Friday, November 28, 2008

Reading Journal: "Without My Cloak"

Kate O'Brien, Without My Cloak (Doubleday and Doran, 1931). Available as a Virago Modern Classic.

Kate O'Brien's first novel, Without My Cloak, is a multi-generation family saga, set in the fictional Irish town of Mellick (Limerick) in the second half of the nineteenth century. The Considines are a wealthy, close-knit family whose fortune was made by the family patriarch, "Honest John" Considine, who established a successful firm of forage merchants in Mellick. Shortly after the novel opens, Honest John prepares to pass the reins of Considine's to his youngest son, Anthony Considine. Anthony is a savvy, status-conscious businessman whose one weakness is his indulgent love for his eldest son, Denis. Much of the novel chronicles the coming-of-age of the appealing and eccentric Denis, who dreams of a life much different from the one his father envisions for him in the family business.

The Irish novelist Maeve Binchy said, "Reading Without My Cloak was the first time I realised how powerful the small ordinary family life story can be."

Without My Cloak is the fourth of Kate O'Brien's novels I've read this year, beginning with the incomparable The Land of Spices. It's an enjoyable, and in many ways conventional novel, but already the characteristic themes of O'Brien's later novels are apparent. Denis experiences (as does his cousin Agnes in the book's sequel, The Ante-Room) the difficult push and pull of his Catholic faith, which comes to a head in a dramatic conflict with his uncle, Father Tom, the parish priest. The cold demands of religion often seem at odds with the warm impulses of humanity. At the same time, the traditions of the Church are inexplicably important to him:
He went to Mass. That was true, but nevertheless his church had gradually become to him no more than a set of symbols for the unexplainable, a fantastic and half-satisfying dramatisation of an unquiet legend in the heart. He went to Mass because his sensuous imagination found rest there, because something in his blood responded to the ancient prayers and mysteries while his mind remained detached from them, and because he could not insult in his own people and ancient necessity which he understood. He went to Mass, not because he believed in it, but because he believed inthe impenetrable mystery of life and felt that mystery heightened and enlarged in his own breast by such phrases as Quoniam tu solus sanctus, tu solus altissimus—benedictus qui venit in nomine Domine—sanctus, sanctus, sanctus—Agnus dei, qui tollis peccata mundi...
The Church is a symbol of something inward, in his heart, but also of an inviolable tradition. But more even than the Church, Denis's family holds him with the inescapable bonds into which he was born, bonds of tradition and affection, a proud and envious attachment that friction sometimes sparks into hatred.

Families, as O'Brien well knows, often present us with ourselves in the guise of someone else. We see our faults reflected in fathers, our hopes embodied in sons, our own prides and passions flaring up in other hearts. Sometimes, we feel so close to another heart, only to realize the impassable gulf between us. Early in the novel, Eddie and Caroline Considine, the two of Honest John's children who have always been closest, are walking together by the river. Caroline says, "I wonder what it's like to be you?" So close, and yet so distant from each other's interior experience. Later in the novel, as Denis tries to understand why his favorite cousin, Tony, is planning to enter a monastery, Tony says, "If you were in me, you'd see."

Sometimes those who are closest end up the furthest apart. Sometimes, too, loyalty to one's inner self comes into conflict with loyalty to others. Near the end of the book, Denis cries out in his heart to his father: "Why did you make two people of me like this?"

Despite its conventional trimmings as a multi-generational family saga, Without My Cloak is a penetrating exploration of the intimate alienation of family life. O'Brien also asks what could could induce a person to give up what he or she wants most out of life. What has a greater claim upon us than our own dreams and desires?

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

On Ice Bubbles and Education

Ice forming on the Cannon River in Dundas, Minnesota.

The pond had in the meanwhile skimmed over in the shadiest and shallowest coves, some days or even weeks before the general freezing. The first ice is especially interesting and perfect, being hard, dark, and transparent, and affords the best opportunity that ever offers for examining the bottom where it is shallow; for you can lie at your length on ice only an inch thick, like a skater insect on the surface of the water, and study the bottom at your leisure, only two or three inches distant, like a picture behind glass...

I finished reading Walden for the first time on July 27, 2004. On the previous evening, according to the journal I keep each summer, Will and I watched three whistling swans flying low over Wilderness Bay. In the early morning, we woke up and sat on the dock to watch the Northern Lights. "At first," I wrote, "they filled most of the sky with a faint shimmer, like light evaporating... After about an hour, the light seemed to gather into folds, like a curtain, waving across the sky, fading toward the east. Bright enough to be reflected in the water."

For me, the most outstanding part of Walden is not the sententious philosophy of self-reliance in the early chapters, but the close observation in the later chapters, such as when Thoreau observes ants, or ice, or the small leaf-shaped deltas that form in the sand where streams enter the pond. His examination of bubbles in the ice on Walden Pond, in the chapter called "House-Warming," is remarkable for its combination of detailed scientific observation and poetry.

These bubbles are from an eightieth to an eighth of an inch in diameter, very clear and beautiful, and you see your face reflected in them through the ice. There may be thirty or forty of them to a square inch. There are also already within the ice narrow oblong perpendicular bubbles about half an inch long, sharp cones with the apex upward; or oftener, if the ice is quite fresh, minute spherical bubbles one directly above another, like a string of beads.

How marvelous to have such patience, such a capacity to observe and to put those observations into words. What a foundation this would be for an education: to look at the world with one's own eyes, to count and measure bubbles in the ice, to put the experience into words. From her own first-hand observations, a student might gradually move on to more abstract math and science, always returning to the context in the world around her that makes such concepts meaningful.

