How Businessmen Think: Politics

In the last post on this topic, I ended with 2 observations: that business people tend to compulsively analyze things, and that they generally have a fairly shrewd understanding of human nature. Now let’s see how this relates to politics.  File:The Thinker, Louisville, KY.jpg

A business person faced with a political proposal or decision will tend to assess it from two angles: how is it supposed to work, and how are people likely to respond to any changes that result. People who don’t think like a business person will more often than not focus more on what the political move is supposed to do – the ends – rather than how it is supposed to get there – the means. While business people are of course interested in what is supposed to be achieved, cruel experience has lead them to focus on what steps and events need to take place to get there.

The world is full of pretty ideas. I once worked through a project with a two Mexican brothers who were pure businessmen. We concocted a scheme to import Mexican honey into the US, complete with cost structures, intended markets, and all that business school stuff. If everything went right, we make a lot of dough. As we reviewed the numbers – the ends – the elder brother made a observation that encapsulates both business thinking and business humor: “Ah! Those are happy numbers!”. If we focused on the ends, rather than all the messy, iffy steps needed to get there, those were indeed happy numbers.

Let’s take an example. Continue reading “How Businessmen Think: Politics”

Seven. Throwin’ It Down.



15 year old daughter made toasted coconut bread. Spread on top is pineapple curd, which is like lemon curd, only with pineapples. Totally yum!


As long as I’m bragging on the kids:

as realized in plywood and spray paint

17 year old son built this thing for the end of the year party at school. Those of you conversant in Minecraft will recognize it as an Iron Golem. The little boys at school, one of whose breathless idea it was to have a Minecraft-themed end of the year party, gave it a ‘Wow’ and lined up to have their pictures taken.  Good experience all around.


Had to have a small melanoma lesion removed from from my upper arm – caught early, very little danger – but its removal leaves an impressive wound, looks like a divot with stitches. So, told my kids about it so they wouldn’t freak if they noticed dad’s sudden resemblance to Frankenstein. 9 year old son, totally unfazed:   we should tell mama.

The funny part: couple days before, when I had told my wife about it prior to the surgery, I had admitted that I had considered not telling her until it was all over, so she wouldn’t worry unless there was something to worry about.

This did not go over well. Even my follow up remark, pointing out that, here I was, telling her, right now, because a moment’s reflection made it clear to me she’d murder me if I didn’t, did not sufficiently calm the waters. I got a lecture informing me in no uncertain terms that I was NEVER EVER to keep any such news from her EVER under ANY CONDITIONS.

So, yes, son, we should tell mama.


This summer’s Insane Vacation is going to be a 12 day drive from the Bay Area to Kansas and back, with stops along the way at Mono Lake, Death Valley, the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Durango in CO, Santa Fe (where my wife and I met 33 years ago), Benedictine College in Atchison (were daughter #1 attends school), Denver, Wyoming Catholic College, Yellowstone, Craters of the Moon, and Crated Lake OR.  4,680 mile, or an average of  390 miles and 6.5 hours of driving per day.

I did mention this is insane. In. Sane.

We are constrained to two weeks because daughter #1 is on the Crossroads Walk for Life this summer and won’t be back home until August 12th, and daughter #2 and a bunch of her friends bought tickets to a Taylor Swift concert on August 27, and have been planning this event for about a year.

The issue: we can do some combination of motels, camping, or even renting an RV for the trip. Problem: for some of the trip, we may have 8 people along, which would mean a GIGANTIC RV, with concomitant gigantic gas and mileage charges. If we go passenger van, we’re looking at a lot of nights in motels, which isn’t cheap, either. Much planning needs to be done.

In. Sane.


My mind keeps going back to this post at Waiting for Godot to Leave.  I’ve come at the issue Kevin O’Brien, with the help of Orestes Brownson,  tackles here – the origins of the almost universal nihilism among Americans today – from another angle entirely, namely, the history of education.

Lurking a shallow scratch beneath the surface of all proposed education methods and theories is a key question: is education for the passing on of the culture of the parents, or is it for the purposes of the state? And, as recent news and court decisions make clear, the idea that the state might have purposes other than the promotion and protection of the culture manifested in parents and families has been conclusively presumed to be answered: yes, it does.

Note that even Aristotle, who held that good government should protect and promote virtue, would have seen a virtuous Greek family as a clear manifestation of what civic virtue means and aspires to. The state exists to protect and promote exactly the family and personal virtues on display in a good family, because such virtue is threatened by barbarism at every turn – by invasion from without and rot from within.

It’s another game entirely to say ‘we, the government leaders, understand virtue far better than you, the parents and families of America, and so will use the government’s coercive power – law, and its enforcement – to compel you to virtue as we understand it.’

