Thursday, January 31, 2013

Les Miserables: Saints and Overdeveloped Virtues

Victor Hugo has set himself a serious challenge in choosing a saint for his hero.  Though many novels have a hero who is good, admirably, praiseworthy and moral, making him a saint is usually a bridge too far.  The challenge is how to make your hero a saint without either making him boring or making your audience hate him.  So why do people tend to hate the hero-as-saint?  The usual answer is that people resent a person without any vice or flaw.  They, after all, have vices and flaws of their own and have trouble relating to a character without any.  A person who is perfect feels like a rebuke to the rest of us for being imperfect.

While there may be something to this, I do not think it is the primary reason people so often hate the saintly character.  My own theory is that what makes us hate the saint is not so much the lack of vice, but the overdevelopment of virtue.  Any virtue taken too far starts to look phony and exhibitionist rather than truly virtuous.  Hugo mostly avoids this pitfall, but several times throughout the novel, and especially in the final section, he succumbs to it.  Comparison with other works of literature can be revealing.  Because I have read only a very narrow selection of all that is out there, my points of comparison are limited.  I welcome anyone else's input on other stories of the hero-as-saint.

I should begin, not by comparing Les Miserables with other literature, but with pointing out one virtue that is emphatically not overdeveloped in Jean Valjean.  He is not the kind of saint who values absolute truthfulness and will never lie, even to the Nazis about the Jews in the attic.  Jean Valjean is honest and truthful in the sense that his word is his bond, that when he promises Javert that he will turn himself in as soon as he does one last good deed, he really means it.  But when you are a convict on the run facing a life sentence if caught, never lying is really not an option.  So Valjean lies quite regularly.  He makes up aliases.  He sometimes gives false names other than his working alias.  He makes up fake back stories.  When asked for information that would put his adopted daughter in danger he doesn't hesitate to give a false address.  And we end up liking him for his willingness to lie when necessary.

Philip Jose Farmer does a fine job of showing overdeveloped virtue versus balanced virtue in his Riverworld science fiction series.  The entire human race that has ever lived, except for children who died before the age of five, is resurrected along a mysterious river.  Needless to say, this plays havoc with all existing religions.  Some people try to form a new religion called the Church of the Second Chance.  However, Chancers are invariably annoyingly sanctimonious and preach your ear off.  In the third book, however, we meet the Sufis, mystics who are able to adapt their earlier religion to new conditions.  The Sufis are not annoyingly preachy; they do not act especially saintly, but anyone, including the reader, who spends long in their presence recognizes that they operate on a very high spiritual level, and that they have something (spiritually) that no one else can help but want.  The balanced spirituality of the Sufis stands in stark contrast to the overdeveloped piety of the Chancers.  Jean Valjean is described as pious.  He regularly goes to low mass every Sunday.  He prays before a crucifix.  He decidedly has God in mind on his death bed.  But his focus is very much of this world, and he never annoys with excessive piety.  In fact, Hugo comments that Valjean has two napsacks -- the thoughts of a saint and the skills of a convict. He climbs like a convict.  He has the convict's skill at hiding useful tools for escape.  And, once again, his worldliness and abundance of practical skills make us like him, while doing nothing to detract from his saintliness.

I am reluctant to bring in Melanie from Gone With the Wind because I think she is intentionally annoying.  Nonetheless, if anyone ever had an obnoxiously overdeveloped virtue, it is Melanie.  She never thinks badly of anyone, even Scarlet.  The convoluted explanations she comes up with to excuse Scarlet's behavior strain the brain.  Surely she can't really believe that! the reader thinks.  Jean Valjean has none of Melanie's reluctance to think ill of other people.  True, he always respects Javert, realizing that he is doing what is right in his own eyes, and that there is something perversely noble about his relentless dedication to the law.  By contrast, when dealing with the wicked extortionist Thernadier, Valjean has no difficulty seeing him for what he is and calling him out on it.  And, once again, his willingness to see evil for what it is and call it out does nothing to detract from his saintliness and makes us like him for his forthrightness.

We move a little closer to Valjean's overdeveloped virtue in Rudyard Kipling's Kim.  Among the characters is a saintly Tibetan Lama whose priorities are very much not of this world.  The quest for enlightenment is all that really matters to him; things that the rest of us would consider important he dismisses as mere earthly trifles.  Other characters understandably dismiss him as crazy.  At first he seems like a naive and foolish old man, badly in need of protecting.  But over time what seems at first like foolishness we come to recognize as a vastly different set of priorities from most people.  It is a testament to Kipling's genius that we come to see the lama's perspective as a valid one, indeed, as seeing a higher and deeper reality that most of us are simply too shallow to perceive.  It is difficult to dislike an otherworldly character simply because we lack the perspective to judge him.*  Nonetheless, the Lama does have one trait that can be grating -- an overdeveloped sense of sin.  To him, the slightest attachment to this world is sinful.  It is a sin to enjoy sights on the road, to relish a climb in the mountains, to entertain a child, or even (at times) to develop too great an affection for another person.  While Valjean is in no way otherworldly, he does seem to have an overdeveloped sense of sin, talking about his sinfulness and unworthiness.  But that is not his ultimate overdeveloped virtue so much as a symptom of it.

Finally, I have to mention Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin as the epic fail of writing a saint without making readers hate him.  It is hard to tell whether Stowe equates passivity and submission with Christian virtue or is simply trying to avoid alarming her easily alarmed white readers.  Either way, she overdevelops the Christian virtue of turning the other cheek.  Upon hearing that he is to be sold, Tom encourages Eliza, whose five-year-old son is to be sold, to take him and escape, but himself submits to his fate, both because the mortgage will be foreclosed and everyone sold if he does not, and because he does not want to break faith with his owner (who has so spectacularly broken faith with him).  Throughout the first three-quarters (or so) of the novel, Tom continues to passively and uncomplainingly accept his fate.  He finally begins to show a spirit of defiance when he falls into the hands of the sadistic Simon Legree, but it is always a passive sort of defiance.  Ordered to beat a slave too sick to work, he says he will not raise his hand to any of his fellow-suffers.  For that he receives a savage beating, but still refuses to apologize or ask forgiveness.  Finally, after encouraging Simon Legree's concubines (i.e., sex slaves) to run away he will not reveal where they are hiding, although he admits to knowing.  For this, Legree orders him beaten until he yields or dies. Even Tom's torturers are finally swayed by his strength of character and relent, but by then it is too late.  He dies.

This is resistance, albeit of a very passive sort, but Stowe constantly matches Tom's statements of defiance on any inflexible moral matter with statements of submission on everything else.  Even as he refuses to strike a fellow slave, Tom promises,"I'm willin' to work, night and day, and work while there's life and breath in me." Refusing to apologize, he nonetheless adds, "Mas'r Legree, as ye bought me, I'll be a true and faithful servant to ye. I'll give ye all the work of my hands, all my time, all my strength." And in the final showdown, he assures Legree, "Mas'r, if you was sick, or in trouble, or dying, and I could save ye, I'd give ye my heart's blood; and, if taking every drop of blood in this poor old body would save your precious soul, I'd give 'em freely, as the Lord gave his for me." And in the end, this submission is so grating that it, and not the defiance, is what is remembered. This is not quite the virtue that is overdeveloped in Jean Valjean. Valjean, after all, begins by jumping parole and spends most of the book on the run. He will turn himself in only to prevent an innocent man from suffering him his place. An excess of submission is not his bloated virtue.

Rather, the trait that (occasionally) grates in Valjean is an excess of humility. It doesn't show up often, but it does now and then when our hero shows an excessive love of squalor and suffering. After first rescuing his adoptive daughter from the abusive innkeeper, Valjean takes her to live in a squalid slum, and himself dresses in rags. Presumably this is to have more money left over to give the poor. But, as it turns out, a beggar who gives alms is sufficiently abnormal to attract the attention of the authorities. Valjean learns that if he wants to give to the poor, he must at least look like a gentleman of property and standing.** So he gets a nice, though well-concealed, house and nice clothes. He even gets " a bookcase filled with gilt-edged books, an inkstand, a blotting-book, paper, a work-table incrusted with mother of pearl, a silver-gilt dressing-case, a toilet service in Japanese porcelain" as well as damasked and tapestry curtains for his adoptive daughter.  He, in turn, lives in the porter's lodge with the most meager furniture he can find and no fire, and eats the coarsest food.  One can't claim that he is, once again, saving resources to give to the poor when he gives his daughter so much nicer things than he is willing to have for himself.  Naturally, the girl asks why he sits in the cold without a carpet or fire.  Valjean answers, "Dear child, there are so many people who are better than I and who have not even a roof over their heads."  To this she asks why she has a fire, and he says that women and children are allowed such luxuries.  She asks if men should be cold and uncomfortable.  He answers, "Certain men."  But Valjean learns his lesson from this exchange.  When his daughter asks why he eats such coarse food, he answers, "Because, my daughter."  She refuses to have a fire or eat finer food if he denies himself, so he yields.  Good for her!  Furthermore, Valjean is not inherently opposed to buying nice things instead of giving one's money to the poor.  Quite the contrary, after his daughter marries, Valjean encourages her to have her own carriage, a ladies' maid, a box in the theater, and other such luxuries that she has never known and therefore never misses.  So apparently Jean Valjean is not opposed to luxuries, he simply thinks himself unworthy of them.  This is the sort of excess humility that grates.

