Sunday, May 30, 2010

Memorial Day Weekend at the Phoenix Symphony

Yesterday I took both of my children to the final concert of the family series put on by the Phoenix Symphony. My daughter is doing Suzuki violin and is involved in an incredible Suzuki organization where she attends group classes a couple of times of month through the non-summer months. As part of that, we get access to Phoenix Symphony tickets at a discounted rate. The family series is interesting - it is geared mainly to children (when someone says family they really mean kids - aren't parents part of the family?). The goal of the program is to get children access to classical music early in hopes that their appreciation for music is born and will generate into a lifetime of Phoenix Symphony support.

The Memorial Day weekend performance was the culmination of the season and the theme was, of course, patriotism. We started the concert an audience recitation of the pledge of allegiance and a singing of the National Anthem. Then we heard various marching and patriotic songs (some of which I do not sadly remember) culminating in "Stars and Stripes Forever". During the concert they played the songs for each branch of our armed services and those who served in that branch (or their spouses) stood and were recognized.

So, really this concert was for me a chance for some pretty incredible musicians to recognize the sacrifice born by our military over the life of our country.

And for me, it represents a pretty remarkable link between our artists and our military which reminds of this quote from John Adams:

"I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain."

And that really in a very messy sort of way has been the history of our country, but let's take a very brief history of war and veterans in America.

Memorial Day was born from probably the biggest tragedy our country faced - our own Civil War - from wikipedia:

"At the end of the Civil War, communities set aside a day to mark the end of the war or as a memorial to those who had died. Some of the places creating an early memorial day include Sharpsburg, Maryland, located near Antietam Battlefield; Charleston, South Carolina; Boalsburg, Pennsylvania; Carbondale, Illinois; Columbus, Mississippi; many communities in Vermont; and some two dozen other cities and towns. "

The horrors of the Civil War are difficult to imagine and we are incredibly lucky to have lifted our country from that mess as cleanly as we did. Of course, since then, we have had many, many, many more reasons to remember our fallen soldiers. Two massive, bloody world wars in the twentieth century. Tragic Cold War inspired conflicts in Korea and Vietnam. We are now engaged incredibly complex, expensive and dangerous nation building efforts in the middle east that most of us don't think about very much. The cost of Afghanistan and Iraq are primarily being carried by a small percentage of Americans. Since Vietnam we have jettisoned a military draft, so a much smaller percentage of our population enlists in the military during this war time than in war times past.

My father enlisted in Air Force during the tail end of WWII, participated in some fashion in the Berlin Airlift and was still enlisted during the Korean conflict but didn't see action. He enlisted primarily because he had no other options - nobody would hire him thinking he would just be drafted, so he enlisted. The world has obviously changed.

Now, I barely think of the sacrifices (some of them enormous) being paid by our military families and those who serve in Afghanistan or Iraq. We, as a country, are attempting something enormous and quite possibly impossible. All of our prayers and support should be directed to those families. I'm afraid they are receiving not near enough of it.

But much of what we're doing with our military right now is to build up political institutions in other countries so that the chaos of those countries do not spill into ours like it did on September 11, 2001. But our countries freedoms and institutions are well established. Or are they? I think they are.

But if we want to keep our country great I think we need to return to John Adams quote. We are now at a point in our country where are artists, poets, painters, philosophers, and leaders are required to preserve our democracy. Sounds elitist? Well if you read Seth Godin's blog in our economy we are all artists - artists make a difference, artists give gifts, artists ship.

So, while singing Our National Anthem accompanied by our Phoenix Symphony, I thought about how many hours of practice every single one of those musicians sacrificed to be able to play their instrument.

For my wife's birthday, I bought her a book written by the famous conductor Daniel Barenboim, Music Quickens Time in almost the first page he writes:

"John Locke wrote in his - in many ways - very forward-looking treatise, 'Some thoughts Concerning Education', published in 1692, that 'Musick is thought to have some affinity with dancing, and a good hand upon some instruments is by many people mightily valued. But it wastes so much of a young man's time to gain but a moderate skill in it; and engages often in such odd company, that many think it much better spared: and I have amongst men of parts and business so seldom heard any one commended or esteemed for having an excellency in musick, that amongst all those things that ever came into the list of accomplishments, I think I may give it the last place.'"

