Hi. I’m Me. Where’s My Prize?

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I heard the bad news on the radio, but the press confirmed it: David Letterman has been selected to receive something called the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. The award won’t be presented until October 22, but to satisfy a world breathlessly awaiting news about this coveted prize, the media were activated early. Way early. Well, bad news usually arrives with haste.

Here’s part of the announcement as it appeared in the Washington Post. Have towels ready, because this is a gush:

David Letterman, who reinvented late-night television with his irreverent and distinctly original comic sensibility, will receive the Kennedy Center’s 2017 Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.

Letterman, 70, will be honored with the 20th-annual prize at a gala performance Oct. 22. The event will be televised later nationally. [I take that as a threat.] The Twain, considered the most prestigious honor in the world of comedy, will be awarded to Letterman five years after he was made a Kennedy Center Honoree.

“Reinvented”? “Irreverent?” “Sensibility?” You gotta be kiddin’. The guy isn’t even funny. Tell me one funny thing he’s ever said. See! You can’t.

And why drag Mark Twain into it? I don’t especially like Twain. Some of his stuff is good; lots of it is simply tiresome (and there is lots and lots of it). He’s seldom funny, and never so seldom as when he insists on telling you that this is what he’s being. But some of his aphorisms are memorable: “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.” And as I was taught — I believe by a professor with the unusual name of Blake Nevius — Twain actually did “reinvent” something. Before Twain, America’s professional humorists made money by laughing at people who were socially inferior to them. Twain made money by laughing with people whom he treated as social equals. As Nevius put it, “unlike the others, he wasn’t above his material.”

I don’t know when the mania for awards hit this country, but it’s a sign of cultural degeneration if ever there was one.

The really horrible thing, however, is the idea of somebody deciding to give an award for American humor at a “gala” at which people in tuxedos will schmooze and chuckle, presumably about how much better they are than people without tuxedos. There are far too many awards, anyway — and for humor? Gimme a break. Anybody with a sense of humor has already gotten the point of the penultimate scene of The Wizard of Oz, the awards-giving scene. The point is that awards are silly and unnecessary and unconsciously funny. If you have the qualities for which an award is given, you should probably laugh at the very idea of an award. If you don’t have those qualities — well, do you think that giving a Mark Twain Prize for American Humor will inspire some wannabe comic to become the next (ugh) David Letterman? It won’t happen. Such awards have no purpose — no legitimate purpose, anyhow.

I don’t know when the mania for awards hit this country, but it’s a sign of cultural degeneration if ever there was one. I’m picturing a mob of creepy-looking guys in monkey suits who, contrary to all evidence, think they’re cool, talking about how funny David is, and never having a clue that they are the funny ones. Well, they, and the president, and Congress — all of whom should be getting an award, if you’re giving out awards for laughs.




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Good-Bye, Uncle Kodie

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The recent bankruptcy filing by the Eastman Kodak Company was a shock to me, but not exactly a surprise. It was certainly another sad reminder that the world I once knew was gone forever. I worked for the company at its Kodak Park Works in Rochester, New York in the 1960s, leaving of my own accord in 1970. A detailed autopsy of its decline and fall must await a soul with perceptions keener than mine. But I suspect its decline was a result of its very domination of the imaging market. With little competition, the company’s leaders had simply forgotten how to compete — which involves adjusting to changing market conditions, which involves making sound and timely decisions.

I hired on as a research chemist in the Organic and Polymer Chemistry Department, part of the Chemistry Division, which was part of the famous Research Laboratories established in 1912 by noted photographic theorist C.E.K. Mees. I had done poorly in graduate school — quantum mechanics and its chemical and philosophical extensions struck me as moonshine. Still, I revealed some small gift for research in organic chemistry. Of course, there were many fine organic chemists at Kodak’s laboratories, some famous, and they sent a steady stream of publications to scientific journals.

In the 1960s, Kodak was riding high. Its most profitable market was the amateur photography market. Its Instamatic camera appeared in the early part of the decade. It was a huge success, and Kodak’s amateur film business was booming. And of course, the company sold film to professional photographers, motion picture film to Hollywood, and X-ray film to the medical profession. Needing chemicals free from impurities that could harm silver halide emulsions, Kodak had long ago begun making its own. And this led it into the successful marketing of research chemicals and polymers through its Distillation Products Industries and their Tennessee Eastman and Texas Eastman Divisions.

