Friday, November 30, 2012

News and Updates

1. I’ve been trying to find time to write an actual blog post for the last week, so far without much success.  It’s not like there’s a paucity of things to write about.  But it’s just that time of the semester when everything was due yesterday and I keep assigning more work to be graded because I am one of those idiot professors who actually wants my students to learn things and they won’t learn unless they do work.  Which has to be graded.  Oh well.

2. Why do holiday contests keep promising me that I can win “a flat-screen TV”?  Does anyone even make non-flat-screen TVs anymore?  It’s like advertising unleaded gasoline.

3. There are too many cats barging around my house at 4am and not enough cats sleeping quietly out of the way.  It is amazing how “too many” can be as few as “one.”

4. Thanksgiving is now over.  I can officially acknowledge the existence of Christmas.  That doesn’t mean I am going to get my Christmas cards out before New Years or that I have all (read: “any”) of my gift-shopping done.  It just means that I don’t cringe every time I hear a Christmas song on the radio.

5. It is a sad and stressful thing to be very far away from friends when they are sick.

6. There are very few figures in modern American history more fun to discuss with a class than Richard Nixon.  For a combination of high drama, low comedy, real political skills and achievements, and outright threats to law, order and constitutional government, you just can’t beat him.  He’s absolutely compelling, in a train-wreck sort of way.

7. I am almost three quarters of the way through my “Read All of the Discworld Books Again, In Order” project, and it has been so, so worth it.

8. I think I may have burned myself out on picture-taking for a while.  Vacations will do that.

9.The future of higher education in Wisconsin looks grimmer every time Governor Teabagger (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Koch Industries) opens his mouth.  It takes a genuine idiot to convert a university into a corporate apprenticeship program, and we’ve got just the guy in office to do it.

10. The “check engine” light lit up on my car the other day.  I opened the hood and checked.  The engine was still there.  I don’t know why they bother to put those lights on the dashboard.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

My Mennonite Thanksgiving

The Amtrak train from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia always took more than seven hours each way, which is about half again as long as it took to drive.  But I didn’t own a car when I lived in Pittsburgh, so if I wanted to see my family it was either take the train or walk.

I liked the train, though.  It was generally peaceful.  You could get up and walk around whenever you wanted.  There was a dining car that sold little bottles of wine – I learned fairly early on not to buy the meals, which weren’t bad but weren’t worth the price either, so I’d pack some nice crackers and a wedge of good cheese, buy some wine, and make a meal of it.

Plus, you met interesting people on the train.

I remember spending some time chatting with a woman from Norway who was just appalled at the lack of any real social safety net in the US by Scandinavian standards.  While I tended to agree with her, it was fun to become someone else for a while and try to defend the American system as being the right way to go.  It’s interesting to see things from the other side.  You might learn something that way.

My favorite seatmate was a guy from the East Coast somewhere – he got on a stop after me and was continuing on long after I left.  We were both headed home for Thanksgiving, and we had a great time comparing stories.  Somewhere around Harrisburg the conversation ebbed, and he closed his eyes to get some rest.

This left me to look out the window.

You do that on trains.  The rails go thrumming by underneath and you stare out at the passing landscape in a sort of hypnotized trance.  There’s a lot to see.

You go through some gorgeous country on that route – the mountains through central Pennsylvania are lush and wooded, and the train goes around “the World-Famous Horseshoe Curve!” at one point.  I had never heard of “the World-Famous Horseshoe Curve!” before I started taking that train, but I got to know it well over the years I lived in Pittsburgh.  If it wasn’t quite as famous as the conductors wanted it to be, it should have been.  It takes you through nearly three-quarters of a circle as you go around the valley from one mountain ridge to another slightly lower down, and it really is an amazing piece of engineering.

You pass by a lot of rural areas, straggly settlements of a few houses here and there and single-lane roads that come right up to the tracks.  Sometimes they cross over.  Sometimes they turn and follow the tracks for a while.  There were always street signs at those turns – signs marking intersections that weren’t intersections, not really, just bends in the road that had caught some surveyor’s eye.

You also pass through cities.  Trains never go through the expensive parts of town, pretty much by definition.  They’re loud, they interfere with other traffic, and most of their business is freight anyway.  Wherever the trains go is down market just because the trains go there.  They go through the warehouse districts, the industrial areas, the poorer neighborhoods where shrieking rails are just one and not the most worrying of your problems.  You see a lot from the train.

As we moved on from Harrisburg to Philadelphia we passed through a small city, this one in Amish country.  There are a lot of Amish and Mennonites in eastern Pennsylvania, and you can see them in their horse-and-buggies and their distinctive outfits, cruising along in a 17th-century time warp.  Hey – it works for them.

We were in a warehouse district, rumbling along in that slow, deliberate way that trains have in cities, when I woke my companion.

“You have to see this.”

We were on one side of a long row of warehouses running parallel to the tracks.  Between us and the buildings there were long, empty parking lots, smooth and clear and hidden entirely from the road on the other side of the warehouses.  And on one of those lots was a large Mennonite man.

