The American Interest
Religion & Other Curiosities
Published on December 28, 2011
A Holiday Respite

We are taking a brief break with posts this week. I’d like to wish all my readers all the best for this holiday season and in the new year. Regular posting will resume next week.

  • WigWag

    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, Professor Berger.

  • John Barker

    Our thanks for your excellent and thought provoking posts and of course Merry Christmas and Happy New Year,Professor.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    To lift a scene out of Robert Musil’s “A Man Without Qualities” perhaps we should wish a Non-Nietzsche New Year to Dr. Berger and his interlocutors.

  • Anthony

    Sir, enjoy and benefit from much deserved respite as well as Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

  • qet

    I haven’t read your book, but I plan to. I have just read your interview by WRM over at the book’s Amazon page. I am really perplexed. I understand, or think I do, the gist of your argument. But you seem to me to almost want to program people’s perceptions so that they see nothing distinctive about Jews, or, if they do, they form no judgments, positive or negative, about what they see. Jews have been a discrete, often insular (but not always) community in other nations for a very long time. People notice. People notice and think over what accounts for the discreteness, the distinctness. Sometimes their judgments resulting from these thoughts are negative and even hostile. This is not good. Sometimes they are positive, but this, you say, is too problematic and it would be better were it not so. Or rather, you say the problem is in the “exaggeration” of the perceptions. But that, like so many things, is a matter of degree and the counter-tendency you recommend seems like it would drive understanding into a sort of twilight zone of unreality, result in a cognitive dissonance. It already has, actually; witness the tentative, walking-on-eggshells, frequently contradictory character of so many well-intentioned non-Jews’ mentions of anything Jewish (the same thing goes on regarding mentions of race). Not all noticing or judgments amount to “obsessing.” Perhaps it would be better for Jews if no one except they themselves noticed and concerned themselves about their distinctiveness, but that is unreasonable, and impossible. Anyway, I look forward to learning more from your book.

    • Andrew Allison

      How about: See nothing distinctive about [insert race of choice here], or, if you do, form judgments, positive or negative, based on what you see.

      • free_agent

        Probably at the bottom of all this is the ubiquitous human tendency to favor people we see as “same” and disfavor people we see as “other”. There’s certainly a strong tendency for political discrimination to respect the same boundaries as for whom we would marry. Any point of contact between two groups that consider each other to be different ethnicities usually is a pont of distrust and discrimination.

        • amgarfinkle

          Yes, and you would be well advised, I think, to read what Peter Berger has had to say about the phenomenon of pluralization. Dr. Berger is a TAI board member, has a blog here too, happily, and is one of the best-respected sociologists of religion of the past half century. TAI has published some of this analysis, but so have others. He can definitely fill in some dots in your understanding, as he has in mine over the decades.

    • amgarfinkle

      By all means please read the book. Then you’ll see that I am not asking people not to “notice”, only not to exaggerate what they notice, because exaggerations feed themselves and everyone involved tends, historically speaking, to end up in tears. Read; you’ll see.

      • qet

        Thanks, I will. I will be interested to see how you define/characterize exaggeration, because as I so clumsily tried to say above, I see that as a highly variable concept, especially in these days of pluralism-on-steroids.

  • Bruce

    So there are some outliners who are upset about his Judaism. What we should be worried about is whether he is a currency debaucher like many of those he trained. Logic would tell you he is. That is what we should fear.

    • Andrew Allison

      Bruce, his religion should be irrelevant. The issue is his integrity. The record suggests that he understands monetary theory. Isn’t the question whether he will bend to political currency debauchery?

  • TommyTwo

    “Fischer did an excellent job as director of the Bank of Israel.”

    Typical! Yet another Jew who chooses to serve the “Jewish homeland” instead of his own country!

    “Stanley Fischer seems to a shoo-in to become Vice-Chairman of the Federal Reserve”

    Typical! Yet another Jew who insists on lording it over us poor Gentiles in our own country!

    • amgarfinkle

      Fischer has served America with distinction as a faculty member at MIT and will do so as well at the Fed. It’s your comment that’s “typical.”

      • Pincher Martin

        How does Fischer serve America with distinction at MIT? Normally when someone gets a job in the private sector, they’re serving themselves, not America. Do you consider MIT some sort of hardship duty that Fischer only performed out of love of country?