He goes on to describe how John Locke is wrong and why music matters. Interesting to note that Barenboim is the founder of The West-Eastern Divan orchestra. From wikipedia:

"The aim of the West-Eastern Divan is to promote understanding between Israelis and Palestinians and pave the way for a peaceful and fair solution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Barenboim himself has spoken of the ensemble as follows:

'The Divan is not a love story, and it is not a peace story. It has very flatteringly been described as a project for peace. It isn't. It's not going to bring peace, whether you play well or not so well. The Divan was conceived as a project against ignorance. A project against the fact that it is absolutely essential for people to get to know the other, to understand what the other thinks and feels, without necessarily agreeing with it. I'm not trying to convert the Arab members of the Divan to the Israeli point of view, and [I'm] not trying to convince the Israelis to the Arab point of view. But I want to - and unfortunately I am alone in this now that Edward died a few years ago - ...create a platform where the two sides can disagree and not resort to knives.'[3]

One of the young musicians of the orchestra reinforced this point:

'Barenboim is always saying his project is not political. But one of the really great things is that this is a political statement by both sides. It is more important not for people like myself, but for people to see that it is possible to sit down with Arab people and play. The orchestra is a human laboratory that can express to the whole world how to cope with the other.'[4]"

So, on the Memorial Day, we need to memorialize every single man and woman who have died fighting to defend our country. But to truly memorialize our veterans, I think we need to do it in the way we live our lives. To become artists, to make a difference, to ship.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Discussion with my sister on "Little Bee"

So, I started a literary on-line (facebook) book club. Here's how it works: I sent out a status asking for volunteers, I get some, we propose a book, we read it. Then post status about comments. Well, only my sister and I read it this time around so we had a back and forth over e-mail. For any one who is interested in reading this book and commenting, well, you can do so in the comments section of this post. If you are in the middle of reading this book (or have plans to), we definitely give away a few things in this discussion, so you've been warned (we do tread lightly).

Ok, the book is Little Bee.


Thoughts on Little Bee:

I would never have read this if you hadn't chosen it. I usually don't like
to read novels that grapple with big issues and/or are political. That's
why I'm glad for this group, because I loved Little Bee.

I especially find the style of narration interesting--two first-person
narrators is really hard to do, and is almost a no-no. I have been wanting
to do it for a novel, and was not sure I could. Cleave's use of this makes
me think I can! I love how he was able to create two distinct first person
voices--also really difficult.

Other reviewers have been complaining that the twists of plot seem too
contrived, but it didn't bother me for some reason--although I wasn't sure
if the fact that Charlie hiding set in motion the events that led to Little
Bee's deportation worked for me. That seemed a little too easy that the
police show up, she runs and then they nab her. I was disappointed by that.
Still, I think it's necessary for the story for her to return--necessary for
the redemptive note at the end.

The book terrified me and disturbed me in an intense physical way and I
never let a book get to me like that, but this one did. It haunts me still.
Read most of it in a period of a few hours sitting in a playground riveted.
I love how fiction can be my gateway into history and politics. I never
knew about these oil wars in Nigeria. And how badly immigrants are
treated. I never really knew this. And it motivates me--how can I help
others in Little Bee's situation?

Also, did you know that Nicole Kidman has secured the rights to the book to
make a movie? She wants to play the character of Sarah O'Rourke.


Julie, thanks for your comments...

What's funny is that I love reading novels that tackle big issues like this :-). I chose it specifically because it was an immigration issue - something I'm really interested in.

Hmmm, I wish you would comment on facebook so that others can get the benefit of your commentary... Do you think?

Maybe I can start a fb chat with only those who are reading it... Maybe no one else is reading it.

I agree with your point about Charlie getting lost causing the deportation, that didn't even seem right to me. I don't think the police would have bothered in reality with that... Do you?

I guess I'm not sure, but I don't get the sense that illegal immigrants are that much on the cusp of being deported... but I could be wrong.

I also agree about the Nigerian oil conflicts - I had no idea.

