Sunday, August 29, 2010

On Atheism And Dickishness

Leading science blogger/outspoken atheist/self-aggrandizing prick P.Z. Myers, responding to critics who point out that he's kind of a dick, mounts a defense of dickishness. Being a dick, he claims, saved his life:
You know I've had this recent scary cardiac episode, and as it turns out, I think my own dickish personality probably (not certainly, since we're dealing with odds here) helped me. There was one moment when I literally had two paths to take, and I chose what I think was the best and most rational one.
He goes on to tell a story about a heart attack scare, and how his inclinations to rationality and skepticism led him to take it seriously enough to get himself to the hospital, and then concludes that this somehow proves that being an asshole is the best way to respond to the threat of religious extremism. This argument is, to be charitable, rather unpersuasive.

For one, the equation of dickishness with rationality is rather far-fetched. While not an atheist, I am a proud skeptic and secularist, and I suspect Myers and I would agree on 75% or more of the issues when it comes to religion and science, the problems of fundamentalism, and so on. But while I do not subscribe to any sort of dogmatic supernatural belief myself, nor feel an emotional need to do so, I do not feel compelled or entitled to be dismissive of those who do. The universe is too vast, and my own perspective on it too limited, even when informed by science, to warrant such a sense of satisfaction with my own enlightenment. The beliefs of the faithful may be delusions - I don't know. But if they are, the fact that I do not share them does not mean I don't have delusions of my own. It is the nature of delusions that those who labor under them do not realize they are deluded. If there is one thing that science has taught us about ourselves, it is that we are prone to all manner of blindness, confabulation, and self-deception. The human brain is not an instrument of perfect reason - it's a mass of electrified protein goo that evolved to help us survive and, perhaps as a byproduct, allows us to distantly and hazily glimpse a state of pure reason through the fog of emotion and flawed perception. Every human being alive believes things for which there is no rational basis to believe - we have to. If we didn't, we could not survive. Given that, I am certain that I do not perceive reality as it actually is, and am inclined to a little humility whenever I feel the urge to tell others that they are deluded.

Secondly, Myers rather disastefully (and dubiously) equates religion as a social pathology to heart disease as a physiological pathology. For the umpteen-millionth time, one is compelled to point out that religion is a complex social phenomenon, that it has brought joy, inspiration, and righteous conviction as well as sorrow and violence to humanity, and that there are many different forms of it, some much less antagonistic to the science and rationality that Myers prizes than others. And for the umpteen-million-and-first time, if human beings did not have holy books or ancient rituals or what have you, they would find some other tribal talisman to fight over instead. No one has ever persuasively argued to me that religious belief is uniquely pernicious in its ability to inspire violence and mayhem, and the historical evidence - the mountains of historical evidence, strewn across a twentieth century awash in blood shed by ideologies that were secular or even outright atheistic in character - pretty much proves that point. The Communists adopted as one of their basic assumptions the idea that religion was an outdated irrational delusion and something that humanity would be better off without. It did not make them more moral or more perfectly rational people. The fact that Myers essentially equates secularists like myself who prefer to accommodate the (reasonable, tolerant, non-violent) religious beliefs of our fellow citizens rather than confronting them at every possible turn with people who refuse to seek treatment for illness is not only offensive, it's stupid and ill-reasoned as well.

But even if we grant Myers, arguendo, that a.)he is more enlightened than those of his fellow human beings that are religious, and b.)religiosity is a dangerous thing which atheists are justified in trying to stamp out, the question of what approach to adopt toward that achieving that goal remains. Luckily, this question can be answered. Myers thinks being a dick to those with whom he disagrees is just peachy. But this isn't a matter of his opinion. Being a dick to people either helps to sway them to your position, or it doesn't. As such, I submit the following questions to Myers:

1.)How many religious believers has being a smug, self-righteous asshole helped you to convert to atheism over the years?

2.)Conversely, how many moderate religious people, who'd like to make common cause with you against fundamentalism, anti-scientific sentiment, and the like, have you alienated by being a smug, self-righteous asshole?

3.)Is being a smug, self-righteous asshole toward a religious person more likely to a.)convince them that you're correct and lead them to abandon long-held and deeply cherished beliefs, or b.)offend them and perpetuate the unfortunate stereotype that exists in American society of atheists as arrogant, antisocial people who despise their fellow citizens?

Being empirical questions, these should all be right up P.Z. Myers' scientifically-minded alley. Perhaps he should get to work gathering data in order to settle the dickishness question once and for all.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Three Thoughts On The Skilled Labor Shortage

In a time of 10% unemployment, it's mystifying that any sector of the economy could face a critical labor shortage, but such a shortage among skilled trade workers is exactly the problem facing the U.S. and many other advanced economies. Many argue that the culprits behind this shortage are the social stigma of blue collar work and, conversely, the cache of a university degree and the access to traditionally middle-class white collar professions it provides, but this problem poses a number of interesting questions for me:

1.)Don't we need to consider the role of education in this situation? When my father went to high school, he attended a technical school, and while he went on to study engineering at Cornell, many of his classmates proceeded instead to what were then presumably perfectly respectable careers as tradesmen of various sorts - welders, electricians, and the like. It seems to me that in the U.S. technical education has largely been disfavored at the high school level in favor of curricula aimed more at college prep, and I don't know why that ought to be so. A university is a wonderful thing to have, but unless you need it it is an expensive indulgence, and I don't think it makes the best use of students' talents to funnel them all in that direction. University educations and white collar jobs are not for everyone, and I don't see why it need be an elitist thing to say that. A student who in the hope of becoming a lawyer or doctor spends the years between fifteen and eighteen learning calculus, evolutionary biology, and European history badly, rather than learning the rudiments of plumbing or welding well, is not making the most of either his or her talents or earning potential, given that competition for the best jobs is extremely fierce and entry into both university and white collar professional schools is extremely costly in terms of both time and money. I'm all for some sort of universal standard of basic liberal education, but we need an educational philosophy that also recognizes the varying talents of students and encourages them to develop those at which they show the most promise.

2.)Given that many of those who have lost their jobs in the current downturn are factory workers and other blue-collar types, and that there has been much hand-wringing about the death of American manufacturing and the dire economic prospects for the American working class that it portends, it seems like we have the raw human resources available to plug this gap. Don't we need to think about this shortage as part of the long term solution to the problem of the future employability for non-college graduates? Obviously working on an assembly line at a GM plant and working as an electrician require different skills, training, and professional credentials, but I don't see any reason why someone with the technical mindset to do the former well couldn't, with a few years of schooling, learn to do the latter.

3.)Is this a failure of classical economic theory? Most economists would insist that any rational actor seeks to maximize their own benefit in any given situation, and "benefit" is usually taken to indicate either money or something that can readily be equated to money. But that framework doesn't seem adequate to explain this situation. Let's say high school graduate X has two options. He can A.)undergo a plumbing apprenticeship, during which he can earn money while learning a trade that could eventually net him a very comfortable middle class living. Or he can B.)attain a college degree that will provide him entry into the white-collar labor market at a low-paying level when he's finished it, but means forgoing four years of income and likely saddling himself with a high amount of debt when he finally does graduate. It seems to me that (A) is pretty clearly the more attractive option for a rational actor, i.e., someone seeking to maximize his gains and minimize his losses. The reason so many people in this situation choose (B) can only be attributable, in my opinion, to the fact that people are not in fact rational actors in the classical economic sense and that their decision making is influenced by a number of factors beyond brute tabulation of the pluses and minuses of a given decision. In this case, I'd say the student who chooses (B) is probably influenced by 1.)the fact that plumbing is seen by many in our society as a "dumber" profession than office work, and 2.)a (likely irrational) hope that he will "make it" and achieve a career track that ends not as an office drone or middle manager, but as C.E.O. of the company. There's a lot of exciting new work in the emerging field of behavioral economics exploring what is actuality the oddness and irrationality of human decision-making, but much of the larger field still relies on what appear to me to be clearly flawed assumptions about human nature.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The "Ground Zero Mosque" And Conservative Hypocrisy

