Friday, August 31, 2007

Ex Corde Georgiopolitanum

A column appeared in today's Georgetown student newspaper "The Hoya" in which I express reservations over the potentially bad message sent by the construction of several new campus buildings. I paste it below, or you can visit the slightly butchered Hoya version here.

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New and returning students alike cannot fail to notice a discernible structure rising from a plot of land adjacent to the Leavey Student Center. What was an impressive pile of dirt when students left campus at the conclusion of last semester is now unmistakably a building in the making. Eventually, when its interior is filled and its exterior is applied, we will behold the new McDonough School of Business. In some relatively short period of time after that, a new science building will arise beside this structure, making this part of campus a swarm of active scholars, students, events and activities.

The officialdom of the University is visibly proud of these new structures, regularly featuring items about their progress in various news articles and presentations to students and alumni. While administrators beam, however, there are grounds for reservation. For, if you now look at an overhead map of Georgetown University, it is unmistakable as a matter of geographical fact that these structures are at the physical heart of the University. In particular, due to the expansion of the University behind and beyond the old main campus (those areas directly surrounding Healy Hall), the campus’s physical center has moved more or less precisely to the spot that was selected for the erection of these two new buildings. And, while it is far too late to protest, I believe that this fact sends the wrong message to members of the University community and beyond.

Careful consideration of Georgetown’s history and identity suggests that neither a business school nor even a building devoted to research in the natural sciences should be at the center of the University’s self-conception. If a University such as Georgetown should have a Business School at all (and, regrettably, it does), its previous location was appropriate – at the periphery of the campus. A Georgetown education, conceived as a classic liberal arts curriculum, should not have as its aim or object the art of moneymaking. A liberal arts education aims to steep a student in the accumulated history of human thought – in disciplines as varied as classics, literature, government, philosophy, theology and history – with a goal of educating the “whole person.” Its ends are several, including the refinement of character, the inculcation of wisdom and judgment, the preparation for responsible citizenship, and above all – as was expressed by John Henry Newman in The Idea of a University – “a knowledge which is its own end.” Nevertheless, modern life puts this form of education hard to task, as contemporary students are already keenly under pressure to transform their degrees into useful currency in today’s marketplace. Thus, a University that puts a Business School at the physical heart of its campus only reinforces the impression that encomiums to liberal education are only so much fancy rhetoric, and that a University degree is really about getting a job.

For a related reason, the placement of a new science building at the physical heart of campus also misconveys the aim of a liberal arts institution. Of course, the natural sciences are part of a complete course of liberal study, and students are rightly required to take courses in this area. Its subjects are among the avenues by which we understand more deeply the human and natural condition, and thus students should be instructed in the fields of physics, biology, and chemistry. However, a new science building devoted to advancing scientific research is a different matter.

Contemporary scientific study seeks to create new knowledge, whereas the onus on undergraduate education is to instruct the young in the basic elements of scientific understanding. A research university is dominated by its departments of natural science, engineering and computer science, and a large amount of money is provided by public and private sources for the discovery of new knowledge that can benefit society. The research university aims to produce useful knowledge above all, the kind of knowledge that modern science’s philosophical father – Francis Bacon – told us is the source of power. Knowledge becomes wholly utilitarian with the aim of conquering nature. Because of this aim, research universities do not generally stress liberal education, whose aim is quite different: thus, the training of graduate students, not the cultivation of undergraduates, becomes one of the primary activities in research universities. In a liberal arts college, the Library occupies a place of privilege on the campus (and, it once did at Georgetown, in the form of Riggs Library). In a research university, the Laboratory takes place of pride. With the construction of a science building at the new physical heart of the campus, the University again sends a wrong message about its fundamental commitments.

It remains obvious to even the casual visitor that the true heart of Georgetown University remains in those areas around Healy Hall, those buildings and surrounding greens where Departments such as Theology, Philosophy, English and Classics are to be found. We should continue to maintain this area as the true heart of the University – even if it is no longer the University’s actual physical center – and seek to defend the University’s fundamental purpose as an institution of liberal learning. In too many contemporary institutions of higher education, the gravitational pull is toward those activities that will take place at our new physical center – toward the money-making professions and those disciplines that stress professionalism and utilitarian knowledge aimed at the mastery of nature – and not an education, as described by Newman, that is “an acquired illumination, a habit, a personal possession, and an inward endowment.”

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Always Look on the Bright Side of Life

I am in Chicago for the next three days, attending the American Political Science Association's Annual Meeting. A teeming sea of political scientists. The heart palpitates.

I am (officially) on two roundtables commenting on two important books. The first is a roundtable on Joshua Foa Dienstag's book "Pessimism " - a book that argues in favor of philosophic pessimism, and against the modern optimistic philosophies of progress. The second is a roundtable on Michael Kazin's biography of William Jennings Bryan, "A Godly Hero."

I post below my response to Dienstag's book (I will post my response to Kazin anon). You can get a sense of his arguments from my comments. What's better still, my response is evidence that I'm NOT a pessimist!!

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Wake Up and Smell the Coffee:

Response to Joshua Foa Dienstag

Patrick J. Deneen

Georgetown University



Joshua Dienstag has written a remarkable and important book that, in my view, contains a persuasive argument about the existence of the underappreciated and under explored philosophical school of pessimism. I am so persuaded that Joshua is correct about the existence, and importance, of this school of thought – represented by such various figures as Rousseau, Leopardi, Schopenhauer, Cioran, and Nietzsche – that I am simply going to concede that Joshua is right about its existence and its main features. In addition to reflecting my actual view on the matter, this concession also allows me to devote my comments to an exploration about why Joshua’s correctness about pessimism’s existence should not obscure his more fundamental mistake of commending this philosophy to his readers.

But first, let me say some good things about Joshua’s project. Joshua is certainly correct to call into question all our modern optimistic faiths, ones that have proven to be so calamitous since the advent of the modern age. Advanced early on by such thinkers as Machiavelli and Bacon, modernity was inaugurated by the ambition to control fortune, and in particular, to master nature and apply scientific principles to politics and the whole of the human realm. Joshua rightly notes the perils of this modern optimism, its rejection of limits that might moderate our grand schemes, its willingness to excuse horrors of the current moment in the name of progress (to name a few, the Terror, imperialism, Fascism, eugenics, Stalinism, medical experimentation on human subjects, napalm, doctrines of preemptive war, industrial farming, widespread acceptance of abortion, strip mining, accommodation with Mid-east tyrants, and the list could be expanded considerably). More existentially, Joshua urges us to consider that the world may not be subject to our remaking in such a way that will result in our happiness. He seeks to lower our expectations considerably, to show us – in the spirit of the Stoics of old – that much of life is about endurance and a degree of acceptance of what cannot be fundamentally changed. We should eschew “global ambitions,” he writes at one point (198), a caution that surely should have special resonance and meaning in these days replete with efforts to remake the world in the image of a rapacious neo-liberalism, whether through commerce or war. Many will be drawn to Joshua’s arguments, and for good reason.

But the alternative Joshua offers – pessimism – is a false alternative, above all because it is no alternative at all. Pessimism, Joshua essentially grants, is the flip side of optimism, its twin, born almost simultaneously in the modern era as a rejection of the ruthless rationalism and progressivism of modernity. Hobbes and Locke beget a Rousseau and a Vico; Kant, Mill and Hegel spawn a Nietzsche, a Spengler, and a Freud. Rather than telling us that we can expect that everything is getting better in every way, everyday, pessimism advises us – if not that things are getting worse, which Joshua insists can’t be known (though, truth be told, the book recurs frequently to invocations of decay – 92, etc.), then, in an oft-repeated phrase, that we can “expect nothing” (5, etc.). The pessimist, most obviously, is a disappointed optimist, someone who is initially charmed by modern stories of progress and mastery, but who soon realizes that reality does not comport with these elevated expectations (if this doesn’t describe Rousseau, then I don’t know what). Joshua relates a fable by Leopardi that traces this precise trajectory, according to which children begin life with an optimism that the world will fulfill their expectations, but that as they age, “seeing that the hopes which they had until then been putting off from day to day, had not been realized …, it seemed they deserved little trust…. Their ill-content increased so much, that they were not past their youth before a downright disgust with their being had universally possessed them. And little by little … some were driven to such desperation that, unable to bear the light and breath of life which at first they had so deeply cherished, in one way or another they of their own accord deprived themselves of it” (56). Joshua understands this dis-illusionment to be the truer condition, and that we are right to expect nothing rather than expect everything. However, surely to expect nothing is to live with a kind of certainty as thoroughgoing as optimism’s belief in progress, to know that any expectations are false because they cannot ever be fully fulfilled, that it is the human condition to remain permanently unsatisfied. It is the falsity of optimism’s twin that Arendt likely had in mind when she wrote, in the Preface to The Origins of Totalitarianism, that she had written the book “against a backdrop of reckless optimism and reckless despair. It holds that Progress and Doom are two sides of the same medal; that both are articles of superstition…” (vii).

