The Magazinist

Close reading the July 2009 issue of Reason

Every now and then, CJR’s Magazinist delivers an opinionated look at the journals of opinion.

Discovering Japan

The cover story in the July 2009 issue of Reason, “Turning Japanese”, examines how the current economic crisis is dangerously similar to the economic crisis in 1990s Japan. After Japan’s economy collapsed, the Japanese government introduced several of its own anti-recession stimulus packages and public-works spending initiatives, which did a very poor job revitalizating the Japanese economy. Well, according to authors Michael Flynn, Anthony Randazzo, and Adam B. Summers:

The United States in 2008–09, unfortunately, has started down the same path. Federal intervention and the expectation of additional government action are removing firms’ incentive to clean up their balance sheets by selling “toxic” assets. Why accept pennies on the dollar if a deep-pocketed new bidder (i.e., the state) looms large on the scene? The Japanese experience shows that when the government is an active participant in the market, many firms would rather accept state support than initiate the inevitable financial reckoning. Such a status quo does not provide a sustainable foundation for the economy. Instead, it restricts economic growth and creates a cycle of stagnation.

While “Turning Japanese” moves beyond conventional thinking about the latest economic downturn—that it’s just like the crash of 1929 and we need government intervention like Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal—and while it features entertaining Japanimation-style visuals of President Obama, the article seems a little flimsy. The major flaw seems to be that the authors are comparing what appears to be a global economic crisis and one country’s response to it with a purely national (if large-scale) economic downturn. The article also suffers because it does not appear to draw much from the work of actual economists. One of the few research pieces quoted in the article apparently comes from a 1996 book written by an Australian historian.

The solution to the current crisis, Reason breezily assures readers, is to reduce taxes for all businesses permanently and cut taxes for all individuals: “Those tax policies are the quickest way to stem a recession.” While this solution is perhaps a little simplistic (Really? Which country stopped a recession using that strategy?) Reason still deserves credit for daring to present an alternative economic model to explain the current state of the economy. And for those anime-style graphics, which really are entertaining.

Come Sail Away

Senior editor Brian Doherty has an odd piece entitled “20,000 Nations Above the Sea“—a profile of Milton Freidman’s grandson Patri Friedman, who advocates extending libertarian principles so far as to leave the world’s nation states altogether. The thirty-three-year old Friedman is a proponent of an idea called seasteading: building cities on platforms in the open sea to avoid government intervention. According to the (apparently earnest) article:

The seasteading project benefits from the fact that many poorer countries are willing to sell their sovereignty to the highest bidder in a flag-of-convenience process that works to the buyer’s advantage. “I definitely think at the start those countries will want a cut [of whatever economic benefit a seastead produces], but keep in mind we’re in a good negotiating position,” Friedman says. “We can talk to every country in the world and only need one to give us the deal we want, and we can have them bid against each other for how low the cut can be.”

From a purely technical perspective, the profile is reasonably successful. And Friedman’s story is interesting—he’s apparently one of the sexiest geeks alive (not, admittedly, a terribly competitive category) and the Friedman family’s growing libertarianism alone is worth an article somewhere. The trouble is that seasteading is so patently ridiculous an idea that the article is actually hard to read without contempt and confusion. (Nobody will come away from this article thinking “Yeah! Seasteading! It’s only a matter of time now!”) The fact that Doherty has a weakness for phrases like “He set his ideas afloat on the sea of the World Wide Web” does not help much, either.

Cities. Built On platforms. In the oceans. I guess it’s more feasible than The Twenty-One Balloons—but not by much.

The Perils of Sexting

The issue also features a bread-and-butter libertarian piece, “Anatomy of a Child Pornographer”, about a sixteen-year-old boy facing child pornography charges for receiving lascivious text messages and pictures from a fourteen-year-old girl. As Nancy Rommelmann writes in the piece:

The federal statute criminalizes the production, distribution, and possession of images depicting underage subjects engages in sexually explicit conduct; depending on the charges, it mandates sentences of five to 30 years in prison. Because the technology that allows sexting is new, age-appropriate punishments have yet to be hammered out. Instead, laws designed to thwart middle-aged people who prey on children are being applied to the children themselves.

According to the article, this is the sort of thing that would be bettered handled by an awkward conversation between two families and restrictions placed on adolescent socializing. Instead, there’s a sexually normal kid in Rochester facing registration as a sex offender. “I just wish the families could have handled it better,” the boy explains. “I would have been happy to mow their lawn all summer.”

While the piece isn’t really that novel—I’ve definitely read about precisely this sort of thing before—Rommelmann does something very creative in explaining how this new form of faux-pedophilia is mostly undertaken via cell phone messages. The subject of the article, of course, lives just miles away from the Eastman Kodak Company, which enthusiastically introduced the Brownie camera in 1900: “So simple, they can easily be operated by any school boy or girl.” Yea, exactly.

Short Takes

There’s a slightly weird column by contributing editor Greg Beato about the advantages of memory deletion. Researchers at SUNY Downstate Medical center have apparently discovered a way to delete rodent memories. Next stop: bliss! While there are ominous Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind implications to this technology, Beato thinks this might actually be a good thing. Considering the way the Internet allows people to easily access the past, why not also allow people to erase the unpleasant memories associated with that past? While Beato’s idea is interesting, his take is decidedly superficial. He apparently thinks that the SUNY study means that while we may soon be able to delete unpleasant memories, there’s no cause for concern, people: the past lives on on the Internet. This ignores the obvious fact that not all people appear on the Web with equal ubiquity, and the past usually lives on the Web for—at best—a few years.

There’s a short article in the front of the magazine about how, with the economic downturn, journalists are writing pieces about Charles Dickens’s Victorian stories flying off the shelves. Cavanaugh writes that articles about Dickens’ popularity are both inaccurate and troublesome. This is not just because Dickens’s popularity is old news, but also because Dickens didn’t really understand anything about economics. “Again and again in Dickens’ work,” Cavanaugh points out, “money problems get resolved not through sound financial management or hard work but through patronage.” Oh, where is Horatio Alger when we need him?

The back page features a brief column about A Scary Thing Happened, the creepy 9/11 children’s coloring book removed from the FEMA website. That book was pretty outrageous. But is there anyone who didn’t already know about this one?

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Daniel Luzer is web editor of the Washington Monthly.