December 2011

Economic Prosperity and The Natural Family
By Anonymous on December 05, 2011

At the Summer Institute this year we were privileged to meet and hear presentations from a group of economists whose work connects (or re-connects?) economic prosperity to natural justice.  Economists Sophia Aguirre, Jennifer Roback Morse and John Mueller all addressed the economic consequences of maintaining the traditional family’s integrity. 

Their common position was that the protection of marriage and its issue, the natural family, is a necessary condition to generating widespread prosperity.  Therefore, policy attempting to affirm preconditions of economic prosperity must take into account the moral standing of the natural family.

Explicit or implicit in their position is the claim that the net long-term economic productivity of the family unit is greatest when cohabiting biological parents coordinate and invest a greater share of their time in the upbringing of the children, rather than using their time to maximize the short-term income from both adult parents working outside the home.  This claim assumes that the quantum of income lost over the short-term is exceeded by the greater economic productivity of these children when they reach adulthood. 

Both parents could work outside the home for greater short-term family income, and could use their greater income, rather than their own time, to provide for substitute child-rearing.  Another alternative might be that the government provides resources in substitution for the parents’ greater time-investment in the children’s upbringing.  Either the greater income from both working parents or government-provided resources could be used to indirectly provide for the upbringing of children.  One can imagine other alternatives.  If the biological parents do not live together with the children, one can imagine a best-case scenario in which the parents coordinate their economic lives with the result that one parent can provide the time-investment in the children.

If it is true that the natural family unit’s long-term economic productivity is maximized by both biological parents living together with their children and by the parents choosing to maximize their available investment of their time in raising the children, then the right public policy should be obvious to a government interested in supporting conditions that maximize collective prosperity.  The government should be interested in protecting marriage and its issue, the natural family in the first place; and second, encouraging those parents to sacrifice short-term income for biological parent-provided upbringing.

But does this family model produce what is claimed?  How do we measure this?

Though, for some of us, common sense and experience might seem to sufficiently validate the claim here outlined, our society seems less easily convinced.  We need empirical proofs.  I am a political scientist and do not know to what extent economists have studied the natural family unit compared with other family models.  My guess is that contemporary economists (apart from our visitors at the Summer Institute) have not taken a great interest in this subject.  However, the implications to government’s economic and social policy are potentially explosive if more studies empirically prove what the protection of the natural family does economically produce.

I have encountered one real-world example that does seem to contribute empirical evidence supporting the claim.  This example might lend itself well to a formal study.

In all American K-12 school districts, spending on education is usually standardized around a particular metric, educational spending on each student per year.  This number incorporates all funds (local, state and federal) received by the school district for each year, and divides that number by the average daily attendance of students in that district.  Per student per year K-12 spending measurements for each state and for each school district are easily located.

The national average of per student per year spending is around $10,000.  However, per student per year K-12 spending is highest where test results and high school graduation rates tend to be lowest.  Urban school districts, for example, spend around double the national average, but tests results and graduation rates are infamously low and have remained so, while spending in those school districts has increased, often due to more infusions of federal dollars. 

In contrast, Utah has historically spent well below the national average but usually ranks among the top performing states measured by test results and graduation rates.  The latest statistics show that the state spends around 63% of the national average, which amounts to less than half of what many urban school districts spend.

What gives? 

My hypothesis would be that the difference is explained by the different rates of children raised by cohabiting biological parents.  Utah maintains one of the lowest divorce rates in the nation.  Urban school districts, where K-12 spending is highest but test results and graduation rates are lowest, are reputedly located where children are least likely to be raised by both cohabiting biological parents.

If these correlations are established the results may substantiate this general conclusion: that public spending – even to this astonishing degree – cannot compensate for the time investment of married biological parents in the upbringing of children.  Government may do what it will to provide resources in support of ‘other’ family structures, but these funds and efforts will be futile in comparison to what intact families provide. 

It is often asserted that adult economic success depends upon educational success.  If educational success depends upon parental time investment, irrespective of government-provided resources then the government ought to pursue a policy of protecting the nuclear family and encouraging families to sacrifice increased income in the present in exchange for raising their children.  This is a question then, of not only what is morally right, but also is a question of what is in the interest of our long-term, general prosperity.

History Matters--But Does Your Teaching Matter?
By Anonymous on December 07, 2011

The relevance of a core curriculum in today’s university is a familiar debate on college campuses.[1]  If a core is maintained, the looming question then is what should be included. It seems obvious that history is an integral part of this but many departments are expected to defend their subject matter and justify their existence.

Great leaders and philosophers have referred to history as “the stratified record upon which we set our feet”, “a great volume” unrolled “for our instruction, drawing the materials of future wisdom from the past errors and infirmities of mankind.”  Indeed, as G.K. Chesterton wrote, “we can be almost certain of being wrong about the future, if we are wrong about the past.”  This is not to assume that we can somehow develop a “mastery over the present and guarantee future success” as Professor Ron Granieri cautions, but it provides a starting point, a comparison, an understanding.[2]

Every morning as I walk down the hall to my office, I glance at a C.S. Lewis quote my colleague has posted on his door, “We need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion. A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village; the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.”[3]  Well-known colonial historian Jack Greene echoes Lewis’s sentiment in an early 2011 interview, “I’ve always thought that the function of historical studies generally was to create critical citizens and to give them a sense of skepticism about received wisdom.”[4] Eschewing naivetés, generating perspective and understanding, and developing an analytical mind, the study of history is necessary.

