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Paul Segal

Analysing Argentina

by Paul Segal on August 12, 2023

Most visitors to Argentina are attracted by its famous meat and wine. Personally, I come for the Freudianism and Marxism. I grew up in north west London in a family of socialists and psychoanalysts, acutely aware of the contempt with which most of Great Britain held both of those vocations in the late 1980s. So while I spoke barely a word of Spanish when I first visited Buenos Aires in 2003, I had an extraordinary feeling of coming home. Now, twenty years later, my children are half-Argentine, and we’ve just had a semester in Buenos Aires, much of it spent in the traditional past time of discussing the personal and the political over endless coffees (and, I admit, also consuming plenty of meat and wine).

Argentina probably has the most psychoanalysts per capita of any country in the world. I would guess that every Argentine I know is in or has had therapy – at least, I’ve never met an Argentine who told me they never had it, and the topic usually comes up. What is clear is that they have a remarkable love of admitting to and talking about experiences of trauma, its causes and its effects, both at the personal level and at the social level. I’ve mentioned before the historian John Womack’s argument that Latin Americans are subject to chronic post-traumatic stress disorder, due to the ongoing stresses of poverty, violence, and political oppression. One of my in-laws recounts the story of being stopped by a soldier in Buenos Aires in the late 1970s, under the military dictatorship, and the soldier pointing his rifle at her baby while he waited for her to produce her papers. 45 years later her voice still shakes as she describes the experience. Trauma is endemic and enduring, and also quite plausibly a root of the dynamism and creativity, the refusal to meekly accept the status quo, that visitors to Argentina often extol.

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by Paul Segal on January 30, 2023

I was 28 when I first got a maid. She wasn’t even my maid. My partner and I spent a year renting a flat in Mexico City from friends-of-friends, a well-to-do family who were abroad, and who paid their maid to keep coming while we stayed at their place. So she was taking care of their home as much as she was taking care of us. Young, childless, unbothered by moderate levels of messiness, I wasn’t that comfortable with someone so intimately handling my stuff.

My partner, being from an elegant part of Buenos Aires (I’m from an ugly part of London), found my attitude to our maid baffling, even bothersome, my naivety, my lack of understanding that one person dedicating their work hours to cleaning up after another person was really quite normal. There is a saying in Mexico that the maid is la felicidad de la casa, the happiness of the house. A professor we met there told us that she had wanted to dedicate her PhD to her two (two!) nannies, without whom her distinguished academic career would not have been possible.

Youth is wasted on the young; in my case, domestic service too. Now, 17 years later, drowning daily in childcare, cooking, washing, shopping, driving back and forth to ballet, art, swimming, I can say the taste for it is well and truly acquired.

But here in the UK, the economics just don’t add up. Another academic Mexican friend (in a private university) told me his salary and that of his maid a few years ago; paying her full time cost about 20 percent of his take-home pay. (Remarkably, while his income didn’t quite get him to the top 1 percent, this small fraction he paid her still meant she was better paid than nearly 90 percent of Mexican workers. That’s what high inequality looks like.) For me in the UK, with a comparable job to him, I would have had to pay double the share, a little over 40 percent of my salary. La felicidad in the UK would cost me a lot more. Poor me, and my wife, and our children who have to put up with overwrought and distracted parents.

That felicidad, of course, is pretty one-sided. It doesn’t take much digging to find out how domestic workers themselves view all of this.

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Inequality and poverty; history and counterfactuals

by Paul Segal on November 17, 2022

In 1979 Keith Joseph and Jonathan Sumption (he more recently of the UK’s Supreme Court) wrote:

A family is poor if it cannot afford to eat. It is not poor if it cannot afford endless smokes and it does not become poor by the mere fact that other people can afford them. A person who enjoys a standard of living equal to that of a medieval baron cannot be described as poor for the sole reason that he has chanced to be born into a society where the great majority can live like medieval kings. By any absolute standard there is very little poverty in Britain today.

There are a lot of things wrong with this passage, which informed Joseph’s policy advice to Margaret Thatcher when she was prime minister of the UK. But it raises important questions about counterfactuals in thinking about inequality, poverty, and well-being. 

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Crooked, but crooked upwards: A reply to sceptics

by Paul Segal on October 27, 2022

What a pleasure to join Crooked Timber! It’s been great to receive the comments on my first post. Here I’ll address what I see as the three main points of criticism.

Criticism A. Some things are worse for some people.

I agree with this, of course, and it’s not inconsistent with my claim that most things are better for most people. But perhaps what underlies this kind of response is a distaste for my implicit claim that we can judge various bads against each other. One comment implied that war in Ukraine (and I would add Ethiopia, Yemen, etc.) just isn’t comparable with improved civil rights in much of the world. I agree that there’s no objective way to weigh-up civil rights with risks to health or physical safety. But I do insist on one kind of comparability: for a given kind of suffering, the only kind of judgement that makes sense has to be based on cosmopolitanism – that our starting point must be that all humans are of equal value. If something bad happens to a thousand people, that’s terrible. If it happens to a million people, yes, it’s a thousand times more terrible. That means we have to look at global numbers, and those numbers, in almost any dimension we look at, are vastly better than in the past.

This also points to what’s problematic with some uses of claims like “poverty reduction is slow outside China”. If that statement is used to argue that we should all learn from China, then yes, absolutely we should. But if it’s intended as a normative statement about human well-being, to diminish the claim that human well-being has improved enormously, then it’s hard not to interpret it as racism.

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Crooked, but crooked upwards

by Paul Segal on October 21, 2022

Bad news surrounds us. Russia invading Ukraine. Fascism in Italy. Catastrophic floods in Pakistan. The criminalisation of abortion in parts of the USA. Melting glaciers. Bolsonaro (though hopefully not for much longer). Coming on the back of the worst pandemic in a century it’s hard to avoid the feeling that the world is entering a truly nasty period.

The science fiction writer Cixin Liu describes a civilisation on a planet orbiting two suns, trapped in what physicists call the three body problem – the chaotic, unpredictable motion traversed by three masses orbiting each other, radically different from the smooth path followed by a simple co-orbiting pair like the Earth and our sun. When the planet is relatively close to just one sun they enjoy a Stable Era – life evolves, civilization advances. But because of the three body problem, it is impossible to predict how long this will last before the onset of a Chaotic Era: the planet is either pulled close to both suns, burning all life to ashes, or drifts away from both suns, freezing all life in the cold of open space.

For Liu, these unpredictable catastrophes are a metaphor for China’s Cultural Revolution, as chaotic and unpredictable as it was destructive. Today many of us feel the Stable Era of the 1990s to 2008 – or perhaps even since the 1950s – is over, and we are about to be either fried in a nuclear conflict, or frozen as we can’t afford to pay sky-rocketing energy bills this winter.

At least, that’s how I and many of my friends and acquaintances feel. But if we’re honest, we’re hardly representative. Everyone is entitled to complain about their own burdens. Yet if we want to make a judgement about the state of the world – and people often do – then we need to take the time to look at some data. When we do that, our current downtick hardly makes a dent on the improvements in human well-being of the last half century. Child mortality, literacy, early deaths, it’s hard to find an indicator of global human well being that hasn’t improved in the last 10 years, and improved massively in the last 50.
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