Daily Office:
Thursday, 16 September 2010

(Note: The Daily Office will resume on Tuesday, 21 September.)


¶ It’s our settled idea that the world would be a better, certainly safer, place if narcotic were regulated and not prohibited stands firm, but John Murray’s historical essay on the coincidences that have made Mexico a worse, certainly deadlier country remind us that globalism, like nuclear power, is complicated in ways that may exceed our powers of judgment. (The Awl)

The truth is that the rise of modern drug trafficking has in large part coincided with major changes in the Mexican economy that have displaced and altered the lives of many citizens. Looking at how events have unfolded, and considering widening income class disparity and slow job creation despite the promises of NAFTA, the past and future of drug trafficking in Mexico is in many ways linked directly to its economy and the ability of the government to provide social support for its citizens.

For decades prior to the 1980’s, Mexico’s economy grew under largely protectionist trade policies. While this caused Mexican companies to produce low-quality products with outdated technology at high prices, it also created millions of factory and industrial jobs and had a lot to do with Mexico’s economic growth over the middle part of the 20th century. With little to no foreign competition at the production and retail levels, nothing threatened Mexican businesses. However, the Latin American debt crisis of the 1970’s began to spur talks about moving Mexico further into the private sector and opening it up to international investment.

In 1986, the Mexican economy did just that, under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). Tariff barriers were dropped, the market was flooded not only with American goods but cheap goods from Asia that were produced for a far lower cost, and Mexican companies were ultimately unable to compete. The aim of GATT was ostensibly to lower the price of goods and bring Mexican industry up to speed with the rest of the world technologically and in terms of productivity. In many ways it was an inevitable change. But the suddenness of the decision was resounding, and the immediate cost was millions of factory jobs lost over the next few years throughout Mexico.

Around this same time, as the Caribbean and Miami became increasingly policed and harder to navigate for smugglers, the cocaine trade was shifting out of its traditional routes and into Mexico. With cocaine came cocaine profits, which were astronomically higher than the marijuana and opium profits the Mexican smugglers mainly relied on. So, at the same time that millions of jobs were lost in Mexico, a multibillion dollar industry flush with liquid cash arrived.


¶ Whenever we have occasion to take a sip of New York Social Diary, we find that the cocktail’s bang bypasses elation entirely and goes straight to hangover. At the Obersver, NYSD Publisher David Patrick Columbia shares the current esprit de cour about David Koch, the billionaire benefactor whose family’s political activities have made a lot of New Yorkers sit up and take another look at the State Theatre.

“I wrote about how I knew him and what he’s done with his life, the evolution of his life since I’ve known him,” Mr. Columbia said over lunch, “and I’ve known him about 20 years now. He’s basically set up this public image that we call his life over that period of time. And now I can see that he’s done it somewhat deliberately and carefully with the intention—I could guess his overall intention is, like with a lot of people, political. Because he’s gained political power. By his cultural interests, he softens the edge of that objective. It doesn’t look so venal, greedy and ambitious. It looks communal and cultural, and therefore legitimate.”

As recent profiles made clear, Mr. Koch has indeed used his cultural philanthropy to “soften the edge” of his less publicized political activities. It is a reminder that there are multiple dramas playing out in these institutions, not all of them onstage. Opera may not be the compulsory activity it was for the city’s upper classes in the days of Edith Wharton, but it remains an arena where more complex battles are fought. Every major gift and every person recruited to join a board (and every person rejected: Mr. Columbia spoke of the financier Saul Steinberg, blacklisted from the Metropolitan Museum’s board, largely because he was Jewish) means something: an attempt to befriend or outman someone, a move in a larger game.

“What happens in all the philanthropies,” Mr. Columbia said, “is that people get involved through different channels—being recruited, wanting to know somebody—and lots of times they do become converted. They realize how important it is. They go to the performance, they see how people are responding, they see how great this is, they see how much better off the world is to have this. They start taking on more noble ideas of what they’re doing, which makes them feel better about themselves. Not a bad thing.”

That Mr. Koch’s gift was to City Ballet and City Opera, and not to the Met, was a statement. A huge gift to the Met would have offended other people, including, perhaps, the Basses, who give heavily to the Met and are active in the Republican political circles Mr. Koch seems destined to dominate.