I was riveted, and I love that sensation...


I suspected you did!

Where should I comment on Fb?

What’s happens in AZ? Aren’t illegals immediately deported when found out? Didn’t some harsh anti-immigration law just get passed?

Did you read the commentary after the novel about what motivated Chris Cleave to write this?


I was imagining just the comments section of my original fb post, but maybe I'll start a group message.. Give me another day to see if anyone else has (or is planning to) read it.

There was a bill that was just passed awaiting governor's signature. Our governor still has yet to decide. Its depressing really.

I know there are sweeps, etc... But I don't get the feeling its exceptionally agressive. There was a guy in our ward that was in our ward for a long time. Working, he was about to get married and he moved out.

A few months later I heard he was deported - I had no idea he was even here illegally. But it seems like you can get away with staying here for quite a long time without issues...

But I'm not intimate with it, and England could be different.


I could put it there. I have to sound smarter though.

It’s an intense book. Anyone who is esp sensitive or easily offended should probably not read it.

I wonder as well about the detention centers—what the conditions are like. Do they have them in the states? And who stays in them and for how long.

Chris Cleave muses about globalization in the back of the book—did you read his interview? He said that now with globalization, money can traverse borders but people can’t. What if it were the other way around? Where people could travel freely, but money could not.

Just this issue of deportation—can’t people get political asylum? I don’t understand automatic deportation, especially when someone has risked life and limb for relative freedom and safety. And how does one immigrate legally under circumstances that are so desperate? I want these questions answered!!



Your comments sounded incredibly intelligent to me! :-). My problem is that I read it on my kindle (ipod version of the kindle) and the interview wasn't there.

I believe we do have detention centers in the States, but I don't know much about them. I think most people from Mexico, at least, are deported immediately.

Regarding globalization, at the very least, I would like to see people have similar freedom to travel as money. Also, I think if we wanted to deal with ruthless dictators, rather than invade, how about provide asylum for refugees?

Its just that people have a lot of fear and nobody wants to take on difficult caseloads.

I agree its an intense book and I felt like there were a lot of issues that were dealt with. Another issue was the juxtaposition of one person's very real, third world struggle to survive, with an upper middle class couple's struggle to find meaning in a world of suburbia blandness? Or something like that.

But its odd, that this collision provoked the husband's death.

And that sex, to me, was such a strong theme. The rape of Little Bee's sister. The sex of the Haitian girl was what sprung the girls out of the detention center. It was Sarah's affair that prompted the trip to Nigeria to begin with... Then the ongoing affair after the incident on the beach. Even Sarah's magazine was about sex, when it was initially started as a magazine about stories to have an impact.

I'm not sure how much of that was intentional, but I think it was just Nigeria's raw violence and brutality butted up against this English couple's quest at meaning when everything around them was just a little too easy, too perfect.

I think the world's problems can be so overwhelming, maybe we shield ourselves from them or are at risk to get consumed by them.


Ooh, good to know about some limitations of the Kindle!!

I thought your discussion about the thematic of sex was very astute. Little Bee is outside of these concerns, as is Charlie—the only two characters in the book really. The fact that she manages to travel through the novel without any profound physical harm is kind of remarkable and there’s something of a magical realist element in the long journeys she is physically able to make—would it REALLY be possible to WALK from that detention center to the suburbs of London?? But Little Bee and Charlie have this special connection—and Little Bee has this innocence/purity that Charlie has—they are also characters that have assumed other names and identities; they are both in hiding to some degree. Moving away from the sexual theme though, the narrative made me think of one of my former professor’s discussions of race in books, and the ways in which “black bodies” are used to connect white bodies. Black bodies are often used as a “go betweens” in narratives, they negotiate between physical and spiritual realms or between two people who can’t connect. (A big example my professor used was the Whoopie Goldberg character in the movie Ghost.) I saw Little Bee operating this way, and sometimes what I’ve come to know as this cliché of that bothered me. I do like how she becomes problematic when she admits that she witnessed the death of Andrew, but I thought her guilt about not being able to ultimately save him seemed a little off. As if the author was trying to hard to make her have some kind of “problem” and thus become a more complex character. But maybe that’s just me.

