Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

Today’s Taboo, And Where to From Here?

Here is the abstract from a paper that appeared two years ago in Molecular Psychiatry:

Intelligence is a core construct in differential psychology and behavioural genetics, and should be so in cognitive neuroscience. It is one of the best predictors of important life outcomes such as education, occupation, mental and physical health and illness, and mortality. Intelligence is one of the most heritable behavioural traits. Here, we highlight five genetic findings that are special to intelligence differences and that have important implications for its genetic architecture and for gene-hunting expeditions. (i) The heritability of intelligence increases from about 20% in infancy to perhaps 80% in later adulthood. (ii) Intelligence captures genetic effects on diverse cognitive and learning abilities, which correlate phenotypically about 0.30 on average but correlate genetically about 0.60 or higher. (iii) Assortative mating is greater for intelligence (spouse correlations ~0.40) than for other behavioural traits such as personality and psychopathology (~0.10) or physical traits such as height and weight (~0.20). Assortative mating pumps additive genetic variance into the population every generation, contributing to the high narrow heritability (additive genetic variance) of intelligence. (iv) Unlike psychiatric disorders, intelligence is normally distributed with a positive end of exceptional performance that is a model for ‘positive genetics’. (v) Intelligence is associated with education and social class and broadens the causal perspectives on how these three inter-correlated variables contribute to social mobility, and health, illness and mortality differences. These five findings arose primarily from twin studies. They are being confirmed by the first new quantitative genetic technique in a century—Genome-wide Complex Trait Analysis (GCTA)—which estimates genetic influence using genome-wide genotypes in large samples of unrelated individuals. Comparing GCTA results to the results of twin studies reveals important insights into the genetic architecture of intelligence that are relevant to attempts to narrow the ‘missing heritability’ gap.

I’ve been doing some reading in the field, and there’s nothing particularly special about this paper. I picked it because the abstract provided a fair summary of where the literature has been for at least a generation now. In fact, I specifically avoided a couple of papers that would have seemed hair-raisingly controversial to people who haven’t looked at the literature.

My point is simple. Cognitive science and genetics are at a place that is very, very different than most people think. And the science is getting better, faster and more precise. I believe it is, in fact, fair to say that we are in the early stages of a revolution in the biological sciences, particularly where it concerns the study of intelligence and other mental traits.

So what is going on? Why does the science seem so alien in 2017 America? To quote no less an authority than Steven Pinker:

Irony: Replicability crisis in psych DOESN’T apply to IQ: huge n’s, replicable results. But people hate the message.

As a complete outside, I wouldn’t dare argue the science with Pinker. Still, his statement is partly wrong. Sure, most people hate the message.  But some people love it.  The people who love the message love it because they can use it to justify the hatred in their heart. The rest of us hate it because we understand what it implies. If intelligence and other personality traits are largely heritable, people aren’t a blank slate. It casts doubt on many of our cherished myths. More disturbingly, it almost implies people have some sort of destiny, one that wouldn’t be out of place in a Gattaca world, or worse, a Brave New one.

Of course, if something along those lines were the case, it would be useful for the majority of the body politic – say, the center left, the center, and the center right - to develop ideas and policies for how to deal with it in a way that fits our values. Instead, a monopoly on that sort of discussion has been granted to the haters… and you can well imagine the policies they have in mind. For everyone else, such topics are now mostly taboo. They can be discussed in a lab setting, in technical terms, but woe betide anyone, including a biologist who translates them into the vernacular.

But what if it turns out that the actors, attorneys, community activists, educators, HR professionals, journalists and liberal arts professors are wrong? What if the world’s most pre-eminent cognitive researchers, geneticists and neurobiologists know the science better than they do?  What if traits like intelligence and behavior are transmitted very much as described in the scientific literature?  I know. It sounds nuts. But what if? What would we do then? In such a world, what policies should we set? And how do we ensure that those are the policies that actually do get enacted?

Update. Corrected link to abstract.

Tags: , , , , Comments (60) | |

A Brief History of South Africa, A Briefer History of Pre-Columbian America And How to Think About Justice

I’m no expert on South Africa, but I did some reading and pieced together a brief history of the country’s last 50,000 to 150,000 years. It begins with the San. Depending on who you ask and what evidence they are looking at, the San people have been in Southern Africa for somewhere between 50,000 to 150,000 years. For most of that time, the San and a related population, the Khoi Khoi (more on them below) have been the only people in Southern Africa. As a result, the Khoisan (as the San and the Khoi Khoi are sometimes collectively called) are somewhat genetically distinct;. The San seem to have split off from the rest of human race somewhere around 80,000 to 100,000 years ago. At one time, the Khoisan were most populous group of people on earth.

In the West, the San are sometimes referred to as Bushmen, and are perhaps best known for their click languages or their appearance in The Gods Must be Crazy. They maintained a Stone Age hunter gatherer culture, and tended to live in small groups.

