‘A principle of periodic reduction of bureaucracy’

I caught the 5:05pm Amtrak from Washington to Philadelphia this evening, and am heading to Bismarck early in the morning for a bioethics seminar at the University of Mary the rest of this week. The flags outside of Union Station were at half mast in honor of President George H.W. Bush.

As I walked through Old City later in the night I took this photo of Independence Hall. I think it pairs well with Camille Paglia’s commentary on the illiberal nature of bureaucracy:

As government programs have incrementally multiplied, so has their regulatory apparatus, with its intrusive byzantine minutiae. Recently tagged as a source of anti-Trump conspiracy among embedded Democrats, the deep state is probably equally populated by Republicans and apolitical functionaries of Bartleby the Scrivener blandness. Its spreading sclerotic mass is wasteful, redundant, and ultimately tyrannical.

I have been trying for decades to get my fellow Democrats to realize how unchecked bureaucracy, in government or academe, is inherently authoritarian and illiberal. A persistent characteristic of civilizations in decline throughout history has been their self-strangling by slow, swollen, and stupid bureaucracies. The current atrocity of crippling student debt in the US is a direct product of an unholy alliance between college administrations and federal bureaucrats — a scandal that ballooned over two decades with barely a word of protest from our putative academic leftists, lost in their post-structuralist fantasies. Political correctness was not created by administrators, but it is ever-expanding campus bureaucracies that have constructed and currently enforce the oppressively rule-ridden regime of college life.

In the modern world, so wondrously but perilously interconnected, a principle of periodic reduction of bureaucracy should be built into every social organism. Freedom cannot survive otherwise.

Little Free Libraries, ‘a spiritual gesture’

Todd Bol, the creator of the “Little Free Library” movement, died this month:

Little Free Library is a nonprofit organization that inspires a love of reading, builds community, and sparks creativity by fostering neighborhood book exchanges around the world.

Katharine Q. Seelye writes:

In 2009, Todd Bol was renovating his garage in Wisconsin when he ripped off its old wooden door. He liked the wood, though, and didn’t want to throw it out. So after staring at it for a while, he decided to use it to build a small monument to his mother, who had been a schoolteacher.

He fashioned it into a replica of a schoolhouse, two feet high and two feet wide, put his mother’s books in it, and planted it on his front yard, hoping to start a little book exchange for his neighbors.

“It was a spiritual gesture,” he said.

That gesture spawned what might be called the tiny library movement, leading to his founding of a nonprofit organization called Little Free Library a year later.

Since then more than 75,000 Little Free Library boxes, which blend the form of folk art with the function of a community water cooler, have popped up in all 50 states and in 88 countries.

I’d like to see a Little Free Library at the Mount Nittany trailhead in Lemont at some point. I think it would be a great thing for hikers to be encouraged to spend time on the mountaintop with nothing but the trees and a great book.

Progress on ‘unresponsive wakefulness’

Richard Doerflinger writes on the American Academy of Neurology’s recently released guidelines on care for patients like Terri Schiavo:

Court cases involving patients like Nancy Cruzan, Nancy Ellen Jobes and Terri Schiavo have established a broad right to discontinue feeding and let patients in a vegetative state die of dehydration.

Now enters the American Academy of Neurology with new guidelines on treatment of these patients, developed along with other experts and the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living and Rehabilitation Research. This group’s findings and recommendations are game-changing:

  • A more descriptive term for “vegetative state” is “unresponsive wakefulness syndrome.” (This will be welcomed by families who don’t appreciate their ailing loved ones being compared to broccoli.)
  • There is a significant chance for rehabilitation (sometimes allowing patients to return home and resume employment) even in patients who have been in this state for a year or more, so “continued use of the term ‘permanent vegetative state’ is not justified.” The term “chronic” should be used, as it does not imply irreversibility. Protocols are recommended for enhancing the prospects for recovery.
  • Studies show that the likelihood of misdiagnosing the condition is about 40 percent. This includes cases where patients diagnosed as “vegetative” actually had locked-in syndrome, where they cannot respond but are fully aware (so presumably they can hear their doctors calling them vegetables).
  • One study found that 32 percent of patients with severe traumatic brain injury died in the hospital — but 70 percent of the deaths were due to withdrawal of life support, and such withdrawal had more to do with the facility where care was provided than with the severity of the symptoms.

