hard heads soft hearts

a scratch pad for half-formed thoughts by a liberal political junkie who's nobody special. ''Hard Heads, Soft Hearts'' is the title of a book by Princeton economist Alan Blinder, and tends to be a favorite motto of neoliberals, especially liberal economists.

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Friday, February 25, 2011
Arthur Silber - A Week in Hell

Following the guidelines I discussed in the last post, I decided early Tuesday morning that I was in the midst of "an emergency emergency." Among other symptoms, repeatedly collapsing on the floor after taking one or two steps tends to indicate that conclusion. So I did what I will not do under less extreme circumstances, and I called 911.

I returned home from the hospital a few hours ago. I wasn't worried about the cats having enough to eat; for over a year, I've always intentionally left out enough dry food for about a week, since I've accepted this kind of occurrence as unavoidable at some point(s). And if I'm gone for longer periods, I have a couple of neighbors I can call on to look after them. The cats are fine. I'm out of danger for now, but I'm far from fine. . .

. . .My profound gratitude again to those of you who are so kind. I will rest up and return as soon as I can. I'm very glad I had mentioned the Callas Puritani performances in the last entry. I know those performances of hers so well (and many other Callas performances, too) that I can play them fully in my head whenever I wish. Especially during the first awful day in the hospital, I played the Puritani scene many times. It brought me incommunicable solace, and is yet another of the many ways in which I can never repay the magnificent gift that Callas's artistry represents to me.

See you soon, I hope and trust.

Gary Farber on Libya

Felix Salmon - In search of an everything bagel

Robert Waldmann on Phau, Salmon & Yglesias

Felix Salmon has a proposal

[Wade] Pfau makes a very basic calculation that for someone on a constant real wage, saving for 30 years and then living for another 30 years on 50% of their final salary, saving about 16% of your salary each year into a portfolio of 60% stocks and 40% bonds will put you into safe territory. . .

. . . Matthew Yglesias comments

"They Could Call It “Social Security”"

I comment on Yglesias.

You ignored part of the quoted passage "a portfolio of 60% stocks and 40% bonds ". It wouldn't work so well if one invested only in bonds. Salmon's point is that people would be much better off buying and holding a diversified portfolio than trying to pick winners. . .

Reminds me of a paragraph in Andrew Tobias's My Vast Fortune (1997)

Not the Only Investment Guide You'll Ever Need (But Close)

Make a budget, scrimp and save, pay off your credit cards, quit smoking, fully fund your retirement plan and start early - tomorrow, if you possibly can - putting away $100 or $500 or $5000 a month, whatever you can comfortably afford, in two places: short-and intermediate-term Treasury securities, for money you might need in a few years; into no-load, low-expense "index funds", both U.S. and foreign, for everything else. You will do better than most.

*You can buy Treasuries through almost any bank or broker or through an excellent program called Treasury Direct - contact any Federal Reserve Branch. A good source for index funds is Vanguard, because it keeps expenses low. In the investment race, it has the lightest jockey.

Amanda Marcotte - Bieber vs. Townhall: Point, Bieber

Ann Friedman - Here are the women writers.

Paul Krugman - The Return of Depression Economics (1999)

. . .More broadly, anyone who has seen how economic statistics are constructed knows that they are really a subgenre of science fiction. Real gross domestic product is, in principle, constructed by valuing everything the economy produces at the prices of some base year. But no statistical agency can really keep track of everything that is produced, or put a price on every product (indeed, this may be impossible, even in principle, if the good in question - say Viagra - wasn't available at any price in the base year). So actual estimates of economic growth are based on a good deal of fudging: on "imputations" and approximations. This can be done well or badly; in the United States the men and women who prepare statistics are scrupulous and careful, doing the best job possible given their limited resources and the inherent difficulties of their task. Elsewhere the job is less well done. I personally once consulted for a government that each year published many charts and tables describing the growth of national income, but which at the time really collected only about a dozen actual statistics (among them agricultural production numbers supplied by the United States, thanks to satellite photos) and based the rest on fairly casual guesswork.

Mike Konczal - Walker’s Budget Plan is a Three-Part Roadmap for Conservative State Governance

There’s a three-prong approach in Governor Walker’s plan that highlights a blueprint for conservative governorship after the 2010 election. The first is breaking public sector unions and public sector workers generally. The second is streamlining benefits away from legislative authority, especially for health care and in fighting the Health Care Reform Act. The third is the selling of public assets to private interests under firesale and crony capitalist situations.

This wasn’t clear to me at first. I thought this was about a narrow disagreement over teacher’s unions. . .