He had the typical look one associates with that sect from looking at the pictures in the news – a big man, burly and barrel-chested, the sort of man you would see in a blacksmith shop without thinking twice about it.  Long beard, no moustache.  Straw hat.  Yellow flannel shirt.  Black pants held up by suspenders.

And a pair of day-glo rollerblades on his feet.

He was pacing the train, almost keeping up with us in fact, though I don’t think he really cared.  He was simply enjoying himself, doing something that gave him pleasure and harmed no one.  His beard bobbed in the wind.  I have no idea how he kept his hat on.

We watched him for a while, as the train slowly outran him, and then he reached the end of his parking lot, turned around, and started racing back the other way.  My guess is that he spent a lot of that afternoon doing just that, back and forth, enjoying the air and the exercise.

It’s little things like that, small, almost inconsequential things, that make life interesting, that make life fun, that make life worthwhile.  It’s the ability to enjoy those little things, without fear, without worry, that is unspeakably precious and often so rare in this world.

Hold onto those moments, and be glad in them.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Miles to Go

I should be grading.

There is a stack of exams in my bag that is calling out for blue ink (I refuse to grade in red ink – grading is enough of a blood sport without getting quite that analogous about it).  There is also another stack of papers right next to it making similar demands.  But I have already graded two stacks of papers and another of exams in the last week and I cannot see how doing more of that will be good for anyone right now.  Seriously, students – do not ask your professor to grade while tired or burned out, because bad grades happen when that happens.

I should be prepping for class.

In each of my classes there are lectures that need tweaking for this year’s go-round, and in one class there are two entire days that need to be created out of whole cloth, both of which need to be coordinated with at least one of the other professors I’m teaching that particular course with.  I’m one of those teachers who comes in with everything pretty much written out.  I don’t always follow it, but it gives me something to depart from.  I’ve learned that in my field all I have to sell is a story, so I had better get the transitions right.

I should be writing letters.

We’ve had a couple of very nice performances down at Home Campus, and they always appreciate it if you write them a nice letter on official stationary saying how great they were so they can put it into the press kit for the next go ‘round.  It’s nice to be able to do that for performers who have given you good shows, and this needs to happen quickly.

I should be getting more rest.

It’s that time of the semester when everything comes crashing down upon you and no matter which direction you turn there is another pile of things that has to get whittled down and landscaped.  And when you finally do get to sleep, the piles are just waiting for you there too. 

I should be catching up on repairs.

There are any number of projects that are crying out for attention these days.  Right now the most pressing would be to put in a new thermostat – our old one died this summer while we were away, and the repair guys just put in the most basic one they had.  It works but it’s not programmable, and not being able to control that sort of thing means we are spending more money to feel less comfortable and waste more energy.  So that project has to happen.  And the station wagon needs new lifters for the rear hatch.  And an oil change, which fortunately I just have to pay someone else to do.  My desk is an archeology project.  The screen for the front door is in tatters, thanks to the laws of physics and the momentum of a certain cat. 

I should be attending to a number of long-term projects.

There are photos need to be scanned.  There are other photos that need to be framed and hung, and still others that need to be printed.  There are events to be planned and arrangements to be made, not all of them to take place anywhere near here.  Every now and then I make a to-do list and save it to my computer, where I can add and subtract as necessary.  Somehow the list never gets any shorter.

There are so many things I need to be doing right now.


Saturday, November 17, 2012

Passing On The Craft

I used to have my own business.

One of the joys of being in academia is that you don’t get paid in the summertime, so if you want to eat when the weather gets warm you either have to set aside enough during the school year to live on for three months – and hope that your calculations were correct and nothing too unexpected happens – or you find some other source of income.

Or both.  Both is good.

For about seven years Kim and I ran a hand-crafted soap company.  We’d spend much of the year making cold-process soaps and selling them over the internet or by mail – we had the best-smelling basement in town – and we’d spend the summer and fall working the craft show circuit, selling what we’d made and making new contacts for further business. 

Kim handled most of the creative work – finding recipes, trying new scents – and the ordering of supplies.  My job was manufacturing and sales.  I got to where I could make about 350 bars of soap in a day, or a bit more with sufficient Warren Zevon at high enough volumes.  It is astonishing how much good music helps productivity that way.

Then of course we had to sell the stuff.  That meant a lot of very long days full of heavy lifting (soap weighs more than you think it does) and a great deal of talking.  I was always astonished at how little effort most crafters put into actually selling what they had made, how often they just sat there and did crossword puzzles while people whose pockets were filled with money that rightfully belonged in the till just walked on by, and I was not about to make that mistake.  But they were good days, all told. 

We always made enough of a profit to live on during the summers, paid our taxes in full, and never ran into the red.

It was a good run while it lasted.  But as time went by the girls got too mobile and inquisitive for us to have fifty-pound bags of lye just sitting around in the basement, even under lock and key, so we decided that we would have to find other ways to go about funding our summers.  We operated through the Christmas rush and then spent most of the following week clearing out our basement of all the various soapmaking supplies we no longer needed, including a truly awe-inspiring mound of brown-glass bottles that had once held essential or fragrance oils.  I was deeply impressed when the recycling guys here in Our Little Town actually fit them all into their truck.

