduced the size of the “observed” civilian labor force and the official US unemployment rate by 18-20 percent. In other words, the US unemployment rate in July 2004, for example, would have been 6.43 percent, not the official 5.43 percent reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. So without this swollen prison population, there would now be more than 10 million unemployed in the US – at least 2.2 million more than the official statistics show, and more than enough to swamp any alleged “job growth” in the last year.
So US penal policies have not only removed a huge number of prisoners from the ranks of potential voters. They have also helped to disguise the seriousness of the US economy’s rather tepid recovery.
And some of us thought the point of the US’ punitive drug laws was to reduce drug trafficking! (Note to reader: US real retail cocaine prices have plummeted since the 1980s. See Figure 3A-2.)
While it is not easy to measure the impact that US prisoner disenfranchisement has had on recent elections, it may have been substantial, as several analysts have recently noted. For example, one recent study estimated that in 2000, more than 3.0 million prisoners, parolees, and probationers, plus 1.5- 1.7 million ex-felons, were formally disenfranchised – 2.1% of the US voting age population. Another recent study of prisoner disenfranchisement in the state of Georgia found that 13% of adult black males were disenfranchised by this policy, and that it explained nearly half the voter registration gap between black males and non-black males.
There were also another 358,000 who had been jailed awaiting trial, and 218,000 more who had been jailed on misdemeanor charges. All these people were also effectively disenfranchised.
All told, during the 2000 Presidential race, the total number of potential American citizen/voters who were disenfranchised because of the US penal system and its archaic laws was about 5 million. Since the numbers have continued to grow since then, by now they have reached 5.5 – 5.8 million.
As other commentators have noted, this policy is also practically unique -- no other putative “democracy” comes anywhere close to this kind of systematic vote deprivation.
No doubt there are some determined ex-felons, parolees, and probationers who manage to slip through and vote even in states that prohibit them from doing so. Many others would not vote even if given the chance. However, even apart from the question of whether such harsh treatment encourages better behavior, this disenfranchisement policy is far from politically neutral:
Texas alone has at least 500,000 ex-felons and more than 200,000 prisoners and other inmates who have been disenfranchised, the overwhelming majority of whom are black or Hispanic.
Of Florida’s 13.4 million people of voting age, at least 600,000 to 850,000 prisoners, parolee/probationers, and ex-felons, have been disenfranchised by such voter registration laws, including at least one-fifth of all adult black males who reside there. Other battleground states, including New Mexico, Virginia, Iowa and Washington, have also used such laws to disenfranchise 15-25 of their adult black male populations.
All told, the top 15 battleground states account for at least 1.4 to 1.6 million excluded potential prison/ ex-felon votes this year. Combined with US’ knife-edged “winner take all” electoral system, this is clearly a very important policy choice.
Furthermore, in states like Florida, Texas, Mississippi, and Virginia, the opportunity to purge thousands of minority voter from the polls in the search for “ex-felons” has opened the doors to many other abuses.
For example, in 2000, there was the notorious purge by Florida’s Republican Secretary of State of 94,000 supposed “felons.” It later turned out that this number included more than 50,000 blacks and Hispanics, but just 3,000 actual ex-felons.
One might have hoped that one such flagrant anti-democratic maneuver would have been enough. But that was followed attempts by Florida’s Republican state administration to do the very same thing again in 2002 and again this year, when Florida tried to use another “bogus felons” list with another 40,000 names.
From this angle, all of the many arguments over Nader’s candidacy, “hanging chads,” and the narrow 537 vote margin by which Bush carried that state in 2000, were side-shows.
We are reminded of the Reconstruction period from 1867 to 1877, when Florida and 8 other Southern states had to be put under military occupation by the US Government, to prevent the white elites’ systematic attempts to deprive freed slaves of their voting and other civil rights. By the late 1870s, Northern passions toward the South had cooled, the Union troops left, and white-supremacist governments reacquired power. Unfortunately, unlike the 1860s, the “Radical Republicans” in Congress now side with the closet supremacists.
