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    Posted by Sean at 08:53, March 18th, 2011

    So I was looking for a distraction from the Japanese earthquake news, and the Brazilian consulate provided it: when my companion went to pick up our visas yesterday, they gave him two other US citizens’ passports. Heaven only knows whether ours are still at the consulate. Maybe they were given to the nice Indian couple whose documents we now have. In any case, we’re going back now and inquiring sweetly whether this is common practice and to make it clear that we were hoping to get back our own documents.

    Added on 19 March: We were able to get our passports back yesterday, and we’re at the airport now waiting to take off for Peru. I’ve never been south of the Caribbean, so I’m excited. This is the first vacation I’m taking in over a year, so I’m doubly excited. Everyone take care until I get back.


    Posted by Sean at 08:23, March 11th, 2011

    So now we wait. They’re expecting more aftershocks, there are tsunamis moving, and they were talking about landslides, so it’s possible that there will be more injuries and deaths, but so far things don’t seem to have been as horrible as they might have been. We can likely thank human ingenuity for that: Miyagi Prefecture is a known earthquake zone, and the city of Sendai improved the shut-off systems on its gas lines based on knowledge gained from the fires after the Hanshin quake in 1995. We can also thank luck: the Niigata earthquake in 2006 happened after a particularly wet summer, so there was a lot of earth liquefaction. The Hanshin earthquake happened early in the morning, so a lot of people were cooking breakfast. The earthquake yesterday happened in mid-afternoon on a weekday, so probably the greatest possible number of people one could hope for were in sturdy buildings for work.

    In Sendai itself, the surface shaking was a 6 on the JMA scale:

    6 upper – In many buildings, wall tiles and windowpanes are damaged and fall. Most unreinforced concrete-block walls collapse. 315 — 400 gal

    6 lower – In some buildings, wall tiles and windowpanes are damaged and fall. 250 — 315 gal

    At the epicenter, the less populous city of Kurihara, it was a 7, which basically means anything can fall down.

    The Nikkei is now reporting 60 confirmed deaths and says that the environs of the Fukushima nuclear power plant are being evacuated. Before they’d reported no leaks; I hope they’re just being cautious.

    News is going to be grim for a while, but there’s a lot the Japanese know about fighting the caprices of the weather and geology gods; that knowledge has already held down damage, and I’m sure we’ll be hearing plenty of stories over the next few days in which it minimizes human losses also.

    Added later: The Nikkei‘s little news-crawl function says that some of Tokyo’s private commuter-rail and subway lines are running their last trains for the night. Over 200 bodies already recovered in Sendai. Also—I somehow hadn’t noticed this before—the vibrations in the main quake apparently lasted for two minutes. By comparison, the Kobe quake lasted twenty seconds. But, again, Sendai was ready in ways Kobe was not. For Japan, Kobe was not considered an earthquake zone, so building and land-reclamation codes and disaster plans were insufficient. Response from the federal government was also slack, with private organizations (including the yakuza) upstaging Tokyo by distributing water and supplies while it was still getting its act together.

    When you study classical Japanese, you memorize the opening of the Hojoki. (It’s like reading Caesar in Latin class.) The Japanese often cite these lines in times of disaster:


    The flow of the running river is unceasing, yet the waters are not constant. Where it pools, the foam that floats up, now vanishing, now gathering, at no time lasts for any length. Man and his dwellings in this world are in every way the same.

    The Japanese have a very moving tradition of awareness of the impermanence of life and of stoicism in the face of loss, as the above shows. But there’s a balancing tradition of jaw-setting discipline and tough-mindedness when there’s work to be done. Happily, buildings made of concrete reinforced with rebar against shear are a lot less like foam on the shifting waters than the houses of old. And if disaster response has improved as much since Kobe, Niigata, and the last Sendai quake as we’ve been promised it has, yesterday’s victims are in good hands.

    BTW, thanks to those who’ve written to ask whether everyone I know is okay. I’d heard (or at least read a Facebook post) from just about everyone this morning before work. And I just got a message from Atsushi, who walked the two hours home from Aoyama but is fine. Like everyone else, he’s remarking on how many perceptible aftershocks there’ve been. One friend of mine said it feels like living on a giant waterbed.

    Healing professions

    Posted by Sean at 09:22, March 7th, 2011

    Jeff is posting at Beautiful Atrocities again—latest post: “I snogged Gaddafi & all I got was this stupid nurse’s uniform.”


    Posted by Sean at 07:00, March 7th, 2011

    Happy birthday to Taylor Dayne, who made some of the most gloriously histrionic pop music of my high-school years. Note how Dayne brings the attention-grabbing hot with no “concept” but a black dress, some red lipstick, and a wind machine. (Try that, Lady Gaga.)


    Posted by Sean at 10:23, February 22nd, 2011

    My favorite comment on the Wisconsin flap to date, from one of the posters on the strangely addictive College Misery:

    I do not mind paying a fair share. Neither does anyone I work with. However, we do mind being professors on food stamps (at least 3 of my colleagues are the sole income for their families, and because our salaries are so low in the first place, they will qualify). I am OK for now–my OH makes less than I do but we don’t own a home, so our expenses can be managed. Thing Two is now two, so his daycare isn’t quite as expensive as it was before. But I am seriously rethinking living in this state if this is how it wants to treat its public sector workers…and I’m not the only one.

    As scarce as jobs in the humanities are, I might have to go back on the market—after finally earning tenure—to try to find a better-paying job. Or I might have to go back to the private sector, where I made better money and I still have connections.

    I do not want to do this.

    Really, princess? You do not want to do this?