I am having trouble seeing what the big deal is with regards to the ongoing controversy about the plan to build a mosque/Islamic cultural center a few blocks from the former site of the World Trade Center in Manhattan. The center is being built on private property, using private funds, and has been approved by all the relevant zoning and building code authorities, so on what grounds do people like Tea Party wingnut/Nevada senatorial candidate Sharron Angle say it must be stopped? You can assert that the proposed location is insensitive to the victims of 9/11 and that the interests of interfaith comity would be better served by relocating it if you like. Personally, I think this argument is rather dubious, given that there is already a strip club located even closer to Ground Zero than the proposed cultural center. I also think the logic behind it betrays a rather simplistic prejudice against Islam – the fact that the people who want to open this community center are Muslims does not mean they endorse the philosophy of the perpetrators of 9/11 any more than the fact that both are Christians means that the Pope approves of abortion clinic bombers. But there is no justification whatsoever, at least not any consonant with limited government philosophy, for arguing that the government should interfere with individual rights in the name of sensitivity to peoples’ feelings. Last I checked, that was a far left position. Conservatives that oppose campus speech codes, hate speech laws, and the like frequently argue (rightly) that nobody has a constitutional right to not be offended. Well, this is a chance for chance to put their money where their mouth is, by respecting the right of their fellow citizens to do something that many among their number may find offensive. To be fair, some conservatives have done so. But some have not, and they need to be called on that hypocrisy.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Scoping Out The Situation

In the spirit of Juvenal, the first century A.D. Roman poet and satirist whose Tenth Satire provided the name for my blog, I can't help but let news as momentous as the announcement that Jersey Shore resident musclehead Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino will make upwards of $5 million this year pass unremarked upon. You've got to hand it to the guy - whether by luck, persistence, or some pea-brained form of self-promotional genius, the man has managed to turn great abs, an excessive fondness for hair gel, and a personality that effortlessly marries malignant narcissism and mild mental retardation into a marketing force worth seven figures annually. It's not true that America is a uniquely shallow, materialistic, and intellectually bankrupt society - other countries pay pop singers, actors, and sports stars far more money and attention than they deserve as well, and likewise undervalue teachers, engineers, doctors, and scientists. But we're still ahead of the game, because only in America is it possible for someone to become famous for being famous. Europe, Asia, Latin America - until you can start turning knuckle-dragging, mouth-breathing troglodytes like The Situation and vapid, painted-up sluts like Paris Hilton into cultural icons, and not just people who actually have some talent (no matter how overvalued), you've still got a long way to go to catch up in the race to the bottom. Get cracking.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

It's Oh So Much Nicer To Come Home

After a long (and I do mean long) train journey, I finally arrived back in Sendai last night at about 7 p.m., after almost three weeks of travel around southern Japan. It was a fantastically enlightening and enjoyable (if sweltering) trip, and I return feeling I have learned something new about the country I've now lived in for almost five years, particularly from the time I spent in Nagasaki, a city of fascinating cultural and historical depths whose fame ought not to rest solely on its status as the target of the second atomic bomb dropped at the end of World War II. Now that the trip is over, however, I find myself humming the refrain of the eponymous Sinatra tune. Nothing replenishes enthusiasm for sleeping in one's own bed like three weeks of, in T.S. Eliot's words, "restless nights in one-night cheap hotels". I will begin posting the photos to my Flickr account as soon as I have a chance to sort through them, and will perhaps write a few more in-depth posts about my experiences of the trip once I've had a chance to reflect on them. Stay tuned, if you are interested.