A friend of ours was interested in soapmaking around that time, so after we retired we taught him how to make the stuff and began referring our old customers his way.  He’s still making and selling soap even now.  I warned him at the time that it would take over his life, and whenever we catch up to one another these days – often down at the Farmer’s Market, where he and his wife are selling soap and the other related products they’ve since branched out to make – we just shake our heads in wonder at how things turned out.

We still make the soap now and then.  It’s great stuff – my skin on my fingers hasn’t cracked open during the winter since we started making it, and if you want the full chemical explanation for why this is so could give it to you.  Don’t all ask at once.  Form an orderly line.

Mostly, though, what we do now is teach others how to make it.

Home Campus has a series of more community-oriented classes that they offer – non-credit enrichment courses aimed at people who aren’t necessarily enrolled as students but who want to learn something on a pleasant Saturday morning.  Every other year or so, we teach a soapmaking class.  Today was that morning.

It was an early morning, as these things tend to be – the girls were off at various friends for sleepovers and Kim and I had spent last night enjoying a romantic evening for two down at the chemistry lab getting things set up, because that’s just how we roll.  And then we were back at 7am, continuing to get things set up.  We had ten students, which is a nice number in a class that involves making something as space-intensive as cold-process soap.  There was some introductory material about the history of soapmaking and the rather sparing use of the final product for most of human civilization, as well as some of the science of the manufacturing process, and then they got down to work.

It was marvelously chaotic, as the students went from place to place, gathering and weighing up water, oils and lye, getting everything melted and/or mixed, while we circulated among them answering questions, making suggestions, and occasionally producing the sort of concerned noises that professors make when they don’t really know the answer to something and are just stalling for time until they can think of something convincing to say.  Fortunately that rarely takes very long.

The fun part was watching the students see all that chaos and seemingly random material turn into soap right before their disbelieving eyes.  They never believe that it will actually work until it happens.

It takes about two hours for a beginner to make an 8lb-batch of soap, though once you get the hang of it you can cut that down to a bit over an hour.  Then it sits for two days, wrapped in blankets, until you can turn it out of the molds and cut it into bars.  Then it sits for two more weeks to cure.

And then?

Then you’ve got enough of the world’s best soap to last two people a year.

Not a bad job for a Saturday morning.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

So It Goes

My students have never heard of Kurt Vonnegut. 

How can this be?  Has it really been that long since Vonnegut was writing?  Have university students changed so much?

Apparently so.

I thought reading Vonnegut was compulsory for university students.  You signed up for classes, figured out where your dorm was, and were handed a box containing a can of condensed soup, a mug, a small selection of personal care products from various corporations who wanted your future business (the precise nature of which varied depending on the social views of the university president), the phone numbers for various emergency and semi-emergency agencies within the university hierarchy, and a small selection of Vonnegut novels that, at minimum, included Breakfast of Champions and Slaughterhouse Five.  At least that’s how it was back when I was in college.

You can get off my lawn now.

Apparently this is no longer the case.  What do modern students do instead?

It can’t be sex or alcohol, since I seem to recall a lot of that going around when I was in college – that was the whole purpose behind several of those phone numbers, after all, not to mention most of the personal care products – and we still managed to find time to read Vonnegut novels.  Not at the same time, granted.  The former would have involved way too many physical contortions, and the latter would just not have been good for anyone’s mental health.  But in serial, yes, and it was true that reading those novels was not a bad way to seek either of those other things. 

Perhaps today’s students have moved on to Facebook. 

That would be a poor bargain, though, giving up Cat’s Cradle for status updates about vacations and misattributed quotes plastered onto photos of kittens.  I’m sure Vonnegut would have had something to say about that, had he lived.

I read my first Vonnegut novel not long after graduating high school.  I had a summer job working as a general all-around assistant at a Lutheran deaconess community – a kind of convent for elderly Lutheran women, as near as I ever figured out.  Mostly this involved answering the phones (the place had a genuine switchboard with heavy wires you had to patch into the correct hole on the board in order to transfer a call), getting the long tables set up for meals (they were very tolerant people in all matters not having to do with silverware), and chatting with the only one of the sisters who was under the age of 70 (to this day the concept of a Platonic Ideal makes me laugh, and I blame her for this).  None of this took up much time, though some of the conversations were, as noted, a lot of fun. 

I had a lot of free time at that job.  There was only one meal per shift, usually.  Not many people ever called.  And the one sister was usually busy with other things around the place, which is what happens when you’re the only resident who can bend over without falling down.  Some of that time I spent watching Live-Aid on a six-inch black and white screen television, which might explain why my main impression of that concert was that it was kind of tinny.  Most of the time, however, I read.

I had gotten the job because a friend of mine recommended me for it.  She already worked there – how she got the job I never did find out – and they needed someone else.  She knew me pretty well, and one day as she was leaving and I was arriving she handed me Slapstick and said, “Read this. You’ll like it.”

