Reality Check, Mexico

Nah. No market for it.

April 2, 2011

This is a trifle long. Oh well.

I have been reflecting on the curious ideas of Mexico common in the US, the routine factual inaccuracy, and the clotted hatred existing among nativists represented by such as Fox News. Some of it is the natural intolerance of a naïve Anglo population that has historically hated blacks, Amerindians (the only good one being a dead one), Italians, Irish, Poles, Jews, Japanese, and so on. Plus ca change. Yet I think that something more is involved, not so much a clash of civilizations as an incompatibility of cultures.

It is the difference between the Latin and the Anglo, the Protestant and the Catholic, the engineer and the painter, between the Nordic and the Italian. As you move northward through Europe, efficiency grows, orderliness rules, things feel scrubbed and well managed and comparatively there is much industriousness. At the same time color dies, the arts give way to practicality, emotion ebbs, leisure becomes suspect and the richness of life diminishes. Germany rules classical music of chill grandeur, and has oompah bands, but one cannot imagine a German writing Carmen. The condition becomes extreme in the US where the Protestant work ethic dominates, the view that labor is the purpose of life rather than just the means of paying for it.

On one hand, the northern peoples have produced almost alone the spectacular growth of science, technology, and industry from the Industrial Revolution to the present. The benefits have been enormous. On the other hand, the Italian Renaissance alone produced more of the arts, of painting, sculpture, and architecture than the northern, English-speaking world has yet managed. In the US, music has been way-a-a-y disproportionately the work of Jews, blacks, Cajuns, and Southerners who, like Latins, have been poor, inefficient, and artistically fertile.

For people raised in places settled by northern Europe, Latins seem lazy, their churches garish, their lesser concern with time and precision frustrating, their music wild and their celebrations chaotic. It is no accident that Carnival occurs in Rio, Mardi Gras in New Orleans, and neither in Indianapolis. By contrast, to Latins America seems sterile, uncultured,weirdly driven, impersonal and, ultimately, boring, with its bland suburbs and emotional restraint. Take your pick.

Mexico, as conceived north of the Rio Bravo. It is, I concede, recent enough for journalism, being only a bit more than one hundred years old.

Now, reality in Mexico.

Despite the profound hopes of many, Mexico is not primitive. It runs a variety of airlines, good land-line telephone system, cell-phone service indistinguishable from anyone else’s, and pretty good internet. Multitudes of dentists, trained in Mexico, draw Americans in what is now called medical tourism: You save enough on big jobs, such as several crowns, to pay for air fare and a week in the country. In the dental offices and hospitals I have seen, competence has been high, with all the usual ultra-sound, x-rays, computers, and the like. No doctor has endeavored to cure me by sacrificing a rooster.

But things are spotty. Mexico’s national health care, while way the hell and gone better than nothing, is underfunded, overworked, and often doesn’t have the equipment it wants. It isn’t contemptible. When Natalia fell through a glass door and severed three tendons in her wrist, a surgeon in the public system sewed her back together, no charge, and the hand works fine. Countless such examples exist. Yet sometimes the big public hospitals are so swamped that stretchers lie in corridors. Care suffers. The private hospitals do not lack for resources.

While Mexico uses technology well, as do various Latin American countries, they do not invent it, never have, and show little likelihood of doing so. Why? Four explanations are common. Latin America is Catholic, it is Latin, it is exploited and oppressed by the United States, and it suffers low average intelligence because the Spanish interbred with genetically inferior Indians.

The explanation relying on American oppression doesn’t work, although many South Americans believe it passionately. The US has a long history of nasty meddling in Latin America, as it does everywhere, but this has little to do with conditions in Latin America. The US did not cause the horrific and crippling corruption of Mexican society, nor the devastating birth rates of the past, nor the now-declining lack of interest in schooling. Not guilty, your honor.

Nor, as far as I can see, does the notion of low intelligence work. For one thing, Mexicans just don’t seem stupid. The teen-agers I see are as agile with computers as the American variety, stealing music and movies through proxy servers—burlando los servidores, spoofing the servers—chattering easily of quad cores and high-def video and using serious pirated software for sound and video editing. Vi and I talk to techs at Telmex about problems in configuring routers, and they know exactly what they are doing. I watch kids at the Centro de Artes Audiovisuales in Guadalajara expected to learn to use a digital SLR, fast, without the automatic functions. They do. It’s not for dummies, I promise. News shows on television, university radio at U. Guad, editorials at newspaper around the country, Mexican authors I have read—all are at American standards.

I cannot imagine a more thundering torrent of truth than my impressions. Still, enthusiasts of IQ tests of my acquaintance constantly offer what appear to be scientific and mathematical evidence of the intellectual inferiority of most of the world. The effectiveness of these arguments profits mightily by careful selection of evidence. This is I think worth looking at briefly.

There is an organization, the OECD, that runs what are called the PISA tests of what students know in various countries. Some of the IQists, reading the scores, conclude that southern Italians, who make lower scores than northern Italians, are genetically less intelligent than northerners.Oh. But…but…if lower scores suggest genetic inferioirity, well, I mean....I quote a friend, himself brown though not Latin, on the conclusion of south-Italian dim-wittedness.

“Fred: Interestingly enough, Mexico does better than Argentina. Wait a minute, isn't Mexico majority mestizo/Indian and Argentina 90+ percent white?? And black Trinidad and Tobago outscores Argentina as well as countries with substantial white populations (Brazil and Colombia). Italy, despite the drag from its southern regions, is outscoring Luxembourg and Austria. And Dubai (weren't the Arabs supposed by the in 80 range for IQs?) is on par with Russia and beats lily-white Serbia and Bulgaria.

Further, in Asian countries kids spend a huge percentage of their after school hours in various test prep and tuition classes. If they were genetically more intelligent, why on earth would they have to study more than kids in other parts of world? In other words, shouldn't they study less than or as much as the other kids and still have higher test scores?”

Uh, hmm, ah…urg. Note that the US comes in 12th on the list.

Yet, while Mexico advances on many measures of things countries want to advance on, as for example 5% GDP growth for 2010, the development is, again, spotty. You have large numbers of Indians who still live not too differently from their ancestors of centuries back. Large regions, as for example the Sierra Madre Occidental, remain backward and lawless. Spottiness shows in other ways. Cell phones, computers, and wireless come fast because they are easy to install. Sewerage and safe water arrive later because capital investment is high and the labor involved great. Thus Mexicans drink purified water bought in huge jugs.

Mexico is also thought to be a land of grinding poverty. No it isn’t. s GDP per capita is $9230. Egypt’s is $2250, unless you use the CIA Fact Book's figure of $13,800 fo Mexico in 2010. Mexico has the world's 14th economy. It isn't Japan, but it isn't remotely Haiti, Pakistan, India, or Bolivia.

Mexico is widely believed to have a high birth rate, usually by people with a low thought rate. It did. It doesn’t.

A birth rate of 2.1 children per woman is generally accepted as needed to keep a population stable. The United Nations puts the Mexican rate from 2000 to 2005 at 2.40, and from 2005 to 2010 at 2.2 1; i.e., low and dropping fast. The CIA’s figures put the rates at 2.67 and 2.31, higher but hardly explosive. And dropping fast. Unicef puts annual population growth from 1990 to 2000 at 1.8%, from 2000 to 2009 at 1.2%. Note direction of trend.

Why do so many Americans believe that Mexicans are breeding like flies? Inattention, hostility, and because it was recently true. I know many Mexican women from families of eight to twelve children, who have exactly two of their own. Why the drop? Women’s lib, says Violeta. Because girls go to school. Because both sexes have figured out that they can raise two well or fifteen badly. Because it is no longer culturally accepted that having large families is what one does. Because a family can have a decent standard of living, or fifteen kids, but not both. “If men ever had a baby,” says one woman, “they wouldn’t ask the question.”

Mexico is also thought to suffer from machismo, to engage in the oppression of women. It did. But, while machismo remains among the lower classes to some extent, it is on a respirator, and the lines on the little green screens are flattening. Fast.

A friend of ours in her late forties tells of coming home from school as a girl with a note from her teacher saying that she was good at mathematics and should go on. Her father tore it up. Girls made babies. They didn’t go to school.

By contrast, my stepdaughter Natalia reported zero discrimination against girls in her high school. It never would have occurred to her that being female would make entry into university difficult, and it didn’t. I have been attended to here by four dentists here, all girls, two dermatologists, an optometrist, an RN, and have met a child psychologist and a neurologist, all female. Both of the two immigration lawyers used hereabouts are female. Machismo cannot survive the existence of a large class of well-educated, financially independent female professionals, and isn’t surviving it. If someone offers to sell you shares in machismo, ask for slide-rule stocks instead. They have better prospects.

Mexico is widely believed to be heavily illitersate. Bet me. Unicef puts literacy among Mexicans from 15 to 24 at 98% for both sexes. (The CIA puts overall literacy at 86%, including older cohorts from worse times. I would have thought this high, given the population of indigenes, but if I know more than the CIA, we are in trouble.)

Natalia, an updated Mexican. An easy Mensan. Not all Meskns sleep at the foot of a cactus with sombrero, burro, and bottle of tequila. Most of them do, though. It has always seemed to me a good idea.

Finally, before I bore the reader to distraction: Social mobility, which isn’t supposed to exist here, does. Perhaps more accurately, the opportunity for it exists. For example Violeta, from a poor family, got into U. Guad on her grades and, tuition purposefully being held very low for people of few pesos, worked her way through. Natalia with her grades and test scores could have gone to pretty much any school in Mexico. A friend of ours from a truly poor family turned herself into an extended-care nurse and started a nursing home, which women supposedly can't; her son just graduated from law school and her daughter is in lab-tech school. The doors are open, intentionally. The problem is that too few choose to go through them.

Without the narco wars, Mexico would be a corrupt, reasonably functional, genuinely advancing upper Third-World country.