It should be emphasized that Les Miserables is a very long book, some 1463 pages, in my translation.  For the first 1365 pages or so, this excess of humility is little emphasized, a mere handful of pages out of so many.  But for the last hundred pages or so, Jean Valjean starts wallowing in excess humility, seemingly out of the sheer love of wallowing.  After spending the first 1363 or so pages proclaiming that society's judgment of him was unjust, he spends the final hundred submitting to it with a groveling self-abasement that Uncle Tom (despite his reputation) never stoops to.  Furthermore, in submitting to this injustice, Valjean seems to endorse it and thereby subvert the entire message of the book up until that point.  And, worst of all, he gravely wrongs the people he loves the most.  (More on that later).  In short, Jean Valjean's overdeveloped virtue is his excess of humility.  It is no more than an occasional pinprick of annoyance until the last hundred pages, at which point it makes me want to slam the book down on the floor and stomp on it.

I believe there is much truth in this reviewer's criticism:
Jean Valjean becomes a convict slave for nineteen years after stealing some bread for his sister’s child. He has done nothing wrong, yet he spends the rest of his life redeeming himself by committing one noble act after another . . . [T]he implications of Jean Valjean’s complete innocence are dismaying. Suppose he had actually committed some sort of crime as a young man. Are we to infer that he wouldn’t be worth our tears if—like the rest of us—he were even slightly culpable? 
I want to follow with a post on what I believe is the source of Valjean's excess humility and the wrong he is constantly seeking to atone for.  But first, I will do a brief digression on saints and sexuality -- or the lack thereof.

*This also applies to the Sufis in Riverworld.
**Or, as Victor Hugo would say, a bourgeois.  That term has a host of connotations, in English and French alike, that could take pages to unpack.  "Gentleman of property and standing" is an Americanism, originally referring to the surprisingly "respectable" mobs that attacked abolitionists in the early 1830's.  Abolitionists adopted the term themselves as one of derision.  It conveys nicely what I think Hugo wanted to convey with bourgeois, but has the distinct disadvantage of being too long.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Les Miserables: A Note on Translation

Let me say for starters that I like reading novels in translation -- more, in many ways, than novels in my own mother tongue.  When you read a novel in your own language, after all, there is only one version of it -- the author's.  That leaves you with only one interpretation until other people are brought in -- your own. When a novel is translated, each translation is slightly different and you can read other translators' interpretations of it and marvel and the subtle distinctions to be made no matter how it is done.

Nonetheless, some translations are better than others.  And one of the greatest mistakes one can make in translating is being too literal.  Which is a roundabout way of saying that I don't much like the translation I have.  It is apparently an updated version of a translation that came out shortly after the book was published and suffers from two main vices -- it is too literal, and at times it fails to take into account how the English language has changed since the original was written.

Some parts, I will concede, are extremely difficult, if not impossible, to translate because they express things for which there is no equivalent.  It may be highly significant whether characters address each other as "tu" (familiar) or "vous" (formal), but how do you convey it in English, which makes no such distinction?  Some translations use the first name as the equivalent; others simply use the French (or other foreign) word, and both translations are defensible.  Hugo also has a whole section on argot, the elaborate slang of a sub-culture, used as a code to keep the dominant culture from understanding.  He then has a chapter in such heavy argot that it requires extensive use of footnotes to be comprehensible, even in French.  How can one possibly translate such a thing?

But there are other parts that can be translated, but are done best if one recognizes that, although English has many words of French origin, their meaning in English is not truly the same as their meaning in French.  To take a very basic example, Jean Valjean is forever described as "straining to see through the obscurity."  Obscurity is a French word with a very similar-sounding counterpart in English that does not mean the same thing.  No one in English, in 1862 or today, ever strained to see through the obscurity.  The proper word is "darkness."  Likewise, there are frequent references to "miasmas."  I believe "miasma" was more likely to be part of an English working vocabulary in 1862, when swamp gas was thought to cause disease, but it was never a synonym for foul smell.  Thus when Jean Valjean emerges from the sewer, it sounds ridiculous to say, "The miasmas, the obscurity, the horror, were behind him."*  It is much better English to say, "The darkness, stench and horror were behind him."  Not only is obscurity something quite different in English than darkness, but I am sure that no English-speaking sewer ever contained anything as fancy as a miasma -- just a plain old Anglo-Saxon stench.  And if one sees a man traveling through the sewer with a (seemingly) dead body on his back, in French it may be "assassination in flagrante delicto" or even "assassination caught in the very act."  In English, he is a murderer caught red-handed.**  Or consider when the author (with proper Victorian delicacy) hints that Jean Valjean harbors carnal feelings for his adopted daughter without being aware of it, and qualifies, "less a sentiment than an instinct, less an instinct than an attraction."  Presumably "attraction" had less of a sexual connotation then than it does now.  But the these days the sexual connotation is there, and unless it is intended, the translator would do well to use some other expression.

But these at least are mere irritations, nothing that would cause serious confusion.  Other poor translations really can distort the meaning.  A major pet peeve of mine is the use of "livid" to mean pale.  Yes, I know, you don't have to tell me, the English word livid comes from the French word "livide," which, does, in fact, mean pale.  The original meaning of livid in English was pale.  The use of "livid" to mean uncontrollably angry is really short for "livid [pale] with rage," apparently on the belief that people who turn pale with rage are far more angry and dangerous than people who turn red in the face.***  Livid may, in fact, have meant pale in English in the 19th Century.  All of this notwithstanding, the normal use of "livid" in English these days is to mean uncontrollably angry.  It's not so bad to use livid to mean pale when the pallor is caused by sickness, injury or death.  (Though I still think there are better words to use).  But what happens when Javert tells Valjean (then mayor of a small town) that he denounced him as a convict?  "The mayor became livid."  In today's English, that is a terrible translation!  Rather than saying the mayor turned pale (which is what the original text intends), it suggests that he became uncontrollably angry, a reasonable response, especially if the accusation is false.  My updated version contains a much better translation, "The mayor's face turned ashen."

More confusing is when Jean Valjean says he served in the "galleys" or is even referred to as a "galley slave."  "Galley slave," in English has a very narrow and specific meaning.  It refers to the convict chained to an oar, relentlessly forced to row, as fast as possible, until he dies of exhaustion.  And although I have long associated the practice with ancient times, that association is apparently false.  The practice of a convict chained to an oar was not used in ancient times, but dates back only to the 16th and 17th centuries.  It ended in the 18th century when that type of ship became obsolete, but the outdated term "galerien" continued to be applied to any convict at forced labor, and the prison where such convicts were held continued to be referred to as "galleys" even though they were not ships.  So, when Victor Hugo uses the terms "galley" and "galerien," how does one convey what he (presumably) intended -- not just the denotation of a convict at forced labor, but the connotation of brutal men being brutally mistreated, people at once victims of and menaces to society?  Definitely not with the terms "galley" or "galley slave."  In English the term denotes a practice the reader must surely know was certainly no longer in use by the 19th Century and connotes only a victim, not a evil-doer.  How does one translate it when Jean Valjean tells the court that the "galleys"make the "galerien"?  Surely not (as the original Wilbour translation had it), "The galleys make the galley slave."  This over-literal approach has none of the emotional impact that Hugo must have intended.  "[T]he galleys make the convict what he is" conveys a little more, but not much.  "The jail makes the jailbird," says another translator, attempting to use more familiar and emotionally resonant terms, while keeping the similarity in sound between the prison and the prisoner.  But still it lacks punch.  My favorite translation that I have seen so far has been a simple and unpoetic, "The prison makes the convict."  It may not have the likeness in words, but it conveys well that brutality brutalizes, that people who are menaces to society learned their craft in prison.

Another translation is possible.  When Valjean confesses his past to his son-in-law, one translation is "I was in the galleys."  Another is "I was on a chain gang."  Well, now, to an American, a chain gang certainly denotes convicts at forced labor, and in chains.  It does a reasonably good job of connoting the mixture of pity and revulsion I think Hugo wanted to convey -- men who are both menaces to society and victims of it.  It also comes with a host of other connotations -- a certain historical and cultural context, a certain type of forced labor (usually chipping rocks or building roads or railroads, not doing loading or maintenance on a ship, as Valjean apparently did), and even a certain type of uniform.  So I will acknowledge that a French galley is not precisely the same as an American chain gang.  But "chain gang" is probably a closer approximation for convicts at forced labor (and in chains) than any other expression we have.  So it will do as a reasonable approximation.