    You don’t want to get a job with pay that’s more aligned with what you need in order to support your family, even though you could apparently do so pretty easily? Well, then, we’d better just march right up to that nasty-nasty Governor Walker and tell him you’re going to hold your breath until you turn blue if you don’t get what you want this very minute.

    I also love the flagrant, self-awareness-lacking snobbery of that whole “we do mind being professors on food stamps” thing. Public assistance is good enough for the single mothers et al. whom leftists are constantly haranguing us about helping; shouldn’t they be good enough for academics stuck in less-desirable positions? Surely living in a fashion that’s down with the proles is a good thing…for your, like, consciousness or what have you? (One might also note that every dime these people receive is already public assistance.)

    If full-time teachers are being paid so little that they qualify for food stamps, that sure does sound bizarre. But, as Wisconsin and other states are now learning, that’s what happens when you see every issue as something to be addressed through a funded government program. Keep sucking up wealth without creating any, and you don’t have enough to spend anymore. That it’s the public-sector workers who are being mistreated in this scenario is risible.

    Even better is the way that second paragraph continues:

    None of us gets into this profession for the money, but it’s disgraceful that we’re not going to be able to make decent lives for ourselves (I work in the two-year system, so we’re paid a LOT less than our counterparts in the 4-year schools).

    And if you think I should just shut up and be thankful to have a job, do me a favor and shut the f**k up. I am grateful to be employed, but I’m not going to take a kick in the teeth and ask for another one.

    They can’t live “decent lives”? Note that there’s not even the slightest attempt here to argue that these people are being paid less than the market value of the work they do, or that they’re not getting what leftists love to call a “living wage.” Maybe this writer and her other half really are living hand to mouth, but it certainly sounds as if they’re just strapped for cash like a lot of people right now: making do with a lot less than they’d like to have, but getting by.

    I admit that this kind of thing is a sore spot with me. My (USW member) father was laid off by Bethlehem Steel for an agonizing stretch in the mid-’80s. At one point, he was working night shift at the 7-Eleven, cleaning offices for Service Master, and doing odd jobs to keep us afloat. My mother worked part-time in the cafeterias in our school district. At one school, a certain teacher memorably informed her that she (my mother) should be washing her (Miss Thang the teacher’s) coffee mug because she (Miss Thang the teacher) was “a professional.” Few things play on my sympathies more than stories about overworked people who are treated like crap and have few options.

    People who want more money and have the option of changing jobs to get it? No sympathy. Being forced to choose between satisfaction and compensation is just everyday life for a lot of private-sector workers. You can’t, to coin a phrase, have everything. And if Walker’s move really is an excuse to go after public-employees’ unions, good. There’s no reason they should be able to use the coercive power of the government to wangle deals for themselves that the private-sector employees (whose taxes pay their salaries) cannot.

    If you want a laugh at the expense of the sanctimonious, BTW, read the comments attached to that post at College Misery, in which writer BurntChrome’s fellow travelers haul out every pseudo-insurgent cliche the left has ever dreamed up: “Standing behind you holding a torch and hayfork in spirit,” “speak[ing] truth to power,” “First they came for the communists…,” “Before they went after the welfare mothers and now they are going after the civil servants.” My favorite is the the commenter who claims to be—My sides! My sides!—“[h]umming the Marseillaise in your honor.” Delicious!

    Added later: Sarah also posted today about Marxist (and Marxian) fallacies about labor and value. You should RTWT, but here’s the liver of the fugu:

    To Marx value was raw material plus work. The means of producing that work (machinery, etc) were just sort of there. And he made no allowance for invention. (Which is why though Marxist revolutions often recruit intellectuals they’re the sort of intellectuals who never had an original idea in their life.) Of course in our day and age, invention and original thought are at least as important as machinery in creating product. Also, the raw material fallacy means all the countries who have nothing else to sell feel “exploited” because we’re taking their “value” away. Imbuing raw material itself with value means that it’s sort of like stealing national treasure. This has given rise to an entire colonialist-exploitation-theory of history which has held more people in misery in developing countries than the most brazen robber baron could manage. And no one, NOT ONE seems to realize that their raw materials mean absolutely nothing if not used. If someone doesn’t have an idea to use it. If the finished product is not good for something. In other words, if you’re not producing something that someone else finds useful. (I.e. enough to pay for.) If the relationship isn’t MUTUALLY beneficial.

    I kind of wish she’d used something besides the dog-turd analogy that follows, because it makes it easy for people to shrug and say, “What’s your point? No one’s arguing that people should be wasting their time shining up dog turds. We just think that professors of the arts (say) are as valuable to society as bankers, and that it’s worth using the state to transfer some money to them to recognize that, since the cold, impersonal, inhuman market doesn’t.” Nevertheless, the underlying point she’s making (or one underlying point she’s making) is a sound one: Just because you’re good at what you do and love it, that doesn’t mean you’re going to make a lot of money off it.

    A friend of mine, she cries at night/And she calls me on the phone

    Posted by Sean at 12:55, February 13th, 2011

    Crabby-ass Baby Boomer exceptionalism has been a bugbear of mine since childhood. My parents (born in ’48 and ’51) were generally pretty immune to it, thankfully, but it was everywhere once their age-mates had attained their majority and entered the media. Years ago, a commenter at Dean Esmay’s place warned that in a few decades we’d be seeing articles in Time about “The New Death,” as geezer Boomers refused to go through even their last major milestone without tarting it up as a vehicle for self-actuation. (It doesn’t seem to be archived, unfortunately—I think he suggested Nancy Gibbs as the writer, though that may have been my contribution.)

