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Monthly Archives: May 2012

Berlin had perfect weather last week, and there was no better place to watch the world go to pieces than Dressler’s open-air terrace on Unter den Linden. Berlin famously is one of the world’s coolest cities, an edgy outlet for young artists. But it is also the face of the economic future. German unemployment is down from 11% in 2006 to 6.8% this April, with barely a bump during the Great Recession of 2008. Back in 2006, by contrast, Spain’s unemployment rate was just 8%. Now it’s at 25%. Spain is likely to go bankrupt, right after Greece, and the Germans don’t really care. All of Germany’s export growth in the past ten years has gone to the east, not the south.

One really can’t talk about a European economy when key indicators are moving in opposite directions in different countries.

UNEMPLOYMENT IN SPAIN VS. GERMANY

Germany will emerge from the European crisis intact. So far, Germany hasn’t even noticed that there is a crisis. Berlin real estate prices are soaring, I’m told, as Greeks and Italians turn up with suitcases full of cash to invest in one of the few property markets that showed no price appreciation during the bubble years. More important: the smartest Greeks and Spaniards are looking for work in Germany. Germany’s workforce has begun to shrink rapidly, but it will assimilate skilled workers and professionals from the feckless European south.

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The Growth Canard in Europe

May 20th, 2012 - 4:42 pm

Everyone has ganged up on the Germans for demanding austerity in the southern European economies that they are called upon to bail out, and President Obama enjoined the Group of Eight summit this weekend to focus on growth and jobs instead of austerity. Obama lined up with the new French Socialist President Francois Hollande to beat up Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Germans aren’t too popular in Greece at the moment. Two thugs beat up a Dutch tourist in Greece last week. He protested that he wasn’t German, but Dutch, and the thugs said, “Close enough.”  A joke has a German getting off the plane in Athens; when the immigration officer asks “Occupation?,” he answers, “Nein, vacation.” It’s quite unfair. I’m with Chancellor Merkel on this one.

The problem with Greece, Spain, Italy, and so forth is not that they lack fiscal stimulus (more government spending), but that stealing from the public till is their principal occupation. Germans are asking why they should reduce spending at home in order to spend more on their feckless southern neighbors. During decade 2000 to 2010, German unit labor costs  remained unchanged. But they rose  by 37% in Greece and by 30% in Italy and Spain. Southern Europe went into debt, in effect, to overpay workers. The Germans worked cheaper and harder (which is why Germany has nearly full employment). Spanish unemployment is at 25%.

What do you with a country where a third of economic activity is off the books? According to the World Bank, the proportion varies from 60% in Zimbabwe and Peru to 6%-8% in the USA and Canada. Italy and Greece are just below 30%.

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Why Invent Mohammed?

May 18th, 2012 - 5:49 am

Why invent a new religion? Robert Spencer’s excellent new book Did Mohammed Exist? collates recent historical research questioning the existence of the historical Mohammed, much of it previously not accessible to a lay American audience. This is a dangerous thing to do, and a courageous one.

Some years ago I chided Spencer for giving the Koran too much credibility;  more important than the nasty things one finds in the Koran, I argued, are two questions: “1) Mohammed may never have existed, and 2) If he existed, he may have had nothing to do with the Koran, which well might be an 8th- or 9th-century compilation.” Spencer’s present book will be translated into major Muslim languages and published on the Internet, according to Daniel Pipes. That is an important and welcome development.

This point was made eloquently last year by the Georgetown University political philosopher Fr. James Schall, who argued, “The fragility of Islam, as I see it, lies in a sudden realization of the ambiguity of the text of the Koran. Is it what it claims to be? Islam is weak militarily. It is strong in social cohesion, often using severe moral and physical sanctions. But the grounding and unity of its basic document are highly suspect. Once this becomes clear, Islam may be as fragile as communism.” Koranic criticism, I have argued since 2003, is Islam’s Achilles’ Heel.