The annual wage dividend was a result of a profit-sharing plan begun by George Eastman to discourage socialist tendencies.

I worked in Building 129, and then in Building 82, the latter a brand new research building with the best interior design for the working chemist I’ve ever seen. There were other chemistry laboratories in Building 59, which also housed the Applied Photography and Emulsion Research divisions. These two divisions were considered chimneys to the top administrative positions in the Research Laboratories and to those in the company hierarchy. In those days, the company promoted entirely from within — was this the fatal flaw?

In any event, for the plain old-fashioned organic chemist, the opportunities to learn and grow within the science were enormous. In research at a fundamental level, no one is really certain of what will yield useful results. Some with imposing credentials may think they have an accurate crystal ball, and some may even prove correct in their educated guesses. But in the long run, innovation is best served by research leaders who know when to stand aside — and how to choose people who don’t require nagging supervision. The chemists at Kodak, free to roam, were devoted experimentalists and produced a huge amount of new work, including new synthetic techniques, new reactions, and new organic compounds.

Of course, every chemist took the company course in photography, one that covered both theory and practice. It gave everyone an intellectual nudge toward the practical problems of image-making with silver-halide emulsions. And there was a photography-related testing program. Each new compound was sent to the Emulsion Research Division for testing — was it an antifoggant? A diffusion transfer agent? Did it promote undercut? And from time to time, a request would come back for more of a particular compound that had proved interesting. But I was quite free to explore my favorite field — heterocyclic chemistry. I might have done it all for room and board, but I was paid a decent salary and, in addition, got that famous annual wage dividend. The dividend was a result of a profit-sharing plan begun by George Eastman — to discourage socialist tendencies. Such rewards helped me endure the long snowy winters of Rochester.

Curiously, at each implosion, the mood was festive, and the onlookers cheered. I don’t think the cancelled-stock holders cheered.

The company had accumulated an enormous expertise in the manufacture of photographic film. It had developed the precise system of emulsion coatings, the proper mixes of silver halides, the sensitizing dyes, and the dye couplers for the amazing color processes. And with all this knowledge, and the success of the Instamatic line, came the idea that nothing would ever change. Oh, there was some distant thunder — I recall the suggestion from Varian Associates’ Edward Ginzton that his company was looking for an electric camera. This was back in the sixties, after I had bought some Varian stock. Yet within Eastman Kodak, I heard it said that, like the internal combustion engine (so help me), silver photography was such a perfect invention that it could never be replaced. Perhaps voicing this assumption was a gesture of loyalty to the company. Widely held, it lightened the burden of its top executives. Any far-reaching decisions, however imperative in the light of reality, could be postponed, if not altogether avoided. Still, as early as 1975, the executives had good reason to believe that digital imaging would, sooner or later, replace silver photography as a means of taking pictures. In that year, Steve Sasson, an electrical engineer working in a Kodak laboratory, constructed the first crude digital camera.

Looking back, I can recall seeing signs of fatty degeneration within the company. There were organizational slots being filled, but little work to occupy those who filled them. Some employees seemed to be struggling to find things to do. And I myself wondered, from time to time, why I was there. Perhaps I should have been replaced by an electrical engineer, though I couldn’t have guessed that at the time. I did leave my name on nine published papers and a number of company reports and memoranda, along with some novel unpublished work and two patents — neither patent of any real importance. My papers were sniffed at by certain academics, but I still have a collection of requests for reprints, and the papers are still referenced here and there. Certain compounds I made were superior antifoggants — but fogging isn’t a problem in digital imaging, at least not fogging by allylthiourea.

During my stay at Kodak, one new road to possible profit was almost, but not quite taken. The company hired a professor away from academe to establish a testing program, meant to identify potential drugs among the huge number of new compounds prepared by the organic chemists. But Kodak fired the man not long after it hired him. The “powers that be” decided they didn’t want to get involved in the making and marketing of drugs. I remember being surprised by the firing — having already made organic compounds by the boxful and sent them off to some storage area. I’ve always wondered what happened to those compounds and whether some wonder drug existed among them. Much later, of course, Kodak bought Sterling Drugs, to give it “worldwide infrastructure” — for what exactly? If it had tested its own compounds as potential drugs, it might have made plenty through licensing, without acquiring an enormous debt.

