"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Shakespeare in the Shenandoahs

I have been attending a Shakespeare Conference in Staunton, Virginia – a town the size of Columbus, situated in the foothills of the Shenandoah mountains. Staunton is still on ‘our’ side of the mountains (the yuppie Washington, DC side), but not far from the hillbilly reaches of West Virginia, maybe 50 miles west on I-64. Most of us DC-dwellers get a little nervous if we travel too far west, get the willies when we see the mountains looming in the distance. We have to drive through the hollers, past the double-wides and through the wood-fire smoke of ramshackle cabins and into the dark shadows over narrow creeks, before we get to the mountain resorts that cater to us, and we don’t like the trip..

Staunton is in the lee of the mountains, a mill town with colonial history. Because the town was located at the geographical center of the colony (which then included West Virginia) Staunton served between 1738 and 1771 as regional capital for what was known as the Northwest Territory, with the westernmost courthouse in British North America prior to the Revolution.   By 1760, Staunton was one of the major "remote trading centers in the backcountry" which coordinated the transportation of the vast amounts of grain and tobacco then being produced in response to the change of Britain from a net exporter of produce to an importer. Staunton thus played a crucial role in the mid 18th century expansion of the economies of the American colonies which, in turn, contributed to the success of the American Revolution.

Staunton has remained authentic – that is, it has not gussied its one-street downtown, nor created kitschy Gift Shoppes smelling of scented candles and herb potpourris, with chocolate-on-the pillow B&Bs. Staunton is as it was with tasteful concessions to Washington – the old mills, warehouses, and train depots have been kept intact, with a few restaurants, bistrots and bars unobtrusively built into original industrial brick. Freight trains still run the tracks behind the Mill Street Grill where the bar is local and active, and the ribs and prime ribs are top-of-the line.

There is no particular reason why the American Shakespeare Center was founded here in 1988 except for the vision of a few Shakespeare-lovers and a sense of community engagement. According to the website, “The American Shakespeare Center recovers the joys and accessibility of Shakespeare's theatre, language, and humanity by exploring the English Renaissance stage and its practices through performance and education... The American Shakespeare Center -- through its performances, theatres, exhibitions, and educational programs -- seeks to make Shakespeare, the joys of theatre and language, and the communal experience of the Renaissance stage accessible to all. By re-creating Renaissance conditions of performance, the ASC explores its repertory of plays for a better understanding of these great works and of the human theatrical enterprise past, present, and future”.

The Center was made possible because of the vision of committed scholars (especially Ralph Alan Cohen), the support of a local college (Mary Baldwin) and the community of Staunton. I spoke with the main guru of the Center, Stephen Moore, the elder statesman of the Center, Shakespeare scholar, and committed Shakespeare evangelist, and chatted about my experience in Columbus, where Brenda Caradine has done for Tennessee Williams what he and Cohen have done for Shakespeare in Staunton. Through individual vision and community commitment, both towns have created a national if not international reputation for scholarship and theatrical excellence.

The Blackfriars Shakespeare Conference is held every other year, and this was my first visit since my recent rediscovery of Shakespeare. I studied Shakespeare as an English major at Yale many years ago, but it didn’t take. I left Yale with only a smudge of Elizabethan drama on my personal history; but 45 years later, after travel, adventures and misadventures throughout the world, I had a revelation – history, current events, contemporary politics were increasingly predictable and repetitive. I needed to go to the fundament – the basis for history, human nature. Shakespeare’s Histories provided that needed insight, that foundation, and that anchor. For the last year I have done nothing else but immerse myself in Shakespeare.

This was my first academic conference. I was the outsider, the outlier, the neophyte, the ingĂ©nue. I knew that academics could be an arrogant, insufferable lot, but I chanced it – why not? I needed to learn so much. The conference was as I expected, presentations on “Why there are no blowjobs in Shakespeare”, “Meta-theatre as Moral Compass in Lo findingo verdadero”, and “Staging Amorphus’ Face-painting Scene in Cynthia’s Revels”; but there were some revelations – my own epiphany after a brilliant presentation on directing and acting Shakespeare, where, through an application of Stanislavski’s principles, the actress playing Constance in King John made me cry.

I am looking out over Staunton now, at dusk and the yellowing sky, a crescent moon, and the mill buildings over the creek in the fading light. It has been a good week, far from Washington, DC, the insanity and inanity of its politics, and a delightful sojourn in Elizabethan England.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Acting Shakespeare’s Wordcraft–An Epiphany

As many of you know from this blog, I have been immersed in theatre for the past year – principally Shakespeare, but also Tennessee Williams.  I participated in the Tennessee Williams Centenary Tribute in Columbus, MS in the summer, and am now at a weeklong conference on Shakespeare at the American Shakespeare (Blackfriars) Center in Staunton, VA.

For all of this year, I have been reading Shakespeare.  I have wanted to understand fully – or at least as fully as possible for a non-scholar and one returning to the theatre after a hiatus of over forty years (I studied English and French literature in college).  My method of understanding Shakespeare was to read a synopsis of the play, then read it slowly and carefully scene by scene; then read three or four critical essays on the play; read the play again, listening to the dialogue on the screen from a video version; and finally write my own critical essay on this blog.  The method has been successful, and while I cannot always keep the plays and characters in my head, with a little refreshment, I can recall plot, character, theme, and particularly relevant issues. 

If I went to theatre productions, it was to help me further understand the text, to help explicate the complexity of language, meaning, and intent.  I did not go for the play itself, for the acting; nor did I have any sense of appreciating the beauty of the spoken word, or the poetry, or the subtleties of language which express feeling.  I was slavishly following the text in my head as the actors acted.

Today I had an epiphany.  I heard a presentation by Scott Kaiser of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (the title of his presentation was Acting Shakespeare’s Wordcraft in the title of this post), the biggest such Shakespeare center in America with hundreds of full time repertory actors, supporting staff, extensive stage space, conferences, and other events.  Scott is a director/acting coach, and in his presentation entitled Acting Shakespeare’s Wordcraft he changed my vision forever.  He has based his teaching on that of Stanislavski – a name I have always associated with the Actors Studio, ‘method acting’, Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, and many others.  I knew little about The Method, only that it was about personalizing acting, reaching for inner vision to create the character being played.  What I did not know was that Stanislavski wrote two books, the first one on The Method, and the second on the practical craft of acting.  As explained by Kaiser, the craft was based on: measure, word, focal point, image, action, and decision.  Kaiser has applied this to the plays of Shakespeare.

It is necessary, he says, to break down the passages of the play into meaningful measures – any number of lines which convey a particular meaning or intent.  This helps the actor fully understand not only the meaning of the whole passage, but of the sub-passages he must say.  Measures are themselves measured by breathing, by inhalation which helps to provide the rhythm of the speech.

It is equally important for the actor to identify what is for him the key word in the passage.  The word can be a noun, verb, or adjective; but it must be for the actor the word that conveys the most about the passage.  The focal point is important, for the actor should focus his eyes and attention somewhere and talk to that point.  The focal point can shift, as it does from Richard to the corpse in Lady Anne’s dialogue with Richard; or from potion to self to dagger in Juliet’s final scene; but it must be direct, unique, and focused.

The actor should have an image in his mind as he speaks his lines in the measured, focused way described above.  The image should relate to the play – some character in particular – but can and should be drawn from personal feeling and insight.  The actor must learn the implicit or explicit action of the passage, and give the verbal expression a sense of movement and result.  Finally, the actor should make a clear decision when preparing for a presentation of the lines – exactly what does he want to say, when does he change perspective, focal point, or action.

Kaiser is a dynamic, personal, responsive and intelligent director, and as he guided two actors on stage to illustrate all the above, you could see how he gracefully directed their acting, encouraging them, suggesting improved ways of acting, and congratulating them.  I could see in one hour what directing was all about.  I do not mean to exaggerate.  I of course saw only one small piece of directing, but I got it – I understood what the director does, and how important it is.  I saw how the complexity of Shakespeare’s dramatic poetry was made emotive, personal, and accessible to the audience.

One of the actors, a woman from the Oregon troupe, gave me my first glimpse into what acting is and should be.  She was asked to read a passage by Constance, the mother of Arthur from King John. Constance, one of the memorable women in Shakespeare’s plays is grieving at the loss of her son, Arthur.  The male characters do not understand her grief, and see only incipient madness in her increasingly intense if not strident expressions of this grief.  Kaiser directed the actress how to play the scene, invoking all of Stanislavski’s principles.  What resulted was a passage so moving that the actress and I were moved to tears.  I was almost sobbing at the beauty of the passage.  The grief of this mother was visceral, powerful, and ultimately moving.  It was amazing.  The words which I had read many times before in a play that I like suddenly were not words from a text; they were no longer spoken words of an actor; they were words from the heart of a grieving mother. 

This presentation was all the more moving and important for me, because I had come to the point of impatience with the rounds of academic dissection of the plays, vivisections actually, because after Kaiser’s presentation I felt that they were killing the live thing which I had just discovered. 

These academic colloquies aside, many of the larger presentations were original and thought-provoking.  I am still a neo-academic in my approach to Shakespeare’s texts, and these presentations gave me lots of new ideas; and after the Kaiser directing presentation, I did not – could not – turn off my more intellectual interests.  A presentation on a deaf-hearing performance of Hamlet was fascination because it showed how a director could reorder the text of Shakespeare to render it more visual and kinetic.  There were many presentations on the stage productions of Shakespeare’s time, and how the actors who might be playing many different roles in different plays during the week, and for whom rehearsal time and copies of the script were limited, needed to rely on verbal cues which Shakespeare embedded in the text.  There was a fascinating presentation on the use of I-Phones and I-Pads for the audience in a production of Othello.  The audience could interact with each other by blogging.  The actors could consult the blogs when they were off-stage, and the control booth could send explanatory notes electronically to the audience.   These are only a few.

In short, I will never treat the acted plays as merely ways of further explaining the text of the plays.  I will listen more carefully, look more attentively, and take in the whole and the pieces of what I am seeing on stage.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Shakespeare Conference–NOT International Development

I am attending the Blackfriars Shakespeare Conference in Staunton, Virginia, a small town in the Shenandoahs.  Staunton was an important town in early American history:

Because the town was located at the geographical center of the colony (which then included West Virginia), Staunton served between 1738 and 1771 as regional capital for what was known as the Northwest Territory, with the westernmost courthouse in British North America prior to the Revolution  By 1760, Staunton was one of the major "remote trading centers in the backcountry" which coordinated the transportation of the vast amounts of grain and tobacco then being produced in response to the change of Britain from a net exporter of produce to an importer. Staunton thus played a crucial role in the mid 18th century expansion of the economies of the American Colonies which, in turn, contributed to the success of the American Revolution. Located along the Valley Pike, Staunton developed as a trade, transportation and industrial center, particularly after the Virginia Central Railroad arrived in 1854. It served as capital of Virginia when legislators fled Richmond and then Charlottesville to avoid capture by the British.  (Wikipedia)

Many of the old industrial buildings of the 19th century remain and turned partially to modern use.  My favorite restaurant (Ahhh…the ribs!) is the Mill Street Grill on the ground floor of an old mill building by the railroad tracks and grain silos.  The town has one main street but has not been gussied and prettified, and there is a view of the mountains from the main street.  It is the home of Mary Baldwin College, a private, formerly women’s college but now coed, atop one of the many hills of the city.  The college is a major benefactor of Blackfriars and the American Shakespeare Center which puts on plays in a theatre fashioned after the old Elizabethan  Blackfriars Playhouse.

There are about 150 attendees at the conference from various universities throughout the country.  Although the Staunton Center is small and minor compared to Shakespeare companies in major cities, Mary Baldwin and Staunton volunteers have progressively built the reputation of the Center and especially the conference.  The program lasts five days with papers, colloquies, readings, guest speakers, and theatre performance.  I have been told by a number of the attendees (who make the rounds of these conferences as part of their university duties), that it is one of the best.

I am one of three non-university attendees, and the only one with no credentials whatsoever.  I am here because of my one year immersion in Shakespeare since retirement and my plans to teach two plays of Shakespeare in Mississippi this coming Spring Semester at Mississippi University for Women.   I am an oddity, pretty much like being a Yankee in a small Southern town (Columbus, MS where I spent two months this summer at the Tennessee Williams Centennial Tribute and where I will return in the Spring).  A friendly handshake, a quick look at my nametag, conspicuously barren and naked with only my name, and then polite nods at my reasons for coming.

I have already learned a lot in one full day of presentations – why did Shakespeare write in prose and verse and when did he decide to use one or the other (‘an area for exploration and continuing research’) but a question that has always perplexed me.  Some reasons were given by the presenter – for example, prose or blank verse was used to interrupt the verse of another, grounding him/her or reversing a trajectory that the prose speaker did not like – but no one went further, explaining the long passages of prose in many plays, passages that were not limited to lower-class speakers (often done by Shakespeare).

I learned more about Shakespeare’s audiences.  I have always wondered who attended.  I assumed that they had to be very highly educated to appreciate the iambic pentameter verses, the sophisticated wordplay, and the classical and Biblical references; and I was told that this, too, was another area of great debate.  However, it was known that there were many young male apprentices for the law and other professions who had been educated at grammar schools which, said one attendee, “produced graduates who by age ten knew more than most classical scholars today”.  This should have been obvious to me, for Shakespeare wrote plays which he wanted produced so he could earn an income; and why would he write over the audience’s heads?  Apparently tickets were priced according to the seating, and there were seats affordable to patrons without much education.  Much of the play would indeed be over their heads, but going to the theatre was very common for all in Elizabethan days, Shakespeare wrote sections of most plays for the lower classes, and there would be something to enjoy.  In the same vein Shakespeare put music and dance in his plays to add to the appeal.

The staging of Shakespeare’s plays in Elizabethan times was not at all like ours.  There could be incidental people on the stage, part of the audience.  There was music, circus-type acts, and other theatrical elements in addition to the play itself. 

The question of the length of Shakespeare’s plays and whether the longer ones were edited (the number of lines in Hamlet means a 4-hour play, it is almost always cut for modern audiences).  The presenter thought that they were not – why would Shakespeare write a play which he knew would be cut?  The debate continues.

There were the usual very academic presentations – the meaning of “Ha!” as a theatrical tool; sound and acoustical psychology in providing context for tragedy; etc. – but all in all, accessible, sensible presentations.

It was a delight to be in a universally intelligent crowd.  At least judging from the many questions asked of each presenter – none were stupid or self-serving, and all were relevant, insightful, and challenging – it was as removed from a conference on international development as you can get. There was no jargon, no ‘mission-driven’, irrelevant projects from the hinterland; no hackneyed, repetitive calls for ‘participatory engagement’, community ‘buy-in’, ‘partners’, ‘ownership’, and ‘results-oriented frameworks’. 

I think for all the criticism I have made concerning academics and their narrow focus on increasingly irrelevant issues – there have been hundreds of thousands of PhD dissertations written in the 400 years since Shakespeare wrote, if not more; and it must be quite a challenge to find something new – it is perhaps this singular focus that makes conferences such as these far more interesting than those of my past life.  In development conferences there was a rigid canon dictated by USAID and presentations were how well or poorly projects performed based on that canon.  There is no premium paid by USAID for innovation or creativity or ingenuity – just show how the (unrealistic) objectives were met – so no project experience to show new thinking.  Therefore, no one can stand up and demonstrate how the canon was successfully challenged, or a radical new idea was tested and proven.   In literature, you can dig and scrape for a new interpretation and theory and subject it to the critical review of your peers.  You get accepted, laughed at, or dunned out of the academy; but at least you saw something modestly original.

It’s nice to hear laughter at the sessions.  OK, a lot of it is laughter at old in jokes, a higher than necessary hilarity at stupid literary puns, but still, there is room for some kind of humor.  Not so at development conferences.  There is an unfortunate sanctity about the business because hungry, sick, abused, or abandoned children are not laughing matters.  There is a cloak of seriousness wrapped around the entire business when of course there is plenty to laugh at.  I would have loved to see some satirical sketches about the whole aid business, poking fun at NGOs who are out to save the world or at the bureaucrats who run it.  Never offend The Client (USAID).  Let’s face it, ‘Seen one Third World Country, Seen them all’, and no one in my long career ever admitted publically that not only were the projects designed all the same, but the countries problems were all the same.  Which is why I always refused to go on field trips and insisted that you could write a good proposal from the comforts of Washington, especially in the Age of the Internet.  The religious NGOs with their cant and devotion were ripe for skewering.  The self-contradictory for-profit agencies, ridiculously trying to blend the bottom line with do-good mission were others.  The backward, venal, stubborn, and greedy community leaders could have been pilloried just like our outrageous preachers and social activists.  The list is long.

I had been told that most of the attendees at the conference would be women.  The older white guys were retiring, affirmative action had promoted women, and the softer disciplines, like literature would be more female anyway.  Not true.  The conference is completely mixed, grayer, and with one or two exceptions, plug ugly and totally clueless about looking good.  Very logical.  You do not get into an abstruse corner of academia if you value other than your mind.  This is not advertising or fashion after all.   Public health is a real woman-dominated field, and perhaps 75 percent of all conference attendees, employees in the industry are women.  Which for me has always been a good thing. These MPHs were not exactly well turned-out fashion plates, but many steps above the squirrelled-away academic, hunched over a rare manuscript at a carrel in the stacks of the university library.   I was very unhappy at the World Bank where I was in the Urban, Infrastructure, and Water and Sanitation Departments – all engineers, all men, all creaming their jeans over static heads, and elegant solutions to toilets.

This is the beginning of Day Three, and I am looking forward to it.  More of the same, but the conference organizers have been very creative – lots of related diversions…A bit like the old Shakespeare productions, I should think.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Seven Billion World Population–Too many?

