Holiday Etiquette Reminder

December 13, 2011

This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.

Bigger government? Smaller government? Laissez-faire or price and market supports? Do the rich have a responsibility beyond paying their taxes when it comes to helping out those less fortunate? Do the poor have a responsibility to contribute in exchange for entitlements?    What does those things really mean, anyway?

What does it mean to be rich? What does it mean to be middle class? What does it mean to be poor?

The wealthy demand the poor embrace the mirage like notion that every man can compete against well entrenched and protected corporate interests, while the poor realize the promise of equal opportunity pales in comparison to the promise of the equal distribution of wealth.

Times change. Do the definitions  of accountability and responsibility change with these changing times?


Hoover Institution:

The presidential election of 2012 is shaping up to be an epic contest. It is uncommon for an incumbent president to be considered an underdog, yet as of this writing President Barack Obama’s odds of winning reelection, according to the Intrade prediction market, stand at less than 50 percent. An endangered incumbent always makes for a fascinating political dynamic, one that will be compounded by the enormously high stakes of the upcoming battle. With the unemployment rate stuck at near nine percent and the Democrats’ new health entitlement set to go into effect relatively soon, the winner of 2012 will have unusual power to set American domestic policy for the rest of the decade.

But 2012 is shaping up to represent much more than even all this. It is a very rare event in American electoral politics that the country is faced with such a stark choice between two competing visions for the government’s role in the society. Using a strict standard, there have really been only two such elections, those in 1832 and 1896. In other cycles, nonideological issues or national concerns ultimately kept the country from focusing on the ideological contrasts between the two parties. For instance, the election of 1800 was fought in part over large differences in economic policies, but much of it had to do with foreign affairs and extreme ad hominem attacks. The election of1936 was certainly consequential for the long-term political economy, but the substantial rebound from the depths of the Great Depression gave Franklin Roosevelt an easy “valence” issue to campaign on. Even the Election of 1860— unquestionably the most important in the nation’s history — was confused by the presence of four candidates, each offering different approaches to the slavery issue and ensuring that Lincoln could not claim a popular mandate.

So, it is an extremely unusual event in the nation’s public life that the people are posed with such a straightforward question of ideology — 1832, 1896, and now perhaps 2012. Interestingly, the broad ideological contours of the2012 contest resemble those prior contests. On the one side is a nationalist coalition dedicated to advancing the public interest by sponsoring American commerce. On the other side is an egalitarian faction that believes that those pro-business policies undermined the republican character of the government, and instead offers proposals to redistribute political power, economic resources, or both.


The idea of a strong national government to facilitate American commerce and industry is as old as the nation itself. Frustrated by the experiences of the American Revolution, where runaway inflation, lack of pay for soldiers, and poor infrastructure to move men and materiel hampered the war effort, American nationalists were downright appalled by the crackup in society during the 1780s under the measly Articles of Confederation. Leading nationalists like Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, James Madison, and George Washington were prime movers in organizing the Constitutional Convention, where they pushed for a robust national government capable of solving big problems.

One of the first articulations of this nationalist philosophy can be found in Hamilton’s contributions to the Federalist Papers. In his famed “Federalist No. 10,” Madison focuses on the ability of a large republic to protect the public interest from the machinations of factions, but Hamilton offers a different approach in the oft-overlooked “Federalist  No. 11.” In it, he suggests that a strong central government could engender national greatness, in part by encouraging trade between the states:

An unrestrained intercourse between the States themselves will advance the trade of each by an interchange of their respective productions, not only for the supply of reciprocal wants at home, but for exportation to foreign markets. The veins of commerce in every part will be replenished, and will acquire additional motion and vigor from a free circulation of the commodities of every part. Commercial enterprise will have much greater scope, from the diversity in the productions of different States.

