Category Archives: Society

The Butcher, the Baker, and Bain?

The Invisible Hand (courtesy of

The Invisible Hand (courtesy of

. Old adages die hard. Just consider the longevity of Adam’s Smith characterization of the self-regulating market as an invisible hand in his classic work, The Wealth of Nations. As Smith opined, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”

This sentiment, a persistent trope reverberating from one generation to the next, has become a center-piece of the American ethos as well as a mainstay of the Republican party. Nowhere is this more evident than in the on-going Republican electoral campaign. Thus, it is only by invoking the mantra of the invisible hand that Romney can criticize President Obama’s economic strategy, and get away with it, without having to lay out a strategy of his own. He claims to have the magic formula! So, instead of policy ideas, we hear the old refrain, “what’s good for business is good for the country,” or as updated by Romney, “What’s good for Bain is good for the economy.”

The Tooth Fairy  (courtesy of

The Tooth Fairy (courtesy of

Call me a skeptic, but having faith in the invisible hand today seems no different to me than believing in the Tooth Fairy. After all, no one can seriously claim that bankers, investors, and equity firms, such as Bain, were not pursuing their own interests when the economy went belly up. How else to explain that big business magnates increased their wealth dramatically in the wake of the 2008 recession, while those lower on the rung experienced calamitous losses. But this begs the question: if businesses were doing what they are wont to do, why then did the market fail to regulate itself? Might this be black magic?

Perhaps is is time to forego the rhetoric of the Republican Party and take a hard look at Smith’s long-standing dictum. To date, neo-classical economists offer little hope in this regard: Try as they might, they have yet to explain how individual actions at the level of the butcher or the baker translate into macro level outcomes, whether good or bad. Fortunately, some nontraditional economists, viewing the economy from evolutionary and complexity perspectives, have provided some promising new insights.

Robert H. Frank, in his book The Darwin Economy: Liberty, Competition, and the Common Good, addresses the issue of the invisible hand head on. As he contends, Darwin’s evolutionary theory, especially as it relates to the role of competition, is far more accurate about the nature of economic life than Adam Smith’s account’s in The Wealth of Nations. In Frank’s words:

When the ability to achieve important goals depends on relative consumption, as it clearly does in a host of domains, all bets regarding the efficacy of Adam Smith’s invisible hand are off. Notwithstanding the uncritically enthusiastic pronouncements of many of Smith’s modern disciples, unbridled market forces often fail to channel the behavior of self-interested individuals for the common good. On the contrary, as the pioneering naturalist Charles Darwin saw clearly, individual incentives often lead to wasteful arms races.

Combining the wisdom of evolutionary and complexity thinking, economist, Erik Beinhocker points out that the equilibrium outcomes, associated with the invisible hand, are entirely unrealistic. As he notes in his pathbreaking book, The Origin of Wealth: Evolution, Complexity, and the Radical Remaking of Economics, the economy is not a static phenomena, but rather a dynamic, complex adaptive system, which is subject to oscillations, power laws, and phase transitions. Moreover, outcomes, as traditional economists would have us believe, are not the product of predictable linear processes; instead, they emerge from the bottom up as the result of the constant interactions and adaptations that take place at all levels of the system. Hence, policy interventions–be they Republican or Democratic–may play a role in determining outcomes, but they are only one factor in a myriad of influences on the economic system.

rough_seas (courtesy of

rough_seas (courtesy of

When the economy is conceived in complex, evolutionary terms, the present economic crisis makes a certain amount of sense, unpleasant though it may be. However, what makes no sense at all, given the complexity of the economy, is to blame Obama for the present state of affairs, as Romney so flagrantly does. To the contrary, in times such as these, when the seas are rough and the future uncertain, what’s needed is not someone like Romney, who flips and flops floundering with the waves in the hope that equilibrium will naturally follow, but rather a captain, such as Obama, who will be steady at the helm and stay the course.