Several years ago, when I took an education course at the College of St. Catherine in St. Paul, I wrote a paper on "place-based education," arguing that education is most meaningful when it is rooted in the realities of a particular place. Imagine how pleased I was, last week, when I was asked to serve on the board of a new K-8 charter school, the Cannon River STEM School, scheduled to open in the fall of 2009. STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. The school, which is sponsored by the Audubon Center of the Northwoods, will be organized around a place-based curriculum that takes the local environment as an "integrating context" for student learning.

I urge any interested local parents with children in elementary and middle school to attend an open house on Saturday, December 6, 2008, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., at the Just Food Coop meeting room. There will be information for parents and activities for children.

Standing on the bank of the Cannon River yesterday, I thought of Thoreau studying the ice and the leaf-shaped deltas on Walden Pond. Noticing the shape of the deltas fanning out in the sand, he wrote: "You find thus in the very sands an anticipation of the vegetable leaf. No wonder the earth expresses itself outwardly in leaves, it so labors with the idea inwardly. The atoms have already learned this law, and are pregnant with it. The overhanging leaf sees here its prototype." Thoreau, in his close observations of the world around him, seemed to be groping toward the concept of fractals. How many great concepts could begin to take shape on the bank of a river!

Even the ice begins with delicate crystal leaves, as if it had flowed into moulds which the fronds of water plants have impressed on the watery mirror. The whole tree itself is but one leaf, and rivers are still vaster leaves whose pulp is intervening earth...

For more "patterns of ice and stone," see Penny's photographs of the Cannon River in downtown Northfield on Penelopedia.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Federalist 15

Social scientists like to use games, like the famous Prisoner's Dilemma, to study human social interaction and cooperativity. In one economic game, the Ultimatum Game, two players are given a pot of money to divide among themselves. The first player must decide how to divide the money, and make an offer to the second player. The second player has to decide whether to accept the offer. If the offer is refused, neither player receives anything.

Alexander Hamilton saw the thirteen states under the Articles of Confederation as engaged in a kind of Ultimatum Game. How much power could each state reserve for itself? Hamilton, with his pessimistic view of human nature, knew that the states were essentially selfish, and each would jealously guard its own share of power. There was no reason, for example, why a strong state should submit to legislation passed by a weak central government, if the state determined that the federal legislation was against its individual interests. If a strong state fell out of line and failed to honor its obligations to the weak confederacy, the only recourse would be to military force on the part of the other members of the confederacy. But under the Constitution, a federal court system would be in place to resolve such issues without bloodshed.

Hamilton realized that without a strong central government holding the states together, their individual will to power would act as a centrifugal force, pulling apart the weak bonds of union. A strong federal government, as proposed in the Constitution, was needed to counteract this centrifugal tendency.

Sociologists who have studied games like the Ultimatum Game have discovered that "as players get to know each other better, cooperation increases" [1]. This is what Hamilton was counting on: that the states, united under the Constitution by a strong central authority, would increase their cooperation as they came to accept their common interests and common destiny. But in practice, politicians have continued to game the system to hold onto a bigger share of the pot.

[1] William F. Loomis, Life As It Is: Biology for the Public Sphere (Berkeley, U of California P, 2008), 156.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Save Every Child: More Notes on Reading Hofstadter

Given President Bush's mastery of "dog whistles" (the "use [of] code words to signal unpopular stances to one target audience"), I've begun to wonder, half-seriously, about whether there is a dog whistle sounding in the name of the legislation that forms the primary accomplishment of Bush's education agenda, No Child Left Behind.

In Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Richard Hofstadter gives evidence of the evangelical, premillennial attitudes of many educational reformers in the progressive tradition. Indeed, the patron saint of progressive education, John Dewey, wrote in My Pedagogic Creed: "[T]he teacher always is the prophet of the true God and the usherer in of the true kingdom of God." The child, according to psychologist and educator G. Stanley Hall, "comes fresh from the hands of God," and pioneering progressive educator Francis Wayland Parker wrote: "The child is the climax and culmination of all God's creations..."

The proponents of progressive education had a worthy goal of educating every child, rather than catering to the most academically gifted who were the ones best served by the traditional classical curriculum. The new education was to focus on "the dull boy, the defective child" and raise him to be a full and active member of a democratic society. As one educator declared at the annual meeting of the NEA in 1900: "We shall come to our place of rejoicing when we have saved every one of these American children and made every one of them a contributor to the wealth, to the intelligence, and to the power of this great democratic government of ours." A few years earlier, in 1894, Francis W. Parker made a similar statement: "We must believe that we can save every child. The citizen should say in his heart: 'I await the regeneration of the world from the teaching of the common schools of America.'"

"We can save every child." The evangelical undertone is clear. No child will be left behind; every child will be saved.

For the progressive educators, this salvation would be brought about through a new "child-centered" educational philosophy and a new curriculum that deemphasized the traditional academic subjects like algebra and foreign languages. Progressive education placed an emphasis on experiential learning and recognized that knowledge should be contextual. The early progressive educators, at least, did not condemn subjects like Latin and algebra, but rather shifted them into the category of electives. In all curricular choices, it was important first of all to consult the child's interests and inclinations. The goal was to focus on the needs and abilities of each child, and see that that child succeeded—or, in the language of the day, was "saved."