And, as Professor Wilfred McClay writes in A Student’s Guide to U.S. History, one should study American history for “the simple fact that it is one’s own. To understand the history of one’s own country, even when one feels oneself to be more or less detached from it, is to gain insight into who one is, and into some basic elements of one’s makeup. At a minimum, this will result in a rewarding sense of rich historical background that serves to frame and amplify one’s own experience” but can also “unlock the hidden sources of certain ideas, dispositions, and habits in us, by showing us their rootedness in people and events that came before us.” One needs to be careful not to limit the study of history for one’s “exploration of self-consciousness” or to fracture their country’s history into personalized tales, “my history is America’s history.” Instead, it should be, as McClay references Plato, a vehicle to “usher us out of the mental caverns into which we are born, and into the light of a real public world.” To provide us “a fuller understanding of ourselves, and of our common humanity.”[5]

The recent publication Teaching America: The Case for Civic Education offers twenty- two chapters/arguments for civic education, an integral part being the teaching of American history, specifically the founding.[6] In its preface, David Feith recounts the familiar story of Benjamin Franklin leaving Independence Hall and being asked by a woman on the street “what kind of a government the convention delegates had given the people, Franklin is said to have replied: ‘A republic, madam—if you can keep it.” Feith correctly asserts that Franklin’s response was sober, not celebratory.  The twenty-two chapters that follow argue for civic education to ensure the stability of the republic.

I could go on—with many more books, quotes, anecdotes and statistics (because we know they’re out there).[7] But, to be honest, I’m quite overwhelmed as it is.  What plagues my mind is not how I am going to convince the administration that history matters or what the implications may be with its absence. [This is easy because it is fairly abstract]  Instead, I’m concerned that my teaching, my syllabus, my assigned readings, my day-to-day strategy (especially in those required core courses) is not living up to my argument for its presence.  Do students leave my classroom grasping the importance of the subject? What should the teaching of American history at the college-level look like? Are certain approaches better than others to achieve these lofty goals?



[2]Dr. Ronald Granieri, “History, Mastery, Utility: Or, the Public Responsibility of Historians,” http://faculty.isi.org//blog/post/view/id/626/

[3]C.S. Lewis, “Learning in War-Time,” in The Weight of Glory: And Other Addresses (New York: HarperCollins, 1949/2001), 58-9.

[4]“Two of America’s Leading Historians Discuss the State of Historical Study on Campus”, http://www.jackmillercenter.org/tag/jack-greene/

[5]Dr. Wilfred M. McClay, A Student’s Guide to U.S. History, (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2009), 31-35.

[6]David Feith, ed., Teaching America: The Case for Civic Education (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2011).

[7]In the Wall Street Journal article “Don’t Know Much About History,” historian David McCullough recalls a young undergraduate student from “a very good university in the Midwest” approaching him after his talk and thanking him for coming. She then admitted, “Until I heard your talk this morning, I never realized the original 13 colonies were all on the East Coast.”

I Am Your Brother Joseph
By Anonymous on December 11, 2011

The full significance of Pope Benedict XVI’s controversial address at Regensburg in September 2006 has yet to be properly appreciated.  The pontiff’s main theme, a stirring call for the re-Hellenization of the West, was drowned out by a nearly unanimous chorus of criticism.  Ironically, Western academics were so carried away by shallow outrage on behalf of the ‘Other’ that they inadvertently illustrated the pope’s point regarding the breakdown of speech and rationality.  Their unwillingness to appreciate the deep connection between Greek Reason and Hebrew Revelation that constitutes the very basis of our intellectual tradition strongly suggests that many academics and believers are at least dangerously unaware of, and perhaps even consciously hostile to, their own origins. Yet Joseph Ratzinger’s winged words point the way toward the recovery of a richer understanding of both reason and revelation.  It is just such an intellectual and spiritual renaissance that is badly needed today.

This address was delivered by a former academic of notable eminence, arguably the most erudite occupant of the papacy, to an audience of former colleagues at the University of Regensburg.  However, as the title of this posting suggests, the relationship between the speaker and his fellow intellectuals has not always been marked by serenity or amicability.  Indeed, the story of Joseph, sold into Egyptian slavery by his brothers, provides an apt analogy.  After rising to distinction in the service of the Pharaoh, Joseph, as the viceroy of Egypt, meted out rough justice to his brothers when later events placed them at his mercy.  The words “I am your brother Joseph” convey more than Joseph’s easy triumph over his hapless siblings. Neither do Joseph’s words indicate merely a magnanimous desire to show his undeserving brothers love and mercy.  The true beauty of the passage lies in Joseph’s sudden, belated recollection that he is their brother-Israelite and not only a prince of Egypt.  Just like Joseph and his brothers, the Church and the University must see that they stand and fall together.

The Regensburg Address acknowledged that since Greek philosophy played a necessary and indispensable role in the transmission of the glad tidings of the Christian Logos to the Gentile world, reason is an essential aspect of the church.  The pope clearly distinguishes between the ongoing exegetical activity of reason rightly understood and the stridently anti-intellectual approach of various fundamentalist Islamic and Christian sects.  But he also subtly clarifies the proper role of reason in a way that may help Western humanism to recover the moral and intellectual high ground from the unholy trinity of materialism, libertarianism, and positivism animating today’s technological juggernaut, the hideous strength of which is threatening the integrity of human society and gravely jeopardizing the frail life-world of our planet.  Benedict shows us that far from being the implacable foe of reason, science, and progress, Christianity rightly understood provides the only possible basis for the true flourishing of human civilization.

