Archive for June, 2010|Monthly archive page

I Watch Porn and Like to Cuddle

In Specific Facts on June 30, 2010 at 5:29 pm

Image by HansolGail Dines has written a book called Pornland: How Porn has Hijacked our Sexuality exposing the potpourri of ills implicit to porn.  She imagines porn training men to mistreat women, desensitized to the racism, violence and loss of intimacy that has become the norm in pornography.  To wit:

In pornography, intimacy is something to be avoided, and—as I say in the book—“In pornography nobody makes love. They all make hate.” The man makes hate to the woman’s body. It’s about the destruction of intimacy.

That is a pretty fair description of most porn, but what of it?  Simply put, does the fact that people in porn fuck each other have consequences in society?  At first glance, all I see is another example of the cultural paranoia that dreams that Marlyn Manson or Eminem have any real societal revelance or that video games caused Columbine.  Does the violence in porn, or in video games or rap music actually spur maladroit behavior?  When pressed to give examples of the real world negative consequences of porn Dines comes up a tad bit short:

One example I talk about in Pornland is Brazilian waxes. They come straight down from the pornography industry. Most of the female students I meet across the country have no pubic hair whatsoever. …

Another example is the way in which the pornographic and prostitution culture is being glamorized. Women can now take pole-dancing lessons. …

Another example of pornography having power is in the hook-up culture that’s taking place on college campuses. What is hook-up sex? It’s porn sex. It’s the same thing. It’s anonymous, non-intimate, and disconnected sex, and everyone is having hook-up sex in pornography.  Increasingly, what’s interesting is that women and girls are consenting to hook-ups even though studies show that they experience less sexual pleasure than men and are more likely to be raped in such situations.

 After listing fairly benign cultural phenomenons (Brazilian waxes and pole dancing classes aren’t exactly threats to Western civilization) as proof of porn’s destructive consequences she flippantly closes with a much stronger assertion: that porn drives the hookup culture leading to more rape.  Her conclusion is the natural culmination of her belief that porn trains men to want to punish women sexually.  In her world, of course porn encourages rape and sexual violence.  

The problem with that hypothesis is that rape has become less and less frequent even as porn has become ubiquitous.  In 2004 rape was down to 0.4 cases per 1,000 people, a seventh of reported rape frequency in 1979.  This trend seems continuous, as last year rape fell another 3%.  I’m not an expert in rape and sexual assault, so I’ll point out that rape statistics are fairly controversial and many critics say that reported rape dramatically underestimates the total incidence.  For example, the biannual National Crime Victimization Survey in 2007 reported a 25% increase in rape over 2005 after they tweaked the methodology of their survey.  So while the evidence suggests rape has become less likely, I do not proceed with any confidence from that conclusion.  I do however look pretty skeptically on analysis that relies on anecdotal interviews with men and cultural musing rather than examinations of the actual data. 

Of course, porn could be more subtly damaging than inciting violence.  For example, it could lead to men wanting to engage in “gonzo sex.”

The problem with pornography is that it normalizes that which is a minority preference for many women. That’s all you see in pornography. You never see anybody say, “Let’s hold, let’s kiss, let’s do all of these things.” Everyone in pornography wants it as hard and fast as possible.

I’ll ignore her unfounded assertion that most women do not want the kind of sex they get.  Why do men who want to watch spectacle from professional sex athletes necessarily not want to kiss, hold or cuddle?  Is it possible to want one thing in your porn and another with your girlfriend?  I know I’m engaging in exactly the anecdotal proof that I criticized her for, but I know it happens because that’s what I do.  I want to see something exciting when I watch porn, but I love intimacy inside of a relationship.  If anything, I think porn has made it easier to discuss sex openly with my partner.  Porn demystifies sex and reimagines what is possible.  I have no particular proof of this, but I imagine that lots of people have less fulfilling sex than they could because they don’t talk about what they want to do with their partner.  I love reading Dan Savage for the antidote to the paternalistic fear of what happens when adults open the pandora’s box of viewing sex as a good thing.  That means having the sex you want, being in control of your sexuality and maybe even watching some porn.  It means looking the messy truth of human sexuality in the eye, rather than pretending that it is neat. 

To that end, I agree with Dr. Dines.  Her solution isn’t to ban porn but to encourage parents to talk to their kids about what it means.  Her navel gazing testimony to what she said to her own son isn’t exactly what I would say however:

“I said [to him] that should he decide to use porn, that he was going to hand over his sexuality—a sexuality that he had yet to grow into, that made sense for who he was and who he was going to be—to someone else.”

Hand me a shovel.  How about: “If you watch porn, just know that the people in it are professional sex athletes.  In real life you have sex with another person who has their own preferences.  You have the sex that overlaps your preference with theirs.  Since all of your preferences are hypothetical for now, you should find someone you really care about and trust before you start exploring your sexuality.  In the meantime, when you watch porn (because let’s be honest, you’re gonna watch porn) don’t try to emulate it anymore than if you think you can do a 360 dunk after watching Lebron James do one.  Porn is visceral excitement, not a place you want to take up residence.”  Here’s what kids can tell their parents: just because I watch porn doesn’t mean that I’m disqualified from being a “suitable marriage partner.”  Everyone take a breath and look around; divorce, teen pregnancy and violent crime are way down.  If porn is hurting our culture, then something much stronger must be healing it.

Japan Hates Babies

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on June 29, 2010 at 3:00 am

Panasonic Shinnyuushiki The internets are divided on whether Albert Einstein or Benjamin Franklin said, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”  Either way, Huffington Post reports on a batshit insane way Japanese researchers are trying to smite the infamously low birthrate of of that nation’s citizens:

Can a robotic baby encourage couples to reproduce–and help Japan boost its low birth rate?

Researchers, who have created a cooing, crying, sneezing baby simulator named “Yotaro,” hope so.

They hope that the infant-like machine will “trigger human emotions” that make couples “want to have their own baby,” CNN reports.

In an effort to increase the birth rate, Japan’s government is offering to pay families a monthly stipend per child, but the leaders of the Yotaro project believe the “robotic encouragement” may be more effective.

What’s keeping Japan’s birthrate so low is (1) the cancerous nature of its work culture, (2) the disdain with which employers treat employees who want to take time off to care for children, and (3) youth resentment fed by the government throwing money at any warm body that has a baby.  

(1) After the economy hit the fan in the early 1990s, Japan Inc. responded by working longer and harder, doubling-down on public works and concrete production, and replacing paid holidays with mandatory overtime.  This is reinforced by a work culture that regards other countries as “soft on work”.  Like being “soft on crime”, “soft on terror”, or “soft on drugs”, being “soft on work” is socially and politically unpalatable in Japan, unless you’re that guy who rides his motorcycle loudly in front of my house everyday at 3:00 A.M.  He clearly doesn’t give a shit. 

(2) There is no long-term economic perspective, for when this generation of wage slaves and wage slavers retires, there will be no one to provide their pensions.  Japan, Inc. hates babies and loves short-term profits: fathers are given no time off to attend the birth of children, and are fired for asking.  Indeed, nearly every father I know in Japan has run into trouble at work for taking the day off because his baby is sick.  One friend was recently fired for doing it “too much”. 

It’s worse for mothers; my newlywed friend’s wife was recently warned by her boss not to get pregnant, or she’d be fired.  If she wanted to have a baby, she’d have to wait until 2014, when the company’s expected to be back in black, (and she’ll be in her mid-thirties).  Another friend was ostracized and given the silent treatment by coworkers when she found herself prego.  A third was fired for “dress-code violations” the day before she would have qualified for company-subsidized maternity leave.

(3) These reports are all anecdotal, and so can’t really be taken at face-value by rational minds, and I know I’m making a very strong claim here, but, if you doubt me, go to ni channeru and type in the word 妊婦 (ninpu – pregnant woman).  Or, you can just click here, since I’ve done it for you, and had it translated into English, although a vast amount is lost in Google translation.