Within Eastman Kodak, I heard it said that, like the internal combustion engine, silver photography was such a perfect invention that it could never be replaced.

As I indicated earlier, the Eastman Kodak Company had for years been more than just a camera-and-film company. Eastman organic chemicals were common in research laboratories everywhere, and the company marketed its manufactured polymers through Tennessee Eastman and Texas Eastman. Yet none of these functions now belong to the parent company — all were “spun off” as the Eastman Chemical Company in 1993. The following year, Kodak sold its remaining interests in Sterling, the drug company it had bought just five years earlier. Its management team had apparently given up on its idea of diversification. It had decided instead to concentrate on its core business — and cast away those profitable but distracting assets. From diversification to downsizing in five years? This is the picture of a floundering management team.

Kodak’s decline had, I’m sure, a terrifying effect on Rochester. The misfortunes of the company nearly erased the value of Kodak stock — and in reorganizing under bankruptcy, the company cancelled the stock. It created new stock shares, but the former stockholders were left with nothing. In the 1960s, the earlier issue had risen above $140 a share, then split and headed upward toward its previous high. The annual wage dividend was calculated, in part, on the value of the common stock, and the company’s stock acquisition plan provided many employees with what they regarded as a nest egg. Local businesses prospered from Kodak’s payroll. I can recall Christmas shopping at the B. Forman Department Store. Mr. Forman would walk the floor, and once, when I told him I worked at Kodak, he said, “Good, you can have the whole store.”

Life was good in those days. Eastman Kodak was not just a company, but a city within a city, a kind of mini-civilization. There was a Kodak Park Athletic Association, whose softball team once had a pitcher named “Shifty” Gears — his feats are now recorded in the National Softball Hall of Fame. And there were the Kodactors, the employees’ prize-winning theatrical group. Many of Kodak’s professional people lived on the same street and attended the same social gatherings. For perhaps too many employees, the company was their world, encouraging the sense of a carefree existence. And it all proved to be a summer before the storm.

From diversification to downsizing in five years? This is the picture of a floundering management team.

Ah, but I recall my years at Kodak as a time of youth and affluence. I took dates to Eddie’s Chop House, heard my favorite piano player, Erroll Garner, at the Eastman Theater, and swam and sun-bathed at Ontario Beach. I recall talking to a Ph.D. candidate who had worked at Kodak and, when he got his degree, planned on returning to “Uncle Kodie.” Alas — Kodak is no longer Rochester’s rich uncle. And the world it created is now, if not gone, then greatly contracted.

Small businesses along State Street have disappeared — their clientele was mostly Kodak employees. From what I’ve read and seen online, Kodak Park, once an enormous manufacturing and research complex on Lake Avenue, is now much reduced. A number of its once-important buildings have been imploded. And curiously, at each implosion, the mood was festive, and the onlookers cheered. I don’t think the cancelled-stock holders cheered.

Markets change — and when markets change, management must respond. As Ludwig von Mises told us long ago, a business makes its profits by adjusting its total business practice to market conditions. Fujifilm, the Japanese photographic company, adjusted competently; Kodak simply failed to adjust with comparable skill. The capacity for sound decisions simply wasn’t there. Kodak’s leaders had the future in their hands, but didn’t recognize it — or found some excuse for evading the necessary decisions. In recent decades, the company had anointed a procession of George McClellans, when what they needed was a Robert E. Lee, or even a Nathan Bedford Forrest. Before stepping aside in March 2014, CEO Antonio Perez was himself a significant drain on the company’s assets. But he did smash and bash the company into some new things, leading it into and out of bankruptcy, drumming up trade in business markets. In the process, silver-emulsion coating became touch-screen technology and color photography became ink-jet printing. And now, the company’s stock is back on the Big Board. There may yet be a life for Eastman Kodak — though I suspect it will be as a mere pebble in a huge cultural and economic crater.

