Monday, July 2, 2012

Stimulus, Austerity, and Patriotism

When an economic crisis hits, there are two schools of thought on what to do.  They might roughly be called “spend more” and “spend less,” or, to use their more formal names, stimulus and austerity.   The theory of stimulus is that government spending more can make up for the reduction in private spending and thereby boost the economy.  The theory of austerity is that there is an inevitable bottom that must be reached, and that any attempt to delay the inevitable simply prolongs the pain.  The trouble is that it can be extremely difficult to prove or disprove either theory because neither turns out to be politically viable most of the time.

The trouble with stimulus is that it is counterintuitive.  When everyone else is having to cut back, people’s basic instinct is that government should make sacrifices, too.  Besides, as the saying goes, people fight more over a shrinking pie than an expanding one.   Everyone’s natural reaction to a shrinking pie is to insist that no one else get any more, and to try to shrink everyone else’s share to grab more for oneself.   This in particular means insisting that government cut back to spare more resources for private citizens.  The trouble with austerity is that, although intuitively pleasing, it has most factually unpleasant results.  People are willing to make sacrifices to some extent, but usually only in return for a fairly near-term improvement.  When austerity turns out to be deeper and more painful than anticipated, and not to produce short-run improvement, it runs into resistance.

There is one exception.  One thing is strong enough to overcome people’s aversion to big spending in a depression or (it would appear) ever greater calls for austerity.  Patriotism.  (Or, some would say, nationalism).  If one’s country is seen as being in danger, normal inhibitions can be set aside, and extraordinary sacrifices can be accepted.

This has been known for some time on the subject of stimulus.  Hitler, it has often been commented, was the ultimate Keynesian.  This is embarrassing, both to Keynesians, who don’t want to be seen in such disreputable company, and to anti-Keynesians, who don’t want to admit that it can work at all.  But, of course, Hitler was able to revive Germany by military buildup.  Ultimately, other countries’ economies revived as well, as they made military buildups to match Hitler.  And it is not just that ordinary people and politicians are more likely to agree to the necessary levels of spending if it is seen as necessary to avert a country’s peril.  National peril is also often necessary to allow central bankers to overcome their fear of inflation and match the fiscal expansion with monetary expansion – in plain English, to finance operations by printing money. 

It now appears that austerity, too, can be tolerated if it and only if it is seen as a patriotic exercise.  This was less than clear before, because up till now making deep cutbacks in a depressed economy was not seen as patriotic.  Our classic example have been Latin American countries forced to accept harsh IMF austerity programs in exchange for loans to service foreign debt.  The Latin American public has shown little patience with such measures because they have not been seen as patriotic.  Leaders may talk about their country’s honor being on the line if it does not pay its debts, but to most people, this looks like a Yankee imperialist IMF squeezing innocent people for the sake of Yankee imperialist banks.  Refusal, not austerity, has been seen as patriotic.  Likewise, in parts of Europe today, resistance to more austerity has been strongest on the Right because demands for cutbacks have been imposed by the internationalist European Union.  But we are also seeing an extraordinary counter-example in the Baltic states.  Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania have been much praised for their seemingly endless appetite for pain.  And why should this be so?  The answer appears to be that they see austerity as a necessary patriotic sacrifice in order to win the protection of the European Union against Russia.  That calls for an end to austerity came from the ethnically Russian party only went further to convince Latvians not to heed the siren song of comfort because it was only a trap set by the Russians.  The Irish, too, have shown remarkable patience in the face of suffering.  If Ireland were not an independent country, if the austerity had been demanded by the English, Ireland would be in mass revolt.

This leads to three conclusions, both rather depressing.  Austerity is wearing out its welcome in Europe, and calls for stimulus are beginning once again.  But, in the absence of a military threat, stimulus is unlikely to get very far.  Meanwhile, stimulus has worn out its welcome in the U.S., and Republicans are calling for deep austerity.  They sometimes pitch it in patriotic terms, as selling our children’s future to the Chinese.  But once austerity starts to bite, Americans are unlikely to have much patience for it, either.  Finally, judging by the saber rattle of Mitt Romney and some of his advisors, they may know all this.  They may have decided that, just as FDR brought us out of the Great Depression by WWII, they will end this one by starting WWIII.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

False Memory: pp. 376-413 (with additions)

As we last left Dusty and Martie, they had just heard Susan's message on the answering machine that her phantom rapist was none other than Dr. Ahriman, and realized that the clues were there all along. They call Dr. Closterman's office and leave a message with his answering service that they have a medical emergency.  They pass the time waiting for his call-back by putting the cassette with Susan's message into an envelope labeled "Susan," finding Dusty's trigger name in The Manchurian Candidate (Viola Narvilly), and each reading the trigger name and first line of haiku to the other, with frightening results.  When the phone rings, they fear it might be Ahriman, ready to take control, but it turns out to be Closterman.  He doesn't want to talk on the phone, but invites him to his house.  They decide to flee, pack their bags, bring along the gun, and take Valet the dog.