Monday, August 16, 2010

China: We're Number Two!

As has long been forecast to happen, China appears set to overtake Japan as the world's second largest economy by overall GDP. This was no surprise. As the article halfway acknowledges, however, overall GDP is a rather crude measure of overall economic health - by other measures, such as per capita income, China still lags well behind the U.S., Japan, South Korea, and most of Europe, not to mention its erstwhile province of Taiwan, and certain factors make it unlikely to catch up in those metrics anytime soon. The population is huge, and a massive portion of it is still impoverished, as anyone who's visited the rural Chinese interior can tell you. Furthermore, with most of its growth built on export-oriented manufacturing and "catching up" infrastructure improvements within the country, there are natural limits to the amount of growth the Chinese economy can produce, and that's without even considering the drag created by the widespread corruption and governmental incompetence it suffers as a one-party state. With the U.S. in the throes of its worst recession, and Japan and several of its other target export markets being aging societies likely to decline in overall consumption in the future, foreign markets for Chinese goods are unlikely to remain as robust as they are now in decades to come, and while there is a growing domestic consumer class in China, it's still far too small in terms of numbers and purchasing power to make up the difference if exports decline precipitously. Furthermore, there are only so many train lines, highways, power grids, and skyscrapers China itself needs, and it's unclear to me that the Chinese people will willingly continue to pay the massive human and environmental costs they have endured to this point in exchange for continued growth. After all, the evidence of history indicates that safe, easy working conditions, clean air and water, and good health tend to come in fairly short order after owning cars and televisions on the priority list for a burgeoning middle class in any country. Solving those problems has economic costs, which may be exacerbated in China's case by its lack of an apparatus for doing so smoothly via democratic action. China is well along on the road towards becoming a developed economy, no doubt, but I would be surprised if doesn't hit a few more potholes along the way.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Three Cheers For Kan

It surely won't win him many fans among right-of-center Japanese voters, but Prime Minister Naoto Kan's decision to issue a formal apology for the suffering inflicted by the Japanese military during World War II on the anniversary of Japan's surrender in lieu of visiting the controversial Yasukuni Shrine as have his predecessors is a step in the right direction towards improving relations between the country and its Asian neighbors. It's not exactly fair to say that the shrine glorifies the actions of the war criminals among the 2.4 million war dead to whom it is dedicated - in Shinto cosmology, death absolves a person of his or her sins, so honor is paid to the spirits of the dead regardless of their actions in life, and in my experience even moreso than in other cultures it is considered taboo to continue to nurse grudges against those who have left this world. (Incidentally, this seems to apply to foreigners as well - while the Japanese continue to commerorate August 6th and 9th, the dates of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings respectively, as days of national tragedy, I have met very few people in my time who blame Americans for dropping the bombs). But the fact that the shrine makes no distinction between the honorable and the dishonorable dead is a major sore spot for Koreans, Chinese, Filipinos, and others who suffered under the rule of militarist Japan during the war years, and understandably so. They neither understand nor share the Shinto preference for letting bygones be bygones and view each visit made to the shrine by a Japanese leader as an added insult given that they have already so vociferously voiced their displeasure with the custom. Continuing to visit it is therefore a needless international provocation for a Japanese leader. It is an act of allegiance more-or-less demanded by the nationalist right, who have been a key component of what has been Japan's ruling coalition over most of the past sixty years, but it is foolish. There are other ways to honor the heroic among Japan's war dead, and as the years go by and Japan becomes ever more connected politically and economically to its neighbors, strained relations with them become a luxury it can less and less afford. Kan's party, the Democratic Party of Japan, realizes this and has made it a major plank of their platform, and hopefully the fact that they have managed to elect a Prime Minister willing to refrain from using internationally antagonistic appeals to nationalism to buy votes will make it easier for Japan's leaders to do the smart and sensitive thing in the future.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Ted Stevens Killed In Plane Crash

As a non-Alaskan, I was not the biggest fan of Ted Stevens as a Senator, but from the perspective of his constituents he did serve his state's interests well and the fact that he and three others, including former NASA chief Sean O'Keefe, have been killed in a plane crash is of course a tragic thing. Condolences to their families and to the people of Alaska.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Is America Ready For High-Speed Rail?