Both are superstitious because both deny reality, the reality of our given world and of human life in that world. One holds that humanity can craft its own redemption; and the other, that we inhabit a living Hell. Pessimism begins as a reaction against an extreme and false ideology, but is itself no less false for its rejection of falsehood and no less extreme for its eschewal of another extremism. In order to escape all disappointment, it denies the substance of the world, the diurnal and perennial renewal afforded by nature, the love of those in our homes, the good life afforded by flawed but potentially decent cities and the fellowship of fellow citizens, the fidelity of memory and memorial, and the hope – not optimism – we may properly hold for the future. Because any of these might disappoint at any time, they are all declared to be false and hollow, with our only recourse being, if not suicide, then withdrawal into a Stoic resignation or solitary resistance.

It is a false philosophy because it is false to the reality of our world, of nature, of the human creature. Joshua rightly notes that many critics of pessimism will accuse him of a closet optimism since he has written a book, and I agree such an argument is “the last refuge of an optimistic scoundrel.” But, I would like to draw attention to one telling detail, drawn from a chapter of aphorisms with which Joshua concludes the book (258). He argues that it is not a “belief in truth” that most require to get out of bed in the morning, but rather “a belief in the existence of a future, that is, that our acts might lead to something.” For some, that might be “world revolution,” and for others, a cup of coffee – the very motivation that Joshua acknowledges prompts him to arise each morning. But, he writes, “I simply can’t see how a verification of reality is involved in my anticipation of my morning coffee, only memory and hope.” Expect nothing – not even that there will be coffee. And why? Joshua writes, “What if our memories and hopes proved false?” That is, what if we will be disappointed? And we know that we will be disappointed, eventually (if nothing else, one morning we won’t awaken anymore – even if the coffee is ready). And so, he writes, “[our memories and hopes] are always false, or at least imperfectly true” (and, still he gets up, like Sisyphus rolling the rock up the hill). But here Joshua has elided an important distinction – that between something that is “always false” and something that is “imperfectly true” – and in this elision we can perceive the fundamental flaw of pessimism. There is a world’s difference between memories and hopes that are “always false” and memories and hopes that are “imperfectly true.” Only a disappointed optimist would confuse them – would make the “or” that separates them equivalent to an “and” – finding disappointment in any form unbearable, and thus insisting on the certainty that memory and hope are always false, rather than allowing that they may in fact be imperfectly true.

In my house, I get out of bed most mornings because my children won’t let me stay there (coffee is compensatory). This is a reality for much of the human race that is wholly absent in Joshua’s account – the reality of love and sacrifice, life in home and polity, the diurnal rhythms of cultivation, and the hopes and even plans we make in light these facts of life – not with world altering ambitions, and in full knowledge of likely disappointment. Joshua describes a world like that of P.D. James’s novel “The Children of Men,” in which we can expect nothing because there is literally no prospect for a human future, no children born of women (only those non-children of men). In that book, suicide becomes regimented and normalized; but in a world of children and love, it is properly the great exception. And yet, here and now, children continue to be born, they grow and fall in love and have children of their own. And yes, they disappoint – perhaps above all they disappoint! – but also they flourish and achieve, and perhaps bestow love as love was bestowed upon them. It would be as false to believe that children, spouses, friends, fellow citizens, polities, plans, dreams, memories and hopes always disappoint as it is to believe that they can be made never to disappoint. Because the world has some degree of predictability and rhythm, our expectations can be “imperfectly true.” Joshua would have us build a wall not around our children’s soul – there are no children in this book, as there is no love – but around our own souls, separate and protected from the disillusionments that modernity seems to breed en masse, enjoying a sort of aesthetic individual freedom that relishes its independence but is in fact parasitic upon the necessary disappointments generated by an optimistic worldview that it otherwise appears to reject.

Linear time haunts modernity, and I think Joshua is right to note its world-altering importance. Linear time is a creation of modernity, a portent of progressive ideology, and a marking of temporality that comes to mock progress’s failure. The pessimist – having rejected optimism’s belief in progress – experiences linear time as a burden, a torment of meaningless successions that lead nowhere, that create expectations of a forward trajectory which can only disappoint. But, here again, we should notice that the pessimist is as thoroughly in the throes of superstition as the optimist – the pessimist accepts the conditions laid down by the optimist and then declares his dissatisfaction with them. But he does not dispute the underlying premise of the conditions. We are stuck with all the burdens of linear time, and enjoy none of its illusory compensations.

In several passing comments Joshua rejects out of hand the possibility that a more ancient “circular” conception of time is available to us moderns (16, 161). The modern mind is inescapably defined by the experience of linear time, he asserts. According to one of Joshua’s aphorisms, we moderns experience time wholly as a creation of culture and artifice, a division of the days and hours that provides the “appearance of order and continuity” (244). Joshua is particularly charmed by arguments that it is the invention of mechanical timepieces that inaugurates the era of linear time, that induces a belief in progress, that thrusts us into existential abstraction and alienation from ourselves and from nature. Linear time is the creature of mechanization, of artifices that “divorces the measure of time from nature” (13). I want to dispute this point, however. Here again, I think it is the case that the ideology of modernity obscures reality, not the clock – and reality is that terrestrial time remains fundamentally circular. Joshua states that “the revolutions of the heavens were displaced by clock and by calendar.” This is mistaken: the clock and calendar mark the movements of the revolutions of the heavens; they are based most fundamentally upon those movements. Even in our digital age, most people wear watches or consult clocks whose shapes are round. Our methods of time-marking are an acknowledgment of the cycles and revolutions of the heavens, of the daily turning of the earth, the monthly cycles of the moon (one that exerts influence alike over the daily tides and the monthly cycles of a woman’s body), and the annual rotation of the planet around the sun. Yes, the manner of division involves some arbitrariness – why base 60? – but the standard governing the division remains the motions of nature. Our experience of time is one of beginnings and endings, and again new beginnings and new endings. Each day, each month, each year we return to where we have started and begin anew. A clock and a calendar do the same.

Linear time is not a result of clocks; it is the result of the ideology of progress that believes that it can master and dismiss the circularity of nature. To paraphrase Machiavelli, nature is a woman’s cycles, and must be straightened into submission. In turn, the exertion to master nature appears, if for a time, to render those cycles irrelevant: thus, we can plant certain crops in any season thanks to chemical fertilizers and pesticides, build roads without regard to terrain or topography, and wear shorts indoors in the winter and sweaters in the summer. The pessimistic instinct – to recognize the falsity of these presumptions and the ultimate and ironic failure of these efforts – is the right instinct, but it goes too far in asserting that, because the presumptions of progress are wrong, the opposite must be true – and, as a result, you should expect nothing. Indeed, because of its rejection of circular time and its acceptance of linearity, pessimism most fundamentally shares with its optimistic counterpart the same ultimate desire to conquer nature: it denies a rhythm in the natural world and seeks to live aesthetically – to turn nature into art, or, as Joshua puts it, to “emphasize how [nature] is a function of man” (268).

The reality of circular time, however, tells us we are bestowed with the privilege to expect something – the sunrise, the return of rain and sun for our crops, the birth of a child even as we mourn the passing of a parent, the seasons, the years, the centuries. We can expect the cup of coffee, because the coffee farmer plants his seeds in their season with the expectation of a successful crop. This does not mean that he will not experience disappointments – droughts and plagues, hail and pests – but memory and hope tell us that we can expect the return of our crops – that their reappearance is “imperfectly true.” Memory and hope, Christopher Lasch argued – and not pessimism – are the proper antidotes to optimism.