As secretary of the Treasury during the Washington administration, Hamilton was central in enacting an economic program that included the federal assumption of state war debts, the repayment of all debt at face value, and above all the chartering of the semi-public Bank of the United States (bus). Hamilton believed that this program would establish the creditworthiness of the United States, and thus promote economic growth and broad prosperity. In hisReport on Manufactures in1792, Hamilton went beyond this to anticipate much of the 19th-century Republican economic program by calling for protective tariffs, tax exemptions for certain raw materials, and facilitation of transportation.

This view forms the foundation of the modern Republican party, especially its conservative wing, although at first blush this might be difficult to appreciate. After all, today’s conservatives consistently promote limited government, whereas Hamilton and the Federalists were in favor of an activist government. How to bridge this apparent gap? The difference is accounted for in the rise of progressivism, the political philosophy developed at the end of the 19th century that promoted an active government to regulate business and redistribute income among the classes. Today’s conservative Republicans generally favor “limited” government when compared to modern progressives, but they are as “activist” as ever when viewed from the Hamiltonian perspective in that they prefer a government that encourages American commerce and industry.

The Hamiltonian view of the federal government has long provoked intense backlash, with critics usually blasting the philosophy as being inherently unequal and anti-republican. This was the charge leveled by the Jeffersonians, who took control of the government in 1800 by demagoguing the Hamiltonians as an aristocratic clique plotting to impose monarchy upon the United States.

Unfortunately, the Jeffersonians would have to learn the hard way that Hamilton’s nationalistic policy was sound. Having all but vanquished their Federalist opponents, the Jeffersonian Republicans cut government spending to the bone and allowed the charter of the Bank of the United States to expire in 1811. The next year, amid a wave of nationalistic sentiment, they entered the country into another war with England — with calamitous results. A lack of internal infrastructure again prohibited the efficient movement of men and supplies, a lack of a standing army left ill-prepared state militias to handle most of the fighting, and a lack of strong financial institutions made it extremely difficult for the government to fund the war operation. The country had to suffer the ignominy of seeing the capital city burned to the ground, and it was only Andrew Jackson’s victory at the Battle of New Orleans that salvaged the national pride. The Treaty of Ghent accomplished none of the goals America had set when it initiated the conflict, and the “War of 1812” has been all but forgotten by 21st-century America.

The Jeffersonians would have to learn the hard way that Hamilton’s nationalistic policy was sound.

Yet it had a profound effect on the Jeffersonians. Almost immediately after the war, the party split apart based on the old Jefferson-Hamilton divide of twenty years prior. Moderate Jeffersonians like John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, and Madison rediscovered the virtue of a strong central authority to promote internal development, and chartered a second bus. Indeed, Clay, who would dominate American politics for the next 30 years, elaborated a neo-Hamiltonian political program that he dubbed “the American System”: a national bank to stabilize currency and credit, protective tariffs to grow nascent American industries, and infrastructure improvements to promote internal development.

Mismanagement of this second bus abetted the Panic of 1819, but under the stewardship of president Nicholas Biddle, it contributed to the robust economic growth of the 1820s, when real gdp increased by an estimated four percent per year. Yet the bus had its detractors: Debtors in the South and West often viewed it as an institution that transferred wealth from their regions into the more prosperous Northeast; “radical” Jeffersonians considered it an unconstitutional expansion of government and a threat to simple republican virtue; and a growing number of observers would articulate a critique that has since become common in American political discourse — the idea that the bus executives played political favorites and created a climate of cronyism and corruption.

Andrew Jackson would come to expound all of these criticisms. His rough-hewn exterior belied a cunning political mind and firm belief that hard “specie” was superior to bank notes as the national currency, and Jackson set about to cut the power of the bank down to size, virtually from day one of his administration. Though Jackson would himself expand and enhance the powers of the presidency — by vetoing bills for political purposes and by standing up to the South Carolina Nullifiers — he was certainly no advocate of Hamiltonian, big government nationalism, believing that such intervention in private affairs inevitably favored the prosperous classes and therefore threatened the republican character of the government.

When Biddle requested that Congress renew the bus charter just as the 1832 election season began, Jackson’s worst fears seemed confirmed. Biddle was clearly in cahoots with Jackson’s opponents, above all Clay, the nominee of the “National Republicans” who was casting about for an issue to campaign on. Hence the petition for an early re-charter, and to Jackson a clear signal that an unelected financial elite were trying to influence the democratic process. Despite the fact that Jackson’s allies in Congress generally supported Biddle’s petition, the president vetoed the new charter and issued a stern rebuke in his veto message:

It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes. Distinctions in society will always exist under every just government. Equality of talents, of education, or of wealth can not be produced by human institutions. In the full enjoyment of the gifts of Heaven and the fruits of superior industry, economy, and virtue, every man is equally entitled to protection by law; but when the laws undertake to add to these natural and just advantages artificial distinctions, to grant titles, gratuities, and exclusive privileges, to make the rich richer and the potent more powerful, the humble members of society — the farmers, mechanics, and laborers — who have neither the time nor the means of securing like favors to themselves, have a right to complain of the injustice of their Government.

To this day, Jackson’s veto message remains the most cogent and effective critique of the Hamilton/Clay approach to policy. A government that is powerful enough to facilitate economic growth is also powerful enough to play favorites, and will inevitably favor the elite over the “humble members of society.” Though modern-day Democrats have since embraced big government progressivism, they nevertheless still regularly invoke this Jacksonian critique against today’s Republican Party and its pro-business policies, instead calling for reforms that address the “injustices” the “humble” suffer.

Unsurprisingly, the 1832 election became a referendum on these competing ideologies. The result was a decisive win for Jackson, who carried nearly 55 percent of the vote, the most for any Democrat until fdr’s victory a century later.

The Jacksonians dominated politics for the next quarter-century, but their inability to deal with the slavery issue meant that the new Republican Party would rise to power starting in 1860. Dominated by former Whigs, the Republicans would not only put an end to slavery, they would also push through a version of Clay’s American System over the next 30 years: protective tariffs to grow American industry, a stable currency pegged to gold, and federal land grants to nurture education and transportation. It seemed as though “Prince Hal,” as Clay was known during his lifetime, had finally been crowned king; though he would lose three presidential elections, his economic platform was largely implemented after he died, with the result being fantastic economic growth for the next 30 years.

The problem with a dynamic, industrialized economy is the persistent cycle of boom and bust, and the economic collapse of the 1890s was the worst depression the country had suffered to that point. The fallout from the “Panic of1893” exacerbated an already bad situation in the South and Great Plains, where indebted farmers labored to make ends meet despite a tight money supply, falling crop prices, and railroad monopolies that soaked them for every last penny. The frustration of the hardscrabble farmers gave rise to the Populist Party, whose spirit in turn overtook the Democrats in 1896. At its convention in Chicago, the party all but disowned Democratic President Grover Cleveland — an eastern conservative who favored the gold standard — and nominated the young, brash William Jennings Bryan after he gave a stunning speech.

The issue that year was not the bus, which had never been revived since Jackson killed it some 60 years prior, but rather the de facto gold standard the country had adopted to stabilize the currency in lieu of a central financial institution. Bryan and his populist Democrats favored the unlimited coinage of silver, which would bring about inflation (or so they hoped) and thus transfer a portion of the national wealth from the creditors in the Northeast to the debtors in the South and West. Bryan’s convention address in praise of “free silver” hit on many of the same themes from Jackson’s veto message, and has since become the template for modern Democratic politicking:

There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that if you just legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, that their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous their prosperity will find its way up and through every class that rests upon it.

This argument is like nails on a chalkboard for the political descendants of Hamilton and Clay, then and now. Their belief is that a government that actively encourages commerce and industry may disproportionately help a few individuals at the top, but it is of lasting benefit to all classes of people. The Democratic view, then and now, was that this “trickle down” approach only made the rich richer and the poor poorer…

Read it all.

