Cyrus Habib: Hic Rhodes, Hic Saltus

Below is a fascinating interview of Cyrus Habib by Chesa Boudin; I am reprinting it from The Rhodes Project. I am proud to count Cyrus as a friend, and I have also had the pleasure of meeting Chesa on a few occasions. Apologies for my obscure Hegelian pun in the title of this post.

Chesa Boudin earned two master’s degrees from Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship (Illinois, Merton and St. Antony’s, 2003). In April 2009, Scribner published his latest book, Gringo: A Coming of Age in Latin America. He is currently in his second year at the Yale Law School.

Cyrus Habib (Washington and St. Johns, 2003) an interview

Chesa Boudin

At the Bon Voyage Weekend in September 2003, my class of newly-selected Rhodes Scholars descended on the Jury’s Hotel in DuPont Circle. Cyrus Habib (Washington and St. Johns) was easily the best dressed member of the group. His Armani tie complimented his tailored shirt and crisp pinstripe suit. He had a penchant for details – manicured fingernails, a unique wrist watch, cufflinks, and matching accessories. No matter the setting, he had on perfect designer sunglasses and would often switch between several in the course of a day. This focus on the aesthetic may seem odd for an intellectual powerhouse like Cyrus – or for the introduction to this interview. However, his attention to visual detail is particularly noteworthy because Cyrus is completely blind.

As a child Cyrus was diagnosed with Retinoblastoma, a rare form of cancer that attacks the retina. In his case it struck one eye, and then the other. He was lucky to receive world-class treatment that prevented the cancer from metastasizing to his brain; he was unlucky in that it left him with no eyesight whatsoever and unable even to distinguish light from dark. Unlike someone blind from birth, Cyrus has an abundance of vivid visual memory from before he lost his sight. Since Cyrus lost his vision in 1989, he imagines everyone today with mullet haircuts and plaid polyester pants. While he can no longer see red or green, he has an acute visual image of those colors and knows not to mix and match them except during the Christmas season. And if Cyrus has a conversation about a skyscraper or a forest, he can actually picture the subject in his head, rather than understanding or imagining it through verbal context as someone blind from birth would have to do. These memories, combined with an uncanny sense of physical space allow him to navigate the world so smoothly that on first encounters he often passes as not being blind at all. Yet for the last twenty years his brain has not accumulated any new visual memory, leaving space to develop in other areas – his sense of smell and hearing, his memory, and his ability to master complex information quickly epitomize the word “extraordinary.”

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Refugees in Japan

The following is the first of several (slightly modified) excerpts I’d like to share from my book Japan’s Open Future.

The Japanese government affirms that “refugee assistance is a bounden duty of a member of the international community,” and “one of the important pillars of Japan’s contribution to world peace and prosperity.” The country does send money to support refugees overseas—it gave $75 million in 2006 to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). But the reality inside Japan is a far cry from its rhetoric and money sent abroad; any refugee who seeks a home in Japan is playing against terrible odds. Between 1981, when Japan ratified the UN Convention on Refugees, and 2002, Japan accepted just over 300 people as refugees. Put differently, all the refugees Japan admitted over a twenty-year period under the convention could fit onto a single airplane. Consider the difference: whereas in 2001 Japan admitted 26 refugees out of about a million asylumseekers worldwide, in that same year the US admitted more than 20,000, Germany admitted more than 17,000 and Britain admitted more than 14,000. Even though the US and Europe have tightened their rules since 9/11, they still admit far more refugees than Japan. As TAKIZAWA Saburo, the UNHCR Representative in Japan, commented in a 2008 speech, “The ratio of asylum seekers coming to Japan is only 0.0013%”; when they look to Japan as a potential home, he said, they see “walls” and “structural barriers.”

Drilling down from the aggregate numbers, what is it like for an individual asylum-seeker in Japan? Saul Takahashi, former Refugee Coordinator for Amnesty International in Japan, tells the story of meeting with Mohammed, a Nuba from Sudan, who had been tortured and whipped by the army. Takahashi tries to get Mohammed to understand what he is up against in hoping to become a refugee in Japan: “I tell him that it is practically impossible to get asylum in Japan … It will take years and during this time he will not get a work permit or any aid at all, [and] after they turn him down, he may be detained and deported.” In response, “Mohammed is silent for a minute. Then he says that he must try. He has no choice. He can’t go home. He has no place to go.”

