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The Mandibles: Nobody can agree on what caused the collapse


Continuing my posts about Lionel Shriver’s The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047

One of the things that seems realistic in this novel is that Americans don’t change their views on economics or politics based on new facts. When the economy collapses, therefore, each American explains it according to his or her previously held political or economic viewpoint.

Here are some excerpts:

At Barnard, having written her honors thesis on “Class, 1945–Present” had seemed daring, because Americans flattered themselves as beyond class. But that was before the fabled economic downturn that fatally coincided with her college graduation. After which, Americans talked about nothing but class.

Checking the rice, she [liberal mom] tried to remember what her weirdo son had claimed about the recrudescence of malnutrition in Africa and on the subcontinent, after both regions had made such strides. It was an outrage that the poor simply couldn’t afford to eat, she’d bemoaned to the boy [conservative teenager], when the planet had plenty of food. He’d responded obtusely, “No, it doesn’t.” He proceeded to recapitulate his great-grandfather’s tortured explanation—something like, “It only seems like there’s plenty of food. If you gave the poor more money, then the price would rise even higher, and then they still couldn’t afford it.” Which didn’t make the slightest sense. Around Willing, she should monitor her grandfather’s propaganda more closely. The old man was liberal by creed, but she’d never met anyone with money who didn’t have conservative instincts. One such instinct was to make the morally obvious (if fiscally inconvenient) seem terribly complicated. Like, rice is too costly, then give people the money to buy it. Duh.

[Keynesian economics professor talking with his therapist wife] “Sorry. I did get into an argument, with that boomerpoop Vandermire. Because, okay, the bond auction today, it’s—unfortunate. At the moment, foreign demand for US debt is low—but there are completely unrelated reasons for backing off US debt instruments in a variety of different countries that just happen to be coinciding. Here, the market is hopping; investors can find higher yields in the Dow than in dumpy Treasury securities. Interest rates aren’t likely to stay anywhere near 8.2 percent and this is probably a one-time spike. Jesus, in the 1980s, Treasury bond interest careened to over 15 percent. Bonds paid over 8 percent as recently as 1991—” “That’s not very recent.” “My point is, there’s no reason to get hysterical!” “Then don’t say that hysterically.” “Well, Vandermire is ecstatic. He loves the attention, and he’s on a high of having been supposedly right all along. ‘Unsustainable! The national debt is unsustainable!’ If I heard him say the word unsustainable one more time this afternoon I’d have punched him in the nose. The functional definition of unsustainable is that-which-is-not-sustained. If you can’t keep something up, you don’t. After all that noise twenty years ago about the deficit, the melodramatic shutdowns of government over raising the debt ceiling, and what’s happened? Nothing. At 180 percent of GDP—which Japan proved was entirely doable—the debt has been sustained. It is therefore, ipso facto, sustainable.” The trouble with being a professor is that when you pontificate for a living it’s hard to cut the crap once you get back home. Avery was used to it, though she didn’t find Lowell’s rants quite as enchanting as when they first got married.

“The Fed chief was emphatic. Krugman said the limits were for a few days, max.” [Paul Krugman is running the Fed and puts in capital controls]

[teenage son talking to liberal mom] “The government will have lots of money. But it won’t be worth anything. Which is the same as having no money.” One of her few concerns about her only child was that he inclined toward smugness. “All right. What. Since I’ve heard we need regular inflation, like at least 2 or 3 percent, my whole life.” “I know you have. You’ve been brainwashed.” He sounded so cheerful. “We could easily get along with a small, steady, predictable rate of deflation. Inflation is a tax. Money for the government. A tax that people don’t see as a tax. That’s the best kind, for politicians. But inflation isn’t inevitable. Starting in 1300, the British pound pretty much maintained its value for six hundred years. And that was during the Empire, when English people practically ruled the world.” … “Prices aren’t going up,” Willing said authoritatively. Florence snorted. “Could have fooled me!” “They have fooled you.” Willing’s stride had developed a swagger. “It’s the mistake people always make. They think things are getting more expensive. Actually, everything costs the same. Prices aren’t going up; the currency is going down.”

“They’re in a corner. They can’t borrow. They could raise taxes. But the rich already pay high taxes. And now their investments are gone. The rich aren’t rich. So the only people left to tax are people like you and Esteban. Who can’t buy cabbage. Blood from a stone, as Great Grand Man put it. What else is there to do? Photocopy the money.”

“Never forget where information comes from, puppet. I wouldn’t accept everything your great-grandfather says as gospel. He’s liberal on social issues, but wealth always pulls people to the right—because they can’t help wanting to keep it. Everyone has an agenda.”

The patriarch is the main source of family conservatism.

“Carter. I will let you in on what isn’t a secret to any housewife who’s bought a cucumber. The American dollar is worthless now not because of the rate spike, and not because of crashing on the international currency exchange, and not because of the bancor. It is worthless now because it was worthless before.” “That’s melodramatic.” “Not melodramatic—dramatic. In the hundred years following the establishment of the Federal Reserve in 1913, the dollar lost 95 percent of its value—when one of the purposes of the Fed was to safeguard the integrity of the currency. Great job, boys! Ever wonder why no one talks about millionaires anymore—why no one but a billionaire rates as rich? Because a man who had about ten grand in 1913 would be a millionaire a century later. Hell, everyone’s a millionaire these days, every halfway solvent member of the middle class. And the majority of that currency decay is historically recent. Why, the dollar lost half its value in the mere four years between 1977 and 1981.”

The academics are the ones who really go at it. Here are the boring Keynesian professor and his exciting Thomas Piketty-like colleague at a dinner party:

“Morally, your money does belong to everybody,” Ryan said. “The creation of capital requires the whole apparatus of the state to protect property rights, including intellectual property. Private enterprise is dependent on the nation as a whole for an educated workforce, transportation networks, and social order. No country, no fortune.”

“I’ll grant you this much.” Tom was making an almighty effort to remain affable, for which Avery was grateful. “’Kay, for the last several years inflation has bounced between 3 and 4 percent. I realize that to experts like you folks, I’ll sound dumb as a coal shovel. But the figure I tripped across the other day came as a shock to me: with 3 percent inflation, the dollar halves in value every twenty-three years. That’s from Fed money printing. So when I don’t control what ‘my’ money is worth, maybe it isn’t really mine in the first place. At best, it’s a loan. Which Krugman can zap into ashes while it’s still in my pocket, like a superhero.”

“Better everyone is somewhat less well off than we keep tolerating the grotesque economic disparities of the last thirty years,” Lin Yu said. “As Americans, we can return to first principles. This is a chance at reboot and rebirth. A chance for transformation and redemption. An opportunity to eschew corruption, and cronyism, and inequity, and division, and re-create this country from the ground up. To be the United States again, to live in a united state. To restore this nation to the egalitarian utopia the founding fathers envisioned. We should all be proud to be participating in this watershed.”“Better everyone is somewhat less well off than we keep tolerating the grotesque economic disparities of the last thirty years,” Lin Yu said. “As Americans, we can return to first principles. This is a chance at reboot and rebirth. A chance for transformation and redemption. An opportunity to eschew corruption, and cronyism, and inequity, and division, and re-create this country from the ground up. To be the United States again, to live in a united state. To restore this nation to the egalitarian utopia the founding fathers envisioned. We should all be proud to be participating in this watershed.”

Eventually the professor debates with the teenagers:

“The national debt was bound to come to a head eventually,” Nollie held forth on her third glass of wine. “It was just hard to predict when. And prophets too ahead of their time are always ridiculed. Take population. In my teens, the species was allegedly reproducing itself into extinction. Last time I checked, the human race was still here. Now we’re closing on nine billion—a tripling in seventy years. But what if the ‘overpopulation’ hysterics were right, just too soon? Same with debt. Twenty years ago, doom-and-gloomers were foaming at the mouth about excessive borrowing. Nothing happened then, either—until a year ago, when everything happened. Familiar with complexity theory? It helps to explain why everything can be fine for a long time and then go to hell all at once.”