Cultural Contradictions

In the primary madness of the Republican Party, much is made of the cultural divide between urban supporters of Romney, and rural supporters of Santorum. Meanwhile, an equally, if not more, consequential clash is occurring, which has received far less public attention. This is the growing conflict between cultural and economic values, a tension that sociologist Daniel Bell first pointed out thirty six years ago, in his classic book The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism.

I was first introduced to Bell’s work when working at the Office of Technology Assessment on the study Intellectual Property Rights in the Age of Electronics and Information. In fact, the ideas he discussed in “Cultural Contradictions” provided the basis for my analysis of how intellectual property rights might be affected by a changing information environment.

Daniel Bell (courtesy of

Daniel Bell (courtesy of

According to Bell, society consists of three realms–the political, economic, and cultural–each governed by differrent values and norms, or as he put it, axial principles. Looking ahead, he predicted that, as electronic technology enhanced the value of information in each of these realms, they would be brought into increasing conflict. Looking at how these conflicts might be played out in the policy arena, our OTA study concluded that:

The resolution of these issues in an information age will be more problematic. . . .Given the variety of opportunities that the new technologies afford, the increased value of information, changing relationships among the traditional participants in the intellectual property system, and rising expectations about the benefits of these technologies, the number of stake holders with disparate interests and competing claims on the system will be greater than ever before. In such a context, the granting of intellectual property rights, instead of mutually serving a variety of different stakeholders may actually pit one against another.

This theme has been developed from a variety of different angles over the last several years. For example, in his book, The Cultural Economy of Cities, Allen J. Scot, lays the groundwork for further discussion, describing how the economic and the cultural realms have converged: as he points out, today, economic products now have greatly enhanced semiotic value, whereas cultural goods are increasingly capitalized for sale. Taken together, these products comprise a rapidly growing portion of the nation’s economy, and–as Daniel Pink contends in his book Whole New Mind:Why Right Brainers Will Rule in the Future, they are the new source of America’s competitive advantage. Richard Florida would presumably agree, having argued in The Rise of the Creative Class that today’s creators now constitute a class in their own right.

Ironically, the predictions about a culture/economic clash would seem to have proven wrong. What has happened instead is the colonization of culture by the economic realm, a point that I make in my paper, Creativity: The Goose That Laid the Golden Egg. Whereas I make my case based on shifts in the architecture of the creative landscapes that allow economic actors to assume a defining role in the cultural realm, Lawrence Lessig draws a similar conclusion arguing from a legal standpoint. In his book, Free Culture he points out that, given the growing economic value of creative products, the danger today is that the laws governing the economy will come to encompass norms and activities associated with culture and creativity.

The Proof of the Pudding is in the public silence. The only place where one can see contention is in the Republican primary, where Santorum carries the banner of culture, while Romney touts economic profits.

What’s Fair is Fair

What's fair is far (courtesy of Life, of course, is full of ironies, but what strikes me most recently as such is the coincidence between FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski‘s decision on August 22, 2011 to eliminate the Fairness Doctrine and the raging debate about Super Pacs brought on in part by the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United vs. Federal Communication Commission. This game-changing Supreme Court decision allows groups of people, including corporations, to raise and spend unlimited amounts of money in support of a candidate, so long as there is no coordination with the candidate.

Free speech, it now seems, is no longer a constitutional right; but a matter of money. Those without, are in effect silenced. Scratching my head, I have to ask myself: What’s fair about that? Thanks to Stephen Colbert, the situation was brought into stark, as well as comic, relief when he parodied the new campaign finance rules, setting up his own Super Pac, Definitely Not Coordinated with Stephen Colbert Super Pac, and transferred it to his alter ego Jon Stewart.

Not that the Fairness Doctrine has been active over the past 20+ years. Put into place in 1949, the Doctrine was intended to assure that broadcasters not only made room for issues of public importance, but also aired contrasting perspectives. The rational behind the Government’s involvement in broadcasting–notwithstanding the Constitutional guarantee of free speech–was the industry’s use of scarce, public airwaves–a rationale that was upheld by the Supreme Court in its 1969 decision Red Lion Broadcasting Co. vs FCC.