Perhaps there is reason behind Japanese social and institutional hatred of babies.  The Japanese government’s desperation over the last several years has caused it to throw ever-greater sums of money at families.  If you’re exceptionally good at paperwork, you can actually be paid money to have a child in Japan, and then collect 15,000 yen ($150) a month forever afterwards.  Even so, this financial incentive doesn’t really compensate for being fired.  

Perhaps this has bred some resentment in the youth of the nation.  Old people slack off and coast on tenure, and families siphon money from the tax pool, while young people get hazed and bullied by their superiors, get blamed for Japan’s economic problems, and are forced to waste the time they could be out partying and meeting potential mates by working double-shifts on Saturday.

The solution is more pro-labor laws, and working smarter, not harder.  Employers should respond to news of employee pregnancy with “congratulations!” and flowers, not pink slips.  Co-workers should ostracize employers who don’t respect new life, not pregnant mothers.

Death Penalty Rube Goldberg Machine

In Specific Facts on June 24, 2010 at 11:48 pm

Focusing on procedural details distracts from real ethical issues. source: cartoonstock.comI recently wrote a post on the value of Rube Goldberg machines as educational tools and how the checks and balances of the American system can be understood as the applied principles of Rube Goldberg.  One of the major premises of the post was that while Rube Goldberg machines are often metaphorically linked with inefficiency and other unpleasant things, a more appropriate metaphorical link is to safeguarding against human emotion by creating an elaborate code of exact steps that must be taken for something to occur.  In this way, Rube Goldberg machines operate as systemic checks against human emotions.

It’s a two-sided coin: while checks and balances safeguard against Constitutional Amendments banning gay marriage, forced military conscription, and Prohibition (oops), the recent events in Utah reveal the extent to which capital punishment in America has become a Rube Goldberg Machine, the effect of which is to bureaucratize killing and eliminate the soul-searching and guilt we should all feel for taking a person’s life.  

The establishment is shocked that Ronnie Lee Gardner (Why do they always include the middle names of killers?) has chosen death by firing squad over the much more humane lethal injection.  From AP:

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah is set to execute a condemned killer by firing squad shortly after midnight Thursday, reviving a style of justice that hasn’t been used for at least 14 years and that many criticize as archaic.

Barring an unexpected last-minute reprieve, Ronnie Lee Gardner will be strapped into a chair, have a target pinned over his heart and die in a hail of bullets from five anonymous marksmen armed with .30-caliber rifles and firing from behind a ported wall…

…Gardner will be the third man killed by firing squad in the U.S. since a U.S. Supreme Court ruling reinstated capital punishment in 1976. Although Utah altered its death penalty law in 2004 to make lethal injection the default method, nine inmates convicted before that date, including Gardner, can still choose the firing squad instead.

Because if we’re gonna kill people, we better do it “humanely”, whatever that means.  I’ve long held the belief that lethal injection has done more to prolong the existence of capital punishment than to make it more humane, and the fact that Gardner’s case is being furously covered by the media in that slant only seems to confirm my suspicions.  Apparently, the execution was “shamelessly” live-tweeted by Utah’s Attorney General, but I don’t really see how letting people know what goes on behind government-sanctioned killing is “shameless”.

I don’t think it is so much the fact that we let our government kill people that should bother Americans, but that we proscribe and mandate ritualized methodology in the name of “humane executions”.  There is nothing humane about killing people, and ritualizing it is only a mechanism to psychologically distance ourselves from the guilt of taking the life of another human being.  The idea for lethal injection actually has nothing to do with “humane” executions at all, and is based on trying to simultaneously circumvent existing laws on barbiturate use and make executions more palatable for witnesses.

Frankly, I care less about the rights of murderers not to experience pain than I do about the bureaucratization of killing.  When we distance decision-making from human emotion, we do not commit ourselves to justice.  If we’re going to have a system that advocates taking the lives of those who take the lives of others, then we should at least commit to it.