Somewhere between 2500 and 2000 years ago, the Khoi Khoi (aka KhoeKhoe, aka KhoiKhoi, aka Khoi) began expanding out of their home territory of Namibia and into what is now South Africa. By that point in time, the Khoi Khoi were pastoralists, and they were more sophisticated and lived in larger groups than the San. Nobody was writing history in that region back then, so the precise nature of the interactions between the two groups are unknown. Nevertheless, archaeological evidence is clear: very quickly the Khoi Khoi ended up living in the the choice real estate and the San abandoned those areas to live in the mountains.

Around 1800 years ago or so, the leading edges of the Bantu Migration reached the southern edges of Africa. (I use the word “Bantu” with some trepidation. From what I can tell, it was a pejorative term in Apartheid South Africa and still used that way by those who feel the end of Apartheid was a mistake. On the other hand from my perusal of the literature, elsewhere in Africa the word “Bantu” seems to have no negative connotation. More than that, the word is widely used by the scientific community and is the most precise description of the population in question.)

The Bantus were tribes originating in or around Ghana. Around 5,000 years ago or so, Bantu groups began radiating out from their ancestral home. The Iron Age Bantu tribes were more advanced than the San and Khoi Khoi. The result was that several Bantu groups, the Nguni and the Sotho-Tswana, carved out territories for themselves in areas that had previously been inhabited by the San or the Khoi Khoi. Nevertheless, the displacement of the existing population moved slowly.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, though, the pace picked up. On the one hand, there was the arrival of the Europeans. Sometimes the Dutch and English found virgin territory, but often they simply ousted established Khoi Khoi or Bantu tribes. At the same time, one Bantu tribe, the Zulu, under King Shaka, began a period of rapid expansion. Shaka was cruel but effective, and the Zulu quickly subjugated other Bantu and Khoi Khoi tribes alike. (One of the few benefits of being forced into the worst land was that the San, in general, weren’t subjected to much interaction with Shaka’s Zulu or even the Europeans.)

Eventually the Europeans defeated, subjugated, and marginalized the Bantu tribes, which in turn had defeated, subjugated, and marginalized the Khoi Khoi before them, who in turn had defeated, subjugated and marginalized the San who were the first people in the area.

Fast forward a bit, to a few decades ago. The afore-mentioned Apartheid came to an end. This was brought about through secret meetings between leaders of the European-descended groups and the leaders of one of the most populous Bantu groups, the Xhosa tribe. The South African system has, since then, been run more or less democratically, though it should be noted that the the same party, the African National Congress or ANC (sometimes referred to locally as the Xhosa Nostra in an obvious allusion to the Mafia) seems to win all the relevant elections despite representing less than half of the Black population, let alone the San, Khoi Khoi or Whites.

So how should one think about all of this? Apartheid is obviously horrible system and it is tremendously unfair.  That, incidentally, is the most charitable description I have for it.  Leaving aside allegations of impropriety by the ANC, one person one vote seems, on the face of it, to be the fairest way to run a country. And now, if never before in the last 150,000 years, South Africa does have (in fact or in appearance) such a system.

On the flip side, consider this from a different perspective that is popular these days: the perspective of racial justice. Its a useful perspective since it was a term people used to define the struggle against Apartheid. Maybe I’m missing something, but from that point of view, the current outcome is only fair if the San don’t count. Otherwise, the power, the land, and the resources of today’s South Africa would be hands of the San, the original residents of the area and the victims of 2,500 years of oppression at the hands of pretty much everyone else.

That won’t happen. At this point, the San population continue to face discrimination.  Few of them are left.  There might be 10,000 in South Africa, and maybe 100,000 in all of Southern Africa. Nor is the South African government showing much concern toward the San. For example, South Africa has eleven official languages, but none of them are San languages. Or Khoi Khoi languages, for that matter.

Now let’s change gears and bring this a bit closer to home. We can do a similar look at the history of the Americas, though the time frames are compressed.   The latest genetic research of which I am aware seems to suggest the possibility that in many (most? just shy of all?) places in the Americas, the populations that were present when the Europeans arrived had, ahem, replaced earlier populations that had previously resided in the same areas. The less polite description for what happened (time and again) is genocide.

Now, there’s an old expression in Brazil: Ladrão que rouba ladrão tem cem anos de perdão. Loosely translated – a thief who robs from another thief deserves 100 years worth of pardons. Personally, I disagree with this proverb. But I also strongly disagree with the idea that we can somehow achieve justice by giving unearned advantages to descendants of yesterday’s perpetrators simply because their ancestors have since fallen victim to more effective perpetrators. If we start out with realistic notion that just about all of us are the descendants of both perpetrators and victims, the rule for achieving justice becomes obvious:  try to arrange for everyone to start out on as equal a footing as possible, and then let each person rise and fall according to his or her own merits.

