Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary

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"Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary"
She was in the bunker with you-know-who and can't forgive herself. In this haunting documentary, 81-year-old Traudl Junge faces the truth.

By Charles Taylor

Jan. 31, 2003  |  Talking about the documentary "Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary" in aesthetic terms entails talking about what isn't there. Cut down to 90 minutes from 26 hours of interviews with Traudl Junge, one of the women who worked as a private secretary to Adolf Hitler, the film consists entirely of medium shots of Junge as she recounts her experiences working for Hitler. There is no music, no newsreel footage, no archival photography. The directors, André Heller (who conducted the interviews) and Othmar Schmiderer, don't allow anything to distract us from Junge.

Once or twice we see her watching a videotape of one of her interviews, not for any overtly cinematic effect but rather for her to annotate or expand what she has already said. The drama of the film is in the story Junge has to tell but, more important, in her reckoning with the consequences of her history. The subject is as much Junge in the present (she was 81 when the interviews were conducted in the spring of 2001; she died last year, the day after the film premiered at the Berlin Film Festival) as what she witnessed during the early 1940s.

What I'm saying is that any judgment on "Blind Spot" is very much a judgment on Traudl Junge. The film is not what you may have been led to expect -- and what I expected walking in. It is not another participant in the Nazi terror denying knowledge or responsibility, pretending to be shocked. Junge does claim she did not know the extent of what was done to the Jews until after the war, and because of the weird, removed circumstances she was in, it's not hard to believe her.

A dignified old woman with steel-gray hair worn swept back and a taste for colorful scarves worn under sweaters and jerseys, Junge is serious and focused and largely self-effacing. She sketches in her own story quickly, as if it were of no particular importance next to the gravity of the events she describes. She grew up in Bavaria, the daughter of a divorced mother who provided for the family by working as a maid for Junge's bossy grandfather. Junge harbored hopes of becoming a dancer but also knew she would have to work. Family connections got her a clerical tryout for a job as secretary to the Führer and, in 1941, she went to live and work in Hitler's bunker compound.

It's probably necessary to make a few particulars about Junge clear at this point. Her family, she tells us, was apolitical. She was never a member of the Nazi Party. Working for Hitler, her job was to take dictation of his speeches and private letters. Military and government matters were not discussed in her presence. The only mention of Jews came in the inevitable lines in Hitler's speeches about the poison of "international Judaism."

If that sounds awfully convenient -- if it seems to echo what we've heard from the mouths of so many other Nazi officers and functionaries and hangers-on -- none that I've seen interviewed have anything like Junge's compulsion for self-examination. She is not claiming that there was no way for Germans to know what was going on, she is damning her own obliviousness. The first words we hear her utter in the film are about how, even at 81, she finds it impossible to forgive the naive, uninformed girl she was. We all look back at our younger selves and cringe, but for most of us, the blind spots of our youth don't encompass anything near as unthinkable as the events of Junge's youth.

But the blind spot of the title refers not only to her youthful ignorance but to the closed world of Hitler's bunker. Hitler, Junge says, was so caught up in attaining his ideals that human life simply didn't matter to him, or was an acceptable price to pay to achieve his dreams. In the bunker, where Junge was exempt from the shortages of the war and from the realities ordinary Germans encountered, the talk, particularly Hitler's talk and the chatter of those around him, would be in grand terms rather than specifics. Purifying German culture -- yes. Exterminating the Jews -- no. What comes through clearly again and again in Junge's testimony is that she was in the perfect place for an ignorant young woman to continue to be ignorant, even to be encouraged in that ignorance.

So the unsparing tone she brings to these memoirs (the film marked the first time she had talked publicly about her experience), her struggle to understand her foolish younger self and her impatience with herself when she lingers over a trivial detail of bunker life are her revenge against that ignorance. In its singular way, "Blind Spot" is an unflinching portrait of a commitment to intellectual and moral growth, even if it means cutting away the ground beneath your own feet.

