Evil Forces in the World

Reflections on ''Evil Forces in the World,'' as well as occasional remarks concerning ''Good Forces in the World.''

Saturday, June 28, 2003

Worry about things you can hope to comprehend
This is an incredibly sharp piece on the living wage debate.

I noted to the author that the article was "lucid, insightful, and uncondescending." In response, he wrote the following:

Oops, if it sounded uncondescending they must have left out the key final sentences:

In conclusion, you can never hope to grasp the intricacies of the living wage policy debate. Perhaps it would be best not to try, and instead to worry about things you can hope to comprehend, like the various Edy's ice cream flavors available. I wouldn't try Ben and Jerry's, though; the stunning array of choices would give you a headache.


This is why Brooklyn was the place to grow up.
Manly Brad
I have something else to say. An evil force is priggish center-left self-righteousness. It's not nearly as bad as hysterical left-wing self-righteousness, or creepy braindead theocon self-righteousness, but it is pervasive, frustrating, and bad enough to deserve a tongue-lashing. As often as not, it's intellectual lazy.

Now for my thoughts on racial preferences, which have evolved considerably since high school. Followers of our fight against evil will know that my high school politics, which owed a great deal to the intellectually bracing Michael Lind (his sloppiness has now, I'm afraid, triumphed over his undeniable genius, and I don't think that's too strong a word), were peculiar: the Social Democrats, USA, politics of an elderly anti-Stalinist unionist, now a cliche. Because I saw the culture wars and multiculturalism, narrowly conceived, as divisive, I was opposed to identity politics (I still am, though the definition is necessarily slippery) and, naturally, affirmative action. Opposed to the extent that it was something like a crusade, and this was the font of an early debilitating crush. (Basically, this very articulate and "shma-phisticated" girl forcefully challenged my view and I inevitably was impressed and smitten. Nonetheless, I remained unconvinced.)

It had nothing to do, I think it's safe to say, with a sense that I was disadvantaged by the practice. Because I was a scandalously bad high school student, I figured it meant literally nothing in my case. For me to gain admission to a selective college or university would take a clerical error of Biblical proportions (my parents remain utterly befuddled), and so the fact that I belong to a seriously overrepresented minority (namely, middle-class South Asian American kids from the New York metropolitan area -- you can't throw a stone on a storied, manicured campus without hitting three) didn't faze me.

But yeah, I thought it was a scandal. In large part, this was in solidarity with the nonracist, disenfranchised white lower middle class. I can't justify this. It was a peculiar worldview. Shades of it still have resonance. Eventually, the empirical evidence convinced me that while the practice was odious, it was of marginal importance -- suffice it to say, Lind would have disagreed. (Being best friends with a sober-minded and persuasive economist, Jesse Shapiro, didn't help Lind's case on a wide variety of issues, with free trade, yet another Lind bete noire, at the top of the list.) That it was looked upon as the most pressing civil rights question of our time was thus a scandal: it affected literally a few thousand kids at most, as very few colleges and universities are selective at all. Why on earth were people so bloody concerned? Its yet another example of the paralyzing solipsism of the high-minded upper middle class, which I blame for just about everything, including mass starvation in the developing world. I wish I were kidding.

Still, I was opposed to affirmative action. Then I was agnostic. At this point, I found the argument that it was unconstitutional patently absurd. Mind you, Jeremy Waldron had also convinced me that judicial review (aside from anti-entrenchment review, thanks to Michael Klarman) was deeply problematic, but this is another matter. Finally, I was for it for Jeffrey Rosen's reasons. Without it, the maniacs who run the elite universities will dilute standards. And X-percent plans are worse for the obvious reasons. Rosen also claims that the diversity rationale has something to it, which I don't quite buy. I guess I do buy the Nathan Glazer argument -- without some addressing the underrepresentation of blacks and Latinos, elites will be embarrassed, and this could be a recipe for low-level social unrest. By that I mean cranky people, not riots. If racial preferences shut people up, I figure the costs are low enough to make it kosher. I realize that this sounds awful. The moral argument strikes me as unsound. The prudential argument has some merit. The costs, which are borne by a relatively small number of marginal white and Asian kids, including very poor white and Asian kids, are, socially speaking, low. If you believe Stacy Berg Dale and Alan Krueger, they're not even that high for most of these kids. They can hack it. I know. (I'm confident that I was marginal, and I'm stil kicking.) I hate to argue from biography, but this is my sense. The social returns are also very, very low. But the people who'd kvetch and moan are so loud and shrill (I know because I grew up with them) as to make shutting them up a worthy cause.