That's the question posed by this piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer, and while it is an important one for the future of American transportation, even if it's answered in the affirmative the debate should not end. The vital follow-up questions - where it would be worthwhile, how we'd go about building and paying for it, and so on - are just as important.

Living in Japan and Korea and traveling quite a bit in Europe, I've had lots of experience with high-speed rail, and it's a fantastic way to travel mid-range distances - faster and less stressful than driving, and cheaper and less hassle than flying. In Sendai, where I live, I can simply turn up at the train station, buy a ticket, and be in downtown Tokyo, more than 200 miles away, two hours later, no questions asked. There are no traffic jams, tolls, demands for focus and attention, or worries about accidents or breakdowns as with driving, and no security or baggage lines, last-minute delays and cancelations, or need to plan weeks in advance if you don't want to have to pay top dollar for a ticket as with flying. I can spend the majority of the trip sleeping, doing crossword puzzles, or stretching out in what compared to a typical coach seat or car interior is grand comfort. It's an incredibly enjoyable way to travel, and I don't for a second buy the argument that some rail opponents in the U.S. make that Americans will never warm up to trains. The reason Americans don't use our existing rail system is not because they don't like trains. It's because our existing rail system, for lack of a better word, sucks. I have ridden on trains in third world countries that were better than Amtrak. If we had an efficient, economical, and well-run high-speed rail system in the U.S., people would use it.

But that's not to say that opponents of President Obama's proposal for building high-speed lines along certain highly trafficked corridors don't have some valid points. There is no question that building the infrastructure required is expensive and time-consuming, so any system we do build needs to be well-planned. Only certain areas of the U.S. - namely, the northeast corridor between Washington and Boston, the California coast between San Diego and San Francisco, and perhaps the Great Lakes band between Minneapolis and Pittsburgh - have the kind of population density and transport demands to make high-speed rail worthwhile. Only certain routes within those corridors make economic and engineering sense. President Obama's on-paper proposal for a high-speed rail system fully acknowledges these realities, but the problem is that no proposal that's a good idea on paper ever looks nearly so appealing once it's ready to be implemented in reality after making its way through the legislative sausage grinder. Japan offers a good object lesson on this. Like the U.S., the country has a political system in which politicians from rural constituencies wield a disproportionate amount of power. As in the U.S., getting things like large-scale transportation projects done entails placating a lot of interested parties on both national and local levels. Japanese public works projects, like their American counterparts, almost inevitably involve no-bid contracts, sweetheart deals, kickbacks, and other funny business between government officials and their connected friends in the private sector. And like Congresspeople, Japanese legislators love them some pork. When it comes to opportunities to serve up pork, high-speed rail, as an expensive, large scale project that involves long-term construction projects in multiple jurisdictions, is the public works equivalent of a weeklong thousand-guest Polynesian nuptial pig roast.

