Monthly Archives: August 2005

pining for the fjords

For the most part, this is supposed to be a professional blog about civic renewal, moral philosophy, and related subjects. However, today I cannot resist recording some of the memories that still fill my mind after two weeks in Scandinavia.

rainbow over Geysir, Iceland

Iceland: I especially recall the southern coast road, two hours of driving on gravel without ever seeing a house, lava fields coated in thin moss on one side of us and the gray Atlantic on the other … Swimming outdoors on a cold, rainy day, because that’s what Icelanders do. A municipal pool, heated by geothermal energy, is a model of Nordic design and a place where people meet to conduct business, steam rising above their bare flesh into the rain. … A nineteenth-century farmhouse (now preserved as a museum). The respectable front parlor is decorated with wainscotting, severe photographic portraits, and a sofa. The parlor door leads to a dirt tunnel that winds past an open fire pit to a kind of bunker where the animals once sheltered in the long winter: a facade of European gentility concealing extreme hardship.

the fjord at Balestrand, Norway

Norway (the best country to live in): The University quarter in Oslo, with its elegant Regency-style buildings and the healthy, energetic, youthful, and stylish crowds on the streets. … The rail lines between Oslo and Bergen, which are what every model railroad enthusiast has ever dreamed of creating in his basement: little trains puffing across bridges, through tunnels, around spectacular wooded mountains. … The view across the fjords from our pension in Balestrand: the sky, the tendrils of fog, the forests, the snow, and the water each form huge swaths of changing color.

Stockholm: This is a fabulous city with a great variety of neighborhoods and sights that we enjoyed for three packed days. But now what I constantly recall is a variation on the following scene: a large expanse of blue-green waves (the city is built on islands and one-third is under water); a horizontal band of stone and stucco buildings, spires, and Mansard roofs behind some moored pleasure boats; and then a great blue sky with fluffy, scuttling clouds, as in a Dutch maritime painting.

On our way back from Stockholm, we flew over snow-capped Norwegian mountains and the fjords, then landed in Reykjavik after seeing a good view of the geysers at the “Blue Lagoon.” On the second leg, we noticed the Greenland coast below, dotted with huge icebergs. A few hours later, the pilot noted that Manhattan was clearly visible out of the right windows. And then we landed in a steamy Baltimore summer evening. Everyone says that the Internet has shrunk our world, but to me nothing makes it seem as small as a long airplane ride.

the press and political power (thoughts on Jay Rosen/Austin Bay)

Recently, Jay Rosen asked Austin Bay (“Weekly Standard writer, NPR commentator, Iraq War vet, Colonel in the Army Reserve, Republican, conservative, blogger with a lit PhD”) to guest-blog about the press, the Bush administration, and the war. Bay’s long post provoked a total of 441 comments on Jay’s site and 45 on Bay’s blog (so far). I haven’t read all the comments, but it appears that they generated more heat than light. In particular, there was a lot of passionate discussion of the media’s alleged bias against Republicans, little of which–on either side–seemed particularly illuminating. But Bay’s original essay was interesting, and I would like to address his thesis from a different angle.

Bay proposes that the United States is locked in an “information war waged by an enemy that is itself a strategic information power,” namely, Al Qaeda. The American press has an influence on that war. How it presents the American military, Guantanamo, the Iraqi election, and other key matters will help determine whether people around the world embrace Bin Laden, Bush, or some alternative. And what ideology people adopt is the key question in this “war.”

Meanwhile, the Bush Administration and conservatives have a very bad relationship with the mainstream American news media. To a large extent, Bay blames journalists for the poor state of that relationship, arguing that they are biased in liberal, urban, and civilian directions. Nevertheless, he argues, the Bush people need the press to support the long-term struggle against Al Qaeda and Islamic extremism, or else we will fail:

America must win the War On Terror, and the poisoned White House?national press relationship harms that effort. History will judge the Bush Administration?s prosecution of the War On Terror. A key strategic issue for the current White House?perhaps a determinative issue for historians?will be its success or failure in getting subsequent administrations to sustain the political and economic development policies that truly winning the War On Terror will entail.

Bay, a conservative pundit who is angry at the “liberal media” and presents a long bill of specific grievances, nevertheless recommends that the Bush Administration try to improve its relationship with journalists.

Now, here’s my response. First, the press powerfully helps or hinders American presidents and administrations in achieving their policy goals. It is not neutral, although it can be diverse. Second, the relationship between the press and the White House has changed dramatically, in ways that make life more difficult for presidents.

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autonomous youth culture

In yesterday’s Washington Post, Darragh Johnson has a long article about 14-year-old Calixto Salgado, a devout altar boy, first-generation American of Salvadoran ancestry, nice, soft-spoken guy, and C student. He attends Gaithersburg High School, a large suburban school in a fairly affluent Maryland community (median household income: $60k), where the overall graduation rate is 87.2% (pdf, p. 189), 72% of seniors take the SAT (pdf, p. 40), and college is expected, at least for the White kids. The Latino kids, however, face a lot more challenges. About one third of them score “proficient” on the state exams, compared to 61% of whites (pdf). As for Calixto, he is under intense pressure to join a gang. I feel that I almost know him, since he resembles some of the Salvadoran and Mexican kids I have worked with at Hyattsville’s Northwestern High School, which is 23 miles to the southeast across Washington’s suburbs.

To varying degrees, adolescents live in their own world, separated from adult life. This is especially true for a person like Calixto, whose parents immigrated from El Salvador and lack knowledge or experience relevant to his life. Besides, gangs like MS-13 try to make youth culture as opaque as possible to parents and other adults, going so far as to require their recruits to commit violent crimes so that they will be tied together in a secret conspiracy. But such tactics are in some ways just extreme versions of the general (modern) adolescent urge to have a separate culture.

It matters enormously what that culture is like and how each student navigates it. According to the Post article, White/Anglo students at Gaithersburg High School recruit youth for groups like Key Club by saying, “It looks great on applications!” There is presumably a fair amount of pressure to do well in school, and respect for those who do. Students who belong to that culture are very likely to go to college and then live another 6-8 decades in affluence, safety, and good health. (In Gaithersburg as a whole, almost half of adults have college degrees–compared to 36% for the US.) But Calixto is “at risk” of entering an alternative gang culture, in which case his future will be far bleaker. The stakes are extremely high.

There are things that parents and schools can do to improve young people’s odds. (For example, I’m still enthusiastic about making high schools smaller than Gaithersburg’s 2,200 enrollment.) However, to a considerable extent, Calixto and his peers have a problem that only only they can address–collectively. For any individual kid, the pressure to join a gang (for self-respect, for safety, to impress the opposite sex, to satisfy the older brother who’s already in) may be overpowering. It’s a lot easier to resist pressure if you have company. Most of the school’s clubs appear to be dominated by Whites, and Calixto doesn’t have the grades to play sports. But if there were groups within the school that were created and led by Latinos, they could become safe havens. Ideally, Latino students could work together to change school policies so that the official anti-gang efforts were more effective.

This is a tall order. I’m suggesting that Latino kids in the DC suburbs should do something harder than anything I have ever done–create an alternative youth culture in the face of MS-13. But that may be their best hope, and it requires civic skills and habits that adults may be able to teach and model. (Indeed, Calixto is a member of an after-school group called Identity that seems to be helping him.) Kids instinctively understand the need to organize, but some have responded to MS-13 by creating rival gangs like Cien Por Ciento Latino and Sangre Pura. Somehow, they need to steer a course between those groups and the Key Club, which is unlikely to help them–or even to admit kids like Calixto.

Calixto’s situation underlines why we should care about what people in my business clunkily call “youth civic engagement” and “civic education.” Teaching kids to work together effectively can be a deadly serious business. It’s for that reason, and not merely because I want young people to know the three branches of government, that I’m in this business.

three possible goals for the left

In Norway last week, it occurred to me that the left in modern times has taken three distinct paths, each with a different goal:

1. Reduce alienation. Marx’s essential idea was that people should be able to conceive creative concepts and then implement them in the real world. Since individuals cannot realize impressive ideas by themselves, such creativity must be cooperative. In a capitalist system, some people conceive ideas and different people carry them out, and both kinds of people (i.e., capitalists and workers) are constrained by market competition. Therefore, everyone is alienated.

I think there is some truth to this diagnosis; but the main socialist and communist solution–workers’ collective ownership of factories and farms–has been largely disastrous. Workers are much less alienated in a Tayota plant than in a Soviet one. If there is a strategy for reducing alienation, it probably involves some combination of the small, voluntary co-ops and land trusts described at; plus policies to support parenthood (which is relatively unalienated labor), and a dynamic entrepreneurial sector.

2. Increase equality. There are strong theoretical arguments in favor of more economic equality than we have in the USA. My favorite argument goes like this. We are capable of producing enormously more value per hour of work than our ancestors did, not because anything that you and I have achieved ourselves, but thanks to an accumulation of knowledge, technology, and social organization. If you are born to parents with education, capital, savvy, ambition; and if they care about you; and if you live in a nice neighborhood in a developed country; and if you have reasonable genes and luck, then you can benefit hugely from the accumulation of progress. If, however, you lack most or all of these advantages, then you will capture little more value from your work than people did 3,000 years ago. This is unfair.