But where did the modern idea of the state as the measure of virtue come from? My attempts to track it down keep coming back to – Martin Luther. He was a big fan of the state taking over education to ensure that the little tykes get exactly the right Jesus – Luther’s Jesus – beat into them, something parents, in his experience, largely fail to do. Just look at all those people who, even after hearing On Christian Liberty and the Theses and the Solas didn’t fall in line, but rather clung to their benighted Papism! Those heretics kept reading Scripture and applying logic just as they had for the previous 15 centuries, instead of accepting Luther’s radical decontextualization of scripture and church. He concluded, just like every progressive idealist since, that the answer was to use the coercive power of the state to make sure everyone understood certain key moral issues *correctly*.  That makes the state the ultimate authority and measure of education. In Luther’s case, the state is to be wedded to the Church, but that nicety didn’t last past 1800 in most places.*

And thus, O’Brien,  Brownson and I converge: The important thing, for Luther and his philosophic children is that everyone be made to Get It. Luther set the bar (on the ground, it seems) for logical and intellectual dispute – you’re wrong to disagree – you don’t Get It – and so your arguments can be dismissed. which is what the Bownson, in the  quotations used by O’Brien, pointed out.

* Horace Mann pitched German-style education – the direct lineal descendant of Luther’s proposal – in Massachusetts for moral, not intellectual reasons. He wasn’t saying we needed new school because kids couldn’t read – he was saying we needed new schools because kids raised by their parents – most notably, Irish Catholic immigrant parents – were not being raised morally.


Lighter stuff: the mourning doves that  nested atop an 8′ ladder on the patio leaning against the house (see pic at bottom of linked post) succeeded! Two lovely little chicks survived for the 10 to 12 days after hatching they need in order to fly, and – flew away! Isn’t Nature sweet?  Now – gotta move that ladder before it happens again when I need to replace some light bulbs or something.


Dr. Boli slays me.

Here’s Conversion Diary and her Seven thingie.

Two Maps of Potential Interest

Don’t really know what to make of this, but found it interesting:

This map, from Zillow via Monday Evening, shows the percentage of homes ‘under water’ by area:

Homes Under Water

The redder the area, the higher the percentage of homes under water. Grey areas had no data. Click on the map to go to the Zillow page that explains all this.

That map looked familiar. Kind of like this map, from Political Maps, except with blue on a red background:

I truly don’t know what to make of this. My guess is that houses in larger cities and in places people with good pensions  retire to tended to get inflated more in the bubble, and therefore had farther to collapse, leaving more people under water, while more rural areas for the most part avoided this. And, of course, the pictures are distorted by population: big swaths of color correspond as often as not to places few people live.  North central Arizona and New Mexico and northern Minnesota have fewer people combined than the area within a 15 mile radius of where I live.  Same goes for eastern Nevada and western Utah.

The overall, very general observation: areas that voted strongly Democrat in the last election show some tendency to have a high percentages of houses under water.  Not claiming Science! or anything – probably means nothing.

How Businessmen Think: My Dad

Business people sometimes make the mistake of hoping other people will sympathize with them, when what they should really hope for is that people will understand and maybe appreciate them. Because, to somebody who has less stuff, the guy with lots of stuff is unlikely to cut a sympathetic figure.

I am the son of a small business man. For the first 45 years of his life, my father was, first, a farmer, then an office worker, then a welder, then a sheet-metal fabrication generalist, then, finally, the owner of a small sheet metal fabrication shop. Along the way, he build 1 house from the ground up on weekends and evenings, remodeled or added to other houses and, for a few years, owned a family-run grocery market.

So, the first thing to notice about this man is his energy level – high. Next, his confidence that he could get stuff done, a trait I think he shares with farmers in general. If something breaks or a problem arises out on the farm, you fix it or come up with a work around, and you do it now. So, when I was 12 and we moved to a an old house a couple blocks away, Dad built railings for the deck, a spiral staircase, and put in a large brick patio as if these were the most natural things in the world to do. There’s a dark side to this: sometimes, his solutions seemed in retrospect to be way more involved than necessary, because he would just execute without really thinking through the cost benefit – but, hey, it got done. 

My Dad converted to Catholicism right after marrying my Mom, circa 1940. He would volunteer to help out around the parish. If it involved a bunch of volunteers working together – say, landscape cleanup or a gardening project – he would it end up in charge.  If you wanted to actually get the  job done, putting my dad in charge would work.

So, at the age of 45, he decided to put to use this talent and start a company. From the age of about 3 to 12, I didn’t see him much – he was at the shop when I got up, and came home, ate and went to sleep in the evenings. But the shop thrived. He ended up employing a couple dozen people including, at various times, his 5 sons. I sweep the floors on Saturdays starting when I was 12, and eventually learned quite a bit about sheet metal work. (But, sadly, never learned to weld.)

