Reflections on Guatemala

I first journeyed to Guatemala 20 years ago, hosted by Universidad Francisco Marroquín.  Two weeks ago, I returned for a delightful extended visit, accompanied by my Spanish-speaking elder sons and former EconLog blogger Jim Schneider.  I spent over a week doing guest lectures at UFM, then gave Friday’s keynote talk for the Reason Foundation’s “Reason in Guatemala” conference.  During our trip, we were also able to visit the awesome Mayan ruins of Tikal and Yaxha.  Here are my reflections on the experience.

1. Guatemala has dramatically improved over the last two decades.  Multinational businesses are now all over Guatemala City.  Restaurants and luxury products are all over, but so are businesses that cater to average Guatemalans.  Local grocery stores are packed with familiar international brands and products.  There are multiple Walmarts.  Even Costco is there, doing business as Pricesmart.  We argued about whether the Oakland Mall was more impressive than Tyson’s I, but it was definitely a tough call.  Smartphones are naturally ubiquitous.  Whenever we strayed from the tourist areas, we saw ordinary citizens enjoying simple material pleasures like Pollo Campero.

2. When I last visited Guatemala, the high-end businesses seemed grossly overbuilt; the shiny malls were almost empty.  Now, however, Guatemalans actually seem to be consuming the fruits of progress.  The cavernous Oakland Mall was packed at lunchtime on a weekday – and the pedestrianized streets near the National Palace were full of locals.  La Aurora Zoo was world-class, but we saw no other foreign tourists.

3. Our sponsors at UFM strove to keep us perfectly safe.  For the first few days, they drove us everywhere.  Yet almost every local assured us that four guys walking around Zone 10 in broad daylight were extremely safe.  By the end, we were walking comfortably through a wide range of neighborhoods, though only by day.  Crime is clearly down, thanks in no small part to massive private security.  Even small stores often have heavily-armed guards, and razor wire is almost always in your field of vision.

5. The greatest danger to pedestrians is probably the poor sidewalks; there are many dangerous pits even in elite neighborhoods.  The problem is so dire and the cost of fixing it is so small that I’m surprised that local businesses haven’t raised money to solve it.  I know Latin America’s philanthropic tradition is weak.  Yet good publicity aside, wouldn’t the Oakland Mall soon recoup a $50-100k investment in the surrounding sidewalks?  Would local government really block this public-spirited initiative?

6. We didn’t have to walk far to see absolute poverty.  No one looked malnourished, and even kids living in shacks and huts usually wore new, store-bought clothes.  Still, we saw families living in shacks (in Guatemala City, especially near the airport) and huts (especially on the drive to Yaxha).  During one severe traffic jam, we saw kids under ten washing car windows.  We also witnessed several families of clowns busking in the streets.

7. By official measures, Guatemala is dramatically poorer than any of the Caribbean islands we recently toured, with per capita GDP of $3200 nominal and $7600 PPP.  Yet this is mightily difficult to reconcile with what we saw with our own eyes.  Overall, the Caribbean islands looked a lot like the road from Flores to Yaxha – a mixture of modest modern houses and primitive shacks and huts.  Everything else in Guatemala looked vastly better than St. Maarten or St. Kitts.  While this partly reflects higher population, the biggest contrast is that almost every Guatemalan looks like he has useful work to do.  The Caribbean islanders, in contrast, have high levels of desperate peddling and outright idleness.

8. Guatemalan prices confused not only us, but local economists as well.  Grocery prices are very high.  Guatemala’s Pricesmart and my local Costco sell many identical goods, so I can confidently say that the former’s prices were roughly twice as high as I normally pay.  Local chains were even pricier.  One prominent local businessman blamed Guatemala’s low port capacity – and impishly shared his thrilling plans to build a big new port in the near future.  Restaurant meals aren’t cheap either; everything from fast food to premium steaks costs about the same as it would in Virginia.  The only product that was blatantly cheaper than usual was Uber – about one-third of the U.S. rate.  (Since gas prices were a bit higher than in Virginia, drivers’ take-home pay must be low indeed).  Other services, such as tour guides, were also big bargains.

9. As I toured Guatemala, I couldn’t help but notice how happy the people looked, especially the women.  I wondered if my impression could just be confirmation bias, but now that I’m back home I’m confident that the contrast is stark.  Guatemalan men look at least marginally happier than American men.  Guatemalan women look much happier than American women.  You could say that this merely reflects cultural differences in expressiveness, but that strikes me as sheer stubborn denial.

