The Upside of Down by Charles Kenny

The Upside of Down–Why the Rise of the Rest is Good for the West by Charles Kenny makes the persuasive case that: –Countries like China and India will have larger economies than the U.S. in coming decades because their populations and economic momentum is much greater; –Immigration is a good thing, and a necessary thing, for the U.S. and Europe because it bolsters our populations, fills us with fresh energy, and will help us capitalize on an increasingly interdependent global economy; –The U.S. and other developed countries should cede ground, and dominion, to fast-developing countries like China, India, Brazil, etc., in multilateral institutions (such as his former employer, the World Bank) in return for their increasing contributions to critically important development programs; –The West should think creatively about making use of cost efficiencies the “Rest” offer in areas like health care and retirement; –The West, especially the U.S., is wildly over-invested in military supremacy and underinvested in intelligent aid programs (where emergency food shipments tend to arrive six months after famine breaks out); –The “ranking” of an economy, be it American or Chinese, is not fundamentally significant; what counts is quality of life and positive health, education and welfare indices; –The West has the best universities, but there are excellent alternatives in places like India, China and Chile that cost a fraction of U.S. fees; –America should stop making it easier to bring cattle into the country (at a subsidy of about $22,000 per head) than people who are able to contribute to new and growing industries. This book is a drumbeat of well-researched data emanating from a wide array of studies that demonstrate the wisdom of the U.S. engaging in the world, not shunning it. For example, over 160 countries have ratified the Law of the Seas treaty, but not the U.S. I know, because I worked a bit on this issue, that four senators are the holdouts. Their reasoning–we might be agreeing to give away things that might be valuable–is superficial. Every secretary of state from Henry Kissinger on, and most senior Navy officers, have said that the Law of the Sea treaty is a good idea. It provides a framework for cooperation that might head off conflicts that could have military consequences for the U.S., and it certainly will not restrain the U.S. from exploiting technical advantages in exploiting the world’s seabeds economically and scientifically. I can’t say reading this book is fun for two reasons. First, I spent twenty-five years as a diplomat being smacked in the face by this stuff. Second, there are so many good ideas, worth exploring in greater depth, that the text wears you out. I do think this is an incredibly worthwhile book, another important contribution to whittling down overblown American exceptionalism ( a fantasy that in some Platonic cave somewhere America is the “greatest” country on earth, created to be followed, not to be constrained.) It also is a book that demonstrates again and again the still valid economic principle of competitive advantage, i.e., if you are good at something, do a lot of it and sell the surplus at a profit to someone who has a surplus of something he is good at. Inevitably, Kenny cites the sad statistics about the U.S. relating to income inequality. “…from 1979 to 2007 the richest 1 percent saw their after-tax income climb 275 percent but over the same period the rise was just 18 percent for the poorest one-fifth. The median American’s income actually fell by 7 percent from 1999 to 2010.” One would hope that an economist of Kenny’s scope and lucidity has a future as economic advisor to a future U.S. president or secretary of state. He is not conceding anything as far as the U.S. goes when he refuses to accept world economics as a zero-sum game. From the environment to trade to job creation, we can win through competitive cooperation and lose through stubborn conflict. America won’t soon find itself in the situation of Shelley’s Ozymandias, a relic by-passed by history, but it will do better, much better, if it finds points of positive engagement with the world, fights off domestic special interests, and takes an open stance in approaching the future.

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The Conscience of a Liberal by Paul Krugman

The Concience of a Liberal by Paul Krugman plays off the title of Barry Goldwater’s The Conscience of a Conservative.

Although Krugman’s book was published in 2007 (Goldwater’s back in the 1960s), it remains worth reading. In fact, it is prescient in two major ways.

First, Krugman focuses hard on income inequality, which is a hot topic in 2014. His argument is that over the last 30+ years, taxes on the wealthy have gone down, social programs have been constrained, unions have been busted, and the middle class has shrunk. He shows that in the 1950s and 1960s, when CEOs made less relative to workers than they do today, the U.S. economy performed better. The thesis is basically this: the more people in our economy who make a decent wage, the more we spend and the more we save–while also insuring good education and other public services.

So Krugman focuses tightly on superrich CEOs and money managers (Wall Streeters) and the benefits they enjoy as a result of fierce efforts by what he calls movement conservatives, these being the conservatives who are determined to hamstring government at every turn, cut the deficit, and oppose things like Obamacare.