American chain gang
*My apologies that the links I offer do not generally match the quotes used.  The links are to an updated version of a 1879 translation by Isabel Hapgood.  My quotes are from the printed version in my possession, an update of a 1863 translation by C.E. Wilbour, and sometimes from the original Wilbour translation.
**This is a long-standing pet peeve of mine in Spanish as well.  The Spanish words "asesino" and "asesinato" are equivalents of the English "murderer" and "murder," not "assassin" and "assassination."  The difference is not just that assassination refers to a very narrow and specific type of murder in English -- the political killing of someone in high office -- but that it lacks the emotional punch of a simple "murder."
***I don't know.  I personally have never seen anyone turn pale with rage.

Friday, January 25, 2013

At Last, Les Miserables

All right, with economics out of the way, let me get to Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo.  I intend to start commenting on the book, only, and then go to the movie and see how it compares.

Les Miserables is, I suppose, the French equivalent of a Russian novel -- immensely long (over 1400 pages), meandering, with a huge cast of characters and many detours before it reaches the end.  It also shows the influence of Dickens -- there are so many far-fetched coincidences that you know someone must have an improbability drive in his pocket.

Nineteen years before the story begins, Jean Valjean, a poor peasant, breaks into a bakery and steals a loaf of bread for his sister's hungry children.  For that he is sentenced to five years on the chain gang.  He is sent guilty as charged, but innocent and pure at heart.  Instead of sensibly serving out his time, he keeps madly, irrationally escaping or attempting to escape and having more time added.  Finally, nineteen years later, in 1815, only months after the Battle of Waterloo, he is released, hardened and brutalized by his long imprisonment.  Because he is a convict, he is treated as a social outcast and everyone turns him away, except a saintly bishop who invites him in and offers him dinner and a bed.  Valjean repays his host's generosity by stealing his silver spoons.  When the police catch him, the bishop says the spoons were a gift, and gives him the candle sticks as well, saying, "Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I buy from you; I withdraw it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God."  But even after that, Jean Valjean steals a two-franc piece from a chimney sweep.  That theft is vitally important, because the bishop has denied that the spoons were stolen, and so that theft is not counted.  But after robbing the chimney sweep, Valjean has become a repeat offender and will face a life sentence if caught.  However, after committing one last offense and becoming a marked-for-life man, Valjean finally and truly repents and becomes a saint.  The book is about his life and career as a saint.

Writing about a saint is always difficult.  The author is constantly faced with the traps of either making the hero boring or making the reader hate him.  I intend to post more extensively on this in the near future.  For now, let us just say that Hugo mostly manages to pull it off, with a few exceptions that I shall dwell on (at length).  Anyone reading a 1400+ page book will naturally have to emphasize and de-emphasize different parts of it.  Many people, it appears, focus on the conflict between Valjean and Inspector Javert, the policeman who becomes strangely obsessed with Valjean and determined to capture him.  People are fascinated with Javert because, although a villain, he is not wholly evil, just very narrow-minded and legalistic.    There is something oddly admirable in Javert's dogged persistence and determination that the law be enforced down to the last jot and tittle.

Javert does not hold the same fascination for me that he does for some people.  To me, the novel centers around Valjean's three great crises of conscience as a saint.  After jumping parole and starting a new life, Valjean goes to work in a factory making black glass jewelry.  He develops a cheaper material to use and a simpler way of making the clasp and makes his fortune with these inventions.  (How he makes his fortune is not made clear.  One would think he would have to get a patent, which would necessarily mean reveling himself, but let that go).  He ends up as a factory owner and uses his wealth to endow schools, hospitals, pharmacies, and so forth, and to make the world better, even becoming mayor of the town and leading with great wisdom and ability.  His first crisis occurs when an innocent man is arrested as Valjean, and he has to decide between maintaining all he has built and revealing himself to keep an innocent man from being unjustly imprisoned for life.

Heightening the crisis is that he is just about to rescue a little girl from an abusive and extortionist inn keeper and restore her to her mother.  But he can't let an innocent man suffer in his place, so he turns himself in and is sent to prison for life, but soon escapes and rescues the girl, Cosette, after all.  He cannot restore Cosette to her mother, who is now dead, so he raises her as his own daughter, and loves for the first time in his life.  But Cosette grows up and falls in love with Marius, a young revolutionary.  Valjean learns of their love when he accidentally intercepts a letter from Marius saying that he is going to the barricades and expects to be killed.  Valjean then has his second crisis.  He does not want to give up Cosette, the only person he has ever loved, and he knows that if he does nothing, Marius will be killed and he will not have to give Cosette up.  He also knows how wrong he is to want to keep his daughter from growing up, so he goes to the barricade to protect Marius and ends up carrying him, wounded and unconscious, for miles through the sewer to safety.  The final crisis occurs when Cosette and Marius are married and Valjean has to decide where to go from there.

As for me, the story revolves around these three great crises.  However, there is a certain decline in the story as we go from one to the next.  The first crisis is a dilemma fit to vex a saint -- to preserve all he has built at the price of letting an innocent man to to prison for life, or to save the one man and throw all his accomplishments away.  The second crisis is no doubt a painful one for Valjean personally, but not a great moral dilemma.  Yes, it is wrong to let your daughter's love be killed and do nothing to protect him, and wrong to keep your daughter from growing up.  Duh!  Valjean's heroic actions to save the life of a man he hates as a rival are worthy of a saint, but there is no vexing moral dilemma at all.  And his final decision -- well, let's just say I think he chooses wrong.  But that is a different subject for a different post.

For now, I intend to start off with a post on translation, follow with one (or, more likely, several) on the saint as hero, then write about the first and last moral crises (the middle one does not deserve a post).  Then, on to the movie.  Also, I reserve to right to interrupt to post on significant current events.

Monday, January 21, 2013

How to Do a Controlled Macro Economic Experiment

I had a professor of anthropology in college who believed that there are certain deep-seated evolutionary memories programmed into our DNA.  As examples, he gave people's innate fondness for grass and trees and tests that showed people's pupil's dilated more at the sight of a leopard than any other predator.  He also believed that given the choice, people are more likely to escape danger by going up (as a primate climbing a tree) than dropping down.  However, he said that last would be difficult to be sure of because there is no ethical way to perform an experiment of having a leopard chase people and see whether they prefer to climb a tree or drop into a hole.  It occurred to me at the time that there would be one way to simulate it -- by video games.  Of course, video games were a lot more primitive back then and would consist of a stick figure leopard chasing a stick figure human.  It could be done more convincingly now.

All of which leads to one notorious difficulty in macro-economics -- the difficulty in performing controlled experiments.  It simply is not ethical to blow two economies up and then see which set of policies leads to a better recovery.  Besides, economies are such complex systems that any number of variables could account for the difference in performance.  But assuming there are actual economic laws nearly as immutable as scientific laws, we can run controlled economic experiments by complex role-playing games.  An article by Andrew Sullivan (alas, I cannot find the link) linked to an account of a complex economic role playing game that yielded some interesting results.  When the game failed to reign in banks, the role-playing banks did exactly what real world banks have done when inadequately regulated -- they went on a huge speculative binge and ended up losing huge amounts of money, most of it other people's.  This upset the people whose money was lost, and the game managers were forced to impose strict banking regulations in order to induce anyone to put money in the banks ever again.

Certainly the harmful effects of too-tight money can be simulated on smaller-scale models.  Paul Krugman likes citing the example of the babysitting coop.  About 150 couples in Washington, D.C., mostly congressional aides, agreed to babysit for each other.  In order to coordinate among so many people, they issued babysitting coupons, each exchangeable for one hour of babysitting.  But everyone wanted a sufficient reserve of coupons so that they could go out several nights in a row.  When the coop failed to issue enough coupons, everyone wanted to accumulate more and was unwilling to go out until they had enough.  The amount of babysitting activity declined.  The coop was having a recession!  A babysitting coop recession is not characterized by the features we normally associate with a recession and dread -- unsold inventory, rising unemployment, layoffs, plant closings, business failures, and so forth.  But it was having a real recession, and all participants saw it as a bad thing.  The solution, it turned out was easy -- just issue more coupons and babysitting picked right up.

