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The Calculus of Their Consent: Gary Becker, Pinochet, and the Chicago Boys

5 May

The economist Gary Becker has died. Kieran Healy has a great write-up on Foucault’s engagement with Becker; Kathy Geier has a very smart treatment of, among other things, feminist critiques of Becker’s theory of the family. And some more personal reminiscences of taking a class with Becker.

Kathy mentions this article that Becker wrote in 1997 about the Chicago Boys who worked with the Pinochet regime. Becker’s conclusion about that episode?

In retrospect, their willingness to work for a cruel dictator and start a different economic approach was one of the best things that happened to Chile.

No real surprise there. Many free-marketeers, including Hayek, either defended the Pinochet regime or defended those who worked with it.

But the Becker piece reminded me of that infamous Mont Pelerin Society (MPS) conference in Viña del Mar in 1981, about which I wrote at length two summers ago. The MPS is an organization of economists, philosophers, and assorted action intellectuals and businessmen dedicated to spreading the free market gospel across the globe. In the late 1970s, at the height of Pinochet’s repression, Hayek and a few grandees from Chile began discussions  about holding the MPS’s annual conference in the seaside city where the coup against Allende had been planned. The purpose in meeting there would prove avowedly propagandist. As the organization’s own newsletter later acknowledged, the conference provided participants with an opportunity

for becoming better acquainted with the land which has had such consistently bad and misrepresenting press coverage (and, perhaps for that reason, it was appropriate to have Reed Irvine, head of Accuracy in Media as one of the first speakers in the first session).

Becker was originally targeted or slated to speak on a conference panel titled “Education, Government or Individual Responsibility?” His name appears on an early agenda with a “T” next to it. For “tentative.” But Becker either never confirmed or pulled out. No matter: Milton and Rose Friedman, along with James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock, were there to show the flag—and the calculus of their consent.

What is Enlightenment when the State is Schizophrenic? It’s The Jewish Question!

29 Apr

The New York Times reports on a complicated Supreme Court case involving the First Amendment rights of a public employee in Alabama (h/t Mark Ames). The case boils down to this: Edward Lane, a state employee, was subpoenaed to testify at a federal trial about the corruption of another state employee. As a result of his testimony, Lane was fired by his boss. Lane claims that his First Amendment rights were violated; the lower courts have ruled against him. Now the Supreme Court is considering the case.

But this in the Times report is what caught my eye:

The federal appeals court in Atlanta said it was unnecessary to decide who was right because public employees have no First Amendment protections in any event for statements they make as part of their official duties.

Since “the record fails to establish that Lane testified as a citizen on a matter of public concern,” the appeals court said in an unsigned opinion, “he cannot state a claim for retaliation under the First Amendment.”

While it seems that the Supreme Court intends to uphold the claim that employees like Lane do have such First Amendment rights (though it’s not clear whether the Court will uphold the claim that Lane himself had such a right at the time of his testimony, or at least that it was a “clearly established” right at that time), I’m struck by this disjuncture between the First Amendment rights one is said to have as a citizen versus the First Amendment rights one does not have as an employee of the government. The federal appeals court puts the contrast clearly:

Although the district court couched its decision in terms of qualified immunity, it determined that Lane’s speech was made pursuant to his official duties as CITY’s Director, not as a citizen on a matter of public concern. We reach the same conclusion.

To establish a claim of retaliation for protected speech under the First Amendment, a public employee must show, among other things, that he “spoke as a citizen on a matter of public concern.” See Garcetti v. Ceballos, 126 S.Ct. 1951, 1958 (2006) (a decision further restricting public employees’ protected speech). A government employee whose speech is made pursuant to his official duties is not speaking as citizen. See id. at 1960; Battle v. Bd. of Regents, 468 F.3d 755, 760 (11th Cir. 2006). Even if an employee was not required to make the speech as part of his official duties, he enjoys no First Amendment protection if his speech “owes its existence to [the] employee’s professional responsibilities” and is “a product that ‘the employer itself has commissioned or created’”. See Abdur-Rahman v. Walker, 567 F.3d 1278, 1286 (11th Cir. 2009)

I’ve reported on this blog many a time about the absence of First Amendment protections for workers in the private sector. And though I’ve talked less about this, some of that also holds true for workers in the public sector.

