And for dessert we have… Drunken pseudo-intellectualism next door!

What happened last week was the sort of incident that made me hope, with every tiny atom of my physical being and with every little metaphysical building block of my immortal soul, to leave Durham, North Carolina very soon.

In a restaurant that serves good wine, it’s inevitable that some people should get a little tipsy and start speaking louder than average. I’ve done it. We all have. But it’s rare to witness the drunken babbling of people at the next table suddenly refer to you and certain things you care about. I am usually spared this sort of insight. But not last week.

Last week, there was a table of local “intellectuals” sitting next to us. I can give you the general outline: not-quite-baby-boomers, obvoiously well-off, possibly academics, very passionate and articulate, but in an obnoxious way. The sort of people who wear “Organic Integrity” t-shirts on the weekends and feel they can “relate” to the poor of Durham. Those people.

There was this man, I think he thought he was Byron on account of his ridiculous hair. The man was leaning back in his chair and screeching out opinions on some of the Arab states. He was literally half a foot behind me, and as I began to tune into the conversation, I heard this:

“… All slave-owners, that’s what it is. Slave-owners with first-world pretensions. They recruit white people from Duke to come to Qatar and Dubai and legitimize them. It’s disgusting… All the money-grubbing Dukies are perfect for it… And they built this island in the shape of a palm, like it means something, like it will get other people to…”

As a Dukie who’s interested in working in the Middle East, I was getting ready to snap my fork in two. I was looking across the table at my (Arab) boyfriend with a kind of helpless rage. And it wasn’t even about the things he was saying – it’s this entire atmosphere of saccharine liberal egotism piously masquerading as generous concern for the well-being of the poor that I can NO LONGER STAND.

Oh yes, you drink your bloody “fair trade” coffee and give five bucks to the homeless guy on the corner and point a well-manicured finger at “capitalist oppression” and quote some rhetoric you’ve managed to absorb from a Spivak essay and think you’re such a crusader. OH SHUT UP!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

People like that say the want to change the world, and they haven’t a faintest idea how. They haven’t picked up an economics textbook in their lifetime, they don’t have patience for decent writing, and the only thing they’re good for is driving around town in their hybrids from posh eatery to yoga class.

I am tired and angry. I don’t want to change anyone’s mind. I just want to be spared from this one-dimensional social “activism.”

41 thoughts on “And for dessert we have… Drunken pseudo-intellectualism next door!

  1. I agree both with your comments re liberals _and_ with the people who talked about slavery.

    I agree with you that the solution is not to pontificate endlessly in academic debates about the situation, but rather to get off your ass and to do something about it. However, not doing either one isn’t a solution.

    As someone who has picked up (more than one) econ text book (and not just text books), _and_ talks about capitalist oppression etc etc _and_ goes out and does something about it, I really can’t stand the armchair ‘activists’ who do nothing but complain, as you say. However, nor can I stand those who utterly ignore the real and present oppression of capitalism, and take an active part in slave societies without attempting to change them from their core.

    I am not asking, nor have I ever asked, that everyone utterly give up all the comforts our societies afford him/her. All I am saying is that it should be straightforward to accept that our comforts are built on the hard labor of others, often those who do not enjoy those comforts themselves and that that situation is unjust. Once that is accepted, it makes sense to work towards changing the situation by whatever means are at our disposal.

    Liberals fail on the latter point, whereas most other people fail on the former. To me, those failures are pretty much equivalent.

  2. Oh wait, I missed this the first time around: It’s even better than that time you came over to my house and started yelling about how I want to be a housewife to my evil capitalist boyfriend in front of my friends!

    ***However, nor can I stand those who utterly ignore the real and present oppression of capitalism, and take an active part in slave societies without attempting to change them from their core.***

    I’m not looking for your approval, in case you haven’t noticed by now. Like I already said, you pretty much lost me the day you came into my home and started shouting at me – I haven’t forgotten that. Neither have I forgotten how you shared your thoughts about which people can and cannot be killed at the Federal.

    And, you’ve made a lot of judgments and assumptions about who I am and what I want out of life, and what I think about the world and the way it works – and I’m not interested in disabusing you of them.

    I’m not interested in debating you, and I’m not interested in being your captive audience. The time for that has come and gone.