SOURCES
“Antonio Perez.” Forbes. www.Forbes.com/profile/antonio-perez/
“Antonio Perez Won’t Have Many More Kodak Moments.” New York Business Journal, 1 Aug. 2013. www.bizjournals.com/newyork/news/2013/07/31/kodak-ceo-to-resign-after-bankruptcy.html?page=all
Appelbome, Peter. “Despite Long Slide by Kodak, Company Town Avoids Decay.” The New York Times, 16 Jan. 2012. www.nytimes.com/2012/01/17/nyregion/despite-long-slide-by-kodak-rochester-avoids-decay.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
Brancaccio, David. “Decline of Kodak Offers Lessons for U.S. Business.” Marketplace, 20 Dec. 2011. www.marketplace.org/topics/business/economy-40/decline-kodak-offers-lessons-us-business
DiSalvo, David. “The Fall of Kodak: A Tale of Disruptive Technology and Bad Business.” Forbes, 2 Oct. 2011. www.forbes.com/sites/daviddisalvo/2011/10/02/what-i-saw-as-kodak-crumbled/
Dobbin, Ben. “Digital Camera Turns 30 — Sort Of.” NBC News.com, 9 Sept. 2005. www.msnbc.msn.com/id/9261340/ns/technology_and_science-tech_and_gadgets/t/digital-camera-turns-sort/
“Eastman Kodak Building 23 Demolition.” You Tube, 1 July 2007, inter alia. http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=eastman+kodak+building+demolition
Feder, Barnaby J. “Kodak’s Diversification Plan Moves into a Higher Gear.” The New York Times, 25 Jan. 1988. www.nytimes.com/1988/01/25/business/kodak-s-diversification-plan-moves-into-a-higher-gear.html
Fruedenheim, Milt. “Business People: Senior Kodak Officer to Head Sterling Drug.” The New York Times, 21 Aug. 1988. www.nytimes.com/1988/08/12/business/business-people-senior-kodak-officer-to-head-sterling-drug.html
“Harold (Shifty) Gears. The National Softball Hall of Fame. www.asasoftball.com/hall_of_fame/memberDetail.asp?mbrid=177
Keeley, Larry. “The Kodak Lie.” CNN Money, 18 Jan. 2012 http://tech.fortune.cnn.com/2012/01/18/the-kodak-lie/
“Kodak to Sell Off Eastman Chemical Company: Restructuring: The Spinoff, Which Will Wipe Out $2 Billion of Debt, Is in Response to Stockholder Pressure.” The Los Angeles Times, 16 June 1993. http://articles.latimes.com/1993-06-16/business/fi-3622_1_eastman-chemical
“Kodak to Sell Remaining Sterling Winthrop Unit: Drug: Smith Kline Will Buy the Consumer Health Products Business for $2.925 Billion.” Ibid, 30 Aug. 1994. http://articles.latimes.com/1994-08-30/business/fi-32940_1_health-products-business
LaMonica, Paul. “The Anti-Kodak: Eastman Chemical.” CNN Money, 27 Jan. 2012. http://money.cnn.com/2012/01/27/markets/thebuzz/index.htm
Mees, Charles Edward Kenneth. The Organization of Industrial Scientific Research. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1920. http://books.google.com/
Miles, Stuart. “The Decline and Fall of Kodak.” Pocket-Lint, 1 Oct. 2011. www.pocket-lint.com/news/42342/kodak-shares-plunge-bankruptcy-fears/
Mises, Ludwig von. Human Action: A Treatise on Economics. Third Revised Ed. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1966.
Munir, Kamal “The Demise of Kodak: Five Reasons.” The Wall Street Journal, 26 Feb. 2012. http://blogs.wsj.com/source/2012/02/26/the-demise-of-kodak-five-reasons/
“The Rise and Fall of Eastman Kodak.” The Night Owl Trader, 25 Sept. 2011 and added posts. http://nightowltrader.blogspot.com/2011/09/rise-and-fall-of-eastman-kodak.html
Pfanner, Eric. “Fujifilm Finds Niche With Niche With Old-Style Cameras That Mask a High-Tech Core.” The New York Times, 19 Nov. 2013. www.nytimes.com/2013/11/20/business/international/as-digital-camera-sales-sputter-fujifilm-finds-its-niche.html
Scheyder, Ernest. “Focus on Past Glory Kept Kodak from Digital Win.” Reuters, 19 Jan. 2012. www.reuters.com/article/2012/01/19/us-kodak-bankruptcy-idUSTRE80I1N020120119
“Summer Arts Theater Presents Two Plays.” Spencerport NY Suburban News, 23 July 1964. inter alia. (The Kodactors). http://fultonhistory.com/