Secondly, Krugman predicted Obamacare as the coming social policy innovation that would match, in some ways, FDR’s Social Security initiative. Remember, this was in 2007, before Obama was elected. His demographic analysis still pertains: the committed conservatives, though wildly well funded, are a shrinking minority. Not just African-Americans but Latinos and Asian-Americans are more sympathetic to the Democratic party than the Republican party.

Since movement conservatives don’t like immigration, either, they have a problem they can’t fix at the polls with recent immigrant groups and long-standing minorities.Krugman’s analysis of national health programs in France, the U.K., Germany, Canada and other highly developed nations shows quite clearly that if we work together we can have more and better health care for less. In fact, we’re hugely overinvested in our old system, and Obamacare is the first step toward the better health outcomes and lower expenses our peer competitors enjoy.

This is a refreshingly straightforward book. The few tables are easy to read. The anecdotes are pertinent and persuasive. Most disturbing, but not surprising, is the emphasis Krugman places on racism in the south as a reason for the Republican resurgence there since 1968.

But again, things are changing. We’ve re-elected a black president. Here in Virginia, where I live, a bastion of the south, we’re purple, not red or blue.

The way income inequality retards our national competitiveness and productivity is easy to see and understand. When you ship jobs off-shore and lower wages at home (partially through union-busting), you’ve got a population that struggles with basics, not with ambitious socio-economic advancement.

In the meantime, of course, we had the colossal debacle of the Great Recession right after Krugman’s book was published. But he’s written a lot about that, too, and we all know his general thesis: the Obama administration and Congress probably spent about half what it should have in helping people out of work and facing foreclosure. And in the meantime, we ran up a $3 trillion unfunded debt fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama didn’t start either war, but he did well to get us out of Iraq and not as well continuing to waste treasure and lives in Afghanistan.

Krugman likes to season his brew with reminscences about the social consensus that Eisenhower accepted on the part of the Republicans. That’s when Krugman was a boy, and we had far less income inquality. I was a boy then, too, and I recall quite clearly that Krugman has it right. We had yet to go through some bitter social struggles, including civil rights, feminism, and gay rights, so we were far, far from the perfect nation, but we still felt more committed to good national outcomes than we have since then. Warren Buffet is on the same wavelength. As he puts it, he doesn’t need all his billions and he doesn’t see why he should pay lower taxes than his secretary.

In closing, just another word on Buffet. I was coming out of the Russell Senate building one day when Buffet walked past me and hailed a cab. He got in the cab and drove away. The point? Where was his limo? Where were his aides? Where was the press his P.R. department had cooked up? They didn’t exist. It was just Warren Buffet being a sensible man. Taxis are a good way to get around Washington,D.C. They put you in touch with a lot of immigrant drivers who likely will affect our future a great deal.p>T

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The Sunday of Life by Raymond Queneau

There are many things that could be written about the French novelist, Raymond Queneu, who died in 1976, but that would detract from the things I want to write about The Sunday of Life.

The Sunday of Life is a silly, penetrating, witty novel about nothing much colliding with nothing much and yet retaining the reader’s interest because the characters are so salty, impassive, greedy, envious, clever, and dotty.

A middle-aged woman sees a soldier pass her shop every day. The soldier, Valentin, is about twenty-five years younger than the woman. But the woman, Julia, tells her sister, Chantal, that she’s going to marry the guy…and she does.

Valentin is utterly without ambition and doesn’t know what he’s going to do with himself when he leaves the army. Yes, WWII overhangs everything, but in the meantime, there’s life to live, isn’t there? So he goes along with it, transforming Julia’s thread and oddities shop into a framing shop, and then becoming a fortune-teller in drag. Meanwhile Chantal and her husband Paul strike it rich in the armaments business, where Paul goes into business making rifle stocks.

This inconsequential bit of writing, wherein Queneau deliberately messes around with people’s names and backgrounds, is simply charming, and it falls into a category.

First, if you like films by François Trauffaut or Éric Roemer, you’ll recognize a certain French artistic gift for exploring the uniquely intriguing characteristics of “nobodies.” These characters have relatively eventless vacations, chase balloons, watch the sun turn green when it settles into the ocean at twilight, tease one another, flirt, obsess about a girl’s knee, and it’s all interesting. They take themselves seriously, but not too seriously. They develop, but they sometimes just give up.

Second, in literary terms, the novels of Henry Greene (British) are like this and Laurence Sterne (also British) are like this. These are novels that play with words and perspectives and capture every imaginable ironic twist, joke, reversal, and utter impossibility. How many people are going to talk to a woman who hostesses her party, which she refuses to attend, from her bathtub? What is Tristram Shandy going to say next with respect to the concept of “homunculus”?

The American TV show Seinfeld was all about funny things that didn’t matter but were situationally desperately important.

Queneau was a serious writer, an aesthetician, an experimentalist, and a joker. In The Sunday of Life, he has fun. You will too.

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The Trespasser by D. H. Lawrence

I’m not sure about the best way to enjoy writing this comment on D.H. Lawrence’s second novel, The Trespasser. With Lawrence it seems to easy to say it is a very fine, intensely wrought novel that presaged even greater work to follow. If you were an editor/publisher and received this work from a relatively unknown writer, for instance, you’d know right away that the man had immense and peculiar talent. You’d question the narrow focus of the plot and the confusing opening and ending of the manuscript, but you’d have no doubt, sentence after sentence, that Lawrence understood early in his career that you could write about things in the English language that normally are ineffable. The story is fairly simple. A musician in a bad early marriage falls in love with a younger musician, spends a week on the Isle of Wight with her, and realizes, upon returning home, that he can’t go on without her (Helena) or abandon Beatrice (his wife) and the children he shares with Beatrice. So he commits suicide. Hangs himself. Within a year, Beatrice has moved on with help from her family, and Helena has found a new suitor who slowly, slowly, is getting his fingers in position to pry her fingers off Siegmund’s memory. There is something intentionally Wagnerian about this, but let’s skip that and go back to this peculiar quality of Lawrence’s writing. He manages, in describing the week on the Isle of Wight, to describe the moment to moment rise and fall all lovers experience in their earliest passion. He relates a passing glance to nothing less than death. He grants the sky and sun and waves outrageous primacy in reflecting human emotions to which, we probably believe, nature is utterly indifferent. He simply has the tenacity to not let go of what happens between two erotically engaged people taking a walk, lying on the beach, wondering privately to themselves whether there is a future to this passion or an onrushing calamity. Carrying this emotional nothingness, devoid of clear action and certain outcome for the longest time, is a very difficult task for a writer. But Lawrence, like some other English writers before him (Blake comes to mind) had the gift of re-valuing his native language itself. Yes, Nietzsche theorized and practiced such revaluation in German, too; I’m conscious of that and want to bring him into the discussion just a bit, especially because he first loved and then hated Wagner, and the young Lawrence wasn’t nearly as astute and bitter and learned as Nietzsche. No matter, here is a novel by Lawrence I had never heard of before that isn’t infected by some of his later histrionics and excesses. Curiously, the smaller Lawrence wrote (some of the short stories and The Fox come to mind), the more purely he wrote, with less affectation and overt criticism of almost everyone who couldn’t quite believe in his theories of “the blood.” The Trespasser reaches an appalling high point toward the end as Siegmund realizes he can’t go on. His analysis is clear and deadly. His relations with his wife, who is fed up with him, and his children, who are fed up with him, are dreadful. He is truly someone who at least should run away, and we know he will do that, we just don’t know, until the beautifully awkward discovery of his body, how he will do it. Those of us who would condemn him in principle are likely to stop condemning him as they get as good a look at his home life when he returns from the Isle of Wight. That’s when Lawrence’s drama becomes action, not metaphysics, logic, not fantasy, and my God, by God, he’s going to do it…he’s going to do it…he’s done it…he’s dead. And then? This business of Beatrice refusing to mourn him, this business of Helena contemplating, within a year, the advances of a new lover. Actually, it’s a little brutal, a little too realistic, a little disappointing in a way that puts the whole of our little lives into an unpleasant perspective. The first time I ran into such an ethos–the ethos of so what if we live, so what if we die–occurred during my freshman year in college. My roommate informed me that if I were to die, he wouldn’t care in the least; he wouldn’t care if anyone died, himself or his family included. Life to him was a material phenomenon, and so if Earle was dead, big deal. He wasn’t being histrionic, nor was Lawrence being histrionic in The Trespasser He really meant that in the context of the sun and stars and galaxies, we don’t matter, so those of us who survive a little longer should just get on with it. This anecdote of mine ends badly. Obviously I didn’t die. My roommate died. He already, at seventeen (he was a math prodigy), was on the road to alcoholism. By his late forties, he would call me and talk about things drunkenly, and because somehow we’d remained friends, I would listen, and then he got around to telling me his liver was shot and there was no remedy and by fifty, he was gone. That’s a brutal death. My mother, who was a nurse, once told me that cirrhosis of the liver causes the worst death of all. She’d seen it and many other kinds of death and that was her opinion. In the case of The Trespasser, the approach to suicide is as finely recounted as moments of erotic bliss just a few days earlier on the Isle of Wight. The only error our editor/publisher might have made upon receiving this exceptional early novel was not insisting Lawrence get into it and out of it more cleanly and quickly. But the young Lawrence wanted some irony and distance from his dismal vision, and so only ninety percent of the text is unremittingly acute. The other ten percent is novelizing. Ultimately with Women in Love, Lawrence spat the novelizing out. All he gave his readers was his really unusual rendition of relentless passion lurking beneath everything we say and do.

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In the Land of Zim (Part VI) by Robert Earle

Part VI of “In the Land of Zim” is now online at piker press.com   This is the segment where the full weight of the cholera epidemic in Zimbabwe falls most heavily on the four American womens’ shoulders.  There is success, and there is failure.  Some patients live, others die.

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The Secret Sharer by Joseph Conrad

The Secret Sharer by Joseph Conrad is often a companion piece to other Conrad tales, usually Heart of Darkness, and so the years have passed and I never read this story until tonight because the headline story always caught my attention.

 

The Secret Sharer is a story, not a novella, though it’s a long one, and it’s a perfect example of Conrad using the setting of the southeast Asian seas as a kind of metaphysical symbol for the totality of existence.  He depicts beauty, tranquility, boredom, discipline, contentiousness and the travails of the human psyche out there, all in beautifully cadenced sentences that capture the rhythms of life aboard ship under hot suns and fickle winds.

 

In this case, Conrad adds piquancy.  A young captain finds himself harboring a man who has fled another ship because he had murdered a shipmate during a storm.  He keeps this man, who swims to him, hidden in his compartment, and the man becomes something like a double–he’s often referred to as such–but even better something like the Cain in everyone, the dark side of the captain, his doubts about his worthiness to command a vessel, his questions about his judgments and authority, the pressures placed on anyone, really, who is wallowing about the seas and has too much time to think and too little to think with or about…except himself.

 

The double is a seemingly inexhaustible fixture in literature.  Writers use it to get at aspects of a character that can’t be deployed in a single personality.  They use it to posit innocence on the one hand and original sin on the other.  They use it to make irony concrete and capture the unease that underlies almost every personality.  There is waking life and there is dream life.  There is private life and there is public life. Humor and tragedy.  Doubles serve all these features of existence.

 

The beauty of Conrad’s writing is that his thoughtfulness is embedded in the events of the narrative.  There are certainly moments when he pauses to let a narrator philosophize, but his real gift is to turn a ship, or a city, into a kind of a stage where the action unfolds the meaning without calling excessive attention to itself.

 

What any double does for each of us, of course, is bring us to the fork in the road, Frost’s road not taken, and push us to ask whether it matters what destiny holds in store for us…if it could just as well be quite different in the life of the double.

 

Yet at the same time, Conrad finds a kind of adhesion between his two figures, the captain and the stowaway, a moral bond, an element of concern.  They part ways and yet they don’t.  Years later they will remember this peculiar episode, and the risks each took to arrange a final parting.

 

For his clarity, his descriptiveness, his insight, his economy of plot and symbol, Conrad has always represented for me a writer of fiction of the first order.  Yes, he’s a romantic of sorts, but the discipline of the ship keeps him honest.

 

If you’ve read The Secret Sharer, it’s worth rereading. If not, it’s worth taking up for a first time.  Here is fiction that is one thing, a single piece of tapestry, that unfolds with uninterrupted excellence, the diction right, the minor characters right, the deeper quandaries of the main characters right.

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Solzhenitsyn’s Advice by Robert Earle

My new story, “Solzhenitsyn’s Advice,” just appeared in The Write Room, which can be accessed at thewritemag.com

 

This story is one of a series I have published that extends The Brothers Karamazov into 20th century America.  If you have time to read it, you’ll see how Alexander Solzhenitsyn responds to this unexpected proposition.

 

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