Monday, April 20, 2015

Japan Through the Looking Glass by Alan Macfarlane

Published 2007

In anticipation of an upcoming trip to Japan with C and the Glamorous Nomad, I read Cambridge anthropologist Alan Macfarlane's Japan Through the Looking Glass. Macfarlane is a relatively a relative latecomer to Japan, having arrived there for the first time only in 1990, although he’s been back several times, in addition to reflecting upon what he saw and learned there. Macfarlane completed his anthropological fieldwork in Nepal and he’s written a great deal about early modern England. He's a keen student of the transition to modernity and the early theorists who dealt with that change from Montesquieu to Maitland, including Adam Smith, Tocqueville, Malthus, Marx, and others who have attempted to explain the advent of modernity. It was with this background that Macfarlane approached Japan, and he found that Japan confounded many of the characteristic dichotomies that classical theorists had developed about modern versus traditional societies.

The main theme of Japan Through the Looking Glass is that nothing seems quite as it first appears in Japanese culture; indeed, even upon closer examination, paradoxes and uncertainties abound. As Macfarlane notes, many outward similarities exist with Great Britain. Both are island nations, both have a feudal history, both have a long history of a strong work ethic, and both were the first to industrialize in their regions. But as Macfarlane points out, despite the similarities, westerners have a continuing challenge in understanding how Japan works.

For instance, Japan has a mix of individualism and status relationships. It is a modern (often hyper-modern) capitalist society, yet the profit motive is not glorified. Individuals in the sense of Western individualism don’t exist. Instead, people are defined by relationships. People think in terms of relationships and emotions rather than in terms of  logic whenever dealing with other people. Thus, while the Japanese can be quite reticent in speech and seemingly cold, in their observation of the subtlest behaviors and assessments of responses they’re finely nuanced and responsive. As to religion, in a land filled with temples and shrines, the Japanese are, according to Macfarlane, some of the least religious people in the world. If we measure religiosity by belief in a soul, the afterlife, or belief in God, we find few Japanese adhere to these beliefs. The Japanese perceive little difference between nature and culture, and none between the natural and the supernatural. This does not mean that the native Shinto religion, Confucianism, and Buddhism have not had an effect, but rather than suffer a transformation by any one religion, Japanese culture has transformed the religions to fit Japan. Thus, Zen Buddhism lies a far distance from the more traditional Buddhism of South Asia. This lack of distinction between nature and culture also helps us appreciate Japanese attitudes towards nature and the beauty of ephemeral things like cherry blossoms and the phases of the moon. Macfarlane even ventures into the difficult question of why, when Japanese became a conquering military power in the 1930s, there were so many instances of the Japanese atrocities. How did such an otherwise docile people, who have an extremely low crime rate and few incidents of criminal violence, turn into war criminals? Macfarlane, adopting the opinions of some others who have considered this paradox, suggests that the perception of extreme differences between native Japanese and others accounts for this stark dichotomy. But it remains in some sense another one of the enigmas of Japan. 

Macfarlane has an open, inquisitive mind that is well trained in attempting to understand how societies work. He readily admits that Japan has confounded his preconceived notions about the transformation to modernity and the role of the Axial religions in modern cultures. In this way, he serves as an outstanding guide him for a venture into understanding Japan and the Japanese. If you're looking for us a sink, a well constructed and broad ranging work on the enigma of Japan, I highly recommend this book to you.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Stimulating Thoughts: Sachs v. Krugman

In this corner, Jeff Sachs, Columbia
For someone with a stunning lack of qualifications, I’ve ventured into thinking about a topic of great interest to any modern society: how to manage (or not) an economy that may (or may not) need Keynesian stimulus. As a lightweight, I’ll limit myself to commenting on a fight between two heavyweights. With an audacity not justified by all of 11 credit of hours of economics as an undergraduate, I posted a reply to a tweet by Professor Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia about economic stimulus. 

In this corner, Paul Krugman, Princeton

Sachs has criticized Professor Paul Krugman’s support of stimulus in general and by the Obama Administration in particular. Conversely, Krugman has criticized the Cameron-Osborne austerity policy in Great Britain. Since 2008, according to Krugman, the most of the world has hit a zero-bound limit of interest rates in the latest economic melt-down (2008) that renders monetary policy—the work of the Fed and other central banks—ineffective. Lower interest rates can’t promote growth because the interest rate has effectively hit zero and there remain an insufficient number of takers to boost demand. Krugman argues that when monetary stimulus can no longer work, then it’s time to roll-out the Keynesian fiscal stimulus. To wit, government should spend more, not less (the austerity position).
(And please, I’m interpreting here, so don’t blame Krugman or Sachs for my mistakes.)