The progressive educational program was based upon "the psychology of the prodigal son and the lost sheep," to quote the speaker at the 1900 NEA annual meeting. It arose in the era of the Social Gospel, which drew its inspiration from Christ's work among the sick, hungry and poor. No Child Left Behind, on the other hand, seems to reflect a more stark form of perfectionism: it declares that by a certain millennial date, 100% of children will meet a predetermined standard. It has taken the progressive goal of saving every child and given it an apocalyptic twist.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Reading Journal: "Anti-Intellectualism in American Life"

Eight years ago, as stunned liberals began to collect Bushisms as evidence of the new President's low intellectual wattage, sociologist Todd Gitlin offered the election of Bush as evidence of a "renaissance of anti-intellectualism" in America. Bush was enthusiastically embraced by a sufficiently large portion of the electorate despite being a man "of little discernible achievement, [and] little knowledge of the world or curiosity about it." To put Bush into the context of the history of American anti-intellectualism, Gitlin provided a brief review of Richard Hofstadter's 1963 classic Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. Hofstadter's book provides and excellent primer for considering the relationship between intellect and American democracy.

Hofstadter, a historian and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, was writing in the aftermath of the McCarthy era, when scores of intellectuals on the left were hounded for alleged Communist activities. The 1950s would seem to have been another high water mark for American anti-intellectualism. In 1952, the erudite and well-spoken Adlai Stevenson was defeated by Eisenhower, with his "fumbling inarticulateness" and his "crass" running mate, Richard Nixon. A deep reaction had set in against the New Deal and the liberal intellectuals who had helped to nail it into place.

With this as background, Hofstadter looked back at the history of anti-intellectualism in America, identifying four main currents contributing to the anti-intellectual tradition: evangelical religion, the rise of popular democracy, the pragmatism of American business, and the excesses of progressive education. The United States had been founded by intellectuals. The Founding Fathers were, for the most part, classically educated, polymathic gentlemen who were in a unique position to combine intellect with political power. But since the founding years of the republic, the expansion of popular democracy, particularly in the Jacksonian era, brought intellectuals into an uneasy relationship with politics and public life. The political influence of intellectuals has waxed and waned, but there has developed an enduring popular suspicion of "eggheads" (evidently a coinage of the 1952 campaign), and an enduring alienation of intellectuals from public life.

As Hofstadter writes: "Intellectuals in the twentieth century have thus found themselves engaged in incompatible efforts: they have tried to be good and believing citizens of a democratic society and at the same time to resist the vulgarization of culture which that society constantly produces."

Hofstadter is brilliant at synthesizing ideas and coming up with beautifully apt turns of phrase. Talking about how the success of the industrial system and the rise of large, impersonal corporations made it more difficult for businessmen to attain the culture-hero status of earlier captains of industry like Carnegie and Ford, Hofstadter writes: "Once great men created fortunes; today a great system creates fortunate men."

Hofstadter is remarkably balanced. There are things that he condemns, but for the most part, he does so with a great deal of understanding and a lack of acerbity. In a revealing statement, he talks of older intellectuals of the 1950s who, "like anyone who is given to contemplating the complexities of things, ...have lost the posture of militancy." Hofstadter is clearly on the side of the intellectual, but not of the intellectual who devolves into an ideologue. His chief scorn is reserved for the Manicheanism of the "fundamentalist mind," which "looks upon the world as an arena for conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, and accordingly...scorns compromises...and can tolerate no ambiguity." Long before George W. Bush and his neoconservative and fundamentalist allies were provoking the scorn of the reality-based community, Hofstadter wrote presciently: "The issues of the actual world are hence transformed into a spiritual Armageddon, an ultimate reality, in which any reference to day-by-day actualities has the character of an allegorical illustration, and not of the empirical evidence that ordinary men offer for ordinary conclusions." Although Hofstadter's book is a year older than I am, it remains remarkably fresh.

Throughout the 2008 Presidential election season, the Harvard-educated intellectual "elitism" of Barack Obama was pitted against the populist appeal of the GOP and its homespun avatars, Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber. The anti-intellectualism of the Bush years seemed again ascendant. Even before Palin and Plumber appeared on the scene, commentators like Susan Jacoby were bemoaning "the dumbing of America." America's attention span is shrinking, Jacoby claims, Americans are reading less, and science is continually under siege from the religious right and its political allies. American culture has become increasingly crass and materialistic, and politics has reflected that crassness. When Sarah Palin appeared on the scene, even a conservative pundit like Peggy Noonan was moved to call Palin's candidacy "a symptom and expression of a new vulgarization in American politics."

In the afterglow of Obama's election, there seems to be a new rapprochement between intellectuals and American democracy. Mark Lilla wrote in the Wall Street Journal that the Palin circus illustrated the "perils of populist chic" and the pitfalls for conservatives of pandering to the basest anti-intellectual instincts of American society. Meanwhile, even the conservative columnist David Brooks was allowing himself to be impressed by the brain power of Obama's official circle.

Hofstadter knew that these things were cyclical. The anti-intellectual strain in American democracy is unlikely to become extinct. But it's fascinating to read Hofstadter's book, published almost half a century ago, and realize that—as an egghead might put it—plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

An Old Penguin

Here's a 1954 Penguin paperback of Angela Thirkell's The Brandons, which originally sold in England for "two and six" (two shillings and six pence). Thirkell's novels, set in rural English villages with names like Winter Overcotes, are a kind of cross between Jane Austen and P.G. Wodehouse. I found this book at Monkey See, Monkey Read.