Memory and hope are also the proper resources and dispositions for politics. Politics should draw from the stores of memory of what has been possible and what has constituted hubris, and, so informed, becomes entitled to hope for appropriate and chastened aims. Pessimism, as described by Joshua, invites us to think of the “democracy of moments,” fleeting combinations amid a more constant activity of individual self-fashioning. It denies the possibility of political communities as stores of memory and hope and rejects the idea of a democracy of the living, the dead and the unborn. But it is this latter kind of democracy that develops discernment and judgment drawn from the source of memory and prodded by modest hopes: it is informed by the kind of prudence that can distinguish between the appropriateness of hopes for world revolution and those for a cup of coffee. Throughout his book Joshua equates hope and optimism as only a pessimist can, mistaking the chastened aspirations of the one for the hubris of the other (132). Hope, combined with memory, can go some way in distinguishing between those things that are “imperfectly true” from those that are “always false,” and perhaps most importantly, is able to retain the distinction between the two as defensible. And in maintaining that distinction, we can reject the superstitions of the optimist and the pessimist alike in order that we might find our proper place among imperfectly true human beings, creatures subject to, and grateful for, the motions of the heavens beneath whose rhythms we might together remember, and hope.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Socialism for the Rich

With the Dow down 280 points today, I decided to indulge in a relaxing moment of schadenfreude and switched on CNBC at about 4 p.m. I was treated to the sight of Larry Kudlow about to bust an artery - much like Jim Cramer a few weeks ago - in his apoplectic rage against Ben Bernanke for not lowering the Fed Funds Rate immediately.

What we should notice here is that our free marketeers want our government to engineer stock market blowups to the upside and subsequently intervene to save their bacon - in the form of inflating the monetary system (i.e., lowering rates) - when the inevitable bubble bursts. And that's exactly what the Fed has been doing - in 1998 with the meltdown of "Long-Term Capital Management" (yet more chicanery with language) and again in 2000 with the bursting of the high-tech bubble. Each time the Fed engineered cheaper money to avoid a "market correction," and in turn set the stage for a frothier bubble that would burst more violently when the last fool was had. Effectively, the Government arranges so that to relieve the profligate, it punishes the thrifty. One might say that things are a tad a-skew.

James Grant - an economist of the Austrian school, and a remarkably sensible man in spite of many years working in high finance - nails this lunacy on the head in a marvelous NYT op-ed of several days ago. A few memorable exerpts would include:

Understandably, it’s only the selling kind of panic to which the government dispatches its rescue apparatus. Few object to riots on the upside. But bull markets, too, go to extremes. People get carried away, prices go too high and economic resources go where they shouldn’t. Bear markets are nature’s way of returning to the rule of reason.


And, my favorite of all:

Now comes the bill for that binge and, with it, cries for even greater federal oversight and protection. Ben S. Bernanke, Mr. Greenspan’s successor at the Fed (and his loyal supporter during the antideflation hysteria), is said to be resisting the demand for broadly lower interest rates. Maybe he is seeing the light that capitalism without financial failure is not capitalism at all, but a kind of socialism for the rich.


Larry Kudlow, Jim Cramer, and the rest of the high finance boys are lined up and ready for a guvment handout. Git yer butt out here, Bur-nan-kee, and give us our doe!! Just mark what they'll say when the indigent pikers line up behind them. Sponges, one and all!

Everyday Low Prices

Here's an annoucement I've just received. In case there was any doubt, our elite Universities are all too often shills for

Some Further Words

I have been reading from Wendell Berry's poems, and particularly from a book called "Given" which he signed for me during my last visit to Lexington. I wish to post one poem here, though I am hesitant in any way whatsoever to deprive him of his rightful earnings as a poet. It can be found elsewhere on the internet, but I encourage readers to buy a copy of this book of poems (preferably in a local bookstore, but barring that, then perhaps here) - they are seering, shattering and beautiful not beyond words, but as words.

Some Further Words
by Wendell Berry.

Let me be plain with you, dear reader.
I am an old-fashioned man. I like
the world of nature despite its mortal
dangers. I like the domestic world
of humans, so long as it pays its debts
to the natural world, and keeps its bounds.
I like the promise of Heaven. My purpose
is a language that can repay just thanks
and honor for those gifts, a tongue
set free from fashionable lies.

Neither this world nor any of its places
is an "environment." And a house
for sale is not a "home." Economics
is not "science," nor "information" knowledge.
A knave with a degree is a knave. A fool
in a public office is not a "leader."
A rich thief is a thief. And the ghost
of Arthur Moore, who taught me Chaucer,
returns in the night to say again:
"Let me tell you something, boy.
An intellectual whore is a whore."

The world is babbled to pieces after
the divorce of things from their names.
Ceaseless preparation for war
is not peace. Health is not procured
by sale of medication, or purity
by the addition of poison. Science
at the bidding of the corporations
is knowledge reduced to merchandise;
it is a whoredom of the mind,
and so is the art that calls this "progress."
So is the cowardice that calls it "inevitable."

I think the issues of "identity" mostly
are poppycock. We are what we have done,
which includes our promises, includes
our hopes, but promises first. I know
a "fetus" is a human child.
I loved my children from the time
they were conceived, having loved
their mother, who loved them
from the time they were conceived
and before. Who are we to say
the world did not begin in love?

I would like to die in love as I was born,
and as myself of life impoverished go
into the love all flesh begins
and ends in. I don't like machines,
which are neither mortal nor immortal,
though I am constrained to use them.
(Thus the age perfects its clench.)
Some day they will be gone, and that
will be a glad and a holy day.
I mean the dire machines that run
by burning the world's body and
its breath. When I see an airplane
fuming through the once-pure sky
or a vehicle of the outer space
with its little inner space
imitating a star at night, I say,
"Get out of there!" as I would speak
to a fox or a thief in the henhouse.
When I hear the stock market has fallen,
I say, "Long live gravity! Long live
stupidity, error, and greed in the palaces
of fantasy capitalism!" I think
an economy should be based on thrift,
on taking care of things, not on theft,
usury, seduction, waste, and ruin.

My purpose is a language that can make us whole,
though mortal, ignorant, and small.
The world is whole beyond human knowing.
The body's life is its own, untouched
by the little clockwork of explanation.
I approve of death, when it comes in time
to the old. I don't want to live
on mortal terms forever, or survive
an hour as a cooling stew of pieces
of other people. I don't believe that life
or knowledge can be given by machines.
The machine economy has set afire
the household of the human soul,
and all the creatures are burning within it

"Intellectual property" names
the deed by which the mind is bought
and sold, the world enslaved. We
who do not own ourselves, being free,
own by theft what belongs to God,
to the living world, and equally
to us all. Or how can we own a part
of what we only can possess
entirely? Life is a gift we have
only by giving it back again.
Let us agree: "the laborer is worthy
of his hire," but he cannot own what he knows,
which must be freely told, or labor
dies with the laborer. The farmer
is worthy of the harvest made
in time, but he must leave the light
by which he planted, grew, and reaped,
the seed immortal in mortality,
freely to the time to come. The land
too he keeps by giving it up,
as the thinker receives and gives a thought,
as the singer sings in the common air.

I don't believe that "scientific genius"
in its naive assertions of power
is equal either to nature or
to human culture. Its thoughtless invasions
of the nuclei of atoms and cells
and this world's every habitation
have not brought us to the light
but sent us wandering farther through
the dark. Nor do I believe
"artistic genius" is the possession
of any artist. No one has made
the art by which one makes the works
of art. Each one who speaks speaks
as a convocation. We live as councils
of ghosts. It is not "human genius"
that makes us human, but an old love,
an old intelligence of the heart
we gather to us from the world,
from the creatures, from the angels
of inspiration, from the dead--
an intelligence merely nonexistent
to those who do not have it, but --
to those who have it more dear than life.

And just as tenderly to be known
are the affections that make a woman and a man
their household and their homeland one.
These too, though known, cannot be told
to those who do not know them, and fewer
of us learn them, year by year.
These affections are leaving the world
like the colors of extinct birds,
like the songs of a dead language.

Think of the genius of the animals,
every one truly what it is:
gnat, fox, minnow, swallow, each made
of light and luminous within itself.
They know (better than we do) how
to live in the places where they live.
And so I would like to be a true
human being, dear reader-a choice
not altogether possible now.
But this is what I'm for, the side
I'm on. And this is what you should
expect of me, as I expect it of
myself, though for realization we
may wait a thousand or a million years.


From "Given," Shoemaker & Hoard, 2005

Monday, August 27, 2007

100

This the 100th post of this "blog," coming shortly after the 10,000th visitor graced its pages and eight months since its inception. Mere numbers, surely, but an opportunity to reflect briefly on the "blogging experience" - a self-referential self-indulgence of blogging that I largely find laughable and pathetic, but which at some point seems unavoidable.

1. Beware of starting a blog. It takes on "a life of its own" - like a small pet that needs little feeding at first, it grows and consumes more time, more energy, more food. And, given the investment that goes into nurturing it, it becomes increasingly difficult to kill it off. It seems to fight back against the idea. Creepy.