But what strikes me about this case is how the state’s investment in maintaining the hierarchical relationship of employer to employee (or, at least, its investment in not extending basic constitutional rights to the employee) creates a schizophrenia within the state. On the one hand, the state compels Lane to testify at a federal trial about the corruption of a public employee because, presumably, the state has a vested interest in that testimony; on the other hand, the state does not believe its own constitutional protections protect Lane when he performs what the state compels him to perform. As the federal appeals court puts it:

That Lane testified about his official activities pursuant to a subpoena and in the litigation context, in and of itself, does not bring Lane’s speech within the protection of the First Amendment.

According to the Times, even Chief Justice Roberts seemed to think this was a bridge too far:

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. appeared sympathetic to Mr. Lane. “What is he supposed to do?” he asked Mark T. Waggoner, a lawyer for Mr. Franks [the boss who fired Lane]. If Mr. Lane testified truthfully, the chief justice said, he could be fired. If he lied or failed to appear, he could be punished.

Mr. Waggoner said that he “would never suggest that anybody not comply with a subpoena, comply with an investigation or testify truthfully.”

The chief justice responded, “But you are suggesting he can be fired if he does it.”

The whole distinction between the freedom we enjoy as citizens versus the non-freedom we suffer as private individuals (albeit individuals employed by the government) reminds me of Kant’s essay “What is Enlightenment?” Attempting to delineate the various uses and imports of reason, Kant make a sharp distinction between the importance and protection of reason in the public sphere and the absence of that protection in the private sphere. More specifically, he makes a distinction between the public use of reason and the private use of reason.

For enlightenment of this kind, all that is needed is freedom. And the freedom in question is the most innocuous form of all—freedom to make public use of one’s reason in all matters. But I hear on all sides the cry: Don’t argue!The officer says: Don’t argue, get on parade! The tax official: Don’t’ argue, pay! The clergyman: Don’t argue, believe!…All this means restrictions on freedom everywhere. But which sort of restriction prevents enlightenment, and which, instead of hindering it, can actually promote it? I reply: The public use of man’s reason must always be free, and it alone can bring about enlightenment among men; the private use of reason may quite often be very narrowly restricted, however, without undue hindrance to the progress of enlightenment. But by the public use of one’s own reason I mean that use which anyone may make of it as a man of learning addressing the entire reading public. What I term the private use of reason is that which a person may make of it in a particular civil post or office with which he is entrusted.

In other words, rather than distinguishing between institutional spheres of public versus private, we might say that Kant is distinguishing between our different orientations of mind. When we reason publicly, we are thinking of the public; when we reason privately, we are thinking about narrower matters. Regardless of where we are (though I think Kant believes that where we are matters a great deal).

But even if we adopt that more generous reading, one could make the case that the judges on the federal appeals court are acting like good Kantians. As they write:

Although not dispositive, we consider it pertinent that the subject matter of Lane’s testimony touched only on acts he performed as part of his official duties. See Abdur-Rahman, 567 F.3d at 1282. As in Morris, nothing evidences that Lane testified at Schmitz’s trial “primarily in [his] role as a citizen” or that his testimony was an attempt to comment publicly on CITY’s internal operations.

In other words, if Lane had been speaking out or to the public about taxes, say, or even about government corruption, his First Amendment rights might have come into play (the same, of course, cannot be said if he were an employee in the private sector). But because he was speaking about matters pertaining and pursuant to his job, his First Amendment rights are irrelevant. Even though the matters he was speaking of were of vital interest to the government and the public. The fact that he was speaking as a job-holder about his job rather than as a citizen about public issues is what matters.