Comments (27) | |

Banishing Racism From Racism

In the last few months I have gotten accused of racism a few times at this blog. I don’t think I am misrepresenting my accusers by stating that their claim is based primarily because of my views on a) immigration and b) the differences between the economic performance of different countries. The two issues actually collapse into one. I have stated repeatedly that I believe that culture is a key factor affecting the difference in economic outcomes (and many social outcomes) between countries. Furthermore, I have stated that people carry culture with them when they move, so a wise immigration policy would select immigrants whose culture is both compatible and likely to generate positive economic results and limited friction.

I claim no credit for these ideas, mind you. Outside of some quarters, the idea that culture is a driver economic growth is widespread, long standing, well established and supported by data. I find it stunning that anyone would question the importance of culture in driving growth and the assimilation of immigrants.

But it is important to always be willing to question one’s beliefs, so I am going to do that here and now. So… how would we show that culture is not a determinant in how well a country does? I can think of a few possible tests but I want to avoid data at this time and just talk it through.

If we do that, we could start by defining “countries that do well.” In general, these would be countries that are stable, pleasant to live in, and relatively wealthy. Over the past few decades, if someone were to make a list of such countries, it would probably look more or like this (in no particular order): the US, Canada, Northwest Europe, Switzerland, Scandinavia, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and, until China began applying a heavier thumb, Hong Kong. Those also happen to be the countries that would attract the most foreigners interested in being citizens, so this quick and dirty list should pass a basic smell test. (If some of these nations don’t have much of an immigrant population and don’t rank on high on the destination of potential immigrants, it is because they are very selective about the who they let in as opposed to being shunned by would be immigrants.)

So what do these places have in common? It isn’t natural resources. Just ask the Japanese. (Plus, in countries outside of the list above, being blessed by nature somehow correlates with suffering from the “Resource Curse.”) It isn’t Democracy as we know it. That’s a relatively new thing for South Korea, Hong Kong was ruled by foreigners for most of the last century, and then, of course, there’s Singapore. It isn’t coming into the post-WW2 period wealthy; quite a few countries on the list were in miserable shape in 1945. It isn’t a matter of exploiting other countries (which Americans of a certain bent are always fond of claiming is the US’ secret) – South Koreans will proudly tell you that the country has never invaded anyone in well over 2,000 years. Switzerland, too, is proudly neutral. The Scandinavians have also been pretty pacifist for well over a century as well. Small government? As much as libertarians like to claim Singapore for their own, ignoring the massive government participation in the economy (think Temasek, Singapore Airlines, Mediacorp, Singtel, Singapore Power, etc.). Nor did Japan, Inc. qualify. Something about about geography and environmental factors that these countries have in common? Nope and nope.

To be blunt, there doesn’t seem to be a factor or group of factors that can be applied to these countries but not to countries that are “developing.” I also hesitate to go with supernatural explanations, particularly since, as I learned about four decads ago (long before the stupid movie was made), Deus é Brasileiro. Besides, there is no such thing as empirical theology. For completeness, I should also say the Guns, Germs and Steel explanation got a few things right about the past. However, unless I missed something, Papua New Guinea is not is not putting out the performance you’d expect from the world’s smartest people in the Internet Age, which should go some way toward invalidating Diamond’s hypothesis.

On the other hand, I can describe a few cultural factors that distinguish these countries from others. For instance, these countries have (or had) reputations of being the home of people who were, on average, diligent, frugal, studious, and punctual among other traits. I presume those traits are largely learned, I might add.

And just like that, I slipped back into my sinning ways. So let us assume that like Winston Smith, I really would prefer to believe something that presently I don’t. Perhaps my reasons are not as noble as Smith’s. Maybe I am only concerned because I know that cultures change, and I wonder about the direction in which ours is currently headed. But regardless of my motives, how do I convince myself?

Tell me, please, what are the factors that explain economic and social performance so well that we can dispense with culture entirely as an explanation?

Tags: , , , , , Comments (71) | |

The C-Span Ranking of Presidents

C-Span just released a ranking of US Presidents based based on a survey of historians, journalists and other scholars. Obama came in 12th.

Here is the survey’s description of the process used to generate the rankings:

C-SPAN’s academic advisors devised a survey in which participants used a one (“not effective”) to ten (“very effective”) scale to rate each president on ten qualities of presidential leadership: “Public Persuasion,” “Crisis Leadership,” “Economic Management,” “Moral Authority,” “International Relations,” “Administrative Skills,” “Relations with Congress,” “Vision/Setting An Agenda,” “Pursued Equal Justice for All,” and “Performance Within the Context of His Times.”

Surveys were distributed to historians and other professional observers of the presidency, drawn from a database of C-SPAN’s programming, augmented by suggestions from the academic advisors. Ninety-one agreed to participate. Participants were guaranteed that individual survey results remain confidential. Survey responses were tabulated by averaging all responses in a given category for each president. Each of the ten categories was given equal weighting in arriving at a president’s total score.

I looked through the overall rankings and some of the rankings by category. Having co-authored a book on ranking Presidents, I have a lot of quibbles with the rankings. But many of them would be controversial. So I thought to myself – is there a simple way to decide whether this list has merit?

Here’s what jumps out at me. Take a gander at the list by economic management. Note that Teddy Roosevelt came in 4th place in that category. (First, second and third were Washington, Lincoln and Clinton. I find that to be borderline insane in and of itself. However, since Washington and Lincoln are names the public can recognize and Clinton was recent, I will not discuss them so as to avoid controversy.) TR also came in 4th in that category in the two previous surveys in 2009 and 2000 so it seems that ranking is pretty stable.  The, ahem, experts surveyed seem to be pretty sure TR belongs right up there.

Now here’s the problem. TR was President from September 1901 to March 1909. He did some effective things on the economy – some of his Square Deals, the Trust Busting, regulation, etc.  But… his outcomes were not very good. For instance, there was a fly in the ointment – the recession from September 1902 to August 1904. That would seem to cast doubt on his economic performance. But… that isn’t the problem with ranking TR as fourth best on the economy. There was another recession from May 1907 to June 1908. And that was no ordinary recession. The Panic of 1907 occurred in October of 1907, close to the middle of that recession. And who saved the day? Was it TR and his administration? Was it their policies? Nope. It was JP Morgan. Yes. That JP Morgan.

And the aftermath of the recession wasn’t pretty either. Data from that era isn’t great, but by all accounts, there was a big spike in unemployment, bankruptcies, etc.

The US economy is not worse than that of Zimbabwe in 2017. And yet, something along those lines would need to be true if TR turned in the fourth best economic performance among all US Presidents. I am no historian, but to me, any survey placing TR in fourth place for economic performance is indistinguishable from parody. It is enough for me to conclude that those responsible for this nonsense simply have no idea what they are doing.

Tags: , Comments (27) | |

Resettling Refugees – A Thought Experiment

Consider a country with a vicious ongoing multi-sided Civil War which includes some amount of deliberate large scale civilian extermination.  You know the sort of thing: Syria today is just the most recent example, but there are other well-known examples from the last few decades.  To keep things generic, let us refer to the various sides in the Civil War as A, B, C, etc.

Militias from each group have been caught massacring civilians from the other group.  Or maybe the evidence points toward only one side being responsible for such atrocities.  Truth to tell, nobody in the US really has a firm and unbiased grasp of what is going on.  If this sounds like the vast majority of wars since 1945, it should.

Now, let us say that the US has a pre-existing immigrant population from Group A.  For whatever reason, they have mostly settled in  Lincoln, NE.  (I picked Lincoln completely at random.  I understand some Thai and Burmese refugees have settled in Lincoln, but I would say that for the most part, the city doesn’t have a strong connotation with refugees among the general public.).   Lincoln now has a neighborhood called “Little X” where “X” is the capital of the country with the ongoing Civil War.   

If the Civil War results in more people from Group A are admitted to the US as refugees, it is natural to relocate them or at least encourage them to live in Lincoln.  But what if refugees from Group B are also admitted in not-insignificant numbers?  Groups A and B have a long history of distrust, and are vicious enemies in the current Civil War.  And if there is one thing Americans have managed to figure out about the ongoing war that is accurate, it is that there are some horrific atrocities going on.

So…  should it be the policy of the US government to try to settle the new refugees from Group B in Lincoln, NE?  There would be scale economies due to similar language, culture, food, and possibly even religion.  Or should it be the policy of the US government to try to get the refugees to settle somewhere far away from Lincoln, NE to minimize the possibility of conflict and ill will?  And does your answer change if we manage to learn that both sides are not equally at fault?  For example, do we make the same decision vis a vis Lincoln, NE if Group B was responsible for all or most of the atrocities and committed them against A, or vice versa?  You can assume that all the refugees are properly vetted and that none of them are known to have been involved in committing the atrocities.  

 

Tags: , Comments (26) | |

The End of the Japanese Miracle… and the American One

Scott Alexander at Slate Star Codex has a very good post on cost disease. It definitely betrays a strong libertarian or conservative bias, but is nevertheless, worth reading.

The piece that resonates with me is posted below. It has some good insights, one or two that are questionable (for anyone not firmly ensconced on the right), but overall it methodically works its way to one hell of a punch-in-the-gut truth in last sentence.