In his capacity as prosecuting attorney in the Mohammed hoax, Spencer has laid out means and opportunity. A bit more could be said about motive. Why invent a new religion? There have been efforts since the 18th century to recast Moses as a renegade Egyptian priest of a sun-worshiping sort of monotheism who became the leader of the backward Hebrews. We find this canard repeated from Schiller’s essay “Moses’ Mission” to Freud’s 1938 Moses and Monotheism. But Judaism is not monotheism as such, but a human relationship with an infinite God who loves and suffers with his people. Vast amounts of scholarship show similarities between the language of the covenant in the Bible and earlier legal documents in the region, or parallelisms between Ugaritic hymns and the Psalms. These are interesting but have no direct bearing on the astonishing innovation of Jewish revelation: nowhere in earlier history do we hear of an infinite and eternal God who also has a personality and engages human beings with love.

Serious scholars no longer argue that Judaism is somehow descended from an Egyptian sun cult. No-one has yet explained, moreover, why an ancient tribe would invent a history that portrayed its ancestors as slaves, or itself as conquerors of a land rather than as its autochthonous and legitimate inhabitants. In short, there is neither a literary, nor an historical, nor an anthropological, nor an archaeological argument against the Jewish claim that the written and oral laws were given to Moses at Mt. Sinai.

Christianity proposes to extend the Jewish covenant to all of humankind. After countless academic lives have burned out in the “search for the historical Jesus,” no reputable scholar claims to be able to demonstrate that Jesus of Nazareth was a fiction. One can argue about the reliability of different accounts of Jesus, but not the existence of Jesus himself. The Christian doctrine of Jesus’ resurrection cannot be refuted. One believes it, or not.

But Islam is an entirely different matter. We have extensive archaeological evidence in the form of coins and inscriptions from the 7th century, and there is no mention of a new religion in any of them until 70 years after Mohammed’s supposed death, as Nevo and Koren showed in their 2003 book Crossroads to Islam. Two centuries go by before an account of Mohammed’s life is circulated. The Koran itself is evidently a compilation that draws on contemporary Jewish and Christian sources, in a language that often does not resemble Arabic.

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The topic will be Greece and the prospective breakup of the Euro. Schedules change, but that’s the plan as of now.

Yes, Arianna, We Have No Bananas

May 13th, 2012 - 6:20 am

Arianna Huffington, a liberal media prima donna and Internet purveyor of celebrity gossip, offers the silliest advice we have heard so far to the beleaguered people of Greece in today’s New York Times. Her missive sets a new high water mark for liberal stupidity, both for the author, and for the newspaper that chose to print it.

Greece should default on its foreign debt, she avers, like Argentina:

Argentina, which defaulted and restructured beginning in 2001, offers a point of comparison. The austerity crowd warned that Argentina would collapse if it stopped pegging the peso to the dollar and defaulted on its debt. There are many differences between Argentina and Greece. But Argentina’s default was followed by a few short months of economic crisis and then many years of steady economic growth — a dramatically different direction than the one Greece is now taking toward a potentially endless path of contraction that is destroying millions of lives and crippling the indomitable Greek spirit.

The trouble is that Greece is another banana republic without bananas. Argentina is a commodity exporter that won the lottery when commodity prices soared. In 2010 the country exported $68 billion worth of goods, mainly food, oil and metals, and imported $56 billion, with a trade surplus at about 3% of GDP. If you have a trade surplus, you don’t need the international lending market. You can pay cash.

Greece, by contrast, had a trade deficit in 2010 of $22 billion, equal to 7% of GDP. In 2011, both the deficit and GDP shrank, and the deficit remained at 6% of GDP.  If Greece defaults, it will be unable to borrow the 6% of GDP it requires to finance this deficit, and it will be reduced to cash-and-carry trade–which means that it will cut imports by the equivalent of 6% of GDP. It appears that arithmetic wasn’t on the syllabus when Mrs. Huffington went up to Cambridge.

Her encomium begins with a sentimental portrait of her self-sacrificing mother, and concludes:

Greece, like my mother, has always been devoted above all else to its children. When the future of those children is diminished, the future — and life — of the country will be diminished, too.

