Dooms loom, and the band plays on – I

Italians and Frenchpeople are now on the endangered-species list. How come no on in Italy or France seems to care?

It’s difficult, or perhaps it’s too easy, to find a metaphor for three nightmares of which I have been watching (two from up close) over the last two weeks, and it’s almost as hard to characterize watching while the participants have coffee and pay no attention. Seeing a good friend descend slowly into a debilitating, probably fatal addiction to drugs or suicidal behavior? Watching a town go about its business as the dam up the valley develops cracks and leaks? Wile E. Coyote heading off the cliff with grim determination?

The last one is no good, at least for my first scenario, because the coyote doesn’t know about the cliff until his feet are flailing in the air. In contrast, the demographic suicide of western Europe is not only amply documented but obvious on the street: it’s a world of grownups and most of them will soon be old. I live in a college town and my perception may be distorted by my own day-to-day experience being out and about, but outside student districts, Berkeley has children on the scene, on my street half a dozen in a stretch of a half-dozen houses. Milan, however, is a city of twenties and thirties, almost all single and childless, and their parents. In any case, all the few people who could have children in the next fifteen-plus years are already born and accounted for; demography is a science of long horizons and very early warning. The only thing I’ve ever seen to compare with this baby and child vacuum is the city of San Francisco, rapidly becoming a child-free zone with closing schools and empty playgrounds.

Among ten Italian and French friends of child-bearing age, I count six kids and might see another three, though that would imply three spouses added to the group (the least fertile European countries, like Italy, Germany, and Portugal are having between 1.2 and 1.4 children per woman; the replacement rate is about 2.1). But what matters are the real statistics, not casual observation, which might miss children in school or in the suburbs: fertility rates in Europe are at levels never observed in countries not at war or the grip of psychotic dictatorships. Even in France, which has had aggressive pro-natalist policies in place since the thirties, the population pyramid has very broad shoulders and fashionably slim legs.

The explanations are various, all probably with some merit. I’m told, informally, that professional, educated young women are waiting (for a decade) for their male peers to wake up to the responsibilities of men in a two-career family, or just to start acting like grownups. Working and lower-middle-class young people, on the other hand, plus a lot of graduates with prestigious degrees that don’t match the market, are so insecure financially that they don’t dare take on the responsibilities of parenthood. This Herald Tribune story has been noticed and commented on in rather sheepishly in local newspapers.

It may be that we’re seeing a one-time delay of first child-bearing, but it’s not going away and in any case, a woman who has her first child at thirty usually does not have another.

The phenomenon is creepy, but what’s like a science fiction movie about zombies is the pervasive lack of concern. Good studies are commissioned and filed away, governments have started some tentative child-subsidy tax programs, especially generous in France, but there’s no conversation about it, nothing in the newspapers, an election in a week in Italy and I can’t find a word about this impending catastrophe from a candidate in the newspapers or on TV. The current administration seems to have spent its entire term in office keeping the prime minister out of jail, not attending to this (or anything else, as far as I can tell).

What could possibly be more important to Italy than the looming extinction of Italians? And even if the society had decided it’s time to roll up the enterprise and pass the peninsula to someone else, or just turn out the lights and close the door, what do the twenties and thirties of today expect to have for dinner when they’re old, having paid taxes to support their (more numerous) parents most of their working lives? Why is everyone acting as if this isn’t happening??!!

As an italophile on many dimensions, sitting in a comfortable train [this is shorthand for a competent system of public services that provide a high quality of life] between Rome and Milan where life is very good in so many ways, in the land of Giotto, da Vinci, Fermi [supply your own pages of really smart Italians who think outside the box], I find myself suppressing a tendency to grab people at random by the collar and yell at them, “forse queste cose non mi riguardono, ma siete pazzi, voi? ciecchi?” (si, amici miei, questo è per voi) [maybe this is none of my business, but are you people nuts? blind?]

Which brings me to my next two slow nightmares, the unspeakable waste of human resources and the spectacular revolt of youth against reality in France, and global warming, to which I will turn in future posts. I’ll be in Paris tomorrow and may be able to make more sense of what I’ve been reading. Or I’ll be schlepping across the city in a transport strike, between marches and protests…

Ura and Omote

Why does Dick Cheney, holder of an office that has historically been a backwater of irrelevance, think he can run a private and independent administration? The answer lies in a historic reversal of the loci of reality between the ura and omote of governance in the US. These words denote a pair of fundamental Japanese philosophical concepts: ura means “behind, hidden” and omote means “in front, visible”. What’s important is the implicit associations the Japanese attach to the ideas: in general, what is ura is real and consequential, while what is omote is symbolic but not real. The usual example of this arrangement is the long-time ura governance of Japan by a reticent and retiring (and, of course, ruthless and decisive) shogun, who was nominally the military subordinate of an omote emperor. The latter in turn performed the public ceremonial duties of office but his decisions and statements were handed to him by the shogun. Control of the emperor was simply one of the perks seized by the warlord who succeeded in making himself shogun.