Of course, our world involved other business men as well. Dad particularly liked the scrap man, who showed up in his truck with his helper every week or two and paid Dad a few dollars per 50 gallon drum of scrap metal. What dad liked about the guy was that he got his hands dirty – and drove a Cadillac on weekends. That seemed meet to him.

There are hundreds of thousands of small businesses in this country, and those business owners share most of the characteristics of my dad, or they don’t stay in business long. So, how does the world look to people like my dad? First, they come to realize that in some important ways, they are different from other people. Some may see this difference in ‘better than’ terms, other may see it as merely a ‘it takes all kinds’ difference.  Either way, they notice that most people can’t get much done unless the tasks and goals are highly circumscribed. Show up at 8 and file these papers or sling this hash until 5 – a lot of people can handle that. But: do whatever it takes and work as long as required to make this business succeed in some way: most people can’t handle that.

Now, many business people in my experience embrace their gift and take joy and pride in exercising it: they are the bringers of order, the makers of things, the payers of people, the root causes of much economic activity. At the same time, they tend to take criticism from those who do not have or understand this gift very poorly: when told that they, whose efforts have created jobs and buildings and desirable stuff, are somehow greedy or otherwise evil, and are the cause of all sorts of social injustices, that doesn’t go over well.

Two caveats: Giant corporations are rarely run by businessmen in the sense I’m using here – they are owned by heirs and stockholders and run by MBAs – totally different animals. Second, of course there are some greedy, evil business people. Business people tend to view them the same way people view bad cops – we should take steps to weed out and prevent bad guys, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need cops or that most cops aren’t honest. I contend that just being a business person doesn’t incline one any more toward greed and evil that humanity in general.

One trait that may not be obvious: because of their goal orientation and their high energy level, business people tend to compulsively analyze and prioritize. If you ask a business person ‘how do you measure success each day?’ you are likely to get an answer like: we need $2500 to hit the registers each day we’re open to cover overhead, after that, we can start making money. Or: We need to sell 50 dozen donuts a day. Or: it costs us $80 per hour per person to run this operation, so that sets the daily revenue floor.  It works in more complex things as well: If we spent $1 million and 6 months to develop this product, we need to sell it x times at y dollars within 12 months to break even.

Every time a business man looks at anything, he’s running the numbers in his head. It’s a compulsion. It’s how he stays in business.

One final thing that seems to contradict the way most people think of them: business people are generally shrewd judges of people. Upon a moment’s reflection, this should be obvious: business people are driven to succeed, and more often than not, success depends of getting people to act in some desired way – to buy what you’re selling. Successful business people invest a lot of energy in understanding what motivates their customers. Sometime, this understanding can be very narrow, sometimes very broad, but always, business people possess some insight into human motivation – or they fail.

Next Post: we’ll apply this understanding of how businessmen think to some current events.

Science! Headline Not Exactly Right…

…in the sense of being totally wrong:

Three habitable worlds found around the same star

Merriam-Webster says:


What the article attached to the headline says:

Aliens could be watching aliens watching aliens. That’s a realistic prospect now that three potentially habitable planets – a record – have been glimpsed orbiting the same star.

Earlier studies had suggested that a nearby star, Gliese 667C, had three planets, only one of which might support life. But the very presence of multiple planets made their precise number hard to tease out.

Now Guillem Anglada-Escudé of the University of Göttingen in Germany and his colleagues have reanalysed the original data and added some new observations. They found evidence for up to seven worlds, including three rocky planets in the star’s habitable zone, where temperatures should suit life.

So, three potentially habitable planets. They are also potentially made of green cheese – in both cases, we’d need more evidence to be sure.

But next: earlier studies suggest only one of these may support life – which I’m supposing means ‘habitable’?

Finally: “ the star’s habitable zone, where temperatures should suit life.”  Did you know that the moon is smack dab in the middle of our sun’s habitable zone? At various places at various times, temperatures are quite nice 0n the moon. Yet squirrels and pine trees and any other form of life are noticeably lacking. Sooooo – it looks to take more than nice temperatures to be habitable?

But, hey, we’ve got a drum to beat here, and a fan base to fire up! Let’s not quibble over the complete and utter lack of evidence for trivia like water and atmosphere, or what temperature *ranges* might prevail – I just bought a lottery ticket, and I might win millions of dollars!

Well, that’s not fair – to the lottery ticket buyer. Some tiny percentage of people have actually won millions in a lottery, while no one – No. One. – has ever found any life on any planet other than earth. The lottery ticket holder has a realistic (if tiny) reason to hope. The alien life hunter has no reason to hope, except for blind faith in some dogma. Until we find case #2 of a life-infested planet, we have no evidential basis upon which to believe we ever will.

One last caveat:

That’s assuming the new trio of habitable planets is real. In 2010, two of the paper’s co-authors were acclaimed and then criticised when they claimed to have found the first potentially habitable rocky planet around the star Gliese 581 – a discovery others were unable to confirm. Anglada-Escudé is not worried: “We made sure to be very careful this time.”

Well! I feel much better about that this time. You?

To recap: buried within paragraphs of fan-boy heavy breathing, we are told scientists may have found 3 (or so) planets which lie within their sun’s habitable zone, which means that one potential deal-killer – temperatures that are much too hot or much too cold – might be ruled out, given a whole slew of other things (atmosphere (composition, density), rotational period, regularity of orbit) fall exactly right. The scientists involved have a poor track record, but *this* time they assure us they really, truly checked it out.

(aside: of course, if we do find alien life on another planet, I’ll be as thrilled as anyone. I’m just not buying that it is somehow inevitable – we just don’t know.)

UPDATE: It just keeps getting better –

Four habitable planets orbiting three tiny suns? New first in planet-hunting.

Up to 4! and we’ve got tiny suns to boot. BUT – really appreciate the question mark. Good show, Christian Science Monitor. Honesty in science headlines isn’t all that hard.

Sympathy for the Devil, Sort Of

I’ve long thought – and it’s not an original thought – that we do ourselves a great disservice by failing to sympathize with the Nazis. We don’t want to make the potentially uncomfortable distinction between the actions – truly monstrous – and the people who did them. We want them, the rank and file perpetrators of those great evils, to be monsters, unsympathetic in every way. We demand that they be totally different from us. File:Dictator charlie2.jpg

The uncomfortable truth is that while there were certainly a good number of sociopaths involved in National Socialism, the rank and file were people  like us. Another way to look at it: while there are almost certainly a good number of sociopaths involved in the YMCA, police department, Walmart, and grade schools – it’s statistically unlikely that there are not* – the rank and file are people just like us. Heck, they ARE us.

I read one story** about the recruitment of female death-camp guards and staff.  A Jewish woman is lead into a room full of potential hires, who are told to slap her hard. Milgram  would not be surprised at the result: All but a few went ahead and slapped her. The ones who hesitated were abused and threatened until they conformed. One woman refused entirely, and ended up *in* the concentration camp.

So, you think you’d behave any different? I certainly hope I would – but I’ve got Milgram, Catholic Teaching and the fear of Hell to help me out. But would that be enough? Just like us, the Germans were raised by parents who loved them imperfectly, soaked in a culture full of biases and fears, and – most of all – shared with us a deep-seated and desperate  drive to fit in.

Machiavelli observed that when the time came for ruthless, brutal acts, a Prince would never lack for people willing to do them. The sociopaths and the merely ambitious flutter around power like moths to a porch light. But what’s more telling – when the heads start being separated from shoulders, when the innocent get marched off to die, almost all of us can be counted on to stand down. Thus has it always been.

Now add one more trick, let’s call it boiling the lobster. You can try to toss the live lobster into the boiling water, which it will not like. Or you can put the lobster into cool water and just gradually heat it up, and the lobster will die without protest (At least, that’s the story – never tried it personally).  So, while sometimes a wise tyrant will make a dramatic move and lop off heads (Machiavelli again: when you become Prince, figure out who needs to die and kill them all at once) but mostly, they – whether a single leader, a group of leaders or a bureaucracy – will boil the lobster. Inch by inch,  they move you from a position of horror to a position of support, all the while picking off the peasant girls who won’t slap the  Jew, the employer who won’t pay for the Pill, the doctor who won’t abort the baby, the schoolteacher who won’t enforce the standards, until everyone who is left with any trace of autonomy or power has bought into the story. Most important, we, the little people, are now invested in believing, the cost of disbelief being the self accusation that we are cowards and dupes.

And, once this homogenization has been achieved, the ruthless, the ambitious and the sociopaths rise to the top. This is a  problem that become evident over and over again as more or less popular tyrannies play out: the Russian revolution had to result in Stalin or someone just like him; the French Revolution produced whole teams of people who thought themselves idealists as they executed nuns and priest and peasants by the score.

Does it always get this bad? Eventually, yes, barring a miracle. It is not a mere truism to say that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.  What we can do to slow it down is to, first of all, recognize that the monstrous things done by the Nazis were for the most part carried out by people as morally and mentally clear as we are – if not more so. They didn’t start out to be vicious killers of women, children and men – at worst, they started out as loyal sons and daughters of the Fatherland, out to regain for it its proper place among nations. They worked their trades, kept their farms, taught their classes, treated their patients, all while the water in the pot kept getting almost imperceptibly warmer.

So, if you defend the simple truth, such as it’s a Bad Thing for the government to put all citizens under surveillance, or that unborn babies are people, or that there must always, without exception, be transparent legal safeguards against the unilateral execution of non-combatants, you can expect howls from those who have already bought in – for them to even admit you have a point would be to call themselves cowards, liars, dupes and murderers. We weak humans are unlikely to do that to ourselves given any options.

* In this article from Forbes it is asserted that 4% of the population are sociopaths – “That means one out of every 25 human beings has no conscience, no sense of right or wrong, no empathy, no ability to understand emotion–no soul. Worse, while they can mimic emotion, they see other humans as mere pawns or saps, to be used for their benefit or amusement, or both.” I dispute the claim that sociopaths have no soul, but otherwise…
**Of course, a solid 15 minutes of searching failed to turn up the exact article – this time, Internet, the victory is yours!

Thoughts and Observations: Weekend Edition

File:Bixby Creek Bridge, California, USA - May 2013.jpg
Bixby Creek Bridge, care of Wikipedia

Mostly just pointing you to other links.

1. In the course of taking the family on our annual camping trip to meet up with my little brother and his family, we drove CA Highway 1 from Santa Cruz to Morro Bay.  Couple observations.

– This world is really beautiful. Even elephant seals look sort of OK framed by the California coast;

– People are really good at building roads. There are a *lot* of death-defying cliff-hugging roads and bridges along Highway 1. Some nuts had to design and then actually build those things – and they pulled it off in style;

– I won’t be willingly moving from California any time soon.

2. Visited Hearst Castle, a place I have never had the least interest in seeing, because the extended family wanted to. Hey, domestic tranquility and all that.  Let’s just go ahead and say it: it is a metaphor for everything that’s gone wrong in America over the last 150 years:

– It’s a monument to what money unencumbered by anything higher than a bloated ego can accomplish;

– All over the buildings and grounds, religious themes are incorporated into the secular pleasure palace because they are old and kind of interesting. The main building is built to look like a church, and just about every facade and room has diptichs, choir stalls, religious statuary, paintings and knick-knacks.  Generations of monks might have prayed for the forgiveness of sins and the salvation of the world in those stalls, but Hearst repurposed them so that Errol Flynn could sit in one and complain about Hearst’s watery martinis;

– The entire point of the buildings ceased to be upon the death of the builder. Once Willy died, his estate couldn’t wait to get rid of it. Ended up giving it to the State of California, which turned it into a tourist attraction that pretty much pays for itself. Now, you lay you money down, and you can look at it – just don’t touch anything, don’t even think about swimming in the pools or riding the trails or sitting in the sitting rooms. Just look.

– All of history, represented by all the stuff Hearst collected, is merely a curiosity to be momentarily gawked at. It’s cool, and all, but means nothing.

It’s a kind of transitional piece, where a man with pretensions to culture could acknowledge religion – Catholicism, really – while simultaneously pushing it aside as a mere curiosity. The next generation could, as a simple matter of taste, ignore it completely.

3. The always interesting Darwin Catholic has a post up about reading and rereading. I’m with Darwin here: the virtues of reading sources (Great Books), of reading good fiction, and of rereading good books in general seem so obvious and natural the mind stumbles over the novelty of trying to express why, like Chesterton’s example of the man asked why he prefers civilization.

4. John C. Wright is at it again, making a manly effort to explain philosophy and what really thinking about something looks like to the masses in his combox and email. It is a think of great beauty and horror: the beauty of seeing truth expounded and defended, and the horror of observing the deformities which – however innocently and even with good intentions – have shaped so many modern minds.

5. Mr. Wright also addresses the topic of skepticism, an issue dear to my heart. He points out that the term ‘skepticism’ is used equivocally to mean both the thorough and logical critique of ideas and assumptions and the emotional predilection toward scoffing at every belief and idea you don’t like. He adds a new and interesting thought: that skepticism as used in the second sense amounts to a failure of imagination. Aristotle somewhere says words to the effect that the sign of a cultured mind is the ability to calmly entertain an idea without believing it true.

6. The Statistician to the Stars takes time off from  explaining and defending Bayes’s theorem (his math-fu is stronger than mine! Like horse stronger than ant!) to explain the usefulness of and logic behind ensembles of models. This, I could understand – good stuff.

7. Last, Mike Flynn writes about science and humanism, enlisting the aid of, among others,  Calvin and Hobbes, Star Trek, LotR, Joni Mitchell, and Hitler in making his points clear. How can you not love that?

Two Schools

The words ‘education’ and ‘school’ are used in two very different, nearly mutually exclusive ways. Yet in current discussions of education and schooling, whether a parent-teacher conference or a defense of the latest national program, these two different meanings are constantly confounded and intermingled. To sum up:

School 1: Seeks to pass on a culture, seeks to make students morally and intellectually fit to carry on and improve that culture. Education in this context means learning what is important to your culture, what you need to know to function within it, what is honorable and dishonorable, what you are expected to do. Examples would be the ephebia* of the Hellenistic Greeks and the one-room schools of America, as well as various religious schools.

School 2: Seeks to create a new culture, which necessarily requires destroying any existing cultures. School 2 seeks to make students morally and intellectually fit to implements and express the new culture.  Education means here primarily learning to disdain the existing culture, to value only the approval of the gatekeepers of the new culture, to see the existing culture primarily as an impediment to implementing the new culture. As a necessary step, the beliefs and values of parents and any other representatives of any existing culture must be disparaged. Theoretical examples abound – the schools envisioned by Fichte, Mann, and Dewey expressly intended to replace current culture with a newer, better one. Real-life examples include schools under Communist Russia and China and Nazi Germany, which were all very clear about their intentions to create a new society. Also all compulsory public schooling in the industrialized world, a fact you can both trace historically and perceive if you can listen past the platitudes. 

What makes seeing this difficult is that 90%+ of all conversations around education use the same terms to discuss the same issues in the same way. All talk about basics and learning and classroom management and parental involvement and teacher training and so on, even discussion of preparing kids for ‘real life’ – all get used by all parties, even when, if you could scratch the surface, it would clear they don’t at all mean the same thing. Only occasionally is the curtain pulled aside and the man with the levers revealed.

So, how do you tell what kind of a school you are dealing with? Glad you asked:

School 1, since it aims to support a culture, reflects the desires, interests and values of the parents and the society that are carries of that culture. Parents are assumed to be involved in their child’s education, and parental approval is deeply valued – the school seeks the approval of the parent. Children’s development is measured against some objective standard apart from mere approval of the educators or test results.

School 2, since it aims to discredit the beliefs and desires of the parents, strives mightily to circumvent parental involvement in all aspects of the child’s life. Parents are trained to believe that education is something done by experts; that they are doing their job if they keep the kid in school and make sure he does his homework; that parents and kids should place ultimate value in the approval of the experts as expressed in grades, test results, and admission to elite institutions. Compliance with these beliefs effectively removes the child from the parents’ and the existing culture’s  influence: “successful” children are either in school, doing homework, doing extra-curricular activities – or sleeping. “Good” parents are those who have willingly removed themselves from their children’s lives in the name of getting approval from the educational experts – and from all the other parents, neighbors and relatives who have also bought into this.

Now, on the surface these two schools may appear to operate in similar fashion. In fact, school 2 depends on fooling many parents into thinking it is really school 1, or rather that there’s only school, it’s all the same. And, sadly, many schools that are by their natures School 1s believe that they must be School 2s, only better – Catholic schools, I’m talking to you! – so that a given institution can display both characteristics at once. At best, this inconsistency reflects an internal battle, where the school was established as a School 1, but is now staffed by people trained in School 2s, and serves the children of people trained in School 2s. The adults know, on some level, that they are protecting and passing something of value along to the kids, but the only idea of schooling they know is what they experienced – a very difficult situation, one made almost inevitable by the intellectual miasma which is the preferred medium of modern schooling.

But there are clear indications you are dealing with School 2:

– if the curriculum is totally managed by experts and imposed without any parental involvement or review;

– if test results are equated with ‘achievement’. (Test results are not achievement – they are not the same thing as having learned something; standardized test results just show if the student has been properly standardized.)

– if any homework AT ALL is assigned to 5th graders or below; when more that one hour’s homework a night is assigned to 6th, 7th, or 8th graders; or 2 hours to high school students; (The main purpose of homework is to keep the kid under the influence of school during times when he might otherwise be under the influence of parents and family. You can verify this by looking at how hopelessly stupid 98% of homework is.)

– if national standards are touted as a good thing – national standards are expressly meant to replace local standards, which would be the parents’ standards.

* Information on ephebies is scarce on the web. An ephebia was a ancient Greek school originally desigend to prepare young men to be soldiers for the city-state, which included both physical military training and training in the culture – why it is worthy to fight and die for; as a result of Alexander’s conquests, which eliminated the need (or possibility) for individual city states to defend themselves, the ephebia evolved into more of a citizen’s finishing school.

Whitey Bulger and Local Blindness

I’ve had a passing interest in Whitey Bulger for a few decades now, after having read an article on him in some glossy. What makes his story fascinating is not the man – he’s a vicious, murdering thug by almost all accounts – but rather the people who surrounded him and the various mental and emotional contortions through which people see the story. 

