The paradoxes of the Kibbutz

October 28, 2018

What do Bernie Sanders, Jerry Seinfeld, Sacha Baron Cohen, Noam Chomsky, Sigourney Weaver and Boris Johnson have in common? Well, they all volunteered on kibbutzim in Israel. The word kibbutz comes from the Hebrew word for gathering. It was in 1909 that the first one was established in Degania in Palestine by a group of young Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. The kibbutzim were inextricably entwined with the Zionist project and the creation of the state of Israel. The Kibbutzniks dreamed of reclaiming the soil of their ancient homeland and starting a new way of life, the living embodiment of the Marxist axiom, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” They were run on the principle of joint ownership of property. Kibbutzniks would eat together in a communal dining hall and wear the same clothing. Such was their commitment to equality, they shared responsibility for bringing up children. Kids lived outside of their parents’ homes. They would only see their offspring a couple of hours a day.

These young Jewish immigrants were inexperienced with physical labour and also lacked knowledge about agriculture. Their ultimate goal was to create a new human being. Given this and the evidence of the last century, you would have thought that it would be a recipe for disaster in such a hostile environment. Nevertheless, the kibbutzim thrived for multiple generations. There are still some 230 today. I may be a sceptic, but I have always been fascinated by man’s quest to build utopias on earth. What is different about the kibbutzim is that they were never at the margin of society. They always influenced and were influenced by society as a whole. This is very different from Oneida or the town of Pullman, which I mentioned in one of my earliest posts, Utopia is not an option. This week I was pleased to hear this week’s EconTalk podcast. In it host Russ Roberts interviewed Ran Abramitzky about his book The Mystery of the Kibbutz: Egalitarian Principles in a Capitalist World.

The study of the kibbutz is a case of applied microeconomics. According to the laws of economics kibbutzim shouldn’t work at all. There is that famous adage in economics that people respond to incentives and that the rest is commentary. People do undoubtedly respond to incentives, but they are not the be-all and end-all. The kibbutz lasted successfully as social institution for 70 or 80 years.

How did they survive so long? There were a number of reasons for this. Abramitzky argues that thee way they were actually well- thought out in terms of what economics tells us about human interaction. The most valuable thing that the kibbutz provided was an invaluable insurance against economic shocks. In the kibbutz you know that that you and your family will always be getting paid the same. Members do not depend on the skills of one profession, they do various occupations. They were able to succeed in part as well because of their idealism, which they were able to inculcate in the young through the schools. The voluntary aspect of this experiment is important. This was not the forced collectivization of the Kulaks in the Ukraine by Stalin. But idealism is not enough. This will tend to dissipate each generation. You need other mechanisms.

When I think of the kibbutz system, the first problem that comes to mind is the free rider problem. How do you motivate people to study and work, if they don’t receive all the fruits of their labour? How do you avoid attracting people who want to live off what does work is social sanctions and peer pressure. If you are perceived to be skiving, nobody will want to sit next to at dinner. This kind of social sanction works best in relatively small groups; everybody knows everybody. Consequently, you need to sacrifice some privacy, but you are able to get people to co-operate.

The rotation of power is also used in many posts. No one has power indefinitely and it is also used to reward those who contribute most.

Another danger is the brain drain. This is especially relevant in a world in which wealth increasing and mobility has become much easier. One way to control it is to make leaving costly. Remember that all property is collective. Once you leave, you can only take your knowledge with you. What’s more much of this is kibbutz specific. And finally they have a tough screening program for new members. You would not be allowed in if you couldn’t get a job in the kibbutz. There was even a probation period of one year to see if you were a good fit.

Homogeneity is a necessary ingredient of kibbutzim. The vast majority were Ashkenazi Jews, émigrés from Eastern Europe. They created a socialist utopia, but they were less inclusive of Arabs or even other Jews. There was between socialism and Zionism. For socialists the Arab was a fellow worker. However, from a Zionist perspective, they could be seen as the enemy.

Abramitzky tries to extrapolate wider conclusions. He suggests that it can be challenging to create an egalitarian society when societies are not homogenous. And these difficulties increase the larger the political unit. This explains the success of the welfare states in Scandinavian societies and how it has proved more complicated in the United States.

In recent times the kibbutzim have been in crisis. Over time, the kibbutz members’ sense of identification with the kibbutz and its goals has declined. This is probably down to societal change and the fact that they are living in a capitalist society.  When they were started, Israel was a relatively poor undeveloped country. By the 1990s it had become, one of the world’s most innovative high-tech economies. Staying on the farm is inevitably going to be less appealing. Nowadays farming has been partially supplanted by other economic activity including factories and high-tech enterprises. They have been forced to adapt in other ways too. The equal sharing is no longer dogma. The demise of the Communist bloc led to the weakening of Socialist beliefs around the world; the kibbutz society was not immune to this process. Another growing trend has been privatization. Zionism is no longer well-seen on the left. Nevertheless, the kibbutzim represent a fascinating experiment. Will they be around in another 100 years?



Men behaving badly

October 14, 2018

Monicagate, Lewinskygate, Tailgate, Sexgate, and Zippergate. The sexual relationship between Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky which took place between 1995 and 1997 and its aftermath is the subject of a podcast series, which has just finished. A sitting president was being investigated by an independent counsel. There were a number of women accusing this president of sexual misconduct. There was a lot of cynical political opportunism and moral posturing. It was premonitory of the increasingly sectarian politics that have afflicted America in the next twenty years.

After dealing with Watergate in the first season, Slate’s podcast Slow Burn, devoted eight episodes to look at the scandal of President Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky. Alas, neither Lewinsky nor Clinton agreed to be interviewed for the podcast. Nevertheless, it is well worth listening to. Leon Neyfakh, an American journalist, radio host and author, has produced an engrossing story.

The saga ended in Clinton being acquitted by the US Senate of four articles of impeachment involving charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. As Neyfakh tells it, it is an ethically ambiguous case. In the concluding episode he asks if it’s possible to be framed and be guilty at the same time. I haven’t changed in my contempt for the Republicans. Independent counsel Ken Starr’s treatment of Lewinsky was disgraceful. But the Clinton White House threw her to the dogs her to protect his presidency. At the time I felt ambivalent about Clinton. Now he seems more sinister. The final programme features an interview with Juanita Broaddrick. She has alleged that Bill Clinton raped her in 1978. This extremely serious charge was barely investigated, an afterthought in the Starr report; it was not among the articles of impeachment. Curiously, she is now a Trump supporter and on Twitter she has rubbished Christine Blasey Ford’s accusations against Judge Brett Kavanaugh:

How can I, as a victim, not sympathize with Dr. Ford?? Plain and simple. I do not believe her. She has cast a dark shadow on real victims. Democrats have already convicted this honourable man. What about Judge Kavanaugh and his family?”

The series also looks at the role of feminism: how would this scandal have played out in the age of #MeToo? Neyfakh does not want to come across as morally superior to those unenlightened people at the turn of the century. He wants to understand why they reacted in the way they did. There was and is a tension in feminism. This is between a woman’s right to sexual agency and her right to be free from sexual predation. Lewinsky was not a teenager at the time of the relationship; it began when she was 22. Nevertheless, can a 22-year-old intern consent to sex with her 49-year-old boss, or do the power dynamics mean that the relationship is by its very nature coercive?

There was a sense of political expediency here. Is it okay to overlook a president’s personal failings if you agree with his policy agenda? Bill Clinton was seen as a champion of women’s issues. We have a similar opportunism now with Trump. We can say that he is not a paragon of Christian virtues. However, in 21 months Trump has appointed two Supreme Court judges and evangelical Christians seem to have forgotten all their moral qualms. This hypocrisy is epitomised by William J. Bennett. I can remember hearing him at the time with his moral indignation. The author of The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories and The Death of Outrage: Bill Clinton and the Assault on American Ideals is of course a Donald Trump supporter. If outrage died with Bill Clinton, then Trump has nuked it to make sure that it can never be resuscitated

One aspect I found interesting was Clinton’s bizarre legalistic arguments in his denial of sexual relations with Miss Lewinsky. He was not claiming that oral sex didn’t count. He was  apparently employing the idiosyncratic definition of “sexual relations” that Paula Jones’s lawyers had provided to him during his deposition that led to all his problems. Sexual relations involve touching someone in a manner intended to arouse or gratify them. According to this definition of “sexual relations,” Lewinsky had had sexual relations with Clinton, but not vice versa.

The story comes back with the recent hearing involving Judge Brett Kavanaugh. The freshly minted Supreme Court justice has a connection with Bill Clinton. He spent over three years working for Kenneth Starr, including the Clinton investigation. He laid out the line of questioning the special counsel should use with Clinton. He began with three normal questions:

  1. Did you tell Monica Lewinsky that she should deny the nature of the relationship that you and she had?
  2. If Monica Lewinsky says that you agreed to lie about your relationship with her, would she be lying?
  3. Would Monica Lewinsky be lying if she said that you told her after her name appeared on the witness list: “You could always say you were coming to see Betty or that you were bringing me letters”?

Then, however, Kavanaugh began an increasingly graphic series of questions:

  1. If Monica Lewinsky says you inserted a cigar into her vagina while you were in the Oval Office area, would she be lying?
  2. If Monica Lewinsky says that you had phone sex with her on approximately 15 occasions, would she be lying?
  3. If Monica Lewinsky says that on several occasions in the Oval Office area, you used your fingers to stimulate her vagina and bring her to orgasm, would she be lying?
  4. If Monica Lewinsky says that she gave you oral sex on nine occasions in the Oval Office area, would she by lying?
  5. If Monica Lewinsky says that you ejaculated into her mouth on two occasions in the Oval Office area, would she be lying?
  6. If Monica Lewinsky says that on several occasions you had her give oral sex, made her stop, and then ejaculated into the sink in the bathroom off the Oval Office, would she be lying?
  7. If Monica Lewinsky says that you masturbated into a trashcan in your secretary’s office, would she be lying?

I have a couple of observations about the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. I did find Christine Blasey Ford a credible witness, but I think it’s such a long time ago – I don’t see how you could establish Kavanaugh’s guilt beyond reasonable doubt. My other conclusion is that given his performance under scrutiny, this man is not suited for this vital job. He came across as an arrogant, entitled man, who repeatedly misrepresented the truth. How many more justices will Trump get to name? He is currently averaging over one a year.