If only the Greeks still troubled to have children, Mrs. Huffington’s sentiments would have more resonance. Greek fertility (number of children per female) fell to only 1.28 in 2005, the rock bottom of the European pile.

Period Total fertility
1950-1955 2.29
1955-1960 2.27
1960-1965 2.20
1965-1970 2.38
1970-1975 2.32
1975-1980 2.32
1980-1985 1.96
1985-1990 1.53
1990-1995 1.37
1995-2000 1.30
2000-2005 1.28

Source: United Nations

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Bernard Lewis’ Valediction

May 9th, 2012 - 6:01 am

Prof. Bernard Lewis has just published a memoir which is as much a valedictory statement of his views as a reminiscence about a remarkable life; I review it today at the Jewish webzine The Tablet. Lewis has of course been denounced from the left (by the sulfurous Edward Said) as an “orientalist,” which used to mean scholar of Semitic languages but now means “neo-colonialist.” That is an absurd charge by an incompetent and mendacious scholar, but it ruined Middle Eastern studies in the politically correct (and Arab-funded) world of academia. From the right, he has been denounced as an “Arab apologist” by Pamela Geller and as a “Pied Piper of Islamic Confusion” by Andrew Bostom.

One should be cautious about attacking Prof. Lewis, whose analysis of Muslim rage did more to galvanize Western support for the idea of a war on terror than any other single source, and who drew more opprobrium from the academic left than any other personality. His optimism about Islamic democracy ultimately was misplaced, in my view, but should be understood in context. As I wrote in Tablet:

Bernard Lewis’ era was a better one than ours, buoyed by a sense that the victorious West had the power to set a successful example for societies that had lingered in backwardness. His generation went young to World War II and saw the Cold War through at the cusp of middle age. Lewis himself is one of the very last of a race of giants. We have the sorry task of managing the chaotic decline of the Muslim world. If Bernard Lewis speaks to us from a better time, he reminds us all the more poignantly that we had better move on and address the unpleasantness of our own.

He is surely not an Arab apologist, but has been accused of being a Turkish apologist, with some justification: his intellectual love affair with modern Turkey is the source of his stubborn belief that the Muslim world eventually can achieve something like modern democracy. The most glaring omission in his new book is Turkey’s return to Islamism:

Lewis, incidentally, has nothing to say about Turkey’s shift to Islamism under Erdoğan. That is his least pardonable omission. His hopes for the Muslim future were founded on his perception of Turkey’s modernization, the subject of his most lauded academic work. Lewis’ affection for the Turks pervades his new book; he recalls nostalgically a decadelong liaison with “an aristocratic Turkish lady” who presided over his Princeton dinner parties. He took an unpopular Turkophile position in declining to characterize the mass murder of Armenians during World War I as a “genocide.” Now that Turkey appears to have returned to political Islam under a government that routinely jails its critics, Lewis’ silence is disturbing.

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Machiavelli says somewhere that if you injure an enemy, you not do so unless you plan to inflict a severe injury, because men will avenge themselves for small injuries, but cannot avenge themselves for severe injuries. That suggests a two-part question: Is China an enemy? And do we want to injure China? If the answer to both these question is “yes” (although that would not be my answer), why should we administer pinpricks to the Chinese, as in the case of Chen Guangcheng?

Leave aside for the moment whether China is an enemy today. Russia was an enemy during the Cold War. The debate in America during the Cold War was not over reform in Russia, but over whether to strike a long-term deal with Russia, or to try to ruin Russia. Under the Reagan administration we set out to ruin Russia. As my old boss Norman A. Bailey, then special assistant to President Reagan for national security, explained the plan to me in 1982, we would run Russia into the ground by launching a massive military buildup which its weak economy couldn’t match. That was the centerpiece of American strategy to which we added intermediate-range missiles in Europe, guerrilla war in Afghanistan, counter-guerrilla war in Nicaragua and Angola, and other things.