    We should have known better than to laugh, of course. Now that the first BBs are hitting 65, if they’re going to keep living independently, they’re going to need the same things Grandma did, only they don’t want to admit it. So marketing and UX people are finding ways not to tell them they’re past it (via Ed Driscoll, via Instapundit).

    Surreptitiously, companies are making typefaces larger, lowering store shelves to make them more accessible and avoiding yellows and blues in packaging—two colors that don’t appear as sharply distinct to older eyes.

    Invesco Van Kampen Consulting, an arm of Invesco Ltd., suggests financial advisers offer coffee cups with handles instead of Styrofoam (easier to hold), use lamps instead of overhead lights (less glare), and turn off the television when clients visit (background noise hampers hearing), says Scott West, a managing director.

    Euphemisms are flourishing. ADT, owned by Tyco International Ltd., is marketing its medical-alert system to aging consumers as “Companion Services.”

    Kimberly-Clark Corp.’s Depend brand, widely considered adult diapers in the past, has had a makeover in a new TV ad: “Looks and fits like underwear. Protects like nothing else.”

    Bathroom-fixture maker Kohler Co. struggled to come up with a more palatable word for “grab bar,” which boomers resist. It introduced the “Belay” shower handrail—named for the rock-climbing technique—which blends subtly into the wall of a tiled shower. “When you say, ‘We’ve got beautiful grab bars,’ [boomers] just say, ‘Naw,’ because they don’t want to identify as needing that,” says Diana Schrage, senior interior designer at Kohler’s design center.

    I have no objections to aesthetic improvements or better packaging—steel-tubing grab bars and diaper-y diapers are ugly. Why not make them more customer-friendly? And there’s no reason the elderly should resign themselves to putting on cardigans and brogues and sitting on the porch for the last twenty years of their lives. Healthy people who want to stay active should stay active.

    What’s chortle-worthy is the way Boomers love to imagine themselves as sassy, bold, in-your-face truth-tellers…but can’t handle even the slightest allusion to incontinence in an ad for adult diapers:

    “Past generations were more accepting that they had a condition, and this was the product that they have to wear,” says Mark Cammarota, Depend’s brand director. “The boomers don’t have that attitude. They demand and expect more.”

    In an effort to modernize its designs, Depend has introduced gender-specific versions and briefs with fashionable prints that imitate regular underwear. Some Depend packaging is labeled “underwear” and disguised to look like packs of cloth underwear, including transparent windows that show Depend undergarments folded just like regular briefs. The smaller packs hang on hooks instead of stacked on shelves like diapers.

    When casting for recent Depend ads, the brand looked for actors who appeared to be in their early 50s, a far cry from the brand’s former white-haired spokeswoman, June Allyson, who sometimes portrayed a grandmother.

    The new ads—which launched last month—feature a fit and flirtatious man in a coffee shop and a fashionable woman strutting down a sidewalk while tossing her hair, not a gray strand in sight.

    “We’re very subtle in that we don’t have to explain the problem and solution in the ads,” says Mr. Cammarota. “Boomers like seeing the confidence part of it.”

    Get back into life!

    Of course, Depend wouldn’t be able to get away with this if it couldn’t depend on viewers to know what product its brand name was associated with, and the reason everyone knows is that we all heard June Allyson talking about it, as forthrightly as you could on network TV, a quarter-century ago.


    Speaking of annoying delusions, Virginia Postrel posted a few weeks ago about that Kennedy miniseries that was rejected by the History Channel. Despite being a clan of jumped-up, cheap-wenching, prestige-buying, graceless, Pharisaical jerks, whose only major social contribution to date has been helping to keep the thirsty supplied with whiskey during Prohibition, the Kennedys are constantly foisted on us as some sort of American Ideal. Barf. My idea of a Kennedy docudrama would be called Sloshed: Smuggling the Hard Stuff and Swimming to Safety with Joe, Sr., and His Merry Brood, but in order to make it, I’d have to spend a lot of time thinking about the Kennedys, which I’d rather not do. Virginia links to an entertaining account of how the miniseries got scuttled. You’ll be shocked to hear that there was pressure from the Kennedys involved (particularly from Caroline, who is, you will doubtless be double-shocked to hear, a Baby Boomer).

    Virginia’s topic is glamour, and she focuses mostly on how depictions of the Kennedys (including the possible release of recordings of Jacqueline’s voice) affect their brand:

    The Kennedys’ glamour is an important income-generating asset, so I, too, doubt we’ll be hearing anything revealing. But we will hear something, which in itself is unusual.

    One of the world’s most photographed women, Jackie mostly let her carefully crafted image speak for her. (Here’s a rare photo of Jackie smoking.) Only a few public traces of her voice remain, most of them from the 1960 campaign or White House years. And unlike the graceful photos, they seem dated, calculated, and a little strange.

    Virginia links to YouTube videos of a few interviews with Mrs. Kennedy. What’s amazing is how much her self-presentation (from the shoulders up, anyway, though horsewoman Jackie obviously doesn’t walk with Marilyn’s hip-swivel) is like that of Marilyn Monroe—whispery, head-bobbing, fussy, deferential—even though they were polar opposites as icons of celebrity womanhood of the time. Now they’re both images to be maintained, and I think Virginia’s right: The feminist narrative about Marilyn Monroe is that she was a talented actress and comedienne beset by predatory men and forced into playing up the feminine vulnerability. It’s okay for her to sound a little ditzy, even if we know it’s something of a put-on, because it fits the narrative and we’re used to it. But to our ears, Jackie’s voice sounds jarring given her woman-of-arts-and-letters image, and a lot of effort is likely to go into keeping that image from being compromised.