A system like this is quite distasteful to Americans, who like to have things as they appear, with the symbolic exercises of government carried out as real, visible, decisionmaking and administration. The Japanese, as I understand it, think it’s charmingly naive to believe that reality should, or could, inhere anywhere but the ura of things.

What the press has been slow to figure out is that the US has come under a shogunate with which we have very little experience and to whose appearance or possibility we have always been hostile (Col. House whispering in Wilson’s ear, McKinley dancing on Mark Hanna’s strings). The current arrangement, however, is a profound rearrangement of what Americans take for granted. The 2000 election put in place a duogun of Richard Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, and an omote face, trotted out with a script and a shoeshine, for events carefully managed to avoid surprises when ceremonial or formal duties are needed. How did W get ahead of Jeb? One reason is probably that Jeb early on showed delusions of being a real executive, alarmingly lacking the docility required for the job on offer. The reactions of White House staff to Cheney’s behavior, and his staff’s, suggest only that some of them have not been properly briefed.

Historically, alliances to share power have been unstable, and one or another of temporarily equal shoguns usually found a way to neutralize or liquidate his rival and tidy things up his own way. Being out of town at the wrong moment, insulting a subordinate who switches sides, or any of myriad small errors, can topple a delicate balance of power. I’m not aware of anything so trivial as a quail and a load of #7 deflecting history…so far.

Footnote: Bettors against Cheney will be encouraged by the news that he was carrying a wussy 28-gauge with a nancy Italian name, not a real 12-gauge from Winchester or some other respectable Amurrican house. Shooting a foreign kid’s gun, though lucky for Mr. Whittington, is certainly a sign of weakness Cheney’s enemies will exploit.

The Long Arm of the Cuban Ancien RĂ©gime

On Feb. 3, the US Treasury Dept. demanded successfully through Starwood Hotels that the Sheraton Maria Isabella in Mexico city evict a group of Cuban nationals who were staying there for a meeting with a group of American oil executives to discuss drilling off the Cuban coast. Really. From the Times story:

“The hotel in Mexico City is a U.S. subsidiary, and therefore prohibited from providing a service to Cuba or Cuban nationals,” said Brookly McLaughlin, a spokeswoman for the Treasury. “In this instance, we are simply following our usual procedures, applying the law.”

The law? Are the statutes of other countries a non-law sort of thing now? The Mexicans, pretty much across the board, are apesh*t. The Times:

Ricardo Ruiz Suárez, a spokesman for the Mexico City government, said the hotel’s owners could be prosecuted under several Mexican laws that ban discrimination based on national origin or ideology.

“There are laws, federal as well as local, that obligate service providers to provide those services in a general manner, without any discriminatory attitudes,” he said.

Indeed Titulo X, Articulo 206 of the Penal Code of the Distrito Federal (the state in which the hotel is located, analogous to DC) provides criminal penalties including fines and prison for denying rights on the basis of a long list including national origin. We (see below) haven’t yet found a solid national law on this (lectores, ayudo por favor).

There was a time when

(i) trashing a promising opening to an alienated neighbor that could generate nice profits for investors close to the administration,

(ii), just to throw some meat to a bunch of reactionary Cubans in South Florida who have learned nothing, forgotten nothing, and are proud of it,

(iii) pursuing a policy of decades that has accomplished precisely nothing beyond the continued impoverishment of the Cubans in Cuba, and their oppression by a really nasty dictator, and

(iv) infuriating a bordering country of 80 million people with whom we have a lot of important issues to work on by demanding a local business violate Mexico’s own laws inside Mexico, would be a really unbelievable blunder. But we’re so used to the administration’s pervasive culture of incompetence, arrogance, and failure at the most rudimentary procedures of governance that this hardly rates a nod. And that’s really amazing.

