Daily Office:
Monday, 27 September 2010


¶ At The Economist, a knuckle-rapping for Constitution-worshiping Tea Partiers, who seem unaware of what manner of men wrote the document.

When history is turned into scripture and men into deities, truth is the victim. The framers were giants, visionaries and polymaths. But they were also aristocrats, creatures of their time fearful of what they considered the excessive democracy taking hold in the states in the 1780s. They did not believe that poor men, or any women, let alone slaves, should have the vote. Many of their decisions, such as giving every state two senators regardless of population, were the product not of Olympian sagacity but of grubby power-struggles and compromises—exactly the sort of backroom dealmaking, in fact, in which today’s Congress excels and which is now so much out of favour with the tea-partiers.

More to the point is that the constitution provides few answers to the hard questions thrown up by modern politics. Should gays marry? No answer there. Mr Klarman argues that the framers would not even recognise America’s modern government, with its mighty administrative branch and imperial executive. As to what they would have made of the modern welfare state, who can tell? To ask that question after the passage of two centuries, says Pietro Nivola of the Brookings Institution, is to pose an impossible thought experiment.

None of this is to say that the modern state is not bloated or over-mighty. There is assuredly a case to be made for reducing its size and ambitions and giving greater responsibilities to individuals. But this is a case that needs to be made and remade from first principles in every political generation, not just by consulting a text put on paper in a bygone age. Pace Ms Bachmann, the constitution is for all Americans and does not belong to her party alone. Nor did Jefferson write a mission statement for the tea- partiers. They are going to have to write one for themselves.


¶ In a lovely piece about James Franco that is really about staying true to yourself while being dazzled by somebody famous, Jeff Price acknowledges the scorn that his friends heap upon him when he tells them his story about not accepting Mr Franco’s invitation to get a cup of coffee for the good reason that celebrities are best appreciated at a distance. (The Millions)

When the fifteen-minute break arrived, I asked James Franco about the book he was carrying.  “It’s for… class,” he said, turning to smile on the last word before asking if I knew of anywhere nearby to get coffee.  His manner was bemused, a Jonathan Lethemcartoon man.  He was in his own synch, the pleasure of recognition trailing every gesture, consciousness of that pleasure gleaming in his eyes.  It was part and parcel to the thrill of his being there, the spectacle of someone who had believed in the love of an imagined audience, the romance of possibility.  There was just one thing: I didn’t drink coffee.

When I tell the story to friends, their faces invariably darken.  And I could have saved them that look by simply saying “Sure.” But then I would have been walking across campus in tow to James Franco to get a coffee I didn’t actually drink with James Franco for the sake of telling the story of how I got a coffee with James Franco.  So I pointed him in the direction of another student who was going to get coffee and James Franco turned away.  Then, just as quickly, turned back.  “Thank you,” he said, clasping two hands together, gesture performed as if in a vacuum, no eye contact, beatifically gracious.


¶ “Structural Unemployment” is the new “personal responsibility” — crocodile tears from the Money Party. It’s not that there aren’t any jobs, they say, it’s just that today’s workers lack the proper training to fill them. Such eyewash hardly deserves rebuttal, but it gets it anyway from Yves Smith, Robert Reich, and Paul Krugman.

Krugman : I’ve been looking at what self-proclaimed experts were saying about unemployment during the Great Depression; it was almost identical to what Very Serious People are saying now. Unemployment cannot be brought down rapidly, declared one 1935 analysis, because the work force is “unadaptable and untrained. It cannot respond to the opportunities which industry may offer.” A few years later, a large defense buildup finally provided a fiscal stimulus adequate to the economy’s needs — and suddenly industry was eager to employ those “unadaptable and untrained” workers.

But now, as then, powerful forces are ideologically opposed to the whole idea of government action on a sufficient scale to jump-start the economy. And that, fundamentally, is why claims that we face huge structural problems have been proliferating: they offer a reason to do nothing about the mass unemployment that is crippling our economy and our society.

Reich : The issue isn’t just economic. We’re back to tough love. The basic idea is force people to live with the consequences of whatever happens to them.

In the late 19th century it was called Social Darwinism. Only the fittest should survive, and any effort to save the less fit will undermine the moral fiber of society.