Counting Prisoners for Apportionment.The punitive US policy toward current and former prisoners appears even more bizarre, once we take into account the fact that for purposes of redistricting, the US Census – unlike Brazil – counts prison and jail inmates as residents of the counties where the prisoners are incarcerated, rather than the inmates’ home towns.
In general, this approach to counting prisoners for districting purposes tilts strongly in favor of rural Southern and Western states – areas that also now happen to vote Republican. (See Figure 3A-3), It has an important impact on the apportionment of Congressional seats and seats in state legislatures, the allocation of federal funds to Congressional districts, and the total number of electoral college votes that each state receives. It also creates a huge, influential, coalition of interests -- construction companies, prison administrators and guards, and politicians -- that mounts to a “politician-prison-industrial complex,” with powerful selfish motives to support tough sentencing laws and the construction of new prisons and jails.
The resulting combination of disenfranchisement and malapportionment recalls the “three-fifths compromise” that was built into the US Constitution in 1787, to accommodate the original six Southern slave states, where slaves constituted more than forty percent of the population. Under this provision, even though slaves could not vote, they were counted as three-fifths of a person, for purposes of determining each state’s Congressmen and Presidential electors.
Given this provision, it was no accident that 7 of the first 8 US Presidents were Virginian slave owners. This exaggerated Southern political power, entrenched by the anti-democratic electoral college, had disastrous consequences – it made resolving the problem of slavery without a regional civil war almost impossible. (Contrast Brazil’s relatively peaceful abolition of slavery.) From this perspective, the electoral college and prisoner disenfranchisement are both just throwbacks to America’s “peculiar institution,” slavery. As John Adams wrote in 1775,
All our misfortune arise(s) from a single source, the reluctance of the Southern colonies to republican government….The difficulties lie in forming constitutions for particular colonies and a continental constitution for the whole…This can only be done on popular principles and maxims which are so abhorrent to the inclinations of the barons of the South and the proprietary interests of the middle colonies…..
In a sense, the modern analog is even worse: prisoners can’t vote either, but they count as one whole person in the districts where they are imprisoned, for purposes of redistricting. In general, this approach to counting prisoners for districting purposes tilts strongly in favor of rural Southern and Western states – areas which also now happen to vote Republican.
Surprisingly, illegal immigrants are also included in the US Census count for redistricting purposes. Depending on where immigrants locate, this may reinforce the prisoner effect in some key states. The US illegal immigrant population has also been growing rapidly, with a Census-estimated 7.7 - 8.9 million illegals in the US by 2000, compared with about 3.5 million in 1990. According to the INS, two-thirds are concentrated in just five states – California, Texas, New York, Illinois, and Florida. However, unlike prisoners, estimating where illegal immigrants are located is much more uncertain. So the US policy of including non-voting illegals in the Census for purposes of drawing voting districts is also very peculiar.
Brazil. To encourage young people to get involved in politics, Brazil gives those who are 16 or 17 the right (but not the duty) to vote. This measure increases Brazil’s VAP by abou 6 percent. Brazil argues that a relatively low voting age is consistent with the spirit of the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child. It also argue that this youth vote acknowledges the basic fact that a majority of 16-17 year olds (in both Brazil and the US) pay taxes and can marry, drive, and be tried as adults, so they ought to be able to vote. So far Brazil has only been joined in this experiment by a handful of other countries, including Indonesia (age 17), Cuba (16), Iran (15), and Nicaragua (16). But the UK is now also seriously considering teen voting.
The US. The minimum voting age in the US has been 18 since 1971, when the 26th Amendment was adopted. A few states (Maine, California) have recently considered reducing the voting age below 18, but so far voting rights for 16-17 year-olds, much less the more radical proposal to let children of all ages vote, has not taken off. Obviously this cause has not been strengthened by abysmal voter turnout levels by 18-24 year old Americans in recent elections.
