Reading Up on Argentina, Birthplace of Pope Francis


With the Pope’s visit to the U.S. this week, now is a good time to add a few choice items to your reading list.

Pope Francis is from Argentina, a country in crisis. That includes economic crisis. For background to the history of capitalism and free enterprise in Argentina, have a look at The Crisis of Argentine Capitalism, by Paul H. Lewis. Paul Lewis-Crisis Argentine Capitalism-book coverArgentina once boasted a vital economy. Today it struggles under a regime that has frittered away the capital of a storied nation and crippled economic opportunity among the rank and file. Lewis documents the history of this condition and explains the unique story of economic decline in Argentina. In the same vein is Vito Tanzi’s informed on-the-ground account in Argentina: An Economic Chronicle—How One of the Richest Countries in the World Lost Its Wealth. Tanzi, an Italian, spent three decades working in various roles for the International Monetary Fund.

For those seeking a travelogue, Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia is the celebrated gold standard. Condé Nast, a travel journal, ranks it among “The 86 Greatest Travel Books of All Time”. The London newspaper Telegraph includes it among “The 20 Best Travel Books of All Time”. William Dalrymple, writing for The Guardian, proclaims it his favorite book in the category of travel literature. He judges that it is probably the most influential travelogue since World War II.

Uki Goñi-Real Odessa-Nazi War Criminals to Argentina-Book CoverMany have forgotten, or never knew, that Nazi war criminals found safe have in Argentina under Juan Perón. Uki Goñi narrates this story in his book The Real Odessa: How Perón Brought the Nazi War Criminals to Argentina. He documents collaboration between Perón and the Vatican. Kenneth Maxwell reviews the book in the journal Foreign Affairs. For a fuller description and evaluation of Goñi, see Richard Gott’s review in The Guardian. Gott doesn’t dispute the evidence of Catholic collusion.

Altogether incidentally, one of my favorite films, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford (1969), recalls the demise of these affable ruffians in a hail of bullets while hiding out in Argentina.

Note: All links are to Kindle editions at Amazon.com

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The Pope’s Support for Immigration and His Tacit Approval of Free Market Enterprise


Pope Francis is visiting the United States. He’s made several appearances, including a White House visit and an address before the United States Congress. His criticism of free market enterprise, of a capitalist economy, is well-known. Some have wondered whether he fully understands the unique expression of capitalism in the United States. It’s true, his views have been shaped by his experience coming from Argentina, which could not differ more extremely from political and economic arrangements in the U.S. But I wonder if he understands more than these commentators think.

Pope Francis Addresses Congress-2015.09Today, while speaking before Congress, Francis lauded the importance of an immigration policy that welcomes those seeking to improve their life circumstances. He called for, or commended, a humane and just policy that would allow movement across our borders. He was speaking to the U.S. Congress where the debate about immigration and border control is intense. The Pope weighed in on that debate. While his remarks were delicate and deferential, he did encourage adoption of an immigration policy that is welcoming.

Of course, he offered no detailed proposal for our border policy. Nor did he even hint at one. That would be a form of meddling that would be politically disruptive and unbecoming of a prominent religious leader who is visiting from outside the United States and enjoying the hospitality of gracious hosts. At any rate, there is little fodder here for left-leaning politicians to exploit in support of their open-borders preference. There’s nothing in his remarks to suggest that we should adopt this or that particular policy about border control.

What I find it interesting is this. The Pope urges hospitality toward those who simply wish to make a better life for themselves, while also adopting a negative posture toward a free market economy. The Pope recognizes the advantages that life in the U.S. affords those seeking greater economic opportunity. For the most part, immigrants from the south aren’t seeking political asylum; rather, they desire economic prosperity that is not available to them in their home countries. Capitalism, despite its shortcomings, is the engine that drives prosperity in this country. And the idea that a capitalist society such as ours should, as a matter of justice and hospitality, find ways to assimilate immigrants looking for a better life is tacit approval of capitalism.

This approval goes deeper even. For the Pope considers it morally commendable for this capitalist society, which has so much to offer legitimate immigrants, to share the fruit of an economy that increases opportunities for prosperity. This is tacit agreement that capitalism is not intrinsically motivated by greed, or essentially dependent on greed for its sustenance.

In addition, it is not accidental that the desirable fruit of our economy is the product of a free market system. I believe such a system is the only system that could bear such fruit. The alternatives, especially Marxist alternatives, are barren in this regard. The gross failure of economies south of our border explains why there is such a flood of immigrants into the United States.