Joel Cohen has written a provocative article on increasing world population in todays New York Times, and I include the link here:


He makes the now well-known argument that rapidly increasing populations put enormous pressures on world resources with the equally well-known and predictable results – fewer water resources, arable land, adequate public services, etc. 

What is missing from his argument is the positive aspects of population growth and potentially negative results from population control.  China, which had an aggressive and repressive population control program (One Child), is now facing an increasingly competitive world with too few people entering the labor force to be competitive.  India, on the other hand, had a voluntary (and less successful) population control program, but now is poised to advance beyond China in GDP growth largely because the huge bulge of young people – increasingly well educated, motivated, and more free than ever to pursue wealth and success thanks to the dismantling of the regressive Socialist economic system.

Julian Simon has written extensively on the positive aspects of population growth, and before he died, he gave an interview about his ideas, suggesting that increasing populations have been the engines of civilization and economic development.


Following are some brief excerpts:

Population growth does not have a statistically negative effect upon economic growth. We know that from 30 years of careful quantitative scientific studies-just the opposite of what the public believes. Because human knowledge allows us to produce more finished products out of fewer raw materials, natural resources are becoming more available. The air and water in rich countries are becoming cleaner. Most importantly, human beings are living much longer than ever before...

The view that I have expressed to you thus far is precisely the view held by experts on these topics. Every agricultural economist knows that people have been eating better since World War II, the period for which we have data. Every resource economist knows that natural resources have become cheaper rather than more expensive. Every demographer knows that life expectancy in the wealthy countries has gone up from under 30 years at birth 200 years ago to over 75 years at birth today. And life expectancy has risen in the poor countries from perhaps 35 years at birth only 50 years ago to 60-65-70 years at birth today. Those are the facts which are known by the economists and demographers who study these subjects...

By 1994 we have solid statistical evidence about the determinants of economic development. What could only be said on economic faith 30 years ago, we can now document scientifically. We now know statistically that what David Hume wrote on the subject in the 1700s was exactly right. When identifying why Holland was the richest country in Europe, Hume said that “Liberty, necessity, and a multitude of people” were the causes...

A free society with social rules enables people to exercise their talents for their own sakes. This inevitably benefits others by bringing forth prodigious productive efforts which cause growth. And each generation creates a little bit more than it uses. Hence each new generation is richer than the previous generation.

This process is made more rapid by a free society. We frequently hear in the press how people in rich countries, such as the United States, constitute only five percent of the population and use up 40 percent of the resources. That may be true, but people in rich countries make available even more than 40 percent of the resources...

While this is true, Simon wrote before the realization that climate change would affect the population-resource balance; but economic growth arguments which have been derived from his theories and from those of liberal economics are still valid.  To a large degree, populations can be controlled by natural market forces.

For example, it is a documented fact that as family income increases, fertility decreases.  This has been the case in the developed world, and is the case in the developing world.  Families with more disposable income have greater access to health care and therefore realize they do not need to increase fertility to counter high mortality.  Families with higher incomes can use these resources to better educate their children who in turn realize that fewer children mean higher per capita family income.  Families with higher education have a better understanding of and access to contraception.

The Cohen article does not correlate economic growth with population decline, and the population projections cited are not referenced to show the variables used to compute them; but if economic growth is accelerated and investments are made to encourage it rather than the low-impact social programs favored by international foreign assistance programs, population growth rates should tail off, and while large population base countries like India, China, and Indonesia will still grow, they will grow less rapidly and eventually achieve stasis.

Cohen does not offer solutions, but options:

Is economic development the best contraception? Or is voluntary contraception the best form of development? Does the world need a bigger pie (more productive technologies) or fewer forks (slower population growth through voluntary contraception) or better manners (fewer inequities, less violence and corruption, freer trade and mobility, more rule of law, less material-intensive consumption)? Or is education of better quality and greater availability a key ingredient of all other strategies?

Obviously, a little bit of all the above would contribute significantly, but economic development is by far the best option.  Not only would it have the secondary benefit of reducing population growth, but it would affect all the social variables that have been largely resistant to improvement through traditional development.  As above, increased incomes means increased access to quality health care and education.  And, of course, economic growth brings mobility, increased attention to issues of civil society (law, justice, equality) and resultant positive social change.

In another provocative article in today’s (October 24) Washington Post,


Juliet Eilperin chronicles the effect of climate change on resources and the consequent effect on the world’s population.  She talks principally about water and ‘evaporating water supplies’.  Not surprisingly the countries that are the worst off are in Africa, especially, and the Middle East.  Many Sub-Saharan countries, especially in the Sahel have been losing arable land for decades – even before the climate crisis.  The desert was simply expanding partly due to macro-climatic change but also the deforestation of the little forest coverage available, poorly-managed intensive farming and over-extensive farming, etc.

The error of this article is that it does not discuss the various socio-political and economic resolutions to the problem.  International development has long favored keeping populations in place, largely due to philosophical considerations – the importance of people remaining in their native places within the context of their history; and have invested in failed agricultural projects.  The obvious counter-argument is to invest in urban productivity zones, increasing employment and wealth and thus attracting a rural migration which would provide the labor for growth.  Of course, politics have been the greatest hindrance to this idea, for investing in Doula, for example, would be seen as disfavoring other countries’ urban areas.  The idea of creating African Economic Zones has also held promise, where countries would be united in economic regions (such as Central America and Panama or The Southern Cone of South America), but divisive and basic tribal, ethnic, and economic differences were big impediments.

Nevertheless, there appears to be no point in promoting residence in water- and resource-poor areas; and a lot of point to concentrating population and production in urban areas.  Urban areas have historically been the engines of growth and civilization and the migration towards them has been inexorable.

If rural populations in areas which have been unproductive because of countries’ inability to farm them productively, were to move to urban areas, abandoning their lands, wealthy countries could purchase them at low cost and turn them into viable, productive lands.  Israel, as we all know, made their desert bloom.  Resource-hungry nations, like China, would have a big return in transforming arid, formerly unproductive areas into highly productive ones.  They would certainly use most of the food produced for their own consumption, but would also be able to sell it on the world market to be bought by those new, higher income urban migrants.

The article contains some worthwhile ideas and examples of better water management in  areas which are reasonably well-watered

A number of private sector groups  have started projects to address global water supply….including training specialists in India who can maintain community water supplies and have the financial incentive to keep them operating.

In countries like India which are on their way to world class economic status, such reform of the water sector make sense.

In conclusion, it is time to reject the inevitability of the negative impact of climate change and population growth; to stop the universal dependence on ‘environmental’ lobbies and non-profit organizations; and begin to look at these problems through an economic lens.

Educational Reform III

Educational reform of higher education is critical, especially the need to make public education more practical by focusing on the current and projected employment environment; and more focused on teaching history, economics, finance, and political philosophy necessary for intelligent choices in civil society.  Michael Ellsberg of the New York Times adds to this discussion by suggesting that
American academia is good at producing writers, literary critics, and historians.  But we don’t have a shortage of lawyers and professors.  America has a shortage of job creators.  And the people who create jobs aren’t traditional professionals, but start-up entrepreneurs…
If start-up activity is the true engine of job creation in America, one thing is clear: our current educational system is acting as the brakes,.  Simply put, from kindergarten through undergraduate and graduate school, you learn very few skills or attitudes that would ever help you start a business.  Skills like sales, networking, creativity, and comfort with failure…
Start-ups are creative endeavor by definition.  Yet our current classrooms, geared toward tests on narrowly-defined academic subjects, stifle creativity…
Secondly, those students who may not be on an entrepreneurial track (by the way, classrooms that foster innovative and creative thinking are important for all students, not just those who will become entrepreneurs), are also shortchanged, for our misplaced view of ‘equality’ of education has stifled a more realistic two track system adopted by the Germans:
Children [in Germany] at age 10 are placed on different tracks, some leading to university, and others to vocational school – a closing off of opportunity that most Americans would find intolerable; but it is uncontroversial because those who attend vocational schools often earn as much as those attending university (Washington Post 10/23, The Paradox of the New Elite)
Gov. Rick Perry’s (R-Tex) has called for a reform of public higher education in his state by focusing on economically productive courses – an idea which takes its spirit from the German system above.  There is no reason to spend taxpayers’ money on esoteric courses on Queer Theory and other esoteric Post-Modernist literary criticism, when business is in need of well-prepared employees.  The private university system is the place to take this type of course.

A good public education can also complement a practical, vocational education with courses on economics, finance, and history to better prepare the graduate for a more educated and intelligent engagement in politics.