And I did.

I spent the next several years seeking out Vonnegut novels in used book stores all over Philadelphia, and buying them new when that strategy didn’t pan out.  I read them all, everything the man ever published.

They were wonderful.

I even saw him speak once, in Pittsburgh.  He may well have been drunk.  Or simply tired.  Or maybe that’s just how he was normally.  I don’t know, and having nothing to compare that experience to, I suppose I’ll never know.  He didn’t come out afterward to sign books though, as we had been told he would.

I didn’t care.  It was worth it to hear what he had to say.

Vonnegut was a pessimist.  He’d seen too much to be anything else.  He was a German-American growing up after WWI, an era when the reflexive Nativism of the US had largely destroyed a culture that had rivaled Anglo-American culture in importance and influence.  His family lost almost everything in the Great Depression.  He was an infantryman in WWII and was captured by the Nazis.  He survived the firebombing of Dresden, one of the few people who did.  That experience became Slaughterhouse Five.

That’s how I know my students don’t read him.  We covered Dresden in class today, and I asked if they had read Slaughterhouse Five.  It might as well have been the Civil War as far as my students were concerned, and I might as well have asked them about Ambrose Bierce.

We need pessimists.  We need to remember that the Happy All The Damned Time culture of modern America is unbalanced, incomplete, and a poor way to prepare for reality.

We need someone to remind us to be kind, to be suspicious of ideology, to love humanity because of its flaws, not despite them.

I told my students to go out and read some Vonnegut books, not because they were assigned but because they’d enjoy them and might get something out of them.  I hope they do.

Hi ho.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

On Being a Fiscal Conservative

What does it mean to be a fiscal conservative?

One of the things that happens when forty thousand people look at something you’ve written is that they ask you what you actually meant.  This can be tricky, especially when they focus on parts that turn out not to have been very well written, parts where what you meant and what you actually said can easily be taken as being somewhat at variance.  Don’t get me started on how many times I’ve had to clarify my position on home schooling, for example.  That bit would be the first to get rewritten if I had the chance to write the piece again, if only to save so much work further down the line. 

On a forum where someone had posted a link to that piece (see? I don’t even have to say which piece – you just know, don’t you?), a commenter said that while she enjoyed it in general, she didn’t like it when fiscal conservatives declared that they should only pay for the government services they actually used and she wondered how I could square such a belief with my stated support for communities in general.

I felt that was something that was worth a response on that forum, and I think it is worth elaborating on that response here as well.

Some of it was simply miscommunication, either poor writing on my part or misinterpretation on her part or both. 

The bit she was referring to said, “I’m also a fiscal conservative at heart – you pay for the services you demand and you don’t push debts onto your grandchildren.”  That’s 21 words out of more than 5000, so I suppose I could be forgiven for being a bit opaque there, except that it annoys me to be opaque and no matter how I crunch the math it still doesn’t work out to being a decent excuse for not writing clearly.

Because while I can see how someone could read it the way she did, that isn’t actually what I meant. 

I was not saying that you only pay for the services you, personally, use.  That is, in my opinion, a foolish and impractical position.  Making those kinds of fine distinctions is an impossible accounting job, and nobody could pull it off correctly even if it were worth doing.  I will return to this point in a bit.

My point, however, was that if the will of the people demands that government do something – whether it is a war or a social safety net or delivering the mail or whatever – then there should be a concrete plan in place for paying for it or it shouldn’t be done at all.

It doesn’t have to be paid for all at once.  You don’t have to have the money in hand before you spend it – all you need is a firm commitment that you will structure the laws and finances to pay for what happens and that you will not shirk that burden off onto the next generation by doing so.  Taking responsibility for your own actions, that’s the key here.  We didn’t have the cash up front to buy our house, but we felt it was worth it and we were willing to commit to paying of the debt incurred.  We have a mortgage, and we – not our children – pay it off bit by bit, including the interest.  On the government level, this means taxes, taxes that – when it comes to programs you want – you and not your descendents should be paying.  Governments have no money of their own.  If you want the government to do something the only place it gets money from is you, and you either pony up or shut up.

For example, it has been a very long time since this country actually put its money where its troops were.  We decided back in the 1960s that we didn’t have to raise taxes to pay for the wars we fight.  Johnson started that.  Nixon continued it.  Reagan expanded it.  Bush Jr. raised it to an art form – he didn’t even bother to put his wars on book, let alone try to pay for them.  That’s irresponsible.  If you think it’s important enough to send the military out there to do the hard work of defending this nation’s interests and you’re not actually wearing the uniform at the time, you should at least be chipping in for it with your own money in the form of taxes.  Cheap yellow magnets in the shape of ribbons stuck on the back of your car are not enough.  Either pony up or accept that we should keep the troops home and find some other way to defend those interests.

This general principle applies across the board as far as I can see.  If you think a social safety net is important enough to have, you should help pay for it.  Likewise education.  Arts.  Law enforcement.  Infrastructure.  Corporate incentives.  Border patrols.  National parks.  And all the various things that government does, day in and day out, at the local, state and federal levels, they all fall under this rubric. 