Sunday, June 27, 2004
"Letters from the New World:" Fighting Corruption at Eye Level in Nigeria
Whenever we talk Nigeria, we talk corruption. The two go together. Finland, ice and cellphones. Israel, strife. Australia, complacency and kangeroos. When you talk Nigeria, corruption is the first thing that comes up.
Try it. Tell people “I’m going to Nigeria.” Four out of five responses will give you detail, usually second-hand, about the necessity of spreading your dollars through different pockets in different denominations. From there they’ll go into horror-stories about corruption.
I found my first trip to Nigeria challenging. Scary, too, but that was a different thing. When the captain said: “We’re commencing the descent” I clutched my wallet. The scare starts fading once reality replaces rumour, but the challenge doesn’t fade at all.
Corruption is one of the main reasons why Africa spent its first half-century of liberation heading, on statistical averages, backwards. Another major one is Indigenisation, Transformation, or whatever the name is for shoving wrong people into wrong roles. Indigenisation is tricky to deal with, and the real answer still awaits.
Corruption is not tricky at all. The simple answer is: don’t do it. To me that’s the sole answer. It’s ingrained. I can’t pay a bribe, any more than I can kill an animal or fling a bottle. The neurons are just programmed another way. Which poses a certain fluttering of the pulse when one is landing in Lagos, stocked high with dire warnings. But I remind myself that visitors to Johannesburg, too, are warned direly about our corruption, whilst I who live in Johannesburg remain a virgin after all these years – apart from sandwiches and cold-drinks.
Initially a little teeth-gritting is required, to take the same approach to Lagos, but it settles. By the time the first guy outright demanded a bribe (“because I am the one who is in charge of your baggage, heh, heh, heh…”) I was emboldened. All he got from me was two short traditional words.
I recognise that it’s hollow to sound holy when all you’re risking is a suitcase of used clothes, or the R500 fine for phoning while you drive. I admit I have no bosses to sack me if I fail to secure the contract,
no shareholders to re-deploy me as Deputy Manager of the Jammerdrif depot.
Still, the principle is not much different: Most times that you give the bribe-seeker short words he backs down. The times he doesn’t, it’s better to suffer the consequences than to hammer another nail into the coffin of your continent’s aspirations. In which light, the way that the going-into-Africa discussion usually plays out can be depressing.
It starts well, invariably. “We’re all Africans now, isn’t it wonderful. And you should see how much good we’re doing!”
They are, too. And it is spectacular, often. On Monday the housewives of Ndola are buying scrawny ox-shank, little more than bone with hair, chowed on for a week by 10,000 flies. They’re buying baked beans in rusted tins, a year after sell-by. They’re paying three times the price that their privileged southern sisters pay for first-class merchandise at our fancy Cresta or Cavendish supermarkets.
On Tuesday the new South African supermarket opens its doors. By Friday, Ndola is dancing to a new tune. The city is galvanised. Everybody has to give service, give value, wake up. On a March visit to a provincial capital, the dinner options are a suspicious unnameable stew on a sweltering dusty roadside, or a two-star menu at a five-star hotel with the seven-star tariff designed for the expense accounts of the aid brigade (who keep the aircon on frigid to remind them of home). In April a South African chain introduces middle-class eating at middle class prices. By July the city is holding its head higher.
Similar processes occur in every industry from brick machines to water meters. Good is being done, no two ways. But then the question the question comes up: “and, er, ahem, how do you handle the matter of adaptation to local mores?” There is a common answer to that question: “Oh, no, no, no. No corruption for us. We know that corruption causes ruin and destruction. We have no part in it, except of course when absolutely necessary.”
There is also the increasingly fashionable answer: “You know, we do have to grow into African ways. The time for arrogance is over now. We must mature into an acceptance that our sectional traditions are not universal.”