This distinction, of course, was precisely what Marx was targeting in his essay “On the Jewish Question.” Thanks to Piketty, Marx the economist is back in the news. But before he turned to economics, Marx was a political theorist of the disjunctures the modern state creates between our emancipated lives as public citizens and our dominated lives as private men and women. Though he was mostly focused in “On the Jewish Question” on the question of religion (and sometimes in yucky ways), the distinctions he drew there apply more generally to the divisions between private man—residing in “the sphere of human needs, labour, private interests and civil law”—and “political man,” the citizen who “is only abstract, artificial man, man as an allegorical, moral person.”

Liberalism, Marx claimed, had emancipated the second (sort of); the real task was to emancipate the first.

Human emancipation will only be complete when the real, individual man has absorbed into himself the abstract citizen; when as an individual man, in his everyday life, in his work, and in his relationships, he has become a species-being; and when he has recognized and organized his own powers (forces propres) as social powers so that he no longer separates this social power from himself as political power.

Tell it to the judge.

Update (5:30 pm)

My CUNY colleague Ruthann Robson has a useful analysis of the case over at SCOTUSblog. (By the way, once I’m in a position of power , I’m going to ban all uses of SCOTUS and POTUS and FLOTUS and other OTUS’s. I feel about those words the way I feel about the phrase public intellectual.)

Speaking on Clarence Thomas at the University of Washington

24 Apr

On Saturday, May 3, I’m going to be presenting a paper on Clarence Thomas at the University of Washington. It’s part of a conference on African-American Political Thought: Past and Present. The conference has an amazing line-up: Michael Dawson on Marcus Garvey, Nikhil Singh on Malcolm X, Cedric Johnson on Huey Newton, Lawrie Balfour on Toni Morrison, Melvin Rogers on David Walker, Naomi Murakawa on Ida B. Wells, and many more.

My paper is called “Smiling Faces Tell Lies: Pessimism, Originalism, and Capitalism in the Jurisprudence of Clarence Thomas.” Here’s the nut graf:

It’s not surprising that Clarence Thomas is black and conservative. From Burke to Ayn Rand, conservatism has been the work of outsiders and upstarts, hailing from the peripheries of the national experience. And black conservatism has an especially long, if unstoried, history in this country. Nor is it surprising that Thomas’s conservatism should draw from the Black Nationalist tradition. That confluence also has a long, if less unstoried, history in this country. What is surprising about Clarence Thomas is that he’s a Supreme Court justice who has married the bleakest vision of the black past to a document that is not only the fountainhead of that past but is also, on his account, the source of an alternative future—not, as Thurgood Marshall and other liberal constitutionalists would have it, because it is a “living Constitution,” but precisely because it is dead. That is indeed surprising, and worth puzzling over.

Come check it out. Details and schedule here.

 

Classical Liberalism ≠ Libertarianism, Vol. 2

22 Apr

Antoine Louis Claude Destutt de Tracy,  A Treatise on Political Economy (1817):

The truly sterile class is that of the idle, who do nothing but live, nobly as it is termed, on the products of labours executed before their time, whether these products are realised in landed estates which they lease, that is to say which they hire to a labourer, or that they consist in money or effects which they lend for a premium, which is still a hireling.—These are the true drones of the hive…

Luxury, exaggerated and superfluous consumption, is therefore never good for any thing, economically speaking. It can only have an indirect utility. Which is by ruining the rich, to take from the hands of idle men those funds which, being distributed amongst those who labour, may enable them to economise, and thus form capitals in the industrious class.

Friedrich Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty (1960):

There must be, in other words, a tolerance for the existence of a group of idle rich—idle not in the sense that they do nothing useful but in the sense that their aims are not entirely governed by considerations of material gain.

What today may seem extravagance or even waste, because it is enjoyed by the few and even undreamed of by the masses, is payment for the experimentation with a style of living that will eventually be available to many.

The importance of the private owner of substantial property, however, does not rest simply on the fact that his existence is an essential condition for the preservation of the structure of competitive enterprise. The man of independent means is an even more important figure in a free society when he is not occupied with using his capital in the pursuit of material gain but uses it in the service of aims which bring no material return. It is more in the support of aims which the mechanism of the market cannot adequately take care of than in preserving that market that the man of independent means has his indispensable role to play in any civilized society.

