Daily Office:
Monday, 18 October 2010


¶ Justin E H Smith argues passionately for the centrality of foreign-language study in the humanities curriculum. In our view, language makes the difference between true education and hot air.

I want to suggest also that it is not just language and literature programs that have been seriously damaged by the changes I’ve described, but indeed all of the humanities. When I say that foreign-language training is the anchor of the humanities, I mean it anchors, or ought to anchor, disciplines apparenty as independent of it as philosophy and history. There is a wonderful model of education that will be familiar to anyone who has read about the Little Russian monasteries in Gogol’s stories, and that also existed in classical India and in the Islamic world. In the Byzantine version of it depicted by Gogol, schoolboys pass through four stages: first they are ‘grammarians’, then ‘rhetoricians’, then ‘philosophers’, and, finally, ‘theologians’. This seems to me pretty much the proper order of things (leaving off, perhaps, the ultimate stage). In the Indian tradition, claiming to be a master of any of the darshanas or doctrines without first demonstrating a deep, thorough, intimate mastery of the elements of phonetics, grammar, and prosody (and I mean a real mastery, comparable to what enables Anne-Sophie Mutter to do what she does with her violin), would be simply absurd. Without mastery of language, a student trying to spin out ideas is like me trying desperately to scrape a few notes from a stringed instrument. Potentially, that mastery could simply be of English, just as the pandits gave their exclusive attention to Sanskrit. But students today are permitted to remain nearly as estranged from the inner workings of their own native tongue as they are from the foreign languages they were expected until recently to at least sample.


¶ HTMLGiant‘s Kyle Minor is in town, where he spent a chunk of time at the IFC, watching Olivier Assayas’s Carlos. At 5 hours 19 minutes runtime, the Roadshow Edition of this film calls for serious intestinal fortitude, which is why we’re grateful for Kyle’s report, which also serves to remind us how much political orientations have changed since we were his age.

True enough, but what was most exciting about the movie was that in many ways (and without ever being didactic about it), it served concurrently as a moral interrogation of the militant left, a thing which hardly exists anymore thanks to the unlikely collaborators who served as its joint executioners — the brutal excesses of the Communist bloc (which eventually turned off most leftists who were decent human beings to the idea of revolutionary violence altogether) and the overwhelming victory of the American capitalist global order (which rendered other economic systems implausible, at least for the time being, unless you wanted to become North Korea. Even what we used to call Red China is now on its way to becoming a capitalist power, albeit under the auspices of an authoritarian regime.)

It’s not that nobody talks about these things anymore. It’s more that hardly anyone does, and even to a person of my generation (the Berlin Wall fell when I was in the eighth grade), they have come to seem irrelevant, quaint, and anachronistic. These days most of the really violent stuff seems to come from the right, or at least the really violent stuff that isn’t state-sanctioned (but some of that, too.) Still, those times are closer to ours than I usually consider them to be, and certainly the contemporary obsession with security and the war on terror and so on is largely rooted in those times of too-frequent hijackings and more-public political assassinations and all the other horrors from which Americans are now mostly shielded, despite their continuance in parts of the world distant and near.


¶ Maybe the practice of economics will be truly scientific some day, but two pieces in the Times over the weekend show where the difficulty of attaining true predictability lies: in economists’ very imperfect understanding of human nature — namely their own, as reflected in philosophical bias. First, in a piece on income inequality, Robert Frank reminds us how far economists have wandered from Adam Smith‘s fundamental concern for moral sentiments.

By contrast, during the last three decades the economy has grown much more slowly, and our infrastructure has fallen into grave disrepair. Most troubling, all significant income growth has been concentrated at the top of the scale. The share of total income going to the top 1 percent of earners, which stood at 8.9 percent in 1976, rose to 23.5 percent by 2007, but during the same period, the average inflation-adjusted hourly wage declined by more than 7 percent.