Then there is the answer that nobody gives unless he’s absolutely certain you are never going to quote him: “Why should I worry? That country is a total stuff-up anyway. If I can give some guy a million rand and make ten million in return, what do you think?”
Finally there is the still small voice that says: “No, on no account do we do it.” You hear that voice not often, and believe it less often. When you do believe it, perhaps because you know the people concerned especially well and repose in them a special faith, it is jolting indeed to find that the rumour factory is thick with alleged inside tales that place your faith under constant question.
The net result is disappointing, especially at the times that I am revelling in the magnificent welcome that tropical Africa addresses to Seffricans of the paler kind. Tropical Africa addresses magnificent welcomes to most people in most circumstances, but they have an added knack of making the whiteys from “South” as they call it, feel like a long lost brother.
You’re taken as a member of the family – a fairly pushy member, perhaps, rich in annoying habits, but in some way one of us, something more than solely a buccaneer on the profit trail. You’re a curiosity factor as well, and you’re assumed to be – potentially, at least – a handily systematic sort of character, the long lost brother who maintained the household inventory and made sure the insurance premiums were paid.
It’s a delightful combination. Not for nothing does every second SA expat go on and on about being wanted, being needed, being befriended, being loved (in the intervals between going on and on about not being robbed).
The prospects are wonderful, moving, emotional. A continent actually moving upward, after fifty years of empty talk about moving upward; moving upward and forward and with us, us, the once untouchable white South Africans, in there and part of it, in the engine room, the galley, the bridge, the lot.
Unfortunately that vista gets harder to glimpse as time goes by. Reality intrudes. I look at the heavy hands that RSA brings into the rescue of this or that failing African mine or plant or factory. I look at the hubris “stand aside, mere locals; we’re very friendly, as you see, calling us Jack and Joe and not ‘Bwana’ any more, but we’re in charge again so keep out of our way.” I look at the sickening crass insensitivity; the pulling of rank, sometimes unwitting; the disinterest in learning the barest syllable of even French or Portuguese, let alone Swahili or Hausa; the fervour to adopt every management fad emanating from New York or LA.
The pioneers carrying business to the tropics could and should be our heroes, our champions. Too often they become embarrassments. The many lesser embarrassments could usefully be discussed.
The one big embarrassment is not susceptible to much discussion. A culture of corruption means a pathetic nation; that is no more arguable than that the sun comes up in the east, and a critical mass of pathetic nations means a continued pathetic continent.
There’s sabotage in there.
Some foreign companies that have recently tried to enter Nigeria, like Shell and Halliburton, have apparently been following this well-trodden road to perdition. But there are signs of hope. A few others, like Vodafone, have recently been told by their shareholders to refuse to play at all unless they can play it straight.
Ironically, behind the closed doors of our cynical business community, it is Vodafone that gets the most ridicule. Indeed, almost wheresoever two or three businesspersons gather together in South Africa these days, one hears: “Look at these wussies, getting their asses whupped in Nigeria; buncha sissies calling themselves an African company, squealing ‘good governance’ because they’ve come short. What business did they have leaving just because they couldn’t play it straight? ”
Somebody’s got this upside-down. The real question we should be asking of is of those who stayed: “Precisely how did you manage to stay on and keep playing it straight?”
Friday, June 11, 2004
A Truly Great American Died This Week
Like Ellington, Basie, Armstrong, and Miles Davis, Ray's first and last love was his art. From age 3 right up to the end, he continued to perform and tour even when his body, racked by a plethora of ailments, wanted to quit. Without any apparent effort, he was an authentic optimist, an embodiment of hope and courage for all young people who begin life with seemingly insurmountable difficulties. He was not just a hero to Americans, but was revered in many other countries where jazz is popular, from Russia and France to Japan and Brazil.
From one standpoint Ray was “blind.” But he taught us the difference between being able to look and being able to see. Ray was the real thing. On this national day of mourning, we mourn Ray's loss.
