Monday, September 28, 2015

Remembering is not enough

In the past week an NDP candidate admitted she "didn't know what Auschwitz was" and a Chicago news station displayed a badge from a Nazi prison uniform when reporting on Yom Kippur observance. Disappointment at this level of ignorance of the Holocaust is appropriate, but the belief that we can avoid repeating history if only we remember it misses something important.

Backlash against both the ill-educated candidate and the hapless news station are evidence of the fervour with which we demand remembrance of one of history's great crimes. But memories alone can't prevent tragedy. The minister under Tito who managed the work and starvation camps for Swabian Germans in Yugoslavia immediately after World War II was a Jew who survived Hitler's death camps. His memories may have justified repeating history. 

The horrors of life under the Soviet Union, post-revolution China, and North Korea are well known, but poorly understood. The 20th century's greatest and most terrible economic lesson, the impossibility of comprehensive planning and the tremendous cost of the attempt, is explained away as the result of evil leaders with bad intentions. Those who try to understand the motivations of the communists, socialists, and fascists responsible, though, find that their goals had an almost fairytale innocence to them: they wanted a land of milk and honey, where want, toil, and uncertainty would be disposed of handily with logic and science, and citizens who would be secure because they would never have to depend on anyone but each other. When we see people today suggesting:
"We could live in a country powered entirely by truly just renewable energy, woven together by accessible public transit, in which the jobs and opportunities of this transition are designed to systematically eliminate racial and gender inequality." 
it's insulting to say that they've forgotten or don't care about Stalin's show trials or the Kims' prison camps. It is fair to say that they don't understand the severity of their request, what it leads to, and why. They don't understand how intimately economic life is intertwined with the parts of life they think of as more meaningful. They don't understand that you can't bend one without warping the other, or that less than they're suggesting can break both. This is likely why the building blocks of fascism are widely accepted, maybe even popular: they're amenable to these goals. Without better understanding, we find ourselves shunning fascism's name while cheering its substance.

It's equally unfair to claim that the failure to recognize a symbol of the Holocaust implies those responsible wouldn't be alarmed by calls for arm bands for specific groups today. What is alarming is that superficial opposition to armbands might be all that we've gained from remembering their role in the Holocaust.

The purpose of the Nazis' arm bands was to make Jews identifiable on sight so that they could be marginalized, brutalized, and excluded. But we don't need arm bands to discriminate, to make people ashamed of who they are, or to treat them differently. They aren't needed by those who call for security ministries to focus on people who look Arabic or wear Muslim clothing when searching for terrorists, and they aren't missed by anyone who wants to justify stop-and-frisk programs' emphasis on black American males by referencing their greater likelihood to be arrested. We remember the pictures, but we forget the lessons.

So yes, it's irresponsible to forget. But remembering is only the first step. It may be even more irresponsible to remember and believe remembering is sufficient, without seeking to understand.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

By any other name...

I've written before on how easily the building blocks of fascism fall within the realm of acceptable political ideas. Here's a quote that could have come from some of the more hostile responses to when I reveal my political leanings:
"Against individualism, the [public-minded] conception is for the State; and it is for the individual in so far as he coincides with the State... It is opposed to [libertarianism], which arose as a reaction to absolutism and exhausted its historical function when the State became the expression of the conscience and will of the People. [Libertarianism] denied the State in the name of the individual; [Public spiritedness] asserts the rights of the State as expressing the true reality of the individual... In this sense [public spiritedness] [may be forced upon citizens]... The [responsible] State, the highest and most powerful form of personality, is a force, but a spiritual force, which takes over all the forms of the moral and intellectual life of man. It cannot therefore confine itself simply to the functions of order and supervision as [libertarians] desired." 
While illiberal, this isn't way off the spectrum of politically acceptable speech. Until you return the taboo words that have been replaced:

Friday, August 21, 2015

Trade-offs for humane investment

In Two Cheers for Anarchism: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity, and Meaningful Work and Play, J.C. Scott, like many skeptics of markets, laments the loss of autonomy for wage labourers who left their smallholder farms to work in factories where employers dictated the terms of their work.

Today we're celebrating increasing autonomy in the workforce. But if it's what we've been seeking all along, why did so many give up owning their productive resources in the first place? The question is similar to the question of why, if we're so much richer today, many of us have gone back to eating what our grandparents used to eat. Understanding the answers means thinking about investment.

When we suspect something can make us better off, we’re willing to give up some stuff we'd like to have or do now and put those resources toward its acquisition. Near-subsistence farmers might take leaner meals until they can buy a plow or fertilizer that will allow them to grow more food with less effort, while in a modern economy investment could be a car to travel reliably or education to increase earning potential.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Preferences, not poverty.

Economics is tricky business. It seems straightforward to apply simple rules like supply and demand, but unless we understand how markets reveal information, some economic conclusions can seem counterintuitive.

People are wary of data that says that the cost of living has fallen, even for the poor. If we take today's standards and apply them backwards, it can seem like we've stagnated. But prices and purchasing decisions of the past are full of information about the people who made them, not guidelines for measuring the lives of (very different) people today.

Are food prices rising? In the 1970s while today's trendier meat, like oxtails, would have been pretty cheap, you could have a helluva time getting fresh asparagus in January. Canned vegetables, or maybe frozen as more households purchased freezers, were more likely on the menu. Technology (shipping, preserving, refrigeration) had something to do with the different food people wanted, but the real key is understanding how preferences have changed with income.