Closterman offers them a beer, but they take only coffee.  After a bit of dancing around, he tells them what he knows.  This is the part I discussed at the outset as the only part of the novel that could be taken as a serious attempt to refute the recovered memory movement.  Closterman says that when some preschool children claimed they had been sexually abused, Ahriman was assigned by the court to interview the children, and he was assigned to examine them for evidence of injury.  Ahriman came away with frightful tales of abuse, but Closterman found no physical evidence of it.  This is when he explains that hypno-regressive therapy is unreliable, especially in children.  Checking around, Closterman learned that something similar happened when Ahriman was practicing in Santa Fe, and that it culminated in a woman, mother of one of Ahriman's child patients, shot her whole family and killed herself.  Unfortunately for Ahriman, the woman's husband, though badly wounded, survived and swore he saw Ahriman at the window during the shootings, watching.  At this point, Ahriman skipped town.  Something similar happened in Scottsdale, Arizona, although with less detail, and Ahriman ended up skipping town there, too.  Dusty decides he wants a beer after all, and Closterman comments that talking about Ahriman does not promote sobriety.  (What is it with these people and alcohol?)

But Closterman did not come forward.  That was because two thugs threatened him.  And, Dusty recognizes, the thugs were not just cheap muscle; they reeked of authority.  Apparently Ahriman is not acting alone.  Someone powerful is behind him.  Closterman and his boyfriend (he is gay) give them all they know about Ahriman's past to investigate.  Dusty tells Closterman that he had an uneasy feeling about New Life Clinic, and Closterman tells him that Ahriman is part-owner.  Dusty and Martie race to the clinic to rescue Skeet.  Along the way, Martie has her worst panic attack yet, as Ahriman commanded.  Dusty uses the triggering name and haiku for the first time, to stop it.

Meanwhile, Ahriman has been doing three things:
  1. Playing complex role-playing games without too much regard to the rules.  Ahriman apparently likes role-playing games which actually makes sense.  What he does with patients is, after all, just a giant role-playing game.  The way he mixes the battle of the Alamo up with Al Capone and the FBI is good for a laugh or two, but does nothing to advance the plot.
  2. More preening and posturing about how evil he is.  Yeacch!
  3. Providing genuinely valuable exposition.  Between the silly game and the annoying preening and posturing, he manages to reveal what the reader already suspects -- that he was the one who gave Martie  The Manchurian Candidate to make the game more exciting.  He is also aware that Dusty has been reading it, but not too concerned.  He also reveals that, as Dusty suspected, his ability to control Skeet after saying "Dr. Yen Lo" without going through the haiku is a malfunction.  In fact, Skeet's brain is so drug-addled that he malfunctions regularly.  Ahriman originally ordered him to commit suicide because he couldn't fully control him.  He heads for the clinic to once again order Skeet to kill himself, not trusting him to be fully controlled over the phone.
The bit about Skeet is useful in that it explains the biggest and most essential anomaly of the novel -- why is Dusty able to control Skeet without going through the proper haiku.  Needless to say, without that little episode, Dusty would never have been able to figure out what was going on.  What it miserably fails to explain is how Skeet was able to write the name "Dr. Yen Lo" every time he was called, for a total of 39 times.  Everyone in the novel, Skeet included, has always gone catatonic upon hearing their trigger name.  So how is Skeet able to keep writing it down?  Nor does it do any good to say that this is malfunction.  The strong implication is that Skeet malfunctions unpredictably.  This would require the same malfunction every time.  In short, unlike numerous other dangling clues, Skeet writing the name of his tormentor over and over is not only unexplained, if violates the whole premise of the story.  It is never explained.  It badly needs explaining.  

Skeet is not actually Ahriman's patient, so Ahriman goes to the clinic on the pretext of visiting one of his real patients there, an unnamed "famous actor."  Ahriman has taken the famous actor as a patient on behalf of his powerful higher-ups, and goes to the clinic to program him to bite the President's nose off as a warning that the President is Getting Too Close.  After programming the actor, Ahriman plans on casually dropping by Skeet and telling him to kill himself.  We also learn that, contrary to Dusty's earlier impression, the New Life Clinic is not staffed by brainwashed pod people.  In fact, "Although a mind-controlled workforce . . . would eliminate demands for increased wages and fringe benefits, the possible complications were not worth risking."  We are not told what those complications are.  Thinking it over, though, it would be difficult for Ahriman to take every employee at New Life Clinic aside for the three sessions, complete with IV stand, needed to establish control without attracting attention. And if clinic employees regularly started acting strangely after being along with Ahriman or receiving mysterious phone calls, that might also be noticed.  

Dusty and Martie show up in Skeet's room after visiting hours, saying his mother is sick.  This manages to create a fine mixture of humor and suspense as the nurse on staff, with the best intentions in the world, goes to warn Ahriman, while Skeet keeps finding one reason after another to delay leaving.  They have escaped by the back exit by the time Ahriman arrives.  He persuades the nurse to check the front while he goes out the back exit.  It is not clear what Ahriman intends to do when he finds them.  Shooting them dead would attract most unwelcome attention.  Ordering Dusty (who has a gun) to commit a double-murder-suicide, would be less suspicious, but reflect unfavorably on the clinic.  Taking control of all three at once is probably not doable.  Whatever he has in mind, we never find out because they take off at high speed before he can catch them.  Ahriman gets a good enough glimpse of Dusty to know that he knows.