The Boom in Certainty

Sinclair Lewis called it “the sedate pomposity of the commercialist”. Now it has spread to many parts of society, not always in its sedate form.

Back in our final days as architecture students in Austin, our class had a farewell gathering with a professor who had been a valued mentor to several of us. As was habitual on such occasions, the professor was discussing with us the work of various architects when the subject of a newly-constructed building came up.

“I hate that building”, one classmate said flatly.

After an awkward silence, the professor mocked: “you mean, strongly dislike?” Off guard, the offending party protested that his use of the word was innocuous then and there. The professor conceded as much but explained that it was a visceral word, the kind of word that forestalls further discussion and that hardens the speaker’s and listener’s opinions. It is difficult to walk back or to change your mind from “hate”, and easier to do so from “dislike” or even from “strongly dislike”, he argued. His advice was to leave in one’s words an open path for retreat, in essence to never burn one’s rhetorical bridges.

This led to another discussion about certainty and about people who speak with certainty. The professor said that he had a reflexive dislike for certainty and that he felt a profound distrust towards people who speak with certainty. There is very little that is certain in life, he said, even among things of which we are convinced at a given point in time. Opinions change, science changes, research advances. New discoveries change our beliefs. Knowledge doesn’t just flow or evolve gradually like a river; it shifts laterally and sometimes suddenly like an earthquake.

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Camus Against the Virus

Decency is of little value without a foundation of honesty.

Albert Camus’ masterful novel La Peste (The Plague) is enjoying a resurgence in the current pandemic. Published in 1947 in the immediate aftermath of WW2, it was not, or not only, about a biological plague but also about the plague of Nazism or other ideological cancers and their equally devastating effect on humanity.

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Albert Camus

Among the many different citations recently lifted from the book, this particular one has appeared in several articles and countless social media posts:

“It may seem a ridiculous idea, but the only way to fight the plague is with decency.”

Coming from Camus, this sentence looked unusual because there is no direct literal word in French for decency as we mean it in English. The closest are décence and pudeur but these words convey different meanings.

In the original French text, Camus had written: Read more

Purity or Universalism?

This article first appeared at Quillette.

A few days after his recent passing, the Manhattan Institute reposted a speech by V. S. Naipaul from October 1990. The title, “Our Universal Civilization,” captured the triumphal and optimistic spirit of that moment, nearly one year after the fall of the Berlin Wall. In order to render this universal civilization in greater relief, Naipaul related the following about his travels in Asia [emphasis added]:

Traveling among non-Arab Muslims, I found myself among a colonized people who had been stripped by their faith of all that expanding intellectual life, all the varied life of the mind and senses, the expanding cultural and historical knowledge of the world, that I had been growing into on the other side of the world. I was among people whose identity was more or less contained in the faith. I was among people who wished to be pure.

If we had read this paragraph without knowing its date or the subjects’ actual geography, religion, and history (in this case colonized non-Arab Muslims), we might have surmised that Naipaul was talking about parts of America and Europe that he had perhaps visited in the months preceding his death. “People whose identity was more or less contained in the faith” could easily apply to certain constituencies in the West today, the more so if one allows some latitude in the definition of the word ‘faith.’

Nearly 30 years after he delivered this speech, Naipaul’s assumption that this was primarily a religious or Muslim phenomenon seems quaint. Today, we can see that the wish to be pure has emerged in opposition to universalism in many parts of the world including our own. We can no longer claim that it is just Islam that has grown resistant to the universal civilization envisioned by the West in the late twentieth century. Some groups within the West itself have also rediscovered their own craving for purity. Continue reading at Quillette >>>

Capitalism Did Not Win the Cold War

This article first appeared at Foreign Affairs.

Why cronyism was the real victor.

When the Soviet Union collapsed 26 years ago, it was generally agreed that the West had won the Cold War. This was affirmed by the prosperity and possibilities awaiting citizens of Western countries, as opposed to the political and economic stagnation experienced by those in Communist states. A natural conclusion, much repeated at the time, was that capitalism had finally defeated communism.

This sweeping statement was only partially true. If one took capitalism and communism as the only two protagonists in the post–World War II struggle, it was easy to see that the latter had suffered a mortal blow. But there was a third, stealthier protagonist situated between them. This was a system best identified today as cronyism. For if capitalism did win over the other two contenders in 1991, its victory was short-lived. And in the years that have followed, it is cronyism that has captured an ever-increasing share of economic activity. A survey of the distribution of power and money around the world makes it clear: cronyism, not capitalism, has ultimately prevailed. Continue reading at Foreign Affairs >>>

The Economics of Dependency

This article first appeared at Foreign Affairs.