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Immigration as a Source of Renewal in Japan

Here is a paper I contributed to the Carnegie Council’s journal Policy Innovations following a Sophia University conference on migration.

Japan’s population is on a downward slope, a trend which causes analysts no small amount of concern. As the Japanese government warned in a report a few years ago, “The speed with which the birth rate is falling is creating a situation that undermines the very foundations of society, the economy and the sustainability of local communities.” From its current population of more than 127 million, and extrapolating from current trends, the country may shrink to 100 or 90 million people by 2050.

Perhaps more important in economic terms is the narrowing of Japan’s demographic pyramid: Whereas 11 workers supported two retirees in 1960, the ratio was four workers to one retiree in 1999, and by 2050 the UN projects that only 1.7 workers will support one retiree. Those workers will face a heavy burden. A McKinsey study predicts that Japanese households will be no better off in 2024 than they were in 1997: “The continual improvement in living standards the Japanese have enjoyed during the last half-century will come to an end.”

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Do People Have a Right to Move Across National Borders?

This was the question explored at a recent interdisciplinary conference in Tokyo, jointly sponsored by Sophia University and the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, where I was lucky enough to be a panelist. After the conference, James Farrer of Sophia University and Devin T. Stewart of the Carnegie Council prepared an excellent summary of what we discussed. Here it is – recommended reading for anyone interested in immigration or refugee issues.

The goal of declaring a “right to move” proved elusive at a two-day symposium onimmigration ethics at Sophia University in Tokyo, held in cooperation with the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs (Dec. 12–13, 2009). While many of the participants, and certainly both of us, started out with the hope of issuing a strong declaration on the rights of people to move across national borders, several obstacles emerged. Given that the conference was held in Tokyo, the Japanese immigration context also framed the debate.

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Global Citizenship Expert Reviews Japan’s Open Future

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I’d like to share a recent review of my book Japan’s Open Future: An Agenda for Global Citizenship by Dr. Hans Schattle, an expert on global citizenship and author of the 2007 book The Practices of Global Citizenship

I have not yet had the chance to read Schattle’ s book, but according to the Amazon review, it “provides a detailed and vivid account of how the term global citizenship has been interpreted and communicated in recent years,” and it “includes numerous fascinating conversations with global citizens from many nations, revealing how notions of global citizenship have been put in practice by an ever-increasing number of governing institutions, non-governmental organizations, corporations, schools, and universities.”

 It was exciting therefore to be reviewed by a global citizenship expert who could assess Japan’s Open Future in this broader context. Dr. Schattle wrote the review for Global Asia, a publication of the East Asia Foundation. The East Asia Foundation was established in Seoul in January 2005 with the goal of promoting “peace, prosperity security and sustainability in East Asia,” while Global Asia aims to “provide a compelling, serious, and responsible forum for distinguished thinkers, policymakers, political leaders and business people to debate the most important issues in Asia today.”

Here is his review in full.

“THE CONCEPT OF ‘global citizenship’ has gained momentum in recent years as a metaphor to describe both communities of individuals and professional and advocacy networks that operate across national boundaries. While global citizenship often comes across as an idea that transcends the limits of nationalism, much of the contemporary public discourse on global citizenship also uses the concept as a way to evaluate the policies and practices of national governments. It is this view of global citizenship, as a series of enlightened and responsive policy choices carried out by nation-states, that drives the authors of a sweeping new volume, Japan’s Open Future: An Agenda for Global Citizenship. John Haffner, Tomas Casas I Klett, and Jean-Pierre Lehmann have channeled their experiences in academic and business circles in Japan into a tour de force of the country’s recent history and the imperative for Japan to establish a new foreign policy ‘rooted in an enlarged conception of humanity that identifies Japan’s interests integrally with the fate of people everywhere.’
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A Garden at Last for Kolakowski

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I was sorry to hear from Jeet’s recent post that Leszek Kolakowski had died. As an undergrad I read and read again his penetrating collection of essays in Modernity on Endless Trial – an inspired title, I always thought. Fittingly enough for someone who was influenced by Kant, he shook me from some of my immature dogmas.