    Title line from, of course, one of the first media products to usher in talk about the Baby Boomers’ reaching middle age. ( The Big Chill and thirtysomething and stuff had done a lot of fretting over unrealized ideals and grown-up responsibilities, but it wasn’t yet time for the OMG-we’re-almost-40! routine.) My mother played this album to death when I was a senior in high school:

    Hameau de la Reine

    Posted by Sean at 18:30, January 27th, 2011

    I grew up with uncles and cousins who hunted, family friends whose children went into the military, people who did physical labor and occasionally were injured on the job. It was just sort of assumed that everyone knew the world was a bruising place and that we were the descendants of the people who’d fought back and survived. The major part of civilization was figuring out how to cooperate or at least coexist with each other, and aggression could be channeled into good (military training or sports or debate) or ill (crime or bullying), but it couldn’t be made to disappear.

    Much of the left, though, seems to want to pretend that aggressive impulses only naturally arise in the hearts of their enemies. How else to explain everything we’ve been hearing and reading since the horrible spree killing in Arizona? When Barack Obama and other Democrats use hunting or battle imagery, it’s a particularly vivid metaphor that just shows how passionate they are about doing good despite the obstacles; when Sarah Palin and other Republicans (or, heaven help us, Tea Party members) use the same imagery, it’s a literal call to start attacking people and should scare the bejeezus out of us. Non-lefty bloggers of many political persuasions have given such arguments the drubbing they deserve many times over recently, and I didn’t particularly feel the need to weigh in.

    Then Barbara Ehrenreich wrote a piece for the LAT yesterday to defend her democratic-socialist crony Frances Fox Piven (via Instapundit via The Corner). Priven had attracted Glenn Beck’s attention by writing this column in The Nation:

    So where are the angry crowds, the demonstrations, sit-ins and unruly mobs? After all, the injustice is apparent.

    An effective movement of the unemployed will have to look something like the strikes and riots that have spread across Greece in response to the austerity measures forced on the Greek government by the European Union, or like the student protests that recently spread with lightning speed across England in response to the prospect of greatly increased school fees.

    A loose and spontaneous movement of this sort could emerge. It is made more likely because unemployment rates are especially high among younger workers. Protests by the unemployed led by young workers and by students, who face a future of joblessness, just might become large enough and disruptive enough to have an impact in Washington. There is no science that predicts eruption of protest movements. Who expected the angry street mobs in Athens or the protests by British students? Who indeed predicted the strike movement that began in the United States in 1934, or the civil rights demonstrations that spread across the South in the early 1960s? We should hope for another American social movement from the bottom—and then join it.

    Now, Piven mentions several types of group action here, not all of them violent, and you might say that she didn’t choose her words well enough to identify which ones she was really endorsing. But she’s been a professor for decades. She has a PhD from the University of Chicago, an institution not known for encouraging slushy argumentation. And this was an opinion piece for publication, not (say) a dashed-off blog post that was submitted prematurely.

    I mean, suppose she’d written the following:

    An effective American political movement would combine the fired-up anger of the Greek and British riots with the peaceable techniques of the civil rights movement. It would be purposeful. Its members would make it clear that they would not be cowed, but they would also work to convince their countrymen who are still employed that everyone is part of the same struggle for social justice.

    That took me three minutes, tops. If what it conveys is what she meant, Piven could easily have said so. But she didn’t. Coolly placing riots and sit-ins in parallel allowed her to romanticize violent protest without having to say forthrightly that she’s eager to see it here in America, but “An effective movement of the unemployed will have to look something like the strikes and riots that have spread across Greece…” strains plausible deniability to breaking point. The onus is on Piven to show how her words could be interpreted as opposing violence.

    Naturally, Barbara Ehrenreich doesn’t think so. She doesn’t see the aggression in Piven’s belief that “unruly mobs” would be justified, but she does see it in the empty big talk of Glenn Beck’s more volatile commenters:

    Why are Americans such wusses? Threaten the Greeks with job losses and benefit cuts and they tie up Athens, but take away Americans’ jobs, 401(k)s, even their homes, and they pretty much roll over. Tell British students that their tuition is about to go up and they take to the streets; American students just amp up their doses of Prozac.

    So perhaps economically hard-pressed Americans aren’t wusses after all. They may not have the courage or the know-how to organize a protest at the local unemployment office, which is the kind of action Piven urged in her December essay, but they stand ready to shoot the first 78-year-old social scientist who suggests that they do so.

    Look, madam, you‘re the one who wants fundamental social revolution—not American workers or students en masse. If social inequities matter so much to you and Priven and your cronies, why don’t you mob the damned city hall yourselves? You’re smart, articulate, credentialed. You have name recognition among the decision-making rich. If you impressed the American worker with your willingness to put your own comfort and status on the line, you might really start a chain reaction. (I don’t think that would actually happen, but you’re certainly more likely to encourage it through setting an example than through jabbering to fellow-travelers.)

    The explanation that people don’t know how to organize doesn’t wash. Everyday citizens belong to churches, charities, and all kinds of other groups that manage to hold meetings and fund drives. They’ve thronged to (orderly) Tea Party demonstrations. The idea that unemployed Americans are standing around thinking, “Jeez, my friends and I feel totally oppressed by the capitalists, but group-formation is for the bourgeois, so I guess we can’t do anything about it but drink more Pabst,” is just asinine. Maybe the reason people aren’t disrupting traffic and getting all screechy is that they’re busy figuring out what they can do about their own circumstances. There’s nothing even the slightest bit wussy about that.