The Pope’s concern for the poor and his efforts to galvanize collective efforts aimed at eradicating poverty is admirable. Free market enthusiasts argue that capitalism offers the greatest hope for achieving this ambitious goal. I concur. I suggest that the Pope, perhaps unwittingly, advocates for a qualified version capitalism when he urges us to share the fruit of our economy with those seeking a better life for themselves.

I would add that what is good for our economy is good for any economy. In fact, the poor of Central and South America would benefit even more fully if they could enjoy the fruit of a growing economy such as ours—without leaving their own countries. The Pope is uniquely positioned to work toward this goal. He hails from Argentina and is head of a church that dominates that part of the world that lies south of our borders.

The Pope has urged humane acceptance of immigrants. It is at least as humane to create opportunities for them that do not depend on immigration. And a successful policy for border control should include measures that would encourage the spread of capitalism from Mexicali to Tierra del Fuego.

Gearhead Philosophers


Book Cover.Crawford.Shop ClassWhat would you expect from a book by a trained philosopher who quit his job as a Washington think tank shill (I almost said “tankard”) to work as a motorcycle mechanic?

If you know anything about the academic job market, you might think I have things backwards. It wouldn’t surprise to hear that a professional philosopher ended up—or rather, started out—rebuilding motorcycle engines. But philosophers do strange things. And Matthew Crawford, with a Ph.D. in political philosophy, is a good example.

Crawford is the author of  a new book called Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work. I learned about his book from a “Tweet” (i.e., a Twitter post) linking to a review of the book by a  Slate contributor named Michael Agger. The article, titled “Heidegger and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” praises the book and suggests that a copy be given to everyone you know who is graduating from college and about to “commence real life.” (Never mind that a majority of college graduates postpone commencing real life, some of them indefinitely.)

Every year, grads take jobs they’ve dreamed about, then become so absorbed in them that they are absorbed by them, little noticing that their work is not particularly absorbing in the sense that matters most. Crawford’s book is supposed to get office grunts, from secretaries to CEO’s, to consider more carefully the work they’re doing.

Of course, this year a much higher percentage of college graduates will look in vain for jobs that they believe will satisfy. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe they’ll have time for some profitable reading. A book like this could help them get their heads together. Soulcraft versus bank draft. It’s an interesting contrast. Leave it to a philosopher to subvert the values of our age.

Two questions. What does any of this have to do with motorcycle maintenance? And what does it have to do with Heidegger?

The first question, presumably, is answered in the book. Crawford the philosopher became Crawford the disillusioned “knowledge worker,” which led him to become Crawford the motorcycle mechanic. And Crawford the motorcycle mechanic, who had apparently dropped out of the knowledge enterprise, learned what was of real value where life intersects work.

The answer to the second question isn’t obvious from reading the Slate article. There’s no attempt in the article to tie Crawford’s ideas and conclusions to the work of any philosopher named Heidegger. One naurally assumes that Agger is thinking of the Heidegger, as in German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976). But Agger doesn’t connect the dots. Maybe he just latched onto the name of the first philosopher he thought of. Heidegger is not known for his luminosity—nor for motorcycle expertise. So Agger’s choice of a title may be bad in more ways than one. On the other hand, there’s the possibility (admittedly remote) that Crawford draws valuable concrete lessons for life from one of the most austere philosophers of the past 100 years.

So far I’ve only read about the book. But I’m definitely interested. And if Crawford leaves Heidegger out of it, even more so.

***

Notes:

  1. Michael Agger is also playing off the title of Robert Pirsig’s 1973 classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Maybe there’s a subtle connection between Heidegger, Zen, and motorcycle maintenance that escapes me just now. If so, my apologies to Michael Agger.
  2. As I write this, Shop Class as Soulcraft is #30 in sales rank at Amazon.
  3. Kudos for Crawford’s book include the following by Harvard professor of government, Harvey Mansfield: “Matt Crawford’s remarkable book on the morality and metaphysics of the repairman looks into the reality of practical activity. It is a superb combination of testimony and reflection, and you can’t put it down.” (Source: Amazon.com)
  4. As long as we’re onto Heidegger here, I should note that there’s an interesting BBC documentary on the man that’s available on YouTube, starting with this 8-minute installment here.

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I Want a Bailout


Suppose it’s August 2007. You apply for a line of credit against the equity in your existing home. CitiBank approves a line of credit that allows you to invest in some undeveloped property and still have something left for building a modest vacation home where you can be near your family for part of the year.