Yet many economists are reluctant to confront rising income inequality directly, saying that whether this trend is good or bad requires a value judgment that is best left to philosophers. But that disclaimer rings hollow. Economics, after all, was founded by moral philosophers, and links between the disciplines remain strong. So economists are well positioned to address this question, and the answer is very clear.

Adam Smith, the father of modern economics, was a professor of moral philosophy at the University of Glasgow. His first book, “A Theory of Moral Sentiments,” was published more than 25 years before his celebrated “Wealth of Nations,” which was itself peppered with trenchant moral analysis.

The tile of David Segal’s “The X-Factor of Economics: People” tells you where he’s going.

Which gets to another great variable: personal values. In his textbook “Principles of Economics,” N. Gregory Mankiw, a Harvard professor, proposed this thought experiment: A town must maintain a well. Peter, who earns $100,000, is taxed $10,000, or 10 percent of his income, while Paula, who earns $20,000, hands over $4,000, or 20 percent of her income.

“Is this policy fair?” Mr. Mankiw asks in “Principles.” “Does it matter whether Paula’s low income is due to a medical disability or to her decision to pursue an acting career? Does it matter whether Peter’s high income is due to a large inheritance or to his willingness to work long hours at a dreary job?”

Economics, Mr. Mankiw concludes, won’t tell us, definitively, whether Peter or Paula is paying too much, because an answer inevitably leads to matters of values, which inevitably leads to different answers.

This is not to suggest that economics is a total free-for-all, lacking a broad consensus on any subject. Polls of economists have found near unanimity on topics like tariffs and import quotas (bad), centralized economies (very bad) and flexible, floating exchange rates (very good). Nor is it fair to say that economists have done little to help in the latest crisis. A depression seemed possible two years ago, and thanks to the ideas of economists, that didn’t happen.

But economics will forever have to contend with the biggest X factor of all: people. As Mr. Solow notes, you feed people poison, and they die. But feed them a subsidy and there is no telling what will happen. Some will use it wisely, others perversely and some a mix of both.


¶ Chris Mooney picked up Sam Harris’s new book, and found that it repeated an objection to Mr Mooney’s “accommodationism” to which the blogger had responded before at The Intersection. We take Mr  Mooney’s part in this important discussion, which pits intellectual principles against respect for different views. What Chris Mooney said and still says:

There is a bit of bravado here. The point is not to watch what you say, but to understand the context in which you are trying to communicate—and to recognize that most Americans are not going to be dragged all the way from fundamentalism to atheism thanks to the force of reasoned arguments. No matter how much we may wish it, it just isn’t going to happen. Giving them some more moderate stopping off points along the way is the only common sense approach if you want to change minds, or change the culture. In this sense, what is derided as “accommodationism” is actually an extremely important position between two poles on the intellectual spectrum, a position where many people will want to reside–right or wrong.


¶ At 1904, our friend George Snyder wonders, improbably we should have thought, if he is turning into his old man. He probably thought that it was improbable as well. If you live long enough, though, life does begin to look like the Princesse de Guermantes reception — minus the footmen and the goodies and mirrors and the feathers.

As for feeling like I’m becoming my dad, I admit there was a time when I might have been dismayed at any resemblance, however superficial, but I am more forgiving and accepting in my old age.  And I hasten to add, my father never possessed a faux leopard throw which he could toss artfully over the headboard (he was not the faux leopard tossing sort of guy), and moreover he preferred a pipe to a cigar.  As for me, the cigar box (which keeps the lamp raised to a proper height) belonged to a friend who does like to indulge in a good Cuban cigar now and then, but not in the house and not in his wife’s presence.  Not in bed certainly.  More likely the barn, to be truthful.

Reading in bed, however, is another matter entirely.  Something I do have in common with the old man.  And a lot of the rest of you, if I’m not mistaken.


¶ Michael Pettis, an associate of the Carnegie Asia Program in Beijing, advances a modest proposal: instead of buying Treasuries, China ought to fund the rehabiliation of United States infrastructure. (via Humble Student of the Markets)

So why not have China do it directly?  Let China engage in a massive rebuilding of US infrastructure – it can build airports, highways, damns, and railways – which would raise investment levels enough keep the US trade deficit high in a way that benefits the US and China.