2. While for some the comments section is the essence of the blogging experience, I have found the site counter to be the distinctive feature of having a blog. It makes the experience of writing wholly distinct from that of publishing a book or article. With a book, you may wait months, even years for reviews to appear, and annually receive a royalty check which inevitably reveals that you sold enough copies to fill an egg carton. With a "hit" counter, you can discover daily (hourly, down to the minute!) how many visitors have read your scratchings, indeed, quite often which page they visited and exited, where they live, who they work for, what school they attend, what links they were unable to resist clicking. Perhaps most interestingly, you can discover how they found their way to you, many initially through a google search (who knew that people were "googling" you), and then increasing numbers through links from other websites. It is a "net," six and then twelve and then twenty-four degrees of separation. Like the head of the hydra, it seems to double with each hit.

3. I began without expectations, and was soon surprised how quickly one can be "discovered" on the web nowadays. I told no one about the blog, wanting to see whether it would ever be discovered or whether it would remain my dirty little secret. A few of my graduate students were onto me fairly soon (most early hits were in the D.C. area), and then a few early regulars. Once a few fellow political theory "bloggers" found out about the site, the traffic really picked up. The blog went from averaging six hits a day to somewhere in the middle double digits. The pace slows down on the weekend, presumably because people aren't killing time at work. My long recent post on my European travels was linked by Rod Dreher at "Crunchy Con" - and resulted in the biggest spike of traffic the blog has yet had. If you look on my weekly or monthly totals as of today, you'll notice that the two days following his posting make those bar graphs look a bit like... well, the New York skyline before 9/11.

4. Here's the intriguing part: I began this blog as a venue where I could post some of the seemingly innumerable writings that I do as part of my daily job, but which never otherwise find the light of day. You'll notice most of my early posts are versions of lectures, reviews, or papers that I was in the midst of completing. I was content with the idea of posting such writings as frequently - or as seldom - as they might be written. However, as the site traffic picked up, I began to feel some obligation to total strangers who took time out of their day to direct their browser to my site. I would feel a sense of remorse when several days would go by without a posting, and still they came, expecting - something - and going away, I imagined, disappointed or irked. And so, I began writing about whatever thoughts I was having - something I read in the paper, came across online, an absurdity or an amusement. Although my visitors were only computer addresses, I felt an obligation to satisfy their electronic journies to my electronic retreat, like a host being prepared for guests with fresh food and beverage and an invitation to tarry for a time.

5. To have a blog, then, is to begin to inhabit something of an alternative world, one that you think about more than several times a day, a medium which begins make demands upon your attention. It may even have the virtue of focusing the mind on minutae or incidents or reflections that might not have otherwise been noted. It is at once distracting and riveting.

6. I am not sure whether a blog causes one to magnify a concern (give it publicity) or encourages the concern to be magnified (you think about it a lot more because you have an easy venue). Some of you may, may, have noticed that I have this concern about peak oil. Yes, it's true. The blog has allowed me to express that concern a few dozen different ways. Is this a case in which the blog allows me to sound an alarm that would I would wish to sound regardless, or does recourse to a blog intensify the alarm that would otherwise have been more moderate? I'm inclined to think the former, as it was these growing concerns about our troubled future that, in significant part, contributed to my beginning this blog. But, I can't discount that it has had the effect of feeding the obsession. This may be an echo chamber in which the sounds are amplified rather than fade.

7. I regularly consider quitting, for all the previously stated reasons. I dislike and resent the sense of obligation to this faceless medium, yet I realize too that it affords a unique opportunity to extend what I have chosen (or was chosen to have) as my vocation. Additionally, it has had the not unpleasant incidental benefit of resulting in several interesting writing invitations that would otherwise not have arisen, including an invitation to write an appreciation about Kurt Vonnegut for the Claremont Review based on this post (and this, too), an invitation to respond in "First Things" to a truncated version of Harvey C. Mansfield's Jefferson Lecture as a result of this post, and, most recently - courtesy of Rod Dreher - the opportunity to have my "What I Saw in Europe" post appear in the pages of the Dallas Morning News. If my work involves the transmission of ideas to students nearby and readers afar, then this turns out to have been a form of good work.

I'll leave it there for now. Stay tuned for more navel gazing in post #200 - unless I quit first.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Good Idea

According to this article in yesterday's Washington Post, legislation is currently being drafted that would cut off home interest deductions on houses larger than 3,000 square feet. This would be part of broader legislation to curb carbon emissions, and would also include an increase of the gas tax.

Opposition from representatives of the "real estate industry" (there's a phrase that has become uncoupled from reality) has been predicatable, from the plausible to the ridiculous. One opponent cites studies that show a possible 4% drop in value of housing were such legislation to be enacted (maybe, but it might actually increase the value of smaller houses), while another raises the terrible hardship of accurately measuring the size of one's house.

My response to the first: this form of housing is going to be increasingly worthless anyway, so don't sweat the 4%. As for the second, here's a measuring tape. Notice it has actual numbers. If we differ by a few inches, we can split the difference.

One objection - from a 2x4 wood stud and drywall assembly lobbyist (what is amusingly called the "Home Building Association") - insists that such legislation takes the wrong tact, and that instead a stress should be upon increasing energy conservation and efficiency. The idea doesn't seem to cross this lobbyist's mind that we could BOTH cut off the deduction AND increase conservation; the two actions may not, in fact, be mutually exclusive. Or, could it be that this "argument" is ... disingenuous? Is it possible that he doesn't give a whit about energy reduction and just wants to ensure the continued construction of McMansion sprawl?

Such legislation would represent a hard adjustment for people who have already purchased such houses in the expectation of a full deduction, but would also have the very beneficial effect of financially deterring others from purchasing such monstrosities. It would accelerate the inevitable avoidance of these houses and the movement back to a higher residential population density. Not only would we use less energy in our houses, but reduce wasteful consumption on the whole, as public transportation would become more viable and local businesses could set up shop within actual neighborhoods. Better to nip this form of housing in the (rather large) bud to avoid the greater pain that will result from its future collapse, than to continue to subsidize the continued expansion of this unsustainable housing type. We should seek to limit such housing's inexpressible wastefulness (along with the attendant waste of its exurban "lifestyle"), the destruction of the farmland that such ridiculous structures typically entails, and its sheer tastelessness.

It would also make it easier for me to reconcile myself to our small closets.

Peter Lawler has previously expressed that his preferred way of discouraging SUVs is to laugh at their drivers. If this legislation were to pass (and I'd say the odds are probably nil), we could not only mock people who live in McMansions as well, but we'd have a good reason to. Call it the "Comic Relief Energy Package of 2008."

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Shameless

In the words of one hedge fund operator, financial managers in the U.S. smuggled their ill-gotten sub-prime loan "tranches" into otherwise apparently credit-worthy bond portfolios (thereby foiling the close oversight of credit rating agencies) and then sold them to overseas investors who had excess dollars burning a hole in their pockets. The source of these dollars? Trade surpluses and petro-dollars. You can't make up something so eerily interwoven like this. Their financial liquidity was a product of U.S. outsourcing and imported oil, two of the main culprits in America's indebtedness, its loss of independence and the decline of self-governance. Our weakness was turned into a sort of financial weapon: by packaging our indebtedness, the high finance boys got back some of our exported wealth - at least temporarily.

While everyone bemoans this "subprime mess," we hardly bother to ask, who did it? Many people, actually, all culpable in one way or another:

--Borrowers imprudently accepted loans that they might have been able to repay only under the most optimistic if wholly implausible scenario of eternally increasing home prices. Not having considered even a less-optimal scenario, and long accustomed to making debt a part of their daily lives ("what's the monthly payment?"), they effectively put themselves in a position tantamount to that of a thief.

--The lending industry, realizing that the housing market pyramid scheme was beginning to teeter, sought an untapped portion of the population that could enter the housing market and thereby prop up housing prices. If somewhat more cognizant of the unlikelihood of infinitely increasing home prices, they were confident that they could make these loans and then sell them as debt securities to other "investors." Thus, they would not be saddled with the responsibility for these loans when they went belly up (unlike those days when Mom and Pop got a mortgage from the local Savings and Loan which kept the loan on their books. You can bet they paid attention to whether you were likely to be able to pay back). These subprime lenders made the loans knowing that they would never be held directly accountable for the invevitable defaults. They also engaged in a form of legalized theft.