Carroll Quigley was a historian, who among other things taught and inspired Bill Clinton - I remember reading somewhere that Clinton, quoting Quigley, would lecture his aides on the importance of the "fu-chah preference".

He wrote a huge book called Tragedy and Hope: A History of the World in Our Time, of which I remember the dedication, "To all who care and seek to help", and Chapter 75: "The United States and the Middle-Class Crisis". My feelings about that chapter are the same as a comment a teacher once made of one of my assignments: "The good stuff is good, but there's a lot of nonsense". Some parts of the chapter are racist and annoying, but it's fairly easy to edit those out, and parts of it have stuck in my head for years. So here is a bit of it:

Carroll Quigley - The United States and the Middle-Class Crisis (1966)

. . .This complex outlook that we call middle class or bourgeois is, of course, the chief basis of our world today. Western society is the richest and most powerful society that has ever existed largely because it has been impelled forward along these lines, beyond the rational degree necessary to satisfy human needs, by the irrational drive for achievement in terms of material ambitions. To be sure, Western society always had other kinds of people, and the majority of the people in Western society probably had other outlooks and values, but it was middle-class urgency that pushed modern developments in the direction they took. There were always in our society dreamers and truth-seekers and tinkerers. They, as poets, scientists, and engineers, thought up innovations which the middle classes adopted and exploited if they seemed likely to be profit-producing. Middle-class self-discipline and future preference provided the savings and investment without which any innovation—no matter how appealing in theory—would be set aside and neglected. But the innovations that could attract middle-class approval (and exploitation) were the ones that made our world today so different from the world of our grandparents and ancestors.

This middle-class character was imposed most strongly on the United States. In order to identify it and to discuss a very complex pattern of outlooks and values, we shall try to summarize it. . .a large number of attributes of which we shall list only five: future preference, self-discipline, social conformity, infinitely expandable material demand, and a general emphasis on externalized, impersonal values.

. . .For more than half a century, from before World War I, the middle class outlook has been under relentless attack. . .

. . .[the young] are quite alien to any theory that the self is a creature of trained patterns and is not a creature of discovered secrets. . .

. . . This new outlook is basically existentialist in its emphasis on direct, momentary personal experience, especially with other people. It emphasizes people, and finds the highest good of life in interpersonal relations, handled generally with compassion and irony. The two chief concerns of life are "caring" and "helping." "Caring," which they usually call "love," means a general acceptance of the fact that people matter and are subjects of concern. This love is diffuse and often quite impersonal, not aimed at a particular individual or friend but at anyone, at persons in general, and especially at persons one does not know at all, as an act of recognition, almost of expiation, that we are all helpless children together. The whole idea is very close to Christ's message, "Love one another,". . .It is reflected in the tremendous enthusiasm among the young for the Peace Corps, civil rights, and racial equality, and the attack on poverty, all of which have much greater support among middle-class young people than can be measured even by the surprisingly large numbers who actively do something.

This desire to do something is what I call "helping." It is a strange and largely symbolic kind of helping, since there is with it a fairly widespread feeling that nothing that the helper can do will make any notable dent in the colossal problem; none the less, there is an obligation to do something. . .the real motivation behind the urge "to help" is closely related with the urge "to care"; it consists simply of a desire to show another human being that he is not alone. There is little concern for human perfectibility or social progress such as accompanied middle-class humanitarianism in the nineteenth century.

Both of these urges are existentialist. They give rise to isolated acts that have no significant context. Thus an act of loving or helping has no sequence of causes leading up to it or of consequences flowing from it. It stands alone as an isolated experience of togetherness and of brief human sharing. This failure or lack of context for each experience means a failure or lack of meaning, for meaning and significance arise from context; that is, from the relationship of the particular experience to the whole picture. But today's youth has no concern for the whole picture; they have rejected the past and have very little faith in the future. Their rejection of intellect and their lack of faith in human reason gives them no hope that any meaning can be found for any experience, so each experience becomes an end in itself, isolated from every other experience.

This skepticism about meaning, closely allied with their rejection of organizations and of abstractions, is also closely related with a failure of responsibility. Since consequences are divorced from the act or experience itself, the youth is not bound by any relationship between the two. The result is a large-scale irresponsibility. If a young person makes an appointment, he may or may not keep it. He may come very late or not at all. In any case, he feels no shame at failure to carry out what he had said he would do. In fact, the young people of today constantly speak of what they are going to do—after lunch, tonight, tomorrow, next week—but they rarely do what they say. To them it was always very tentative, a hope rather than a statement, and binding on no one. If the young fail to do what they say, they are neither embarrassed nor apologetic, and hardly think it necessary to explain or even mention it. Their basic position is that everyone concerned had the same freedom to come or not, and if you showed up while they did not, this does not give you any right to complain because you also had the same right to stay away as they had.