        • amgarfinkle

          I consider top flight professors in social and policy science to be important national assets; only people unfamiliar with post-graduate education would have a problem with the concept, I think. At the same time, since I was one a few times, Federal government employees also get paid, and not all of them are worth their salaries as far as service to the nation is concerned.

          • Pincher Martin

            “I consider top flight professors in social and policy science to be important national assets; only people unfamiliar with post-graduate education would have a problem with the concept, I think.”

            I think you’re quite wrong. Top flight professors in the social sciences include everyone from Noam Chomsky to Paul Wolfowitz, from Paul Krugman to Gregory Mankiw, representing a wide range of ideologies and policies.

            The freedom for wide-ranging, informed debate should be considered a national asset of the United States, but that doesn’t make every credentialed expert who’s interested in policy a national asset. Some of them are fools pushing bad ideas harmful to the country. The experts are frequently at odds, and they can’t all be right.

            But even if I accepted your idea that professors at the top schools in the U.S. are national assets, that still doesn’t explain why the U.S. needs to go to Israel for this particular national asset. The Federal Reserve does more than just set monetary policy. It has numerous other responsibilities, some of which are related to domestic policy, such as increasing domestic savings and promoting local development. How well do you think Fischer has been keeping up with these topics in Israel?

            And there are other questions. Where was Fischer during the mortgage meltdown? What were his positions at the time? Why is his leadership indispensable at the Fed? Most importantly, why are the same group of pointy heads who were in charge when the *$%^ hit the fan still given positions of responsibility now?

            By focusing on a topic no one takes seriously except for a few fruitcakes, you avoid more serious topics.

          • TommyTwo

            One could easily argue that Bill Gates (e.g.) is a national asset; that doesn’t mean that we would qualify his career as one of “service.” As to many of our so-called “public servants,” one is tempted to conclude that the expression is meant solely tongue-in-cheek. But this-all is a topic for another discussion.

            Regarding Fischer, Pincher’s points are well-taken. For what it’s worth, Fischer arrived in Israel as an outsider who had trouble communicating in Hebrew, and left to near-unanimous plaudits from the famously acrimonious Israeli leadership and public. If we’re going to appoint someone who is remotely “Establishment,” then Fischer strikes me as one of the better and more obvious choices. If.

          • amgarfinkle

            These are good questions, some of them, and good points too–again, some of them. You make one mistake, however: The U.S. is not “going to Israel” for Fischer; Israel came to the U.S. for him, a U.S. citizen, some years back. As for the more generic and annoying fact that some of the same people who screwed the pooch to begin with are still in positions of authority, I agree, and said so in my TA ebook Broken. But you’re being churlish to expect me to address points I never intended to take on in a little blog post. If you think this is the only place I write, you’re mistaken,

          • Pincher Martin

            It’s not being churlish to say you’re beating up a straw man. As you yourself point out, there’s no way in hell that Fischer won’t sail through the nomination process because of vulgar anti-Semitism, if he is indeed nominated. Yet that didn’t prevent you from writing fifteen hundred words in his defense against vulgar anti-Semitism.

            You protest too much. Why construct a public defense against something even you laugh about? As you might say, and in fact you did say, “what’s the point?” It’s “silly” stuff.

            As to the question of who went where in order for Fischer to be next in line for a nomination to the Fed, I’ll simply point out that Fischer is a dual citizen who has been working in Israel for the last eight years. He was in his thirties before he even bothered to become an American citizen, and he spent some of his time in the U.S. working to help Israel in an official capacity. So if “Israel came to the U.S. for him,” it appears the Jewish State had a good deal of confidence that he was already their man.

            Since by your definition, social scientists and policy mavens at elite academic institutions are national assets, I’m sure the U.S. won’t have any trouble finding another national asset whose attention and focus aren’t as divided as Professor Fischer’s.

          • TommyTwo

            Meh. Garfinkle has been urged in the past to treat this platform more as a standard blog instead of a place to dump the infrequent long analysis. There is room for a serious discussion about Fischer, but I have no problem with what I understand as a light-hearted tangential post.

      • TommyTwo

        I had hoped the juxtaposition of my two statements would make it clear that my comment was a parody. Granted, some positions are habitually so ridiculous that they are difficult to distinguish from parody.

        (Similarly, while free_agent’s second paragraph is ambiguous, his third paragraph seems like obvious humor. I blame the bicycle-riders!)

