Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Hat Tip

I leave shortly for a train to NYC, where I'll be delivering a lecture today on liberal education. Among other things, I was looking forward to what had become one of my favorite little customs when I travel to NY - a trip to Arnold Hatters, a great hat store close to Penn Station.

On a whim, I checked online to see if they have an online presence, just to have an idea of what I might look at when I'm there. Alas - I just learned that they have closed down, a victim of a bad economy, a forced move (by the New York Times), and too many hatless men. Doubtless their space will be occupied by a Kinko's or a Domino's. If we're lucky, another Ray's Pizza. Another small piece of old New York is gone.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Electrifying

This article caught my attention yesterday - our hunger for electricity to power our "personal electronics" has grown so insatiable that very soon the United States will need to build "the equivalent of 560 coal-fired power plants, or 230 nuclear plants," according to the International Energy Agency. Since 1980 - when, on average, there were three "personal electronic" devices per house, that number has grown to about 25. And - this one floored me - the amount of energy the nation uses to power "gaming systems" whose players are unwilling to turn them off at night (lest they "lose" the current game they are playing) is equivalent to the annual usage of the entire city of San Diego, the nation's ninth largest city.

The move to electricity was once hailed as a near-miraculous liberation from "drudgery." Freeing humans from the need any longer to do the basic chores of the household that once required muscle, endless vistas of newly-won leisure were upon us. We no longer had to cut our grass, mix the batter, sweep the floor, cut the turkey - any host of menial household tasks - using our muscles. No longer did we have to snap our wrists to produce a breeze from the fan, or wind a clock, or look in the back of a closet in the search for the elusive tie, with the creation of devices that relieved us at every turn of the drudgery of employing our muscles.

It was thought that this new era of liberation from drudgery would free us for new pursuits which our grandparents might only have imagined. Leisure to pursue crafts, hobbies, to read, write, learn, worship, spend ever better quality time with family and neighbors. Instead, we have seen the exponential rise of the use of electronics for the use of "personal entertainment" devices, ones that largely exist to distract us during the relatively more ample leisure time that we now enjoy as a result of our electronic liberation. The very source of our liberation - electricity - became the conduit for a kind of mindless servitude, the bread-and-circus programming intended to keep us occupied and distracted from anything resembling actual thought about the implications of what we were doing.

Those acts of drudgery that we overcame were inherently educative: they taught us about the natural rhythms of life and nature, the circularity of time and lifespan, the basic needs of life and their connections to all the matters of the created world. In tilling the soil and preparing our food, in working to preserve what was available now what we knew might not be present in the future, we learned virtues of thrift and foresight, prudence and moderation. Yes - we were taught in the first pages of the Bible that to work by the sweat of our brow was a consequence of the Fall, a burden that had been laid upon man for transgression in our first state. Yet, to recognize the fact of such work as a basic and inescapable condition of humanity was to reconcile ourselves to the conditions of the world, to make us prone to satisfaction with what is, rather than dissatisfied with what is not. It taught us to appreciate blessings small and large, a piece of ripe fruit, an evening of leisure in song and story, a small bed of flowers that pointed to our love of beauty that transcended mere utility.

Our liberation, and current forms leisure through electronic distraction and stimulation, also contains inherent lessons. Many of those forms of electronic distraction are meant solely to stimulate our senses, to offer an incessant cascade of colors and images and sounds that are intended to excite the basic hedonistic centers of our cortex. Further - in offering us an ever-escalating intensity of stimulation, this form of sensory distraction stimulates a kind of stimulation addiction. Like a heroin addict, we need ever more and purer highs to achieve the satiation that was once available to us with less. Not only do we now have over 20 new gadgets in our houses than thirty years ago, but hundreds of channels, countless games, ever-present tools of "communication." A colleague begins his course by accusing his students of addiction to their electronics. When they deny this is the case, he passes around a box and asks for volunteers to give up their cellphones for the semester. The box always returns empty.

Furthermore, our leisure is no longer leisured. Leisure at its best is a time and space apart from the world of necessity. Today, much of our electronically primed "leisure" is largely another opportunity for commerce, specifically advertising. In our "retreat" from drudgery we are inundated with images and sounds and temptations that urge us to want more, to crave more deeply, to ache more longingly for that possession that finally will fulfill us. Our leisure is a boot camp for consumerism, a training-ground for , an incitement to conditions of indebtedness and spendthriftiness. As the historian Lendol Carter has written (Jason Peters' colleague at Augustana), "The original promise of industrialism was that it bring people more time not for leisure, not more money for goods. Goods we now have, but little time for leisure.... To be sure, credit-driven consumerism offers moments of indulgence and excess. But the apparatus of credit ensures that consumerism is also a goad for more work. This has made American middle-class life today less a playground for hedonists than an extension of Max Weber's 'iron cage' of disciplined rationality."