Tyler Cowen, “Capital Punishment” (2014):

Piketty fears the stasis and sluggishness of the rentier, but what might appear to be static blocks of wealth have done a great deal to boost dynamic productivity….Consider Piketty’s native France, where the scores of artists who relied on bequests or family support to further their careers included painters such as Corot, Delacroix, Courbet, Manet, Degas, Cézanne, Monet, and Toulouse-Lautrec and writers such as Baudelaire, Flaubert, Verlaine, and Proust, among others….The nineteenth century, with its high capital-to-income ratios, was in fact one of the most dynamic periods of European history. Stocks of wealth stimulated invention by liberating creators from the immediate demands of the marketplace and allowing them to explore their fancies, enriching generations to come.

For “Classical Liberalism ≠ Libertarianism, Vol. 1″, see here.

Tyler Cowen is one of Nietzsche’s Marginal Children

22 Apr

Tyler Cowen reviews Thomas Piketty:

Piketty fears the stasis and sluggishness of the rentier, but what might appear to be static blocks of wealth have done a great deal to boost dynamic productivity. Piketty’s own book was published by the Belknap Press imprint of Harvard University Press, which received its initial funding in the form of a 1949 bequest from Waldron Phoenix Belknap, Jr., an architect and art historian who inherited a good deal of money from his father, a vice president of Bankers Trust. (The imprint’s funds were later supplemented by a grant from Belknap’s mother.) And consider Piketty’s native France, where the scores of artists who relied on bequests or family support to further their careers included painters such as Corot, Delacroix, Courbet, Manet, Degas, Cézanne, Monet, and Toulouse-Lautrec and writers such as Baudelaire, Flaubert, Verlaine, and Proust, among others.

Notice, too, how many of those names hail from the nineteenth century. Piketty is sympathetically attached to a relatively low capital-to-income ratio. But the nineteenth century, with its high capital-to-income ratios, was in fact one of the most dynamic periods of European history. Stocks of wealth stimulated invention by liberating creators from the immediate demands of the marketplace and allowing them to explore their fancies, enriching generations to come.

Nietzsche’s Marginal Children:

In The Constitution of Liberty, Hayek developed this notion into a full-blown theory of the wealthy and the well-born as an avant-garde of taste, as makers of new horizons of value from which the rest of humanity took its bearings. Instead of the market of consumers dictating the actions of capital, it would be capital that would determine the market of consumption…

As this reference to “future wants and desires” suggests, Hayek has much more in mind than producers responding to a pre-existing market of demand; he’s talking about men who create new markets—and not just of wants or desires, but of basic tastes and beliefs. The freedom Hayek cares most about is the freedom of those legislators of value who shape and determine our ends.

 

More interesting is how explicit and insistent Hayek is about linking the legislation of new values to the possession of vast amounts of wealth and capital, even—or especially—wealth that has been inherited. Often, says Hayek, it is only the very rich who can afford new products or tastes….

The most important contribution of great wealth, however, is that it frees its possessor from the pursuit of money so that he can pursue nonmaterial goals. Liberated from the workplace and the rat race, the “idle rich”—a phrase Hayek seeks to reclaim as a positive good—can devote themselves to patronizing the arts, subsidizing worthy causes like abolition or penal reform, founding new philanthropies and cultural institutions….

The men of capital, in other words, are best understood not as economic magnates but as cultural legislators: “However important the independent owner of property may be for the economic order of a free society, his importance is perhaps even greater in the fields of thought and opinion, of tastes and beliefs.”

Why Does the Winger Whine? What Does the Winger Want?

20 Apr

At National Review Online, Jonathan Adler writes:

Over at the progressive blog, Crooked Timber, Corey Robin lists “Eleven Things You Did Not Know About Clarence Thomas.”  The items Robin lists shouldn’t surprise avid court watchers, or others who have paid much attention to the conservative justice.  Judging from the comments, however, several of the items were quite a revelation to CT’s readership.  I can only imagine the surprise if Robin had blogged on Justice Thomas’s jurisprudence, further challenging the caricature of Clarence Thomas that continues to dominate so much liberal commentary about him.

Actually, a fair number of commenters at CT claimed not to be surprised by these revelations at all.

