The Nail Salon Exposè Was Fascinating, But It Shouldn’t Be Surprising

If you haven’t read The Price of Nice Nails yet, you should. It’s a fascinating look at the exploitation and racism in the immigrant communities that revolve around us, touching our sphere when we need cheap services. The story is also a great look into the modern economy of New York City.

But one thing it wasn’t: surprising.

Particularly that part about racism. (Q: What was the biggest surprise in your reporting? A: by Sarah Nir, the reporter who wrote the story: The racism.)

I’m trying to wrap my mind around why the racism would be surprising. I mean, human history 101, okay:

  • 200,000 years ago the first homo sapiens appear. 130,000 years of small groups, relying on ingroup and fearing the outgroup because life depended on it.
  • 70,000 years ago cognitive revolution. emergence of fictive language allowed us to talk about non-concrete stuff and create non-concrete identities. so groups became a little larger. still, though, family and immediate community = protection.
  • 12,000 years ago agricultural revolution. settled down, larger communities, but still very dangerous, and a lot of fighting between larger groups for thousands of years.
  • 200 years ago industrial revolution, where markets replaced family and community. unprecedented stability and prosperity.

So for the vast majority of human history outgroup = bad (death) and ingroup = good. And still today, ethnic identity remains the strongest type of identity for people in most countries.

Against that background, people with histories who’ve hated each other and fought for hundreds of years (say, the Chinese and Japanese, or Koreans) come to New York City … and we’re shocked that they consider each other inferior races? It also doesn’t take being that close to some of these communities to hear a lot of skepticism and hate expressed about other races.

I’m wondering if another reason people find this surprising has something to do with the belief that reverse racism isn’t a thing, or at least that white people are the only people who can be racist. The way I understand this theory is that racism is structural: an act of violence against a white person by a community of Hispanics who do not like white people isn’t racism — it’s just plain old violence, because the system is on the side of the person they killed. (Is that right?)

Which, okay, fine, but if you’re going to try and strong-arm the dictionary to include something about structure under the definition for racism, you’re going to have to find another term for whatever-it-is when a Korean person calls a Chinese person a dirty dog and makes her eat separately at work without a place to sit.

Structures get really messy really soon, because as I understand them, they are largely historical. But history is really really messy and it’s not clear where the structure should be in that relationship. Within China, too, there is a hierarchy — for a great (but heartbreaking) read, look at Atticus Lish’s new novel Preparation for the Next Life about the first love of a girl from Xinjiang come to Flushing. It is remarkably accurate in its depiction of the city, and it isn’t pretty.  

There are other sad parts of the original piece in the New York Times, and the dirt wages are one of them. But still, they’re not new. They exist at restaurants and other places all across the city. Workers don’t complain because many of them don’t know they can, or they are illegal and they have zero political or other capital.

And even if they were legal, what would be the incentive to jeopardize a $60 a day job when there’s a chance you could be making nothing and be forced back to where you came from or worse? There is none.

I don’t think the situation of extremely low wages is going away any time soon. Hundreds of thousands of people in this city are willing to work for very little because they have no other options. No government organization (no, not even NYCs Dept of Labor) is powerful enough to stop it — they’d have to be laughably large to begin with, and even then, constant monitoring of every transaction between employer and employee is impossible. There are simply too many ways to get around the system and the incentives are too screwy.

Disclosure: I worked on the Times’ project for a few days before quitting; my Chinese wasn’t good enough, I’d just had a baby, and I was trying (but mostly failing) to do a master’s degree. 

Does overcoming death mean the end of mass medicine?

“For the first time in history, if I’m rich enough, maybe I don’t have to die.” — Yuval Harari

Earlier I wrote about artificial intelligence and quoted Yuval Harari to the effect that intelligence is very good at specialization. But what does that mean for medicine?

In the 21st century, there is a good chance that most humans will lose, they are losing, their military and economic value. This is true for the military, it’s done, it’s over. The age of the masses is over. We are no longer in the First World War, where you take millions of soldiers, give each one a rifle and have them run forward. And the same thing perhaps is happening in the economy. Maybe the biggest question of 21st century economics is what will be the need in the economy for most people in the year 2050.