Krugman says elsewhere that an economy of 150 people is about the smallest economy that can experience a recession, but that the recession was no less real for that.  I can attest that 150 people is not, in fact, the smallest economy that can experience a recession.  I do not know what that number is, but the smallest economy I have ever observed to experience a recession had five members.  Those members were myself and my four siblings, then aged 4 through 14.  We were playing The Shell Game, something closely resembling Monopoly, except with shells for currency and using pieces of furniture around the house instead of squares on a board.  (My sister recalls other economic activity as well, like making things for sale).  We had a bank that was available to deposit money and also made loans.  There were no speculative binges or bank failure; our bank was very conservatively managed.  Although we knew that banks both take deposits and make loans, we did not understand fractional reserve banking -- that a bank can both make loans and agree to repay the entire amount people deposit in it  So we had the bank simply seize a quarter of everyone's deposits and use that amount to make loans.  In other words, it kept 100% reserves, but charges a 25% tax/service fee.  Our mother asked in that case why anyone would put money in the bank in the first place.  The best answer I could give was that it was a necessary sacrifice to keep the economy going.  Because we definitely noticed that when people stopped putting money in the bank and the bank stopped having money to lend out, the level of economic activity slowed way down.  In short, when credit got too tight in our little five-person economy, it fell into recession.  Once again, there was no unsold inventory, no layoffs, no unemployment, no plant closures, but all of us regarded these slow-downs as bad.  We did not realize our economy was going through recessions. (I was only just becoming familiar with the concept of recession and certainly didn't understand how they worked.  I don't know if any of the others had heard of recessions at all).  But we were all distressed when our little economy slowed down.

But both these examples are cases of the simplest of macro-economics -- a credit crunch putting a squeeze on an economy.  Krugman briefly mentions that the babysitting coop later issued to many coupons and causing other problems.  We can guess what those problems were -- everyone wanting to go out and not seeing the need to babysit, maddening difficulty finding a sitter, and the few sitters available charging extortionate prices.  He did not say how the coop resolved the problem.  This is an important question because there is a sticky price problem.  If there are insufficient coupons, members are unlikely to object to being issued more.  But if there are too many coupons, members will strongly resist having their coupons taken away.  And neither the babysitting coop nor our extended monopoly game had the capacity for bubbles -- a binge of excess lending leading to excess, inadequately secured debt.

Nonetheless, as the more complex economic role playing games made clear, a sufficiently complex economic model is quite capable of generating bubbles if the banks are not adequately regulated.  So, set up a whole series of complex economic role playing games (without telling the players you are running en experiment, of course).  Let the banks run riot and blow up the economy.  Then let the game managers (in the role of a government) adopt a different policy in each game and see which is most successful.  Of course, there are limits to the approach.  Sooner or later, people will figure out the dangers of letting banks run riot and refuse to play unless the banks are well-regulated.  But judging from the real world, but boom can be sufficiently alluring to bring a lot of people in until it is too late.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The next Krugman article I want to address is one in which he argues that it is possible to make a quick and strong recovery following a financial crisis; that the problem is not that it cannot be done, but that that political will to do it is lacking.  What is called for in such cases is extreme fiscal and monetary expansion; running up deficits to levels that would normally be dangerous, and mass-printing money with the deliberate intention of raising inflation.
Basically, it takes much more clarity and unity to pursue either discretionary fiscal expansion or unconventional monetary policy than it does to cut the Fed funds rate, and few countries manage to display that kind of clarity and unity. And that, in turn, is why it took a war to end the Great Depression; there’s nothing special about military spending from an economic point of view, but as a political matter Hitler managed to override the usual objections to stimulus.
 And, alas, democratic governments tend to be faint-hearted in such circumstances, and to want to be "responsible."  So it ends up being irresponsible actors of dubious democratic credentials who do what has to be done.  Challenges in Europe come from the hard left or hard right.  In Japan, it is being led by Shinzo Abe, a nationalist and WWII atrocity denier.  And then, of course, was Hitler.

But, once again, there is one exception.  That is the case of an over valued currency.  The difference there is that no steely policy resolve is called for.  One does not have to put one's shoulder to the wheel and run insane deficits or inflationary policies.  One simply has to abandon an unsustainable currency peg, and the currency will fall on its own, with no further action needed.  That is perhaps the reason that overvalued currencies are the chief exception to the rule that recovery following a financial crisis is slow.

The final Krugman post I want to comment on is an interesting look at the different way liberals and conservatives see things.  Krugman, in turn, links to an article in the Washington Monthly, which he cites, but with a different spin.  Although neither article cites him, I think both are good illustrations of Jonathan Haidt's theory of liberals' and conservatives' differing moral foundations, taken from different angles.

Consider first the Washington Monthly article.  The author explains that opposition to inflationary policies is not purely about whether they will revive the economy:
But opposition to “printing money” has never been strictly about economics or the “real world”—it has been, for eons, a moral issue to those who believe anything that makes life easier for debt and debtors must be morally ruinous to the individuals and the society that benefit. . . . This is a parallel phenomenon, of course, to the more general alignment of conservatives with the feeling that those hurt by the Great Recession were people—often those people—who didn’t adequately prepare themselves for adversity, and/or forfeited any sympathy by depending on government for mortgage assistance or other needs. 
 In other words, as Haidt puts it, liberals see justice as being utilitarian, but conservatives see it as karma.  Liberals worry about preventing people from being harmed needlessly; conservatives worry about people escaping deserved punishment.  This may, unfortunately, extend to the point of dismissing any fear about undeserved suffering on the theory that any misfortune is in and of itself evidence that the person suffering deserved it.

Krugman has a different emphasis.  To liberals, money is purely utilitarian.  If printing more of it brings about good economic results, then by all means, let us print more of it.  To conservatives, money is sacred and printing more of it is a desecration.  He scoffs at conservatives who also claim that printing money will bring about disastrous results, but why not?  If you regard money as sacred and inflation as desecration, then presumably you also believe that desecration will be punished.  As Haidt would put it, Krugman is pointing up the conservative value of reverence for the sacred and -- like any liberal -- mocking it as illegitimate.

I suppose my answer would be this.  Yes, I believe that conservatives see inflating our way out of debt as immoral, both because they see debt as sin and want sinners to be punished and because they see money as sacred and fear its desecration.  I also believe that these views resonate with a lot of less ideological people. In particular, most people fear inflation (which they see mostly as higher prices eating away at their paycheck), disapprove of debt, and want government to cut spending.  But here is the thing.  I do not believe that these abstract principle are so important to most people that they are prepared to follow them regardless of the consequences.  In the end, I believe if inflationary policies yield good economic results, Americans will be pleased, even if their moral intuitions are affronted.  And if an all-consuming focus on price stability produces bad economic results, people will be unhappy.  The question is what form that unhappiness will take.

On Banging One's Head Against the Wall

Before getting to Les Miserables, I want to discuss a few Paul Krugman columns that I have been saving up for some time.

The first one is this, in which Krugman discusses the (conservative) assumption that a deep economic plunge automatically means a rapid recovery.  He, in turn, is citing Noah Smith, quoting a research paper to the effect that financial crises lead to very severe recessions, followed by rapid recoveries.  The underlying thesis here is that the more severe the recession, the more rapid the recovery.  Not surprisingly, the paper has been used to criticize the Obama Administration for the slow recovery from our latest recession.  Smith comments that:
[T]hey [the authors of the paper] claim that deeper recessions will be followed by faster recoveries; in this model, one reason for a slower recovery under Obama is that the recession of 2009 was not as deep as recessions during the 1800s. . . . Obama slowed the recovery by reducing the severity of the recession.
Krugman makes a similar comment:
What all this also tells us is the folly of using growth from the recession trough as a measure of success: the worse you screw up the original response to the crisis, the better this measure looks!
 Both men take it as self-evidently absurd that anyone would want to make the initial recession as deep as possible in order to ensure rapid recovery -- sort of like the man banging his head against the wall because it feels so good when he stops!  But I have seen conservatives make this very argument, have debated the subject with them in comments threads.  Their basic argument is that "distortions" have been made in the economy and have to be "shaken out," that only when the necessary shake-out has taken place can recovery begin, and that any attempt to soften the decline only delays the inevitable bottom that must be reached before recovery can begin.

I agree that there have been distortions in our economy that have to be shaken out.  Specifically, we had too much residential investment and our construction and finance sectors became bloated and needed shrinking.  But it does not logically follow that the entire economy has to shrink, as opposed to those particular sectors.   Quite the contrary, if there has been too much residential investment, it logically follows that there has been too little of some other type of investment; that if the construction and finance sectors are bloated, some other part of the economy must be stunted.  What sense does it make to insist that the healthy as well as the unhealthy sectors of the economy must shrink?  The main response I got, so far as I can tell, is that there is simply an inevitable bottom to be reached, and that the faster the economy shrinks, the sooner it will hit that bottom and start bouncing back.  Hence, yes, they would agree that the most painful and damaging response is the best because it hits the inevitable bottom soonest.

The thread died before I could pose my not-entirely hypothetical response.  Conservatives strongly criticized the Obama Administration for bailing out Chrysler and GM.  What if it had failed to do so?  Conservatives like to propose a private rescuer instead, but the whole reason the government bailed out the auto industry was that no private rescuer could be found.  Alternately, Chrysler and GM might have failed and Ford, the healthiest auto manufacturer, might have moved to fill in the space they had left.  In that case, one might argue it was a case of necessary but painful shakeout.  But there was a very real possibility, one that Ford feared enough to make it support the bailout, that the failure of Chrysler and GM might cause so many subcontractors to fail that Ford would not be able to buy necessary supplies and even the (relatively) healthy company would have been brought down.  Such an outcome was by no means a certainty, but neither was it an impossibility.  And it would obviously have made the economy shrink more.  Do the shakeout school think such a development would be healthy?