Avery had tried to tolerate her husband’s self-importance about “his work,” some vital economic analysis without which the world would fall apart. The world having already fallen apart, her tolerance had morphed to contempt. In retrospect, it seemed pretty rich for her whole family to have none too subtly dismissed her PhysHead practice as quackery, when Lowell’s whole field had been exposed as far dodgier hocus-pocus; at the worst, Avery’s cures merely overpromised, while Lowell’s gang of charlatans had wreaked nationwide havoc.

“I wouldn’t write off the United States just yet!” Lowell said. “See the Dow is climbing back up, Goog? What’d I tell you!” “It’s only going up in dollars,” Willing said from the coffee table. “What else is it supposed to go up in?” Goog jeered. “In a hyperinflationary economy—” “Whoa, hold on there, Willing,” Lowell said. “Hyperinflation is a technical term. In my field, Philip Cagan’s definition is broadly accepted: at least 50 percent per month. We’re nowhere near that. In the 1920s, German inflation was 30,000 percent, and Serbian inflation was 300 million percent. In Hungary, after the Second World War? It was 1.3 times ten to the sixteenth—literally beyond your imagination. No comparison.” “Sorry,” Avery mumbled to her sister. “I think Lowell misses teaching.” “In a high inflation economy, then,” Willing corrected, and it was difficult to tell who was more patronizing to whom, “all assets seem to appreciate, including stock. But the gains are false. In bancors, the market continues to drop.”

“It’s the usual GOP austerity blunder,” Lowell said. “Because this is a time to pump up government expenditure. Invest in infrastructure, like a second New Deal. Reinvigorate America’s industrial base, and reduce the need for imports.” It occurred to Avery that her husband needed to get out more. His familiar economics platitudes failed to connect with the rampaging crowds on the Mall, the encampments on the Potomac, the numerous cars on the interstate on the trip to New York with mattresses and bundles of clothing lashed on top, like a modern-day Grapes of Wrath. She had the same sensation listening to press conferences from the White House. The administration went through the motions of being the American government, and saying the things that American officials say, but the exercise had an air of imitation—the studied intensity of tots who cook pies with mud.

The aunt from France and the teenager try to sum it all up:

“To have that much power and let it go?” Nollie said. “That is pretty stupid.” “It always goes,” Willing said. “Whether or not you let it.” “Having that much money and letting it go, then,” Nollie revised. “Having that much money and still spending more than you’ve got. I call that stupid.”

Characters adapt to changed circumstances, but no matter how severe the adaptations Shriver doesn’t show them changing their politics.

More: Read The Mandibles.

Israeli versus German airport security


Here are some observations based on a recent flight from Tel Aviv through Frankfurt to Boston…

Israeli physical scrutiny is somewhat lax compared to American or German procedures. Adult passengers keep their shoes on. Passengers can keep a water bottle. An oversized tube of sunscreen does not get anyone excited. One exception is that tablet computers must be removed from luggage for X-ray. Human bodies are screened with a metal detector, not a Get Smart-style Tube of X-Rays. The bulwark of Israeli airport security seems to be sorting passengers by risk. A middle-aged U.S. citizen traveling with a child? Wave them through. A man in his 20s traveling alone? Time for a conversation.

Changing terminals in Frankfurt requires going through German security screening. The liquids and sunscreen tube that didn’t bother the Israelis have to be tossed (unlike in the U.S., however, the screeners acknowledge the absurdity of the rule and gently apologize for it even as they are enforcing it). Everyone, including young children, has to be X-rayed.

Separately, here is one thing that you won’t see in a U.S. or German airport…

TLV airport Lubavitch

TLV airport Lubavitch

The Mandibles on France


Continuing my posts about Lionel Shriver’s The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047

One of the family members is living in France when the U.S. begins to truly fall apart:

“Maybe you should stay in France.” “I can’t. For an American, anywhere in Europe is physically dangerous. We’re being assaulted. And not only with crème fraîche.” “Stay in nights, then. It’s sure to blow over.” “Besides, this country’s hardly one big wine-swilling soirée. At any given time, half the population is on strike, and what good is a great train system that never runs? They’re apoplectic that they can’t all retire at fifty-two. They all expect their child benefit, their gold-plated pensions, their token-pittance healthcare charges, their truncated workweek, and two solid years of unemployment at a salary most lawyers don’t earn—all of which is a human right. Along with so many holidays and vacations that the fuckers put their feet up for a third of the year. Oh, and everyone wants to work for the government; most of them do. Your basic all-cart, no-horse. So the whole country plops into the hay wagon and wonders why it doesn’t move.”

