Thursday, March 31, 2011

Tidbits from my old files: A 49 clarinet quartet?

I have been trying to manure out my files, which entails going through a lot of old notebooks in which I jot down ideas and happenings. To start things off on this new thread for this blog, here is a really weird dream I had back in April 1994, as reported in my notes:

Dreamed that Dick Barber wanted me to play clarinet in a quartet. I told him, how did he know I was best person in Adrian, or even second best (if two clarinets needed), or for that matter in the top 49? I pointed out that one advantage to having 49 clarinets in a quartet would be that there would be a negative number of other instruments!

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Book recommendation: Cold Sassy Tree

Now that I have started doing book recommendations, I think from time to time I'll mention particularly good books (in my opinion) read earlier.

Since Doris and I have joined the "Read and Feed" book discussion group here in Corvallis, we have read a number of books that we never would have run into otherwise. Some of them have been outstandingly good, others perhaps outstanding in a different way!

One of my favorites is Olive Ann Burns novel Cold Sassy Tree. On the cover of our paperback edition a reviewer claims it is "A hilarious and passionate book . . . . One of the best portraits of small town southern life ever written." Although I cannot speak to its authenticity regarding small town southern life, never having lived in such a town, I can agree that it is hilarious.

As a model of good writing it is one that I would require students to read if I were teaching a course on how to write novels. (Not that I am equipped to teach such a course; I have written one manuscript for a novel, Who Killed Richard Nixon, but it was so dreadful that it never got anywhere when I tried to find an agent who would work with it.) The beginning of Cold Sassy Tree is excellent, grabbing the attention of the reader and making it nearly impossible for anyone who has read the first paragraph to put the book down. And the rest of the book lives up to the expectations generated at the beginning.


If I have provoked anyone's curiosity about Who Killed Richard Nixon, let me summarize the scenario: The story is laid in a "diverging and then reconverging" parallel universe in which Richard Nixon's people in Illinois managed to steal more votes there in 1960 than John F. Kennedy's people could, Nixon took the Illinois electoral votes and therefore won the presidency. He was assassinated while giving a speech at the University of Toledo Law School, Toledo, Ohio, on November 22, 1963. When he keeled over clutching his chest while giving his talk, everyone at first thought he'd suffered a heart attack, but it soon transpired that a spring gun firing poisoned darts had been cleverly hidden in the microphone he was using and set off by radio remote control from some distance.

25 years later they have still not figured out who did it. Two rather stupid reporters from the Ann Arbor newspaper (40 miles or so north of Toledo) decide they are tired of living in a backwater town like Ann Arbor and need to pull off a big story so they can go work for the New York Times or the Washington Post. They set out to find the killer, undergo various adventures, but at the end never do find out who killed Nixon.

In this novel Henry Cabot Lodge, Nixon's running mate in 1960, serves as president until 1968, when John F. Kennedy is elected. Kennedy later is forced to resign the presidency because of some kind of sexual indiscretion and at the time of the novel is living in disgrace in Panama. Meanwhile there is a "Horatio Alger" myth about the martyred Nixon, analogous to the Camelot myth surrounding Kennedy's memory in our part of the universe. Totally disgusting, of course!

I forget how this happens, but somehow Ronald Reagan gets elected president in 1980 in this parallel universe, and the two universes re-converge from then on to now.

I still think this was a pretty neat scenario, but unfortunately I did a crummy job of writing it up as a novel. But some people think that everyone's first novel is always terrible, so maybe I have gotten my bad one out of the way and if I try another one it might work out better.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Book recommendation: The Warmth of Other Suns

I think I am going to start posting reading recommendations for books I have found especially good. This will be the first such posting.

Isabel Wilkerson has written a very fine book about the migration of American black people from the south to the north and west during the years 1900-1970. The book is a combination of history and biography, with several specific individuals selected for special attention. The book gives an excellent feeling for the intolerable conditions black people faced in the south (and, to a lesser degree, not just in the south) during this period.

The book is entitled The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Stories of America's Great Migration.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Social Security: Letter to the editor

This letter was published by the Corvallis (Oregon) Gazette-Times on March 20, 2011. The article it refers to can be read here.


Charles Krauthammer often writes perceptive analyses of current affairs. But his piece on Social Security is almost totally nonsense, and I suspect that he has little understanding of economics, accounting, and banking.