    What is wussy—and I’m surprised people on the right haven’t jumped all over this, because it’s one of the most outrageous sentences I’ve ever read—is to say, as Piven does at the end of her editorial, “We should hope for another American social movement from the bottom—and then join it.” Got that, Nation readers? Don’t bother risking anything of yourselves. Wait until the churls have been out getting their heads busted long enough to make the movement a going concern, then get in on it. No one who holds that attitude or lets it pass without comment has moral grounds for bitching that America is no longer a democracy.


    BTW, I do agree that it’s stupid for people to say things like “Bring it on biotch [sic]. we’re armed to the teeth” and monstrous to say things like “We’re all for violence and change, Francis [sic]. Where do your loved ones live?” Ehrenreich’s generalized explanation for why people mention guns in the context of economic and political troubles is this: “But there is one thing you can accomplish with guns and coarse threats about using them: You can make people think twice before disagreeing with you.” Fine, point taken. I believe in answering arguments on their merits, and I’m not here to defend threats to someone’s loved ones.

    Nevertheless, I think Ehrenreich misses something important: The gun owners I know see learning how to use firearms as a manifestation of, and guns themselves as symbols of, self-reliance. You don’t ask others for help until you’ve exhausted all your own resources. You don’t sit around waiting for the government to clothe, feed, and medicate you, and you don’t sit around waiting for the police to show up when you’re menaced physically. Ehrenreich seems to want a direct causal connection between personal gun ownership and personal economic advancement, when I think what many people actually believe is that the two are both products of individualism. I’m not sure Ehrenreich would be receptive to that argument in any case, but the commenters at theblaze.com sure as hell didn’t help with their viciousness.


    One last thing that made me uneasy: What does Piven’s age have to do with anything? Offering to shoot her for her political positions is wrong, but it would have been equally wrong if she’d been thirty-eight or fifty-eight. If Piven has the vigor to write opinion pieces, she has the vigor to stand up to counterarguments.

    Posted by Sean at 00:35, January 20th, 2011

    Several months before 9-11, though we didn’t know it then, Virginia Postrel linked to an education blogger named Joanne Jacobs. “Why, I toil in the vineyards of education myself!” I thought, and clicked through. This was when her site was “readjacobs.com.” Joanne has—excuse the vulgarity—a bullshit detector that’s always switched on. She’s immune to fads and advertising-speak. She’s content to write a five-word sentence when five words alone will convey her meaning (a talent I admire but have never been capable of emulating), which is a real asset when discussing the latest education hoo-hah. Living abroad, I loved visiting her blog and reading whatever she’d posted in her straightforward, no-nonsense voice. This is an American talking to me, I’d think with pleasure. This is someone I can do business with. At that point, Virginia, Joanne, Instapundit, and Andrew Sullivan were the only blogs I read. (I could never get into Kausfiles.)

    I mention 9-11 because I associate two posts of Joanne’s very much with the days that followed. Neither of them, assuming my ability to use Google hasn’t atrophied, is available online anymore. The first was about some miscreant in California who’d, maybe, committed a murder-suicide (?) on 9 September or something. His parting comment was, again IIRC, that he would be the big news story of the week. Joanne’s response several days later: “Tough luck, mister.”

    About 9-11 itself, she had a post that I read many times over. Again, this is from memory—I’ve tried a bunch of phrases from it to see whether there’s a citation to it somewhere, but I can’t locate it, and yet, I’m pretty sure my unassisted memory is mostly accurate. It said, essentially, the following:

    Our culture is global, dynamic, and confident. Their culture is provincial, parochial, and weak. We’re winners. They’re losers, and they resent it.

    US support for Israel is a detail. The United States could align its entire foreign policy with the whims of Yasir Arafat, and we’d still be a target.

    That’s a paraphrase from memory, but as I say, it’s the gist of it. I thought about it many, many times in the years that followed.

    [Added on 24 January: And as it happens, my blog friend Marc at Amritas had the actual citation:

    They hate us because we’re big, powerful and rich, while they’re small, weak and poor. Our culture is dynamic, confident, global and free. Their culture…is rigid, defensive, parochial and tyrannical. We’re winners. They’re losers, and they resent it.

    U.S. support for Israel is a detail. We could let our foreign policy be dictated by Yasir Arafat, and they’d still hate us.

    Thanks to Marc for letting me know.]

    One of the most precious things about America is our belief that thinking and behavior make you one of us, no matter where you started out. I mean, the Japanese certainly believe that there’s a Japanese way of thinking, but according to their conception, being genetically Japanese and living in Japan make you think that way, not the other way around. But the idea that signing on to a country’s belief system makes you part of that country all the way down is really rare in the world. America has it. Australia, Canada, and New Zealand have it. (England, the homeland of my beloved late grandfather and the source, of course, of so much of our heritage in the Anglosphere, does not, at least not to the same extent.) Perhaps there are other places I’m not thinking of. But I can say after spending eleven years of my adult life abroad that the idea that what you’re born to determines your lot in life—all of it, unalterably—is the most common single belief I’ve ever encountered among people of all nationalities.

    Joanne plays her political cards pretty close to the chest. But from what I’ve been able to observe on her blog for the last decade, her view of education is one that should resonate with a lot of Americans: Don’t waste money and resources on quixotic projects with little proven value, but show students at all levels of achievement, income, and social class what they need to do to achieve as much as they can. Then let those who want to do it do it. Present information in orderly units, logically broken down, so that students who apply themselves have the highest probability of mastering it even if their education sucked to that point. Offer extra help where needed. Give reasonable support to parents who want to help their children succeed but don’t understand the system. Maintain high standards. Don’t be afraid of testing just because it’s testing. Value teachers but don’t coddle them.

    All of this is to say, Joanne Jacobs celebrated her tenth blog-iversary today, and it’s worth celebrating. Congratulations, and I hope JoanneJacobs.com is around for several decades more.