In any event, you’d think Adler would have been pleased that a group of progressives were having some of their misconceptions about Thomas challenged, if not dispelled. Instead, he complains about the fact that the misconceptions of a group of progressives are getting challenged, if not dispelled. Apparently the only thing worse than the left not knowing something about the right is…the left learning something about the right.

Wingers whine when we don’t pay attention to them; they whine when we do pay attention to them. Why do they whine so much? What does the winger want?

From The Reactionary Mind:

“The 1960s are rightly remembered as years of cultural dissent and political upheaval, but they are wrongly remembered as years stirred only from the left,” writes George Will in the foreword to a reissued edition of Barry Goldwater’s The Conscience of a Conservative. Several decades ago, such a claim would have elicited puzzled looks, if not catcalls and jeers. But in the years since, the publication of a slew of books, each advancing the notion that most of the political innovation of the last half-century has come from the right, has led historians to revise the conventional wisdom about postwar America, including the 1960s. The new consensus is reflected in the opening sentence of Ronald Story and Bruce Laurie’s The Rise of Conservatism in America, 1945–2000 : “The central story of American politics since World War II is the emergence of the conservative movement.” Yet for some reason Will still feels that his kinsmen are insufficiently appreciated and recognized.

Will is hardly the first conservative to believe himself an exile in his own country. A sense of exclusion has haunted the movement from the beginning, when émigrés fled the French Revolution and Edmund Burke and Joseph de Maistre took up their cause. Born in the shadow of loss—of property, standing, memory, inheritance, a place in the sun—conservatism remains a gathering of fugitives. Even when assured of his position, the conservative plays the truant. Whether instrumental or sincere, this fusion of pariah and power is one of the sources of his appeal. As William F. Buckley wrote in the founding statement of National Review, the conservative’s badge of exclusion has made him “just about the hottest thing in town.”

While David Hume and Adam Smith are often cited by the more genteel defenders of conservatism as the movement’s leading lights, their writings cannot account for, as we have seen, what is truly bizarre about conservatism: a ruling class resting its claim to power upon its sense of victimhood, arguably for the first time in history. Plato’s guardians were wise; Aquinas’s king was good; Hobbes’s sovereign was, well, sovereign. But the best defense of monarchy Maistre could muster was that his aspiring king had attended the “terrible school of misfortune” and suffered in the “hard school of adversity.” Maistre had good reason to offer this defense: playing the plebe, we now know, is a critical weapon in the conservative arsenal. Still, it’s a confusing defense. After all, if the main offering a prince brings to the table is that he’s really a pauper, why not seat the pauper instead?

Conservatives have asked us not to obey them, but to feel sorry for them—or to obey them because we feel sorry for them. Rousseau was the first to articulate a political theory of pity, and for that he has been called the “Homer of the losers.” But doesn’t Burke, with his overwrought account of Marie Antoinette that we saw in chapter 1—“this persecuted woman,” dragged “almost naked” by “the furies of hell” from her bedroom in Versailles and marched to “a Bastile for kings” in Paris—have some claim to the title, too?

Or just listen to Chet Baker…

 

Or this lovely version from Thelonious Monk…

Is the Left More Opposed to Free Speech Today than It Used to Be?

25 Mar

In a sharp take on the left, Freddie deBoer asks, “Is the social justice left really abandoning free speech?” Drawing on this report about an incident at the University of California at Santa Barbara, Freddie answers his own question thus:

It’s a question I’ve played around with before. Generally, the response [from the left] is something like “of course not, stop slandering us,” or whatever. But more and more often, I find that the answer from lefties I know in academia or online writing are answering “yes.” And that is, frankly, terrifying and a total betrayal of the fundamental principles we associate with human progress.

Freddie goes on to offer a rousing defense of free speech. I don’t want to enter that debate. I have a different question: Is Freddie’s sense of a change on the left—”more and more often”—accurate?

To be clear, I know exactly the phenomenon Freddie is talking about, so he’s not wrong to point it out. But from my admittedly impressionistic vantage as a middle-aged American academic, it seems far less common than it used to be.