"Blind Spot" is consistently interesting without feeling essential until, in its last half-hour, it becomes utterly compelling. Junge's account of Hitler's last days in the bunker may well be the most vivid, and the last, we will ever hear. (Have any others who emerged alive from the bunker told their stories?) Time and time again she talks of what a strange atmosphere it was, as if trying to convince herself that it actually happened.

"Bosch," she declares it at one point, and there is a temptation to see what she is describing as the most grotesque black comedy imaginable: the ritual declarations of loyalty to the Führer; the officers unable to carry out Hitler's command to kill him so he wouldn't fall into the hands of his enemies. All this, combined with Hitler's last-minute marriage to Eva Braun and Goebbels' wife poisoning her six children (the only tears Junge sheds in the whole film, and they are brief, are for the dead Goebbels children).

It's the sheer grotesque mix of events, all of it laden with a heavy Teutonic sentimentality, a kitsch notion of tragedy, that repulses Junge -- and us -- as much as anything else. She stayed, even when Hitler said she should go home. As she says, where else was there for her to go? (She, and other German women, also had a legitimate fear of being raped by the advancing Russian troops.) There's something oddly fitting in the hell Junge describes, as if even Hitler finally came to feel the derangement he had brought to every particle of German life.

The film comes to a conclusion with a brief outline of Junge's life after the war. She was captured and imprisoned by the Russians, went home to Bavaria, was then imprisoned by the Americans for three weeks and was finally declared "de-Nazified" in 1947. After that, she worked as an editor and science journalist, living in a one-room apartment in suburban Munich from the '50s onward. Like the other details of her life, this seems unimportant to Junge. Nothing, in fact, seems important to her except the moral and intellectual interrogation she puts herself through in the course of the film. Despite its title, "Blind Spot" is a convincing portrait of one woman's restless determination finally to see.

Bum rap

A new book accusing Pius XII of being "Hitler's Pope" overestimates the pontiff's influence and underestimates his character.

By Lawrence Osborne
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October 27, 1999 | A s the 20th century draws to a close, a moral reckoning with its horrors is in the air. Accusations of collusion, collaboration or passive cooperation with the forces of evil have turned into a veritable orgy of sly finger-pointing. The recent trial of Nazi collaborator Maurice Papon in Bordeaux stirred bitter and conflicted memories in France, while in the publishing world, books about supposed collaborators and guilty bystanders have become ever more extravagant.

We have had Daniel Goldhagen, in 1996's "Hitler's Willing Executioners," dubbing the entire German nation congenital anti-Semites responsible for Auschwitz, and Philip Gourevitch holding the Clinton administration morally responsible for the slaughter in Rwanda in 1998's "We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families." In the genocide-accusation game, almost everyone close to a collective crime is subject to severe cross-examination.

And now it's the turn of a pope: Eugenio Pacelli, Pope Pius XII, leader of the Catholic world from 1939 to 1958. Was even the spiritual heir of Peter a Nazi collaborator? In "Hitler's Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII," Cambridge historian John Cornwell poses this question. It is not being asked for the first time: Ever since Saul Friedlander published his "Pius XII and the Third Reich" in 1966, Pacelli has been suspected of cowardice, self-aggrandizement and selfish Realpolitik.

According to many commentators, Pius maintained an ambiguous stance of neutrality during the Second World War, significantly failed to speak up about the Holocaust and failed to intervene in the notorious deportation of 1,000 Roman Jews in 1943 -- even though the SS trucks made a deliberate detour so that the German soldiers could get a glimpse of St. Peter's Square. Some historians have shown Pius in a sympathetic light. A 1992 book by historian Anthony Rhodes called "The Vatican in the Age of the Cold War" claimed that Pius could not speak truth to power when that power was Hitler. The pope, Rhodes argued, was doomed to Faustian bargains in which he could not prevail.

With a current move in the Vatican to beatify Pius, the controversy over his wartime behavior has heated up. Cornwell's book attempts to deliver a definitive blow, to nail Pius once and for all on the charge that he was a passive accomplice in the Nazi reign of terror. Pius, argues Cornwell, could have swung the vast weight of global Catholicism against Hitler. In particular, Cornwell claims that Pius could have mobilized the powerful German Catholic churches against the coming atheistic dictatorship. Why did he not do so? Wasn't Hitler, by his own dark admission, Christianity's most rabid enemy?

Cornwell has brought some new material to bear against Pius, including recently discovered letters that show that the suspicion of papal cowardice had been voiced even during the war by the British envoy to the Vatican, Francis d'Arcy Osborne. On July 31, 1942, for example, Osborne wrote from inside the Vatican:

It is very sad. The fact is that the moral authority of the Holy See, which Pius XI and his predecessors had built up into a world power, is now sadly reduced. I suspect that His Holiness hopes to play a great role as a peace-maker but, as you say, the German crimes have nothing to do with neutrality.

Yet as damning of Pius XII as they may be from a moral perspective, Osborne's letters do not exactly prove that Pius was secretly rubbing his hands behind the scenes at the thought of Nazi atrocities, or even gazing at them indifferently. Quite the contrary. When the Dutch Catholic bishops finally condemned the round-up of Jews in 1942, a furious Hitler retaliated by killing 40,000 Jews who had converted to Catholicism. A horrified Pius decided at that point that saving lives was more worthy than uttering papal condemnations.

It was a familiar reaction; Nazi ruthlessness made bargaining appear pointless. Indeed, hadn't British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain made more or less the same calculation only a few years earlier? It was called appeasement. We forget that most heads of state collaborated with Hitler while they were afraid of him; fear, alas, is a wonderful silencer of scruples, especially when the executioners are next door.

One cannot forget, as Cornwell seems sometimes to do, the implacable realities in which Pius had to exist. He held sway over a tiny principality rather inconveniently located in the capital of Fascist Italy: not exactly the ideal location from which to launch jeremiads against Nazism. As Cornwell points out, the Vatican "depended even for its water and electricity supply on Fascist Italy, and could be entered at any moment by Italian troops." Pius himself was once physically assaulted by a Fascist gang on a Roman street.

Nor should we forget that Pius had edited his predecessor Pius XI's famous -- though fruitless -- condemnation of racism, the flaming encyclical "Mit brennender Sorge" in 1937. (Which, by the way, if Cornwell's assumption that a papal condemnation would have influenced Hitler, should have had some effect.) And in 1940, as Cornwell concedes, Pius XII was even involved in a wild plot to kill Hitler.

Pacelli himself was actually an inscrutable, complex, scheming and not altogether likable character. Born in 1876 in Rome, he was a scion of that city's "black nobility," aristocratic families devoted to service of the Vatican. In photographs he appears as a somber, intense youth with a streak of priggish precociousness but also of bibliophilic refinement and sensitivity. From his earliest years his vocation was never in doubt. His sister later recalled that "he seemed to have been born a saint."

Pacelli was fond of having himself photographed with little birds perched on his finger: an image of gentle but prehensile Franciscan strength. He was also, as Cornwell shows, the first pope to master mass media, using it to great effect in augmenting his own prestige.

Pacelli was legendary, too, for his industrious and far-ranging intellectualism. One of his Vatican colleagues recalled once seeing a huge pile of books on his desk. "They're all about gas," Pius explained. They were. He later addressed, with astonishing technical fluency, the International Conference of the Gas Industry.

Pius was also worldly and ambitious. As papal nuncio to Germany in the '20s, he drew up the Concordat with the Weimar Republic in 1929 and later the infamous Concordat with Hitler in 1933, an agreement that, as he saw it, gained immunity for the German churches from Nazi attack. Hitler, of course, saw it as a stamp of approval for his regime. Hitler's and Pacelli's opposed designs formed, says Cornwell, "a tragic subtext" of the Holocaust.

Cornwell's principal accusation against Pius is that he was a megalomaniac who turned the papacy into an instrument of unprecedented autocracy through his own willpower and centrist ambition. It could also be argued, however, that the papacy itself was in an epoch of crisis after 1870 and that Pius tried to solidify the church through an excessive centrism in response to the rise of totalitarianism and secular radicalism. Essentially, he was a self-styled benevolent autocrat; collegial consensus and shared decision-making were simply not his style.

