Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
14Jul/140

Amor Mundi 7/13/14

Amor Mundi

Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

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The Unknown Within Ourselves

inner_selfOn the New Yorker blog, Joshua Rothman explores Virginia Woolf's idea of privacy. Unlike the "citizen's sense of privacy," which is concerned with the divide between public and private life and the need to keep some things unseen by other people, Woolf's novels allude to another, deeper kind of privacy that "preserves the melodies otherwise drowned out by words, stories, information." Concrete and experiential rather than political, Woolf's notion of privacy recognizes an inner core of self, a soul, that must be kept safe from one's own compulsion to examine and analyze. Writes Rothman: "Woolf often conceives of life this way: as a gift that you've been given, which you must hold onto and treasure but never open. Opening it would dispel the atmosphere, ruin the radiance-and the radiance of life is what makes it worth living. It's hard to say just what holding onto life without looking at it might mean; that's one of the puzzles of her books. But it has something to do with preserving life's mystery; with leaving certain things undescribed, unspecified, and unknown; with savoring certain emotions, such as curiosity, surprise, desire, and anticipation. It depends on an intensified sense of life's preciousness and fragility, and on a Heisenberg-like notion that, when it comes to our most abstract and spiritual intuitions, looking too closely changes what we feel. It has to do, in other words, with a kind of inner privacy, by means of which you shield yourself not just from others' prying eyes, but from your own. Call it an artist's sense of privacy." Read more on the Arendt Center blog.

The Frogs

emily_dickinsonAlexandra Socarides takes some time to (re)think Emily Dickinson's poem "I'm Nobody! Who are you?," which is usually read as a praise of the nobodies and against being somebody. Socarides finds an ode to something entirely different: "This fall I was asked to volunteer at my sons' elementary school, where the fourth graders were writing poetry and needed a little guidance. Despite having once gotten an MFA in Poetry and having taught poetry writing in the years after that, I have almost no memory of how to guide people in the ways of making poems. So, instead, I mostly sat with the students and watched them as they attempted, in their very best moments, to write something beautiful and strange. It was then, watching these kids shift in their prepubescent bodies, hungry and tired and mostly bored, that I found myself saying, over and over again in my head, just as the strangers in my basement had said to me: 'I'm Nobody! Who are you?' This was before I learned about Dickinson and frogs, before I pulled up the manuscripts, tracked down the letters, and returned to Walden to stand, metaphorically speaking, neck-deep in the pond with Thoreau. At this moment the poem simply functioned as an articulation of the alienation that I felt each and every one of those fourth graders knew intimately. To find a friend, and to locate some shared aspect of identity in that friendship, would be to find refuge from all the frogs croaking out on the playground."

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Being and Time

boyhoodIn an interview, filmmaker Richard Linklater describes what it was like to make his upcoming Boyhood, for which he worked with a group of actors a few days out of the year for twelve years. The film tracks the growth of a young boy over the same span. Like the boy, Linklater says, he's the same person now as when he started making the film, but there are important ways that he's changed too: "I feel like the exact same person, but I've got twelve more years under the belt. I've got two more kids I didn't have then, I got a bunch more films. I got a bunch more life. This thing was such a life project, it's been a real wonderful demarcation thing, all along the way. Every year you had to ask yourself these questions, you had to really study the world and see it in a new way. I think we should all take on these life projects that just make you - whatever the final result is - pay attention. That's what I like about the arts, that they make you see the world in a way you might not be attuned to. Every film is so much work the subject matter better be something you find infinitely fascinating. If you can just explain it and be done with it, you shouldn't be making it. Every film I've done I'm really feeling my way through that subject - what don't I know, what do I want to discover? And usually in the process of making the film I feel I do get to know what I was after. This, with a twelve year commitment, had to be about something inexhaustible. And that was about growing up, parenting, the culture around it, the world changing. I knew that well would never come close to going dry. And it didn't. It didn't. You had to stay so in touch with these people as they changed, and not just the kids but also the adults. You do that as a parent, you do that as a friend, but it was interesting to see that refracted through this one work of art, that you're trying to take Eller and Lorelei and Ethan and Patricia and you're taking what's going on in their lives and I'm trying to take what went on in my life at that age and my own role as a parent - it was an all-encompassing refraction of the world. It was an incredible collaboration not just amongst us but also between our own parents and the unknown future. But that's the life metaphor here - we're all collaborating constantly with a future we think we're trying to control, but we only can to a certain degree."

Art and Public Space

art_publicRiffing on big public installations by artists Jeff Koons and Kara Walker, Jillian Steinhauer wonders what public art even is: "If you take it to mean a work of art widely available and accessible to the public, then yes, a big sculpture in the middle of Rockefeller Center works fine; if, however, you think about public art as a work that engages with the public, draws them into a conversation - well, then the primary difference between the Walker and the Koons becomes clear. In her book Public Art: Theory, Practice and Populism, art historian Cher Krause Knight cites critic Patricia Phillips and her conception of how art 'becomes fully public': 'it is public because of the kinds of questions it chooses to ask or address, and not because of its accessibility or volume of viewers,' Phillips says. Knight then offers her own addendum: 'To this I would add that art's publicness rests in the quality and impact of its exchanges with audiences.' This extends to the way Koons and Walker approach their subjects: Koons began with a personal object (as many of us do), added a neat formal twist ... and then stopped. Walker's art has long sprung from her identity as a black woman, but she focuses on a place where private narratives overlap with public histories. A Subtlety is no exception. Koons's failure to take this leap speaks to his white male privilege, or his lack of imagination as an artist, or both."

Education as an Introduction to Wonder

daniel_godinezJoseph Miller tells the story of Daniel Godinez, a young man from California who found a program designed to groom first generation college students dreary and boring, until he was given the opportunity to do something otherworldly.  Since having started to work with a high tech telescope, Godinez has received "county and state science-fair awards; a research mentorship at the University of California, Santa Barbara; a paid teaching assistantship as astronomy tutor at Santa Barbara City College; and a planetarium operator gig at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, which eventually led to a staff position as astronomy programs assistant there." He's also earned a Distinguished Scientist Scholarship to Bard College, where the Arendt Center is located. Godinez's story shows the power of education that allows students to find their own home in the world, of education that excites and interests young people in what is out there in the world, and beyond.

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Featured Events

conference_14SAVE THE DATE - 2014 FALL CONFERENCE

October 9-10The Hannah Arendt Center's annual fall conference, The Unmaking of Americans: Are There Still American Values Worth Fighting For?, will be held this year on October 9-10!

Registration is now OPEN! You can register here!

Learn more about the conference here.

 

 

 


This Week on the Hannah Aendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Martin Wagner uses Arendt to help us appreciate the value of tradition in the digital age in his Quote of the Week. Spanish philosopher and essayist José Ortega y Gasset provides this week's Thought on Thinking. We remember our 2011 Lunchtime Talk with Robert Pogue Harrison on "passionate thinking" in our Video Archives. And Roger Berkowitz reminds us of the importance of privacy in the Weekend Read.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
16Jun/141

Amor Mundi 6/15/14

Amor Mundi

Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.

Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.

Unconstitutional Schools

1Dana Goldstein in The Atlantic partly agrees with the California superior-court judge who ruled this week that the state's teacher tenure system is a mess and discriminates against the state's poorest students. But Goldstein argues that simply abolishing tenure is not the answer. The problem is that good teachers simply don't want to teach in decrepit, disorganized, and discontented schools. "The lesson here is that California's tenure policies may be insensible, but they aren't the only, or even the primary, driver of the teacher-quality gap between the state's middle-class and low-income schools. The larger problem is that too few of the best teachers are willing to work long-term in the country's most racially isolated and poorest neighborhoods. There are lots of reasons why, ranging from plain old racism and classism to the higher principal turnover that turns poor schools into chaotic workplaces that mature teachers avoid. The schools with the most poverty are also more likely to focus on standardized test prep, which teachers dislike. Plus, teachers tend to live in middle-class neighborhoods and may not want a long commute. Educational equality is about more than teacher-seniority rules: It is about making the schools that serve poor children more attractive places for the smartest, most ambitious people to spend their careers." Read more in this week's Weekend Read.

Drones and Humanity

1In the Carnegie Journal of Ethics and International Affairs, Roger Berkowitz argues that the increasing reliance on drones is threatening our humanity-but not as usually thought. In "Drones and the Question of 'The Human,'" Berkowitz argues it is a mistake "to use the term 'drone' to refer only to these much publicized military devices. Drones, more precisely understood, are intelligent machines that-possessed of the capacity to perform repetitive tasks with efficiency, reliability, and mechanical rationality-increasingly displace the need for human thinking and doing.... The trend Jünger and Turkle worry about is unmistakable: we are at risk of losing the rich and mature relationships that mark us as human. The rise of social robots, unmanned aerial vehicles, and other one-dimensional machines that act like humans-without the perceived human weaknesses of distraction, emotion, exhaustion, quirkiness, risk, and unreliability-answers a profound human desire to replace human judgment with the more reliable, more efficient, and more rational judgment of machines. For all the superficial paeans to human instinct and intuition, human beings, in practice, repeatedly prefer drone-like reliability to the uncertain spontaneity of human intuition. In other words, we confront a future in which 'human' is a derogatory adjective signifying inefficiency, incompetence, and backwardness."

Take This Job and Shove It

509Karl Marx imagined that in a socialist utopia, everyone would work less and have more time to study or pursue hobbies. But contrary to Marx's prophecy-and also the prediction of John Maynard Keynes, who argued in the 1930s that improving productivity would result in significantly more leisure time for workers-increases in productivity have coincided with longer workdays. In an ever-wealthier society with more disposable income, the idea of leisure time is becoming culturally devalued. In an interview with Thomas Frank, David Graeber observes that this development has happened in part because of the creation of "bullshit jobs," which he describes as "the kind of jobs that even those who work them feel do not really need to exist," and work coming to be seen as a virtue in itself-and all the more virtuous if the job in question offers little intrinsic gratification: "Suddenly it became possible to see that if there's a rule, it's that the more obviously your work benefits others, the less you're paid for it. CEOs and financial consultants that are actually making other people's lives worse were paid millions, useless paper-pushers got handsomely compensated, people fulfilling obviously useful functions like taking care of the sick or teaching children or repairing broken heating systems or picking vegetables were the least rewarded. But another curious thing that happened after the crash is that people came to see these arrangements as basically justified. You started hearing people say, 'well, of course I deserve to be paid more, because I do miserable and alienating work,' by which they meant not that they were forced to go into the sewers or package fish, but exactly the opposite-that they didn't get to do work that had some obvious social benefit. I saw a very interesting blog by someone named Geoff Shullenberger recently that pointed out that in many companies, there's now an assumption that if there's work that anyone might want to do for any reason other than the money, any work that is seen as having intrinsic merit in itself, they assume they shouldn't have to pay for it. He gave the example of translation work. But it extends to the logic of internships and the like so thoroughly exposed by authors like Sarah Kendzior and Astra Taylor. At the same time, these companies are willing to shell out huge amounts of money to paper-pushers coming up with strategic vision statements who they know perfectly well are doing absolutely nothing."

Min Kamp

1Evan Hughes considers Karl Ove Knausgaard's suggestive titling of his six book autobiographical opus My Struggle, rendered in its original Norwegian as Min Kamp. Noting that the title was proposed by a friend, and suggesting that it is in some way a response to Knausgaard's childhood spent near the home of famous Norwegian author and Nazi sympathizer Knut Hamsun, Hughes also considers the way that Knausgaard's distinguishes himself, "sometimes speak[ing] in interviews and public appearances of an irony inherent in the name of the book; where Hitler is all ideology and rigid perfection in Mein Kampf, Knausgaard's struggle as a middle-class dad is quotidian, messy, faintly ridiculous. But his book is not all that ironic or clever. In fact, its directness and sincerity-to the point of frequent, unembarrassed cliché-contributes to the almost shocking immediacy of the voice. My Struggle makes no apologies. Knausgaard does not protect himself from the charge of narcissism by turning to self-deprecation or rationalization or literary tricks. Go ahead and say it's nothing much, he seems to say, but this is my struggle. For me, it counts."

The War Over "Good"

1Evgenia Peretz considers the recent blowup in literary criticism over the quality of Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch deserves its popularity. Noting that these questions are malleable, she provides an example: "The questions are as old as fiction itself. The history of literature is filled with books now considered masterpieces that were thought hackwork in their time. Take Dickens, the greatest novelist of the Victorian period, whose mantle writers from John Irving to Tom Wolfe to Tartt have sought to inherit. Henry James called Dickens the greatest of superficial novelists ... 'We are aware that this definition confines him to an inferior rank in the department of letters which he adorns; but we accept this consequence of our proposition. It were, in our opinion, an offence against humanity to place Mr. Dickens among the greatest novelists.... He has added nothing to our understanding of human character.'"

From the Hannah Arendt Center Blog

This week on the Blog, Jeffrey Champlin discusses the dual nature of thinking as a human activity in the Quote of the Week. Swiss philosopher and poet Henri-Frédéric Amiel provides this week's Thought on Thinking. And Roger Berkowitz discusses the value of tenure as both a luxury and evil in the Weekend Read.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
14Jun/141

Who Does Tenure Help?

1

A judge in California has ruled that the state’s method of granting tenure to teachers is unconstitutional under California’s guarantee of equal protection. At the heart of the ruling is a finding that between one and three percent of teachers in California are “grossly ineffective.” That amounts to between 3,000 and 9,000 thousand teachers, most of whom are gathered together in many of the poorest and worst school districts in the state. Evidence shows that one year of instruction by a “grossly ineffective” teacher can significantly retard a child’s progress. Multiple years of such teaching is dangerous and patently unfair. Because these teachers cannot be fired and because they end up teaching the poorest Californians, the judge found that tenure “impose[s] a disproportionate burden on poor and minority students.”

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".
9Apr/141

Democracy and Disagreement

FromtheArendtCenter

In the wake of Mozilla C.E.O. Brendan Eich's resignation over his support for California's 2008 Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage and has since been overturned in court, Andrew Sullivan laments the process by which Eich was compelled to step down.

moz

In his post,  Sullivan, a gay man who has been making the conservative case for gay marriage for nearly two decades, suggests that to simply label Eich a bigot and move forward under that presumption is too easy. Indeed, he says, that "the ability to work alongside or for people with whom we have a deep political disagreement is not a minor issue in a liberal society. It is a core foundation of toleration. We either develop the ability to tolerate those with whom we deeply disagree, or liberal society is basically impossible. Civil conversation becomes culture war; arguments and reason cede to emotion and anger." In this context, what is a crusade for tolerance also becomes a front for intolerance, something about which Sullivan is deeply troubled. The propagation of such a sure belief means the end of civil society and, in its face, he proposes we embrace uncertainty, concluding, finally, that "a moral movement without mercy is not moral; it is, when push comes to shove, cruel."

Sullivan makes a passionate and necessary plea for both moral uncertainty and, equally important, a willingness to live with and amongst those whose opinions we find both wrong and hurtful. What makes American democracy special is not that we have the right answers, but that we are committed to the conversation, not that we employ mandarins blessed with the right answers but that we trust everyday citizens to figure it out as we go along. Sullivan makes his case that Eich was honorable, open, and willing to engage in meaningful dialogue with those he disagreed with. Let's leave aside accusations of political correctness and such. The important point is that we are living in a country increasingly at odds with its democratic tradition of debate and disagreement. We bemoan the fact that Republicans and Democrats can't talk across the aisle; how is that we now won't even work with someone who respectfully disagrees with us politically?

—RB h/t Josh Kopin

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
3May/1317

MOOCs: The Debate Continues

ArendtWeekendReading

After months in which university after university signed on to the bandwagon for Massive Open Online Courses called MOOCs, the battle over the future of education has finally begun. This week Duke University pulled out of EdX, the Harvard/MIT led consortium of Massive Open Online Courses called MOOC’s.

moocs

The reason: Its faculty rebelled. According to The New York Times,

While [Duke provost Peter] Lange saw the consortium as expanding the courses available to Duke students, some faculty members worried that the long-term effect might be for the university to offer fewer courses — and hire fewer professors. Others said there had been inadequate consultation with the faculty.

The Times also reports that faculty at Amherst College, my alma mater and former employer, voted against joining EdX. Again, the faculty saw danger. My former colleagues worried that the introduction of online courses would detrimentally impact the quality and spirit of education and the small liberal arts college. They also, as our friends over at ViaMeadia report, worried that MOOCs would “take student tuition dollars away from so-called middle-tier and lower-tier” schools, pushing their colleagues at these institutions out of their jobs.

And that brings us to ground zero of the battle between the faculty and the MOOCs: San Jose State University. San Jose State has jumped out as a leader in the use of blended online and offline courses. Mohammad H. Qayoumi, the university's president, has defended his embrace of online curricula on both educational and financial grounds. He points to one course, "Circuits & Electronics," offered by EdX. In a pilot program, students in that course did better than students in similar real-world courses taught by San Jose State professors. Where nearly 40% of San Jose students taking their traditional course received a C or lower, only 9% of students taking the EdX course did. For Qayoumi and others, such studies offer compelling grounds for integrating MOOCs into the curriculum. The buzzword is “blended courses,” in which the MOOCs are used in conjunction with faculty tutors. In this “flipped classroom,” the old model in which students listen to lectures in lecture halls and then do assignments at home, is replaced by online lectures supplemented by discussions and exercises done in class with professors. As I have written, such a model can be pedagogically powerful, if done right.

But as attractive as MOOCs may be, they carry with them real dangers. And these dangers emerge front and center in the hard-hitting Open Letter that the philosophy department at San Jose State University has published addressed to Michael Sandel. Sandel is the Harvard Professor famous for his popular and excellent course “Justice,” that has been wowing and provoking Harvard undergraduates for decades. Sandel not only teaches his course, he has branded it. He sells videos of the course; he published a book called Justice based on the course, and, most recently, created an online video version of the course for EdX.  San Jose State recently became one of the first public universities in the country to sign a contract paying for the use of EdX courses. This is what led to the letter from the philosophers.

edx

The letter begins by laying out the clear issue. The San Jose Philosophy department has professors who can teach courses in justice and ethics of the kind Sandel teaches. From their point of view, “There is no pedagogical problem in our department that JusticeX solves, nor do we have a shortage of faculty capable of teaching our equivalent course.” In short, while some students may prefer a course with a famous Harvard professor, the faculty at San Jose State believe that they are qualified to teach about Justice.

Given their qualifications, the philosophy professors conclude that the real reason for the contract with EdX is not increased educational value, but simply cost. As they write: "We believe that long-term financial considerations motivate the call for massively open online courses (MOOCs) at public universities such as ours.

In short, the faculty sees the writing on the wall. Whatever boilerplate rhetoric about blended courses and educational benefit may be fashionable and necessary, the real issue is simple. Public universities (and many private ones as well) will not keep paying the salaries of professors when those professors are not needed.

While for now professors are kept on to teach courses in a blended classroom, there will soon be need for many fewer professors. As students take Professor Sandel’s class at universities around the country, they will eventually work with teaching assistants—just as students do at Harvard, where Professor Sandel has pitifully little interaction with his hundreds of students in every class. These teaching assistants make little money, significantly less than a tenured or even a non-tenured professor. It is only a matter of time before many university classes are taught virtually by superstar professors assisted by armies of low-paid onsite assistants. State universities will then be able to educate significantly more students at a fraction of the current cost. For many students this will be a great boon—a certified and possibly quality education at a cheap price. For most California voters, this is a good deal. But it is precisely what the faculty at San Jose State fear. As they write:

We believe the purchasing of online and blended courses is not driven by concerns about pedagogy, but by an effort to restructure the U.S. university system in general, and our own California State University system in particular. If the concern were pedagogically motivated, we would expect faculty to be consulted and to monitor quality control. On the other hand, when change is financially driven and involves a compromise of quality it is done quickly, without consulting faculty or curriculum committees, and behind closed doors. This is essentially what happened with SJSU's contract with edX. At a press conference (April 10, 2013 at SJSU) announcing the signing of the contract with edX, California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom acknowledged as much: "The old education financing model, frankly, is no longer sustainable." This is the crux of the problem. It is time to stop masking the real issue of MOOCs and blended courses behind empty rhetoric about a new generation and a new world. The purchasing of MOOCs and blended courses from outside vendors is the first step toward restructuring the CSU.

The San Jose State philosophy professors are undoubtedly correct. We are facing a systematic transformation in higher education in this country and also in secondary education as well. Just as the Internet has revolutionized journalism and just as it is now shaking the foundations of medicine and law, the Internet will not leave education alone. Change seems nigh. Part of this change is being driven by cost. Some of it is also being driven by the failures and perceived failures of our current system. The question for those of us in the world of higher education is whether we can respond intelligently to save the good and change out the bad. It is time that faculties around the country focus on this question and for that we should all be thankful to the philosophy professors at San Jose State.

The Open Letter offers three main points to argue that it is bad pedagogy to replace them with the blended course model of MOOCs and teaching assistants.

First, they argue that good teaching requires professors engaged in research. When professors are engaged in active research programs, they are interested in and motivated by their fields. Students can perceive if a professor is bored with a class and students will always learn more and be driven to study and excel by professors who feel that their work matters. Some may wonder what the use of research is that is read by only a few colleagues around the world, but one answer is that such research is necessary to keep professors fresh and sharp.  We all know the sad fate of professors who have disengaged from research.

Second, the philosophy professors accept the argument of many including myself that large lectures are not the best way to teach. They teach by the Socratic method, interacting with students. Such classes, they write, are much better than having students watch Professor Sandel engage Socratically with faculty at Harvard. Of course, the MOOC model would still allow for Socratic and personal engagement, just by much lower paid purveyors of the craft. The unanswered question is whether low-paid assistants can be trained to teach well. The answer may well be yes.

Third, the philosophy faculty worry about the exact same moral justice course being taught across the country. We can already see the disciplinary barricades being drawn. It may be one thing to teach Math to the whole country from one or two MOOCs, but philosophy needs multiple perspectives. But how many? The philosophy professors suggest that their highly diverse and often lower-middle-class students have different experiences and references than do Professor Sandel’s Harvard students. They can, in the classroom, better connect with these students than Professor Sandel via online lectures.

The points the San Jose State philosophy professors raise are important. In many ways, however, their letter misses the point. Our educational system is now structured on a few questionable premises. First, that everyone who attends college wants a liberal arts education. That is simply not true. Many students simply want a credential to get a job. If these students can be taught well and more cheaply, we should help them. There is a question of whether we need to offer everyone the same kind of highly personalized and expensive education. While such arguments will be lambasted as elitist, it is nevertheless true that not everyone wants or needs to read Kant closely. We should seek to protect the ability of those who do—no matter their economic class—and also allow those who don’t a more efficient path through school.

A second questionable premise is that specialization is necessary to be a good teacher. This also is false. Too much specialization removes one from the world of common sense. As I have argued before, we need professors who are educated more generally. It is important to learn about Shakespeare and Aristotle, but you don’t need to be a specialist in Shakespeare or Aristotle to teach them well and thoughtfully to undergraduates. This is not an argument against the Ph.D.  It is important to study and learn an intellectual tradition if you are going to teach. But it is an argument against the professionalization of the Ph.D. and of graduate education in general. It is also an argument against the dominance of undergraduate curriculum by professionalized scholars.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, is the premise that everyone needs to go to college. If we put a fraction of the resources we currently spend on remedial education for college students back into public high schools in this country, we could begin the process of transforming high school into a serious and meaningful activity. For one thing, we could begin employing Ph.D.s as high school teachers as are many of the emerging early colleges opening around the country.

classroom

I am sympathetic to the philosophy professors at San Jose State. I too teach a course on Justice called “The Foundation of Law: The Quest for Justice.” It is a course quite similar and yet meaningfully different from Michael Sandel’s course on Justice. I believe it is better, no offense meant. And I would be upset if I were told next year that instead of teaching my course I would be in effect a glorified TA for Professor Sandel. I hope it doesn’t come to that, but I know it might.

The only response for those whose jobs are being replaced by computers or the Internet is to go out and figure out how to do it better. That is what happened to journalists who were fired in droves. Many quit voluntarily and began developing new models of journalism, including blogs that have enriched our public discourse and largely rejuvenated public journalism in this country. Blogs, of course, are not perfect, and there is the question of how to make a living writing one. But enterprising bloggers like Andrew Sullivan and Walter Russell Mead are figuring that out. So too are professors like Michael Sandel and Andrew Ng.

We need educators to become experimental these days, to create small schools and intensive curricula within larger institutions that make the most of the personal interaction that is the core of true pedagogy. If that happens, and if teachers offer meaningful education for which students or our taxpayers will pay, then our jobs will be safe. And our students will be better for it. For this reason, we should welcome the technology as a push to make ourselves better teachers.

The Open Letter to Michael Sandel deserves a response. I hope Professor Sandel offers one. Until then, I recommend that this beautiful Spring weekend you read the letter from the San Jose State Philosophy Department. It is your weekend read.

-RB

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
15Feb/130

Borrowing from Peter to Pay Paul

Stephanie A. Miner, the Mayor of Syracuse NY, has an important op-ed essay in The NY Times Thursday. Syracuse is one of hundreds of cities around the state and tens of thousands around the country that are struggling with the potentially disastrous effects of out-of-control pension costs. Where this crisis is heading can be seen in California, where San Bernadino has become the third California city to declare bankruptcy. These cities are dying. They are caught in a bind. Either they decide not to pay their promised debts to pensioners; or, in honoring those debts, they so fully raise taxes and cut services as to ruin the lives of their citizens.

In Syracuse, Mayor Miner understands well the depth of the problem. First, public employee labor costs are too high not because salaries are high, but because pension costs and medical benefits are rising without limit. Second, revenues are being slashed, both from the recession and from cutbacks from the state and federal governments. Finally, the middle and upper class flight from cities to suburbs have left the tax base in cities low at the moment when poorer city dwellers are disproportionately in need of public services.

The result is that cities are faced with a stark choice: Do they pay older citizens what has been promised to them? Or do they cut those promised pensions in order to provide services for the young? This is a generational conflict that is playing out across the country.

Miner is worried that the response by NY State is making the problem worse. In short, Governor Cuomo and the legislature have decided to let cities that cannot afford to fund their burgeoning pension obligations borrow money to pay those pensions. The kicker is, that the cities are being told to borrow money from the very same pension plan to which they owe money.

If this sounds suspicious, it is. As Danny Hakim—one of the best financial reporters around—wrote almost exactly one year ago in the NY Times, this is a desperate and dangerous move:

When New York State officials agreed to allow local governments to use an unusual borrowing plan to put off a portion of their pension obligations, fiscal watchdogs scoffed at the arrangement, calling it irresponsible and unwise.

And now, their fears are being realized: cities throughout the state, wealthy towns such as Southampton and East Hampton, counties like Nassau and Suffolk, and other public employers like the Westchester Medical Center and the New York Public Library are all managing their rising pension bills by borrowing from the very same $140 billion pension fund to which they owe money.

The state’s borrowing plan allows public employers to reduce their pension contributions in the short term in exchange for higher payments over the long term. Public pension funds around the country assume a certain rate of return every year and, despite the market gains over the last few years, are still straining to make up for steep investment losses incurred in the 2008 financial crisis, requiring governments to contribute more to keep pension systems afloat.

Supporters argue that the borrowing plan makes it possible for governments in New York to “smooth” their annual pension contributions to get through this prolonged period of market volatility.

Critics say it is a budgetary sleight-of-hand that simply kicks pension costs down the road.

Borrowing from the state pension plan to pay municipal pension costs is simply failing to pay the pensions this year and thus having to pay more next year.

Hakim, as good as he is, allows Thomas P. DiNapoli—the state’s comptroller—to get away with calling the scheme “amortization.”

The state’s comptroller, Thomas P. DiNapoli, said in a statement, “While the state’s pension fund is one of the strongest performers in the country, costs have increased due to the Wall Street meltdown.” He added that “amortizing pension costs is an option for some local governments to manage cash flow and to budget for long-term pension costs in good and bad times.”

But how is this amortization? The assumption or hope is that the market will rise, the pension fund will go up, and then the municipalities will owe less.  That is hardly amortization. No, it is desperate speculation with public monies.

The crisis in our cities afflicts the whole country, according to a study by the Pew Center on the States.

Cities employing nearly half of U.S. municipal workers saw their pension and retiree health-care funding levels fall from 79% in fiscal year 2007 to 74% in fiscal year 2009, using the latest available data, according to the Pew Center on the States. Pension systems are considered healthy if they are 80% funded.

The reason to pay attention to the problems in cities is that cities have even less ability to solve their pension shortfalls than states. The smaller the population, the more a city would have to tax each citizen in order to help pay for the pensions of its retired public workers. The result is that either cities get bailed out by states and lose their independence (as is happening in Michigan) or the cities file for bankruptcy (as is happening in California).

Mayor Miner, a Democrat, takes a huge risk in standing up to the Governor and the legislature. She is rightly insisting that they stop hiding from our national addiction to the crack-cocaine of unaffordable guaranteed lifetime pensions. Piling unpayable debts upon our cities will, in the end, bankrupt these cities. And it will continue the flight to the suburbs and the hollowing out of the urban core of America. Above all, it will sacrifice our future in order to allow the baby boomers to retire in luxury. Let’s hope Miner’s call doesn’t go unheeded.

-RB

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
17Jan/133

The Pension Crisis in Cities

The Pew Center on the States issued a study this week that sheds further light on our municipal pension problems, a political crisis with strong Arendtian overones. Where most studies have focused on the enormous problems faced by states, this one focuses on cities:

Cities employing nearly half of U.S. municipal workers saw their pension and retiree health-care funding levels fall from 79% in fiscal year 2007 to 74% in fiscal year 2009, using the latest available data, according to the Pew Center on the States. Pension systems are considered healthy if they are 80% funded.

The growing funding gulf, which the study estimated at more than $217 billion for the 61 cities in the study, raises worries about local finances at a time when states are also struggling to recover from the recession. Property-tax revenue dipped during the housing crisis, straining city finances amid a weak national economy.

The reason to pay attention to the problems in cities is that cities have even less ability to solve their pension shortfalls than states. The smaller the population, the more a city would have to tax each citizen in order to help pay for the pensions of its retired public workers. The result is that either cities get bailed out by states and lose their independence (as is happening in Michigan) or the cities file for bankruptcy (as is happening in California).

Also this week the NY Times ran a story about San Bernadino, one of three California cities to file for bankruptcy as a result of their pension obligations. It is a stark reminder of why we should care about public pensions:

Five months after San Bernardino filed for bankruptcy — the third California city to seek Chapter 9 protections in 2012 — residents here are confronting a transformed and more perilous city.  After violent crime had dropped steadily for years, the homicide rate shot up more than 50 percent in 2012 as a shrinking police force struggled to keep order in a city long troubled by street gangs that have migrated from Los Angeles, 60 miles to the west.  … “The parks department is shredded, the libraries similarly,” [the mayor] said. “My office is down to nobody. I’ve got literally no one left.”

A similar fate is befalling other California cities that are in bankruptcy:

Stockton, Calif., which filed for bankruptcy in June, has followed a similarly grim path into insolvency, logging more homicides last year than ever before. In Vallejo, Calif., which filed for bankruptcy in 2008, cuts left the police force a third smaller, and the city became a hub for prostitution.

As I have argued, the pension crisis is not arcane policy or economics. It is a crisis of politics and government. It came about because municipal and state governments offered irresponsible contracts to public employees. There is no way these contractually guaranteed pensions can be paid. By refusing to face up to this fact now, we are making the problem worse. The result will be the hollowing out of local government services across the country. Police forces will be decimated. Public libraries and fire stations will close. Parks will fall into disrepair. All in order to pay full pensions to retirees. This of course won’t happen. Cities will refuse to do it, as they have in California and elsewhere. The result will then be bankruptcy, which comes with its own tragedies.

For anyone who cares about government and wants government to succeed, the pension problem must be addressed, for it threatens not only economic disaster, but political cynicism beyond even today's wildest dreams. Across the country, teachers, policemen and firemen, not to mention civil service employees and others, will see their promised pensions shrink precipitously. Not only will this devastate retirement nest eggs for millions of people, it will fray the social contract—pitting young against old and taxpayers against public employees. This is already happening.

What is more, the pension crisis will likely further erode local control over our lives. As municipalities go bankrupt they turn to states. As states go bankrupt, they turn to the federal government. Bailouts come with strings and ever-increasing levels of bureaucracy. For those who understand that our federal system was designed to thwart the establishment of sovereignty by dispersing power through competing levels of governance, the pension crisis has the potential to radically disempower local governments and further the amassing of federal power already long underway.

There may not be pretty or easy solutions, but ignoring or denying the problem is no longer an option. It is time for those who care about government and freedom to engage the pension issue and insist to our legislators that we act to treat pensioners with respect but also preserve the power of local governments to support rich and vibrant political institutions.

-RB

 

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
16Nov/122

What is a House?

Hannah Arendt spoke of having acquired, through her life, a "love of the world." When writing about education she argues that "education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it." And in politics, she insists, we must care for and love the world more than oneself. What then is the world?

The world is related to human making and to the things and artifacts that human beings make. What defines the things of a world is that those things gather individuals together.

In the public realm, a politician is that person who speaks and acts in such a way that those around him come to see those institutions and values that they share and treasure. The common world is the world that emerges when a plurality of people bind themselves to stories, traditions, institutions, rituals, and practices that they share and that they love. Like a table that unites those who sit around it in a common conversation or feast, the common world brings different people together. It stands between them, both joining and separating them.

In the private realm, a world is founded in property, and property has an essential role in the public realm too. For property is what one owns, what is proper to one, and thus defines one over against others in the common world. Property provides the boundaries between people and also serves as the boundary between the commonality of the public realm and the uniqueness of the private realm. It is no accident that original Greek word for law, nemein, also means to distribute and to possess, as well as to dwell. Property, in English, also names the laws of propriety, what is right and given to each.

In both the public and the private realms the world consists of things that endure. Worldly things must not only be common. They must also last. Since we must love the world more than our own lives—since we must be willing to pursue the world as an ideal and sacrifice ourselves to the glory and good of the world we share with others—the world must offer us the promise of permanence and thus immortality.

How are to understand the worldly conditions of permanence and immortality? We might ask: What is a house?

This is one of the many questions at issue in Jonathan Franzen's essay "House For Sale," about his return to his mother's house in Webster Grove, Missouri to sell the house after her death. Here is how Franzen describes his mother's house.

This was the house where, five days a month for ten month, while my brothers and I were going about our coastal lives, she had come home alone from chemotherapy and crawled into bed. The house from which, a year after that, in early June, she had called me in New York and said she was returning to the hospital for more exploratory surgery, and then had broken down in tears and apologized for being such a disappointment to everyone and giving us more bad news. The house where, a week after her surgeon had shaken his head bitterly and sewn her abdomen back up, she'd grilled her most trusted daughter-in-law on the idea of the afterlife, and my sister-in-law had confessed that, in point of sheer logistics, the idea seemed to her pretty far-fetched, and my mother, agreeing with her, had then, as it were, put a check beside the item "Decide about the afterlife" and continued down her to-do list in her usual pragmatic way, addressing other tasks that her decision had rendered more urgent than ever, such as "Invite best friends over one by one and say goodbye to them forever." This was the house from which, on a Saturday morning in July, my brother Bob had driven her to her hairdresser, who was Vietnamese and affordable and who greeted her with the words "Oh, Mrs. Fran, Mrs. Fan, you look terrible," and to which she'd returned, an hour later, to complete her makeover, because she was spending long-hoarded frequent-flyer miles on two first-class tickets, and first-class travel was an occasion for looking her best, which also translated into feeling her best; she came down from her bedroom dressed for first class, said goodbye to her sister, who had traveled from New York to ensure that the house would not be empty when my mother walked away from it—that someone would be left behind—and then went to the airport with my brother and flew to the Pacific Northwest for the rest of her life. Her house, being a house, was enough slower in its dying to be a zone of comfort to my mother, who needed something larger than herself to hold on to but didn't believe in supernatural beings. Her home was the heavy (but not infinitely heavy) and sturdy (but not everlasting) God that she'd loved and served and been sustained by, and my aunt had done a very smart thing by coming when she did.

Franzen offers us a house in many valences.

It was where his mother lived. Where she was sick. Where she thought about dying and God. Where she recovered from surgery and made herself up. Above all, it was his mother's house. Later he writes that the house was "my mother's novel, the concrete story she told about herself." In this house she "pondered the arrangement of paintings on a wall like a writer pondering commas." It was a house in which she showed herself. It was thus an invitation. And "she wanted you to want to stay."

The problem is that Franzen does not want to stay in his mother's house. He grew up in the house, but he resents it. The house his mother made, was filled with "sturdy and well made" furniture that "my brothers and I couldn't make ourselves want." He has fled the house and returns only to remove those photos that for his mother made the house hers, to act like a conqueror, he admits, and repossess the house from his mother. But only to then sell it.

If Mrs. Fanzen's house is her novel and if it was a house in which she both concealed and showed herself, her son's house in NYC is something else entirely. Here is how Franzen describes his own dwelling place:

I now owned a nice apartment on East Eighty-first Street. Walking in the door, after two months in California, I had the sensation of walking into somebody else's apartment. The guy who lived here was apparently a prosperous middle-aged Manhattanite with the sort of life I'd spent my thirties envying from afar, vaguely disdaining, and finally being defeated in my attempts to imagine my way into. How odd that I now had the keys to this guy's apartment.

House for sale is, amongst other themes like the loss of religion, the loss of family, and the loss of the American middle class, about the loss of the American house. It is also therefore, in an Arendtian vein, a story about the loss of our world, the property that both hides and nurtures our souls and separates and distinguishes us from our fellow citizens. Denuded of our habitus and property, we are defenseless against the conformity of society. Without desks and bookshelves passed down over generations that fit us, over and against our choices, into a private world, we are consumers who build a temporary bulwark whether styled by Ikea or the local antique store. Such a house is not meant to last and to be passed down across the generations. It will be used and, eventually, sold or walked away from. With nothing that defines us in a lasting and immortal vein, our lives have no depth or meaning beyond our accomplishments. There is no weight or law that claims us and obligates. We are free, but free, unsure why we are here or what it all means.

I recently encountered Jonathan Franzen's essay within an extraordinary theatrical experience. The play "House For Sale" is based on his essay by the same name.

It has been adapted for the stage by Daniel Fish. I have now been to see it twice. The play is hilarious, brutal, and shattering. It makes Franzen's essay come alive in ways miraculous and uplifting. The final scene itself is worth dropping every plan you have, flying to NYC, and rushing to the Duke Theatre on 42nd St. to catch it. I can't recommend this highly enough. But hurry, it is playing for only a few more performances. You can buy tickets here.

Or, if you simply can't get to NYC, buy The Discomfort Zone, Franzen's book of essays in which "House For Sale" originally appeared. It is your weekend read.

-RB

Roger Berkowitz
Roger Berkowitz is Associate Professor of Political Studies and Human Rights at Bard College, and Academic Director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and the Humanities. He is also the author of "Gift of Science: Leibiniz and the Modern Legal Tradition", as well as co-editor of "Thinking in Dark Times: Hannah Arendt on Ethics and Politics".
2Oct/120

Malaise in the Classroom: Teaching Secondary Students About the Presidency

The gap between our citizens and our Government has never been so wide. The people are looking for honest answers, not easy answers; clear leadership, not false claims and evasiveness and politics as usual.

-Jimmy Carter,  July 15, 1979

Contemporary observers of secondary education have appropriately decried the startling lack of understanding most students possess of the American presidency.  This critique should not be surprising.  In textbooks and classrooms across the country, curriculum writers and teachers offer an abundance of disconnected facts about the nation’s distinct presidencies—the personalities, idiosyncrasies, and unique time-bound crises that give character and a simple narrative arc to each individual president.  Some of these descriptions contain vital historical knowledge.  Students should learn, for example, how a conflicted Lyndon Johnson pushed Congress for sweeping domestic programs against the backdrop of Vietnam or how a charismatic and effective communicator like Ronald Reagan found Cold War collaboration with Margaret Thatcher and Mikhail Gorbachev.

But what might it mean to ask high school students to look across these and other presidencies to encourage more sophisticated forms of historical thinking?  More specifically, what might teachers begin to do to promote thoughtful writing and reflection that goes beyond the respective presidencies and questions the nature of the executive office itself?  And how might one teach the presidency, in Arendtian fashion, encouraging open dialogue around common texts, acknowledging the necessary uncertainty in any evolving classroom interpretation of the past, and encouraging flexibility of thought for an unpredictable future?  By provocatively asking whether the president “matters,” the 2012 Hannah Arendt Conference provided an ideal setting for New York secondary teachers to explore this central pedagogical challenge in teaching the presidency.

Participants in this special writing workshop, scheduled concurrently with the conference, attended conference panels and also retreated to consider innovative and focused approaches to teaching the presidency.

Conference panels promoted a broader examination of the presidency than typically found in secondary curricula. A diverse and notable group of scholars urged us to consider the events and historical trends, across multiple presidencies, constraining or empowering any particular chief executive.  These ideas, explored more thoroughly in the intervening writing workshops, provoked productive argument on what characteristics might define the modern American presidency.  In ways both explicit and implicit, sessions pointed participants to numerous and complicated ways Congress, the judiciary, mass media, U.S. citizens, and the president relate to one another.

This sweeping view of the presidency contains pedagogical potency and has a place in secondary classrooms.  Thoughtful history educators should ask big questions, encourage open student inquiry, and promote civic discourse around the nature of power and the purposes of human institutions. But as educators, we also know that the aim and value of our discipline resides in place-and time-bound particulars that beg for our interpretation and ultimately build an evolving understanding of the past.  Good history teaching combines big ambitious questions with careful attention to events, people, and specific contingencies.  Such specifics are the building blocks of storytelling and shape the analogies students need to think through an uncertain future.

Jimmy Carter’s oval office speech on July 15, 1979, describing a national “crisis of confidence” presented a unique case study for thinking about the interaction between American presidents and the populations the office is constitutionally obliged to serve. Workshop participants prepared for the conference by watching the video footage from this address and reading parts of Kevin Mattson’s history of the speech.  In what quickly became known as the “Malaise Speech,” Carter attempted a more direct and personal appeal to the American people, calling for personal sacrifice and soul searching, while warning of dire consequences if the nation did not own up to its energy dependencies.  After Vietnam and Watergate, Carter believed, America needed a revival that went beyond policy recommendations.  His television address, after a mysterious 10-day sequestration at Camp David, took viewers through Carter’s own spiritual journey and promoted the conclusions he drew from it.

Today, the Malaise Speech has come to symbolize a failed Carter presidency.  He has been lampooned, for example, on The Simpsons as our most sympathetically honest and humorously ineffectual former president.  In one episode, residents of Springfield cheer the unveiling of his presidential statue, emblazoned with “Malaise Forever” on the pedestal.  Schools give the historical Carter even less respect.  Standardized tests such as the NY Regents exam ask little if anything about his presidency.  The Malaise speech is rarely mentioned in classrooms—at either the secondary or post-secondary levels.  Similarly, few historians identify Carter as particularly influential, especially when compared to the leaders elected before and after him.  Observers who mention his 1979 speeches are most likely footnoting a transitional narrative for an America still recovering from a turbulent Sixties and heading into a decisive conservative reaction.

Indeed, workshop participants used writing to question and debate Carter’s place in history and the limited impact of the speech.  But we also identified, through primary sources on the 1976 election and documents around the speech, ways for students to think expansively about the evolving relationship between a president and the people.  A quick analysis of the electoral map that brought Carter into office reminded us that Carter was attempting to convince a nation that looks and behaves quite differently than today.  The vast swaths of blue throughout the South and red coastal counties in New York and California are striking. Carter’s victory map can resemble an electoral photo negative to what has now become a familiar and predictable image of specific regional alignments in the Bush/Obama era.  The president who was elected in 1976, thanks in large part to an electorate still largely undefined by the later rise of the Christian Right, remains an historical enigma.  As an Evangelical Democrat from Georgia, with roots in both farming and nuclear physics, comfortable admitting his sins in both Sunday School and Playboy, and neither energized by or defensive about abortion or school prayer, Carter is as difficult to image today as the audience he addressed in 1979.

It is similarly difficult for us to imagine the Malaise Speech ever finding a positive reception.  However, this is precisely what Mattson argues. Post-speech weekend polls gave Carter’s modest popularity rating a surprisingly respectable 11-point bump.  Similarly, in a year when most of the president’s earlier speeches were ignored, the White House found itself flooded with phone calls and letters, almost universally positive.  The national press was mixed and several prominent columnists praised the speech. This reaction to such an unconventional address, Mattson goes on to argue, suggests that the presidency can matter.

Workshop participants who attended later sessions heard Walter Russell Mead reference the ways presidents can be seen as either transformative or transactional.  In many ways, the “malaise moment” could be viewed as a late term attempt by a transactional president to forge a transformational presidency.  In the days leading up to the speech, Carter went into self-imposed exile, summoning spiritual advisors to his side, and encouraging administration-wide soul searching.  Such an approach to leadership, admirable to some and an act of desperation to others, defies conventions and presents an odd image of presidential behavior (an idea elaborated on by conference presenter Wyatt Mason).  “Malaise” was never mentioned in Carter’s speech.  But his transformational aspirations are hard to miss.

In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we've discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We've learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.

It is this process—the intellectual act of interpreting Carter and his [in]famous speech as aberrant presidential behavior—that allows teachers and their students to explore together the larger question of defining the modern presidency. And it is precisely this purposeful use of a small number of primary sources that forces students to rethink, through writing and reflection, the parameters that shape how presidents relate to their electorate.  In our workshop we saw how case studies, in-depth explorations of the particulars of history, precede productive debate on whether the presidency matters.

The forgotten Carter presidency can play a disproportionately impactful pedagogical role for teachers interested in exploring the modern presidency.  As any high school teacher knows, students rarely bring an open interpretive lens to Clinton, Bush, or Obama. Ronald Reagan, as the first political memory for many of their parents, remains a polarizing a figure.  However, few students or their parents hold strong politically consequential opinions about Carter.  Most Americans, at best, continue to view him as a likable, honest, ethical man who is much more effective as an ex-president than he was as president.

Workshop participants learned that the initial support Carter received after the Malaise Speech faded quickly.  Mattson and some members of the administration now argue that the President lacked a plan to follow up on the goodwill he received from a nation desiring leadership.  Reading Ezra Klein, we also considered the possibility that, despite all the attention educators give to presidential speeches (as primary sources that quickly encapsulate presidential visions), there is little empirical evidence that any public address really makes much of a difference.  In either case, Carter’s loss 16 months later suggests that his failures of leadership both transformational and transactional.

Did Carter’s speech matter?  The teachers in the workshop concluded their participation by attempting to answer this question, working collaboratively to draft a brief historical account contextualizing the 1979 malaise moment.  In doing so, we engaged in precisely the type of activity missing in too many secondary school classrooms today: interrogating sources, corroborating evidence, debating conflicting interpretations, paying close attention to language, and doing our best to examine our underlying assumptions about the human condition.  These efforts produced some clarity, but also added complexity to our understanding of the past and led to many additional questions, both pedagogical and historical.   In short, our writing and thinking during the Arendt Conference produced greater uncertainty. And that reality alone suggests that study of the presidency does indeed matter.

-Stephen Mucher

Stephen Mucher is assistant professor of history education in the Master of Arts in Teaching Program at Bard College.

The workshop, Teaching the American Presidency, facilitated by Teresa Vilardi and Stephen Mucher, sponsored by the Institute for Writing and Thinking and Master of Arts in Teaching Program in collaboration with the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College was offered as part of the Center’s 2012 conference, “Does the President Matter? American Politics in an Age of Disrepair.” 

 

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
22Aug/124

To the Place of Definitions

A few weeks ago I ran into Nikita Nelin, a former student who has had success as a fiction writer and recently as a professor. He told me he was off on an adventure to attend the Burning Man Festival in the Nevada desert. His intention was to write about the experience and see what he thought of it. We decided he would send back reports of his immediate reflections upon the experience that we would publish here on the Hannah Arendt Center blog. Below is his first report. His effort is to report on what is happening in a thoughtful way rather than to offer judgments about the events he is describing. This may disappoint those who would seek to find praise or disdain, but spectatorial distance offers an opportunity for thinking outside the confines of liberal and conservative political discourse.

-RB

Ten hours after arriving I woke up in the middle of the night completely disoriented, in a lightless box, trying to tear my way out. I brought down a curtain rod and my fingers tore at a thin wooden wall. Everything was rocking in my movements.         

There was a slight strip of illumination, not from anything natural but from one of the forty feet tall construction lights outside, which seeped into my trailer as I began, slowly, to orient myself.

That’s how I arrive. Whether it is a New York apartment, a Bayou shotgun house, a tent in upstate New York, or a dusty trailer in the Nevada desert, I first, half unconscious, have to try to tear my way out before I can understand the new geography of home. You may find this odd but in a sense we all do this. We grapple, be it by will, intellect, or some approximation with the divine, to define the dimensions of here, of home.

Right now I live in the Nevada desert, a little over three hours drive east of Reno. The land is a dry sponge, unyielding. I am sunburned -- five applications of sunscreen a day is not enough when there is no cover -- and everything I own is caked in “playa dust.” It’s like bathing in a milk substance but without any moisture to it. It gets into everything. Even my insides feel compromised by it. There is construction outside. Someone is barking out orders.

Why am I here? Why would someone put themselves through this? I’ve been now asking this for five days.

I came out here to learn about Burning Man, an annual event/festival/artistic orgy/creative epicenter (call it what you will, though believe me when I say that there is no way to define it except through immersion into it). It began in 1986 on Baker Beach in California. The first year 20 people attended and a stick figure of a man was burned at its finale. Today it takes place in the desert and by August 27th, over 60,000 people will descend on this previously empty desert city.

It is a city. For one week it becomes the 6th largest city in Nevada. I am here for the building of it. It grows out of the sponge, from nothing, and then is burned, its remains scrubbed. There will be no sign of its presence. Just the over 60,000 stories.

Like any community it functions under a set of principles: “Radical Inclusion, Gifting, Decommodification, Radical Self-reliance, Radical Self-expression, Communal Effort, Civic Responsibility, Leaving No Trace, Participation, Immediacy.” Before you judge this as naive, I ask that you try one exercise. Consider each of those principles individually. Weighed for the multiplicity of their meanings. For a moment lets leave the pressures of immediacy and criticisms behind and deal strictly with definitions. What is the potential of each of these words? Of each of these principles? In definition alone, not yet masked by dissolution and skepticism, how wide can each word, each principle, resonate?

Thank you.

In part due to the commitment of its designers, and participants, and in part arising from the challenge of the inhospitable environment of the desert, these principles are followed as if commandments by almost everyone here.         

It is truly a community, entirely dependent on the effort and strength of one another for its construction, survival, and burn.

This is a creative center. First come the walls, the gate, the streets, the gigantic arts projects (a forty foot man with his sixty foot base, a temple, and this year a mock replica of Wall Street—then the smaller projects, more people, performers, fire breathers, Mad Max cars, cast-iron unicorns and dragons, and twisted designs from the mind of Dante). If it can be invented, someone will find a way to make it here. Fire is the central element of creativity; it mends, fuses, inspires and destroys. “Every act of creation is preceded by an act of destruction” is the famous statement by Picasso; it is a cycle that, depending on your perspective, can go from destruction to creation.           

This a place of metaphor, of community, of story, of extreme physical effort. It is a place of definition.

When I first told people what I wanted to do the response was supportive, but tempered. Many consider Burning Man to be a hedonistic party, a drug-fest, an indulgence, a carnival of freaks. And, this too is here. But that is only a small part of what one finds and it is the act of “Participation” that can allow one to find what they need here. Granted, there is such a thing as seeking without a purpose, a way to become lost in the act of fantasy, a dark abyss. There is a quote by Francisco de Goya that I keep turning around in my mind: “Fantasy, abandoned by reason, produces impossible monsters.” But, the act of creation begins with fantasy. Purpose (reason) drives it. It manifests an idea into the tangible. Gives form to the elusive. That’s what writing does. That’s what society does -- we manifest -- be it true though, that so often, today, we no longer know the reason. 

Reason, can be seen in two aspects. It is the reason for, and the reasoning of. It can be the answer to why, and to the how. To understand where we are, we have to understand both definitions of reason. Otherwise we lose track of our path, our history (personal, cultural, political, economic, spiritual). To be divorced from reason is a type of vertigo. It is waking up in the dark, trying to dig your way out, not knowing where you are, how you got here, why you came -- it is an endless digging, a struggle without reason -- just an endless, exhausting, flailing effort, seemingly without end. A nightmare without light. Lucid, but without consciousness. Dehumanizing.

Our society has moved further and further away from the ability to converse, to exchange stories, to trust, to know where we have come from; from what principles, out of what needs were we constructed: why and how did we come together, and why are we so apart? How do we define community today? How do we define its dimensions? Its values and principles? Its needs?           

I have come here to experience the entirety of this event, from its building, to the celebration, to the breakdown—and to report on it. I believe that our society is at a crucial point where we find ourselves divorced from the reasons. Not sure of how we got here -- broke, isolated, struggling to keep pace but uncertain with what, and why.          

Hannah Arendt foresaw, perhaps sooner and with greater clarity than any other, the break with tradition that the 20th century brought. This need to live without traditions, without the pillars of the past, she called “living without banisters.” And she knew that the only answer to such an abandoned condition was action and the stories that action generates. It is in stories, Arendt tells us, that we create the common world in which we live together.

Community, story telling, creativity, intellectual rigor, these are all present here if one seeks them. Though many consider this to be a ‘hippy event,’ Burning Man attracts a wide cut of society. Intellectuals, Silicon Valley executives, accomplished artists and performers. All are represented here, and all seek to participate, to give without asking in return. All want to be part of a community—each a single piece of the definition.           

This is my first time here. And, this is my first blog post on the event. Here is simply an introduction to two conversations, between Burning Man and myself, and you and I.      

   

I am a writer and teacher. The few skills I bring to this are the ability to observe, and report—and thus participate. In the Gonzo tradition of reporting I do not believe in an entirely ‘objective’ format. And so, I am here. I have given you my reasons.

I go outside and here is what I see: desert and dust, and yet each day new clusters of camps and lights and zones appear. The two mile wide city is designed like a clock. At it’s center is the figure of the Man—the idea. At twelve o’clock is the Temple—it’s spiritual center. And I am at ten o’clock, with the Burn Wall Street Project. It is one of the most ambitious Burning Man projects to date. In the span of ten days, seventy volunteers will build five buildings that represent some of the key players from Wall Street, a replica of a bull included and all. During the event the pieces will be open to everyone. Climb on it, hit it, staple your foreclosure notice onto the walls. Scream at it! And then it will all burn. Otto Von Danger (his Burning Man name), a gulf war veteran and a veteran of "Burning Man Builds," is the artist behind this project. He believes our community has been slowly tearing apart, and this tearing has been helped along by a Machiavellian, dividing, create-the-enemy-among-the-disenfranchised style of politics and economics. He believes people are angry, and has created a small yet ambitious outlet for this anger.

I do not yet know what I feel about this project. There are moments when I feel it oversimplifies the issues of political division and our financial woes. And yet I strongly agree with the fact that the various outraged communities in our society can in fact share a dialogue. Everyone, be it the Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street, is reacting to the sense of being compressed in the dark. Ultimately they all care about one simple principle—community. And this is the principle that today we find most ill defined. So fractured, its reigns so stolen away from us, that we are almost, almost ready to protest—only waiting for a common reason. I do not yet know how I feel about Burn Wall Street. It has the potential of imposing a reason simply through the forceful creation of a common enemy. The real issue, the fracturing of our society, is far more complicated. And yet this project, as does so much else that goes on this two-mile strip of the Nevada desert, has the potential to create dialogue. And, ultimately, is this not a central tenet of art? To give us new entry points, new perspectives to discuss, understand, engage, and receive our world.           

I am looking for a definition to my world, as we all are. Right now I am looking here. I’ll tell what I find.          

Oh yeah, before I forget. That quote, the one about reason, or fantasy, or monsters -- whatever be your current inclination—here is the rest of it; “Fantasy, abandoned by reason, produces impossible monsters. United with it, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of marvels.”

-Nikita Nelin

Originally born in the Soviet Union, Nikita Nelin immigrated into the U.S in 1990. He holds an MFA from Brooklyn College, and has been published in Tabled Magazine, Southword Journal, Electric Literature blog, and Defunct Magazine. Along with having been shortlisted in the Faulkner-Wisdom competition and the Sozopol fiction contest, he is the winner of the 2010 Sean O’Faolain prize for short fiction, and the 2011 Summer Literary Seminars prize for non-fiction. Currently he is in the Nevada desert writing about Burning Man.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
10Jul/120

American Criminal Justice, Made in Texas (Part 2)

In my last blog (June 20, 2012), I highlighted a few scholars’ recent efforts to situate current patterns of African American imprisonment within this country’s longer history of racial conflict and subjugation. More specifically, I focused on some of the central claims in Robert Perkinson’s book Texas Tough (2010), which offers a sharp account of the historical connections between racial hierarchy and mass imprisonment in the Lone Star State and the larger American South. In its broadest outlines, Perkinson’s book contends that incarceration in Texas has, from its very outset, been closely bound up with chattel slavery and its legacies.

This entanglement is perhaps most evident in the state’s long-standing commitment to forced inmate labor, much of which took place—as late as the 1970s—on state-run prison farms that bore a striking resemblance to antebellum plantations. It is also discernible in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century practice of “convict leasing,” which allowed private entrepreneurs to purchase the right to use inmate labor power from the state prison system.

Despite regulations that required the humane treatment of prisoners, convict leasing generated widespread neglect and abuse, and in the early twentieth century it drew the ire not only of many African Americans, but also of white labor leaders, radical farm organizers, and progressive middle-class reformers. This last group launched a concerted campaign to move the state prison system away from punitive revenue-bearing production and toward newer, ostensibly more benevolent forms of rehabilitation. In the second decade of the twentieth century, modernizers in the prison administration implemented a variety of reform measures, including better food and medical care, religious services and reading classes, ten-hour workdays, and even nominal compensation for prison workers (ten cents per diem). In Perkinson’s account, however, these efforts were undermined by vocal opposition from prison personnel and, perhaps counter-intuitively, a surge in inmate dissent and rebellion. This uptick in prisoner discontent in particular prompted administrators and lawmakers to reassert penal authority, and the prison system basically reverted to its former pattern of plantation agriculture and severe discipline.

To be sure, progressive reform campaigns reemerged in Texas in the late 1920s, the 1940s, and the 1950s. They commonly looked for inspiration to similar initiatives in New York (which represented the cutting edge of inmate participation in prison management) and California (which led the way in inmate counseling and the professionalization of prison staff). But they also responded to homegrown scandals, including a spate of self-mutilations among Texas prisoners in the 1940s. In a desperate effort to avoid and/or protest harsh work conditions, unsanitary housing, and guard mistreatment, hundreds of inmates chopped off digits or limbs, injected gasoline into their arms and legs, or severed their Achilles tendons. As Perkinson notes, similar tactics were common in the era of slavery and convict leasing, and prisoners’ recourse to such deliberate violence against the self ultimately drew a more sustained response from the state government than previous reform efforts.

Texas Prison Board, 1930's

Nevertheless, when a new system of prison management coalesced in the 1950s, it continued to emphasize “work and force” (Perkinson, p. 228) as the central pillars of incarceration, even as it embraced certain forms of rehabilitative programming like church services, formal schooling, vocational training, and after-work programs. This emerging style became known as the “control model,” and it garnered significant praise for Texas in the national press and in professional organizations like the American Correctional Association. As eventually became clear, however, the “control” that this model promoted ultimately rested on a culture of routine repression among prison guards as well as systemic reliance on convict enforcers, or “building tenders.” Since the late nineteenth century, building tenders in Texas prisons had dispensed disciplinary violence against fellow inmates with impunity, and they had enjoyed a variety of unsanctioned privileges, including the prerogative to engage in consensual and non-consensual sex with other prisoners.

In the face of such endemic brutality, a small number of convict activists began to draw on the 1871 Civil Rights Act to sue the state of Texas for violations of their constitutional rights. One of the most prominent activists, David Ruíz, filed a petition in June 1972 that offered a harrowing chronicle of his treatment at the hands of prison staff and building tenders, and a small team of lawyers and judges transformed it into a class action lawsuit, Ruiz v. Estelle, on behalf of the state’s entire inmate population. The presiding district judge ruled in 1980 that the Texas penal system had subjected prisoners to cruel and unusual punishment and deprived them of due process of law on a massive scale, and he ordered the state government to undertake sweeping changes. The Ruiz decision effectively ended Texas’s regime of plantation-style prison farming, and it represented the most comprehensive reform order that a federal court had issued to a state penal system up to that point. Drawing on the momentum created by the lawsuit, prison modernizers in the early 1980s lobbied for the redistribution of the state’s inmate population into smaller, less isolated facilities with understated security and extensive links to outside communities.

These reform efforts were (yet again) outweighed, however, by rising crimes rates, the ascendance of the New Right, and a concomitant turn toward “law-and-order” politics on both the state and national level. Texas’s prisoner population increased dramatically as both Republican and Democratic lawmakers passed stiffer sentencing guidelines and curtailed inmates’ eligibility for parole. These trends spurred a massive prison construction boom, but with the collapse of the control model following the Ruiz decision, the new facilities were increasingly structured less like plantations and more like warehouses that emphasized “confinement, separation, and complete architectural control” (Perkinson, p. 315). As violence against both prisoners and guards increased once more, Texas prisons resorted to extended “administrative segregation” (i.e., solitary confinement) and “super segregation” cell blocks in their efforts to contain not just disruptive inmates, but relatively compliant ones as well.

This recent punitive turn in criminal justice has not been restricted to Texas: rates of incarceration and prison construction have increased sharply in most states over the past three decades, as has the proportion of African American and Latino inmates. Meanwhile, the federal government—particularly under former Texas governor George W. Bush—has displayed a striking commitment to expanded law enforcement, extended sentencing, and more frequent recourse to capital punishment. In Perkinson’s analysis, then, the historical arc of American imprisonment has not bent toward the rehabilitative goals championed most forcefully in northern states like New York. Rather, “the northern prison became more southern rather than the other way around…. If northern prisons once gestured toward freedom and southern penal farms toward bondage, the whole Union is in alignment now, pointing back toward the eternal bifurcations of slavery” (Perkinson, pp. 362-363).

This provocative argument raises serious questions about America’s commitment to the granting of ostensibly inalienable rights to all its citizens, and it suggests that race continues to shape how we approach the protection and violation of human dignity. To be sure, there are moments when Perkinson’s claims overstep the limits of his evidence. I am not convinced that the recent proliferation of prisons in Texas and other parts of the South and wider U.S. can be read as a reaction to the end of Jim Crow and the successes of the civil rights movement. I also doubt that the second Bush administration’s conduct in Guantanamo, Afghanistan, and Iraq can be traced to the practices of southern slavery and imprisonment as neatly as he suggests. Nevertheless, the heart of Perkinson’s argument skillfully outlines disturbing historical linkages between slavery and incarceration without equating these two forms of domination. In the process, he implies that we may need to rethink the relationship that prisoners, especially prisoners of color, have maintained with American citizenship in both the past and present.

On some occasions, incarcerated people have not merely constituted a recognized exception to juridical norms, which nevertheless enjoys “some kind of human equality,” as Hannah Arendt described criminals in The Origins of Totalitarianism (p. 286). Rather, they have formed a social category whose claim to “retain [their] rights over [their] bodies” (p. 444) has been substantially limited by their exposure to forced labor, sexual degradation, and violence that often has not been subject to public scrutiny and political accountability. This point does not imply that prisoners’ experiences can therefore be conflated with those of slaves, stateless persons, or concentration camp inmates, to name only a few of the dominated groups that concerned Arendt in the Origins. But it does suggest that prisoners’ enjoyment of constitutional and human rights cannot be taken for granted, as she seems to presume. It is still an exaggeration, I think, to say that prison inmates live “outside the pale of the law” (p. 277) in Arendt’s understanding of that phrase. But I would also insist that, in all too many instances, they have resided closer to its margins than we may care to admit.

-Jeff Jurgens

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
28Jun/120

Arendt on Vacation

Arendt on the beach in California.

Photo submitted by Margarita Federova.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
7Jun/1211

The New Class War: Public vs. Private

Occupy Wall Street focused attention on one conception of class conflict-the super wealthy against the 99%.  As successful as OWS was in spreading its message, almost no legislative agenda emerged.

The Tea Party focused its attention on the tax burdens faced by the middle classes and the upper middle classes.  The villain for the Tea Party is not the .5% who earn over $3 Million every year, but the firefighters and policemen and teachers who protect us and educate our children. The battle the Tea Party is fighting is against a vision of big government that is part reality and part fantasy.

The Tea Party's battle goes to the heart of who we are as a nation and it is less a battle between rich and poor than between progressives and conservatives. The Tea Party has given laser-like focus to what will now be a defining battle of the decade: Is the government going to continue to play a leading role in providing our health care, protecting the environment, and supporting our industries.

After Tuesday, one must face the facts that the Tea Party is winning in the democratic forum. Four votes Tuesday make this clear.

•Scott Walker's victory in the recall election in Wisconsin proves that even in democratic states with a historically pro-union electorate, the anger against public unions is palpable.

•Voters in San Diego and San Jose approved referendum that not only cut future pension benefits for public workers but more radically cut pensions for current workers as well.

•The City Council in Stockton, California granted the City Manager authority to declare bankruptcy—Stockton would be the largest city ever in the US to have done so.

It is important to note that the battle is not over welfare or even over healthcare.  Scratch beneath the surface and the Tea Party is not anti-welfare. In The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism, Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson, Harvard scholars who have interviewed adherents of the new insurgency in different regions of the country, report that:

83% of South Dakota Tea Party supporters said they would prefer to “leave alone” or “increase” Social Security benefits, while 78% opposed cuts to Medicare prescription drug coverage, and 79% opposed cuts in Medicare payments to physicians and hospitals…. 56% of the Tea Party supporters surveyed did express support for “raising income taxes by 5% for everyone whose income is over a million dollars a year.

While the Tea Party activists are eager to shrink government, they do not seem to welcome a decimation of the welfare state. If the battle is not over a minimal welfare state, it is a battle over public sector unions.

Why are public sector unions so important?

My colleague and Arendt Center friend, Walter Russell Mead, articulates an answer. At the core of the democratic left for decades has been the "belief in a strong, well-funded state."  The many diverse environmentalists, egalitarians, and progressives have various agendas, but all depend on a vibrant bureaucracy to guide and rationalize public and private life. Some want government to fund schools and universities; other want government to save the environment; another group wants government to guarantee racial, sexual, gender, and religious equality; many want government to provide universal healthcare or guarantee a college education to anyone who wants it. In all these cases, what progressives want, in Mead's words:

Is control of the progressive, bureaucratic government machinery of the 21st century [which] is both the prize for whose control they struggle and the agent they hope will make their dreams real.

Mead encapsulates why the battle over public sector unions is so crucial at this juncture:

A Democratic Party dominated by its public sector unions is a party married to government and to bureaucracy. To the degree that the public unions shape its agenda, the Democrats become a lobby for the servants of the state. For the unions who represent its employees, the bureaucratic, civil service state is a solution permanently in search of new problems to solve and new worlds to conquer. The power of the public unions within the party pulls Democrats much farther to the left than they would otherwise go.

This is one reason the Wisconsin reforms stimulated such a powerful and united emotional wave of push back from virtually every section of the left. The threat to the public unions isn’t just a threat to a powerful source of funding for left-liberal candidates and to strong organizations with political experience and muscle; it’s a threat to the heart of the left coalition and to the structures that give the left much of its power in Democratic and therefore in national politics.

But the dominance of the public unions in the left had consequences for the left itself — bad ones. In contemporary America, the public sector unions are essentially a conservative constituency. That is, their core goal is to get more resources in order to fight all but superficial change in the structures their members inhabit. They want ever growing subsidies to the postal service, the public school system, the colleges and universities, even to health care — but they do not want the kind of reforms that could make these institutions more efficient, more productive, more serviceable.

Illustration by Sean Delonas

Mead offers wise counsel. One can of course believe that the reason for the victories in Wisconsin, San Jose, Stockton, and San Diego is simply the deep pockets of the Koch brothers. And those pockets are deep and deceptive. But money alone does not explain the voters' abandonment of public unions and the progressive model. The nation is seriously rethinking the role of the state and the public in our lives. We should be thinking with them. You can read more of Mead's post here.

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.
20Mar/1211

Pension Ponzis: Questions About the Public Interest

The public pension crisis is eroding the American social contract. While many are up in arms against Governor Scott Walker's heavy-handed attack on public unions, the fact is that Democratic governors in NY and California are also struggling with the inevitable need to reduce public pensions. Governor Jerry Brown in California admitted recently that public pensions were a Ponzi scheme. That is obvious. What is now sinking in as reality is that the Ponzi scheme is out of money and falling apart.

The Pew Center on the States published a study in 2011 called the Trillion Dollar Gap. The first sentence states the point:

$1 trillion. That’s the gap at the end of fiscal year 2008 between the $2.35 trillion states had set aside to pay for employees’ retirement benefits and the $3.35 trillion price tag of those promises.

A mere one year later, the gap had increased 26%!

The gap between the promises states have made for public employees’ retirement benefits and the money set aside to pay for them grew to at least $1.26 trillion in fiscal year 2009-a 26 percent increase in one year-according to a Pew report.

The gap is actually much bigger than the Pew Center numbers suggest, since the report is based on the official numbers that use way too optimistic expectations of returns.

The Pew Center Report continues, stating the reason this matters so much:

Why does it matter? Because every dollar spent to reduce the unfunded retirement liability cannot be used for education, public safety and other needs. Ultimately, taxpayers could face higher
 taxes or cuts in essential public services.

Municipal bankruptcies are mounting. Prichard, Alabama and Central Falls, Rhode Island both filed for bankruptcy, and they have had to vastly reduce the pensions promised to their public employees. The city of Stockton, California is in bankruptcy court now, and it must pay $30 million every year in pension costs, even as it only sets aside .70 cents for every dollar it must pay.

The crisis is spiraling. In essence, cities and states around the country will have to decide whether to honor their legal debts to public employees or pay for services like police, fire, and parks needed by their current residents. The only other option is a bailout from the federal government, but the size of the problem is enormous and such a bailout seems highly unlikely.

In the meantime, states continue to juggle money around to keep the Ponzi scheme going.  Just this month New York State decided to let municipalities and public entities borrow money from the state pension fund to make their payments back into the state pension fund. This is nonsense. Dangerous nonsense.

And while New York State did finally pass a version of pension reform last week, the reform falls far short of what Governor Cuomo wanted and what is needed. The Assembly raised the retirement age for public employees (not for policeman and firemen) to 63 from 62, whereas Cuomo sensibly asked it be raised to 65. As it stands now, the New York State pension plan is expected to consume 35 percent of the New York State's budget by 2015. This is up from a mere 3% in 2001.  More.

For anyone who cares about government and wants government to succeed, the pension problem must be addressed, for it threatens not only economic disaster, but political cynicism beyond even today's wildest dreams. Across the country, teachers, policemen and firemen, not to mention civil service employees and others, will see their promised pensions shrink precipitously. Not only will this devastate retirement nest eggs for millions of people, it will fray the social contract—pitting young against old and taxpayers against public employees.

It is bad enough that we will have to renege on pensions owed to public service employees (as municipalities in Rhode Island, Alabama, and California are already doing), but it is worse that we will do so after bailing out Wall St. bankers and allowing taxpayers to pay their contractually-obligated bloated bonuses. That these seven-figure bonuses were paid and yet we are unable and unwilling to pay contractually obligated pension costs is both a fact and an example of why the bailout of the bankers was so deeply wrong and misguided.

The issues around public pensions are complicated. They involve contractual promises made to workers that simply cannot be honored as well as pitting public servants against everyday taxpayers. There is also the fact that public employees are paid significantly more than similarly educated private employees at all but the highest levels of income and education. A recent Congressional Budget Office study concluded that:

  • Average benefits for federal workers with no more than a high school diploma were 72 percent higher than for their private-sector counterparts.
  • Average benefits for federal workers whose education ended in a bachelor's degree were 46 percent higher than for similar workers in the private sector.
  • Workers with a professional degree or doctorate received roughly the same level of average benefits in both sectors.

The CBO chart below shows clearly the relative overcompensation of public workers against their private-sector counterparts.  While one could turn this around and argue that private-sector workers are underpaid, the fact is that the current level of benefits for public-sector workers is bankrupting our municipalities and states. We can argue all we want about what is fair pay, but the current pay levels are clearly unsustainable. More, they are threatening to devastate public services as we continue to cut services in order to pay outsized benefits to retired public-sector workers.

Do public employees deserve to make more than private employees? Should we say that someone teaching in public schools deserves more than one teaching in private schools?  For some, the answer is yes and there is a sense that it is more noble and thus valuable to serve in the public interest. Some might even turn to Hannah Arendt to justify such a claim, that a public-service career is more public-spirited and thus more socially valuable than a private-service career.

As much as I value public-sector employees, it is a mistake to put them on a pedestal. It is unclear whether most public employees are more public-spirited than their private-sector counterparts. It is also unclear whether public school teachers and professors are better, more important, or more noble than their private school counterparts.

What is clear, however, is that public employees have a private interest in taking more and more of the taxpayer-generated revenue for themselves. In other words, public employees have a private interest in diverting public funds from public services to their wages and pensions. In this sense, the increasing numbers of public employees and their increasing wages and benefits threaten to hollow out public services in our country.

This is not to condemn public employees. Nor is it to deny that at the higher incomes, wealthy Americans should pay more in taxes to support governmental services. But we should be honest and contest the prejudice that public employees have the public interest at heart. And we need to have an adult debate about what to do about underfunded and ballooning public pensions.

-RB

 

The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.