    Cheerio, fellow Dukie.

  3. For the hundredth time, dear, I don’t care whether or not you’re seeking my approval. I respond to what you write, nothing more.

    By the way, how exactly do you know that that wild-haired criticizer isn’t actually doing something to change things? I’m not the only one making assumptions regarding people.

    Anyway, nuff said.

  4. PS While the FT article may be decent writing (would be nice if they proof-read before publishing though), decent writing does not an argument make. The argument is nonsense because (much like other historical free ports), Dubai would be non-existent without the low-wage majority that enables its citizens to live as well as they do. It is indeed a ‘society organized by capitalism’ – rather unfortunately for the majority of its inhabitants, who live in aforementioned slums.

  5. LOL

    Dude, do you hang around my site waiting for me to post something with the word “capitalism” in it?

    Anyway, please tell us how you wish to make sure that we all become un-oppressed. It’s been a while.

  6. I never made that assumption – I just think the way you’re going about it is totally wrong.

    The wild-haired criticizer of Dubai believes in things like consensus rule!

    Enough said!!!

  7. I don’t drink “fair trade” coffee, it loses its flavor if someone hasn’t been screwed out of the beans.

    Plus I insist that only the most miserable of orphans make my rugs, did you know it’s good luck to find a tiny finger in the weave?

    I never meet real social activist, real activists are off in nasty places trying to make them better and I avoid nasty places.

    Of course you know they’re just digging the wells in Africa to make the rest of look like jerks.

    But they’re the jerks!

  8. Fair trade coffee actually isn’t doing much people a whole lot of good – as far as I understand it. Economically, it’s not making the impact you’d think it would make.

    That’s my problem with much of the activism out there, it’s not achieving much.

    It’s funny you should bring up wells in Africa – I recently read of a project to build wells in a country where the waterways were not properly researched – and the wells ended up being built in places where there just wasn’t any water. It was a giant waste of labour, money, and precious time.

    I look at all this and think that there’s activism needed for the activists.

  9. Agreed re fair trade. It’s liberal nonsense that makes people feel better about themselves without actually giving growers any more control over their own lives.

    Wells though are a different story. Wells have been dug for many many years without waterway research, mostly by relying on local knowledge. Projects that fail often come with arrogant ‘researchers’ who manage to fuck it quite badly, doing no one any good. Those aren’t activists, they’re charitable, missionary do-gooders come to save the poor with their immense goodness.

    Having said that, I’m sure sitting on your ass reading econ text books is getting those people water much faster, eh? Maybe you can donate some of those to said activists, so that they can learn your wise ways.

  10. Wells are an excellent idea (much better than throwing money at governments) – when they work. I don’t fault people for getting involved – I love them for it, but what I see in Durham isn’t realistic.

    And dude, you don’t know jack about me and my wise ways.

    I don’t broadcast them at every opportunity, unlike others.

    Now “p-p-p-p-piss off, Lou.” 😉

  11. Funny how Bill Gates,Warren Buffet and George Soros, the arch capitalist dogs, have done more to alleviate the plight of the poor than all word so called activists combined.

  12. You see wells being built in Durham?

    You’re making no sense: “I recently read of a project to build wells in a country where the waterways were not properly researched”

    What the heck has that got to do with Durham or local liberal academics?

    You’re mixing up a whole bag of entirely different things and are rather lacking in a coherent argument throughout. Somewhat like that FT article.

    “And dude, you don’t know jack about me and my wise ways.”

    As I’ve said before, I’m just responding to your writing: “People like that say the want to change the world, and they haven’t a faintest idea how. They haven’t picked up an economics textbook in their lifetime”

    Very wise.

  13. Khaled: No. They haven’t really empowered people at all. Go check up on how much money the NGOs the various philanthropists give to spend on Land Rovers when they can’t find anything else to spend it on at the end of a budget year. Go check up on the wonderful effect of the money Gates gave to Botswana for HIV alleviation (35% HIV positives in the country).

    Making a ton of money then throwing it around doesn’t make you a good person, nor does it alleviate poverty. It’s a wasteful and ignorant way to make the world think you’re a great person.