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The Three R's: Reading, Reading, and Reading

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“People asked, Should directors also be able to write? I said it was more important that they be able to read.” — Billy Wilder

If you know any teachers, you’ve probably had many opportunities to participate in a certain kind of conversation. It’s the conversation that begins with the teacher saying, “What I can’t understand is . . .” This is followed by one example, then another example, then a long list of examples of incomprehensible things that students do, or fully comprehensible things that they cannot seem to comprehend.

Yesterday I heard from a friend of mine, a teacher, and I made the mistake of asking how her class was going. This is what she wrote in reply: “I like my class. I like my students. In fact, I like them even better than the class. They’re smart; they’re unprejudiced; they’re charming and energetic. What I can’t understand is why, since virtually all of them are native speakers of English and have taken college prep courses, they still think that ‘most’ is the same as ‘almost.’ They think that to ‘service’ someone is the same as to ‘serve’ him. The difference between ‘prophecy’ and ‘prophesy’ is invisible to them, as is the difference between 'lose' and 'loose.'

“And I don’t understand why, since many of them are the children of immigrants and have no difficulty ‘relating to’ at least two languages on the level of daily conversation, much of what they read in English strikes them as an embarrassing foreign language. When they read aloud, they stop and wonder about every ‘foreign’ word, most of which aren’t foreign at all. ‘Interrogate’ turns into ‘introcate’; ‘Jonathan’ is ‘Johnnythan’ (except for their own friends named Jonathan, whose names present no difficulty, because they don’t have to be read). And heaven help you if you’re teaching about Herodotus.

“I teach a senior college prep class, and we have readings from the Bible. One of my paper assignments asks them to discuss a topic in Genesis. The assignments say clearly, ‘Do not underline or italicize the word ‘Bible’ or the names of its various books.’ As a result, their papers start in this way: ‘In The Book of Genesis, which is part of The Holy Bible, god says to Abruham . . . .’

“In short, my students are bright young people who are incapable of reading, in the sense of noticing what they read.”

I’ve quoted my friend’s message at length, because I think it identifies a general problem. This isn’t basically a writing problem or a speaking problem; it’s a reading, or should I say a not-reading, problem. By “reading” I don’t mean “reading messages on the internet, or your telephone.” I mean reading something that makes you comfortable with complex linguistic resources, employed in complex rhetorical contexts. And I mean focusing your attention on it, not just looking at it without noticing any more than its general current and tendency.

If you don’t notice what you read, or if you don’t read anything much, you may not notice what you say, either.

Here’s an example. I happen to be reading a book about American religious beliefs and customs. It’s written by two statistically fascinated social scientists, but in this case, statistical fascination doesn’t imply bad writing. They are perfectly competent. They have a good idea of the linguistic resources at their disposal, including the many means that good readers learn to simplify or complicate the sentences they write.

So, at one point in their book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell say the following about the results of their statistical research on marriage and religion: “The propensity for marriage within the faith is much higher among more religious people — not surprisingly. We can’t say for sure whether low religious commitment is a cause or a consequence of intermarriage — or more likely, both cause and consequence — but intermarriage is strongly associated with lower religious observance.”

I’m concerned with that phrase “both cause and consequence.” It’s a shorthand way of saying “each is both a cause and a consequence of the other.” Long ago, writers of English learned from writers of Latin that you don’t need to say all that. As long as you’ve set up a sequence of parallels, “cause . . . consequence,” which are both complements of “is,” you can follow it with another complement, “both cause and consequence,” and that’s it — you’ve cut to the chase.

