Tuesday, November 01, 2011

The "No Shit" Moment

I like to give center-to-center-right people like Fareed Zakaria and Niall Ferguson some leeway because they generally present smart, moderate arguments which just happen to land a bit to the right of where I normally would on most given subjects. This stands in stark contrast not only to the numberless goons the wingers have peddling numinous fictions for them, but to ham-fisted NYTimes "moderates" such as Bobo Brooks and Ross Douthat. People like Brooks and Douthat are not necessarily nasty players like their more wingy counterparts, but they do tend to be messy thinkers, whereas folks like Zakaria and Ferguson, who have actual educations and curricula vitae, and write actual books and know serious facts, generally impart their ideas with clarity and logic.

So I have no idea what got into Ferguson all of a sudden, but given his "killer app" metaphor, I'm tempted to assume he's been boning up on some Tommy Friedman and decided to up his book sales by giving that lazy tack a try. The earliest incarnation of "killer apps" seems apropos enough, anyway, in describing how the West surpassed the East after around 1500 (that is, around the time Vasco da Gama set the Portuguese navy in every seaport from Lisbon east to Macau, subjugated the natives and converted them at sword-point, and set up trading ports to put the locals out of business).

1. Competition. Europe was politically fragmented into multiple monarchies and republics, which were in turn internally divided into competing corporate entities, among them the ancestors of modern business corporations.

2. The Scientific Revolution. All the major 17th-century breakthroughs in mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, and biology happened in Western Europe.

3. The Rule of Law and Representative Government. An optimal system of social and political order emerged in the English-speaking world, based on private-property rights and the representation of property owners in elected legislatures.

4. Modern Medicine. Nearly all the major 19th- and 20th-century breakthroughs in health care were made by Western Europeans and North Americans.

5. The Consumer Society. The Industrial Revolution took place where there was both a supply of productivity-enhancing technologies and a demand for more, better, and cheaper goods, beginning with cotton garments.

6. The Work Ethic. Westerners were the first people in the world to combine more extensive and intensive labor with higher savings rates, permitting sustained capital accumulation.

A knowledgeable historian without an agenda could easily pick apart most or all of these points, seeing as how Ferguson so easily elides over the era of colonialism, and the technological advantages provided by its immense labor-to-capital ratio. But to be fair, the era also brought us Scottish Enlightenment figures such as David Hume, James Watt, and Adam Smith -- the latter of whom is most important for pseudo-econs who have clearly never read Wealth of Nations as a totem to invoke every time they need to make a Serious Point about Capitalism.

Not only do they not understand capitalism nearly as much as they think they do (unless they seriously think that socialized debt and public subsidy of institutionalized, leveraged gambling has fuck-all to do with legitimate risk-reward scenarios), but they don't even understand that Smith himself very clearly came down dead against unproductive vorocracies masquerading as merchant princes, loyal to none but themselves and each other.

Anyhoo, where Ferguson really puts the rock on the ground is when he attempts to apply his "killer app" model to the current crises continuing apace:

Ask yourself: who’s got the work ethic now? The average South Korean works about 39 percent more hours per week than the average American. The school year in South Korea is 220 days long, compared with 180 days here.


The consumer society? Did you know that 26 of the 30 biggest shopping malls in the world are now in emerging markets, mostly in Asia? Only three are in the United States. And, boy, do they look forlorn these days, as maxed-out Americans struggle to pay down their debts.

Modern medicine? Well, we certainly outspend everyone else. As a share of gross domestic product, the United States spends twice what Japan spends on health care and more than three times what China spends.


The rule of law? For a real eye-opener, take a look at the latest World Economic Forum (WEF) Executive Opinion Survey. On no fewer than 15 of 16 different issues relating to property rights and governance, the United States fares worse than Hong Kong. Indeed, the U.S. makes the global top 20 in only one area: investor protection. On every other count, its reputation is shockingly bad. The U.S. ranks 86th in the world for the costs imposed on business by organized crime, 50th for public trust in the ethics of politicians, 42nd for various forms of bribery, and 40th for standards of auditing and financial reporting.

What about science? It’s certainly true that U.S.-based scientists continue to walk off with plenty of Nobel Prizes each year. But Nobel winners are old men. The future belongs not to them but to today’s teenagers.


Finally, there’s competition, the original killer app that sent the fragmented West down a completely different path from monolithic imperial China. Well, the WEF has conducted a comprehensive Global Competitiveness survey every year since 1979. Since the current methodology was adopted in 2004, the United States’ average competitiveness score has fallen from 5.82 to 5.43, one of the steepest declines among developed economies. China’s score, meanwhile, has leapt up from 4.29 to 4.90.


What we need to do is to delete the viruses that have crept into our system: the anticompetitive quasi monopolies that blight everything from banking to public education; the politically correct pseudosciences and soft subjects that deflect good students away from hard science; the lobbyists who subvert the rule of law for the sake of the special interests they represent—to say nothing of our crazily dysfunctional system of health care, our overleveraged personal finances, and our newfound unemployment ethic.

Then we need to download the updates that are running more successfully in other countries, from Finland to New Zealand, from Denmark to Hong Kong, from Singapore to Sweden.

And finally we need to reboot our whole system.

I refuse to accept that Western civilization is like some hopeless old version of Microsoft DOS, doomed to freeze, then crash. I still cling to the hope that the United States is the Mac to Europe’s PC, and that if one part of the West can successfully update and reboot itself, it’s America.

