Wednesday, January 26, 2005

The Superpower Next Door

Tony Judt, whose output tends to be a little varied for my taste, has a new article in the New York Review of Books called "Europe vs. America" that's sharp, well-written, and timely (something else the NYRB is only infrequently). Robin Sloan's Snarkmarket entry even compelled me to compose a new Schrift (which is sadly even more infrequent).

After Rob's nice critique of the mildly (but decisively) distorting image Americans attach to "welfare state," I just have this to add: when you read the article, don't miss Judt's footnotes. Some of them veer towards inanity (especially the tone-deaf quips about Janet Jackson and David Beckham), but others are juicy and delicious.


[5] "...(T)he steadily rising cost of private medical insurance in the US puts at least as much of a burden on American firms as social taxation and welfare privileges place upon their European counterparts —- while providing none of the attendant social benefits."

[8] "... The collapsing dollar is sustained only by foreigners' willingness to hold it: Americans are currently spending other people's money on other people's products. Were the US any other country it would by now be in the unforgiving hands of the International Monetary Fund."

[16] "... (Garton Ash) cites a popular joke: Britain was promised that Blair's Third Way would bring it American universities and German prisons —- what it is actually getting are American prisons and German universities."
"Spending other people's money on other people's products." I don't know if I've ever seen a better-phrased summary of why simultaneously skyrocketing budget and trade deficits spell disaster for a country's economy.

My favorite passage, however, is the same cited by Robin, albeit for a slightly different reason:
"(T)hese are not deep structural failings of the European way of life: they are difficult policy choices with political consequences. None of them implies the dismantling of the welfare state."
It's the "difficult policy choices with political consequences" line that resonates for me. Both Americans and Europeans today too easily place themselves (and each other) in scenarios they imagine to be both apocalyptic and inevitable. We're all hopelessly cursed by demographics and unmanageable covenants: too many immigrants, too many old people, and too many promises made, with danger (whether global terrorism or environmental and economic collapse) always just around the corner. Instead of making tough choices about adjustments to the system -- politically unpopular, perhaps, but functionally necessary -- both American and European leaders have consigned blame to other quarters and contented themselves with either radically razing the system or going down with the ship, like Ahab bound to the mast.

This is more than the politics of fear -- it's a kind of insanity. What we need are a thousand cool heads -- debunkers who can show us a third way out.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Phoning It In

Is it just me, or has NYTimes columnist David Brooks become completely retarded?

That is all.

Friday, January 07, 2005

My Nerdiest Moments

We've all had them: moments of pure nerdly inspiration and expression. Without any assistance they stick to the walls of our memory through sheer idiosyncratic force.

Many of mine came when I dated my nerdiest in a long line of nerdy girlfriends, Laura Anderson. Laura was my first serious girlfriend: we were both math majors and scholarship winners. Together we created new words in an attempt to define and fill lexical gaps: concepts that exist or can be simply explained but lack a word to signify them. My favorite was "lorange," which we declared to signify any one-syllable word that rhymes with no other in the language it is spoken. Since "lorange" creates a rhyme for "orange," its existence would effectively empty its own concept. Therefore the only way it could remain meaningful for use would be if it remained merely imaginary and weren't used at all. Russell's Paradox it ain't, but it made for quite a nerdy afternoon in 1999.

Some of my other more nerdy moments were also my most rebellious. When I was a kid, I was a hell of a smart-ass, which got me beaten by nuns pretty often. If I didn't like something, I liked to come up with high-minded putdowns: I thought they'd get me out of trouble. I got teased once by my third-grade teacher, Sister June, for always tapping Jenny, the girl I'd had a crush on since first grade, when we played a game called 7-Up. (By grade three, it was pretty easy to tell it was me, given the trembling breath and the slightly-too-quick, slightly-too-lingering touch.) I don't remember what I said at the time, but afterwards, when Sister June remarked that it had been a fun game, I loudly complained, "I thought not!!" Beaten again. After all, I'd already been suspended a year earlier after I protested that not even starving children in Bangladesh would eat the school's chicken ravioli. I must have read about it somewhere.

Throughout my growing up, the true mark of my nerdiness was the way I would mispronounce words I had frequently read and understood perfectly but never heard spoken. I think I learned almost every word I know from context: I only started seriously using dictionaries maybe a year or so ago. (Thanks to the OED for putting their dictionary online and to Penn for subscribing to it.) This still occasionally gets me into trouble: I had been getting the meaning of commiserate slightly wrong for years until I finally looked it up. (It really means to sympathize with or show pity for one another, not just to share mutual complaints.)

Given a long enough timeline, virtually everyone becomes a nerd with respect to something, in the sense of keenly reveling in the minutiae of a field where a degree of special knowledge and/or intelligence is necessary. It might be cars, sports, or rock music instead of poetry, physics, or violin, but there are nerdly delights to be found everywhere. The field of elevated nerddom that saved me for later sports was baseball. No other sport has ever been more rewarding to nerds, combining the essential rational, traditional, and charismatic forms of nerdly authority. And thank goodness there was something that got me outside, meeting older kids and winning their respect. I was enough of an insufferable tub as it was. And still am.