It’s apparently not that simple inside Mexico, either; rather than using the law cited above, the Mexico City government proposes to close the Sheraton for not having a menu in Braille, not enough parking places, and for having about 30,000 more square feet of space than its building permit allowed. The bureaucratic mind transcends nation and culture, I guess. My friend Roberto Hernandez, a prof at CIDE, writes:

Thousands of hotels and commercial facilities violate those regulations, but the Mexico City government won’t shut them down. They will try to shut the Sheraton down because of what they did to the Cubans but they won’t say that’s the real reason. I would have preferred a legally weak attempt to use whatever antidiscrimimantion provisions they had to create at least a symbolic precedent that you can’t do this (I say symbolic because there is no stare decisis in Mexico). Anyway, the decison to shut down the place will probably be challenged through an amparo that could take 12 years to litigate in Mexican federal courts and it will most likely be abandoned in a few months. [The Sheraton has in fact already filed an amparo that will delay any action for at least six months — MO’H]

But the deeper problem is that the idea of equal treatment in Mexico is weak or invisible or not thought of as the real policy to pursue. In terms of Mexican law, the decision to shut down might be correct and theoretically defensible, but it is an unequal enforcement policy, so to speak. And this is so often the case in this country, I could point to so many examples. What the Sheraton did to the Cubans is wrong but there does not seem to be any national legislation to protect them. What the city government will do to the Sheraton is legally accurate but it is an unequal application of the law, and it is further unlikely that it will actually succeed when this is challenged in courts, which the Sheraton most certainly will do immediately. The City won’t succeed unless it wants to put a lot of money in to litigate this, and I doubt that they will.

Update: My colleague John Ellwood hypothesizes that the Treasury was merely the tool of one group of oil investors trying to sabotage the deal being made by another.

Your tax dollars at work…

…protecting you from the sleazy efforts of the undeserving poor to take them from you. Also — actually.mostly — from the efforts of the deserving poor trying to get the help the law assures them: IRS Froze Refunds, Study Says

Hooray for Nina Olson, the Taxpayer Advocate, for uncovering this newest disgusting example of how the vile conjunction of truly world-class incompetence and an atrophied moral sense has spread throughout the government in this administration.

On the other hand, one has to admire the elegance of ripping off the poor simply by not answering the phone and putting the paperwork in a drawer.

It gets worse: at the end of the LA Times story on this we learn that the team at IRS leaves $300 billion of uncollected funds on the table, obviously almost entirely due from the rich, and gives refunds to almost half of claimants conclusively determined to be criminal fraudsters.

Schwarzenegger’s Real Failure

Arnold Schwarzenegger succeeded a governor who had conducted his entire career getting his next job instead of doing the one he had. Especially following this wretched act, Schwarzenegger had one overriding duty to the voters, a duty he was particularly well-situated to discharge, partly because he didn’t need the job, either for fame or money or self-respect, and partly because Davis had so completely self-destructed that Arnold came into office with relatively few debts to factions or supporters.

What California needed Arnold to do was to speak some plain truths about the choices facing the state. These could have been framed in a number of ways, but the core message is,

“We can have a high-service government, with good schools, recreation, humane welfare, excellent environmental policies, and all the rest of it: we’re rich and lucky. But we can only have those things if we’re willing to pay the taxes that pay for them. We can also have a low-service government, and leave people to arrange their schooling and other services privately, with low taxes. Of course the rich will have a lot more success at this than the poor, in big houses on large lots with a swimming pool in back, but it’s a legitimate political choice.

“Those are the only two paths for us. There is no high-service, low-tax future for California, and I’m not going to promise you one. If you want a governor who will lie to you about having good schools, great universities, and up-to-date transportation with no heavy lifting by anyone, you can vote for him in the next election, but this administration is about treating each other like grownups and telling the truth. There is certainly waste and abuse in California; there always is. But there isn’t anything like enough to pay for what we used to enjoy with the taxes we pay now, even if we could completely stamp it out.”

Of course he said nothing of the kind, and will be remembered as a mountebank and a lightweight. I never viewed Schwarzenegger as a thinker or a person of vision, but his tough-guy persona offered some promise that he could resist the mutual seduction by which voters and elected officials tell each other that some accounting trick or magic administrative reform will make two equal four. Without inside information from Sacramento, I conjecture that his well-known fuzziness about the differences among parts he has played on screen, his ability to physically lift really heavy objects, and who he really is, put him in the grip of the crowd of acolytes and hangers-on to whom it matters a lot that their boss get re-elected, and who will always counsel that he play to the voters’ desperate desire to avoid real work.

Too bad. Why is it so hard to realize that there are a lot worse things to lose than your job? I wonder if Warren Beatty will do any better…