Tchotchkes and Circus

Over the Thanksgiving weekend our Australian member pointed out a striking contrast. A constant topic of conversation among our group, being mid-career professionals from New York and Washington, D.C., it the outrageous price of houses. We are all at that age where we are looking and scheming, but for myself I have completely written off the prospect of ever owning a house in any place where I would like to live, namely the big city.

In the midst of one of these rants, Dean, a man with a considerable lust for gadgets mind you, pointed out that increasingly the most important things in life — housing, education, healthcare — are astronomically expensive, pushing completely unaffordable to normal middle class people. Meanwhile all the trivial junk — banana hangers, juicers, fruit dryers, bread makers, cheese straighteners — becomes ever more cheap.

This is just the economic continuation of bread and circus: as the most important things in life recede ever farther from grasp, people are distracted by trivial entertainment and petty satisfactions.

Often enough, this is offered up as adequate consolation in the bargain of trade liberalization. Yes, yes, mid-level skilled jobs may be fleeing the country at an alarming rate but this is completely offset — so the argument goes — by the stunning decrease in prices. People’s wages may have stagnated, but the goods they seek to purchase have decreased in price so their real standard of living has improved. The fly in the ointment is that the price of imported goods — cheese straighteners et. al. — has decreased while the price of domestically produced goods — healthcare, houses, education — has continued to increase apace. Or perhaps what we are witnessing is correct valuation of these dear goods: as the return on investment in these life-investments has grown, their value, like blue-chip stocks, has grown accordingly. Whatever the case, what we are witnessing is the reverse of Robert Reich’s thesis from The Work Of Nations: rather than investing in our immovable capital, namely our nation’s citizens, we are allowing them to crumble in favor of tooth brushes that match the bathroom curtains.

Owing to I-don’t-know-what — morbidity about the future and infatuation with the shimmer of the present — the calculation by which your average person discounts future prosperity is all out of whack. Contra the Virginia Postrel thesis, life may be ever more stylish and well designed, but it is simultaneously more mean and slim in its life-investment aspects. What we are experiencing is a hollowing out of the human economy. The aesthetics are just the latest in bread and circus. And I’m not talking ivory tower abstractions about what constitutes the good life — some sort of life of mind and real freedom versus crass materialist comfort. As Hans Roslings has amply demonstrated (e.g. Debunking ‘Third-World’ Myths with the Best Stats You’ve Ever Seen,”, TED, Monteray, California, February 2006) and as I’ve learned as a supervisor, basic health is perhaps the most important prerequisite to prosperity. Education is the foundation upon which future wellbeing is built. To the extent that we defer human investment in favor of spending our money on the day-to-day, we undermine our capacity to keep the circus of gadgets going.

Deregulate Marriage

Stephanie Coontz, perhaps the most successful professor at my alma mater in terms of actual impact on U.S. political debate, editorializes in today’s New York Times on why the state should get out of the business of certifying and legitimating marriages (“Taking Marriage Private,” 26 November 2007):

In the 1950s, using the marriage license as a shorthand way to distribute benefits and legal privileges made some sense because almost all adults were married…

Today, however, possession of a marriage license tells us little about people’s interpersonal responsibilities. Half of all Americans aged 25 to 29 are unmarried, and many of them already have incurred obligations as partners, parents or both. Almost 40 percent of America’s children are born to unmarried parents. Meanwhile, many legally married people are in remarriages where their obligations are spread among several households.

Possession of a marriage license is no longer the chief determinant of which obligations a couple must keep, either to their children or to each other. But it still determines which obligations a couple can keep — who gets hospital visitation rights, family leave, health care and survivor’s benefits. This may serve the purpose of some moralists. But it doesn’t serve the public interest of helping individuals meet their care-giving commitments.

A marriage is a hybrid of part administrative expedience, part contract law and part sacred cultural institution. The sacred cultural institution stuff is a part of autonomous culture and the state has little business meddling there. As for the administration and contract law portions, Ms. Coontz makes a perfectly pragmatic case for deregulation. Changing mores have rendered the original expedience obsolete.

So the argument goes in the economic sphere: the Twenty-First Century is a fast changing time for which the bureaucratic and regulatory machinery of the state is ill-suited. Best to leave it to the nimble, distributed private market to adapt to this rapidly evolving environment. So it is today also with culture. So how about extending the same courtesy to individuals as to business?

