Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Economic Growth as a Moral Imperative

The recent disastrous accidental discharge of benzene after an explosion at a plant in Jilin owned by a well-connected and powerful Chinese oil company into the Songhua River, eventually contaminating the water supply in the large downstream city of Harbin, is interesting. Not for the reasons the press emphasizes 9the secrecy of Chinese authorities in initially underplaying it, the power of giant state-owned Chinese firms and the like, which is to be expected. Instead, it is a useful lesson in economic growth as a moral imperative.

The incident is striking because one wonders why such a potentially dangerous plant would be placed so close to a major source of drinking water. The incident is actually of a piece with an economically similar mine explosion in Qitaihe, which has killed 161 people as of Wednesday. This latter event is disturbingly normal in China, where such mining disasters killing dozens of people occur almost monthly. Norman Jennings, whom Reuters identifies as a "mining expert with the International labor Organization," attributes it to that bane of planners and activists everywhere, the lack of "implementation" of the already existing "good and effective regulations."

But the reason mine disasters are so common in China is the same reason it is so prone to environmental carelessness, which is in turn the same reason transportation disasters involving trains derailing or colliding, buses falling off roads, and overcrowded ferries sinking are so common in poor countries and so rare in rich ones. It is also the same reason that, as Thomas Sowell notes, two earthquakes just hours apart and of almost the same magnitude could have such different effects, with one killing tens of thousands in Bam, Iran, as poorly constructed buildings in a country with strict building codes collapsed everywhere, and another killing fewer than ten in Paso Robles, California and the surrounding areas.

The reason is scarcity. Transportation, chemicals, housing, and coal (or, more precisely, the energy that coal helps produce) are all things of tremendous value, but the resources needed to make them must be bid away from their best alternate use. Further, the safer we wish the production of these things to be, the more costly the resources needed must correspondingly be. In poor countries such as China or Iran the cost of further safety becomes prohibitively expensive in short order, while in a wealthy society such as the U.S. we can literally afford much more safety and still be housed, heated and capable of getting from Point A to Point B.

So too with environmental damage. (And so too with illegal immigration, currently swamping the U.S. and Europe, which is a topic best left for another time.) Contrary to the thinking of much of the environmental movement, which depicts corporate polluters as heartless profit maximizers who have contempt for the effects of their discharges, the creation of water and air pollution is something no one takes pleasure in creating. Unfortunately, such damage is an unavoidable side effect of the creation of something else that we value in addition to cleaner air and water. The tailpipe pollution accompanying a trip in a motor vehicle might be the side effect of taking a heart-attack victim to the hospital so that his life might be saved, the pollution generated in the course of manufacturing a computer is a side effect of putting you in a position to read this, and so on. In rich societies, where the basic necessities of life have been met, the cost of doing more to protect the environment is relatively low, so that we are happy to trade more expensive cars and computers for cleaner air and water. But in poor countries what economists (with our typical indifference to linguistic elegance) call the marginal rate of substitution between these contending things of value is different. To install very costly environmental controls or to restrict the passenger load on ferries or to enforce building codes that are very affordable in California means far fewer jobs, far fewer ferries (and thus less transportation), and far fewer buildings (and thus more crowding or more homeless). These are unavoidable tradeoffs that residents of poor countries, who face desperate choices unfamiliar to most Westerners, are unwilling to make. And so competition among them as they pursue their self-interest forces the level of environmental protection, etc., down to whatever level supply and demand inevitably yield. There is no legislating it away; there is only the possibility of changing the tradeoffs they face through growth. Indeed, many societies often turn on a dime after events such as the Jilin disaster and decide that they can afford more environment and less stuff. One thinks of the Minamata mercury disaster in Japan, the disastrous London smog deaths of the 1950s and the publication of Silent Spring in the U.S. China is probably in my estimation still too poor (and its government still too unresponsive to public presssure) to make such a turn now, but that day is coming soon.

Even child labor, which is condemned throughout the developed and in much of the developing world, should be seen in this light. Most child labor does not occur because the children have been kidnapped but because the parents have sold them into bondage. The affluent Westerner instinctively wonders why "those people" would tolerate something like that. While culture is not completely unimportant, it is worth noting that throughout history slavery is the norm and the prohibition of it the exception. In fact, parents in Bangladesh or Pakistan or West Africa or elsewhere where such practices are common love their children as much as anyone else. It is the tradeoffs they face that are different. For them to choose this future for their children must mean that the alternatives are worse.

There is substantial evidence from economic literature that economic growth causes better environmental quality, and modest but growing evidence that it causes reductions in forced labor, improvements in workplace safety, and so on. And so economic growth becomes a moral imperative. With vast swathes of humanity trapped in the most miserable poverty, it is perhaps among the most compelling needs of our time. Whether globalization achieves that outcome is something that not everyone accepts (although they should). But whether that is true, the promotion of growth, rather than of foreign aid (which is often frittered away in corruption and white elephants) or "fair trade" or other mirage-like nostrums, is among the most important tasks facing world leaders. Policies by rich countries that frustrate such growth, such as protection of their domestic agriculture and industry, are then moral outrages.

Friday, November 18, 2005

No, Canada?

In the course of some research on international trade I have recently come across some surprising data about economic activity in Canada. In an article in the Canadian Journal of Regional Studies from 2000, Mario Polèse notes in passing that many Canadians have become far more economically intertwined with the U.S. than with their own fellow citizens. It is interesting to speculate on the implications of this for Canadian national cohesion.

First, the data. Canada overall has become much more closely tied to the U.S. over the twentieth century. It seems hard to believe now, but in 1926 only roughly 37 percent of Canadian exports went to the U.S., compared to roughly eighty percent now. The two biggest provinces in particular have also followed this pattern even more extraordinarily. Ontario sent 39.2 percent of total GDP to the U.S. in 2000, as against only 17.2 percent in 1973. For Quebec the figures are 23 versus 8.6 percent. The percentage of all out-of-province exports going to other countries (and nowadays that is mostly the U.S.) as opposed to the rest of Canada has risen from 22 percent in 1967 to 59 percent in 1996, but this pattern is not uniformly true. In the Atlantic provinces and British Columbia this ratio has been relatively stable, but it has soared in Ontario and Quebec over this time. Five Canadian provinces – Newfoundland, British Columbia, Ontario, Alberta and Quebec – now export more to the U.S. than to the rest of Canada. Note that the last two provinces, particularly Quebec, have many who believe that they are treated unfairly by the rest of Canada.

It is also worth noting that the constitutional restrictions against provincial trade barriers with respect to other provinces are weaker in Canada than in the U.S. In the U.S. Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution uniquely empowers the federal government to regulate interstate commerce, so that Texas, say, cannot impose trade barriers on agricultural goods from New Mexico. While the Canadian Constitution explicitly prohibits provincial tariffs on imports from other provinces, various types of provincial nontariff barriers exist. While by the standards of many international trade barriers these are not large, because of NAFTA they may be larger than the barriers other provinces face on trade with the U.S. In parts of Canada there was (justifiable) anger about the unwillingness of the U.S. government to obey NAFTA-tribunal rulings requiring it to eliminate barriers to lumber exports from Canada, but many of the Canadian provincial officials complaining the loudest oversee economically similar barriers to trade with other parts of their own nation.

So the linkage of much of Canada with the rest of the U.S. is then growing faster than its linkage with the rest of Canada. One could easily imagine that this could weaken the ties that bind several parts of Canada to the rest of their citizens. Even secession is not entirely out of the question in the distant future, particularly for Alberta and Quebec. Ironically, if Quebec separation were to happen it would occur even as traditional Quebecois nationalism is a declining force. Mark Steyn argued in a piece in the British magazine The Spectator (and which is only available now for a fee, alas) in which he argued that declining Francophone Quebecois demographics had caused the separatists among them to lose the 1995 referendum on whether Quebec should separate, saying that "had Quebec Catholics of the mid-Seventies had children at the same rate as their parents, [separatist leader] M. Bouchard would now have his glorious république. Now he never will. Quebec couples have an average of 1.4 children, and their shrivelled fertility rate has cost them their country." Immigration (immigrants not being particularly nationalist, and tending to have larger families) and native demography make traditional nationalist separatism a spent force in Quebec. But the growing ties with the U.S., and the possibility that trade barriers with the rest of Canada might become relatively more formidable might make the Canadian federation a losing proposition. So too with Alberta, whose potential (if relatively high-cost, for now) oil reserves are coveted by entrepreneurs eager to sell them to the gigantic market of American consumers. It would be ironic if a trade agreement whose primary problem Americans saw as emanating from low-cost Mexico ended up having much bigger effects north of the border.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Who Hates Globalization?

Why, people made worse by it of course. And who might they be? For eighty years the workhorse model of international trade, which for purposes of this discussion can be extended to all forms of global linkage, is known as the neoclassical or Heckscher/Ohlin model. In it, nations differ because of the resources they possess. Under free trade, incentives will cause people in different countries to specialize in the goods that heavily use the factors with which their nations are well-endowed. For example, with such fertile land Argentina will export agricultural goods. The flip side is that nations will import goods that intensively use factors that they have little of. One of the reasons Japan is such a powerhouse exporter of complex manufactured goods is their total paucity of natural resources and agricultural land. That they don’t import even more food than they do is due to government policies designed to protect Japanese farmers.

More generally, owners of scarce factors find, when their country’s citizens are prohibited (or prevented by transportation costs) from trading with citizens of other lands, that they are able to exploit that scarcity, to earn higher incomes than they would if they had to compete with people all over the globe who also control those factors. So Japanese rice farmers live much better shielded by their country’s tall trade barriers than if they had to compete. In rich countries, low- and moderately educated workers are the most damaged by free trade with poorer ones, and are therefore are the most opposed to freer trade. For those individuals (though not for all the residents of a society, including consumers and owners of other factors), globalization makes them (at least in the immediate term, before considering their opportunities to move onto other, perhaps much better things) worse off.

This analysis can be applied to much anti-globalization sentiment, especially that revolving around “culture.” More and more there are reports of people inveighing against the intrusion of the outside world on the grounds that it destroys local culture, and in particular that it leads to the imposition of a banal American culture on an unwilling world. Leave aside that culture spreads only when for every seller there is a buyer, so that there is apparently a lot of call for whatever we are selling. Why would someone object to the intrusion of cultural forms from elsewhere? In saying this recall that in some circles in the West there is no more noble ideological cause then multiculturalism. While this is a phrase with a thousand meanings, one of its features is surely the idea that people should be exposed to the output of different cultures.

But when people in non-Western societies show enthusiasm for Western cultural output, whether it be trivial – e.g., buying flowers and trinkets on Valentine’s Day - or substantial – e.g., consensual government – people are troubled. Opponents of cultural globalization are often afraid that a purer, more noble culture is under assault by one powered mainly by slick marketing rather than innate worth. No one from Africa or Asia or Mexico could possibly choose to shop at Wal-Mart, to watch a Hollywood action flick or to eat at McDonald’s once in awhile unless they were victims of a cultural invasion.

To think this way is to completely misunderstand what culture is and where it comes from. It is a mistake to talk of discrete “cultures” – of isolated islands full of culture that must be protected, in the manner of authorities at the airport in Hawaii interdicting invasive plants and animals, from destructive contact with foreign cultural life forms which would contaminate, out-compete and ultimately destroy the irreplaceable local cultural flora and fauna. This is a terrible model, because almost no cultural product worth remembering was created in such sterile, often nationalistic isolation. Germans take justifiable pride in Bach, perhaps the greatest composer who ever lived, but he wouldn’t have been nearly what he was without the opportunity to benefit from exposure to composers in Germany and France. Jamaican reggae music is often admired in part because it was produced as the culturally authentic voice of a tiny nation in the very shadow of the U.S. cultural behemoth. Jamaica became in the eyes of cultural protectionists sort of the heroic little country that could. But reggae would never have existed had not Jamaican workers spent time in the U.S. (Bob Marley himself spent time earning money at a U.S. auto factory), and had Jamaican musicians not been exposed to U.S. R&B and doo-wop. Cultural producers trade, they learn, and their products evolve. It is foolish to imagine culture as a static product needing to be protected from the taint of the outside world.

Culture is no different than any other human activity that creates value for other people at some opportunity cost. It is better under conditions of competition and exchange, and worse when the government subsidizes and protects it. Jean-Francois Revel argues that French and Italian cinema were far better when Fellini and Truffaut were free to exercise their creative genius in competition with Hollywood than when directors became helpless wards of the state. Global culture is better culture. It is more vigorous, more diverse, more interesting.

But this is not good news for all. Like French small farmers, Mexican street merchants staring down Wal-Mart and American textile workers, those with a great stake (which may or may not be directly financial) in the existing culture will be those who are the most threatened by cultural competition. And so perhaps we are not surprised that clerics, traditionalists and intellectuals are most prominent among cultural anti-globalization partisans. Ultimately, in the economic sense they are cultural protectionists, fated to struggle in a world of cultural free trade because they can no longer exploit their scarce knowledge and the income and control over others it often yields. There is no going back of course, but that does not mean that in the meantime those with the most to lose will not do everything they can to recreate a mythical lost world where every culture is an island, where it is not possible to cross the seas separating one culture from another without the guidance of an expert.

Friday, November 04, 2005

The Paris Intifada

The French riots are now charging ahead full steam into their second week, and seem if anything to be growing. Almost every night the early press dispatches indicate that things are getting better, and by the next morning it is clear that they are not. Most recently, small-scale violence has spread out of metro Paris and into Dijon, Marseille and Rouen.

In discussing them it is probably best to start with some perspective. The destruction and death (no one has yet died in the France riots) were far greater in the 1992 Los Angeles riots and in those all across the country in the late 1960s. But it is also true that in the L.A. case order was restored within days (the riots began on a Wednesday, and the curfew was lifted on Sunday, after things had more or less calmed down by Saturday). That French law enforcement appears to be so inadequate to the task is a sign, perhaps, that French tax revenues are already spoken for, that the French government was utterly naïve about the amount of rebellion in the air in the banlieues, or both. But that the French state is performing so badly (more and more across the nation) in its most basic function, preserving order, is ominous. It is a sign of the fragility of civilization’s thin blue line, reminiscent of our own recent experiences in New Orleans.

Here are some facts about France, none of which are particularly comforting for its future. Unemployment has exceeded eight percent for over twenty years. As of 2004, according to the OECD, 41.6 percent of the unemployed had been unemployed for at least a year. (The comparable figure for the U.S. is 12.7 percent.) The unemployment rate for those under 25 is 22.7 percent. Press reports indicate that for young Arab and African men it is more like 35 percent.

Numerous reports, particularly outside the Legacy Media, are depicting the events as a specifically Islamic rebellion. (Here, for example.) I am not convinced. Many of the press photos depict young blacks, who are often descendants of people who came from West Africa and, I assume, are often not Muslim themselves. (During the shocking assault on thousands of protesting high-school students in Paris in March there was a similar mix of blacks and Arabs.) It is hard to know for sure about the tribal composition of the rioters because the French government, in the name of a (largely fictitious) pursuit of a French citizenship that is above and beyond tribe, refuses to collect racial and religious data in its censuses. That is a fine policy based on sound post-tribal principles, but at times like this I regret the lack of better data. Many people speculate that a lot of the violence is by small-time criminal gangs eager to expand their domains by expelling the police. These riots may be more in the nature of the L.A. riots, which after the first few hours stopped being about anger over the Rodney King verdict and quickly became an opportunity to clean out every merchant with anything worth taking, than a pure insurrection. But if you are someone whose store has been burned, or a disabled woman covered with gasoline and set on fire, the motivation is immaterial. And drug traffickers and hoodlums are just as eager to defend their interests as any religiously motivated warrior, and so over the next few years this will get worse before it gets better.

It is broadly speaking in the nature of young men everywhere and at all times to be tribalistic and to tend toward violence and impulsiveness. Indeed, one of the primary functions of civilization is to bring these instincts under control and channel them toward more productive ends (e.g., achievement through peaceful competition, in the market or elsewhere). Because the residents of the suburbs are residents of a society that makes choices that cuts off all opportunities for them (and indeed many French of all tribes and neighborhoods) to work while contemptuously buying them off by smothering them with the welfare state, civilization in France is increasingly unable to perform this function. The inability of the rioters to become normal, self-supporting people in charge of their own destiny because of the sickly French economy, the confinement into these gigantic ghettoes (which lower the organizing costs of rebellion) and the willful denial until recently by French authorities of the spread of an ideology and a mindset that rejects any allegiance to their republic make for poisonous seeds that are now bearing bitter fruit. The French government seems to be reverting to what it knows best, getting ready to offer more make-work, more benefits, more multiculturalism. But that is what got them into this mess, and is at this point merely a recipe for making it worse.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

The War of the Worldviews

Yesterday marked the 67th anniversary of the famous Mercury Theater broadcast of War of the Worlds. It is known mostly (as certainly I learned it in my high school history textbook) for the way so many believed it was real. Less well-known is that even a rebroadcast by a Buffalo radio station in 1968, despite extensive promotion, still prompted phone calls to the station and law enforcement from panicked citizens wondering if it was real. Similar events have happened after other broadcasts in other countries. It still seems true that Americans, like people everywhere, are crippled by their attachment to the appeal to authority fallacy. If an Officially Credentialed Reporter, or a plausible facsimile thereof, says something, why then it must be true. This behavior is widespread even though a moment’s reflection would reveal that the absence of coverage on every other radio station, the scientific implausibility of the event, and other considerations make it unlikely that we really are being invaded by Martians. (The scientific-implausibility indictment might have been less controversial in 1938, when there was still a fresh memory of a scientific controversy over whether objects seen on Mars by telescopes were natural channels or man-made canals. But there was no excuse in 1968.)

And yet that lesson – of the danger of reliance on information producers in relatively uncompetitive markets (such as when most Official Journalists share similar political views) when those producers rely on credentials rather than performance for their authority – is not the only one I draw from the play (although it is a very important one). And in listening to a broadcast last night produced by WNYC I thought that in concentrating only on gullibility they too dismissed a lot of the messages that come from the 1938 broadcast, which was only intermittently faithful to the H.G. Wells story. Much of what was important to me was not so important to the WNYC narrator. Just as Steven Spielberg's recent movie reflected the concerns of our times, so too did the Orson Welles production.

The dialogue below is from the broadcast script at the 1938 script. The most compelling portion is a scene near the end in which Prof. Pierson of Princeton, who observed the initial gas plumes on Mars at the launch of the invaders, contemplates the fragility of humanity once the surrounding civilization is gone:


In writing down my daily life I tell myself I shall preserve human history between the dark covers of this little book that was meant to record the movements of the stars, but... to write I must live, and to live, I must eat... I find moldy bread in the kitchen, and an orange not too spoiled to swallow.

I venture from the house. I make my way to a road. No traffic. Here and there a wrecked car, baggage overturned, a blackened skeleton. I push on north.
For some reason I feel safer trailing these monsters than running away from them. And I keep a careful watch. I have seen the Martians... feed. Should one of their machines appear over the top of trees, I am ready to fling myself flat on the earth.
I come to a chestnut tree. October... chestnuts are ripe. I fill my pockets. I must keep alive.

While the professor does not appreciate it, it is ultimately the merchant who makes his life as a professor possible. He produces a thing of undeniable value called ideas, but is able to indulge in that luxury and still eat only because farmers run the farms that grow the food, farm workers harvest the food, truck drivers transport the food, and middleman merchants (often despised because all they seem to do is “mark things up”) figure out the most cost-effective way to get the food to people who will pay to eat it. All these things are valuable; none is produced so abundantly without the cooperation of the other members of society, whose conflicting wants and desires are coordinated by the market. But the professor (like many c. 2005) does not notice them even after they're gone.

Later, he runs into a survivor of the New Jersey National Guard after they were attacked by the Martians and their terrible machines:

Next day I come to a city... a city vaguely familiar in its contours, yet its buildings strangely dwarfed and leveled off, as if a giant had sliced off its highest towers with a capricious sweep of his hand. I reached the outskirts. I found Newark, undemolished, but humbled by some whim of the advancing Martians.
Presently, with an odd feeling of being watched, I caught sight of something crouching in a doorway. I made a step towards it... it rose up and became a man! — a man, armed with a large knife.

(OFF-MIC) Stop!
(CLOSER) Where do you come from?
I come from... from many places! A long time ago from Princeton.
Princeton, huh? That's near Grovers Mill!
There's no food here! This is my country... all this end of town down to the river. There's only food for one...
Which way are you going?
I don't know. I guess I'm looking for — for people.

Have you seen any... Martians?
Naah. They've gone over to New York. At night the sky is alive with their lights. Just as if people were still livin' in it. By daylight you can't see them. Five days ago a couple of them carried somethin' big across the flats from the airport. I think they're learning how to fly.
Yeah, fly.
Then it's all over with humanity.
Stranger, there's still you and I. Two of us left.
Yeah... They got themselves in solid; they wrecked the greatest country in the world. Those green stars, they're probably falling somewhere every night. They've only lost one machine. There isn't anything to do. We're done. We're licked.
Where were you? You're in a uniform.
Yeah, what's left of it. I was in the militia — National Guard?... Heh! That's good! There wasn't any war... any more than there's war between men and ants!
Yes, but we're... eatable ants! I found that out... What'll they do with us?
I've thought it all out. Right now we're caught as we're wanted. The Martian only has to go a few miles to get a crowd on the run. But they won't keep on doing that. They'll begin catching us systematic-like — keeping the best and storing us in cages and things. They haven't begun on us yet!
Not begun?
Not begun! All that's happened so far is because we don't have sense enough to keep quiet... botherin' them with guns and such stuff and losing our heads and rushing off in crowds. Now instead of our rushing around blind we've got to fix ourselves up — fix ourselves up according to the way things are NOW. Cities, nations, civilization, progress... done.
Yes, but if that's so... what is there to live for?
Well, there won't be any more concerts for a million years or so, and no nice little dinners at restaurants. If it's amusement you're after, I guess the game's up.
What is there left?
Life! That's what! I want to live. Yeah, and so do you. We're not going to be exterminated. And I don't mean to be caught, either! Tamed, and fattened, and bred, like an ox!
What are you going to do?
I'm going on... right under their feet. I got a plan. We men as men are finished. We don't know enough. We gotta learn plenty before we've got a chance. And we've got to live and keep free while we learn, see? I've thought it all out, see.
Tell me the rest.
Well, it isn't all of us that are made for wild beasts, and that's what it's got to be! That's why I watched you... watched YOU.
All these little office workers that used to live in these houses — they'd be no good. They haven't any stuff in 'em.
They used to run... run off to work. I've seen hundreds of 'em, running to catch their commuter's train in the morning afraid they'd be canned if they didn't; running back at night afraid they won't be in time for dinner. Lives insured and a little invested in case of accidents.
Yeah, and on Sundays, worried about the hereafter. The Martians will be a godsend for those guys. Nice roomy cages, good food, careful breeding, no worries.
Yeah, after a week or so chasing about the fields on empty stomachs they'll come and be glad to be caught.
You've thought it all out, haven't you?
Sure... you bet I have! That isn't all. These Martians, they're going to make pets of some of 'em, train 'em to do tricks. Who knows? Get sentimental over the pet boy who grew up and had to be killed... Yeah... and some, maybe, they'll train to hunt us!
No, that's impossible. No human being...
Yes they will. There's men who'll do it gladly. If one of them ever comes after me, why...
In the meantime... you and I and others like us... where are we to live when the Martians own the earth?
I've got it all figured out.
We'll live underground. I've been thinking about the sewers. Under New York there are miles and miles of 'em. The main ones are big enough for anybody. And there's cellars, vaults, underground storerooms, railway tunnels, subways...
You begin to see, eh? We'll get a bunch of strong men together. No weak ones; that rubbish — out!
As you meant me to go?
Well, I... gave you a chance, didn't I?
We won't quarrel about that. Go on.
Well... we've got to make safe places for us to stay in, see? Get all the books we can... science books. That's where men like you come in, see? We'll raid the museums, we'll even spy on the Martians.
It may not be so much we have to learn before — listen, just imagine this
four or five of their own fighting machines suddenly start off — heat rays right and left and not a Martian in 'em. Not a Martian in 'em, see? But MEN — men who've learned the way how. It may even be in our time.
Gee! Imagine having one of them lovely things with a heat ray wide and free! We'd turn it on Martians, we'd turn it on men. We'd bring everybody down on their knees!
That's your plan?
You, me, and a few more of us... we'd own the world!
I see...
(FADING OUT) Hey... hey, what's the matter?... Where are you going?
Not to your world!
Bye, stranger...

The soldier, true to his calling, wants to fight, to recover not just the trappings of civilization that his feeble fellow citizens so crave, but something more fundamental, freedom. But his desire quickly turns into a lust to “own the world,” and the professor is having none of it. Thus is humanity reduced to the only avenue left open to it (until the Martians fortuitously die, through no action of man and his dignity and ingenuity, from ordinary bacteria): skulking in the dark and hoping to escape detection by our new overlords.

It is, I suppose, a very 1930s story. The carnage of the Great War was still the dominant idea in Western life, and it and the Depression had destroyed any notion of progress (other than that offered, along with millions of corpses that were Lenin’s broken eggs, by the Soviet Union). Soldiers were people to be led by conquering demagogues, and businessmen were the sorts of people whose speculation destroyed the economy. Europe was sliding into fascism, which was the only place a military could ultimately take a nation. America, the nation reluctant to field a standing army just to intervene in Europe’s ongoing suicide, was receptive to the notion that there is only naked power or the professor’s vaunted “civilization.”

But in fact, as the soldier dryly notes, there is no civilization without order. Too much order leads to Hitler or Stalin, but too little leads backward to the Cro-Magnon. And, unbeknownst to either character, ultimately it is not the professor in isolation and not even just the soldier but all the ants “running to catch their commuter train” who make civilization possible, who allow us the luxury of sparing people to write books, teach at universities, compose symphonies and run nice restaurants.