Sachs takes a different position. In the dangerously truncated world of Twitter, he wrote:

@SteveGreenleaf Fiscal policy is problematic as counter-cyclical tool in financial panic. Automatic stabilizers good; beyond that, dubious.

In longer (and therefore more trustworthy statements of his thinking), he’s against fiscal stimulus and Krugman’s position on it.  For instance, from this piece in the Huffington Post dated 9 March 2013 that provides a thorough presentation of Sachs’s position, he writes, “the stimulus packages that began in 2009 --which have consisted mainly of temporary tax cuts and transfer payments -- have significantly raised the public debt while doing very little to solve the nation's long-term employment and growth problems.”

I think that the pivotal point in this is Sachs’s reference to “long-term”. Perhaps he chose this instead of “long-run” because it could too easily come up against Keynes’s statement about “the long-run”:

"In the long run we are all dead. Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is long past the ocean is flat again."

Herein lays the weakness of the Sachs’s position: Yes, the storm will clear and so we don’t need to take any extraordinary measures (beyond “automatic stabilizers”) to right the economic ship. This position has its merits. By way of analogy, when I have lower GI distress (ahem), do I treat it or do I suffer through it? Having been living abroad and traveling since 2012, I’ve had some (but relatively few) incidents, and when I have, I’ve usually let Nature run its course. No Cipro-bombs and only a little of applying the Imodium brakes. This course of benign neglect is one that I think medical authorities agree with. It allows the body to build and use its own defenses and avoids the side effects of any medication. (Any medication is a poison in the wrong dose or taken at the wrong time.) But if I’d gotten sick enough, I have Cipro in my travel kit. The question is one of judgement about when to treat and when to allow the “automatic stabilizers” to do their work without additional aid (not “stimulus” in this case, thank you). I believe that Dr. Keynes would agree to this treatment protocol. However, I believe that Dr. Sachs might be too parsimonious applying any treatment. For instance, in late 2008 and early 2009, we faced much more—at least potentially—than a “financial panic”. Sometimes—albeit rarely—“do something, do anything” has some merit. Thus, I believe that apply “Dr. Keynes’s Patented Fiscal Stimulus Elixir” an appropriate medicine to treat an economy with depressed “animal spirits” (following a manic phase).  

But the medicine of Keynesian fiscal stimulus does include a measure of potential poison. First, it’s subject to abuse. If a drug, it should be a Schedule 1 controlled substance—highly addictive. Politicians love to use it as an excuse the heat up the economy and thereby curry favor with the electorate It acts like a narcotic: a great rush followed by a crash and the desire for more and more. Politicians in an electoral democracy are always attempting to seduce voters (getting voters drunk on an economic high and then . . . well, you get the idea). Thus, we must be very wary about the use of fiscal stimulus. (For a fun look at this way of looking at Keynesian fiscal stimulus, view this video from Russ Roberts of Econ Talk and his buddies.) 

So should we turn this over the economists, the experts? That, too, has its limits. Economists, taken as whole, suffer from excessive hubris and limited thinking. Some have thought—and this more true of the Keynesian-oriented crowd than the Hayekian-Austrian crowd—that the economy could be managed. But the economy is a complex, dynamical system that is subject to influence, but only in limited, uncertain, and contingent ways. The economy is a like an organism that’s constantly changing in response to its local environment as well as evolving over the long-run. (Isn’t “organism” the best metaphor of an economy?) For instance, the world economy of the 1930s is different from the economy of 2015. We have learned some things (and ignored a great deal as well). Thus, as a general rule, I’d keep “Dr. Keynes’ Fiscal Stimulus Elixir” locked in a cabinet marked “Open Only in Case of Emergency”. 

In the end, I think that Krugman and the Obama Administration were right in promoting the use of fiscal stimulus. I don’t think that it hurt us (in the long-run), and we could have done much worse. And while I’m inclined to believe that Great Britain and Europe would have been better without austerity (although their social safety nets are probably better than those of the U.S.), things are improving (at last in Britain) despite any unnecessary pain. Sooner or later, the storm passes. 

