Friday, June 05, 2015

Class and conduct

I decided finally to get out of Cairo before I left for good at the end of the month. The closest beach was at Ain El-Sokhna, so I came to spend the weekend here. As I was walking, minutes ago, by some villas overlooking the sea, I came face to face with A young gardener working on the gardens of these mostly unoccupied villas. I smiled and said good morning, but he kept his stern face and fierce gaze and didn't reply. There's no way he didn't see or hear me as we were close and looking eye to eye.

Staff in the hotel always smile back and return the greeting. For them, it is obviously a repeated game (both individually, for tips, and collectively, for repeat business). I wonder if the gardener had been working at an area where most homes are occupied. Would he have been conditioned to smile back and return the greeting? Does he do that with the owners of these resort villas when they're in town?

More importantly, are those workers who smile and return the greeting secretly resentful, and would they like to keep a stern face and fierce gaze like the gardener I've just met? When one gives a significant tip, are they genuinely happy and appreciative, or are they secretly resentful that a sum of money that one considers substantial may be insignificant to another (a tip)?

Does the same extend to those whom we help? Especially, conversely, if you help someone of a higher class unselfishly, do they resent it? About 25 years ago, my friend RS introduced me to two great economists, RR and MM. The latter two were working on a paper and wanted someone to help them solve their model numerically. I gladly helped them out, and it only took a few hours. A few months later, MM was giving a seminar at Caltech and showed me a draft paper with the authors listed as MM, RR and El-Gamal. I didn't tell him that I always follow alphabetical order, but told him what is more important: I didn't contribute a whole lot to the paper, so a "thank you" in the footnote would suffice. RR later sent me a contract to be paid as a consultant for the work that I had done on the paper. I was deeply offended at the time. I guess that I was offended that he was offended (a lowly person like me should have been delighted to get a coauthorship with him, and should have accepted it gratefully). He was obviously a great man, and I should have accepted it, just like this gardener should have smiled back and reciprocated the greeting.

Monday, June 01, 2015

Social senility?

As a second year graduate student, the late Dale Mortensen walked into class (advanced macro) as I was telling my classmates that I thought the main source of Egypt's problem was that she is saddled with too much history. He wanted to explore the comment further, and we ended up spending a good chunk of the class wondering if a vintage-capital model should be applied to institutions and culture (the term "social capital" had not yet made it into Economics; I only read Bourdieu decades later) -- older societies and cultures carry embedded older technologies that impede progress.

At a recent conference on campus, on the subject of regional development, I was asked to give a welcome note but not to discuss Economics. I said in my remarks that I am very happy not to discuss Economics, because I remembered 30-some years ago, when I was studying the subject at the same University. I tried to explain my reaction to the current economic discourse thus:
The best way to describe this experience to you is to quote Mick (Crocodile) Dundee from his namesake 1986 movie: When Sue pointed to the television in his New York City hotel room, and asked Mick if he had ever seen one before, he said that he had seen one 30 years earlier. Then, he turned on the TV, and saw the opening credits of the 1950s show “I Love Lucy.” He quickly turned off the TV and said: “Yup! That’s what I saw.” 
Of course, the fact that we’ve seen this show before doesn’t mean that we remember the ending… Indeed, we may choose not to remember. After all, how else can we enjoy laughing at jokes that we’ve already heard, crying over tragedies that we continue to live, or coming to conferences expecting insights and policy solutions?
Then, I welcomed the keynote speaker and all in attendance, wishing them a good conference, and bidding them farewell "until we meet again, years from now, asking the same questions, and rediscovering the same answers."

Gulf-style shiny malls and mad construction booms aside, the deja vu experience of seeing the same movie again (a favorite activity of mine if the movie is good, but not if it isn't :-) has pervaded my 11-month experience back in Egypt. As I get ready to leave Egypt again in one month, I wonder: Is it possible that this society, like people, has aged to the point of senility -- repeatedly asking the same questions and forgetting all lessons learned?

Naguib Mahfouz famously coined the phrase "و لكن آفة حارتنا النسيان" (the scourge of our neighborhood is amensia/forgetfulness), as the refrain in his novel Children of Our Neighborhood. This neighborhood may have been senile for centuries. Every apparent rebirth turns out to be yet another delusion.

The late upper-Egyptian poet Abdel-Rahman Al-Abnudi (who passed away this April) wrote a poem in 2011 (about Mubarak and his power circle) asking for the "state of the aging" to leave. What if society itself has reached old age, senility and dementia? An old joke about Mubarak was that he responded to the suggestion that he may wish to say goodbye to the people by asking: "Why, where are they going?" Exactly!