Thursday, June 30, 2011

Useful Lives

Anyone who's read The Hebrew Republic, or who has seen my lecture on the book, will remember my dear friends Chanan and Esther Shiloh from Kfar Yehoshua, the couple with whom I stayed when I was a young volunteer in 1967, and whose sensibilities in many ways inspired my writing all these years. I just dropped off my car with them, as I do every summer, when Sidra and I leave for New Hampshire, as we will tonight; the ostensible reason is to keep the car under a secure roof; the actual reason is the chance to be reminded why I came here in the first place.

Chanan and Esther are the soul of the Zionist revolution: curious about how things work, from the smallest weld to the arguable claims for God; full of loving humor and patriotic pride (and shame); certain of the value of their Hebrew lives, which their parents invented. And even at age 78, they are still opening to the future. The roof under which my car will be locked now produces 50 kilowatts of power owing to the solar panels Chanan just helped assemble. The investment of over a million shekels will break even in about ten years, and Chanan isn't at all sure he will live to see this. But he is already concerned about the problems of recycling the panels when their useful life is over. Then again, what other kind of life is there, even if you can't know how things will turn out? Here is a song they love, about a dove that flies high above the hills of Gilboa, on a very long journey.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Greece, Economists, And The Value Of The Euro

Is the euro bad for Greece? "I’ve never seen Europe in such dire straits," Roger Cohen writes in yesterday's Times. "Greece is full of the aganaktismenoi, or the outraged, who resent the sharp cuts and sales of state industries made necessary because there is no drachma to devalue in order to regain competitiveness. Like protesters in Spain, they feel the poor and unemployed are paying for the errors of politicians, the evasions of the rich, and the whole globalized system that rewards the tech-savvy initiated while punishing those left behind."

Hmm. You devalue, you become more competitive. The ideal of European unity cannot trump this macroeconomic axiom, one that economists as different as Paul Krugman and Martin Feldstein take for granted and increasingly resentful Greeks have a right to embrace. Once--so the argument goes--countries in Greece's position would not have been forced to deflate, radically cut budgets (hence, services) or engender widespread anger from the poor and unemployed. They could have cheapened their currency and counted on cheaper exports to jump-start growth. The euro, however, is a kind of hammerlock rich European countries like Germany now have on them, a kind of IMF scold sitting on their shoulder, and advantaging--wait for it!--German exports.

"Many Greeks and Spaniards feel Europe is no more than a scam," Cohen reports without quite endorsing the "feeling" but without quite contradicting it either. "Their anger is understandable...Open borders are beginning to close again. Turkey is turning its back on the Union. Germany has checked out from its postwar European idealism." Quel dommage. You'd think the euro were a seductive credit card offer that had needed Elizabeth Warren to explain the fine print. Greece, Cohen concludes, should simply reconcile itself to a default (well, an "orderly default") and exit the euro. Presumably, Portugal and Spain should follow suit.

THE ECONOMIC AXIOM Cohen rehearses here is just quaint. What exactly would Greece be exporting more cheaply with devalued drachmas? Yes, olive oil and hotel rooms would be cheaper? But who really wants the things Greeks make, including Greeks? Almost 80% of its economy is "services." Agriculture is 4% of its GDP and over 12% of its population. By comparison, 2.5% of Israel's economy is agriculture, and 2% of the population works in it.

To think that Greece would be able to devalue itself out of crisis assumes a world of 1950, not 2010; a world in which "factories" made most of what people needed--toothpaste, tires, pencils, toasters; things everybody could learn to make with a few imported recipes and blueprints--and local factories could get a leg-up on imported versions of stuff if labor costs could be driven down relative to more developed countries; a world in which growth happens because of "import substitution." Does any seasoned person think this is the world we still live in?

Today, production is in a world ecosystem whose drivers are scientific, a changing complex of know-how, advanced information technologies, networks and supply-chains, global branding, financial instruments--indeed, "the whole globalized system that rewards the tech-savvy initiated while punishing those left behind." If Greece has a hope of developing, it is by getting Volkswagen, Phillips, Bayer, Thomson, ABB, GE Capital, Samsung--and the INSEAD business school--to expand hubs in Athens, invest in local enterprises that might be drawn into their supply chains, inject their DNA into Greek commercial life. The path to development, in other words, is not cheap labor in the hinterland, but intellectual capital from the metropole. Israel in the 1980s and 90s was paradigmatic.

