Why "Founderstein"? Read the original essay here.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Son of Founderstein

          This will be the last post to the Founderstein Blog. Founderstein is dead—sort of. He was created as part of a very specific writing project—my book That’s Not What They Meant! And he served that project well by giving me a space to try out ideas, build a readership, and generally promote myself shamelessly. For some time, the blog has been drifting away from its original purpose, which was to examine political events in the light of the complex and often contradictory views of America’s Founding Fathers—and to critique those in the public sphere who tried to make those views more simple, or more unanimous, than they in fact were.
          Last week, I accepted an invitation from the IVN (Independent Voter Network) web site to contribute a regular column to their site. The Independent Voter Network is a grant funded, non-profit project aimed at promoting rational and civil discourse among people who disagree with each other. They are a platform for news and commentary on current events, and all participants agree to a code of etiquette that proscribes: 1) personal attacks, 2) self-promotion, 3) unsourced assertions, and 4) partisan-based criticisms. As these are largely the rules that I tried to adopt in my experimental “Arguing as Friends” blog, I readily jumped on board.
       My new column will be called Ars Politica, or “The Art of Politics.” I envision it doing about what Founderstein has been doing for the past six months or so, which is commenting on contemporary political issues with strong doses of both history and literature. I will also use Ars Politica to test out and refine ideas for my next book, Arguing as Friends, in much the same way that I used Founderstein as an early staging-ground for the ideas in That’s Not What They Meant! Of the four columns I have posted to Ars Politica so far, two have been commentaries on political issues and two have been general observations about civility and political discourse. You can read them here:

       If you are interested in adding Ars Politica to an RSS Feed, you can use the following URL: http://ivn.us/ars-politica//?feed=rss. I will also post columns to my Facebook Page, the That’s Not What They Meant Facebook Page, and various Twitter accounts. The IVN Network will occasionally link to the column through its social media sites.
       Like his namesake, Founderstein cannot actually die. He is just going to have a Latin name for a while.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

April 15, 2013: When Poetry Matters

Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

--W.H. Auden, “September 1, 1939” 

       As I have confessed once before in this space, I believe that poetry matters—that it can be an important, even necessary, part of life. This is one of the strangest and least defensible things that I believe, and I am fully aware of just how weird it is. But there is no point in trying to talk me out if it at my age. This quirky, romantic notion is just part of who I am.
       Unlike most of the things that I have believed in my life, I can point to the exact moment that I started believing that poetry mattered. It was not, ironically enough, during the 12 years that I spent studying literature in college and graduate school. Indeed, for most of that time, I would have been repelled by the idea that poetry had any practical value. Spurred on by Seneca and Newman, I had come to believe that worthwhile intellectual pursuits were supposed to be useless.
       And then Erica died.
       Erica was one of my students in an Introduction to Literature class that I taught during my last semester at UCSB. Most of the class was on poetry, which I dutifully and competently (but, alas, dispassionately) explicated for the students every day while they dutifully and competently took notes. About halfway through the semester, Erica and two of her friends were involved in a horrible single-car accident. All three of them were killed, and several of Erica’s best friends were in the class. I was at a loss how to proceed with the rest of the semester.
       My supervising teacher, who was also a poet, had a remarkable idea. “This is a chance,” he suggested, “to show the students that poetry really does have value. Rather than cancelling class (which was my first thought) or pretending like nothing happened (my second thought), e-mail the students and ask them to bring in a poem that, in some way, will help them deal with their emotions about Erica’s death.” We did it, and it worked. Some students wrote their own poems, some brought in things that we had read in class, and others searched and found a poem that helped them express their thoughts or pay tribute to Erica. It was an almost surreally positive experience.
       I read a poem that day too--one that I had read before but never really experienced until that moment. The poem was Theodore Roethke’s “Elegy for Jane,” which the poet wrote when one of his students was killed after being thrown by a horse. The last stanza of this poem perfectly captured my feelings of deep grief, but also an embarrassed wondering if I was entitled to that grief given my fairly shallow relationship with Erica after only a few weeks in class:

If only I could nudge you from this sleep,

My maimed darling, my skittery pigeon.

Over this damp grave I speak the words of my love:

I, with no rights in this matter,

Neither father nor lover.

  Since that day, I have suffered from the incurable delusion that poetry matters, and I have turned to it—often late at night and in embarrassed secrecy—to help me sort out actual problems and process powerful emotions. Recently, when Facebook told me that April was “National Poetry Month,” I made a quiet resolution to post a few lines from one of my favorite poems every day. After all of these years sneaking around and loving poetry on the sly, I had quite a store.
       This worked very well until yesterday, and then something terrible happened. A bomb exploded at the Boston marathon killing at least three people and wounding many more. On the heels of the Newtown shootings and other recent tragedies, this seemed like too much to bear. I needed poetry more than ever.
  And there was one poem that kept coming back to me as I contemplated the violence, the tragedy, and also the real human compassion and goodness that many people exhibited in the aftermath of the bombings. The Poem that I turned to—”September 1, 1939” by W.H. Auden, was written on the day that Germany invaded Poland—that day that (we know now) World War II began. I had read and taught this poem many times, but, as before, I never experienced it until yesterday. I posted the penultimate stanza to my Facebook page:

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

       Ironically, Auden did not consider this a good poem, and he chose not to include it in his Collected Works.  Fortunately, anthologists and editors have disagreed and have kept the poem in circulation for many years—largely, I suspect, because it is the sort of poem that lends itself to the kind of historical, contextual, analytical readings that professor like me love to inflict on their students.
       But when I finally allowed myself to surrender to the force of the poem, it was a moment of revelation and grace that assured me, among other things, that human beings can draw together after a tragedy, that language gives us the power to turn great pain into profound insight, that beauty can exist in a broken world, and that both the creative mind and the human spirit are—or at least can be—more powerful than the evil things that try to destroy them.
       On April 15, 2013, these were precisely the things that I needed to know.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Why the Government Is an Us, not a Them

"The fate of this question and America may depend on this: Have they said, we the States? Have they made a proposal of a compact between States? If they had, this would be a confederation: It is otherwise most clearly a consolidated government. The question turns, Sir, on that poor little thing--the expression, We, the people, instead of the States of America. I need not take much pains to show, that the principles of this system, are extremely pernicious, impolitic, and dangerous."     
                                 --Patrick Henry at the Virginia Ratifying Convention

       The first three words to the Constitution were actually highly controversial. A number of the delegates, and nearly all of the Anti-federalists, thought that they should read "We the States," which would have made the Constitution much more similar to the Articles of Confederation: a compact among sovereign states rather than a popular democracy.
        But Madison wasn't having any of it. The whole point of the Constitutional Convention, from his perspective, had been to transfer the sovereign power of government from the states to the people themselves. If the people adopt the Constitution, he argued in the Virginia convention, “it will be then a government established by the thirteen states of America. . . .The existing system has been derived from the dependent derivative authority of the legislatures of the states; whereas, this is derived from the superior power of the people.”
              If we learn only one lesson from the Founding of America--from the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the lives of the Founding Fathers, it is that the government is an “us” not a “them.” Government does not do things to us. We, through the instrument of our government, do things. If we don't like the things that we are doing through our government, we are free to do other things. That's how this whole self-government thing works.
        There is, of course, a catch. "We the people" is a collective entity, not an individual will. Since we don’t always agree with each other, the “us” that is the government will sometimes act in ways we, as individuals, do not support. That’s how participatory democracy works in a large republic. Part of being a grown up, and a citizen, is accepting the fact that the democratic "we" will often not agree with the individual "I." When we insist on speaking of the government as something other than ourselves, we are actually saying that people who disagree with us do not have the right to take part in the democratic process.
       Let’s take the whole health care thing. Here are two facts that are not in dispute: 1) there are a whole lot of people in he United States who don’t like the Affordable Care Act; and 2) there are a whole lot of people in the United States who do like the Affordable Care Act. Public opinion polls vary widely about the percentages in each group, but that doesn’t matter much. The only poll that matters in our political system is called an “election.” And the presidential election of 2008 was won by a guy who told everybody that, if he won the election, his first priority would be to reform the health care system. He won the election with the largest Democratic Congressional majorities in a generation, and he did exactly what he said he would do. That's pretty much how democracy works.
       We miss the point badly when we try to guess what Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton would have thought about the individual mandate. That is looking to the Constitution as a religious text designed to provide us with a list of commandments to run our lives by. But the whole point of self-government is that we, the people, are the government, and we can act through that government to accomplish our goals. The Framers gave us a process that we can use to create the kind of society that we want to live in; they never meant to give us magic words to keep in a box. 

Thursday, March 21, 2013

When Bad Things Don’t Happen: Why College Campuses Should Remain Gun Free

by Michael Austin, Newman University 

         It has been a bad few weeks for gun-free zones in Kansas. On March 15, the Kansas House passed HB 2055, which brings us several steps closer to requiring municipal buildings--including colleges and universities--to allow concealed weapons on their premises. A similar bill is currently under consideration in the State Senate. The rationale for these bills is now quite familiar: bad people with guns like gun-free zones because they know that they can do anything they want without good people with guns stopping them.
          The available data suggest that the real picture is, at the very least, more complicated. But let us allow that concealed weapons may be quite useful in some times and places. It does not follow that they are appropriate at all times everywhere. Some institutions may have very good reasons for prohibiting guns on their premises.
          I can speak with some authority about one of these institutions. Like most colleges and universities, Newman University, where I serve as an administrator, does not allow guns on its campus. This is not a knee-jerk reaction against guns and gun owners. We know through deep experience and compelling empirical data that gun-free zones really are the best way to protect our students from harm.
When I have made this claim in the past, most people have assumed that I was talking about the best way to protect people in an active-shooter emergency. In a sense this is true. We have found that our trained security officers are just as likely to be hindered as helped by well meaning civilians with guns. 
          But this is actually a very small part of what I worry about. Emergencies, by definition, emerge—often very gradually and usually in predictable ways. People do not simply grab a gun one day and start shooting. There are identifiable things that happen first, and the best time to stop a horrific act of violence is during the weeks and months before it happens. 
          The most important way to keep students safe, then, is to  recognize the factors likely to produce a violent eruption. If we can identify problem situations early enough, we can help people access mental health resources long before their desperation becomes a crisis. In more extreme situations, we can separate potentially dangerous people from the college—through suspension, termination, or restraining orders—before they become a danger to others.
           If we know what to look for, in other words, we can intervene in potentially violent situations long before the shooting starts. And one of the most important things that we look for is the possession of deadly weapons in violation of our stated policies and our code of behavior.
          Prohibiting guns and ammunition on college campuses creates a very clear line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior. If somebody brings a gun to campus illegally, for whatever reason, we know that we have a problem. And we deal with it—far more often than most people realize. Every day, college security officers and student affairs professionals diffuse potentially violent situations long before they become actually violent situations. Unfortunately, horrible events that don’t happen rarely make the news.
          Sometimes, though, they do. And three days after the Kansas House of Representatives passed HB 2055, Americans got a glimpse of what it looks like when a tragedy doesn't happen when James Oliver Seevakumaran, a 30-year old business major at the University of Central Florida, came within minutes of killing dozens—or more—of his fellow students in a 500-person residence hall.

          But it didn’t happen. When the would-be shooter’s roommate saw the gun, he locked himself in the bathroom, called the campus police, and reported “a man with a gun” in the residence halls. Three minutes later, the police arrived, and, as soon as they did, Seevakumaran killed himself with a shot to the head—a tragedy, to be sure, but nothing close to the horrific bloodbath that might have been. 
          Rather than wringing our hands over this incident and asking what went wrong, we can take the time to ask the much more important and instructive question "what went right?" There are a lot of answers to this question, but here is one that, I think, should make Kansans pause for reflection.
          When the campus security office received a call identifying “a man with a gun” in a residence hall, the officers could immediately make four very important assumptions: 1) that the gun was on campus illegally; 2) that the person with the gun was not a law-abiding citizen; 3) that the people in the residence hall were in danger; and 4) that anybody they saw with a gun would be the bad guy. It then took them three minutes to diffuse the situation.
          As we contemplate forcing colleges and universities to abandon a key component of their security procedures, we owe it our children to at least ask ourselves what might happen when these assumptions are no longer true. 