--And, finally, the high finance boys who bought these securitized packages for the sole purpose of further leverage (why would anyone be content to pocket the 8-10% interest these loans were "earning"?) confronted a domestic market that was growing wary of these debt instruments, and so they secreted these bad loans into packages of "good" debt and sold them to overseas "investors." They are also thieves - little different than a butcher who might hide rancid meat under a patina of fresh ground beef. We can also be pretty sure that these financial whizzes are graduates of America's finest academic institutions, the flower of our civilization, alumni of those very universities that were just ranked in the top 25 by the U.S. News and World Report. Why don't they count this kind of activity when they determine these rankings? I'll bet we'd get a somewhat different outcome.

About the packaging of these loans, the hedge fund manager wrote,

'Real money' (U.S. insurance companies, pension funds, etc.) accounts had stopped purchasing mezzanine tranches of U.S. subprime debt in late 2003 and [Wall Street] needed a mechanism that could enable them to 'mark up' these loans, package them opaquely, and EXPORT THE NEWLY PACKAGED RISK TO UNWITTING BUYERS IN ASIA AND CENTRAL EUROPE!!!!

"These CDOs were the only way to get rid of the riskiest tranches of subprime debt. Interestingly enough, these buyers (mainland Chinese banks, the Chinese Government, Taiwanese banks, Korean banks, German banks, French banks, U.K. banks) possess the 'excess' pools of liquidity around the globe. These pools are basically derived from two sources: 1) massive trade surpluses with the U.S. in U.S. dollars, 2) petrodollar recyclers. These two pools of excess capital are U.S. dollar-denominated and have had a virtually insatiable demand for U.S. dollar-denominated debt . . . until now.


This is what they call a Ponzi scheme. Worthless objects are transferred from person to person until the greatest fool is fleeced. Yet, in this case, the greatest fool is none other than you and I, ultimately. Because the central banks will not allow the financial system to suffer the consequences of these shenanigans, they will 'monetize' this worthless paper in the form of inflation (they already have begun to do precisely this through their infusion of paper and reduction of interest rates). In the end, they will save the skins of the high finance boys, and in the process make our earnings and savings worth less. Or, maybe worthless. This is also theft, now courtesy of the Federal Reserve. Watch how low the dollar can go.

Got gold?

Credit: Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, "Brace Yourselves for the Insolvency Crunch"

Friday, August 24, 2007

Speaking of Russia...

Here's a bit of historical irony on which to chew. It concerns the fall and rise of the Russian Empire.

As Yegor Gaidar has documented in this AEI publication - a solid conservative source - the fall of the Soviet Union was most likely precipitated above all not by dint of Ronald Reagan's sabre-rattling rhetoric or fear of "Star Wars" missile defense, but due to the decision of the Saudis in the mid-1980s to flood the world's oil market. He writes (and I quote at length):

The timeline of the collapse of the Soviet Union can be traced to September 13, 1985. On this date, Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani, the minister of oil of Saudi Arabia, declared that the monarchy had decided to alter its oil policy radically. The Saudis stopped protecting oil prices, and Saudi Arabia quickly regained its share in the world market. During the next six months, oil production in Saudi Arabia increased fourfold, while oil prices collapsed by approximately the same amount in real terms.

As a result, the Soviet Union lost approximately $20 billion per year, money without which the country simply could not survive.

[The Soviet leadership was then faced with three options: start charging hard currency for oil exports, reduce food imports, or cut back military spending. None of them were seriously considered.]

Unable to realize any of the above solutions, the Soviet leadership...started to borrow money from abroad while its international credit rating was still strong. It borrowed heavily from 1985 to 1988, but in 1989 the Soviet economy stalled completely....The Soviet Union then received a final warning from the Deutsche Bank and from its international partners that the funds would never come from commercial sources. Instead, if the Soviet Union urgently needed the money, it would have to start negotiations directly with Western governments about so-called politically motivated credits.

....When the situation in the Soviet Union is examined from financial and hard currency perspectives, Gorbachev's policies at the time are much easier to comprehend (see figure 6). Government-to-government loans were bound to come with a number of rigid conditions. For instance, if the Soviet military crushed Solidarity Party demonstrations in Warsaw, the Soviet Union would not have received the desperately needed $100 billion from the West.

The only option left for the Soviet elites was to begin immediate negotiations about the conditions of surrender. Gorbachev did not have to inform President George H. W. Bush at the Malta Summit in 1989 that the threat of force to support the communist regimes in Eastern Europe would not be employed. This was already evident at the time. Six weeks after the talks, no communist regime in Eastern Europe remained.


Gaidar also indicates why the Saudis opened the oil spigots: "In 1974, Saudi Arabia decided to impose an embargo on oil supplies to the United States. But in 1979 the Saudis became interested in American protection because they understood that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was a first step toward--or at least an attempt to gain--control over the Middle Eastern oil fields." The Saudi decision to depress the price of oil - and hence undermine the Soviet economy - was the protection money that was paid to the U.S. government in return for its military umbrella. And, it also nicely floated a post-oil peak U.S. economy, a scenario that couldn't have been pursued when the U.S. was a net oil exporter (until 1971). It was morning in America.

Here's the irony: with the current high price of oil, the Russians are now reacquiring their lofty economic and, it would increasingly appear, military position. Still possessing some of the world's large remaining energy reserves, Russia has been throwing around its economic weight (as in the case of the Ukraine last winter) and increasingly flexing its military muscles. As recently as a few weeks ago a Russian submarine planted a flag on the floor of the North Pole region - an area that lies in international waters - declaring what may be vast reserves of sub-polar oil and gas to be Russia's to extract (more irony: this area has always been inaccessible until the advent of global warming, made possible by the burning of - fossil fuels!). This move has prompted Canada to announce plans to build several military bases in the area. The race for the table scraps continues to unfold.

The reason for these high prices, according to some knowledgeable observers, is that the world's largest mature oil fields - including the Ghawar oil field in the Saudi Arabia - are all showing signs of exhaustion. According to Stuart Staniford at theoildrum.com, there is compelling evidence suggesting that Saudi oil production is entering a period of permanent decline. As Matthew Simmons - a member of Vice President Cheney's 2001 Energy Task Force - has put it, "if it turns out that Saudi Arabia is has peaked, then categorically the world has peaked" (he makes this statement in the important documentary, "The End of Suburbia," a must-see film). Declining Saudi oil production is directly benefiting the Soviet Union at a time when - ironically enough - the U.S. is in a poor position to confront its erstwhile enemy. If Staniford and others are right, there is no Saudi card to pull out of the deck now. Our prompting of Saudi Arabia to flood the world's oil markets in the 1980s accelerated the date of worldwide peak oil by several years - particularly if you consider the extent to which that glut has financed the construction of "exurbia" in America, the most energy intensive living arrangement ever conceived. Ironically, the oil glut of the 1980s and its after-effects (decades of oil gluttony) effectively ensured that we'd have a resurgent Russia in the 2000's. It also necessitated a deepening of our embroilment in the Middle East, the only major and reliable supplier of our petroleum drug, and where we have in recent years fought two wars. An important question should be asked whether these consequences were considered at the time, or whether it was believed that plentiful petroleum resources would remain forever available. In either event, one can't help but suspect that the greatest triumph of Reagan's presidency was purchased at a higher price than we realized at the time. While few will realize this, we may have Reagan's oil tactic to blame for a resurgent Russia. While I am not suggesting that we were wrong to attempt to bring down the Soviet Union - an evil regime if one ever existed - we should reflect a bit more forthrightly on the true costs of that triumph, and realize its connections to our current predicament.

Nevertheless, there is a way to put the practical effects of Reagan's strategy back into effect, if by a different means. Were a visionary President (i.e., candidate, not the current office-holder) to call for America to cut back its consumption of fossil fuels in every possible way - to frame it as a call for patriotic self-sacrifice and republican independence - an American boycott of oil would have the effect of driving down prices and taking some of the steam out of the Russian juggernaut. We would have to be disciplined in order not to fall back on old habits when oil prices fell again - most likely putting a definite floor on the price of oil imports in the form of a carbon tax, a floor that would accelerate the development of conservation and sustainable energy forms. A crash in oil prices would also have the beneficial effect of starving the Middle East dictators and removing our need to prop up corrupt regimes. It would allow us to extract ourselves considerably from the fortunes - or misfortunes - of that benighted region and thus perhaps remove some of the animus against us on the "Arab Street" (wishful thinking, perhaps, but this is probably the only plausible strategy for combatting Islamic extremism). The beneficial effects of such an effort are more numerous than can be counted; the major challenge is that we will have to change how we live, a dim prospect at best. However, such an outcome would, in fact, prove to be the greatest benefit of all in the end.

In short, kicking the oil habit is the moral equivalent of war. Are there any who will take up the standard? I'm not holding my breath.