¶ What’s the best way to monetize a blog? Felix Salmon doesn’t recommend trying this at home, but he’s impressed by John Hempten’s Bronte Capital entry about NYSE-listed Universal Travel Group, a Chinese outfit whose shares lost 20% of their value when Mr Hempten’s readers heard what he had to say about his troubles trying to use UTG’s online services, about his diligent inquiries into UTG’s dodgy financials — and about shorting the stock.

Historically, short-sellers have been shadowy types; they like to publicize their findings, but they tend to do so behind the scenes, giving journalists information and having very long conversations off the record.

Hempton’s different in that he’s happy, on occasion, to make his allegations in public, under his own name. He doesn’t always publicize his shorts, even when he suspects outright fraud, but his blog does have enough of a following now that he knows he’ll be widely read if and when he chooses to do so. After today’s big payday, I reckon he might try the tactic more often.

The story of Universal Travel is far from over: if Hempton’s right about the company, and I think that he is, then the SEC and the NYSE are both going to have to answer some very pointed questions about how and why they allowed the company to get this prestigious New York listing in the first place.

But I do love the way that the blogosphere is moving markets. Reading a blog entry from someone with real skin in the game is often a lot more fun than ploughing through “objective” journalism from someone who isn’t allowed to invest in or short what they’re writing about.


¶ Kyle Munkittrick argues beguilingly for pursuing the Transhumanist agenda, precisely because, as Francis Fukuyama has described it, it is “the most dangerous idea in the world.”  (Science Not Fiction)

Transhumanism is, at its artificial heart, a simple idea: humans should not be limited by our biology. We forget things, we are irrational, we are vulnerable, we get sick, we age, we die. But we don’t have to do or be any of those things. Science and technology from every branch and every direction is slowly chipping away at each of these problems. Each tiny step aggregates and converges towards a world in which humans are free to live as long as they want, to love and reproduce with whomever and however they choose, to be as smart, as strong, and as happy as possible. The suffering and death that accompany much of our very existence (and perhaps give it meaning) would be reduced and, maybe, just maybe, eliminated. Human nature would be fundamentally altered; which is why Francis Fukuyama has called transhumanism the “Most Dangerous Idea in the World.” I agree, and that danger, that essential threat to what we are, is why I believe we should, nay must, promote human enhancement.

To do so, we must raze human nature itself. Philosophy and religion have spent the past 10,000 years working to make virtues of the necessities of biological life; primal urges, emotional outbursts, problems of procreation, suffering, disease, and death are explained away as essential elements of humanity. But these ideas do not create the meaning and value in human nature. Instead it is human nature that has invested these terrors of the flesh with worth to make existence bearable.

Consider a war hero. In a brutal, hopeless battle, a single soldier rushes into danger, risking her life and limb to rescue a fallen member of her team. She returns with her comrade safely and is heralded, rightly, as courageous and moral. But none would argue that it was the war that made her courageous and moral, or, worse, that we should fight perpetual wars to give everyone an opportunity to exemplify their virtue. Yet that is precisely the logic that drives arguments like “death gives life meaning” and “suffering makes us value the good times.” These statements are backwards. We find life meaningful in spite of, not because of, suffering, disease, and death. If they were to be eliminated, life would not merely still have meaning but it would mean significantly more.


¶ Kevin Nguyen’s “Monophonic Memoir” about the major ringtones in his life has been around for a few days, but we keep coming back to it, because it captures the sweetness of youth’s dreams, which are vast because the world is so small. (The Bygone Bureau)

Although we got along well, Max and I never had much in common, except for the fact that we both entered freshman year of college with girlfriends from home. We both spent a lot of time that fall on the phone, trying to find spots in our basement dorm room with decent reception.

My girlfriend, who was at another school across the country, always adored Death Cab for Cutie, a band that I could barely stomach. But as a gesture of affection, I set her ringtone to a Death Cab for Cutie song. It didn’t occur to me that I was the only one who could hear it.

The day we broke up, not long after the end of the first semester, I changed the ringtone to a Belle and Sebastian song she didn’t like.

It seems worth adding that Max’s ringtone for his girlfriend was “Wanna Be a Baller” by Lil’ Troy. His relationship lasted about two years longer than mine did.


¶ The only curious thing about Rachel Donadio’s handy Lega Nord update in today’s Times, “New Power Broker Rises in Italy,” is its title, which the story itself contradicts.

The current political crisis is so complex as to confound even veteran political analysts, to say nothing of average Italians. But what is clear is that Mr. Berlusconi is struggling mightily to hold his coalition together. The restive co-founder of his center-right People of Liberties party, Gianfranco Fini, a former neo-fascist who is finding more support these days in the center, left the party in late July, arguing that Mr. Berlusconi was in danger of becoming a dictator.

The split also strengthened the Northern League’s point man in the government, Finance Minister Giulio Tremonti, who is seen as a contender to one day succeed Mr. Berlusconi.

As the crisis expands, no one is forgetting that the Northern League, though a partner in every Berlusconi government, has not always been loyal. In 1994, Mr. Berlusconi’s first government collapsed after the party pulled out, and without its backing he lost the 1996 elections. With its support, he won again in 2001 and 2008.


¶ Lydia Davis’s remarks about her new translation of Madame Bovary are so concise that she doesn’t mention the translator whose version almost everyone alive today has read, Francis Steegmuller. (Paris Review; via The Rumpus)

But in the case of a book that appeared more than 150 years ago, like Madame Bovary, and that is an important landmark in the history of the novel, there is room for plenty of different English versions. For example, 1) the first editions of the original text may have been faulty, and over the years one or more corrected editions have been published, so that the earliest English translations no longer match the most accurate original; 2) the earliest translators (as was the case with the Muirs rendering Kafka) may have felt they needed to inflict subtle or not so subtle alterations on the style and even the content of the original so as to make it more acceptable to the Anglophone audience; with the passing of time, we come to deem this something of a betrayal and ask for a more faithful version. 3) Earlier versions may simply not be as good in other respects as they could be—let another translator have a try.


¶ The last of Scott Horton’s Six Questions for Julian Young (Reconsidering Nietzsche), at Harper’s. The topic is postmodernism and reality.

6. You treat postmodern readings of Nietzsche with some deference in your book, but you seem cautious about embracing them yourself. You form the conclusion that Nietzsche is a “plural realist.” What do you mean by that and how is it different from the postmodern interpretation?

I would actually describe myself as treating postmodernist readings with “restraint” rather than “deference.” Postmodernism has its origins in Kant’s observation that all experience is interpretation, that all experience is filtered through the particular structures of the human mind. To this, taking its lead from both Hegel and Nietzsche, postmodernism adds that the filters in question vary from language to language, culture to culture, angle of interest to angle of interest. And so, it concludes, since there are many equally good interpretations of the world, no single one can be picked as the uniquely correct interpretation. From this it follows, so it is claimed, that there can be no particular character that reality has, since to assign it any such character would be arbitrarily to privilege one interpretation over all the others. And if there is no particular character that reality has, then the very idea of “reality” makes no sense. The concept must be abandoned; there is nothing but interpretations.

We “plural realists”–Nietzsche, Hubert Dreyfus (who coined the term), and myself–agree that there are many equally valid interpretations of reality, that there is no uniquely correct interpretation. But from this it does not follow that there is no way reality is, since an equally possible inference is that there are many ways it is. And in fact it is pretty obvious that there indeed are many ways that reality is. Consider a rolling, Provençal landscape. To the property developer it shows up as “valuable real estate,” to the wine grower as a “unique terroir,” to the mining engineer as a “bauxite deposit,” to the cyclist as an “impediment and challenge,” and to the fundamental physicist as “quanta of energy.” We do not have to choose between these interpretations because, quite evidently, they are all true. Each interpretation truly describes reality from, in Nietzsche’s word, the “perspective” of a particular interest. Some interpretations of course we will want to reject as false. That we do, as it were, democratically. If someone claims that the landscape is a papier mâché construction on an alien film-set we will reject that on the grounds of its discordance with the coherent picture built up by all the interpretations we accept as true.

Have a Look

¶ Oddee‘s 10 Coolest Desks.

¶ Coming Soon: Dessicant air-conditioning. 90% more efficient, so they say. (Good)

¶ J Carter: What I Did This Summer. (NYT)