  14. I’m not a big fan of Bill Gates as a person but I do admire Warren Buffet.

    What makes the bill and Melinda Gates foundation different is that it doesn’t “throw” money around like so many NGOs and other charities. Their projects are extremely diverse and aim at increasing productive capacity and efficiency. They’re a big investor in Grammeen. Their global health program is aimed more at vaccination, medication and research. Since there is no cure for AIDS as of yet, their efforts in that capacity cannot be judged by infection rates. Nonetheless I don’t think you can deny that they do a whole lot of good. What their motivation for it is I dont know and couldn’t care less. As long as they are creating some sort of positive change then that’s a good thing. On what scale though, that’s our point of disagreement.

    Their donated money has saved millions of lives through vaccination drives and providing cheaper medication.

    I do agree that throwing money in general is not a good development strategy. That is why I am against debt free aid in a lot of cases, though in some instances debt free aid would be more productive.

    Personally I think that Grammeen in their philosophy are the way to go not just in terms of micro-credit, because that is somewhat arguable one way or the other. But rather because the Bank is not Non-profit. By ensuring that lenders must pay interest they are creating an incentive scheme that promotes investment in productive output and that is is the way out of poverty.

    The problem with sub Saharran Africa is not a lakc of funds but rather how those funds are used. Too much of that money has either been pocketed or used in needless projects hence the need to align the incentives properly.

  15. The thing is that these people are seen as good not for what they do, but for how much money they give. Very rarely are the long-term consequences of throwing more money at things studied outside of the framework of Western economic notions.

    Uganda had a far better HIV program than Botswana with far less money thrown at it and a far lower international profile, because they relied on local traditions and people rather than big Western publicity nonsense. They have a far lower infection rate, despite having one of the highest in the early years of HIV.

    Grammeen is a different story, and I think it’s not a bad idea. However, it’s rather contrary to the modern economic notion that good things will come if everyone makes money. As you said, Grammeen is non-profit, directly contradicting that model.

    Giving out money rarely increases efficiency. Use of local knowledge and local resources does, precisely because that knowledge has developed towards efficient and sustainable use, rather than waste. ‘So-called’ activists on the ground often have a far better understanding of this than any of the big money people. This is not always the case: too many ‘activists’ come with preconceived notions. That is why the leftist concept of solidarity (as opposed to intervention) is so important.

    This has its limits, of course. Just because some nutball in South Africa thinks you can cure AIDS by shoving lemon and garlic in your ass and convinces the health minister of this doesn’t mean it’s good. Interaction is important, but the solutions come from the ground, not from the outside.

  16. Capitalism coupled with democracy rocks, never in history have so many enjoyed so much health, wealth, justice and knowledge.

    The reality is only so much can be done to help people from the outside, the ones with the problems are the ones who ultimately will have to solve them in their way. Not to say we can’t help but there are, as always, limits.

    Bill Gates may be a predatory businessman but his foundation is good stuff.

    Plus XP is way stable.

  17. “saccharine liberal egotism piously masquerading as generous concern for the well-being of the poor”

    That, is just about the funniest and most quotable phrase, ever! Thanks for the article link, BTW. It was a very interesting read, since I do often find myself pondering the Dubai phenomenon, esp. after the occasional stop-over. The author, Devji, used to be a familiar face around campus for a couple of years when I was in college. I’m not sure if he’s being overly optimistic, but he and I are probably on the same page in terms of ambiguity/uncertainy about the future of Dubai/The-World.

    “Funny how Bill Gates,Warren Buffet and George Soros, the arch capitalist dogs, have done more to alleviate the plight of the poor than all word so called activists combined.”

    As someone who works for an organization that lives off of money from two of the three names above, I can’t help but agree, and would be a hypocrite to claim otherwise. It is important to note, however, that charity is not the same as justice.

    Let me also add, as a Bangladeshi, that idealizing Grameen too much may not be helpful. There are problems that shouldn’t be overlooked, and the results are out there to look at.

  18. no I said Grammeen is not non profit it very much is for profit but the profit they earn is not that high at all. Which doesn’t matter because the people that own the bank are the lenders (94% of it) so their return is not that high but not operating at a loss but a fair profit which is why I think GRammeen is the future.

    I don’t think you and I am in disagreement here, more often than not local expertise leads to sustainable development however outside elements such as foreign can be benifical especially if combined with local experience and know how. As I said before throwing money isnt the solution but vast sums of money used by locals in a productive and efficient way leads to overall productivity gains.