Krauthammer tells us that the Social Security surplus generated during the last quarter century, “scooped up by the Treasury, reduced the federal debt by tens of billions.” This is simply untrue. The national debt consists of two parts. The first is money owed to people and organizations (including the Chinese government) who buy U.S. bonds (e-bonds, I-bonds, etc). The second part of the national debt is money owed to the Social Security and Medicaid and similar trust funds because they have loaned their surpluses to our government.

Krauthammer’s comment is based on the fact that the first part of the national debt is not as big as it would have been if nothing had been borrowed from the trust funds. But the second part of the debt, that owed to the trust funds, is bigger by precisely the same amount, which means that the total national debt was NOT reduced by the money “scooped up” by the Treasury.

The same facts apply now that the Social Security tax is bringing in less money each year than has to be paid out to Social Security recipients. To cover benefit payouts, the Treasury will now have to pay back some of the money (currently totaling about 2.6 trillion dollars) it previously borrowed from Social Security. It can pay for this in three possible ways: reduce other government expenditures, raise taxes, or borrow the money from the people who buy U.S. bonds.

Even if it borrows all the money, this will not increase the national debt by one dollar. It will increase the first part of the debt, but it will also decrease the second part of the debt, that owed to Social Security, by exactly the same amount.

The real problem here is that Congress can no longer go on funding government expenditures in considerable part with surpluses borrowed from Social Security, since there are no more annual surpluses. It will have to rely on a progressive income tax on all income rather than a regressive flat rate tax that exempts many kinds of income and income about a certain amount. This is politically painful, but it is not a problem with Social Security itself.

The Trust Fund is NOT a “fiction” and Krauthammer has only managed to confuse the issue.

Paul F. deLespinasse

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Compatibility of Monarchy and Democracy

I recently ran into a short article I wrote for the Adrian College alumni magazine shortly after I began teaching there in 1964. It has autobiographical elements, but also introduces a way of thinking about democracy that later was a key part of my 1981 college textbook (now available for free at my website). I thought it would be fun to post it here and make it available to the wider world.


Contact Magzine, Adrian College, July 1966.

Although we tend to make a fuss over visiting royalty, it is difficult for most Americans to regard the institution of hereditary monarchy dispassionately. During our very earliest days as a nation monarchy had a bad press, and even today utterance of the word “monarch” tends to conjure up images of George III and colonial exploitation. Consequently it is not surprising that eyebrows are raised and questions are asked when I profess, on occasion, to be a monarchist. The questions people ask me are frequently very penetrating ones, ones worthy of a serious answer. The following paragraphs are devoted to the answers that might be given to four such questions.

1. How is it possible for someone who is not a complete idiot to become a monarchist in this day of enlightenment? There are several alternative ways one might deal with this question.

One approach would be to deny that our age is a particularly enlightened one. But this is only a clever evasion of the real issue.

A second possible reply might be that it isn’t possible. Taking this assertion as the major premise, and “X is a monarchist” as the minor premise, one can form a syllogism, but its conclusion is clearly (I would argue) unacceptable. At least one of the premises must therefore be false.

My own answer would have to be that it isn’t easy. The circumstances leading me to become a monarchist were no doubt somewhat unusual. As an aficionado of science fiction, I happened during my junior year as college political science major to pick up a copy of Robert Heinlein’s novel, Double Star. Since the plot was laid in the future, I most have assumed that the prevailing form of government would be republican. But like most people with assumptions, I was not aware of having assumed anything.

After 115 pages containing nothing incompatible with my assumptions, one of Heinlein’s characters say: “You probably won’t have to do anything. . . . But it isn’t as if it were anything hard. . . .just an audience with the Emperor. . . .” These words completely amazed me. This was my first encounter with the suggestion that the future might produce governments other than republics (whether democratic or totalitarian). A moment’s meditation sufficed to show me, however, that there was nothing inherently impossible about a monarchical future. My amazement at my amazement then initiated a sequence of thoughts that ultimately led me to write a doctoral dissertation on constitutional monarchy.

Evidence gathered in writing my dissertation convinced me that monarchy, whether absolute or constitutional, is a very good form of government. It appeared that absolute monarchy is preferable to alternate types of absolutism (because more easily democratized), and that constitutional monarchy has many advantages over the republican form of democracy.