    Posted by Sean at 22:37, January 6th, 2011

    Happy New Year. I rang it in with the vestiges of the stomach flu and am just now pretty much back to my usual state of figurative, rather than literal, dyspepsia.

    It’s now the Year of the Rabbit in Japan, and it, too…Japan, I mean, not the Rabbit…is looking to make a recovery from what’s been ailing it. The Nikkei has been publishing a series of editorials over the last week about Japan’s economic prospects, called “Opening the country and clearing a path,” and this was its sober beginning:

    This is a New Year one is hard-pressed to call Happy.

    Although the Japanese economy has somehow managed to overcome the Lehman Shock, it’s gotten to the new year without finding any purchase on a path to full-on recovery. Over the past twenty years, the nominal economic growth rate has had an annual mean of a mere 0.5%. The balance of public debt has gone up by a factor of 3.3, the worst among developed countries. Japanese have seen the nightmare of a drop in our economic status threaten our security, as in the dispute over the Senkaku Islands.

    This stagnation, once loose in the land, is not the kind of thing that will resolve itself naturally.

    The editors preview the contents of the next several days in the series, then identify who they hope is paying attention:

    Whether we will move forward with opportunities for an economic renaissance will in large measure depend on our politicians.

    Despite the necessity of major surgery, they dispense painkillers. The DPJ administration has continued with those sorts of policies, just like the LDP. Make-nice-with-everyone policies cannot be anything but deleterious. Politicians should learn from the example of the bravery of UK prime minister Cameron (44), who pushes determinedly forward with necessary policies no matter how much hatred is heaped on him.

    The other major role in the Japanese renaissance is that of business leaders. Technological might we have, but we’re being outstripped in new products and new services by US enterprises such as Apple and Google. Also, there are plenty of industries in which any number of companies are jockeying for position, with Japan falling behind foreign forces in large-scale research and investment. Aren’t our conservative business practices killing off the untapped power of our workers?

    We call on politicians and business leaders to realize that they bear an extremely weighty responsibility in this time of major transition for the Japanese economy.

    Installment 2 focused on the need for more Japanese to understand foreign realities that shape markets:

    Japanese economic missions now frequently visit India, with which we have a basic agreement through the signing of an economic partnership agreement (EPA). And yet, competition in its markets, to which companies the world over are thronging, is fierce. For example, one local says, “Korean brands like Samsung and LG have even more penetration in India than Japanese brands.”

    Korean enterprises have increased their market share by offering up products that respond to local needs, such as refrigerators that can be locked. That’s an example that demonstrates the strength of having company employees that are dug in locally.

    Every year, Samsung Electric sends a bunch of employees to places throughout the globe and grooms them as territory specialists. Many Korean businessmen stationed abroad have family living with them long-term, even in India and the Middle East, and so they continuously expand their network with the locals. Japanese enterprises, with their preponderance of unaccompanied transfers* and their short tours of duty, have a tendency to be weak at making inroads. Japanese enterprises must also make haste to address [customers] from the human angle.

    Installment 3 focused on the need for technological compatibility with world markets:

    Japan has had some bitter experiences. Japanese prowess led the way in the development of car-navigation systems that used US military satellites; but each of the companies vied to produce proprietary technology and kept its specifications under wraps, and they thereby ended up creating a closed market. As a result, it was not only high in functionality but also high in price. By contrast, low-cost dumb terminals have become mainstream overseas, with Japan now in the position of playing second fiddle to foreign enterprises.

    Further reasons that Japan is behind in standardization are that it has placed excessive faith in manufacture and been late to make the transition to digital technologies. Products such as gasoline-powered cars and household appliances will sell abroad provided their functionality and quality are good. At the same time, integrated products such as cell phones can’t be used if they’re incompatible with [regional] standards.

    Installment 4 braved pitchforks by outlining why Japan needs to reform its farm policies, which produce mind-boggling drag on the economy:

    Japan’s national territory is small, and there’s a lot of mountain and forest land; those are facts. However, they’re not the only things hobbling agricultural productivity. One main reason that no agricultural sector that can withstand market liberalization has grown up is a failure of government policies.

    Isn’t it time we junk old ways of thinking, change direction, and start proclaiming loftier goals, sufficient to develop the rice-growing sector into an export industry? It’s necessary to rethink the subsidy system and make determined strides toward stout-hearted reforms that will lead to the expansions of scale that include rice growing. The TPP negotiations that the US is spearheading will not wait around for Japan as it dithers over opening its markets.

    In order to boost our competitiveness, we must quickly rethink our farm system, which makes it difficult to lease farmland and throws up barriers to new entrants in the agricultural sector. And concerning reform of the agricultural cooperatives that have grown up over the now-subdivided rice-growing sector, we must deepen the debate to include the perspectives of consumers.

    It’s no misstatement to say that the agricultural sector is a crucial industry that takes responsibility for the feeding of the citizenry. Even if Japan decides to participate in the TPP and takes steps toward opening its markets for agricultural products, continuing the necessary level of domestic production and [adopting] policies to support maintenance of its ratio of food self-sufficiency will be indispensable.

    Based on considerations of protection, what will be critical will be a vantage point that asks, “Who are the farmers we should be protecting?” If we proceeded from the fact that rice farmers with other income make up the majority of domestic farmers, it would seem that most farmers are office employees who work for private enterprise and public employees who work in government offices.

    Only 14% of Japanese farm families actually depend on agriculture as the mainstay of their income, say the editors.

    The last installment calls for Japan to bring in foreign knowledge:

    In the Japan, the number of foreigners who have specialized knowledge or technical know-how is extremely low. Foreigners living in Japan who hold residency qualifications for “technology” and “research” numbered 202,000 at the end of 2009. That’s one person for about every 300 people in the workforce.

    The ratio of direct investment from abroad to GDP is just shy of 4%, very low compared with the US’s 18% and the ROK’s 10%.

    The editors call for Japan to learn from the thinking of the engineers of the Meiji Restoration, when Japan first made its major transformation to industrialization. Note, too, that the main editorial one day last week main editorial a few days ago was headlined “Speed up the policy and business pushback against the ROK”:

    ROK enterprises have noticeably increased their felt presence in global markets. Japan and Korea resemble each other in the structuring of the electronic, the automotive, and other industries. To the extent that it’s our greatest rival, Korea’s rise cannot be ignored. In both policy and business practices, we need to push back against Korea.

    This year for the first time, there’s a product for which the global [market] shares of Japan and Korea look to be inverted. It’s the lithium-ion battery essential for computers and cell phones.

    If it can be said that large-scale restructuring takes time, the response is that each company should then expedite its selection of business sectors. Hitachi has made a tie-up with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries on hydroelectric generators. Toshiba is also focusing on investments in nuclear power generation, and when it comes to semiconductors, it will specialize in the memory business, its strength, while contracting out production of its unmonetizable system LSI’s (large-scale integrated circuits) to Samsung Electric.

    Another way is to look for profit streams that would distinguish Japan from Korea. This year Panasonic, in televisions and white-appliances, steered away from operations in which per-unit share cannot be captured. It changed its organization to center instead on business that deals comprehensively with house and office-building interiors. The strategy is to look to sell design, construction, and maintenance bundled.

    Many of the statistics cited are recent: Japanese youth don’t see a good chance of bettering their circumstances through hard work. Japan is publishing fewer academic articles on physics and chemistry than the PRC, and the literacy rate of its fifteen-year-olds is lagging behind that of Shanghai, Korea, or Hong Kong. But there’s nothing new about the ideas, except the comprehensiveness and relentless directness with which the Nikkei has expressed them. The system by which elected officials, unelected federal functionaries, and leaders of key industries simultaneously work with one another to their mutual enrichment and push against each other to keep reforms from happening was identified decades ago. It’s all very well to tell the government that it will play a key role in helping the Japanese economy adapt to external reality; it’s another thing entirely to convince those who actually populate key ministries in Kasumigaseki that their endless “administrative guidance” is choking economic development at the root and that they need to lay off the control-freak-ism. And for the love of Pete, if someone finds a politically viable way to deep-six the current farm-subsidy system, please tell us in America about it. We’re all ears.

    Also note that many of the elements of the Japanese government and corporate systems that the poor Nikkei is pleading to have changed are the very things that used to be held up as the reasons Japan was going to overtake the West—and, indeed, the very things that were seen as the key to the success of Korea and the other Tiger Economies as they “followed Japan’s example.” Now they’re moving away from that example, and in the process they’re leaving Japan behind.

    That said, I wonder whether the efflorescence of Korea might not, in fact, turn out to have a salutary effect. Yes, the PRC is a bigger, splashier, sexier topic for business and news coverage, but my feeling is that stories about Korea resonate a good deal more in Japan. (Don’t ever actually tell a Japanese person he seems to find it easy to identify with the Koreans, or vice versa, of course.) Korea’s a small, mountainous East Asian country that was poor and unfree in the recent historical past. Koreans value education and are good with technology. What edge, the Japanese might justifiably wonder, does the ROK have over Japan that’s helping it to grow in prosperity while Japan levels off?

    But don’t count it out yet. The ability of the Japanese to grit their teeth through hardship is astounding, but they’ve also been known to adapt very swiftly to new realities when it was borne in upon them that they had no other choice. If Korea seriously starts kicking Japan’s ass in industries that have become a matter of national pride, it may turn out to be the kick it’s been needing.

    * There’s actually a word for this in Japanese, 単身赴任, which you learn in third year or so when you study Japanese as a foreign language, along with 定年退職 (retirement at the designated age) and 終身雇用 (lifetime employment). Well, okay, maybe it’s more like an expression than a word, but anyway, it refers to being transferred to a different city by yourself while your wife and children hold down the fort in your hometown. (Except for the wife-and-children part, that’s what Atsushi’s former company did to him in 2004, and the separation was pretty much the impetus for my starting this blog. Atsushi was yanked from one of the Tokyo offices of his bank and rusticated to Kumamoto for a few years, put up in a tiny one-room apartment rented by the company, and expected to come home to Tokyo on weekends however he decided to manage it in order to stay sane.)

    This may also be a good place to mention, if I haven’t recently, that it’s important to bear in mind that the lifetime-employment system and its corresponding worker fealty to the company are far from universal in Japan. If I recall correctly, we were already learning when I started college in 1991 that the salaryman contingent was only 30% of the Japanese workforce. There was always plenty of turnover at smaller firms, including subcontractors for flagship manufacturing companies of the big-guns keiretsu, and in service jobs. If you were hired out of college onto the management track at the Nichigin or Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, you were going to stay put for life. But not everyone down to the last elevator or gas-station attendant lacked mobility.

    The butter’s spread too thick!

    Posted by Sean at 09:19, December 19th, 2010

    If you read Instapundit, surely you saw this post, with Glenn Reynolds’s comment, “Communists are as bad as Nazis, and their defenders and apologists are as bad as Nazis’ defenders, but far more common. When you meet them, show them no respect. They’re evil, stupid, and dishonest. They should not enjoy the consequences of their behavior.”