The Magnificent Seven

Thanksgiving weekend, 2007, Pleasant Valley Ranch, Pennsylvania, riding horses

(six in picture, seventh behind camera)

S. and I spent the Thanksgiving weekend with the usual crew of regional friends, one toddler, three dogs a cat and an Aussie, this time in the Poconos. The stuffing wars between S. and I brewed on into another season (I make mine with thyme and raisins, she makes a more stripped down version). I tried to supplement my usual entry with an experimental roast fall vegetable stuffing, but owing to insufficient time-management on my part had to be turned over to another cook to be circumscribed into merely roast vegetables, sans cornbread.

The day after Thanksgiving we went on a day hike. We ended up driving all over creation trying to locate a trail where we wouldn’t be imperiled by the stray slings and arrows of hunters. After driving past a number of trailheads, we arrived upon a national park, figuring that there wouldn’t be any hunters allowed. We parked and as we were headed for the trailhead, two young men in full camouflage, one toting a bow and arrows, the other a rifle came off the trail and towards us. This put a pall on our hiking party and we stopped them for questioning. They explained that it was hunting to the right, no hunting to the left, and that the hunters would probably have hiked quite a ways off the trail anyway. So we decided to proceed. The hutch at the trailhead greeted us with a litany of yellow warning postings. “Warning: Hunting season in effect.” “Warning: Beware of Bears,” and all the usual instructions on what to do if attacked by a bear. The next one was a bonus danger: “Warning: Venture off the marked trail at your own risk. This park is a former military base and may contain unexploded ordinance.” But the real kicker was a homemade bulletin with the row of tear-offs down one side listing the contact information for the nearest hospital and driving directions to get there. And two of the tear-offs had already been taken.

On Saturday we went horseback riding at Pleasant Valley Ranch. I don’t like horses and the only time I have ever ridden one was in probably fourth grade when a classmate and her mother rode their horses over to my parents house. I was boosted up into the saddle, wrapped my arms around the waste of my classmate and she rode me one lap up and down the dirt road off of which my parents live.

Under most circumstances I would have been much less than enthusiastic about the prospect of riding horses, but as I am presently reading quite a bit of Nineteenth Century military and diplomatic history and as horsemanship plays a significant part in this tale and is major component of martial virtue in the period, I though I should get a visceral sense of it. The ranch is twenty-something acres and we rode through wooded hollows, over grassy hills and through recently harvested corn fields. The picture above is taken as we came out of a wood at the crest of a hill overlooking a valley and a ridge, along which ran a portion of the Appalachian Trail (please note the humorous expression on the face of my horse, Bogie, inset).

As horses’ hooves rustled through the fallen leaves along the trails, I tried to imagine navigating the strange and uncharted byways of sparsely populated preindustrial Europe. I tried to imagine what it would be like to ride from Paris to Moscow in a column of 600,000 in the summer of 1812, happy and unaware. It was plenty cold out on Saturday, but I tried also to imagine what it would be like to be about as well dressed as I was this day, but in twenty-degree-below-zero weather on the retreat from Moscow. Where the road was boggy, I tried to imagine what it would be like for a team to pull a cannon through the mud.

My inspiration here is Adam Zamoyski’s gruesome book, Moscow 1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March. In a section of the book where he ponders the factors that determined who survived and who perished, Mr. Zamoyski proposes a number of possibilities. At the heading of one subsection of illustrative vignettes, he proposes, “Devotion to another could be a life-saver.” It is a misleading introduction as most of what follows are actually stories about how people died together. The horses are the subject of some of the most brutal passages in Mr. Zamoyski’s book, but of the devotion between soldier and horse he says,

Sergent Bourgogne tells of his friend Melet, a dragoon of the Guard. Melet was devoted to his horse, Cadet, with which he had been through several campaigns, in Spain, Austria and Prussia, and was determined to get it back to France with him. He always went in search of food for Cadet before thinking of himself, and when it became impossible to find any forage at all along the line of retreat of the Grand Armée he went in search of it among the Russians, donning the coat and helmet of a Russian dragoon he had killed in order to get past their pickets. Once inside the enemy’s encampment he would help himself to enough hay and oats for a few days and then make his escape. Sometimes he was discovered, but he always got away, and he did return to France with Cadet. A Bavarian Chevau-Léger whose darling mare Lisette fell through the ice of a bog outside Krasny and could not get out simply lay down to die beside her. (p. 491)

It was just a little two hour ride around the lot, but by the time the horses started to anticipate the end of the road I was fretting that it was over so soon. If you are looking to do something equine Pleasant Valley Ranch is a great experience. You couldn’t ask for a more easygoing, intelligent and attentive host.

Law and Order and the Southern Strategy

Matthew Yglesias produces a graph of homicide rate and political party and makes, I think, two killing points about the relation between the Republican “law and order” rhetoric in the 1960s through 1980s and the Southern strategy (“The Crime Issue,” The, 20 November 2007):

  1. … if a move to the right was really the consequence of rising crime rates, one would expect the most conservative groups in the electorate to be those most afflicted by violent crime — low-income African-Americans. But of course that’s not how it works at all.
  2. … if the appeal of “crime” messaging was really about crime, its effectiveness should have diminished in years 1972, 1988, and to some extent 1984 when GOP leadership failed to address the issue …

This is a pretty tough indictment that the law and order issues was in fact a ruse for something else.

Point two seems especially damning in light of subsequent cultural wars and the whole “what’s the matter with Kansas” critique. Economically insecure white men could have blamed globalization-catalyzing modern day robber barons for their newfound economic peril, but instead had their anger trained by an effective political rhetoric on blacks and women. Today all that would-be class warfare is being poured instead into a culture war mold. And on neither occasion — in the 1970s and 80s on crime and today on the culture war — are Republicans at all effective. They just turn around the white flight and culture war votes into increased lower middle class white economic insecurity.

Books I Haven’t Read

Since I just bought Pierre Bayard’s How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, I guess that I should post on it now, not having read it, rather than later when maybe I will.

I became a book collector fairly early on and all the way up through my early post-college years I could still name the author and title of every book I owned and I had honestly familiarized myself with at least a significant chunk of each one. But then as my income grew while my available free time stayed constant or even has diminished slightly, the portion of my book collection with which I have that level of familiarity has shrunk precipitously. At this point I have to confess to being as much a book collector as a book reader. In fact, it occurred to me a few nights ago, after recently having installed three new shelves, that I may have to start budgeting my book acquisitions in shelf-inches rather than dollars (“I’m only allowed three inches this month so its either the thousand page tomb or the two 350 page jobs”).

When S. saw me unload this latest acquisition from my bag she was rather amused that I had found just the right book. But with the seed planted, on no less than three occasions throughout the day did I catch myself and stop to point out that I was just that moment talking about some text that I had not in fact read.

And this dovetails well with David Brooks’s column a few weeks ago on “The Outsourced Brain” (The New York Times, 26 October 2007) where he said,

I had thought that the magic of the information age was that it allowed us to know more, but then I realized the magic of the information age is that it allows us to know less.

In a follow-up, Ezra Klein really makes the not reading point (“The External Brain,” 26 October 2007):

But so long as [Google’s] around, I don’t need to really read anything. I just need to catalogue the existence of things I might one day read. I don’t so much study web sites as scan for impressions, for markers, for key words I’ll need if I want to return. I don’t need the knowledge so much as a vague outline of what the knowledge is and how to get back.

Indeed, not reading is the wave of the future.

When I was younger and not yet even a dilettante, still just groping toward my present pissant snobbery, my younger and even more bizarre brother, brought us both into contact with the film The Metropolitan. The class issues were lost on me at the time, but it was a revelation: people just hanging around talking about ideas and drinking cocktails. What more could a person possibly want?

The snippet of dialogue that then as now stands out to me the most is one of their salon go-rounds:

Audrey Rouget: What Jane Austen novels have you read?

Tom Townsend: None. I don’t read novels. I prefer good literary criticism. That way you get both the novelists’ ideas as well as the critics’ thinking. With fiction I can never forget that none of it really happened, that it’s all just made up by the author.

To this day I probably read twice as many book reviews as I do actual books.

A Bipartisan Dupe

One of the reason that I love Paul Krugman so much is that he writes nary a word with which I disagree. Friday’s column (“Played for a Sucker,” The New York Times, 16 November 2007) on Barack Obama’s adoption of Republican “crisis” language regarding Social Security was exactly the sort of rhetoric I would hope for from a vigilant left.

But Mr. Obama’s Social Security mistake was, in fact, exactly what you’d expect from a candidate who promises to transcend partisanship in an age when that’s neither possible nor desirable.

I don’t believe Mr. Obama is a closet privatizer. He is, however, someone who keeps insisting that he can transcend the partisanship of our times — and in this case, that turned him into a sucker.

Mr. Obama wanted a way to distinguish himself from Hillary Clinton — and for Mr. Obama, who has said that the reason “we can’t tackle the big problems that demand solutions” is that “politics has become so bitter and partisan,” joining in the attack on Senator Clinton’s Social Security position must have seemed like a golden opportunity to sound forceful yet bipartisan.