2. Are monarchy and democracy really compatible? Analysis of this question requires a certain amount of complexity.

Some people have believed that monarchy and democracy are not compatible in any sense. Thomas Paine, for example, felt that “Everything connected with hereditary royalty bears the mark of infamy or folly.” After George V opened the British Parliament in 1933, one deputy shouted at him: “It’s a shame to have all this rubbish and show while people are starving outside. You’re a gang of lazy, idle parasites, living on wealth created by the people.” And the Large Soviet Encyclopedia tells us that “The monarchial form . . . facilitates defense of the bourgeois dictatorship.”

Other individuals may admit that in practice monarchy and democracy have undeniably been able to coexist in many western European countries, but will maintain that in fundamental principle monarchy and democracy are not compatible. The union between monarchy and democracy is thus merely a marriage of convenience, tolerable only because the monarch is not allowed to do anything. It is perhaps in this frame of mind that the Swedish social scientist Herbert Tingsten writes of the monarchy: “Institutions which once were irritating have become harmless . . . .”

Still other people argue that monarchy and democracy are fully compatible in principle as well as capable of coexisting in a marriage of convenience. This happens to be my position. But this happens also to be a position that depends on a particular conception of democracy.

In the western political tradition, there are two different general approaches to defining what is meant by “democracy.” One school of thought regards democracy fairly literally as “government by the people.” The other approach would tend to define democracy as “government by some people whose behavior, by virtue of their desire to be reelected, is limited by the people.”

Only the second conception of democracy is compatible in principle with hereditary monarchy. In a constitutional monarchy, the king reigns by hereditary right. Since the king is not legally or politically accountable, however, actual decisions on matters of government policy are made by the cabinet ministers, whose countersignature is necessary to make the signature of the king legally valid. These ministers who make the ultimate governmental decisions are clearly not the people, but some people----usually less than 20. Of course the cabinet ministers remain in power only as long as they can command majority support in their parliament, and a party or coalition can retain a parliamentary majority as long as it can get the votes of a majority of the electorate. But the electorate does not “govern”; all it can do is vote or threaten to vote one way or another.

The available evidence indicates that democracy in the first sense, “government by the people,” is impossible. All government requires power. Social power is the product of organization. And organization is inherently oligarchical, which is to say that important organizational decisions tend to be made by a few key individuals. Democracies are no exception to this “iron law of oligarchy.” They make it easier to live with by allowing for competition among various oligarchies, and by providing for an ultimate decision by the electorate as to which of the competitors will rule for the time being. But, as Karl Popper has written, “the people do not rule . . . . The government rules. All the people can do is to vote. . . . This proves in practice to be a fairly effective way of restraining governments.”

Since “government by the people” is impossible, limitation of the behavior of those individuals who do govern by the desires of the general public is the essential characteristic of democracy. Thus the existence of an hereditary monarch is not at all incompatible with democracy as long as his behavior is ultimately limited by the desires of the electorate. This necessary limitation is furnished through the mechanism of the counter-signature requirement and cabinet government.

3. Why should the government pay the monarch’s salary if he doesn’t do anything? The principle that “he who does not work does not eat” has considerable appeal, but at least two types of answer are possible to this third question.

In the first place, the monarch does a great deal of useful work. He handles ceremonial duties. He makes innumerable public appearances dedicating dams, inspecting storm damage, promoting his country in foreign goodwill visits, etc. He entertains visiting firemen of all descriptions. While these duties are not matters of cosmic significance in themselves, the fact that the monarch takes care of them releases the prime minister to devote his full energies to the problem of governing. (By contrast, the American president must continuously interrupt his work to receive delegations of Boy Scouts, proclaim National Rutabaga Week, or throw out the first baseball.)

A second reason the monarch deserves his salary is that without doing anything, merely by existing, he makes a great contribution to good government. A monarch is a living symbol of the autonomous nature of the powers of government. When a cabinet has fallen, the monarch does not wait for leaders to come forward on their own; he calls them. This is a realistic example of the way in which political institutions work, a way in which the government is not merely an agent of the people but actually is called upon to lead the people, to make proposals, to take initiatives. Monarchs are ideally suited to symbolize the capacities for initiative inherent and necessary in any government. Owing their status not to any positive action by “the people” but to hereditary right acquiesced in by the people, monarchs by their existence help to combat the false idea that powers “emanate” from the people. The monarch is in effect a symbol of the fact that government depends on the “will of the people,” if at all, for what it cannot do rather than for what it can do.