Republicans have wanted to destroy Social Security since it was invented in 1935 by my predecessor as labor secretary, the great Frances Perkins. Remember George W. Bush’s proposal to privatize it? Had America agreed with him, millions of retirees would have been impoverished in 2008 when the stock market imploded.

Smith: “New normal” is particularly insidious, since it implies that we must accept current conditions, since they are “normal” hence it would be abnormal and/or require exceptional effort to experience anything else. “New” acknowledges things have changed, but “new” usually has positive connotations, and masks the fact that pretty much nobody except the banksters and some members of the top 1% are exactly keen about present conditions. It also had no footprint of how things changed; if you didn’t know what it stood for, it could just as easily be used to describe a dramatic natural shift, for instance, how the weather changed in the wake of the Krakatoa eruption.

“Structural unemployment” is not only sneaky, but also downright misleading. The catchphrase is meant to convey that unemployment just can’t be helped, it results from fundamental problems in the job market. Now since we have on average something like one job opening for every five unemployed people, even if structural unemployment was a real phenomenon, it is far from sufficient in explaining why we have U6 unemployment at over 16%.


The narrative behind the “structural unemployment” spin goes something like “there really are jobs, but those crappy workers, they don’t have the skills (i.e., as in they didn’t work hard enough at the right stuff earlier in their life) or they are in the wrong location.” We’ve seen the MSM dutifully take up this narrative, and had readers point out that in many cases, the “jobs are going a begging” is due to companies making such lowball pay offers that they are coming up short on takers.


¶ At Gene Expression, Razib Khan considers a recent paper arguing that ancient cities fostered the natural selection of an anti-tubercular gene. His thoughts about the populations of ancient cities leads to a different, and very interesting conclusion.

As I said before there are strong reasons to assume that natural selection reshaped the genomes of populations over the past 10,000 years. It really isn’t if, it’s how and what. The authors present some evidence for a particular variant of the gene SLC11A1 being the target of natural selection. To really accept this specific case I think we’ll need some follow up research. Rather, I want to focus on the narrative which is being pushed in the media that cities were the adaptive environments which really drove the shift in allele frequencies. I don’t think this was the case, I think the cities were essential, but I don’t think ancient urbanites left many descendants. Instead, I think cities, or urbanization, is first and foremost a critical gauge of population density and social complexity. Second, I believe that cities serve as facilitators and incubators for plague. In other words both urbanization and disease adaptation are derived from greater population density, while urbanization also serves a catalytic role in the spread of disease. This could explain the strong correlation we see.

I believe that the Eurasians who may have been subject to natural selection due to the rise of infectious disease are almost all the descendants by and large of ancient rural peasants, or, their rentier elites. These peasants were subject to much greater disease stress even without living in urban areas than hunter-gatherers and pastoralists because their population densities were higher, and quite often they were living a greater proportion of their lives snuggly against the Malthusian lid. Hunter-gatherers may have been healthier on average because of a more diversified diet as well as lower population densities due to endemic warfare. In contrast, agriculturalists lived closely packed together and were far more numerous than hunter-gatherers, and, their immune systems were probably less robust because of the shift away from a mix of meat, nuts and vegetables, to mostly grains.

A downstream consequence of agriculture was the rise of cities through the intermediate result of much higher population densities. I accept the literary depiction of ancient cities as filthy and unhealthful. There’s almost certainly a reason that pre-modern elites idealized rustic life, and had country villas. Additionally, though I assume that both the rural peasantry and urban proletarian led miserable lives, I believe that in terms of reproductive fitness the former were superior to the latter. From what I have read city life only became healthier than rural life in the United States in 1900, in large part due to a massive public health campaign triggered by fear of immigrant contagion. The high mortality rates and low reproductive fitness of urbanites implies that evolutionarily the more important role of cities were as nexus points for trade and the spread of disease. The book Justinian’s Flea chronicles the pandemic in the Roman Empire in the 6th century, in particular its origin in Constantinople from points east. We’re well aware today that a globalized world means that there’s an interconnectedness which can bring us strength through comparative advantage, but also catastrophe through contagion. This is a general dynamic, not simply one applicable to disease, but in the world before modern medicine the utility of trade networks for pathogens would have been of great importance.


¶ New Yorker writer Susan Orlean (author of The Orchid Thief) notes that the good advice that she used to offer to aspiring writers has “passed its sell-by date.”