Isn’t there political asylum for refugees? Or is it just difficult to obtain this? I must research this further.


Julie, I think we do have political asylum, but I'm guessing its not so easy to get... I think its hard, nobody (especially in developed countries) want to take on a bunch of political refugees - and in time of a lot of political turmoil and violence, you can get a bunch.

I remember hearing stories during WWII about Jewish refugees who had trouble finding countries to take them. Is this true?

Also, I think we're finding similar problems with Iraqi refugees.

These are just massive problems, we don't want to face.

Why do you think black people are used that way in literature? I guess they are viewed as the other, with extra special abilities, maybe?

Yeah, I agree, I was disappointed to find out the way Little Bee chose to present herself to Andrew and how she in some kind of way pushed him to suicide and couldn't really help him (afraid she would get caught and deported).

I think the fear of deportation is obviously real by the way. I know here, crime among immigrants go under-reported for this reason.

But I guess giving Little Bee this problem kind of put her on the level with Lawrence, who both wanted access to this family that wasn't really theirs...

But I agree, I liked "Little Bee" as this completely innocent almost other-worldly figure... Having that problem kind of put her down at everyone's level.

But to some extent, it made her more human, much more like the others. I guess for me, just because you're from Nigeria doesn't make you any less human... I think a big part of it was the developed world's attempts to ignore the third world, to view the population as something else, maybe less human.

I see that a lot, anyway, in the immigration debates I've having with those from Mexico.

Just some random thoughts.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Human Capital Standard

I've been having some light debates with various people about the efficacy of returning to the Gold Standard. This is very much an intellectual debate because the chances of doing that are about nil. But its natural for a libertarian minded individual to be in favor of it because it prevents monetary manipulation by the central bank. At least that's how I understand this issue.

But gold is just metal. Money is just paper. We assign a value to gold (collectively through the markets), but that value fluctuates just like everything else. Here's a picture I dug up:

But what is money anyway? Just a means to make transactional exchange more efficient which allows for more specialization. I can focus on my thing and get paid for it. You can focus on your thing and get paid for it. Now I can purchase your services, you can purchase my services. Currency just makes all of this more efficient.

But how many physical dollar bills do we need flowing in our economy? Well, if you have too many dollars chasing too few goods and services, you get inflation. Too few dollars chasing a surplus of goods and services, you get deflation. Both inflation and deflation hurt. Inflation hurts savers - as the price of goods and services grows, the pile of cash you have saved away buys less and less stuff. Deflation hurts borrowers - as the prices of everything drops, the debt becomes more and more difficult to pay off. What's required is price stability which gives both savers and borrowers some expectations for the future.

But to achieve price stability, you need the ability to float your currency - to increase or decreases the supply of money to match the fluctuations of goods and services. And ultimately, how much stuff we can buy is largely dependent on the individual skill of those who inhabit this good earth. The more capacity we have in human ingenuity and the more well off we all are, the more the money supply has to grow to match the growing supply of people and the growth of skill within the people.

Conversely, right now what we've experienced was a collapse of confidence - in the system and in each other. And for good reason, we built up this bubble financed on debt borrowed from notable savers (China most of all) with basic assumptions that were, can I say it, in retrospect, insane. That house prices would sky rocket continuously and never fall. That everyone could keep borrowing and investing that borrowed money and get rich for basically doing not much of anything. And with that collapse of confidence, people have stopped spending - in fact it fell through the floor.

We have capacity, talent, and factories, but they are currently under-utilized, in other words, too few dollars chasing too many goods - and we risk deflation. Which is why it was so important for the Federal Reserve to inject money into the economy - to stave off deflation. To get money in people's pockets that they've lost as they've lost employment.

So, really our money supply should be based not on gold, but on human capability which exactly is what the core of our economy is based on.

I remember one day a while ago I had this epiphany, I imagined in my mind's eye a world where you had a sea of amazing musicians and artists, engineers and athletes, trained by capable, energetic and passionate teachers. This vision came easily to me after trips to New York City, a magnet of artists, and I was thinking - why can't we duplicate this everywhere? Why can't the community arts and local symphony's also play inspiring music?