When I was in high school, I was on a retreat for C.C.D. where we discussed capital punishment (which the Catholic Church is very much against) abortion, drug use, and other controversial topics in candid fashion.  When my turn to offer my opinion on capital punishment came, I said if we were going to have it, we should just shoot prisoners in the head.  The reaction in the room was a mixture of shock and disgust, but I think I was misunderstood.

Today, I stand by this opinion.  In fact, I think it would be even better if we went back to stoning people to death like it says in the Bible.  If we went back to stoning people to death, and required citizens to actively participate, maybe we’d collectively realize that we aren’t just pulling levers, mixing fluids, performing medical procedures, or cadence counting; we are killing people.     

If we’re gonna be barbarians, we should at least be the kind that get to drink with Odin in Valhalla, and not cowardly barbarians.  We should place more value in the taking of another’s life than in the trifling considerations for how we do it.  We shouldn’t pretend that using the latest technology to kill people makes it less barbaric.

Imagism in Japanese Children’s Songs

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on June 20, 2010 at 5:12 am

This traditional Japanese children’s song reminds me of Ezra Pound and the Imagists.  I usually render Japanese text in Roman letters on this blog, but, seeing as Pound’s Ideogrammic Method was built on a foundation of Chinese characters, here it is.  Click on the links for images, or perhaps you already know what some of it means…







I’m leaving this untranslated, but if anybody ever wants to comment on anything I write, I might suggest giving it your best shot in the comments.  That means Josh and Joe, and the other three people that read this blog.  I’m also writing it in as many Kanji as possible against common practices to emphasize the ideogrammic nature of Japanese writing.  I’m interested in whether there’s a children’s song like this in Chinese, which would make it even more ideogrammic.  Please send them my way…    Also, I’d like to do more of these in the future in my continual focus on visuals in Japan, but I don’t know what to call them.  

A Response to Paul Krugman

In Specific Facts on June 18, 2010 at 12:31 am

Paul Krugman, looking left

Paul Krugman’s existence in the popular consciousness, mostly through his New York Times column and blog, the Conscience of a Liberal, largely rests on ideological antagonism.  Krugman’s famous September, 2009 straw-man New York Times Magazine editorial, “How Did Economists Get It So Wrong?“, attacking University of Chicago economist John Cochrane and others, was the “Hit Em Up” of economic policy debate. 

Krugman’s near-constant invocation of “saltwater” and “freshwater” economics suggests two irreconcilable and antagonistic schools corresponding to two irreconcilable and antagonistic political parties: one urbane and sophisticated, one backwoods and boorish.  In Krugman’s world, neither heterodox economists nor heterodox politicians can work together to solve problems honestly.  This is hackery.  In reality, the economics discipline is a nuanced conglomeration of disparate ideas.  The unholy marriage of economics and politics which Krugman represents only threatens to undermine the credibility of economics as rational discourse on human behavior.  

Krugman recently wrote a blog post, Antipathy to Low Rates, in which he stereotyped his opponents, associated the stereotype with something unpleasant, and then quoted people he doesn’t like as representative of his odious caricature to discredit them.  This is an unacceptable rhetorical device called a straw man which charlatans (and Nobel Prize winners apparently) use when their premises cannot be built on any logical foundation.  Krugman quotes (the dead) F.A. Hayek (way) out of context to characterize today’s opponents of further stimulus as ideologues:

(Krugman:) And Hayek found it

(Hayek:)…still more difficult to see what lasting good effects can come from credit expansion. The thing which is most needed to secure healthy conditions is the most speedy and complete adaptation possible of the structure of production.If the proportion as determined by the voluntary decisions of individuals is distorted by the creation of artificial demand resources [are] again led into a wrong direction and a definite and lasting adjustment is again postponed.The only way permanently to ‘mobilise’ all available resources is, thereforeto leave it to time to effect a permanent cure by the slow process of adapting the structure of production.

(Krugman:) These days, relatively few economists are willing to say straight out that they regard persistent high unemployment as a good thing. But they find reasons to oppose any and all suggestions to use government policy — including monetary policy — to alleviate the slump. Same as it ever was.