Exhibit A is this recent article from Slate. Here, at least, the writer acknowledges that he and his neighbors were willfully blind to or blithely dismissive  of the evils Whitey routinely committed. In other items I’ve read over the years, a recurring theme was that just about everybody knew Whitey killed people, everybody assumed his brother Billy, for decades the most powerful state politician in Massachusetts, was helping to keep him out of jail,  but that most people from the South Side just shrugged those problems off and thought of him as a colorful local, another in a century-long stream of Irish hot heads that peopled that part of Boston. That he was destroying their neighbors by pushing drugs and leaving a trail of bereaved families in his wake was evidently outweighed by his being an Irish Southie.

The strong tendency of a looked-down-upon or persecuted minority to circle the wagons around anyone they see as one of their own is clearly at work here. The Irish in Boston had very good reasons to stick together and distrust outsiders. Whitey, as one of their own, got a huge benefit of the doubt when outsiders like the FBI went after him. It doesn’t seem to matter that Whitey and his activities were contributing mightily to the downward spiral of the Southie neighborhood that was part of the foundation of clannishness that protected him.  On an even larger scale, the people of urban Massachusetts show the same clannish tendency to not only look the other way, but to double down and defend their own, no matter how criminal their behavior. The likes of Billy Bulger, the Kennedys,  and Barney Frank are seen as criminals only in the same way Robin Hood was a criminal – they break the law, maybe, but they deliver the goods to the downtrodden. Quick well-known examples: Billy Bulger kept the law off his brother and routinely intimidated the press (back when a politician might occasionally need to do that sort of thing) into laying off any investigations into what Billy’s government was up to – go after Billy even a little, and you will never get access to anyone or anything again, and might just get fired; the Kennedy clan, at the very least, got Chappaquiddick hushed up; Frank’s fingerprints are all over the financial collapse and his supposed efforts to regulate Wall Street are a transparent sham; The Big Dig  – a joint effort – may have wasted billions, but a lot of that waste was spent with local contractors paying local guys, so it’s all good. In all cases, as long as a politician could bee seen as bringing money back to the state or neighborhood, the means by which he did it was immune to scrutiny.

A possibly milder version of this phenomenon may be seen in how everybody hates politicians – except for their own local guys, who seem all right. A more generous soul might be inclined to think people have a harder time hating somebody they know, and that all politicians would be lovable if only people got to know them.  But the locally beloved politician possess, in virtually every case, exactly the characteristics people hate in all other politicians from elsewhere.

John Kenneth Galbraith pointed out something true (hey, it happens): that capitalism is characterized not so much by

 risk-taking as by risk-aversion. Perhaps small firms embrace risk because they have no choice. An entrepreneur sees chaotic and unsettled markets as opportunities. But a big, successful company is strongly inclined to eliminate risk any way it can. It’s already coining cash – that’s what being a big, successful company means – and so it can direct its attention and resources towards reducing risks*. Some are simple smart business – keeping your customers happy, for example; some are morally iffy – buying up and shutting down competitors or potential competitors; and some are simply illegal. This is another case where Hegel said something true (hey, even THAT happens): that quantitative differences in the extreme are qualitative. Here, that just means that huge companies are not like little companies in crucial ways, and applying the same logic or making the same assumptions about their behavior will lead one astray.

What I wish is that is that Galbraith had applied that same exact logic to political parties and government, but I’ve seen no evidence he ever did: that a small-time politician would see a wide-open election as an opportunity, but a large established party with power would see it as a threat. The small-timer has few options, especially if he is opposing an established party: he generally must hope the election is fair and that he can win it fairly. He knows that if things get dirty, he’s got little chance – he lacks the resources of an established party, and so will almost assuredly loose if thinks get ugly.

From a big, established party’s perspective, elections are terrible risks, to be mitigated any way possible. Those possibilities include relatively honest and legal efforts such as gerrymandering (hey, at least nobody gets killed, usually) to writing the election rules to so heavily favor the major parties that it will take a miracle for anyone else to win anything important, to siccing the IRS on your opponents, to – here it comes – throwing ballot boxes (or, if need be, your opponent) into the Chicago river.

Thus, we get to bring Fichte into the discussion: just as he can’t even imagine that the ‘state and its advisers’ could fail to provide the best possible education to the German children they are to seize and indoctrinate, so the many people of Galbraith’s mind can’t even imagine that government is liable to many of the the same temptations that they decry in business. But even gigantic companies regularly fail – the companies in the Dow-Jones 30 from even just 50 years ago are mostly gone, while we haven’t had a new major political party in 150 years. Hmmm, curious, that.

Back to Whitey. One thing should be clear, and we’ve illustrated it using the Irish in Boston, but it applies as well to the Chicago Machine, or Louisiana under Long: that the clannish homerism that gave Whitey a pass for decades is at play in the pass given to home town politicians, and that much of the corruption we are now seeing is enabled by this attitude: you can break the law so long as you deliver the goods. Or, more clearly: we won’t even be able to see you breaking the laws if you deliver the goods.