You can read about the history of Penguin paperback book covers at the Design Museum website. In 2006, the Design Museum ran an exhibition on "Designing Modern Britain," focusing on landmarks of modern British design—including the covers of Penguin books. The website says: "The rigorous application of colour, grid and typography in those early paperbacks instilled Penguin with a commitment to design from the start." There's also a book about Penguin covers: Penguin by Design: A Cover Story, 1935-2005, by graphic designer Phil Baines.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Chords of Affection: Federalist 14

James Madison easily disposes of the main item on his agenda for Federalist 14: to counter the argument that the territory covered by the United States (from New England to Georgia, from the Atlantic seaboard to the Mississippi River) was too extensive to be united under a single central government. That argument, based upon a study of ancient democracies and a reading of Montesquieu, was expressed, for example, by the Antifederalist governor of New York, George Clinton, who wrote:
[W]hoever seriously considers the immense extent of territory comprehended within the limits of the United States, together with the variety of its climates, productions, and commerce, the difference of extent, and number of inhabitants in all; the dissimilitude of interest, morals, and politics, in almost every one, will receive it as an intuitive truth, that a consolidated republican form of government therein, can never form a perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to you and your posterity...
Madison answers this objection by pointing out that the American form of government will be republican, not democratic. That is, it will not be necessary for every citizen to gather to form the government, as in the small democracy of ancient Athens; it will only be necessary for the representatives of the people to come together. This can easily be accomplished, even in a large country; indeed, it had been accomplished throughout the Revolution by the Continental Congress.

The more interesting part of Federalist 14 is Madison's peroration on union, which finds famous echoes in Lincoln's First Inaugural Address. But first, here is the Antifederalist argument, again made by George Clinton, to which Madison was responding:
It may be suggested, in answer to this, that whoever is a citizen of one state is a citizen of each, and that therefore he will be as interested in the happiness and interest of all, as the one he is delegated from. But the argument is fallacious, and, whoever has attended to the history of mankind, and the principles which bind them together as parents, citizens, or men, will readily perceive it. These principles are, in their exercise, like a pebble cast on the calm surface of a river -- the circles begin in the center, and are small, active and forcible, but as they depart from that point, they lose their force, and vanish into calmness.

The strongest principle of union resides within our domestic walls. The ties of the parent exceed that of any other. As we depart from home, the next general principle of union is amongst citizens of the same state, where acquaintance, habits, and fortunes, nourish affection, and attachment. Enlarge the circle still further, and, as citizens of different states, though we acknowledge the same national denomination, we lose in the ties of acquaintance, habits, and fortunes, and thus by degrees we lessen in our attachments, till, at length, we no more than acknowledge a sameness of species.
Clinton, in other words, argues that distance, rather than making the heart grow fonder, loosens the ties between people. He can see no reason why inhabitants of New Hampshire and inhabitants of Georgia should feel any attachment toward one another.

Madison replies with his warmest rhetoric to Clinton's "unnatural voice":
Hearken not to the unnatural voice which tells you that the people of America, knit together as they are by so many chords of affection, can no longer live together as members of the same family; can no longer continue the mutual guardians of their mutual happiness; can no longer be fellow citizens of one great, respectable, and flourishing empire.
Lincoln famously echoes these words in the First Inaugural Address when he declares:
We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched , as they surely will be, by the better angels of our nature.
Madison, meanwhile, goes on to make a clear statement of "American exceptionalism," arguing against those who think that, because America is embarking on an entirely unprecedented experiment in national government, it is doomed to failure:
Hearken not to the voice which petulantly tells you that the form of government recommended for your adoption is a novelty in the political world; that it has never yet had a place in the theories of the wildest projectors; that it rashly attempts what it is impossible to accomplish. No, my countrymen, shut your ears against this unhallowed language. Shut your hearts against the poison which it conveys; the kindred blood which flows in the veins of American citizens, the mingled blood which they have shed in defense of their sacred rights, consecrate their Union, and excite horror at the idea of their becoming aliens, rivals, enemies. And if novelties are to be shunned, believe me, the most alarming of all novelties, the most wild of all projects, the most rash of all attempts, is that of rendering us in pieces, in order to preserve our liberties and promote our happiness.
Again, Lincoln's ear, both in the First Inaugural and the Gettysburg Address, seemed particularly attuned to Madison's language in Federalist 14 in its stirring and emotional defense of the principle of Union. The history of the United States has been a long struggle to enlarge and perfect that principle of national kinship that both Madison and Lincoln so eloquently proclaimed.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Fleet Foxes

In Woody Allen's 1983 film Zelig, the filmmaker seamlessly inserts his character, Leonard Zelig, into archival footage of famous people from the 1920s and 30s, from Babe Ruth to Adolf Hitler to Pope Pius XI. I thought of this the first time I listened to the self-titled debut CD from Seattle's Fleet Foxes. I could imagine them inserted seamlessly into the rock music scene of the late 1960s and early 1970s, sharing the stage with The Band in The Last Waltz or performing "Tiger Mountain Peasant Song" in archival footage of Woodstock. Twenty-two year old musical time traveler Robin Pecknold is the prime mover behind Fleet Foxes, writing the songs and creating a baroque folk rock ambience that's both fresh-sounding and instantly familiar. The CD sleeve includes a long list of influences that, unsurprisingly, includes both Maddy Prior and Brian Wilson. Fleet Foxes is evidently what it sounds like when you have a talented songwriter who grew up listening to the Beach Boys and Steeleye Span. On the other hand, Fleet Foxes fits in perfectly well with the retro sound of current bands like The Shins and the Decemberists and the Kings of Convenience. Robin Pecknold is all of twenty-two years old, but he has clearly absorbed the sounds of his hippie parents' generation. The sound he creates is both nostalgic and new. Meanwhile, critics have already been calling this CD the album of the year: "an instant classic," according to a review in The Guardian.