Krugman knows that Hayek was not supporting high persistent unemployment, yet here he suggests that Hayek’s opposition to the New Deal was born out of disregard for the struggles of the poor.  On the contrary, Hayek’s opposition to stimulus lay in the understanding that the negative externalities of using policy to redirect such a large portion of the economy towards unproductive pursuits would ultimately snowball, and the economy would rot from the inside. 

Before this takes on the characteristics of a Krauthammer editorial: economic theories must have demonstrated predictive power to be considered legitimate.  It is often said that World War II, and not the economic growth of the late 1930s, vindicated Keynes.  However, it is more appropriate to say that the war interrupted and contaminated the Keynesian experiment.  Hayek believed that too aggressive policy had progressively distorted consumer preferences throughout the 1920s, only to be met with expansions of credit to further fuel ten years worth of malinvestments.  The economy was suddenly and viscerally refocused on reality in 1941 in the form of an economically overwhelming war effort.  Were it not for the war, only one of the two theories would be standing today.  

Keynes believed that, if the war had never happened, the economy would have continued growing steadily, government planners would have compensated for New Deal stimulus during subsequent boom periods, and the economy would ultimately return to equilibrium with the number of people negatively affected by the natural trough of the natural business cycle minimized.  Perhaps he was correct.    

Hayek believed that, if the war had never happened, New Deal stimulus would have continued to imperfectly direct production towards probably value-less pursuits, government planners would grow complacent and forgetful during subsequent boom periods or that there would be a change in policy as the result of electoral replacement, and America would suddenly discover that, instead of using the bust to clean house and purge unproductive entities, it had merely prolonged a disaster made worse by the further concentration of economic power in either corporate or government hands.  Perhaps he was correct.

Whatever shape the economy was in when the United States entered World War II, whether steady recovery as Keynes hypothesized, or deceptive crash course as Hayek hypothesized, this all changed when the nation’s resources were redirected towards the (very real) war effort.  

World War II was effectively a reset button, and for this reason, economists still remain divided on the efficacy of intervention.  Krugman at least knows this, and despite the need to pander to his audience, should not assume malicious intent, indifference to the struggles of the poor, or stupidity in those with whom he disagrees on the efficacy of interventionism.  Paul Krugman should stop being a ringmaster and go back to being an economist.

Symptoms versus the Disease

In General Principles on June 17, 2010 at 5:39 pm

The Patient is Cured! – by GastevMy grandfather, a epidemiologist and medical doctor, was suspicious of medicine that addressed the symptom rather than the underlying malady.  He didn’t appreciate a treatment that made you feel better, even if it didn’t cure you.  I don’t share his fealty to purity in treatment.  If the symptoms are what makes life unbearable, then minimizing the symptoms is real progress, even if a magical cure would be the best of all worlds.  Unfortunately, it seems many commentators want to cure the economy rather than deal with its symptoms.  

Unemployment is the excruciating pain of a bad economy and right now we’ve got two years of agony with no end in sight.  Yet, many focus on cutting the deficit– which would certainly have the effect of prolonging high unemployment since reduced government spending would come out of already reduced economic demand.  In the long run the deficit and debt have to be addressed, because it is a requirement of good government and even a moral issue, but to do it now would cut into GDP growth and cause more pain.  Worse, trying to cut spending now might very well have the opposite effect of shrinking the deficit since the current recession actually exacerbates the deficit by shrinking the tax base while automatic stabilizers like food stamps, welfare and unemployment insurance all treat more and cost more during a recession.  In other words, trying to reduce the deficit right now is like proscribing a really robust course of chemotherapy to a weak patient: is the operation a success if the patient dies in the process?

A better course would be to put the economy on steroids with further government stimulus, hopefully with promised chemotherapy later in the form of scheduled spending cuts and increased revenues.  Robust growth is the only pleasant way to manage debt, so returning the economy to something like normalcy before bringing fresh pain is the proper diagnosis, further confirmed by the notable absence of the warning signs against new government spending.  Traditionally either high interest rates on fresh debt- which signals that the market does not have faith in the state’s ability to repay- or inflation- which shows that the demand in the economy is overstripping supply- are the flashing red lights ahead of a course of government stimulus.  Instead, interest rates and inflation are both incredibly low and there is idle capacity waiting for new demand.  Ezra Klein describes how a fiscal conservative with a eye to the future could craft a deal:

If a Republican or two released a proposal pairing $300 billion in immediate, serious stimulus with $600 billion in even semi-balanced cuts timed to take effect between 2013 and 2020, they could either get what they’re asking for or put the Democrats in a very difficult position.