The existence of a monarch is also useful in the political education of children. In a democratic republic the symbols with which children must be taught the civic virtues and the virtues of civility are relatively high level abstractions such as “constitution,” “republic,” etc., which are very difficult for a child to understand. A monarch is superior to a high level abstraction as a symbol for civil instruction since a king, as Walter Bagehot long ago pointed out, is something which can be understood even by the “vacant many,” a category in which all young children must be included. Singing “God Save the Queen” must have far more concrete meaning for children than singing the American national anthem, which refers to another symbol, the flag, which itself is impersonal and difficult to understand.

Additionally, by virtue of their sheer existence monarchs help to produce a feeling of continuity and stability, to symbolize the permanence of the state amid the flux of daily events. Monarchs tend to last a very long time, even those with comparatively “short” reigns. This is directly traceable, of course, to the hereditary basis of their positions. It may well be that the greater sense of security resulting from the conservative symbolism of monarchs has been a factor permitting a constructive and experimental approach to such things as social legislation, an area in which the European monarchies have gone further than most other countries.

4. Should God save the Queen? A group of students recently traveled from Harvard University to the University of Windsor in Canada to debate this question. I do not know which side, if indeed either, won the debate. If anyone were to ask me such a question, however, it is probably clear from the above remarks that my answer would have to be a resounding: Yes!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Putting Wisconsin in Context: Civil Service Systems

Discussing Wisconsin Governor Walker’s efforts to restrict collective bargaining by state employees, the Wall Street Journal reports that “Sixty-two percent of Americans polled oppose efforts to strip government workers of collective-bargaining rights.” Many of these people might have answered the pollsters differently if they had been aware of the civil service systems protecting most government workers.

A major argument for unionizing private workers is that they otherwise face arbitrary treatment by their employers. Collective bargaining contracts commonly create procedures for handling workers’ grievances against such treatment, often including binding arbitration.

Long before collective bargaining, however, most government workers were already well-protected from high-handed treatment. Our federal and state governments had enacted merit civil service systems providing excellent security against arbitrary dismissals and other mistreatment.

Before 1883, government employment was very insecure. When the White House changed hands, many workers were fired to make room for supporters of the new administration. This was known as the “spoils system.”

The assassination of President James A. Garfield in 1881 by a disappointed office-seeker prompted the 1883 Pendleton Act. Later, state governments also created merit civil service systems.

In Oregon, civil service reform responded to strings attached to grants funding welfare programs during the Depression. The new federally-funded programs were administered by state agencies. But Congress did not want this money to bolster state spoils systems; hence the “strings” requiring the states to establish merit systems.

Governor Walker’s critics claim that his reforms will leave public workers in a much worse position than private workers. But they overlook the fact that these workers will still be protected by Wisconsin’s civil service system.

In fact, federal and state civil servants have been protected so well that it is sometimes impossible or too expensive to fire even disastrously incompetent workers. J. Edgar Hoover used to deal with this problem by relocating FBI agents who had messed up to Butte, Montana, where they could do no harm. Other federal agencies have likewise established “turkey farms,” as they are known in the trade, offices where such people are warehoused until they can retire. Presumably state governments have turkey farms of their own.

Of course most government employees are competent, hard-working, and doing important work. But even someone like Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was very sympathetic to such workers, drew the line at collective bargaining.

On August 16, 1937, Roosevelt wrote to leaders of the National Federation of Federal Employees. He noted that “All Government employees should realize that . . . collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service.”

Roosevelt, strong supporter of private collective bargaining, went on: “Particularly, I want to emphasize my conviction that militant tactics have no place in the functions of any organization of Government employees. . . . . . It is, therefore, with a feeling of gratification that I have noted in the constitution of the National Federation of Federal Employees the provision that "under no circumstances shall this Federation engage in or support strikes against the United States Government."

Although Roosevelt here spoke of federal employees, there is no reason to suppose he felt differently about state workers.

Walker’s critics need to rethink their position. Seen in the context of merit civil service systems, ending collective bargaining would not subject government workers to high-handed treatment. And elected officials do have a history of offering unions magnificent future benefits (which future leaders will have to figure out how to pay for) to induce them to accept lower current salaries. Ending such bargaining—especially as to fringe benefits---may help avoid future financial catastrophes.