Televisions are Not Toasters (courtesy of ancient

Televisions are Not Toasters (courtesy of ancient

The subsequent expansion of media venues gradually weakened this rationale. In 1987, FCC Chairman Mark Fowler--famous for equating televisions with toasters–repealed the Fairness Doctrine, although it remained on the books until Chairman Genachowski’s recent decision to effectively eliminate it.

Paradoxically, today, while media outlets are plentiful, opportunities to raise one’s voice and be heard are becoming increasingly scarce. For, as Tim Wu has argued in The Master Switch, growth in media has led, time and time again, to vertical integration and greater industry concentration. Likewise, in his book The Myth of Digital Democracy, Michael Hindman illustrates how, as the number of outlets on the Internet grow, they become more and more concentrated in accordance with a power law. Hence, to gain a platform for expression under these circumstances requires having money, and lots of it.

To appreciate the full impact of this situation, one need only consider the frantic scrambling in the Republican Primary, not so much for votes but for dollars. As the contest shifts from backyard barbecues to the national media, and from policy pronouncements to negative advertising, the candidates chances of success are measured increasingly by the size of their Super PAC’S war chests. In fact, pointing to the $30.2 million that his Super Pac, Restore our Future, has raised, Mitt Romney has triumphantly predicted his own final victory.

Fierce competition, they say, is good for democracy, not just the market. Recent events make me question whether this is always the case. At the very least, this spending spree is wasteful: I can’t help thinking that the amount of money raised by the SuperPacs to promote–what more often than not is–false information far exceeds the meagre $23 million annual budget of the former Office of Technology Assessment, a Congressional agency tasked to seek out the truth, and one that Newt Gringrich, when Speaker of the House, helped to destroy. In his thoroughly engaging bookThe Darwin Economy: Liberty, Competition and the Common Good, Robert H. Frank cautions against unbridled competition on more theoretical grounds. Employing Darwin as his frame of reference, he argues that such contests are likely to lead to an arms race, in which the winner may benefit in the short run, but the society will lose overall.

Sadly Frank’s scenario sounds all too familiar. With money now a proxy for speech, dialogue has become more and more vacuous, even as speech is no longer free. Could it be time for a new Fairness Doctrine?

Republicans in Wonderland

Alice_in_Wonderland  (Wikipedia)

Alice_in_Wonderland (Wikipedia)

Following the Republican Primary I feel that I am, much like Alice in Wonderland, trapped in a fantasy world full of bizarre happenings, none of which make any sense. “Curiouser and curiouser” is all I can say!

Like the unpleasant characters that Alice encounters along her way, the Republican candidates appear consumed by their own sense of importance. They contort their appearances, much like the Cheshire Cat, as they obfuscate and twist facts to suit the audience of the day. As Alice said to herself: “[They] look good natured, but [they] have very long claws and a great many teeth.” So behind the masks, Ron Paul the libertarian glad-hander is an angry bigot; Mitt Romney the conservative businessman is a closet social engineer; Gingrich the intellectual genius is unable to tell the truth; and Rick Perry the Christian preacher has forgotten about the word Love. Clearly, the candidates must have met the Duchess along the campaign trail, and taken her advice when she said:

Cheshire Cat (Disney)

Cheshire Cat (Disney)

Be what you would seem to be, or if you would like it put more simply–Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would appeared to have them to be otherwise.

Now then, how do we know where the truth lies? Certainly not by whose winning and losing. For just as Alice, upon drinking the potions and eating the mushrooms and cakes, vacillated abruptly from being ten feet tall to two inches small, so too the candidates, when imbibing the nectar of success, have had their sudden ups and downs.