(c) James S. Henry, SubmergingMarkets.com, 2003. Not for reproduction or other use without express consent from the author. All rights reserved.
Wednesday, June 02, 2004
"Letters from the New World" (Ukraine): #1.""Schwartzennation" - Microwave Democracy"
"SCHWARTZZENATION" - MICROWAVE DEMOCRACY
From where I sit, here in Kiev, it seems that the United States of America has become a nation of super-people. At the cost of a very few lives it has defeated an army of hundreds of thousands in Iraq, and occupied a country of 25 million. Like the Spanish conquistadors facing the Incas, America appears to be an era ahead of the rest of the world. And just like the Incas facing the conquistadors, the world is ambiguous towards America, fascinated yet fearful, trying democracy and Wrigley's Spearmint Gum for the first time.
If an American soldier dies in Iraq, every inhabitant of our planet learns about his death almost instantly: a giant falls with a thud. When a crowd of Iraqis carried the helmet of a dead American soldier it seemed like it took fifty of them to carry it. Yet like every giant from a fairy tale, the American giant has a vulnerability that may prove its undoing.
Historical eras are often distinguished from one another by technology, both industrial (how things are made) and social (how people interact). A key secret of America's economic and political advantages lies in its use of pioneering social technology, especially the concept of “win/win.”
There are countries where for every ten people who enable there are eight, ten, or twenty of those who destroy or impede. Per capita productivity in Russia is one tenth that of the US. Does this mean that a Russian can’t lift a five-pound sack of potatoes? No, it means that if a Russian wants to open a hot dog stand, a bandit and a tax collector immediately visit him. In America, one of your neighbors works to feed you and another to educate you. In Iraq, one neighbor spies on you and another teaches you hatred instead of arithmetic.
It is “win/win” social cooperation, supported by social values and a legal system that Americans often take for granted that opens the way for the introduction of new technology, not the reverse: industrial technology can be used only if your neighbors realize that your personal success will in turn help them advance their goals. America has long since accepted the basic premises of “win/win,” and this is what helps to make the American soldier grow a hundred feet tall.
But technology is a human attribute, not the essence of what a human being is all about. Technology, both social and scientific, has helped to make America successful, but America is in danger of neglecting human character, proposing solutions that are purely technical, and thus may well be inadequate.
This danger is nothing new. Paganism was a fascination with the technologies of nature: to be strong, people wore wolf's teeth or feather head-dresses. The Industrial Age worshiped the Machine Tool, a new God that produced everything, and people wanted to be like the Machine Tool's products: unanimous, marching in step, and wearing steel helmets. The Information Age proclaims: you are what you appear to be; ultimately it is all “bits and bytes.” If the celluloid Terminator can save the world, it follows that a human Arnold Schwarzenegger can save California. But is it really just a matter of technique and force?
If we compare a McDonald's to a French restaurant, we are likely to conclude that the McDonald's is cheaper, cleaner, faster, and friendlier. It is a triumph of technology, research, and training. The French restaurant has only two things going for it: you will not remember a McDonald's meal for the rest of your life, and you cannot propose at McDonald's. McDonald's stands for a satisfying technologically-assured result, but the French restaurant stands for life, whatever it is. McDonald's has a very useful role to play, but when it proposes itself as a substitute for a sit-down meal, there is a problem.
Too often, America says to the world, "Accept our technology because it is really works." And indeed it does usually “work”, but the world does not want to accept it - it prefers to keep its old ways of life. People want to be, not just to appear. America wants the world to wear a mask of "nice" and “new,” but the world wants to keep its tastes and traditions, its blemishes, its uncertainties, and even its vices. It is not that the world wants to remain "bad": the world simply resists the notion that every problem has a technological solution. The world may not be ready for such “solutions,” or it may believe that there are problems that await spiritual rather than technological solutions. The technocratic side of America seems to be saying, "If your marriage is unhappy it could only mean that your marriage contract was not elaborate enough," but the world sees this as technocratic madness, the worship of a new false pagan god, even in the midst of America’s purported “spiritual revival.”