Historically, the left has had an ambivalent relationship to what used to be derisively called “bourgeois freedoms.” From Marx’s On the Jewish Question to Herbert Marcuse’s notion of repressive tolerance, some of the most interesting thinking on the left has been devoted to examining the limits of what for lack of a better word I’ll call the liberal defense of freedom and rights. And of course this tradition of thought has often—and disastrously—been operationalized, whether in the form of Soviet tyranny or the internal authoritarianism of the CPUSA.

But if we think about this issue from the vantage of the 1960s, my sense is that today’s left—whether on campus or in the streets—is far less willing to go down the road of a critique of pure tolerance, as a fascinating text by Marcuse, Barrington Moore, and Robert Paul Woolf once  called it, than it used to be. (As Jeremy Kessler suggests, that absolutist position, which is usually associated with content neutrality, historically went hand in hand with the politics of anti-communism.) Once upon a time, those radical critiques of free speech were where the action was at. So much so that even liberal theorists like Owen Fiss, who ordinarily might have been more inclined to a Millian position on these matters, were pushed by radical theorists like Catharine MacKinnon to take a more critical stance toward freedom of speech. But now that tradition seems to be all but dead.

Something happened on the way to the censor. Whether it was the pitched battle among feminists over the MacKinnon/Dworkin critique of pornography—and their advocacy of anti-porn statutes in Indianapolis and elsewhere—or the collapse of the Berlin Wall, most leftists since the 1990s have been leery of deviations from the absolutist position on free speech. Not just in theory but in practice: just consider the almost fastidious aversion to shutting down any kind of discussion within the Occupy movement. That’s not to say that leftists don’t go there; it’s just that the bar of justification is higher today. The burden is on the radical critic of free speech, not the other way around.

Yes, one can still read of incidents like the one that provoked Freddie’s post (though compared to the past, they seem fewer and farther between). And critical issues like the relationship between money and speech are still argued over on the left. But, again, compared to the kinds of arguments we used to see, this seems like small beer.

My take, as I said, is impressionistic. Am curious to hear whether others have a different impression. And to be clear, I’m talking here about the left, not liberals, who may or may not be, depending on a variety of factors and circumstances, more inclined to defend restrictions on freedom of speech.

David Brooks: Better In the Original German

11 Mar

Isaac Chotiner thinks David Brooks is not making sense. That’s because Chotiner’s reading Brooks in translation. He needs to read Brooks in the original German.

Here’s Brooks in translation:

What’s happening can be more accurately described this way: Americans have lost faith in the high politics of global affairs….American opinion is marked by an amazing sense of limitation —that there are severe restrictions on what political and military efforts can do.

Today people are more likely to believe that…the liberal order is not a single system organized and defended by American military strength; it’s a spontaneous network of direct people-to-people contacts, flowing along the arteries of the Internet. The real power in the world is not military or political. It is the power of individuals to withdraw their consent. In an age of global markets and global media, the power of the state and the tank, it is thought, can pale before the power of the swarms of individuals.

It’s frankly naïve to believe that the world’s problems can be conquered through conflict-free cooperation and that the menaces to civilization, whether in the form of Putin or Iran, can be simply not faced. It’s the utopian belief that politics and conflict are optional.

Here’s Brooks in the original German:

A world in which the possibility of war is utterly eliminated…would be a world without the distinction of friend and enemy and hence a world without politics.  It is conceivable that such a world might contain many very interesting antithesis and contrasts, competitions and intrigues of every kind, but there would not be a meaningful antithesis whereby men could be required to sacrifice life, authorized to shed blood, and kill other human beings.

The negation of the political, which is inherent in every consistent individualism, leads necessarily to a political practice of distrust toward all conceivable political forces and forms of state and government, but never produces on its own a positive theory of state, government, and politics.

What this liberalism still admits of state, government, and politics is confined to securing the conditions for liberty and eliminating infringements on freedom. We thus arrive at an entire system of demilitarized and depoliticalized concepts.

State and politics cannot be exterminated.

American Schmittianism, alive and well.