Brrrr....

According to a report on this morning's edition of "Marketplace," Gazprom (the Russian energy corporation) is negotiating a deal with the Atlantic LNG Operation to ship Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) to a port in Trinidad. This outfit in turn ships a billion cubic feet of natural gas the United States everyday. This means, effectively, that we may very soon be building a virtual "pipeline" from Russia to your furnace. Vladamir Putin will be keeping you warm at night - a comforting thought, I'm sure. After all, President Bush has looked into his heart and assures us that he is a good man.

The report notes that, while this amount of LNG is a small percentage of the overall natural gas consumption in the U.S., the amount being shipped in the form of LNG imports "is set to grow." I like this little phrase very much - it contains multitudes, as Walt Whitman might say. Why, exactly, the amount of natural gas we will be importing "is set to grow" isn't explicitly stated, but it may have something to do with the fact that natural gas reservoirs in North America are rapidly depleting. We are seeing much effort being expended to arrange gas shipments in liquified form from other parts of the world too far away to be delivered by a physical pipeline. (This means that we're not expecting much NG from Canada or Mexico, either, since supplies are also in decline there. What's left in Canada is increasingly being used to process the tar sands, with the resulting consequence that the actual energy capture of the sands is fairly low, but the result is petroleum that can be processed into gas. In effect, we will be turning down our thermostats so that we can continue to drive our cars). We use natural gas to heat our homes and cook our foods, to dry our clothes and heat our water. Less obviously, but perhaps even more importantly, it is a major component of electricity generation as well as the main source of industrial agriculture's fertilizer and pesticides. It - and everything it produces - is going to get a lot more expensive and less secure in the very near future.

Thus, before long Russia may be supplying us with large quantities of natural gas. As some of you may recall, last winter Russia cut off natural gas supplies to the Ukraine (and, incidentally, western Europe) in a strong-arm effort to control its one-time satellite. As we begin down this road of dependence upon an increasingly assertive Russia (having already handed over much to the Saudis and Chinese), are we prepared to become a subject of its dictats? Will we choose instead to shiver in our houses during the winter? Be prepared for a whole new version of the Cold War. And get out your blankets, comrade.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Conservative Multiculturalism?

Thomas Krannawitter rightly takes not only Ward Churchill to task in Monday's IBD, but arch-conservative David Horowitz to boot. Churchill is the easy target, and hardly bears mention. Horowitz, however, has adopted the language of "diversity" in defense of arguments that more conservative faculty should be hired on college campuses, in effect to "represent" the views of a currently under-represented minority. As a political tactic it is brilliant, adopting the tactics of one's opponents (in this case, the language of victimhood and aggrieved exclusion) for one's ends. As a political argument, it merely transforms the claims of conservatives into just another opinion, as I have noted here. The logic of this view is to have universities modeled on "Crossfire." This may be comforting to some true believers, but the ultimate winners will be those who work in the hard sciences, who will rightly claim that they are creating knowledge, and not pursuing an "agenda" (they are, but they won't mind if no-one is around to point that out). The ultimate losers will be the humanities and disciplines like political theory, which should be largely devoted to preserving and transmitting knowledge of the past to younger generations.

That said, and largely agreeing with much of Krannawitter's critique, we need also note that conservatism cannot be reduced to a simple opposition to multiculturalism if we understand that to be the true variety of cultures (which differs from the faux, barely veiled anti-Americanism of the multicultural set which Krannawitter ably describes). The conservatism that Krannawitter contrasts to multiculturalism - a familiar conservatism that holds that America is defensible because of its universalist creed as articulated in the Declaration of Independence - ultimately morphs into nothing other than a kind of universalist ideology. It misses the extent to which a proper conservatism recognizes and embraces the reality of culture and the variety of human ways of life. Thus, conservatism in the Burkean, Oakeshottian, Scrutonian and Berryian (?) mode must defend the existence of culture, and what's more, such conservatism makes sense only if one's own culture has elements that are worthy of defense and transmission - that is, conservation. We can do this not only because it is ours - and rightful prejudice has a place of pride in conservatism - but also because it can be defended on grounds that go beyond culture, and thus point to the universal. It is not standardless, like Ward Churchill's multiculturalism, because ultimately to be defensible a culture must take its bearings from nature. Culture and the art of cultivating are thus closely related.

Surely what is complicated in the American story is the blend of our cultural particularlism and our philosophical universalism, an admixture that has been well described by Peter Lawler, and earlier, by John Courtney Murray and Orestes Brownson, among others. It is a tension that has produced a wondrous, flawed but admirable nation deserving our loyalty and patriotism, and it is a tension worth preserving. In my view - and the only real defensible reason for this "blog" - this tension has been increasingly dissolved in favor of an idea of America that is abstract and ideological, a globalizing agent in the service of corporations and the immediate gratification of mobile and placeless elites. Such an ideology is ultimately not even fundamentally American, but a defense of an idea that can be transferred anywhere at anytime, a defense of a globalized nowhere that J.P. Zmirak ably describes here. I believe that active and conscious efforts must be made to restore the pride of place and culture and to restore the creative tension that lies at the heart of America's success, and its future viability.

To strengthen this tension, we need the resources of memory, limits, particularity, history, stories, and religion - that is, culture. This last - religion - can be an important variant that offers us another window into how to live with this kind of tension. It is a tension that is not unfamiliar to Catholics (for instance), who worship in particular churches in particular parishes named for particular saints within a universal Church. Chesterton, among others, noted the similarity of the American nation and the Catholic religion in observing that America was the nation with the soul of a Church. We should be careful to note that churches - even if universal - have a history that is lovingly cataloged and recalled, accumulate practices and traditions over long periods of time that cannot and should not be reducible to efficiency, are comprised of particular people in particular places, remember the dead and celebrate the yet unborn, and transmit and preserve their way of life to future generations.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Will the Real Authentic Person Stand Up?

As students and faculty begin their migrations back to campus, it's of interest to note the sort of entering classes our admissions offices have cooked up for us this year. The latest in college admissions fashion: the quest for authenticity. Yes, our admissions officers are taking a page from Heidegger this year.

A generation or more of students have honed their ability to ape what they think admissions offices expect, padding and buffing their resumes with dozens of extracurricular and community service activities. Applications have increasingly and ever more perfectly reflected the expectations of admissions officers, and a suspicion has arisen that perhaps, just perhaps, applicants are merely aping those qualities that they above all prize (I'm sure they are shocked, shocked, that this is the case). Do the applicants build houses in Ecuador and join the Rhaeto-Romanisch language club because they want to, or because they think that's what it will take to get into the best college and land them the highest paying jobs? No one knows! Are they real? Are they authentic? Not even the students can say for sure. Bill Clinton is a prime representative of the first generation of these sorts of students who sought to become the kind of person that our meritocratic civilization expected one to be, to do what was necessary in order to succeed - ever more narrowly defined as power, money, and status (not honor, character, and virtue). Was it real, or was it an act of being real? We still don't know, and I'm not sure he knows. Zeligs everywhere.

According to the article linked above, admissions offices want to stay one step ahead of potential faux saints and geniuses, now seeking exhibitions of "authenticity" in the form of portrayals of imperfection and even humility. The simple translation is: we don't believe that you are all so perfect, so let's see the REAL you, blemishes and all. Will we now see a race to the bottom? You can bet that High School guidance counselors are re-jiggering their college application sample portfolios in order best to position their charges for the appearance of authenticity. Perhaps we'll see a spike in applications from students with fetching sentences such as "I try to be humbel about my high grades and the time I spend doing relief work."

Already the double-speak on display cannot fail to astound. Here's one exerpt from the article: "Colleges say what they want is honest, reflective students. As Jess Lord, dean of admission and financial aid at Haverford College in Pennsylvania puts it, 'everybody's imperfect.' 'Since that's true for all (students), those that portray that aspect of themselves are that much more authentic.'" Did you get that - "portray that aspect of themselves are much more authentic"! That's rich. Before long we'll have authenticity coaches. Maybe Dick Morris can start a company.

Others seem to grasp the conundrum they are creating. The article summarizes the logical muddle the student is in, quoting one high school guidance counselor to say, "As soon as you ask someone to be authentic it's impossible to be authentic." We should also recall Benjamin Franklin's counsel, who related in his "Autobiography" that as soon as he'd mastered practicing the virtue of humility, he became very proud of himself.

