Monthly Archives: November 2006

classrooms never change

(en route to Dayton, OH) According to a fascinating article by Nicholas Orme in Oxford Today, medieval and renaissance English schoolboys spent most of their time translating passages into Latin. Latin was a practical, living language, and medieval teachers must have seen the research about motivating students by assigning culturally appropriate materials. They made up lists of highly topical sentences for their pupils to render into Latin.

In 1506, a teacher who was also Master of Oxford’s Magdalen College published a translation textbook that included such useful schoolroom phrases as: “Thou stinkest,” “Turd in thy teeth!” “I am almost beshitten,” and “He is the veriest coward that ever pissed.” A different text provided opportunities to translate the phrases, “Sit away, or I shall give you a blow” and “He hath taken my book from me.”

Another teacher expected his students to translate his complaint about their behavior:

As soon as I am come into the school, this fellow goeth to make water, and he goeth out into the common draft [toilet]. Soon after another asketh license that he may go drink. Another calleth on me that he may have license to go home. These and such other layeth my scholars for excuse oftentimes, that they may be out of the way.

In 1346, the Oxford schoolmaster John Cornwall asked his pupils to translate the warning: “If I go to Carfax, I may be met by misdoers.” That remains reasonable advice 660 years later, for Carfax is still a street in Oxford with a somewhat scruffy clientele.

the state of play

Until recently, I would have summarized the partisan debate in the United States as follows.

On domestic policy, the Democratic coalition encompassed many factions, but the dominant one was led by Bill Clinton and Robert Rubin. Their priorities were: balancing the budget (as a means of supporting aggregate economic growth), followed by spending on education, welfare, and health, followed by tax cuts for lower-income families. The public recognized these priorities: Democrats were trusted on fiscal policy, overall economic policy, and health and welfare. Whether or not “Rubinomics” was adequate or desirable, it coincided with prosperity and it matched majority preferences. Once the Democrats settled on it as their dominant position after 1994, they made at least incremental progress in most elections that emphasized economic issues.

In contrast, the Republicans officially stood for tax cuts, followed by spending cuts to balance budgets. But they had decreasing credibility on these issues. In any case, the public did not put tax cuts first.

On social issues, the country had moved far in the direction of libertarianism, so that the live issues of the day (such as gay marriage) would have seemed very radical a generation before. However, on those live issues, the Republican position was more popular than the Democratic one. Hence, in elections that emphasized “values,” Republicans usually prevailed.

On foreign policy, the Republicans stood for putting America first. They appeared more willing to use military force, but only in America’s economic or security interests. This was a clear position–not one that I favor, but one that had pretty strong popular support. In contrast, the Democrats seemed highly conflicted, unable to resolve debates left over from the Vietnam era that pitted elements of isolationism, nationalism, human-rights idealism, pacifism, and Realpolitik. The public did not know where the Party stood, and that hurt Democrats when foreign affairs rose on the national agenda after 9/11. Kerry?s statement that he had voted for the war before voting against it epitomized the Democrats? reputation on foreign policy. To be fair, many individual Democrats held consistent positions, but the Party had not worked out its debates, which is partly why Kerry emerged as the nominee.

The last two years have changed much of this. Republicans are now associated with foolish unilateral adventurism and a careless disregard for American national interests. Internal debates have erupted on their side. That is clearly one reason that the Democrats won the 2006 election. But they still lack a coherent philosophy in foreign affairs.

We could now enter a creative period in which new alternatives are developed, some enjoying bipartisan or “strange-bedfellow” support. Serious alternatives would combine broad philosophical positions with specific policy proposals.

However, we could also enter a period in which Democrats expect to coast while Republicans continue to suffer (deservedly) from the Iraq debacle. That period would last two years at the most, by which time the Republicans would find new leadership and the Democrats would be expected to hold persuasive positions on foreign affairs. Thus the Party should begin a robust and divisive internal debate right now, so that a winning faction may prevail before 2008.

states and markets (the case of India)

I could write a long post criticizing “neoliberalism” for widening gaps between rich and poor, undermining local cultures, damaging the biosphere, and restricting the sovereignty of democratic governments. I’d vote for the democratic left if, for example, I lived in Latin America. Yet I’m haunted by the example of India, where people who shared my values set the nation’s course from 1949 until the mid-1980s. Nehru and his fellow leaders of the Congress Party were democratic, civil libertarian, secular, nonviolent, pluralist, deliberative, and egalitarian. Opposing “globalization” before that word was coined, they tried to make India self-reliant and to help the least advantaged of their compatriots. It is at least possible that their well-intentioned policies caused hundreds of millions of people to live shorter, harsher, and narrower lives than they might have otherwise.

The following passage from Shashi Tharoor’s India: From Midnight to the Millennium (pp. 166-8) has stuck with me for several years:

The government’s indifferent attitude [in the 1970s] was epitomized by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s communications minister, C.M. Stephen, who declared in Parliament, in response to questions decrying the rampant telephone breakdowns in the country, that telephones were a luxury, not a right, and that any Indian who was not satisfied with his telephone service could return his phone–since there was an eight-year waiting list of people seeking this supposedly inadequate product.

Mr. Stephen’s statement captured perfectly everything that was wrong about the government’s attitude. It was ignorant (he clearly had no idea of the colossal socioeconomic losses caused by poor communications), wrong-headed (he saw a practical problem only as an opportunity to score a political point), unconstructive (responding to complaints by seeking a solution apparently did not occur to him), self-righteous (the socialist cant about telephones being a luxury, not a right), complacent(taking pride in a waiting list the existence of which should have been a source of shame …), unresponsive (feeling no obligation to provide a service in return for the patience, and fees, of the country’s telephone subscribers), and insulting.

Although some blame for this unresponsiveness should be assigned directly to Mrs. Gandhi and her ministers, the example surely illustrates a more general problem. Centralized state bureaucracies that deny market preferences tend to become arrogant. Of course, mid-20th century state-socialism and neoliberalism are not our only alternatives. There are various Third Ways, including efforts to decentralize democratic governance. Nevertheless, it’s sobering to consider the enormous waste that good intentions can cause.

growing up in a library

(Syracuse, NY): We’re stuck in my hometown after Thanksgiving weekend because of a delayed flight. Over the weekend, my wife Laura and I measured the bookshelves in the house where I grew up. We estimate that my Dad has filled 2,663 linear feet of shelving with his books, which he has collected over fifty years in several countries. We were interested in the aggregate length of his shelving because all of us want to know how much space the books would occupy if we had to move them. Apparently, we would need about 110 standard-size, eight-shelf bookcases–but since Dad really packs the books in tightly, I think we might need 125. We didn’t count volumes, but a rough estimate would be 27,000-30,000.

Sometimes an increase in quantity causes a change in quality. To grow up in a smallish house that contains that many books is to grow up in a different kind of place: a library rather than a standard home. The books were unusual, too. Most were published before 1900 and some are as old as the late 1500s. They are musty, worn, crumbly, well-traveled, and well used.

Social scientists often ask children how many books are in their homes, because this is a proxy for socio-economic status (SES). Kids can estimate numbers of books better than they can guess their own parents’ incomes and educational credentials. By that measure, I was enormously privileged–far better off than any billionaire’s kid. In reality, there may have been some diminishing returns after the first, say, 20,000 volumes arrived in our home. But it was a privilege to grow up amid so much vellum and parchment and so many carefully written words.