The Queen of Hearts has the solution. A caucus, or better still a trial, she said. On the condition that there be no judges, Gingrich concurred. Quoting the Fury’s invitation to the mouse, he proposed:

Let us both go to law; I will prosecute YOU. . .Come I will take no denial; We must have

I'll be judge I'll be jury

I'll be judge I'll be jury

a trial; For this morning I’ve nothing to do.’ Said the mouse to the cur, Such a trial, dear Sir, With no jury or judge would be wasting our breath.’ ‘I’ll be judge, I’ll be jury, Said cunning old Fury: ‘I’ll try the whole cause and condemn you to death.’

Such nonsense can be very irritating, indeed. Like Alice I hope to wake up soon from this bad dream. Fortunately, Alice shows us the way out. Reaching the limits of her patience, Alice regains her true size and stature, and then, standing tall, she speaks the truth to absurdity.

And Then There Were None

And Then There Were None (

And Then There Were None (

Seven years my senior, my sister Judy was a role model for me. I loved just hanging around her. When she took up French, I tried to learn too. Her library books became my reading list. And when she starred in high school plays, I was her ardent fan, learning lines as she practiced them.

Most memorable of these was Agatha Cristy‘s play, And Then There Were None. (Known at the time by its politically incorrect title, Ten Little Indians.) Today, as I follow the Republican primaries, I am reminded of this marvelous mystery. For each day’s news events are every bit as suspenseful, dramatic, and unpredictable as those in Christy’s 1939 ‘who done it.’

The play’s plot centers around the mysterious deaths of 10 unrelated people who find themselves alone together on Soldier Island from which there is no escape. One by one, each is murdered, presumably at the hand of one among them, and in a sequence that mirrors the poem Ten Little Soldier Boys.

ten_little_indians_1965 (movie poster/

ten_little_indians_1965 (movie poster/

The tension mounts as each suspects the murderer to be among the others. The mystery remains unsolved as the last two visitors to the island suffer the same fate–and then there were none.

This puzzling chain of events is finally unravelled in an epilogue, thanks to the inspector who arrives on the island and pieces the clues together. It is not for me to spoil the story by recounting the elaborate explanation; as in any mystery, readers’ enjoyment comes from sorting it out for themselves. But I will take the opportunity of recalling Agatha Christy’s play to apply the Soldier Boy poem as a means of extrapolating about the totally unprecedented sequence of events and surreal atmosphere associated with the Republican Primary.

Ten Republican Candidates Seeking the Presidency.

republican debate

republican debate

Ten Republic candidates standing in a line. Palin can’t commit, and then there were nine.

Nine presidential candidates starting at the gate. Perry forgets his script, and then there were eight.

Eight presidential candidates called upon by Heaven. Pawlenty is uninspiring, and so there were seven.

Seven presidential candidates performing all their tricks, Bachman failed her civics lesson, then there were six.

Six presidential candidates trying to stay alive, Huntsman was so principled the number dropped to five.

Five presidential candidates seeking an encore, Paul couldn’t get on stage and so there were four.

Four presidential candidates making policy, Cain’s diversionary tactics puts the number at three.

Three presidential candidates set on wooing you, Santorum doesn’t stand out, oops its now just two.

Mitt and Newt battle it out, just as in the play, when they are eliminated, Obama will have his day!

Rick Perry & The Return of Elmer Gantry

Elmer Gantry (

Elmer Gantry (

My mother, a young adult trying to get a handle on life in the chaotic thirties, was an avid reader of the works of social critic and Nobel Prize winner Sinclair Lewis. His stories satirized the hypocrisy of the time, be it with respect to religion, capitalism, the bourgeoise, or politics. Happy to share her books with me, my mother introduced me to Sinclair Lewis one summer when I was confined to a chair on the screened-in porch of our Lake cabin, recovering from a nasty foot injury. Although an antsy teenager at the time, I was happy to stay put, enthralled as I was by Sinclair Lewis. Now, many years later, I find myself sitting on the same porch, in the same wicker chair, struggling, much as my mother had, to make sense of the politics of our times. Then, in a flash seemingly from nowhere, I recall Sinclair Lewis, and the story of Elmer Gantry.
Sinclair Lewis (

Sinclair Lewis (

To fully appreciate the book Elmer Gantry it is important to keep in mind the context in which it was written. The year was 1926, a time of tremendous social and political upheaval arising in the wake of the First World War, which took the form of mounting economic woes, labor strikes, and violent racial confrontations. Fueling these tensions was an underlying intense cultural conflict in which a rapidly growing and increasingly vocal evangelical movement pitted itself against raucous, flamboyant, urban moderns, who personified what came to be known as The Jazz Age.

Life1926-02-18 (courtesy gatsby/jazz_age.htm)

Life1926-02-18 (courtesy gatsby/jazz_age.htm)

These two movements fueled each other’s flames, and intensifed their rhetoric, raising the ante for both. The stakes were exceedingly high–nothing less than sin and salvation on the one hand vs. freedom and autonomy on the other.

As described by Barry Hankins in his charming book, Jesus and Gin: Evangelicalism, the Roaring Twenties and Today’s Culture Wars, the character Elmer Gantry, a narcissistic, opportunistic and–more often than not–ruthless Baptist (and later Methodist) preacher, epitomized the rise and confluence of these two seemingly contradictory social phenomena, which actually fed upon each other. An adherent of the evangelical tradition, Elmer preached the literal Bible; called for the renunciation of sin and salvation through a personal Jesus; advocated prohibition; and lambasted evolution. At the same time, Gantry’ behavior and rhetoric typified the individualist, anything goes, attitude of the roaring twenties. In contrast to his pious, dour colleagues, Gantry was a very charismatic figure; his revival meetings were major productions, exceptionally well marketed and carefully scripted and staged with music, costumes, props and gimmicks, all aimed to capture the hearts of wayward sinners. And not withstanding the many betrayals he carried out; the people whose lives he ruined; and the scandals in which he became involved; Elmer Gantry always came out on top. This cynical, no less than satirical, outcome might explain why the book was banned in Boston, and why, after its publication, Sinclair Lewis was threatened with imprisonment and death.

I had not thought about Elmer Gantry for years, that is, not until, late in the summer, when my husband read a newspaper article to me about Rick Perry. Perry, a Governor, had called upon Texans to pray for rain in their drought-ridden state. Not soon thereafter, and not long before the Iowa Straw Poll, and his presidential announcement, he hosted a ‘day of prayer,’which had all of the trappings of an evangelical tent revival. With God in his heart, he then sought to intimidate Ben Bernanke, by threatening to make life difficult for him if he were ever to come to Texas. On hearing this, I felt that I had met this guy before. But where? Of course; here again was Elmer Gantry. Didn’t Perry and Gantry both have the same modis operandi –charming on the outside, ruthless within. As telling, both are evangelicals first, citizens second. Both put religion over reason, leaving it to God to solve complex world problems, such as climate change. Both employ the Bible to dispute evolution. Both wear their religious faith on the sleeves, but rarely live up to it in their pugnacious, arrogant dealings with other people. Driven by their individual fervor, they both leave no holds barred.

In writing his satires, Sinclair Lewis intended not only to expose the hypocrisy underlying American society and culture, but also to make the country sit up and take notice, especially of the rising threat of fascism. His book, It Can’t Happen Here, reminds Americans that they too are subject to over simplifications, false promises, and rhetorical sway. The book tells the tale of how a a charismatic character, much like Elmer Gantry, or Rick Perry for that matter, might employ inflammatory rhetoric in the name of ostensibly religious goals to fool the public and build up a popular platform that can undermine democracy in the United States. Athough It Can’t Happen Here was written with rise of European dictatorships in mind, it is still a provocative read that can better help us understand the politics of today.

He Who Forgets History. . .

Paul_Reveres Ride

Paul_Reveres Ride

There is considerable irony in the fact that Tea Party groups have sought to legitimate their cause by choosing a name that evokes the Founding Fathers and the events that culminated in the writing of the Constitution and the birth of the Republic. For it is, in fact, these politicos who have conjured up and propagated a totally slipshod account of early American history. Of course, history is open to interpretation, and reinterpretation, but not to distortion of the facts. As Cass Sustein emphasizes in his book 2.0, what’s alarming about today’s historical expediency is that, for many undiscerning people, it fills a gap in their historical knowledge, substituting fiction for fact.