The Japanese shinkansen system, wonder of engineering and social planning though it may be, is proof positive of this. Look at a map of the system, and you'll note that the main lines - the Tohoku, Tokaido, and Sanyo lines - run through the heart of the so-called "Pacific Belt", the portion of the main island of Honshu that faces the Pacific Ocean and contains nearly all of the country's major cities and most of its population, and accounts for the vast majority of its wealth, educational and cultural capital, and economic productivity. That makes sense - you'd expect such a densely populated and productive region to require an extensive, high-capacity transportation network, and it does. The bullet trains that run between, say, Tokyo and Osaka, are nearly always packed. But you'll also a number of spur lines that run off into the hinterlands, terminating in small, economically unremarkable cities on the coast of the Sea of Japan - the region many urban Japanese derisively refer to as "the backside of Japan". What explains the existence of these spur lines, which appear to serve no real consumer demand and along which trains are often half-empty at best? Pork, of course. By building these lines, politicians from Japan's economically depressed rural regions bought jobs for their constituents, and hence continued voter support for themselves, on the dime of taxpayers in places like Tokyo. The Joetsu Shinkansen Line between Tokyo and the city of Niigata is perhaps the most infamous example. Initiated in 1971 by Niigata-born Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka and finished in 1982, the line weaves 300 km from Tokyo through the mountainous and sparsely populated region of central Honshu to Niigata, a city of only 800,000 people and marginal economic importance on the coast of the Sea of Japan. The line cost $6.3 billion when it was constructed (something close to $25 billion in today's dollars), and has never come close to being profitable. When it was announced, the vague goal of "promoting regional development" was the ostensible justification, but the region the line serves has continued to lose population and economic clout in the decades since its completion. At best, its made the journey south to the bright lights of Tokyo much faster for the area's best and brightest.

It's the possibility of this kind of boondoggle that makes me extremely wary of high-speed rail in the U.S. I have a vision, in which no sooner is a high-speed line between Washington and Boston announced than politicians from Harrisburg, Atlantic City, Syracuse, Springfield, and every other marginal, small or mid-sized city within 200 miles of the proposed route begin clamoring for a spur line connecting their district to the overall network in exchange for their votes. Even Japan at the height of its so-called "economic miracle" couldn't afford such profligacy, and the U.S., with a massive entitlement crisis just over the horizon, certainly can't now.

As such, I'm only willing to support high-speed rail projects on a limited basis for now. It is an idea we need to consider - our current transportation infrastructure is overstressed and crumbling, and would be wasteful even if it weren't. In certain areas of the country building better trains may well be a better way to deal with that problem than building more highways. But we should start small - first build a line connecting, say, New York and Washington via Philadelphia - before we worry about more grandiose plans for a comprehensive network. We have limited resources, and we cannot afford to fritter them away to waste and abuse.

Friday, August 6, 2010

The Dragon Roars

Obviously it's still a ways from being proven effective, but the development of a Chinese anti-carrier missile is still troubling news. China of course has a right to defend itself, but in my view a credible American capability to defend Taiwan against Chinese aggression has long been important to stable peace in the Pacific region and any development that threatens that capability has to be viewed as increasing the odds of a confrontation, if only slightly. I don't doubt that there are elements within the Chinese government that would invade Taiwan tomorrow if they thought they could get away with it, and while it's entirely possible that the Chinese government's economic and geopolitical interests in avoiding war with the United States would trump the nationalist dream of reabsorbing the erstwhile island province, a weapon that could effectively interfere with America's ability to intervene in the event of an invasion is unquestionably an ace in the hand of Taiwan hawks in Beijing. Let's hope the U.S. Navy has an effective counter-strategy in mind.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Prop 8 Goes Down (For Now)

I am as happy as anyone that a federal district court judge has overturned proposition 8, the 2008 California referendum that banned same sex marriage in the state. Like most people of my generation, I am in favor of marriage rights for gays and opposed the law on the merits, but I also found the legal reasoning behind it deeply offensive, depending as it did on the troublesome notions that legal rights are privileges conferred according to the whim of the government rather than legally unassailable constitutional guarantees and that it is legitimate for legal institutions like marriage to discriminate against a minority on the basis of arbitrary characteristics like sexual orientation. I agree almost entirely with Judge Walker's argument in striking the law down, and view it not just as a victory for advocates for gay marriage but those who oppose granting the state the power to discriminate against certain citizens as well.

