Advisory Note:
What do you think?
19 November 2014

Two things in this morning’s Times — delivered to our new door this morning — seem worth thinking about.

The first is Lori Tharps’s Op-Ed piece, “The Case for Black With a Capital B,” which calls for Black American instead of black American. I couldn’t disagree more strongly. I can’t think why any physical characteristic merits the highlight of capitalization. At the end of her essay, Ms Tharps writes, “We are indeed a people, a race, a tribe.” This seems doubtful to me, but it is certainly arguable. If it is true, then the name of that race or tribe must be unique to it, not an adjective denoting skin color — more exactly, a very broad range of skin colors that stands in politely for distinguishing facial features, much as Asian saves us from slant-eyed. A further objection relates to the gross bifurcation of people of African background into those carried off into slavery and those left behind. I don’t see what binds an African-American and a Nigerian beyond humanity and vulnerability to stupid white prejudice — insufficient basis, surely, for tribal association.

A name for the tribe that Ms Tharps seems to me to be describing did occur to me, one along the lines of the Eumenides, replete with grim irony: the Middle Passengers. I don’t recommend its adoption, except perhaps by poets.

The second item is a news story that appears on the first page, below the fold, about the windfall royalties that will greatly enrich a charitable organization as a result of “venture philanthropy.” The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation made a grant of $150 million to a biotechnology firm that developed a drug that treats the cause of the disease, not its symptoms. Selling the rights to this drug to a pharmaceutical company will yield the Foundation $3.3 billion. Critics worry that, its judgment clouded by the prospect of enrichment, the Foundation did not do more to reduce the projected annual cost of treatment, $300,000. This is not very constructive criticism.

It seems obvious that the Foundation has an obligation to figure out a way to use the bulk of its windfall to subsidize treatments. It probably won’t be easy, and it will probably take a while to figure out the most equitable arrangement. But the story is certainly one template for the development of new medications.

Ought these arrangements be left entirely to the discretion of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation? I don’t think so, but that’s as far as thinking takes me. Legislation on the subject ought to be strenuously avoided. The court of informed public opinion ought to prevail, and for its judges I once again call for the creation of collegial organizations to provide soft but disinterested regulation of public affairs — and the Foundation’s windfall unquestionably falls within the category of public affairs. I shall save prolonged discussion of my ideas about the membership of these colleges for another occasion, but I should want it to be both diverse and well-informed, as well as disinterested. This means, roughly, including

  • Executives who have retired from service at related organizations, whether or not run for profit, including civil servants
  • Academics who study the application of humanistic principles to civil life, and
  • Procedural lawyers.

I should also exclude anyone under forty. I pile on the last qualification quite seriously and for many reasons, some of which are comprised by the principle that membership in a college of this kind ought to be the last job (other than self-employment or work in an entirely unrelated area) that anyone ought to have. Membership, in other words, ought to have no future. Even more important is experience, which nobody under forty really has. The modern West’s campaign to liberate civil society from the tyranny of greybeards has backfired on many fronts, and nowhere worse than in advisory regulation.

For now, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation will have to find its way to equity. All that the rest of us can do is to pay attention.


I had reached the end of my remarks about advisory colleges when the sun became intolerable and I postponed finishing this entry until after a round of errands. I do miss the warmer weather, when I could run out in my houseclothes (short-sleeved sports shirt and Bermuda shorts). Until a few years ago, I would do so even on the coldest days, but increasing decrepitude made me feel not just ridiculous but pitiable.

The repaving of 86th Street in front of our building has begun in earnest. It took more than a week to fill up the hole (between the top of the subway station mezzanine and ground level) with dirt that Ray Soleil believes to be the same dirt that was dug up two or three years ago, however long it has been. “Dirt’s expensive,” Ray says. I suppose it is, at least here in the center of a very built-up region. I’m happy to report that it has disappeared beneath concrete once again.

Meanwhile, the apartment looks ever more suitable for habitation. There is still a great wall of boxed books between the living and dining areas, and the now-reassembled bookcases have to be repainted before restocking, but the litter of miscellaneous bags and totes is abating. In the kitchen and the bedroom, I have held firm, allowing no mess, but there is still a stack, about four feet long, of framed pictures jutting out from beneath the bedroom window, and a certain amount of disorder must be tolerated between Kathleen’s side of the bed and her bathroom.

One of the big changes resulting from the move is that the book room and the bedroom are separated by nothing more than the short corridor that runs from the foyer to my bathroom. In the old apartment, the bedroom and the blue room stood on either side of the living room, like different wings, and were reached by longer hallways. Now it’s as though we enjoyed a master suite. The view from my side of the bed looks through the two doors and onto the right wing of the breakfront bookcase, suggesting the enfiladed rooms of a grand house. Suggesting, I say. There is no illusion of spaciousness. But I’m not feeling cramped, either.

Last night, I roasted a chicken, which introduced me to the new oven, and we got along fine. I cleared the dining table of stuff and straightened up the sideboard, so that when we sat down dinner the improvista atmosphere that can be so charming in the early stages of a move, but that so rapidly sours, was cleared off. We had only to pretend that the great wall of books was a design element.

Which it is not.