    This is not a popular position, and he quickly received a response that went, in part, like this:

    As someone who works in academia, I run into my fair share of Marxists. While I disagree with their politics, many of them are decent non-evil people most certainly deserving of respect. There is, to my mind, a big difference between communism and Nazism: it is possible to be a communist with the “good will,” i.e. to sincerely wish the best most prosperous future for everyone. I think it’s pretty obvious that communism is not the way towards that goal, but intelligent people can disagree. Nazism, on the other hand, is fundamentally impossible to commit one’s self to with a good will. It is inherently racist, hateful, and concerned with elevating particular groups of people on the basis of the subjugation and dehumanization of others.

    These people’s whole job as scholars is the unflinching pursuit of truth no matter where it may lead, and we’re supposed to credit them for their “good will” when they trumpet an abstract ideology while discreetly skating over what happens every time it’s implemented? I find myself unwilling to concede that. It’s like crediting the walrus with more compassion than the carpenter because he made a histrionic show of concern for the oysters before yum-yumming them down.

    Of course, it might be said that Reynolds’s correspondent’s colleagues are, assuming they’ve been presented accurately, at least willing to argue Marxism on the merits. The people I find most appalling, and who in my experience are equally numerous, are those who counter any discussion of communist regimes with the statement that first-world Westerners have no grounds for criticizing them at all.

    Two weeks ago, there was an Asia Society screening of a UN documentary about the trial of Comrade Duch, who ran one of the Khmer Rouge’s most infamous political prisons. Two women became upset during the Q&A session (about 37:00 into the linked video) that all this talk about torture and killing fields and retribution and memories of the dead had not been presented “in context.” You can guess what they meant, can’t you? That’s right: Big, Bad America had been an enabler for Pol Pot and his fellow-travelers, and apparently that was what we should have been getting worked up about. After all, Indochinese peoples are peaceable, guileless, grudge-free aspiring-Buddha types, so all that unpleasant torturing and executing isn’t the real story, and even if it were, we’d be in no moral position to criticize the Khmer Rouge. Yes, I’m caricaturing the view presented, but not by much. The response from the panel—pointing out that, among other things, the United States and Canada were among only five countries to condemn Cambodia’s human-rights abuses while they were happening—follows.

    I wasn’t present at the Asia Society event for this discussion of Barbara Demick’s book Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea , but I looked it up after my beau left his book-club copy lying around. It follows the lives of six people who defected from an industrial city in the northeastern DPRK and ended up in Seoul. They were all teenagers or adults in the late ’90s and thus lived through and vividly remember the famine.

    Demick is not a conspicuously talented prose writer, but she has a great ear for an involving story; and yet, after finishing the book, I was most struck by how depressingly familiar it all was. Demick’s informants spoke of tight controls on travel and information. They spoke of indoctrination sessions. They spoke of a shrewd blending of communist ideology with national traditions to tighten the grip of the power elite—Kim Il-sung was presented as the nation’s patriarch, to which it owed absolute filial obedience according to Korean Confucianism. They spoke of the persecution or denigration of out-of-favor ethnic or clan groups, in this case Chinese and South Korean. They spoke of a rigid system of class privilege determined by membership in (or closeness to) the ruling party, from which flowed access to better housing, food, education, jobs, and purchasing power. They spoke of patent lies about industrial and agricultural productivity, with the black and grey markets flourishing as the government ceased to be able to provide for citizens’ basic needs.

    All of which is to say that, if you hadn’t been paying attention to the names and dates, you could have found yourself forgetting exactly which communist hellhole you were reading about. North Korea’s an extreme example, certainly, but somehow they all seem to end up with shortages for the masses and relative plenty for the shrinking elite.

    But of course, we must not characterize such regimes as evil. About 47:00 into the Asia Society video, a questioner complains that everything she’s heard this evening adheres to the “dominant narrative” about the famine and has not taken into account yucky weather, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the sanctions of baddies such as the United States. All this finger-pointing is a threat to national sovereignty, you see.

    Naturally, Demick couldn’t say, “Listen, sugarpie—that narrative’s dominant because it’s true!” Instead, she gently reminded her interlocutor of the US’s offers of food aid, before falling all over herself to assure everyone that she’d been at pains to make her book “apolitical.” Would a journalist who’d written about Chileans who suffered under Pinochet have been so fastidiously non-polemical? I couldn’t help wondering.

    Glenn Reynolds was talking about avowed Marxists, and it’s important to note here that none of the three questioners at these events defended the Khmer Rouge or the KWP. But then, they didn’t have to. The effect of arguing that communist regimes wouldn’t get into the trouble they do without the machinations of the West (especially America), and that therefore we have no grounds for condemning them, is to place them above reproach.

    But they’re not above reproach. No one denies that all human systems are flawed, and that no one has yet devised a political system under which innocents never suffer. The question is which systems do best for the largest proportion of the population in a way that is self-correcting and (to appropriate a term) sustainable. The empirical answer is those with the rule of law and capitalism, and everyone knows it. You don’t hear about anyone’s, including Terry Eagleton’s, desperately floating on an innertube to Cuba or wading through the icy Tumen River to escape to North Korea. As Eric says, academic Marxists often play the “McCarthyism!” card to make themselves sound like brave dissenters, when they’re actually just peddling a fantasy whose real-world repercussions they’ll never have to live through. What’s respect-worthy about that?

    Added on 22 December: Good morning, everyone! Sometimes, apparently, you wake up to find that Instapundit has linked you, a bajillion people have left comments in good faith, and your comment filter is waiting for you to approve all of them. Sorry! They should all be visible now. Thanks to Instapundit for the link, and thanks to everyone for commenting.