This is why I'm sickened by those who claim that supporting affirmative action is courageous, or that it is a morally exemplary policy. The argument is obtuse. It is also moronic.

I am favorably disposed to the market, but not as a matter of faith. Ron Unz has described himself as "an empirical libertarian," and this strikes me as a sensible position. I am "an empirical libertarian" as well, and also "an empirical egalitarian liberal," in that the social-democratic legacy has powerful insights that have contributed mightily to social well-being. I'm one of the very few to enthusiastically sign up as a Posnerian "everyday pragmatist." I don't agree with the Great Man on everything, but I come alarmingly close.

So after close and careful study, I've bought into many of the arguments of the cosmopolitan critics of Rawls. (I buy Michael Blake's caveats, but that's unrelated.) According to Thomas Pogge, who can at times be a bit over the top but is, nevertheless, one of my heroes, something like 20 million people die every year of hunger and preventable disease, and a shift of something like 1 percent of the collective GDP of the OECD states could go a long way towards reducing this number to zero. This needn't be solely in the form of classical government-to-government transers, on which P.T. Bauer shed a good deal of light, and it ought to take the responsibility of the recipients into account. Attention needs to be focused on, to put it bluntly, cultural pathologies and the inevitable difficulties involved in tropical agriculture, etc. The inescapable truth is that our refusal to do what we can creates a kind of moral culpability. As very affluent people -- just about all North Americans are, with the arguable exception of the destitute indigenous peoples of central America, as are those on the marches of the New Europe -- we could do a great deal that isn't being done.

Doesn't this suggest that we have a special responsibility to individuals from the very poorest corners of the globe? To this day, there are enslaved children, debt peons technically speaking, baking bricks in inhumane conditions. There are ways in which rich countries rig the global trading system in our own favor that make this just a bit worse. I don't mean free trade. Exactly the opposite. Superior Brazilian producers of oranges are shut out of our markets, and African agriculture is shut out of Europe and elsewhere. This is nothing less than a scandal -- a scandal vastly worse, I dare say, that f__king Prop 209 (which I supported), which so animated the moral energies the bien pensant. ("Oh, we care about starving people too." Well, why don't you march for them? Not against trade, please, because it saves lives. Tell Muffin to go to a state school despite the fact that legacy preference got her into Amherst and send the dough you save to Oxfam. That's a start.) I mean, this is far from a newsflash. You'd have to be exceptionally thick-skulled to believe otherwise. There is plenty of room for disagreement on any number of issues, including the efficacy of various aid proposals, but the notion that affirmative action is the most, or even a, pressing moral issue of our time is boneheaded.

Anyway, I mean to get somewhere with this. Brad DeLong, who doesn't suffer fools gladly (oh no), writes the following:

"But," somebody like Sullivan might respond. "Lots of people's ancestors lived under brutal and barbaric conditions. Did the Black Bourgeoisie of Atlanta immediately before World War I really have things worse than the Jewish peasants of Kishinev? Why is this horrible past history of any relevance and of more than antiquarian historical interest to us in America today?"

The answer is that the pogroms of Kishinev were the deeds of the Czar and the Cossacks, while the enslavements and the lynchings were the deeds of Americans--and, indeed, the deeds of America. To the extent that one pledges allegiance to America, and accepts all the benefits and opportunities that America offers those who pledge it allegiance, one also accepts the moral obligation to bear one's share of collective responsibility for the crimes and evils committed by America in the past.

Complicity in global poverty is a deed of America, and a deed of France, Britain, the late Mobutu, India, Bangladesh, Guinea-Bissau, etc. America has the power and influence to right this particular wrong, as it turns out, and so we'll concern ourselves with that. I should also add that moral responsibility doesn't end at the water's edge. That Brad DeLong doesn't seem to get this, at least in this passage (I'm sure he gets it elsewhere, provided it's convenient to get it, which it happens not to be in this case), is instructive.

In America, believe it or not, a lot of overrepresented Americans, including Jews and Asians, suffered a good deal due to institutionalized, systematic oppression. It wasn't slavery, but it did happen within the confines of the United States as presently constituted. The same can't be said of immigrants from the Caribbean, the descendants of those who suffered under enslavement in various European colonies. Said immigrants do, however, bear a striking resemblance to the descendants of those who suffered under enslavement within the confines of the United States. Despite the fact that the "ethnic composition," to use a creepy term, is different, they sure do look pretty much the same to the undiscerning (white) observer. (The vast majority of black Americans have non-African ancestors, to the extent that we can draw meaningful lines at all, and the "mix" varies. It's certainly slightly different in Barbados, or contemporary Ghana, a rich source of Ivy League undergraduates.)

