For two years I taught literature, reading and writing at a public university in one of New York City’s outer Boroughs. Of course having come out of a liberal arts “thinking” institution what I really thought (maybe hoped) I was teaching was new perspectives. Ironically, the challenge that most struck me was not administrative, nor class size or terrible grammar and endless hours of grading, the most pressing obstacle lay in creating a case for the value of “thinking.”
I state “case” because I regularly felt like my passions and beliefs, as well as my liberal arts education went on daily trial. I had originally come from a hard-scrabble immigrant reality, but my perception of reality had been altered by my education experience, and as an educator I felt the need to authenticate my progressive (core text) education with my students.
I was regularly reminded that the immediate world of the “average” student (citizen) with all its pressing, “real” concerns does not immediately open itself to “thought” in the liberal arts sense. We are a specialization, automation, struggling and hyper competitive society. The “learning time” of a student citizen is spent in the acquisition of “marketable,” and differentiating skills, while their “free time” is the opportunity to decompress from, or completely escape the pressures of competitive skill acquisition. The whole cycle is guided by an air of anxiety fostered in our national eduction philosophy, as well as the troubled economy and scattered society at large. I don’t think one can teach the humanities without listening to their students, and listening to the students calls for a deep inventory on the value of “thought” in the humanities sense, and then ultimately in how to most truthfully communicate this value to the students.
I need to add here that my students were quite smart and insightful. This made it even greater of a challenge. Their intelligence was one of realism. I needed to both acknowledge and sway their perspective, as well as my own.
Each semester I began with a close-reading of David Foster Wallace's commencement speech at Kenyon College, “What is Water.” He begins his speech with the parable of two fish swimming by an older fish which as it swims by asks, How is the Water?” The little ones swim on and only later ask each other, “What is water?” Didactic parable, cliche -- yes -- but Wallace goes on to deconstruct the artifice of commencement speeches, parables, and cliches, and then rebuilds them. Having so skillfully deconstructed them he has invited his listers into the form making, and as he communicates the truth beneath what had earlier seemed lofty or cliche, the listers follow him towards meaning making. Ultimately Wallace states that education is “less about teaching you how to think, and more about teaching you of the choice in what to think about.” To have agency is to be a meaning maker. And as more and more cultural institutions artfully vie for the citizens devotion and loyalty -- politics, religion, but even more so, corporate houses and pop culture designs, in the ever growing noise of institutional marketing the call to choose seems ever more muted.
The choice, for so many students today, is simply in how to most skillfully compartmentalize themselves and their lives in the face of the anxieties of their immediate world. The choice for many young teachers, facing their own set of related anxieties, is in how far are they willing step away from the ideal of learning-living-teaching integration model -- so easy is it today as an educator to simply become disenchanted, frustrated and aloof. Sometimes, “thinking” is the process of choosing what to keep and what to give away.
Wallace's insightful, no b.s, humorous and sincere tone resonated with my students, that is of course until they found out that Wallace killed himself. Then, that’s what everyone wanted to focus on. I can not blame them. There is a ‘text’ to ‘personal’ mystery, a ‘content’ to ‘context’ disjunction that opens itself at such a revelation, a mystery that the “thinking” mind wants to explore. The modern “thinking” mind draws little separation between the lofty and the sublime, the public and the personal. Such is a byproduct of a generation raised on reality television and celebrity stories. I, in all sincerity cannot judge this. My generation, the X’s who came of age on the cusp of the Millennials, were culturally educated by MTV, The Real World and Road Rules, and thus we crave hip, colorful, appropriately gentrified spaces to occupy -- think of artist collectives, or Facebook and Google working environments (bean bags, chill and chic prescription sunglasses, lounge happy hour with juice bars, untraditional working hours, colorful earth tones). I digress, I meant to make some observation of “thinking.”
I was excited to teach what excited me: I began with Wallace, then Kafka, O’Connor (Flannery or Frank), Platonov, Carver, Babel, Achebe Kundera, Elliot, etc... It is, essentially, the seven sisters freshmen reading list, a popular catalogue of classic stories peppered with some international obscurity. It is the “cool” thing in liberal arts. But, over and over my students came to me complaining that they could not find this relevant to their lives. After such reports I would tweak my lesson plans to give a greater introduction to the works, going deeper into the philosophical tenets of the stories, and into the universal reward of being able to utilize the tools of the thinking, writing mind. Induct, deduct, compare, contrast, relate, “give it greater shape,” I would say. “Breath life into it.”
To have the skills to decipher plot, to record the echo of a narrative, to infer characterization from setting, to understand the complex structure of a character, to be invited to participate in the co-creation of a narrative which gently guides you through action but leaves the moral implications up to the reader. These are “indispensable,” I would advise my students. “Indispensable for human agency.” Some would slowly gravitate to my vision, as I prodded further and further into their motivations for being in school, career, and other ‘relevant’ choice. Yet, they often felt only like visitors in my library, preparing to check out and return to the “default” education thinking mode as soon as the quarter, mid, or end semester exam periods began. The pressures of what they call “the real world” are much stronger then the ghosts of books and introspective thought -- vague, powerless, intangible.
“The real world:” Here I am reminded of the scene from the Matrix when Morpheus unveils to Neo “the desert of the real.” A barren waste land of human energy as only a power source nourished for consumption. The Matrix, I will add here, is based on a work by Jean Baudrillard, a french philosopher who warns of a modern society as a place existing in consumption and entertainment, devoid of meaning making -- the urge towards agency, in hibernation; the map towards meaning, defunct. In describing this new world he coined the phrase “the desert of the real.” Again, I fall into tangental thought.
I needed to find a way to invite, seduce, capture my students. I tried using myself as a conduit.
I pride myself on the fact that I am an immigrant, a former “at risk” student, that my tattoos all have mythological meaning and thought behind them, that I am a high-school drop out with credentials to my name, a top tier education, a masters degree, etc... I felt like these could help me bridge for my students the platforms of reality-setting discourse and humanistic thought. I had, and still do, believed that real “thinking” is indispensable in being human, in being free, and in the ability to have fun and play with the world.
Again, my students would, at times, meet me in the middle space I wanted to create, though rarely did this space become living for them, instead they lay their heads to the sound of another’s palpitation and breath, and then moved on. Maybe I planted a seed, I like to think. But then, maybe, they were bringing me somewhere as well.
They could not recklessly follow me, or I them. It was an issue of pragmatic bonds. For a moment, my class, or an individual student I was reading with would delve into the power of words with me and the ending of Andrei Platonov’s “Potudon River” would finally break through the events of the page: “Not every grief can be comforted; there is a grief that ends only after the heart has been worn away in long oblivion, or in distraction amidst life’s everyday concerns.” And my students would draw new understanding of the passage, enter it through a word or phrase that could unlock that middle space between their worlds and the world of literature, philosophy, metaphor. “Grief,” “long oblivion,” life’s everyday concerns,” all the sudden my students would give these new meaning, now only slightly guided by the story and letting their lives find a grip to the reigns. They would find new connections, and again they would return to the “real” world.
More and more I struggled to make thinking relevant. “Will this help me get a better job?” I was asked.
Thinking about it I had to encounter my own struggles with this question. I know the answers. I know the programed liberal arts answer, and the “real” answer. I know that the liberal arts answer exposes the “real” as something at best lacking, at its worst empty. I also know that the real, is real; it happens in real time, removed from the concerns of literature, poetry, and philosophy which concern themselves with the work of mans eternity.
“Unlikely,” I would answer. For gods sake, though I was teaching all these things I cared so deeply about, I also worked nights as a bartender to satisfy the demands of the real. I had to produce something consumable and all of my learning and thoughts on thinking are not that.
Here I acknowledge that this answer is not entirely true. We can find jobs which call for liberal arts skills, but these are few and far between and rarely afford a comfortable standard of living. We may also posit the argument that liberal arts skills will contribute to ones ability to perform better and have a greater understanding of ones job, but this argument does not lend itself to substantial evidence, no matter how much I may actually believe it. This was the litmus test of my “thinking,” and it only survives in embracing the privacies of my world, that I chose my private world despite and above the “real.”
“Unlikely.” And where does that leave us?
Ultimately, all I have as a conscious being is the ability to tell stories, to choose and create my narrative from the scattered world I am provided. Ultimately, after deconstructing both the “real” and the “lofty” I could only encourage my students to choose their own themes. To the question of “what is water?” I could only answer, “the desert.”
Oddly enough, and as “unlikely” as it may seem, when I answered with honesty, to them as well as myself, they followed. -- we could talk.
I am a neural matrix of roughly 80 billion cells each charged with the potential for action, firing out in multiple patters of synchronicity towards a seemingly inexhaustible order of calculations -- I am the system that emerges, I am its apex, I am sentience -- therefore I am.
This, I imagine, is what Descartes would have to say today of what remains of the self under the scope of examination, though I will admit this sounds less poetic then his original statement.
Galileo’s telescope, the atom, the space age, the tech age, the Human Genome Project, and now the BAM project, all can be seen as a succession of strivings towards a new perspective through which we could gleam a greater understanding and synthesis of Man. The BAM project is the newest manifestation of this urge. It is an exciting endeavor, and yet as with any new attempt of science to probe ourselves, it is a frightening one too.
Recently I learned about the “Brain Activity Map” (BAM) initiative sponsored by the Obama administration. I have a baseline knowledge of neuroscience and have been long fascinated by its hoped for implications and speculative repercussions. I wanted more detail. I found what I understand to be the source paper for this project, The Brain Activity Functional Connectomics, by Paul Alivisatos, et al. This is hot stuff, and I am not being glib. Obama thinks so too, that’s why 3 billion governmental dollars are slated to go into the project. Microsoft and Google are throwing in real money too. So what is really going on?
BAM follows the model of the Human Genome Project. In the proposal paper, as well as Obama’s state of the union address, reference is made to the fact that each $1 put into the Human Genome Project brought back $140 to the economy. I will leave alone the implications of this being economy driven. Should science be economically driven? This question, in our society, is mostly moot. Everything must now at least appear to be economy driven. Knowledge, transcendence, self-discovery, can only resonate in conversation with the economy.
But what are the human as opposed to the economic implications of the Brain Activity Map? BAM is a 15-year plan to create a non-topographical map of the brain the repercussions of which reach into the medical, commercial, educational, and technological fields. Until now our neuro-understanding of the brain has been limited to compartmentalized thinking, or to the study of individual ingredients. The brain simply cannot be understood this way and thus Alivisatos’ paper argues that “no general theory of brain function is universally accepted.” BAM seeks to create an “emergent systems” model, something akin to the rules of complex systems. This stems from the knowledge that brain function arises from the interplay of the electrical impulse grid (the action potential of all the neurons). The best way I can state this is that brain activity is a symphony rather then a carpenter’s graph. It is the interplay of notes, tones, and pacing, and sound rather than a combination of these individual elements. The point is not to isolate and combine but to mimic the complex yet structured electrical impulses of the brain in a way that allows higher order brain function to emerge in an artificially intelligent being. To quote Alivisatos: “An emergent level of analysis appears to be critical for understanding the most compelling questions of how brain functions create sentience.” The most exciting effort, in other words, is to create a sentient, thinking, and autonomous entity.
The project calls for an investment into new technologies that could make recording the action potentials and coordination of their impulses more feasible. This can be accomplished by investing in nano-technology: nanotubes and wires, quantum dots, nano-particles, neural probes, shanks containing optical waveguides, and tiny microchips that can pass into the brain.
The brain mapping project could likely entail human testing, which “we do not exclude,” though it would not take place till the last phase of the project.
Microsoft and Google have signed on as partners and possibly fiscal contributors, because clearly the repercussions of such of project could be ground breaking for the tech industry: Computer chips that replicate the emergent systems model; search engines that could graph society by treating each user as if they are a neuron and their googling activity as action potential. The source paper acknowledges some possible paranoia at such an endeavor and thus states that it is essential that this project be a public one, thus allowing for transparency in all findings. It also encourages a public relations campaign to reassure any party that may be susceptible to conspiracy theory making. That’s me!
I hold both, a fear of repercussions and a sense of excitement for this project. I tend to think that conspiracy theories are healthy. All great science fiction is fed by the conspiracy model, but it also tends to foretell future technological and social revelations. And there exactly is my point, or fear, or observation -- the irrelevance of social relevance. We don’t really care, unless it scares us.
I found myself facing this in writing this post. I am excited to tell people about this project, but as a writer I have a constant mechanism at play in my head as I write, to present a story or topic in a light that will make people interested. As much as this mechanism comes from within me it is also a product of cultural observation, a consistent tracking of what stimulates popular dialogue. What stimulates popular dialogue is conspiracy, not excitement or optimism. This itself is worthy of examination.
Ultimately the fear is of what we are losing in the race to understand ourselves through science and technology, of what we leave behind. I do not mean to gesture towards a conservative approach on science. Rather, I am fascinated by the anxiety that accompanies the prospect, and propose that our fear is that of isolated parties traveling at quite different speeds. We can investigate the self intrusively or/and reflectively. Reflectively, we evaluate and discuss our culture, ethics, the relationship of groups and individuals to one another, we pause and contemplate the grace of being. Intrusively we probe into the elemental makeup of ourselves and the world we inhabit. As one practice outpaces the other, something feels askew, as if a key organ in the symphony of being human is muting in the distance.
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.
The Dorm Wars have not yet caused the numerous bankruptcies amongst minor and maybe even some more established colleges that seem inevitable. What they have done is change the nature of college education. Whether at Harvard or Ramapo, students want luxury dorms with private bathrooms and glitzy campus centers. And since students—fueled with cheap student debt are the all-powerful consumers—campus administrators have followed the money. Unfortunately, they also too often followed their students into debt. As the NY Times reports today,
A decade-long spending binge to build academic buildings, dormitories and recreational facilities — some of them inordinately lavish to attract students — has left colleges and universities saddled with large amounts of debt. Oftentimes, students are stuck picking up the bill.
I recently visited my alma mater for a reunion and was housed in the building where decades ago I labored long into the night as an editor for my beloved Prism magazine. It is the dorm in which I once put my hand through a glass door in the midst of a late-night editing and layout session. I barely recognized the Pratt Dormitory, which resembled more a Tablet style hotel than a college dormitory.
Such lavish quarters are now seen as necessary to attract the best students—something that is sad if it is true. And this perception, true or false, has unleashed the dorm wars. Some colleges, like the one I attended, don’t need to borrow to build. But many others think that they do.
“If Ramapo College was going to respond to what students wanted, which was larger, more comprehensive programs and residential housing, then we were going to have to go out and borrow,” Peter P. Mercer, President of the public liberal arts college in New Jersey told the Times.
How wrong is that. Borrowing can of course be justified. But if you want to build something, there are other options. You can, for example, go out and raise the money. That requires work, convincing people, many of whom have no personal connection to your college, that what you are doing is important and worthy of support. Excessive borrowing is, too often, the resort of those unwilling to take the longer and yet more responsible path of building an institution that people are willing to invest in and support.
More importantly, the enormous borrowing of colleges reported by the Times is evidence of an educational system that has simply lost its way. The fastest growing costs at colleges across the country are for administrators and for capital projects. Much of the borrowing is financing new luxury buildings and a bloated services staff. The priorities are wrong and real focus on teaching and learning seems to have been largely ignored. As students and parents confront extraordinary costs that go increasingly to pay interest on debt and support lavish undergraduate living, many are increasingly rebelling.
And for the first time in generations, students have other options. The rise of Internet learning is going to disrupt college education in this country as the Internet has transformed nearly every other area of life. And it will do so at the very moment when the finances of colleges and universities around the country are shakier than they have been in generations. The shake out will be painful.
What needs to be thought here is what is it that allowed debt to become so infectious within and amongst our educational institutions. With $1 trillion in student debt and $200 billion in institutional debt, education more and more resembles the housing and financial sectors of our economy.
Education is supposed to be a conservative enterprise, a bastion of learning and teaching the accumulated history and knowledge of the past. Somewhere along the line, education changed from being an experience of teaching and forming young individuals and citizens and became something very different. Higher education is now a progressive launching pad for careers. It is job security for tenured professors. It is the center of research and the producer of valuable sports franchises. Lost in the mix, I fear, is original mission itself. Just as banks and financial institutions abandoned their old job of lending and saving money and sought to become investment banks, so too have colleges changed from being educational institutions to being consumer brands selling luxury and success instead of the life of the mind. Some can do both. But many more will go the way of Pan Am and Hostess.
Is the economy like a garden that must be well tended by human hands? Or is it machine that, once turned on, runs mercilessly by itself? This is a question Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer ask in their NY Times Op-Ed piece, " The Machine and the Garden."
Liu will be speaking at the Hannah Arendt Center Fall Conference "Does the President Matter?" on September 21-22. He is the founder and CEO of Guiding Lights, a network of citizens working to create new ways to restore community, compassion, and active citizenship in our world. He is also a former speech writer and domestic policy analyst for President Bill Clinton. Along with Hannauer, Liu recently published The Gardens of Democracy: A New American Story of Citizenship, the Economy and the Role of Government.
In the NY Times today, Liu and Hannauer write:
In this new framework, which we call Gardenbrain, markets are not perfectly efficient but can be effective if well managed. Where Machinebrain posits that it’s every man for himself, Gardenbrain recognizes that we’re all better off when we’re all better off. Where Machinebrain treats radical inequality as purely the predictable result of unequally distributed talent and work ethic, Gardenbrain reveals it as equally the self-reinforcing and compounding result of unequally distributed opportunity.
Greece voted on Sunday and the headline account shows that the right of center moderates won. This was presented as good news, for it means a continued embrace of the Euro and years more of austerity. But there are other lessons to glean from the Greek election.
1. Extremism is rising quickly in Greece. As the Financial Times reports,
The parliament, for the first time in Greek history, will be full of extremists. Besides the neo-nazis and a Stalinist communist party there is Syriza, whose leader is a fan of Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez. How did Greece, the birthplace of democracy, come to have a parliament full of hammers, sickles and swastikas?
2. The Greeks are being asked to suffer for years more, but with little or no hope in sight. Here is what the NY Times reports today, an opinion from one of the most knowledgeable commentators on the Greek crisis:
“Greece will be forced to return to the drachma and devalue, and the default will cause bank runs and money flowing into Germany and the United States as the only viable safe haven bets,” he declared the day before Sunday’s Greek elections, irrespective of which party would win. “Greece will default because there is no other choice regardless of anyone’s politics.”
Almost all of the loans that Greece receives from Europe go directly to pay off the interest on loans to banks in Germany and elsewhere. Greece is neither paying down its debt nor investing in its future. The result is that the Greeks will suffer through years more of austerity and will likely be in no better position in a few years than they are now.
3. The combination of 1 and 2 above do not bode well for European politics in the coming years.
When Hannah Arendt looked to the Origins of Totalitarianism in the 20th century, she began her analysis with the financial speculation and subsequent crash of 1870. The ensuing crisis led to a weakening of nation-states and the rise of imperialism, all of which dissolved the traditional political and moral limits that had for centuries formed the structural foundation of European civilization.
As Europe struggles now to overcome national political limits as a response to the financial and banking crisis, it faces once again a political crisis mixed with an economic crisis. Europe is in trouble and they are not alone. But in Europe, unlike in the U.S. or in Japan, the financial crisis is inextricable from a crisis of nationalism and sovereignty. The potential for nationalist extremism on the one hand is real. On the other hand, there is also the potential for a weakening of national political traditions and the rise of technocratic and bureaucratic rule that, for all its rationalism, weakens moral and ethical restraints.
Ryan Lizza has a must-read essay in The New Yorker on the challenges of presidential leadership. The first thing to note is that when Lizza began asking President Obama's team about their vision for what they want to accomplish in a second term, they hesitated to answer. "Many White House officials were reluctant to discuss a second term; they are focused more on the campaign than on what comes after." When pressed, Obama's team offered a litany of hopes for a second term, including: climate control, immigration reform, and a more robust foreign aid agenda. Also mentioned are housing reform and energy reform. While these are all important, they aren't what really ails the country. The American system of government is paralyzed. Corruption is becoming rampant on Wall Street and K Street. Our pension system is underfunded. Unemployment and underemployment are dangerously high and there are structural changes to the economy that require bold leadership.
The question raised is what leadership is and why it is so difficult in contemporary politics. Here is Lizza on one example of Obama's unwillingness to pursue his own agenda:
In 2010, Obama negotiated a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with the Russians and won its passage in the Senate. But, despite his promise to “immediately and aggressively” ratify the C.N.T.B.T., he never submitted it for ratification. As James Mann writes in “The Obamians,” his forthcoming book on Obama’s foreign policy, “The Obama administration crouched, unwilling to risk controversy and a Senate fight for a cause that the President, in his Prague speech, had endorsed and had promised to push quickly and vigorously.” As with climate change, Obama’s early rhetoric and idealism met the reality of Washington politics and his reluctance to confront Congress.
Lizza explores the incredible difficulties recent Presidents have faced in pursuing their agendas. One takeaway is that the idea of a presidential mandate is a myth.
•"The idea of a mandate from the people defies the intentions of the Founders and is contrary to the way that most early Presidents viewed their role."
•"The concept of a mandate was essentially invented by Andrew Jackson, who first popularized the notion that the President “is the direct representative of the American people,” and it was later institutionalized by Woodrow Wilson, who explicitly wanted the American government to be like the more responsive parliamentary system of the United Kingdom."
•"But the idea [of the mandate] is mostly a myth. The President and Congress are equal, and when Presidents misinterpret election results—especially in re-elections—they get into trouble."
Lizza argues that Presidents don't have the importance or authority that they claim and we ascribe to them. And yet, there are exceptions.
The last two presidents who successfully amassed large majorities to pass transformative legislation were Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan. What unites Johnson and Reagan—different in temperament and politics—was an uncanny quality of leadership. They were able to bring opposing sides together to accomplish grand and important visions. It is just such political leadership that we desperately need and clearly lack today.
Is such leadership possible anymore? When one looks to politics and sees that unyielding partisanship, consultant-driven talking points, and PR campaigns, one must wonder if a President can actually lead. Whether in Europe or in the US, it seems as if leaders are on strike, only acting when they absolutely have to. It is not simply a matter of lacking vision, although it is that too. More, it is that leaders are so careful and pre-packaged that politics has come to be more about marketing than about thinking and action.
Politics, Hannah Arendt argued, requires courage. It demands a risky and rare willingness to experiment and seek to bring about new directions in the world. To act politically demands doing things that are spontaneous and new; politics requires actions that are surprising and thus attract attention and generate interest, drawing people together around a common idea. Arendt's point was that a political leader can only attract citizens to their vision when they act in ways that are surprising and noteworthy. The political leader must take the risk of leadership that can either succeed or fail. When it succeeds, the surprising and new act generates enthusiasm and followers. When it fails, the people reject it.
Leaders are those who take risks and are willing to fail. To look at Mitt Romney and President Obama is to see what happens when leaders are afraid to lose. We must now confront the fact that the need to raise money and the rise of consultants and the dominance of public relations has sapped politics of the spontaneity, thoughtfulness, and fun that can and should be at the center of political action.
How can we today resuscitate a political culture of risk-taking and leadership? How can we make the president matter again? Do Occupy Wall Street and the rise of the Pirate Parties in Europe presage a new style of political leadership? These are important questions, and will be the topics of the Hannah Arendt Center's Fifth Annual Conference: Does the President Matter? The Arendt Center Conference will take place on Sept. 21-22, 2012 and will feature Keynotes by Ralph Nader, Bernard Kouchner, Rick Falkvinge, and Jeff Tulis. It also features talks by John and James Zogby, Todd Gitlin, Ann Norton, and many others. We hope you will join us.
I have been trying to understand our pension mess for years now, and I will tell you that the numbers and acronyms are at times baffling. But help is here.
Two of the nation's Federal Reserve Banks (the Cleveland and the Atlanta Federal Reserve Banks) have joined together to form a "Financial Monitoring Team to study pension funds and municipal finance with an eye toward implications for the wider economy and financial system." In other words, these two banks are seeking to shine a light on the dark and difficult to understand corners of municipal finance. Chiefly, the banks are interested in learning about Municipal Pensions.
The Cleveland Fed publishes a newsletter, "Forefront", and the latest issue contains a number of incredibly helpful articles about the state of municipal pensions. The main article is: Public Finances: Shining Light on a Dark Corner. This is a clear and helpful article, with a glossary and helpful sidebars. It also comes with a video primer on the pension crisis that is sober, clear, and helpful.
One question the article addresses is just how big the pension shortfall actually is. According to government numbers, the shortfall is $800 billion. The government estimates are based on assumptions of an 8% rate of return, which inflates the assumptions about the present value of pensions. In all likelihood, the return will be somewhere between the 8% historic average and the painfully low return offered by persistently low interest rates. Thus, many private economists estimate the shortfall at around $4 Trillion. Here is what the Cleveland and Atlanta Feds say:
Some economists, however, have come up with a $4 trillion shortfall. They have pointed out that for most state and local plans, promised pension benefits are protected by constitutional, statutory, or common law guarantees. (See related article, “Navigating the Legal Landscape for Public Pension Reform.”) By definition, this ought to make them riskless obligations to the pensioners. Thus, the appropriate valuation methodology should discount promised benefits using the risk-free interest rate, usually calculated as the yield on long-term U.S. Treasuries. This method, argued cogently by Jeffrey Brown and David Wilcox in “Discounting State and Local Pension Liabilities” (2009), has the virtue of being supported by both economic and legal principles. It also produces substantially higher estimates of the present value of pension liabilities. Given the currently low yields on Treasury bonds, this approach implies a present value of accrued obligations as high as $6.7 trillion, leaving an unfunded liability of $4 trillion.
In other words, the actual size of the pension shortfall is probably somewhere between $800 Billion (the size of the 2009 stimulus package) and $4 Trillion. The likely shortfall, as the Fed says in its video on the site, is in the $3-$4 Trillion range.
So what does this mean? The Cleveland and Atlanta Feds offer a few conclusions:
1. At this point, it seems unlikely that any major pension fund will run out of cash in the next few years, barring a general worsening of economic and financial condition.
2. But we are not out of the woods yet. Many funds will require significant reforms to reduce underfunding levels, with painful new contributions from employers and employees.
3. Another concern is that some states’ legal protections may be too strong to give reforms enough time and flexibility to put plans on sustainable paths. In that case, states would ultimately be on the hook for covering pension benefits out of general revenues. This scenario, by creating crisis conditions in those states, could stress economic conditions more generally.
The real problem is the combination of #2 and #3. For if state laws make it too difficult to cut or reduce pensions, the only option is "painful new contributions from employers or employees." It may be that we cut the guaranteed pensions of pensioners, making them less well off in retirement. That would hurt the workers. Or, if legal protections prevent that option, we the taxpayers will have to dig deep to pay their pensions, probably as we at the same time cut other essential services. And that will not be pretty. Either way, the state and local government crisis is shaping up to be one of the most important challenges of our generation.
For more on the pension crisis, you can revisit our other posts on the subject here.
Public pensions are a mess. Ok, where is the hope? Yesterday Gillian Tett offered a rare glimmer of good news in a story about Rhode Island treasurer Gina Raimondo. But the good news comes with a bitter aftertaste.
Rhode Island is a small state, but it had one of the worst public pension deficits in the country. Forced to act, it has cut pensions for its workers, raised the retirement age from 62 to 67, and replaced the defined benefits pension (which guarantees a certain amount every year) with a partial defined contribution scheme (which pays out a pension based on how much the retiree has saved). These actions have angered many workers and unions, who are suing the state, but they have also saved the state pension system; one result is that the workers will be receiving some pension, even if it is less than they were promised.
The solution, as Raimondo articulates it, is above all to focus ruthlessly “on the math and facts, to come up with a solution.” Technocrats, not grandstanding idealists, are required.
The preference for technocrats over idealists illustrates a common approach to our extraordinary economic problems around the country: to hand over difficult political judgments to technicians. The same approach is leading the people to hand over the levels of government to technocrats in Greece, Italy, Suffolk County, and now Detroit. Dissatisfied with democratically elected leaders, the people are increasingly craving a government run by businessmen and accountants. It seems that the ruthless calculation of profit and loss is the last refuge of truth in our age.
Occupy Wall Street is, on one important level, a movement of signs. I mean this quite literally. Handmade signs with witty epigrams, pithy epithets, and heartfelt emotions took root in Zuccotti Park and blossomed on the web. The signs are not simply the old-fashioned placards of protests past. Rather, the signs proliferated in large measure specifically so they could be photographed, uploaded, and disseminated on the World Wide Web. In many ways, Occupy Wall Street communicated its message through photographs of signs.
Pictures of signs, like the one below, tell human stories of average, hard-working Americans who have been upended by the Great Recession.
In the war of signs, pictures of military veterans occupy a privileged role. The military protester shows, in an image, that the anger, despair, and hope that the Occupy Movement represents is not limited to entitled young hipsters. The signs were, quite often, expressions of the average American, the soldier and the homeowner, who had been devastated by economic hardship. The implication is that these individuals lived honorably, played by the rules, and are suddenly in dire straits as a result of a financial crisis.
I first encountered one such iconic picture on Facebook. It shows an older man telling a sad story. This cheerful, gray-haired, bespectacled Navy Veteran and schoolteacher clad in his oxford shirt neatly pressed under a burgundy sweater is undoubtedly one of the poster-children of Occupy Wall Street. His story is common and sad. He has served his country and taught our children. And now his pension doesn't allow him the means to live with dignity.
Older individuals, like soldiers and children, hold a special place in the iconography of the Occupy Movement. They bespeak a kind of innocence and vulnerability. They are hard working and have paid their dues. All they want is what is fair and right. As a Navy veteran and a teacher, this man's simple sign expresses American ideals, and their betrayal. He did the right thing and hoped for a comfortable retirement in his own home, with annual vacations and visits to the grandchildren. Is this too much to hope for? The claim here is, he followed the rules and he got steamrolled.
Not long after this sign and thousands of others like it zipped around the web on Tumblr and Facebook, another sign appeared, as if to answer this veteran's lament and other sad stories of foreclosed homeowners and indebted students. This sign claims to be from a student (not pictured and thus questionable), but one who played by the rules in another sense.
I wrote more about these signs here and here. Both signs appeal to a basic ideal of fairness. But fairness means different things to each. The first sign sees fairness as a kind of social contract. If I work hard and play by the rules, I should be guaranteed a certain standard of living and insured against catastrophe. Especially when the well off in society, those whose freedoms I fought for and whose children I taught, were bailed out by my tax dollars.
The second announces a different view of fairness as individual responsibility. Life is not fair and no one should expect a handout. Playing by the rules means living within your means, not taking out mortgages you can't afford or student loans that will saddle you with debt. Working hard is not enough, but you must also be thrifty and responsible. If you do decide to take risks or live beyond your means, that is your choice, but don't expect me to feel sorry for you if you fail.
The argument between two notions of responsibility that these competing signs take up is an important one. It goes to the heart of our ideas of personal responsibility, individualism, community, entitlement, and empathy. I have written at length about Occupy Wall Street here and here. But what does it mean that this conversation about who we are and what our country should be is happening through pictures of signs on the Internet?
Occupy Wall Street began with an image, created and disseminated by Adbusters, a Canadian media and anti-advertising group. A charging bull, iconic to the world of finance, gracefully ridden by a female dancer, in front of a surging crowd wearing gas masks and brandishing batons. Smoke fills the air. It is an image of revolution; but what does the revolution call for? Dance? The power of grace and beauty over brawn? Escape from unrestrained capitalism and a return to more spiritual values?
Undoubtedly the victory of the gracefulness of spirit over the aggression of calculation is one metaphorical text of the image. So too is the power of the people; the mob, which rages behind both the ballerina and the bull. Unresolved is whether the mob stands with the ballerina or the bull, or whether its fury threatens both.
The image of the ballerina and the bull is a political call, but one issued through images and metaphors. Our economy and our politics are like the bull—uncontrolled, wild, and in need of a spiritual master. Such metaphorical thinking is at the very root of both political and metaphysical thinking for it carries over the thinking of everyday reality into a higher and more truthful state. A metaphor—literally a carrying over as its Greek etymology suggests—elevates thinking from the mundane to the speculative, and thus energizes everyday thinking through the power of ideas.
Immanuel Kant once described a despotic state as a "mere machine"—a hand grinder—because both are governed by an absolute individual will that can make mince meat of the individuals under their grip. Kant offered the hand grinder as an example of a successful metaphor—an image that shows a "perfect resemblance of two relations between two totally dissimilar things."
Hannah Arendt discusses Kant's use of the metaphor in her book The Life of the Mind. She quotes there as well from Ernest Fenollosa, in an essay originally published by Ezra Pound:
Metaphor is ... the very substance of poetry"; without it, "there would have been no bridge whereby to cross from the minor truth of the seen to the major truth of the unseen."
For Arendt thought images are unavoidable in thinking and speaking, for we cannot approach any concept or idea without in some way employing an analogy or metaphor from our lived and daily experience. We have no entry into the temple of truth except through the passageways of metaphor and symbolic thought. We cannot even recognize a dog as a dog or God as God without an idea or concept of "dog" or of "God" that themselves are metaphorical or analogical ideas taken from our experience of the world. Friendship, too, Arendt writes, must originally be thought in images and metaphors, as the Chinese do for whom the character for friendship shows an image of two united hands.
As Arendt writes:
[The Chinese] think in images and not in words. And this thinking in images always remains "concrete" and cannot be discursive, traveling through an ordered train of thought, nor can it give account of itself (logon didonai); the answer to the typically Socratic question ‘What is friendship?’ is visibly present and evident in the emblem of two united hands, and "the emblem liberates a whole stream of pictorial representations" through plausible associations by which images are joined together.
Arendt's point is that Chinese and other pictorial languages offer direct version of the kinds of metaphorical thinking that must attend to all languages, even purely alphabetical languages like those in the West. Even our language depends upon the images and analogies of metaphors to carry our thought beyond the everyday to the deeper level of significance and meaning, on which both philosophy and politics might build a publicly accessible and shared common world.
That thinking happens in images is, Arendt writes, "fascinating and disquieting." It is disquieting because it puts into question the priority of language and reason that so defines the tradition of Western thought—the demand for rational justification in philosophy and politics that is so central to the rationalist foundations of modern society in a scientific age. For rational justification can happen only in words whereas higher truths are accessible only through metaphors and images.
The priority of images over words is the reason that Arendt remains one of the most poetic thinkers in the modern canon. She is uniquely aware throughout all her writing that
"poetry," when read aloud, "will affect the hearer optically; he will not stick to the word he hears but to the sign he remembers and with it to the sights to which the sign clearly points."
I spoke about this coincidence of thinking, seeing, and acting with the great dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones in 2010. For Bill T., the effort in his dance "Floating the Tongue" is to enact the process of taking something invisible and internal and bringing it to appear on the stage and in the world. In Arendt's words, the effort of poetic language must be to bridge "the gulf between the realm of the invisible and the world of appearances."
Political thinking, too, has much to learn from poetry and metaphor. "Politics," writes Hannah Arendt, "deals with the coexistence and association of different men." As we live with others, we human beings aim at freedom—the freedom to be an individual and also the freedom to build a common world together. For Arendt, politics is the activity through which a plurality of human beings constitute themselves as a people, a unity of differences. The political actor is he or she who acts and speaks in such a way as to show the different people around him the common truths that bind them together as a people. It is because politics must employ metaphors and images that build a foundation for a new and public space for freedom to flourish that politics also demands a public space where citizens can meet, speak, and act in public.
A great virtue of the Occupy Wall Street and also the Tea Party movements have been the return of signs, images, and symbols to political discourse. Even the written text on the signs that now carom around the web can only be read within the images that provide their poetry; images of the rich and poor, elderly and young, military and civilian. Politics, it seems, is leaving behind the rationalist fantasy that if we just all talk about the issues, we will come to some kind of sensible agreement.
For this reason, the Hannah Arendt Center has partnered with Visualize Conversation in an experiment; to ask how and in what ways political images can spur a public discussion. We have created a new kind of website, Visualize Conversation , dedicated to the visual images that are defining the political world. The site is being launched around the images that have come to characterize the Occupy Movement. Soon, we will begin to focus on imagery that relates to the 2012 Presidential election as well as other national issues.
On this website you are invited to respond to these images with both words and other images, to share the images, and to debate about them with others. It may be fun, but it is also, in part, an opportunity to think about and create the images and metaphors that very well might engage and re-enliven our politics.
Occupy Wall Street has been looking for issues to coalesce around. Now the Canadian group Adbusters—the group that issued the initial call that began the protests—has proposed that Occupy Wall Street adopt a Robin Hood Tax on financial transactions as its first issue. Here is their call to action.
The Financial Transaction Tax (FTT) is an idea that has lots of support amongst some economists. My friend David Callahan has been arguing for the FTT for a while now. By far the best and most balanced analysis of an FTT is by the IMF, here. On the positive side, the FTT has the advantage of being simple and intuitively attractive. But is a Financial Transaction Tax really a good issue for Occupy Wall Street to coalesce around?
The main problem is that the FTT employs a sawed off shot-gun approach to a real but specific problem and unintended consequences. Thus, the IMF study cited above concluded that a FTT would not clearly target financial excesses:
Where the goal is to curb financial market excesses, [FTT] offer a less specific remedy for the excessive leverage that is believed to cause them than other tax and/or regulatory solutions. Financial complexity does not derive solely or even primarily from trading activity. The buildup of hidden financial risks in the recent crisis resulted predominantly from excess leverage, risk concentration, and product innovation such as asset securitization, which would have been largely unaffected by a transactions tax. An [FTT] also does not directly address systemic risk.
The point is that the real problem in speculation is leverage and volatility. The FTT doesn't address leverage, and it doesn't target the high frequency traders who drive volatility. Instead, the FTT taxes ALL transactions.
What is more, the FTT will penalize smaller and retail investors—precisely those in the 99%. As the chart below shows, most stock in the U.S. is held by middle-class investors—those between the 80th percentile and the 99th percentile. They are responsible for the vast majority of financial transactions (this is especially true since a large percentage of the equity holdings of the 1% in the chart are enormous trusts containing dividend paying stocks that have been held for generations and which never trade). Thus, the FTT falls most heavily on the people who own the most stock in the country and depend on that stock for our retirements and investments.
Another problem is that if the Financial Transaction Tax is not adopted globally, it may well drive trading off shore to even less well-regulated markets than our own. The U.S. tried a similar tax in the 1960s and repealed it when trading moved to London. Sweden tried a FTT tax in the 1980s and 1990s and repealed it later when trading fled to other countries.
Finally, the IMF concludes that the FTT would increase consumption and reduce savings by lowering the returns of investment and savings—a result directly opposite to at least some of the goals of Occupy Wall Street. In addition, the FTT discourages the rebalancing of portfolios, thus depressing total returns on mutual funds investments and 401ks.
So what might be some other ideas for Occupy Wall Street—and also our political leaders (such as they are)—to consider? Here are a few ideas that a number of professionals I spoke with mentioned:
1. Ban all High Frequency Trading. It has no purpose except to make some very big and wealthy firms money while increasing volatility for the rest of us. High frequency traders justify the practice as increasing market efficiency. But there is no economic justification to prefer a system that makes 1000 trades per second to one that makes 10 trades per second. Such trading is disruptive and very profitable. Ban it outright. Doing so would be much easier than getting the global cooperation needed to make a Financial Transaction Tax workable. And doing so would also make the U.S. markets more stable and thus give them a competitive advantage over other markets worldwide.
2. A Cancelled Order Tax. It turns out nearly 99% of the orders placed on Wall Street are never filled, but cancelled. A small percentage of these cancellations are just people changing their minds. But the vast majority of cancelled orders are used to manipulate prices by tricking other traders into thinking that a stock is moving in a particular direction. According to one study on an average trading day in 2010, only 1% of all the 89.7 billion orders were executed, which means that nearly 99% of all orders placed can be attributed to high frequency traders trying to manipulate stock prices. A tax on cancelled-orders has distinct advantages over a tax on all financial transactions. First, it will fall primarily on hedge funds and large high-frequency traders, and will not affect retail investors. Second, it will specifically target the casino-like aspect of Wall Street. A cancelled-order tax is not as simple or sexy as a financial transaction tax. Less has been written on it. But it actually seems like a better idea. Read more about the idea here and here.
3. Reinstate the Uptick Rule. Nearly every market professional I polled supports the re-instatement of the "Uptick Rule," a rule that was imposed in 1938 during the Depression and repealed in 2007—just before the market crash and the financial crisis. The Uptick Rule prevents hedge funds and traders from betting on falling stock prices when the markets are already falling, thus reducing volatility and reducing the ability of traders to make money by encouraging market panics. There is a debate about how effective the Uptick Rule is, but there seems to be little or no downside to reinstating it. The only people who oppose doing so are traders.
4. Taxing Corporate Debt and Leverage and Raising Margins. The IMF proposes taxing not financial transactions but corporate debt, thus discouraging corporations from using debt and leverage to finance their activities. As part of this approach, it would be wise to raise margin requirements, the amount of money that someone has to put up before buying a stock or financial instrument on credit.
While Hannah Arendt may not have been much interested in the minutiae of Wall Street regulation, she did care deeply about the importance of facts in thoughtful and reasoned argument. In just one week, on Friday Oct. 28, the Hannah Arendt Center will open our two-day conference on Truthtelling: Democracy in an Age Without Facts. When facts and opinions blur, reasoned argument falls prey to spin and deception. Politics is a realm of conflicting opinions, Arendt argued, but the opinions must necessarily be grounded on facts.
Whether or not the Financial Transaction Tax is a good idea, the debate around it should be based on solid knowledge of the financial system, the affects of such a tax, and also the alternatives. These are very complex issues and, in all honesty, much of the debate so far has traded in simplifications, soundbites, and falsehoods.
If Occupy Wall Street really wants to distinguish itself from the Tea Party and change our political culture, let's use this first foray into politics as an opportunity to model adult argument, something that has been absent from our public life for far too long. If they do want to model a future of fact-based decision making, they will do well to look deeply into the cons as well as the pros of a financial transaction tax. They would also do well to consult those people who work in financial markets daily. Many of these people—both those in the 99% and the 1%—want to eliminate market excesses and reign in the speculation and insanity that helped lead to the recent financial crisis. In the name of common sense and a way forward, let's have a real debate based in both fact and expertise.