“It’s got to be better than here,” Carter said. “Furthermore, the whole Muslim thing is out of control,” Nollie bullied on obliviously. “If I walk down the Champs-Élysées, I’ll get thumped for being a deadbeat. If I walk anywhere less central, I’ll get thumped because I’m not wearing a trash bag. Even in France, they’ve given up on the assimilation shtick, and gone for slavish appeasement instead. Whole tracts of the country are effectively no-go areas for actual French people. It’s the same all over Europe now, so there’s nowhere to go.”

More: Read The Mandibles.

Working around the Arab boycott of Israel


One of the people I met in Israel manages a 35-person company, some of whose customers are in Arab and other Islamic countries. How is that he is apparently working around the Arab boycott of Israel? “Our company is technically based in the U.S.,” he responded. “We’ve got a warehouse in the U.S. with five people handling shipping. We have a U.S. bank account, a U.S. phone number, and we work East Coast hours, roughly noon to 8 or 9 pm here. The customers never know that they’re talking to someone in Israel.”

How would our language change if the U.S. were to collapse economically?


Not too many literary novelists tackle the big economic questions of our time. John Lanchester did it after the Collapse of 2008 with I.O.U.: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay, but he didn’t write a novel. Now Lionel Shriver has actually done it with The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047.

I’ll be writing more about this interesting and fun novel, but for starters let’s look at how American English changes after a big economic collapse circa 2029. The country is majority Latino and they are “Lats” while white Americans are “honks.” A couple of decades after the U.S. defaults on its bonds, both principal and interest, where a present-day American might use the words “shit” and “asswipe” the corresponding words are “treasury” and “T-bill.”:

Maybe even Goog, who wouldn’t be such a T-bill if he didn’t work for the Scab. [Two brothers are named, circa 2020, “Goog” and “Bing”; the Scab is short for “Bureau for Social Contribution Assistance,” the rebranded IRS.]

“You’re always reminiscing about how brutal it was at Citadel. If Elysian is splug, why not go back? You took to that farm treasury more than most of us did.

“And you’re assuming that the chip’s self-destruct is treasury. Why would it be? You heard Goog. A whole unit at the Scab, he said. And doesn’t it sound like exactly what they’d program your chip to do, if you had the impertinence to throw down your cotton hoe, and the ingratitude to walk away from the greatest nation on earth? These people are motherfucking T-bills! Seems biggin’ likely to me that instead of allowing you to throw off your chains, they’d rather you be dead.”

Young folks change the way they greet each other:

“Full faith and credit, man,” Bing said, with a biff of solidarity on Willing’s shoulder. “Full faith and credit,” Willing returned, with a light biff back. The ritual greeting went over the heads of their elders.

Americans who reject the various transformations in society and move to the free state of Nevada are referred to as “Forty-Niners”. The transformations include chipping humans the way that dogs are currently chipped and confiscating guns:

Return to the city necessitated a proper job. Packing up at Citadel in ’41, he already suspected that a job meant being chipped. It was routine; everyone said so. Like applying for a Social Security number. A bureaucratic matter, a relatively painless, pro forma protocol of the modern day. Thus Willing had not considered the inevitability of the procedure with sufficient seriousness. He had been lulled by what was regular, by what was expected and customary. No doubt all ages have their usual things, about which no one at the time thinks twice. Their leeches and bloodletting, their homosexual “cures,” their children’s workhouses and debtors’ prisons. When drowning in the is-ness of the widely accepted present, it must be hard to tell the difference—between traditions like burying your dead and having dinner at 8 p.m. and other, just as mesmerizingly normative conventions that later will leap out to posterity as offenses against the whole human race. Maybe he was letting himself off the hook. He’d had misgivings, after all. Yet it is always challenging to choose otherwise when you are informed in no uncertain terms that there is no choice to make. When Willing was small, people made a great brouhaha over pedophilia, and sexual abuse of any kind. Employees at daycare centers were required to get criminal-record checks. All scoutmasters were suspect. No one ever seemed to care if you were a murderer. Murderers were let out of prison and blended right back into the neighborhood. They could live wherever they wanted. Sex criminals were marked for life—shuttled from hostels to underpasses, and required to report their whereabouts, which were posted on the web—the better for local parents to start picketing campaigns to have the filth evicted. The no-go radius around schools and playgrounds widened every year. It was worse to be a rapist than a killer. By inference, rather than be raped, you were better off dead.

