Education, Wisdom, and Profound Sadness

David Foster WallaceDavid Foster Wallace is the kind of person I wanted to be when I was younger. He was not only a great writer and thinker, but he was also good at the kind of things that I’m good at — namely math. But now, I’m just very happy to have lived in a universe where David Foster Wallace wrote novels and essays. I’m a better person because of it. Had Wallace been happy, that would be one thing. But he suffered from great depression throughout much of his life and he eventually took his own life.

But a couple of years before that, he gave a commencement address Kenyon College. The resulting speech was an essay, “This Is Water.” The title refers to a common observation that fish don’t “see” water. The thing that they are literally swimming in is invisible to them. Similarly, humans existed for tens of thousands of years without ever recognizing that the sky had a color: blue. It is this fact that had long mistakenly been used to claim that Homer must have been blind because of his odd color descriptions.

The argument that Wallace is making is that we need to try to see the water. We don’t want to go through life effectively dead. And we mostly do. So much of life is habit. We operate on autopilot. And it is really for the best for us to question a lot of our easy assumptions. He goes into some depth, but not about politics or philosophy. Rather, he suggests moving past our self-centered world and trying to see things from other people’s perspectives. As an example, he describes being stuck in traffic and rather than cursing the people in front of him, imagining that in front of him is a father rushing his sick daughter to the hospital. It probably isn’t what is actually happening, but it does get us out of our default perspective that all that really matters is ourselves.

Where I think Wallace gets into troubling territory is when he suggests that a liberal arts education might be good for doing this kind of thing. I understand: he was talking to graduating college students. And things might be different at Kenyon College. I do think that a liberal arts education ought to be good for this. But the way higher education is now managed, it isn’t much more than a product. A liberal arts degree means that the student has taken an undergraduate writing class and an upper division literature class. She’s taken one or two history classes. Generally, she’s taken a little of this and a little of that and there is very little that brings it all together.

Even more than this, I fear that college is mostly just another system of control. More than anything, a college degree says, “This student is unlikely to upset the corporate order.” Indeed, that’s largely what we see among the upper-middle class liberal writers: people who know just how much they can push against the existing power structure. And their college educations are largely the reason that it doesn’t occur to them that pushing harder might be a good thing.

I do think that a broad and varied liberal education is really helpful in seeing what is meaningful in life. But it isn’t essential. And there are many for whom such an education means nothing other than maybe a better job. But if it does expand your perspective, I’m not sure that’s so great. I feel that I’m fairly good at seeing things from different perspectives and giving people lots of benefits from the constant doubts. And I certainly feel I’m a better person now than I was before. But I’m not happier as a result. In fact, the more I feel that I see society clearly, the more I am a prisoner of a profound sadness.

Prison Is Much More Than the Loss of Freedom

InfernoPrisoners in this country have been put away, silenced, beaten, sadistically tormented, and most of all forgotten — frequently enough for their entire lives. They have been relegated to conditions and circumstances and physical degradation that shame us as well as them and that no one wants to recognize even though the failure in recognition defines a part of us.

No human being deserves that much punishment. The dignity of every life has to mean more than someone else’s indifferent, much less vindictive, control over it. Anything less is a deprivation for all concerned. The American justice system claims that incarceration and loss of freedom are enough of a punishment. It needs to turn that claim into the truth instead of the lie that lives and breathes in every prison in the country.

—Robert A Ferguson
Inferno: An Anatomy of American Punishment

The New Republican Trickle Down Con

Paul Ryan - Reagan 2.0We liberals have got to find a better way to point out the nonsense of Republican economic policy. Last night, Jonathan Weisman at The New York Times wrote, Obama’s Plans for Deficit and Taxes Are Detailed on Eve of Budget Proposal. In it, he quoted Paul Ryan repeating what is the most annoying Republican talking point in a decade, “The Obamanomics that we’re practicing now have exacerbated inequality. They’ve exacerbated stagnation. They’re made things worse.”

This is the same argument that Republicans have been making for decades, although in different words. Since the Democrats — just thirty years late — have decided to talk about income inequality, the Republicans have decided to grab the issue themselves. Certainly, this is at its base just more, “I’m rubber and you’re glue.” But at a minimum, it muddies the water. It now seems to be the case that everyone “cares” about economic inequality. At Davos this year, even the billionaires were stroking their chins in its direction.

Marketplace Magic: And Then a Miracle Occurs - Income InequalityOf course, the folks at Davos were not talking about food stamps and low income housing. Those kinds of programs would require that the rich sacrifice something — at least temporarily. That’s unacceptable. The Republicans are exactly the same way. For example, Ryan said, “It’s hard to imagine the president is going to want to work with Congress on entitlement reform.” Entitlement reform?! That’s the great idea to mitigate economic inequality?

This shows that the Republicans don’t care about income inequality. Just as with healthcare reform, their answer for income inequality is a collection of policies they always want. It’s like that old cartoon: income inequality will be fixed by some special feature of the free market, even though all the free market “reforms” enacted over the last four decades are what have made inequality so much worse.

So how should liberals counter these claims by the Republicans? What we can’t do is what Jonathan Chait did, Paul Ryan’s Most Shameless Lie Ever. He argued that Obama’s policies have reduced inequality — they just haven’t reduced it enough to overcome the structural forces that are causing more inequality. He’s right. But I wouldn’t give Obama too much credit there. Like the whole New Democratic movement, Obama is very much in favor of those very same structural forces. Just look at his continued support of TTIP and TPP. But even if we do give Obama credit, Chait’s argument is still incredibly weak.