Krugman and Sachs as economists have many greater points of significant agreement than significant differences. Both are important voices of progressivism. And while I think it was time in the wake of 2008 to break out the fiscal stimulus medicine, it’s now time to back off of it as a primary concern and focus instead on a long-term plan along that lines that Sachs has outlined. We in the U.S. need significant work on infrastructure and effective social programs. We need to “live within our means” and keep deficits in check. On the issues of climate change and world poverty Sachs has provided a leading voice in addressing these challenges. These issues, , along with limiting the legalized bribery of campaign finance and reducing the crippling economic inequality that can poison our society and politics, should become the focus of our public policy debate. Both of these heavyweights, whom I admire and from whom I’ve learned a great deal, play an important role in framing and forwarding these concerns. So let the debates continue.

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Honorary Consul by Graham Greene

Published 1973

In the introduction to my Vintage edition of The Honorary Consul, Nicholas Shakespeare reports that in conversation he held with Graham Greene, Greene identified The Honorary Consul as his favorite work. (He identified The Heart of the Matter as his best.) After having read the The Honorary Consul, I can understand his selection. Greene set it in early 1970s Argentina and Paraguay, and it’s populated with discrete, well-developed characters caught in the swirl of revolutionary-reactionary politics, low-level diplomacy, and personal issues of faith, betrayal, love, and redemption. 

The central characters are Dr. Eduardo Plarr, a physician and the son of a British national and Paraguayan mother, and Charley Fortnum, the “honorary consul” of the title. A small band of rebels kidnap Fortnum, having mistaken him for the intended target, the American ambassador. Dr. Plarr, a sometime friend and later rival to Fortnum, becomes drawn into the affair through his past in Paraguay. A friend from his youth, who is a priest turned rebel, embroils Plarr in the ill-fated scheme. The events unfold in the world of Latin American politics that often mixes repressive reaction, doomed rebellion, and dumb inertia. Greene, as usual, captures this stew of persons, motives, and events. He ranges from the conversations of the rather hapless gang of rebels to the apathy of the diplomats who discuss Fortnum’s fate. In places, Greene’s dialogues would have made an excellent play (as his stories often converted easily to screenplays).

Graham Greene (1904-1991)
But with Greene, unlike, for instance, Ambler or Le Carre, there’s something more. The seventeenth century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza was dubbed the “God-intoxicated man” by later generations. If Spinoza deserves that appellation, then we should dub Greene “the God-intoxicated author”, for once again, issues of God, faith, betrayal, love, and justice come to the forefront in the dialogues of his characters. As in The Power and the Glory (another among Greene’s best works), a wayward priest is near the center of the action and acts as a foil to his friend Dr. Plarr. Sometimes Greene’s dialogues seem almost too much, so weighty, yet he makes them work with his characters and their plight. Even the cynical feel compelled to offer justifications that draw them into dialogues about issues of good and evil. I won’t go into the content of these dialogues (which provide a stark contrast to those of the higher-ups), but they bear the burden of their weight and yet still allow the plot to advance to its stunning conclusion.

I suppose that it takes a certain type of reader to enjoy Graham Greene, and I’m not sure why I find his work so intriguing. Perhaps it’s because his works often deal with those on the edge, such as Brits in far-flung lands, remnants of a once mighty empire which now, by Greene’s time, has mostly fallen apart, often mirroring the disarray in the lives of his characters. And his novels are set in places marked by terrible economic and political injustices, such as Paraguay and Argentine, Haiti, West Africa, and Viet Nam. Persons in these places often can’t lead quiet, unburdened lives. Choices are real and the sins that may seem inconsequential elsewhere take on more serious repercussions in these liminal worlds. To venture into a Greene novel, such as this one, is to venture into a world where good and evil do not hide from sight, but instead parade through life in a confusing array of lives and acts.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Kinds of Power: An Intelligent Guide to Its Uses by James Hillman

James Hillman's Kinds of Power: A Guide to Its Intelligent Uses was first published in 1995. I read it some years ago, probably closer to the time of publication. I re-read it just in the last couple of days. I was prompted to do so after looking at some books on leadership to recommend. In addition to popular books that I pulled from a couple of lists, I added Kinds of Power to Garry Wills's Certain Trumpets: The Nature of Leadership and Leadership and Self-Deception. None of these three books were on the couple of lists that I reviewed, but each is a significant omission, which is not to diss the books that did make the popular lists, such as Delores Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals and Daniel Goleman's work on emotional intelligence in leadership. 