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Rent Seeking, Job Creation, and Why Economic Inequality Matters

"As riches increase and accumulate in few hands. . . the tendency of things will be to depart from the republican standard."-Alexander Hamilton   

        One of the things that I learned by reading Atlas Shrugged last year is that, even in the mind of America/Russia’s foremost social Darwinist, all rich people are not equal. For every Dagny Taggart or Francisco d’Anconia creating wealth wealth and adding value to the world, Rand shows us a James Taggart or a Wesley Mouch amassing a large fortune without producing anything of value. Those in the second class of millionaire create neither wealth nor jobs; rather, they harness the power of the state to distribute existing wealth in ways that favor their private interests. Rand refers to these people as “looters.”       
       I did not know until I read Joseph Stigletz’s wonderful new book, The Price of Inequality, that economists have a word for this too. Trying to profit by capturing, rather than creating wealth is called “rent seeking,” using a very old sense of the word “rent” that means something like “seeking concessions” rather than “deriving income from property.” Rent seeking refers to any economic activity that attempts to manipulate political or social conditions to lay claim to a larger share of a society’s wealth. 
        Today, rent-seeking activities include no-bid government contracts, special tax incentives, sanctioned monopolies, competitive barriers, legal immunities, infrastructural improvements, and regulatory relief that shifts resources away from one part of the economy and towards another. Rent seeking also occurs when economic activity imposes costs on others that are not charged against profits--such as, say, a company that creates air pollution but is not charged for treating respiratory diseases that occur as a result. Countless other industries--from pornographers to investment bankers to for-profit colleges--realize profits far in excess of their value by shifting costs (failed marriages, increased economic risk, and student loan defaults) to society and government, who are forced to pick up the tab.
       Rent seekers have been with us always. But Stiglitz sees rent-seeking activities as both a primary cause for, and as the inevitable result of, the most recent “great recession.” Those who profited from the real-estate bubble and from complicated financial derivatives were not, by any stretch of the imagination, creating wealth. They were reaping huge profits by transferring economic risk to the public sector while keeping nearly all of the profits in the private sector. As result, the people who have paid the highest economic costs of the recession (losing their jobs or their houses) are not the same people whose economic activities are the most to blame. 
       But what really interests Stiglitz (and me too) is what has happened since the crash of 2008. According to a certain narrative, the only way out of the recession is to cut taxes dramatically and put as much money as possible into the hands of job creators—business owners and innovators who have the intelligence and the inclination to use that extra money to create jobs and move the lagging economy forward. And, to a large extent, this is what we have tried to do.
       But it hasn’t worked very well. Look at the following chart, which shows how some key economic indicators have fluctuated in the years before and after the great crash:

Bottom Fifth Income
Top   Fifth Income
Top 1 % Income


Notice anything interesting? Here are a few things that popped for me:
  •    The bottom 20% of wage earners have not yet caught up to where they were in 2006.
  •    The top 20% of wage earners are much better off than they were before the recession began, as are the top 1%.
  •    The GDP has recovered from the recession and continues to grow.
  •    The federal tax burden remains lower than it was before the recession began.
  •     Unemployment in 2011 was nearly twice what it was before the recession began.     
       Let us add to these facts a rather stunning figure that Stiglitz cites, which is that, between 2009 and 2011, the top 1% of wage captured 93% of the income growth (compared to 65% between 2000 and 2007). The (admittedly oversimplified) bottom line goes something like this: we successfully transferred a lot of money rich people, and they kept it. If Stiglitz is correct, this happened because the aforementioned rich people were engaged in economic activity aimed at capturing, rather than creating, wealth.             
        And this kind of social inequality founded on rent-seeking has real consequences, the most important being that, when wealth is simply redistributed upwards, there is nothing that can trickle down or create jobs. Neither Stiglitz nor anybody else suggests that we can or should get rid of inequality. He is not a Marxist or even a particularly committed redistributionist. He believes that markets have tremendous power to create and distribute wealth. But unregulated markets will always flow towards deep inequalities of wealth and income. Like so many other good things (chocolate, oxygen, and close relatives to name a few), capitalism works best when it is diluted.
        Inequality in America is worse now than it has been since the late 19th century, when factory workers were paid in company script and the most important industry in the Southern states was sharecropping. The distribution of wealth in the United States (as measured by the Gini coefficient) is about as unequal as it is in Iran and far less equal than it is in nearly every other country in the Industrialized West. In the long term, this will have serious consequences for America. High levels of income inequality are incompatible with political stability, public investment, and long-term expansion. And in the process, we risk creating precisely the kind of self-perpetuating, multi-generational aristocracy that America was founded not to be.