Imagine if tomorrow, the price of water dectupled. Suddenly people have to choose between drinking and washing dishes. Activists argue that taking a shower is a basic human right, and grumpy talk show hosts point out that in their day, parents taught their children not to waste water. A coalition promotes laws ensuring government-subsidized free water for poor families; a Fox News investigative report shows that some people receiving water on the government dime are taking long luxurious showers. Everyone gets really angry and there’s lots of talk about basic compassion and personal responsibility and whatever but all of this is secondary to why does water costs ten times what it used to?

I think this is the basic intuition behind so many people, even those who genuinely want to help the poor, are afraid of “tax and spend” policies. In the context of cost disease, these look like industries constantly doubling, tripling, or dectupling their price, and the government saying “Okay, fine,” and increasing taxes however much it costs to pay for whatever they’re demanding now.

If we give everyone free college education, that solves a big social problem. It also locks in a price which is ten times too high for no reason. This isn’t fair to the government, which has to pay ten times more than it should. It’s not fair to the poor people, who have to face the stigma of accepting handouts for something they could easily have afforded themselves if it was at its proper price. And it’s not fair to future generations if colleges take this opportunity to increase the cost by twenty times, and then our children have to subsidize that.

I’m not sure how many people currently opposed to paying for free health care, or free college, or whatever, would be happy to pay for health care that cost less, that was less wasteful and more efficient, and whose price we expected to go down rather than up with every passing year. I expect it would be a lot.

And if it isn’t, who cares? The people who want to help the poor have enough political capital to spend eg $500 billion on Medicaid; if that were to go ten times further, then everyone could get the health care they need without any more political action needed. If some government program found a way to give poor people good health insurance for a few hundred dollars a year, college tuition for about a thousand, and housing for only two-thirds what it costs now, that would be the greatest anti-poverty advance in history. That program is called “having things be as efficient as they were a few decades ago”.

I should note that the spending examples cited in the above paragraphs have numerical support earlier in Alexander’s post. But the problem with the post is the lack of a satisfactory answer to the question it raises: what caused the massive declines in efficiency we saw in many vital parts of the US economy?

And here I am pleased to say I can help. I actually provided an answer to that question in a post I wrote six years ago explaining why Japan grew so rapidly after WW2 and what policy changes led to the end of its rapid rise.

I encourage you to read my post, but it comes down to this: the Japanese Miracle ended when its fabled bureaucracy became far less of a test- and performance-based meritocracy.  This was done with the noble cause of broadening inclusion, which of course, was severely lacking in the old system.  But the baby was thrown out with the bathwater.  The new system ended up just as unfair as the old one, but in very different ways.  Unfortunately, it also became a lot less efficient.  Test scores turned out to be positively correlated with performance.   Highly correlated.  It didn’t take long for the public to notice the change.  The deference once afforded to entities like MITI dwindled and died.  Soon the ministries could no longer command the respect they needed to actually run the economy, much less the competence to do it well.  But the now enfeebled bureaucracy could still influence events.  It went on to buy into Reaganomics (tax cuts, smaller government, and a trade policy that was less export oriented). Put another way: Japan Inc. started hiring suckers, and predictably the suckers got suckered.

The parallels with the US are obvious. That isn’t to say  all is doom and gloom for either Japan or the US. Both countries remain rich, prosperous, and innovative. But Japan no longer inspires the world as it once did. The Japanese Miracle ended decades ago. And I have a real fear that America’s best moment may also in the past. Policies that elevate mediocrity achieve just that.  And they are awfully hard to reverse.

Tags: Comments (31) | |

One Measure to Determine Whether a President Was a Success or a Failure

Some years ago, Michael Kanell and I wrote a book called Presimetrics in which we tried to quantify the performance of Presidents along a range of issues objectively, using numbers. But what if we want a single measure of a Presidents performance? Put another way – how do we know whether a President was a success or a failure?

I was born when Nixon was in office, though admittedly, I wasn’t paying all that much attention to politics at the time. But if I had to categorize Presidents in my lifetime as successes or failures, I would say Clinton was the most successful, followed by Reagan. Here’s why.

Off the top of my head, Clinton’s key achievements were these: creating conditions for or at least not standing in the way of a booming economy, generating a surplus, NAFTA, FMLA and welfare reform. Some of them may not look as good a decade and a half later, but that is true of anything. Nevertheless, on Clinton’s signature achievements, his opposition has either sought to claim some or all of the credit for them (e.g., the surplus, the economy, and welfare reform) or quietly accepted the issues as part of the status quo going forward.

With Reagan, we see the same thing. His signature issues were tax cuts, a growing economy after years of stagnation, a detente with the USSR (“tear down this wall,” some nuclear dealing, and getting the Soviets to leave Afghanistan) and instilling a general feeling that it was, indeed, morning in America and that the US was back in business. These were accomplishments that Reagan’s opposition sought to either claim would have happened anyway (e.g., a general deterioration in the USSR, the end of stagflation) or quietly adopted as a new status quo (e.g., tax cuts may have risen since Reagan – even under his Republican successor, but no Democrat in Congress or the Presidency has pushed for rates to go back to pre-Reagan levels). Of course, there were a few things that nobody, most certainly not the Democrats, wanted any part of, the big one being the explosion in the debt. The whole Iran-Contra Affair was another example.