I'd personally like to see what would happen if we began admitting a certain percentage of students by lot. Yes, a silly idea, I know, but just think of the possibilities. We'd be ensured an actual diverse entering class, and I'll bet we'd get some students who would really surprise (both on the downside, for sure, but on the upside too - and wouldn't they be really interesting to have around, as a bit of yeast can leaven the whole loaf). It would also help the grade inflation situation: if a student couldn't cut the mustard, well, how nice it would be to be able to use the full grade scale once again. A student wouldn't know for sure if he or she "deserved" to be there, and might lose a bit of the demanding consumerist expectation of good service in return for payment. Just think of what it would be like to have A students that one could confidently know were stellar! We might actually get some authentic students, since there would be less incentive to don the patina of authenticity in order to curry the favor of admissions officers. And think - students might, might start to pursue studies and activities for the sheer love of the thing, and not always with the set of confused motives that now always fester in the back of their minds every time they join yet another after-school club. On the other hand, it might just flush out some of the people who are there for the line in the resume. It would surely also have the beneficial effect of dimming the societal importance of our admissions officers. And, it might even succeed in taking some of the competitive luster off our "best" institutions, a ridiculous situation in which schools protest mightily that rankings don't matter even as they post the results on their webpages, and in which high rankings are based on such self-reinforcing criteria as high rates of applicant rejections.

I can't fully fathom what we are doing to our students now that we are demanding that they feign authenticity and that they crow about their humility. I don't for a moment blame the students for this state of affairs - the young are formed extensively by the culture in which they are raised and formed, and even at times nurtured. What amazes me most are the noteworthy numbers of students who, in spite of this caustic culture, nevertheless manage to pursue their studies and engage in activities for the sole motive of doing good work, who exhibit the marks of good character (an aspiration fostered above all in the home, of course). These students most often might be best described as "countercultural": they are often distinguishable for not fitting in, whether for reasons of intellectual seriousness or serious religious commitments or yet others. What is the admissions office metric for finding these sorts of students, and not admitting them by happenstance along with the mainstream? Or, could it be that this is not the right question in the first instance? Perhaps we must acknowledge that the answer does not lie in the admissions office at all, but at the heart of the commitments of the institution itself, in the devotions of its faculty, its administrators and its curriculum. As David Brooks observed in his book "On Paradise Drive," academic relativist post-modernism and student meritocratic striving to just get along on the road to success are two ethics that in fact fit together very nicely. And as Wendell Berry has recently noted in his address at Bellarmine University, our great universities "no longer make even the pretense of preparing their students for responsible membership in a family, a community, or a polity. They have repudiated their old obligation to pass on to students at least something of their cultural inheritance.... The purpose of education is unabashedly utilitarian."

It is we, the professors and the administrators, who are charged with the ongoing cultivation of these students, and who have
been given the privilege of governing these great institutions. Better work must begin with us.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

What I Saw in Europe

For the past three weeks I've stayed and traveled in southern Germany (Swabia, between the Black Forest and Bavaria), Switzerland (the central region, around Lucern), and western Austria (not far from the Von Trapp family ancestral home outside Salzburg). For the most part we've been in smaller towns and outside the large cities, and with the exception of Salzburg and one day's visit to Lucern, have avoided the tourist traps (and a good thing too, with the meager buying power of the dollar). In these parts of central Europe (all German speaking), I have been mightily impressed - as ever - by the strength of communal bonds, the presence of local cultures and distinctions, the persistence of tradition and memory, a culture that saves (in every sense), and a strong ethic of work aimed at preserving a high degree of independence.

This impression - admittedly somewhat biased by the particular areas where I've been staying - does not easily fit with the predominant American Left-Right views of Europe, both of which respectively praise or condemn "Europe" for its progressiveness. In the Left wing narrative, Europe is the ultimate "blue state": progressive in its taxation, generous in its health policies, loose in governing marriage and euthanasia, it is praised as a nirvana of easygoing libertarianism. According to the Right wing narrative, Europe is in the throes of cultural suicide, with its churches abandoned, its cradles empty, and incapable of dealing with the threat of internal Islamic domination given trajectories in the birth rate and the feebleness of the "multicultural" response. According to both narratives, Europe is largely the reducible to Amsterdam, Bruxelles and the Hague.

I am far from the centers of influence, but feel myself more in the midst of the reality for many, many peoples of Europe. Here, at the moment in Swabia, outside every town are breathtaking vistas of rolling landscape with miles and miles of forests and farmland, all oriented toward local food production, hunting and forestry. Nearly every household seems involved with the land in some way or another, whether through a small garden and wood stand or a larger farm. In the backyard of many homes one still finds chickens that roam free, fruit trees that are now bearing apples, pears and cherries that will be made into jam, water barrels that catch rainfall with which families water their plants. Nearly every yard has an enormous pile of wood, stacked carefully and in perfect symmetry, already today in use as the temperatures dip into the 50s here. Also, in every backyard one sees a compost heap: one pays for each piece of garbage one throws into the waste can, so every incentive is to avoid refuse weight. Moreover, companies must pay for the production of packaging (which must also be separated from the garbage and separately collected for recycling) and must charge a deposit for all plastic bottles. At most public events you will not even be served with plastic: you must pay a "pfand" (deposit) for dishes or glasses, and return it for return of your deposit afterwards. You must pay for plastic bags at supermarkets, an expense most people avoid by bringing their own canvas bags. The German economy, thus, does not measure its growth by the creation of waste products, and the German countryside is not defiled with endless vistas of discarded plastic.

Towns are towns: houses are generally not permitted outside the town limits due to strict zoning laws that have kept American-style suburbanization at bay. This makes for greater population density - even in the smallest towns - and hence also makes feasible vibrant regional and national public transportation systems. One enters a town defined by visible town limits, and nearly every town has at least a local baker and a local Metzger (butcher), some with even more shops, though nearly always family owned. The houses are close together, with small yards and usually close to the street. For the most part, families live above the businesses they run. Gender roles are generally traditional: husbands produce (bakers bake, butchers butcher, etc.), wives work as cashiers or farm wives, and in the off hours cook and clean. One of the ways that family businesses have been protected from the large chains is strict zoning laws that limit the building of "big box" stores outside town and city limits (yes, it's there, but far less than in America). Another strategy has been the store closing times - a subject of fierce debate for several years. Store closing hours have traditionally favored small business owners who hire few or no employees, and who thus must be home to care for schoolchildren during the afternoons and in the early evening. Most businesses still close for several hours at lunch and at 6:30 in the evening. This allows family businesses to compete with the chains, a fact that is everywhere in evidence, and in contrast to the U.S. Pressure to change the store closing times have come from big businesses and increasing numbers of people working outside the home who have difficulty shopping before 6:30 p.m. Currently a compromise permits businesses to remain open until 8 p.m. on Thursdays, though many do not. In any event, family businesses and small companies still dominate the landscape. What is also striking is that most people who work in these businesses actually know a lot about their trade. Try finding someone at Toys 'R' Us who knows whether the toy you want to buy is liable to have lead paint, and you're likely to get the reply, "Wha??"

In addition to the woodpiles in every yard (much of the wood comes from carefully managed forestland that has long been owned by each family), what strikes one too are the immense numbers of solar panels on many, many of the red tiled roofs. I've learned that there is a very effective subsidy now taking place in Germany which guarantees a high rate of return for electricity produced through solar capture. In effect, houses without solar panels are subsidizing houses that have solar. Of course, the ultimate incentive is reducing the high expenditures for energy in Germany. Roughly half the cost of gas comes in the form of an energy tax (thus, a gallon is roughly six and a half dollars here), and electricity is comparably expensive. There is a far greater degree of effort to conserve, save, and finance sustainable alternatives. In addition to the many thousands of solar panels on house and farmhouse roofs, almost everywhere one can catch sight of a wind turbine turning over and over. Of course, the vehicles are universally smaller, and no one seems to mind that they aren't driving a Hummer. The Europeans I have seen are light years ahead of us in energy conservation, and will weather the storm of depleting oil reserves far better than we. Indeed, the combination of local economies, nearby productive farmland outside every town, viable public transportation and widespread use of alternative energies points to a culture that has never abandoned sustainable communities in the way that America willfully and woefully has done over the past fifty years. You can also get some sense why there is even resentment here toward America's wastefulness: the Europeans pay higher prices for everything in an effort to use less, and whatever "give" there is in the worldwide production of resources is a kind of unintended sacrificial gift that many Europeans are making so that America can continue its energy gluttony. That said, the last laugh will be theirs, I think, when our civilization corrodes with increasingly worthless suburban housing tracts, our incalculable debt, and our inability to finance the American way of life.

Here's something funny: my German father-in-law - no friend of big government, and about as anti-60s one could find - describes this way of life (including the solar panels, etc.) as conservative. And what could be more conservative than the Swabian motto - "schafe, spare, Häusle baue" (work, save, build a house)? Of course, the high finance boys in NYC never got a bonus house in Westhampton based on THAT ethic.

A question without easy answer is how these Europeans - apparently so willing to throw off their traditional allegiance to nationalities and religion - are otherwise so willing to make these sacrifices for the common weal of their communities and fellow citizens? Are the two phenomena connected, or do they persist in spite of, and in ultimate tension with, one another? And why Americans, otherwise so devoted to nation and exceptional in the developed West for their religiosity, have become otherwise so unwilling to make the individual sacrifices that might result in actual forms of liberty - liberty, that is, as self-governance, a form of liberty that would seem otherwise to comport well with self-declared love for patrie and religious faith grounded in stewardship and self-sacrifice? What otherwise ought to go together in each case seems to have been put asunder. Is there a tendency in each way of life that will eventually prevail, or will each continent continue a kind of schizophrenic combination of forms? Or maybe, and most simply, one sees in the South of each of our respective countries a way of life that is passing out of being, but which here in Germany, at least, seems to have maintained a strong and vital foothold.

I am not finally persuaded that THESE Europeans with whom I have visited and lived for the past few weeks are actually as libertarian as an emphasis on Amsterdam would have us believe. Church attendance IS low - that I did note, and I do lament. But, that may not be the most fundamental indicator of the ultimate sources of faith in the lives that are lived here in this way, and I would be unsurprised if Church attendance were to rise in coming years (the current Pope may contribute mightily to that end. There can be no coincidence that he is Bavarian, a southern German). The highest - and usually central point - in each town is its church (usually one steeple, and stunningly beautiful at that), and in the small town where we're staying, I must have counted at least seven large crucifixes that have been erected over decades and even centuries at intersections and on roadsides. On the Holy Day of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, stores were closed and in Bavaria one saw churchgoers dressed in lederhosen and dirndls, the women carrying baskets of flowers to be blessed. In Swabia and Bavaria the customary greeting is "Gruss Gott" - "Greetings with God." In the evening we sit down for "Vespers," still so named for the hour of Benedictine evensong. At the town cemetery one sees neighbors and friends, nearly all times of the day, tending to the graves of loved ones even those generations since departed. Everywhere there are signs of the faith of old, something that must at least still persist in the minds and hearts and hands of these people even as church attendance dwindles. It would take little, it seems, in this land, for a renewal of faith, the faith of old that would comport with a life in many ways barely changed in hundreds of years. It is a way of life, an art of living, that I think will be here recognizable still many hundreds of years yet, long after our reckless American "lifestyle" has passed from existence.

Monday, August 20, 2007

So THAT'S Where Between a Rock and a Hard Place is...

It's here. To save Americans from losing their houses and, more importantly, the high finance boys from losing their Christmas bonuses (do they take back the Westhampton bonus houses when the market "underperforms"?), the Fed is going to end up importing inflation from China. It seems all those uppity Chinese folks want to eat protein too. And it's driving up the costs of limited resources, particularly fertilizer (a.k.a., oil). Anyone who thinks that peak oil will mean just a crimp in their driving style had better wake up and smell the manure.

Pick your poison: no house or no food. I'm mulling over my options. It's a pisser, I'll tell you, a real pisser.

"The world is a tricky place, and nobody teaches you this in school"

This, according to a Washington Post journalist and his physician wife, who apparently had no clue that their personal finances were built on a pile of quicksand. But, as he points out, he's one of the lucky schlubs, "luckier than many others who have already lost their homes as the mortgage turmoil has worsened." Apparently he missed the semester when they offered "The World is a Tricky Place 101."

And, what is it they - we! - are teaching our students? Well, sensitivity training, multiculturalism and the wonders of globalization. Post-modernism, post-structuralism, and post-materialism. Academic studies on male strip tease and female public hair. Stewardship, responsibility and prudence? That's just plain oppression! I hope everyone is enjoying their transgressive and transformative liberation in these wondrous days when we're starting to see some of the costs of pretending that reality doesn't exist...

Saturday, August 18, 2007

"Tough Oil"

Michael Klare - author of the important book 'Blood and Oil' - has written an extraordinarily informative summary of various well-placed oil industry and geology experts who are sounding a unison note about a future of 'tough oil.' The implications of his summary are bracing, if not alarming: we face together a future of costlier, harder-to-reach energy resources upon which modern civilization relies for nearly everything it takes for granted. The basic commodity of our modern life is going to become harder to procure, meaning, in effect, it will be less affordable, i.e., less available. We are now facing a future of definite material limits for which we are woefully underprepared.

Now, our techno-optimist friends tell us that higher prices will be the market signal which will bring about a flurry of innovation. Basically, we can afford to wait until we feel the pinch. However, the problem with this touching faith in markets is that it presumes sufficiently ample amounts of capital with which to make the investments and finance the ultimate transition from one major energy source to a yet undiscovered alternative. If the market 'volatility' of the last few weeks should teach us anything, it is that, in our times of overextended credit and our national debtor status, the easy presumption that there will be enough 'money' (so-called) for investment is spurious at best. We have just gone through a small fire drill during which we familiarized ourselves with what it looks like when trillions of 'investment' dollars disappear in the blink of an eye (4.78 trillion, by one estimate). Having witnessed what non-liquidity looks like up close and personal, the assumption of ample credit for future investment is one that only a damn fool would hold. With the drying up of oil wells will also come the drying up of 'liquidity' in other forms, most notably, its financial form. The Fed can print up as much funny money as it wishes, but when the Chinese and Saudis stop buying our bonds because of the declining dollar and the lowered rate of return (observe what happened to the dollar against foreign currencies when the Fed lowered the discount rate on Friday), we'll find that all those dollars won't be buying us much at all - including not only some nifty new energy form, but whatever oil might still be sloshing around the system. The steady drumbeat of announcements from Africa, Russia and nations of the former Soviet Union of deals to sell oil and gas to China, and the growing potential of a Russian-Iranian oil cartel, only points out the direction in which the oil will be flowing in the future - namely, to those clients who can foot the bill. At least we still have our impressive military - increasingly, that's all we've got. Anyone who thinks we're going to pull out of Iraq any time soon is drinking some funny Kool-Aid. Especially now that we're dividing the spoils for real.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Where's the Outrage?

Of course, big news here in Europe as in the U.S. is the sound of markets crashing around the world. Regular readers of this blog will, of course, not be surprised by the downturn in the world's markets, and I'm sure you were duly prepared. We are ardent followers of Dick Cheney's investment strategies, and his guidance has been unerring in predicting the downturn of the U.S. economy and the loss of worth of the U.S. currency. We thank him for his foresight and advice to his fellow citizens that they should expatriate their funds as soon as possible. Perhaps, before long, we'll be sending more than our funds overseas. Keep a bag packed, I always say... It's been hard not to notice that the Europeans are far better prepared for a future of limited resources than we in America. More on that in a subsequent post.

In response to the market "turmoil," the European Central Bank and the Federal Reserve have pumped billions of dollars into the system in order to ensure liquidity. Jim Cramer, of "Mad Money" fame, has begged these governmental entities to rescue the market from its recent "volatility" ("volatility" = markets that fall, not rise, by hundreds of points). One investment banker is quoted here, to say, "The market had been clamoring for them to do something. They had to step up to the plate." One wonders what has happened to all our techno-optimist free-marketeers who decry when governments interfere with our free market incentives, or, as Steven Pearlstein notes, why the markets are now purportedly acting "irrationally" when only a few months ago they were wholly rational (i.e., when the indices were rising). In the same way that government welfare, health care, medical, and retirement policies encourage bad decisions and laziness on our parts, don't the actions of the European and American central banks propping up "the market" represent just this kind of government meddling in free market incentives? In effect, aren't they supporting the bad decisions and poor investment choices of sub-prime lenders and their clients? Financial firms knew full well they were making loans to indigent debtors; now that those loans have gone belly up, they and their investors go running to the oppressive "nanny state" for help. Like me I'm sure you're shocked - shocked - that there isn't more outrage over these intrusions by the government in our vaunted free market system.

Like others - some who do this for a living - I think we're in for an even wilder ride, one that will hobble even Bernanke's white horse...

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Away

For the next several weeks I will be travelling in Germany, Switzerland and Austria. If the chance arises, I'll file a report from time to time. Otherwise, I'll consolidate some impressions on my return in late-August. And, in the meantime, I'm told there are other websites on the internet worth visiting. Hard to imagine...