How countries hit the demographic sweet spot.

Demographics are among the most important influences on a country’s overall economic performance, but compared with other contributors, such as the quality of governance or institutions, their impact is underappreciated. Demographic factors, such as the age structure of a population, can determine whether a given economy will grow or stagnate to an even greater extent than can more obvious causes such as government policy.

One of the most consequential aspects of demographics as they relate to the economy is a phenomenon known as the “demographic dividend,” which refers to the boost to economic growth that occurs when a decline in total fertility, and subsequent entry of women into the work force, increases the number of workers (and thus decreases the number of dependents) relative to the total population. The demographic dividend has contributed to some of the greatest success stories of the twentieth century, and countries’ ability to understand and capture this dividend will continue to shape their economic prospects well into the future. Continue reading at Foreign Affairs >>>

Should Children Vote?

The rising cost of entitlements will test inter-generational harmony.img_6331

In the week following the Brexit vote, a recurrent complaint from the losing side was that a majority of older people voted to leave while a majority of younger people voted to remain. In the eyes of the complainers, this rendered the leave outcome less legitimate because younger people have more years of life ahead of them and therefore would allegedly suffer more than old people from a decision to leave the European Union. So much for the wisdom of old age knowing what is best. And so much for the principle of one person one vote, regardless of age, gender or race or whatever.

Instead of disenfranchising a group of older voters, we may consider allowing children some representation in our voting system. In the United States, the voting age is 18 which means that there are approximately 74 million US citizens aged under 18 who do not have the right to vote. That is a sizable 23% of the entire population who will all be adults by 2034 and who may not in the future take kindly to the long-duration budget commitments that were made in their absence. Read more

The Bridge from Laissez-Faire to Socialism

Cronyism remains unchecked in the world’s largest economy.

We might object to the phrase crony capitalism for two reasons:

First, because cronyism is in some ways the antithesis of capitalism. The freedom to compete and the freedom to fail that are central tenets of capitalism are severely compromised by cronyism when in the former case powerful politicians intervene to shield their friends in business and finance from competition, and in the latter intervene again to save them from bankruptcy or occasionally from criminal prosecution. Of course, these friends in turn are no disloyal slouches and they later show themselves to be supremely appreciative by underwriting, financially and otherwise, those same politicians who had all but guaranteed their continued dominance in normal times and their survival against bad odds in times of distress. Read more

America Without Immigration 2015-50

Be careful what you wish for, if that is what you wish for.

Except for the oil shocks of the 1970s and a few other recessionary years, the US economy has generally been strong in the postwar era since 1945. Huge advances in technology and trade, a favorable business environment and strong demographics combined to create tens of trillions of dollars of new wealth in the US and around the world.

The demographic component played an important supporting role. During the baby boom years, the number of Americans grew at an average annualized rate of 1.6% (see chart). In subsequent years starting in the mid 1960s, this growth faded to about 1% where it remained until 2007-08. Since then, it has fallen to 0.7% and, on current UN projections, it will continue to fall through 2050 when it may dip under 0.4%. Read more

The Relationship Between Fertility and National Income

We all heard that “demography is destiny”. But how many of us truly believe it? If demography was destiny, the world would look very different today. The two demographic giants China and India would be uncontested economic and military powers. The United States would be a regional power struggling to keep up. Larger European nations such as Britain, France and Germany would barely register on the economic map, while smaller ones such as Switzerland and Finland would be invisible. Nigeria and DR Congo would be African powerhouses. Brazil, Indonesia and the Philippines would be the shining stars of their continents. Read more

The Lottery of Birth Place and Time

“When I attempt to find a simple formula for the period in which I grew up, prior to the First World War, I hope that I convey its fullness by calling it the Golden Age of Security.”

Thus begins the autobiography The World of Yesterday in which the Austrian author Stefan Zweig, born in 1881, recounts his early life in Vienna at the height of the Belle Époque. It was a time of high culture, of prosperity, and of people who believed that war was forever relegated to the past. Then came the shock of WW1, the breakup of Austria-Hungary, the difficult inter-war period, Zweig’s own forced exile, the horrors of WW2, and finally death. Zweig and his wife committed suicide in Brazil, far from Vienna and very far from the Belle Époque, in early 1942 at a time when the Nazis still looked unbeatable. Read more