        (And apologies for unintentionally up-voting my original comment.)

  • free_agent

    At some point in the dim past, I got to wondering whether Alan Greenspan was Jewish. With that surname, it seemed possible to me. Eventually, the Web turned up the fact that he was, and I summarized the situation in this snarky epigram:

    “Sometimes reality is stranger than the ravings of the paranoid. If I told you that the greatest influence on the world economy was an elderly Jewish scholar, you’d think me mad. But if I proposed taking control of monetary policy from Alan Greenspan and giving it to Congress, you wouldn’t vote for me.”

    During my researches, I also discovered that while the Jews were running the world, they were just the front-men or patsies for the *Mongols*, who were the ones who really called the shots.

    • amgarfinkle

      Mongols, huh? Some think instead the international Gypsy conspiracy. Some people think any and every crazy thing,

      As for Greenspan, insofar as he ever recognized a god, it seems to have been Ayn Rand, not the Holy One, Blessed be He. Jewish in some ways, yes, but not really in others.

    • Kavanna

      Actually, it’s Klingons. Behind all the facades, it’s Klingons … Klingons, remember that.

  • Kavanna

    Much of this discussion is beside the point. Fischer did a great job as head of the Bank of Israel. On a personal level, he’s chummy with almost everyone in the central banker fraternity, at least those who went through MIT (including many non-Jews like Mario Draghi).

    But it’s the substantive policy views of Fischer that are really important. It would lead Fischer to ally himself with, not Bernanke or Yellen (even though both are Jews — no matter), but many of the critics of Fed ease, including some in the regional Fed banks. Fischer has criticized developed world monetary ease. Let’s see why.

    Like many a central banker in the developing world (which Israel was in until 2010) and the smaller developed countries (like Canada or Switzerland, and Israel now), Israel has had to deal with the ultra-easy monetary policies of the major developed world central banks (the Big Four: Japan, the US, the UK, and — to a lesser extent — Europe, which hasn’t been so easy). Fischer was faced with a familiar dilemma:

    * A tsunami of Big Four money released internationally tends, all else being equal, to cause an appreciation of everyone else’s currency. For an export-oriented economy like Israel — like South Korea or Singapore — an appreciation of currency value threatens exports by making them more expensive on world markets.

    * One response is for smaller countries’ central banks to print more of their own currency, to hold its value down relative to the depreciating Big Four currencies. But doing this causes higher inflation and/or asset bubbles in their own domestic economies. See: China, for example.

    Fischer has threaded this needle as best as could be imagined. He allowed the shekel to slowly appreciate (a trend starting in the late 90s), but not so fast as to harm exports. At the same time, inflation remains a problem and a bubble did appear in Israeli real estate. This event, an indirect result of the Fed and other major developed country central banks’ monetary ultra-ease, led to protests in Israel over high housing costs — just as much more desperate protests broke out in poor countries in 2007 and in 2011 over inflated commodity prices — another result of Fed ultra-ease. (Most commodities traded worldwide are traded in dollars; more dollars internationally means higher commodity prices.)

    If Fischer does end up on the Fed board or as an adviser, it will be interesting to hear what he says, both privately and publicly, about this ultra-ease. The ultimate motive for the ultra-ease is that the US, and now many other developed countries, have been living beyond their means for many years. The developed world keeps up ultra-easy money and credit to hold down borrowing costs. Most no longer accomplish this feat through outright price inflation — like the 70s — but through the damaging and insidious accumulation of ever-larger amounts of debt.

    Israel was in the inflation-debt box in the late 70s, 80s, and early 90s, but it got out. It required painful reforms of the welfare state, a shrinkage of publicly-owner enterprises and union power, and getting the trade and fiscal accounts back toward balance. Other countries went through a similar process in the 90s and 2000s: Canada, Australia, Holland, Germany, Scandinavia, and many developing countries. But the US — like, say, Italy or France — remains unreformed, dependent on the dollar’s reserve currency status to entice foreigners to buy our debt. That era is slowly coming to a close, and with it the Blue Social Model that Walter Mead talks about on his blog here on TAI.

    Perhaps Fischer can share some guidance, because it’s going to be very painful for Americans, especially the Boomers who’ve spent their entire adult lives undersaving and living collectively beyond their means, expecting someone in the future to pay the bill.