Or let us imagine another not-entirely-hypothetical.  Suppose a very small country -- we will call it Iceland.  Iceland's economy is so small, it only has two industries, fishing and investment banking.*  Of course, not all employment is in these two industries, but the rest of Iceland's employment is in services like retail, construction and so forth that service people in the banking and fishing industries, as well as each other.  The investment banking industry has become grossly bloated and has to shrink.  The service sector will necessarily wither if loses much of its investment banking clientele.  So to me it would logically seem to follow that what Iceland needs is for the fishing industry to grow.  Unfortunately, it will probably not grow as fast as the banking industry shrinks, so services will still wither.  It would therefore seem to make sense for government to provide some sort of short-term stimulus (if it can) to keep the service sector going until the fishing sector has grown big enough to support it.  The economy's problems, after all, are solely in its bloated financial industry, not in fishing or services.  But the shakeout crowd, so far as I can tell, would say no, the banking industry and the fishing industry and the service industry all need to shrink in order to accomplish shakeout and hit bottom, and that any interference with this process is counterproductive.  Some wag commented that if we just shut the entire economy down for one year, growth the following year would be astronomical.  Head, wall, bang!  (It feels so good when I stop).

So far as I can tell, financial crises lead to hitting an inevitable bottom, followed by rapid recovery in only one instance.  That is when the crisis is brought on by large-scale borrowing in order to prop up an overvalued currency.  Letting an over-valued currency fall is, indeed, traumatic and leads to a temporary but severe economic fall.  But once it is reached, recovery is usually rapid.  But there is a funny thing about such crises.  The longer a country allows them to go on, the more over-valued its currency becomes, the deeper the "inevitable" bottom turns out to be.  For countries that devalue sooner, the "inevitable" bottom is not as deep.  More on that (and other thing) in my next post.
*Actually Iceland also has aluminum smelting, geothermal power, and tourism, but you get the picture.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

A Quick Note on the Debt Ceiling

So, it looks as though the Republicans have found a face-saving cave on the debt ceiling.  They will raise it, but only for three months.  Since everyone else is weighing in on the subject, I might as well.

Let me join with other liberals in my annoyance at moderate Republicans complaining that Obama is playing dirty.  The Party of Personal Responsibility should show a little.  If you are threatening to crash the economy by defaulting on the debt, you don't get to point at Obama and say, "The devil made me do it."  If you are trying to force a choice between unpopular cuts to popular programs and economic ruin, you have no business complaining if the President points this out.  It is not dirty pool to point out that the opposing party holds unpopular views or to want to win the upcoming midterms; it is politics as usual.  If you have painted yourself into a corner, it is not your bitter political rival's obligation to get you out; that is your problem.  And, finally, if for the last four years you have eschewed the normal politics of compromise vowing all-out confrontation until one side is totally defeated, you don't get to call off the game when that side is looking to be you.

Ultimately, I think the Republican's problem is that a threat so drastic as a refusal to raise the debt ceiling is the sort of thing that can only be done once.  The first time the issue was raised, Republicans found a sympathetic audience in the American public. Government's ability to raise its own debt ceiling at will sounds bad, given that no one else has that power.  Most people did not understand the catastrophic consequences of a refusal and agreed with the Republicans that the debt ceiling should not be raised.  Plenty of rank-and-file Republicans either did not understand the catastrophic consequences themselves or assumed that polls showing the American people opposed raising the debt ceiling meant they were prepared to accept the catastrophic consequences.  But as the deadline loomed nearer and nearer, people began to understand more and more what those consequences would be and to fear them, and public opinion gradually turned against the Republicans.

Well, this time is different.  This time Congressional Republicans are well aware what the consequences of refusal to raise the debt ceiling will be, and the American people have a better sense of how dangerous it is than last time.  All of this means that it is much harder this time around to disguise the fact the that Republicans are threatening to blow up the economy.  And threats to blow up the economy, for reasons incomprehensible to Republicans, tend to be wildly unpopular.  The Republican strategy is now apparently to hold votes to raise the debt ceiling every three months and hope to embarrass the Democrats (and primary any Republican who votes fort it) by pointing out their frequent votes to raise the debt ceiling.  But once you can portray a vote to raise the debt ceiling as a vote not to blow up the economy, then voting for it loses its sting -- and voting against it acquires a sting.  Besides, holding these spectacles every three months will simply drain them of all emotion content and make people stop caring.

Last year, Republicans took the economy hostage and threatened to kill it unless they got what they wanted. People were terrified.  But in the end, although Republicans got a ransom, it was a smaller one than they wanted.  People took note.  When they threatened the hostage again, many people feared they meant it this time, but President Obama took the gamble they did not.  And, indeed, the Republicans have now given the hostage a three-month reprieve, but say they really mean it, three months down the line the hostage will get it if they don't get the ransom they want.  Somehow I don't think anyone will believe them.  And if they choose to repeat this drama every three months, soon everyone will just roll their eyes.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

A Brief Note on "Django Unchained"

If summer is when the flashy but trashy movies come out, Christmas season is when the serious ones appear.  We have an impressive crop this winter:  Lincoln, Anna Karenina, Zero Dark Thirty, and Les Miserables.  I have already seen Lincoln (and may find time to comment on it here).  I definitely intend to comment extensively on Les Miserables (both the movie and the novel).  Anna Karenina and Zero Dark Thirty are not quite as high on my list, but both sound good.

One movie I do not intend to see, and therefore (as many have said) should refrain from commenting on is Django Unchained.  I make it my general rule never to watch any movie directed by Quen Tarantino.  Tarantino movies are nothing but general gore fests of so-graphic-its-almost-pornographic violence.  Django looks to be no exception.  The trailer offers what is presumably the movie's leading applause line:  "How do like the bounty hunting business?"  "Kill white folks and they pay you for it.  What's not to like?"

What is significant about Django is the timing.  It cannot be emphasized strongly enough -- Django embodies every antebellum white southerner's worst nightmare.  The fear that the end of slavery would lead to millions of Djangos unchained and seeking revenge was one of southerners' strongest arguments in favor of maintaining slavery.  (Even as they simultaneously argued that black people really liked being slaves).  Haiti was the great living example of what to fear.  In Haiti, the great masses of slaves did, indeed, rise up seeking revenge until all the island's white population were either killed or fled.  But such fears began before the Haitian revolution and persisted long after other colonies ended slavery without war.  Of course, when slavery actually ended, no such race war ensued.  But the Dunning School views that widely prevailed in the aftermath held that even if there had been no race war, order had broken down, general black lawlessness had been rampant, and the Ku Klux Klan and other vigilante organizations were necessary to restore order.  This may be considered a milder version of the original white southern fears.

Certainly, when movies first came out, the Dunning School reigned supreme, and showing anything like Django Unchained was unthinkable.  The first full-length movie, after all, was Birth of a Nation*.  By the 1950's and '60's, the Civil Rights movement was in full swing, crude racism was no longer acceptable, but the emphasis was on presenting sterling black characters to encourage a white audience not to fear them.

I do not know much about the Blaxploitation movies of the 1970's.  It may well be that you could have shown a Django-like character in such a movie to great applause.  But by the 1980's and '90's, crack violence was at its height, our inner cities were turning into war zones, and a wave of black film makers were pleading with their audience please not to take the Djangos of the world as role models.

So, it is only now, with the Civil War long gone from living memory, the Civil Rights Movement fading fast, and violent crime receding, that one can get away with a movie like Django.  What does that tell us?

*I suppose one could call Django the mirror opposite of Birth of a Nation.  In Django, Django is the hero.  In Birth of a Nation, he is the villain.  The nearest Birth of a Nation presents to a positive black role model looks a lot like the despised figure played by Samuel L. Jackson.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

One Last Comment on False Memory -- and Haiku

One last comment on False Memory.  I want to thank anyone who added a comment to my post on haiku.  I still will not pretend to understand it, but they were insightful.  But of all the comments, I think the one most useful to me is that classical haiku is very direct and literal in its descriptions, and eschews simile and metaphor.  After all, it seems fair to say that the real essence of English poetry -- and, indeed, Western poetry in general -- is not so much lavish language as metaphor and other figurative language.  My quote from The Highwayman contains a metaphor per line.  My quote from Skaters of Ghost Lake contains a simile in the first couple and a metaphor in the second.  And "Ice shooting fangs forth, sudden -- like spears" packs a metaphor and a simile into a single line.