The foreign object was the size of a pinhead. A mere poke would be more painful, a squeeze, even. Parents were far better off anguishing over male circumcision, now roundly discouraged. Willing envied the newborns. The real trauma had little to do with physical torment. A baby’s clean slate would preclude any horror over what the “foreign object” was for. Since he was eight years old, Willing had understood that most systems worked badly. It was a surprise to discover in his young adulthood that they could also work too well.

He accepted that the chip performed the functions it was purported to. It registered direct deposits of his salary. It deducted the costs of any products he chose to buy. It debited his utility bills. Though Willing had no experience of either, it recorded investments and received state benefits. It subtracted local, state, and federal taxes, which totaled 77 percent of his pay. It communicated his every purchase to the agency known until 2039 as the Internal Revenue Service—what the item cost, when and where he bought it, and the product’s exact description, down to model, serial number, or sell-by date. It informed the American tax authorities if he bought a packet of crackers. Were the chip to accumulate an excess of fiscal reserves—an amount that surpassed what he required on average to cover his expenses for the month—it would dun the overage at an interest rate of -6 percent. Should the balance cross various thresholds, that interest rate would progress up to -21 percent. (Saving was selfish. Saving was bad for the economy. Negative interest rates also provided Americans a short course in mathematics from which an undereducated public could surely benefit. At -21 percent compounded annually, 100 was worth 30.77 five years later.) Any additional income, including gift coupons for a birthday, revenue from pawned possessions, bake-sale proceeds, and private-party poker winnings, would also register on the chip, and would also be taxed at 77 percent.

If anyone contacted your chipsite whose distinctive heartbeat didn’t synchronize perfectly with the pounding in your chip, your funds went into lockdown. So no one could pretend to be you, and the account that went everywhere you went was safe from predators. (The feds somewhat oversold this feature in the early versions. In a surge of “chipnappings,” individuals were forced to make online transfers at gunpoint. Updates guaranteed that when the chip detected high levels of stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine, or even heavy doses of tranquilizers that might suppress those hormones, transfers would not go through. The same bio-sensitivity ensured that gamblers could not place rash bets while drunk, which had a distinctly depressive effect on the casino industry.)

Much the same reasoning had led to the complete elimination of the cash dólar nuevo in 2042.

Who completely ignored the weapons amnesty in ’38?” “He didn’t completely ignore it,” Bing said. “When they canceled the Second Amendment—” “No one canceled the Second Amendment, you yunk,” Goog said. “It was clarified. Modern constitutional scholars now believe it was never meant to apply to individuals in the first place. A ‘well-regulated militia’ means the police and the armed forces. Not some lunatic with an AK in a shopping mall.”

The chip stuff interests me because starting about 15 years ago I have been waiting for humans to be chipped. I imagined that it would start with criminals as a condition of parole. Then it would be children because we don’t want them to get lost. Then it would be visitors to the U.S. and immigrants as a condition of getting in. Then finally it would lead to a much safer and more secure society if everyone were chipped. Shriver imagines that we get chipped primarily to facilitate tax collection.

What about when they turn on the tap and no water comes out? That’s a “dryout”. Old people soaking up an ever-greater share of the GDP with Social Security and Medicare? “shrivs”

More: Read The Mandibles.

School schedule and mission in Israel


Back in November I wrote “Touring the Mediocrity Factory” regarding a conversation with an American primary school principal. She dismissed as unworkable the Russian system in which schools are purely academic institutions and have a short school day. It seems that Israel operates schools with a similar schedule and mission, at least for the first six grades. Children go to school from about 8 am to 12:30 pm. They are not served lunch at “school”. They do not have recess. They do not play sports at “school”. Although generally the cost of most things in Israel is higher than in the U.S., Israel spends less than the U.S. on primary schools (just under $6,000 per year says the OECD; compare to about $11,200 per year for the U.S.)

Note that at least some Israelis are unhappy with the current system. I was told that feminists in particular complain that the system is unfair to women because, if a family cannot afford after-school programs, mothers are typically the ones who have to care for children who are dumped onto the street at 12:30 pm.

Traditional gender roles, family norms, and feminism in Israel


One of our guides during a recent trip to Israel described a public debate over the extent to which the society is fair to women. He pointed out that women can retire with the same pension at age 62 versus 67 for men. Women serve 1-1.5 years less in the military (and are exempt from the draft altogether if they get married before age 18). Women who do serve in the military are exempt from reserve duty as soon as they become pregnant for the first time whereas men can be and are called up until the age of 40-50). “Women complain about their status but they never mention these advantages.”

Some of the advantages for women are limited to those who get married and/or have children. An Israeli attorney pointed out that a woman could simply marry at 18, have a few children, and then sue for property division, alimony (but maybe only from a rabbinic court? example; also see this one regarding a $90,000 one-time payment), custody, profitable child support (even if the children live with their father), etc. as soon as she was tired of her partner. Women are automatic victors in any custody lawsuit for a child under six (though this may be changing soon; compare to some European countries where women automatically win custody regardless of the age of the child[ren] and to U.S. states where the law is gender-neutral but the statistical probability of a child being with the father at least 50 percent of the time is less than 10 percent).

Israeli law has some built-in bias towards traditional family norms. Currently only a married heterosexual couple can hire a surrogate mother within Israel (that may be changing, however; see “AG: Single women should also be able to use a surrogate” for how single women (but not single men or gay male couples) may gain equal status in this area).

Women cite to the fact that Israel has a larger gender gap in pay than most other countries (OECD). [Note to investors: You can therefore make some staggering profits by setting up a company in Israel and hiring only women!]


What happened at the Republican convention?


I’m in Paris, I don’t think that any Republican can win the U.S. Presidency (previous posting), and my vote in any general election is irrelevant (since I vote in Massachusetts), so I haven’t watched or read about the Republican convention. My Facebook feed is alive with expressions of outrage from Hillary Clinton supporters (did they imagine that the convention was set up for them?), but they don’t describe anything substantive having happened.

Readers: What happened at the convention? Is there any new information?

Buddhist pilgrims to the Holy Land


One area where Jews and Arabs once had a common interest was in growing food on the irrigated desert (guides point out that every tree you see in Israel was planted within the last 100 years or so). Unskilled workers in need of a job would pick fruit. Some of these jobs have been replaced by machines, but Palestinians coming in from the West Bank and Gaza have been substantially replaced, according to our guide, by Thais who fly in to work for 2-3 years (food can be grown and picked more or less year-round in Israel so it wouldn’t make sense for them to come just for one harvest season).

Thus Israeli is now a pilgrimage site for Buddhists!

Why not look to the Middle East for real-world Universal Basic Income effects?


I was chatting with an NYU professor. She recently taught a class at the university’s Abu Dhabi campus. I asked her what the students were like and she said that only four were Emiratis and “they were all girls; Emirati boys can’t be bothered since they know that they will never have to work.” It turned out that young people from all around the world competed for all-expenses paid slots at this college and the vast majority turned out to be foreigners.

As someone who hates to see money poured down the administrative drain I have long been a fan of UBI-style ideas (see my 1996 food-and-shelter idea, for example). But I’m wondering if experience in the Middle East should be studied before we go too far down this road. A lot of oil-rich Arab countries offer the basics of life to all of their citizens. U.S. and European taxpayers have been providing food, shelter, healthcare, and education to Palestinians since 1950 through a UN agency. The result seems to be low participation in employment (but maybe we will match them soon!) and a high birthrate: Qatar has the 6th highest population growth rate on the planet (CIA Factbook); the Gaza Strip is not too far behind at #13 (CIA Factbook).

Tel Aviv cab driver on the subject: “I told my kids that the only place ‘Success’ comes before ‘Hard Work’ is in the dictionary.” (works better in Hebrew, presumably; he had worked at a desk job for 36 years before retiring from that to drive a cab)


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