Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Rays of Sunlight

Struck by the dark tone of this blog, I thought I’d start to note now and then matters that please me as I learn of them—and thus hope to make “Rays of Sunlight” a recurring title in this account. The occasion today was Brigitte’s enthusiasm as she shared a story from the New York Times announcing the appointment, as NATO commander, of Admiral James G. Stavridis. The Admiral’s last posting was the Southern Command. The “area of focus” of this command, as the military dubs its geographical coverage, is the entirety of the South American subcontinent including portions of Central America. As the article states, the Admiral’s command of French was already excellent when he assumed that command in 2006, but he spoke no Spanish. The text continues thus:

Over the next three years, his fluency was measured not only in the high-level meetings he conducted in the native tongue of his military hosts. He also read the novels of Gabriel García Márquez, the Nobel laureate from Colombia, in the original rich and lyrical Spanish. [NYT, June 30, 2009]

Terrific, we both thought. Admirable admiral! Brigitte and I both have extensive military experience—she as an employee and I as a soldier. We met in Germany because, in our respective jobs, we were coordinating various activities at a major military facility in Baumholder, an important artillery post and firing range, one of two, in Germany. We knew this institution from the inside, and, as insiders, we saw many things that were wrong, but, on balance, the military has always struck us as one of the stellar institutions of American life. There have always been, and, thank heaven, continue to be, outstanding figures like Admiral Stavridis, at every rank, by the way, not merely at the top. We saw back then, in the 1950s, how the Army—long before the Civil Rights Movement really got going—had completely integrated the races. The military could and did accomplish the job—without fuss and feathers. It is very pleasing to see that the tradition of excellence continues in its ranks.

Monday, June 29, 2009


In ordinary life people make distinctions between the practical and the philosophical. I hear people say: “Well, let’s not get too philosophical about that.” This stance puts philosophy into an airy-fairy region of reality and suggests that it has no practical bearing, thus that it isn’t real. I note here that one does not encounter this attitude uniformly across the globe. It is the product of a culture. For a while, about fifteen years ago, I had frequent dealings with a number of Russian immigrants. These were ordinary people, not intellectuals. They tended to come alive precisely when “things got philosophical”; they valued that mode of thought; it stimulated them; they could and did participate.

Philosophy is one straw in the wind. The notion of honor is another. In our culture honor is largely associated with backwardness and tribalism. Its high forms—and the high development of self that these represent—have become incomprehensible. Honor survives in diluted form only as sportsmanship, but the ingestion of steroids by some of our leading athletes indicates that honor is fading even in sports.

Manners? What manners? you might ask. Courtesy to women as I was taught it as a boy has become the negative of sexist behavior. Elderly women accept such minor gallantry as opening doors for them—if, sometimes, with a look of surprise or anxious suspicion. Men were supposed to honor women once (that word again) and, by courtesy, to communicate that attitude. The elderly were also supposed to have been honored, but today, curiously defying reality, we are supposed to pretend that aging doesn’t happen. The young therefore don’t invariably and spontaneously yield a seat to the aged. It still happens. Virtue flowers naturally in the human soul. But the new training seems to reach most.

Worst of all—and here is the confessional part—the culture is such that I find myself behaving in the modern mode time and time again. And it’s always only afterwards, on the way out to the car or on the way home, that I realize with a start what a slob I have become. When the whole culture acts in a certain way, it helps the individual. I still keenly remember how careful I became, years ago, during a trip to Japan—realizing there that a much higher standard prevailed. And I hastened to conform.

What all this signifies is that comprehensive understanding of reality, coherence between vast structures, and complexity are being lost. Philosophy is practical. Honor is superior to mere mutual advantage. Women really are different from men—and vive la différence. Recognizing that difference—and where it applies and where it does not—testifies to a power of differentiation. The elderly deserve special courtesies because they are weaker, because knowledge and experience are valuable and should be honored (and in courtesy acknowledged even if not present in every instance). Honor and courtesy arise from a well-developed understanding of values—and a recognition that values by their very nature are hierarchically arranged.

Another straw in the wind and I will go indoors. Our highest leaders leave office and then convert their fame into vast sums of money. Whatever happened to towering figures like Robert E. Lee who never used the word “enemy” but contented himself with saying “those people,” and who, after he retired, with barely any assets at all, resolutely avoided any hint of cashing in? It also troubles me to think—having learned that lots of people have never heard of the Battle of Gettysburg—that there are masses of people out there who may not recognize Lee's name, never mind his splendid example.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

What We Don't See

Somewhere in his astute discussions of the “stream of consciousness,” a phrase of his own invention, I think, William James notes the almost sovereign role of attention which, at will, picks some element of this stream on which to bestow its focus. James is often read as if he equated the “stream” with consciousness itself, but he really describes two distinct phenomena at work. I am at times reminded of the power of attention to draw near, and also to shut out, when I encounter certain puzzles or problems. The other day I saw a quiz on another site (Rebecca Writes) that I occasionally visit. It tests your knowledge of the borders of States of the Union. The quiz is here. I only scored five out of ten: obviously I’m not smart geographically despite thinking otherwise. But every time the subject arises, I flunk again. The other day, reading an old history book, I couldn’t for the life of me locate Sidon and Tyre. I should have known: Carthage was settled from there, and the settlers were Phoenicians, hence they came from Lebanon. Another great geography test is here, hat tip to Monique for that one.

The passing of Michael Jackson powerfully reminded me that, despite my arrival in the United States in 1951, I’ve managed to miss the whole flamboyant flowering of psychedelic pop culture in my own times—except to the extent that I couldn’t avoid it—including phenomena like Elvis Presley, the Beatles, and many other greats. Out of that ocean the only figures I’m able to focus are Bruce Springsteen on the male and Enya, Joan Baez, and Judy Collins on the female side. I recognize the faces of perhaps a hundred or more actors and actresses—and have definite ideas whether or not I like them—but I can only name one: Meryl Streep.

Sports is a desert. I only know a little about baseball, but that amounts to a small cluster of atoms—this despite The Dickson Baseball Dictionary within reach of where I sit. My knowledge of flowers and trees is even more abysmal—but I do regularly visit Jim’s Hostas, aka the hosta library, just to get lost in gardening reveries.

Yes. We see those things we choose to see. Lord! The world is limitless. And you do have to make choices. But we also actively construct our ignorance.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Wealth and its Allocation

If those who keep our national accounts are doing a good job, specifically the Bureau of Economic Analysis, part of the Department of Commerce—the agency that constructs the Gross Domestic Product and its subcomponents—there is no doubt that wealth has increased. I looked at this subject the other day and confirmed it using data from the BEA dealing with per capita disposable personal income expressed in constant dollars.* To look at a reasonable time period, let's take twenty years. In 1988 disposable income per person was $20,740 in the United States. Twenty years later, in 2008, it was $28,741—in dollars of the same purchasing power. Actual purchasing power had therefore increased almost 40 percent in that period. Wealth has definitely grown. And if we go back forty years, real wealth has more than doubled; in 1968 disposable income was $12,892 for every woman, man, and baby in the realm.

But the quality of life does not necessarily mirror increase in real wealth—and that has all manner of interesting implications. The facts bombard us. In getting ready for a move we just discovered some old copies of the Detroit Free Press, Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times from the year 2000. Strange and wonderful: all three papers were physically larger. They were also thicker—because they held more ads. And the Detroit paper, which arrived at our door daily in those days, is now only tossed four times a week. Detroit may be an extreme example, Motown that it is, but it illustrates the subject. We drive its highways. Only those portions leading directly from the airport to the Ford Field football stadium are decently maintained. Why? Super Bowl XL took place here in early 2006. Bridges on many other thoroughfares are literally shedding concrete and bleeding rust. Three of the four domestic auto makers are in bankruptcy. A local malaise? Not really. There are many other signs, not least the well-known economic crisis in banking and housing. Then last Thursday the New York Times ran the article that actually triggered this post; it was headlined: COSTS KEEP RAIL SYSTEM OUTDATED ACROSS U.S. How come? Wealth is increasing; we do have the money.

Once you have wealth—and it is growing—it’s not the wealth that matters any more. It is its allocation. And here the issue boils down to two factors: who gets the money and what is it spent on. Considering the first question, wealth has been shifted to the top fifths of households over time. The following table shows this process over a forty-year period. It is derived from Census data available here.
Share of Aggregate Income by Household Quintiles - in Percent
Lowest2nd3rd4th5thTop 5%

A picture illustrates the change much better. The following bar chart shows change in share for three periods: from 1967 to 1987, from 1987 to 2007, and then for the entire forty-year period. What this tells us is that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Hence the quality of life for most declines despite an increase in wealth. Please note here that the last block, the one labeled “Top 5%” is part of the fifth quintile of households. It merely shows that the very top was the greatest winner in this forty-year race to the top.

This shift of wealth from the lower 80 percent of households to the top 20 percent may, all by itself, explain why our rails (and other activities in the public domain) are no longer maintained. This kind of rather dramatic shift signals that “natural phenomena,” thus market forces—over against conscious policy—govern the fortunes of the population. I have little doubt that this outcome is in large part due to the great expense involved in getting elected. Where the money comes from for that is very important—as are the motives of those who provide it. Are those motives selfish or communal? The money must come from the top fifth, by and large: it has been getting very much richer. It’s motives appear to be selfish, else we would see more allocation of wealth to the commons: our transportation systems, including the public transit, environment and parks, education, health care, the infrastructure, and the genuinely needy. I don’t have any data, but I suspect that the salaries of our elected officials, of their staffs, and the costs of their incidental expenses are much less than what these same officials have to expend on getting elected. If that money comes from corporate wealth—and if he who pays the piper calls the tune—I rather doubt that we still have a genuinely functioning democracy.

But there is a deeper current here as well. Our thinking has become simplistic. The notion that free markets are the answer to everything is unworthy of our species. That concept is modeled on nature, an unconscious process. But we are a conscious phenomenon. We are intentional. We can do better than letting nature rage away, destroying values built up very slowly over long periods by conscious effort. Put metaphorically, it’s nature that produces IPods but it’s humanity that builds a highway system for common use. It’s much easier to persuade individuals to buy a discrete product producing instant pleasure than a vast network of rails extending hundreds of miles.

No, indeed, it’s not the wealth but its allocation that counts—and the allocation needs to have a much higher level of intentionality, and a much more extensive time horizon, than our current system, focused on the next quarter or the next election, “naturally” produces.
*The BEA uses what are called “chained” dollars with a 2000 base, a newer form of calculating constant purchasing power, thus with the distorting effect of inflation (or deflation) removed.

Friday, June 26, 2009

When Compromise Compromises

Compromise is certainly one of the virtues of democratic politics, but, it seems to me, it only works when the problem to be decided is what E.F. Schumacher (1911-1977) called a convergent problem. Schumacher, an interesting figure, came to be known beyond narrower circles of economics with the publication of Small Is Beautiful, a contribution to thought about global development. He was a German-born economist who lived in Britain and worked on the post-war economic rebuilding of Germany, later on Britain’s National Coal Board, and later yet as a writer and advisor on international development. He also wrote a brief philosophical work called A Guide for the Perplexed which, in essence, reflects his encounter with the transcendental. He became a convert to Catholicism at age 60. In Guide he proposed that some problems are convergent and are therefore soluble by the collective contributions of people working together (the democratic situation, in my current context) and those that are divergent, thus problems that polarize groups and can never be resolved by those directly involved in the debate. Practical problems tend to be convergent: how to land humans on the moon. Value questions are often divergent because those on either side do not share a common understanding of the problem or the goal to be achieved.

The health care issue strikes me as a divergent problem but presented as if it were merely a matter of finding the right mix of solutions—as in the case of finding a less-polluting engine or a drug with fewer side effects.

The attempt to compromise the problem, meaning matching the demands of both sides by careful give and take, will not solve the problem. Too many contradictions are involved. Here are those that come to my mind.

If health care costs are a burden on industry and make it less than competitive against others based in countries where a national system picks up the cost, retaining a mixed system does not help our industry. If we provide subsidy for those who cannot get employer insurance, the availability of this option will give industry incentives to get out of subsidizing health insurance—unless the payroll tax on those who opt out is higher than the cost of insurance. If the latter is true, though, U.S. industry will still be hampered in foreign competition; it will continue to be tempted to ship jobs overseas.

One of the highest costs of our system is administrative, arising from the large community of insurance companies, each with its separate overhead. Continuous reliance on the private insurance model guarantees that costs won’t drop.

Another major source of costs is the slicing and dicing of health care into innumerable, separately-billed sub-activities. People of my age are all too aware that medical care consists of one visit to a doctor followed by three separate tests, leading to one or two specialists, each of whom in turn relies on additional tests. And so it goes. To change this system by so-called incentives will only work if the incentives are higher than the benefits now derived by the participants. And if the government tries to keep its own involvement modest, no reform will actually take place.

Another reason for the endless testing is to protect the doctor against malpractice suits. But the reluctance of the Obama administration to tackle tort reform—capping damage awards at low but reasonable levels—suggests that the incentives to continue over-testing will stay in place.

There are convinced elements on the hard right who sincerely believe that social Darwinism is an appropriate view of humanity. Those who hew to such beliefs don’t sincerely want a national health system. Their concept of community is open-ended. Those who cannot qualify must be left outside without much wringing of the hands. At the left is a hardcore of people who believe with equal sincerity that in this case the government must be the sole agent. They are joined by a few royalists like me. This view is rational enough because costs must be brought under control, and this cannot be achieved by the usual incoherence of confusing cost-sharing arrangements, special interest accommodations, and letting the almighty Market decide all of the details. This view is communitarian; all people are included. That, of course will make people think of socialized or European-style medicine which is routinely castigated despite its proved benefits. Never mind that Count Bismarck, who worked for a king, introduced such practices in the nineteenth century already, and Germans are still benefiting from it. But here the culture is excessively individualistic despite the obvious interlocking of all things technological; we seem unable to see the forest for the trees. I call this a classical stand-off. Values are clashing. Compromising this situation will only rearrange how the insurance industry gets its money.

We could, at least in theory, satisfy both sides. We need two health care systems, one for the great majority, funded by all; and the other for those who want luxurious care and are willing to pay its extra costs. The larger system would offer complete but somewhat rationed services to all comers; it would be government-run, financed, and managed but its services delivered by doctors and hospitals participating voluntarily. A completely private system could coexist with it, supported by insurance, as the current system is. All citizens, however, would be required to bear the costs of the main, the public health system. Those who have more can spend their money as they wish on extra or more rapid services and health care that goes beyond the strictly necessary.

Demography is the most basic determinant of social life; culture is the other. Our culture produces mind-sets antagonistic to a rationalized system enjoyed by most of the people in Europe, in Canada, and in many other advanced countries around the world. Are those systems perfect? Of course not. Do they reach all the people? They do indeed. Are they affordable? Yes, they are.

Right now the patterns of discourse are beginning to sound unpleasantly like the build-up to the collapse of the Clinton initiative a decade and a half ago. This troubles me. The message reaching us now is pointing in the wrong direction, the direction of a confused compromise. We really don’t need another convulsion of meaningless reorganization. I don’t want health care compromised by yet another compromise.

* * *

A more statistical approach to this problem is presented here, on LaMarotte, with numbers enough to help visualize the problem in a quantitative way.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Reminded of Till Eulenspiegel

Like any child brought in Germany—and I was there from age nine to age fifteen—the prankster figure, Till Eulenspiegel, the hero of many funny tales and sayings was part of my upbringing. Much later in life I realized that the fool, prankster, or tricksters is an archetypal staple of mythology; all cultures have their own; mine just happened to be Till Eulenspiegel. Even a brief glance into the subject rapidly reveals that the prankster-fool is wise—but makes wisdom manifest through humor, so that it cannot be attacked. And here my roots go much deeper into the past. My original family descended from a court jester serving some ducal house in what is now Baden-Württemberg. He was able enough, evidently, because he obtained a title of nobility; and we still have the family coat of arms that some herald designed for him in Anno Long Ago, more precisely somewhere around 1470 AD. Back in those misty years our name was Dorner; Darnay was a magyarization, thus the cautious tactic of a German family living in a Hungary that had achieved its independence from the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. I come thus from a long line of wise fools, and can therefore claim the likes of Eulenspiegel, Hermes, Loki, Puck, and many others as spiritual kin. Wondrous coincidences mark such lives. I chose the name LaMarotte for another website focused on matters economic—because the French, la marotte, means a fad, hobby, and idée fixe. It was daughter Michelle, who lives in Paris, who pointed out to me that the word originally meant the “the fool’s scepter.” The name Eulenspiegel, if translated literally into English, means Owl’s Mirror. Owls are wise, of course, and hold up a mirror to the world so that the rest of us, seeing our own foolishness, will laugh and get wise.

I was reminded of Till Eulenspiegel today because I remembered one of the stories. Eulenspiegel is traveling with one of his companions. When they have to climb steep hills, Eulenspiegel is always very cheery, very bright, full of jokes and songs; but when the going gets easy, down-hill, he turns gloomy and humorless, barely talks, and answers questions briefly, gruffly. His companion finally wants to know why. “Why?” Eulenspiegel answers, “I’ll tell you why. When I am huffing up the hill, I keep thinking how nice it’s going to be going down the hill again. But when I’m striding out and the going’s easy, I start thinking about the next big climb up the next big hill.”

So why did I think of this story today? Because, after 3:30 this afternoon, leaving the clinic where I’d just undergone yet another procedure—and it was over at last—I got all cheerful, funny, light, humorous, and optimistic. But what about the last forty days? After all I’d learned that I would have to undergo this procedure on May 13—and obliquely reported on the gloomy possibility that day in this blog (“Time Horizons”). All through those forty days my temperament was dark. And now that it’s over, I am laughing? But suddenly cousin Eulenspiegel appeared to me, holding up a mirror, and I just realized that I’d missed my chance to be a wise fool—and instead I’d acted like any ordinary chump.

Sunday, June 21, 2009


Oh, Sun, oh dragon!
Even with your face made black
Your hairs flair high like souls on crack
Over Zambia.

Strange sky tremendum!
Your million mile tongues of fire
Lick writhing space in holy ire
Over Africa.

Dread fire dancer!
You seem so mildly far away.
The sky’s so luminous but gray here
In America.

Originally written eight years ago, on June 21, 2001, when news and photos of a total solar eclipse, that day, appeared in the media. The path of the totality was over Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Madagascar.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

One Hand Clapping

Some time after I became a civil servant, I had to testify before a Congressional subcommittee—a first for me. My chiefs made laudable efforts to brief and to train me. We had a dry run with an audience drawn from senior staff. We had people impersonating congressmen asking me what were supposed to be embarrassing questions. By then, of course, I’d already written my six pages of double-spaced testimony—surprised that these words had to be approved by what is today called the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The text passed muster; not one word had been changed. Knowledgeable staff people also prepared a thick binder filled with Qs and As. The first time I heard those words, I’d no idea what Qs and As were. Such was my innocence. I was also surprised that the notebook would be shared with the committee, further that some committee members would actually ask the questions in the notebook; some, I was told, did not prepare but wished to sound good in questioning us. Well…

The hue and cry, the dry run, the Qs and As turned out to be ridiculously excessive preparation in light of what transpired. As I read my testimony, the chairman was reading a newspaper, holding the pages wide apart, a pair of glasses on his nose. Really; insultingly. His body was half turned away from mine. I was less than a cockroach, sitting way below him, sweating to get the words right, reading to the empty air. Only one other congressman attended this hearing; a dozen chairs stood empty; this second elected representative of the people spent the time of my testimony talking with his head bent down listening to the earnest but whispered briefing of a staff member squatting next to his chair. Welcome to democracy in action.

Leave the village and you’ll get an education. I gave testimony many times in the years that followed. Those were the days before C-Span. Congress treated those of us in the bureaucracy with barely-disguised contempt; and nothing since has changed my own echoing feeling for that body. Yes. I do remember one or two congressmen and senators who actually treated me with courtesy. Indeed, those were notable events, occasions you actually remembered. But the experience that formed my attitudes was what went down on nearly every other such occasion. Why should I believe the braying of these people before the cameras about the American people this, the American people that—when, with no cameras watching, they couldn’t even give the time of day to those who, supposedly just like them, were doing the work of government.

Why do I tell this story? Well, I had in mind addressing today the problem of policy, of group thought, of message, of staying on the message, riding it, as it were, as witches ride a broom. I was going to address the supposed truth that perception is reality, the current great illusion that shaping a message on the television screen actually moves the people to act in concert and in lockstep with those who manage the message. Instead of that, thinking back to my first ever step out into the light of public life, what I remember of it is the irrationality, the destructive force of it, the shape that it gave to my perceptions. Had that been an isolated case, Okay. I’d have gotten over it. But, since that time, I’ve seen nothing but more, more, and much more of the same, expanding outward from that powerful institution to the media, then to industry. I saw the same contempt in the hidden spaces and the pious posturing in the televised. Thus do people, raised by earnest mothers like mine had been, disaffiliate from a civilization once they discover that it is shot through, every fiber, with the same spirit of emptiness. Hear my applause of it....

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

History Footnote

I’d just finished yesterday’s posting (“history is a lens for examining our own times”) when Brigitte came in and handed me a letter in that morning’s New York Times. It was under the heading UNINTERESTED IN HISTORY, EVEN THE TURNING POINTS. Part of that letter was the following paragraph:

During the 1980s, I taught United States history to American soldiers stationed in South Korea. In one fairly typical class, not one of the students had heard of the Battle of Gettysburg. Perhaps their high school teachers considered the subject a mere matter of military history. But most of the people who fought and died at Gettysburg were ordinary Americans, and our lives would be very different now if the ones wearing blue had stayed home.[Richard Joffe.]
This letter illustrates just how difficult it is to maintain a democracy when people are brought up poorly (because marriages shatter), are poorly educated (because curricula morph like sci-fi monsters), flickering images replace words on paper—and so an ad nauseam. The little things do matter. The basics are—basic.

Monday, June 15, 2009

The Lens of History

I’ve been attracted throughout my life to methods of seeing that which is much smaller or much greater than eye can focus. We don’t need tools at our own natural scale. We need not engage in social science to understand our own clan—meaning all the people to whom we are related by blood or marriage. The eyes and ears suffice. When ours was a young family first sinking roots in the United States, we didn’t even need a bank statement to know our net worth. We had a sheaf of treasury notes accumulated during service in the Army, and we could just count the envelopes; and we kept most of the money we earned at the apartment in cash.

Later I learned the power of statistics—and came to admire and value the services of our statistical agencies. Doubtless the greatest humanity has ever produced are resident, right now, right here in the United States. This is not an exaggeration. A start at celebrating them is recorded here, but I haven’t gone beyond an introduction. In any case, there is nothing quite like lenses that will bring the seemingly invisible into focus, and therefore praises to the makers of the Hubble telescope and NASA for putting it up in the sky; and equal praises to honor Edwin Hubble (1889-1953), one of the modern day’s pioneers.

Knowledge dependents on pattern-acquisition, as it were: seeing enough of very large things so that their lawful behavior becomes evident. And in this category I also place mythologies at the exalted and histories at the mundane end of the spectrum. Mythologies sum up the totality of human intuition about the nature of transcendental reality. History is our lens for understanding the immediate arrangements of society writ large.

As I’ve mentioned a couple of posts back, I was looking back at Rome again. I’m now and have always been fascinated by the transition between the republican era and the later monarchical phases, the Roman Empire. It really was monarchical although the Romans did not want to use the word “king.” The imperator was what we call “commander-in-chief,” and I smile a little in noting how that phrase developed legs during the last administration; so did the word “decider.” But never mind that. I would emphasize that the transit of Rome from republic to empire was not some kind of symbolical transformation of the sort our modern media love to engineer and then to detect in what they are pleased to call analysis. No. The transition followed a century of social disturbance beginning around 133 BC and ending in 27 BC. It was a period in which the powerful and moneyed oligarchy that ruled Rome was first challenged in 133 by the election of Tiberius Gracchus, restored to dominance by Sulla (around 82 BC), followed by Caesar’s rise to power after a major civil war (48 BC), and ending with the rise to power of Caesar’s adoptive son, Octavian (later Augustus) in 27 BC.

Worth noting here is that this brief period holds most of the events and the personalities the American public knows about Rome from the movies: Caesar, Cleopatra, Anthony, and Brutus. A few other, later figures appear because they were particularly violent: Caligula, Nero.

Ultimately the battle here was between the moneyed class of large scale ownership (in the Roman context this meant the ownership of land and slaves)—and the people without means or relying on small parcels of land, handicrafts, or shops. The power, when it finally shifted, came to be vested in the state (not the little people), the state controlled by a single person, and that person backed by armed forces of which he was the commander-in-chief, thus imperator. The emperor also held all other meaningful political offices for life. As a tribune-for-life he had absolute veto powers over legislation, as censor-for-life he could order a census or appoint or remove senators, he was princeps of the Senate, meaning “first, most eminent, chief”; from this word we get the later meaning of prince. He was also the pontiff, thus the chief religious officer—butI need not go on. He essentially formulated, proposed, and caused legislation to be passed and then enforced by a bureaucracy consisting principally of his own servants, free and slave. The state had become the sole ruler and the emperor the sole ruler of the state. The Republic of Rome came into being in 509 BC and ended with Caesar in 48—a span of 461 years. The Empire lasted to about 476 AD, thus another five centuries. After the imperial period began, the change in power was never again a collective enterprise. It took place by family arrangement or by violent intervention backed by a military force.

What brought the transition about? The abuse of money-power. In the Roman setting it took the form of vast importation of slaves who displaced and impoverished the ordinary citizen. And in our case? We need but look around.

Let’s use the lens of history to look at our times. Using it suggests that those who say that we’re in an imperial time today are just idly chattering, symbol-mongering. No. We’ll know it when it comes. We’re presently enduring the misrule of a vast moneyed oligarchy. But other illusions need also to be set aside. Those who dream of revolution, whereby the “little people” will finally take power from the forces of capital, should not romantically imagine a process that will end in “direct democracy.” Never. Democracy—the kind we actually value, the kind that is still practiced at the local level of small communities—belongs to a middle stage of civilization, the time when the middle class actually has power. When that class gets shouldered aside by the vast oligarchies that currently rule us, the stage is being set for a century of chaos. That century will be violent—as were the 106 years that separated the tribune Gracchus from the emperor Augustus. After that the vote won’t matter any more. But a kind of order will return. And at the working level—which never really changes—the responsible people will, once again, clear off the rubble, mop up the blood, and get back to doing the necessary.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Domestic Deconstruction

We have been in our house since 1989, the longest period we’ve ever spent in one place and one residence. The house was smaller than the spacious mansion we left behind in Minnesota, a place we called St. Alban’s Hotel because it stood (stands still) on St. Alban’s Road and was ample in extent. The living room, for instance, had ceiling-to-floor bookshelves on one of its wide sides, and despite a huge window that gave us a panoramic view of just a small part of our tree-shaded demesne out back—the word used deliberately because it hints at an “estate,” which this place somewhat resembled: thirty-some-odd trees raised canopies out there, quite a few very tall; and despite the light that came in through that window, the vast bookcases lay in gloomy shadow so that, to find a book, you had to turn on lights. When we moved east and left the hotel behind, we brought more than we should have to McKinley place, furniture and piles of lesser things. This house is large enough but got to be crowded, some parts—the attic and basement—literally stuffed. Most of those books are in the attic here, nowhere else to put them; it’s like a library up there, shelves and sturdy shelves and, in the aisles between them, the obstructing obsolescence of everything else too useful to discard: the rainy day, you see, those memories of surviving by black marketing in post-war Europe, and plain dislike of throwing out perfectly valuable objects or things to which memories cling.

But a busy life—two people working demanding jobs, at the office, in the home—have a cost. No, we didn’t keep up with the necessary tasks of elimination; we did not energetically organize yard and garage sales; yes we still have rusting monsters (like an ancient snow-blower) we brought with us from Minnesota; that snow-blower (there is a new one too) will be a stand-in for many other things. Thus that well-known advertising slogan echoes: Pay me now or pay me later. Well, now it’s later, twenty years later, and now we are anticipating a move at last. We settled here because it was an easy trip downtown, on the well-heeled edge of a vast city that—on a very recent trip to Goodwill Industries, where I dropped off, if that’s the word (groaned-off is more like it), an SUV stuffed full of obsolete computers—I discovered again is falling apart, socially, physically, and infrastructurally. Half the traffic lights downtown were out. The Goodwill depot, fenced about like a medieval fortress and guarded by uniformed personnel, stood surrounded by ghosts of houses where bats, one presumes, have nightly egress and tree branches come out of upstairs windows. Yes, we need to move. We’ve therefore begun a process of domestic deconstruction. We’re about two weeks into the job, just far enough to know what is required—which is a kind of brutality. It is easier to suffer such events passively than actively to initiate them. Reminds you of your mortality. But it’s good for the soul…

Monday, June 8, 2009

Economic Foundations

The writing of blog entries, with the implied possibility that people all over the world might just chance to see it, has a somewhat bracing effect on something that I’ve engaged in all of my life—the keeping of diaries or notes. When doing the latter the only presumed audience is yourself, and the reasonable use of the time is to clarify ideas. But when you have the feeling of people peering over your shoulder, you tend to feel the pressure to get things right, to look things up. The process becomes more stimulating. You tend to follow up on hunches and seek out the hard copy of things you remember reading. Thus one of my recent posts somewhere reminded me that the late Stephen J. Gould had written a scathing book about abuses in science. Gould has figured in my thought as a genuinely original thinker—on evolution and much else. It was he who proposed an explanation of evolution (with Niles Eldredge) by a process of “punctuated equilibrium,” thus abrupt departures over against gradualistic changes based on tiny increments. I happen to have a minor (and meaningless) link to the man in that we shared the same literary agent over many years. In any case, having been reminded, I found one of three copies I own of Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man and put the book on my nightstand. But this only by way of introduction—and a little plug for a fine writer on difficult scientific subjects.

I spent several nights perusing the book, particularly the dreary story of how IQ testing began and why it is the sham that it is. But the other night, and now we’re getting warmer, I dreaded once more being awash in the abuses of thought to which Modernity is prone. And not wishing to get out of bed again for one of those midnight hunts of my shelves, I just eased out a volume within my reach but buried deep in time and began rereading Will Durant’s Caesar and Christ. The book was there because quite a long time ago I was restudying the reign of Diocletian—and in the course of that discovered that both that great emperor as well as Constantine were what today we would call Serbs—not Italians at all. In fact when Diocletian retired—to raise those prize chickens of his—he did so in what is today Split, the largest coastal city of Croatia on the Adriatic.

I skipped the introductory chapters that take us to the dawn of Caesar’s time and began reading Chapter VI, “The Agrarian Revolt”—and once more felt the shock I’d felt on the last reading years ago, as my marginal notes throughout the book make clear. I put a representative quote on another blog, visible here, explaining the causes of the revolt which, in due time, set the stage for Caesar’s rise and the days of empire in Rome: slavery. My marginal notes and my refreshed memory of the first reading have to do with the economic foundations of civilization. Ancient civilization was undoubtedly based on agriculture; and Rome’s slow-motion collapse began with the introduction of slavery on a large scale. Rome had transformed its economic base from yeoman farming to military conquest—which yielded the slaves and impoverished its masses. And for me this has obvious parallels in that American civilization was also founded on agriculture; indeed, it was heavily supported by—guess what? Slavery. When cotton was king, it was slaves that produced it. Only later, when we discovered a new kind of slave, did the economy shift from agriculture to industry. That industry, in turn, manifesting predominantly in manufacturing, depends on energy slaves, the fossil fuels.

Now it is worth noting that the imperial period of Rome dawned when the importation of slaves on a grand scale began to deform the Roman Republic—as the quotes on LaMarotte clearly show in summary. We face a similar but two-pronged challenge today, albeit we appear to be at an earlier stage of the problem. And these things are all too clear to me because, for the past twenty years, I’ve either been directly or indirectly the chronicler of manufacturing in the United States—in a statistical series originally called Manufacturing USA and now Manufacturing & Distribution USA. I looked up some data the current editor, Joyce P. Simkin, has complied in the latest edition. It shows decline in manufacturing employment (this predates the automotive collapse) from 17.8 to 13 million people between 1982 and 2006. The decline has been accelerating. This is one prong of the challenge—our yielding a function to imports, not of slaves, as it were, but to those who work at much lower wages than we pay. The second prong of the challenge is that manufacturing in the modern sense is unimaginable without fossil fuels, and we can now clearly see that these fuels will be pretty much exhausted by the end of the twenty-first century.

When I then peruse the shocking consequences to society that the heavy uptick in slavery produced in Rome, I find it entirely appropriate to suggest that we should put our house in order, at every level, in anticipation of bad times to come—not just the usual bad times that come routinely, punctuating our equilibrium, but major transformations that will make the future, even if we master fusion power, utterly different from what we see all around us today.

Saturday, June 6, 2009


Numerology, particularly the meaning of the number 13 and its rotation (31), expansions (49, 94, 58, 85, 67, 76—numbers the digits of which you must add), and its multiples (26, 39, etc.) give me the same innocent pleasure as do meaningful coincidences, sometimes called serendipities. A genuinely original and insightful modern parapsychologist, J.E. Kennedy, has suggested that the ultimate purpose of the phenomena he studies may serve as reminders to us that something transcending the obvious may simply be there. I’m putting this in rather too simple a summary. My object is not to discuss the insight, which is more sophisticated. To learn more about Kennedy’s thoughts, I recommend perusal of his papers, accessible here. What I want to talk about, lightly, as it were, is the number 13 itself. Contrarian as it is—being viewed as unlucky—in my family it has been a portent of good fortune, in the last generation as in mine, and seemingly also in the next one down in time.

This is an innocent preoccupation because like everyone else I’m a complex being and fully possess the kind of rationality which can bluntly, brusquely, and dismissively say: “Give me any other number, and if I know enough details about your life, I could construct the same castles-in-air around that number too! In your life or anyone else’s.” Having put that in, just to stay on the safe ground of modern meaninglessness, let me enjoy my 13 for a moment.

I was born on July the 31st which is obviously very meaningful—after all my birth date, turned around, is 13! We’re presently residing in the 13th Congressional District of Michigan—to be sure I don’t know the numbers of the others where we’ve lived. But there’s a whole string of thirteens that mark our coming to America. The Certificate of Eligibility issued to us in Germany permitting our entry to the United States was dated January 13, 1949. The 49 is significant too. And in my case 113 (thus January 13) is doubly meaningful because my name, ARSEN, decoded numerologically is 5, and 113, magically, collapses into five. And 1949, if you drop the first nine but not the second, also results in 113. Get it? Good. Let us move on. We spent precisely 13 days at sea making the passage from Bremerhaven to New Orleans. Our eyes beheld the American coast on June 13 of 1951 (ignore the year). Then, years later, when Brigitte, Barbara, Monique, and I came to America together, by air this time, we landed in New York on January 13, 1961. Now, finally, to the intriguing image that illustrates this post. It is the shoulder patch, incorporating the coat of arms, of the 13th Infantry Regiment—the military unit in which I served my first several months in the Army. We were “First at Vicksburg,” one of the bloodiest and nastiest events in the history of the Civil War, alas. That number was not quite so lucky for the many who died there. But then a deeper lesson of numerology—hear me, Kabbalists, hear me moderns—is that reality is greater than can be inferred from number, unless that number is 1.

Friday, June 5, 2009

See Spot Run

[This is a science-fiction fantasy. Or is it a science-science fantasy?]

Life is like the big red spot on Jupiter. No; I am not kidding. Back forty, fifty years ago, in the seventies and sixties, the scientific consensus was stolidly mechanical. Life was chemical in character. The organic chemicals were being synthesized in labs. It was held then that in due time science would combine them in a tube and life would come wiggling out. That ambition hasn’t been jettisoned exactly; biochemists haven’t simply thrown up their hands and decided that life is some kind of hologrammatical whatsit that cannot be explained; chemistry is still very much in the saddle; but the mood has changed. An excellent, widely-used textbook, its second edition published in 1972, Biology Today, begins with the question, “What is life?” David Kirk, the author, does not provide an answer in so many words. The whole text is the answer. Today’s science would say that life is a dissipative structure like—well, like the big red spot on Jupiter.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

At Eights and Sevens

In the river salmon gambol, in the trees the squirrels play.
In casinos people gamble, Grand Theft Auto children slay.
In the sky the fighters scramble, on the ground the Afghans pray.
TV pundits on they ramble, radio hosts foam as they bray.
Population’s all a-tremble... Welcome to the U.S.A.

The ditty above is another consequence of my walks, undertaken for health reasons. In getting up some speed, rather than slouching along, I started counting my steps. One, two, one two, one two, one, two, one, two, one, two—one, two, three. The rhythm was pleasing and, thinking about it, using my fingers to keep the order, I saw that this makes two lines, one of eight and one of seven beats. Later we were playing a game of My Word. I got done first and, while waiting for Brigitte to guess my challenging secret word, ALFRESCO, I played with the rhythms produced in my walk and managed the above before she triumphantly solved the puzzle. I've joined the eights and sevens into single lines to save space, I suppose. Conserving resources? For people in whom the poem's title does not immediately produce echoes, I recommend further elucidation here.

Monday, June 1, 2009


For a while of late I’ve been thinking about layers in culture. Such thoughts occur when I’m away from the artificial stimulations of the media, engaged in the relatively boring chores of just plain living. Writing about the noosphere is in part responsible for such reflections. Well, today, I felt that sense sharply intensified. An old friend of ours is retiring from Gale Research, the publisher, after thirty-some-odd years of service as a reference book editor. Brigitte and I were invited to make contributions to a book. Our friend will get that object as a parting gift at the ceremonies of departure.

The past, and that layer beneath the hype, thickened and densified as I wrote my contribution—and read the words that flowed from my fingers spontaneously. And with it came the realization that life sucked clear of the fogs and dusts of the swirling noosphere hasn’t changed very much at all since—to pick a year at random—1955. That’s the layer where people get married and grow old, where children take piano lessons and adults participate in choirs, where rugby is played and dogs are walked, where jobs are sought, gotten, and grow into careers.

The differences we observe down at this level are really trivial. We remember the changes that came and seemed transforming—because the human mind is always alert and eager to adapt. But on reflection the qualities that mattered then still matter, and the blunt fact is that you rapidly get used to things like Xerography, electric typewriters and calculators, to computers, internets, and digital TV—but something must me produced to be copied, the words have to be good before you type them, the numbers can be scary whether you tote them up by pen or keystrokes, the news reached us then as now, and our minds have become steeled against them and grow ever more resistant the faster the hail rattles down on the tin roof. And the news are much the same—as we can prove by demanding of the genii that it summon up old archives. Amazing how intensely people once felt about matters long since forgotten…

Boredom is good. It reminds you of values. You realize that beneath the raging storms of change, culture endures. It isn’t left untouched by all that stuff rushing about in the invisible electromagnetic flux, but that too we get used to. Gale Research. It was a wholly owned, relatively small, but very prestigious reference book company still headed, when we encountered it, by its founder. Our friend already worked there then. The company was twice sold since, first to the Canadian publishing giant Thomson, then spun off to Cengage Learning. Managements came and went. Slogans flourished like mushrooms and wilted almost instantly. One new enthusiasm after the other was organized in, organized out, in-sourced, out-sourced—and endured. All this hoopla caused a lot of laughter, down there, in ordinary life. And things went on, adapting, struggling, battling—as they had long before we became members of the publishing tribe. At the working level things endure. Some things must. And will. As Martha Stewart would say, It’s a good thing.