Friday, December 16, 2011

An iPod for the Economy

My son Grant, an otherwise brilliant man, is a Mitt Romney fan. Grant was an enthusiastic Obama supporter in 2008. His opinion of Obama today can be summarized as: “Sounds great, less filling.”

To give Grant his due, Romney has many good things in his background. His former business, private equity investing, isn’t entirely about stripping assets and cutting jobs. If you want to be successful, as Romney was, you have to invest for future growth. As governor, Romney brought universal health care to Massachusetts and was pro-choice.

But the Republican faithful don’t tolerate political heresy, and neither universal health care nor a woman’s right to choose is in their catechism. So Candidate Romney has slipped on vestments of conservative purity to cover Governor Romney’s tie-dyed-secular-socialist garb. My worry is that he (whoever that is) is beginning to think the coats of many colors look good on him.
(photo from
On the Democratic side, we are suffering from the kind of disappointment one feels when the preacher is possessed by the Devil. Obama promised he would usher in a new era of post-partisan progressivism, but, instead, Mitch McConnell and John Boehner ate his (and our) lunch.

Which brings me to Steve Jobs. As everyone on the planet knows by now, Jobs famously (and arrogantly) said it wasn’t the customers’ job to know what they wanted, it was his job to give it to them. Is it possible that we need more of that kind of thinking, that willingness to be judged entirely by results rather than popularity, in our political leaders? Someone to design an iPod for the economy; an iPhone for entitlement reform; an iPad for tax reform.

I’m not saying we’re children, that we can’t know what we want. What I am saying, though, is that we understand the outcomes we want better than the ways to get there. I love my iPad. I have no idea how it works.

I don’t believe in mysticism. I’m not looking for a cult leader. But I believe there are men and women among us who have staggeringly good ideas. They are not panderers, though, so they don’t run for office. We are the reason they don’t run. They don’t want to have to fight with us to get us to try something new; or risk not getting re-elected if they don’t do what we want them to. But if we were willing to listen to what they have to say, instead of telling them what we want to hear, perhaps we could discover new ways forward.

Most of today’s politicians seem more like hucksters than statesmen. I thought Obama was different (and maybe he is), but we are an impatient lot, and he has not parted the waters. The Republicans have made him look like a naif, and many, like my son Grant, are losing faith in him.

How did Steve Jobs pull it off? How did he make us listen? His designs were compelling, for one thing. You can say that there was less pressure on him to perform because lives don’t depend on mp3 players, but his did. And his products weren’t all about instant gratification. iTunes, one of his greatest legacies, took years to build.

We aren’t going to regain the promise of America if we don’t do the hard and patient work of laying the foundation for the future. If we flock to every quick-buck politician who tells us what we want to hear, we’re going to be left with little more than a lifetime supply of snake oil.

I don’t know all the things we must do to make a safe and prosperous future for our children and our grandchildren, but then I loved music for a lifetime without ever imagining a day when I could carry all my songs in my pocket.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Road to Understanding

This is a story about how I learn from my children. I have many opinions, some firmly held, that, when I think about them, I’m not sure why I have them. This is particularly so with economics, everything from fiscal and monetary policy to the responsibility of the state to its citizens. My sons Chris and Nick and Grant and I talk about economics all the time, and now that Chris is a senior at the University of Chicago, studying math and economics in the halls of Milton Friedman, he has been giving me books to read, most recently Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom.

This is also a story of how I learned from my father. In his thrall, I grew up a social Darwinist. This is not to say he was not compassionate. He helped the poor face to face, and I learned from him that that was our responsibility. He wasn’t so big on paying taxes so the government could help those he could not, however. I never made any money to speak of in those years, so I didn’t really have an opinion about taxes. I thought we ought to help the poor, or at least give them a fair chance to help themselves, but I didn’t have a very good notion of how to do either. Truthfully, growing up in a white-bread southern suburb, I had no idea what it meant to be poor.
Hayek would have appealed to Dad. Hayek was a fierce libertarian, who feared collectivism because he believed it inevitably led to totalitarianism, an understandable concern in the middle of the fight against Hitler and Mussolini, when The Road to Serfdom was written. John Maynard Keynes is widely regarded as Hayek’s rival in economic theory, and certainly Keynes was more favorably disposed to government intervention in recessions, but even though Hayek vigorously opposed state control of the economy, he did not think the state should abandon its citizens in bad times.