10. UFM was the jewel of our visit.  UFM could well be the most beautiful of the hundred-odd universities I’ve toured in my life.   Built in a ravine, it elegantly blends distinctive architecture with gorgeous tropical flora.  UFM also hosts two stunning museums – Popol Vuh (archaeology) and Ixchel (textiles).  Best of all, UFM is an academic libertarian paradise.  The ideas and imagery of my intellectual heroes adorn the whole campus – Milton Friedman, Ayn Rand, and Ludwig von Mises are only the beginning.  Yet there is no sign of dogmatic orthodoxy.  Good manners prevail; faculty and students are eager to hear new ideas and debate old ones.   Unlike most other institutions, UFM administrators are especially intellectually engaged.  UFM President Gabriel Calzada Alvarez was overjoyed to talk ideas with my sons for hours.

11.  The students of UFM look even happier than the rest of their countrymen.  You could say this is because they’re drawn from Guatemala’s richest families, but so are Americans in the Ivy League – and those kids are hardly pictures of good cheer.  The gender gap was so big that I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own ideas; female UFM students appear extraordinarily happy.  UFM econ’s male/female ratio is also strangely low; several of the classes I taught were virtually all-female.

12. My Guatemalan audiences took to Open Borders like fish to water.  The cultural and political threat of Muslim immigration was the sole recurring objection.  In Guatemalan eyes, Latin America and the U.S. share a common Judeo-Christian culture, so many were surprised to hear how many U.S. citizens view Latin Americans as culturally alien or even unassimilable.

13. On the latter issue, the Guatemalans are plainly correct.  Pre-assimilation to the North American way of life is prevalent and intense.  Virtually everyone at UFM speaks and understands English well.  About a fifth of the public signs in Guatemala City are entirely in English, and an additional third are in Spanglish.  The Guatemalan elite already lives the American dream, más o menos.  The average Guatemalan struggles to do the same.  A dozen different people emphatically described Guatemalans as “deeply conservative,” but Tarantino was on t.v. every time I flipped the channels.

14. Even Guatemalan libertarians rarely complained about specific domestic government policies, but if you look at their Economic Freedom of the World ranking, there is plenty to decry.  Guatemala gets great scores on Size on Government and Sound Money, and a good score on Freedom to Trade Internationally.  Yet it gets an awful score for Legal System & Property Rights, and an even worse score for Regulation.  New construction projects are all over Guatemala City, but one of the locals told me it takes 2-3 years to obtain permission to build.  Imagine how much construction there’d be if you cut the delay down to 2-3 months or 2-3 weeks!

15. So what do Guatemalans complain about?  I asked one of my classes to tell me what most bothered the average Guatemalan; then I proposed workable policy responses for each problem.  Their first answer was “corruption.”  I suggested hiring a team of Swiss or Singaporeans to take over Guatemala’s internal affairs department.  They saw the logic of importing trustworthiness, but told me that Guatemalans wouldn’t accept it.  Their next answer was “traffic.”  I proposed electronic road pricing.  They again saw the logic, and again told me that Guatemalans wouldn’t accept it – even if the gas tax were abolished at the same time.  My students also saw crime – especially kidnapping – as a grave problem.  They were almost dumbstruck when I suggested a big switch from incarceration to flogging, even though Guatemala’s indigenous peoples already heavily rely on corporal punishment.  In a poor country with heavy corruption and high crime, the case for flogging is mighty indeed.  Just ask criminal-justice reformer Jason Brennan!

16. If I had to move to another country, Guatemala would be high on my list.  First and foremost, I love the UFM community.  American liberalism and conservatism are intellectual dead-ends, and I would enjoy forever escaping from both.  I also prefer to be around very happy people, and on that score Guatemala handily beats the U.S.A.  Guatemala does have some scary features, but the longer I stayed, the more I relaxed.  Yet for now, I continue to prefer the U.S.  Wages are obviously much higher here, and PPP measures notwithstanding, a dollar goes further in the U.S. than in Guatemala.

17. The Mayan archaeological sites we visited deserve all the hyperbolic adjectives people apply to them.  The contrast between the pyramids and the palaces, however, is vast.  The pyramids you leave thinking, “Human beings made these?!  Without wheels?!”  (As well as, “They performed human sacrifices here?!  What the hell was wrong with these Mayans?!”)  The “palaces” of the Mayan leaders, in contrast, look smaller than many apartments in Fairfax.  To reverse Galbraith, the Mayan elite lived lives of public affluence and private squalor.