Here's Fleet Foxes performing "Blue Ridge Mountains" on Letterman back in 1974 earlier this year.

Reading Journal: "Naked Economics"

Charles Wheelan, Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science. New York: Norton, 2002. Available by special order from River City Books.

Econ 101 met at 8:00 a.m., which in 1983 was much earlier than I was capable of getting out of bed. As a consequence, economics remained one of the more significant gaps in my education. Had I dragged myself out of bed in 1983, I might have learned how Fed chairman Paul Volcker used monetary policy to curb the high inflation of the late 1970s and slow the U.S. economy. The short term result was higher interest rates, peaking at 16% in 1981, and double-digit unemployment. The longer term result was a return to 3% inflation from 13% in 1980. But, because Econ 101 met so early in the morning, I learned none of this. Then again, I may not have learned any of this even had I managed to drag myself out of bed. As Charles Wheelan complains in Naked Economics, economics, as taught in college, is too often "dry and mathematical."

"The sad irony of Econ 101," Wheelan writes, "is that students too often suffer through dull, esoteric lectures while economics is going on all around them."

Fortunately, Wheelan has written a lively and engaging introduction to economics that will open readers' eyes to the economics going on around them without making them wish they had stayed in bed.

Adam Smith begins his Wealth of Nations with the division of labor. "The greatest improvement in the productive powers of labor...seem to have been the effects of the division of labor." As Wheelan explains in his book, the division of labor allows each worker to specialize in the skill that he or she does best, thereby maximizing his or her productivity. The market frees the aerospace engineer from having to make his own shoes and allows him to focus on designing aircraft. The market allows him to trade the wages of his labor for goods, such as shoes, made by other workers. The basic functioning of the market is hard to dispute. We participate in the market every day, trading money earned from teaching Greek or selling books or repairing automobiles for other goods and services.

Wheelan's book was published in 2002, after the attacks of September 11 sent the U.S. economy into a tailspin, Wheelan has little to say specifically about the economic effects of the terrorist attacks. He has much more to say about the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999, which he found profoundly foolish. Globalization expands the market and facilitates the division of labor. Vietnamese sweatshop workers assemble t-shirts so Americans can focus on designing airplanes or teaching Greek. Eventually, Wheelan explains, the expansion of the market will raise the standard of living even of the sweatshop worker.

Wheelan is also careful to explain that government has a crucial role to play in the economy, most importantly in the creation and maintenance of an infrastructure, which includes appropriate taxation and regulation. Is the U.S. government too large? Wheelan points out that government spending in the U.S., as a percentage of GDP, is about 30%. In most of Western Europe, it's significantly higher—as much as 50% in Scandinavia. But, unlike Western Europeans, we are left without universal health care. Wheelan points out that politics is about setting priorities and making fiscal choices. A certain amount of government spending is good for the economy.

But I suspect that Wheelan would look askance at a proposed bailout of the auto industry, on the grounds that it interferes with another important economic principle, the principle of "creative destruction."

Beginning in the 1980s, personal computers with word processing software like Microsoft Word began to edge out typewriters. In 1983, when I was unable to get out of bed for Econ 101, there was a Smith Corona typewriter on the desk in my dorm room. Ten years later, I was using an already obsolete Mac SE. Meanwhile, back in Cortland, New York, near where I grew up, Smith Corona had nearly dried up and blown away. As the New York Times reported in 1998: "Today, a couple of hundred Smith Corona people rattle around the plant here that was once home to 5,000 workers. The basement, once noisy with the clang of typewriters being assembled, is now warehouse space for other companies. And the town long ago stopped grieving for the company that had been its largest employer and benefactor."

This is creative destruction. It's one of the engines of economic growth, but it's painful. As Wheelan points out, the market is amoral, but humans aren't. We want to ease the pain, and our political system encourages us to do so. Gov. Granholm of Michigan doesn't want to see GM turn into another Smith Corona, so she encourages her friend Barack Obama to support a bailout package for the auto industry. Unfortunately, Wheelan argues, such government intervention tends to discourage competitiveness and innovation. As Thomas Friedman complained in a recent editorial, politics has shielded the U.S. auto industry "from environmental concerns, mileage concerns and the full impact of global competition that could have forced Detroit to adapt long ago."

Wheelan's book is full of fascinating information. For example, he offers this interesting example of the failure of Soviet central planning:
The Soviet central planners did not consider birth control to be an economic priority. The Soviet government could have made contraceptives available to all; any country that can build intercontinental ballistic missiles has the know-how to make a birth-control pill, or at least a condom. But contraception simply was not where the central planners chose to channel the country's resources, leaving abortion as the only form of family planning. In the years of communism, there were roughly two abortions for every single live birth. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Western contraceptives have become widely available and the abortion rate has fallen by half.
On a somewhat related note, Wheelan also points out that education, especially the education of women, is a powerful force for creating economic opportunity and prosperity. "The market economy," he argues throughout the book, "is a powerful force for making our lives better."

