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Friday, July 31, 2009

Friday Morning Videos: "Don't Stand So Close to Me"

I seem to have another theme developing here: music videos by British artists (last week's Chrissie Hynde is from Ohio, but The Pretenders were British to the core), released in that short pop moment between punk rock and New Wave, before synthesizers opened up new vistas, while the radios were awash with art rock and easy listening, and when everyone who was hip was experimenting with reggae and ska. And if that doesn't describe The Police, then I don't know what else could.

Andy Summers guitar work on this single is marvellously subtle, but the video definitely shows who's the boss. Even just prancing around in old teacher's robes while carryng a lacrosse racket, Sting has charisma to burn.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Is It Common Knowledge that Billy Joel Used to Be This Good?

Because, I swear, I'd never really thought about it before. Man.

You hear things, but somethings you need to see them before you can appreciate just what you're hearing.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Justice and Fairness in Health Care #2: A Follow-Up

In the comments to my post yesterday, a bit of an argument with an anonymous commenter emerged. My latest response was getting too long for just a comment, plus I thought our argument might be worth sharing with the Teeming Masses of the Internet in general, some I'm putting it up here:

Anonymous #1,

A friend of mine, James Meloche, who for the past decade has helped run a Local Health Integration Network in Ontario, CA, tried to reply to your comments; here's what he has to say:

"Hey Anonymous,

None of your scare tactics are based in fact or reality. Reactionary fiction is your spin. Try doing some research and you will find that Americans pay many times the amount on health care premiums than ANY part of the G20. Further, you make a very INCORRECT assumption that MORE CARE is BETTER CARE--in fact, the converse has shown to be true. Dartmouth Institute compared low vs. high spending Medicare/Medicaid states and showed that higher spending regions had both lower performance and perceived scarcity by health professionals than those lower spending regions. My knowledge is built on 10 years of senior management of the Canadian healthcare system and multitude of connection in US and Europe. And, by the way, our docs in Canada order the tests and drugs for the patients they want--not what we tell them."

Let me also chime in in regards to some possible problems with the claims you made in response to my last reply:

You said: "Obamacare doesn't impact medical costs that are reflected in insurance premiums. It just changes how the costs are distributed."

For one thing, there is no such thing, as yet, as "Obamacare"; Obama has, wisely or not, trusted to the Democrats in Congress to hammer out a bill, and to date hasn't officially endorsed any particular plan. For another thing, this strikes me as rather ignorant argument. Redistributing costs won't have any affect whatsoever on the total amounts spent, you say? But that's not how it works when we're thinking about where to build highways or railroads (the same people may always need to travel the same distances, but a wise distribution of access points and delivery systems will mean less backtracking, less wasted time, the ability to chose between more or less economic forms of transportation, more rapid use by greater concentration of persons, etc.), or any number of other collective concerns. Premiums, like all sorts of other incidental costs always associated with any kind of large scale endeavor, very clearly are driven up (perhaps not wholly, but quite significantly) by the enormous expenses generated by unwise, too-late, repetitive treatments delivered in ad hoc ways to uninsured patients in hospital emergency rooms. "Redistributing" the costs of caring for those uninsured very likely (at least if the economists I'm reading have any credibility) will reduce premiums, and thus up-front costs, all around.

You said: "Giving people free health care will not pay for itself."

I'm not saying those up-front savings will entirely pay for the whole thing. No, it won't; that's why the current plan being debated in the House may include a surtax on the wealthiest of Americans built into it. This is where we have to leave economic, utilitarian justifications (as important as they are), and attempt theoretical/moral ones. I don't think delivering equal medical care to all is as essential a human right as some others, but I do think it's an egalitarian aspiration which ought to guide our policy decisions. What do you think?

You said: "Silence about 'defensive medicine.' Tort reform can never be part of the solution, right?"

Did I ever say that? I recognize, as I think any rational person (like Tom Daschle) would, that our paranoid, overprotective, vindictive lawsuit culture is a contributing culprit here. (Though just how much of a culprit is a seriously disputed question.) Overall, it seems reasonable to conclude that the extension of some sort of minimal coverage to everyone, provided in a more accessible and regular way, will undercut a great deal of the need for that defensiveness, because doctors will be dealing much more regularly with patients that they have a history with and records of treatment for, and that's leaving aside the many costly, risky, and lawsuit-attracting situations which will be eliminated, or at least be made much less likely, by making certain that people can get the medicine or treatments they need when symptoms very first appear, rather than waiting until the have to throw some desperate situation into their doctors' laps. But no, beyond all that, some sort of tort reform will likely need to come along eventually. I admit that I'm reluctant to take that position, since in a society with great economic divisions, lawsuits against the corporate powers-that-be are often the only recourse the poor have to achieve some justice. But if we could achieve a slightly more sensible, slightly less arbitrary and unfair health care system, then providing more protections to medical professionals from the irresponsible lawsuit-hunters out there would probably make some sense.

You said: "You think eating french fries is a ridiculous and destructive personal habit that the government should be able to ban or stiffly tax?"

Where do you get this? I've heard of some people that have run calculations about how much revenue this kind of "sin tax" might generate, but I've never heard it suggested that the health care debate was going to fund itself, or that the federal government in general was looking to restructure its budget needs, around taxing french fry consumption? All that being said though, what's the big freaking deal? We use taxes and regulations and laws to shape, encourage, discourage, or limit human behavior all the time, from speeding tickets to underage drinking. Sometimes these efforts are misguided and offensive, and sometimes they work. Are you making a particular argument (in which case, in reference to what proposed legislation, exactly?), or are you just opposed to any kind of moral or social or collective government action whatsoever? In which case, I'll look for you at the next Decriminalize Dope booth I pass at the state fair.

You said: "Obama and the Democratic congressional leadership have overreached in a dangerous way....He should have stuck the camel's nose in the tent, rather than trying to cram the whole dromedary inside in one fell swoop."

Dude, if you think the current plan in the House is the "whole dromedary," I can't imagine what tiny reforms you believe would have constituted a "camel's nose." Good grief, single-payer is completely off the table, and the public option (central to the idea of health insurance exchanges) is barely hanging on as it is!

Just last night, in association with National Health Care Call-In Day, I attended a meeting sponsored by Health Care for America Now. Given the fact that our two Kansas senators, Brownback and Roberts, are both going to oppose anything the Senate Democrats come up with, and given that our local federal representative, Todd Tiahrt, is actively working against House Resolution 3200 as I write this, there really wasn't much we could do productively to generate positive votes. To my mind, that gave us a certain amount of freedom: since we knew the best we could do was to generate as much popular awareness and support as we could, to perhaps make their votes at least little uncomfortable for them, that meant that we could avoid many of the above-mentioned technical debates, and concentrate on the fundamental, theoretical issues: that it is simply unjust (and unChristian) that some--mostly the poor, old, and sick--are denied, generally through no fault of their own, access to something which most every other citizen can enjoy. In other words, we can make it about fairness and decency, making our congressional delegation own up to the ridiculousness of the current system. And yet most of an hour was taken up by folks arguing in favor of this aspect of reform or that one, almost always taking the position that the plan which Obama is gently, from a distance, nursing along is a compromised, half-baked solution.

Whether or not you would have agreed with any of the decent, devoted, determined people at that meeting, what we're looking at right now clearly isn't the whole dromedary. What it is, on the contrary, is a once-in-20-years chance to do something sensible with a health care system which, whether we like it or not, is almost certainly going to have to be national, and most definitely going to feel obliged to do something about those who crowd our nation's emergency rooms and can't pay for it. I call that justice and fairness, every little bit of which ought to count.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Call to Support Justice and Fairness in Heath Care

It's been a while since I've posted--summertime laziness (soon to come to an end) and a workshop I taught last week got in the way. There are, as always, several things worth blogging about. But today, the most important one worth mentioning is National Health Care Call-In Day. The AFL-CIO and Health Care for America Now have set up a toll-free call line--at 877-264-4226--that will allow you to connect with the offices of your Congressional Representatives and Senators, and leave a message in support of national health care reform. Even if you live in a state where such calls are practically guaranteed to not make a difference in their votes--as I almost certainly do--helping to put hundreds, hopefully thousands, perhaps millions, of message of support out there just might make a difference in the views of some Blue Dog Democrats or liberal Republicans on the fence in the House and the Senate, if only by making clear, beyond the noise of the spin machine, that a lot of Americans really would like a more just and fair health care system.

Do the various bills, proposals, and amendments being hashed out in Congress as we speak really promise that? No--but they promise something much closer to it than anything else on the horizon, and certainly they promise something closer to it than what the status quo offers us. Look, my own perverse mix of populist and localist and socialist and traditionalist ideas don't provide me with any brilliant insights into how to provide health care to all who need it. What I do know, though, can be summed up in these seven basic claims:

1) Satisfying the health needs of yourself and your family is of crucial importance to a good life.

2) Depending upon every individual on their own to satisfy said needs, especially in an environment where the costs of medicine and medical care continually increase, will result in massive unfairness in who receives care, and when, and how.

3) In every modern democratic industrialized nation, that unfairness gets addressed, one way or another, either poorly or effectively.

4) In every other modern democratic industrialized nation besides the United States, the way they do it is by providing some sort of minimal health guarantees to every person, whether by having a single-payer (that is, government-funded) system, as in Canada, or having a national health insurance system, as in Great Britain, or some mixture of these and other systems.

5) In the United States, the way we do it is by allowing those without insurance, without family doctors, with pharmacy accounts, to go to hospital emergency rooms and get treatment, the costs of for which are passed along to the hospitals' insurance companies, which they then pass along to all the rest of us, in the form a higher premiums, higher co-pays, and less coverage.

6) This is really a stupid way to go about addressing the needs of those who can't afford proper medical care.

7) The plans coming through the House and Senate, whatever their faults--and, let's be clear on this, they have many--will at least make sure this foolish, humiliating, expensive practice comes to an end, period.

If you agree with, or at least acknowledge the general point of, those seven claims, then you have no good reason whatsoever not to pick up the phone and spend 10 minutes of your time expressing your support for House Resolution 3200, and your support for continuing efforts to get a bill written and moving forward in the Senate. Will you like the bills which will finally--after much compromising and horse-trading and whatnot--escape conference committee and be voted on and be sent to President Obama to sign? Maybe not. There are so many ways this promise can go wrong. They took the single-payer option (surely the most straightforward of all universal coverage systems) off the table without any serious discussion. (Remind your friends who are gnashing their teeth about "government-run health care" that that isn't even being contemplated by the House and Senate.) They are quibbling over the amount of money to spend. (Obviously, there will be costs associated with this in the beginning--it's only to going to require that insurance be offered to 47 million people who currently don't have it, whether through a "public option" which the government would directly provide to poor individuals, or through subsidies to families and businesses. Those costs will be recovered--and overall health care expenditures will decline--once the abuse of our emergency rooms come to an end...but that won't happen overnight.) And of course, there are all the looming questions about America's habits--as both medical providers and as consumers of health care--and how they contribute to an unsustainable health care system which lay behind all these debates: relentless overtesting, obesity and irresponsible eating, the perverse incentives of fee-for-service payment plans, an obsession with staying young and independent at all costs, etc. Any truly long-lasting movements towards more justice and fairness in health care will have to look at these.

But first, you have to do something to address the broken, wasteful, unfair structure which supports all of the above. And that's what Congress right now, after so many failed attempts over the years, is trying to make happen. We can't vote in Congressional committees or on the floor of the House or Senate, but we can make a phone call. So do so. I just did, and it was worth it.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Friday Morning Videos: "Brass In Pocket"

Pulling out Sheena Easton's first big American hit makes me think about all those other artists who were right there on the edge of the video revolution, making their pop music in 1979 and 1980 (MTV premiered in the summer of 1981; Friday Night Videos didn't come along until 1983). Here's one of my favorites from that era. A lot slicker than Easton's effort, but with a nice bit of hammy simplicity, nonetheless. Chrissie Hynde makes a good flirt.

Friday, July 17, 2009

"Is It a Quantity Surveyor?"

With all this talk about motorcycle repairmen, and the virtues of working with one's hands, virtues perhaps entirely out of the reach of the high-powered knowledge economy supermen which dominate our headlines, it's worth noting that Monty Python noticed the enduring authority of those who can fix things decades ago:

I can't quite figure out the link to international communism, but if we let the folks arguing about Crawford's book over at Front Porch Republic loose on it, I bet they could come up with something.

Friday Morning Videos: "Nine to Five (Morning Train)"

If you were thinking last week, "Is that Sheena Easton strutting around with Prince?", you were right. Easton was one of numerous female singers who fell under Prince's song-writing and producing wings at one point or another, the most famous probably being Sinead O'Connor. But of course, Easton had a pop career (and a video career) long before Prince conscripted her talents. She was one of the first mainstream video pioneers, a performer who really began to hit her stride at the beginning of the 1980s, when the idea of the video as something other than a promotional tool was gaining ground. You can tell just by looking at the simple camera work and simple presentation of her first hit, "Nine to Five" (or "Morning Train," as it was titled in the U.S.); this is a woman who was told by the film crew to just wear something to the shoot she could ride a bike in, and that was it. Works fine, as far as I can tell.

Matthew Crawford's Shop Class as Soulcraft

[Cross-posted at Front Porch Republic]

Let's pause a moment and be grateful that the job market for political theorists is so bad. Because if it wasn't, Matthew Crawford, who received his Ph.D. from one of the most prestigious programs in the country (the University of Chicago), might have found a position that had him teaching and researching about political philosophy, in which case he wouldn't have had the time or the experiences which allowed him to write Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, one of the finest, most philosophically informed and challenging books I've ever read. It's not a perfect book by any means, but producing provocatively imperfect books like this does, I think, far more for the life of the mind and the life of our society than teaching Plato and Hegel at institutions of higher education ever could (and I say that as someone whose work responsibilities includes not a little of just such teaching). We owe Crawford a debt of thanks.

An intellectual work, written by a diploma-carrying member of the intellectual elite who also happens to be a small business owner and a motorcycle repairman, which praises the intellectual virtues of the sort of manual trades (automobile and appliance repair, plumbing and electricity maintenance, building construction, metalworking of all sorts, and more) which intellectuals of all sorts usually either are bemused by, openly look down upon, or try to condescending relate to (all while unknowingly--or perhaps knowingly--striving to socialize their children away from having any attraction for them), will correctly strike most people as a fairly original prospect. The interest shown by book reviewers has certainly proven that point. Some of the reviews (see here and here) have been almost entirely positive, praising the book for identifying and condemning the separation between knowing and doing which privileges certain kinds of "knowledge work" over others, ignoring the legitimate and deep thinking that goes along with the manual trades, with results that skew a mostly self- or school-sorted, supposed cognitive "elite" away from working with their hands, thus depriving our society of more sensible and virtuous civic and economic relations. Other reviews (see here and here), by contrast, are suspicious of Crawford's claims and of the borderline exclusive way he sets up his argument, as much as they agree that his critique of late capitalist managerialism and of the cramped, artificial world of the office has a lot of bite. For myself, Crawford's book had me nodding from the second paragraph of his introduction, where he makes a simple, trenchant point about the disappearance of tools, and of arenas of action wherein we can make use of them to accomplish our goals, from the lives of us middle- and upper-class consumers: "The fasteners holding small appliances together now often require esoteric screwdrivers not commonly available, apparently to prevent the curious or angry from interrogating the innards" (pg. 2). So true! Any parent--at least, I would insist, any remotely financially responsible parent, one who wouldn't just throw away a toy or toaster as soon as it stopped working without a second thought--who as ever tried to replace some batteries or change a setting on a common household item, only to find to their frustration that there's no way to get into the damn thing without breaking it, knows exactly what Crawford is talking about. From that point on, he takes us on an intellectual survey of, and defense of, his chosen world of motorcycle repair, contrasting it all the while with the assumptions, pretensions, and limitations of the world he left behind.

The primary points of that contrast are restated in different ways throughout the book. At a couple points, he borrows from Aristotle to speak of the difference between the work done by what we call today "knowledge workers" or "symbolic analysts," versus the work encompassed by the "stochastic arts"--those that "diagnose and fix things that are variable, complex, and not of our own making." He includes in this category mechanics and medical practitioners and those with other occupations which, because of the constant risk of failure, at least potentially prevent self-absorption, and instead "cultivate not creativity, but the less glamorous virtue of attentiveness" (pg. 82). Such arts are worlds away from the often abstract (and therefore, Crawford suggests, often meaningless) tasks taken up by "creative professionals," the disciples of Richard Florida and other babblers of the postindustrial knowledge economy, where human potential is supposedly liberated by the opportunity to think about advertising displays or sales outreach, all of which are apparently "fully compatible with near-minimum wage" (Crawford's cruel, arguably unfair, but devastatingly funny take-down of the apologetic cult of creativity which sells upper-level managers on the idea that they are actually free-spirited bohemians while they manipulate the movement of consumer goods, is one of the highlights of the book; see pgs. 47-52). Another, simpler way he makes the same general claim is to quote economist Alan Blinder on the contrast between "personal services" and "impersonal services": the former "require face-to-face contact or are inherently tied to a specific site" (hammering a nail, checking a patient's breathing), while the others are essentially tasks that, because they can be "conceived in a computer-like, rule-bound way" (processing tax forms, correcting HTML codes, relaying doctor's prescriptions), are not, and thus face a constant threat of transfer, outsourcing, and a "downward pressure on [their] wages," to say nothing of their larger moral consequences (pgs. 33-35). And it is those larger consequences that most concern Crawford. While he clearly thinks highly of his own profession as a motorcycle repair shop owner, grounds his analysis of work in numerous anecdotes drawn from his own life, and frequently slips into a very specific praise of his own life choices, throughout the book Crawford nonetheless continually links all such arguments to his broader and widely-applicable concern--the "struggle for individual agency, which I find to be at the center of modern life" (pg. 7).

While there are many enemies of that agency, perhaps the most pervasive one, the one which is most implicated in the spread of the kind of "intellectual" and "social" technologies that which, through their organization and streamlining of the material world which necessarily prompts and shapes our thinking (Crawford strongly believes that all of us, even intellectuals like myself, whether we know it or believe it or not, are born to be tool-users, "inherently instrumental, or pragmatically oriented, all the way down"--pg. 68), preempt much of our ability to act productively via "a certain predetermination of things from afar" (pg. 69; think here again of the toys and appliances designed not to be opened, inspected, or fixed by consumers), Crawford calls "absentee capitalism." By this he means the concentration of capital--and the concomitant control of much of the material infrastructure of our lives--into the hands of individuals and corporations committed to economic growth along lines that exists in the world of numbers and margins, and has little patience for the joys that workers who discipline and submit themselves to a difficult trade, one which requires them to slowly, attentively, work out the problems of our stuff for themselves:

Any discipline that deals with an authoritative, independent reality requires honesty and humility....If occasions for the exercise of judgment are diminished, the moral-cognitive virtue of attentiveness will atrophy....These thoughts should inform our choices as consumers. It may or may not make sense to have an engine rebuilt by your local mechanic, in narrow economic terms. You may be better off buying a rebuilt engine from one of the chain auto parts stores, which get them from high-volume remanufacturing operations down in Mexico...But a more public-spirited calculus would include a humane regard for the kind of labor involved in each alternative: on the one side discipline attentiveness, enlivened by a mechanic's own judgments and ethical entanglement with a motor, and on the other synthesized carelessness. Further, the decision is inherently political, because the question who benefits is at stake: the internationalist order of absentee capital, or an individual possessed of personal knowledge. Given the ever-bolder raids of capital into the psychic territory of labor, our consumer choices contribute to a land war, on one side or the other, whether we are aware of the fact or not (pgs. 100-102).

Towards the end of the book, Crawford returns to this theme, arguing that "we [in the West] have failed utterly to prevent the concentration of economic power, or take account of how such concentration damages the conditions under which full human flourishing becomes possible," adding that "[i]t is time to dispel the long-standing confusion of private property with corporate property," and recommending "a progressive-republican approach to the problem" (pgs. 208-209). But fundamentally, Crawford's aim in this book is not polemical; he's a mechanic, and a Stoic, trying to understand the problem, not play judge with it and assign blame.

Not to say that he doesn't cast blame around; he does--as I said above, he identifies many enemies to human agency. But what he spends most of his pages addressing is not what lays behind the corruption of the value of work in its relation to people engaging productively with their stuff, but rather with how that relationship is corrupted. This is the point at which many critics of modern capitalism and the world it has made start blaming technology and praising the simple, direct, agrarian life of the yeoman farmer and landowner; investigating (often in Marxist language, whether they realize it or not) the alienation which individuals feel from the products and environments of their labor when technology takes away from us a sense of productive immediacy in our work. But Crawford does not follow this path, at least not exactly. For one thing, Crawford has no affection for the "simpler" life (pg. 6); on the contrary, he is a self-confessed gearhead, a fan of metal and power tools and powerful machines and speed (which means, among other things, that despite hanging out with various anti-moderns, he's probably not advocating for a withdrawal from the oil economy and the surplus technology it has made relatively cheap in the United States, as Conor Williams notes in his FPR review of the book). For another thing, he is dubious that our psychological or philosophical or moral association with the products of our own hands is truly disturbed by the technologically-enabled marketing of them to someone else ("If I am a furniture builder...what am I going to do with a hundred chairs?...I want to see them in use"--pg. 186). But he is concerned about technology--specifically, he's concerned about those aforementioned "social" and "intellectual" technologies, those ways of thinking about and codifying the world which he sees as germinating in the schools of our credential-happy society, where every task is more prestigious if it can be theorized and taught as content in a classroom, and be written about by perfect idiots who have nonetheless mastered the "technology" of writing:

Service manuals were once written by people who worked on and lived with the machines they wrote about....The writers of modern manuals are neither mechanics nor engineers but rather technical writers. This is a profession that is institutionalized on the assumption that it has its own principles that can be mastered without the writer being immersed in any particular problem; it is universal rather than situated. Technical writers know what, but they don't know how. They can be housed in an office building, and their work is organized in the most efficient way possible....This is my surmise, based on the nonsense these books usually contain. [Need I shout out the obvious, much-hated and always inadequate phrase known to everyone who has ever read an instruction guide: "Some Assembly Required"?] You parse nonsensical or mutually contradictory sentences over and over again, trying to extract meaning from them by referring them, somehow, to the facts before you. If there are drawings involved, they will have been made by a person certified in a computer-aided drafting software suite, not by someone who knows what he is looking at....As an intended substitute for personal knowledge, the division of labor predicated on an "intellectual technology" presents a false pretense of rationality, one that the mechanic sometimes has to work around in order to do his job. It would be a mistake to suppose that this is a superficial problem that could be fixed by, for example, better training procedures for the technical writing staff. What they need is experience as mechanics. Otherwise what they produce is "a projection of thingness which, as it were, skips over the things," as Heidegger wrote in another context. Where the rubber meets the road, the mechanic is still responsible for the thing (pgs. 176-177, 179).

Heidegger, along with Arendt and Kojève, are not the most cited philosophers in the book, but they lurk throughout it, their constant inquiry into matters of phenomenology and how we "appropriate" the world (and who, in fact, it is who does the appropriating) guiding how Crawford reads the ancient Greeks as well as interprets his own introduction to the world of motorcycles. The constant lesson is that unless one is engaged in a task with real limits, boundaries, and ends to it, a task that, because it has such parameters, can be pushed against and thus be authentically understood as making use of the full resources of a person, then one can never really see such work as cultivating virtue or making one happy. Of course, most people, most of the time, are just going to be happy with their paycheck (or not, as the case may be); what does it matter that they only work in the artificial world of the cubicle or the office, dealing in words and ideas? Moreover, for a great many of us intellectuals, whether lawyers or academics or sociologists or whatever, the words and ideas we work with are real, and we do push ourselves against them, and have to submit to the forms of our discipline if we desire excellence and satisfaction. All well and good, Crawford might say. But his narrative makes it clear--especially the portions which entertainingly describe his own apprenticeship as a mechanic--that environments of work that consist of only words and ideas are less likely to provide the sort of concrete poles, as it were, around which communities of workers can form. And those communities, those associations shaped most commonly by a mutual engagement with "durable objects of use" (or, as he quites Arendt as saying, "things more permanent than the activity by which they were produced"--pg. 16), is where the real sources of content are to be found. (Which all suggests that there are ulterior reasons why academics go to conferences and hold office hours and debate each other online--we have to encounter real people, and real resistance to our ideas, for our engagement with our tasks to have anything like genuine material satisfaction.)

But, as always, the invoking of community strikes some as risking nostalgia. One might snarkily ask, can "community" survive work that takes place outside of the simple, immediate world of the farmer in his village--that is, can it survive technology at all, even excluding the kind of warped "intellectual technology" that convinces folks to leaves realms of discipline in favor of airy organization make-work? Crawford thinks so. Neither a romantic nor a strict localist, he defends instead the place and value of the "political community, distinct from the market, where we locate a common good" (pg. 188). As part of an intriguing discussion of Marx at this point, Crawford observes that the experience of alienation--the core of Marx's analysis of capitalism--is in part of function of our perception of the use of the things we contribute to. Polities like states can serve to resist and contain the economic spreading (and consequent unevenness) which makes the worker's perception of the use of the goods he or she has helped to make less direct. "It is now the capitalist," Crawford writes, "who says, 'Workers of the world, unite!,' the better to dissolve those 'inefficiencies' in the labor market...that arise from political boundaries. The slogan once expressed a hope to organize a body of workers who were dispersed and hence exploitable, where now it captures the desire for a mass of 'human resources,' exploitable because undifferentiated" (pgs. 188-189). The res publica or common wealth which Crawford talks about needs to be able to resist being "scaled up"; there is a limit to how far that which begins, or ought to begin, with a personal and communal education (in a shop class, as an apprentice, or just learning from a friend) in the particular obduracy of things (or people, or the natural world, or whatever) can or should be taken. That is not, for Crawford, necessarily an opening for a political solution--subsidiarity! federalism! protectionism!--to all the issues he raises, though as I noted above, the stance he takes is a political one. Ultimately, whatever policy or ideological platform might be constructed out of his concerns, Crawford plainly states that fulfilling communities of work and action and use must begin in the "cracks" of the modern world (pgs. 189, 210).

This reference to the small-scaled particularity of communities will, additionally, invariably invite questions about exclusion. Might it be argued that the move to technologies and forms of work and organization that are not tied to specific and personal interactions as a basis for their relevant communities--technologies that are not sited, but rather are pliable, abstract, and make the metrics by which the work done can be assessed entirely disconnected from tangible, resistant nature--was an egalitarian move? And that, therefore, as one who argues against such technologies, Crawford's language of independence doesn't add up to much, as he actually doesn't think all actors can or should be equally admitted to the support structures of independent work? There is some truth to this. Crawford is rather contemptuous of any kind of easy universalism, preferring the humbler feeling of solidarity to Kantian imperatives. He insists, however, that equality is a worthy, because aristocratic, ideal--"it is the ideal of friendship--of those who stand apart from the collective and recognize one another as peers" (pgs. 201-202). There is a lot good thought to that conceptualization of modern human relations, but some real limits to it as well, as it seems completely oblivious to the power it hands to those originate, or constitute a majority of, that group which "stands apart." Crawford doesn't appear bigoted or discriminatory in any sense, and yet his own language betrays the sexist perspective that dominates amongst his preferred community. This is not a major, or even a minor theme, in the book, but it is there, what with Crawford speaking dismissively of "cheap whores," "senior harpies" and "cliques of girls," and openly admiring the reactionary environment of dirty jokes and sexual insults that prevail in the garage. Should anything be made of this? At one point Crawford does admit that he doesn't want to "idealize the trades," allowing that "there is probably more abuse of workers by other workers in the trades than in the office," and that "the new guy, the nonwhite guy, and the woman are especially likely to incur extra hardships" (pg. 230). But neither does he consider the harms that communities of practice can suffer when their forms of apprenticeship seem to be constructed so as to divide possible practioners right from the start. (Samuel Goldman, in his FPR review, touches on this issue as well.) Perhaps this ultimately points us towards the irreconcilability of goods. A way of thinking and working which does not countenance arbitrary and often cruel judgments (because the "natural order" which such judgments unthinkingly appeal to is, more often than not, the result of mean-spirited social power and nothing more) could, of course, succeed in making things difficult for the sort of enclosed communities of work wherein such vicious judgments often multiply...but it could also complicate the passing along of a personal education in trades that know the reality of the things they are engaged with, and as such truly value and teach human agency. (One might argue that there are two forms of egalitarianism in conflict here.) Crawford's inquiry into the nature and value of work cannot resolve the tension between the universal and the particular, between fairness and belonging; it only contributes to our awareness of that tension, by somewhat irritatingly bringing it up without ever seriously considering it. But the book does so many other things so well, it seems churlish to make too much of this one complication in his presentation.

There is much more than could be said about Crawford's argument(s). The book adds something to our debate over education and the meritocracy, over political leadership and double-talk, over the way the mind works and how it solves problems; even when it does not treat these themes thoroughly or develop them fairly (and it doesn't always), Crawford's anecdotes and observations are worth consideration, just as much as George Orwell's partial and often splenetic comments in Down and Out in Paris and London nonetheless revealed much truth about daily working life in Western Europe in the early 20th-century. If the many and various non-liberal critiques of modern conservatism and capitalism that have emerged in recent years could all be assessed according to a single standard (exactly the sort of list-making job that some college-educated knowledge worker of Crawford's description would likely have!), then Shop Class as Soulcraft would be easily ranked one of the very best. It is a book, I think, that will last.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Why Kick Carter?

Yesterday, The New Republic featured both Marty Peretz and Damon Linker dumping on Jimmy Carter's nortorious "Crisis of Confidence" speech (better known as the "Malaise" speech). It's an easy speech to pick on--just reading it, or watching it--makes it clear that Damon is only exaggerating slightly when he calls it "mawkish, hectoring, self-pitying, maudlin, self-righteous, undisciplined." So fine--he was a crummy speaker, with poor body language and a sermonizing mentality that never did, and probably never will, come across well for American television audiences. But why the insistence that said speech was Carter's "most pathetic moment"? Despite Peretz's and Linker's mocking of attempts to defend the speech by those who helped write it, the assessment of the speech by those who heard it actually received seems to counter their essential claims. Polls showed that majorities of the American people considered it a strong and brave speech, not a weak one. (The historical record makes it pretty clear, I think, that when pundits at the time started to write their epitaphs for the Carter presidency, they did it because Carter was--as ever--disorganized and judgmental in the wake of speech, asking his entire Cabinet to resign and issuing a barely concealed "loyalty oath" to those that remained, not because of the message of the speech itself.) Peretz seems particularly concerned that the speech--with its willingness to talk about crises, struggles, and the need for sacrifice--did nothing to arm America against the reign of ayatollahs which came to confront our foreign policy in the late 1970s (and still confront us today); while for Damon, the problem really just boils down to Carter making himself look dour and serious and Eeyore-ish, just in time for Reagan to come along to kick his butt. They're both talking about political power and influence, in other words--the ability to confront and sway political opponents and enemies, the ability to win political elections. President Carter gave a speech that wasn't about power and influence, but rather was about the "realities of responsibility, "the need for radical change," and a condemnation of "the debilitating effects of self-centered divisiveness," in former speechwriter Gordon Stewart's words. It was, in other words, as I've written before (in contrast to Obama's rhetoric), humble. And as humility rarely wins elections or brings one's adversaries pliantly to the negotiating table, what good is it for a president? Ergo, the speech was a terrible, joke-worthy failure. Carter's Sunday school moralism has brought out Damon's and Peretz's inner Machiavellis, that's all.

Well, they aren't alone, and I suppose they aren't necessarily wrong either, depending on how you look at it. Presidents are supposed to be effective leaders, not inspired prophets, and while I wouldn't necessarily claim Carter was entirely the later, he certainly wasn't the former. He shouldn't have run for president; he probably shouldn't have gone the political route at all, at least not beyond the smaller regional and cultural environment where his moralistic tendencies were better accepted. But like Rod Dreher and a few others whose conservatism is so radical that they're actually on the left rather than the right (whether they realize it or not), not to mention open-minded liberals like Ezra Klein, I think Carter, and this speech, can both be best understood in light of the effort to get Americans to think about thrift, conservation, and sacrifice--principles that we'll always need, even if we shouldn't be in the habit of expecting presidents to be able to give them to us.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Kids (and their Parents) These Days

I got some real satisfaction out of Michael Chabon's essay on "The Wilderness of Childhood" in the New York Review of Books. Tim Burke brought the essay to my attention, and as he says, Chabon's basic claims are spot-on. Growing up for Chabon was a constant encounter with mystery and adventure, both of which took place in spaces that were unsupervised, unregulated, unscheduled: the woods beyond his house in Maryland, vacant lots and playgrounds, a whole cartography derived from "the accumulated local lore of the neighborhood children": that's where the mean dogs are, that's where the kid with the air rifle lives, that's where the grandma who always has Popsicles in her garage freezer is to be found. In the context of all that, you explore. Being a writer, Chabon connects this to our literary imagination, but he fears the connection has been lost, replaced in the experience of our children with a safety-obsessed, "all-encompassing escort service." "We schedule their encounters for them, driving them to and from one another's houses so they never get a chance to discover the unexplored lands between." He wonders, rightly, what will happen to the kind of stories today's kids will learn to tell themselves and others, when their parents--and Chabon implicates himself here--won't let them go out to play.

Tim's reflections on Chabon's piece strike a chord with me, a chord that I've written about a few times in the past. All by myself, I walked and rode my bike and rode the bus to school, to the bowling alley, to the grocery store, to the video game arcade, to the park, to the swimming pool, downtown to the comic book shop, or just out into the open country (the home I mostly grew up in was right on the edge of the suburban development of Spokane Valley; south of us were homes and construction sites, places for bike riding in the summer and sledding in the winter, while north of us were just open fields and country roads surrounded by drainage ponds and stands of pine trees, all there for the climbing and getting lost in). Like Tim--another member of "Generation X" like myself, a man whose childhood was shaped by the 1970s--I would be gone for hours some days, and my parents trusted that I could find my way to where I was going and back again. (And if I couldn't, there was the quarter I carried for calling from a pay phone.) Tim agrees that Chabon's diagnoses--a fixation on consumer safety, paranoia about lawsuits and child-snatching--but he also thinks Chabon is a little too mournful for the past. He writes, "[Chabon’s] missing something new about contemporary middle-class childhood. Sometimes, yes, it’s about ferrying the kids between contained, safe experiences. But also, I think that a lot of middle-class family life is now about the simultaneous adventures of children and adults, that children and adults are sharing far more of their experiences." He goes from there to make a defense of parents and children not having their own separate worlds, but sharing adventures together, and of the particular kind of media and story-telling that allows for a cross-over between adults and children.

I want to be more persuaded by Tim's response to Chabon than I am. My wife and I are very different sort of parents than our folks were (or, at least, than my folks were; Melissa's parents, interestingly, were much more into their children's lives and activities than mine). We interact with them, watch movies with them, involve ourselves with their learning and playtime a great deal; and our habits in the way we treat each other around our children and the way we treat our children themselves, don't seem to be terribly unique amongst our generation cohort of parents, but rather kind of typical. (I'm thinking in particular here of this fine old essay by Damon Linker, "Fatherhood, 2002".) Granted, there is a great deal of self-selection involved here--for reasons having to do with everything from political tastes to the amount of available free time to where we chose to buy our home, most of the parents we end up associating with have a socio-economic background at least vaguely similar to ours; we simply aren't close friends with any either dual-career couples with their kids in daycare and both of them working 80 hours a week as investment managers for high-powered banks. Still, I don't think I'm wrong to believe that our habits are not uncommon, especially amongst middle-class members of the American bourgeosie like ourselves. So I should feel comforted with Tim's suggestion that such behavior on our part is opening up new vistas for our children, rather than seeing it all as just an act of compensation, right?

Unfortunately, I don't think so. There are too many other factors which Tim either ignores or chooses not to address in concluding that Chabon, in his mourning for his own unpatrolled childhood experiences, may have been missing the point. Probably the primary one is contained in the passage of Chabon's essay which Melissa focused on as the real killer: after teaching his younger daughter how to ride a bike, and taking her on an evening ride around their neighborhood, during which they don't see a single other child, he plaintively asks, even if he does send his children out to play, "will there be anyone to play with?"

Imagination--even the imagination of a child on his or her own, navigating their fragmentary, mental map of secure locations and danger zones and unmarked paths in their own heads--is a collective effort; that "lore" Chabon mentions came from and through someone, many someones. Brothers and sisters, cousins and schoolmates, friends and enemies. In the midst of the wealth and changing mores of post-WWII America, with its suburbs and mobility and slowly but surely (especially by the late 1970s and through the 80s) strangled efforts to contain and preserve patterns of assocition and stability in the midst of an economy that spread out wealth ever more arbitrarily (think white flight and globalization here), moving around and actualizing yourself and seeking better meritocratic opportunities and taking care of number one all contributed to the shrinking of family size, the concentration of resources and attention, a thousand little changes (the relative disappearance of front porches and sidewalks, the growth industry in micromanaged and carefully constructed--and therefore expensive--play areas like Chuck E. Cheese and more) that made it hard and seemingly unwise to let kids go at it alone.

At some moment--or at a hundred distinct moments--along this continuum, you hit a tipping point: so many families consist of dual earners with no one at home during the day, and so many kids live far away from grandparents or other trusted figures, that you just have to hire someone to watch them (if you're rich) or put them in daycare (which is another growth industry all its own). And if you do that, you might as well get them into the best situations possible: not just any kind of substitute authority to keep an eye on them during the day, but organizations and teachers that will give them sports and preparatory school work and musical lessons and youth leagues and awards for participation and more. All of which is, of course, depending your situation, eminently defensible. And I'm not even touching on the real, often difficult, issues and requirements posed by children with special needs, or with idiosyncratic talents, or just whose home life is anything other the classic two-parents-in-the-home model. But generally, by and large, all of these "helps," all of these ways we assist in our childrens' navigation of their worlds, whether natural or suburban or urban, just build. And then, once you see all the other kids getting ready for school in the middle of summer, you need to do it for your kids; once you see that there's no one at the park except the homeless and the meth addicts, you refuse to let them head out on their own. In which case, they get bored, and you have to find more projects of them inside the walls of the home, or you need to chauffeur them to even more places. Etc., etc., etc., wash, rinse, repeat.

The possibilities of parents and children together--learning together, exploring together, telling stories together--are admirable to be sure; Tim is right to highlight them, and I completely defend them. But I still strong suspect that Chabon has the better argument, if only implicitly: the sort of learning and exploration that we experience together is wonderful, but it tries to do more than it should, and the reason why it tries is because I am taught--by the hysterical warnings of predators on the talk shows, by the competitive mindset of the super-prepared kids in my daughters' classrooms, by the patterns laid down by choices that shape so much of our living environment--that it just isn't worth the risk to allow kids these days to make their own adventuresome way on their own.

To an extent, then, this is a call loosen up, to slack off, and to praise those forms of work and play--and, therefore, also praise the somewhat limited sorts of lifestyles and economies which such forms can allow, as well as sorts of polities and infrastructures which enable more people to purposefully choose such forms, with all their limits--which better leave kids alone: not entirely alone, of course, but alone more often than they are today. I don't mean such a call to be all a mournful "kids these days!" complaint. There are good things which have come along with the responses of parents to the changes of the past thirty years, and I don't want to dismiss or downplay those good things: we aren't 1970s parents, we're 21st-century ones, and happy for it. But if our way of patrolling our children's lives and environments were slightly more slanted towards the more open-ended, more adventuresome options that were already disappearing for us suburbanites when we were kids way back when, our kids, I think, would be even more happy for it as well.

[Update: Laura McKenna has a fine contribution to this discussion on her blog here. In talking about her own children, she adds an excellent and important distinction: "time freedom" along with "space freedom." We often don't give our children unstructured time, because we are bothered by what destructive thing they may come up with, and because they are bothered at the prospect of being bored. But as Laura rightly says, "being bored is essential to the creative process." Freedom in terms of the space to explore and map out on their own--which is really the heart of Chabon's original complaint--is harder for her, and I sympathize, as I say in a comment. Anyway, check out what she has to say.]

Monday, July 13, 2009

Shop Class as Soulcraft Symposium

This week, Front Porch Republic is going to be running a series of reviews and posts dealing with Matthew Crawford's wonderful, challenging, thought-provoking book, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work. It is, I am fairly confident in claiming, the single best book yet--philosophically broad-minded but also incisively personal--that I have seen emerge from the whole meandering localist/populist/anti-corporate/anti-modern "crusade" of the past half decade or so. It speaks to matters dealing with education, politics, and economics, but much more than that it speaks to how people engage in and think about--and how people should engage in and think about--the work they do, both with their brains and, more importantly, their hands. But read Patrick Deneen's general introduction to the book (which has garnered an impressive amount of media attention, deservedly so) and the symposium here. My contribution will be showing up, both there and here, towards the end of the week, but follow the whole discussion if you can; it'll be very much worth your time.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Friday Morning Videos: "U Got the Look"

That was fun last week--so let's keep the funk going, with this over-the-top opus from Prince. Seriously--has anyone ever made dressing like a pimp look quite this good?

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Thinking About States (and Why There Should be More of Them)

[Not exactly cross-posted at Front Porch Republic, but check out the comments thread there, nonetheless.]

We spent the 4th of July weekend down in Dallas, visiting a friend that we haven't seen in years, and getting a sense of a big slice of the old southwest that, despite coming up on five years in Kansas and numerous trips to Oklahoma during that time, we'd yet to even begin to expose ourselves to. I'm talking about Texas, of course.

It surprised everyone that we mentioned our trip to that we'd never visited the Lone Star state before--no Dallas, no Austin, no San Antonio. We'd flown into and out of the Dallas-Fort Worth airport on a few occasions, but that hardly counts. I did have a job interview once in San Angelo once, way out in western Texas, and the aforementioned friend drove me out there from Dallas, so I saw some of the countryside then. But really, Texas was terra incognita to us. And it still is, of course; there's so much of it, that it's kind of ridiculous to stamp a "been there" star on our map of the U.S. just on the basis of a weekend trip to it's biggest city. (Not that that stopped us from doing so.) But we did get a taste--the green rolling hills that begin at the Arbuckle Mountains (more like tall hills, but you take what you can get) and continue south into the plains around Dallas, the diverse cities and neighborhoods of the Dallas-Fort Worth region (Irving, Arlington, Plano, Denton, and I certainly won't forget the awesome Korean grocery in Carrollton!), the kindly Southern lady who ushered us around the fantastic Nasher Sculpture Center in the Dallas Arts District. Most of all, I got a fabulous, close-up look and taste of a living legend of the Texas music scene, Joe Ely, a country-blues-rocker and singer-songwriter, founding member of the legendary Texas band The Flatlanders, all of whom my Dallas friend had introduced me to years ago. Ely was touring with a band that he'd first formed and recorded with back in the 1980s, and the show--at Billy Bob's, in the Stockyards at Fort Worth--was an awesome showcase for the talent and precision they'd gained from having worked, on the road and in the studio. Fortunately, someone there was more technologically adept than my friend and I, so you can see what you missed:

Too bad our enterprising cell-phone-camera-wielder didn't record Ely's second encore, a tribute to his hometown of Lubbock (the birthplace of Buddy Holly) and to the Rolling Stones: a pounding version of "Not Fade Away." It was very simply one of the best live performances I'd ever seen. Next time, perhaps.

[Update: Our mystery cameraman caught it! Thank you, anonymous commenter, or Scott, or whomever you are. Here it is, for you all:

Call it a tribute to the enduring and cosmopolitan power of great local Texas music, if you will!]

Anyway, one thing the weekend convinced me of--Texas is worth it. And I mean "Texas" not just as a geographic location that incorporates the activities and achievements of whomever happens to make their home or workplace there at any one point in time; I mean "Texas" as a site with a culture, a history, a legacy (in music, food, and other things as well), a way of life. I didn't need much convincing of this, of course; my passion for embeddeness and belonging and authenticity makes me an easy mark for anyone who wants to sell me on the particularity of a place. And, of course, the slogan of "particularity" itself doesn't tell you much about the nature of, the boundaries of, the necessary limits (internal and external) to a place worth being particular about. But all those important questions aside, it's I think indisputable that Texas, at least, has got something, is a home for something, worth holding on to. Would that every community--or, at the outside, every state--could say the same thing. And maybe, just maybe there's something the nation as a whole could do to make that more likely: split some of them up.

Which leads me to an old post of mine, written back in 2005 (and slightly updated here), which speaks to the idea that there ought to be more states. There are some important political and economic considerations to this proposal that the post doesn't address--in some cases because I was aware of the issues but chose not to delve into them, in other cases because they involve questions which I've only come to appreciate as I've studied more about localism in recent years--but I think on a whole, the post stands up well. So herewith, as a belated celebration of our country, a proposal to divide it up even more.


When the opportunity arises, I like to take my family to visit Spokane, Washington, where I grew up. Not only does it give us a chance to see extended family, it enables us to ramble around Washington states and other parts of the Pacific Northwest with our kids. Over the years, we've taken them to Seattle and Portland and Coeur d'Alene, and driven back and forth along the Columbia River Gorge, we've taken them to Mount Rainier and Mount St. Helens. Whenever I return to Washington, I'm always struck once again by the diverse beauty of its environment: the Cascade Range, the Yakima River Valley, the Palouse Prairie, etc. And, of course, I'm reminded of how much I'd like to divide it up.

The ambition (mostly humorous, but sometimes serious) to carve a new state out of parts of Washington, Idaho, and a little bit of Oregon has been around for a long time; I remember people talking about it when I was a kid. The most reasonable plan usually calls for taking the region often referred to as the "Inland Empire" (here's a rough map) and renaming it "Columbia," with Spokane as its capital, bordered by Canada on the north, Kalispell and Missoula, MT, on the east, Wenatchee and Yakima, WA, on the west, and maybe Baker City, OR, on the south (just so long as we get Hells Canyon). Granted, most of the local people who talk about creating such a state are doing so only because they want to make some sort of point about the ideological divide between the liberal, metropolitan enclaves of Seattle and Portland, and the conservative, mostly rural territory which those areas politically dominate. But if you look at it that way, you force the question of who is really being "served" or "represented" by whatever strange ideological combinations the boundaries of Washington (or any state, for that matter) call into being--and by that standard, poor Eastern Washington benefits a lot more from wealthy Western Washington than local politicians care to admit. Which means, of course, that the debate founders on the usual dispute over economic advantage vs. political liberty, with plenty of mockery and cheerleading to be found on both sides.

I don't see it in those terms however; my concern is more cultural and civic. The whole theoretical point of granting substantive political power to individual states--given that the logic of "one man, one vote" suggests that we ought to actually abolish both the electoral college and the U.S. Senate, and turn the whole United States over to a single unicameral legislature--is the old republican notion (as transformed by James Madison and Co., of course) that people will take their democratic duties as citizens more seriously when they feel a greater attachment to that public of which they are a part. Of course, that's only part of the issue--the historical reason for granting substantive political power to the states in the U.S. had little to do with theory, and a lot to do with the fact that distinct sovereignties existed along the eastern coast of North America, had existed for quite some time, and couldn't be gotten around in any imagining of a new American polity. But still, that factors into the theoretical concern--if you have historical localized attachments, then they need to be constructed, legitimated, and assembled in such a way as to preserve their function in the larger whole. As the country has developed, much of that function has broken down, at least in part due to the unwieldiness of certain state boundaries as they've developed over time. Spokane (despite what some of its boosters claim) doesn't dislike Seattle, anymore than Pendleton dislikes Portland or Bonners Ferry dislikes Boise. They just don't have a lot of mutual affection for each other, that's all. So, why not divide up certain boundaries to reflect the developed history of these places? The result would be along the lines of what Michael Lind suggests: more states, making for more and more balanced representation.

Okay, I admit, Lind's vision of 75 states is a little much. Moreover, Lind is, as always, a purely civic nationalist; his vision is entirely wrapped up his drive to make the American nation a more unified and democratic political body. I'm sympathetic to such national republican concerns, but I also think that Lind's proposal foolishly ignores the cultural and historical aspects of belonging. You can't just divide up states left and right for the sake of representational equivalence, however worthy the goal; the roots of identity begin locally, not with lines drawn for wholly political purposes. Sure, politics is part of it--as I've discussed before, boundary-drawings, like all foundings, is a complicated affair, with outright acts of political will balanced against the pre- (and non-)political elements of "people-making," whether linguistic or geographic or cultural or otherwise. But nonetheless, the affective aspects of identity, as they grow (and change) over time, need to be considered. Which just means that it'd obviously be plain electoral suicide to try to get the Great State of Texas, with all its myth and history, to submit to a break-up. If you're going to be that crazy about it, you might as well throw your lot in with those who advocate annexing British Columbia and Alberta as well. I don't think a purely representative calculus will serve America--to say nothing of eastern Washington--very well. The goal shouldn't be achieve a perfectly responsive representativeness (we arguably already are too addicted to that chimera anyway, what with recall elections and ill-considered election laws hampering the overall process); rather, the goal should be more representation in general. Where possible, where the people's sympathies clearly support it, let's have more states, with a larger Congress and more representatives serving the people on a smaller, more affective basis. (Which will also, I think, also turn out to be more effective--but that's, as I say, a separate matter.) Moreover, let's start with my Inland Empire homeland (and let's do it soon, before my father is too old to run for governor).

What other new states do I think are plausible? Western Kansas, unfortunately, almost certainly isn't, but there are other candidates out there was well; Lind's list, over-enthusiastic as it is, contains some obvious possibilities. Clearly, California should be split up--it's too large, spread out and disconnected as a population for current arrangements to be defensible, to say nothing of economically sustainable. Plus, there's precedent for northern California separating itself; consider the proposed state of "Jefferson". Splitting up New Jersey, perhaps in conjunction of some redrawn boundaries within New York and Pennsylvania, would follow natural population lines. (No doubt Long Island would love to be its own state.) I'd personally like to give Michigan's Upper Peninsula back to Wisconsin, since that makes more sense geographically, but dividing the state along a north-south line, giving the U.P. to the western half and forming a new state out of the Detroit area and the "thumb" probably wouldn't cause too many tears (at least not if my Ann Arbor-raised wife's opinion is any indication). And that doesn't even begin to address harder cases, like Puerto Rico. But this would give us 5 new states, and they'd be fairly evenly divided between "red" and "blue" too, on my reading. Why not 55 states? We could add another line of stars to the flag, don't you think?

Friday, July 03, 2009

Friday Morning Videos: "Living in America"

Tomorrow's the Fourth! So get yer funk on.

Also tomorrow, let's remember to take a moment to be grateful that, thanks to patriots like Apollo Creed and Rocky Balboa, the Cold War came to a mostly peaceful conclusion.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Laura Explains the Blogosphere at the Present Time

Blogger supreme Laura McKenna has just laid out her observations about how blogging has evolved over the six years she's been at it. I can't disagree with any of her conclusions; I really think she's nailed it. Here's her conclusion:

Blogging has changed a lot in the past six years. It's still an excellent medium for self-expression and professional networking, but it will no longer make mega-stars. It's actually a good thing that the hoopla has died down. No one should spend that much time in front of a computer. The expectations were unrealistic. Use your blogs to target particular audiences and have a clear mission, and you'll get a following. Blogging should be the means to another goal -- a rough draft for future articles/books, a way to network with professionals, a place to document your life for your children, a way to have fun. Those are very real and good outcomes of blogging and that's why I'm continuing to keep at.

Sounds good to me. But be sure to head over there for her full list, and the comments thread.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Canada Day Round-Up

Happy Canada Day to my friends in Toronto, Montreal, and elsewhere across the Great White North. Herewith, a few Canadian hits from blog posts past:

Some old thoughts of mine about Canada, Red Tories, conservatism and Stephen Harper, slightly updated for Front Porch Republic, can be found here.

Some not-quite-so-old thoughts, focusing on communitarianism, Quebec, the philosophy of Charles Taylor and the fate of Canada, can be found here.

Because it sparked such a fine and fun comments thread last time around, here it is again--my Top 10 Things I Like About Canada list:

10) Rush, Barenaked Ladies, The Guess Who, and Gordon Lightfoot. I have no idea if one could make a cultural argument that there is anything particularly Canadian that all of them share, but anyway, my life would be worse without them.

9) Red Tories. A historical label which not only reflected pretty much exactly the sort of democratic political ideology (economically agrarian and egalitarian, politically communitarian, culturally traditionalist, religiously Christian) that I like, but which also describes a variety of relatively successful real-world political movements and politicians that--had I been a Canadian voter 50 years ago--would have had very close to my complete support, maybe even more than America's own Populists from a century or more ago would have gotten from me. (Forget about Harper's Conservatives and the New Democratic Party, everyone: let's bring the old Progressive Conservatives and the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation!)

8) Point Peele National Park. A small peninsula jutting southward from the Canadian mainland into Lake Erie, it's a beautiful stretch of forest and beach where my wife's family--she grew up in Michigan--used to spend their July 4th holidays (a smart way to avoid the crowds and get some good swimming in).

7) Relative avoidance of sugar processed from high fructose corn syrup. Once when we were visiting the Ontario Science Centre, we saw a display--in some sort of health exhibit--on the manufacturing of sugar and the relative amounts consumed by residents of the U.S. and residents of Canada. Our sugar consumption towered over theirs...primarily because most of our sugar intake comes from corn syrup, which we put into everything. It was an early part of our determination to change what we eat.

6) Speaking of food...Shreddies. Enough said.

5) Toronto. Yes, it's too big, and too expensive, and it dominates English-speaking Canada's economic, cultural, political and intellectual life to an unjustifiable degree. But a cleaner, more multicultural, more fun big city you're not likely ever to find.

4) Socialized medicine. Of course, it's not really socialized medicine; various levels of government only cover a little over two-thirds of all heath care costs in the country, and the providers are a patchwork of government-run, for-profit, and non-profit organizations. But it's universal care, and your basic medical needs don't cost you an arm and a leg (sometimes literally), and besides, my oldest friend from graduate school, James Meloche, helps run one of the Local Health Integration Networks in Ontario. That's good enough for me.

3) The intellectual problem of Canada. Why do I find Canada's perpetual crises over language rights, sovereignty, religious freedom and more, as embodied in questions about constitutionality, Quebec's unique cultural and political status, and the future of the Canadian federation itself--and reflected in documents from the Constitution Act to the Meech Lake Accord to today's Commission on Accommodation--so engaging and admirable? Because they actually exist: it's political theory made real. Unlike other nations that ponder in the abstract about nationality and identity, in Canada you find all these issues, which are usually just fodder for pretentious intellectuals like myself, being treated with great seriousness by actual politicians and parties and voters. The fact that our divided neighbors to the north have been able to survive intact--as a distinct nation with the smaller nation of Quebec still a part of it, despite all the conflicts and all the talk of separation for so long--is due to the hard work and aspirations of millions of ordinary Canadians who have taken the time to think and talk about sort of difficult matters which most citizens in most democratic societies would prefer to leave alone, so all credit to them. (Though, to give pretentious intellectuals a nod, it's probably not a coincidence that Canada has produced some of truly profound political thinkers, none more so than Charles Taylor, the--in my opinion--greatest political and moral philosopher of the 20th century.)

2) SCTV. Better than Monty Python? Um...no, not really. But better than any of the many incarnations of Saturday Night Live over the years? Oh yes, definitely.

1) The loonie. Why have a one-dollar coin? For luck, of course.

And finally, some parting and very Canadian advice for all of us, from Bob and Doug McKenzie and Geddy Lee: