Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Anything-but-Silent Scream

Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum (pictured above with his lovely daughter - the one clutching "Religious Cult Abby" of American Girl Dolls fame - and son - the one barely disguising his disappointment after yet another unsuccessful Harry Potter audition) has made some pretty persuasive arguments in his public career. None as persuasive (well, maybe this one) though, as this week's gem, in which he claims that a 'culture of abortion' is responsible for income shortfalls in Medicare and Social Security.

His argument goes something like this - stop me if you think it's too charitable. Part of the problem with the Social Security shortfall is that there aren't enough payers-in to cover the payers-out, so Social Security payouts have to rely on the 2.3 trillion dollar trust fund in order to cover the difference. A long-term version of this problem will eventually exhaust the trust fund, leading either to increased pay-ins (taxes) or reduced payouts (benefits). On Santorum's argument, the legalization of abortion in the U.S. has disrupted demographic trends in such a way that, had abortion remained illegal, there would presently be enough (or, somewhere nearer enough) payers-in to cover the retirement of the Baby Boom generation. Now, since 1973, over 45 million fetuses have been aborted legally in the US. Suppose conservatively (or, liberally, I don't know) that making abortions illegal would've bought, say, 30 million (plus their children...) tax payers out of the woodwork - and no other costs. Then, presumably, there'd be enough payers-in to cover the payers-out, since the number of payers-out is (theoretically) fixed. And if we can cover the shortfall of payers-in, Social Security is saved.

Okay, Senator, not bad. Given the value of Social Security and Medicare (assumed by a Republican?!), the fact that any event that makes it less likely that those programs will persist is a prima facie reason in favor of illegalizing or protecting against that event. Legalized abortion is such an event, and now we've got on our hands a prima facie reason to illegalize abortion. Santorum FTW!

But, naturally, this argument is stupid - at least for those with ideological commitments like Santorum's. The argument doesn't work without the assumption that damage to Social Security generates a prima facie reason against some event, or in favor of eliminating it. But then, imagine any event that reduces the number of payers-in to Social Security, and you've got a prima facie reason against it or in favor of eliminating it. Disability from manual labor? Unemployment? Retirement? Death? The decision to have fewer than two children? All of these events reduce the number of payers-in to Social Security, and so, on Santorum's view, there's at least one prima facie reason each in favor of ending these events. But, Republicans aren't in favor of reducing unemployment or monitoring workplaces in order to reduce disability, and they'll never get Democrats to go along with their "Two Pregnancy Minimum" bill. So, since the prima facie reasons against abortion doesn't generate a motivation to shift our position on (most of) these laws in order to 'save' Social Security, why would this reason against abortion motivate us more?

(Please, Senator, please: run for President.)

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

In the ignorant fervor over public support for National Public Radio and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, I've been wondering what sorts of arguments could change the minds of conservatives. Indeed, this is a question that I've had with respect to many disputes between Democrats and Republicans - how do you convince someone who doesn't receive value from some public service that the public service is valuable, nonetheless?

And I then recalled this little clip that a friend showed me last year. In 1969, seven minutes of Fred Rogers' testimony before the United States Senate changed the mind of a least one prominent Republican, securing at least one year of funding for and establishing a public belief in the value of public broadcasting. The video, really, is quite moving. The key, though, is that at its heart, the defense Rogers' explicates just how something could be valuable, even though no one who would vote for its funding would ever benefit personally from it.

If we have any conservative readers, I'd be interested in your reactions especially.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

GIve me your tired, ____, your huddled masses

First things first. I read the entirety of Emma Lazarus's sonnet, "The New Colossus," tattooed on the Statue of Liberty, whose famed line ("Give me your tired . . .") was all that most of us, myself include, had ever read. Here's the whole thing.
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden shore!"
For my part, I don't deny having found myself a little teary-eyed, reading it aloud.

Anyway, I want to mention a quick thought about income inequality, which, as the NYT notes, is growing to near-Great Depression levels, in spite of a striking dearth public concern for that inequality. My question, though, is just what would we have to give up to do something substantive about it? Sure, there are many things that count as 'substantive,' but if we wanted to look at the current budget, what's an avenue that would pretty efficaciously start to close that gap?

In 2009, the United States spent $717 billion on the national defense, while the People's Republic of China, our nearest runner-up, spent $70.3 billion. Suppose the US cut $300 billion from the defense budget, allowing it to grow subsequently in whatever ways Congress would have it, and suppose the US reapportioned that $300 billion annually to endow households with (say) $100,000 interest-earning savings funds. First, we would nonetheless fivefold outspend our 'rivals' on defense. Second, since there are just over 100 million households in the US, endowing every single one of them with such a savings account would take just over a generation, 30-35 years.

Think it sounds crazy? Try third: in Norway, its national Government Pension Fund has saved nearly all of the oil wealth extracted from Norway's North Sea oil wells to produce savings of $89,000 not per household, but per man, woman, and child. And given Norway's low birthrate, and the projected 60% gains in that fund over the next three years, the individual savings amount will increase to $142,000. All of this? It took Norway just forty-five years. The college graduates at the start of the savings are now, today, benefiting.

Talk like that tends to put the talk of the 'profit motive' into perspective, doesn't it?

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

What's Wrong With Rap - Part I

Maybe there should be a question mark at then end of that headline - "What's Wrong With Rap?" - I don't know. But, maybe not. I'm not really sure, to be honest. But what I think I'm going to try to do here is describe my experience listening to rap this week, my reactions to it, and then offer some gestures at an interpretation for those reactions.

What's inspiring this post is a note last week from my compatriot on this site. He wrote it in response to my post about the ungrounded nature of many musical preferences, suggesting that part of the reason why people reject whole genres, whole artistic corpuses, is that there's just too much krappenmusik out there - by which I really, really hope he meant crepenmusik - too much crap to sort through. So, we listen to a little of this, a little of that, to find out which of this or that has too much crap as to be worth our time searching for the good stuff, and also which has enough good stuff that my search for the really good stuff will be enjoyable in spite of how hard I have to look for what's exceptionally good.

This description seems both reasonable and accurate to me. It's why I, myself, am not drawn to rap or to much pop music - because so much that one encounters is bad that the energy necessary to discover and cultivate an appreciation for what's good in the genre is just too high relative to what's required in other genres. And similarly, it's part of why I've fallen for opera, and why orchestral and symphonic music is so pleasurable - so little effort is required to find what's good.

But as reasonable as that account sounds, I think there's a fly in the ointment. The described process is one whereby we listen to the music according to how easy it is, in a given genre's or artist's massive set of artworks, to find what's good in that set. Such a process, however, seems like it would recommend, inevitably, our listening to what can broadly be described as Western Classical music. (Start with Bach, and start naming whichever 'composers' you know - their music is what I'm talking about.) It would make such a recommendation because it is so very easy to find good music in that genre, and further, the difference between the energy required to find the merely "good" music and the "excellent" music in this genre is almost negligible. We know which artists are great, we know, in general, which of their works are their best, and gaining access to that knowledge if you don't already have it takes almost no energy at all. And what's more, the genre supplies a near-endless number of good pieces - and a very large number of great pieces - such that one might listen only to Classical music for one's entire life and never find oneself bereft of something pleasurable.

Perhaps that overstates the case, but I think the point is clear. What then, might suffice to explain this phenomenon? There are several factors, I think.
  • The genre is much older than contemporary genres, so it has had more time to establish its standards and for versions of those standards to be questioned.

  • There is an entire academic industry devoted to arguing about what should be culled and included in the Classical canon.

  • A significant musical education (even if non-academic) has always been a necessary condition on producing Classical music that anyone would listen to. And so those composing in the genre must have been, on average, significantly more intelligent, more dedicated than what is necessary to produce music in contemporary genres that people will listen to.
These factors, I think, conspire to produce an easily accessible body of knowledge that accurately recommends great music, without our having to sift through very much bad music at all.

Anyway. What's the fly here? If the process by which we pick those genres we'll excise and those we'll embrace is the one that will most easily result in our having pleasurable listening experiences, then, as I said, it isn't obvious to me why Classical wouldn't be the most popular genre on offer. Except this: it isn't. Indeed, it may be the least popular genre in today's audial pantheon. The most popular genres are what can causally be called "pop," "rock," "rap," "hip-hop," and the like - genres all that have almost no established structure for delineating between the good and the bad, and so hardly any authoritative canon to speak of. (Well, maybe you can have both.) These are genres where one can spend countless hours sifting through schlock, and even then find little in the way of excellent music, or at least, relatively little compared to Classical - little, indeed, when compared even to opera or jazz. Given what seem like strong incentives against what have proven the most profitable genres, and those in favor of Classical, any interesting question arises: what gives?

If I were to hazard a guess, I'd guess something like this. While accurate and reasonable, my comrade's explanation of how we choose our music seems not to account for a pretty essential, yet antecedent, step: the inculcation of taste. The process Ross describes is reasonable entirely, if you aren't already biased against, say, Classical music, or biased in favor of this or that contemporary genre. Which is to say, it's reasonable entirely if you haven't been antecedently indoctrinated to one standard of taste or another. ("'Taste' tends to equal 'bias.' There's a controversial thesis, at least for the hipster-non-hipster out there.)

The key, though, is that the path of easiest listening resistance, while it may explain why we listen to what we listen to once our sense of taste is in some sense 'fixed', doesn't really explain how we come to have the fixed senses of taste that we have - if those senses be fixed at all, that is. Indeed, I think that the real question (and an open one, if you please) is this: in light of what seem like ceteris paribus reasons in favor of (say) Classical, what 'theory of taste formation' would explain the fact these reasons do not seem to be ones to which people are responsive?

[Okay, so we didn't get to the "Aaron listens to rap without opening a vein" part. Call that Part II of this series.]

Monday, March 7, 2011

Academe vs. Reality

I don't know if you've noticed this, but it seems there's some sort of disconnect between what goes on in the heads of academics and what is actually going on in the world. The latest instance to be added to this ignominious case-file is that of the MSM program here at Notre Dame. Just last year our directorship became a triĆ¼mvirate with the addition of two new professors from parts Eastward. (We snagged 'em from the Ivy league. Somewhere in there is a G&S patter-aria to be written.) Anywho, these two came in with big plans for our sacred music program, the major 'improvement' to be made regarding which is the addition of many many more conductors. (Plans are for a sufficient number of student-conductors such that they can form their own choir to perform recitals. As it is, currently they rely on the goodwill of organists to supplement their choirs.) This is a colossal mistake. There are no church music jobs for conductors who are not also organists; with one exception, none of our present conductors is an organist. We have supervised church music placements, both on campus and in nearby churches, and the glut of conductors is threatening to overwhelm the available positions, which historically have been reserved for organists (y'know, the folks who can actually do the job). If this discourages organists from applying to the program, the problem will only be exacerbated. A Masters in Sacred Music from Notre Dame, at this rate, will become a vanity degree, for it certainly will not be useful for any extant jobs. None of this seems to bother the New Powers that Be.

This example, surely representative of all sorts of idiocy in college programs, raises several important questions. Chief among them is this: is a degree meant to be useful? I don't mean to say that a proper education is not a great boon to a mind, to a community, and to society as a whole. But can we, in good conscience, train students for jobs that aren't there? How many degrees in underwater basket-weaving shall we hand out before we realize that we've got enough baskets already?

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Teachers and taxes

So, people've heard that states and the federal government (i.e. we) are facing what Very Serious People (VSP) say are very worrisome levels of budget deficit in the next few years, right? That means that we'll have some money that we'll have to find some way of paying back, and given the serious tones that VSP take in these discussions, we're left to conclude that these ways of paying back are going to start awfully soon. Fine. But let's look at how Republicans, the party of fiscal responsibility if ever there was one, have handled themselves so far.

First, in abstract. There's a budget deficit. You pay your bills by raising revenues or cutting expenses. But what does raising revenues entail? It entails raising taxes. But what, really, is a tax increase? It's the state garnishing your wages, with the functional effect of your having a decreased purchasing power.

Now, consider what Republicans are willing to do to state employees and teachers. They're willing to cut teacher pay, employee pensions - in essence, garnish their wages - with the effect of raising state revenues by decreasing cost of education and pension responsibilities. So, reducing teacher pay, eliminating pensions benefits, etc. is functionally a tax increase on those people - instead of on the wealthy. Which is to say, Republicans are willing to raise taxes on teachers and state pension recipients, and they aren't willing to raise them on people making over $250,000 per year.

I hate when people talk about class warfare or whatever, but this seems like such an obvious example of it to me, that I could just puke.