In short, our medical system has been giving up on far too many of these patients, prematurely ensuring their deaths based on faulty diagnoses and self-fulfilling hopeless predictions.

Bobby Schindler and I wrote earlier this year on the increasing shift from describing brain injured persons as “vegetative” to instead experiencing “unresponsive wakefulness:”

What was essential in their recoveries from the standpoint of their families and caretakers was, first, a willingness to acknowledge a certain powerlessness — We cannot always make our loved ones better by our own power — and, second, a willingness to embrace uncertainty about their ultimate fate — Are they still really ‘with us’? Will they ever fully recover?— yet an even stronger willingness to live hopefully and with the sort of care that could provide an environment for life and for recovery.

Every person intuitively knows in his or her heart that what makes the special people in our lives so special is not what they do for us, but instead who they are. Every person who matters to us is a gift, always unearned, and often unexpected, whose particular value is incalculable and priceless.

Yet our medical culture is designed increasingly to also be an accounting culture, which necessarily introduces some temptation to view those for whom it was originally created to care unconditionally not as gifts, but as products.

In aggregate, this results in treating patients as a sort of raw human material whose potential future worth, just like a rising or falling stock, dictates their present value.

For example, unresponsively wakeful persons are not “attractive investments” in a profit-driven medical and accounting culture, and this means that families facing such a diagnosis will have to be particularly brave in providing the sort of safe havens and environments for potential recovery from which Terri Wallis, Martin Pistorius and Patricia White Bull each benefited in their own way.

For a society wishing to be humane, no “unresponsively wakeful” patient who is not dying can be allowed to fall victim to an imposed death of starvation and dehydration by removal of so-called “artificial” food and water. It is neither a natural nor a simple way to die.

Encouraging to see the American Academy of Neurology rejecting the sort of medicine-governed-by-accountants culture and But what can they do in this condition? thinking that has led to the deaths of Terri Schiavo and countless others.

Cultureless ciphers

Patrick Deneen paints a harsh but not untrue portrait of the state of American education:

My students are know-nothings. They are exceedingly nice, pleasant, trustworthy, mostly honest, well-intentioned, and utterly decent. But their brains are largely empty, devoid of any substantial knowledge that might be the fruits of an education in an inheritance and a gift of a previous generation. They are the culmination of western civilization, a civilization that has forgotten nearly everything about itself, and as a result, has achieved near-perfect indifference to its own culture.

It’s difficult to gain admissions to the schools where I’ve taught – Princeton, Georgetown, and now Notre Dame. Students at these institutions have done what has been demanded of them: they are superb test-takers, they know exactly what is needed to get an A in every class (meaning that they rarely allow themselves to become passionate and invested in any one subject); they build superb resumes. They are respectful and cordial to their elders, though easy-going if crude with their peers. They respect diversity (without having the slightest clue what diversity is) and they are experts in the arts of non-judgmentalism (at least publically). They are the cream of their generation, the masters of the universe, a generation-in-waiting to run America and the world.

But ask them some basic questions about the civilization they will be inheriting, and be prepared for averted eyes and somewhat panicked looks. Who fought in the Peloponnesian War? Who taught Plato, and whom did Plato teach? How did Socrates die? Raise your hand if you have read both the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Canterbury Tales? Paradise Lost? The Inferno?

Who was Saul of Tarsus? What were the 95 theses, who wrote them, and what was their effect? Why does the Magna Carta matter? How and where did Thomas Becket die? Who was Guy Fawkes, and why is there a day named after him? What did Lincoln say in his Second Inaugural? His first Inaugural? How about his third Inaugural? What are the Federalist Papers?

Some students, due most often to serendipitous class choices or a quirky old-fashioned teacher, might know a few of these answers. But most students have not been educated to know them. At best, they possess accidental knowledge, but otherwise are masters of systematic ignorance. It is not their “fault” for pervasive ignorance of western and American history, civilization, politics, art and literature. They have learned exactly what we have asked of them – to be like mayflies, alive by happenstance in a fleeting present. …

We have fallen into the bad and unquestioned habit of thinking that our educational system is broken, but it is working on all cylinders. What our educational system aims to produce is cultural amnesia, a wholesale lack of curiosity, history-less free agents, and educational goals composed of content-free processes and unexamined buzz-words …

Our students are the achievement of a systemic commitment to producing individuals without a past for whom the future is a foreign country, cultureless ciphers who can live anywhere and perform any kind of work without inquiring about its purposes or ends …

‘This is surveillance’

Natasha Lomas reports on Tim Cook’s recent address in Brussels:

Apple’s CEO Tim Cook has joined the chorus of voices warning that data itself is being weaponized against people and societies — arguing that the trade in digital data has exploded into a “data industrial complex”.

Cook did not namecheck the adtech elephants in the room: Google, Facebook and other background data brokers that profit from privacy-hostile business models. But his target was clear.

“Our own information — from the everyday to the deeply personal — is being weaponized against us with military efficiency,” warned Cook. “These scraps of data, each one harmless enough on its own, are carefully assembled, synthesized, traded and sold.

“Taken to the extreme this process creates an enduring digital profile and lets companies know you better than you may know yourself. Your profile is a bunch of algorithms that serve up increasingly extreme content, pounding our harmless preferences into harm.”

“We shouldn’t sugarcoat the consequences. This is surveillance,” he added. …

“For artificial intelligence to be truly smart it must respect human values — including privacy. If we get this wrong, the dangers are profound. We can achieve both great artificial intelligence and great privacy standards. It is not only a possibility — it is a responsibility.” …

Cook said Apple is “in full support of a comprehensive, federal privacy law in the United States” — making the company’s clearest statement yet of support for robust domestic privacy laws…

Good for Tim Cook and Apple for continuing to lead on this issue. Apple’s position is an essentially conservative one, advocating restraint on the part of both government and private entities from overzealously compiling what are, in effect, dossiers designed to coerce or otherwise manipulate.

Apple may prove to be a better protector of our Fourth Amendment rights than many whom we’ve elected to government to defend those rights.

Penn State student broadcasting marks its 105th year

When I visited Penn State at the start of this fall semester, I sat in on The LION 90.7fm’s first all-staff meeting of the academic year. Ross Michael, the station’s president and general manager, mentioned that they would be celebrating the station’s 23rd birthday sometime in October, as the present incarnation of the larger Penn State student broadcasting experience. I just got an email that the celebration will be happening October 29th from 1-3pm in the HUB-Robeson Center, and will probably be streamed live by the station.

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There’s a historical marker in The LION 90.7fm’s facilities called the “Penn State Student Broadcasting Story,” which covers the 100+ years of this Penn State tradition. Here’s its coverage of The LION 90.7fm (WKPS)’s era:

WKPS

Determined to restore that voice and resurrect a unique and powerful Penn State tradition, students in the early 1990s once again championed the cause of student broadcasting. The Board of Trustees petitioned the Federal Communications Commission for a new license, to be operated independently by and for the students, and on October 31, 1995 the airwaves welcomed WKPS and the rebirth of student radio.