If you’re not willing to pony up, if you’re one of those benighted souls who think taxation is theft and you should never ever ever have to pay for services received, then you probably don’t want anything enough to have it done.  Stop asking for things, stop using the things and services that government has already accomplished (such as roads, police protection, fire protection, educated workers and so on), go Galt already, and leave the rest of us the hell alone. 

Of course, we live in what is now a democracy.  That means that there are a lot of things that you, personally, don’t approve of that are happening and that you, personally, are helping to fund.  That’s how democracy works – put on your Big Kid Undies and deal with it.  Don’t like it?  Get elected and pass new laws.  Or admit you really have no interest in democracy and what you want is your own tin-horn dictatorship where you don’t have to pay to support anything you don’t like but everyone else has to pay to support things you like regardless of whether they approve or not.  Don’t be surprised if you find yourself somewhat less popular and respected when that happens, though.

So that was what I meant, all that, packed into that tiny little bit of writing.

But this really doesn’t answer her question, does it?  What exactly did I mean when I defined myself as a fiscal conservative, and how does that square with my stated belief in the importance of communities?

First, let me state right up front that I am the last person you want handling your money.  I’m honest and trustworthy, but anything more complicated than “try to spend less than you earn” and “put some aside for later, because you’ll need it” I tend to leave to the experts, defined as Kim or whatever fiduciary she feels is appropriate.  The nuts and bolts of money just make my brain glaze over.  But the general outlines of money – the psychological aspects of it, the political aspects of it, the cultural aspects of it, how money works in other words – those are fascinating to me and those I understand quite well.  This may or may not be enough to convince you to listen to me – you may feel, upon reading this paragraph, that I don’t qualify as someone worth taking advice from on fiscal matters – and so be it.  Thanks for dropping by.  Come back later, because I’ll be sure to be talking about something else soon. 

So what do I think it means to be a fiscal conservative?

Well, it isn’t shortsighted greed. 

Too many people think being fiscally conservative is simply a matter of out-Scrooging Scrooge, of taking everything that you can get, never giving anything back if you can help it, and complaining loudly when giving back can’t be avoided.  That’s not conservative, that’s covetous. 

You have to spend money to make money.  That’s the bottom line with money.  You can’t run a business if all you do is slash expenses, and you can’t run a government that way either.  If you want to make money you have to spend it.  If you want to make a better society – even if all that entails is leveling the playing field and getting out of the way, the way my more conservative friends insist it is – you have to spend money to do that.  Spending money is a given.

But what do you spend it on?

You spend it on things that will give you a return on investment, that’s what.  What fiscal conservatism is, more than anything else, is the art of making sound investments.

Investments grow.  You put resources into them, and you get more out of them.  You can do this in a purely financial sense – putting capital into things like stocks, businesses, notes, and so on, and if you are really good at it realizing enough capital gains to live on.  If I ever get to that point, I’ll let you know.  You can – and in a political sense, must – also do this in a broader sense, thinking of the resources you put in and the profit you get out not simply in terms of dollars and cents but in terms of other resources.  Economics is about the allocation and use of resources.  Money is just one resource among many.

A sound investment might actually lose money when you look at it that way, but it gains things that are worth spending the money on – it produces other resources whose value exceeds that of the money initially invested – and that counts as profit.  Of course, it might gain money too, in which case, well, win all around.  But it helps to think in broader terms.

I like investing money, time and other resources into the things I use.  They grow, I win.  I put money into my house, it grows in value, I win.  I pay taxes to support good roads, I drive on the roads, I win.

But even that is too narrow a way to look at it.  You have to define not only resources broadly, but profit broadly as well.

In simple terms, a proper fiscal conservative must also be willing to spend money on things that they personally do not use, because it is in their long-term interest to do so.  Often I profit from such spending, even if I am not the one personally using the things being bought.  It is an indirect profit, but no less real for that.

For example, I strongly believe in the importance of communities.  Strong, healthy communities provide all sorts of benefits to their members – stability, amenities, and so on.  This nation is strong only to the extent that its communities are strong.  It therefore makes sense for me to invest in those communities, because in the long run I will be better off.  This isn’t a question of morality (that case can be argued should anyone wish to do so, but for some reason it never seems to gain much traction with those who don’t already believe it).  It’s a matter of self-interest.  When I spend resources on things that benefit my community, I win.  It is in my self-interest to invest wisely in my community, because even if I do not gain directly, I gain indirectly – far more than my own costs.

This is true for communities I don't even live in.  I may, someday.  And the nation is my community too.  It's in my self-interest to have a strong nation, all over the nation.

For this reason, as a general rule I support community development programs because many have a proven track record in making communities stronger by making the individuals in them better off.  This includes big things like job training, which makes community members more affluent, more stable, and less left on their own to get up to mischief.  Stronger communities give me more places to walk safely, more people who can share the burden of governance and volunteering, and more people who can chip in when my resources fail.  It includes little things like after-school sports programs to keep people out of trouble – crime is expensive and prisons are even more expensive, and if we can cut down on crime by preventing it that saves me money and makes my life less dangerous even if I’m not the one playing basketball on a Wednesday afternoon. 