Russia was in fact ruined. We ruined the country and we did it with malice aforethought. Communism collapsed. Male life expectancy fell from 64 years in 1985 to just 58 years in 2000. Alcoholism became the leading cause of death of Russian men, responsible for half the premature deaths of working-age Russians. Victory is not a pretty sight. In 1992, thousands of people gathered in Moscow in impromptu markets within earshot of the Kremlin to sell used clothing and other household items, to buy food. Pensioners with military medals begged in the streets. You know when a country is defeated when it sells its women, and the women of the former Soviet Union still sell themselves in huge numbers. If you want to know why the Russians are peevish towards the United States, it is because we set out to ruin them and succeeded. That’s war, and war is hell. If you don’t believe the Russians, ask people from the state of Georgia about General Sherman.

All right, class: Who wants to ruin China? If so, how do you propose to do it?

The silence speaks for itself. If we are not going to ruin China, we had better decide how we propose to live with China.

Let’s set out a few premises here. Our purpose is not to arrange a happy outcome for every sympathetic dissident in the world, but to ensure that America remains the dominant power in the world with the strength to press for the outcomes we want.

First, the Chinese Communist party is one of the cruelest governments in history. The one-child policy broke the cycle of political upheaval that plagued China for thousands of years. China has little arable land, and has always had more people than land, and the surplus people have formed a reservoir of potential rebels. This time China preemptively eliminated this reservoir.

Second, China has accomplished something no other country ever has: it has moved the equivalent of the population of the United States from rural poverty to urban prosperity in the space of a single generation. It is the largest migration in world history, and the most successful.

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Why is high culture important to us? It is not a matter of refinement, although the collateral benefits of learning classical music or languages is indisputable. 36 million Chinese piano students can’t be wrong, I argued in a post last week entitled “Philistinism and Failure.” In today’s Spengler column at Asia Times Online, entitled “Beautiful Evil: Mozart’s Don Giovanni at the Mannes Opera,” I suggest another reason why certain aspects of our high culture remain indispensable, if difficult to access: they provide a living link to a past that we ignore to our great detriment. Some excerpts from the essay:

Is it possible to thwart evil, when evil is rich, beautiful and clever? Western writers asked that question in the form of nearly two thousand variants of the “Don Juan” story, of which one – Wolfgang Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni - holds modern audiences spellbound; it premiered in October 1787.

Mozart’s masterpiece is a self-referential sort of problem, a foundational work of Western civilization whose subject is the inadequacy of Western civilization. It may seem a distraction to  dwell on details of performance practice that speak to a minority within a minority of music listeners. But our capacity to perform and hear Mozart’s opera as he intended it really is matter of existential importance for the West, and not only the West; if the small matter of containing talent and evil personalities seems remote, read the last month’s news from Beijing.

Don Juan, by the time we encounter him in Mozart’s version, has seduced more than 2,000 women and killed considerable numbers of their male relatives. The other personages in the opera, who represent all the estates of civil society, are powerless to stop him; he can outfight, or outwit, or (in the case of the women) seduce them. Finally the statue of one of his victims stops by for dinner and drags him to hell, which hardly is a solution. The remaining characters, noble, bourgeois and peasant, are as stupid and feckless as they were before.

[SNIP]

Don Juan exists to prove by construction that a devout Christian can be a sociopath, and by extension, that the Christian world can be ruled by sociopaths. The Enlightenment’s most insidious attack on Catholic faith, then, came not from atheists like Voltaire, but from a Spanish monk with buried Jewish sensibilities.

A century and a half later, another converted Jew – Emmanuele Conegliano, known as Lorenzo da Ponte – reworked Tirso’s play as a libretto for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and the result was an utterly unique work of art. It is pointless to argue about whether Don Giovanni is the best opera ever written, because it is a genre unto itself – the musical tragi-comedy, or “drama giocoso“, as Da Ponte put it. Mozart’s combination of tragic and comic elements turns the world inside out. From the first bars of the orchestra to the final note, we are unsure whether we should laugh, cry, or feel fear. If you don’t leave the theater confused, you haven’t been listening. [4]

We typically are entreated to regard Western civilization as a marble monument which we should contemplate in reverence. There are any number of marble monuments, to be sure, which one should contemplate in reverence, and some marvelous literature which presents the world in the orderly fashion – the Paradiso section of Dante’s Divine Comedy, for example, which manages to combine the highest sublimity of language with the utmost tediousness of content.