Chait claimed that Obama has pushed against income inequality by raising taxes on the rich. But Ryan is still a supply-sider. He would simply counter that raising taxes on the rich just slows economic growth. And that’s true in the current situation where those higher taxes were simply used to pay down the debt in a depressed economy. And let’s fact it: Obama barely raised taxes. Chait provided a table that showed that even for the top 1%, Obama’s policy lowered taxes. It was only for the top 0.1% that taxes actually went up — and only by six percentage points.

What’s more, he presented a graph that shows that Obamacare is going to substantially increase the incomes of the bottom 20% of the country. That’s great! But it also shows that the lower-middle, middle, and upper-middle classes are all paying more than the upper class is. In addition, the lower one’s income (other than for the bottom 20%), the more one is negatively affected. In terms of economic inequality, harming the middle 60% of the nation is counterproductive.

At this point, I think that most people understand that supply side economics — trickle down — is hogwash. If Republicans want to claim that they care about economic inequality, let them. But don’t counter it with talk of transfer programs — especially when those transfers are usually very small. Talk about what Republicans want to do. And what they want to do is to give more money to the rich because even after 34 years of failure, they think it will trickle down to the rest of us.

See also: Why Conservatives Think Government Doesn’t Create Jobs.

US Economic Growth Still Really Crummy

Dean BakerI’ve been feeling reasonably good about the economy. A big part of this is just theoretical. The government — partly because of the Democrats, but mostly because of the Republicans — has done an enormous amount of harm to the economy. But that’s now baked into the economic cake. It would seem that the economy ought to be improving simply because the government isn’t actively harming it through spending cuts. And on the empirical side, the last few jobs reports have looked pretty good. But on Friday, the Department of Commerce (pdf) put out its estimate of GDP growth in the fourth quarter of last year. And the news ain’t good.

The growth rate for the year was 2.5% with the annualized fourth quarter growth rate of 2.6%. To give you some idea of just how unimpressive this is, during the recovery after the far smaller dot-com recession, we got a growth rate of roughly 3.5%. And you may remember: that was an anemic recovery. Earlier, more robust recoveries saw far higher GDP growth. But those were in the days when he didn’t live under an oligarchy. (But note: poor economic growth hurts the poor and rich; the rich really are short sighted.)

Dean Baker — the Pollyanna of economists — noted something to make even these poor headline numbers worse. In the first quarter of last year, due in part to the bad weather, the economy actually shrank by 0.52% (2.1% annualized). That means that the economy had some catching up to do. And so the growth during the following three quarters should have been really strong. And indeed, the second and third quarter growth rates were good: 4.6% and 5.0% annualized rates. That makes the 2.6% rate for the last quarter all the more troubling. We’ll have to see what happens next quarter. But this really has been the “next quarter” recovery: it has constantly been crummy but hopeful. As Herbert Hoover never actually said, “Prosperity is just around the corner!” Or, as Annie said, “The sun ‘ll come out tomorrow!” Or as the actual Pollyanna said, “There is something about everything that you can be glad about, if you keep hunting long enough to find it.”

But if you want to think the last quarter growth rate was only bad through a combination of bad weather and a very strong third quarter rate, feel free. But Dean Baker had even more bad news. It turns out that of the one-third of the GDP growth rate in the last quarter is due to increases in inventory, “This will be a drag on growth in future quarters since inventories will almost certainly not continue to accumulate at the same pace, which was extraordinarily rapid.” In other words, much of the growth is effectively siphoning off growth that would have happened later.

Let us not be too down in the dumps about this, however. There are are things we have to keep in mind. First, of course, this is just one quarter. Maybe everything will be back up in the first quarter of this year. Second, poor economic growth should lessen some of the pressure on the Fed to raise interest rates. In this regard, I don’t know why the Fed is so keen to act anyway, with inflation and the employment to population so low. Time will tell. “Tomorrow! Tomorrow! I love ya, tomorrow! You’re always a day away!”

Stan Getz

Stan GetzOn this day in 1927, the great jazz saxophonist Stan Getz was born. Let’s be honest: he first came to prominence because he was the white Lester Young. His earliest recordings are little more than loving copies of the master. But we must give credit where it’s due: Getz was a great musician and his career proves it.

Getz started playing professionally at the age of 16. By twenty, he was a featured soloist for Woody Herman’s band. But he played with many people at that time — a trait that would come to define his career. He played on hundreds of albums where he was a featured performer. I feel I know Getz pretty well and yet I have only heard a very small part of his recordings.

One notable collaboration was with Bill Evans in 1964. Here is one of the high points of that encounter, “Funkallero”:

And here he is in 1960 with two titans, John Coltrane and Oscar Peterson:

Getz worked in a lot of styles — most especially Latin music, where he was something of a pioneer. He is most known for his work with João Gilberto, in particular, the international hit and bossa nova classic, “The Girl from Ipanema.” Here is a live performance of it with Getz looking a little pudgy:

Finally, for those really interested, here is a whole set from late in his life along with Kenny Barron on piano:

Happy birthday Stan Getz!