For instance, Kolakowski convinced me of the pointlessness of efforts to resolve and overcome doctrinal differences among the various Christian denominations, an insight that helped inform what became my commitment to secular pluralism.

He also helped me to question and resist lazy ways of speaking about left and right, as though these terms were static and self-evident. His essay “How to be a Conservative-Liberal-Socialist,” which Jeet has already reprinted in his post, should be required reading in Poli Sci 101.

And his amusing piece “The General Theory of Not Gardening” reminds us that intellectually we get what we project: whatever school of thought we are trained in shapes how we see the world and so much within it, and often to the exclusion of competing schools and methodologies. The essay in my view is a tacit argument for an interdiscipinary education. But perhaps for Kolakowski it was rather meant as a witty caution against too much learning, because, as he wrote, “it is much easier to have a theory than to garden.”

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Noblesse Oblige from Japan Tobacco

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The Wall Street Journal has just translated from Japanese a hilarious interview with Hiroshi Kimura, ostensibly Japan Tobacco Inc.’s president and chief executive. Either we are being had by another Sascha Baron Cohen character, or the translator is a  wicked prankster. This is high comedy: 

… Mr. Kimura has a law degree from Kyoto University and joined the company in 1976 when it was still a government domestic monopoly called Japan Tobacco and Salt Public Corp. “I wanted to work for an international firm, and so Japan Tobacco initially wasn’t within my top 10 choices, but it helped that I liked tobacco,” said Mr. Kimura, who smokes two packs of cigarettes a day.

WSJ: What did you learn from your first job?

Mr. Kimura: … When I first joined I learned from a senior the [French] phrase noblesse oblige, which I understood to mean not shirking the responsibilities of your position. In my early days I was given many challenging tasks to stretch my abilities, which gave me the foundation to develop into the manager I am today.

WSJ: Who gave you the best business advice?

Mr. Kimura: Our customers. As a cigarette company, similar to makers of food or medicine, our products are consumed by our customers and have a direct impact on their lives. To meet their high expectations, we have to be constantly aware of the market pulse and make trusted and preferred products.

Cleopatra’s Dessert and Shark Fin Soup

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At a Brussels nuclear law conference in 2007, I gave a technical paper on intergenerational issues in nuclear waste economics. I argued for the prudence of applying a conservative discount rate when setting aside funds for future nuclear waste management so as to guard against contingencies. Recently I had the chance to look at my argument again with fresh eyes when I obtained a copy of the conference proceedings (published by Bruylant), and I was struck by one passage that may be of broader interest, especially given what happened between 2007 and now in global financial markets:  

“The fifth and final argument for [a conservative discount rate] is the possibility of some unforeseen event that could dramatically change the economic circumstances of one country or another. In Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s excellent recent book, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, the mathematician and former trader argues that history is dominated by highly improbable, high impact events. He cautions that markets are poor predictors of war, for example, that government predictions are generally unreliable, and that the accuracy of a forecast ‘degrades rapidly as you extend it through time.’ Or as he cautions in a nutshell: ‘No one in particular is a good predictor of anything. Sorry.’

The  Asian financial crisis of 1997 led to rapid – and quite unforeseeen – devaluation of the Thai baht, the Korean won, and the Indonesian rupiah. Argentina’s economy, meanwhile, experienced hyperinflation in the late 1980s and then collapsed between 1999 and 2002. Japan actually experienced deflation and a zero interest rate policy between 2001 and 2005, quite at odds with economic predictions for the country two decades earlier (and also at odds with what one would expect of the world’s second largest economy). These examples give us pause, because Argentina, Japan and Korea have nuclear plants, and Thailand announced plans in June 2007 to build the country’s first nuclear plant. All will need [nuclear waste] repositories in time. But more within the spirit of Taleb’s argument, the better lesson is to recognize that we have no idea where the next financial crisis will occur.”