Did Pacelli's obsessive centrism, though, as Cornwell argues, castrate the German bishops in their dealings with Hitler? Cornwell seems to think that German Catholics could have stopped Hitler in his tracks if they had been given the green light by either Pius XI or Pacelli himself. He gives the example of the Nazi euthenasia program, which was halted in 1941 after vehement protest by the bishop of Munster.

Catholic protest had also ignited when crucifixes were banned in Munich schools; then too, the Nazis backed down. Indeed, Cornwell argues, contrary to myth, the Nazis were extremely sensitive to public protest. Catholics protested against euthanasia and confiscated crucifixes and won; but on the Jews, conversely, they kept quiet.

Cornwell's accusations carry some weight. German Catholics as well as the Holy See itself were shamefully silent on the destruction of the Jews, of which all of them were certainly aware. But does any of this prove that Pius' restructuring of the papacy -- or indeed his lack of condemnatory utterance -- actually aided and abetted Hitler? It's a far-fetched claim, to say the least.

Would a more independent German church have resisted Hitler more forcefully? This is, ultimately, an unanswerable question. But since the German Protestants, who obeyed no central papal-style authority, did little to stand in the way of Nazism, it's reasonable to doubt that German Catholics would have. (And it's worth noting that Pius' later strong line on Communism influenced Stalin not one iota.) One wonders, too, if German Catholics didn't simply use Pius and his papal bossiness as a scapegoat for their own cowardice. In a strange way, it let them off the moral hook.

And there are other problems, too, with Cornwell's analysis. The euthenasia program was not, in fact, stopped; it simply went underground. More important, euthanasia and school crucifixes did not occupy the same place in Hitler's demonology as did the Jews and their extermination. Hitler would compromise over the former, but over the latter, not a chance.

Cornwell seems to think that, by standing up to Hitler, Pius could have changed the course of history. But as appealing as this scenario may seem to us half a century later, he clearly overestimates the degree of Pius' power to influence an unscrupulous dictator. It's telling that Joachim C. Fest, in his monumental 1973 biography of Hitler, does not mention Pius even once. The pope is not a power in the world; he is a moral influence among Catholics. The totalitarian dictators were not Catholics, to put it mildly. Their view of the world was determined by artillery and tanks. As Stalin famously sneered about Pius, "Where are his divisions?"

Imperialism, Superpower dominance, malignant and benign.
By Christopher Hitchens, Posted Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2002, at 1:42 PM PT

In the lexicon of euphemism, the word "superpower" was always useful because it did little more than recognize the obvious. The United States of America was a potentate in itself and on a global scale. It had only one rival, which was its obvious inferior, at least in point of prosperity and sophistication (as well as a couple of other things). So both were "empires," in point of intervening in some countries whether those other countries liked it or not, and in arranging the governments of other countries to suit them. Still, only a few Trotskyists like my then-self were so rash as to describe the Cold War as, among other things, an inter-imperial rivalry.

The United States is not supposed, in its own self-image, to be an empire. (Nor is it supposed, in its own self-image, to have a class system—but there you go again.) It began life as a rebel colony and was in fact the first colony to depose British rule. When founders like Alexander Hamilton spoke of a coming American "empire," they arguably employed the word in a classical and metaphorical sense, speaking of the future dominion over the rest of the continent. By that standard, Lewis and Clark were the originators of American "imperialism." Anti-imperialists of the colonial era would not count as such today. That old radical Thomas Paine was forever at Jefferson's elbow, urging that the United States become a superpower for democracy. He hoped that America would destroy the old European empires.

This perhaps shows that one should beware of what one wishes for because, starting in 1898, the United States did destroy or subvert all of the European empires. It took over Cuba and the Philippines from Spain (we still hold Puerto Rico as a "colony" in consequence) and after 1918 decided that if Europe was going to be quarrelsome and destabilizing, a large American navy ought to be built on the model of the British one. Franklin Roosevelt spent the years 1939 to 1945 steadily extracting British bases and colonies from Winston Churchill, from the Caribbean to West Africa, in exchange for wartime assistance. Within a few years of the end of World War II, the United States was the regnant or decisive power in what had been the Belgian Congo, the British Suez Canal Zone, and—most ominously of all—French Indochina. Dutch Indonesia and Portuguese Angola joined the list in due course. Meanwhile, under the ostensibly anti-imperial Monroe Doctrine, Washington considered the isthmus of Central America and everything due south of it to be its special province in any case.