Thirdly, it is important to promote the interests of the talented, not just those with ‘special needs’.  Jay Matthews in a recent Washington Post blog called Class Struggle has been arguing this for months:
Frederick M. Hess’s long essay in the latest issue of the quarterly National Affairs pleased those of us who share the American Enterprise Institute scholar’s dislike for politicians’ fixation on closing the achievement gap. Reducing the gap sounds good until you realize that means it is okay for high achievers to stagnate so that low achievers can catch up.
 Readjusting and realigning public school programs to foster this equality will not be easy, since there are enough old-guard teachers and administrators in place who remain committed to collaborative education (I use this term as a catch-all for both enforced collaborative learning, as above, and for the defunding and discouragement of accelerated learning programs) to thwart reform.  The situation is a bit like that of universities whose Humanities departments remain wedded to Post-Modernism, Historicism, and Deconstructionism even though these theories are being discredited – there is still a committed core of professors and administrators who have built their careers on these theories, have tenure, and continue to preach.

An article in the  (October 24) Washington Post 10.24.12), entitled Too many college grads, by Fred Hiatt chronicles South Korea’s experience with higher education – there are simply too many college graduates to be absorbed by the economic system; and the country is now seriously reconsidering its American-style commitment to traditional liberal arts higher education.
The government also is investing in vocational schools designed to put young people on a career track without going to college. “Reckless entrance into college,” Lee has said, is “bringing huge losses to households and the country alike.”
Furthermore, South Koreans have the same complaints raised by certain American educators, many of which I have cited in this and previous blogs – too little emphasis is placed on creativity, innovation, and management skills, the essential elements for higher-order economic productivity:
Yet Koreans are deeply unhappy with their system — to the point that many blame their world-lowest birth rate (1.1 child per woman) on their schools. They complain about an emphasis on memorization, a stifling of creativity, a failure to teach usable English and a weakness in developing leadership skills.
In summary:

1. Reform primary and secondary school public education to foster a spirit of inquiry, risk-taking, innovativeness, and creativity

2. Reform public higher education to have a vocational track complemented by an intensive civic education.

3. Reform primary and secondary school public education to focus as much on the talented as those in need of special education.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Sell the Tappan Zee Bridge

A week ago my wife and I were returning to DC from New England and followed our normal route which takes us over the Tappan Zee Bridge.  Just before the trip I had read that the bridge needs to be replaced.  The perennial maintenance (the last major effort a few years ago when at least one lane was always closed) financed by the New York State Thruway Authority, state, and federal governments has simply been not enough.  The penury of tax revenues and the high cost of upkeep of the entire thruway system let alone the bridge allowed only for ‘keep it up and running’ maintenance, without the major structural repairs that are periodically needed to keep any bridge safe and roadworthy.  Finally, agree local authorities, the time has come for the construction of a new one which would cost $6.4 billion.  How, in this era of tax avoidance, can this be done? The highway trust fund is out of cash, and the gas tax which funds it is little more than half the required amount to address necessary infrastructure improvements. “There is no public money”, said a former adviser to the Department of Transportation” (see Washington Post article, below).

As we were driving across the bridge and commiserating about how much more painful and already long-haul trip to Boston would be once works were started, we wondered how we might invest in the bridge.  In a very shaky and unsure financial market, this should be a good bet.  Over 140,000 cars use the bridge every day, we thought, and even if tolls were substantially raised to cover real costs, demand, even in slow economic times, would remain constant.

“Traffic on [any] road is highly insensitive to stock market levels”, said Chris Camarsh….That makes infrastructure a good way to save for one’s nest egg, since “there is a good predictability that the cash will be there when you are older. (Washington Post 10/23)

I guess we were thinking like a lot of other people, for the Business Section in today’s Post is entirely devoted to rebuilding America’s infrastructure, and the lead article (click on the weblink, below) is on privatizing the process. 


There are a number of interesting facts cited in the article.  First, there is already as significant amount of private investment in infrastructure led by pension funds and sovereign wealth funds. In the past five years the 30 biggest investors have channeled $180 billion to infrastructure projects and the trend is continuing.  They, and the small investors like my wife and me, feel that this investment will pay good and safe returns.  The Canadian $52 billion Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System has invested in US infrastructure and done well, helping to provide benefits to its  400,000 members. 

Private investment in infrastructure has a good record.  The privately-financed Midtown Tunnel (NYC) expansion has recovered finance costs and provides a return to investors.  The same company’s (Macquarie) has a similar project proposal pending (a new tunnel project north of the new Jordan Bridge in Virginia).  The private consortium will finance two-thirds of the cost with the Virginia Transportation Authority loaning the rest.  Increased tolls are expected from such investment, but as suggested above, the actual toll cost is far below that required to cover even basic maintenance.  The tunnels must be built to relieve congestion.  Citizens refuse to pay taxes to cover construction and maintenance costs.  Ergo, users will have to pay and pay real costs.

Leasing existing infrastructure to private sector companies has also found new currency throughout America.

A second argument for selling the Tappan Zee Bridge and encouraging private investment in infrastructure is the failure of the public sector to do the job.  In front page piece in the Outlook Section of the Washington Post today, Chris Edwards argues that the federal government, and especially the Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Bureau of Reclamation have been guilty of poor planning and execution, waste, and inefficiency over its long history.


Federal infrastructure spending has a long and painful history of pork-barrel politics and bureaucratic bungling, with money going to wasteful and environmentally damaging projects…

When the federal government ‘thinks big’, it often makes big mistakes.  And when Washington follows bad policies such as….overbuilding dams, it replicates mistakes nationwide….Similar distortions occur in other areas of infrastructure such as transportation.  The federal government subsidizes the construction of urban light rail systems, for example….But urban rail systems are generally less efficient and flexible than bus systems, and they saddle cities with higher operating and maintenance costs down the road.  Similar misallocation of investment occurs with Amtrak…and funding is sprinkled  across the country [because of pork barrel interests in Congress], even in rural areas where passenger rail makes no economic sense….

The usual counter arguments appear – shouldn’t we be worried about selling our infrastructure assets to the Arabs?  Nonsense, says Ryan Orr of Stanford.  We live in a globalized economy and foreigners buy our Treasure Bonds.  What’s the difference?

Tolls will go up and put an undue burden on the poor, another argument does.  Yes, but in this era of no taxes where such revenues would allow for a progressive allocation of cost, there is no other alternative. 

Finally, some critics argue that the benefits of non-polluting rail systems will be better for the public at large than a bus-only policy (see light-rail, above).  Also true, but no one is currently willing to subsidize these externalities.

In conclusion, I hope that there is room for my little widow’s mite in the sale of the Tappan Zee Bridge.  I will be able to put up with the aggravation of construction a little better.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Troilus and Cressida–Statecraft

There is a love story in Troilus and Cressida – two young people fall in love and are separated; but this is far from Romeo and Juliet indeed.  Cressida is exchanged for a Trojan prisoner a la Israel-Hamas, perhaps is not the fair, loving, innocent, and principled woman Troilus thinks her to be, but coy at best, opportunistic, and a ‘loose woman’ at worst.

In any case, the play is not about the young lovers nor about love, but about statecraft, the debate between reason and honor (passion), the ends vs. the means, the crafty Greeks vs. the principled Trojans.  As such it is perhaps Shakespeare’s most intellectual and overtly philosophical play, and perhaps because he had doubts about its popularity, never produced it. Nevertheless, it is fascinating, and supports and consolidates my return to Shakespeare after 40 years.  I felt, approaching 70, that pure history and a socio-political analysis of current events, were of diminishing returns; and that drama and other artistic interpretations would be more relevant and valid.  This assumption is validated over and over again.  I was fascinated by the Histories and their exploration of  ambition, power, wealth, and influence and how, as Jan Kott has suggested, that if you laid them out chronologically you would find the human nature behind them all.   

I was amazed by the psychological insights of the Tragedies – Shakespeare learned from Machiavelli, anticipated Nietzsche and Freud and wove psycho-dynamics into history. Once I got past the cross-dressing, gender antics, and histrionics of the Comedies, I appreciated again (after the Histories especially), the way women are always able to equal or surpass men even within restrictive social environments.

Troilus and Cressida, a ‘problem play’ as Bloom categorizes it is intriguing and compelling because of its discussion – and discussion is the correct term because this is a very windy play – of statecraft, valor vs. practicality, the ends vs. the means ( As Kenneth Palmer in the older Arden edition of the play [cited by Nuttall in Shakespeare the Thinker] gave the basic answer: it is only the Trojans who consider ethical ends; the Greeks are cynically concerned with means only) rationality vs. passion.  These issues are not separate, although some more tenuously linked than others, and the play as a whole complements the earlier Histories which were less nuanced. 

Ulysses is the ‘hero’ of the play, although by default.  Troilus is an incompetent, hesitant lover, more concerned about Cressida’s honor and integrity than sex or love.  His concerns turn out to be right, although this conclusion has nothing to do with his prudish insistence on truth and honor, which reflect in general terms the philosophy of the Trojans who value action, especially in defense of honor.  Achilles is a hothead and a dope, with no realization whatsoever that he is being played by Ulysses (the Greek palace plot is to entice Achilles out of the bed of his male lover and in to battle).  Ulysses tries snubs, engineers even dumber Ajax to fight Hector, thus humiliating the proud and self-centered Ulysses, and blackmails Achilles by confessing his knowledge of Achilles’ tryst with an enemy princess.