Perhaps no one has gone further to link him or herself to the trappings of American history than Sarah Palin who, while coyly avoiding questions about her potential candidacy for President, undertook a bus tour of historical places as a means of educating Americans about their origins. (Presumably, if people understood American history, they would see the merits in Palin’s political positions) What hubris! The trip backfired, to say the least. Visiting the home of Paul Revere, Palin garbled the story of his ride, contending that Revere road to warn the British rather than the militia. When challenged by Fox News, Palin denied her gaffe, insisting that she “knew her American history.” So ended her tour, if not her presidential ambitions.

Palin is not alone in crafting historical events in accordance with her own political objectives. Speaking to the group Iowans for Tax Relief, Michele Bachmann claimed, for instance, that equality was not something that was contested and fought for, even at the expense of a civil war; rather, as she said, individuals, regardless of their origins, came to the United States and were treated as equals.

Slavery in America

Slavery in America

Acknowledging that slavery existed at the time, she contended that the Founding Fathers — especially John Quincy Adams–vowed to work for its elimination. No matter that a number of Founding Fathers–including Washington and Jefferson–were slave owners; that the Constitution counted slaves as three-quarters of a man; or that John Quincy Adams, a young boy at the time, was not a Founding Father.

Even more alarming than these individual cases is the formal rewriting of history, as in the recent case in Texas. Concerned that American textbooks veered too far to the left, the Texas Board of Education (comprised of ten Republicans and five Democrats) unabashedly voted to alter the American narrative to bolster a conservative perspective. Most outlandish of all, the Board voted to discount Thomas Jefferson’s role in providing the philosophical underpinnings of the new Republic, notwithstanding his authorship of the Declaration of Independence. As Fritz Fischer, national chairman of the National Council for History Education characterized it: This should not be a matter of partisanship, but rather of good history.

As George Santayana said, He who forgets history is doomed to repeat it. Might Santayana’s admonition provide a clue as to why Tea Party members, and others of their ilk, seek to distort it? I believe so. In fact, it would appear to me that today’s Conservatives would like nothing more than to return to a semi-mythical past when, according to their lights, life was much simpler, God prevailed, and Government was more circumspect. It’s time for a rereading, not a rewriting, of history.

The Dark is Rising

Complete Lunar Eclipse (NASA)

Complete Lunar Eclipse (NASA)

It may seem curious to entitle a blog, “The Dark is Rising,” just a day after the Winter Solstice, when I experienced a phenomenal lunar eclipse. Nevertheless, remembrances of the children’s book, bearing the same name, and written by Susan Cooper, keeps seeping into my conscious mind. It is a book that I read to my son Stephen, one Christmas long ago, when he was confined to my mother’s living room couch, while recovering from a nasty bout with pneumonia. My mother cooked and did her art work, while I read; no matter, we were both engrossed, almost as much as Steve. Given recent events, I realize that the story line of the second book in Cooper’s five part series–appropriately entitled The Dark is Rising–is very timely; there are, in fact, a number of eerie parallels.

the never ending battle between the forces of good and evil

Writing in the tradition of J. R.R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, Cooper employs mythical symbols and tropes to depict the never ending battle between the forces of good and evil. Time shifts and magic play important roles as well. In the story, the protagonist, young Will Stanton, discovers on the morning of his eleventh birthday, which occurs evocatively on Midwinter’s Eve, that he is the last of the Old Ones–people who, having been granted supernatural powers, have used them across the centuries, to push back the dark.

Will’s entry into this realm is full of foreboding. He is destined to be a seeker. To do his part, Will must collect six sacred, ornamental signs, which, when joined, will defy the Dark. A looming atmosphere accompanies Will throughout his journey: for the forces of the Dark make themselves ever present in the guise of a tremendous chill and snow storm that paralyzes the town; birds attacking from the sky; a wandering madman called the Walker, lurking behind every corner, and the Rider, who, appearing dressed in black and riding a large black stallion, personifies evil. Fortunately, Will is rescued from these encounters by a host of Old Ones–some from many centuries ago–who share his mission on behalf of the Light.

First New York snow of 2011: Nolita from Dan Nguyen NY

First New York snow of 2011: Nolita from Dan Nguyen NY

Now, let’s consider this Christmas season. As in the time of Will’s brush with the Dark, these past few weeks have yielded some unusually tempestuous weather, with torrential rains in California and Australia, causing life-threatening mudslides and floods, not to mention snowy blizzards carpeting most of the East Coast. We must take notice, too, of the birds falling from the sky, and the dead fish washed ashore? More troubling still is the political climate of hatred exacerbated by media pundits and right wing politicians, such as Sarah Palin, who seek private gain at the expense of humanity. As we have seen in Arizona, the consequences can be catastrophic. What accounts for all of this? If you look at the Homeland Security report Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment, you can only conclude that THE DARK IS RISING.

Today, there are no Old Ones, as in the myths bygone. But some of us are “old” in the sense that we have lived through more civic–even if stress ridden–times, times when people reached out with a hand, and not with a gun. Like the Old Ones of the past, perhaps we need to work together to hold back the Dark, reconstructing a narrative based on trust and caring. As the neurobiologist Dr. Douglas Fields has demonstrated in his research, our brains are the product of our environments. Hence, those of us who grew up in better times can play our parts by reconstructing and retelling the magic inherent in our memories.

Getting Back to Speed~~The Road to Recovery

Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary 058 from Michael Dawes

Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary 058 from Michael Dawes

It’s commonplace to note the ups and downs in life. As they say in Spanish: la palma sube, y el coco baja. And yet, when we find ourselves at our own nadir, or in the midst of a deep recession, we often despair. The way back up seems so steep, and the recovery so slow. Worse yet, to garner hope, and seek a way out, we need someone, or something, to blame.

As I read the news each morning, searching for the slightest positive signs, I too am discouraged, but not so much by the slow pace of economic growth, or even by the slanderous attacks made against President Obama. Far more disheartening to me are the pontificating pundits,’ who, once having heralded Obama’s ascendence, are now unrelenting in their criticisms of him for failing to get it right.

Economic indicator from jakekrohn

Economic indicator from jakekrohn

One need only consider Elenor Clift’s recent piece in Newsweek, “The Problem With the Cult of Obama: Halfhearted Soul-Searching at the White House,” in which she calls upon the President to reinvent himself in accordance with voters’ aspirations. As the Jungian analyst Lawrence Staples, author of the book, Guilt With A Twist: The Promethean Way, might point out in response, winning praise–or an election, for that matter–is not the best measure of success. After all, Prometheus outraged the Gods when he stole fire from Zeus and gave it to mortals, but, in so doing, he greatly enriched humankind.

In like fashion, the Democrats poor election results might not reflect Obama’s inability to track the pulse of the American people, but rather his willingness to nonetheless take a risk, and diverge from the game of politics, in order to achieve what he believes to be overriding societal goals. (See, for such an argument, Ari Emanuel, “Forget the Carter Comparison: Obama is Following in the Footsteps of Harry Truman–and That’s a Very Good Thing.)

Turning the pundits’ criticism back upon themselves, one might ask: What have you done lately to stimulate recovery? To be sure, negativism is not the answer. Think about recovery from disease. Do you blame the sick person; do you lash out against God? These are self-defeating strategies. I know from personal experience, having been caregiver to my husband, Brock Evans, as he successfully battled stage 3a multiple myeloma. Most unhelpful were the doctors who slinked along his bedside, rolling their eyes behind his back, and cautioning him that “people in his condition don’t do very well.” On the other hand, what made all the difference in the world–that is to say, in addition to his own courage and fighting spirit– were the mailbags from well wishers reaffirming their love and cheering him on. One turning point came when he received a song, written for him by Carol King, appealing to him to “Hold On, Hold On.” It went like this:

You ask yourself the question
What am I going to do
How can I go on when life has let me down
You know it won’t be easy
But time will take you through
You can find your courage in the love inside of you

Hold on, Hold on . . .