And once most people are no longer really necessary, for the military and for the economy, the idea that you will continue to have mass medicine is not so certain. Could be. It’s not a prophecy, but you should take very seriously the option that people will lose their military and economic value, and medicine will follow.

People will lose economic value. Does that mean that medicine will no longer be for the masses — that it will try to extend the lives (perhaps even infinitely) of those who have economic value only?

I’m a bit skeptical, but I’m not sure why. There’s already inequality in terms of outcomes, and treatment, presumably — paralleling income inequality is life expectancy inequality, and lifespan has increased for only the upper class over the last few years.

That’s already sort of troubling — if that trend continues, it’s almost as if inequality is biological, and that’s a vicious cycle. As much as we talk about overcoming poverty or changing economic policy, you can’t really overcome genes that will kill you prematurely.

Treating death as a disease to be overcome is revolutionary, and that’s a large part of what attracted Google in their attempt to overcome death. I think this is the wrong way to look at it, but as Harari says, next generation there could be a breakthrough, then the next would be starting with more, and then what? Or five or seventeen generations? At that point, I think it’d be safe to say that those with no economic value wouldn’t be privy to that particular form of technology (just as they’re often not able to afford the best in medicine now).

There may have to be a revolution in our way of thinking in order for us to detach meaningful value from work. Like a basic income guarantee, but a basic value guarantee, where each person is promised, say, 65 years of life (and medicine ensures that) and is given enough to subsist on and treated like any other sapien. And maybe my hope for non-economic value is what’s making me skeptical that the era of mass medicine is over.

Ethics For Sale: Hugh Nibley is Somewhere Crying

In China it is possible, Michael Sandel writes in his new book What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, to hire the Tianjin Apologizing Company to apologize on your behalf to that person you can’t bring yourself to even speak to. This sort of thinking–made possible by the crowding out of actual values to market ones–belies a certain attitude that I think is at the very least troubling: namely, that everything is for sale. Because some things clearly aren’t, or at least shouldn’t be.

So, naturally, it was a bit unsettling seeing this sign at the business school–essentially seeing something that should have intrinsic value trying to be given an extrinsic incentive. There is no value, belief, tradition, or whatever that won’t respond to money, or so the economists & the folks at the WSJ think. But in a rare moment of insight, Jonathan Long of the WSJ had this to say about the standard economic view:

“This is a depressingly reductive view of the human experience. Men will die for God or country, kinship or land. No one ever picked up a rifle and got shot for optimal social utility. Economists cannot account for this basic fact of humanity. Yet they have assumed a role in society that for the past 4,000 years has been held by philosophers and theologians. They have made our lives freer and more efficient. And we are the poorer for it.”


Greece’s (Fascinating) Debt Crisis

Michael Lewis is what you would call a diverse writer. The words “financial journalist” don’t exactly strike excitement in the hearts of millions, but that has not stopped him from incredible success.

Lewis got his bachelor’s degree in art history, and got a job in the 1980’s at Salomon Brothers on Wall Street as a bond salesman. Despite his lack of knowledge, he was allowed to handle billions of dollars, and in 1987, having grown dissatisfied with work there, wrote a book about his experience called Liar’s Poker. Several influential articles and books followed. In 2006 he wrote a biographical sports book about a young black man taken in by a charitable family in the South. The book gained enormous popularity in part because of the movie of the same name, starring Sandra Bullock, called The Blind Side. Afterwards, he returned to his roots by writing “The Big Short,” a clean account of the dirty mess that Wall Street has gotten itself into by trading what are called derivatives. Reportedly, several members of Congress turned to the book to understand this complicated financial tool that helped bring ruin to the economy.

I have never had a particular interest in Greece, and so when recent news reports came out about Greece’s financial troubles, the first thought in my head was Boring Finance + Boring Country = Double Boredom. The only Greeks I knew lived in Canada. They were miserable people…perhaps the most miserable people. Jews or Greeks don’t exactly like missionaries, but I have met a nice Jew. The same cannot be said of Greeks. They hate you, they hate your message and everybody in it, and perhaps most crippling of all, they hate each other. But after reading Lewis’ Vanity Fair piece called “Beware of Greeks Bearing Bonds,” I immediately became fascinated with Greek’s debt crisis. Here’s why.

Lewis manages to show that Greeks had a system of corruption so widespread that it affected not only government but almost all average citizens. When the lights were out and no one was looking, Greek’s system of morality nearly completely collapsed; next to nobody pays taxes in Greece. Financial numbers and debts were going unreported or exaggerated, there were bribes, leaders were corrupt—you name it, and it was happening. Having been introduced to a system of cheap credit where no one was watching, they no longer seem capable of living within their means. In a supposed collective society, individual greed and corruption is so widespread that, in short, Greeks cannot even trust their neighbors.

Lewis went to Greece to find out about some Christian monks’ involvement with the corruption scandals (hence the picture at the head), and in so doing he found out just how much corruption there actually was.

In talking to the minister of finance, he found out interesting facts like, “The average government job pays almost three times the average private-sector job. The national railroad has annual revenues of 100 million euros against an annual wage bill of 400 million, plus 300 million euros in other expenses.”

He found a couple of tax collectors who decided finally to speak out against the corruption (although they refused to be called by name), and found out that two-thirds of Greek doctors reported incomes of less than 12,000 euros per year. So even the high profile plastic surgeons who raked in millions per year paid no taxes at all. The problem isn’t the law, but the enforcement of it.

Greece had been misreporting information for 10 years, probably since it joined the European Union in ­­­­­2001. (When Greek joined, by the way, it was only with the help of another shady institution: Goldman Sachs.) So the question arises—shouldn’t somebody have known about this? What was the EU doing this whole time? In truth, the Greeks simply lied to create the statistics that others wanted. To stop inflation, they would do things like remove high priced every-day items like tomatoes from the consumer price index on the day that inflation was measured. An IMF official, when he found out, said that, “We could not stop laughing. There was a lot of massaging of the index.”

But the recent riots in the city show that, to the Greeks, this is no laughing matter. They face a massive debt crisis, one that seems all the more serious considering most of the country is still drunk on the wine of cheap credit and not willing to work. It would seem that they have no choice but to default. But if they do, and government begins to cut costs and raise taxes, Lewis wonders, do they even have the ability to buckle down and get to work?

“Even if it is technically possible for these people to repay their debts, live within their means, and return to good standing inside the European Union, do they have the inner resources to do it? Or have they so lost their ability to feel connected to anything outside their small worlds that they would rather just shed themselves of the obligations?” After all, they are in the streets protesting the actions of Greek bankers; not doing what they probably should have been doing and protesting the morals of average citizens.

Suddenly, the question of whether or not Greeks will default becomes intriguing, and that is why Lewis is so good at what he does. Read it; you won’t regret it.

Lexus’ and Olive Trees in China

The massive force that is globalization collides with traditional forces in this photo: an old woman pulls a cart loaded with scrapped wood on a busy streetcorner.

The collision has certainly made for interesting scenes in Nanjing, a coastal city near Shanghai. Capitalism is alive and well here—as attested by the Gucci and Italian Leather stores in the seven story shopping malls.

I worry, though, that it is the type of capitalism that put thousands in abject poverty as factory workers in Nineteenth century England. Will China see it’s middle class—perhaps the biggest in history—grow richer at the expense of the poor? Perhaps, but I am still maintaining hope that eventually cultural and traditional forces will not allow it. I guess I am just hoping that transparence can be improved and then maintained while providing a unique model to the world. Because (and regardless of the best efforts of the modern right-wing) it remains that conservatism and compassion do not go hand in hand . One is an economic theory—the other a principle of morality. Compassion can appear within capitalism, as it often does in America, but it is not required nor does it help the system.

Where will the Chinese go as they feel the powerful tug to abandon traditional values?

Are Budget Complaints Legitimate?

For me, it seems that the criticism that most holds water from conservatives about Obama is that he is spending way too much while worrying about the deficit too little. However, here too I think many are misled. Take a look at this chart showing the debt as a percentage of GDP. Note especially the presidents since Jimmy Carter. Under Carter, there was a surplus.

U.S. president Party Term years Start debt/GDP End debt/GDP Increase debt ($T) Increase debt/GDP
(in percentage points)
House Control
(with # if
split during term)
Senate Control
(with # if
split during term)
Roosevelt/Truman D 1945-1949 117.5% 93.1% 0.05 -24.4% 79th D, 80th R 79th D, 80th R
Harry Truman D 1949-1953 93.1% 71.4% 0.01 -21.5% D D
Dwight Eisenhower R 1953-1957 71.4% 60.4% 0.01 -11.0% D 83rd R, 84th D
Dwight Eisenhower R 1957-1961 60.4% 55.2% 0.02 -5.2% D D
Kennedy/Johnson D 1961-1965 55.2% 46.9% 0.03 -8.3% D D
Lyndon Johnson D 1965-1969 46.9% 38.6% 0.05 -8.3% D D
Richard Nixon R 1969-1973 38.6% 35.6% 0.07 -3.0% D D
Nixon/Ford R 1973-1977 35.6% 35.8% 0.19 +0.2% D D
Jimmy Carter D 1977-1981 35.8% 32.5% 0.28 -3.3% D D
Ronald Reagan R 1981-1985 32.5% 43.8% 0.66 +10.8% D R
Ronald Reagan R 1985-1989 43.8% 53.1% 1.04 +9.3% D 99th R, 100th D
George H. W. Bush R 1989-1993 51.1% 66.1% 1.40 +13.0% D D
Bill Clinton D 1993-1997 66.1% 65.4% 1.18 -0.7% 103rd D, 104th R 103rd D, 104th R
Bill Clinton D 1997-2001 65.4% 56.4% 0.45 -9.0% R R
George W. Bush R 2001-2005 56.4% 63.5% 1.73 +7.1% R 107th Split, 108 R
George W. Bush R 2005-2009 63.4% 83.4% 2.63 +20.0% 109th R, 110th D 109th R, 110th D
Barack Obama D 2009-2013 83.4% ? D D

(This information is taken from the White House FY Budget.)

The supposed patron saint of the right, Ronald Reagan, quickly changed that, and debt rose to 10% of GDP. For some reason this isn’t talked about very much. Then we get a Democratic president who completely erases the national deficit and even builds a 9% surplus. So what happened when the next Republican became president? Again, a huge rise in debt, this time up to 20% of GDP.

I do not think, though, that the blame lies completely with the presidency. I tend to believe in zeitgeist, or “spirit of the times,” meaning that a President largely inherits what befalls him. It was Clinton’s luck to have a booming economy in which the debt could be relatively easily erased.

And the debt has increased significantly under President Obama. But again, Obama inherited a very fragile economy and a set of expensive demands from citizens. If the economy picks up again soon, the debt could easily be erased by the next president.

So why, then, such sharp criticism of Obama on this point? If you truly feel that debt is a problem, then criticize uniformly. Don’t pray to Reagan while cursing Obama. They both did the same thing. For all of the lines that divide us, even these two presidents are very similar.

There is another issue which can further prove my point and make you think twice before you charge the government with excessive taxing. In the US tax rates were the lowest they have been since 1950. (According to a USA Today analysis of federal data: “Federal, state and local taxes, including income, property, sales and other taxes, consumed 9.2 percent of all personal income in 2009, the lowest rate since 1950.”) That is stunning…something not seen in 60 years, even with the Republican presidents!

So when allegations of an unconstitutional, out-of-control government are raised, and when Obama is compared to Hitler, consider the facts. And if you still feel that you have ammunition to use and can think of a more intelligent solution than the ones now being employed, then be my guest.