Because black and Latino undergraduates at elite institutions, the presumed beneficiaries of racial preferences, disproportionately come from immigrant households, this is thorny.

Professor DeLong adds the following gem:

What is so wrong with an no-black campus is that it shows that we have not yet done nearly enough to erase the marks left by slavery and Jim Crow, and that we need to do more.

So we may as well import the blacks to make it right. Black immigrants are black, after all. By definition. That'll do the trick. This works out very smoothly. As for me, I think we have something to do with Haitian poverty, i.e., some culpability, but I think the right way to address that is to do everything we can to make Haiti a decent, livable, and humane place, not offer preferences in college admissions to the impoverished youth of Haiti. (It's more likely to be the cafe au lait friends of the Duvalier's who'd benefit regardless.)

Again, I don't oppose preferences, and it looks as though allowing the likes of Brad DeLong to give preferences to bright immigrant kids from West Africa and the Caribbean will contribute to shutting him up, so I'm all for it. But please don't tell me that you're manly as a result. There's nothing more depressing than a fellow like this telling me how manly he is for holding his deeply conventional, deeply banal political views.

Incidentally, I think that compensatory logic makes for a pretty compelling case for preferences for all kids from the Third World. My own family suffered a good deal during Bangladesh's War of Liberation. The United States, my native country (which I love and believe to be the most powerful force for good in the world at present, with the possible exception of the broad historical movement toward freer trade and freer markets), didn't help much. If you're interested, take a look at this, sent to me by my dear friend (and legend) Sasha Polakow-Suransky. My father's favorite brother died, along with millions of others, and my sister couldn't get the food she badly needed, which had health consequences that persist to the present day. I suppose this isn't a very big deal in the broad historical sweep. Nixon threatened to send the Seventh Fleet to facilitate the Pakistani campaign of murder and terror, which escapes me. It was one of the tragic stories of the Cold War confrontation. Eventually Nixon thought better of it. The threat alone had an effect, as did the weapons Pakistan purchased with the aid of the United States government. My parents didn't want to leave their native country, but it was in a parlous state and they knew that their chances for survival were far greater in the metropolis. I'm glad they settled here, because I had the good fortune of being born in the United States. It's probably why both of my sisters are alive and more or less healthy. The point is that our country looms large. The modern world is, in many respects, an effect of both American power and American neglect, which is why the arguments against "American imperialism" strike me as so impossibly naive.

Back to the original point. Preferences for Korean kids and Bengali kids, not to mention Jewish kids (targets of restrictive quotas, which for a time helped to make them "much much poorer than other Americans, their and their parents' opportunities were much more restricted, they and their parents lived in a world in which it was much more the case that the world was likely to be nasty and unfair than did the white [or, in this case, gentile] majority"), and others. There's a persuasive case to be made. And yet it's nonsense. That Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and other elite institutions are from 30 percent to 50 percent Jewish is widely accepted. Asian numbers are also, we all know, disproportionately high.

What am I driving at?

There is a black-white and a Latino-white "achievement gap." It is very wide even when you correct for social class, parents' education, etc. This is embarrassing, and it makes Brad DeLong uncomfortable. Is it a product of enslavement or oppression? As others have suggested, that's difficult to believe in the case of those drawn from the aristocracies of the Luso-Hispanic world, or elsewhere. I imagine it has less of an effect than the immediate grinding poverty, complete with the nutritional and psychological consequences of the same, faced by those who don't live in the charmed circles of the world, which includes the rougher stretches of South Los Angeles, East St Louis, Anacostia, Brownsville, Texas and Gary, Indiana. (Chiapas or Haiti or Bihar or the DRC come to mind as instructive contrasts.)

In the final analysis, the achievement gap is awkward and uncomfortable, and so Brad DeLong derives considerable moral satisfaction from bashing Andrew Sullivan on this subject. Bravo.

On an unrelated note, I suspect that the achievement gap is a blip on the radar screen that will go away. There could be a collective action problem at work, and perhaps "stereotype threat," Claude Steele's term of choice, has something to do with it. I'm reminded of the "digital divide," which vanished after a few months. Now activists claim that whites and Asians are more likely than blacks and Latinos to have two computers in the home, and that this makes all the difference. The logic of diminishing returns is not popular among activists. (I swear, I'm not making this up.)