So, as in the words of Hal David, it would seem that “What The World Needs Now, is Love Sweet Love, “ or, at the very least, some very enthusiastic cheerleaders.

Up, Up, And Away!



Up, Up and Away in my beautiful machine. Remember that song from Sesame Street? Driving to the lake in our new Ford Focus, I felt like I was flying high. Off we were to our summer cottage in the New Jersey Highlands, with two cars in tandem, both stuffed to the brim with our treasured possessions–our books, are tapes, our CDs, our cloths, and of course our dog Sparky.

A new car you say? You are environmentalists, non-materialists! How did that come about?

Well, we had been thinking about it for a long time. Although our 20 year old CRX si (the last of its make) had served us well, it had seen better times. As well, we were beginning to creak, just like the CRX, so it was harder and harder to take advantage of its sporty appurtenances. Nonetheless, we procrastinated, not wanting to let go of the happy memories and associations that our CRX evoked. As importantly, negotiating a car deal is intimidating; much as in the case of birthing a baby, we had to wait until the pain of the previous experience had subsided before trying again.

We had to wait until the pain of the previous experience subsided, before trying again

What helped to overcome our inertia was our desire to bring all our stuff with us on our vacation to Hawthorne Lake. No doubt, it would take two cars. Did we really need all this paraphernalia? Most likely not! But, as one might well imagine, even though we could not possibly read all the books, wear all the cloths, nor listen to all the CDs that we had packed, together they comprised a web of connections and affordances, which made it easier for us to carry out our routine away from home.

so many choices

so many choices

The subject of things continued to preoccupy me even after we had unpacked our cars, put everything in its place, and settled into our cottage on the lake. For once I was ensconsed in the old wicker chair at the end of our long screened-in porch, the first book I drew from my grand pile was Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Eugene Rochberg-Halton’s The meaning of things: Domestic symbols and the self.

Csikszentmihalyi and Eugene Rochberg-Halton’s perspective on the role of things is quite unique. Unlike most sociologists, they are not focused on the relationship between things and status. Nor do they take an especially critical perspective of things, bemoaning the evils of consumerism. As significant, the authors rise above the technology determinism vs. social constructivism debate. Instead, grounded in the symbolic interactionism of George Herbert Mead, and the philosophical pragmatism of John Dewey, they view the interactions/transactions between people and and things as a two-way street.

Generations of Things

Generations of Things

Embodying past associations and psychic investments, objects convey symbolic meaning to those engaged with them. At the same time, the users of objects can extend that meaning by investing their own psychic energy in the object to pursue their own individual goals. Growth occurs in the process, with respect to both the object and the individual. As importantly, because objects embody meaning at three levels–the self, the community, and the cosmos–the network of objects with which we are surrounded help us to orient ourselves to function both as individuals as well as participants in a larger whole.

Our home at the lake epitomizes the narrative that Csikszentmihayli and Rochberg-Halton lay out. As they point out:

One of the most important psychological purposes of the home is that those objects that have shaped one’s personality and which are needed to express concretely those aspects of the self that one values are kept within it. Thus the home is not only a material shelter but also a shelter for those things that make life meaningful.



Built by my grandfather in 1908, our house at the lake is home to prized possessions that span five generations–the deer head over the fireplace, first edition books, the mission oak furniture, blackened cast iron pots, my mother’s rolling pin, my father’s fly rod, my childhood toys, my son’s tools, my grandchildren’s paintings, and–last but not least–our new car. They serve not only to link me back through the generations that preceded me; they instill in me the insight and impetus to keep our house and its environs in tack for the generations yet to come.