He wrote: “There is no reason why in a society which has reached the general wealth which ours has attained the first kind of security should not be guaranteed to all without endangering general freedom.” (The Road to Serfdom, chapter 9.) The “first kind of security” to which he refers is “the certainty of a given minimum of sustenance for all.” This is a long way from survival of the fittest.

In today’s New York Times, Nancy Koehn reviews a new book titled Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics. She points out that Keynes’s support of government spending was developed in desperate response to Britain’s chronic unemployment in the 1920s and 30s. For his part, Hayek learned to fear government spending because of his dread of inflation, which he had watched devastate his native Vienna in the 1920s. Where you stand depends on where you sit, as they say. But Keynes also feared socialism, and Hayek did not think the state should abandon its citizens to the depredations that flow from fluctuations in economic cycles: “[T]he very necessary efforts to secure  protection against these fluctuations do not lead to the kind of planning which constitutes such a threat to our freedom.”

Christopher Sims and Thomas Sargent were just awarded the Nobel Prize in economics for their work in trying to understand how the economy responds to various kinds of government action. This was work done in the 1970s. They still don’t know the answers. The reason: it’s complicated; individuals and markets don’t always perform predictably. There are just too many variables. “If I had a simple answer, I would have been spreading it around the world,” Sims said.

So, what have I learned? I guess the answer is that I have a better understanding of what the questions are, but not much better idea of the answers. I am confused and ambivalent. I know what I would like--greater economic opportunity for the poor and the middle class (the rich seem to be doing fine, thank you) and a social safety net that catches us if we fall too far--but I’m not sure how best to get there. Long term, the answers seem obvious: educate our children better so they can compete in the global economy; repair our infrastructure; and innovate. Short term, all I can hear is the shouting at Tea Party rallies and Occupy Wall Street.

I doubt that many in the Tea Party have waded through Hayek. They might find him too moderate. From that side of the political spectrum today, there is a lot of magical thinking going on: if we just got government out of the way, we’d all be fine. Yes, if you have your own private police force and don’t need to use the roads much. Otherwise, good luck.

And from the school of thought I now feel closer to--the Nancy Pelosi fringe, as some call it--there are also problems. A good heart does not pay off the national debt. A good heart does not eliminate government bloat and corruption. It is almost as big a fallacy to think we can just raise taxes and everything will be fine as it is to want to drown government in the bathtub.

So, when will we listen to one another; when will we sit down and reason together? If you believe John Kenneth Galbraith or Daniel Kahneman, not soon. In The Affluent Society (another book Chris gave me), Galbraith coined the term “Conventional Wisdom.” He said we all have too much invested in what we think at any given time to let pesky facts get in the way. Only when events overcome us (think boarding the rocket ship to leave an over-warmed planet), do we let go of our cherished preconceptions.

Or, as Kahneman put it in “The Surety of Fools,” in this morning’s New York Times Magazine: “The confidence we experience as we make a judgment is not a reasoned evaluation of the probability that it is right. Confidence is a feeling, one determined mostly by the coherence of the story and the ease with which it comes to mind, even when the evidence for the story is sparse and unreliable…Overconfidence arises because people are often blind to their own blindness.”

That’s my story, and I’m sticking with it.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

At the Corner of Self-Reliant and Selfish

They are bums, and that is why they are homeless.

These are people who have figured out that it's easier to beg than it is to work.

I think the homeless advocates are more interested in keeping the homeless problem going (rather than solving it) because to eliminate homelessness would eliminate their jobs. Governments and nonprofits want to increase the number of people who are dependent on handouts.

Like most people, I worked hard for and earned everything I have in life. I resent having to publicly support those who chose to hinder their existence by making bad life choices. Providing more assistance just gives people an easy way out and takes away their drive, pride, and work ethic.

Everybody has a story. So what? Why should Palo Alto have to take care of all the sad sacks?

Here in Palo Alto we have a place called the Opportunity Center. It was built five years ago to provide shelter and counseling for the homeless. Some feared it would be a magnet for homeless people from all over, but in the time since it opened the number of homeless in Palo Alto has fallen from 341 to 151. The center has given many a chance for a new life. One man has gone from the streets to studying biochemistry at a community college. He wants to be a doctor.

A recent story about the center by Sue Dremann in Palo Alto Online was followed by readers’ comments. Most were supportive. The ones quoted above were not. They are not unusual. You hear them anywhere homelessness or welfare is discussed. They call for hard work and self-reliance. You can almost hear John Philip Sousa playing or see John Wayne squinting into the brightness of the big sky.
Self-reliance is a myth, of course. Elizabeth Warren put it well recently when she said no one in this country does anything without help. We all rely on roads and public safety and free public education, provided by the government and paid for by taxes. When we pay our own taxes, we are just returning the gift given to us by those who came before.

We’d all like to think we can take care of ourselves. Dependence on anyone, family or social services, is no fun. Ultimately it is humiliating. We lose confidence that we are worth anything to anyone, even ourselves. We get depressed. We drink. We do drugs. We do stupid, self-destructive things. Is that a choice we make, or do we just walk out of the unemployment line and keep putting one foot in front of the other until at last we are completely lost?

I don’t think even the least charitable among us cares if someone else privately helps a person in need. Many don’t want to be told they have to help, though. They don’t want their tax money spent on people they suspect are just milking the system. They might be paragons of personal charity. They might volunteer in soup lines. They might be the first to stop and help a stranger change a flat tire. But they want to see the need with their own eyes, and they want to choose for themselves whom to help.

None of us wants to be told what to do by a government we’re pretty sure is bloated and inefficient, maybe even corrupt. This is the vein, black as coal, the Tea Party mines. This feeling that our government has lost touch with us, that it is working for someone else, and using our money to do it.

But the solution can’t be found on some Western movie set where everybody is ruggedly independent and fends for himself. In today’s complex and crowded world, we are all bound together by not only our common aspirations, but by our common needs for security, education and livelihood. The answer is not to tear down the creaky old house that shelters us, but to remodel it.

The Opportunity Center is a good example of just such a remodeling project. It was funded by a combination of government and private grants. It has both paid and volunteer staff. Law students from Stanford volunteer their time to help people navigate government and private programs for housing and employment. The Palo Alto Medical Foundation provides free medical and psychiatric care. A year or so after the Opportunity Center opened, my son Christopher wrote an article for his high-school newspaper about a new city police department plan to focus more on helping the homeless than arresting then.

So, if the Opportunity Center is a model of compassionate and effective joint governmental and private action, how does one explain the negative comments above? Hard to say. Perhaps those people are bigoted toward the poor. Perhaps they are afraid they could end up like that themselves. Perhaps they are just selfish.

I don’t think they speak for most of us, though. Almost everyone now is frustrated with government. That frustration and the related sense of powerlessness can lend appeal to simplistic fixes like Grover Norquist’s stated objective of shrinking the federal government down to the size that can be drowned in the bathtub. That makes a clever sound-bite, but it is ridiculously impractical.

Private enterprise will not meet all our basic needs. There just isn’t enough profit in fire, police, roads, education, the electric grid, clean water or social safety nets. If we want to take care of ourselves, we’re going to have to do that most American of all things: roll up our sleeves and get about the business of repairing government at all levels, so that it not only meets our needs but can be trusted with our money.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Hold Mail

I like the mail. I have the same sentimental affection for it that I have for the pocket watch my grandfather carried. I remember waiting for the mail carrier to deliver my self-addressed stamped envelopes, the ones writers used to send to agents so they could mail us rejection forms without having to pay postage. I used to call the mail truck “the shadow,” because the fear of rejection is almost as great as the fear of death. We all use email now. It’s quick and painless enough to pass muster as not constituting cruel and unusual punishment.

Still, the mail comes every day. Even though there is not much important in it nowadays, you can’t let it pile up in your mailbox when you’re out of town, so every time we go away I log onto and submit a hold mail request. I have a user name and password, just like on every other website. The post office website never remembers me, though. I have to fill in my full name and address every time. The site is slow and cumbersome, and several times I have come home to a box stuffed with random mail, like Tuesday’s and Saturday’s. I’ve taken to printing the confirmation of my mail hold and taping it inside the mailbox door so it pops up to scare away mail.

On a recent trip, Meg and I decided to play hooky a little longer, so I went online to extend my mail hold. Oops. No can do without the confirmation number, the one taped to the mailbox like a string of garlic.

Desperate to avoid post office Muzak and endless transfers deeper into the bowels of bureaucracy, I emailed the customer service department and begged for help. After a few days (standard time for mail delivery, apparently, even the electronic kind) a nice woman named Linda responded. She addressed me as “Page,” the name of my mother, whose bills I used to pay from my home; Mom has been dead for three years now, so having the post office call out to her was a little weird.

My half-dozen emails with Linda went like this: Linda: Here’s how you do it. Me: Tried that, didn’t work. Linda: The confirmation number should be right there, upper left corner. Me: Nope. Linda: If you placed the hold by calling the post office, you can’t extend online. Me: No, I placed the hold online (thinking, I just told you that). Linda: If your request has expired, you can’t extend online. Me: The request has not expired; can’t you just send me the number? Linda: Sorry, you can only get the number by logging on with your username and password. Back to square one. Frankly, given that her responses were so determinedly unhinged from the reality of my facts, I was kind of disappointed that Linda didn’t ask how Mom was.

The exchange was not fruitless, though. I learned two lessons. Number one: write down your hold mail confirmation number; otherwise, you’ll never see it again. Number two: don’t stockpile “forever stamps.” Mailmen and women are an intrepid lot. They deserve our gratitude, and a gold watch. Neither snow nor rain nor heat has stayed completion of their appointed rounds. But the Internet is a storm of a whole other magnitude.

(Epilogue: As Linda directed, I called the post office and asked them to hold the mail for four more days. When we got home, on our porch was a basket of all the mail that had been held for three weeks. It had been there for four days.)

Monday, October 3, 2011

Frodo and the Lost Boys

Chris and Nick used to bodysurf in Santa Barbara, and Frodo, our golden retriever, would swim out with them. I think he was trying to rescue them. He swam back and forth from one to the other and they came in with big scratches on their chests from his paddling front paws. I would go out with them to distract him, but he was never interested in me. Finally I would have to take him in bodily and walk down the beach with him so they could surf unmolested. Even then, when we were hundreds of yards away, he would look back over his shoulder and take off back to them.
Meg and I are in Santa Barbara now with Frodo. No boys. They’re off at college. We walk on the beach with him and throw sticks in the water and he has a big time. Today she took him down without me and he spotted two boys out in the surf, one with a blue suit like Chris’s and one with a red suit like Nick’s. He was sure it was them. He swam out to one of them and when he saw it wasn’t Chris or Nick he swam to the other and then back again to the first one. One of the boys came out with him and he walked with Meg a moment and then, as though certain he just must not have checked carefully enough, he swam out to them again.

He’s back home now, stretched out on the patio in the sun. I wonder what he is thinking, whether he is wondering where Chris and Nick are. I wonder if he thinks about them when he can’t see them. I wonder if he is just like Meg and me.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Circus is Leaving Town

The roustabouts have packed up the tent and the performers are shuffling onto the train out of town, looking a little dazed, wondering how the crowds that adored them could have just melted away. The land where the big-top stood is parched and dusty. The back fence is littered with trash. No one seems to care about picking it up. The townsfolk have gone back home. They are watching their televisions. It’s too hot outside to do anything else.

The New Deal is headed out of town. It was a good show while it lasted. Some say it had gotten lazy and soft, and not as many people came as used to, but still it’s hard to believe it’s leaving. No one knows what the town will be like without it. One thing is certain: there won’t be another place where average folks can gather to make their lives a little brighter. They’ll have to make do on their own now.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Back to Kindergarten

My granddaughter Sadie started kindergarten this year. Again. She went to kindergarten last year at a private school. Now she will be attending public school, and under the district’s rules her September birthday makes her a few weeks too young to start first grade. So it’s back to kindergarten.

It’s a very nice kindergarten. The teacher is nice. The other kids are nice. They sing the alphabet song. The only problem is that Sadie doesn’t need practice learning the alphabet; she can already read. She’s bored to tears. The principal asked her how school was, and she said, “School is great, it’s just too babyish.”
the last lazy days of summer
This is an inauspicious start to a life of loving learning. Who among us loves things (or people) we find boring? Our minds crave stimulation. If school doesn’t provide it, we seek it elsewhere; and elsewhere isn’t always the best place to get an education, whatever that is.

I say “whatever that is,” because I’m just not sure anymore. I think I understand the desired outcome, but I am less and less certain about the optimal process. For a few years now I have been following the education debate: No Child Left Behind; Race to the Top; Charter Schools. We are trying to figure it out, but it’s not clear we are making much progress. Maybe the problem is resistance from entrenched interests, like teachers’ unions; perhaps it stems from niggardly public funding; or parents working two jobs (or none) who can’t adequately support their children in school. Sometimes it seems that our teachers are exhausted with the effort. For every Jamie Escalante (“Stand and Deliver”) there are many more who are just trying to survive in poor physical and socio-economic conditions.

Our approach to educating children isn’t too different from the one Henry Ford took to building cars. He cranked them out on an assembly line. You could have any color, as long as it was black. Like Henry Ford’s manufacturing system, our model for educating children was developed in response to the evolution of our society from agrarian to industrial. People moved off the farms and into towns, and we committed to educate their children. It was a marvelous and noble national undertaking: free education for all. It would raise up not only our children but our entire nation. The veil of ignorance would be drawn back and a literate and civilized society would emerge.

And, in many respects, it has happened that way. Especially when you take into account the tremendous diversity that goes with being a country of immigrants, we have done a pretty good job. Not as good as some smaller more homogeneous societies, perhaps, but pretty good.

But pretty good won’t be good enough for the future. The choice is no longer between plowing the fields or working in a factory. Today’s jobs require highly adaptable workers with enthusiasm for new challenges and the emotional skills to work well as part of a team. Preparing them for that, and for their roles as informed citizens in an interactive democracy, is no longer a utopian goal, but a national economic and civic necessity.

And yet we are, for the most part, still cranking out black Fords. Who can blame anyone on the assembly line for being fatalistic? The exceptions---in wealthy school districts or at the odd magnet school or charter school---are like specialty hot-rod makers: they turn out cool-looking cars, but not in numbers large enough to meet the needs of more than a few.

Perhaps it is time to consider doing something fundamentally different. I hate to even say that for fear it may cause you to stop reading right here, thinking: Oh, great, another hopelessly idealistic idea for how to reform education. Look around, fool, nothing is going to change.

But that’s not true. Our society is changing all the time, for the better in many ways. Unfortunately, I don’t think education is keeping up. At a time when we are more diverse than ever, when access to information and technology is exploding, when we should be entering a new era of literacy and civility, we are still making black Fords.

Kids start school at the same age and by and large march along in lockstep, studying curricula designed to be appropriate for the average student. But many are brighter and could do more if offered the chance; and many are struggling to keep up. On both ends of that spectrum, the result is the same: boredom. The bright kids find their excitement outside the classroom, and so do the struggling ones.

I don’t know what an average child is. After raising five children, I don’t think average exists. Each of us is infinitely more complex than average. Our behavior may match some typical pattern, but not our thoughts. Our thoughts are our own, no one else’s, and they are what drive us. Our families, our peers, our teachers are all just screens onto which we project ourselves. We determine who we are and what we will do. No one else. We are more headstrong and self-directed, and from an earlier age, than we realize. Our families and friends and teachers can influence us, but they do not really guide us. We guide ourselves.

If that is true, what does it mean for education policy? I suggest it means we need to quit treating our children like cattle to be herded from one pen to another, or cars to have their parts installed and their exteriors painted black. We need to permit them to be individuals, to guide themselves.

Sadie’s dad, my son Grant, told me he hoped Sadie would be permitted to help some of the other kindergartners who weren’t as far along in reading as she; he thought that might give her some stimulation and be good for her self-esteem, both of which should make her school experience more satisfying and enjoyable. It sounds a bit one-room-school-housish, but I think he’s right.

So did Maria Montessori, the founder of the Montessori school movement in the late 1800s. Her ideas were maligned by the education establishment and have since been marginalized as something like bohemian incubators. Still, some of what she championed makes a lot of sense. For instance, she said children of different ages should be taught together, say 6-9 and 9-12. This not only facilitates growth at the pace that suits the child, it also permits the kind of mentoring Grant hopes Sadie can offer her classmates.

Sadie will be okay. Her mom has talked to the principal about getting her some special learning opportunities, going to the library to read, that sort of thing, but what about all the other Sadies out there? What will they do when they are bored in school? Will their parents go to bat for them, or will they just figure, as so many of us do, that the school is doing its job? After a while, the kids stop complaining. They want to fit in. Their peers become their teachers.

Sadie’s dad knows all about that. He was bored all through high school. His solution was to drop water balloons off the school balconies and toss smoke bombs into the classrooms. If we had lived in Watts or the south side of Chicago instead of a white-bread L.A. suburb, his restless antics might have had more unfortunate, life-altering, consequences.

It seems to me that we have gotten into thinking that if we set up the facilities and staff them and force the kids to attend we are doing our job of educating our future generations. I just don’t think so. The Sadie’s aren’t getting enough challenge, and the students who are having a hard time learning, or just aren’t interested in what is being taught, are biding their time until they are old enough to tell the school system to fuck off.

The goal of classical education is to create Renaissance men and women. But how many remember what they learned in high school? How many use that knowledge later in their lives? How many are better citizens and neighbors for what they have learned in school. Instead of Renaissance men, too often we are generating dropouts who matriculate to prison rather than college. Even our high-achievers badly lag other countries in math and science. We don’t seem to be getting it right on either end of the scale.

Somehow we need to create more flexibility, more choices, more paths. We need to take that eagerness and wonder that almost every five-year-old brings to the first day of kindergarten and cherish it. A way to do that, both for kids who are struggling and for those who are bright and restless, is to give them a chance to exercise some control over their educations. This is what Maria Montessori advocated. She knew we all do better on things we like; and that almost everyone likes something: science, writing, painting, theatre, math, music. Her idea was to let kids, from an early age, begin to decide what they would like to study and to let them spend more time on that. To give them a reason to want to come to school every day to do what they had chosen, what they were excited about. Not just a legal requirement, but a reason: the passion of curiosity and discovery.

I’m not suggesting that we abandon a core curriculum, certainly not in elementary and high school, but I think it can be fundamentally re-examined. History is perspective, but we teach dates. What we need to know about history, so that we are less likely to repeat its mistakes, is what it says about how we interact with one another as citizens of nations. Something we might call social psychology could focus on how we treat one another not as nations but as communities and groups. More than ever, advancing our civilization depends on understanding how we all fit together in our increasingly crowded habitat.

And speaking of habitat, a responsible core curriculum, one aimed and educating citizens capable of being wise stewards of our planet, would explore what we are doing when we burn rain forests and fossil fuels. The time for turning our faces from the skeletal children of drought-stricken Somalia is past, if not on moral grounds then on the very practical grounds that we are all connected now, like a giant weather system; a storm in one part of the world has consequences for the rest of it. We need to understand this. We need to create opportunities for kids to discover it for themselves, to make it their passion.

You can’t measure passion with a test score. A test is a static image of what has been learned, not the thing itself. It says nothing about what the pupil will do with what he or she has learned. It says nothing about whether he or she gives a damn about any of it. Intellectual curiosity---about something, anything---and the excited pursuit of that curiosity to wherever it leads are the flames that must be lit and kept alive in our children. For the sake of the bright kids who are about to be bored, and the struggling kids who are about to give up, those of us thinking about education policy might do well to go back to kindergarten.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Golf Buddy

Chris sent me a stuffed bear for father’s day. He's in Chicago for the summer, doing economics research with one of his professors. He's been off at college for three years now, and increasingly his visits are like those of adult children, a couple of weeks a few times a year. When he's home, Chris and I like to play golf together, and the bear has golf clubs on his back. I’m going to sew the little guy onto the headcover of my driver so he’ll be there every time I play. Like Tiger’s headcover, but with a different message.
When Chris and Nick were twelve and ten, we moved to Palo Alto. Our house was small and we didn’t have much storage, so we got into the habit of giving away things we didn’t need. One day we culled their stuffed animal collection and took a bag of furry loved ones to Goodwill. I still remember those adorable little faces pressed against the inside of the plastic bag, as if they were looking for a way out, or at least to know where they were going: Woody and Buzz on the way to Sunnyside Daycare.

I guess all parents who can afford them give their children stuffed animals. And all children love to get them. I remember all the times I was working too hard, traveling far from home for too long, and coming home with a raccoon or a bunny. Grant and Ashley played for hours with Junior the raccoon and Baby Brambles. Somehow Brambles always ended up on top of a jutting ceiling overhang, and I would have to bring in the ladder to rescue her until her next flight from that scary, sadistic raccoon.

On airplanes to New York or some other city where there were deals to do I would think of Junior and Brambles and Grant and Ashley lying on the couch at home on Saturday mornings playing out their stuffed animal roles. That image made me feel connected to them. Coming home from those trips, in the six hours across the country, looking out the window, I would always get maudlinly sentimental about having to be away from my children. I couldn’t even listen to Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle” in those days.

With Chris and Nick I was home more, so the stuffed animals were more for them than for me. I wasn’t begging for forgiveness all the time, at least not for being away too much. I’ve noticed, though, that whatever my level of parenting guilt, my children always loved their furry friends. They found some comfort in them that was in part derivative of their parents’ love and in part something entirely different. A kind of totem of unconditional love and acceptance. A companion who never scolded, never left home.

The way we relate to people we love can be perplexing. We miss them so much when we are away from them and then when we get together sometimes we can’t wait to be away again. That kind of push pull can be amusing, or tragic. We are built to love, and built to be selfish. In my case anyway, that conflict seems to play out every day.

Not so with stuffed animals, though. They always have that little raccoon smile. Or rabbit. Or bear. They are always patient. They don’t mind if you neglect them. They require no apology for your transgressions. They will listen as long as you want to talk. It’s no wonder children drag them around with them everywhere. Take them to bed. Dress them in pretty clothes. Toss them up in the rafters.

For my part, I’m taking my new golfing buddy out with me every time I play. He’ll be with me there on every shot. I’ll ask him what club he thinks I should hit. He won’t blush when I swear. He won’t tell on me if I kick my ball out from behind a tree. It won’t be like having Chris there, but it will be a part of him with me. The part that I know loves me no matter what.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Toys for The Road

Nick's nineteenth birthday was May 15. He was on a tour with his college men’s glee club at the time. One of their stops was Cuba. What fun. I told him to buy me a 55 Chevy while he was there, so I could relive my youth. When he got home, Meg made him a coconut crème cake and we asked him what he wanted for his birthday. He said he didn’t know. He said he would think about it.
Here we are almost a month later and I still can’t get him to say he wants anything. It’s quite frustrating---not for him, for me. I love to shop for tech toys, which is what, as a computer science major, he usually likes. I like to look online for them and read the reviews and, when they come, see them all shiny and new. Sometimes it seems that I want Nick to have a birthday present more than he does. Maybe it’s generational. Perhaps he instinctively realizes something I am only slowly waking up to.

Back when General Motors made that 1955 Chevy I remember so fondly, when the promise of our future was as bright as new paint, John Kenneth Galbraith began writing about the changes that occur in nations as they become more affluent, as they move from an agrarian economy to one based on manufacturing production. After they have satisfied their most basic needs---food, shelter, clothing---they begin producing things they don’t absolutely need but merely want. This is how they keep the economy growing.

Our ability to imagine new things to want might have failed us, leaving too little demand for goods, had not advertising rushed to the rescue, creating an appetite for things we had never dreamed we wanted. Throw in a dose of wanting to keep up with the Joneses, and you have the basis for our modern consumer-based economy.

In this context, it’s pretty easy to see that Nick is a problem. Wanting as little as he does is positively unpatriotic. Old Joe McCarthy, were he still alive, would want to reopen the HUAC hearings.

Ever since Nick’s older brother Chris gave me Galbraith’s book last year, I’ve been wondering whether an economy based on demand synthesized by advertising is sustainable. Despite Nick’s relative monkishness, I think I have been worrying in vain. For one thing, the rest of the developing world has followed our example with fervor. Thousands of eager new consumers are being created every day in China and India. And they are still at the stage of wanting some pretty basic things; that demand isn’t going to let up anytime soon. No, the problem isn’t that consumerism isn’t sustainable, for it may well be, it is that the raw materials that feed the beast, the very Earth itself, is not.

Thomas Friedman wrote in The New York Times recently that we are outgrowing our planet. Citing Paul Gilding of the Global Footprint Network, Friedman says we are rapidly depleting Earth’s resources. “Right now, global growth is using about 1.5 Earths. The consumer driven growth model is broken and we have to move to a more happiness driven model, based on people earning less and owning less.” More walks with the kids and fewer trips to the mall.

It’s a lovely notion, really, but it suggests a couple of problems. First, what about those folks, both here and in other countries, who already own less, even less than it takes to live? The walks they take are not around Walden Pond but to search for food or water or medical care for their starving children.

Second, how is living Thoreau’s ideal life going to put bread on the table, individually or collectively? At least consumerism gives us something to do: jobs producing things, money to spend, things to buy, more things to produce, more jobs. What will replace the consumer economy?

In The Affluent Society Galbraith pointed out that the production of private goods requires an increase in related public services: roads for cars, trash collection for packaging, hospitals for smokers and drinkers. These public services always lag behind the need for them created by private production. And in most cases the private producer does not have to pay to clean up the mess it has made. This is left to government, which must collect taxes to pay the trash men.

Private production has fueled our growth as a nation.  It has raised the living standard of most of us and is beginning to do the same in developing countries. But it is wreaking havoc on our habitat. As Paul Gilding said in the Friedman column: “We are heading for a crisis-driven choice. We either allow collapse to overtake us or develop a new sustainable economic model.”

What might that new model be? Production has been the means of expression of capitalism, and capitalism has been the driving force behind American economic success. If we moved away from private production, would we be giving up the secret of our success?

So far at least, the capitalism genie has served private production almost exclusively, offering little of its magic to public services. Presumably because of this, private production is flourishing, while social services lag. Too many American businesses are living like over-indulged teenagers, consuming and leaving their trash wherever they (or we) drop it, assuming mom and dad (working for the government) will pick it up, sometimes not seeming to care whether it gets picked up or not.

Can our teenaged alter egos ever be taught to be more responsible? Perhaps. If the object of their adolescent lust, capitalism, is yoked to public service.

A good place to start would be to insist that private production be responsible for the true costs of its products. People don’t mind paying for products, but we don’t much like paying the taxes that are levied to accommodate or clean up after them. If the full societal cost of the product were included in its price, consumers would have a truer choice about whether what they wanted to buy was really worth it to them. As it now stands, private production is heavily subsidized by taxes. A significant percentage of our tax bill goes to pay for the needs created by, or the negative consequences of, the production of goods, including products we ourselves, individually, may not have chosen to consume.

Big levies on products like cigarettes, sodas and gasoline would generate funds to deal with the damage these products cause. Oil companies could be required not only to clean up pollution but also to develop alternative energy sources. Cigarette companies could be required to build clinics and contribute to medical research. Soda companies would develop programs to teach kids healthy eating habits, build playgrounds and gymnasiums. Newsprint suppliers and cardboard box makers would build re-cycling plants and manage sustainable forests.

If products had to pay their own way, consumption of those with high negative externalities would likely decrease. Businesses would look for less troublesome substitutes. The free market would work its magic.

You wouldn’t have to have a boatload of government bureaucrats to administer this kind of thing. All you would need would be a few smart men and women with the power to shut down any business that wasn’t cleaning up after itself. The survival instincts of the market would do the rest.

And isn’t this what it’s all about at this point: survival? Not just of a particular business, but of our way of life, our planet? Is it too much to ask that those who want to do business on Earth not contribute to its demise?

Of course, this isn’t the nineteenth century. Here in America we no longer operate in relative isolation. If we impose high costs on our products to pay for their social costs, our products will be at a price disadvantage in world markets. Our exports will go down. Meanwhile, fast growing countries like China and India will be able to continue to crank out low-cost products to fuel their own growth, and they will want to sell them to us.

They will, in the case of China, even artificially keep the value of their currency low to reduce the cost of their products to us. They will use our consumerism, in other words, to build themselves up, no matter the cost to us and to the global environment. They will do this because they are desperate for growth to raise their people out of abject poverty. Who can blame them?

Understanding their motivation, though, even sympathizing with it, doesn’t mean we have to go along. A big part of me loves free trade (the same part that loves unfettered capitalism), but like capitalism, trade must be constrained sometimes. We will have to impose import tariffs to keep our products from being uncompetitive to American buyers. It is unlikely that those tariffs will be reciprocated (or need be), because our products will already be over-priced in foreign markets.

This will isolate us somewhat, at least until the rest of the world sees the necessity for what we are doing. And that may not be for a while yet. Another of Galbraith's observations was that the Conventional Wisdom holds sway until confronted with an irrefutable crisis. Not this year, not next, but eventually, likely within decades, over-consumption and climate change will give the world those crises: national water wars caused by drought; massive food shortages and human migration, like wildebeest on the African veldt, caused by both drought and flooding.

When finally shocked into action, the rest of the world will be looking for a model of how to respond. If we have acted wisely, they can follow our lead, just as they did in moving to consumerism and production. They learned the habits we had when we were young, and later they will gain the wisdom we must now acquire.

And if they don’t? Well, there are limits to how much influence we can have on others. We can talk to them. We can try to persuade them. But their interests are different than ours, more fundamentally desperate. They may not listen.

Should it come to that, in a world that looks more like The Road than Walden, we here in the United States have most of the essential resources needed for survival, especially water. Many developing countries are not as fortunate. If climate change causes prolonged droughts, they will be in trouble. But as broken as our hearts would be at their misery, if they will not act now to save themselves, we need not follow them off the cliff.

Paul Gilding and his colleagues at the Global Footprint Network are not alone. Many who study population growth and climate change believe we are already past the tipping point. In their view, the only alternative now is adaptation. If we want to be among the survivors, we had better get on about it.