James Madison and Elia Kazan: Theory and Practice

19 Feb

James Madison, Federalist 51:

The constant aim is…that the private interest of every individual may be a sentinel over the public rights.

Elia Kazan, on why he named names:

Reason 1: “I’ve got to think of my kids.”

Reason 2: “All right, I earned over $400,000 last year from theater. But Skouras [head of Twentieth-Century Fox] says I’ll never make another movie. You’ve spent your money, haven’t you? It’s easy for you. But I’ve got a stake.”

Death and Taxes

13 Feb

Last year, I said, somewhat tongue in cheek, that socialism is about converting hysterical misery into ordinary unhappiness.

This is what I meant. Socialism won’t eliminate the sorrows of the human condition. Loss, death, betrayal, disappointment, hurt: none of these would disappear or even be mitigated in a socialist society. As the Pirkei Avot puts it, against your will you enter this world, against your will you leave it (or something like that). That’s not going to change under socialism. But what socialism can do is to arrange things so that you can actually deal with and confront these unhappinesses of the human condition.

I was reminded of that reading this wonderful piece by Anya Shiffrin about the death of her father.

Last spring, André Shiffrin, the legendary publisher, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer (he died in December). A New Yorker through and through, he nevertheless decided to spend his last months in Paris, where he and his wife had an apartment and where he had been born. It proved to be a wise move, as Anya explains.

So imagine my surprise when my parents reported from Paris that their chemo visits couldn’t be more different [than they had been at Memorial Sloane Kettering in New York]. A nurse would come to the house two days before my dad’s treatment day to take his blood. When my dad appeared at the hospital, they were ready for him. The room was a little worn and there was often someone else in the next bed but, most important, there was no waiting. Total time at the Paris hospital each week: 90 minutes.

There were other nice surprises. When my dad needed to see specialists, for example, instead of trekking around the city for appointments, he would stay in one room at Cochin Hospital, a public hospital in the 14th arrondissement where he received his weekly chemo. The specialists would all come to him. The team approach meant the nutritionist, oncologist, general practitioner and pharmacist spoke to each other and coordinated his care. As my dad said, “It turns out there are solutions for the all the things we put up with in New York and accept as normal.”

One day he had to spend a few hours at Cochin. They gave him, free of charge, breakfast and then a hot lunch that included salad and chicken. They also paid for his taxi to and from the hospital each week.

“Can’t you think of anything bad about the French healthcare system?” I asked during one of our daily phone calls. My mom told me about a recent uproar in the hospital: It seems a brusque nurse rushed into the room and forgot to say good morning. “Did you see that?” another nurse said to my mom. “She forgot to say bonjour!”

As Anya goes onto explain, her father wasn’t “getting VIP treatment or had a fancy private plan. Not at all. He had the plain vanilla French government healthcare.” She also points out that health care spending is much lower in France.

French health care couldn’t stop André Shiffrin from dying; nothing in this world could. Instead it helped him and his family confront and deal with his dying, without the distraction and mayhem of our system. It’s not that taxes can save you from dying; it’s, well, here’s Anya:

When my dad began to get worse, the home visits started. Nurses came three times a day to give him insulin and check his blood. The doctor made house calls several times a week until my father died on December 1.

The final days were harrowing. The grief was overwhelming. Not speaking French did make everything more difficult. But one good thing was that French healthcare was not just first rate — it was humane. We didn’t have to worry about navigating a complicated maze of insurance and co-payments and doing battle with billing departments.

Every time I sit on hold now with the billing department of my New York doctors and insurance company, I think back to all the things French healthcare got right. The simplicity of that system meant that all our energy could be spent on one thing: caring for my father.

That time was priceless.

In my Freudian (late Freud) moments of despair, I sometimes wonder if the madness of American capitalism isn’t one massive contrivance to avoid the sadness and finitude of the human condition. Filing our insurance claims, haggling on the phone, waiting for doctors, we don’t have time or space to deal with death. At least not properly. That’s what socialism might help us do. Perhaps that’s why we don’t want it.

Socialism is not a flight from the human condition; it’s a direct and unsentimental confrontation with that condition.

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