In the course of all this—and the course of it involved some episodes of unforgettable arrogance and cruelty—some American officers and diplomats did achieve an almost proconsular status, which is why Apocalypse Now is based on Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. But in general, what was created was a system of proxy rule, by way of client states and dependent regimes. And few dared call it imperialism. Indeed, the most militant defenders of the policy greatly resented the term, which seemed to echo leftist propaganda.

But nowadays, if you consult the writings of the conservative and neoconservative penseurs, you will see that they are beginning to relish that very word. "Empire—Sure! Why not?" A good deal of this obviously comes from the sense of moral exaltation that followed Sept. 11. There's nothing like the feeling of being in the right and of proclaiming firmness of purpose. And a revulsion from atrocity and nihilism seems to provide all the moral backup that is required. It was precisely this set of emotions that Rudyard Kipling set out not to celebrate, as some people imagine, but to oppose. He thought it was hubris, and he thought it would end in tears. Of course there is always some massacre somewhere or some hostage in vile captivity with which to arouse opinion. And of course it's often true that the language of blunt force is the only intelligible one. But self-righteousness in history usually supplies its own punishment, and a nation forgets this at its own peril.

Unlike the Romans or the British, Americans are simultaneously the supposed guarantors of a system of international law and doctrine. It was on American initiative that every member nation of the United Nations was obliged to subscribe to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Innumerable treaties and instruments, descending and ramifying from this, are still binding legally and morally. Thus, for the moment, the word "unilateralism" is doing idiomatic duty for the word "imperialism," as signifying a hyper-power or ultra-power that wants to be exempted from the rules because—well, because it wrote most of them.

However, the plain fact remains that when the rest of the world wants anything done in a hurry, it applies to American power. If the "Europeans" or the United Nations had been left with the task, the European provinces of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo would now be howling wildernesses, Kuwait would be the 19th province of a Greater Iraq, and Afghanistan might still be under Taliban rule. In at least the first two of the above cases, it can't even be argued that American imperialism was the problem in the first place. This makes many of the critics of this imposing new order sound like the whimpering, resentful Judean subversives in The Life of Brian, squabbling among themselves about "What have the Romans ever done for us?"

I fervently wish that as much energy was being expended on the coming Ethiopian famine or the coming Central Asian drought as on the pestilence of Saddam Hussein. But, if ever we can leave the Saddams and Milosevics and Kim Jong-ils behind and turn to greater questions, you can bet that the bulk of the airlifting and distribution and innovation and construction will be done by Americans, including the new nexus of human-rights and humanitarian NGOs who play rather the same role in this imperium that the missionaries did in the British one (though to far more creditable effect).

A condition of the new imperialism will be the specific promise that while troops will come, they will not stay too long. An associated promise is that the era of the client state is gone and that the aim is to enable local populations to govern themselves. This promise is sincere. A new standard is being proposed, and one to which our rulers can and must be held. In other words, if the United States will dare to declare out loud for empire, it had better be in its capacity as a Thomas Paine arsenal, or at the very least a Jeffersonian one. And we may also need a new word for it.

Social Security: From Ponzi Scheme to Shell Game, A prejudiced primer on privatization. By Michael Kinsley, Posted Saturday, Dec. 14, 1996, at 12:30 AM PT

Privatizing Social Security is a solution in search of a problem. Oh, the problem with Social Security is real enough. But "privatization"--the hot policy idea of the season--simply doesn't address the problem. It's as if you were crawling across the desert, desperately thirsty, and you meet a fellow who says, "What you need is some lemonade." You say water would suffice. He says, "Oh, but lemonade is much nicer. Here"--handing you a packet of lemonade powder--"just add water and stir."

In this week's report by a government commission on Social Security, a majority supported various forms of partial privatization. And lemonade (privatization) is an appealing drink in many ways. But it's a testament to the agenda-setting influence of conservatives these days that, on Social Security, we're debating the merits of lemonade, when the real issue is: Where do you get the water?

Social Security privatization was ably discussed several weeks ago in our "Committee of Correspondence." But in this case, at least, that discussion seems not to have provided the dialectical pathway toward ultimate and inevitable truth that we had hoped for. So, let us try again. And--ladies and gentlemen--I will now attempt to discuss Social Security with no numbers, no graphs, and not a single use of the word "actuarial."

According to polls, more members of Generation X believe in UFOs than do in Social Security. Of course, those who delight in this factoid never tell you how many Gen-Xers actually believe in UFOs--which might be the alarming bit. But, because it serves their particular generational self-pity, Gen-Xers seem more willing than older folks to grasp the essential truth about Social Security, which is that it is a Ponzi scheme. Payments from later customers finance payouts to earlier customers. The ratio of retirees taking money out to workers putting money in is rising, due to 1) people having fewer children, and 2) people living longer. This means the Ponzi scheme cannot go on. The famous Stein's Law--an inspiration of our own Herb Stein--holds, in brief, that what cannot go on, won't. The issue is how exactly this Ponzi scheme will stop going on.


of the Social Security "crisis" often confuse three different problems. First, with baby boomers in their peak earning years, Social Security currently brings in more revenue than it pays out in benefits. The surplus is invested in government bonds. These are special government bonds. Statistics about the federal deficit--and both parties' promises to balance the budget over the next few years--count the Social Security surplus as revenue, and don't count these bonds as debt. But within a couple of decades, the annual surplus will evaporate, and Social Security will have to start drawing on this nest egg. For the government to honor these bonds will require huge borrowing (essentially replacing these IOUs to itself with real IOUs to private individuals) or a huge tax increase.

The second problem is that even if the government honors these bonds in full--principal and interest--a point will be reached, well into the next century, when the Social Security "trust fund" is exhausted, and not enough money is coming in to pay the currently promised benefits.

The third problem is that even if today's benefit promises can somehow be kept, Social Security represents a much worse return on "investment" (taxes paid in) for future retirees than past and present retirees have enjoyed. This is partly because some minor benefit reductions are scheduled already (raising the retirement age slightly and gradually). It is mainly because younger people will have paid much higher Social Security taxes throughout their working lives. The average return on Gen-Xers' Social Security investments will almost certainly be worse than they could have done by investing in the stock market.

Whether all this adds up to a crisis is a matter of rhetorical taste. The fact that boomers and Gen-Xers will get a worse deal from Social Security than their parents--mainly because part of the money they put into the system was, in effect, transferred to their parents--doesn't seem horribly tragic to me. Even after this transfer we will still, on average, be better off than our parents were. Where's the injustice? Problem 2, that Social Security will run dry many decades from now, depends on essentially impossible predictions about the distant future and, in any case, can be solved by very minor adjustments, if they're made pretty soon.

No. 1 is a real problem. It's hard to imagine the government actually reneging on its IOUs. But it's also hard to see an easy way of avoiding that.

For all three problems there are only three solutions: cut benefits, raise revenues, or borrow. Privatization is not a solution. Privatization means allowing individuals to invest for themselves all or part of what they and their employers put into Social Security. Whatever the merits of this idea--and there are some--it does not address the problem at hand. Social Security is a Ponzi scheme. Current payers-in are financing current payers-out, not their own retirements. Privatization assumes an end to the Ponzi scheme: Every generation saves for its own retirement. But you can't get there from here without someone paying twice--for the previous generation and the current one--or someone getting less (or someone--i.e., the government--borrowing a lot of money).


enthusiasts sometimes admit to this as a transitional problem. But it is not a transitional problem. It is the entire problem. As Brookings economist Henry Aaron pointed out in the "Committee" discussion, if you could pour in enough money to pay for the "transition" to privatization, the system would no longer be out of balance. The problem, or crisis, would be solved. Privatization would not be needed.

You have to watch closely as the privatizers describe their schemes. They play a shell game: Take this part of the Social Security tax and convert it into a mandatory savings contribution; take today's benefit and divide it into two parts; give everybody this new account and that minimum guarantee; take this shell and put it there and bring that shell over here, and--hey presto! But no matter how you divvy it up, the same money can't be used twice. That is the problem with Social Security now, and it is the problem with privatization. All you've said when you endorse privatization is that if there were water, it should be used to make lemonade. Not obviously wrong, but not terribly helpful.

Privatization is a shell game in a second way. It is supposed to bring more money into the system because returns on private securities are generally higher than returns on government bonds. Even members of the recent commission who oppose full privatization supported investing part of Social Security's accumulated surplus in the private marketplace. But (as Stein pointed out in the "Committee"), every dollar Social Security invests privately, instead of lending to the Treasury (as happens now), is an extra dollar the government must borrow from private capital markets to finance the national debt. The net effect on national savings, and therefore on overall economic growth, is zilch. Every dollar more for Social Security is a dollar less for someone else.

If Social Security manages to achieve a higher return, by investing some or all of its assets privately, the rest of the economy will achieve a lower return, by having more of its assets in government bonds. In essence, the gain to Social Security will be like a tax on private investors--an odd thing for conservative think tanks to be so enthusiastic about. Also, the arrival of this huge pot of money looking for a home will depress returns in the private economy, while the need to attract an equally huge pot of money into the Treasury to replace the lost revenue will increase the returns on government bonds. Result? The diversion will be at least partly self-defeating.

The size and security of future retirement benefits ultimately depend on the country's general prosperity at that time in the future. Checks to be cashed in the year 2055 (whoops! there's a number) will be issued in 2055, whatever promises we make or don't make today. The most direct way for Social Security to affect future prosperity (as Aaron pointed out in the "Committee") is to increase national savings, of which the Social Security reserve is part, by trimming benefits and/or increasing revenues. Since we have to do that anyway--even as a prelude to privatization--why don't we do it first? Then we can argue about privatization at our leisure.

Why Jews Don't Farm, By Steven E. Landsburg, Posted Friday, June 13, 2003, at 1:37 PM PT

In the 1890s, my Eastern European Jewish ancestors emigrated to an American Jewish farming community in Woodbine, N.J., where the millionaire philanthropist Baron de Hirsch provided land, tools, and training at the nation's first agricultural college. [Correction, June 16, 2003: The Baron De Hirsch Agricultural College was not the first agricultural college in the United States.] But within a generation, the family had settled in Philadelphia where they became accountants, tailors, merchants, and eventually, lawyers and college professors.

De Hirsch had a vision of American Jews achieving economic liberation by working the land. If he'd had a better sense of history, he would have built not an agricultural college but a medical school, because for well over a millennium prior to the settlement of Woodbine, Jews had not been farmers—not in Palestine, not in the Muslim empire, not in Western Europe, not in Eastern Europe, not anywhere in the world.

You have to go back almost 2,000 years to find a time when Jews, like virtually every other identifiable group, were primarily an agricultural people. Around A.D. 200, Jews began to quit the land. By the seventh century, Jews had left their farms in large numbers to become craftsmen, artisans, merchants, and moneylenders—the only group to have given up on agriculture. Jewish participation in farming fell to about 10 percent through most of the world; even in Palestine it was only about 25 percent. Everyone else stayed on the farms.

(Even in the modern state of Israel, where agriculture has been an important component of the economy, it's been a peculiarly capital-intensive form of agriculture, one that employed well under a quarter of the population at the height of the Kibbutz movement, and less than 3 percent of the population today.)

The obvious question is: Why? Why did Jews and only Jews take up urban occupations, and why did it happen so dramatically throughout the world? Two economic historians—Maristella Botticini (of Boston University and Universitá di Torino) and Zvi Eckstein (of Tel Aviv University and the University of Minnesota)—have recently been giving that question a lot of thought.

First, say Botticini and Eckstein, the exodus from farms to towns was probably not a response to discrimination. It's true that in the Middle Ages, Jews were often prohibited from owning land. But the transition to urban occupations and urban living occurred long before anybody ever thought of those restrictions. In the Muslim world, Jews faced no limits on occupation, land ownership, or anything else that might have been relevant to the choice of whether to farm. Moreover, a prohibition on land ownership is not a prohibition on farming—other groups facing similar restrictions (such as Samaritans) went right on working other people's land.

Nor, despite an influential thesis by the economic historian Simon Kuznets, can you explain the urbanization of the Jews as an internal attempt to forge and maintain a unique group identity. Samaritans and Christians maintained unique group identities without leaving the land. The Amish maintain a unique group identity to this day, and they've done it without giving up their farms.

So, what's different about the Jews? First, Botticini and Eckstein explain why other groups didn't leave the land. The temptation was certainly there: Skilled urban jobs have always paid better than farming, and that's been true since the time of Christ. But those jobs require literacy, which requires education—and for hundreds of years, education was so expensive that it proved a poor investment despite those higher wages. (Botticini and Eckstein have data on ancient teachers' salaries to back this up.) So, rational economic calculus dictated that pretty much everyone should have stayed on the farms.

But the Jews (like everyone else) were beholden not just to economic rationalism, but also to the dictates of their religion. And the Jewish religion, unique among religions of the early Middle Ages, imposed an obligation to be literate. To be a good Jew you had to read the Torah four times a week at services: twice on the Sabbath, and once every Monday and Thursday morning. And to be a good Jewish parent you had to educate your children so that they could do the same.

The literacy obligation had two effects. First, it meant that Jews were uniquely qualified to enter higher-paying urban occupations. Of course, anyone else who wanted to could have gone to school and become a moneylender, but school was so expensive that it made no sense. Jews, who had to go to school for religious reasons, naturally sought to earn at least some return on their investment. Only many centuries later did education start to make sense economically, and by then the Jews had become well established in banking, trade, and so forth.

The second effect of the literacy obligation was to drive a lot of Jews away from their religion. Botticini and Eckstein admit that they have little direct evidence for this conclusion, but there's a lot of indirect evidence. First, it makes sense: People do tend to run away from expensive obligations. Second, we can look at population trends: While the world population increased from 50 million in the sixth century to 285 million in the 18th, the population of Jews remained almost fixed at just a little over a million. Why were the Jews not expanding when everyone else was? We don't know for sure, but a reasonable guess is that a lot of Jews were becoming Christians and Muslims.

So—which Jews stuck with Judaism? Presumably those with a particularly strong attachment to their religion and/or a particularly strong attachment to education for education's sake. (The burden of acquiring an education is, after all, less of a burden for those who enjoy being educated.) The result: Over time, you're left with a population of people who enjoy education, are required by their religion to be educated, and are particularly attached to their religion. Naturally, these people tend to become educated. And once they're educated, they leave the farms.

Of course there are always exceptions. My great-grandfather raised chickens. But he did it in the basement of his row house in north Philadelphia.

[Correction, June 16, 2003: The Baron De Hirsch Agricultural College was not the first agricultural college in the United States. At the time the college opened in 1894, there were dozens of agricultural colleges in the United States. Most were established through the 1862 Morrill Act, which had given states land grants to fund public agricultural and mechanical colleges.]

The Mafia, By Franklin Foer, Posted Sunday, April 6, 1997, at 12:30 AM PT

The Mafia has replaced the Wild West as the movie industry's great American myth. Re-released two weeks ago to commemorate its 25th anniversary, The Godfather depicts Mafiosi ruling a sprawling business empire in the 1940s. More recent films present images of a Mafia in decline: In Donnie Brasco, Al Pacino's mobster character loots parking meters to earn his keep. Next month CBS will air The Last Don, an adaptation of Mario Puzo's latest novel. What is the Mafia's role in real life, and how has it changed over the years?

The Mafia (Arabic for "refuge"), also called la cosa nostra ("our thing"), began as a clandestine

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