This is an almost trivial example of linguistic competence. But I would fall off my chair if I found one of my sophomore college students using this technique. It’s not that they’re dumb; they’re very bright indeed. But “both cause and consequence” is the kind of thing you don’t find when you’re listening to television, or reading messages online; and that, I believe, is most of the reading and “serious” hearing that students do.

As the president is always saying, let me be clear about this. I read online messages myself, sometimes all day and all night. Some of the most interesting, individual, and incisive writing I’ve ever read has appeared in online commentary. Several years ago, I paid enthusiastic tribute to writing done in online communities ("The Truth vs. the Truth," Liberty, Sept.-Oct. 2003). But it appears that online reading (except, of course, when enjoyed on Liberty’s website) doesn’t give people adequate experience of what can be done with the sophisticated written language of the normal serious book. The decline of complex verbal experience began with television, which like the internet ordinarily uses a very restricted variety of words and sentence patterns. The internet accelerated the decline by rewarding simplified communication with simplified but usually agreeable and often immediate response.

When people focus on complex sentences and arguments, they learn to pay close attention to verbal cues — closer attention than they need to pay to words that come naturally in conversation. I know a highly intelligent person who cannot remember, and does not care, whether her best friend’s name is “Katherine” or “Catherine.” Apparently the first name doesn’t appear in the person’s email address, or my friend doesn’t pick up on the cue — and why should she? It makes no difference in either email or direct conversation. I know many intelligent people who have everyday fluency in two languages but haven’t the faintest idea of how to construe a really complicated sentence, in either one.

The problem is, if you don’t notice what you read, or if you don’t read anything much, you may not notice what you say, either. While the civilized world, and even the world of television news, is saying, “I saw it yesterday,” you may keep saying, “I seen it yesterday.” One of the brightest people I know keeps saying, “I coulda swore that program woulda worked.” And while everyone who reads words, notices them, and reflects on them tries to avoid trite statements, inaccurate diction, and unintended implications, the nonreader will keep saying, “I was literally blown away by the judge’s disinterest.”

A long time ago, before the internet was fully in use, by everyone, all the time, I was visiting my friends Muriel Hall and Mary Jane Hodges, who lived in a small town in New England. We were going out to eat, and on the way we discussed the bad things that happen in restaurants. I mentioned the repulsive way in which waiters ask, “You still workin’ on that?” while they’re trying to grab your plate. After all, who wants to think of dinner, especially a dinner you pay for, as some kind of work you have to do?

Muriel and MJ looked at me in horror. “My God!” they said. “That’s what they say in California?”

Oh yes.

“Well, let’s hope it never happens here.”

A year later, when I returned to their little town, I found them sunk in gloomy meditations. “It’s here,” they said. “You still workin’ on that?”

Yes, it was there. And here, there, and everywhere, it has remained. “You still workin’ on that?” is now what nonreaders call an integral part (as if there were another kind of part) of the ritual of dining. It’s chanted everywhere — as difficult to avoid as “How Great Thou Art” in a Methodist church. Every waiter I meet is a college student or a college graduate, so we’re not talking about linguistic behavior that is innocently illiterate. No, this is illiteracy practiced as a faith, a faith that, having resulted from a long process of education and social reinforcement, has become second nature to its devotees.

The standards of political correctness have them in awe. But normal linguistic cues, the kind that come from reading, not social suasion — that’s another matter.

Apparently, authors no longer wait tables while they’re trying for their first big break. Or if they’re still doing that, you won’t want to read anything they eventually get published. Like other Americans, they’ve lost their ability to pick up cues — with one exception. They are sensitive to the subtlest possibilities of offending anyone “politically.” The standards of political correctness have them in awe. But normal linguistic cues, the kind that come from reading, not social suasion — that’s another matter.

One cue that most people used to notice was the red light that comes on in your brain just before you say something that’s just naturally offensive. Used to. When “that really sucks” is taken as acceptable in all social circumstances, you know that the alarms have shorted out. Those who know me understand that I have warm respect for profanity, appropriately applied; but otherwise-useful terms are merely disturbing when they’re employed without anyone’s appearing to care what they suggest.