But Social Security isn’t a big problem that demands a solution; it’s a small problem, way down the list of major issues facing America, that has nonetheless become an obsession of Beltway insiders. And on Social Security, as on many other issues, what Washington means by bipartisanship is mainly that everyone should come together to give conservatives what they want.

We all wish that American politics weren’t so bitter and partisan. But if you try to find common ground where none exists — which is the case for many issues today — you end up being played for a fool. And that’s what has just happened to Mr. Obama.

The left should absolutely not lay central New Deal programs — programs for which the opportunity to create may never come again — down on the negotiating table in exchange for some amorphous good will on the part of the right. And Mr. Obama or any other candidate should get that message in no uncertain terms.

Seven years ago, during the 2000 campaign, there was a fairly significant sub-debate about how time spent as a Senator did not do a very good job of prepare a politician for the presidency. The Senate is a collegial atmosphere and owing to the long terms of office, the staggered election cycle and the fact that states can’t be gerrymandered, it is a much more moderate environment than the rough-and-tumble ideological circus sideshow that is the House of Representatives — and really the rest of U.S. politics beyond the hallowed halls of the north wing of the Capitol building.

I would like to think that all Mr. Obama’s happy talk about bipartisanship is just political claptrap designed to appeal to moderate voters who don’t understand what all the partisan bickering is about. But it increasingly seems like real naivety. I would say that nothing in his experience to date has prepared Mr. Obama to fight the kind of partisan wars that he will have to fight to become the president and then more of the same to pass a legislative agenda. And for that reason he should be ruled out at the party’s presidential nominee.

The Last U.S. Veteran of the First World War

In May of 2005 The Economist chose as the subject for its obituary Albert Marshall, the last British cavalryman of the First World War, who had died on 16 May 2005 at the age of 108 (“The Last of the Mounted British Cavalry,” smarties, 3 June 2005). Mr. Marshall is only one of a series of such last survivors of the First World War. This Armistice Day both The New York Times and The Washington Post (Rubin, Richard, “Over There — and Gone Forever,” Kunkle, Fredrick, “World War I Veteran Reflects on Lessons,” 12 November 2007, respectively) ran stories about Frank W. Buckles, at age 106 the last remaining U.S. veteran of the Great War. From The New York Times:

But even more significant than the remarkable details of Mr. Buckles’s life is what he represents: Of the two million soldiers the United States sent to France in World War I, he is the only one left.

This Veterans Day marked the 89th anniversary of the armistice that ended that war. The holiday [was] first proclaimed as Armistice Day by President Woodrow Wilson in 1919 and renamed in 1954 to honor veterans of all wars … But there’s a good chance that this Veterans Day will prove to be the last with a living American World War I veteran. (Mr. Buckles is one of only three left; the other two were still in basic training in the United States when the war ended.) Ten died in the last year. The youngest of them was 105.

Four years ago, I attended a Veterans Day observance in Orleans, Mass. Near the head of the parade, a 106-year-old named J. Laurence Moffitt rode in a Japanese sedan, waving to the small crowd of onlookers and sporting the same helmet he had been wearing in the Argonne Forest at the moment the armistice took effect, 85 years earlier.

I didn’t know it then, but that was, in all likelihood, the last small-town American Veterans Day parade to feature a World War I veteran. The years since have seen the passing of one last after another — the last combat-wounded veteran, the last Marine, the last African-American, the last Yeomanette — until, now, we are down to the last of the last.

It’s hard for anyone, I imagine, to say for certain what it is that we will lose when Frank Buckles dies. It’s not that World War I will then become history; it’s been history for a long time now. But it will become a different kind of history, the kind we can’t quite touch anymore, the kind that will, from that point on, always be just beyond our grasp somehow. We can’t stop that from happening. But we should, at least, take notice of it.

If I may quibble a little bit, the First World War is not “history”: we live with its consequences every day. In fact, one might say that we still occupy its long shadow.

That aside, I concur that the notion of living memory and a direct lineage to events is significant, especially psychologically so. Plowing a field behind a team of animals, however primitive it may sound, is a part of our world owing to the presence of certain grey-hairs who will recount years of having performed such a labor. The Crimean War is something else entirely. It may as well be the Siege of Troy. The transition from living history to the history that is relegated to documents and artifacts and books and nothing else is dismaying. As Carl Sagan pointed out, we are all orphans abandoned on the doorstep of time. But we are not abandoned once. We are abandoned over and over again every time one of our own passes.