Of course China would also have the right to charge for the use of these projects so that it can earn a positive return on its investment.  The return doesn’t even need to be high – just better than the return it gets on its huge expansion in investment in China, which I suspect is negative for the country as a whole.

Even worse, China is lending money to foreign borrowers anyway to boost China’s trade surplus, and I am not sure they can count on a positive return there.  Look at the $5 billion loan Premier Wen pledged to Greece to buy Chinese ships.  That may look like a clever deal economically, but I think there is a very high probability that within five or six years Greece will be forced to default on its debt and will obtain significant debt forgiveness.  In that case China will earn a negative return there too.  You can’t get rich giving away ships.

As long as it earns more than it earns on its USG bond holdings, it will be better off economically even without considering the immense advantage of keeping the US trade deficit high for the eight to ten years China is going to need to rebalance its economy away from its toxic over-reliance for growth on the trade surplus and economically non-viable investment.

Mr Pettis is the first to acknowledge the political implausibility of this “win-win” plan. The best ideas, unfortunately, are always politically implausable — that’s precisely why they’re so good. If they’re really good, the politicians are eventually swept into line.


¶ Alexander Chee proffers the syllabus for his graphic fiction course at Amherst — and explains why he did not offer the two-semester expansion that he’d have had no trouble filling.

While the field is considered new at best (it is routinely dismissed as unserious by many) the boom also means that I could have easily taught the course as a year-long class, with a “History of Comics” first semester and a “Graphic Novel” second semester, and if the post I had at Amherst had been tenure track, I might have considered it, and could easily have filled it. Teaching the graphic novel typically means you’ll be popular with students but potentially controversial with colleagues, to be clear—and on the job market, it has been both a plus and a minus, with faculty both intensely interested and intensely repulsed. It is a polarizing form to teach right now, more so than creative writing, which still suffers in the esteem of many academics, despite its popularity.


¶ At The Awl, Mike Barthel’s engagine reflections on “Bully Crisis 2010,” wherein he asks, “What do we do with the assholes?”

Let me tell you a story. In fifth grade, I was being bullied by this boy named Jason. As a weird little kid, I was not new to this sort of thing, but this experience was particularly shitty. It was one of those situations that you particularly must endure as a child, where you can’t choose to avoid the person who’s tormenting you. Jason was awful to me and yet I had to see him on a regular basis both at school and at Cub Scouts, where his mom was our den leader. It made me miserable. But after a lot of thought (of course!), I decided I was going to stand up for myself the next time the opportunity presented itself. That opportunity happened to be when we were taking our class photo. While getting lined up in the back row, Jason jostled me, and I responded by giving him a bloody nose.

I faced no disciplinary action for this. As I recall, I got a subtle nod of approval from my teacher. I did, however, get a reaction from one of the other kids. During a lull in class, a guy named Dave showed me a piece of loose leaf paper, on which was written a list of all the people in our class. “This is the list of who’s most popular,” Dave explained, and pointed to my name: “See? You moved up.” And indeed, there I was, now four spaces from the bottom of the list rather than two. And at the very bottom was Jason.

I’m pretty sure that was the exact moment I decided that popularity was stupid, an attitude that would cause me no small amount of trouble later in life.

But it also drove home that, as scary as bullies are, they’re not exactly society’s winners. Unless we’re prepared to say that a ten-year-old kid deserves to be a loser and has permanently entered a class of loser-hood by his own fully-informed choice—entering a class that may run him up one side of the criminal justice system and down the other—then we have to be willing to entertain the prospect that people like Jason ended up on the bottom rung perhaps through some situations that were not entirely of their own making.

Have a Look

¶ Planet Berlin. (Strange Maps)

¶ Lisa Breslow’s Urban Silences; Tom Wizon’s Homespun Peregrinations. (ArtCat)