When I made my youthful attempts at haiku, almost invariably they would contain some sort of figurative language, like comparing the sunset to a water color painting.  It would be an attempt at vividness, but nothing like real haiku.  And, looking back at Ahriman's attempts at haiku, it seems to me that the ones I liked best were not so much the ones that copied the lavishness of English poetry, but the ones that used metaphor.

Moonlight on the water
Eyes brimming ponds of rain
Dark fish in the mind

Seems like a much more poetic description of a beautiful woman (Susan) crying than:

Tear-damp flush of face
White cotton so sweetly curved
Bare knees together.


Her blue eyes seeking
His wisdom gives her vision
Teacher and student

Never seemed very poetic to me.  I did better with:

Black hair, black attire
Blue eyes shine like Tiffany
Her light, too, a lamp

That starts to seem poetic because of its rather light and delicate use of figurative language, but still not so grant as:

Sizzling passion eyes
Simmer in broth of eros
My juicy pork chop.

Okay, so pork chop is generally considered in bad taste to use to describe a woman.  But my general impression is that it is probably true that the haiku in the novel that appealed to me most were not so much the most lavish ones after all, as the ones that made good use of metaphor.  I should also add that Dean Koontz, whatever else I may think of him, gives excellent, highly vivid descriptions of the scene and has a positive genius for setting a mood, even when he does not use haiku.

Whether I can learn to appreciate a poetry based on literalism remains to be seen.

False Memory, pp 544-598

When we last left our heroes, they had defeated the bad guys’ attempt to kill them in Santa Fe and were headed back to California.  Our villain, in the meantime, had apparently killed Skeet and his companion, but was seen by the paranoid but un-brainwashed (and unnamed) Keanuphobe, and was struggling to figure out how to control her until he had his mind control formula in place.

Much to Ahriman’s surprise, Dusty and Martie show up for their Friday appointment and confront him.  Ahriman says their trigger names and recites their enabling haikus to establish control, or at least the appearance of control.  With them under the appearance of his control, he orders them to go to Malibu to the home of Dusty’s mother, step-father and half-brother and kill them in spectacular fashion.  He dropped his first hint that Dusty, Martie and Skeet mean more to him than just another set of playthings when he shot Skeet and said, “Your mother’s a whore, your father’s a fraud, and your step- father ‘s got pig shit for brains.”  He now makes it abundantly clear that he hates Dusty’s family with a passion, calling Dusty’s step-father, Derek Lampton a “greedy, grasping, self-aggrandizing little shit,” a “reeking pisspot,” and a “suppurating pimple on the ass of humanity.”  He is in the process of describing how to kill and dismember them when he notices that their eyes are not making REM movements as they eyes of people under his control usually do.  And then he discovers that they are not under his control, and that he is unable to re-establish control.  At first he is shaken, but he manages to re-establish dominance by telling them he has burned their house down (with enough details to leave no doubt it is true) and that he shot and killed Skeet and Fig.  But he does not dare do anything so open as kill them in his own office, so he sends them away.  Then he calls the mysterious person under his control and sends him out to commit the crime instead.

Dusty and Martie head to Dusty's family's house to see why Ahriman hates them so much.  What follows is painful, really, the most unpleasant part of the book.  Dusty's mother is named Claudette.  Her husband (number four) is Derek Lampton, a psychologist, and they have a son, Derek Junior.  They both come across as grotesque caricatures of a pointed-headed professor by someone who really, REALLY hates pointy-headed professors.  They are not as evil as Ahriman, but only minimally more believable.  Although Dusty and Skeet complain a great deal about Derek Lampton, Claudette is the really annoying one.  She nags Dusty about having so un-serious a name, says that his classes in manners and deportment all went to waste, and that he could understand [whatever] if only he had taken an elementary college course in logic.  When Skeet and Fig turn out not to be dead after all because they were wearing Fig's kevlar body armor, instead of being alarmed that their nasty bruises, or relieved that they are all right, Claudette just corrects Skeet every time he says "me and Fig" and tells him it should be "Fig and I."  And she says, "[T]he American public . . . is as lazy and as poorly educated as it is in need of sound psychological counseling."

Yes, I will grant you, sometimes I wanted to reach into the pages and strangle her.  But I refuse to do it because I don't want to give Dean Koontz the satisfaction.  If I reach into the pages and strangle her, Koontz will know that he manipulated me into hating her just as much as he wanted me to.  And I refuse to be manipulated.  Much as I would like to reach into the pages and strangle Claudette, I would even more like to reach through the pages and strangle Koontz for foisting such a straw figure on me.  I will give him credit for preparing us for them from the start.  We learned way back starting on page 49 that Claudette married a whole string of obnoxious pointy-headed college professors.  Naturally we had to meet them some time.  But somehow for all the buildup, this part just doesn't read like part of the story.  It reads like Koontz has some sort of anti-intellectual agenda he wants to foist off on his readers.  I resent him for foisting it on me.  If he wants to make an anti-intellectual argument, make it a inherent part of the novel and bring it out into the open.  What's more, while it is obvious that Koontz has an agenda here, I don't know him well enough to be quite sure what it is.  I have criticized Koontz before for creating the impression that he may be taking on the recovered memory movement and then not doing so.  On second thoughts, maybe it is just as well that he did not, or his novel might have been reduced to a mere propaganda vehicle and hardly a story at all.

Even more disturbing is Koontz' reaction when Claudette says that ideas are what are really important because ideas can transform society.  Martie points out, reasonably enough, that Lampton's latest psychology book is hardly the stuff that transforms society.  That would be fine, taken by itself, but Koontz goes on to show a scorn for ideas that I find most disturbing.  Dusty realizes that his mother has an almost pornographic fascination with ideas because they represent power to her.  And worse yet, when Ahriman's puppet comes after them with homicidal intent, Martie asks if they have a gun.  When told no, she says, "Then too bad you don't have a really lethal idea."  Does Koontz mean what he appears to mean?  He seems to be saying that ideas are of no value at all, only brute force really matters.  Is that the message any author wants to convey?  Novels, after all, are vehicles for conveying ideas as well as characters and stories. Why would any novelist want to convey a message of, ignore any ideas I may be trying to convey; only brute force matters?  Furthermore, even if a novelist does want to convey that odious message, one would expect him to convey it consistently throughout his novel.  Instead, Koontz shows no great interest in exalting brute force over ideas, but simply throws it in as a seemingly random comment in the middle of a strangely out of place anti-intellectual tirade.  I can only assume that Koontz shows a hostility toward ideas and fondness for brute force because pointy-headed intellectuals like ideas and oppose brute force.  The whole sequence is thoroughly distasteful and reads like something grafted onto the story to advance some sort of hidden agenda.

Be that as it may, the over-intellectualism of Dusty's family has apparently rubbed off on him.  He asks Lampton, "Derek, why would Mark Ahriman harbor such animosity toward you?"  It turns out that both are psychologists and both wrote books that came out about the same time, but Ahriman's sold much better.  Lampton has retaliated by writing hostile reviews and posting over 150 negative reviews on under false names and e-mail addresses.  We also find out somewhat later that Claudette had an affair with Ahriman, that he was the actual father of her Down's baby, that she blamed Ahriman and smothered their child in her crib, and that she considered smothering Skeet when he, too, proved to be defective.  All of this is interrupted when the mysterious stranger under Ahriman's control appears and turns out to be Susan's husband Eric, who was acting under Ahriman's control when he moved out and left his wife vulnerable to Ahriman's nocturnal visits.  He shows up, guns blazing and charges up the stairs towards them.  Dusty and Martie push furniture down the stairs to block his way, while shouting out name after name from The Manchurian Candidate until they reach the one that makes him go catatonic and say, "I'm listening."  Dusty runs down stairs, shouting "Ed Mavole" (the trigger name) every time Eric starts to come out of his trance.  Just as Dusty has disarmed Eric and is wondering what to do next, Derek, Jr. shoots and kills him with his crossbow.  A huge family quarrel ensues, with Dusty blaming Junior for killing a disarmed man (so much for Koontz worshiping brute force.  And good for him!), Junior's parents wanting to protect him from the police, and the whole affair with Ahriman and killing his baby coming up.

In the confusion, Skeet takes Eric's gun and sneaks off to kill Ahriman, trusting that he can get off on a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity.  Dusty and Martie, upon finding out, go after Skeet, intended to stop him, but this time confident that if they kill Ahriman, their persecution will stop and the Bellon-Tockland Institute will not come after them.