Of course democracy can be a reasonable goal, be it for Canadians or for Afghans or Iraqis. But when democracy is presented as a ready-made technological solution – three minutes in the microwave, with a pickle and a smile - then people will refuse to swallow this prepackaged sandwich. The world wants to slaughter the lamb, skin it, and eat it with their hands.
The world resists American idea that politics (and art) are no longer about people, but about the application of various technologies – a democratic system of government being one of them. The Terminator saves the world not because he has the largest heart, but because, at the right moment, his guns make the greatest holes. The world sees this exclusion of people, with their hot beating hearts and their imperfect histories, as a serious threat.
India invented quiet contemplation and has congested, noisy streets; Britain invented good manners and reads the stolen letters of royalty; Russia stood for the soul elevated by beautiful literature, and so Russian prostitutes are the best-read in the world. The world abandons its values, and American culture pours in and rules. But the world understands that the American version of good is not good, and the stronger America becomes, the more it tries to impose its will, the more it will be resisted.
America should be extending its "win/win" spirit, which has been so successful at home, to its (belated) efforts to spread democracy abroad. It should not be turning itself into a fearsome giant that pretends that technology has made love, identity, and history obsolete. Just like in every fairy tale, at the end a single human child will defeat it.
Tuesday, June 01, 2004
"Letters from the New World (South Africa)." Denis Beckett #5:"Che Guevara vs. Paul Theroux on Africa"
CHE VS. THEROUX ON AFRICA
A t an airport bookshop I recently saw a strange paperback called The African Dream, purporting to be Che Guevara’s Congo diary. It had an odd cover and an odd imprint and I took it as a skit. Imagine, pretending that history’s most public revolutionary could have had a secret life in Africa, written up but then hidden away for forty years. Who were they kidding?
My flight to Kampala was called. I took up Paul Theroux’s new odyssey on Africa and got in the queue to pay for it. At the counter, in mid purchase, annoying the people behind, a whim overtook me. What was this nonsense about Che and Africa? I ran to grab it.
Two hours later my eyelids were heavy with Theroux. It was an okay book, but over-familiar. Once again, I felt, the sleepwalk about Africa. Treatment of it was so orthodox; one-dimensional: plucky poor continent trails behind the march of nations.
Were we horses in blinkers, seeing only centre-field? Africa is about extremes, both extremes. The warm acceptance of a Kampala bus against the social iceberg of a London train is not a trailing-behind, it’s a far-ahead. But when public policy turns farms that provided crops and livelihoods into wastelands, that is not trailing behind either. It’s sabotage, destruction by edict.
In Theroux, true to My Trip To Africa fashion, the glory was half recognised and the shambles half acknowledged. A new view was surely being born somewhere, to break logjams and shed blinkers, but so far the new view was behind a bush, sensed but not seen.
Putting Theroux in the seat pocket I encountered my other purchase, and took it up for a five-minute unravelling before falling asleep.
When we landed I was 200% awake and could not stop reading, even in the passport queue with heatsweat dripping on Che’s words.
Che’s African Dream is for real, and was suppressed. That’s because Che does not say of Africa what a good communist is meant to say, i.e., forward the oppressed. He says, in 244 pages: this place is hopeless beyond belief.
In due course the book will surely become an exhibit in re: understanding Africa. When it does, I foresee two consequences. One, an end to the radical-chic view of Che, replaced by deep respect. Two, a gear-change in thinking on Africa. Today’s issues, like colour coding and alien disposal, will be in Comedy Showcase. All hands will be on deck to get Joe Africa actually moving forward rather than being perpetually assured that he should be moving forward.