It includes all sorts of things.

It’s not like this is cutting-edge thinking, only accessible to the wisdom of the 21st century, either.  The Founding Fathers knew this, for crying out loud.  For my dissertation I read almost every issue of every newspaper published in the city of Philadelphia (the capital at the time) during the 1790s.  That was an era of vitriolic and partisan writing and the editors of those papers hated each other with a personal passion that occasionally led to physical assault.  But the one thing they agreed on – the only thing they agreed on, really – was public education.  You spend your money to educate the next generation, even if you personally were not the one benefiting immediately from it, not simply because of morality or virtue but because it was in your own self-interest to do so. 

As Benjamin Franklin Bache (named for his grandfather) put it in 1792, “Let the education of children become a common charge.  If a man has property and no children, still he should be taxed to pay for the education of other men’s children.  The more knowledge, the safer his property.  It is better protection than armies.”

Or in more modern terms, “You see that kid getting off the school bus?  Someday she’ll be your oncologist.  It will be worth a few of your dollars to make sure she’s up to speed.”

Examples like that can be multiplied infinitely.  The point is that as far as I can see a true fiscal conservative has to think broadly in terms of return on investment – beyond mere dollars and cents – and be willing to spend money to make a profit.

Not all such spending is effective, of course, and a fiscal conservative monitors such things for waste, fraud and inefficiency.  You’re going to find such things because that is the nature of humanity and money.  You’ll find them in private industry too.  You’ll never get rid of them entirely, but they must be limited as much as possible.  You also have to evaluate results, because not every program actually pays off and those that don’t are not worth supporting.  Judge fairly, but judge.  You have to make sure your investment is not being wasted.

But that’s only part of the picture, not the whole thing.  Too many people stop there and think that rooting out fraud, waste and inefficiency is all there is.  It’s not.  More importantly, you have to be willing to make the investments in the first place.  You have to be willing to spend in order to make.  Otherwise it’s just greed.

This is why I can be both fiscally conservative and socially liberal – why, in fact, I find that the former requires me to be the latter.  People are an investment.  You invest money and resources into them, and you get a functioning society out of them.  In the long run you will get your money back and then some, but that isn’t the main issue – a government is not a business, and you cannot responsibly run it like one.  You have to think of investment in broader terms – not just money, but gains and losses overall.  Are you gaining more out of your investments than you are putting into them?  Then they are sound investments, even if they are costing you money.  You are simply gaining other things that are worth the money.

That’s what it means to be self-interested, not selfish.

Sound investments, in financial instruments and in people, is the heart of being a fiscal conservative as far as I am concerned.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Some Stray Thoughts on the Recent Election

So the election appears to be over.  No long, drawn-out attempts to obscure the results, the way there were in 2000.  No tie in the electoral college the way some of the pundits had feared.  No lingering uncertainty about the winner.  Just over.

Although what is wrong with the state of Florida when it comes to elections is a question that deserves more scrutiny than it is being given at the moment.  It’s like the old Casey Stengel line from his days managing the then-expansion New York Mets – “Can’t anyone here play this game?”  No wonder that state has its own tag on Fark.

I am thankful for a lot of things that came out of this election. 

Not everything – there are a number of things that could have gone better, as far as I am concerned, and I remain deeply concerned about the future of the Third Party System and the State of Wisconsin, not necessarily in that order.  But a lot of things, yes.  And in a democracy such as the one the US has become over the last couple of centuries, “a lot of things” is about all you can hope for.

I am thankful I live in a nation that prefers to settle political succession through the ballot box and not any of the usual methods employed by humanity throughout history.  Most of those involve military force, suspect genetics, and/or interludes of anarchy, none of which is conducive to prosperity or stability in the long run as far as I can see.

I am thankful that both candidates were gracious when it came down to it – Romney in defeat, Obama in victory.  I wish there had been more of that in the months leading up to that moment, and I wish that sense of dignity and American identity would have extended a bit further down the political ladder (here’s looking at you, Senator McConnell!), but you can’t have everything.

I am thankful that the election went off smoothly, despite high turnout, storm-damaged precincts in the east, threats of intimidation from self-appointed “poll watchers,” and other possible impediments to American citizens exercising their right (not privilege, right) of suffrage.  High turnout is good – it means more Americans are making their voices heard and that can only be for the better.  From what I have managed to gather there were few examples of intimidation.  And the governors of New York and New Jersey went out of their way to make voting happen in their states in a way that does them both credit.  Good for them.  Good for us.

I am thankful that the Rape Squad of the modern Republican Party was almost entirely defeated.  Todd Akin (“If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to shut that whole thing down”) was shut down.  Richard Mourdock (“rape … is something God intended”) was clearly not intended for further public service.  Roger Rivard (“some girls, they rape so easy”) is going back to his cave.  Joe Walsh, Tom Smith, John Koster – all defeated.  Maybe the lunatic wing of the modern Republican Party will take the hint and start to go away and the party can begin to return to its core principles of respecting individual autonomy and being hard on crime, principles that can only legitimately be used to come down on the criminals, the rapists, and not the victims.  I realize this is an optimistic take on things and that such people historically do not learn very quickly, but you never know.