Kee-rist. It goes on like that, and worse yet, Ferguson even musters Charles Bell Curve Murray for his arguments at one point.

Look, the problem is much simpler than all that. Thirty years ago it was decided that while Americans were happy and productive actually making things they and their neighbors wanted to use and buy, it simply cost the bosses too much. Margins could be increased by outsourcing manufacturing, and 'murkins would be retrained to make far more money selling each other five-dollar cups of coffee. Productivity increased massively over the last fifteen years, it's just that nearly every cent of gains went straight upstairs. There was not even the pretext of marginally spreading a bit of those gains around. Oh, and you're welcome, America. Enjoy your hi-def flat-screen, the better to see Chaz Bono's knee dimples.

Everything since then has been a futile attempt to paper the consequences of those decisions over, with cheerleading for the emerging economies and the rentier financiers running the shell game. They don't even bother to mask their contempt anymore, you all just get to bail out the TBTF banks that fucked you out of your job and are foreclosing your house. How you like them apples, Champ?

Ferguson gets close in his "reboot app" jabber, but what he misses is the most important thing -- health care is a racket. Ditto "higher education", credentialist mills that churn $200 textbooks and pull fat raises for academic sinecures on the backs of broke students and their strapped parents. Even the public education system, enough 'murkins have been bamboozled into believing that fat teachers' unions are bleeding them dry.

This absence of critical thinking, it should be pointed out, might just be the very consequence of a desiccated educational system that no one can afford anyway. Just a thought. But the fact is that all these "viruses" are not bugs, they're features built into the system.

The "updates" Ferguson refers to, in all these far-flung geographic locales, require government investment in infrastructure, massive revenue injections -- yes, tax increases, especially on the 1%, since they are the only ones who have anything anymore. Good luck selling that one.

The idea that only the plebes should suddenly have to learn the virtues of self-discipline is one that has probably underpinned the aristocratic philosophy since Sumeria. But hey, folks, just work harder and smarter, and this ol' ship'll turn right around.


Anonymous said...

I'm not sure what you are saying about the college "racket." Fat sinecures? Really? I think that the textbook industry needs reformation, but, seriously, the notion that there are "fat" salaries for professors is not true. Yeah, you'll find a very small fraction, particularly at Div I research institutions, who make money in the six figures, but the work burden is carried by a professoriate paid less, on average, than community college faculty. Again, all I'm asking is that you clarify.

M. said...

I agree with Anon above -- except for the top 10-15 schools, professors don't make nearly as much as a lot of folks think they do. But you know who in higher education makes more money than everyone -- and whose salaries have been going up at the same rate as tuition fees? Yep, that's right -- the middle the 'administration.' What shocks me is that the professoriat has put up with this wallstreetification of academia, always conceding to paying higher and higher salaries to 'administrators' who, when they're not 'fund-raising,' aren't administering jack shit.

The Scientific Revolution didn't begin to pay off until around 1830, when the new science translated into actual technology that could change conditions of living. Before then, the only practical benefits to come from the Scientific Revolution was better ballistic accuracy, for the warring Western powers to better kill each other's troops and pound the lesser breeds into submission. The other major technological advance -- the navigation clock that helped find longitude -- required only practical insight, not any of the recent technological knowledge (incidentally, the one chronometer that was based on a finding from the Scientific Revolution -- Huygens' pendulum clock, regulated by two 'metal cheeks' whose shape, a cycloid, Huygens had discovered by studying the mathematics of involute curves -- didn't work at sea as well as expected).

But, to make the case that, in the 1830s, the Scientific Revolution finally paying off is indeed what allowed the West to finally leave everyone in the dust requires careful analysis to separate (1) what would have been the inevitable benefit from new technologies from (2) the contribution to economic growth that the spoils of colonialism allowed.

I second everything else you objected to this fucker Niall. And I'd add one thing: his tiresome objections to 'PC soft sciences' are (1) soft-headed, like most of his bullshit, because he never provides any hard numbers to prove his point that we keep students from going into 'hard sciences,' (2) a thinly veiled Thatcherite swipe at humanities in general, which he proposes to eliminate so that all of us can finally turn from citizens with souls and reason into little Asian robots dutifully solving partial differential equations, and (3) a self-defeating argument: like that other shithead, Stanley Fish, it's a bone-headed self-hating humanities academic, turned lackey to the wealthy, arguing for the termination of the only field that ever allowed him gainful employment: the humanities. If I may be vernacular, I'd like to ask Niall: had it not been for the humanities, what useful craft would you have even been able to practice, motherfucker?

Fuck you, limey. Or, better yet: let Stanley Fish and the Mustache of Understanding tag-team your flabby ass as they explain to you how flat this world has gotten.

M. said...

It's news to these kids that they in fact dropped out of science because of the allure of that naughty PC soft-science.

Somebody should ask Niall when's the last time he integrated a function over a surface, if he's so damn keen on hard science.

Heywood J. said...

Fair enough, the comment deserves some clarification -- I'm not referring to professors (though I did have at least one or two that, whatever they were making, were just coasting on their tenure) so much as executive administration, most notably of state university systems.

The UC Board of Regents is a perfect example -- they make north of $250K to begin with, and gave themselves raises in the middle of tuition hikes. If that's not a racket, I don't know what is.