As I write, a man is wandering down the street outside, discussing in a loud voice (why not?) his intimate problems with his girlfriend. There are two possibilities. (1) He is using a hands-free cellphone. (2) He is insane. The salient fact is that these days, you can’t tell the difference. In the ranter’s head, no warning bells can ever ring. He might avoid the path of a passing car, but language presents no risks. Not in his perception, and not in reality, either. How often will anyone accost him and explain how unfavorably he affects the neighborhood? And if anyone did, he probably wouldn’t pay any attention. He wouldn’t pick up the cue. He’d think that the other person was crazy. Or he’d just ignore the whole thing.

That’s what happens when you make some instructive response to “You still workin’ on that?” I used to try, “Yes, I’m still eating.” Then I tried, “Yes, I’m still eating.” Then, “Do you mean, am I still eating?” On and on. The answer was always, “Right — I see you’re still workin’.” You see what I mean about missing cues.

So far, I’ve been picking on waiters, nameless persons in the street, commonplace users of the internet, normal victims of high-school education, and so on. Now I’m going to pick on the president.

We can’t blame President Obama’s linguistic failures on the internet, although we might go after his high school, or the doting folks who brought him up to think that whatever he said or did would establish some new standard of excellence. But whatever the cause, his verbal warning system never got turned on. I suspect that he would be ten points higher in the polls if he’d had the sense not to say that his nomination for the presidency would stop the oceans from rising, or that people who weren’t inclined to vote for him were clinging pathetically to their guns and their religion, or that his grandmother made racist comments, or any of a hundred other offensive things he’s said, which he simply had no clue were offensive.

There was a new one, just the other day. It was the president’s statement — no doubt carefully planned, but certainly not well meditated — about the killing of Trayvon Martin, a young man who happened, like the president, to be of African descent. Obama expressed his sympathy by saying, “You know, if I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon.” In other words, all black men look alike to President Obama — because the only thing that made Trayvon Martin look like him was his race and gender. This is patently offensive, but the president didn’t have a clue that it was.

Only a person who doesn’t read many words — real words, written by real writers, not reports from campaign agents or White House officials — or think about the meanings and implications of words, could possibly have made such an offensive and silly statement.

Why did he make it? Because “someone who looks like me” is a cliché used to elicit votes from people who share your ethnicity. Its cheapness and foolishness never dawned on President Obama.

Oh, but the president is an author himself! He must know language, and be thinking deep thoughts about it! Of course, it doesn’t take much reading to write a book, as any casual perusal of an airport “bookstore” will inform you. But let’s consider the possibility. Maybe playing golf and watching basketball aren’t really the president’s favorite pursuits. Maybe that’s just a lie, put out to cover his real though unmanly interest in reading good books. Maybe, during his speeches, what he’s really thinking is, “I wish I could get back to Tolstoy.” Maybe in his private restroom there’s a copy of Montaigne sitting on the toilet. Maybe he goes to bed early so he can curl up reading Shakespeare in the original Klingon.

Whatever the cause, President Obama’s verbal warning system never got turned on.

Barack Obama wrote two books about himself and his opinions. But tell me, how many authors does he quote or mention in his speeches (which are long and frequent) or his interviews and known conversations? To which good authors does he allude? Madison? Voltaire? Thucydides? Elbert Hubbard? Mother Goose? Tell me, that I may be instructed.

None? Can’t think of any? The president’s intellectual context is television talk, stray bits of college texts, the oracles of dead “progressives” . . . even his legal education (witness his recent comments about the Supreme Court) didn’t seem to command his full attention. But context is all. If the context of your intellectual life wasn’t formed by reading books — serious, complex books — your signal system just isn’t going to work. Sorry. And the only thing you can do to fix it is (horrifying thought) to read a book.

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Getting There from Here

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Libertarians have little reason for optimism these days. Things could have been different. If government interventions since the 1930s had not crowded out profit-oriented enterprise, then programs for retirement, medical care, relief of poverty, dependable energy, and protection of property rights and of the environment would have evolved in more satisfactory ways. Private enterprise would have taken account of increasing life expectancy, increasing mobility, reduced intergenerational solidarity within families, improving medical technology, and changes in the labor force and labor market. The details of flexible evolution could not have been (and cannot now be) foreseen.