Naked Economics, with its strong defense of globalization, provides an interesting contrast to Bill McKibben's Deep Economy, which I read over the summer, with its emphasis on local economies. For Wheelan, the global economy has the potential to bring people in the developing world out of dire poverty, and give them the opportunity to develop their local economies and protect their local environments. It's difficult to care much about pollution when you're starving, and it's difficult to start a business in a local economy where there is no available capital. He seems to suggest that environmentalism is to a large extent a luxury of the developed world, and that economic development will make it possible to address environmental issues more effectively. He points out that air quality in London, for example, has vastly improved since the sixteenth century. He concludes: "Trade makes countries richer; richer countries care more about environmental quality and have more resources at their disposal to deal with pollution." (Wheelan does favor a carbon tax, or cap and trade system, to use the market to regulate greenhouse emissions.)

Wheelan points out that he himself led an effort to keep a McDonald's out of his upscale Chicago neighborhood. He writes: "These are local decisions that ought to be made by the people affected—those who might eat in the safe, clean environment of a McDonald's restaurant as well as those who may have fast-food wrappers blown in their gutters. Free trade is consistent with one of our most fundamental liberal values: the right to make our own private decisions."

There is a wealth of information in Naked Economics, all of it presented clearly and even entertainingly, with excellent examples and analogies and apposite quotes from a wide range of people, from Nobel Prize winning economists to Ronald Reagan (including several good Reagan quips about economists). There is much that could be argued over, but Wheelan does an excellent job of laying out the issues fairly and reasonably, while being clear about his own biases. Whether you shop at Cub Foods or Just Food Co-op, it's important to understand the economy and its effect, for good or ill, on all of our lives. There is no better place to start than with Naked Economics.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

"What Change Had Brought"

The sharp eyes of the Telegraph have spotted President-Elect Barack Obama holding a new copy of Nobel Prize-winning poet Derek Walcott's Collected Poems, 1948-1984. Walcott (b. 1930) was born on the island of St. Lucia in the West Indies, and has divided most of his adult life between Boston and the Caribbean. "Divided" is an appropriate word. The first section of his autobiographical poem, "Another Life" (1973), is titled "The Divided Child." Of mixed African and European descent, Walcott was born in a British colony that for centuries had passed between France and England, and was raised as an English speaker among the island's predominantly Creole population. He received a classical education in a colonial school, absorbing the language of Shakespeare and the mythology of Homer and the Greeks and the images of European art.

Division, "halving," is a recurring theme in Walcott's poetry. In "Goats and Monkeys," he contemplates Shakespeare's Othello and Desdemona, black man and white woman, with disturbing images of darkness and light:
The owl's torches gutter. Chaos clouds the globe.
Shriek, augury! His earthen bulk
buries her bosom in its slow eclipse.
His smoky hand has charred
That marble throat. Bent to her lips
he is Africa, a vast sidling shadow
that halves your world with doubt.
In one of my favorite poems, "A Map of Europe," he imagines a light that reveals everything as it is:
In it is no lacrimae rerum,
No art. Only the gift
To see things as they are, halved by by a darkness
From which they cannot shift.
Metaphor is not merely a poetic device for Walcott, it is a central means of negotiating between the New World and the Old, black and white, Caribbean and classical. Walcott's poetry is always conscious of these divisions, but still offers the possibility of wholeness. As J. Edward Chamberlin writes about Walcott's poem "The Season of Phantasmal Peace": "In his divided consciousness we continue to sense a dream of wholeness for himself and for his people, in a place...where the compassion that is at the heart of poetry generates an image of transcendence, a loophole beyond all 'the betrayals of falling suns'—in that hovering moment between past and future, within the dichotomies of time and space, around the history of his people." [1]
and this season lasted one moment, like the pause
between dusk and darkness, between fury and peace,
but, for such as our earth is now, it lasted long.
This is Barack Obama's moment. Like Derek Walcott, Obama in his own person bridges the divisions of race, and in his own poetic language he offers the possibility of wholeness: "Let us find that common stake we all have in one another, and let our politics reflect that spirit as well."

[1] J. Edward Chamberlin, Come Back to Me My Language: Poetry and the West Indies (University of Illinois Press, 1993), 173.

The title of this post is from Walcott's poem "The Season of Phantasmal Peace."

Thanks to Adriana Estill for pointing out the article from the Telegraph.

Monday, November 10, 2008

"The Wild Goose"

Kate Rusby, "The Wild Goose" (from Sleepless and 10).
My current favorite song.

Federalist 12 & 13

Note: Last winter, I began a series of posts about The Federalist. My first series of posts concluded in March, with a post on Federalist 11. This is the beginning of the second series of posts.

Most of us learned in school that the American colonies separated from Great Britain over the issue of "taxation without representation." In the 1760s, Britain found itself with a large debt because of the French and Indian War (1754-1763), which was fought in the American colonies. It was reasoned that, because the war was fought for the colonists' defense, the colonists should contribute to paying off the debt. So a series of taxes were levied through the passage of the Sugar Act (1764), the Stamp Act (1765), and the Townsend Acts (1767), which taxed everything form sugar to newspapers and playing cards to tea. These taxes led to open rebellion in the colonies.

Alexander Hamilton knew how difficult it was to collect taxes, especially when there was so little money in circulation. But after the Revolution, states found themselves in the same position that Britain had been in after the French and Indian War—burdened with an enormous war debt. Hamilton realized that it was crucial to raise revenue to pay off the debt, and he argued that the best means of raising revenue was through a tariff on imported goods. To make collection of a tariff practicable, it would be necessary to have a federal authority capable of patrolling the Atlantic coastline and collecting the tariff. If America were to remain a collection of loosely confederated states, it would be impossible to organize an effective system to regulate trade and collect import duties. Illicit trade across the porous state borders would be "a matter of little difficulty," and there would be no coordinated effort among the states to police the Atlantic coast.