So Reagan and Clinton were successful precisely because their opponents wanted a share of their success, and neither took many actions whose outcomes the political world wanted to keep at a distance.

On the other hand, consider GW and Obama. Nobody in opposition wanted (or wants) to claim any part of the credit for their signature issues. And nobody wants to claim that the Bush tax cuts, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Great Recession, the Mediocre Recovery, whatever the heck happened in Libya, or Obamacare was inevitable.

As the old saw goes: success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan.

Tags: Comments (24) | |

Making Fun of Barack Obama

My wife has been enjoying the recent skits about the Trump administration on Saturday Night Live. I can see why. Even Melissa McCarthy has managed to be funny in her impressions of Sean Spicer. Until now I would have sworn that reports of McCarthy having a sense of humor were some sort of urban legend. SNL has a long history of generating memorable Presidential impressions: Chevy Chase (sort of Gerald Ford), Dana Carvey (Bush the Elder) and Will Ferrell (Bush the Lesser) come to mind.

But poking fun at Presidents has a long and storied history, and is probably a good thing. I enjoy comedy a lot, and I can safely say that every President in my lifetime has been the butt of a lot of jokes. Well, every President but one. It seems to me that almost nobody made fun of Barack Obama.

I thought it was interesting, so I did some searching. I found this NY Post article which has a bit of commentary from SNL’s Jim Downey:

Yes, data nerds, there is empirical evidence that Barack Obama gets a free ride from comics.

In a new book, “Politics Is a Joke!” three academics tabulated 100,000 jokes told by late-night comics over the last 20 years. They found that in 2008 only 6% of the jokes were about Obama (Palin attracted nearly as many jokes in four months as a public figure as he did all year). And those jokes had a tendency to be about as barbed as cotton candy. Example cited by Tevi Troy in The Wall Street Journal: Jon Stewart said Obama visited Bethlehem so he could see “the manger where he was born.”

In every presidential campaign since 1992, the researchers found, comedians aimed more jokes at Republicans than they did at Democrats. Overall, twice as many barbs flew at the GOP.

“Our job is, whoever is in power, we’re opposed,” “SNL” chief Lorne Michaels told The New York Times in 2008. Agreed. And so they’ve been doing their job badly. Says who? Says . . . Downey.

Now that he has retired from the show and gained a little perspective, Downey comments in “Live from New York,” “I have to say, and even [Al] Franken agrees with me — I’ve talked to him about this — that the last couple seasons of the show were the only two in the show’s history where we were totally like every other comedy show: basically, an arm of the Hollywood Democratic establishment. . . . We just stopped doing anything which could even be misinterpreted as a criticism of Obama.”

But I don’t know if this is being deferential to the Democrats, or to Obama. After all, comedians had a lot of fun at the expense of Clinton, and Jimmy Carter before him.

Another possibility was raised by no less an expert than than Dana Carvey, namely that making fun of Obama is seen as not PC and possibly racist. I suspect there is something there. For instance, NPR carried an article with this title:

Portraying Obama As Chimp Not Like Showing Bush As One

Personally, I think that regardless of the reason making fun of Obama was off limits, the fact that people mostly didn’t do it wasn’t healthy. Humor, particularly at the expense of the ruling class, is a safety valve for dissatisfaction. The victories that Obama provided the American people were sparse and weak. They were not great or grand, and they provided no justification for treating a leader like a holy man. And unearned privilege does nothing more than generate resentment. I think it created an “emperor has no clothes” mentality in a substantial segment of the electorate, many of whom had previously voted for Mr. Obama. I think that in turn helped elect a successor whose campaign essentially came down to repudiating Obama and everything for which he stood.

Your thoughts?

Tags: , Comments (13) | |

I Didn’t See Tom Brady in the Supermarket Today

I saw three people wearing Tom Brady jerseys in the supermarket today.  I don’t watch football and I am bad with faces, but I would venture a guess that not one of the three was the Tom Brady who will be playing in the Super Bowl today.  For one, none of them looked the part.  If forced to provide a description of Tom Brady, I would go with somewhere north of 6 feet, fit, athletic and most importantly, somewhere else.  I don’t know where the Super Bowl is being played today, but I’m pretty sure it isn’t in Long Beach, CA.  (Breaking:  I pulled out teh Google, which tells me the Super Bowl is being played in Houston.)