Hector is a could-be hero.  At least he tries to cool the imprudent ardor and war-fever of Troilus; but he capitulates to the Trojan ideal of honor.  Nestor is too old to be a hero of anything.  So, it is Ulysses who is the default hero – he never fights, but plots and spies; pontificates, but with intelligence, and one suspects that even though the Greeks win the war, he will manage.

Ulysses has many laden passages where he reflects on philosophical subjects particularly as they regard statecraft.  The Greeks are concerned with winning, and Ulysses sees the importance of order, discipline, cohesiveness, and singularity of purpose.  He is a Machiavellian character, one who leaves the romance of honor at the door, and is a purely modern political character.  One of his oft-quoted passages is on the importance of discipline and order:

But when the planets

In evil mixture to disorder wander,

What plagues, and what portents, what mutiny,

What raging of the sea, shaking of earth,

Commotion in the winds, frights, changes, horrors,

Divert and crack, rend  and deracinate

The unity and married calm of states

Quite from their fixture? O, when degree is shaked,

Which is the ladder of all high designs,

The enterprise is sick.

Bloom (The Invention of the Human), in his best liberal mode, comments:

Ulysses represents the state, its values and interests; he is the idea of order at Troy, the Contract with Greece, in the Gingrichian sense.  His three great speeches….would qualify him to head the Republican Party…Frankly a Machiavel, Ulysses nevertheless is more than a superb sophist.

Bloom quotes Ulysses to justify this observation:

Strength should be the lord of imbecility,

And the rude son should strike his father dead;

Force should be right, or rather right and wrong,

Between whose endless jar justice resides,

Should lose their names, and so should justice too;

Then everything includes in itself power,

Power into will, will into appetite,

And appetite, an universal wolf,

So doubly seconded with will and power,

Must make perforce an universal prey,

And last eat himself up.

Ulysses is not only Machiavel in this passage but a pre-devotee of Nietzsche, and therefore my hero.

A more subtle but perhaps more insightful observation on war is Ulysses statements about mind/rationality vs. the action of war.  He criticizes Achilles for being totally dominated by the act of aggression and killing without respecting the intellectual underpinnings of conflict.  The passage also illustrates the age-old conflict between civilian planning and military execution:

They tax our policy [rational planning] and call it cowardice,

Count wisdom as no member of the war,

Forestall prescience, and esteem no act

But that of hand.  The still and mental parts

That do contrive how many hands shall strike

When fitness call them on, and know by measure

Of their observant toil the enemies’ weight -

Why, this hath not a finger’s dignity.

They call this bed-work, mapp’ry, closet-war;

So that the ram that batters the wall,

For the great swinge and rudeness of his poise,

They place before his hand that made the engine,

Of those that with the fineness of their souls

By reason guide his execution.

Ulysses plotting is Machiavellian and timeless: he knows that Achilles is key to Greek victory, but Achilles is indifferent, indolent, and happy in the arms of his lover.  Ulysses knows that Ajax is as vain and full of himself as Achilles, and he engineers a way for Ajax to fight Hector.  If Ajax wins, Achilles will join the war because of pride.  If Ajax loses, Greece will be able to say that they had held their best back, and Achilles will be spurred to battle.  This is in fact what happens. Ulysses is also a great spymaster, and knows how to use information to his advantage, a la Washington.  He blackmails Achilles by stating that he knows that he, Achilles, is sleeping with the enemy.

The debates of statecraft are not just within the Greek domain.  There is a great debate about whether or not to return Helen to the Greeks and end the war.  Hector, at least at first, is very practical.  We should return her, he says.  Hector says:

But value dwells not in particular will;

It holds his estimate and dignity

As well wherein ‘tis precious of itself

As in the prizer.  ‘Tis mad idolatry

To make the service greater than the god…

She’s not that special.  Troilus counters with: Why negate the abduction of Helen by Paris – a blow to the pride of the Greeks – when holding her gives the Trojans a psychological advantage if nothing else. Besides – and this is the real point – we would lose face and honor if we returned her.

Not so, says Hector, who feels that this line of reasoning is simply masking youthful exuberance for valor:

Paris and Troilus, you have both said well;

And on the cause and question now in hand

Have glozed, but superficially; not much

Unlike young men, whom Aristotle thought

Unfit to hear moral philosophy.

The reasons you allege do more conduce

To the hot passion of distempered blood

Than to make up a free determination

‘Twixt right and wrong…

The point is that although the Greeks are always considered the plotters, the practical, and the logically devious, the Trojans are thinking in the same way.  Helen has no real value, only relative; and as we see later in the play, so does Cressida.  Of course she will be traded for a Greek officer.  It furthers our ends.  Besides, Hector comes around to Troilus’ side in the end.  So Shakespeare expounds on many essential themes of war, but confuses them.  There is some consistency – Ulysses never wavers – but the arguments of the Trojans are flashy.  Hector, known to be among the most valiant and courageous of the Trojans inexplicably lets Achilles off the hook in a duel, only to be murdered by him and his cronies later in the play.  Hector cannot decide who he is.

The relationship between Troilus and Cressida does not exist in and for itself, as in Romeo and Juliet, but reflects the theme of sexuality confounding politics.  As I have mentioned above, neither Helen and Cressida are exactly virginal, innocent women; and their ‘transfers’ are germane only to the political plot.

Similarly, Troilus’ ambivalence towards Cressida reflects the reason vs. passion/honor theme of the play.  There is no love poetry a la Romeo or the Comedies.  Troilus is obsessed with Cressida’s honesty (virginity) and the moral value of her love – just as he is concerned with the moral, valorous stance of his country against the Greeks:

Troilus: …But alas,

I am as true as truth’s simplicity,

And simpler than the infancy of truth.

Cressida: In that I’ll war with you.

Troilus: O virtuous fight,

When right with right wars who shall be most right!

No sex from Troilus; although has very badly underestimated Cressida on this score, and quickly burns with jealousy for Diomedes, a very confident male lover of Cressida, and wonders what happened.  At the end of their first meeting, rather than vow eternal love and devotion, Troilus and Cressida seal their relationship with a pact of fidelity and honesty:

Pandarus: Go to, a bargain made; seal it; seal it; I’ll be the witness.

There are some other philosophical considerations in the play, especially metaphysics – i.e. does one exist outside the perspective of others?  No, says Ulysses, and therefore there is absolutely no reason to have overweaning pride.  Another, the inexorable movement of time according to which past events are soon forgotten – another reason to give up appearances, pride, and pretense.

I liked the play, less so than many others because it is the least juicy and human of all the plays, more preachy and intellectual; but because of this philosophical inquiry which is not academic but relevant to war, it is fascinating.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Foreign Aid–Time to Dismantle It

There are two pieces in the Washington POST this morning (10/20) which are of interest when considering the future of foreign aid.  The first is an editorial suggesting that all the GOP candidates have got it wrong when they want to end foreign aid as we know it.  I find most of the assumptions in the editorial wrong. The second is a front-page article on US complicity in corruption in foreign aid in Egypt.   Following are excerpts from the editorial with my comments in italics.  Excerpts from the front page article are included in the text, below. 

Foreign Flop

Washington POST Editorial 10/20/11

WHY DO WE continue to send foreign aid to other countries when we need all the help we can get for ourselves?”

The question, posed to the Republican presidential candidates during their Las Vegas debate Tuesday, is understandable, if familiar. Americans are suffering, as the questioner noted. Why not just help them?

There are answers to that question that many Americans will accept, if leaders have the guts to offer them. Counting defense and diplomacy, the United States spends a lot keeping the peace and promoting freedom and prosperity around the world, but pure foreign aid is a minuscule part of the budget — a little more than 1 percent. That money, leveraging donations from other nations, helps keep alive millions of people, many of them parents of children who would otherwise be orphaned.

While there have been some successes in foreign assistance, mainly as a result of products – e.g. insecticide-treated bed nets, Anti-Retroviral drug therapy for AIDS, and vaccinations – the vast majority of USAID and other donor programs which focus on training, behavior change, education, civil society, etc.  have been a dismal waste of money.  The World Bank issues regular Development Reports chronicling aid success.  Not surprisingly, the results have always been sketchy at best.  The Bank insists after every failure, “Well, now that we know what is wrong, we can fix it”.

USAID, largely because of its corruption-aversion policies, has become an even more risk-averse, sclerotic bureaucracy than ever before.  Innovation is not in the lexicon of the agency except.  Large, NGO-run programs based on philosophy and process (gender, civil society, democracy, inclusion) rather than results have had expectedly limited results.  Conditionalities imposed by the donors to ensure ‘transparency’, equity, and justice; and donor-initiated and designed projects have served only to promote corruption – “We never wanted that project and object to the conditions placed on us, so go ahead and give us the money and see what we do with it”.

It helps prevent some nations from becoming failed states that would spawn security threats to the United States. It creates goodwill for America that benefits U.S. exports. It’s the right thing to do.