Federalist 12 is a kind of prospectus of Hamilton's vision for the Treasury Department that he would head under the administration of the first President of the United States. He would establish a national tariff, and create a customs agency to collect the tariff and a Coast Guard (beginning with a fleet of coastal patrol ships known as "revenue cutters") to insure that no imports slipped into the country untaxed. The first national tariff was signed into law on July 4, 1789—the date was chosen deliberately, since Hamilton believed that the United States could only be truly independent if it possessed an independent source of revenue.

Hamilton also floats the idea of an excise tax on "ardent spirits," a tax that would both raise revenues and discourage the consumption of alcohol, which Hamilton considered harmful to national morals. Such a tax was in fact passed in 1791, and eventually led to the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 in western Pennsylvania.

In Federalist 13, Hamilton argues that it would be more economical to create and maintain a single national government than it would be to create and maintain separate central governments for two or three separate confederacies. He imagines the thirteen states uniting into three separate confederacies comprising the four northern states, the four middle states, and the five southern states. Each confederacy would require a central government nearly as large as the central government required by a union of all thirteen states. Why duplicate the effort and expense of creating a national government?

Hamilton wanted to bind all three regions, and thirteen states, into a single union, but he was aware of how easily the states could be divided into separate confederacies—north and south—based upon shared interests. He writes: "If we attend carefully to geographical and commercial considerations, in conjunction with the habits and prejudices of the different states, we will be led to conclude, that, in case of disunion, they will most naturally league themselves under two governments." Hamilton foresaw the persistent division and tension between North and South. And, unfortunately, the tax policy he favored—the imposition of a protective tariff—deepened that division by protecting and encouraging Northern industry and weighing heavily upon Southern agricultural exports. Thus, in the 1830s, South Carolina threatened succession not over slavery, but over the so-called "Tariff of Abominations."

Saturday, November 8, 2008


In honor of the Forty-Fourth President of the United States, and my forty-fourth birthday.

Friday, November 7, 2008

A Sonnet

What Am I, Life?
John Masefield (1878-1967)

What am I life? A thing of watery salt
Held in cohesion by unresting cells,
Which work they know not why, which never halt,
Myself unwitting where their Master dwells.
I do not bid them, yet they toil, they spin
A world which uses me as I use them;
Nor do I know which end or which begin
Nor which to praise, which pamper, which condemn.
So, like a marvel in a marvel set,
I answer to the vast, as wave by wave,
The sea of air goes over, dry or wet,
Or the full moon comes swimming from her cave,
Or the great sun comes forth: this myriad I
Tingles, not knowing how, yet wondering why.

From The New Poetry, edited by Harriet Monroe (1923).

Meditations on the First Snow

This morning, we awoke to snow. The snow was still gently falling at 7:00, but I expect it will be gone before the morning is over. The chimney sweep is coming this morning to clean the chimneys of the two woodstoves, and I'm looking forward to sitting and reading in front of a fire in the evening.

Last night I went to a lecture at Carleton by Marilynne Robinson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Gilead. As is evident in her fiction, Robinson is a deeply religious person, deeply influenced by Calvinism, but she is also a self-described humanist. She protests against the heavy-handed Darwinism of Richard Dawkins, which denies the spark of the divine in human beings, but she would also reject heavy-handed religious fundamentalism that denies nuance and imagination in the human relationship to the divine. It was revealing to learn that she came to the works of John Calvin through Melville's Moby Dick. Having caught the unmistakable theological inflections of that novel, she decided to read it side-by-side with Calvin's Institutes, as if Melville and Calvin were engaged in a kind of theological conversation about whales and predestination.

Darwinian evolution can tell us quite a bit about whales—that they evolved from land mammals, for example—and about human beings as well. Perhaps science can even explain the obsession of a man like Captain Ahab. But for Robinson, such explanations are insufficient—not so much, I suspect, because they deny the hand of the Creator, but because they deny the profound mystery and beauty of life as it is lived and apprehended by the creative human mind. She pointed out that written language can't be accounted for by evolution; it only appeared about 4,000 years ago, after the evolution of modern homo sapiens. If anything gives evidence of a divine spark, it is the ability of humans to write.

Of course, I accept the theory of evolution as scientific truth. It offers the best description of the physical world. It may be that human consciousness—what we call the human soul—is simply a byproduct of evolutionary processes, as Richard Dawkins would claim. But I think Marilynne Robinson is right: we cannot live our lives as if that were the case, as if everything we think and feel and are capable of doing is simply the result of a successful accident. Pascal, hedging his metaphysical bets, concluded that human beings are better off living as if God exists. Although I accept evolution and no longer attend church regularly, I tend to accept Pascal's wager. For purely selfish reasons: not so much because I need to believe in God, but because I need to believe in human beings, and in myself.

It was lovely to wake up this morning to the first snow of the winter. Each snowflake falling from the sky was unique and transient. The earth was as white as an imaginary whale against the gray sea of the sky. This evening I'll sit in front of the woodstove and read about fictional characters in an imagined world, and I will surrender completely to a belief in something that exists only in the human mind.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

What I Learned from This Election

Once in a while, America is capable of taking a quantum leap forward toward fulfilling the promise of its founding. Sometimes, America surprises with a massive gesture toward goodness and decency and deeper fellow-feeling. Sometimes, the poetic words of our greatest President seem to re-echo in the American soul—
We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Election 2008, Part IV

I spent the evening, from 8-10 pm, at the LocallyGrown election night party at the Upstairs Reub. A number of local candidates dropped in, and I had a few nice conversations with supporters. Unfortunately, the results aren't good. I finished in sixth place, with four seats open on the school board. The results, as reported by the Northfield News, look like this—

But I'm drinking champagne because—

We made history today. I may have lost, but America has won.