The last sentence was meant as a general warning, not a premonition. We may have recognized the lesson of that sentence for now – humility – but we’re likely to forget it again in the next bull market.

As for the title of this post, it comes from the fact that seemingly small human preferences at one moment in time – apparently marginal increments of utility or enjoyment – can have huge impacts on future generations. As Cowen and Parfit write (I quote them in my paper), “Imagine finding out that you, having just reached your twenty-first birthday, must soon die of cancer because one evening Cleopatra [the ruler of ancient Egypt] wanted an extra helping of dessert.” The example sounds far-fetched, right? But the issue is whether incremental forms of consumption and enjoyment at the expense of the environment today – widespread enjoyment of shark fin soup, for example – are set to have similarly dramatic and harmful impacts on future generations.

As the British economist F.P. Ramsey wrote in an important paper in 1928 (“A Mathematical Theory of Saving,”), to “discount later enjoyments in comparison with earlier ones … is “a practice which is ethically indefensible and arises merely from the weakness of the imagination.” Sadly, and ironically, Ramsey died only two years after writing those words, only 26 years old, and with the wisdom of someone who had lived much longer.

Tennis Vagabond: a story of tennis, evil and everything else

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Sans Everything depends not only on its writers, but also its readers. Given the huge difference between daily site visits and replies to our posts it is clear that the vast majority of visitors to the site are content to read quietly, which is perfectly fine with us. We are also delighted, however, to have some regular readers who themselves have become a part of the blog through their regular responses, and in no case is this more true than with David Sachs.  His interests are as varied as our posts and then some, and he adds immeasureably to our ongoing conversation.

What Sans Everything readers may not know is that David has put together a highly original and very funny podcast entitled Tennis Vagabond, based on a novel he wrote called The Life on Court of Bacon O’Rourke (you can subscribe to the podcast for free). As David explained to me, “Tennis Vagabond follows the young tennis legend Bacon O’Rourke who travels the open road with whiskey in his flask and a racquet on his back, serving and volleying and drinking and toking his way across the land. This comic epic is, in short,  Jack Kerouac with a tennis racquet, and some serious bad guys. The story covers tennis and evil, sex and death, drugs and physics, and the dangers in commodifying that which we love. The bad guys in hot pursuit of Bacon and his underground tennis caravan include the mythical Tennis Illuminati (secret masters of the Game), and a down-and-out coach with a taste for detective novels, Zen quips, and funk music. God and the Devil make cameos as tournament umpires.” It also has a physics blog, a tennis blog and some memorable video extras (trust me: the strip tennis match is sure to hold the attention of people who otherwise don’t care for tennis).

Tennis Vagabond‘s mix of lowbrow and highbrow will appeal to many Sans Everything visitors, and it is also timely in its central message: “a parable of consumerism, commodification, and the progression of open-ended capitalism at a time when those things are being questioned.” But why tennis in particular? David’s answer: “I’m not too sure, but it worked. As Tom Robbins says about hitchhiking in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, the Truth is there in anything, if you push it far enough (‘when it has been pushed far enough it contains everything else’).”

Congratulations, David, and we look forward to hearing of O’Rourke’s continuing adventures!

Foreign Workers in Japan: Please Close the Door When You Leave

 

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A recent episode of National Public Radio’s All Things Considered discusses Japan’s (mis)treatment of foreign workers; my Japan book co-author, Jean-Pierre Lehmann, is interviewed just after five minutes into the seven minute program. It’s also worth listening for the politician Taro Kono’s candid comments about 3:28 into the interview.  

A recent New York Times article, “Japan Pays Foreign Workers to Go Home, Forever,” provides some further context (the photo by is from a town hall meeting in Hamamatsu; see the photo essay accompanying the article).

As Hidenori Sakanaka, director of the Japan Immigration Policy Institute, is quoted in the New York Times, “It’s a disgrace. It’s cold-hearted … And Japan is kicking itself in the foot … We might be in a recession now, but it’s clear it doesn’t have a future without workers from overseas.”