The other great weakness of the younger generation is their lack of self-discipline. They are as episodic in their interests and ambitions as they are in their actions. They can almost kill themselves with overwork for something that catches their fancy, usually something associated with their group or with "caring" and "helping," but in general they have little tenacity of application or self-discipline in action.

They lack imagination also, an almost inevitable consequence of an outlook that concentrates on experiences without context. Their experiences are necessarily limited and personal and are never fitted into a larger picture or linked with the past or the future. As a result they find it almost impossible to picture anything different from what it is, or even to see what it is from any long-range perspective. This means that their outlooks, in spite of their wide exposure to different situations through the mass media or by personal travel, are very narrow. They lack the desire to obtain experience vicariously from reading, and the vicarious experiences that they get from talk (usually with their fellows) are rarely much different from their own experiences. As a result, their lives, while erratic, are strangely dull and homogeneous. . .

. . .Efforts by middle-class parents to prevent their children from developing along these non-middle-class lines are generally futile. . . if his parents insist on conformity, he has an invincible weapon to use against them: academic failure. This weapon is used by boys rather than by girls, partly because it. . .involves doing nothing rather than doing something, but also because the school seems to most middle-class boys an alien place and an essential element in their general adolescent feeling of homelessness.

These remarks, it must be emphasized, apply to the middle class, and are not intended to apply to the other classes in American society. The aristocrats, for example, have considerable success in passing along their outlook to their children. . .chiefly because the aristocrats use a separate school system, including disciplined boarding schools. As a consequence of this, any resentment the aristocratic adolescent may have is aimed at his masters, not at his home and parents, and home comes to represent a relatively desirable place to which he is admitted occasionally as a reward for long weeks on the firing line at school. . .

. . .These remarks bring us close to one of the major problems in American culture today. We need a culture that will produce people eager to do things, but we need even more a culture that will make it possible to decide what to do. This is the old division of means and goals. Decisions about goals require values, meaning, context, perspective. They can be set, even tentatively and approximately, only by people who have some inkling of the whole picture.

Means are almost as difficult as ends. In fact, personal responsibility, self-discipline, some sense of time value and future preference, and, above all, an ability to distinguish what is important from what is merely necessary must be found, simply as valuable attributes of human beings as human beings. . .Here we must discriminate. We have an achieving society because we have an achieving outlook in our society. And that achieving outlook has been, over the last few centuries, the middle-class outlook. But there are other achieving outlooks. An achieving society could be constructed on the aristocratic outlook, on the scientific outlook (pursuit of truth), on a religious basis, and probably on a large number of other outlooks. There is no need to go back to the middle-class outlook, which really killed itself by successfully achieving what it set out to do. But parts of it we need, and above all we need an achieving outlook. It might be pleasant just to give up, live in the present, enjoying existential personal experiences, living like lotus-eaters from our amazing productive system, without personal responsibility, self-discipline, or thought of the future. But this is impossible, because the productive system would itself collapse, and our external enemies would soon destroy us.

We must have an achieving society and an achieving outlook. These will inevitably contain parts of the middle-class outlook, but these parts will unquestionably be fitted together to serve quite different purposes. Future preference and self-discipline were originally necessary in our society so that people would restrict consumption and accumulate savings that could be spent to provide investment in capital equipment. Now we no longer need these qualities for this purpose, since flows of income in our economy provide these on an institutional basis, but we still need these qualities so that young people will be willing to undergo the years of hard work and training that will prepare them to work in our complex technological society. We must get away from the older crass materialism and egocentric selfish individualism, and pick up some of the younger generation's concern for the community and their fellow-men. The unconventionality of this younger group may make them more able to provide the new outlook and innovation every society requires, but they cannot do this if they lack imagination or perspective.

. . .the real problem does not rest so much in theory as in practice. The real value of any society rests in its ability to develop mature and responsible individuals prepared to stand on their own feet, make decisions, and be prepared to accept the consequences of their decisions and actions without whining or self-justification. This was the ideal that the Christian tradition established long ago, and in consequence of its existence, our Western society, whatever its deficiencies, has done better than any other society that has ever existed. If it has done less well recently than earlier in its career (a disputable point of view), this weakness can be remedied only by some reform in its methods of child-rearing that will increase its supply of mature and responsible adults.

. . .if Western culture can do that, either in America or in Europe, it need fear no enemies from within or from without.

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