It seems unlikely that Republicans are going to agree to much of anything right now, but Democrats control every aspect of government so leaving it to hypothetical reasonable Republicans is cowardice.  If this is the right thing to do and it’s the sort of thing that a Republican could get behind if the political calculus wasn’t to oppose everything, then do it!  We need fresh stimulus to make us strong enough to handle future deficit reduction, that much is clear.  The rest is the bitter medicine of politics: nothing but  the talking cure and placebos.

ESL American History

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on June 16, 2010 at 3:19 pm

the Eastern Wild Turkey, perhaps a national symbol superior to the Bald EagleRecently my Saturday night class of Japanese students has taken a keen interest in American History, and last week I lectured about the roles of various immigrant communities in creating the current demographics of the United States.  This week, one of my students asked me about whether American states, cities, and towns had holidays unique to themselves, as is common in Japan.  After waxing about Boston’s Evacuation Day and St. Patrick’s Day being both on March 17th, I mentioned that Thanksgiving was originally a local celebration, but had spread to the rest of the United States as homesteaders from New England made their ways to the midwest, mountain states, and west coast.

In a way, I realized, the history of Thanksgiving serves as a metaphor for the entire history of the United States.  I explained about the Spanish looking for gold in Central and South America, the French fur trade, the Chinese on the west coast, Vikings and the Vinland Sagas, even speculations that St. Brendan of Ireland and the Phoenicians had reached the New World in their days, though I dismissed those latter two claims as highly speculative.  We discussed how various religious sects – especially English – came to America to live, and not just to do business like the Spanish and French.  These religious sect members and their cohorts were more numerous and committed, and from the end of the French and Indian War, they became the dominant cultural primogenitors of the United States.  We discussed Roanoke and CROATOAN, Jamestown, and Plymouth before moving on to Thanksgiving.

The English settlers were not prepared for the environment of Massachusetts, I said.  They brought only European seeds, and they thought all those plants would grow in Massachusetts.  But the earth in Massachusetts – unlike the earth in Virginia – is really, really rocky, and acidic, so European plants could not grow.  Thanksgiving is in November, because in September, there was a really bad harvest, people got sick and began to die.  In October, lots of people died, and, in November, it seemed like the whole Plymouth colony would die of starvation.  But the Native Americans showed the English settlers how to produce foods native to New England, like turkey, venison, fish, lobster, clams, corn, pumpkin, cranberries, and squash, which is why we all eat those foods on Thanksgiving now.

We next discussed how the descendants of the poor English settlers went on to kill the descendants of the helpful Native Americans and took all their land: from 1620, the descendants of those English settlers swept across the country, through the French lands, through the Spanish lands, towards Manifest Destiny, and by 1900, the only real Native American lands left were reservations.  

We also discussed the difference between the kind of wild turkeys I saw in my backyard growing up and the bloated, fat domesticated Thanksgiving turkeys that have breasts so large they cannot breed without being artificially inseminated, which drives PETA nuts.  In the vein of “you are what you eat”, one can look at the history of Turkey – that quintessential American food – and find the history of America: the Pilgrims were struggling to survive, unprepared and poorly equipped – both mentally and physically – to survive the harsh New England soil and winter; and yet now their cultural descendants have industrialized, technologized, mass-marketed, and exported that very symbol of American antitranscendentalism.

Pitagora Suitchi, Rube Goldberg Machines, and the American Republic

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on June 15, 2010 at 12:43 am

Rube Goldberg’s machine for tarring and feathering bill collectorsMy favorite Japanese children’s television show is Pitagora Suitchi (Pythagoras’s Switch), which I watch almost everyday with my daughter.  When I saw this Honda advertisement on Mario Piperni’s website using an elaborate Rube Goldberg machine, I was reminded of Pitagora Suitchi‘s opening and closing credits, which utilize a different Rube Goldberg machine every time with the ultimate final goal of displaying the show’s title.    

I am a monstrous fan of Rube Goldberg machines as educational tools.  Not only does understanding the complex mechanisms involved provide the foundations for technical physics and engineering knowledge, but Rube Goldberg machines are a metaphorical treasure chest for both children and adults.  Rube Goldberg machines utilize the laws of physics to create elaborate sequences of events with mimimal power (usually only an initial push), as a corollary to the tale of Sisyphus.  Contemplation of Rube Goldberg machines can lead one to value unanticipated consequences, efficiency, humility, cooperation, precision, attention to details, and the absurd.  

Understanding the principles behind Rube Goldberg machines can hone one’s bullshit detection abilities, and foster bold and effective solutions to problems, with clear goals in mind.  For advanced observers, there are parallels with chaos theory, chain reactions, and decision field theory

Rube Goldberg machines are named after Rube Goldberg, an early twentieth century cartoonist using Modernist visual satire to subtly poke fun at the prevailing pragmatic optimism of his day.  Since then, Rube Goldberg Machines have appeared in The Goonies, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (By the way, Paul Reubens, though well known for playing an idiot – like Rowan Atkinson – is a very serious comedian.), notably parodied on Family Guy, Flight of the Conchords, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Animaniacs, and in several videogames, like the original Nintendo classic Marble Madness.  Rube Goldberg machines seem especially valued in Japan, a society which stresses order, cooperation, precision, subjectivity, and inclusiveness.

Most importantly perhaps, Rube Goldberg Machines serve as metaphors for the way our democratic governments seem to work.  The term is often used pejoratively, such as “the American healthcare system is a Rube Goldberg machine”; however, as someone who loves Rube Goldberg machines, I would like to turn this metaphor upside down:  

150 years before Rube Goldberg, the American Founding Fathers created a governmental system so complex and convoluted as a check against the sudden madness of crowds.  Direct Democracy was passed over in favor of a multiple-tiered representative Republic full of checks and balances.  To this day, for a bill to become Federal law, it must first be embraced by the public, then enter the Legislative Branch through the appropriate channels, whether these be guilds, trade associations, or more modern-day lobbies or flexians, it must then survive individual committee and sub-committee scrutiny, and pass a vote in the House, then a vote in the Senate, then Presidential approval, then, if challenged, it must be upheld by the Supreme Court.  

Despite public disaffection with the slow, laborious, sausage-making of Congress, the engineers of the American Republic created an elegant and functional legislative Rube Goldberg machine, which only occasionally allows vulgar passions to express themselves in proscriptive form, i.e. prohibition.  Executive orders, the War Powers Act, concentration of power in the hands of wonks or technocrats, and other measures which give absolute power to a group of oligarchs or to a particular faction undermine the complex mechanism whereby individual liberty is preserved: absurd inefficiency.

This Gift Horse has some Cavities

In Specific Facts on June 14, 2010 at 6:00 pm

Looking into a gold mine – by CavinIncredibly, the news that Afghanistan, previously thought to be entirely worthless, boasts massive and incredibly valuable mineral wealth has been greeted with catcalls and cold water by seemingly everyone.  The consensus opinion holds that Obama and the Pentagon have planted the story to distract from what a terrible mess the war in Afghanistan has become.  Moreover, this story actually should be understood as bad news, since it will encourage US to stay there.  This analysis massively underestimates the gravity of an economically prosperous Afghanistan, tossing out the baby but keeping the bathwater.

 The biggest industry in Afghanistan today is terrorism.  Technically it’s opium, but the value of exported opium is dwarfed by the Western money that flows into Afghanistan to deal with terrorism.  The US spends five times the total GDP of the country fighting there.  Hell, pledged donations since 2002 are four times the size of the Afghan economy.  All of the roughly similar countries in the region boast double the per capita GDP despite having economies centered around remittances from exported service labor.  There are a host of historical and political reasons why Afghanistan is by far the worst country in one of the generally poorest parts of the world, but this truth is inescapable: nothing is going to make the Afghan economy worse.  