Government has forestalled any such evolution. The Great Depression, itself the consequence of botched policy, brought many experiments, including Social Security and privileges for labor unions. Wage controls in World War II brought employer-centered medical insurance. Politicians now have ample opportunities to urge their bright ideas, including more regulation as well as more spending.

It is easy to recommend limited government in a libertarian society. But how can we get there? “Entitlements” and commitments to police the world have saddled the government with extreme financial burdens on top of the explicit and ever-growing national debt.

Libertarian politicians must be willing to negotiate. Academicians, though, should not fudge their analyses in hopes of political influence. A generation ago, Clarence Philbrook rightly condemned such “realism” (American Economic Review, December 1953). Among politicians, everything should be on the table, even tax increases. I rather admire the sober approach of the Simpson-Bowles commission. It is scandalous that politicians should be intimidated into signing Grover Norquist’s antitax pledge. The recent debt-ceiling increase may have been a legitimate bargaining chip, but it was irresponsible to resist any compromise that included it. It is deplorable to call people like Michelle Bachmann libertarians (as I have heard in conversation). The Republican presidential aspirants (including, apparently, the eager-to-be-drafted Sarah Palin) hardly command enthusiasm. Among academics, dogmatic outright anarchists also harm the cause of a free society.

Getting there requires starting from here, which requires restoring government fiscal health on the way. (Remember about sometimes taking one step back to take two steps forward.) Ways can be found to shrink deficits and debt as fractions of GDP and eventually even in absolute terms. That is feasible, fiscally and economically.

Politically — that is another story. Voters, by and large, have become too dependent on government to tolerate libertarian ideas any time soon. Drift will continue, and the government will eventually have to repudiate its debt and other commitments. Default will not come openly but through inflation, through destruction of the dollar.

I am anxious to be shown wrong. Can anyone offer any plausible grounds for cheer?




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Appreciation of Depreciation

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Everything depreciates; even the IRS realizes this truism. They realize that your rental property is falling apart as time assaults its clapboard shingles. Even our bodies lose value, though the taxpeople grant no deductions for our annual, inarguable loss of strength, stamina, beauty, or the mental assets whereby we make our living.

Wouldn’t it be a political masterstroke for the Obama healthcare crazies to add that earmark to their bill — bodily depreciation? Rental houses decline, and so do structures of bone and flesh. You don’t believe me? Take a good look at Nancy Pelosi.

Consider your shiny new car — drive it a year and it has lost 30% of its value. And how ’bout your new $40 sweater? At the garage sale you’ll be lucky to get five bucks. And let’s not even talk about underwear. One day’s use and it’s worthless. Oh, maybe five cents as a rag.

But of all the products of our civilization, nothing loses monetary value like books. I learned this lesson in economics at our Charlotte branch library. Books initially listed at 25 bucks could be purchased for a mere quarter of a dollar. What a remarkable decline! And think of it. Unlike the car, TV, sweater, or underwear, the books are functionally brand new — just as useful as the day they were printed. Sometimes they're even more so, with helpful notes that some previous reader scribbled in the margin. And better yet, if you're really lucky, sweet little notes and inscriptions: “Christmas 1945: Rob, Hope you return by June." "This book — see page 6 — expressed my feeling for you! All my love, Betty.” I often wonder why Betty didn’t save $19.95 and enhance her poetic reputation by simply copying page 6, changing a few names, and sending Rob a handwritten note.

You never know what you’ll find. I had an overnight guest who searched my library for bedtime reading and randomly picked the “bank” where we kept stray greenbacks for a household emergency. He didn’t get to finish the book, he said — could he borrow it? We switched him to a safer book.

Everything depreciates, including — it hurts me to say this — love, though nobody has calculated a percentage acceptable to the IRS. Too many variables. The only exceptions may be wine and super-aged antiques. I guarantee you that my iMac, 50 years hence, will gain additional value (the patina of age, you know), as compared with the items in my kitchen pantry: green cheese, curdled milk, and purple veal chops.

And then there are cars. First, a giant decline in value, beginning with the drive out of the showroom; then a continuing decline as you pile up miles. But somewhere in its automotive lifecycle, a car becomes a nonpareil gem, worth more than you paid for it. Buy and hold.




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