But due course is not tomorrow. This exhibit is too sore to behold, as yet. Finishing Che in the Speke Hotel that night, I thought that there’d be plays and movies based on his tale, in years ahead, well ahead, when Africa had become more interested in removing the causes of its inferiority complex than in denying the effects.
Monday, May 31, 2004
"Letters from the New World (South Africa)." Denis Beckett #4:""Kill Bill" Comes to Joburg"
KILL BILL COMES TO JOBURG
You’ve seen Kill Bill on the bus shelters – the blonde star in a grand prix tracksuit with a samurai sword. It’s all over the press, in phrases like “TARANTINO’S TRIUMPH -- PAGES 2, 3, 6 – 7, 10 & 12.” The word “brilliant” appears repeatedly, with superlatives, as in absolutely brilliant, amazingly brilliant, astoundingly brilliant.
The impression I got was of a violent movie, brilliantly handled so as to make the violence a light-hearted, merry kind of violence. Additional brilliance apparently lay in the “referencing” by which the film borrows techniques from prior films so filmgoers can have detective fun whispering “Look, Mabel! That’s from Slicing Off Noses, 1989.”
This was intriguing. If we in the print world “borrow”, we are called plagiarists and sent to the back doors of restaurants. The notion of cute violence left me a bit at sea. And I felt a pique on behalf of local films, to whom local ink is the difference between life and bankruptcy and who beg for attention. Was this Kill Bill that much better? I bought a movie ticket.
I lasted half an hour. I might have managed more if they provided sick-bags like on an airplane, but I’m not sure: I also had a pressing urge to shower, with lots of soap.
There were brilliant bits, I suppose. The gentle way a female voice sings the violent opening song is creepily brilliant. And the blood-splattering seemed sort of brilliantly done, the first dozen or so times. It splattered vividly, anyhow.
But I couldn’t see a basic, special brilliance, or what is brilliant in a mother being blood-splatteringly killed in front of her 4-year-old, or another mother being killed (with splatter) on the bed under which her daughter is hiding. Or in the daughter getting a turn to splat after “luckily”, I quote, discovering that her mother’s murderer is a pederast.
One scene imprinted itself: a male nurse hiring out the body of a comatose female patient, Vaseline thrown in leeringly. It’s effective, I grant, wedging like a gallstone in my memory lobe, but “brilliant”? I see sordid. I see sickening. I can’t see brilliant.
The world takes all kinds. Some people need brutality; it speeds their adrenalin. Fine, they’re welcome; rather have it on the screen than in the street (where if they saw a fraction of Kill Bill they’d be in trauma counselling for ten years.)
But these aren’t the only people. I might be a drip, a sissy and chicken, but I’m not unique. If I feel dirty watching this, so do other people, some of whom have been led to see this film as compulsory viewing, advancing mankind’s frontiers. Some are revolted but embarrassed to be revolted, and scared to admit they’re revolted. I think it’s they who laugh at the foulest scenes. Their heads say that what they’re watching is disgusting, but society says that what they’re watching is brilliant. They feel they must be inferior people, gutless or dull. So they don disguises, outdoing each other’s enthusiasm.
Why does society give them so one-way a message? Could some critics be caught in the same syndrome: “if I don’t enthuse over this film I’ll be derided as an inferior person, gutless or dull”? Even the few who denounce, denounce with escape hatches: it’s racist, because the white chick chops non-white heads off; or it’s boring, because its plot plods. Is there a taboo against saying what many viewers surely want to say, that the film is demeaning and psychopathic, and to wish to puke in your shoe is a healthy response?
I think something pathetic is on the go. Once, reviews had to uphold motherhood and apple pie. You couldn’t break out. When breaking out first became permissible, it was called freedom. Now the breaking out has become its own new prison. You don’t dare be seen to not push limits. People will think you’re off the pace.
It’s okay that weird tastes are in the world. There always have been. But that the taste for beauty, for honesty, for integrity, for humanity, for the things we inwardly want… that that taste is now a furtive thing and hidden, is wrong.