Absolutely false.  Below is an excerpt from another piece in the POST today – a front page article entitled ‘Crony Capitalism’ with a US Root’:

CAIRO — Beginning two decades ago, the United States government bankrolled an Egyptian think tank dedicated to economic reform. A different outcome is only now becoming visible in the fallout from Egypt’s Arab Spring.

Formed with a $10 million endowment from the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Egyptian Center for Economic Studies gathered captains of industry in a small circle — with the president’s son Gamal Mubarak at the center. Over time, members of the group would assume top roles in Egypt’s ruling party and government.

Today, Gamal Mubarak and four of those think tank members are in jail, charged with squandering public funds in the sale of public resources, lands and government-run companies as part of a dramatic restructuring. Some have fled the country, pilloried amid the public outrage over insider deals and corruption that toppled President Hosni Mubarak.

“It became a crony capitalism,” Magda Kandil, the think tank’s new executive director, said of the privatization program advocated by its founders. Because of the corruption, the center now estimates, the assets that Egypt has sold off since 1991 have netted only about $10 billion, $90 billion less than their estimated worth.

This is not an isolated case.  The Inspector General (IG) has investigated abuse and corruption in Pakistan and Afghanistan – two client states of the US government – and finds, not surprisingly, widespread and persistent waste and fraud.   Two poor, failed states, in the middle of complex and destabilizing wars, receiving shiploads of American money with very little they have to show for it. 

Perhaps the most telling example of how to promote democracy or at least more progressive governments is the Arab Spring.  Regardless of how these countries will turn out, their populations showed remarkable courage and commitment to change which decades of warm-hearted and politically obtuse American aid have done.

The POST editorial continues:

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, cementing his claim on dangerous know-nothingness, endorsed the question and then doubled the stakes, proposing “a very serious discussion about defunding the United Nations.”

This is not at all ‘know-nothingness’, but a reasonable proposition.  The technical agencies of the UN like UNFPA, UNESCO, WHO, and others have long been known in the development community as being even more sclerotic and bureaucratic than USAID. They are marginalized by the better-funded and more politically heavy donors, and develop agenda-driven projects or provide ‘advice’ to Government ministries.  These advisors end up writing memos for the Minister, are frustrated because – with no money to back their proposals – nothing happens.

The performance and outcome of the famous blue helmets is not only suspect but troubling.  Too many reports of rape and abuse have come out of Africa especially.  The UN forces are peacekeepers, marginal at best in the business of war.  While there have been some successes – blue helmets have kept the Serbs and the Bosnian Muslims from killing each other – but little is known about what will happen when they leave.  Disputes which are centuries old are unlikely to be solved by temporary, external intervention.

Finally, there is the General Assembly, a one-country, one-vote congregation where politics always trumps progress.  Yes, it is a forum for world opinion, but an opinionated, regional bloc-dominated, and ineffective one.  Take the inability of the EU to make decisions on the euro.  That is only 29 nations.  Imagine the paralysis of the General Assembly with all the world’s country.  The Security is not much better, with its own veto-based paralysis.

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, though, won the prize for he-ought-to-know-better nonsense. Mr. Romney endorsed defense-related foreign aid, but then seemed to suggest that the United States outsource to China its humanitarian assistance. “I happen to think it doesn’t make a lot of sense for us to borrow money from the Chinese to go give to another country for humanitarian aid,” Mr. Romney said. “We ought to get the Chinese to take care of the people.” Is he so in sync with the goals and values of China’s foreign policy?

The indisputable fact is that the Chinese are ‘winning the hearts and minds’ of the Third World at an amazing rate.  We have tried for decades and have ended up with a few failed client states and fewer, scattered development successes.  The Chinese make it clear (transparency) – “We will build your roads, airports, ports, and critical infrastructure if you guarantee us a favorable futures price on natural resources”.  Or, let us exploit your natural resources (since you are incapable of doing so).  We will take the resources, and pay you a considerable fee for so doing.  No questions asked.  No conditionalities.  If you were the leader of African Country X, which would you take?  The Chinese deal or the burdensome, irrelevant American one?

No one really cares about foreign aid except those people working to keep it alive.  It represents only one percent of our budget and has no natural constituency.  It is surprising that it has lasted so long, except that people make the elision between the feel-good late-night commercials for Sponsor This Child to USAID.  We really should help out, Dear. 

Now is the best chance to eliminate or at least reform foreign aid.  I have written frequently on this subject and would like to dismantle it as we know it and return to pre-McNamara World Bank-style of Lender of Last Resort.  Let countries come up with their loan proposals, submit them to commercial lenders, and if they are turned down, go to the World Bank for consideration.  The Bank would charge them commercial rates and would give them no more credit if they default.  If the US or other countries want to use taxpayer money to support client states, then just give them the cash like we do with Israel and Egypt and be done with it.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Timon of Athens–Charity Begins and Stops at Home

Timon of Athens has a big debt problem.  He is underwater, overspent, and his credit not surprisingly is bad. The irony of the situation is that he has gone into debt to buy his friends gifts, and when he has run out of money because of this largesse, and when he turns to these very friends for a loan, they abandon him.  Not only do they abandon him, but they call in their debts.  Worst of all, they do not even think of selling the valuable gifts to loan him or give him money.  Why was he so generous, especially to his wealthy friends? Did he not understand that there is no contractual obligation in gift-giving, only an unwritten social code? And how did he so overestimate the generosity of others, especially when he had Apemantus the Cynic to advise him?

The plot of the play is simple – Timon gives gifts generously, goes into debt, asks for credit, is turned down, becomes a disillusioned and misanthropic hermit, and dies.  There are no complicated historical twists and turns, no gender-bending love stories, no tragic plots and subplots.  There is neither beautiful lyric poetry, nor sharp wit and ripostes; no strong women (in fact this is the only play where women, except for two prostitutes who exist only to transmit disease), no complex men – just Timon who is more front and center than any other of Shakespeare’s main characters.

Yet, the play is intriguing because Shakespeare, as in his Tragedies, leaves more questions unanswered than answered.  First, the question of the nature or origin of Timon’s largesse.  Because he is a noble of the first rank, it is fairly certain that he is not trying to curry favor either with his superiors or inferiors.  He gives to his noble friends who have no designs on him or his position.  He is not acting in the spirit of Christian giving – alms to the poor – and faithful to the Catholic doctrine of good works.  There is no reason to believe that he is giving because of the Protestant doctrine of faith (i.e., his works are a result of his being saved, not a means to that end).  He is not giving as a form of social security – giving now to assure credit when times get tough; nor is he applying some moral test to see how reliable his friends are, or on a higher level to plumb human nature and determine if there is some modicum of goodness in man. 

The most likely explanation is that he gives because he likes the thanks and attention he receives; and because of this vanity he is unaware that the adulation he receives is simply venal flattery – toadying, sycophantic behavior on the part of the recipients so that they can receive more gifts. 

So Timon is not a very sympathetic character.  He is vain, with little understanding of human nature.  His total isolation from reality is such, that when he finds that his friends refuse to loan/give him money, he changes overnight from generous benefactor to ugly misanthrope.  To quote Uncle Guido, “He shoulda known better”. Are we supposed to identify with this ‘tragic’ character, brought down by this tragic flaw of ignorance?  Hardly.  Are we supposed to resonate with the argument that all men are either flatterers or charlatans?  Again, hardly, because Shakespeare himself has more than eloquently described the chicanery and duplicity of the court.  A.D. Nuttall observes:

Nineteenth-century critics tended to see Timon as a noble spirit vilely used by others.  Earlier critics saw him as less than admirable, a fool or extravagant show-off.  Ethically, his generous actions ask for a generous response.  On the practical level his near-hysterical giving virtually invites abuse from the recipient.  There is the low idiom: “He asked for it”.

The Merchant of Venice addresses the central philosophical theme of Timon, if there is one.  Shylock is the post-modern man, beyond gentility and gentlemen’s agreements and into contracts. You don’t lend money unless you have collateral.  A man’s word doesn’t count.   It is the new world where vanity is the refuge of fools.  Shylock knows better, but gets his comeuppance when he agrees under pressure to convert to Christianity which for him, is a step backwards into social illusion.

King Lear addresses the issue of giving with far more insight and power than Timon.  Lear gives his kingdom away to his three daughters, but wants something in return – respect, love, honor; and when he doesn’t get it, he goes mad, and like Timon, flees to the heath.  Lear also ‘shoulda known better’, which is why I find him a less appealing character than many critics.  Not only did he not know his daughters, but he did not understand the inevitable greediness and acquisitiveness of human nature.  Lear is more appealing because he has a truly tragic end – he realizes the true love that Cordelia had for him and is ready to live out his life with her, when she dies. Nuttall observes the transformation of Lear and his new understanding of giving:

When Lear notes that even the poorest will have about them odd, gratuitous objects that are not valued solely for their efficacy in the practical business of survival, he counters one central drive of Merchant which is to suggest that grace is a luxury that only the rich can afford, something unavailable to the economic work-horses on whom Venice depends.  “No”, says Lear, “Such graces are the property of humanity, in whatever condition”:

……Take physic, pomp,

Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,

Then mayst thou shake the superflux to them,

And show the heavens more just (III.iv)

Timon, on the other hand dies alone, buried alone by the ocean with a simple misanthropic epitaph that he himself wrote, and with no late revelation a la Lear.  As A.D. Nuttall writes: “Timon is Lear without any of the old king’s grandeur of language and, more important, without any family.  He has only friends, or perhaps I should say, “friends” (Shakespeare the Thinker)

There are many purely ‘philosophical’ passages in Timon.  Apemantus’ grace is the best known of his declamations:

Immortal gods, I crave no pelf.