Are the Ivy Leagues what they used to be? Is going to the ‘right school’ a guaranteed ticket to the best jobs in the best companies? Do doors open more easily with the right educational resume? Are successful start ups geographically limited to either of the coasts or founded on coastal cultural sensibilities? Not anymore. In fact those days are long gone.

First and foremost, good ideas are ideas that work. In the world of science and technology, ideas that work are predicated on a mastery of math and science, disciplines that are blind to location and geography. Mastery of those disciplines, a good work ethic and a smaller world make it possible for trendsetters to be found everywhere.

The story  behind the University of Waterloo is the proof in that pudding.

The Walrus:

Canada’s Technology Triangle has spawned more than 450 high-tech companies, including BlackBerry pioneer Research in Motion. But it didn’t just happen: an upstart university had the brains to embrace mathematics

ON THE SURFACE, Canada’s Technology Triangle — comprising the twin cities of Waterloo and Kitchener, Ontario, and Cambridge to the immediate south — reflects the development Richard Florida described in his 2002 bestseller, The Rise of the Creative Class. In 2007, Waterloo, with a population of roughly 120,000, was named Intelligent Community of the Year by the Intelligent Community Forum, which cited the region’s 334 technology companies (now listed as more than 450), its post-secondary institutions (the University of Waterloo, Wilfrid Laurier University, and Conestoga College), the co-operation between business and academia, and the high levels of philanthropy and local reinvestment.

The Waterloo region’s evolution followed a familiar North American pattern. It started as an agricultural community, grew into an industrial base and urban hub, achieved rapid expansion (in 1965, Kitchener was the fastest-growing city in Canada), then watched as its industries died and the downtowns hollowed out. The area started with gristmills, and proceeded through tanneries, breweries, television plants, and shoe factories, most of them gone now. Waterloo has been named both the Button Capital and the Rubber Capital. But the city lost manufacturing jobs to offshore concerns, to economic and cultural shifts, and to the rise of the Canadian dollar. Unlike hundreds of similar cities that dot America’s Rust Belt, though, Waterloo went on to flourish.

Part of this has to do with the region’s curious historical combination of conservatism and entrepreneurial spirit, its ability to adapt to new industries as old ones die. Manufacturing remains the largest employer, but it also registered the largest sector decline between 2001 and 2006. The technology sector, while smaller, is the fastest growing.

Technology is viewed as the holy grail of modern economies. It brings in jobs and money; it brings the future. A lot of energy is spent attracting it, growing it, and nurturing it, with varying degrees of success. Waterloo’s tech sector is often equated with BlackBerry pioneer Research in Motion, which has its headquarters there. The two are viewed in lockstep, the way General Motors was linked to Flint, Michigan. But, in fact, Waterloo’s technology boom began more than fifty years ago, and at the centre of it stood the University of Waterloo.

THE UNIVERSITY was established in 1957 by two local businessmen. One of them was Gerry Hagey, a public relations man for the B. F. Goodrich tire company who became the university’s first president. UW’s initial focus was on producing actuaries for the local insurance companies, and engineers to accommodate the postwar industrial boom. Hagey implemented a co-op program that had engineering students enter the workforce for four months of the year while they earned their degrees, a course of study that began in the early ’60s and eventually expanded to other disciplines at UW. He had seen versions of the program in the US and thought it would work at UW. But the university was just getting started, and the curriculum was greeted with disdain by established institutions. At the time, a deep sense of distrust existed between industry and academia: universities considered industry a crude, bottom line culture, while industry found academics irrelevant and out of touch. Both groups had a case, and Hagey thought each would benefit from exposure to the other.