But I was wondering – what possesses grown men to wear a jersey with Tom Brady’s name and number on it?  Of course, the question generalizes to any other athlete.  You don’t see people wearing a jersey proclaiming themselves to be anything other than athlete.  I get why nobody wears a jersey with, say, Andrew Wiles name on it, and he was last year’s Abel Prize Laureate.  Few people would recognize what the Abel Prize is about, who Andrew Wiles is, or what Andrew Wiles did to deserve the Abel Prize.  But we also don’t see people wearing a faux-Marine corps uniform with James Mattis’ name tag on it, and Mattis was pretty damn popular among military personnel long before The Donald put him up for Secretary of Defense.  Ditto now dead Stormin’ Norman, and he was widely known in his day.   To go back a war or two, I doubt anyone was wearing William Westmoreland get-ups either.  In fact, I cannot think of any field other than sports that results in people dressing up as other people when neither Halloween nor fraud is involved.

So what is it about sports that generates that sort of behavior?  And what is that behavior representing?  It is very unlikely that anyone is actually fooled into believing some middle-aged out-of-shape guy wearing a Tom Brady or a Stephen Curry jersey is the person whose name is on the jersey so it’s gotta be something else.  I also don’t see how wearing one of those jerseys confers any sort of simpatico or affinity.   I say this as someone who has on occasion worn jerseys from one or another soccer team (though none with a player’s name and/or number on it).  In each case, however, the jersey was a gift, and I made a point of wearing it when it the gifter was likely to see it.  So what am I missing?

 

Tags: Comments (16) | |

A Review of “Out of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa” by Keith Richburg

I just finished Out of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa by Keith Richburg. Richburg spent three years in Africa while working for the Washington Post, and his tenure overlapped with the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu and the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda, among other atrocities and outrages.

Richburg is not a particularly good wordsmith, but he is unflinching and that makes this book transcend. He tells it like he sees it, and varnishes nothing. Well, almost nothing. His fellow expat journalists do receive favorable treatment. But everyone else – Black Africans, White Africans, Black foreigners and White foreigners alike get it in the proverbial jugular. The book has the feel of truth.

If there is any criticism I have, it is that the book was written in the late 1990s and events have since moved on, usually in unfortunate directions. One of the few parts of Africa that Richburg identified as having the potential to be a success story, Zimbabwe, has since become, well, Zimbabwe. And that more or less confirms Richburg’s pessimistic view of Africa.

As I write this review, I realize I haven’t yet mentioned that Richburg is an African-American.  It’s in the title of the book, and the fact that he is Black does figure into the book – unlike most foreigners in Africa, he often gets treated like a local by the locals.  However, the main relevance of Richburg’s skin-tone, by my reading, is that it makes his “there but for the grace of God go I” moments more poignant.  It also confers on him an implied permission to write frankly about topics that would be off-limits to other reporters.

At this point in a book review, it is standard to pepper in some quotes from the book. Honestly, the book is so raw and covers so much ground from Detroit to South Africa that it is difficult to find the right piece of it to illustrate what the book is about. I settled on few. The first quote and a half lays out the problem of Africa in a way that has been bothering me for a while:

Why has East Asia emerged as the model for economic success, while Africa has seen mostly poverty, hunger, and economies propped up by foreign aid? Why are East Asians now expanding their telecommunications capabilities when in most of Africa it’s still hard to make a phone call next door? Why are East Asians now wrestling with ways to control access to the Internet, while African students still must use cardboard drawings of computer keyboards because they don’t have real computers in their classrooms? Why are East Asian airlines upgrading their long-haul fleets, while bankrupt African carriers let planes rust on weed-strewn runways because they can’t afford fuel and repair costs? Why are the leaders of Southeast Asia negotiating ways to ease trade barriers and create a free-trade zone, while Africans still levy some of the most prohibitive tariffs on earth, even for interregional trade?

There was nothing inevitable abut Asia’s success and Africa’s despair. Both regions emerged from colonialism at about the same time and faced many of the same obstacles. In 1957, when Ghana gained its independence from Britain, it was one of the brightest hopes of black Africa, with a higher gross national product than South Korea, which was itself still recovering from a destructive war, and before that, from thirty-five years as a Japanese colony. Today South Korea is recognized as one of Asia’s “dragons,” an economic powerhouse expanding into new markets throughout the region and the world. Ghana, meanwhile, has slid backward. Its gross national product today is lower than it was at independence. World Bank economists like to point to Ghana as an example of an African country that is “recovering” under a strict fiscal discipline program; what they don’t tell you is that the economy today is propped up by foreign aid.

A couple of paragraphs later, he continues:

Talk to me about Africa’s legacy of European colonialism, and I’ll give you Malaysia and Singapore, ruled by the British and occupied by Japan during World War II. Or Indonesia, exploited by the Dutch for over three hundred years. And let’s toss in Vietnam, a French colony later divided between North and South, with famously tragic consequences. Like Africa, most Asian countries only achieved true independence in the postwar years; unlike the Africans, the Asians knew what to do with it.