I pray for no man but myself.

Grant I may never prove so fond

To trust man on his oath or bond.

Or a harlot for her weeping,

Or a dog that seems a-sleeping,

Or a keeper with my freedom,

Or my friends if I should need ‘em.

Amen.  so fall to ‘t.

Rich men sin, and I eat root. (I.ii)

Timon, once deceived by his friends, comes late to the realization that ‘money can’t buy me love’:

This yellow slave (gold)

Will knit and break religions, bless the accursed,

Make the hoar leprosy adored, place thieves

And give them title, knee, and approbation

With senators on the bench.  This is it

That makes the wappened widow wed again;

She whom the spital house and ulcerous sores

Would cast the gore at….

…Come damned earth,

Thou common whore of mankind, that puts odds

Among the rout of nations, I will make thee

Do they right nature….

One of my favorite passages of the play is by Timon who has argued with Apemantus that the ‘natural’ world is just as corrupt and duplicitous as the human one:

“…If thou wert the lion, the fox would beguile thee.  If thou wert the lamb, the fox would eat thee.  If thou wert the fox, the lion would suspect thee when peradventure thou wert accused by the ass.  If thou wert the ass, thy dullness would torment thee, and still thou lived’st but as breakfast for the wolf…..

There is nothing particularly complex, insightful, or subtle about all this.  Money corrupts completely.  Men are venal, greedy, and selfish.  The rule of the world, both human and animal is trickery, deceit, illusion.  What saves the play is the wonderful vitriolic, vengeful curses of Timon.  He goes beyond Coriolanus in his vilification of his home city/country.  He is magnificent in his damnation:

…Matrons, turn incontinent!

Obedience fail in children! Slaves and fools,

Pluck the grave wrinkled Senate from the bench

And minister in their steads! To general filths

Convert o’ th’ instant, green virginity!

Do ‘t in your parents’ eyes! Bankrupts, hold fast!

Rather than render back, out with your knives

And cut your trusters’ throats! Bound servants, steal!

Large-handed robbers your grave masters are,

And pill by law.  Maid, to they master’s bed!

Thy mistress is o’ th’ brothel.  Son of sixteen

Pluck the lined crutch from they old limping sire;

With it beat out his brains! (IV.i)

There are really some great, spewing, angry passages from Timon, and another of my favorites is when he urges Alcibiades’ prostitutes to give venereal diseases to all the men of Athens:

Consumptions sow

In hollow bones of man; strike their sharp shins,

And mar men’s spurring ). Crack the lawyer’s voice….Hoar the flamen…Down with the nose -

Down with it flat, take the bridge quite away

Make curled-pate ruffians bald,….[NOTE: All Elizabethan sexual references to V.D.

And let the unscarred braggarts of the war

Derive some pain from you….

Timon is angry, vengeful, unrepentant, and still ignorant when he dies.  We feel no remorse or sorrow at his death.  He deserved it.

Recipes–Best Coleslaw Yet

There are an infinite number of ways to make coleslaw, and I have posted a number of them on this blog, but this one I think is the best.  It combines a lot of different flavors and ingredients that all work together.

Coleslaw with Earth Spices

‘Earth spices’ is my name for the key flavors in this recipe - anise seed, fennel seed, dill seed, carroway seed, celery seed, and dill weed.  They are all in the same taste category with a pungent fragrance that blends well with the acid of the red wine vinegar and horseradish.

* 1/4 head of cabbage, medium chopped  This is enough if the cabbage is dense – that is, heavy to the heft and very tightly wrapped.  Some cabbage is light and loosely wrapped and not as good as the other.  When buying cabbage you should do the heft test.  If you get a good cabbage, then 1/4 head is enough for this recipe; if not, you should use 1/2.  I prefer a medium chopped cabbage, but you may prefer finely chopped or even finely sliced.

* 3 large carrots, coarsely grated

* 1 medium onion, medium chopped

* 2 tsp. (approx.) of each of the following seeds: carroway, anise, fennel, dill, celery.  You should pound all the seeds except the celery in a mortar until they are broken up but not powdered.  The celery seeds are too delicate for pounding and can be put directly into the cabbage mixture

* 1 tsp. dill weed

* 2 Tbsp. mayonnaise

* 1 tsp. Maille or other good Dijon mustard

* 2 Tbsp. whole milk yoghurt. You can substitute low- or non-fat

* 1 Tbsp. red wine vinegar. Most commercially available red wine vinegar is low acid; but there are some premium boutique brands which are highly acidic, and you should use only 1/4 teaspoon

* 2 Tbsp. fresh horseradish.  This is available refrigerated in the dairy section of the supermarket and keeps for a long time.

* 1 Tbsp. sugar

* 1 tsp. salt (to taste)

* 5 grindings fresh black pepper

- Place all the ingredients except the cabbage, onions, and carrots into a mixing/serving bowl and mix well.  I use a wire whisk to get maximum blending

- Put the chopped cabbage, grated carrots, and chopped onion in with the spice mixture and mix well.  Taste for ingredients.  At this point you can add more of everything.  Mix well again

- Let sit for at least two hours in the refrigerator (more is better, and I usually make the coleslaw in the morning for a dinner serving).  It is important to let it sit to let all the spices exude their flavor.

- Remove the coleslaw from the refrigerator about 1 hr. before serving to warm to just below room temperature

- Serve

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street–Both Wrong

The accumulation and consolidation of wealth and power has been around forever.  Every empire under the sun – the Persians, the Mongols, the Romans, the Muslims, the Greeks, the Christians, and many more – has started small and grown through acquisition.  The so-called depredations of Wall Street are nothing compared to Genghis Khan who stampeded out of the steppes and marauded his way in all directions.  The slaughter he left in is wake was legendary, and his name always comes up in discussions of The World’s Worst Tyrant.  He was right up there with Stalin and Hitler, way way up there.

The Arabs burst out of Mecca and in a few short years, overran North Africa, and although they were stopped by Charlemagne, saving Christian Europe from the barbaric hordes, they extended their reach far to the east.  Even the peaceful, philosophical Greeks, they of the City State, the originators of debate, politics, civil society, rampaged east as Alexander the Great got as far as India.  The Romans, of course had the biggest empire the world has ever known.  I was thoroughly impressed when I saw the plaque in Rome showing the reach of the Roman Empire at its height – all the way to Britain, down to Africa, across to the Eastern Mediterranean.  Very impressive.  The Catholic Church? One of the great world empires which was as expansionist as any secular power.  To bring Jesus Christ to the world, the Vatican said; but we know the historical truth – the acquisition, accumulation, and consolidation of power and wealth.

The colonial period was nothing to sneeze at – the Spanish and British especially were able to build and extend empire far from their small European homelands.

The point is, everyone started small and had this irrepressible and unstoppable urge to get bigger, wealthier, stronger.  There was certainly some logical justification for this outward expansion – the need for resources for a growing population was usually the case – but that explanation has never been enough.  Genghis Khan really didn’t have granaries in mind when he went on his bloody rampages through China.  The Romans definitely needed the bounties of North Africa which was fertile far further south than it is today, but those of England?  The Spanish needed the gold and silver of the New World to finance its European wars, and wanted to spread their bloody version of Christianity to the natives, but throughout the Americas?  Enough is never enough history teaches us.

An parable from the late 20th Century.  I know a non-profit organization in Washington that kept growing and growing, expanding into new areas of development, adding staff, renting higher floors, additional buildings.  Now, this would have been understandable if the organization had been for-profit where expansion equaled more sales which equal more profits; but a non-profit could easily stay one size and still do good, accomplishing its mission, controlling quality, maintaining a high reputation and client base.  The senior management and board of this non-profit claimed, however, that by expanding they would do more good for more people, spreading their particular philosophy in a wider and wider reach.  The truth of course, was that the CEO simply could not stop getting bigger.  His appetite, like his ego, was enormous.  Size mattered, even though there were no profits.

America is based on small-scale enterprise.  The North fought the South in the Civil War in part over Free Labor – the work of the little man on his little farm and little crops.  Slave labor was a corrupting, anti-Puritan enterprise which softened the will (of the plantation owners, of course), and impeded spiritual growth.  It also was a formidable economic model which threatened that of the North.  What these 18th Century clerics didn’t realize, however, was that small-scale anything never lasts.  You are small until you are profitable, then a bigger something buys you up at an attractive price, allowing that something to realize economies of scale, new markets and territory; and allowing you to start a new small-scale enterprise which in turn will be bought up, and so the cycle continues.  It is not surprising, therefore, to see the predominance of big industry – big banks, big auto, big pharma, big everything.

There is nothing wrong with this per se.  If it hadn’t been for the Medicis and their early banking enterprises, Florence would never have become the industrial capital of Europe.  Florentine banks lent money, industries expanded, wealth was increased and concentrated; art, literature, learning grew exponentially.  The Romans and the Arabs conquered great territories by war and hostility, but they left public administration, infrastructure, and the tradition of scientific learning behind.  The Crusades were brutal and barbaric, but they spread Christianity and the civilization it represented.

It is quite natural for the young people demonstrating against “Wall Street” to feel disenfranchised, overlooked, and cast aside.  There is nothing pretty about the concentration of wealth except to the wealthy, and it is natural to blame bigness.  Bigness has to be bad, even though it is inevitable.  It also natural to blame “Wall Street” which is simply a name for wealth and size.  If the demonstrators thought about it, they would realize that their parents’ pensions and IRAs are invested in the stock market, the real Wall Street, their homes mortgaged through large lending institutions which although not traditionally Wall Street might as well be.  Their parents’ jobs rely on loans from Wall Street, etc. etc.   Wall Street, like the hated cookies in computers, serves a very useful purpose.  Without it, everything would fall apart.  And even if it did fall apart, it would reassemble itself piece by piece, and grow back to its present size.

Perhaps more than anything else we criticize Wall Street because of what we see are excesses – big salaries and benefits, a luxurious life style, homes on the Riviera and in Squaw Valley, elegant furnishings, the best food and clothes.  These ‘excesses’ have always been part and parcel of empire and wealth.  The Roman villas recently excavated in Italy and Tunisia show a sumptuousness never thought possible.  The Egyptian pharaohs led lives of unimaginable wealth, fitting not only for a king but for a god.  The Persians, the Greeks….everyone who created and acquired wealth spent it, or at least a part of it.  We should not forget that although spread unequally, created wealth was not only for the wealthy.   Why should we care what car CEOs drive or where they eat?  We care because we can’t live that way, that’s why.

The Tea Party has a stronger case to make – get rid of the bloated federal bureaucracy, slice and trim fat, curb waste, fraud, and abuse, and get back to the old Puritan principles of Free Labor and small government.  However, they too, either do not know history or quickly forget it.   Ronald Reagan famously said “Government is not the solution.  Government is the problem”, and then went on to increase the size of government more than any of his predecessors.  George W. preached the same gospel, and Washington – thanks to Homeland Security, the various spy, spook, and cloak-and-dagger institutions, plus the Big D – is bigger than ever.  If there is no money to be made a la Wall Street; if there are no lands to conquer and riches to plunder a la Genghis Khan; then bureaucracy will have to do.  One of the nice things about living in Washington is that it really is recession-proof.  No matter who is in power, Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal, the size of government just keeps on growing.

So, I wish the Tea Partiers well in their crusade to ‘downsize’ government; and I wish the OWS protestors good luck in transforming capitalism to become as George W. said softer and gentler.  Neither group will be successful, but I suppose it is a good thing to make some scraping and rasping noises in front of Park Avenue buildings.  It will keep the CEOs up and disturb their visions of sugarplums.  And perhaps the OWS people will figure out where to direct their anger and frustration – not at Wall Street perhaps but towards Washington which was at best asleep at the switch and at worst, complicit in Wall Street’s rapaciousness.  The Tea Partiers will perhaps slow the growth of government.  Even the best cars cannot operate without breaks.

As for me, I can’t help reading history and these days the Histories of my beloved Shakespeare who is the most eloquent of all about  wealth and power.  They are here to stay.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Educational Reform–Encouraging the Talented

I have felt all along that the prevailing educational philosophy of investing more in ‘special needs’ children rather than highly intelligent ones has done a disservice to the many talented, motivated, and potentially successful students who must study in ‘collaborative learning’ settings where the improvement of the group is more important than that of the individual and who are deprived of accelerated programs which are closed in favor of those for those with learning problems.  I have no issues with programs for those who need extra help learning.  My issue is with the imbalance between those with special needs and those with special abilities.  I would like to reform the learning environment to give equal attention to both. 

The article below on Steve Jobs presents a strong argument for favoring the intelligent, creative, innovative individuals; and for discouraging collaborative education. "Amidst the oceans of enforced mediocrity....Jobs showed that the real path to excellence was excellence...You could do great things by being smart and having excellent taste..."

Steve Jobs Defended His Work With a Barbed Tongue


The following article by Jay Matthews decries the loss of programs for the gifted and talented, and presents a strong case for acknowledging and promoting excellence.  Matthews in his Washington POST blog called Class Struggle has been arguing this for months:

Frederick M. Hess’s long essay in the latest issue of the quarterly National Affairs pleased those of us who share the American Enterprise Institute scholar’s dislike for politicians’ fixation on closing the achievement gap. Reducing the gap sounds good until you realize that means it is okay for high achievers to stagnate so that low achievers can catch up.


Readjusting and realigning public school programs to foster this equality will not be easy, since there are enough old-guard teachers and administrators in place who remain committed to collaborative education (I use this term as a catch-all for both enforced collaborative learning, as above, and for the defunding and discouragement of accelerated learning programs) to thwart reform.  The situation is a bit like that of universities whose Humanities departments remain wedded to Post-Modernism, Historicism, and Deconstructionism even though these theories are being discredited – there is still a committed core of professors and administrators who have built their careers on these theories, have tenure, and continue to preach.

The main reason, I believe, for this thinking is the pervasive and misplaced conviction on the part of most Americans that promoting ‘equality’ takes precedence over recognizing inequality as a fact of social life.  We cannot favor the highly intelligent because that will make less intelligent students seem inferior.  It will hurt their self-esteem.  It will cause irreparable social and psychological harm.  All of which further tips the balance to the underprivileged – they are ‘otherly gifted’, have one of many intelligences, each of which must be fostered and nurtured, again at the expense of the talented.  Society will always be unequal; and programs to engineer ‘equality’ have not and will not change that.  The grand Soviet experiment to do so failed miserably.  We are the beneficiaries of talented, creative Soviet scientists, thinkers, and artists who fled the ‘equal’ system.

To repeat: the issue is not to forget those students with ‘special needs’ but to redress the imbalance that favors them over the high-achievers.  This will require a cultural change, but one which will simply require education to leave the Sixties behind and catch up with the 21st Century.

In an increasingly competitive globalized world, we need to recognize and promote the Steve Jobses.   They are an incredibly valuable resource for the country; and while the Steve Jobs probably would have risen out of any form of mediocrity, there are other potential Steve Jobs who simply need the right educational environment in which to thrive, prosper, and excel.  His example is relevant, appropriate, and timely.

On a related issue, I have written before on the educational reforms suggested by Gov. Perry of Texas – reforms which would transform the public higher education system into one which would focus on productive learning, reserving taxpayers’ money for the preparation of students to be productive citizens, graduating with a marketable skill and a civic education.  Let the private universities teach art, literature, and philosophy and diversify their curricula as they will; but let public universities regain the confidence of the people to educate realistically and to focus on measurable performance, thus assuring cost-benefit.

The following blog post, again by Jay Matthews focuses on how elite universities are ‘still’ dominated by wealthy white and Asian students.  It seems, so concludes Matthews, that although the test scores and academic performance of black and Latino students have improved, those of white and Asian students have improved even more.


The University of Southern California has reacted to the news with shock – we have to increase the number of places for black and Latino students, they say.  Why?  California has had, up until recently at least, a very comprehensive public higher education system (like Virginia and I suspect many other states) which offers an ‘elite’ education, other four-year colleges, junior colleges, and community colleges.  There is an abundance of private institutions along the same spectrum.  Why, then, should top schools feel they have an obligation to educate less-qualified students, when there are plenty of lower-tier institutions which can educate them perfectly well.  The answer, referring to my comments above, is that we still have a misplaced belief in ‘equality’:  all students have the right to all education. 

There is nothing wrong, in my opinion, by acknowledging and promoting a comprehensive, tiered higher educational system.  We should restore to acceptability technical schools which teach trades – not just the traditional trades of electricians, plumbers, and carpenters; but IT trades as well.  We should keep the standards of our ‘elite’ universities high and accept only those students who pass rigorous application requirements.  We should maintain the high standards of lower-tier four- and two-year institutions; and as in the case of Texas, develop and apply rigorous evaluation tests to assure cost-effectiveness of programs.  Once again, I have nothing at all against providing quality education for all students who apply by assuring an appropriate education matched to a students abilities.  I am only against lowering standards of top institutions in a misguided attempt to serve social ends. 

Equality of educational opportunity in the best sense of the term, is to assure the best possible education for all students – but not the same education.