Most Canadian universities began with either a religious affiliation or an emphasis on the humanities. The University of Waterloo began with engineering, mathematics, and science, at a time when these weren’t especially prized. In the early ’60s, math (like philosophy and English literature) was studied by people who loved the discipline; it had little practical application other than teaching like-minded thinkers who came afterward. But the head of the math department, Ralph Stanton, had the vision to see that his field would become increasingly integral to modern life. He had written a textbook on numerical analysis, a branch of mathematics that is closely aligned to computing. In 1960, the university established its Computing Centre, and suddenly math had a practical application. The department grew so quickly it was expanded in 1967 into a separate faculty, the first in North America.

At this point, computers were still mostly bungalow-sized machines that sat in large, locked, heavily cooled rooms. The centre was run by Wes Graham, who was innovative in letting undergraduates use the equipment. IBM credited him with democratizing what was still an esoteric and largely elitist world, and he eventually received the Order of Canada for his contribution to computer science. Given access to the machines, students responded by designing early computer languages (WATFOR and WATFIV) that were later adopted by universities around the world, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He also formed a campus group to distribute the software, and that evolved into a computing company, Watcom, the first of many to be spun out of the university.

By 1984, UW claimed one of the world’s largest computer science programs. At the time, universities were among the biggest markets for computers, and manufacturers courted them heavily, assuming students would end up buying whatever they had used at school.IBM was the giant then, and it offered computers to universities at 80 percent discounts. Digital Electronic Corporation, an IBM competitor, upped the ante in 1984 by giving UW $25 million worth of equipment, further expanding students’ access.

The school continued to develop its science and technology base through several proactive presidents, including Doug Wright, who served from 1981 to 1993 and had been with the engineering department since the beginning. He and another engineering professor initiated a policy whereby students and staff retained the intellectual rights to whatever they developed. This turned out to be a critical decision. Some universities (Stanford, the midwife to Silicon Valley, being the notable example) follow the same policy, but others (like the University of Toronto and Harvard) retain some intellectual rights. However, Wright says, schools that give up patent rights tend to gain more net benefit than those that don’t. The practice creates incentive, and there’s little downside, as a single patent isn’t much use. “You need an armload to open a business,” he says. The arrangement also helps foster a symbiotic relationship between the outside world and the school; UW has spawned more than 250 science and tech companies.

OpenText turned out to be one of the most important. In 1984, UW secured a contract from Oxford University Press to computerize the Oxford English Dictionary. Wright received a letter from a British friend who had noted the approaching end of the OED’s copyright and was looking into digitizing the twenty volumes. “The publisher realized that the technology was very important,” Wright told me, “and that English was becoming the international language for business and technology.” He went to England and met with IT personnel at Oxford University Press, and said UW had the expertise to take the OED into the digital age. No one had heard of Waterloo, and there wasn’t much enthusiasm for using a Canadian university. Back home, the tech people at UW were equally unenthusiastic. They had no interest in the seminal dictionary, and were unconvinced the project would be a worthwhile exploration of computer science…

Read it all.

Philosophy matters- at least that is what the philosophers say. Why then is the discipline under the threat of fading into oblivion? Universities around the US look at closing their Philosophy Departments as an easy cost  cutting measure.

As enrollment in the humanities programs declines a strong philosophy program can indeed make for better engineers, scientists and fledgling high tech business gurus. We just have to look at the discipline differently and teach it differently.

Those who teach philosophy need to change the way they see themselves, their discipline and the way they see and understand their students.

The Chronicle Review:

In March administrators at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas announced that, because of budget cuts, the entire department of philosophy would be eliminated. Philosophers rallied, the administration flinched, and within a month the crisis was averted. So all is well, right?

Not so fast. Unless systemic changes are made within the profession of philosophy over the next several years, we can expect that within a few decades, the entire discipline may be threatened.

In November 2010, The Boston Globe reported that student interest in humanities courses has cratered in recent years. And long-term trends are troubling, too. When adjusted for total enrollment, numbers from the National Center for Education Statistics show a 20-percent drop in philosophy and religion majors from 1970 through 2009. Of course, none of that is news to anyone who has worked recently in an American philosophy department. There is anecdotal evidence aplenty that our students are disappearing.