I am thankful that Obama won.  He is not an ideal president, not by a long shot.  But he has, in my opinion, done a surprisingly good job of managing the country in the face of blindly fanatical and short-sighted resistance, his achievements (which he does a curiously poor job of trumpeting) are substantial, and he was by far the better of the two main candidates, in part simply because he was not running as the head of a party that had fallen off the cliffs of insanity.

I am thankful that now I can answer my phone again, turn on the television again, listen to the radio again, and log onto the internet again without being bombarded by robocalls, attack ads, popups and other intrusive forms of advertising.  Bring on the beer and Viagra ads!  Sell me some consumer goods!  We need a return to normalcy.

It’s going to be a long four years from this point to the next election, I am aware of that.  Other than who’s in charge for the moment, nothing really has been resolved – all we’ve done is return to the status quo ante of this point last year.  And the first person who seriously tries to discuss the 2016 presidential race with me prior to January 1, 2014, will be coated in bubblegum and set in the sun for the ants.

But for now, it’s done.  And that’s good.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Mission Accomplished For Today

I have voted.

I always vote.  It’s my civic duty.  It’s my license to complain, and if you haven’t noticed already I like to complain and I would hate to have my license revoked.  If you don’t vote, you have no right to be upset at anything that happens afterward with the government.

So I vote.

We usually take the girls with us when we vote, but they have seen the process enough now to know how it works and they’ve been paying attention to the election all along – granted, hard not to do in this house – so they know what the issues are.  They’re probably better informed than a good percentage of the people who will actually vote, sad to say.  They decided that they’d rather not wait in the lines, especially since our polling place moved away from one of the local elementary schools and into the City Building, where there is no playground as such.  I suppose they could have played on the big comfy City Council chairs, but someone probably would have objected.  So I dropped them off at school this morning and headed off to my polling place.

I can never remember what ward I’m in.

I used to know.  It took me several years to beat it into my skull so that it would stay there, but eventually I figured out the right number and would unerringly head to the table with that number on it at least three times out of five.  There are always two wards voting at the same polling place for some reason, so it was a bit of a gamble.  But for a while there, I was winning.

Then they redistricted and now I’m in a completely new ward with a whole different number and my third different polling place since I moved here.  At least I remembered to go to the right building.  That’s a start.

When I got there I remembered that last time I had gone to the table on the right rather than on the left, so I stood in that line.  Turns out they switched places this time, so eventually I went around and stood in the other line too.  I can honestly say that both lines moved equally quickly and were provided with the same level of amenities (zero) and friendly, helpful staff (two).

In Wisconsin we still use paper ballots, which means that there is a chance the votes will be counted accurately.  I like that.

I signed the voter log, got my little ticket, walked it four steps over to the one table in the room where I hadn’t already stood in line and exchanged the ticket for a ballot, and then walked over to the little blue pedestal-like things they set up for you to make your suggestions.  All the candidates are listed with an arrow head and arrow tail next to their names, and you connect the head and tail next to the candidate you want.  No chads.  No butterfly ballots.  No confusion as to what mark goes with what candidate.  No easily hacked digital machines with phantom software patches installed mere days ahead of the election and kept secret from election monitors (Go Ohio!).  Why don’t they all work this way?

Don’t answer that.  I already know and it depresses me no end.

But I made my marks and slid my ballot into the machine that reads them and counts them, and then I was off to take on the rest of my day.

Go vote.  It’s important.  If it weren’t important there wouldn’t be so many people trying to stop you from doing it.

Voter #92 in my ward, 8:20am, on a grey and chilly day here in Wisconsin.

Because that’s what citizens of the republic do.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Cleaning Up After the Cat

The cat exploded the other day.

This isn’t an everyday occurrence, not even around here, where we specialize in new and creative ways to turn a moderately clean house into a reality television show except without the cameras or paychecks.  You have to sit up and take notice when something unexpected like that happens.

It was probably her fault.

Mithra does not like other cats.  She seems to regard their existence as a personal challenge and their presence as an invitation to rumble.  This is especially true for Midgie, whom we got to try to keep Mithra from losing what marbles she had left after Tria disappeared last year.  Apparently it was too late, but it was a valiant effort and I think we deserve some credit at least. 

Midgie so wants to be friends, too – she follows Mithra around, nudging her and generally being the kid who always gets picked last for sports tailing around after the popular guy until finally the popular guy just turns and hisses at her. 

What?  I was never the popular guy.  For all I know they hiss, is all I’m saying. 

But Midgie is not much of an opponent for Mithra.  The big time rumbles happen outside, where despite legislation in Our Little Town requiring cats to be leashed when outdoors – an inspiring example of what can happen when good intentions and legislative power meet cold hard reality head on – there is never a shortage of spare cats roaming around.  They come in a bewildering variety of shapes and colors and to date none have been arrested as the scofflaws they so clearly are. 

