Monday, May 28, 2012

War is the Answer

I was having dinner with a friend who is smart about business and I asked him what he thought was needed, what with the Euro crisis, America’s anemic recovery and China’s slowing growth, to get the global economy going again. His answer was one word: war.

It is true that periods of great growth often follow wars. There’s all that rebuilding to do, and fewer people to do it. It’s kind of depressing, though, to think that war is the only way back to prosperity. My friend suggested that a worldwide plague might also do the trick. Anything that would reduce the number of workers, so that those who remain have more to do.

Another approach, he said, would be to figure out how to get Africa to buy more stuff. Jobs and wealth come from making and selling things, and the worldwide supply of buyers is not growing fast enough. Getting a continent like Africa rich enough to buy iPads may be tough, though, when it isn’t currently rich enough even to eat.

What we have here, to paraphrase the old movie line, is a failure to innovate. I’m not talking about microprocessor speed or social networks, I’m talking about economic systems. We’ve got the oldest system in the world, the only one really: producing and selling. A half century ago, John Kenneth Galbraith said we needed to develop something different, not to replace production as the means of economic growth, but to supplement it. He suggested public works. Build roads and schools, improve electric grids, desalinate seawater, vaccinate against disease.

Infrastructure investments usually don’t make money quickly enough to attract private capital, so they depend on government funding. That’s a tough sell these days, with austerity being the buzzword in many capitals. Even those who want to invest in public works have a hard time finding the money. In the midst of recession or fragile recovery, not many have the stomach for raising taxes. So I’m not holding my breath for a surge in public projects that would employ current workers and lay the foundations for a better society for their children.

On Memorial Day we mourn those who have fallen in combat. We pray others will not die as they have. My friend doesn’t think war is the preferable answer, he just thinks it may be the inevitable one. If populations continue to grow worldwide without sufficient economic support, they will end up fighting over resources. They will end up at war. That will be good for business, but little else.

If we really want to honor those who have made the ultimate sacrifice, we must face the reality that governments have to invest in their people, in their future. If they don’t, scarcity will be dealt with the way it always has been: the strong will take, the weak will surrender, and many will die in the process.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Garden of Love and Trust

Not long ago I was leaning on someone I didn’t know well to pay money he owed me, and he said he was offended that I didn’t trust him. It made me wonder about myself. Am I just too cynical? When someone gets offended that I don’t trust him, my first instinct is to reach for my wallet to be sure it is still in my back pocket.

Every day here in Paris, Meg and I encounter young girls who ask us to sign a petition they carry on clipboards. They are pretty and slight. They smile and point to a paper that already has a few signatures. The way they gesture without speaking gives the impression that they may be deaf or mute and seeking support for some organization that would help them. We’re not Parisians, so we assumed our signatures would be of no use to them. After being approached many times, though, we became curious and asked a security person in the Tuileries what the girls wanted. Your money, he said. They are pickpockets.

Every little forest dweller comes out at the time of day when it is safest and goes about his business with one eye out for predators. Just about the first thing we tell our children when we send them out to play is not to take candy from strangers. It’s a dangerous world out there. Trust is almost unnatural.

We humans give it our best shot. Children trust their parents, for a while; Darwin set that up. Lovers trust their mates, until they don’t, until a careless gesture or hint of indifference causes a shiver of doubt, the way an open window lets in a chill.

Remember the lyrics of that old Linda Ronstadt song? “Love is a rose, but you better not pick it, it only grows when it’s on the vine.” Well, trust is a gardenia. It grows in the same garden as love. And in all but the most tender conditions, its beautiful white petals turn brown. If you are lucky enough to find it in bloom, enjoy it while you can.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Talk This Way

As far as I can tell, other countries developed their languages so that I could make an idiot of myself for their personal amusement. I’m in Paris now, butchering their beautiful French. I know a little Italian and Spanish too, and, under pressure, I find myself saying buongiorno and de nada as often as merci beaucoup. It’s embarrassing. I must say, the French are good sports. They never laugh out loud. Their smiles are rueful and indulgent, the way one might regard the naiveté of a child.

"Do you understand the words
coming out of my mouth?"
When I’m not trying to talk to Parisians, I watch them: walking in the park, kissing, holding hands, tucking a blanket around a baby. They do all that stuff the same way I do. So do Czechs, Germans, Mexicans and Italians (except, in the case of Italians, for that thing they do with their hands when they speak, which I love but am too repressed to be any good at).

Somehow, humans all over the world have evolved to do everything the same except speaking. You might think that, given our common ancestry, the genetic expression that results in so many identical physical traits would also have supported a common language. I have no idea why it did not, but the differences are startling: Mandarin is not one bit like English; Italian couldn’t be farther from Russian.

Which brings me to this question: Are our thoughts as different as our languages?

Do you remember that discussion you had with your friends when you were young about whether when you each say you are seeing the color red you are in fact both seeing the same thing? Or whether you are merely calling something you see differently by the same name? In the absence of seeing through another’s eyes (and brain), the best anyone can say about that is that there is no way to know.

So when I describe a feeling I am having as anger or sadness, how can you and I know that what I am actually feeling is the same thing you feel when you say you are angry or sad? If the parts of our brains where speech is developed produce such different languages, might not the underlying thoughts be just as different?

In America, we’re having a particularly tough time lately getting along with the Muslim world. Our languages are very different, but we think that when we speak through translators we can understand each other. We know, of course, that cultural differences will remain even after the words are known, but what if there is more to it than that? What if our differences go beyond culture, all the way down to how the neurons in our brains talk to one another. What if speaking or thinking our respective words for “god” or “wife” or “loyalty” causes fundamentally different activity in our brains? Different connections, different triggers of base instincts, different adrenal responses, different passions.

Sometimes when I’m trying to make myself understood in another language, I slow my speech and exaggerate my syllables, maybe even throw in a little Franglish. I’m sure my efforts are comical, and I’m pleased to do my part to entertain others by being a hapless American. In matters weightier than ordering a cup of coffee or finding the bathroom, though, our language barriers may be more serious. If our words don’t mean the same things to us, if they affect us emotionally in fundamentally different ways, even with the best translation we may never understand or be understood.