But though this decision is a step in the right direction, it's far from the final legal word on the subject - the case is almost certainly bound for the U.S. Supreme Court, where it is quite possible it could be reversed. In the meantime, debate on the underlying issue will rage on. Allahpundit of HotAir, one of the few mainstream conservative commentators who openly favors gay marriage, is concerned about a popular backlash against Walker's ruling:

That said, while it's no secret that I support gay marriage too, I think they've
made a needless mistake in pushing this in the courts instead of doing it
legislatively state-by-state. The optics are uniquely bad - a federal
judge imperiously tossing out a public referendum enacted by citizens of one of
the bluest states in America on the shoulders of a multi-racial coalition.
If the goal of gay-rights activists is to make same-sex marriage palatable to
the public, then embittering opponents by torpedoing a hard-fought democratic
victory seems like ... an odd way to go about it.
Color me unconvinced. As Allahpundit himself acknowledges, the anti-marriage types are doomed to lose this argument eventually. The coalition that voted to ban gay marriage in California is going to shrink, not grow, because the demographics that chiefly compose it - namely older people and Christian conservatives - are declining as an overall percentage of the electorate. The idea has been slowly but steadily gaining acceptance ever since the Massachusetts Supreme Court's landmark 2004 ruling requiring that state to extend marriage rights to same-sex couples. Proposition 8 barely passed in 2008 despite massive and expensive campaigns against it on the part of conservative activist groups and both the Catholic and Mormon churches, and that margin shrinks every time an elderly "yea" voter dies and is replaced in the electorate by his or her pro-gay marriage millenial grandchild. Opponents of gay marriage may not like this ruling, but before too long, it's not going to matter - they'll no longer have the means to ban it, democratically or otherwise. Politically, they'll become an electorally insignificant rump movement, and eventually, they'll be culturally marginalized as well, and someday be viewed as reactionary bigots the same way people who oppose interracial marriage are today. Bitter or not, they won't matter - they will become, to paraphrase the popular liberal analogy, stragglers fighting a hopeless rearguard action against the inexorable advance of history. And at that point, if not long before, the controversial manner in which the question was decided will be forgotten.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

A Window Into Modern Japan

Currently I'm in Kobe, the capital of Hyogo prefecture and one of Japan's busiest ports. Because I had a friend living here, it was one of the first cities I visited when I arrived in Japan, and at the time I was struck by the energy and worldliness of the place, an impression which remains undiminished on a second visit. Kobe was one of the first Japanese ports opened to foreign ships by the new Meiji government, in 1868, and that legacy is visible all over the city, in its numerous western-style houses, sleek international hotels, and tree-lined, Europeanesque hillside neighborhoods. Kobe's international character is visible in more than just its architecture, however; the city has a large foreign population, including one of the biggest Chinese communities in Japan, English signage is much more common here than in other Japanese cities, and people not only study foreign languages, but actually use them - last night a Japanese woman sitting next to me on the train apologized to me in English when she needed to squeeze past me to put her bag on the luggage rack, something which would rarely if ever happen in Tohoku, the more inward-looking, traditionally Japanese region in which I live. Even the city's culinary calling card - its world-renowned eponymous beef - reflects its cosmopolitan heritage, the raising, slaughtering, and eating of cows not being a traditional part of Japanese culture. It's one of Japan's friendliest cities, and one of the first places I'd suggest any foreigner without much knowledge of the culture or language visit if they wish to experience a soft landing in the country.

Beneath the bustling cosmopolitan surface, however, there's a bit of a darker resonance to Kobe. Like many of Japan's cities it was pretty well-leveled by repeated bombing raids during World War II, but whereas other Japanese communities have somewhat lost their sense of the fragility of civilization in the largely prosperous decades since the war, in Kobe it remains palpable. This is because of the devastation the city suffered due to what in Japan is referred to as the Great Hanshin earthquake, and elsewhere as the Kobe earthquake, which struck the city at 5:46 AM on the morning of January 17th, 1995. The quake was one of the most powerful to hit Japan in recorded history, and its epicenter was only 20 kilometers from downtown Kobe. The quake killed more than 6,000 people, damaged or destroyed more than 200,000 buildings, and caused more than $100 billion in damage. At the time, this amount was equal to 2.5% of Japan's annual GDP, making it, according to the Guinness book of world records, the costliest natural disaster in human history. The city has never fully recovered - even today it has not regained its status as Japan's busiest port, and wrecked buildings, their owners killed or otherwise unaccounted for in the aftermath of the disaster, remain strewn like forgotten grave sites throughout the rebuilt city. Part of a collapsed pier in the port district, which suffered particularly heavy damage, was left unreconstructed as a memorial to the disaster:

But worse even than the economic and human costs was the psychological toll inflicted on the country by the earthquake and in particular, by its aftermath. The Japanese government, which initially refused offers of humanitarian aid from foreign nations on the grounds that the language barrier and lack of Japanese medical licensing would prevent foreign volunteers from assisting, was widely criticized for incompetence, mismanagement, and bureaucratic lethargy in the wake of its slow, confused response, and political disillusionment grew worse than ever. Even worse, people began to doubt one of the very underpinnings of modern Japanese society. Ever since the Meiji Restoration of 1868, Japan had put its faith in technological progress, and that faith had been rewarded by unprecedented growth and unchallenged status as Asia's premier economic power, both before and eventually after World War II. People believed in technology's power to make life predictable, secure, and safe. In the case of something like an earthquake, they expected technology to give them early warnings, to minimize the damage, and to make recovery quick and easy. None of those things happened. The early warning systems failed. Buildings, highways, and bridges that had supposedly been built to be "earthquake-proof" collapsed. Artificial islands in Kobe harbor, once a symbol of humanity's ability to bend nature to its will, sunk into the sea when the soil beneath them liquefied. And the government's short-term and long-term safety nets failed after all this happened. Hundreds of people were left homeless and without access to food or medicine in the immediate aftermath, and municipal and national authorities proved overmatched by the task of rebuilding the shattered city (only 3% of the real estate of which was insured prior to the earthquake). For a people who felt like they had "made it" - had achieved the material security that wealth and technology can provide - it was a painful and unsettling lesson that the world can never be made completely safe.

Japanese author Haruki Murakami, Japan's most popular contemporary novelist, explored this theme in his short story collection after the quake, published in 1997. In each of the stories, the earthquake and the devastation it caused serve as a recurring symbol of the gnawing dread and anxiety that remain beneath the seemingly placid surface of modern Japanese life, and for each of the major characters, some aspect of the disaster connects to some difficult, painful, or insecure aspect of their own lives. Walking around the Kobe earthquake Memorial Park, you can see what he's getting at.

Kobe was not a city particularly rich in historical sights even before the widespread destruction it suffered during World War II. But as perhaps the city most emblematic of modern Japan, with the visceral evocation of all the society's fears and aspirations it provides, it is still worth visiting. If you don't leave it thinking a bit more deeply about what concepts like progress and civilization mean, you haven't paid full attention while you were there.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Cause For (Minor) Celebration

One might quibble with categorizing a 208 point rally as "huge", but news that the stock market has gone up is always welcome. The problem is that an improvement in the economic outlook for investors doesn't necessarily translate to an improvement in the outlook for American workers. Job creation numbers remain anemic, and with all the manufacturing and technical capacity that has been permanently lost to offshoring and the summer - and the seasonal labor market it creates in construction, agriculture, and other outdoor-oriented businesses - coming to an end, that seems unlikely to change in the near future. The economy is still almost certain to be the dominant issue in the midterm elections, and is still likely to be an electoral albatross for incumbents - one that will be transferred to the replacements of those who lose shortly after they're sworn in as members of the next Congress. There are still a lot of long-term economic changes to which the country must adjust, so I don't see any reason to celebrate overenthusiastically. A warm day in the dead of winter is pleasant enough, but it shouldn't be mistaken for the arrival of spring.