We figure one of them must have bitten her.  There is no doubt she deserved it.

One of the girls noticed that Mithra’s ear was all gooey last week, and sure enough there were two puncture wounds that had individually abscessed.  Fortunately Kim has veterinary experience, so she got some warm washcloths and some antibiotic ointment and cleaned her up.  We figured that would be that.

Then Mithra started looking like the right half of Louis Armstrong. 

Cats are not known for their trumpet skills.  Therefore there should have been no call to develop balloon-like cheeks.  Stands to reason.  And even if there had been such a call, it should have been symmetrical and not just the right one.  A bit of investigation confirmed the other puncture wounds, and Kim repeated her ministrations.  After that we decided to keep an eye on things and see what happened.  Mithra bunked in with us that night as usual.

The next morning Kim threw the blankets into the wash.


Mithra’s feeling much better now, playing and hissing at Midgie like old times.  She’s even resumed her vulture's perch on top of the kitchen trashcan where she keeps an eye on everything and demands tribute from those who dare throw things away.  She still looks gooey under her layers of ointment, but that’s another matter for another time.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Bowling For Cake!

It was wall-to-wall birthday parties down at the bowling alley this afternoon.

I actually like that, even though it meant that we were a bit crowded.  Bowling is one of those grand old games that require people to move around a bit – but not too much that you can’t eat and drink at the same time – and get together in groups for social purposes.  There aren’t enough of those games anymore.  And besides I used to bowl a fair amount back in the day and it’s nice to see the family traditions continue.

Although I don’t remember quite so much of the blacklights or fog.  Perhaps I’m just blanking out on that.

Today was Lauren’s official birthday party.  

Lauren loves her birthday - loves it with all her heart - so we try to make an occasion out of it.  And this year she decided that what she wanted was to go bowling with her friends.  How could we say no?

We spent most of the morning frantically getting ready for it – baking the cake (Kim made a zebra cake, which Lauren helped to frost), buying all of the little things that we had forgotten to buy during the week (such as ice cream and cards), cleaning the house so people could come over afterward, and so on.  You’d think that with a party not located at home this would be less of a task, but then you’d be wrong. 

Eventually it was Time. 

We hit the lanes shortly before 3pm, cake and goodies in hand.

The place was packed.  There must have been a dozen birthday parties going on at once, all of them drenched in blacklight and fog, for this was no ordinary bowling.  This was Glow Bowling.  You can’t just go bowling anymore.  You have to go Glow BowlingGlow Bowling comes with italics and capital letters that you can hear.  It's just that cool.  The blacklighting was in fact pretty awesome, actually, but we were way down at one end of the lanes, right by the fog machine, so there were more than a few occasions where you just had to take it on faith that there was another end to the lane down there, deep within the fog bank, and that if the ball continued on the same path it was on when it entered the fog it would hit something.

And usually this was true.  At any rate, at least, there was often noise and commotion, and that's just as good really.

Not that anyone cared.  Hitting pins was sort of extra.  Mostly the point was to have fun.

And when the bowling stopped, the eating began.

There was pizza.  There was cake.  There was ice cream.  There were French fries.  You had all your basic party food groups, all there at once.  We got them all good and sugared up, and then it was time to send them home to their parents.

Because that’s how we roll.


Hi there.

It’s been quite a week here at 4Q10D.  There’s been a lot of new faces poking around, reading the blog, commenting.  Welcome!

Most of you newcomers are here because of the post entitled, “Why I Will Not Be Voting Republican For the Foreseeable Future.”  I’m quite proud of that one, but honestly somewhat taken aback at how popular it has become.  I guess I struck a nerve. 

Many of you have written to say kind things about it, and I thank you for that.  It’s nice to hear.  I’ve enjoyed reading your comments, even if I have responded only to a few of them.

A few have written with criticisms, which is worthwhile to hear when they are constructive.  I’ve tried to respond to a couple of those too.

I have turned off the Anonymous Posting feature for now.  While there are a few real reasons to prefer anonymity, all too often online it is just a way to hide behind a veil and snipe from cover.  I’ve already had to delete one troll (seriously, who uses “LOL!” as an insult?  My daughter’s seventh-grade friends think that’s immature) and I’d rather not spend all my weekend waiting for more.  I’ve got better things to do, as I will probably be posting later tonight.  Own your criticism, make it specific, and let’s talk – I don’t claim infallibility, and I like talking to people.

Feel free to look around the place.  It’s mostly about the world as I see it, which means that the political posts don’t really dominate – if you’re looking for nonstop political commentary, you’ll probably be disappointed.  I get into it now and then – I spent most of the first half of 2011 railing against the idiocy and crimes perpetrated by the newly installed regime in Wisconsin, for example, and a fair bit of my sense that the modern Republican Party has gone seriously off the rails came from watching it subvert an entire state government from within.  But mostly I write about whatever interests me. 

My family.



So welcome to 4Q10D.  I hope you enjoy your stay.