* Buying up government officials is one good way, and dovetails nicely with the point I’m trying to make, but that’s another essay.

Fichte, Part 5: The Wrap-up

Note: I’m reading and posting about Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762 – 1814) because he is widely recognized as a key figure in modern education. He greatly influenced von Humboldt’s reforms of the German school system, which in turn greatly influenced Horace Mann and that crowd. It’s important, I think, in any discussion of modern education to recognize just what kind of a nut Fichte was.

So, finished Addresses to the German Nation. Afterwards, reread the translators’ Introduction, by a R.F. Jones and a G.F. Turnbull, written around 1922, to get a feel for how his fans think of him.  Fascinating bits of gymnastics are involved in trying to credit Fichte with all sorts of good, forward-looking things while, at the same time, excusing him from all the obvious exaggeration and, frankly, lying he does, and, especially, from how a lot of his ideas played out from 1808 to 1922. But, here, let’s read a nice chunk. Messrs Jones and Tunrbull have just finished painting Fichte as a flawed saint – hard working and honest to a fault, beloved by his few close friends, admired by those who didn’t know him too well for his intellect and oratory powers, but pretty much universally despised by those he had to work with as an arrogant, self-righteous jerk. And then, there’s the slight issue of his fanatical nationalism wildly distorting his ideas:

Some of the ideas and opinions expressed in the Addresses are obviously false and cannot be accepted, while others are gross exaggerations and require considerable modification (?). Little comment need be made on Fichte’s conception of the German language as the sole living language(?!), or on his notion of the part that Germany has played and must still play in the process of the salvation of the world (!?!). His whole-hearted enthusiasm for things German inclines him at times to regard everything genuinely German as necessarily good, and everything foreign as necessarily bad. It is obvious what evil results would accrue from the logical development of such a conception (Note: said around 1922 – would the authors like a do-over on this statement in 1945?). He greatly exaggerates the part played by Luther and by Germany in the reformation of the Church ; and it may be that his forecast of some of the good results that would follow upon the adoption of his educational reforms is fantastic and overdrawn (Really? Ya think?). The fact, however, remains that these false and exaggerated ideas are but small blemishes in the work (See my comment below); they are easily explained, if not justified, when we consider the desperate state of the times, the exalted aim of the lecturer, the peculiar difficulty of his task, and his enthusiastic personality. In any case they do not affect to any considerable extent the tremendous influence of the Addresses at the time, and their great importance for the understanding of subsequent periods.

So, we’re to ignore the difficult (*cough* NAZI! *cough*) aspects of Fichte’s ideas because he meant well and had his country overrun by Frenchmen? We are to credit him with undefined good results that haven’t actually happened, while giving him a pass on the crazy and dangerous aspects of his theories? John C. Wright, with his typical manly vigor, often calls attention to this odd habit of the Left of wanting credit for good intentions while simultaneously downplaying any actual bad stuff their heroes did (see this essay, via Darwin Catholic, for a risibly clear example of this phenomenon.) Be that as it may, such is certainly in play here. Fichte, alleged paladin of TRVTH, just makes sh*t up when it suits him, and gets a pass.

(Ahhh! Freakin’ WordPress just ate the second half of this essay! ratzin’fratzin….)

So, what is Fichte’s appeal? First off, he offers a sort of secular salvation history. (God makes an appearance, occasionally, but Fichte’s God is odd enough that accusations of atheism dogged him (Fichte, not God) his entire professional life.) Man, as most perfectly expressed in ‘the German’, has been slowly progressing from stage to stage, until now, in the fullness of time, it is the German’s job to make, like eeevolution in the X-Men, a leap forward.  It has fallen to Fichte to explain exactly how that is to happen – the ‘State and its advisers’ are to seize control of the nation’s children, take them away from their parents for years on end, and raise them up to be perfect little Germans, which, it goes without saying except that he says it numerous times, are perfect little people. All will be sweetness and light, when the properly educated German is moved by nothing but completely selfless love of the Fatherland.

What’s not to like? Clearly, German moms and dads have screwed up their kids – otherwise, the Prussian army would never have lost to the French. (No, really – that’s what the argument boils down to.) Second, Fichte makes fun of the French and assigns every positive human development forever to the Germans. Sounds great, if you’re German. (Seriously, he claims to have character and to be German are the same thing. Among other things.) Finally, he provides an outlet for German humiliation and frustration by focusing on doing something their French conquerors will allow them to do: educate their children.

Fichte is what happens when very smart people are fed on Rousseau and Locke and untethered from the Perennial Philosophy. Sure hope this whole salvation through statism thing doesn’t catch on….