I should add that I work for Andrew Sullivan. That said, I'm pretty sure no one reads this, and so I think I'm safe from charges of being a hatchet-man, particularly since I disagree with him on the issue.

The best book on this subject, incidentally, is Peter Schuck's Diversity in America: Keeping Government at a Safe Distance. Alan Wolfe wrote an excellent review in TNR a short while ago, which prompted me to purchase the book. It is insightful, lucid, and fair. I disagree with Schuck's conclusion (imprecisely speaking, that preferences should end as a matter of policy).

Because no one reads this, I'd also like to add the following: "Were a movie to be made on the life and times of Reihan Salam, I believe that Wesley Snipes should play the lead, both because he is very nearly as Shaq-diesel as the real Reihan and because he is, like Reihan, a master of capoeira." That is all.
There's a good deal on my mind. A good deal of evil, that is, and so this post may be more disjoint than is generally the case, thus suggesting that it will be so disjoint as to be indecipherable.

Stick 'em, God
Mods vs. skinheads
Take your meds
Wear Keds or K-Swiss
Swiss Miss chocolate mix
Trix or Lucky Charms
Man-at-arms, minotaur
Senator Strom,
Dom DeLuise
Please, don't get stung by bees
Mies, dead and not a geezer
Giza, Pyramid
Put a lid
On your griddle,
Pancakes for breakfast
With Skittles

This next one is an autobiographical rap about my day thus far:
"Went to Veselka
for blintzes,"
He winces,
"This is sweeter than I expected,"
But I did not reject it
Had some pineapple,
It cleansed my palette,
Not unlike a salad
Don't get cross, or I'll hit you with a mallet
Saw "Full Throttle," which wasn't so bad until it ran for too long,
Which made me want to hit the bottle,
I.e., become an alky
Or Slavic, like Balky
But I teetotal
Plus I yodel,
Respect your religion, like Yoder
My Niesse-line, don't eat swine
Or play with twine -- I'm not a kitten
Although I live wit' 'em
At present,
You peasant
Bob Kagan slipped with "The Ungreat Washed,"
(Might need a subscription, due to hella encryption)
Which was ill
Relative to the rest of his output, but still,
He's dope
Speaking of dopes, my barber ruined my coiff
That's what I get for being stingy, not living like a toff
Plus I bought a shirt
And I don't know how to build a yert, ya'll

I purchased the Broken Social Scene album. In an impressive gesture, they've made the entire album available via RealAudio. This suggests that they have a good deal of confidence in the final product. Death Cab, by contrast, made the only the two most accessible tracks from The Photo Album available as MP3s, which was very clever of them. That said, the entire album is, as it turns out, as excellent as I had been told by Rich So, and so it's worth buying. Neither album is as mind-bendingly excellent as "Give Up" from The Postal Service, which is Ben Gibbard of the aforementioned Death Cab for Cutie and Jeffrey Tamborello, if I understand correctly, of Dntel, also known as "Jeffrey Tamborello plus machines." Oh man, there's a music video for "Such Great Heights," which is exceptionally sappy. Sure enough, it features a high-tech manufacturing facility and what looks like astronauts in love, to which I say, "Bravo." (It says "Skyworks" on their clean-suits. This is a nice touch.)

I'd like to add that everyone should purchase their casual wear from Lacoste. I don't make these rules. I understand that Ralph Lauren has declared war on the alligator, which is a fool's game: he'll be swallowed whole. And yet I can't quite bring myself to declare Ralph Lauren a force of evil as he is well-loved by the Skillosopher himself, Thirstin Howl III (who, in a strange turn of events, seemed to have blown the roof off of Mt Holyoke's Chapin Auditorium on October 18th).

You might be wondering, "What's up with Reihan's consumerist turn? And where are the raps? The substantive policy analysis masquerading as glib Manichaean pronouncements?" To which I have but this to say, quoting Gandhi as featured on the (seemingly) late lamented Clone High, "Say whaaaaaaaaaaaat?"

And so I will now write a self-justifying rap:

Consumption, yo,
That's my function
What's with the unction,
Your ointment is a

I believe Alissa Quart has some semiliterate thoughts on this matter. I mean, later modernity, man. Late capitalism. That's all I have to say.