And how have we responded? Do we design better courses? Try to attract more student interest? Some members of our profession do, but by and large our response has been pitiful. We collapse tenured positions as soon as their inhabitants retire. We hire more adjuncts. Instead of trying to figure out how to reach more people with philosophy, we cut back. But in doing so, we eat our seed corn. (Note that in saving philosophy at UNLV, the department agreed to slate all its junior faculty members for termination.)

To those who are tenured, the threat may still seem distant. The barbarians are not quite at the gates. But if we do not intervene, soon the threats will be not just to our enrollments or course offerings (or junior faculty), but also to the ranks of tenured faculty—and whole departments. (If you don’t think that can happen, take a stroll over to the classics department at your local university sometime—if it’s still there—or to the library to check out a copy of Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath’s bracing polemic, the 2001 Who Killed Homer?)

Something should be done about the growing crisis in philosophy, but no one seems to be doing anything. Who is to blame?

We are. Philosophers. We did this to ourselves.

The profession of philosophy has had ages to make itself more relevant to what people—even within the academy—care about, and we have largely ignored the issue. Now that the financial crisis has hit, the chickens are coming home to roost. The philosophers at UNLV are good folks; I do not wish anything that I say to distress them. And let me stipulate that the benighted administrators who proposed eliminating the philosophy department within a university with a liberal-arts college need some serious remedial education in what a university means. But the crisis is not about one institution, it is about the profession. It is about the way philosophy is handled within academe today: the way it is taught; the way we hire new faculty; the way we evaluate them for tenure.

How can we avert the crisis? We must recognize what is unique about philosophy, and I’m afraid it isn’t us or the research we publish for one another. It is rather philosophy’s historical mission, which is not merely to find the truth, but to use the truth to improve the quality of human life. In Plato’s time, philosophy was meant to change lives. Today we settle for “service courses.” Is it any wonder that our students are moving toward the exits?

Yes, we want our students to learn to think critically, to write analytically, and to express themselves with logical precision—there is clearly a crying need for that. The sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa reported in their book, Academically Adrift (University of Chicago Press, 2011), that in the first two years of college, 45 percent of students they tracked made no significant improvement in critical-thinking or reasoning skills. Of course we want our students to learn those things, but surely not just to turn out more people who “do” philosophy. There aren’t enough jobs for them already. Rather the goal—especially at the undergraduate level—should be to help students recognize that philosophy matters. Not just because it will improve their LSAT scores (which it will), but because philosophy has the potential to change the very fabric of who they are as human beings.

We need to show our students that—when it is done right—philosophy can help them to be better, more critical thinkers and communicators in their jobs. It can teach them to be skeptical of political rhetoric and advertising. It can help them to consider what is worth caring about and so perhaps to begin to make the world a better place. And it can even be meaningful to them in their personal lives. I am reminded of Vice Admiral James Bond Stockdale, the 1992 vice-presidential candidate and sometime philosophy student, who was tortured and held prisoner in the “Hanoi Hilton” for seven years during the Vietnam War. He later wrote that his survival during that time was due to reliance on the precepts of Stoicism, which he had learned in a philosophy course while studying international relations in graduate school. For the rest of his life, he called himself a “philosophical fighter pilot.”

A good way to start might be to share with our students why we ourselves care so much about philosophy—how it has helped us in our own lives, as citizens or even personally. But how many of us actually do that? We extol Socrates, but how many dare to follow his example? Of course some philosophers are out there making philosophy matter, and we should talk more about them to our students: how Martha Nussbaum’s political philosophy has influenced her work with the poor in India; how Peter Singer’s theoretical ethics has informed his advocacy for animal rights; how Kristin Shrader-Frechette has defended the norms of good scientific reasoning in her watchdog focus on the nuclear-power industry…

Read it all.

It All Started At A Young Age

December 13, 2011

This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.

This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.


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