Hillman's book has a chapter of "leadership", but it places the issue within the context of power. Hillman was (d. 2011) a prominent voice in the tradition of Jungian psychology, and to my mind, a brilliant and engaging writer. His references range from Greek and Roman myths and etymologies to Michael Jackson and Bill Clinton. Easy to read but deeply thought. In his knowledge of ancient Greek and Roman culture, Hillman matches Wills in this mastery of these cultures and ability to apply those insights to the contemporary world. 

Hillman's work are always thought-provoking. I'm confident readers will find recognizable examples in his many discussions. By the way, Kinds of Power was published by Doubleday/Currency, which is (or was--who can keep up with changes in publishers?) a business imprint that published some unique and worthwhile books. And while Hillman's erudition is staggering, he wrote this as for a business audience, making it accessible to a most readers .

Some samplers:

As in a garden or a marriage, deepening brings ugly twisted things out of the soil. It’s a work in the dirt.

Hillman, James, Kinds of Power (Kindle Locations 596-597)

We become artists only when we enjoy the practicing as much as the performing. Until then we are caught by the limelight rather than the art. . . .  Over and over again, not to get it finally right, not for the sake of perfection, but simply doing it as if for its own sake, freed from having to do it. The work working by itself, mechanically, repetitiously, impersonally. Could this idea of disinterested repetitiveness— one of the highest aims of Zen, mystical contemplation and religious practice, as well as the practice of the arts and sports— transfer to administration, sales, production, accounting?

Hillman, James, Kinds of Power (Kindle Locations 675-681)

Even more curious: why are the conflicts about power so ruthless— less so in business and politics [and I'd add sports--sng], where they are an everyday matter, than in the idealist professions of clergy, medicine, the arts, teaching and nursing. Those embattled in academic struggles and in museum and hospital fights deceive, backbite, threaten and maneuver shamelessly. They will not speak with friends of their enemies. Cabals form. Hatchet men appointed. Revenge plotted. Yet in business and politics [and I'd add the practice of law--sng] competitors for much larger stakes still go off to the golf course, eat and drink together. In business and politics, it seems, there is less idealism and more sense of shadow. Power is not repressed but lived with as a daily companion; moreover, it is not declared to be the enemy of love.

Hillman, James,  Kinds of Power (Kindle Locations 1181-1187)

This last quote really struck home, not just because of its reference to academics and its contrast to politics, law, and sports (in my experience), but it reminds me that one of the nastiest employment situations I dealt with as a lawyer involved a humane society! It became apparent to me that all of the kindness was used up on the animals and none left for the members and employees. It was weird in a way. In this situation and others like it (I've experienced many examples in education as well), the magnitude of the stakes were inversely proportional to the intensity of the emotions. The common denominator was that these were not powerful people--or at least they did not perceive themselves as powerful.

What I've written hasn't done justice to  Hillman's greater project of "psychologyzing" how we view ourselves and our world. To him, we humans and our world have a soul, a way of experiencing the world that is symbolic, feeling, changing, and elusive. We must look at a phenomenon like power through this lens to appreciate its many manifestations and its changing character. And this is what Hillman does brilliantly, avoiding definition and instead providing stories and observations, from the world of the Greek and Roman gods to Mick Jagger and Abe Lincoln. It's a wild ride sometimes, but when I reflected upon it, I realize the deep insights that he as culled from this complex word and phenomena.

Monday, April 6, 2015

The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, translated by Allen Mandelbaum

How does one review The Divine Comedy, which has been subject to consideration for centuries by some of the greatest minds of Western culture? I won't try. It's a brilliant and imaginative work of the first order, perhaps the greatest single work in the Western literary canon. If handled with care, one doesn't read it, one experiences it.

Mandelbaum's translation works very well, holding a poetic sensibility without attempting to replicate Dante's terza rima. The result reads (silently or aloud--this isn't modern prose, it's poetry) in a way that takes you into Dante's world. I'm not enough of an expert to compare translations authoritatively, but I don't know that other translations that I've read match this one. His notes are    a quite thorough and elucidating.