Friday, May 14, 2004

Moguls and Cliffs

Time, as the saying goes, was invented to keep everything from happening at once. If so, it has recently been falling down on the job. There are rather too many subplots in this particular movie, which can’t decide whether it is an anthology of short subjects or a sweeping political epic. In the area of economics alone, a great many themes are in play at once, cycles on top of cycles on top of cycles superimposed on trends that slope one way in the medium term and another in the long term. To some extent, surely, this complexity is nothing new. In an important way, however, I think it is. Both critics and boosters of the status quo are talking through their hats. Almost anything could happen in the next couple of years. For example:

On general principles, it’s a good bet that the United States cannot go on running huge trade and budget deficits indefinitely; but it’s also true that the world has already subsidized us for a very long time now—at least since Nixon’s time—and maybe that charity will continue for quite a while longer out of political calculation or sheer inertia. There are reasons, after all, why we’ve been able to live beyond our means for an extended period. To some extent the foreign investment was protection money, an imperial bonus. To some extent it was a premium that reflected the political stability of the United States in a dangerous world. Our artificially high level of consumption has also provided a Keynsian stimulus to a world that suffers from a more or less permanent deficit of effective demand because of great and growing inequality. The same low wages that make Chinese or Indian goods cheap, guarantee that they will have to be sold internationally. Hence America has filled a so-far indispensable role in leading the planet out of a series of recessions. All of these circumstances could change rapidly, however. The Euro could easily replace the dollar. The growth of an internal market in China and other nations could lessen the world’s dependence on the American dumping ground. Inflation in the price of industrial inputs such as oil and metals is already putting pressure on the artificially low prices for commodities that keep our domestic proles in line. A major geopolitical shock could also result in serious inflation: if the paper billionaires suddenly had to spend their money on consumption or real investment or if wealth were somehow to be distributed more evenly, it would become instantly obvious that growth in goods and real services over the last ten years has lagged far behind the production of zeroes on bank statements.

If you are very careful, you can chill water well below the freezing point and it will not turn to ice. Allow a speck of dust to fall in, however, and the whole mass congeals in a moment. I don’t know whether that sort of catastrophic change of state is likely to happen to the economy, obviously; I just don’t think it can be ruled out on the basis of the experience of the last few decades, especially granted the series of unprecedented structural changes that make up the phenomenon somewhat misleadingly called globalism.

Thursday, May 13, 2004

The Boil is Ripe

America’s relationship with the rest of the world is problematic for structural reasons that will have to be addressed regardless of who is in charge in Washington next year. Moral considerations aside, we are trying to play a role that is several sizes too big for our actual capabilities. We may be militarily terrible—at least we’re impressed—but the economic primacy that maintains that strength is largely a thing of the past. Having become a global welfare mother, we can’t pay our bills without the continuous charity of other countries. Our hegemony has also lost its rationale. While in the past, we played a positive, indeed indispensable role in first defeating the Axis and then fending off the Soviets, it is no longer obvious who we are protecting from what in a world in which all the large nations (except us) are anything but bellicose. One of these days Germany and Japan are going to get tired of being occupied. One of these days, international capital is going to get tired of pouring money into New York. We would be well advised to prepare for these eventualities, none of which, by the way, have to be catastrophic for us or anybody else.

Nobody can do more to further a constructive accommodation of America to new realities than President Bush whose total and ignominious downfall might serve to drain off some of the hostility towards our country now building to dangerous levels all over the world. Universally hated outside the U.S., Bush can finally do something useful in his life by serving as a scapegoat or Guy Fawkes dummy. As conservatives, of all people, are aware, villains have their uses. Taking a clue from their practice, let us therefore ritually abuse this man, even though he is more contemptible and incompetent than grandly evil and more the symptom than the cause of American decline. And then let us get to work on the real business of the world before everybody else notices that Bush wasn’t the only problem.

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Rough Music

Back in the 70s, social psychologists demonstrated that flattery works even on people who know they are being flattered. Which partially explains the effectiveness of right-wing propaganda since, whatever else Limbaugh and Hannity and O’Reilly do, they butter up their listeners to within an inch of their life. Unfortunately, it isn’t just that target demographic who get a non-stop self-esteem message on American media. CNN, CNBC, and the network news also retail an artificially sweetened product, which endlessly reinforces the notion that Americans are better and smarter and more trustworthy than other people. We are a fond people who believe that the hooker really loves us, that we actually deserve a break today…. Well, that’s not so alarming. The Laws of Marketing are, after all, as immutable as the axioms of arithmetic. But even if you choose to luxuriate in a warm tub of purchased praise, it may be advisable to remind yourself from time to time that there is a world outside the bathhouse.

In its modern form, American exceptionalism is a curious concept since our claim on the world’s respect was originally based on a denial of the Old World prerogatives of birth and blood. Whatever else America was, it was the land enlivened by a tremendously good idea that could, in principle though often not in practice, be franchised to anybody who was willing to buy into its premises. By this logic, however, what is special about the country depends upon the determination of its citizens to keep the faith. There is no American race and therefore no reason whatsoever to think that the human beings that inhabit this continent are any less capable of every kind of human folly and crime than the other peoples of the planet from whom, after all, they derive.

Monday, May 10, 2004

On a Desire to Know Basis

I recently read Brian Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos, an ambitious but nontechnical explanation of physical theories about space-time. The book has been extremely well received by serious scientists—I notice that Freeman Dyson also thinks highly of it, though, unlike Greene, he is not a devotee of string theory.

Most popularizations of physics take one of two tacks: they either tell us a series of human interest stories about various scientists, an extension of the what-the-novelist-had–for-lunch approach to a literary interview, or they moralize or mythologize quantum mechanics or relativity as if these alien structures of thought had any relation whatsoever with ancient folk beliefs or playing the stock market. Greene is anything but formal—his analogies often feature characters from television shows—but his informalities are all attempts to convey the content of the subject. Pop science is usually centrifugal and embraces every excuse to avoid the subject. Greene is centripetal. That probably limits his appeal, though in my experience a large part of the market for serious popularizations is made up of scientists and they, presumably, actually want to know something.

I was reminded of Greene’s book the other day by—of all things—a notice of the movie Troy in the New York Times. The reviewer noted that Brad Pitt’s Achilles employed Kung Fu moves on his adversaries, one attempt among many on the part of the director to make the ancient story more meaningful to contemporary audiences. That brought me up short. I usually think that the challenge of approaching old works of art is to register a view of the world fundamentally alien to my own, but perhaps it isn’t really so hard to hear what is different as to want to hear it. One could perfectly well make a Troy movie in which Achilles had naturally had stronger feelings for Patroclus than for Briseis. It would just be a marketing error. Similarly, as Greene’s book demonstrates, it isn’t impossible to convey the concepts of brane theory or cosmic inflation without equations—the physicists who cook up such ideas presumably need to think about them conceptually as well as quantitatively themselves. The supply of readers with the patience and energy to follow a clear exposition is the rate-limiting step.