    There are problems of course with Grammeen but I think that way they’re tackling poverty is definitely extremely effective.

  19. Fair enough, but my point stands: classical neo-liberal (or liberal, or neo-con, or con, etc etc) capitalism excludes the Grammeen model, because it postulates that a method that brings maximum profit will, in the long-run, benefit everyone. That is just not true. The fundamental assumptions of capitalism are ridiculously easy to falsify. A system whose foundation is quicksand is no system at all.

    PS There’s an interesting analogy to Nash equilibria here. The fundamental assumption Nash’s basic paper makes is that all individuals are entirely self-interested. That’s been repeatedly shown to be false, as people exhibit communal interests. Nash’s theorems fail if communal interest is factored in, hence Nash equilibria are not realistic. Biologists realized this ages ago. Economists should too…

  20. I still don’t know what you mean by Capitalism. Neo conservative economic doctrine is very much a socialist one, and one I personally disagree with. The neo cons have a somewhat scandinavian model in mind with transfer payments running high albeit they favour free trade although not always.
    There is a realist market model, one that attempts to account for market failure when it occurs. Grameen is an example of how market forces can work very well under the right set of incentives and vision.

    There are tons of models out there all with very different assumptions and all help explain how certain economies and individuals run to different degrees. Capitalism is merely the way in which individuals move towards selling their labour to produce rather than artisan work than existed under feudalism. I don’t think capitalist has any assumptions about anything. I don’t think it’s a system but rather a description.

    I think the model does work well in terms of Grameen. The market model, neo classical in some form is not based on high profit or maximum profit but rather maximum return which need not be profit. For Grameen bank the maximum return is the fact that the owners of the bank (the borrowers, i think i might’ve said lenders but I mean borrowers before) can take out loans and that is their return since they own the bank by becoming borrowers through their interest payments. Their interest as owners of the bank is to be able to receive loans, which they do and are incentivized to repay those loans partly because their line of credit is dependent on repayment but also because they own a stake in the bank itself.

    I think people often lump all that seems to be right wing under the labels conservatism and capitalism. I think this often obscures the issues at hand because it makes any sort of discussion very difficult hence the reason why the Literature and cultural anthropology departments at Duke don’t talk or collobarate even though, surprising as it maybe, they often reach similar conclusions on the same issues.

    You can in effect alter the assumption in Nash equialibria to account for communal interest as long as that communal interest coincides with the personal interest which by its very nature should. It’s just a matter of setting up the game a certain way. Behavioural economics, a new sub discipline is trying to test all of this and they’ve come up with some interesting albeit strange results. On the whole it seems that self interest holds but there is a tendency for individuals in the game to deliberately screw the other players over instead of pursuing their own self interest (however whatever that self interest might emobdy itself in is purely arbitrary, a person’s self interest might be screwing the other player over or giving the other player maximum gain).The assumption is simple, people what to do what they value the most and will pursue it how that value manifests itself need not be monetary at all. However, upon repetition they do work together after realizing full well what their lack of cooperation in the game means.

  21. Just thought about this on the bus and figured out I’m muddling a bit. Neo-con economics is based on Nash, hence on the assumption that people act purely in self-interest. Nash showed that under that assumption, societies are stable. However, the assumption is false.

    Liberal (and neo-lib) economists believe that prosperity comes from maximizing profit. In this case, the conclusions are false (for example, sweatshops maximize profit while minimizing the prosperity of most involved).

    Please correct me if I’m wrong…

  22. Individual self-interest is _not_ communal self-interest. We can see this even in bacteria: some bacteria will effectively commit suicide so that the community survives. That’s clearly present in humans as well: most mothers would rather see their kids live than themselves.

    Capitalism describes a number of different models, all of which fail either in their basic assumptions (Nash himself acknowledges that he doesn’t believe his early work has a sound economic basis) or in their results (sweatshops etc).

  23. I’m glad you up the mother example. It is not the mother’s interest to have her die herself. She has gains no value by letting her child die she gains greatest value by dying herself. It is all a matter of how you define self interest in the case of the mother her self interest is to see her child live which also happens to be her child’s interest.

