Saturday, June 22, 2013

How important are books?

"Reading books doesn't make one smart, it makes you a portable library. Information is not intelligence, it's not what you know that matters but how you use what you know, that is called wisdom. Intelligence without wisdom is dangerous."

Once upon a time, man, realizing his time here on earth was limited, but desirous of passing along the important lessons learned, developed the written word. Regardless of from where or how he sprang, his first and most important imperative was to relate the story of his creation. These narratives, again regardless of location and/or time, included insights into his Creator, the Creator's gifts to him, the Creator's demands on him, and the Creator's punishments when he (inevitably) committed some displeasing act. 

To alert succeeding generations of these pitfalls (and to demonstrate the power of his creator) a body of "dos and don'ts" was scrupulously compiled, recorded, and transmitted to the general population. This was accomplished most effectively through the written word but, more often (as illiteracy was the rule and not the exception), by word of mouth from traveling story tellers with great memories and the ability to tell a tale in metered verse. 

The oldest recorded tale we have is the Epic of Gilgamesh. Like the Old Testament, the Gilgamesh epic includes the creation of the firmament, the dry land, man, and the beasts. It also chronicles a female seductress compromising our heroic male, a Great Flood (following a divine "heads-up"), land rediscovered by our winged friends, a duplicitous serpent, and the creator's subsequent forgiveness, followed by man's grudging acceptance that he will indeed not make it out of this world alive.  

The Old Testament, as noted, is a remarkably similar tale except that the Hebrew story dispenses with the multiplicity of competing gods in place of one, all powerful being. His initial humans are given everything with but one prohibition - which proves that one can be "one too many," and the initial pair are "cast out" to live out their lives in pain and toil…but not before receiving a promise that a "seed" of the woman would conquer the serpent. 

Subsequent generations created several Books of law, designed to instruct the faithful, directing them to avoid those transgressions most offensive to the Almighty (in numerous instances, the lessons were outlined in allegories, featuring noted personalities, their transgressions, and eventual punishments). 

Nevertheless, the laws were broken with stunning regularity, resulting in setbacks of various magnitudes and durations; but the Almighty (sometimes immediately, sometimes lingeringly) forgave His people and instructed them to carry on. Some 6000 years later, having endured repeated purges, wars, and oppressions, remnants still carry on and still appeal to those ancient laws (as well as ten additional stone engraved proscriptions) for support and guidance.

The ancient Greeks had numerous gods and goddesses who differed from humans only in their immortality. In every other way they were just as capricious, unpredictable, and morally lax as any human. Hardly the stuff of heroic stature. But along came Homer and with him, Achilles. In the Iliad, Homer presents a man with all the strengths and weaknesses, loves and hates, confidences and doubts we all possess. 

However, like our other storied heroes, Achilles cannot tolerate betrayal; dissimilarly, he has a history of flying into a rage when he is victimized and seeks immediately to address the injustice. This compunction drives him into a situation where, should he let the transgression pass, he can expect a long, comfortable life at home; if he insists on righting the wrong, he will die (a prophecy given to his mother at birth). 

Achilles achieves his heroic stature by insisting on "doing the right thing," regardless of the consequences. He fulfills the Greek ideals of self-knowledge. "Know thyself" and "realize thyself though the cost be death." "No man is greater than his soul." Despite its age, the Iliad remains the first of Mortimer Adler's  Great Books - and, most likely, among the least read (which may go some way in explaining Greece's debt problem - or maybe not).

Ancient Rome lacked a classic. But upon the conquest of the Greeks, they developed one through Virgil and his Aeneid (it should be mentioned that Cicero and Terence were also significant in creating a "Roman story'). Virgil kicks off the Aeneid with the oft repeated question: "why do good individuals suffer misfortunes?" Sure enough, Aeneas winds up shipwrecked upon the shore of Carthage, where he meets the lovely Dido who falls in love with him. But, like Achilles, he is driven to accomplish what he set out to do and, leaving Dido, sails on to Italy.

Upon arrival, and armed with the Golden Bough, he enters the "land of shades" where he learns of Rome's great mission: "…Oh, Roman remember to rule the peoples; that will be thy art; and to impose the law of peace, to spare the submissive and bring down the proud." Armed with this insight, Aeneas proceeds to conquer King Latinus and oversees the initial days of the Roman Empire. Like Homer, Virgil gives his hero an admonition:  "Do thy duty; let neither danger nor woman keep thee from it."

In Christian theology, Christ is the One promised back in Genesis, the Messiah, the Son of God. His message, almost always delivered as stories (parables), are chronicled in the New Testament. Although Christians differ over the meanings of certain scriptures and the authority to interpret it (sola scripture vs. the Magisterium), all Christians are urged to refer to it regularly (e.g., 2 Chr. 17:9, 2 Tim. 3:16-17, Rom. 1:20, Eph. 6:4, and John 1:17).  

Jew, Christian, Muslim: all identify themselves as "People of the Book." All regard their books as sacred, providing insights into the plan, will, and proscriptions of the Almighty. And each finds itself under varying degrees of attack from a world that has become increasingly secular. Religiously denominated schools are becoming fewer and the public school system actively mitigates against on-campus religious discussion. 

As a result, scriptural study becomes more important; where it has not been deemed important (e.g., Europe), adherence to any of the three has diminished noticeably (while a number of countries have experienced a growth in Islam, that has largely been accomplished through immigration and higher-than-average birth rates).

Finally, atheism/agnosticism has gained significant traction and boasts a number of well known spokesmen. Additionally, groups of believers, housed under the umbrella description of "the emerging church," pose additional challenges to traditional Christianity. They, too, have a number of very literate, very telegenic personalities who have been described as Relevants, Re-constructionists and Revisionists. Generally speaking they believe the "old time religion" is irrelevant in a post-modern society. And they've published scores of books outlining their positions.

I could go on to draw parallels with Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam, but I believe the point has been sufficiently made: history's longest enduring belief systems share many foundational similarities. But their conclusions, modes of worship, acceptance of others, codes of law, and world views can differ dramatically. To discover why can be found only in learning from their books. They most certainly have studied ours and have used them quite adeptly in arguing their case. This was embarrassingly evident in a number of debates when Christopher Hitchens demonstrated a greater knowledge of Christian teachings than his clerical interlocutor. 

The Jesuits addressed this problem in the early 1700s at the College de Louis-le-Grand where only the brightest young men were admitted. Not only were students given an intensive education is rhetoric and disputation, but were also encouraged to raise objections to what they were being taught. To accomplish this they were encouraged to read contradictory accounts. (Imagine, a university that promoted learning both sides of an issue!!!)

The results weren't always as desired as both Voltaire and Victor Hugo not only strayed from the faith, but also became ardent anti-clerics. But faith is a not-easily-acquired gift and if neither man desired it, they were availing themselves of one of Christianity's greatest attributes: free will.

If you don't believe it - it's in the Book.

And, lest you believe the age of heroes has passed (along with our will to believe in the outrageous), let me quote Stan Lee:

"My theory about why people like superheroes is that when we were kids, we all loved to read fairy tales… Fairy tales are all about things bigger than life… Then you get a little bit older and you stop reading fairy tales, but you don’t ever outgrow your love of them. Superhero movies are like fairy tales for older people."

If one can find a superhero lurking in the person of Robert Downey, Jr., one can believe in almost anything...but probably doesn't.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

I have met the enemy and he is Pogo

(originally posted 6/18/13)

Although it may be just a faint memory for some and totally unheard of to many, the comic strip Pogo was once one of America's "national treasures." Creator Walt Kelly, employing elaborate landscape art, a cast of apparently benign swamp creatures, and a sometimes-subtle-sometimes-blunt sense of humor, generated daily doses of political and social commentary. By far the most memorable piece Kelly ever produced, and featured on 1970 Earth Day poster, has Pogo (a possum) glancing sadly at his beloved swamp, beneath a polluted sky, and awash with tin cans, garbage, and all the detritus of modern civilization. His take:

"We have met the enemy and he is us."

Its effect was immediate, powerful, and enduring. While it was initially considered the rallying cry of the environmental movement, it was gradually co-opted by other groups. All had one thing in common: each felt that its sacred (profane?) ideas/goals had been thwarted or delayed by an American public incapable of grasping the importance of their agendas. In short, we American were, and continue to be, a benighted agglomeration of mental midgets "standing athwart history yelling 'stop!'"

I just finished a Google search on Pogo's famous phrase and found it used recently to illustrate our failure to appreciate each of the following: degree-based education, the nuances of venture capital investing, the clean-up problems facing professional bass fishermen, the elements of pharmacy practice in Canada,5 and the exaggerated threat of the Muslim world to Europe.

There were many, many more and demonstrate, as Victor Niederhoffer is fond of despising, "an idea that has the world in its grip." Astoundingly, Americans have become accustomed to accepting, without argument, accusations of possessing a national character that is both morally and historically weak and corrupt . But why are Americans so willing to meekly accept blame for ancient crimes (e.g., the institutionalizing of slavery) as well as more modern ones (e.g,, despoiling the environment)?

Try this experiment: go to a very popular social media website and claim credit for the invention of the internet, or the development of Velcro, or postulating the concept of string theory. Those who bother to respond will flame you unmercifully, claim your crazy, or suggest that your posting privileges be rescinded. At the very least they will view you as a nut unworthy of additional consideration and strike you from their list.

Return the next day and confess to feelings of guilt over slavery, the withholding of women's rights, your opposition to birth control, the continuing debasement of the Native American, and your opposition to tax increases. Your audience will respond with enthusiasm. Some will cheer your long-awaited epiphany and subsequent mea culpa. Others will feel it's "too little, too late" and suggest that sizable donations to various righteous organizations might allay their lengthy suffering. A third group will think you're a total sell-out, but not comment. A fourth group (the Remnant), will feel exactly as the third but will courageously post their objections - and risk the collective outrage of the collective mind.

The situation would be bad enough if the situations were limited to accepting unmerited approbation - viewed by some as heeding the scriptural injunction to turn the other cheek. But, in many cases, it has gone well beyond that; confession is not enough; repentance must be demonstrated. Generally, this is expected to come from someone of national prominence and in a very contrite manner. (There are some [Pogo?] who would prefer a re-enactment of the whipping Henry II received from the monks after the slaying of Becket.)   

Strangely enough, this method of instilling an inescapable sense of national guilt can only work in those countries with a strong Judeo-Christian heritage... yet among the strongest purveyors of this guilt are philosophers, academics, and sociologists who, in many cases, are atheists or agnostics. The success of these strategies is pathetic enough, but they are not the end. No, it is expected that the culprit, in this case, America, (and the entire Western bloc in other cases) is pretty much expected to withhold judgement, military action, and critical cartoons.

Our past sins have pretty much made us persona non grata in a world that not long ago welcomed us as conquering heroes. And so it remains - until some minor despot, in a "strategic" location, is threatened from within or without. Then we get the call. It most certainly won't go to Euroland which is incapable of fighting off the verbal attacks of Nigel Farage, nor to the British (whose entire Army can fit in Wembley Stadium), nor to Russia or China (who would most likely not leave or exact a heavy "exit fee"). 

Inevitably, the residents of Pogo's pissoir get the call - without a hint of forgiveness or a courtly request - but as a strident demand. It seems that, after all, our sins are irremissible, and the calls will never cease "for we are the movers and shakers of the world forever, it seems." 

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Giddy over a permanent majority

Sometime Friday afternoon (5/31/13) CNBC's Eamon Javers was asked how Congress was reacting to the President's proposal to cap interest rates on the $1 trillion in outstanding student loans. Javers responded that the Democrats, viewing the Republican plan as more expensive, were "giddy" over the potential of establishing a "permanent Democratic majority."

If the proposal fails, interest charged will go from 3.4% to 6.8%. The GOP proposal would tie the rate to that of 10 year treasury plus 2.5%, which figures out to 4.66% at the timed of this writing. Under the President's proposal, the 10 year Treasury rate would also be used but the initial rate would last for the life of the loan - no annual reset…under the Senate plan the initial rate rate would be locked in for the life of the loan - regardless of how high interest rates might go.

Should the GOP stymie the plan or should the Democrats prevail, the belief is that these student debtors will become a permanent constituency of the Democrats. An important piece of political theatre took place in the recent Presidential election. It was the taping and replaying of Romney's "47% speech." Romney characterized the 47% as individuals who "…are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it…" 

There is a contention, to which I lend a limited amount of credence, that among this 47% there are those who are legitimately needy. Subtract those and there is still a very large voting percentage receiving monthly assistance. Add to this remainder millions of 20 and 30-something non-graduates (and graduates) who feel freshly rebuffed, and the new, "permanent majority" exists.

What's really interesting is that the original program, the Higher Education Act of 1965, was another ornament on LBJ's Great Society Christmas tree. Pushed through by huge Democrat pluralities in both houses, it is one of a number of still existent "social programs" that never stop growing. However, the legislative excesses of LBJ's term were not unlike those from FDR's New Deal days when he, too, had huge Democrat pluralities in Congress. Obama's "new" New Deal also had a filibuster-proof edge in the Senate and a majority in the House, and Obamacare, the costs of which continue to grow even while the regulations are still being written, is set for a New Year's delivery.

During those first two years he could have legislatively accomplished almost anything. Instead, he frittered it away attempting to overhaul (hijack?) the health industry. Those things he whines about currently, could have been obtained easily then. Now he faces a limited amount of opposition from a party which, fortunately for him, has of yet to determine an agenda, a direction, or a leadership. So he satisfies his base by carping about "obstructionism."

And this, in turn has created the unceasing "why can't they get along?" argument. One is left with the impression that good fellowship across the aisle has been the hallmark of our legislative history. It has not. In fact, the existence of "factions" was one of Madison's key arguments why the government he proposed would never devolve into a democracy - a tyranny of the majority.

Unfortunately, we no longer expose our students to the Federalist or Anti-Federalist papers - nor Madison's notes on the Convention. I will confess they are not an easy read. Men of that time spoke in compound-complex sentences with allusions to ancient philosophers, the occasional use of a Latin or Greek phrase, and carefully selected references to Scripture. 

At any rate, it's questionable whether our current crop of secondary school scholars is up to the challenge. Further, the current "debates" that take place in Congress consist of brief "speeches" that are little more than scripted slogans, market-tested for their likelihood to be picked up on the evening news or You Tube. All they lack is substance.

Speaking of substance, over the initial forty years (1965-2005) of the federal student loan program, college enrollment increased by almost 300% - the number of 18-24 year-olds who we expect to be eligible for college increased by only 44%. The early years of easier/cheaper admission witnessed a huge explosion in student enrollment, student demonstrations, and student demands. In 1970 the City University of New York decided to allow ALL high school graduates (regardless of ability) to enroll. This "open admission" policy was picked up by many junior colleges.

Despite an obvious influx of ill-prepared, ill-equipped, and unqualified applicants, the Act was reauthorized in 1968, 1971, 1972, 1976, 1980, 1986, 1992, 1998, and 2008. It is currently due for another reauthorization by the end of this year. The amount students (past and present) owe exceeds the nation's credit card debt. Unlike credit card debt, it cannot be discharged through bankruptcy. Many who carry it will never be able to pay it off - they will spend their lives making interest payments. Which might be one of the more ingenious aspects of the situation.

Many of these same individuals (those fortunate enough to get jobs) will spend their lives making too little to require paying income taxes. However, the beast that is the federal government must be continually fed. And if the average student debt is $25,000, millions of marginally employed persons will pay $850 to $1700 a year (3.4% to 6.8% APR) to Uncle Sam. Any way you cut it, that adds up to a substantial revenue stream for forty or fifty years. Dickens at this worst couldn't fashion a grimmer scenario.

Don't expect a "forgiveness" of these loans - the feds are on the hook to pay them off and big financial institutions, knowing a good thing when they see it, hold the paper. Ironically, an act that was supposed to be such a boon to the poor will have succeeded in creating several generations of debt slaves.

Such apparently beneficent, but unsound, proposals can only come into existence through a "tyranny of the majority" - the one terrible thing the Founders wanted to avoid - and why they rejected a democratic form of government…that we have evolved into one isn't a cause for celebration.