And the beauty of the euro zone for Greece--such was the commercial principle along with the political ideal--was the stability and predictability it aimed to give to metropolitan investors, much like the stability Israel finally achieved when it pegged its currency to the dollar, and held firm, after a decade of reckless devaluations. If you were Volkswagen, thinking about setting up an advanced car seat plant in Patras--with all the forward planning and investments in training and robotics this requires--would you want to have to deal with the added risks associated with periodic devaluations? How would you negotiate wage contracts, when imported goods (i.e., your workers' most favored goods) suddenly rise in price, kicking off new rounds of inflation, fueling rushes into real estate, hence, new bubbles?

Greece's inflation rate is now 4.5%. What would it be with constantly devaluing drachmas? How would foreign investors (like, notionally, Volkswagen) like to see all of its local assets lose 20% of their value overnight, or be constantly negotiating contracts according to a cost-of-living index? The point is, no sane business manager would like this environment much at all. It would be easier for Volkswagen to put the plant in Hungary. And the suffering Greeks would feel owing to ongoing devaluation would be at least what they feel with deflation--worse, since they'd be struggling also with an inflationary spiral.

A EUROPE UNITED by the euro is not, as Cohen puts it (channeling its rashest critics), "a borderless order conceived by technocrats, sustained over a heady period by low interest rates, appreciated by the moneyed classes who made more money..." It is a solid conception about how European businesses needed--as then-Volkswagen CEO Carl Hahn put it to me in 1990--a "European platform for global competition." The fact that Greece cooked its books does not degrade this vision. It raises the question of how economies like Greece can be slowly improved and integrated, over a generation, while structures and regulations are put in place so that--national sovereignty be damned--books cooking cannot go on.

Canada, in a way, has been a model here. To sustain its federation, along with the Canadian dollar, Ottawa's "technocrats" have had to transfer wealth, year-in, year-out,  from southern Ontario and oil-rich Alberta to Quebec and the Maritimes. Toronto bankers and Western oil companies like to gripe about this, the way, no doubt, German bankers and industrialists do, if only with their shrinks. It is comforting to think you can just throw those reckless, lying, hot-blooded Greeks out of the euro in way that would not send waves of insolvency, frozen lending, recrimination, and panic through global financial markets, much like the collapse of Lehman Brothers did. It is comforting to think that Greece would then be better off, more "competitive," though it would still be mired in debt and begging for loans.

Alas, this is wishful thinking all around. Richer European countries will have to be transferring wealth, along with critical know-how, to poorer countries for a generation. Germans will live well enough anyway, like middle-class Chinese who, by buying American debt at near zero interest, keep subsidizing American trips to Walmart where they buy guess what. In fact--and here the old macroeconomic axiom is useful--the downward drag on the value of the euro occasioned by continuing subsidies to Greece (Portugal, etc.) will keep German (French, etc.) exports a good deal cheaper than they would otherwise be. If Germany were still on the Deutsche Mark, and enjoying years of trade surpluses, what American would now be able afford a Jetta made in Wolfsburg? Would an Indian be able to afford a Siemens CAT-scan?

I DON'T MEAN to imply something too comforting here myself. The Greek crisis has given every reasonable person occasion to think about the shape of the world we are building, and Cohen is right to wonder whether ordinary citizens, struggling with reverses and the fears if being left-behind, can take it all in. "Strikes and violent protest are one measure of a Europe that now leaves many citizens unmoved by the great achievements of European integration," he writes. Fair enough. But what--armed with obsolete economic theories valorizing vaguely national and "working class" grievances--will move them?

The crisis should be a time when our best liberal commentators, reflecting on the mistakes and dissembling of the Greek government, redouble efforts to build institutions of pan-European governance and regulation, that is, make the pan-European currency more viable and stable. This, not default, is just what EU visionaries like Jacques Attali called for this earlier week.

Which brings me to a final word about the uncharacteristic glibness of Cohen's column. I can't help imagining the reverence with which, say, Joseph Conrad would have held the European Union, or wonder what he would have made of writers who, growing complacent about its dull workings, fail to see the fragility of civilized liberalism. The EU's legal, commercial and physical structures are breakwaters against relentless national tides. The euro in this sense may be the greatest political achievement of our lives. We can lose it.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Right Too Soon, Again

In the fall of 1970, a newly-minted graduate student at the University of Toronto, I was hired by the Canadian Zionist Federation to be its representative on campus. My first (actually, pretty much my only) achievement in that position was to petition the local Hillel and other campus organisations to keep Uri Avnery from speaking. The word had come down from Israel's Foreign Ministry that Avnery was a danger to Israel's good name--advocating such extremist things as a Palestinian state, maintaining contacts with writers and notables allegedly connected to the PLO--and the Canadian members of the Zionintern did what we had to do.

The first time I met Avnery in person was in the Knesset cafeteria in the fall of 1978, when Begin's government returned from Camp David with a provisional deal in hand. I was now an aspiring journalist, and he was sitting at a raucous table with then-Defense Minister Ezer Weizman, who was flanked by Avnery on one side, and the late peace activist Abie Natan on the other. I stood close by, hoping nobody would ask who I was, and listened for half an hour to what conversation sounded like when lions lay down with lambs. I also felt a little twinge of shame. (If you slid over it in the first paragraph, read Avnery's biography now, and see why my shame was warranted.)

I have had occasion to laugh with Avnery about both events, and the game of snakes and ladders peace advocates have been playing over the years, but nobody is feeling amused these days. His latest polemic could have been written in 1970, and a version of it probably was. Anybody familiar with this blog would immediately understand my sympathy for its arguments. But, in a way, Avnery's tone is even more revealing.  It is one thing to be right too soon. It is another to be proven right, again and again, and wake up like the hero of "Groundhog Day" having to start as if from scratch, but with an even more stubborn cast of characters.  Avnery was born in 1923 and time is running out for him.  Then again, I'm not sure it is not running out for those of us born in 1949.

By Uri Avnery

I AM fed up with all this nonsense about recognizing Israel as the “Jewish State." 
It is based on a collection of hollow phrases and vague definitions, devoid of any real content. It serves many different purposes, almost all of them malign. Binyamin Netanyahu uses it as a trick to obstruct the establishment of the Palestinian state. This week he declared that the conflict just has no solution. Why? Because the Palestinians do not agree to recognize etc. etc.

Four rightist Members of the Knesset have just submitted a bill empowering the government to refuse to register new NGOs and to dissolve existing ones if they “deny the Jewish character of the state." This new bill is only one of a series designed to curtail the civil rights of Arab citizens, as well as those of leftists. 
If the late Dr. Samuel Johnson were living in present-day Israel, he would phrase his famous dictum about patriotism differently: “Recognition of the Jewish Character of the state is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”

IN ISRAELI parlance, denying the “Jewish Character” of the state is tantamount to the worst of all political felonies: to claim that Israel is a “State of all its Citizens.” 
To a foreigner, this may sound a bit weird. In a democracy, the state clearly belongs to all its citizens. Mention this in the United States, and you are stating the obvious. Mention this in Israel, and you are treading dangerously close to treason. (So much for our much-vaunted “common” values.”)

As a matter of fact, Israel is indeed a state of all its citizens. All adult Israeli citizens – and only they – have the right to vote for the Knesset. The Knesset appoints the government and determines the laws. It has enacted many laws declaring that Israel is a “Jewish and democratic state.” In ten or in a hundred years, the Knesset could hoist the flag of Catholicism, Buddhism or Islam. In a democracy, it is the citizens who are sovereign, not a verbal formula.

WHAT FORMULA? - one may well ask. 
The courts favor the words “Jewish and democratic state.” But that is far from being the only definition around. The most widely used is just “Jewish State.” But that is not enough for Netanyahu and Co., who speak about “the nation-state of the Jewish people,” which has a nice 19th century ring. The “state of the Jewish people” is also quite popular. 