    Funnily enough, if you give the child a choice and assume that they both see their self interest realized by giving up themselves rather than have the other die then the Nash equilibria would be for both of them to choose to die.

    Self interest is highly individual, your self interest might be very different than somebody elses

    In terms of Bacteria, I dont know much about that other than that the Bacteria doesn’t make sentient or rational choice and is incapable of making an intelligence decision because they cannot grasp weigh their decisions intelligently.

  24. “Funnily enough, if you give the child a choice and assume that they both see their self interest realized by giving up themselves rather than have the other die then the Nash equilibria would be for both of them to choose to die.”

    And you don’t see a problem with this assumption???

  25. and no I think Nash’s models are way too simplistic but the setting up of games like that and that way of thinking is the value of Nash himself. There are tons of problems with Nash’s original work and I’m no expert on game theory, im not nearly as smart as I need to be to be able to understand the more complex elements involved in highly complex games (unlike the prisoner’s dilemma) but overall I think his analysis is useful which in a way is not that dissimilar from your idea of communal interest in the sense of reaching an optimality point where each player can’t gain at the expense of the other in a competitive game.

  26. I think that’s a very accurate portrayal in a way because both would choose to die rather than have one live at the expense of the other this of course assumes that they both have the same values which they might very well not. Maybe the mother chooses her life over her child or the child does, that complicates things but the analysis is sound, its just a matter of what you think the players attach value to.

  27. OK. Game theory is something I’m starting to learn quickly (because it’s applicable to genetics, which is what I do). There are huge problems with Nash equilibria. The philosophical problems aside, the mathematical assumptions just aren’t valid outside very simple societies (I’m sure they’re valid if your entire society consists of the U. of Chicago’s econ dept, though). The model may be useful, but it breaks down much faster than Nash originally presumed. Nash himself has said this in recent years.

  28. I absolutely agree with you there outside of a simple system or simply game things get quite difficult with too many assumptions, however the methodology definitely has value and can be used in different ways but its all about how you set up the game,

  29. No, that’s the point. It isn’t. Nash equilibria don’t exist if communal self-interest don’t coincide with individual self-interests. The equilibrium points of the differential equations vanish and there is no stability.

  30. This is a bit silly. I don’t understand the economics and you don’t understand the math. Maybe we should get drunk instead…

  31. (Natalia to Rann)
    > I’m not interested in debating you, and I’m not interested in being your captive audience.
    Wow – I said that a few months ago, and stayed away because didn’t want to drive the wedge between the site proprietor (whose intellect and writing skills I admire), and her friend, whom I find despicable.

  32. Maybe getting drunk would be better. I understand what you’re saying, I think, have to think back to the Nash equilibria proofs 2 years ago. But I don’t think I know what you mean by communal interest both mathematically and conceptually.

    fuck it, lets forget about this,

  33. maybe we could get drunk AND figure this out…

    I have some idea about what communal interest could mean mathematically on the bacterial level. No real idea about the human level – I’ll think about it.

    Let’s get a drink some time.

  34. Natalia, I share your exasperation with the pompous, ineffectual campus libbie types. But it seems foolhardy for you to know of the Natasha trade, yet want to work in a place like the ME!

    I know what you’re thinking: “Listen, buster, I’m a big girl now, and no a**hole tells me who to date, where to live, etc.” Yes, and last summer in Odessa I saw some of those “big girls” of 20 back from Turkey, looking 48, sprawled in the gutter behind the Oper Dom, asking for handouts, or drunk or drugged past caring. And other “big girls” by the docks at night, forced smiles on their faces and fear in their eyes, under the tight guard of their pimps, going into men’s passing SUVs with tinted windows, at the direction of their pimps. “Youth thinks itself immortal, like the gods sublime”, as Melville wrote in 1861 of neophyte Civil War soldiers marching off in high spirits to what would be a terrible massacre. Ostarozhna.

  35. dude. you came into her house and started shouting at her about her relationship with her boyfriend?

    sorry to rubberneck, but: damn, that’s messed up.

  36. Alex, I’d like to respond, but since certain issues relating to privacy of myself and others are involved – I’m going to have to demur. Please do stick around this blog.

    Belle, *sigh* I’ve been passive aggressive about this whole thing – it was obviously very stupid of me.

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