Monday, March 30, 2009

Egalitarian Family Blogging?

Something occurred to me, in connection with the local attention that Bobby Rozzell's Douglas and Main link-blog has received, thanks to the Wichita Eagle. And maybe it's a self-interested observation, but has to do with the fact that Mr. Rozzell has been following the blog of both my wife and I, with actually fairly little cross-over. Which makes me wonder: just how common is it for a married couple to maintain separate--and more or less equally busy--blogging lives?

I'm not talking about both partners contributing to a joint or family blog; that pattern is very well established (one of the very first blogs I followed regularly, John and Belle Have a Blog, was such an example), and it's gotten to the point now where half my extended family members do just that--though amongst the mostly traditional husband-and-wife pairings in my family, it usually turns out that nearly all the posting is kid-related, and nearly all of it is done by the wife. And actually, even outside of those more-or-less consciously traditional marriages, the same pattern I think seems to hold generally: J&B is pretty much entirely Belle Waring's blog now, while John Holbo posts almost exclusively at Crooked Timber. The same, I think, could be said of Halfway Down the Danube, which is pretty much Doug Muir's sole playground now. Maybe there's something structural that makes it difficult for public husband-and-wife blogs to maintain their "jointness" over the long haul. But in any case, I'm talking about something different: not shared blogs, and not roommates/lovers/insert-your-preferred-term-of-choice-here blogging separately, but actual married-with-kids families where both the wife and husband are bloggers, and both keep it up separately over the long term.

Am I wrong in thinking that Melissa and I are unusual in this regard? I can only think of one other married couple I know of where both blog in different places, and do so more or less equally. If it is unusual, does that tell us something about egalitarianism in the family, following in the grand tradition of some great recent posts by Laura McKenna and Harry Brighouse? Or is the whole issue so ridiculously narrow (oh look, another blogger blogging about...blogging!) as to have no statistical relevance to the real world?

What say you all? If nothing else, give me some examples that might help make a case, one way or another?

Sunday, March 29, 2009

So That's His Name!

For months, Wichita bloggers (like myself and my wife) have found our every move carefully watched and documented by a supremely dry and witty link-blogger who operates out of Douglas and Main. The blogger at the site has actually corresponded once or twice with Melissa, but to me, he's been a mystery.

However, thanks to the intrepid Denise Neil at the Wichita Eagle, he has been exposed (and don't forget to check out the awesome accompanying photo). Bobby Rozell, take a bow--your work in giving all us Wichita-area bloggers a chance to find out who each other are has been exemplary. You have my respect and my thanks. (And incidentally, in case you're wondering, no: I don't at all mind being described as "verbose." I mean, "grandiloquent" might have been nicer, but hey, you take what you can get.)

Friday, March 27, 2009

The Populist Farmer, Revisited

[Cross-posted at Front Porch Republic]

Via John Schwenkler, I see that Norman Borlaug has just celebrated his 95th birthday. Borlaug, a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, is one of the primary architects of modern global agriculture, one of the father's of the "Green Revolution" which dramatically increased crop yields throughout much of the Third World during the 1950s and 60s, arguably saving many millions of lives. Localists and agrarians of all sorts detest the man, or at least are highly ambivalent about his achievement, of course.

John's post provides some good linkage: you can get into Ronald Bailey's technolibertarian celebration of the man and the work he has done (Borlaug's view that the "explosively pervading but well-camouflaged bureaucracy" which is threatening the safety of the world is "environmental activists and their allies in international agencies" is, at the least, a fairly unique take on reality), and you can get into Kevin Carson's take-no-prisoners attack on the science and economics which supported Borlaug's Green Revolution (some of which I think is dubious, but his observation that the Green Revolution depended upon not so much "high-yield" seeds as seeds that were "highly responsive to expensive irrigation and chemical fertilizer inputs," and thus that it essentially favored the development of large-scale corporate irrigated farms over labor-intensive small farms which did not receive foreign investment, is pretty damning). Overall though, I commend you to John's own take on the whole question of organic vs. biotech/local vs. industrial farming: "[N]o reasonable person wants to remake the world or do away with modern agricultural technologies all together. The best solutions will come through honest, case-by-case engagement with the subtle demands of specific situations. As the UC Berkeley agroecologist Miguel Altieri puts it, a sound approach to agriculture 'does not seek to formulate solutions that will be valid for everyone but encourages people to choose the technologies best suited to the requirements of each particular situation, without imposing them.'"

John's post also give me occasion to resurrect an old post of mine, something I've been thinking about doing in light of the many fine discussions about the actual, practical possibility of farming on Front Porch Republic lately. The post I want to revisit was titled "The Populist Farmer" and was one of my first big "rethinking conservatism" posts, back in 2005. I won't repost the whole thing here; just a few excerpts, which are relevant to issues coming to light as more and more people think in a broad, serious ways about localist and agrarian reforms of agriculture. As an example of such, consider some highlights from this recent Mother Jones article:

Matt Liebman, a polyculture expert at Iowa State University, says a reintegrated model [in which small polycultural farms utilize crop rotation and animal husbandry to achieve the sort of crop yields that otherwise require artificial fertilizers] can require almost twice the labor hours of a conventional agribusiness one. This is a critical point: The industrial agribusiness model of simplified monoculture became dominant not only because it gave us cheap food, but because it reflected a society that was becoming more urban. Scaling up [such] a model...and re-creating a nation of small farmers might have appeal, particularly in the current labor market, but making it happen—that is, reversing the century-long shift away from farm labor—presents serious policy hurdles....

The reality of 21st-century America is that food demand is centered in cities, while most arable land is in rural areas. What open land remains around cities is so expensive that it either is out of reach for farmers or requires that farmers focus on high-end, high-margin products with little utility as mainstream foods. Thus, although there is great potential to increase urban agriculture...urbanites will always depend on rural areas for some of their food—especially given that by 2050, 70 percent of the world's population is expected to live in or near cities.

Conversely, rural areas with good farm potential will always be able to outproduce local or even regional demand, and will remain dependent on other markets. "One farmer in Oregon with a few hundred acres can grow more pears than the entire state of Oregon eats," says Scott Exo, executive director of the Portland-based Food Alliance and an expert in the business challenges of sustainability. "Attention to the geographical origins of food is great, but you have to understand its economic limits."

I know--that talk about "economic limits" bugs me too. This is, perhaps, why Caleb Stegall and those like him are, to me anyway, the most important--if not necessarily the most persuasive--of all the localists and agrarians out there: they are entirely willing to contemplate doing without the liberal bargain of modernity entirely, and revert to a much different--possibly more virtuous, certainly more communal, probably less healthy, definitely less secure--way of life. I'm not; I'm a man trying to find some way to bring elements of their outlook to life through a more populist and/or socialist version of that bargain with modern life. And that means I have to find some way to address those "economic limits" (the facts of industrialization and urbanity, for one; the appeal of bourgeois virtues and freedoms, for another) in a different way. Hence, my speculations about the "populist farmer." Anyway, here's the post, or parts of it anyway. Enjoy.


Farming is an economy of limits, and teaches one an ethic of limits. You cannot retool a plot of land the way you can a factory; you cannot redesign or alter a crop the way you can a production line or menu or novel or any other material thing that someone might produce through their labor. Of course, over time--through working with the land, judging the seasons, experimenting with different hybrids, developing new planting and harvesting procedures--the sort of agriculture any given person or community is involved with can change; and by the same token, it's not as though any non-agricultural business or practice can just turn on a dime: there are machines and investments that need tending to, there is training that has to take place, etc. Still, broadly speaking, the essential distinction between an act of creative labor that involves oneself, or an organization, or a factory, and the labor which involves the land, holds firm: farming is--must be--careful, slow, patient, conservative work. In short, working on a farm teaches you about time, teaches you your own limits and thus turns you to others, teaches you value, as Wendell Berry put it in his essay "Going to Work," "the nature of the place itself and what is naturally there, the local ecosystem and watershed, the local landscape and its productivity, the local human neighborhood, the local memory"....

Today in the U.S., 90% of farms are still technically family-owned and "small"--but they account for only a tiny percentage of total farm production. Over one-third of all agricultural output in the U.S. is now determined by explicit corporate contracts, and two-thirds of American farms are obliged to specialize in only one or two commodities. The raw number of farms in the U.S. have been falling for decades; but what is far most worrisome, I think, is the collapse of the mid-sized farm economy, the "agriculture of the middle," as one report puts it. Small farm operations, especially those nearby urban markets, can often deliver their goods directly to consumers and stores, especially as the interest in organic food and farmers' markets has grown. Huge corporate farm operations, of course, dominate the agricultural scene (helped along enormously by subsidies which are tied entirely to sustaining price despite overproduction). The farmers who are falling through the cracks are the ones who are working perhaps 200, perhaps 500, perhaps 1000 acres, who still sell their crops on the open market and still make decisions about what to plant and how to manage the soil and when to harvest themselves, who still can manage the land and pass down that knowledge directly, frequently within their families. This is a grave concern: while the major agricultural conglomerates (some scholars suggest that we will soon see economic pressures and incentives force or lure most non-boutique farmers into joining massive, 225,000-acre industrial farm complexes) will always be able to produce food, it is these mid-sized farms which are most able to produce unique, highly differentiated commodities in sufficient quantities to be able to participate in economies of scale; they are polycultural operations that can actually survive in a modern capitalist market. Moreover, it is farms like these that are at the outside edge of the sort of consciousness of limits, and the virtues which follow from the same, that farming at its best represents. If we lose them, then farming's connection with Jeffersonian hopes, with a model of populist empowerment and discipline so important if we wish to prevent the free market from descending into pure anarcho-capitalism, will mostly disappear. Fortunately, things may be turning slowly around.

My family owns a farm--in two parcels, one 400 acres and the other 1400 acres, of which about 1100 acres are tillable--in the Kootenai River valley in northern Idaho. (See here for some more personal information and reflections on our farm.) We grow mostly wheat, with the occasional excursions into lentils or barley. We're lucky in a lot of ways: our land is tended for us by a family of Mennonite farmers, the Amoths, that have been associates of the Fox family for going on four generations now. Moreover, the arable land in our part of the Inland Empire is some of the finest wheat-growing land in America, with no need for irrigation and a climate well-suited for a variety of strains (we grow both soft white and hard red varieties, including the comparatively rare and valuable dark northern spring). And wheat itself is a fairly high-demand and stable crop. Still, it isn't at all impossible to imagine losing our toe-hold in the market, especially when confronted with the huge subsidies and contracts pulled in by the major operations out there. Fortunately, there are programs which have been designed to help, in particular the Conservation Security Program. This program, which has only recently become available in the Kootenai River watershed area, is a quantum leap forward in the relationship between the federal government and farmers. Rather than simply paying them the difference between their costs and the market price of their goods (thereby warping the latter), or paying them to destroy their goods outright so to keep them off the market, it treats farmers as stewards, subsidizing them in their efforts to transform--and, thereby, limit--their land in accordance with good environmental principles. Individual plans are developed in consultation with those who actually work the farm, and the result in a more natural farm, but one that is still productive, still producing marketable goods, and still ultimately in the hands of their knowledgeable, local owners and operators. As my father put it, "someone in Washington finally figured out that people who spend their lives on the land are better environmentalists than those who visit it for a weekend." This sort of trust--call it populist empowerment--strengthens the mid-sized farm and those who, in their own independent way, make the land and their work upon it part of the American scene, thereby making it and them that much more like to endure in a world characterized by the colliding demands of environmentalism, efficiency, and economic centralization.

The CSP is just one program, and it alone can't make much difference across the country; but then, it is just an example of some of the ways in which farming's contribution to the fabric (as well as the feeding) of America can nonetheless still be drawn out. The legacy of the New Deal--which always was far more about building economic security and solidarity than simply cutting welfare checks--included several programs that built upon the expected ability (and obligation!) of farmers to make wise use of their land, assuming the market would pay for and respect the kind of limited, disciplined work they were doing. The Burley Tobacco Program is a good example of such; this is how one farmer and writer described the effects of that program (which Wendell Berry has also praised):

The Burley Tobacco program, for example, has sustained more small- and moderate-sized family farmers than has any other agricultural program in any other state in the US. When I was raising 3-4 acres of tobacco on my 155-acre dairy farm in Kentucky in the 1970s, I was making enough money from tobacco to take care of my mortgage and loan payments on the whole farm. I never got a subsidy check. The companies were required to pay a fair price, or they didn't get the tobacco. Tens of thousands of small farmers making a living meant that church and school events were always packed with people. There was a healthy, lively rural economy and social fabric....Some of my economist friends didn't like the tobacco program because they said it "retarded efficiency." They explained to me that tobacco-farming methods were antiquated, that more tobacco could be produced more cheaply if the production weren't required to be disbursed among so many "inefficient" little farms. They were right, of course, but when farm leaders talked to me about the importance of the program, the never talked solely about efficiency—they always talked about the really good farmers whose income from tobacco enabled them to be livestock and grass farmers, thereby stewarding the land. They also always talked about how many kids were sent to college with tobacco checks. This was a stark example to me of two different paradigms about economic systems. One considers financial efficiency primary and all other goals derivative. The other considers social and environmental goals as important as financial ones.

I neither smoke nor care much for people who do, and I'm anything but a fan of the tobacco industry. But you have to recognize and applaud sincere efforts, wherever you may find them, to make farming work in today's open-ended social and economic environment in the egalitarian and empowering way that agrarians from Jefferson on down have insisted that it can and should. The American government spends billions of dollars on agriculture, flooding world markets while protecting our own, propping up bloated agribusinesses that soak up the corporate welfare and use their wealth to patent crops and micromanage farming like any profit-minded corporation would, and all the while fails to do the basic things which France--which is hardly free of such abuses themselves--has successfully done with far less overall spending: identify limited niche markets where agricultural commodities, produced in conservative and limited--and therefore all the more personalized and enriching--ways continue to shape an overall way of life.

Friday Morning Videos: "Where the Streets Have No Name"

Against the thrashing, guitar-burning power that is Metallica, what does U2, my so-called "greatest rock and roll band of the past quarter century", have to offer? Just one of the hammiest, coolest, most brilliant, most self-indulgent, most faux-innocent, most fun bits of fist-pumping rock and roll trouble-making in decades:

I'm not saying it's as good as the original. Of course not. But you've got to give them credit for trying.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Men, Boys, and Guns

[Cross posted to Front Porch Republic]

This past weekend, I was pulled away from the computer, from a sprinkler system that needs to be fixed, from a garden wall that needs to be built, from grading papers and tests, and from all the other vicissitudes of my life as a hopefully middle-class, home-owning, academic professional, to go on a Boy Scout campout with our church's troop. The big appeal of this particular trip? Guns.

I was not raised in a hunting family. My paternal grandfather was a hunter--and there were the antlers and an honest-to-goodness moose head on the walls of his home to prove it--but the hunting life he lived in the mountains and valleys of Washington, Idaho and Montana in the 1940s and 50s weren't passed on to his children. Though considering the fondness many of my extended family have for fishing, I guess strictly speaking it wasn't the mere idea of obtaining and eating wild game that failed to make the leap from one generation to the next: it was, quite specifically, shooting animals, and really just shooting period that just didn't quite take. My father told me about going with his father, just once, on a deer hunt, and finding himself disturbed and sad at the death which brought them the venison they later are, and resolving right then not to partake in such activities further. The result was that my father's rifles and pistols--he has a half-dozen or so--were rarely used around our home, and we grew up mostly unfamiliar with how to use a scope or clean a barrel. My older brother Daniel did receive a .22 hunting rifle for his birthday, and my grandfather employed him to shoot gophers on his property, where cattle and horses (depending on the season) were set out to graze. He paid him a quarter for every tail he brought in. But he essentially taught himself how to shoot, and none of the rest of us gained even that much knowledge. I went gopher hunting with him one afternoon; he came home about $2.50 richer, while I got nothing.

Though I live in Kansas now, I think my experience was pretty similar to that of most of the boys in our church's troop. Some shooting at Scout camp, perhaps; maybe a grandfather or an uncle or other relative who are serious hunters; probably some relatives who served in the military as well. But, broadly speaking, they just hadn't done much with guns. And the announcement that this Scouting trip would include target practice with a wide range of firearms, the boys came from out of the woodwork to get on board. And not just boys either: we had adults that hadn't shot much at all in their lives who wanted to sign up and come along. One of the participants was a dentist in our congregation who had a beautiful .270 rifle, one that he'd never used, though he'd owned it for seven years. Why'd you buy it if you don't even hunt?, I asked. Well, in case the bad times come, I'll need to be able to kill a deer to feed my family...besides, he asked me back, shouldn't everyone have a gun?

It's a fair question, one that my feelings have changed on. When I was an undergraduate and still exploring my new-found realization that my politics ran to the left rather than the right, I figured it was obvious that America would eventually have to get serious--really serious--about controlling access to firearms. I'd just returned from two years of living in East Asia, where, whatever other legitimate complaints might be made about life in that part of the world, violent crime and gun deaths are far, far, far less common than in the U.S.; to me, the issue was cut and dried. Though interestingly, one of the strongest advocates of gun rights I knew was a convinced Marxist--he wanted to make sure it wasn't just the rich corporations that would be able to arm themselves when the revolution came.

I never quite came around to his point of view, but I did the next best thing: I spent ten years living in Virginia, Mississippi, and Arkansas. And more than that, I got over my youthful cosmopolitan liberalism, and began to re-acquaint myself with the better, more localized, more authentic leftist tradition America had to offer: namely, populism. And the populism which emerges from the American West and South and Midwest...well, it's not entirely tied up with the "gun culture," which I'll happily grant is often poisoned with an unthinking or even abusive misogyny and drunkenness and violence, all of which is often a source of real, all too often terrible, harm. But the connection between a tool that can help you feed your family and protect your property, and the populist notion of people being able to be, to whatever degree possible, sovereign in their own places, is real. Hence, to be unreasonably hostile to the very fact of guns is to be suspicious and hostile to every father (and yes, it is mostly still fathers) who takes his son (and yes, it is mostly still sons) out into the woods to teach them about how to use this very important tool. And suspicion is no way to run a democracy.

Such were the thoughts that ran through my mind as some of my fellow church leaders and Scouters laughing took into upon themselves to teach their neighborhood liberal (and yes, that's their name for me; trying to explain that I use "liberal" only as an adjective rather than a descriptive noun, that I'm really more a communitarian or socialist or Christian democrat...well, it just wasn't worth it) how to load and clean and shoot. To be frank, I stank at hitting anything, but I insist I wasn't the worst one out there. The .22s we mainly left for the younger boys; the older ones we allowed to use--after proper training, I assure you!--the .243, .270, and .30-06 caliber rifles, the .357 Magnum snub-nose (I particularly that one, though one of my friends referred to it as a "pansy" gun), the 9mm semi-automatics, even the beautiful old .45 Colt one fellow brought. We also all did some skeet shooting with shotguns, and even fired a few rounds off on the ridiculously expensive semi-automatic rifle that one of the adults on the trip brought with him. I know, I know--the way to tell the difference between men and boys is in their price of their toys; I know the saying. Well, it's not $2000 that I'd spend, I can tell you that much. But at the same time, I suspect that blowing apart a target with that thing was a lot more fun than anyone could have had on a Wii.

I'm not sure what the point of all this is. My wife and I still have no plans to bring guns into our home; that's just not something we're comfortable with, I suppose. (My wife didn't sign up for the Million Mom March while we lived in Washington DC for nothing.) And I'm no less suspicious than before of the National Rifle Association and all the paranoid nonsense they regularly spread to enflame gun owners into panicked buying sprees and foolish voting choices. (As if Obama's primary plan for rescuing the nation's banks depends on taxing ammunition at 800%.) But if nothing else, it was another element of the "crunchy" life, another element of a life which obliges oneself to get past the supposedly orderly and pristine world we've levereged and consumed ourselves into accepting, and dig deeper into what it means to be familiar with the basic tools and skills of self-preservation, that I'm glad to have exposed myself too. In all likelihood, the majority of the people reading this are, like me, professionals and academics and office workers, and you don't know much of anything about guns, except that you want to get them off the streets. Well, fine; I do too. (Concealed carry permits are their own separate issue.) But in the meantime, get some knowledge here--some knowledge about guns, of course, but also, and perhaps more importantly, some knowledge about the men and boys (and, yes, women and daughters too; one friend of mine takes his oldest daughter with him boar hunting every year) whose lives and families and histories have been shaped by guns, like my grandfather's was. It may not get you a moose head on your wall, but if nothing else it may mean that you'll be able to relate better to, and hopefully be more neighborly towards, the fellow down the street who produces that fine rabbit stew.

Monday, March 23, 2009

A Tentative, Preliminary Conclusion on Obamanomics: Just Not Socialist (or Populist) Enough

I suppose I really ought to stop acting like I’m doing anything besides just talking out of my ass when I start posting all sorts of stuff on "Obamanomics," but still, now that Treasury Secretary Geithner's bank rescue plan has begun its roll-out, both officially and’s what I think.

Obama's big stimulus package--the $800 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act--was, in a way, a less broad, more more technical question for debate. Broadly speaking it was, of course, a whole-heartedly Keynesian/progressive liberal approach to the recession: it assumed that government spending can generate (and, perhaps, spread around more equitably) consumer and investor demand, which in turn will drive up prices and increase returns, in turn putting more money in the hands of those who want to sell things and build things, in turn leading to more job creation and more income in more pockets overall. There are all sorts of ways in which the Keynesian particulars of the bill could have been (and, to a degree, were) criticized—-was the money going to this or that project really going to stimulate demand? build more bridges? employ more people? etc.—-but overall, despite the muttering of almost every Republican in Congress, very few people were willing to come right out and denounce the Keynesian approach in principle. They could throw insults at it from the peanut gallery, and place their no votes and write their letters to the editor talking about "socialism," but when you get down to doing something about our, for better or worse, actually existing national economy, pretty much everyone is in agreement that Keynesian economic theory works (or, at least, can and often does do what it purports to do). So, unless one is prepared to go the Front Porch Republic route--which I often am--that leaves us with just arguing over details, with the big picture having already been more or less accepted.

The bank plan is a different matter. Here, you have a massive slab of complete unknowns to deal with, most of which boil down to one thing: these "toxic assets" (or "legacy assets" as Geithner is now calling them) which our major financial institutions have very nearly bankrupted themselves over—-are they essentially worthless, or are they (again, as Geithner is now putting it) of an "uncertain or depressed" value? All those mortgages on all those homes bought by all those people…can they ever really be refinanced and sold? Will those homes ever really be worth more than the land they are built on, at that? This is the unknowable, because when you’re talking about finance capitalism, you’re talking about guesswork and credit and risk. That's what it seems to mean to me, anyway: the aim of the banks is to make those pieces of paper they hold, representing a calculation based upon much more than just the cost of the land the homes are built on and the price of the lumber and the copper wire which holds those homes together, be worth something comparable to what they thought they’d be worth when they bought them (or bought a bundle of them from someone else who had bought them even earlier) to some other buyer or investor. How can they do that?

Two options for dealing with the unknowables of a complex, national market: give professional investors enough money so they feel confident in taking the risk, or let government assume the risk (and the rewards). The Geithner plan does the former, which has lead to anguish and teeth-gnashing amongst the more "socialist" (or better, populist) elements of the commentariat. Geithner and Obama are asking for relatively little buy-in from actual investors (about 15% of the total estimated cost of whatever it is they may or may not end up buying) and with the balance made up of non-recourse loans from the government. Here's how Geitner puts it:

[W]e as a nation must work together to strike the right balance between our need to promote the public trust and using taxpayer money prudently to strengthen the financial system, while also ensuring the trust of those market participants who we need to do their part to get credit flowing to working families and businesses--large and small--across this nation....When financial institutions come to us for direct financial assistance, our government has a responsibility to ensure these funds are deployed to expand the flow of credit to the economy, not to enrich executives or shareholders. These provisions need to be designed and applied in a way that does not deter the participation by the private sector in generally available programs to stabilize the housing markets, jump-start the credit markets, and rid banks of legacy assets. We cannot solve this crisis without making it possible for investors to take risks. While this crisis was caused by banks taking too much risk, the danger now is that they will take too little. [Emphases added]

Geithner is committed to the belief that "we still have a diverse and resilient financial system"; while there are elements of the plan which give the government--and hence, theoretically, us citizens--some oversight and interest in what happens once the loans are made, basically, the current bank plan assumes that the market really will find a good price for these "legacy assets," and that therefore the banks really won’t have to default on these loads.

Here's what Paul Krugman has to say about that (here and here):

[T]he plan proposes to create funds in which private investors put in a small amount of their own money, and in return get large, non-recourse loans from the taxpayer, with which to buy bad--I mean misunderstood--assets. This is supposed to lead to fair prices because the funds will engage in competitive bidding. But it's immediately obvious, if you think about it, that these funds will have skewed incentives. In effect, Treasury will be creating--deliberately!--the functional equivalent of Texas S&Ls in the 1980s: financial operations with very little capital but lots of government-guaranteed liabilities. For the private investors, this is an open invitation to play heads I win, tails the taxpayers lose. So sure, these investors will be ready to pay high prices for toxic waste. After all, the stuff might be worth something; and if it isn't, that’s someone else’s problem. Or to put it another way, Treasury has decided that what we have is nothing but a confidence problem, which it proposes to cure by creating massive moral hazard....

[Defenders of the plan say that] the prospect that assets purchased by public-private partnership will fall enough in value to wipe out the equity as unlikely. But it isn't: the whole point about toxic waste is that nobody knows what it’s worth, so it’s highly likely that it will turn out to be worth 15 percent less than the purchase price. You might say that we know that the stuff is undervalued; actually, I don’t think we know that....So default on those non-recourse loans is a substantial possibility, which means that there is a large implicit subsidy involved....If getting the prices of toxic assets "right" isn't enough to rescue the banks, that...means that we actually have to, you know, rescue the banks, Swedish style, rather than rely on fancy financial engineering to make the problem go away.

And so, for people who are giving themselves crash courses on economics these days, like myself, it really comes down to this to a bit how high concept guesswork: do we agree with the administration that the current credit crisis, like the national economy generally, just needs a bit of Keynesian priming to get to the normal processes of finance capitalism working again? Or do you believe that finance capitalism really has gotten the banks of the U.S. (and much of the world!) into a situation where they are deeply invested in something fundamentally worthless (or, shall we say, unsound), in which case no amount priming is going to prevent the government from having to rescue the banks in the end anyway? I know which way I'm leaning. How about you?

Friday, March 20, 2009

Friday Morning Videos: "Enter Sandman"

In a post down below, I labelled U2 as clearly the greatest rock and roll band of the past 25 years. I didn't think that could be seriously contested, but an anonymous commenter came back at me with Metallica, Van Halen, and AC/DC, suggesting that I need to "get off campus and talk to some real people." Now, for one thing, I think there's an important point to being clear about one's categories: "rock and roll" and "rock" and "pop" are all distinct--though obviously overlapping--genres, and so in talking about them, I'm not necessarily talking about hard rock and thrash and metal, about which I will admit to being less than a huge fan. For another thing, even ignoring all those boundaries, I still think a good case can be made for U2 on the merits. Still, all that being said, anonymous has a point--beyond college radio and the Top 40, Metallica, at least (I'm less sure about the other two he mentioned), has to be given its due. So here's their biggest hit--or, at least, the hit I remember best. It's basically just a concert performance video, but the twisted, fragmented, almost subliminal images scattered throughout it make it something more, adding to the strange kind of thrilling dread in which heavy metal excels. It's a great, head-banging bit of showmanship, that's for sure.

(Incidentally, my wife was a genuine head-banger, back in the day. But her preferred band was Rush.)

Thursday, March 19, 2009

A Partially Localist Defense of Public Schooling

[Cross-posted to the Front Porch Republic.]

President Obama's speech last week on the various hopes and goals his administration has in mind as they address the issue of public education in America gave rise to a little mockery, and perhaps deservedly so. At a time when the globalist pretensions of the liberal capitalist order are being revealed all around us as often empty promises, talking about increasing the length of the school year by reference to the need to prepare American children for a "21st century economy" in the exact same way South Koreans are preparing their children for it does seem a little farcical, and not just for reasons having to do with the massive differences in our respective histories, geographies, cultures and environments. (Which is not to say that there might not be reasonable arguments in favor of rethinking a public schooling schedule that follows an agrarian model that is, unfortunately, no longer an option for the majority of people in a country where the suburban and urban population greatly outstrips the rural and exurban one, but that's a different topic.) Much in the speech, however, was not at all silly: lifting restrictions on charter schools, encouraging merit pay for teachers, etc. The proof is in the pudding, of course, but these are reforms worth taking seriously.

But taking them seriously means taking public education seriously, and why would anyone do that? Well, for the obvious reason (some of which I've gone over before): we are all, in our various communities, members of numerous publics, and it has long been recognized by thinkers of any number of different stripes--religious, philosophical, poetic, moral--that achieving a certain level of general education (a basic familiarity with literature, history, science, and citizenship) makes for a better, more hopeful, more trusting, more livable polity. In saying this I am not buying into the mentality--indeed, I would discourage anyone from buying into the mentality--that the only education which matters is one which successfully directs the student towards a university education and professional specialization. Not only is the promise which supports that mentality--a promise of an ever higher standard of living--economically false, but it is reductive too: it reduces human beings to a meritocratic measurement that ignores the larger meanings (meanings about the arts and sciences of living) and which provide the foundation for the very idea of the education. Still, public education need not--and for well over a century in the United States, did not--justify itself in that way; the fact that so many teachers and administrators and politicians today do justify their work by way of such a mentality is not a good reason, I think, to dismiss the original concept.

There are a great many ways to take apart and consider this broad claim--questions about religion and schools, about parental involvement and funding, about federal mandates and local diversity. (Some of which I talk about more here.) But let's consider here one specific criticism: school size. Public schools, we are warned, are always looking to expand their size, to leave behind their local connection to a neighborhood or town, and drawn in more students, engage a wider environment, and attract more money, which the government will happily supply (with its regulations following). Much of this is true; therefore, presumably, anyone who celebrates the kind of particular (limited, but all the more deep because of their circumscribed nature) virtues that "small schools" can offer ought to be wary of the promise of public schooling. That way lies consolidation and small-town extinction. Well, perhaps.

Some years ago, back when Mick Huckabee was a governor rather than a former presidential candidate and a current media personality, there was an argument over school consolidation in Arkansas, as there has been in many rural and semi-rural states over the past half-century. I was living in Jonesboro, Arkansas at the time, and there was a member of our church, a fine rural gentleman, who taught high school (metal shop mostly; I can remember the delightful meat smoker he and his students constructed out of an old pickup truck) in the tiny farming town of Swifton, about an hour west of us. Swifton's high school had perhaps 150 students; the student-teacher ratio was 10-to-1. It was your classic "small school," and my friend rightly defended its accomplishments and its place in their little town. And he was angry, when I knew him, because Governor Huckabee--whom he'd voted for; he was a Republican, of course--was talking about school consolidation. Other people were angry too. Their anger was genuine and deserved...but it wasn't the whole story either. (If you're thinking I've written about this before, you're right.)

To give my friend's side in the argument its due, I point to Alan Ehrenhalt, the author of a marvelous and much-cited book on life in the neighborhoods of Chicago when local authority still meant something, who wrote about the controversy in an essay titled "The Dangers of School District Consolidation" in the journal The Responsive Community. In it, he correctly noted that those who advocate consolidating smaller school districts into larger ones usually do so meaning to provide "the widest array of courses for the best price" to students who otherwise would attend small, presumably limited rural schools. This observation was supported by one John Brummett, an Arkansas journalist and supporter of Huckabee's consolidation proposal, who captured this perspective when he wrote that defenders of small school districts "think of education as service to the existing constituency. I think of it as a force for change....I think education should aspire to extend horizons further than the neighborhood college....It should introduce students to a remote world." To say the least, those who take seriously the value of community should think twice about reforms that explicitly aim students toward some "remote" end; and those who take seriously the importance of local democracy should be taken aback at Brummett's brusque dismissal of serving the "existing constituency." However, condemning the lack of respect for rural ways of life which often characterizes educational reformers, and praising the communal involvement and participation that small school districts make possible, still doesn't make it clear what a properly conceived appreciation of community should have demanded of Governor Huckabee. There is still the question of which community, which constituency, should take priority.

Huckabee, I would often note to my friend, was originally resistant to calls for consolidation. What changed his mind was a decision by the Arkansas Supreme Court that the state school finance system was inequitable and did not satisfy the education clause in the Arkansas Constitution, which states that "the State shall ever maintain a general, suitable and efficient system of free public schools." With this decision (and the threat of a court takeover of Arkansas’s schools) hanging over the state, Huckabee felt that district consolidation had to be part of any reform proposal. His claim was that fewer school districts with a consequently larger pool of teachers to share would be able to provide a greater variety of classes to more students, thus presumably somewhat equalizing the great disparity in educational resources around the state at little extra cost. Huckabee originally proposed that districts with under 1,500 students total be consolidated–-which would have affected nearly three-quarters of Arkansas’s 310 school districts, except that he also proposed exceptions for especially isolated or highly performing school districts, whatever their size, thus undermining some complaints about long bus rides and "punishing" excellent schools. In time, his proposed was whittled down to only affecting schools with fewer than 350 students. But this was far from a sufficient guarantee to most advocates of small community schools; protests by parents, students, and educators quickly spread across the state, protests which my friend frequently participated in.

What my friend often ignored, however, and which Ehrenhalt's essay didn't mention, was that the court case that began this whole process was vigorously pursued and supported from the outset by a coalition of parents and educators from some of Arkansas’s very smallest schools and some of the most committed rural-schooling organizations in America. It made perfect sense that they do so: the original plaintiff in the case which ended up forcing Governor Huckabee's hand, Lake View School District, served just under 200 students total, had woeful facilities and little technology, with some teachers earning as little as $15,000 a year. Arkansas Chancery Court Judge Collins Kilgore wrote that "for some districts to supply the barest necessities and others to have programs generously endowed does not meet the requirements of the constitution." This judgment against the unfair distribution of education funding and resources in Arkansas was cheered by advocates of small schools: the Rural School and Community Trust, which later condemned Huckabee's consolidation proposal, celebrated the original lawsuit as an instance of a "little district that could." In language not too different from Brummett's focus on technical opportunity and choice, they argued in their brief that rectifying the $1800-per-student difference in state funding that existed between those districts in the top percentile and those near the bottom in Arkansas "would be enough to raise teacher salaries, hire more teachers...offer remedial reading courses...[and] provide computers for every classroom."

One could, perhaps, ask the supporters of Lake View if they realistically imagined that the governor and state legislature could have come up with any solution that would've achieved increased state funding for these poor rural districts, given the American people’s deeply ingrained resistance to either raising taxes or widely redistributing property tax funds, that wouldn't have also involved increased centralization of those same districts.. But one can’t fault their intentions. Those who forced this issue did so because they took seriously the stated educational standards of the state of Arkansas, a community in its own right, with commitments and obligations that have long been skewed in their application. Ehrenhalt correctly noted that the bulk of protests against Huckabee's proposal emerged from the sparsely populated towns of northern Arkansas; what he didn't note was that the majority of such school districts are entirely or mostly white, while tiny school districts like Lake View, which have suffered the worst in terms of both funding and school performance, were predominantly African-American districts in Arkansas's southern and eastern Delta region. A concerned citizen, I thought then, and still think today, thus ask herself: if there is (unfortunately) neither the will nor a plausible strategy for raising and equalizing educational funds across the state, how much force should we grant to the demands of those who defend the integrity of their local communities when such (certainly justifiable and even valuable) defensive actions may unintentionally help to perpetuate an injustice (the continuing decline of certain districts which will likely never be able to be able to provide an education comparable to that available in other school districts) within a larger community: namely, the sovereign state of Arkansas, which had an integrity and a set of constitutional obligations all its own to protect?

I was never particularly successful of making this tension clear to my friend, and perhaps I never should have expected to have been able to. In the end, it sounded to him like I was defending what Ehrenhalt concluded most advocates of consolidation end up defending: the notion that streamling education by making it more consolidated, more efficient, more broad, sells away local community in the name of a false opportunity "to enter a brave new world of education." I hope that's not the case, but when you have overlapping communities pulling on your senses of belonging and duty and obligation, splitting the difference may sometimes be the only route left to you. Thankfully, being on the losing side of this battle (and Swifton was partially consolidated; it kept its middle school, while the high school, including all faculty and students in town, were combined with that of Tuckerman High School, found in another equally small town about ten miles away), did not turn him against public schooling--he was, in fact, a bit of a crank about any real alternatives to education provided by anyone besides the whole community in a public way, distrusting the ability of parents and co-ops to educate students in ways that weren't likely to be "ignorant and racist" (his words, not mine). Coming from a family where home schooling is a common enough choice to make my own children's attendance of public schools--and my wife's and my defenses of them--a bit of exotica at family reunions, I kept my thoughts to myself. But I appreciated that, in the end, he and I could at least agree on one thing: that there is something to be said for treating the educational opportunities which communities and the state make possible as a common good, one that must be tended to at least as much by the whole, as by all its parts.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Freedom, Free Riding, and other Front Porch Business

A few notes on some recent goings-on involving Front Porch Republic, and the discussions taking place thereabouts.

1) Soon after my post reflecting a bit on the appearance of FPR--which has remained a constant source of informative and provocative reading pleasure ever since I discovered it--John Schwenkler wanted to know what, exactly, I was saying about "freedom" when I mourned that so often the dissident/reactionary/populist/traditionalist conservatives whom I like to read so much take end up taking an essentially libertarian line in their defense of "freedom" from the government:

[I]f pressed to give an account of why it is that I think liberty is such an important political value, my initial response tends to be exactly the sort of "instrumental and prudential" one that Russell sketches here; liberty is so important, I want to say, because in a pluralistic society like ours there is simply no alternative to liberty, because any attempt to impose significant governmental restrictions on individual liberty will tend in a society like ours to worsen the situation rather than bettering it....It may be that this is another one of these cases where, as I suggested the other day, the essential differences boil down to the vagaries of disposition rather than abstract theories....Hence Russell writes...that he wants "to find and defend social policies and arrangements which acknowledge the need for collective (hopefully democratic, and occasionally compulsory) action and institutions to preserve the cultural and economic infrastructure which local communities and traditions and families depend upon"--which seems fine to me so far as it goes, though I’d tend to go on and on a lot more about how we also need to find and destroy those policies and arrangements that undermine the cultural and economic infrastructure that sustains the local and familial and traditional as opposed to the national and global and collective.

John may well be correct that this is really just differing dispositions; that we mostly want the same thing, and that we just have two different (and hopefully complementary) ways of looking at our goals. However, take a look at that last line--"as opposed to the national and global and collective." What John lists these things so as to express the need to destroy those cultural and economic practices which sustain them, in opposition to "the local and familial and traditional." Here, I would stop and ask: what are localities and families if not, well, "collectivities"? That kind of sociological language may be an odd fit in that context, and perhaps it implies things that really would mitigate against the unique nature of the ways families and neighborhoods can potentially come together. But still: what is this "collective" that stands out and apart from all the traditional ways that people bring themselves together? I suspect John might mean by his comment groups and associations and communities that did not, in fact, collect themselves together, but rather, were "collected" by government action. In which case I would have to put it to him: can you find me a group, an association, a community, that was not, on some level or another, the beneficiary of a cultural and economic context that included some kind of state or national or governmental "collecting"? The Homestead Act, which allowed hundreds of thousands of people to move into the Western states, and establish communities there? The Wagner Act, which empowered the unions whose demands helped give economic and cultural support and stability to innumerable ethnic and blue-collar neighborhoods across the nation? We could go on and on with such a list.

Again, maybe it's just a matter of dispositions; no doubt John and many others could come up long lists of laws and regulations which have been decidedly anti-communitarian in their consequences. And perhaps, they could look at the above two examples, and call the whole thing a foul: those are pieces of federal legislation, and John speaks against the "national" the same way he speaks against the "global," perhaps suggesting that he wouldn't have a problem with similar legislation which arose from the states (or from the counties, or towns, etc.). But that, of course, just brings up another sticky set of issues--what kind of allegiance, what kind of affective attachment, can or should one reasonably have for a "nation"...and, if said attachment has a legitimate basis (whether in history, language, religion, demography, or whatever), then why is it unreasonable to think about a "national community," and collective action which may be taken on behalf of such? Of course, not all things upon which the myriad human associations we make with one another depend or involve can be or should addressed on such a broad level, and I'll not deny that there are many ways in which our national government, and in particular the Supreme Court, has nationalized--via the necessary yet often insidious ideology of "rights"--that which ought not be. But still the point remains: if community and attachment and sovereignty is what you values, then keeping an eye out to take apart that which gets done in the name of the "national" or the "collective" (don't worry--I won't defend "global," that's for sure)...well, it may be, as I originally said about freedom, a pretty prudent and valuable thing to do. But it's not an essential task, not so long as we live in the modern civilization we do. If anything, I think it's our essential task to build up and buttress what capitalism and modernity and individualism keep taking apart

2) This talk of "modern civilization" leads to a comment which Mark Shiffman wrote on that same blog post: "Could you perhaps say something more specific about [the claim] that...modernity has added something to our ability to think about justice and equality and community which most of the ancients simply lacked"?

There are certainly a lot of ways in which I might respond to this question; it'd be easy, for example, to talk about how I realized when I was an undergraduate that certain exclusions which my parents took for granted while they were growing up--about black people and white people, for example--simply weren't present for me, or at least weren't present in the same way, and hence my ability to think about justice and equality and about those whom I could see as my fellow beings was larger than theirs was. But that falls into the progressive trap, the belief that a constant agitation against limits, a constant broadening and flattening of the body politic (which, I would be quick to add, isn't the whole story on the Progressives, but it is undeniably a portion of what they were all about), is equivalent to mental or moral growth, and it isn't. So it might be better to back up, and speak more deeply about the modern condition overall. My favorite author on this subject is the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, who near the conclusion of his magisterial work Sources of the Self wrote: "We are now in an age in which a publicly accessible cosmic order of meanings is an impossibility. The only way we can explore the order in which we are set with an aim to defining moral sources is through this of personal resonance....We either explore this area with such language or not at all" (SS, 1989, pg. 512). Taylor sees himself as a defender of holistic meanings, of religious truth and moral significance, of communities that can potentially reify or instantiate that which is the actual spiritual condition of the real world, in an environment which denies the spirit in favor of a language that is strictly utilitarian, naturalistic, and/or subjective. And he makes a good argument for such. What does any of this have to do with justice, equality, and community? Only this: that any attempt to construct or defend such goods in our present world must be done in ways which incorporate the affective sensibility, the feelings of resonance, of actual persons. Which means that simple declarations to the effect that such-or-such a race, or a religion, or a way of life, disqualifies any individual who is characterized by such from serious consideration as a rights-holder, as a fellow citizen, as a person whom merits our recognition, can and will be defeated, or at least moderated, by simple human sympathy and familiarity. That is a great, and terrible, modern accomplishment, an accomplishment that controverts all sorts of age-old presumptions about the rich and poor, the strong and weak, the neighbor and the foreigner. Communitarians and localists and populists and conservatives all must work through and see what can (or should!) be preserved in the midst of such a controverting; that's what distinguishes us from simple-minded boosters of philosophical liberalism, who assume that all old presumptions should be brought down, reduced to individual discretion. That's not any way to build a good society...but neither will simple reactionary or counter-revolutionary or resentment moves against the transformations of modernity do any better at enabling us to articulate themes of justice or equality or community that can actually be believed--by others, or even, if we are honest, about ourselves.

To descend from such abstract philosophical heights, this tension in modern life--a difficult but, when it comes to how we deal rightly or fairly or compassionately with our fellow beings, ultimately good tension, I think--is perhaps of a piece of exactly the tension which Patrick Deneen and Daniel Larison discussed in connection to "free riding." (See also Rod Dreher's wonderful post and comments thread about the same topic.) We are born into and, properly, should respect and honor the liberal world as we have received it, with all the ways it both empowers us and limits us, even as we seek to bring it into alignment, in whatever small manners are available to us, with a larger "order of meaning," as Taylor put it. Or, as Daniel put it, ours is "a precarious position, but...also paradoxically the strongest position available inasmuch as we are always trying to be very conscious of our debts and the obligations they impose on us." It also puts me in mind, to get really down to the give-and-take of political life, to an old exchange between Henry Farrell and Ross Douthat, which obliquely builds upon the idea that almost anyone who calls themselves a "conservative" in America today is free riding upon the liberal accomplishments of the 1950s and 60s which helped drive out what the great majority of so-called conservatives today would agree were racist crimes which stained our polity. But of course, as Patrick made clear, liberals are free riding too--and indeed, anyone with a communitarian bone in their body would have to admit that liberal--or, better, modern liberationist--free riding upon the moral order of the law-abiding communities of the world is immense. But that just goes to show that modernity affects us all; hence, my casual statement that it is modernity which has strengthen, at the same time it has made difficult, the old, straightforward, strong and strongly exclusive, arguments upon which our moral actions rested.

3) Okay, now that I've gotten all that out of the way, I feel comfortable with going forward with my announcement: Front Porch Republic has extended to me and invitation to blog there for the next month or so. I'm delighted and honored by the invite, and hope to make the most of it. I do plan on cross-posting anything I put up there over here, but do check out that site as well, if you aren't already. Wish me luck! (At the very least, hopefully the schedule they're committing me too with prevent me from having a bunch of unresolved business piling up, as was demonstrated by all this.)

Friday, March 13, 2009

Friday Morning Videos: "Don't Come Around Here No More"

As cool and haunting as the music of this Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers/Dave Stewart collaboration is, the video completely freaked me out when I first saw it. I mean...weird. Is there some misogynistic or sadistic sexual subtext to it all? Is it a feverish LSD dream? Some pretentious attempt to connect Aldous Huxley and Lewis Carroll? (Huxley wrote the first draft of the screenplay for Disney's "Alice in Wonderland," which was rejected as "too literary.") All I know is that it gave me a creepy feeling, accentuated by the spooky guitar work, and left me convinced for years that Tom Petty was not to be trusted. (He redeemed himself with "I Won't Back Down.")

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Crafting a Friendly Political Science

So, my contract for the next school year came through for me to sign this week. My promotion is official: associate professor. Time to get some new name cards, and to update the signature on my e-mails.

It's nice to get some additional evidence that I should be able to plan on being here for a while...though whether my major, or even just my need as a teacher, may not be, or at least so one might think by checking out some blogs by political scientists this week. Laura, Patrick at Duck of Minerva, and others have been talking about the fate of political science--and specifically its long-assumed position as one of those "core" subjects that every liberal arts education ought to include--in these days of budget cuts and bottom lines. This specific debate was prompted by the news this week of one liberal arts college simply eliminating political science from its curriculum entirely, but really, it's haunting all the humanities these days, as Tim Burke will tell you.

I suppose I should be worried about my position as Friends University's only political scientist (though I hate that term: my training is in political theory and philosophy, my interests have always run towards political ideas and ideologies, and even as I've learned how to and learned to enjoy teaching American government, comparative politics, constitutional law and all the rest, I still reject "political science" as a label: just plain "politics" or "government" makes much more sense to me). And I am, a little bit. We're a small school--a good one, and one that still has a pretty solid (though hardly luxuriant) financial foundation, but nonetheless one that is ultimately tuition-driven, and that means that the position of political science here, like everything else, is dependent at least in part on student interest. I've been involved over the past nine months with a general education revision process here at Friends, and as one might expect, as our recommendations have taken firmer shape, the process has become ever more contentious. The mandate we have--or at least, the one we think we have; departures and arrivals in academic administration have made the position of our committee somewhat murky at times--is to make general education less a la carte, more coherent, and more explicit in addressing the particular skills that prospective students and potential employers ought to be able to expect from coming here for, or receiving from Friends, an undergraduate education. The results, thus far anyway, are some ideas I'm mostly pleased with, though like some of my colleagues (particularly those in history, religion and philosophy, and English) I worry that, when it comes down to the essential matter--allowing the different divisions to craft their own general education "templates" as part of their degree requirements, which is probably our biggest and least understood innovation--the faculty will protect their own turf, to the exclusion of those traditional liberal arts classes (like American government or world civilizations) which happen to sustain a good portion of my and my colleagues' work load.

When I'm wearing my political theorist hat, and I take a look at some of the stuff I write about here and what I research and write about professionally (the latest news: a co-authored book on a contemporary political theorist, someone who has been a huge influence on me, is in the works), I can't disagree with Laura's description of what we do as "fighting over minutia [that is] miles away from the needs and concerns of average citizens." However, since I'm at a teaching college that celebrates research but doesn't make it in any sense particularly essential to one's academic career--much less promotions!--I don't worry too much about the disconnect there; I would agree that "spend[ing] half your life writing articles and reading research that have absolutely no application in an undergraduate classroom" really would be a pain in the ass, but for me, who doesn't have to spend even a quarter of his professional life doing such work, this institution provides about the right balance. My more general concerns are following up on some of the other comments which Laura and her readers make. I want to keep both our students and my fellow faculty members aware of and appreciative of the relevance of politics to being a citizen, to being an educated human beings. And that means making sure that my classes stay relevant, and relevant in such a way as to enable me to demonstrate their relevance to outside observers and reviewers (to say nothing of bean-counters that are ever-concerned with cutting costs.)

We're going to be caving into demand, and creating a pre-law track, or pre-law minor, to go along with political science; after resisting it for years, I think we've come up with a way to do it that will actually be meaningful, if only in some small way (most stuff that travels under the label "pre-law" is, from what I've been able to tell, mostly irrelevant to those who handle law school applications). We may do the same for international relations; even here in Wichita, every potential employer wants a pool of applicants with some know-how in international affairs, to say nothing of large number of international students at local community colleges that are looking for majors that fit their career plans. And as for the major itself, I'd like to think I've been able to streamline it a little, eliminating requirements which have become outdated and focusing more on some of the basics that I'd like to think would have more general appeal. But still, we're lacking--which means I'm lacking--when it comes to courses that can help students in truly local engagements with the government; we're lacking in internships, and we're lacking in basic economic requirements that everyone who studies political science ought to have (though we're getting closer on that one). Sure, sure, I can tell myself, there's only so much one professor can do--especially one who has only been here for three years. And in the meantime, I don't worry too much about my field disappearing; I think enough people here are still convinced enough of the old Quaker emphasis on service and justice to recognize that some sort of politics has to stay on the curriculum. But I can't afford to get complacent. When people start rethinking their whole conception of what higher education is for and why it's necessary--a rethinking I endorse!--then no teacher can afford to be.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Friday Morning Videos: "Stuck With You"

Man, I loved Huey Lewis and the News's videos. What white male suburban (or even just partly suburban) child of America who came of age in the 1980s didn't? I mean, seriously, what's not to like? No pretention, no art, no experimentation, just slick, kick-butt music and a bunch of dorky looking white guys in their late 20s-early 30s hamming it up for the camera, surrounded by a cast of thousands putting up with their dumb gags and silly make-up and stupid puns, all the while prominently featuring wholesome looking hot women with great legs and hair. When I was 16, I was definitely up for that. (Still am, I suppose.)

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

A Christian Socialist and Red Tory, Hanging Around the Front Porch Republic

It's odd--or perhaps, given the dynamics of the blogosphere, it actually isn't, but it nonetheless seems a little odd to me. Anyway, from what I can tell most of the occasional readers of this blog are somewhat liberal in their politics, if not outright on the "left," however defined. I probably had far more viewers and commenters who agreed with me and supported Obama for president, than those who agreed with me that his support for abortion rights was a good reason to not support him. My long meandering posts on various cultural and moral conservative issues lay mostly unread, I suspect, while my equally long posts (do I write any other kind?) on progressive reforms and crises, both economic and political, seem to get passed around a lot. So I'm part of the liberal blogsophere, right? I suppose...except that I actually read and link to far more blogs and internet sources that on on the "right"--again, however defined--than those on the liberal side of things. I don't consider myself to be foremost a conservative, but I'm clearly a kind of conservative, or else I wouldn't find their arguments and ideas so fascinating, provocative, and important. I guess what it comes down to is that my many communitarian, populist, and religious sentiments almost invariably make me sound conservative, even few people would consider my voting choices (Obama? John Kerry? Ralph Nader?!?) to fit under that label. And pretentious academic intellectual that I am, I'm constantly trying to make sense of that difference between appearance and intention: trying, in short, that one can be, as the quote from Norman Mailer on the sidebar says, a Burkean by way of Marx, or that conservative sentiments need a little--or more than a little!--leftism to make them a reality, or at least give them a shot of holding onto reality in our modern liberal capitalist world.

All this is by way of saying that I took a ridiculous amount of glee from finding myself on the fairly selective blogroll of an excellent new conservative web publication, Front Porch Republic. The main minds behind this new effort to articulate and explore a "dissident" conservatism are some of the most challenging prolific voices around: Daniel Larison, Rod Dreher, and Allan Carlson (whose book on "Third Ways" was a hit when I last used it in my Christianity and Social Justice class). As contributing editors there is simply a ton a good folks involved: Patrick Deneen, Caleb Stegall, Mark Mitchell. And the blogroll puts me alongside anarchists and localists and anarchists of very degrees. From the first set of postings, it looks to be a fine and important clearing house--and discussion space--for ideas and agendas. I'm looking forward to reading what shows up there with great anticipation, and arguing with it as it does.

Will I convince anyone there of my point of view? Perhaps, but perhaps not: the last time John Schwenkler (who is also on the blogroll!) and I went back and forth over this whole idea of whether or not Red Tories and Christian socialists and left conservatives generally (all eight of us!) could ever be part of an coalition of thinkers on the right side of the blogosphere, we found ourselves hung up on a fundamental disagreement over liberty. Basically, the localist dissidents picking fights with Rush Limbaugh and the rest of the Republican establishment are still, truly, liberal: they see something essentially valuable in the basically libertarian conception of liberty (subject to the classical, Aristotelian and/or Christian notion of the individual as conditioned by their place within a larger body of meaning and membership). Whereas I think Hegel and Marx got more right than Locke; I think liberty in an individualistic sense is vitally important in an instrumental and prudential sense, but I'm not sure that it offers us much as an essential guide to morality and philosophy in the modern world. That's right, I'm a modern, and I think modernity has added something to our ability to think about justice and equality and community which most of the ancients simply lacked. So rather than turning away from it all, I want to find and defend social policies and arrangements which acknowledge the need for collective (hopefully democratic, and occasionally compulsory) action and institutions to preserve the cultural and economic infrastructure which local communities and traditions and families depend upon. What does that mean, today, in practice? I have my guesses, but of course don't necessarily know. That's why I read these conservatives: so that I can be reminded of what I don't know, and hopefully learn a few things along the way. (This is the same reason why I value my libertarian friends: so they can remind me of when I'm not taking that "instrumental and prudential" advice seriously enough.) But for now, I suspect that while our differences will be deeper than our agreements, even if our mutual sympathies will be broad.

Oh well. Front Porch Republic puts right there at the top of the page "Place. Limits. Liberty." Two out of three definitely ain't a bad start.

Monday, March 02, 2009

What Kind of Geek Should I Be?

So, I have a free pass to an opening night show at our local Warren Theatre megaplex. That means no crossing town to catch some obscure foreign flick at the only theater in Wichita that reliably shows the few that come our way. And since Melissa and I watch practically everything on Netflix these days anyway, that means it simply won't do to use this pass for chick flicks or to catch up on all the Oscar contenders we've missed or various and sundry other middlebrow fair; no, this pass is fated to take me to the movies to see some big Geek Event Film, the only sort really made for the the big screen these days. The question is: which one?

1) The Watchmen, opening this Friday?

2) Star Trek, opening May 8th?

3) Or hold out until Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is released (eight freaking months late!) on July 17th?

I'll see all of them, eventually. But which should I be most determined to hang out with my fellow obsessive fans at on opening night? Half-Blood Prince is probably the obvious choice that longtime readers might make; my Harry Potter geekcred is thoroughly established. But my Star Trek fascination is pretty darn healthy too. And as for comic books and their film adaptations...well, let's just recall that Alan Moore's The Watchmen was key to helping me realize where I'd gone wrong in supporting, however tentatively, Bush's invasion of Iraq, and let it go at that.

In truth, this decision is mostly up to Melissa, as I hardly ever go out to films on my own, and the odds for convincing her to go along with me to one of these three films on their respective opening nights are probably: The Watchmen, extremely unlikely; Star Trek, about fifty-fifty; Half-Blood Prince, pretty good. But still, give me your sage advice, my dozen or so faithful readers. If I need to change her mind, I can tell her the Teaming Masses of the Internets told us what to do.