What we learn in our leisure flows without obstacle into our political selves, manifested particularly in our dissatisfaction with current conditions and our expectation for constant "product improvement." So we find ourselves unjustly burdened and inconvenienced by any discomfort or obstacle to our happiness, and hold the government accountable for our dissatisfaction. We come to demand government activity in all spheres of life to relieve what might otherwise have been accepted as basic conditions of life (e.g., our right to constant MRIs), no matter the cost to future generations.

Of course, this last is the ultimate lesson of our electronic binge: for, at its root, it is a power that has been given to us by geologic time, the inheritance of ages that preceded us in the millions of years. In the burning of coal, the firing of natural gas, the half-lives of uranium, we use this inheritance constantly without replenishment, claiming for ours what no generation can truly own, but which our generation has usurped without permission. We draw down this eon-old inheritance in the belief that we alone are entitled (first) to liberation from drudgery, and (second) to a right to distraction from attentiveness. Ours is a right to sloth, paid for by debts to be paid by our children and theirs. For, certainly, eventually we will build those 560 coal powered plants or 230 nuclear power stations, because to do otherwise would be to deprive ourselves of the right to press a button and have our will be done. Wendell Berry has written that if we could invent a steam shovel to pick up a dime we had dropped on the street, we would do it. What we are doing is inventing an endless string of devices to obscure from ourselves the viciousness of our actions. The first thing we'll do when the power goes off is to blame the government at the same time we demand it fix the problem. We are truly, in every sense of the word, a nation of addicts.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Columny

It seems long ago now that I wrote an occasional column for "The Daily Princetonian." Let's say I had something of a contrarian streak, not feeling entirely persuaded that Princeton's orthodoxies were worthy of my fidelity. I realized one day that I'd struck a chord in high places when attending a gathering of Princeton's gliterati, and - wearing a self-identifying name-tag - a muckity-muck Dean whom I'd never met before looked at me with unfeigned horror and said, "Oh, you're Patrick Deneen...." Needless to say, I was denied tenure when the time came.

Well, now with the benefit of tenure if no additional wisdom, I've begun writing again for a college newspaper - this time "The Hoya." My first column appeared in yesterday's edition, and others will follow fortnightly. I suppose if I have unfulfilled childhood dreams, one would involve a baseball glove and proximity to second base. The other - to be an arbiter of opinion of those with newsprint on their fingers. I guess starting a "blawg" was a modest outlet for at least one of those frustrated fantasies.

In any event, my first column was titled (by the editors): "Universities Shoulder Some Blame for the Recession." Its inspiration: the idea that universities should display as prominently in their promotional literature and websites those alumni working on Wall Street who had contributed to the Great Recession as they do those who have won Rhodes Scholarships. Pretty funny, no?

Monday, September 14, 2009

Pan-American Political Science Association?

Russell Arben Fox has treated us to his reflections of the recently concluded APSA here. It would be surprising if there were anything as thematic as what he reports here, given that the Association's annual meeting is a sprawling and massive sea of academics who at best gather in cliques of academic specialty, ideological similarity, or graduate school memories.

But, perhaps at least by the sheer fact of its name, there was in the past one common thing that held the Association together: at one point, it might have been understood what the word "American" meant in the association's title. "American" designated an association that was physically located in, and even derived its identity from, the United States of America. While not limited to American citizens or faculty working in America, the designation indicated at the very least that the Association was born in the recognition of the basic claims and reality of nations.

In holding the recent conference in Toronto, Canada, the Association (and, by extension, the profession) has implicitly raised a question about this basic identification. I say "implicitly" because I know of no sustained discussion of the decision to place the Association meeting outside of the United States. Recently the decision to site the conference in New Orleans in 2011 received discipline-wide scrutiny because of perceptions that Louisiana law would make it an unwelcome location for gays; however, the decision to locate the recently concluded meeting in Canada received little comparable scrutiny (a small "retaliation" protest raised questions about academic free speech in light of Canada's "Human Rights Commissions," but was summarily dismissed by the Association and received only modest attention. Most of its signatories attended the conference).

Coming on the wake of a panel at last year's meeting in which it was discussed - and an Association committee was formed to explore - whether the subfield of "American Government" should be eliminated as an outmoded nation-centered field that gives undue recognition or stress upon a particular place, the Association's under-discussed decision to site the annual meeting in Canada gives pause. "Political Science" - like all the social sciences - was created under the aspiration to treat human phenomena with the same form of scientific objectivity, analysis, and rigor as was taking place in the natural sciences. A distinctive feature of the natural sciences is its universality - what is discovered by a particular researcher in one place is and ought to be available and replicable by a researcher anywhere else on the globe. Scientists often consider themselves to be a society of investigators who transcend place and time.

By contrast, the study of human things - especially politics - at least in its inception implied the recognition of the reality of human particularlity - meaning place, history, culture, politics, identity, loyalty, exclusion, patriotism, war, solidarity, and so on. The American Political Science Association was born of a mixed or even confused mandate: aspire to the objective, universal and disembodied condition of the natural sciences in the study of the human phenomenon of politics. If the word "Science" in the title "American Political Science Association" implied one way of being in the world, the other three words - "American," "Political," and "Association" - cut against the implications of that particular vocation. If largely understated, it was long understood that the field of American Government was legitimate because it mattered where one lived, and further, that one's students know more about one's own polity than those of other nations. Citizenship was a large component in the consideration of what mattered.

The decision to site the most recent meeting in Canada was largely treated - if discussed at all - as an administrative and possibly tourist matter, a decision to encourage international comity. However, implicitly it raises some large questions that have gone largely unexplored. At this point in the history of the Association, does it make sense to continue to call it the "American" Political Science Association. Given drifts in the profession away from implicit recognition of the legitimacy of place and history and citizenship, why retain this marker of distinction? Does the decision to site the most recent meeting in Canada imply that we have become the North American Political Association? If so, is this not an offensive exclusion of Central and South America? At that point, why limit it at all to the Americas? How can it be further justified to hold the vast majority of annual meetings in the United States?

The Association and many of its members would doubtless tut-tut that any such prospects were clearly not the intention in its generous decision to spread some of its wealth and legitimizing aura north of the border. However, it's precisely by leaving the issue unexplored and underarticulated that the Association is sending strong signals about (at the very least) its tendency to be intentionally subject to the prevailing winds of transnationalism, globalism and cosmopolitanism. The aim is to be placeless, to show ourselves - as true scientists - to be citizens of the world, belonging at once everywhere and nowhere.

For the first time in probably 20 years, I did not attend this year's conference. I gladly remained home with family and friends on Labor Day weekend, ate barbeque, drank beer, saw a baseball game (appropriately enough, the team that was once located in Canada and is now housed in the nation's capital), and flew the American flag in honor of the American worker. On that weekend at least, I decided to behave as a father, husband, neighbor and citizen - and decidedly, not as a scientist.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Risk Pool

It has been a year since the collapse of Lehman Brothers, and the subsequent near-collapse of the international economic system followed quickly by the massive increase of (at least visible) central government presence in nearly every aspect of our economic lives. In spite of this period of time that might permit reflection on these events, it seems we have yet to do a real accounting of the causes of this crisis and thus discern a true path to mitigation of the factors that precipitated those days and months of panic and this long period of simultaneous quiescence and discontent. Perhaps at the deepest level, our inability to actually achieve a true accounting is the actual source of the crisis. For to do so would require us to speak in terms of character and sin, and to eshcew our accustomed public language of technique and method.

As legislators speak of new regulations of the financial industry (even as we find out daily that the problem lie more in the lack of real enforcement, as well as the ability of the industry and government to change existing regulation when it proved onerous for profits and campaign contributions), and as people in the industry mouth their commitment to changing their ways, those with eyes to see discern that nothing has changed because at base our behaviors are being influenced and even governed by a set of systemic and deeply embedded assumptions about the nature of human society. We remain profoundly committed to an economic and political system of abstraction, one that begins at the most basic level by generating as many externalized costs as possible in order to give the highest degree of immediate pleasure and satisfaction to the soveriegn self who happens to live now. It further extends in our manipulation of nearly every social mechanism - schools, living arrangements, economic frameworks, work, entertainment, parenting, even death and burial - that creates distance between us, that renders those relationships normalized, homogenized, abstracted, theoretical, de-personalized. We accede to the destruction of places, of history, of cultures and traditions because we cease to perceive any real connection to them - we are exceedingly good at erecting museums to what we have lost, but very bad at actually retaining anything of lasting value.

And so we learn, and should not be surprised, that very little has changed. We learn, for example, that a year after government extended its tentacles ever more deeply into the economic system to prevent the failure of institutions so large that they would have created systemic implosion, that many of the nation's leading financial institutions are even bigger than when the crisis began. And why wouldn't any rational player not seek to be as big as possible, when the lesson clearly to be drawn from the past year was that the bigger you are, the more likely that the government will bail you out if you land in trouble. Thus, the bigger you are, the riskier you can behave, and presumably, the more money you can make - at least in the short term, which is all that matters in the age of the quarterly report.

We also learn that our economic system remains addicted to the peddling of "financial products" that reflect no real value in reality. This should have been one massive take-away from the events of the past year - a fundamental reassessment of what an economy is for - whether it exists to help create and deliver the basic goods of life necessary for "mere life," which then allows for the opportunity to achieve "the good life" in ways that are not solely dependent on the material goods that an economy can provide (rather, that come from our relationships with our families and our communities, particularly the gifts of fellowship, our shared capacity to instill a deeply embedded set of virtues in each new generation, our opportunity to worship together in gratitude to the source of our blessings); or whether an economy exists to allow maximum extraction of profit by any means necessary, particularly if we can effectively get something for nothing.

The most recent "financial product" that reflects our commitment to the latter - and particularly, the divorcing of an economy of real value from an economy of falsified and abstract moneymaking - was disclosed in an article in this past Saturday's New York Times. There it was reported that financial wizards have cooked up a new financial scheme in which life insurance policies of elderly people are purchased for a percentage of the actual face value of the policy, and then "bundled" as securitized "investment" vehicles. According to the article,

The bankers plan to buy “life settlements,” life insurance policies that ill and elderly people sell for cash — $400,000 for a $1 million policy, say, depending on the life expectancy of the insured person. Then they plan to “securitize” these policies, in Wall Street jargon, by packaging hundreds or thousands together into bonds. They will then resell those bonds to investors, like big pension funds, who will receive the payouts when people with the insurance die.

The earlier the policyholder dies, the bigger the return — though if people live longer than expected, investors could get poor returns or even lose money.

Either way, Wall Street would profit by pocketing sizable fees for creating the bonds, reselling them and subsequently trading them. But some who have studied life settlements warn that insurers might have to raise premiums in the short term if they end up having to pay out more death claims than they had anticipated.

The idea is still in the planning stages. But already “our phones have been ringing off the hook with inquiries,” says Kathleen Tillwitz, a senior vice president at DBRS, which gives risk ratings to investments and is reviewing nine proposals for life-insurance securitizations from private investors and financial firms, including Credit Suisse.

Of course, our best and brightest have learned nothing from recent history:

“We’re hoping to get a herd stampeding after the first offering,” said one investment banker not authorized to speak to the news media.

What this "investment product" will effectively generate is the hope and even subtle efforts to increase the likelihood that policy-holders will die early. It will pit a portion of the "investment community" against the sick and elderly, and foster a widespread sentiment that someone's premature death will help to increase my bottom line. Because these already abstract policies will have been securitized, it won't matter that we're talking about someone's father or grandmother or friend or lover. All that will matter is that my rate of return be incrementally increased. As with the recent mortgage debacle, I am required to know nothing about the people who hold the mortgages; our relationship has been rendered abstract and distant, and my only basis of judgment about the propriety of those loans is my wager that I will receive an outsized return on investment.

What's striking about this newest "product" being cooked up by our financial wizards is its ultimate perversion of the original idea of insurance. Everything that is touched by our contemporary mode of abstraction and de-personalization turns to mud. In this case, insurance - which began as a form of communal care and even charity - is turned into an instrument that not-so-subtly induces us to wish for another's premature death. Here is Stephen Marglin from his truly excellent book The Dismal Science: How Thinking Like an Economist Undermines Community:

Like fire insurance, life insurance and health insurance were originally embedded in community, and the evolution of insuring human being is particularly instructive. In medieval and early modern Europe, gulds provided assistance to members who had fallen on hard times as well as to widows and children of members who had died. Confraternities were religious devotional societies but also much more: they provided care in sickness and death, and indeed beyond the grave, providing funds to say masses that would ease the passage of the departed through purgatory.

Insurance, particularly for the confraternities, was closely allied to charity. Members' claims took precedence, but most confraternities extended material as well as spiritual support to the poor of their communities as well as their own members. Although looking back we can easily identify mutual insurance as a separate and distinct reason for confraternities, in the premodern European setting, insurance charity, and spiritual consolation were a piece. And though it may strike the modern mind as odd that death benefits would include insuring the progress of the soul out of purgatory, it would have struck the medieval mind as odd to separate insurance for the here-and-now from insurance for the hereafter. (14-15)

While this original source of insurance may seem too historically distant to be of relevance to us, Marglin notes that even into modern times, the way a community insures itself against risk reveals most deeply its self-understanding:
The example of insurance may appear to be somewhat random, but it is in fact not. The Amish, perhaps unique among twenty-first century America in their attention to fostering community, forbid insurance precisely because they understand that the market relationship between an individual and the insurance company undermines the mutual dependence of the individuals. For the Amish, barn raisings are not exercises in nostalgia, but the cement that binds the community together." (18-19)

What, then, of a society whose next "evolution" in insurance is its "securitization" so that "investors" can make a quick and painless profit, at once encouraging the elderly to spend the money now (they are the knowing accessories of this scheme, like those people who accepted the easy money in the form of sub-prime mortgages), while creating a widespread societal cheering squad for the quick death of policy-holders. What should be evident to us was that our all-too-recent financial crisis was not itself a "disease," but a symptom of a deeper pathology whose diagnosis still eludes us, so deeply does it lie in the DNA of our increasingly sick society.

Cross-posted at Front Porch Republic