Fast forward to November 2008. CitiBank sends you a letter. It claims that the venerable financial institution has reviewed your assets and concluded that you are no longer in a position financially to meet payments on the balance of your line of credit, should you wish to borrow that money. They’ve decided to zero out your balance, effective November 5. The letter you hold in your hands arrived by regular mail on November 6.

You’re stuck. You have a piece of property with no prospect now of building. It’s unlikely that you could sell it for what you paid for it a year ago. And, in any case, you don’t want to sell it; you want to pursue your dream. But CitiBank has revoked your line of credit. This despite the fact that you’ve made all your monthly payments on schedule for over a year.

You wonder what changes in your financial situation could have reversed CitiBank’s kind disposition toward you. And then it occurs to you. Maybe it’s not your financial condition that has them worried, but their own financial condition that has them over the barrel. Maybe they’re afraid you’ll write a check against your line of credit and they won’t be able to cover it.

Sure enough, a week later you learn that CitiBank has recently laid off tens of thousands of employees and that they lost billions of dollars during the past twelve months. “Aha!” you think. “So that’s what happened!”

Is it any consolation to know that they freaked, and then dissembled? Of course not. You’re still stuck. You secretly hope that CitiBank will be held accountable, that maybe the CEO will have to look for work.

And then you learn today that CitiBank has been offered a bailout, because the economy needs it. Isn’ that nice?

The above scenario has been played out for countless customers of CitiBank. The details vary but the shenanigans are the same. Some customers “took out” a line of credit to have greater security for a rainy day. Others to meet expenses for children in college. And others to make essential repairs on the only home they’ll ever own. Every one of the customers victimized by CitiBank’s recklessness deserves a bailout as much as CitiBank. But what are the chances they’ll be getting a letter in the next week saying, “We’re happy to announce that your original line of credit has been reinstated?”

Ka-ching! Stock Market vs. Credit Market


Near as I can tell, the “bailout,” “rescue,” or whatever, is about shoring up the “credit market.” Banks have to make loans, and they have to have money to make loans. Some pundits are saying that the stock market plunge we’ve been seeing, including the dramatic dive happening today, is not a measure of the prospects for this $700 billion rescue gamble. That’s because they’re splitting off what’s happening on Wall Street with the real problem that is all about credit.

I’m not convinced that the two are unrelated. I’m more inclined to think that the near-panic we’re seeing as people pull their money out of stocks means that people will be very slow to take out new loans, even with the bailout/rescue.

Who wants to borrow money in today’s climate? Time will tell.

Drill Now, or Pay More Later


I used to wonder why the United States didn’t work vigorously to free itself from dependence on “foreign oil.” It seemed like a good idea to me “back then”—during Jimmy Carter’s presidency. Popular opinion was that there wasn’t much oil to be found outside the OPEC region. After all, “OPEC” is the acronym for “the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries.” And who were the petroleum exporting countries? The original five members of OPEC were Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudia Arabia, and . . . Venezuela.

Do you see a pattern here? Four of these countries were and are dominant Middle East players. Venezuela, it should be recalled, is the heavy in South America, led today by Hugo Chavez—no friend to the United States. And Venezuela took the initiative originally to establish OPEC, by approaching the just-mentioned nations of the Middle East.

There are now thirteen member states in OPEC. Guess who’s not on the list? The United States. And why not? Because the United States does not export oil. On the contrary, for decades, the United States has been the chief importer of oil.

Why doesn’t the United States export oil? Because it doesn’t have enough oil to export. It doesn’t even have enough oil to meet its own demand. That makes us dependent on foreign oil. And that’s reason enough for us to be entangled in Middle Eastern politics and subject to the whims of blame-America-first terrorists born and bred in the Middle East.

At the outset of the war in Iraq, there was loud speculation that President Bush was making a grab for Iraqi oil. This speculation was interlarded with denouncements of the merit of such a motive.

And where do we find ourselves today? Gas at the pump where I live in southern California is very near the $5 mark, and the price of oil has just topped $140 a barrel, a new high. Market watchers are hyper-ventilating this afternoon. At CNBC, Maria Bartiromo is high on adrenalin as she reports the news.

What’s wrong with this picture? The United States has waited too long to tap its own oil resources. Do we have oil? Yes. And, no. We don’t have much oil for use, much less for export. But there’s oil out there, on the continental shelf and in ANWR. And it’s been there throughout our dependence on oil. And there’s lots of it. Enough there for us to tell OPEC we don’t need them anymore.

Imagine what it would mean geopolitically if we ended our dependence on oil in the Middle East. Setting aside the legitimate interest we have in protecting Israel, we might be able to sustain a responsible form of “protectionism.” As long as our economy runs on oil, we’ll continue to be enmeshed in worldwide conflicts that are fueled by oil dependence.

What are the primary objections to drilling the oil resources we have?

First, we’re being told that “we can’t drill our way out of the current crisis.” One element in this rhetoric is right: we are in crisis. The crisis goes deeper than the prospect of paying $5 and more per gallon of gasoline.
But that prospect is the sort of crisis that has Americans paying more than the usual degree of attention to political maneuvering in Congress and among the presumptive nominees for President, Barack Obama and John McCain.

Obama is the most visible opponent of drilling. He talks about developing alternative forms of energy. But that won’t address the crisis, either. Why? Because the crisis is at the pump. And most of us are stuck with pumping gas for the foreseeable future. It will take a few years to begin extracting crude oil from the ground. Will it take longer than the development of alternative energy forms? Almost certainly not.

Any major delays to drilling going forward will be due to obstructionist politics, mostly on the part of Democrats, and chiefly on the part of Barack Obama, if elected President. Obama could not now reverse his view about the wisdom of drilling without appearing to be the worst kind of flip-flopper. So he’s backed himself into a corner. What’s in the economic interests of the country is at odds with Obama’s interest in becoming President. Whose interests will command his attention? You know the answer. So ask yourself if that’s the sort of person you want to have as President.

What most Americans want is short-term relief at the pump and a long-term solution to our energy crisis. If the establishment of a drilling infrastructure—directed at the most promising locations off-shore and in ANWR—were to begin in earnest by the end of this year or early next year, we wouldn’t have to wait for the oil to make it to the corner gas station for prices to come down. The prospect of such a radical change in supply and demand within three to five years would place immediate pressure on current suppliers (i.e., OPEC) to do something about prices. John McCain has started making this point, and he’s right. How does Obama respond to that? If Americans elect John McCain, who favors drilling, OPEC will get the message before the end of the year. We’re only about four months away from sending that message.

Second, there’s the green-jerk reaction to drilling. “Drilling offshore and in ANWR is going to be environmentally catastrophic.” Show me the evidence.

Opponents of offshore drilling exploit vernacular associations with the word “offshore,” as if America’s beaches will be cluttered with unsightly oil rigs. What’s the truth? Deep-water oil and gas platforms will be so far offshore that they couldn’t be seen from our beaches. We’re talking fifty to two hundred miles offshore. I could kayak the entire California shoreline and not be able to plot a single oil drilling site offshore. It would take an hour or longer to travel by helicopter to a typical offshore platform.

ANWR is another acronym (pronounced “Anwar”), short for “Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.” It’s located in the extreme northeastern region of Alaska and encompasses some 19 million acres. It includes what is literally the most remote territory in the United States. A portion of the region contains rich sources of petroleum. In contention is the effect drilling there would have on the habitat of diverse forms of animal life. ANWR is remarkable for its inclusion of six distinct biozones. But the petroleum rich subsection of ANWR is part of a 1.5 million acre extension of the refuge made in 1980. The move appears to have been as much an effort to protect this resource for possible future drilling as it was for any other environmental objective.

A very small percent, then, of ANWR is even considered attractive for oil-production purposes. And yet the resource is thought to be incredibly rich. And though approval by Congress is required to begin drilling in that area, it has, from the beginning, been regarded a potential source of oil production to be used under the right conditions.

Americans need to be educated about the potential for oil production in ANWR, the politics surrounding the possible use of this resource, and alternatives to drilling in ANWR. For the time-being, offshore drilling appears to be more imminent than drilling in ANWR. This is in part due to political vicissitudes. But off-shore production may also be more cost-effective. In any case, ANWR need not be the bone of contention that it has been, with such impressive resources closer to hand, both geographically and politically.

The emerging market demand for oil worldwide could position the United States to be a major exporter of oil. This demand will be so substantial by 2030 that prices for a barrel of oil could inflate to unimaginable levels. But by then, the United States could be online as a major oil producing country.

Meanwhile, by all means, we should be heavily invested in research and development for alternative forms of energy. And Americans should become better informed about the affordability, safety, and cleanliness of nuclear energy.

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