But the definitive works of Western civilization are the self-referential ones, which expose the flaws in the underlying structure, starting with plays of Sophocles written after Athens’ catastrophic defeat in the Peloponnesian War. Mozart does not ask you to sit back and contemplate Beauty: he pokes and pinches and tugs and teases, until he drags you into the midst of the comedy. It is a comedy, in that all of his characters deserve what they get; the tragedy is ours.

The trouble with Don Giovanni is that Mozart’s librettist, the witty Lorenzo da Ponte, bungled important elements of the original Don Juan story, following the example of other 18th century Italian versions. Giovanni murders the father of one of his (prospective) rape victims, Donna Anna.

At the opera’s conclusion the father’s statue demands that Giovanni repent, and Giovanni refuses in a last expression of churlishness. Rather than the orthodox but sociopathic Catholic of Tirso de Molina, da Ponte gives us an Enlightenment villain who refuses to bow to divine will out of sheer spite. Tirso’s Don Juan would have taken the statue’s deal in a heartbeat, since he is a believing Catholic. The theological paradox at the center of the comedy is obscured (if we can save ourselves by free will, then we can postpone our salvation by free will and continue to do unspeakably evil things in the meantime).

In Tirso’s original, what motivates Don Juan is not so much sex but evil. He enjoys killing the men as much as enjoys raping the women, and he gets as much pleasure by cheating prostitutes of their pay as he does by sleeping with them. Da Ponte too often reduces Tirso’s theologically-informed lampoon to the clowning of the Venetian commedia dell’arte, the stylized buffoonery of stock characters.

What Da Ponte confuses, though, Mozart clarifies in a musical score that illumines his characters more vividly than words can. The devil in Mozart lies in the details, though, and the effect of the whole depends on control of countless nuances. He is like a god – not the God, of course, but a god.

There are no minor characters in his work, because any person whom Mozart chooses to characterize is endowed with an entire world of musical detail. Thanks to Mozart we relive the travails of his dramatic personages more intensively. Tirso’s theological joke, in Mozart’s hands, takes shape in our senses and becomes experiential as well as intellectual.

Mozart allows us to relive our past, to get inside the lives of the people who made the West what it was, and, too often, what it should not have been. When the young singers of the Mannes Opera threw themselves into their roles, we were back in the Prague of 1787, hearing Mozart’s world through Mozart’s ears.

There is nothing reassuring about it: Mozart was a ruthless critic of his world, but masterful at bringing out the beauty even in the silliest and nastiest of situations. We shall never make sense of where we are without looking back at where we came from, and we rely on institutions like Mannes to maintain a fragile, living link to the past. Apart from the fact that the music-making was delightful, it is also indispensable.

The big news in Friday’s employment report was not the miserable 115,000 jobs the economy added in April, but the disappearance of 340,000 workers from the labor force. We haven’t seen unemployment on this scale since the Great Depression. Indeed, since Obama took office, the labor force participation rate has fallen from 66% to 63% as almost 5 million American adults stopped looking for work. About a fifth of working-age Americans aren’t working — and a fifth of all personal income is transfer payments. These numbers are astonishing and without precedent. If they continue, America will go bankrupt. Obama’s hope for re-election lies in dependency. No one could run for re-election as dogcatcher with this record — except for the cynical presumption that Americans have become so dependent on the state that they have lost hope of working again, and will vote for more state dependency.

If you’re not scared, you haven’t read the numbers. Here they are, courtesy of the St. Louis Fed’s excellent free data base.

FRED Graph

Not since the 1970s has the overall labor force participation rate been this low. As women began entering the labor force in large numbers, the overall participation rose. Truly alarming, though, is the labor force participation rate for men:

FRED Graph

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