Talk to me about the problem of tribalism in Africa, about different ethnic and linguistic groups having been lumped together by Europeans inside artificial national borders. Then I’ll throw back at you Indonesia, some 13,700 scattered islands comprising more than 360 distinct tribes and ethnic groups and a mix of languages and religions; Indonesia has had its own turbulent past, including a bloody 1965 army-led massacre that left as many as a million people dead. But it has also had thirty years since of relative stability and prosperity.

The next quote shows that is going on in Africa is more than tolerated, it is supported (and more or less why that is the case):

I got to see Strasser again about a year later in Libreville, the capital of the small, oil-rich central African state of Gabon. The occasion was a summit meeting between Africans and African Americans organized by the Reverend Leon Sullivan, the veteran civil rights campaigner and anti-apartheid activist who had authored the “Sullivan Principles” outlining fair employment practices for U.S. firms doing business in apartheid-era South Africa. The summit brought together some of the most prominent luminaries from the American civil rights establishment—including Coretta Scott King, former UN ambassador Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson, the comedian Dick Gregory, the Reverend Joseph Lowrey, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, and Virginia governor Douglas Wilder. Hundreds of African diplomats and some twenty heads of government were also in attendance.

When Strasser entered the meeting hall, sporting his now-trademark sunglasses and his camouflage battle fatigues, the crowd of mostly middle- and upper-class black Americans went wild with cheering, swooning from the women, some hoots, and frenzied applause. Sitting in that hall, you might be forgiven for thinking Strasser was a music celebrity instead of a puny boy-dictator. These black Americans were obviously more impressed with the macho military image Strasser cut than with the fact that he represents all that is wrong with Africa—military thugs who take power and thwart the continent’s fledgling efforts to move toward democracy. The chanting and hooting was a disgusting display, and to me it highlighted the complete ignorance about Africa among America’s so-called black elite.

The reception for Strasser wasn’t the only thing sickening about that summit meeting. I sat there and listened as speaker after speaker heaped a nauseating outpouring of praise on some of Africa’s most brutal and corrupt strongmen and their repressive regimes. An uninitiated listener might not have noticed the farcical nature of Jesse Jackson’s fulsome tribute to Nigerian strongman Ibrahim Babangida. Jackson called Babangida “one of the great leader-servants of the modern world in our time,” proclaiming, “You do not stand alone as you move with a steady beat toward restoring democracy” Jackson also called on President Clinton to reward Babangida with an official visit to the White House on what would be a “triumphant tour as we herald the restoration of democracy” in Nigeria.

Along the same theme, Richburg has this a few pages later:

It’s as if repression comes only in white.

So I was disgusted and angry in Gabon. And to keep from venting my disgust, I decided to have some fun by asking the various black leaders at the summit about the lack of human rights and democracy in black Africa. I enjoyed watching them wrap themselves in their own contradictions when I pointed out their contrasting views on South Africa versus the rest of the continent. I found the whole affair in Gabon so distasteful, I actually liked watching them squirm.

I asked Doug Wilder, Virginia’s first black governor since Reconstruction, about the problem of democracy in black Africa. “We cannot and should not force them to undergo a metamorphosis in seconds,” he replied. “If they are on track and on the path and giving evidence of trying to adjust, then our job is not to interfere, and to understand that there is a difference from what they are accustomed to.”

Interesting. Now imagine the conversation was about South Africa, and the year is, say, 1980, and imagine a white governor of a southern state saying of the apartheid regime, “We cannot and should not force them to undergo a metamorphosis in seconds…. Our job is not to interfere.” I can imagine that white politician would immediately be branded a racist or worst, and probably by no less a personage than Doug Wilder.

And consider the comments of Leon Sullivan on the question of democracy in black Africa: “We must be on the side of human rights and democracy,” he told me. “Many African leaders recognize it must be done and are trying to find a way to bring it about.” Then he added, “I don’t like to see anything stringent from America, saying you must do this or you must do that.”

Really? I seem to remember Reverend Sullivan being made of stronger moral fiber. What were the Sullivan Principles, after all, if not a way to bring pressure on the morally bankrupt apartheid regime? And they worked. So is Reverend Sullivan now trying to tell me that it’s okay to be stringent with despots when they are white racists, but for black despots we’ll let our standards slide a bit?”

At no point in the book is there much optimism about Africa or its future. I have never been to Africa, but I have spent a fair amount of time in Latin America and I can recognize a lot of what he wrote in the parts of the “developing” world that I know. The attitudes of the populace, and how they lead invariably to poor outcomes is certainly a factor in common.  And based on what I know about Latin America, I share Richburg’s concerns about the future of Africa.

In closing, I would say I finish less than 10% of the books I start. I finished this one, and expect to re-read it within the next year or two. I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to understand more about Africa, and the United States.

Tags: Comments (42) | |