If you want to increase wealth, the way to do it is to increase human capacity. Find ways to motivate our youth (and our adults) to strive harder, to always learn and to cultivate their skills.

I've been thinking of these kinds of things a lot especially in relation to our kids. So, naturally I get pretty excited to read stuff like this post. Here, an economic professor at Princeton talks about the primary wealth generators in our society:
  1.  Mothers - "Anyone who has raised children to maturity appreciates the magnificent contribution conscientious parents can make to this human-capital formation, because much of the education of youngsters takes place in the home. Conscientious parents — and especially mothers — rank as the major wealth creators in modern societies, as, of course, do the offspring whose own effort is crucial in assembling that capital."
  2. Teachers - "Next come educators, especially the visionary and dedicated elementary and high school teachers who succeed in getting their students interested in learning and motivated to amass human capital. The role of such teachers in the wealth-creation process is not sufficiently appreciated in our latitudes."
Developing human beings to make a difference, is a significant contribution to society, even a priceless one. And wealth is generated whether we pay for it or not:
"None of the forgoing is to say that being highly educated and skilled is either a necessary or a sufficient condition for contributing value and wealth to society. Anyone who works, be it for pay or as a volunteer, does so."
This wealth is enjoyed by anyone who is the recipient of a gift - of money or of time. Sometimes what one gives as a volunteer has much more implicit value than what we give in paid labor. I see this in spades in many of the programs my daughter has participated in both in the violin and in her piano endeavors.

So, if human production is the primary source of wealth, can you understand why I may be for a pretty liberal immigration policy? If a country is not providing the infrastructure necessary to allow its residents to product to their potential, the world is better served for those people to move elsewhere where they can.

Hard-working immigrant labor benefits both the laborer (as long as they aren't being exploited) and those receiving the fruits of that labor. The world is richer. As immigrant children get access to better educational opportunities in the host country - an education unobtainable otherwise, the groundwork is being laid for much more wealth in the future.

Ultimately, we want every country to provide favorable circumstances for its citizens to grow, develop, innovate and produce. Solving immigration ultimately requires helping struggling countries to develop and promoting freedom and liberty throughout the world.

So, rather than the gold standard, we should call it the human capital standard. That's the ultimate gold standard.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Flaws of the Free Market Part 1

In his book Development As Freedom, economist Amartya Sen has an interesting chapter entitled "Markets, State and Social Opportunity" that begins with this quote:
"'It is the customary of fate of new truths,' says T. H. Huxley in Science and Culture, 'to begin as heresies and to end as superstitions.'"
He explains that the idea of a free market was rejected by many in the intellectual realm because "every young economist 'knew in what respect the market systems had serious limitations: all the textbooks repeated the same list of 'defects'". This rejection led some to propose alternative methods of organizing an economy without a thorough understanding that these alternatives would have even more serious defects. The story of the 20th century really is a story of suffering caused by these alternative disasters - whether it be communism in Soviet Russia, China or Cuba, or the dictatorships of the Middle East and Africa.

The end of the 20th century was capped by Ronald Reagan's presidency and the fall of communism around the world. It was a triumphant of the free market.

I think this century poses much different challenges.

Again Sen:
"The intellectual climate has changed quite dramatically over the last few decades, and the tables are now turned. The virtues of the market mechanism are now standardly assumed to be so pervasive that qualifications seem unimportant. Any pointer to the defects of the market mechanism appears to be, in the present mood, strangely old-fashioned and contrary to contemporary culture (like playing an old 78 rpm record with music from the 1920s). One set of prejudices has given way to another - opposite - set of preconceptions. Yesterday's unexamined faith has become today's heresy, and yesterday's heresy is now the new superstition."
Sen calls for "middle path". In this chapter he spends time, once more, extolling the need of the market - as a mechanism of liberty - freedom to transact, which is a good in and of itself, but also produces good outcomes in may ways. I won't spend time, as he does in the book, with a wordy explanation. I think this view is widely believed.

But the second half of the chapter, he discusses some of the most glaring shortcomings:

Free markets and Inequality
He speaks to specifically people with disabilities or old age - who have both a decreased capacity to work and to convert what they make into a decent life.
"The equity problems have to be addressed, especially in dealing with serious deprivations and poverty, and in that context, social intervention including governmental support may well have an important role. To a great extent, this is exactly what the social security systems in welfare states try to achieve, though a variety of programs including social provision of health care, public support of the unemployed and the indigent and so on."
Free Markets and Interest Groups
This section speaks directly to this critique of the Federal Reserve, or at least its founding...
"There are many people whose interests are well served by the smooth functioning of markets, but there are also groups whose established interests may be hurt by such functioning. If the latter groups are politically more powerful and influential, then they can try to see that markets are not given adequate room in the economy. this can be a particularly serious problem when monopolistic production units flourish - despite inefficiency and various types of ineptitude - thanks to the insulation from competition, domestic or foreign."
"Here too, as in many other areas already examined in this book, the remedy has to lie in more freedom - including that of public discussion and in participatory political decisions. "

More later...

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Down By the River

All of this talk about immigration has prompted me to pull this book off the shelf which is a book about the drug trade,

When you read it you feel like you're talking blows to the stomach page after page.

Here's an overview on the sleeve:

"Lionel Bruno Jordan was murdered on January 20, 1995, in an El Paso parking lot, but he keeps coming back as the skeleton key to a multibillion-dollar drug industry, two corrupt governments - one called the United States and the other Mexico - and a self-styled War on Drugs that is a fraud.

Phil Jordan runs DEA intelligence, but when his brother Bruno is killed, he is powerless. Amado Carillo Fuentes runs the most successful drug business in the history of the world, but when his usefulness to the government ceases, he mysteriously dies in a hospital. Carlos Salinas runs Mexico, but as soon as he leaves office, his brother is jailed for murder and Salinas flees into exile. Sal Martinez, DEA agent and Bruno's cousin, does the secret work of the U.S. government in Mexico, but when he seeks revenge for his cousin's murder, he is sentenced to a term in federal prison.

Beneath all the policy statements and bluster of politicians is a real world of lies, pain, and money.

Down by the River is the tale of how murder led one American family into this world and how it all but destroyed them. Of how one Mexican drug leader outfought and outthought the U.S. government. Of how major financial institutions fattened on the drug industry. nd how the government of the United States and Mexico buried everything that happened.

All this comes together down by the river, a place where the fiction finally end and the facts read like fiction. This is an unforgettable American story about drugs, money, murder, and family."

On page 2:

"I can't even produce a metaphor for the drug world anymore. I don't even like the phrase the drug world since the phrase implies that it is a separate world. And drugs are as basic and American as, say, Citibank. Mexico's three leading official sources of foreign exchange are oil, tourism, and the money sent home by Mexicans in the United States. Drugs bring Mexico more money than these three sources combined. The United States and Mexico share a common border more than 1,800 miles long. Its official, licit, World Bank-type economy is piddling - 4.5 percent that of the United States. Both nations, along with Canada, are officially partners in a common market under the umbrella of NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement. But Mexico and the United States are partners in an unofficial economy called the drug business.

When the drug industry gets mentioned, it gets dismissed by Mexicans blaming the United States for creating the drug market because of its vile habits and the United States blaming Mexico for permitting the drug industry because of its corrupt practices. I disagree with both positions. Drugs are a business, one of the largest on the surface of the earth, and this business exists for two reasons: the products are so very, very good and the profits are so very, very high: Nothing that creates hundreds of billions of dollars of income annually and is desired by millions of people will be stopped by any nation on this earth. A Mexican study by the nation's internal security agency, CISEN (Centro de Investigacion y Seguridad Nacional), that has been leaked to the press speculates that if the drug business vanished, the U.S economy would shrink 19 to 22 percent, the Mexican 63 percent. I stare at these numbers and have no idea if they are sound or accurate. No one can really grapple with the numbers because illegal enterprises can be glimpsed but not measured. In 1995, one Mexican drug-trafficking expert guessed that half the hotel room revenues in his country were frauds, meaning empty rooms counted as sold in order to launder drug money."