From the beginning of the address, Pope Benedict emphasizes the connections between speech, reason, and the university, making of Joseph’s coat of many colors a seamless garment.  He talks of “the genuine experience of universitas” and fondly describes a context of “lived experience” in which members of many different faculties would have “lively exchanges” despite their many different specializations because of their “basis of a single rationality with its various aspects and sharing responsibility for the right use of reason” (#4).  Benedict takes especial pride in the fact that believers and non-believers alike are able to “raise the question of God through the use of reason, and to do so in the context of the tradition of the Christian faith” (#7).  It is clear that he does not regard principled faith per se as an obstacle to rational dialogue between persons of different faith traditions.

Reason somehow serves as the overarching horizon under which widely varying accounts of the mysterious structure of reality can be seriously compared and fruitfully studied.  Light plays a similar role in Plato’s Republic, serving as the gratuitously given permanent condition for many persons gaining and sharing knowledge of a common intelligible object.  Indeed, speech itself has to obey certain fundamental preconditions or a priori categories that rule its proper functioning in the common reality.  In other words, the power of articulate human discourse presupposes the abiding existence of readily perceivable ratios of order, harmony, and regularity in the world.  Since the ultimate origins of these phenomena are mysterious, there is ample room for thoughtful, reverent speculation about the various sacred accounts given concerning them.

This implicit recognition that the light of reason serves as a universal revelation is the basis for the pope’s indirect condemnation of voluntaristic theology in general and radical Islam in particular; this very obliqueness presupposes enduring commonalities that make it possible for fruitful analogies to be drawn in many different directions.  However, just as many of the great Athenian tragedies, though ostensibly about ancient Thebes or the Trojan War, were really about contemporary Athens and the Peloponnesian War, Islamic Fundamentalism is only a stalking horse for a far more insidious and potent threat to human rationality and dignity, one emanating from within the West itself.

Quoting the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus, the pope rejects the use of violence in the name of God in language strongly reminiscent of 1 Chronicles 11, where David refused to drink water that had been obtained for him at the cost of many lives, saying that he would not drink of the blood of brave men who had risked themselves to bring him water.  The emperor, after having firmly stated that God “is not pleased by blood,” goes on to say that: “not acting reasonably is contrary to God’s nature.”  This is because “Faith is born of the soul, not the body.  Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and reason properly, without violence and threats” (#13).

Wedding belief in God to rational speech, Pope Benedict simply but pointedly draws our attention to this essential aspect of Christianity.

Ends, Means, and the Federal Budget Fight
By Anonymous on December 15, 2011

Over the last few weeks, newspapers across the country have been discussing the failure of the so-called supercommittee.  Congress established the body this summer to strike a bipartisan deal to reduce the federal budget deficit.  Its target was to slash spending by some $2 trillion over the next decade, and—here's the key—if the twelve committee members could not agree on these cuts by November 23, federal expenditures, including on defense, would be cut automatically by $1.2 trillion.  Predictably, the committee’s failure has prompted finger-pointing across the aisle, as Democrats and Republicans accuse each other of dogmatism and inflexibility in the negotiations.  Americans of both parties, especially Republicans, should be worried, because this experience suggests that the GOP’s approach to America’s fiscal crisis is fundamentally misguided.  To put it simply, the party has confused ends and means.   The committee’s failure also suggests that American political culture and institutions are growing more dysfunctional, which raises grave concerns about the government’s ability to face up to problems that cannot be ignored for much longer.

The two parties have offered sharply different explanations for the committee’s failure.  Republicans complain that the Democrats refused to consider major cuts to social programs like Medicare and Social Security.  The Democrats were not “willing to put a proposal on the table that actually solves the problems,” said committee co-chair Jeb Hensarling.  For their part, the Democrats insist that Republicans’ outright refusal to consider raising taxes (even by allowing the Bush administration’s income tax cuts to expire) was the main impasse.  Some Democrats have suggested that the Republican committee members were in the thrall of Grover Norquist’s lobby group Americans for Tax Reform, which staunchly opposes tax increases in any form and whose Taxpayer Protection Pledge has been signed by 238 members of the House and 41 members of the Senate.  

We should set aside any speculation or conspiracy theories about the alleged influence of any lobby group over elected officials’ views.  But the GOP’s categorical refusal to consider raising taxes is dangerous regardless of the motives behind it.  By eschewing pragmatism, it threatens to bring the country to the brink of fiscal crisis for the sake of an article of faith.  This situation is all the worse because this faith is non-falsifiable, insisting—regardless of evidence pro or con—that lower taxes always yield higher economic growth.

No responsible politician or economist would suggest that taxes are ends in themselves. No government (at least in the Western world) has an interest in taking money from its citizens for its own sake.  But taxes are necessary to fund government programs.  They are a means to an end.  A truism this obvious should not need pointing out.  The rhetoric of House and Senate Republicans suggests, however, a belief that taxes are not a necessary evil but an evil full stop.  Only if one starts from this premise can one argue that taxes should never rise no matter what the circumstances.  Consider, however, where this argument leads. If the only acceptable course of action in any circumstance is to cut federal spending and, presumably, to reduce taxes as much as possible, the federal budget will always shrink and, along with it, the ability of the federal government to act in the common interest of all Americans—whether that common interest is national defense or the regulation of new prescription medicines. 

One may well argue that the federal government in its current form is too intrusive, too large, and does too many things that ought to be left to the free market or to the states.  The longstanding American impulse to keep government spending in check was an important ingredient in the country’s growth during the 20th century.  But it is one thing to make a reasoned argument about paring back particular federal functions and something quite different to take as a point of doctrine that taxes and federal spending are per se undesirable and should be reduced no matter what.  To take this latter position conflates what the federal government ought to do with how it ought to do it.  It erases any meaningful distinction between ends and means and, in so doing, discredits the whole notion of federal action and thereby the federal government itself.

This is not to say that the Democrats or the Obama administration are in the right about federal spending.  But it does mean that the Republican party’s approach to the budget fight, no matter how much electoral sense it might make, places partisan interest ahead of the national interest and thereby does a disservice to American voters and corrodes the effectiveness of the institutions of the federal government.  Unlike the current situation in Greece or, for that matter, Italy, the United States has not yet reached a point of mortal fiscal crisis.  But Congressional Republicans’ refusal to compromise, which is based on dogmatism rather than pragmatism, means that the country runs the risk of facing a crisis not unlike the one now roiling Europe. Crises cannot be solved by compromises, half-measures, and muddling through—as the EU’s leaders are now learning to their chagrin.  Swift and decisive action is necessary.  In a security crisis, the president has to keep every military option on the table.   It would be outrageous for him to say, “I will do anything to defend American security, except consider the use of X or Y.”  It is no different in a fiscal crisis: the federal government needs to have all options on the table in order to solve a problem that goes to the heart of the country’s national interest.

Even more seriously, the supercommittee debacle raises grave doubts about the federal government’s ability to deal with the crisis that will come sooner or later in the absence of serious action.  Shortly after taking office, David Cameron’s coalition government in the UK moved swiftly to initiate drastic budget cuts.  Its parliamentary majority enabled it to act decisively and with minimal interference by the opposition.  The same thing has been true in other parliamentary systems, even in the crisis-torn countries of continental Europe.  But the American federal government’s division of powers makes, by design, swift action in domestic affairs impossible.  If the last three years have taught us anything however, it is that financial crises can appear just as unexpectedly as military crises.  But whereas the government can act swiftly to address military threats, the same is not true for financial threats.  

The worst tragedy of the ongoing economic crisis would not be a rise in yields on American bonds, or a further downgrade in the country’s creditworthiness.  It would be the erosion of citizens’ faith in the government’s ability to deal with problems that threaten the foundations of the country’s prosperity.  In a crisis, dogmas are unaffordable luxuries.  Pragmatism and a relentless focus on ends, not means, are the only viable principles of action.  American leaders since the Revolutionary War—including George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, or Franklin Roosevelt—have demonstrated this point time and again.  It is therefore incumbent upon Congressional Republicans to demonstrate some ideological flexibility for the sake of the national interest.  With their pragmatism, they can restore citizens’ faith in their government’s ability to act and in America’s ability to deal with any problem that comes its way.

Getting an Academic Job, Part II
By Anonymous on December 20, 2011

My previous post on this subject addressed the process for submitting applications for jobs. This post will address one of the most important aspects of what to do once you have landed an interview. Many of these suggestions might appear obvious or common sense, but they bear repeating. Over the past four years, I have participated on a number of hiring committees at my institution for positions in a variety of disciplines. Although most candidates comported themselves quite well, there were several who committed grave blunders that eliminated their chances of being hired. Above all, the lesson to be learned before going into an interview is BE PREPARED.

A surprising number of candidates have come to our campus uninformed about our institution. As a small liberal arts college, Carthage College emphasizes teaching. Our institution values and rewards research, but the administration is much more likely to acknowledge good teaching than it is a rigorous research agenda. I have been disappointed with the number of candidates who seem ignorant of this basic detail about our school, despite the fact that our web site and promotional materials make this obvious. A few recent candidates have seemed genuinely surprised and frustrated to learn that we require a 3-3 teaching load.

Although our college web site presents a lot of information about the institution, do not remain satisfied with a basic web search. As I said in a previous post, consider making some calls. Staff, students, and alumni can be valuable sources of information about an institution. Think about calling the institution’s library or Dean of Students Office. Simply ask the people there about what the culture is like on the campus, how they regard the administration, what is the relationship between the college and community, and what they think about the quality of the faculty. However, you must be judicious about how you go about this. It is probably not a good idea to call administrators or faculty, unless you know them personally. The reason is because these people might serve on the hiring committee or have influence in the final hiring decision. Moreover, faculty are an especially gossipy lot and you never know what the relationship is between the person to whom you are speaking and someone on the hiring committee.

In addition, you should thoroughly investigate the department that is interviewing you. Be familiar with the publications and general careers of as many people in the department as possible. Acquaint yourself with details about the history, the size, the reputation on campus, the standards, and the goals of the department. It is vital that you make yourself aware of what the department will expect from you. Certainly you want to impress a department that you are a special person, but it is more important for you to convince the department that you can do the job they want done. Remember, they wrote the job description with their own purpose and goals in mind. Generally speaking hiring committees are trying to fill the purpose and goals outlined in the job description; they are not necessarily trying to hire the “best person ever.”

Thus, you should keep in mind the job description. It might be counterproductive to stress your excellent teaching without mention of your research agenda, especially if the institution demands a rigorous publication schedule. Conversely, don’t tout your bibliography, while you ignore your teaching philosophy, at a small teaching college. There are others, yet, that require a mixture of both research and teaching. The point is that you should know exactly what type of department is interviewing you.

Whether interviewing at a research or a teaching institution, the circumstances differ, but the principle remains the same. A colleague of mine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison recently sat on a hiring committee for a position in the History of Twentieth-century American politics. The job description asked that candidates not only demonstrate expertise in this area, but also that they exhibit the potential to produce high quality scholarship throughout their careers. The committee ended up offering the job to a Ph.D. candidate from Georgetown University over candidates from other Big 10 schools and the Ivy League. Why? The reason, according to my colleague, was that the Georgetown candidate came more prepared than the other candidates. The other candidates had certainly demonstrated impressive publication records, but they did not seem to know where they were going next. The Georgetown candidate came to the interview able to discuss the publications she currently had in progress as well coming with a detailed proposal about her future projects. Furthermore, these appeared to have been well thought out and germane to her current research. It is interesting to add that apparently teaching formed very little portion of the interview discussions.

Recently, a candidate at Carthage for a similarly described position won the job by taking a very different strategy. The winning candidate had academic credentials and a publication record that were much the same as the other candidates. However, what distinguished this candidate from the others was how informed he was. He had closely examined the course catalog and impressed our hiring committee that his teaching would complement those of the current faculty. Some of the other candidates seemed oblivious to the fact that their ideas for course creations duplicated or overlapped with the current faculty’s courses. Curiously, many candidates were surprised that they would be expected to teach introductory courses. The winning candidate came to the interview prepared to discuss not only how he would teach courses not currently offered, but more importantly how he would teach the introductory American History courses. The committee recognized the talents of all the interviewees, but this candidate stood out as highly informed.

Do your homework before you get there and you will impress them when you get there.

As Good as Gold: American Financial (In)Security
By Anonymous on December 23, 2011

Our relationship to fiat currency has now spanned many decades, creating attitudes and habits which one might collectively call a “culture of addiction.”  This culture has gradually and surreptitiously blinded us to the realities we are facing; therefore, it is perhaps best to illustrate the subject using an area that our society still recognizes as a patently unhealthy form of dependence – drug addiction.  The analogy proves to be rife with parallels that indicate how very far we have fallen from the understanding of our Founders.

Several years ago, a film called Trainspotting depicted the lives of heroin-addicted youths living in squalor in a depressed area of Scotland.  Setting aside the film’s other shortcomings (which are arguably considerable), the movie provides a remarkably astute depiction of the psychology of addiction.  At first, the drug is sought as a source of pleasure, an elixir to transform life’s sea of troubles into a sparkling rivulet.  Although the addicts are in fact living in dilapidated circumstances and are rapidly losing all prospects for the future, the drug is sought as a “fix” to these problems, a magic wand that induces a fantastical condition of unimaginable ease. With reality concealed behind a screen of artificial wellbeing, the addicts are unaware that the real conditions around them are steadily deteriorating.  One day, they awake from the daze to discover that the infant daughter of one of the addicts has died, her cries unheard while they slumbered in the dreams of the entranced.  When reality thus rears its ugly head, instead of facing an increasingly overwhelming situation, it is time for another “fix.”  Instead of taking the drug for pure pleasure, the addicts now seek the Lethe-like liquor to banish their thoughts of the downward spiral engendered by the habit itself, thus suppressing their awareness of the consequences incurred “while you were sleeping.”  This self-destructive cycle is the epitome of addiction, which is defined as “any substance use or reinforcing behavior that has an appetitive nature, has a compulsive and repetitive quality, is self-destructive, and is experienced as difficult to modify or stop” (Orford, 1985).

The reference to “reinforcing behavior” suggests how such a cycle can arise within the life of whole cultures. The relationship between the addicts described above and fiat currency might appear to be a staggering leap, but in fact it is too close for comfort. Americans appear to live in a world of prosperity – our immediate environment seems to be brimming to the full with products, appliances, home furnishings, and luxury goods.  To our eyes, we see a superabundance of slick automobiles, high-tech computers, “smart” phones, and other extravagant contraptions that all seem to say back to us, “it is well.”  If anything, our world appears too glutted; as the cultural critics tell us, materialism is on the rise because we are encircled by an enchanted ring of shining commodities.* It seems unimaginable that our prosperous surroundings might tumble to the floor like a theatrical backdrop at the close of a play.  But we have been moving steadily closer to this reality, all acting our parts in the desperate hope that the show will go on forever. 

It should have been taken as a significant warning sign when the vast majority of the props for our drama became marked with the label “made in China.”  The cheap, imported goods of slave labor have helped to conceal our economic condition.  It should be equally disturbing that, although we own gadgets and gizmos galore, we often do not own the very homes in which we live – even with two parents working full time, the mortgages take decades to pay off, and they are increasingly defaulted.  Thus the ownership of our most significant purchase is largely an illusion; put in feudal terms, we are tenants.  Where our grandparents could truly own a house and a car, with food on the table and leisure time for a “Sunday drive,” all on a single father’s salary, today both parents work longer hours, max out credit cards, borrow and mortgage and refinance until our heads spin.  Merely calculating what we owe often requires a hired “debt specialist.”  The revolution occasioned by the internet and technological advancements should have produced an increase in productivity that catapulted our economy forward.  Instead, it only helped us to keep up the pace on our financial gerbil wheel and to mask the actual conditions in which we are living. Like those faltering aristocratic families of old, we still appear to be living the high life according to outward signs, but the real wealth has been eroded within.  It is only a matter of time until appearances catch up with reality.

However, the “fixes” to which we are addicted are not primarily our credit cards and mortgages.  It is understandable (if unwise) for individuals to intuit that their labor ought to be producing substantial fruits, and to turn to loans in order to obtain the lifestyle they have “earned.”  The national addiction is a larger phenomenon, relating to the choices of policymakers.  When we unhinged our currency from its stable anchoring in gold, we gave politicians the ability to win votes by making promises which they couldn’t pay for through taxes alone; these costs could only be defrayed by printing reams and reams of paper money, essentially creating a welfare system based on debt.  As a result, each dollar lost something of its value through every subsequent generation.  This is a slow and steady form of property confiscation, which is especially threatening to the middle class.  We are saving and bequeathing in depreciating funds; our dollars melt in our hands.  When money is created faster than goods and services (whose value it is supposed to represent), prices are driven upwards.  This is a fundamental economic axiom – such laws function whether we desire to believe in them or not.  The man who refuses to believe in gravity and jumps off a bridge can cry out “so far so good” while he falls through the air, but in the end, the reality of the earth’s laws will be painfully evinced. 

The corrosive effects of “acceptable” inflation have been hidden from us by manipulative Consumer Price Indexes (CPIs), which keep changing their starting dates or selectively omit areas of consumption in order to paint a deceptively rosy picture.  For example, the most recent CPI had the official inflation rate at 3%, but the calculation excluded food and energy – both of which are central to economic life.  When these two areas are factored in, the current rate is closer to 15%, or five times higher.  When the President of the NY FED spoke to a crowd in Long Island recently, he reported the “good news” that today you can buy an iPad2 that “costs the same as an iPad 1 that is twice as powerful.”  But food prices have been rising since 2009, and he happened to be speaking to a crowd that watched their grocery bills – one person asked “When was the last time, sir, that you went grocery shopping?” Another exclaimed, “I can’t eat an iPad.”  The modern financial system permits a great deal of confusion and smoke-and-mirrors to manipulate the press and public opinion. The debasement of statistics has accompanied the debasement of the dollar.  But some realities are simply too self-evident to be hidden from common sense. “The rich man is wise in his own eyes, but the poor who has understanding sees through him” (Proverbs 28:11).

All unbacked currencies are mortal, and ours has been showing very poor vital signs.  Historically, this process is perennial, which is one reason why the truth it reflects ought to be considered an axiomatic principle.  Consider the fate of the British half-penny, which was originally produced with real silver in the medieval period.  It had a Christian cross on the front, and the penny was extremely valuable, so much so that it was frequently broken in half along the lines of the cross in order to facilitate purchases. When they started minting actual “halfpennies” in the 13th century, these were also made out of silver.  But over time, the coin was made a little smaller, with a little less purity, then with a little copper, then with more copper than silver.  By the 1800s, copper had fully squeezed out silver. In 1984, the halfpenny was discontinued, having lost all value.  The same fate awaits paper money when it loses its anchoring in bullion – in 1924, the German paper mark was changed over, with 1 trillion marks exchanged for 1 new reichsmark. In 1946 in Hungary, it was 400 quintillion pengoe for one new forint.  In 1985 in Argentina, it was 1,000 peso argentinos to one austral, which was again subdivided into 100 centavos in 1991.  In Russia, the Leninists had tried to eliminate currency altogether (one of Marx’s goals), but at the point of utter financial ruin, they adopted a gold standard in the 1920s, and the economy improved under the gold-backed chervonet.  However, the lesson was soon forgotten; as Judy Shelton documented, by the time of Gorbachev billions of unbacked rubles were being printed, which precipitated the collapse of the Soviet empire.  At the time of collapse, few people understood the true extent of the crisis in Soviet Russia due to “skillful discrepancies and omissions that disguise[d] the true condition of the internal budget” (Shelton, 1989).  Does this sound familiar? The list could go on; entire charts are devoted to the mortalities of currencies once they begin to lose their mooring in bullion.

We are no exception to this trend – in terms of the constant dollar, with a true CPI applied, the dollar is now estimated at a pitiful three pennies of its 1940 value.  (Hence the luxury and illusion offered by the nominal dollar, which is preferred to the harsh realism of a constant dollar.)  By some estimates, the dollar, once the glory of the globe at the end of WWII, had lost 86% of its official purchasing power by the beginning of 1985.  This degenerating trend is also readily visible in the history of coins; in the 1930s, the copper penny could purchase hard candy, and silver coins had real purchasing power -- at least until silver coinage ended in 1964.  Today, it is difficult to find goods to buy with our coins. However, the older coins minted with real silver still have purchasing power: in 2008, a dime from the 1930s still contained $1.42 worth of silver, the quarter was worth $3.55, and the half-dollar contained $7.10 of silver.  Even the humble penny of yore contained two and a half times its face value in copper.  (These numbers would be roughly three times higher today, as the price of silver has continued to increase.)

We have the most sophisticated mechanisms with which to paint over our reality, which will eventually shatter despite all of the tranquilizing words of public relations experts, no matter how often they are repeated throughout the press. We might be addicted to infusions of new currency, but we are equally dependent upon the subtleties of high finance to confuse our way to delusive victory.   But every new asset bubble is waiting to burst; every “toxic asset” will eventually seep through the cracks and poison its surroundings.  These truths make our recent haggling over the debt reduction appear like rearranging desk chairs on the Titanic.

Our Founders understood that the printing of unbacked currency was a “passion” which could grip the appetitive masses.  They had seen the economic patterns described above in microcosmic form within the several states under the Articles of Confederation.  The series of paper money crises typically originated when debtors struggling to make loan payments pushed their state legislatures to create an unbacked paper money.  The creditors, whose contracts specified payments in gold, silver or barter items, naturally rejected a valueless currency.  As a result, the debtors pushed further for odious “stay laws,” which postponed or even cancelled debts.  Next came the imposition of “tender laws” and “ex post facto laws,” which forcibly compelled creditors to accept the fiat currency, regardless of what their contracts had specified.  The most egregious example was Rhode Island, where the legislature was dominated by indebted farmers who first circulated paper money, then made its acceptance mandatory, and finally allowed debtors to discharge debt by depositing some amount of money in a court and posting an advertisement in the newspaper to that effect. An exodus of creditors from the state of Rhode Island ensued. Horrified by the direction in which the state was tending, the Rhode Island supreme court declared the paper-money law unconstitutional; in response, the legislature threw the court out of office and replaced the justices with more accommodating individuals. 

This was not the freedom of “self-government”; it was expropriation of property en masse.  Without the sophisticated jargon and confusing complexities of contemporary economics, the state’s shenanigans were plain for everyone to see. Hence the expression of genuine concern in Federalist #10 about a “rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project.”  In fact, the thinking behind the Constitution was in large part prompted by the disastrous experience of fiat currencies.  So frightening was the specter of unbacked paper money that one Convention delegate said that granting the federal government the power to issue it “would be as alarming as the mark of the Beast in Revelation.” The experience of fiat currencies rendered the prospect of a Constitutional Union more inviting -- as an escape from irresponsible fiscal policy.  As the Federal Farmer, one of the Anti-Federalists, observed:  “Our governments have been new and unsettled; and several legislatures, by making tender, suspension, and paper money laws, have given just cause of uneasiness to creditors... The conduct of several legislatures, touching paper money, and tender laws, has prepared many honest men for changes in government, which otherwise they would not have thought of....”**

The Federal Farmer was correct, for Article I, Section X of the Constitution specified that no state could “emit Bills of Credit; make any Thing but gold and silver Coin a Tender in Payment of Debts; pass any Bill of Attainder, ex post facto Law, or Law impairing the Obligation of Contracts.”  Our Founders might have lacked the highfalutin lingo of modern specialists, but they understood the fiscal responsibility imposed by currencies backed by bullion.  We need this kind of responsibility desperately today, more than we need all the sophisticated theories in all the economics books that have ever been printed – many of which were proven wrong by the very history our Founders witnessed.  After seeing the results of the States’ experiments in unbacked currencies, our Founders sought to prevent the patently irresponsible behavior that has now resulted in a debt that has no ceiling and an oncoming collapse which will seem to have no end.

Our cultural habituation to the presence of fiat currency has inured us to the dangers posed by these unbacked notes of promise.  If we want to wake up from this decades-long dream, we need people with the moral fiber required to face our present reality.  They will need to look at the status of the dollar in constant terms, recognize our true economic condition, and work to shift us efficiently and swiftly onto banknotes convertible to gold.  The effects will be manifold – firstly, this change will greatly help the status of the dollar around the world.  Following this monetary realignment with gold, an era during which a slow process of savings and capital rebuilding should ensue, which will lead us to a true economic recovery, rather than the sham “recoveries” announced in the media every few months.  Regaining our solvency will require hard work, moral courage and steadfastness.  It will be tempting to reach for another “fix” during the period of withdrawal.  Furthermore, as Franz Pick observed years ago, after “decades of maltreatment of the nation’s money, the vested interests of inflation have become too powerful and too influential.  They have absolutely no desire to see their financial empires and attendant political privileges dismantled by such an obscene thing as a monetary unit, stable in purchasing power as well as in foreign exchange value” (1986). After the banking elite has been deprived of its mechanisms for currency manipulation, as a people we must not behave like the debtor farmers, but willingly submit to the fiscal responsibility imposed by convertibility to gold.

Unless we seek within our breasts to find men and women capable of this challenge, we might be doomed to relearn these lessons through history, and she is an utterly merciless teacher.  We have been violating economic laws as inexorable as gravity for decades now, and it is nearing the time when we shall witness the consequences.  The curtain is about to drop, but no deus ex machina is going to swoop in at the last moment to save us from our tragedy.  We are compelled to save ourselves.  If we fail in this effort, our negligence is tantamount to that of the lamentable addicts with which this post began, and our children will suffer -- they will breathe their first breaths and last gasps in poverty -- because of our collective delinquency.

 

* By “cultural critics,” I refer to writers like Walter Benjamin (especially his Arcades Project) or virtually anyone from the neo-Marxist camp. In fact, I believe that materialism has theological and philosophical roots.  Although capitalism provides a form of expression for the elevation of the material plane over spiritual life and philosophical truths, it does not in fact create that hierarchy of values. The excessive consumerism witnessed today belies much deeper, more foundational issues.

** This Anti-Federalist was speaking out of concern that the states were tarnishing the name of democracy with their poor management of currency, and thereby preparing the way for the Federalists.

Reflections of a young professor
By Anonymous on December 28, 2011

 

I have officially leapt from the frying pan. After something of a nail-biting year on the market at the University of Texas, Austin, I took a job at the end of the summer that unexpectedly opened up at Morehead State University in Morehead, KY. My wife and I were visiting family in Arkansas when I accepted the job; we had two weeks to go back to Austin, pack up our three-bedroom apartment (we have 3 children), and move to Kentucky. Classes started the next week, and I was reassigned classes for which other professors had drafted syllabi and ordered books. So it was a very hectic transition.

In an effort to ease some stress, our department chair assigned me some online teaching, which would allow the ability to work from home more this fall. That’s been very helpful, but it’s also made me acutely aware of the real deficiencies of online education. Some previous blog posts have touted the benefits of careful analysis and reflection that discussion boards can facilitate in an online class. I can see that this kind of use of discussion boards might have some advantages over extemporaneous class discussion. That assumes, however, that the class size stays relatively small. Liberal use of discussion boards for large classes (I’m teaching a course of 60 students) simply generates more grading of written work than is manageable. No doubt this is a problem of class size, not a deficiency unique to distance learning. On the other hand, the limitations of online education accentuate the problems of large class size. Students are more isolated and have even less access to a professor’s help in understanding and processing the material. Inversely, professors are robbed of the ability to spark interest and reflection in students through well-delivered lectures. Students are effectively left, according to Oakeshott’s distinction, to review and memorize what technical knowledge they can, bereft of the practical knowledge they might acquire by observing and learning from a serious teacher.

Of course, it seems that greater isolation is precisely what many students are after. I was surprised to learn that many of my online students are full-time undergrads at MSU, apparently attempting to minimize their investment in general education courses by inserting another degree of remove. Or perhaps they are motivated by the slightly more benign desire for a convenient schedule. Either way, allowing this kind of use of online education serves only to reinforce in students’ minds that nothing particularly important is going on in the classroom. Their ability to jump through educational hoops with the least amount of personal investment possible confirms that this is in fact all they are doing—jumping through hoops. So whatever the legitimate uses of distance learning (and I would be willing to concede that there are some), it’s clear to me that how it is being employed by many students only intensifies its limitations and further undermines the real business of higher education.

On a more positive note, my in-class experiences have been more encouraging. I’ve been pleased with the students’ real desire to learn and their engagement with the material (a lot of this dissimilarity, I realize, is a function of the difference between teaching an intro course and an upper division course for majors). It’s a very satisfying experience to lead students through a set of problems, help them see where the difficulties lie and why they’re important, and to assist them in thinking things through carefully. But I’ve also been struck by what a real challenge good teaching is. I had done enough teaching already (and learned from enough fine teachers) not to expect to be able to step into the classroom and immediately bedazzle a class with my pedagogical artistry. However, I’ve also been amazed at how many stars have to align in order for a class to come off as I’d like it to, and how many of those factors are at times simply beyond my control.

Sometimes I’ll walk into the classroom having over prepared, knowing exactly what I want to get across and how I intend to do it, yet the whole lecture/discussion seems to be a laborious crawl from point A to point B. Other days I’m much less confident about what I’m trying to do, but the ideas just all seem to fall into place, the students get it, and real learning takes place. I know that part of this is just the nature of learning; it’s always peaks and valleys, flashes of insight amidst a lot of muddling through. It also strikes me that this is simply a neophyte’s introduction to acquiring a very complicated skill. At first you have to concentrate on every little detail to get it right, e.g., figuring out at what level to pitch the material, coming up with interesting illustrations, knowing where discussion will be helpful and how to elicit it. It’s easy to fumble the details before their execution becomes second nature. Other times you or the students or both just aren’t “on” that day or for some other reason aren’t fully engaged. Recognizing and figuring out how to effectively counteract those contextual factors takes a lot of work. So I’ve come to a greater appreciation of the labor and practice that being an excellent teacher will require. I’m sure it will get easier as I master the details, but it’s a long-term project.

Over the desk in my study hangs a large needlepoint tapestry of a Bengal tiger that my grandfather stitched when I was a young boy. I’ve come to see the piece as a metaphor for my own work as a scholar and professor. The tapestry is 23” wide and looms 4’ high. I’ve calculated that my grandfather put over 248,000 stitches into that tiger. This was no paint-by-the-numbers piece either. Grandad had an artist friend paint the tiger onto a piece of canvas from a favorite photograph; then he personally picked out dozens of shades of threads to match the colors. Often he meticulously spliced threads together to achieve a precise hue. My uncle tells me that Grandad worked for years finishing the project. He’d come home from a day’s work as a surgeon and sit hunched over his magnifying glass putting in one stitch at a time, day after day. It began with a burst of enthusiasm, no doubt, but it was only completed by diligent, precise, labor. He got sick and tired of the stitching, my uncle tells me. But he pressed on with it because he loved the beauty and power of the beast and knew that the finished product would be a thing of beauty. Indeed it is. 

What I Learned This Semester...
By Devon Atchison on December 30, 2011

As I finish grading the last of my Final Exams this semester, I am reminded of two things: one, I am a good teacher and my students are learning American History; two, my students didn’t “get it all” and even those who performed the best this semester missed some crucial points about American History, critical thinking, making an argument, using primary sources, or crafting a readable essay. 

 

It is easy to become complacent as a teacher and to continue using the same lectures, the same projects, the same discussion topics—after all, we are so busy teaching, grading, and doing our own research each semester that there seems to be little time to innovate.  And if, anecdotally, enough of our students seem to be “getting it,” or “getting some of it,” what’s the point in changing things up the next time around?

 

While I would love to be a perfect teacher—one who was loved by all, understood completely, capable of inspiring even the most reticent students, and a master of turning my words into the knowledge of others—I know that I will never be a perfect teacher.  Perfection, though unattainable, is still something to continuously strive for and that’s why, at the end of every semester, even though I’m exhausted and burnt out, I make a plan to change at least one thing in each of my classes.  The hope is that one change will help my students connect just a little better, understand the information a little better, critically think a little more, or be just a little better at using the tools of history.

 

And every few semesters, I make a conscious effort to do something drastic.  In my Student Learning Outcomes assessments over the last year, as well as anecdotal evidence from student assignments, I realized that my students grasp of primary sources—what they are, how to use and analyze them—is still incredibly weak.  I spend a decent amount of time on what primary sources are and how to use and analyze them in the first couple of weeks of each semester, but it doesn’t seem to be doing the trick.  So this semester, five colleagues of mine came together with me to build a pilot program for the Spring semester.  Our plan is to emphasize and focus on primary sources every week in some way—to keep primary sources on our students’ minds each week and to practice using and analyzing primary sources each week.  We designed sixteen different assignments or activities—one for each week of the semester—and we all plan on integrating these assignments and activities into our courses next semester.

 

We don’t know if this is going to work.  It might be a total success (that’s my hypothesis); it might end up with our students in the same place they were this semester (fat chance, but you never know!).  Whatever the result, however, I am excited to try something new this semester, to innovate, to freshen up my classes in order to better reach my students and meet their educational needs.  With the final strokes of my red pen being permanently inscribed on the last of the Blue Books, and as my weary mind excitedly (but exhaustedly) puts this semester to bed, I find energy and motivation in what lies ahead next semester… taking another tiny step toward perfection.

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