Therefore, if some beneficent being with superhuman power and intelligence (and an inclination to meddle in our affairs) showed up on earth, it would redistribute goods in a much more equitable way. However, in our actual circumstances, there are some big barriers to redistribution. First, in a country like the United States, the median citizen has enough wealth that he or she is not too enthusiastic about redistribution, which might only benefit those further down the ladder. Citizens of poor countries have even less political leverage over us than our own poor have. Second, redistribution probably reduces economic productivity; and we Americans are deeply committed to prosperity and progress. Third, any political power (e.g., a party or a state) that is capable of greater redistribution is also capable of self-dealing and corruption. As I’ve noted before, textile workers in Taiwan and Hong Kong earn 10-20 times as much per hour as textile workers in China and Vietnam–two countries where a Communist party monopolized power in the name of equality. Those parties now make their own elites rich by blocking independent unions, a classic example of corruption.

These skeptical arguments don’t prove that we have the balance just right in the US in 2005. The standard measure of inequality has increased very substantially since 1980, which suggests that we could do somewhat better.

3. Improve Externalities. That’s not a phrase that belongs on a bumper sticker or in a political speech. Nevetheless, the left has made the most progress since 1960–throughout the industrialized world–by mitigating certain negative externalities. An externality occurs when some people have a voluntary exchange that affects other parties who didn’t consent to their agreement. The externality is the effect on the third parties. It can be positive: for example, a new downtown store can benefit me even if I never shop or work there, by lowering crime, beautifying my city, providing jobs for my neighbors, contributing taxes, attracting visitors, and so on. An externality can also be negative, and the usual examples are environmental. For instance, smoke can blow from a factory into the lungs of people who never consented to receive it.

The mainstream environmental movement accepts a system of private ownership and free exchange (notwithstanding problems of alienation and inequality), but objects to negative externalities and favors regulation–along with public education and tax breaks–to reduce these problems. This strategy has the great political advantage that it accepts the basic status quo of a market system. It has at least two big disadvantages: it cannot deal with all problems, and it sounds relentlessly negative. The cumulative effect of the environmental movement, for example, has been to suggest that the natural world is deteriorating because of the side-effects of human behavior. The world is getting worse, in short, and all we can do is to mitigate the decline.

But a strategy of improving market externalities can be made positive (as I argued once in a narrower post on environmentalism). In fact, most of the good things in life are positive externalities that arise as side effects of market transactions or as the public effects of people’s work in voluntary associations. Much of ethics consists of acting so that one’s externalities are positive. We could even define the “commonwealth” or the “commons” as the sum total of our externalities, the negative ones subtracted from the positive ones. Then the question becomes: What combination of regulations, opportunities for collaborative work, and moral education can best enhance the commonwealth?


We are off to Scandinavia until August 26, and I do not intend to post from there. Meanwhile, I leave you with a kind of “e-book”–about half of my long, narrative, formal poem entitled Entropy, now lightly illustrated and formatted to be read easily online. Click here to have a look.

I wrote Entropy in 1999-2001 but have been revising it lately. (I’m not quite finished with the revisions, and that’s why the end is not yet online.) I submitted it to many publishers’ contests in 2001-2003. It was selected as a finalist three times, but the odds against actually winning–and being published–seemed very low. Meanwhile, I found it difficult to find journals that would even consider running excerpts from a long, plot-driven poem. Hence I am happy to give it away here.

Entropy could be better, and if it were, it would be published by now. In that sense, I have no complaints or regrets. However, I was slightly frustrated that no one mentioned either the plot or the philosophy of the poem in all the correspondence that I received. Every comment, whether positive or critical, concerned the imagery. This response bolstered my prejudice that contemporary poetry is often too narrowly concerned with lyric–with first-person descriptions of images that have emotional significance for the writer. If Entropy has virtues, they are the rather elaborate, original, and (I hope) suspenseful plot; the dozen major characters; and the philosophical structure. This is not lyric.

Entropy posits a fairly serious metaphysics, such as might be argued by a philosopher who sought the truth about our world. It embodies that theory in an invented mythology, with a god to personify each major principle of the system. I don’t like allegory, which is conceptual, static, and sterile. Therefore, Entropy puts the myth into motion by introducing contingencies, ambiguities, conflicts, human beings with hopes and despairs: in short, the elements of plot. The metaphysics itself explains why it might be worthwhile to make a plot out of an invented metaphysics.

I have decided to explain some of this structure, without saying so much as to foreclose alternative interpretations, in an “afterword” that is also available via the main page.