The one thing that all these brand-names have in common is that they are perfectly imprecise. What does “Jewish” mean? A nationality, a religion, a tribe? Who are the “Jewish people”? Or, even more vague, the “Jewish nation”? Does this include the Congressmen who enact the laws of the United States? Or the cohorts of Jews who are in charge of US Middle East policy? Which country does the Jewish ambassador of the UK in Tel Aviv represent?

The courts have been wrestling with the question: where is the border between “Jewish” and “democratic”? What does “democratic” mean in this context? Can a “Jewish” state really be “democratic”, or, for that matter, can a “democratic” state really be “Jewish”? All the answers given by learned judges and renowned professors are contrived, or, as we say in Hebrew, they “stand on chickens’ legs.”

Read on (and on)...

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Just The Facts

Ari Shavit is back to the subject of Iran this morning:

First fact: Neither the West nor Israel can accept a nuclear Iran. A nuclear Iran would make the Middle East nuclear, threaten Western sources of energy, paralyze Israel with fear, cause Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt to go nuclear and the world order to collapse. A nuclear Iran would make our lives hell.

Second fact: Neither the West nor Israel has to act militarily at present against Iranian nuclearization. A military attack against Iran would incite a disastrous regional war, which would cost the lives of thousands of Israelis. A military attack against Iran would turn it into a great vengeful power that would sanctify eternal war against the Jewish State. A military attack against Iran would cause a world financial crisis and isolate Israel from the family of nations.

Shavit's "sophisticated" conclusion ("sophisticated" is his favorite adjective after "mature") is that Israel must be perceived to be fanatic. "Israel must not behave like an insane country. Rather, it must create the fear that if it is pushed into a corner it will behave insanely. To ensure that Israel is not forced to bomb Iran, it must maintain the impression that it is about to bomb Iran."

And just why is Shavit reviving this "madman" strategy, of all times, now? Because he thinks he must chastise former Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, former Mossad chief Meir Dagan, former Shin Bet head Yuval Diskin for dissociating themselves from Netanyahu's rhetoric, you know, that thing about options and tables.

IN FACT, THE  "first fact" is an intentionally grim thought experiment, the kind of worst case you pay intelligence officers to imagine, work through and plan for, but then expect statesmen to step back from, as Ashkenazi, Dagan, and Diskin clearly have. Our "first fact" suggests that if Iran has a nuclear bomb its clerical leaders would use it (or, unprovoked, credibly threaten to use it) against Israel and the Gulf states, i.e., "Western sources of energy," and to what end, exactly? Spread Shi'a Islam with a radioactive cloud? You would have to assume, that is, that Iran would attack without considering the prospect of nuclear retaliation from Israel and the US, or that Turkey (a member of NATO, remember) Saudi Arabia, etc., would not feel safe without nukes of its own.

But even if an Iranian bomb would touch off some regional nuclear arms race, why would this be "hell" in a way that total regional war would not? I mean the catastrophic war described in Shavit's "second fact," which precludes an Israeli attack in the first place. Indeed, if Israel is savvy enough to understand the awful effects of such a war, shall we assume Iran (which lost a generation fighting Iraq in the 1980s) does not? Shall we not at least assume that Iran sees how Israel can see this fact--that it knows Israel knows a preemptive attack on Iran would invite catastrophe for Israel--all of which makes the madman theory a little contradictory if not more than a little daffy?

Ashkenazi, Dagan, and Diskin, now that they are civilians, are simply doing what citizens must: calling on their leaders to speak sanely, constructively, and map out a foreign policy and security strategy that appeals to common sense. This includes, they say (something Shavit cannot quite get his mind around), getting on with the challenge of reconciling with Palestine's growing international power and making the most of the Arab League peace initiative while it is still on the table.

American neocons fancy themselves, as Irving Kristol put it, "liberals who've been mugged by reality." Shavit has come to the precocious conclusion (which he thinks less sophisticated and mature Israeli liberals resist) that our neighbors can be very dangerous. Someday, no doubt, he will graduate to the idea that we all can be.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Portnoy's Revenge

Not long after Philip Roth published Portnoy's Complaint, Jacqueline Susann went on the Johnny Carson show. Susann, we remember, had become famous for her pulp novel Valley of the Dolls, which triangulated, in what seemed an all-American way, ambition, sex and barbiturates. Everybody was a "user" in more ways than one.

By 1969, the year Portnoy's Complaint was published, the paperback version of Valley of the Dolls had been as inescapable in the supermarket as the Coca-Cola trademark. So Carson asked Susann if she had ever met Roth. No, she said, but that she would like to. Then she famously added, with the coyness of a Mickey Mouse Club graduate: "Of course, I would not like to shake his hand." (Ed McMahon, we may assume, chortled knowingly.)

I thought of Susann's response to Portnoy, listening to the chatter about Anthony Weiner this past couple of weeks, in part because I've just finished a little book about Portnoy, but mostly because Susann's mockery seemed so iconic--and, sadly, still does. She did not do Roth any real damage, no more than, say, Ann Coulter's recent mockery of Cong. Weiner much mattered. (“After all, it wasn't as if André Malraux said it to François Mauriac,” Roth would later tell his friends.)

Rather, it was the way Susann epitomized America's endless ambivalence towards sexual desire--on the one hand, the assumption that desire was everywhere, the nuclear energy fueling ambition, and, on the other hand, condescension toward people in whom desire is discovered or, worse, who just let things rip. Portnoy feels this ambivalence himself, of course, which is what turns his complaint into a syndrome.

"Anthony Weiner," in this sense, has become a useful fiction for Americans, not the least for Anthony Weiner. Our hero wants, and WANTS, and wants!. He fantasizes, risks, hides and lies. This cannot end well, and not simply because with Facebook "friends" you don't need enemies. This is America: desire is bound to bring one to the ultimate sin, the loss of self-possession, the ultimate bourgeois possession.

Our hero also wants the happiness that comes with responsibility, you see, wants discipline, the training of the senses. He is a good Jewish boy, finally, good enough to make himself almost preemptively ludicrous, homing in on any word of sexual encouragement or admiration, but never "doing anything." Now he is going to his Spielvogel to learn how to become a "better husband and healthier person." He will, one may suppose, eventually join a panel on addiction with Tiger Woods and John Edwards on the Oprah channel. Then he will be forgiven.

You'd think that, forty years after Portnoy's Complaint, we'd all be wiser about such things. You'd think we would at least apply to public life some of the subtlety we expect from fiction. Or, if you missed it, just listen to Rick Hertzberg's wonderful comments about the scandal in this New Yorker podcast. Politicians are not people who think they can get away with everything, Rick says. They are people who, doing what everybody does, should be, well, politic enough to know they get away with nothing. When a politician lies publicly about secret lusts, it is not out of fear of public retribution, but mainly to deceive the spouse. Unadulterated (so long as it is not adulterous) sexuality is no crime in America. It can be mandatory. Who would give a thought to the hot air between Coulter's hardcovers if she looked like Betty Friedan?

As for the spouse, who if not the Portnoy generation would know something that endows all these scandals--to mention only those on the left, Clinton, Edwards, DSK, Weiner--with what might be called a pattern. "It was routine and understood," Rick said about the Victorians, "that these powerful men had an appropriate wife; and then, for release, went to the brothel. What's striking about all these [recent] cases is that, yes, it is the wife that is the proper, accomplished, admirable person, his equal. And then he wants something a little more yielding."

Pathetic? Of course. What if not a man's desire for something more or less perfectly self-possessed and infinitely yielding is pathetic? Which is why we have novels and satires--or had them before they were eclipsed by cable news and other reality shows. "I once cored an apple," Portnoy told Spielvogel, "and ran off to the woods to fall upon the orifice of the fruit, pretending that the cool and mealy hole was actually between the legs of that mythical being who always called me Big Boy when she pleaded for what no girl in all recorded history ever got…” Like.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

"Equipment, Not Workers"

The New York Times reports that manufacturing companies are recovering, but not in a way that much reduces unemployment. They are acquiring, the report says, machines, not workers. This was as foreseeable as financial bubbles in an age of electronic securitization, and many have been warning about it for a generation.

Back in 1997, I wrote a piece for Strategy and Business laying out in simple terms what innovations in manufacturing would do to "labor" and, broadly, how governments ought to prepare for them. I imagined the warning coming as a farewell speech by a retiring CEO with common sense and vision (I confess, I was thinking of Motorola's 1980s leader Bob Galvin). When I read the Times lead this morning, I looked over this imagined speech and thought it finally sounded true. Add to its warning the job losses from peer networks that dominate the management of supply chains, and the social networks that dominate marketing and you start to get the picture.

TOMORROW IS MY last day as C.E.O. The first was more than 23 years ago. I suppose you're expecting some words of gratitude -- you richly deserve them -- but indulge me. I want to talk to you about something that has been weighing on my mind more and more in recent years, but I could never find the words or opportunity to raise. It is about what business owes society, what has fashionably and not improperly been called business' "social compact." Nothing could be more important than clarity about this, given the disturbing changes we've been living through. Everyone, from Business Week to former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, says we need a new one. But it seems to me there has been growing confusion about business' obligations under this compact because we have forgotten some first principles.

A friend of mine once quipped that America is the only country in the world where people tell you, "You're history," and they're insulting you. Whether I like it or not, I'm too old now not to know some history. Retirement brings one to consider the work of our lives, and, in any case, takes away the excessive fear of appearing tactless. So I want to start by examining what in the conditions of work has changed, and what has not. I'll build on that to argue what, if anything, needs to be changed in the compact between business and society.

The most direct way to get into this is to think about what has happened to the circumstances of "labor." I'll just touch on some points, which have been extensively debated in the press and in the recent election campaign.

Labor is a fast diminishing part of value. When I first joined this business, in 1954, the cost structure of our manufactured products included about 55 percent direct labor. Today, the number is less than 11 percent. There is a revolution underneath that deceptively simple number; you would not still be senior managers of this company if you didn't appreciate it.

Blue-collar jobs have been made redundant by robotics, flexible machine tools and automated inventory management systems, others by outsourcing to low-wage countries. White-collar jobs have been made redundant by scheduling, order entry, word-processing and dozens of other kinds of software -- and more recently by growth of our fledgling corporate intranet. Middle management is disappearing.

Some have called this a revolution of re-engineering. It is really a revolution in computer-integrated production, and we are only at the start of it. While the market capitalization of the Fortune 500 has grown three- or fourfold since the early 1980's, their work forces have shrunk by 25 percent.

Lost jobs? Good riddance. Remember Michael Dukakis's earnest promise of "good jobs at good wages." His campaign now seems quaint. The new entrepreneurial economy -- technology companies with 500 employees or less -- is responsible for virtually all of the job growth since 1988, and no Federal industrial policy could have precipitated so much dynamism. Investors, not the Government, have been picking winners and losers, and on the whole have not done a bad job of it. Businesses, not Department of Commerce officials, have made the necessary investments in crucial technologies.

What Mr. Dukakis neglected to add, moreover, was that the "good" jobs he wanted to assure through a Government industrial policy were mainly boring, soul-destroying and intellectually demeaning -- production-line assemblers, data processors, the kinds of jobs that were the hallmark of old manufacturing. Frederick Winslow Taylor once wrote that the best businesses were the ones in which workers "left their heads at home." He was right, which explains why socialism had always seemed so magical for working people who could not bring off the feat.

Anyway, much of this dehumanizing work is impossible in the businesses of the new economy. Manufacturing and service businesses like ours want fewer workers, but we want all of our people to be literate, numerate, imaginative and civil enough to engage in team-based problem-solving. We want a scientific mind for production, and an empathic heart for customers and fellow workers. We know that manufacturing matters, but that developing a piece of scheduling software for a plant in Taiwan is manufacturing. All in all, this new style of work is significantly more satisfying than what it has replaced. If socialism is dead, it is because the industrial capitalism it rose up against died first.

The game into which workers are recruited has changed. The new technologies have changed the rules of management: the old division of labor has been replaced by more integrative approaches, interfunctional teamwork, knowledge sharing. A business' most important asset is its "intellectual capital"-- the competencies of employees that allow them to be innovative in a thousand ways. Employees must be learners for their whole lives, not just specialists. They must also understand the business' strategy.

A company used to be like a football team, in which only senior managers, like quarterbacks, saw the whole field, and most everybody else performed a single, drudge task. Your plays (that is, your product lines) were mostly set for the long season; the few times you got close to the goal you had better score. Bigness mattered.

Now a company has to be more like a basketball team -- or really an alliance of basketball teams -- lean, versatile, disciplined in spontaneity. Marketing, design and production people take on problems together; senior managers must lead like a point guard. Real-time communication is key, and it must be horizontal, not just vertical. Networks are replacing hierarchy. The corporate office I run looks more like a holding company, a teaching center and a bank than it does a command center.

By the way, a football team can have too many Dan Marinos. A basketball team can never have too many Michael Jordans, and has no room at all for a 300-pound, barely educated tackle.

Labor's real crisis is not unemployment but unemployability. Of course, the only thing worse than a boring job is no job, which is why some people -- opponents of Nafta or the critics of outsourcing, for example -- view the loss of old industrial jobs with alarm. Their concerns are reasonable. Their solutions are not. Don't be fooled by apparent fluctuations -- last year's "downsizing" or this year's drop in unemployment. For the first time in the history of industrial labor markets, the problem for unskilled people is not cyclical unemployment but chronic unemployability. The bottom rungs of the ladder are disappearing; protection and macro-economic "stimulation" can do nothing to change the trend.

Continue reading...

Friday, June 3, 2011

Sderot: Nostalgia For The Future

Danae Elon at Cinema South
You would think Prime Minister's Netanyahu's insistence that Israel could never go back to the "indefensible" borders of 1967 would play at least as well in bombarded Sderot as it did in the Congress. He certainly thought it would, or that Congresspeople could be suckered into thinking it would. "Imagine that right now we all had less than 60 seconds to find shelter from an incoming rocket," Netanyahu said, rolling to his next standing o. "Would you live that way? Would anyone live that way? Well, we aren’t going to live that way either."

I visited Sderot earlier this week, to attend the opening of the wonderful Cinema South film festival, curated by my friend, the filmmaker Danae Elon. Danae teaches in Sderot's Sapir College, which also happens to be the festival's inspiration and host. She has often spoken to me about the comparatively open-spirited atmosphere of Sderot and the Negev, about how much more hopeful, or at least pragmatic, people at the college and community are than what you find in Jerusalem, far from the missiles, complacent in a kind of misty borderlessness. Anyway, this seemed a chance to take it all in.

TO OPEN THE festival, Danae and her committee chose "Eidut," or "Testimony," by gadfly director Shlomi Elkabetz, a film, in which actors speak, well, testimonies collected by groups such as Breaking the Silence, all of them translated into Hebrew and delivered with fierce eyes in barren landscapes.

The film was obviously meant to dramatize for ordinary Israelis what it has been like for ordinary Palestinians to live under occupation and, less predictably, what it has been for ordinary soldiers to enforce it; to recruit empathy for both sides, and a deeper sense of how tragically this daily exercise of raw power corrupts Israeli youth. (The most affecting moment--given that the Hebrew made Palestinian testimonies seem a little arch--was when a young actor reproduced the lines of a soldier who explained how, after weeks of exhausting, mind-numbing duty at a blisteringly hot check point, he found himself taking out on Palestinians what he could not take out on his officers.)

And much as Danae predicted, the response of Sapir's faculty and audience would have given Eric Cantor something to think about, if actually thinking about Sderot as a living community, and not just as a convenient prop, were on his agenda. Avner Faingulernt, the head of film at Sapir, was first to speak. It is worth quoting some of what he said:

[Ten years ago] we could not imagine, but we did believe, we dreamed and fell in love with the world of the South. With the images, the voices, the colors, the stories, and with a grasp of the world in which there are warm associations and much love for human beings whoever they are... It is we who have to write a new agenda in light of the great privilege that we have, we the people of the periphery, liberated from the established worldview that you find in the center.

Because of this privilege, we are able to live under the threat of missiles and war and yet believe in peace; because of this it is our responsibility to demand from the government talks with any Palestinian or Arab who lives in our vicinity; because of this we can believe in the fabulous revolution that is taking place beyond our borders, and to demand from ourselves an openness to the world that is next to us, to stop closing ourselves off in mental borders, that cruelly imprison us in a dead-end. We who live on the border know and believe that the residents of Gaza are our neighbors and our partners; we know that Gaza can be the most important commercial center for the western Negev.

And we know that in Gaza there can arise a school for film and a cultural center with which we could partner and create festivals, ones that will bring audiences, creative talent, artists, and people of culture and scholarship from the whole world. We live in a place that perhaps looks cruel and hopeless but especially at this time and in this place we feel the greatest opportunity.

The audience responded with overwhelming warmth. Guests to Sderot could just feel the power of such sentiments, in this place, of all places. Then Netanyahu's Culture and Sport Minister, Limor Livnat, took the floor. And something happened.

IT IS IMPORTANT to understand that opening the festival with this film had caused a good deal of controversy before it was even screened. Likud Party insiders, anticipating a film that would show the Palestinian side of the occupation--or give a platform to soldiers who were prepared to share honest memories and doubts--condemned it in advance for one-sidedness. The mayor of Sderot, the Likud's David Buskila, was pressured to boycott the festival, as was Livnat. Nevertheless, both came to the opening, and Danae spoke with particular respect for Buskila, who stood up to the pressures and remained a strong friend of Sapir College, Sderot's most important institution.

When Livnat started to speak, however, things turned surreal. She brought greetings from the government, and expressed her solidarity with Sderot. She registered her opposition to boycotts; the audience cheered. But then, unwilling to leave well enough alone, she began to lecture the audience about what, in effect, they should be feeling.  She condemned the film for its bias, and insisted that it was an unfortunate choice to open the festival. She expressed concern that "Testimony" would be used internationally to delegitimize Israel, or the IDF, or portray Israel's soldiers "in a negative light."

The audience, almost all of whom had lived under a rain of missiles, erupted. "Why don't you see it first?," someone shouted at her. "How can you condemn a work of art before you see it?" yelled another. The noise grew to Knesset-like unpleasantness. Livnat began to throw back at the audience that they were now boycotting her. After another minute or two, she left for "a previous engagement."

So Buskila took the mike. He appealed for calm, which he got. Then he launched into a disquisition on freedom of speech that would have been worthy of John Stewart Mill. It was important to hear both sides, he insisted. She came and we shouted. The audience, not the Likud politicians, he implied, had failed the test of democracy. They had responded angrily and noisily to Livnat who was, after all, only trying to state her views.

DANAE AND I could only look at each other and shrug. These were the gears of Israeli democracy grinding away. The left advocates for tolerance of the Arab narrative, the right accuses the left of disloyalty. The left cries foul and accuses the right of closed-mindedness, and the right accuses the left of failing to tolerate its views. The left, in this view, is arrogant, hypocritical and one-sided. It tolerates the Arabs but not fellow Jews. Freedom of speech is turned into an internal and purely Jewish conversation in which the left proves its intolerance by refusing to tolerate the right's intolerance.

"In Judea and Samaria," Netanyahu told the Congress, "the Jewish people are not foreign occupiers...This is the land of our forefathers, the land of Israel, to which Abraham brought the idea of one god, where David set out to confront Goliath, and where Isaiah saw his vision of eternal peace. No distortion of history...could deny the 4,000-year-old bond between the Jewish people and the Jewish land."

Perhaps. But the atmospherics of this room in Sderot pointed to another, moral standard, one in which people are nostalgic for the future, not the past. It felt a relief, much as Danae predicted, to be with people on a genuine Zionist frontier, dreaming of how land might liberate people, rather than how people might liberate the land.