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Mentoring: The Rationality of Fear

A few months ago, Lean In published the results of a survey by Sandberg and Pritchard showing a dramatic increase in the share of male managers who fear close interaction with female coworkers.  Specifically:

60% of managers who are men are uncomfortable participating in a common work activity with a woman, such as mentoring, working alone, or socializing together. That’s a 32% jump from a year ago.

The survey’s creators were dismayed:

This is disastrous. The vast majority of managers and senior leaders are men. They have a huge role to play in supporting women’s advancement at work—or hindering it…

There’s not a company in the world that can afford to leave talent on the sidelines because that talent is female. But that’s what will keep happening unless all of us—especially men—commit to doing better.

Most commentators found male managers’ reluctance to mentor women especially reprehensible and irrational.  Male managers aren’t just undermining gender equality; they’re paranoid.  How so?  Because innocent men have nothing to fear except false accusations – and these hardly ever happen.  Thus, Prudy Gourguechon remarks:

The implication of the surveys is that men are afraid of being falsely accused.  But false accusations of sexual impropriety are actually very rare.

Mia Brett tells us:

Despite the framing of this story, male managers refusing to mentor women started long before #MeToo. Furthermore, fears of false accusation aren’t supported by statistics.

Andrew Fiouzi:

[D]ealing with men’s unrealistic fears around false accusations will require unfamiliar amounts of self-reflection on the part of the men in question.

Emily Peck:

Some men also like to claim that women are fabricating claims. Those fears are largely unfounded, Thomas said. She points out that the same myth surrounds sexual assault. False accusations make up a very low percentage of reported rapes, according to several studies — in line with other types of crime.

While it’s dauntingly hard to credibly estimate the rate of false accusation, I suspect all the preceding authors are correct.  Human beings rarely invent bald harmful lies about others.

On reflection, however, this hardly implies that male managers are paranoid or otherwise “irrational.”  For three reasons:

1. You have to multiply the probability of a false accusation by the harm of a false accusation.  Since the harm is high, even a seemingly negligible probability may be worth worrying about.  Consider this passage in Fiouzi’s analysis:

But according to Richard J. Reddick, an associate professor of educational leadership and policy at the University of Texas at Austin, there is, practically speaking, no evidence to justify the Pence Rule [not dining alone with women other than your wife]. “You often hear about men being falsely accused of sexual harassment,” he says. “[But] the University of California, San Diego Center on Gender Equity and Health conducted a study recently that revealed that two percent of men and one percent of women had been falsely accused of sexual harassment or assault, so in fact, accusations, and particularly false ones, are exceptionally rare.”

Taking these estimates at face value, it’s hard to see the paranoia: A 2% chance of severe career damage is a serious risk, especially given the low personal benefits of mentoring.  Furthermore, managers are far more tempting targets for false accusation than ordinary co-workers, so their probability of being falsely accused plausibly rises to 4%, 6%, or even 10%.

2.  In any case, a low rate of false accusation multiplied by a long mentoring career could still readily lead to multiple false accusations.  So it’s hardly imprudent for many male managers to respond with great caution.  Remember: The chance you’ll die in a car crash today if you don’t wear a seat belt is a rounding error.  The chance you’ll eventually die in a car crash if you habitually don’t wear a seat belt, however, is nothing to scoff at.

3. As I’ve explained before, truly malevolent actions – such as falsely accusing others – are far less common than misunderstandings.  Misunderstandings are a ubiquitous unpleasant feature of human life.  One common way to avoid this unpleasantness is to avoid social situations likely to lead to misunderstandings.  This strategy is especially tempting if, in the event of misunderstanding, others will presume you’re in the wrong.  So again, it’s hardly surprising that many male managers would respond to changing norms (#BelieveWomen) by playing defense.

What then should be done?  The emotionally appealing response, sadly, is to fight fear with an extra helping of fear: “You’re too scared to mentor?  Interesting.  Now let me show you what we do to those who shirk their mentoring responsibilities.”  If this seems like a caricature, carefully listen to what the authors of the original survey have to say:

Ugly behavior that once was indulged or ignored is finally being called out and condemned. Now we must go further. Avoiding and isolating women at work—whether out of an overabundance of caution, a misguided sense of decorum, irritation at having to check your words or actions, or any other reason—must be unacceptable too.

The problem, of course, is that mentoring is too informal to easily monitor.  Unless someone loudly announces, “I refuse to mentor women,” there’s not much you can do to him.  Mentoring quotas are likely to flop for the same reason.

The alternative is obvious, but unpalatable for activists: Put the frightened people whose assistance you need at ease.  Be friendly and calm, gracious and grateful.  Take the ubiquity of misunderstandings seriously.  Don’t zealously advocate for yourself, and don’t rush to take sides.  Instead, strive to de-escalate conflict whenever a misunderstanding arises.  This would obviously work best as a coordinated cultural shift toward good manners, but you don’t have to wait for the world to come to its senses.  You can start building your personal reputation for collegiality today – so why wait to get potential mentors on your side?

If you’re tempted to respond, “Why should I have to put them at ease?,” the honest answer is: Because you’re the one asking for help.

If that’s the way you talk to others, though, don’t expect them to give you honest answers.  Intimidation is the father of silence and the mother of lies.  If you have to use threats to exhort help, you’ll probably just get a bunch of empty promises.

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Bernie Sanders, Joe Rogan, the Human Rights Campaign, and Truth in Advertising

On January 20, comedian and podcast host Joe Rogan mentioned that he’ll “probably vote for Bernie” Sanders in the Democratic Party’s presidential primary. Rogan cited Sanders’s decades of “consistency” as a “very powerful structure to operate from.”

More interesting than Rogan’s quasi-endorsement was the Human Rights Campaign’s negative response. The organization called on Sanders to “reconsider” his acceptance of Rogan’s support.

What’s the organization’s problem with Rogan?

“Bernie Sanders has run a campaign unabashedly supportive of the rights of LGBTQ people,” says HRC president Alphonso David. “Rogan, however, has attacked transgender people, gay men, women, people of color and countless marginalized groups at every opportunity.”

But in 2016, HRC backed Hillary Clinton — who had clung to marriage as a “one man, one woman” proposition until about a minute before the Supreme Court ruled otherwise — over “unabashedly supportive” Bernie Sanders.

HRC’s official motto is “Working for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Equal Rights.”

If political advocacy was subject to “truth in advertising” laws,  that motto would be “Turning Contributions for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Equal Rights Into Support for Establishment Politicians.”

As for Rogan, he doesn’t seem to have truly “attacked” anyone. He “jokes” about EVERYONE, which is a comedian’s job. And he muses, and lets his guests muse, about pretty much EVERYTHING through hours of podcasting every week.

I’ve listened to hundreds of hours of Joe Rogan’s podcast, and the one thing I’ve never heard come out of his mouth is hate for LGBTQ people or any other minority group.

What I did hear, in the same podcast in which he lauded Sanders, was this: “Treat each other as if they are loved family members. Treat people as if they’re you. And if you do treat them, and if they treat you like that … the world is a better place.”

Yes, Rogan has frequently expressed concerns about trans issues, especially in the world of sports. As a former professional fighter and commentator for professional fights, he’s interested in, and has talked extensively about, the difficulties of sorting athletes by gender in a gender-fluid age. But never, so far as I can tell, has he done so from a hateful viewpoint.

Yes, Rogan has made jokes at the expense of virtually every group on the planet. And he has a knack for turning those jokes into mirrors for himself and everyone else to see our shared humanity in.

I don’t always agree with Rogan, but he grapples honestly with tough issues instead of just pushing a  lucrative party line and denouncing all who dissent from that line. The Human Rights Campaign would better serve the community it claims to work for by adopting that approach instead of denouncing it.

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Get Off the Pendulum: The Trap of Reactionary Thinking

When I was younger, I used to enjoy riding Pharaoh’s Fury at the Coastal Carolina fair. This big sphinx-headed boat swung back and forth on a mechanical arm, terrifying and thrilling the riders, and (in our imaginations) we thought about what it would be like if it went upside down – dumping us all out.

This ride is much like how most people and cultures do their thinking about values in politics, religion, and cultural norms. We swing in one direction, then another, then back again.

For a while one major viewpoint dominates. That viewpoint oppresses or annoys a strong minority until it eventually creates a strong reaction and a pendulum swing in the other direction. Cultural control comes into the hands of the new majority, which oppresses or annoys the new minority, and the cycle begins again.

You can see the pendulum in action in a society’s relationship with religion: when religion dominates, secularists react (see the antitheist movement), and when secularism dominates, religionists react (see the fundamentalist movement). I’d argue that the intensity of both antitheism and fundamentalism are driven by feelings of disenfranchisement and oppression (and therefore more vulnerable to lazy thinking) rather than *just* differences of opinion.

You can especially see the pendulum in action on norms around gender roles and masculinity/femininity. For a long time, men (they still do in most cases) held and abused power over women. Fortunately for everyone, some women got pissed off and produced feminism. At some point, the swing toward feminine empowerment began to (at least appear to) correspond with a deemphasis of masculinity and a deconstruction of the important social role of males and masculinity. That has produced another swing in the direction of revived masculinity – some fantastic, but some unhealthy and unhealthily angry with feminism. In any case, if this reaction succeeds, it may only trigger another swing back in the other direction.

You can see the pendulum on a macro scale as well as in the micro scale of individual thinking. Everyone seems caught up in one reaction or another to the swinging of the belief pendulum. Perhaps you’ve gone through changes in your own beliefs. How often were you shifting your beliefs because of a sense of annoyance, or boredom, or anger, or contempt?

Of course, thinking on a pendulum is stupid. Thinking based on reaction and based on majority/minority belief status blinds you to complexity and to the actual merits of arguments.

And unfortunately, unlike a pendulum limited by Newton’s laws, the pendulum of reactionary thought in politics and philosophy can continue to swing wider and further out with each cycle – until everyone falls out of the ride (to borrow the earlier metaphor).

There are alternatives.

If you use discernment, you’ll watch to separate out your reasoned beliefs from your reactionary/emotional/tribal ones. When you do that, you’ll be surprised how non-partisan and hard-to-categorize your beliefs become.

Maybe the left has good things to say about unjustly-acquired wealth. Maybe the right has good things to say about individual skill and responsibility in building wealth. Maybe the right answer includes and transcends (to borrow a phrase from Ken Wilber) both.

Maybe the feminists have good things to say about structural injustices toward women. Maybe the masculinists have something good to say about the importance of independent manhood.

Maybe the secularists can teach us something about being. Maybe the religionists can teach us something about the ground and sacredness of being.

When your beliefs can become this nuanced and non-tribal, you can be insulated from most of the worst effects of the social pendulum. But always watch out for what irritates you in others’ beliefs and actions. The irritation will always be there, but you can’t let it push you to change much in your values – or at all in the values that matter most.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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Science + Politics = Crap

I like to listen to scientific lectures. Unfortunately, it’s becoming rare to be able to listen to an entire lecture without hearing an awkward jab at the anti-science mindset of the Republican Party. I don’t disagree, but it’s still the pot calling the kettle “black”.

The Democratic Party is just as anti-science; they just differ in the parts of science they don’t like.

Years ago, the Republican anti-science condemned by the science lecturers was usually centered on biology/evolution. Now the irony is that it’s much more likely to be about “climate change“– a topic the Democrats are decidedly anti-science about. Occasionally it is anti-gun bigotry or genderism that inspires the complaint against Republicans, but those are a lot rarer in science lectures than the “climate change” stuff. And sometimes the reason isn’t even specified, it’s just stated as axiomatic that “GOP = anti-science“. I’ve even heard libertarians included with Republicans a time or two.

Basically, what they are implying is that if you aren’t a Left-Statist you are backwards and ignorant. Everyone but their team needs to be scolded and corrected like a naughty, stupid child.

When you try to mix a little politics in with your science, you have abandoned science for religion– the religion of Statism. It doesn’t matter what variety of politics you mix in, either. Politics has no place in science. None.

Really, politics has no place in society… or in life.

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The History of Private Schools: How American Education Became a Political Battleground

“He alone, who owns the youth, gains the future.” – Adolf Hitler

Public schools are so ubiquitous and ingrained in American culture that one could easily be forgiven for thinking that we, as a nation, have always had them. However, public schools are a relatively recent invention. Federal funding for public schools is a recent anomaly, dating back to the days of President Jimmy Carter. His successor, President Ronald Reagan, famously tried to dismantle the Department of Education to no avail.

Public schools being an arm of the state are indoctrination centers. This becomes increasingly true as basic skills such as the old “three Rs” of “reading, writing and ‘rithmatic” are jettisoned in favor of climate changecritical race theory and gender ideology – all of which are now part and parcel of a public education in the United States. As if this weren’t troubling enough, public schools are largely funded by property taxes on housing. These taxes, which are paid generally on a bi-annual basis, are confiscated from people whose children do not even attend public schools. What’s more, these taxes require people to effectively pay rent on owned property under penalty of losing their homes.

We do not have to look far for an alternative to the world of public schools. Throughout most of American history, education has been the purview of parents, the church, and other private institutions. The rise of public education in the United States is a story of violence and coercion that is largely hidden from the public record. After reading this, you will never view public schools in the same light ever again.

Continue reading The History of Private Schools: How American Education Became a Political Battleground at Ammo.com.

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