Modeled Behavior lays out how Dutch Disease, where exported resource production makes local products too expensive for natives, works:

One mechanism by which resource wealth translates to negative economic outcomes is the so-called “spending effect”. This is where a large increase in resource export revenues causes a large increase in demand which drives up the price of non-tradeable goods relative to tradeable goods because the prices of the latter are determined on the world market. This effect can also work via currency appreciation, which further hurts the competitive position of local non-resource tradeables.

Over 78% of Afghans work in agriculture, which is to say either subsistence farming or drugs.  Four fifths of the population doesn’t have an economy in other words.  They have the lowest concrete production in the world, so building houses can’t get more expensive because they already can’t build anything.  The average Afghan can’t read and doesn’t know anyone with wage employment besides members of the Taliban or the Afghan government.

Without developing its mineral wealth, the likeliest path for Afghanistan is the West loses its patience, washes it’s hands and maybe in after a decade or three of civil war they can try to become Yemin.  With the incentive of making lots money, however, then lots of people will try to build the infrastructure necessary to begin mining those minerals.  That means roads, electricity and jobs even if there is corruption, exploitation and instability.  All caveats apply, mineral development is decades away even in the best case scenario and if Afghanistan remains one of the most violent places on Earth, then maybe it won’t be worth it to ever get the minerals out.  It should not even need to be said that US military should not stay in Afghanistan because of mineral deposits. But at the very least, a reasonably feasible way to massively improve the lives of Afghans now exists and economic growth often takes care of everything else.  Afghanistan is a huge pain in everyone’s ass and it’s economy was based on continuing to be a pain in the ass.  Now there is an alternative.  That’s a reason to celebrate, caveats be damned.

Afghanistan, I’d Like You to Meet Japan…

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on June 14, 2010 at 12:04 pm

Tetrapods, coming soon to Afghan desserts?Foreign Policy‘s Blake Hounshell has a good response to a New York Times story on the tremendous untapped mineral wealth of Afghanistan.  (Basically, Hounshell finds the timing of the story suspect given the current negative news cycle on Afghanistan and the fact that knowledge of Afghanistan’s mineral wealth has been freely available on the Internet since 2007.)  For our Japanophiliac purposes, however, I’d like to focus on Hounshell’s conclusion:

According to an article in the journal Industrial Minerals, “Afghanistan has the lowest cement production in the world at 2kg per capita; in neighbouring Pakistan it is 92kg per capita and in the UK it is 200kg per capita.”Afghanistan’s cement plants were built by a Czech company in the 1950s, and nobody’s invested in them since the 1970s. Most of Afghanistan’s cement is imported today, mainly from Pakistan and Iran. Apparently the mining ministry has been working to set up four new plants, but they are only expected to meet about half the country’s cement needs.

Why do I mention this? One of the smartest uses of development resources is also one of the simplest: building concrete floors. Last year, a team of Berkeley researchers found that “replacing dirt floors with cement appears to be at least as effective for health as nutritional supplements and as helpful for brain development as early childhood development programs.” And guess what concrete’s made of? Hint: it’s not lithium.

Well, there is apparently a concrete shortage in Afghanistan and a solid case that widespread construction of concrete floors offers the the most bang for Afghanistan’s buck in terms of development; there’s a well-documented concrete surplus in Japan, the U.S. government kind of owes the Japanese government one after punting on the relocation of Futenma Air Base, and Japan’s exports are destined to take a hit once U.S.-China relations begin to warm again.  

I’m aware there are no beaches in Afghanistan, so the tetrapod-producing sector of the Japanese concrete pork economy won’t make any dents (unless they can somehow create a line of tetrapods designed to protect the dessert from erosion.)  Japan could even send Tadao Ando to Afghanistan, to fill that country also with tasteless, hulking, concrete monoliths.