False Memory, pp. 599-627, The End

This one should be relatively short.  Though it ends in death, the closing chapters of the book are written in a surprisingly comic tone.  Ahriman is in his office, carrying a gun (.380 Beretta) just to be sure.  Three things are occupying his mind -- the crime he has sent Eric to commit, the Keanuphobe and how he will control her, and the little blue bag of dog poop he still has with him.  There is a story there.  When Dusty and Skeet were boys, Skeet's father complained that his son's learning disability made him a worse student than a reeking pile of manure.  He called his son "as erudite as excrement" and a variety of other alliterative and scatological epithets, any one of which sounds implausible, but all strung together are nothing any live human being would ever say.  After their mother divorced him, they gathered up all the dog droppings they could find and mailed them to him anonymously, to see if he could make a better student out of it.  Ahriman learned of this incident in one of his brainwashing sessions and is keeping the bag of poop to remind him of it.  He has, in fact, ordered Eric to cut open Derek Lampton's skull and fill it with excrement -- his own, or a dog's as circumstances permit.

Meanwhile, the Keanuphobe, dressed in a pink suit, has arrived with a pistol and silencer.  Skeet, carrying Eric's machine pistol, arrives and walks into the elevator with him.  She addresses him with such a bizarre combination of hidden truth (she saw the shooting) and incoherent ranting ("If you die in the matrix, you die for real, unless you're a machine") that Skeet, although sure he has not taken any drugs in the last few days, wonders if he is having a flashback.  They take the elevator up to Ahriman's floor (Dusty and Martie in pursuit), and she shoots him just outside Ahriman's door.  Skeet staggers into the office and collapses on the floor.  Ahriman's secretary Jennifer starts screaming.  He is still not dead, but Ahriman (baffled as to how he could possibly be alive, let alone made it to his office) intends to finish him off.  But first, a comic sequence ensues in which he tries to figure out what to do with his little blue bag.  After all, the police will soon be there, and if they see a bag of dog poop on his desk, they will probably ask questions about it.  It is not in any way incriminating, but it could be extremely difficult to explain.  (My suggestion:  Play on his credentials as a psychiatrist.  When the police ask, indignantly answer that as a psychiatrist you are not allowed to discussed even your patients' oddest behavior).  Furthermore, if he puts it in his drawer, the police might get a warrant and find it and, once again, he would have a lot of explaining to do.  If he keeps it in his pocket, the police won't find it unless they arrest him, but what if it breaks?  Finally, he draws his gun, hides the bag in the holster, looks out the door to investigate, and is shot dead by the Keanuphobe.  Dusty and Martie arrive to find Ahriman dead, Skeet gravely wounded, Jennifer hysterical, and a mysterious woman in pink saying into her cell phone, "Will you stop babbling Kenneth?  For an expensive attorney, you're something of a ninny."

The ending should take a page, or two at most.  Koontz drags it on for seven and a half.  Skeet is not dead, just badly wounded.  Dusty and Martie are cleared by the testimony of both Jennifer and the unnamed woman in pink.  Dusty is permitted to follow his brother to the hospital.  Martie tells the police all about Ahriman.  Dr. Closterman, who has seen the shooting on the news, shows up and gives confirmation.  A search of Ahriman's house reveals enough videotapes to leave no doubt.  The Bellon-Tockland Institute decides that Ahriman is a liability and writes him off.  They do not come after Dusty and Martie.  The pink lady settles Skeet's suit against her and he used the money, partnered with Fig, to start a tour business called Strange Phenomenon Tours.  He marries a pretty nurse from the New Life Clinic and they have a son.  Susan and her husband leave everything they own to Martie.  She uses the proceeds to rebuild the house and go to veterinary school.  So the novel ends on a happy note, except that we know the Bellon-Tockland Institute is still out there, doing who knows what.

My ultimate reaction the the novel is that I greatly enjoyed the parts where the suspense is building as to what is going on, felt let down when we found out and a lot of the clues were never explained, and HATED their portrayals of the bad guys.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

More Cause for Despair

President Obama has proposed two nominations.  One initially supported the Iraq War, but has since decided it was a mistake that he does not want to repeat with Iran.  The other was involved in the Bush torture program and the Obama drone assassinations.

The Iraq War skeptic has met with almost hysterical opposition.*  The torture and murder guy seems almost completely uncontroversial.

What have we come to?

*In all fairness to Hagel's opponents, I assume they are so fierce in their opposition because they see him as a renegade Republican and would not resist so much if he were a Democrat.  I see the opposition to the Hagel nomination intended first and foremost as a warning to Republicans what will happen if they deviate from the party line.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

On Jacobins, Bolsheviks, and Movement Conservatives

Just for the record, I should add that although I compare people who say that we must stick to the vision of the Founding Fathers, even if they are proven indisputably wrong about something, to the Jacobins or the Bolsheviks, I am not saying they are morally comparable. For one thing, constitutional fundamentalists operate under democratic constraints that will prevent them from ever doing what the Jacobins or Bolsheviks did.

But even apart from democratic constraints, they have an important ideological difference from the radical left. What is wrong with the radical left was beautifully summed up in a sentence from Lenin for Beginners, written in all seriousness, “They forget it’s the world we want to change, not Marx.” Or, as Douglas Adams said, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide is not always right but it is always definitive. In case of discrepancy, it is reality that has it wrong.” In other words, the works of Marx are infallible holy writ that must never be modified, no matter how badly they work out in practice. The Communist word for heretic was “revisionist,” meaning someone with the audacity to revise Marx. The Jacobins (so far as I know) did not have quite so definitive a holy scripture as the Communists, but they had definite theories about how society worked and, like the Bolsheviks, if reality did not match the theory, they were prepared to beat on it as hard as they had to in order to force it.*

Our constitutional fundamentalists are not like that. They believe that the Founding Fathers developed a perfect society and a vision that we must strictly follow, unless otherwise authorized by constitutional amendment. That leaves them one out. If reality doesn’t conform to the Founding Fathers’ vision, the less radical among them would allow the theory to be changed by the difficult and cumbersome process of a two-thirds vote in both houses of Congress and three-quarters of all states. At least some of them do. The more fundamentalist among them regard all amendments from the Thirteenth onward as illegitimate (no, seriously!) and want a return to an antebellum order.

But more significantly, if reality does not match the theory, although they will not change the theory, neither do they propose to coerce reality. Their proposal, instead, is simply to ignore reality and pretend that it conforms to the theory. Ignoring reality is a lousy way to run a government or a society, but at least it beats the radical leftist approach of hammering on it until it meets the theory.

*I should add here that, as a liberal, I am not opposed to changing the world, as many conservatives (pre-Enlightenment or modern) seem to be. Nor am I opposed to having a theory or ideology to give you a model of what you want to achieve. But the model must be grounded in reality, take feedback from reality, and be subject to change if reality fails to cooperate.

Monday, January 7, 2013

One More Comment on Insurrectionism

Finally, on the subject of the insurrectionist approach to gun ownership, I will say that I believe it comes with a host of unstated assumptions that need to be brought out into the light of day, because they may seem convincing when unstated, but will crumble in the light of serious scrutiny.  Those assumptions are as follows:

  1. Any government, no matter how free and democratic, could turn tyrannical any day.  The constant threat of political violence is the basis of freedom because it is the only thing that keeps governments honest.
  2. Only government can threaten liberty.  People who offer armed resistance to government are necessarily pure of heart.
  3. Finally, though never openly stated, there seems to be an assumption that political violence is something benign or ever therapeutic, simply liberty at its most exuberant.
Any look at actual evidence, or even mere common sense consideration, shows these assumptions to be false.

Free and democratic government rests, not on the threat of political violence, but on the uniform renunciation of political violence, as others have eloquently set forth.  Indeed, one might say that in the U.S. at least, violence is the ultimate measure of legitimacy.  We are prepared to tolerate civil disobedience, mass demonstrations, rage, vituperation, and much else.  But whoever resorts to violence for a political end is beyond the pale of all acceptable practice.  I welcome input from anyone out there, but off the top of my head, I cannot think of any free and democratic government that has failed so long as all actors maintained their renunciation of violence.

Governments threatened by violence are much more likely to be oppressive and trample on liberty than ones that are secure.  In our own history, even a small threat has often provoked gross over-reaction.  In other countries, the overreactions have been considerably worse.  (See Freikorps for how nasty even a free and democratic government can get when it feels threatened).

Whatever we may think of people who take up arms against tyrants (and their record is mixed at best), under a democracy, people who take up arms are terrorists, plain, pure and simple.  Black Shirts or Brown Shirts, Red Brigades or Red Army Faction, Ku Klux Klan or Weather Underground, people who take up arms against a democratic government are far more likely to be threats to freedom than its protectors.

And, finally, political violence is not simply liberty at its most exuberant.  Political violence in a democracy is not a sign of a healthy body politic; it is a sign that the body politic is unhealthy.  Small-scale political violence can be defeated; on a great scale it is invariably a sign that democracy is in grave danger.

It is possible that some insurrectionist, presented with overwhelming evidence against their viewpoint, would dismiss it as irrelevant.  The threat of political violence may not in fact be vital to the survival of free government, they may say, but the Founding Fathers thought it was and wrote that right into our Constitution, and the will of the Founders must be obeyed regardless of the facts, unless modified by constitutional amendment.  In fact, there is ample evidence that the Founders were well aware of the dangers of political violence and feared anarchy as much as they feared tyranny.  (I may address that on some other occasion).  But even if some insurrectionist were to present me with irrefutable evidence that the Founding Fathers favored political violence (or at least the threat of such violence) as vital to liberty, then I would simply say that the Founding Fathers were dead wrong, and that when theory comes into conflict with reality, reality must prevail every time.  To believe otherwise was the error of the Jacobins and the Bolsheviks.  

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Gun Culture: An Analysis

So, with all those quotes out of the way, what do I make of the gun lobby?  My answer is simple.  People who believe the best solution to crime is for everyone to be armed to the teeth, people who encourage and ever-expanding definition of self-defense, people who believe that government can turn tyrannical at any moment and only the imminent threat of political violence can prevent it, are not people who believe in the civil society, or in the rule of law, or, in any meaningful sense, in democracy.  When David Frum responded to the insurrectionists with his Lincoln quote, one of the commenters at his site said that people who argue for armed insurrection are the descendants (actual and spiritual) of the people Lincoln defeated.

I believe this is essentially correct.  To cite myself (citing David Hackett Fischer), the whole NRA view of freedom as something every man individually vindicates with his gun sounds very much like Fischer's description of back country "natural liberty."  Freedom is seen in purely individual terms -- "Don't tread on me."  Respect for the rights of others is not part of such a view.  Who else is trodden on is not my business.  My neighbor has a gun of his own and is just as able to use it to vindicate his liberty as I am.  Natural liberty, in effect, equates liberty with the state of nature, as it was known in the 18th Century, or, as we would call it today, the law of the jungle.

This perspective can explain a lot.  It explains why gun enthusiasts are eager to protect, not only the right to keep and the right to carry, but the right to shoot as well.  If freedom is the law of the jungle, then by all means, let us dispense with this tiresome business of calling the police or following rules and get on with it.  It explains any affinity such a viewpoint has with libertarian economics.  Libertarianism, after all, is little more than the law of the jungle in economic matters.

But it is the attitude toward government and insurrection that is most revealing. Alas, I can no longer find a most interesting conservative response to Michael Lofgren's classic broadside against the Republicans. Its most insightful comment, however, was in response to Lofgren's charge that Republicans are intentionally paralyzing and sabotaging government because "[b]y sabotaging the reputation of an institution of government, the party that is programmatically against government would come out the relative winner." The response angrily denies that Republicans are deliberately setting out to undermine "democracy."
That remark, perhaps unwittingly, makes an important point. Because democracy is a form of government, blanket, undifferentiated hostility toward government is not and cannot be the ideology of democracy. Certainly, a healthy democracy calls for a healthy skepticism of government, an insistence that it be bound by law, a willingness to call it out when it steps out of line, and a desire to hold government accountable.  But underlying the ideology of democracy is an ultimate optimism that government is compatible with liberty, that  the people can successfully hold government accountable, and that proper institutions can keep government in line without the resort to force.  That is the ideology set forth in the Constitution, with its separation of powers and its checks and balances, all intended to maintain freedom without the resort to violent revolution.

The ideology of insurrection, by contrast, treats all government as a menace and the difference between democratic and non-democratic government as one of degree, not of kind.  It may be untroubled that popular militias foster "warlordism, tribalism, and civil war."  These things, after all, look a whole lot more like the law of the jungle then democratic government does.  If your idea of freedom is the law of the jungle, then warlordism may seem a lot more like freedom than democracy does.  And, after all, who can doubt that warlords are much freer in such a system than they would be under democratic government.  The problem, of course, is that warlords infringe on everyone else's freedom a lot more than democratic government every thought of.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Quotes on Guns

In response to calls for firearms restrictions in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting, the gun lobby has responded with its usual arguments.  If only more people had guns, we could resist deranged shooters like this.  More guns, more guns.  Safety can finally be achieved only if everyone is armed to the teeth.  Every time I hear this argument, I think of this and wonder if it is what the NRA wants our society to look like.

In the '90's, arguments against this viewpoint mostly expressed a personal distaste for guns and wish for something better.  This time, we are getting real discussion of what such a society would look like. This one expresses my thoughts exactly:
[W]hat troubles me most about this suggestion — and the general More Guns approach to social ills — is the absolute abandonment of civil society it represents. It gives up on the rule of law in favor of a Hobbesian “war of every man against every man” in which we no longer have genuine neighbors, only potential enemies. You may trust your neighbor for now — but you have high-powered recourse if he ever acts wrongly.
Whatever lack of open violence may be procured by this method is not peace or civil order, but rather a standoff, a Cold War maintained by the threat of mutually assured destruction.
Even more encouraging is the pushback I am hearing on the argument that we need guns to resist a potential tyrannical government.  Incredibly, back during the '90's, the main counter-argument I heard was that government had tanks and helicopters and that mere small arms would be no match.  In response, insurrectionists argued Vietnam and Afghanistan.  They pointed out that Chechnya was holding out against the Russians.  Some even held up Al Capone as a freedom fighter -- he was a capitalist providing the public with a product it wanted in the face of oppressive government regulation, and ready to back it with armed force.  The timing of such arguments was significant.  The Vietnam was a distant enough memory that expressing admiration for the Viet Cong no longer seemed like treason.  Radical Islam had not yet fully established itself as our enemy, so it did not seem un-American to admire Muslim insurgents in Afghanistan or Chechnya.  I thought that after a decade of fighting irregular guerrilla forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and calling them "unlawful combatants," the romance of the guerrilla fighter might be over, but apparently it is not. In any event, people who laud irregular resistance in Vietnam, Afghanistan or Chechnya fail to address whether any of these are societies where one would want to live.

Here is a piece seriously addressing as an empirical matter what such insurrection is likely to get you:
While "people's war" militia-based strategies have been employed to wear down invading armies in numerous countries over the past century, not one of those countries (Vietnam, Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, southern Lebanon, etc) is "free". This is not an accident of history. Freedom is the product of orderly democratic governance and the rule of law. Popular militias are overwhelming likely to foster not democracy or the rule of law, but warlordism, tribalism and civil war. . . . No popular militia has ever prevented the seizure of power by an authoritarian ruler. In countries with well-established democratic traditions, authoritarian takeovers are rare; when they occur, popular militias do not resist, or are ruthlessly crushed by national armed forces. In countries with weak democratic traditions, authoritarian takeovers sometimes go smoothly, or in other cases touch off periods of civil war, which are resolved when one faction finally defeats the others and imposes authoritarian rule.
Conor Friedersdorf points out that the whole setup of our government is supposed to protect freedom without the resort to armed insurrection:
Even if we presume that the 2nd Amendment exists partly so that citizens can rise up if the government gets tyrannical, it is undeniable that the Framers built other safeguards into the Constitution and the Bill of Rights to prevent things from ever getting so bad as to warrant an insurrection. Federalism was one such safeguard; the separation of powers into three branches was another; and the balance of the Bill of Rights was the last of the major safeguards.  If a "2nd Amendment solution" is ever warranted, it'll mean our system already failed in numerous ways.
I have discussed before other people making the argument that our freedom and democracy rest, not on the threat of violence, but on the universal renunciation of political violence.  People like Justin Raimondo:
The whole point of even attending such a gathering, or, indeed, any sort of rational discussion about anything, is that we leave our guns—embodying the possibility of coercion—outside the door. We forsake force, and rely solely on our persuasive powers to get our point across.
Or E.J. Dionne:
 The simple fact is that an armed citizenry is not the basis for our freedoms. Our freedoms rest on a moral consensus, enshrined in law, that in a democratic republic we work out our differences through reasoned, and sometimes raucous, argument. Free elections and open debate are not rooted in violence or the threat of violence. They are precisely the alternative to violence, and guns have no place in them.  On the contrary, violence and the threat of violence have always been used by those who wanted to bypass democratic procedures and the rule of law. 
And finally, Frum quotes Lincoln from the last time anyone tried a "Second Amendment solution"
[B]allots are the rightful and peaceful successors of bullets; and that when ballots have fairly and constitutionally decided, there can be no successful appeal back to bullets; that there can be no successful appeal, except to ballots themselves, at succeeding elections. Such will be a great lesson of peace; teaching men that what they cannot take by an election, neither can they take it by a war; teaching all the folly of being the beginners of a war.
 This is a critically important point, that democracy requires the losers to yield to the winners and the winners to respect the rights of the losers.  For democracy to succeed calls for that rarest and most difficult of skills -- being a good loser.  A system in which the loser resorts to armed rebellion against the winner is not democracy; it is endless civil war.  Such was the fate of elective government in ancient Greece and Rome.  Such was the fate that our Founding Fathers most feared.  Such was the fate that our country met when Lincoln was elected.  Such was the fate that we miraculously survived.  I am not worried right now that enough people will resort to "Second Amendment solutions"