So what happened? First of all, many of the medium-sized cities I used to recommend (say, Portland, Oregon) are now overrun with aspiring writers, and have gotten too expensive to qualify anymore as the place to go when you’re an aspiring writer with no hope for gainful employment. The newspapers—well, you don’t need me to tell you that the alternative newsweeklies have folded, the local rags have migrated online, and the community newsletters have been Craigslisted into oblivion. As for my admonition about graduate school, it turns out that if you get a teaching position as part of your deal, it probably pays better than many jobs you might get in that medium-sized city with the non-existent newspaper.

At Brainiac, Christopher Shea notes that Ms Orlean omitted her own solution.


¶ In the Times, Thanassis Cambanis writes about the potential for water wars up and down the Nile.

Ever since civilization first sprang forth here, Egyptians have clustered along the Nile’s silt-rich banks. Almost all of the country’s 80 million people live within a few miles of the river, and farmers like Mr. Sharkawi have hardly changed their farming methods in four millenniums. Egypt’s population is growing briskly, however, and by the year 2017 at current rates of usage the Nile’s water will barely meet Egypt’s basic needs, according to the Ministry of Irrigation.

And that is assuming that the river’s flow is undiminished. Under British colonial rule, a 1929 treaty reserved 80 percent of the Nile’s entire flow for Egypt and Sudan, then ruled as a single country. That treaty was reaffirmed in 1959. Usually upstream countries dominate control of a river, like the Tigris and Euphrates, which are much reduced by the time they flow into Iraq from Turkey and Syria. The case of the Nile is reversed because the British colonials who controlled the region wanted to guarantee water for Egyptian agriculture.

The seven upstream countries — Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi and Rwanda — say the treaty is an unfair vestige of colonialism, while Egypt says those countries are awash in water resources, unlike arid Egypt, which depends on just one.


¶ Now that everyone has had a chance to read it, Freedom is much in the Net news. This week, we’re going to collect a variety of responses to the novel (which we loved), beginning with Bookslut’sJessa Crispin’s principled refusal to read it. (Smart Set; via The Morning News)

There is no such thing as a canon — what you should read or want to read or will read out of obligation is determined as much by your history, your loves, and your daily reality as by the objective merits of certain works. If anything, the homogeneity of the responses to Freedom proves only the homogeneity we have in people discussing books in the U.S. It would take me, I’m guessing, four days to read Freedom, four short days out of my life. But here I am, refusing out of principle. I might think the book is a work of genius, the book of the century, but I’m willing to risk that loss, because the book I don’t read in place of Freedom might also be that book. I have always been bored by mysteries after I’ve figured out the ending, the who-done-it. The mystery of Freedom is solved: It’s a masterpiece. And so I’m bored.

Did Franzen write the most important book of the century? Of course not. A series of circumstances — the right gender, a progression of increased skill and style, a controversy that stoked sales, an aura of seriousness paired with an ability to capture certain things that critics and readers enjoy in their fall reading — put him where he is. He probably didn’t even write the best book of the year, as if that could even be determined. The madness created around his book will continue for the rest of the year, if not longer now that Oprah is involved again, choosing it as her next book club pick. That isn’t going to make Freedom any better, or more profound. It’s simply going to make it more difficult to avoid reading.

There may not be a canon, but there is a conversation, and the only way to join in is to understand the topic, which, in the case of Freedom, requires reading the book. Aside from that, however, we support Ms Crispin’s conviction that she ought to read books that seem more pressing and important to her.


¶ We can’t decide. Does Curtis Eichelberger’s Bloomberg story, “Ivy League Football `Mafia’ Gives Wall Street a Talent Pipeline,” tell us that Ivy League colleges are recruiting athletes with promises of post-graduate positions on Wall Street? You decide. But you should have heard the Editor’s lady wife snort when the following was read out to her. (via Dealbreaker)

Athletes can bring something extra that’s necessary for success in finance, Werner said.

“In a business where it tends to knock you down a lot, they tend to get back up,” he said. “That drive, that level of discipline, the rigor they have in their own personal lives and their willingness to take on hard challenges; a lot of that gets taught to you on an athletic field.”

Have a Look

¶ Ivy Style readers remember the clothes they wore in college, way back in the middle of the Twentieth Century — and, in many cases, still wear, as the Editor can attest)