Election 2008, Part III

Peter working the phone.

I had lunch at the Classics Table at Carleton, finished reading my Greek assignment for tomorrow, then returned home to have a nap and a hot bath. Two of the Classics majors at the table were reminiscing about their public high school science teachers, who refused to teach evolution because they didn't believe in it. I've fallen into a bit of a low-pressure system mood. This afternoon, I got a call from a local voter who asked me, "If you were to run for state or federal office, what would your position be on abortion and gay marriage?" I told him that I wasn't interested in any office other than school board, which is the absolute truth. I told him that I am pro-choice. I told him that it was important to me that people of differing opinions and beliefs learn to have respectful and productive public conversations about controversial issues. In fact, that I have been involved in such conversations is a matter of public record: I took part in a long conversation on LocallyGrown about abstinence-only sex education, and I believe that in that forum I earned the respect of people on both sides of the issue. In any case, I'm feeling a little depressed at the thought that there are people who will judge me on the basis of a biased reduction of complex issues and a partial and often erroneous impression of who I am. I'm not really cut out to be a politician.

Meanwhile, Peter, who is fourteen, spent the entire day door knocking and making phone calls for the DFL (Democrats). Although he's not old enough to vote, I think it's great he's gotten involved. Will, who's seventeen, has also made calls for Obama this election season. By the next Presidential election, they will both be eligible voters. It's great that they're taking an interest, participating in the democratic process, and looking out for their own future.

Election Day 2008, Part II

After going to the polls, I headed over to the high school to finish preparing the band's concert uniforms for Thursday evening's district-wide band concert. Prepping the uniforms involved assembling shirt, bow tie, cummerbund, pants and jacket, and placing each complete uniform in a numbered garment bag. I spent two and a half hours in the band room yesterday afternoon working on this project, and finished it up with another forty-five minutes this morning.

While I was in the band room, the band teacher shared with me the results of the high school's mock election, which was held last Thursday. Northfield high school students delivered a landslide victory for Obama/Biden, with 65% of the vote. The vote tally for the mock school board election was interesting:

Rob Hardy 33.5% (301 votes)
Jeff Quinnell 30% (273 votes)
Katy Hargis 30% (271 votes)
Kevin Budig 26% (233 votes)
Anne Maple 21% (191 votes)
Ellen Iverson 19% (174 votes)
Peter Millin 16.5% (149 votes)
Diane Cirksena 15.8% (142 votes)

These totals are interesting because I am the only one of the Northfield Education Association endorsed candidates to win the mock election. Except for my name at the top, the high school results are more or less an inversion of the results of the LocallyGrown straw poll (which has a much smaller sampling size). It's possible that the results of the high school poll reflect, more than anything else, name recognition: of the four runners-up, only Anne has a child at the high school, but Anne's daughter has a different last name.

There is one other interesting result of the high school mock election. One of the controversial items on the ballot is an amendment to the state constitution that would raise the state sales tax to fund environmental protection and cultural preservation. In the high school, the amendment passed by an impressive 77%. I am less hopeful about the results of the actual election, but I hope that voters will keep the next generation in mind, and consider the legacy we want to leave them, when deciding whether or not to guarantee funding for the environment and the arts.

Election Day 2008, Part I

6:00-7:30 am. Out of bed at six o'clock. Clear skies, with a forecast high of 70°F and voter turnout projected at around 80% in Minnesota. The first results are already in from Dixville Notch, the small New Hampshire village where polls open at midnight. For only the second time in history, Dixville Notch chose the Democratic Presidential candidate.

The last few weeks of the election season have been strange in Northfield. Last week, Northfield's mayor was charged with five counts of misconduct by an elected official and two counts of conflict of interest following a protracted investigation of his conduct in office. This came on top of news that a candidate for city council had been charged with removing public documents from City Hall. Finally, and most bizarrely, a visiting theater professor at St. Olaf College was charged with a misdemeanor, and forced to resign from his position, after confessing in an essay on the Huffington Post that he had stolen McCain/Palin lawn signs along rural Highway 19.

At 6:30 a.m., Clara and I were at Goodbye Blue Monday, getting our large coffees and almond croissants from Ryan, one of my former Latin students at Carleton. Griff Wigley, Northfield's uberblogger, was already in his customary seat in the front corner of the coffee shop, blogging the start of Election Day. With coffee in hand, Clara and I walked up the hill to the First United Church of Christ to vote. At 6:45 am, there were already about two dozen people in line ahead of us, including a pair of students eager to vote before their 8:00 am chemistry lab. Behind us in line was an American history teacher who had an amazing amount of election history at her fingertips. She was able to tell us, for example, that it was the Twenty-Third Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1961, that gave the District of Columbia Presidential electors. Meanwhile, another fifty or so people had joined the line in back of us.

The doors opened at 7:00 a.m. and we had another ten minutes or so in line before we signed in and received our official ballots . At about 7:15 am, I was walking out of the church with a red "I Voted" sticker on my blue shirt. Clara's was the twenty-third ballot recorded at our polling place, and mine was the twenty-sixth.

Griff has photographs from the opening of the polls in Northfield posted here.

New Poem: "Phrasebook"

My poem " Phrasebook " has been published online in Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters .