Friday, October 31, 2014

Descending Sequence

     'It was a fearful thing
     to come into a man's heart...'
                                     —William Carlos Williams, "Winter Sunset"

What I thought to be a river
turned out to be sky.
What I thought were shore, island,
rocks, river-mist,
turned out to be clouds, shadow,
shot-holes in sky's canvas.
Even the deepest shade
down near the horizon
turned out not to be earth,
the real horizon was lower still.
At the oblong world's
very base,
further darkness, a round-topped tree,
a telephone pole, the sharp
ridge of a roof, chimney, gable end:
silhouettes on a sky
differently white, not the illusory
river's whiteness—and all
very small under the huge
vista above. Small,
as if in fear.

—Denise Levertov

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Eusociality, Morality and Political Systems

Over time, it seems that my view of human nature as it relates to religion, morality and political systems has diverged considerably from the ideas that most people hold these days. I have always believed in evolution, but when I read The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins, in the 1990's I began to become a radical Darwinian. This involved the recognition that we are here as the result of random events, meaning that life as we know it was far from inevitable. More recently, I have been influenced by Edward O. Wilson's application of eusociality to humans. I thought that I should say something more about these concepts, because they relate to many of the views that I have presented on this blog.

According to Wilson, humans are eusocial animals because they have these features: division of labor, overlapping generations and cooperative care of the young, including ones that are not their own. Certainly it is a bit of a stretch to relate humans to social insects on this basis, but from my point of view this is simply an opening through which to look at basic human nature as it relates to genetic predispositions. There is growing evidence that the cooperation humans engage in is the central ingredient that allowed our distant ancestors to survive while all other Homo species became extinct. Human cooperation is linked to the development of language, large brains, and, ultimately, consciousness. It is also the basis for all modern societies and, by association, most modern religions.

Although humans have never behaved as mechanically as ants, it is a useful thought experiment to consider what human life would be like if we had no innate tendency to form cooperative groups. If you have a hard time visualizing this scenario, it's because it is almost unimaginable. Humans would never have developed language, agriculture, villages or technology. We would in all likelihood be extinct. Any humans who managed to survive would probably live in a manner similar to chimpanzees or other primates.

I think there is a great deal of naïveté even among educated people about why we are the way we are and how our institutions came into existence, and this has ongoing manifestations in religious, moral and political thought. In my interpretation, religions have historically supplied worldviews that unify groups and permit them to form hierarchies that provide organization and functionality to groups of varying sizes. In a very small group, a religious leader might provide explanations that calm the group and prevent its disintegration. Until recently, there was often no separation of church and state: a theocracy was a natural form of organization that often worked quite well. Because of advances in science and global population growth, we are currently in a transitional period that could play out in several different ways.

In ancient times, some populations could live in proximity to other tribes and scarcely know that they existed. Because of population growth and advances in transportation, that is impossible now. Most of the conflicts of modern history have to do with different cultures coming into contact with one another and competing for natural resources. The British and the French in particular swiftly set up exploitative colonial systems that reaped benefits for hundreds of years. More recently, the American colonies, which consisted primarily of British settlers, decided not to be exploited by Britain any longer, as they were able to manage their own affairs. The U.S., however, copied the British model and continued to exploit slaves, who were used for inexpensive labor, and Native Americans, who were removed from their ancestral lands in order to make space for settlers and allow unfettered access to natural resources.

Because many early settlers of the U.S. came to escape religious persecution, the U.S. became the first major country to support the separation of church and state. Initially this may have had to do with the desire of immigrants to escape religious persecution, but eventually, because of the influx of people from diverse cultures, toleration of differing religious views on American soil became a necessity. It may be difficult for younger people to understand it now, but John F. Kennedy was a controversial presidential candidate in 1960 simply because he was Catholic.

My personal view is that there is currently little point in belonging to any religion. It is no longer necessary in the West to use religion to express one's affiliation with a group. This is not to say that religion has no significance. The medieval universities were primarily Christian, and much of modern Western civilization, including the sciences, developed within that tradition. There will always be church teachings that have some relevance, but I don't believe that any church has real authority, and scientific knowledge, though not always complete or satisfying, is still in the process of replacing church dogma. I consider large religious organizations to be on the verge of obsolescence.

One of the historical purposes of religion has been to provide a basis for moral authority and law. However, most church dogma is becoming irrelevant today. Particularly in monotheistic religions, once you take God out of the equation, there is nothing left to back up church ideology. After the emergence of Protestantism, erosion of church authority began to accelerate with the Enlightenment. In most developed countries today, the church plays no role in governance, and faith is treated as a private matter. Yet the transition away from church teachings in government is ongoing, and the conceptual basis of morality and law is still shifting.

Some now think of morality as a form of rationality, like Kant's categorical imperative. To me this is nonsense. It is more appropriate to look at human behavior first to determine the origin of moral behavior. I believe that its primary source is an instinct for group preservation. While there are indeed contexts in which rational self-interest may explain apparent moral behavior, I do not believe moral behavior would generally exist as a phenomenon were it not for a deeply implanted genetic predisposition that is supported and encouraged within human cultures. Because we are large, complex organisms, morality can only be loosely codified in our genetic makeup, and the resulting inconsistencies in individual behavior tend to mislead some into thinking of moral behavior as a rational choice. The fact is that, because of our complexity, any individual is capable of acting both morally and immorally while being fully aware of what constitutes right and wrong. I believe that it is a mistake to look for a source of morality beyond the context of human evolution and natural selection.

Another aspect of human life that ought to be examined in light of our knowledge of evolutionary processes is systems of governance. Here again I believe that we are in a transitional period. Possibly one of the most deeply-rooted instincts is to have a single leader such as a chief, king, pope or president. Although the Founding Fathers rejected the notion of monarchy, which they correctly associated with unfairness and the abuse of power, gradual increases in presidential power in the U.S. are probably to some extent indicative of an innate predisposition among humans to have concentrated sources of political and spiritual authority within their groups. This is an area where I think some of the ideas of the Enlightenment need reexamination.

In a nutshell, I believe that the concepts of governance that arose during the Enlightenment are shortsighted and incorrect, because they predated Darwin and place an unrealistic emphasis on human rationality. To make matters worse, subsequent political thinkers such as Karl Marx did not make any effort to incorporate Darwinian ideas into their thoughts and dismissed altogether the relevance of biology in the construction of political theories. The capitalist democracy is now the default system for most developed countries, and this state of affairs is probably little more than an accident of history. During the 18th and 19th centuries, many European groups that had undergone religious, political or economic repression were attracted to the U.S. because of the freedoms it offered, and because their circumstances improved dramatically here no one critically analyzed whether this was a sustainable model when seen from the vantage point of all of humanity. My view is that the U.S. started as a quick fix for social inequality in Europe and escaped scrutiny as a model only because the timeframe in which people judged its success was too short. Obviously it seemed perfect to those who were unemployed and starving when they found jobs, food and shelter after arriving. However, there is no evidence that the system set up in the U.S. is one that can last for a thousand years and be modeled throughout the world without ill effects.

The two main areas in which I think the American system has failed are environmental destruction and inequality. The success of the economy and the political system rests on pollution and the segmentation of society on the basis of wealth. As the largest polluter in the history of the world, the U.S. bears a proportionate share of the responsibility for anthropogenic global warming and the associated mass extinctions. And, as Thomas Piketty amply documents, wealth inequality is likely to increase if we remain on our current trajectory. The fact is that the Founding Fathers had no idea what the long-term consequences of pollution might be - they didn't even know that pollution could damage the planet - and their ideas about equality are unacceptable by modern standards. Slavery? No problem. Female votes? Forget it. From my point of view, these were not small errors in the plan that crept in through the cracks, but are symptomatic of a limited system that was created in an ad hoc manner and has already proven itself unfair and unsustainable.

I advocate an orderly transition to a post-capitalist society in which people live equally, fulfilling their eusocial instincts, but without the democratic system with which we are familiar. In my view, capitalism must end eventually, because any benefits that accrue from it are likely to be negated by its destructive effects. Once a certain technological level is reached - and we are probably very close - there will be very little need for further technological advancement, and it is conceivable that working for a living will become unnecessary. Currently the democratic process is intertwined with economics, and a large percentage of legislation, in the abstract, boils down to how wealth is to be distributed. If wealth were permanently equalized, most of what we now think of as democracy would serve no purpose. In the long run, I think that some sort of automated system containing equality algorithms may work best for mankind, with active democratic processes continuing mainly at the local level, where individual participation may remain relevant. Technologically, I don't think we're far from creating artificial intelligence that will be capable of thinking better than we can and that won't have private agendas like those that still infect politics. At the moment it is, if anything, unsettling to think that the people in the federal government in Washington, D.C. are determining our future. Any political system that isn't based on a deep understanding of human nature is destined to fail. Abuse of power is no less apparent in modern democracies than it was in the old European monarchies.

Sunday, October 26, 2014


Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren't lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.

—Dorothy Parker

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Ache of Marriage

The ache of marriage:

thigh and tongue, beloved,
are heavy with it,
it throbs in the teeth

We look for communion
and are turned away, beloved,
each and each

It is leviathan and we
in its belly
looking for joy, some joy
not to be known outside it

two by two in the ark of
the ache of it.

 —Denise Levertov

Monday, October 20, 2014

Lost in Translation

In the process of taking up poetry again, I have been rereading various poems in translation and am thinking about some of the problems associated with translation. Language has always troubled me. I was slow to talk, bad at learning other languages, and didn't read much until I went to college. Even now I am not usually talkative. In high school I preferred math and science because they were more precise than the other subjects. When I studied philosophy in college, my main interest was the clear expression of ideas in English.

It seems to me that ordinary prose can be translated from one language to another in a relatively straightforward way. There may be difficulties finding comparable terms, and some concepts may have more circulation in one language than another. The structures of the languages may differ, but it seems as if it would usually be fairly easy to translate the basic ideas in a sentence from one language to another. The translation of basic prose would not necessarily have to capture all of the subtleties, if any, in the original.

When greater precision in translation is required, as in fiction, essays or technical papers, difficulties begin to arise. Technical papers probably preempt many of the obstacles with the adoption of universal technical language that obviates the need for the translation of crucial content. Essays may include more subtleties than ordinary prose, but, assuming that both languages have traditions that include essay-writing, with attention to detail, translations can be made. Much larger problems must arise in the case of translating literary fiction. Here, the author may have used lyrical writing, unconventional word choices, slang, colloquialisms, obscure cultural references, unusual sentence structures, etc., that do not lend themselves readily to translation. I suspect that the results in translated fiction may tend to be somewhat unsatisfactory, since some aspects of the author's original intent may not survive in translation.

This brings me to poems, and I think that in many cases their translations must be complete disasters. When I read poems from other languages that have been translated into English, I often feel that they have a clunky, aesthetically grating quality and wonder what it would be like to experience them in the original. Similarly, I don't see how any of my favorite poems could survive translation into another language. Rhymes and rhythms may be impossible to duplicate. When a poet has fretted over each word, its position, the line breaks, the spacing and the punctuation within the poem, any change at all may instantly ruin the entire poem or at least divert its effect to something other than what the poet intended.

For this last reason I am inclined to read only poems that were originally composed in English. And in English it is tempting to read only those poems that are in close proximity in geography and time to the here and now. The farther away one gets, the more the uses of language diverge from the familiar, and correct interpretation becomes more problematic. Dictionaries are a recent invention, and even so they require periodic revisions if they are to maintain their accuracy.

Saturday, October 18, 2014


When I opened the door
I found the vine leaves
speaking among themselves in abundant
                   My presence made them
hush their green breath,
embarrassed, the way
humans stand up, buttoning their jackets,
acting as if they were leaving anyway, as if
the conversation had ended
just before you arrived.
                                             I liked
the glimpse I had, though,
of their obscure
gestures. I liked the sound
of such private voices. Next time
I'll move like cautious sunlight, open
the door by fractions, eavesdrop

 —Denise Levertov

Tuesday, October 14, 2014


What happens to a dream deferred?

      Does it dry up
      like a raisin in the sun?
      Or fester like a sore—
      And then run?
      Does it stink like rotten meat?
      Or crust and sugar over—
      like a syrupy sweet?

      Maybe it just sags
      like a heavy load.

      Or does it explode?

—Langston Hughes


As you may have noticed, I've started posting poems that I like. I have mixed feelings about poetry for several reasons. I was first introduced to it by an English teacher in high school who seems to have caused me to permanently revile nearly all English teachers, English majors and English departments. This teacher adopted annoying English affectations, though he was from Ohio. To make matters worse, my freshman roommate in college was an English major from Michigan who also adopted annoying English affectations. He once presented me with a poem that he had hand written on a piece of birch bark. By the end of my freshman year I was ready to become a serial killer of English majors.

There were other problems that I had with poetry. I often felt that there was no point to its ambiguity, and when it wasn't ambiguous it often struck me as uninteresting. Although my reading skills have improved since high school, I tend to react to poetry the same way that I used to. If a poem expresses an idea, it can usually be expressed more clearly in prose. If it expresses an observation, the same can be done in prose. I consider the concept of prose poetry an oxymoron. For me, poetry works best as an artistic formulation that combines language, perceptions, ideas and emotions in a way that can't be done well in prose, but sometimes can in fiction. There is some overlap between poetry and fiction, depending on the writing style of the author. This leaves a very narrow range for poetry, and in order to bother reading it at all I feel that it has to be of unusually high quality. The finer points of good poetry seem ineffable to me, and I doubt that they can be taught. In this regard I lump poetry in with fiction and dismiss the value of writing programs.

During my fiction-reading period that started in the late 1980's, I also delved into poetry somewhat. I read a couple of anthologies and found little to like. The first poet who struck me as good was Denise Levertov. However, after reading several volumes of her poems, I decided that I only liked a handful. I also liked Emily Dickinson's oddness and consider her a genuine poetic genius, if there is such a thing. But even in her case most of her poems are duds in my opinion. There was part of the poem "Come, Words, Away" by Laura Riding that intrigued me for some time, but I don't think her work holds up well. Years ago I read some Shelley and Rilke (it was recited at my wedding in 1974) and thought they were good, but I don't think they're as good as Levertov or Dickinson. After moving to Vermont I read most of Robert Frost's poems, a couple of which were familiar from high school, and though I liked two or three of them, I think he was essentially a linguistically awkward poet who could have said almost everything better in prose if he knew how to write.

This last comment on Frost ties in with a lot of what I think is wrong with contemporary poetry. The impetus behind writing poetry is the desire for self-expression. Especially now that formal structure is unnecessary in poems, every Tom, Dick and Harry (or Megan, Caitlin and Heather), regardless of their knowledge or skill, can write a poem and be praised for it. While it might be possible to pick out amateur poems from a collection that also included poems written by major contemporary poets, I think the standards are low, and the published poets may in many cases simply be lucky or have out-marketed their competition. Although I can't be counted among the cognoscenti of poetry, I often find what is expressed in the poems of leading poets to be of little or no significance or interest. They frequently pick pedestrian subjects and seem unperceptive to me. On rereading "Daddy," Sylvia Plath's most famous poem, though I acknowledge that she exhibits some skill there, the poem is essentially a childish rant that probably doesn't do her father justice at all. I'd rather not hear from angry brats.

My theory is that there is a certain amount of serendipity involved in creating a good poem. It may not be possible for many poets to write five good poems in a lifetime. In a way a poet is like an op-ed columnist who has to crank out something new each week, and there isn't enough happening in their total environment for this to work consistently. I think everything worked when Denise Levertov wrote "Living," but that that was not a common occurrence in her life. I won't go into detail describing what works in that poem, because it would feel like a desecration to me.

Monday, October 13, 2014


The fire in leaf and grass
so green it seems
each summer the last summer.

The wind blowing, the leaves
shivering in the sun,
each day the last day.

A red salamander
so cold and so
easy to catch, dreamily

moves his delicate feet
and long tail. I hold
my hand open for him to go.

Each minute the last minute.

—Denise Levertov

Friday, October 10, 2014

Economic Development in Vermont

One of the very few people who have responded to my poll requested that I write about a topic that often comes up in local discussion: the shortage of well-paying jobs in Vermont. It is difficult to find them here because the state has relatively little industry compared to the surrounding states. There is a large IBM plant in Essex Junction, but the primary state industry is tourism. Some counties are agricultural; Addison County, where I live, has significant dairy and beef farming, and apples and maple syrup are produced in several counties. Wood and mining industries still flourish, and in recent years craft breweries and whiskey distilleries have been growing, but none of these employ many workers. Most of the jobs are tourism-related and don't pay well.

There are historical reasons for the current state of economic affairs in Vermont. Few came early on compared to other states, as the remote, landlocked location was not optimal for industrialization. Many of the early settlers were farmers from nearby states; they soon found out that the soil and climate are not optimal for most crops and joined the migration to the Midwest. Not many industries thrived here, and the rate of population growth significantly lagged behind that of the surrounding states. The population here has multiplied 4.1 times since 1800, compared to 33.1 times for New York, 15.5 times for Massachusetts and 7.2 times for New Hampshire.  As the economy boomed along the coast, Vermont became a vacation retreat. In the 1960's, Vermont gained a counterculture image, and wealthy people from other states began to move here, shifting state politics from conservative to liberal. As in other parts of the country, liberals emphasize protection of the environment and quality-of-life issues, while conservatives emphasize economic growth and wealth creation. To be sure, few Vermont political conservatives resemble Tea Partiers, and they don't correspond closely to the contemporary Republicans in Washington, D.C. A liberal political environment makes it harder to attract new businesses here than to pro-business states.

As a retiree transplant, I oppose wholesale economic development in Vermont. First, speaking as an individual, I came here for the low population density, the pleasant physical environment and the like-mindedness of the people. Having seen firsthand what happened when economic development hit areas such as Indianapolis, Indiana and Schaumburg, Illinois, I would definitely move somewhere else if that were to happen here. I would vote against strong economic growth purely out of self-interest. As far as the status of the unemployed or underemployed is concerned, it has been a fact of life for centuries that people go to where there are jobs, not vice versa. The breadwinners in my family, including me, have done that for generations, so I don't think of it as a punishment to impose it on others. Those who insist on living in a place without jobs are behaving like narcissists if they think they have a right to both a good job and the living situation of their choice. That privilege has been a rarity for most of recorded history.

Second, on a more fundamental level, this topic touches on what I perceive to be serious flaws in our economic and political systems. Neither democracy nor capitalism deals with the consequences of economic development on a long-term basis. Because of economic growth and population increases, the U.S. is not the same country that it was in 1776. Economic growth has historically damaged the environment and contributed to overpopulation across the globe, and the warnings of Thomas Malthus have generally been ignored only because the human race has thus far managed to survive in spite of them. Few seem willing to admit that the country and the world might be better places if they more closely resembled Vermont than New Jersey. It is certainly no coincidence that many of the retirees here moved from that state.

Most of my childhood was spent in a suburb of New York City, and though I didn't understand it at the time, I felt that I was not getting enough exposure to the outdoors. After leaving for college, I developed a sense of relief at being able to live in uncongested places with woods and fields, which, it now seems to me, more closely approximate the kind of environment to which we are adapted. I think the same is true for most people, whether they realize it or not. This takes on significance when you consider that it is a fact that has been almost ignored since the country's inception. Most of the population now lives in or near cities.

Policymakers and economists chuckle to themselves whenever someone suggests that less economic growth would be beneficial. However, economic growth is usually accompanied by population growth. Currently, the world population is projected to reach about 9 billion by 2050, almost ten times the estimated world population of 1800. Ten thousand years ago, a blink of an eye in geological terms, it is estimated that our ancestors inhabited a world with a population of only 4 million. The fact that we have survived this growth does not imply that it is desirable. Rather it has contributed to an illusion of normalcy where none should exist.

I view the world as our deteriorating habitat, with diminishing pockets of habitability. Though I feel fortunate to be able to live in a desirable state within a major economic and military power, I see no reason to support American ideology, which I have never believed. Directly or indirectly, many of the world's woes are connected to conflicting groups that have been forced into contact with each other by overcrowding. Small groups can't wage wars with people whom they don't know exist, neither can they seriously deplete world resources or create global warming. When people aren't forced to live and work in cramped quarters, they can have environments in which they feel comfortable and never encounter conflicting ideologies.

Finally, I am not opposed to all economic development. Here in Middlebury a process is in place to create a small number of jobs that do not impinge upon the existing nature of the town, which still operates much as it did in 1800.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Meaning of Human Existence

I just finished reading the book of the above title by Edward O. Wilson. He is my favorite science writer because he writes well, has the perspective of a naturalist, tends to be honest, and is willing to address big questions. There is little new here, and several of the chapters appeared earlier as separate essays. However, this is a good summary of his views on humanity if you're unfamiliar with them.

Wilson's primary competence is in entomology, and he is a world expert on ants. This led him to study social behavior in the animal kingdom, and eventually he connected his findings to humans. He has noted the evolutionary advantage held by eusocial species and how it relates to us. Eusocial insects make up most of the biomass of all living insects, and humans have similarly come to dominate the planet.

As a writer of popular science books, Wilson has a history of running into trouble with both the general public and the scientific community. He has been accused of overgeneralizing ever since the publication of Sociobiology: The New Synthesis in 1975, in which he first drew the connection between insects and humans. People don't like being told that they have instincts similar to ants or how they evolved to their present state. In the early years, he was a victim of political correctness. He was accused of supporting misogyny, racism and eugenics, none of which was true, and a protesting Marxist once poured a pitcher of water on his head. More recently he has been criticized by the evolutionary biology community for discarding their sacred principle of inclusive fitness and replacing it with what he calls group selection or multi-level selection. In the appendix of the current book he summarizes research that supports his position.

Some chapters are more convincing than others in this book. While it is sprinkled with interesting facts about various insect species, the main subject is humans. One of Wilson's more recent ideas is that people tend to be both good and evil in the traditional senses in a predictable eusocial way. We are usually altruistic when it comes to defending our group against other groups, but within our own group we may act out of self-interest. This seems somewhat plausible to me. For example, some people travel to distant regions where they will be killed thinking that they are defending their own country, while at home they may lie on job applications, cheat on their income taxes and steal their best friends' girlfriends. Within the U.S. itself there are sub-groups that compete, such as the Tea Party and the Democrats. Wilson places a great deal of emphasis on the role that group affiliation plays in behavior, and it rings true. Perhaps the most convincing passages, to me anyway, have to do with religion. I completely agree with Wilson, who says that religious groups, insofar as they engage in destructive activities, are currently one of the most disruptive forces in the world. Basically, most religious ideas regarding the nature of the universe represent utter stupidity in light of the findings of science. Here, Wilson hopes that the differences can someday be talked out, but that seems highly unlikely. He laments, as I do, that all political discourse in this country requires respect for conventional religious views, no matter how ridiculous they are.

Wilson's newest ideas aren't necessarily his best. He devotes a chapter to what he thinks intelligent extraterrestrials are like. In this vein he assumes that the chemical and biological processes of the habitable planets within a few hundred light years from here will produce intelligent beings, if they do so at all, that are quite similar to us. Those that we may eventually come into contact with will not be interested in our science and technology, and he seems to think that they will be cultural hobbyists who will derive pleasure from finding out about us. Colonization would not be on their minds, because of the risks on Earth associated with organisms and ecosystems to which they are not adapted. Furthermore, he does not believe that it is advisable, either to us or to aliens, to physically enhance ourselves to excess. It is possible that Wilson is right about this, but he is so speculative that I put little credence in his views here. We seem to be approaching evolutionary crossroads, and do not yet know whether some humans will turn themselves into superhumans, which would contradict Wilson's expectations. Similarly, I think it is quite possible that intelligent extraterrestrials may have no interest whatsoever in humans; they may not want to visit Earth, remotely or in person. I agree with Wilson, though, that they probably do exist.

Another point that Wilson brings up that is of interest to me is the current dichotomy between the sciences and the humanities. This was the main topic in his earlier book, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. As a scientist, he is most charitable towards the humanities and thinks that they are our future, because scientific knowledge is accumulating so rapidly that it will soon slow down and become less relevant to our daily lives. However, he doesn't give a free pass to those who study the humanities either. He traces, correctly I think, a schism between the two domains that dates back to the Romantics in the early nineteenth century. They diverted the path of the Enlightenment and created the "two cultures" described by C.P. Snow in 1959. From Wilson's point of view, scientists need to round out their perspective by studying the humanities, and those in the humanities need to understand science better. Although I have interests in both camps, in recent years I have been deeply disappointed by the lack of engagement with the real world by practitioners of various disciplines in the humanities.

I have to say that Wilson is one of the few public intellectuals for whom I have great respect. Although he has and admits to weaknesses as a human being, he rose to his current sphere of influence through honest hard work and a genuine sense of curiosity. Frankly I don't see anyone comparable in the conventional cohort of public intellectuals, including the contributors to the NYRB. Most academics are comparatively worthless when it comes to discussing the big-picture questions and problems facing humanity. Considering that this type of discussion rarely occurs on TV, and never among politicians or well-known public figures, the state of affairs is scandalous. It is appalling to me that so few people attempt to address them. When Wilson, who is 85, leaves the scene, there may be no one to replace him.

Monday, October 6, 2014

A narrow Fellow in the Grass

A narrow Fellow in the Grass
Occasionally rides—
You may have met Him—did you not
His notice sudden is—

the Grass divides as with a Comb—

A spotted shaft is seen—
And then it closes at your feet
And opens further on—

He likes a Boggy Acre

A Floor too cool for Corn—
Yet when a Boy, and Barefoot—
I more than once at Noon
Have passed, I thought, a Whip lash
Unbraiding in the Sun
When stooping to secure it
It wrinkled, and was gone—

Several of Nature's People

I know, and they know me—
I feel for them a transport
Of cordiality—

But never met this Fellow

Attended, or alone
Without a tighter breathing
And Zero at the Bone—

—Emily Dickinson

Wednesday, October 1, 2014


My Missouri friend, Greg, and his wife, Frances, just visited us for three days. They arrived in a gigantic pickup truck pulling an Airstream trailer that is as large as some people's houses. We showed them around the area, and one of the activities was a tour of the Maple Landmark plant, which makes wooden toys and is a leader in the U.S. wooden toy market. It is a small family-owned business, and Frances saw parallels with the spa business that she and Greg own in Missouri. Entrepreneurs occupy an important role in American society, and I thought I'd take this opportunity to say something about them.

Frances began her spa business in Jefferson City, Missouri several years ago, and when Greg retired from his job managing the Missouri Medicaid program he joined in. The business grew gradually, and they opened a second spa in Columbia, Missouri. The company has been successful and now employs about 50 people, including Frances's daughter from a previous marriage, Kim, and Greg and Frances's daughter, Ariel, who is now a Vice President. They have been engrossed in running the business since its inception, and are now trying to wind down somewhat and prepare for a generational transition. This is proving to be problematic, partly because Kim is dysfunctional and married to an irresponsible, unreliable, unemployed husband while incompetently raising three children, ensuring the continuation of the white trash tradition in the next generation of the family. Frances and Kim have ongoing feuds and confrontations, with Frances usually on the losing end. She would like to help her grandchildren and see them often, and provides Kim with a job, but Kim routinely threatens to deny her access to the grandchildren. As I said to Greg, if it were me, Kim would be history, but this isn't my family. Ariel seems competent enough as an employee, but does not seem particularly interested in taking full responsibility at the company. Her husband has a well-paying job, so they don't need the money. During their visit, Greg and Frances were frequently interrupted by issues that were arising at the spa in their absence.

Despite some of the negatives associated with the spa, Greg and Frances seem to derive a great deal of satisfaction from it. Although they were well off without it, they are now becoming quite wealthy and are spending their money according to predictable nouveau riche patterns. In their case, that has involved extensive home renovations and the purchase of the Airstream, the truck, a tractor with attachments and two BMW's. Most of their drive to conspicuous consumption seems to have originated in Frances, who grew up poor, while Greg did not.

Frances enjoyed seeing the toy factory partly because it operated like one big family. It was started in the late 1970's by a local Vermont man who had taken up woodworking when he was a boy. The business continued to grow, and his mother and his grandmother, who is 95, still work there. We met them on our tour, since they have only 40 employees. Some of the jobs looked boring and highly repetitive, but many of the employees multitasked, which would reduce the tedium. Overall, they seemed happy. Their products are far more specialized than you might expect, and they are beating the competition, including China. From the outside, it looked like a pleasant place to work. Part of the appeal to Frances was the communal feeling and having three generations working together. She took a picture of the grandmother and sent it to Ariel to show her how fulfilling working in a family business can be.

My take on entrepreneurship isn't as sanguine. Americans tend to look at it at the individual level, in which it is possible to develop products and services in order to better the economic circumstances of themselves and their families. That in itself isn't necessarily bad, but when an entire economy is operated on that basis, many of the long-term consequences are, in my opinion, undesirable. Unnecessary goods and services come into existence, and successful small businesses tend to grow and merge, ending up as large, impersonal corporations. Most small businesses fail, and in the process become a waste of labor and materials. To use the examples here, I don't think it would make much difference to the country or the world if there were two less spas in Missouri and one less toy maker in Vermont. At the macro level, it seems risky and arbitrary to allow individuals to "grow their businesses" in order to meet their personal economic goals when the benefits to society are so marginal. Admittedly, an entrepreneur-friendly economy does lead to a certain amount of innovation which might not occur otherwise, but most of that innovation is of questionable value, and the end result seems to be large corporations which, unlike the cheerful family operations mentioned, take little or no responsibility toward people and systematically fire employees in order to reduce costs. The logical outcome of this kind of arrangement is the wealth inequality documented by Thomas Piketty in Capital. The fact is that the cumulative effects of the American Dream fantasy have been global pollution, national overpopulation, corporate manipulation of governance, high unemployment, and an emerging society of rich and poor. Furthermore, the capitalist model followed by the Western powers is associated with ideological conflicts and wars throughout the world.

On a personal level, I have always found entrepreneurial people somewhat offensive, if only because they tend to be aesthetically retarded. Although I like and appreciate Greg and Frances in certain respects, it is impossible for me to relate to many of their interests. Greg barely made it through college and reads low-grade science fiction for entertainment. He is still interested in UFO's, which is something I outgrew in high school. On vacation, Frances seems to have no interests beyond sightseeing and tourist trinkets. She is indifferent to the arts, which have strengths here, and local history. Neither of them ever does serious reading, and they show little interest in anyone outside their immediate families. To me, the scope of their thinking would feel like imprisonment.