Located in Downtown State College, this third generation station experienced its share of growing pains, learning to excel not through an academic department or college, but for the first time as an independent student organization. Eventually WKPS found an identity in “The LION” and, in 2003, a home in the HUB-Robeson Center. Creating a station both innovative and well-programmed, students restored many of their earliest traditions, including Nittany Lion athletics broadcasts, coverage and fundraising for the IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon, and service as a platform and voice for a growing student body. Diverse programs such as the Jazz Spectrum,  Jam 91, State Your Face, Latin Mix, and Radio Free Penn State echoed earlier incarnations from the WDFM era.

Students continued to narrate the stories of their time, notably during the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, during which Mike Walsh covered the attacks through John Raynar, who was working one block from the World Trade Center. “We were the only media outlet in State College who had someone on the scene that day,” recalled Walsh. “That was the high point of our professionalism.”

While breaking new technical ground, student broadcasters also learned to redefine their value in light of a more connected culture, pioneering internet streaming ahead of peer stations, establishing an automated broadcast schedule, partnering with Movin’ On and The State Theatre to welcome acts large and small, and connecting major industry labels to independent and avant garde artists. In a tangible way, student broadcasters created a home for peers, professors, townspeople, and friends to put into practice the ideal of “a liberal and practical education,” embodying the principles of a free society through concern for speech in all its forms, as well as artistic and musical expression, and a cross-generational experience of a community in time which valued sense of place.

Forging their own identity in the context of the larger history of student broadcasting, students fused an often fierce commitment to principle with an evergreen mission of enhancing university and community life.

This is the history and spirit that will be celebrated later this month as Penn State student broadcasting celebrates its 105th year and as The LION 90.7fm marks its 23rd year as present standard bearer of that tradition.

West Coast rocket launches

Driving down the Pacific Coast Highway in 2016, I ended up stopping one night in Lompoc, California. I had driven for hours, was coming in late at night, and remember driving past the entrance to Vandenberg Air Force base before heading into Lompoc.

The next day I learned some of the history of the town, namely that nearby Vandenberg was once intended to be for the West Coast what Cape Canaveral was for the East Coast—a national launch site for the Space Shuttle program. It was consequently expected to become a tourist destination for those interested in watching us start to explore the next great frontier. However, the Challenger disaster resulted in the scuttling of the West Coast launch site. I thought of this when I read over the weekend that SpaceX successfully executed a vertical landing of its Falcon 9 rocket at Vandenberg for the first time:

On Sunday night, SpaceX is scheduled to launch a Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, which is a couple of hours north of Los Angeles. While the company has landed several first stage boosters on a drone ship offshore from California, until now it has not attempted to land at a site along the coast. But now it has completed the “Landing Zone 4” facility and received the necessary federal approvals for rockets to make a vertical landing there.

For long time employees of the Hawthorne, Calif.-based company there must be some satisfaction in this. More than a decade ago, when SpaceX sought to begin launching its Falcon 1 rocket, the company asked the Air Force for permission to launch from Vandenberg. But the military and some of the companies using the facility to launch national security missions, including Lockheed Martin and Boeing, looked coolly upon the requests from SpaceX. Now SpaceX has built a landing zone on the former site of Space Launch Complex 4W, where Titan rockets built by Lockheed were previously launched.

This will be SpaceX’s 17th launch attempt this year, bringing the company close to tying its record-setting pace of 18 launches last year. With as many as half a dozen launch attempts left this year, SpaceX should easily surpass its 2017 total, barring a major accident.

That’s the first West Coast landing of a SpaceX reusable rocket.

Nothing can take form except within limits

Gracy Olmstead’s recent interview with Wendell Berry is worth reading for insight into American agriculture, an issue that isn’t even discussed anymore due to the abundance of nearly everything we could want, anytime we want it. Our experience of abundance is the exception, not the norm, and these two speak about aspects of the American economy that deserve more thoughtfulness:

Gracy Olmstead: The Farm Bill usually promotes short-term economic gains over long-term ecological health (something the 50-year Farm Bill seeks to fix). How do we get Washington politicians to support more sustainable forms of agriculture?

Wendell Berry: The problem here is not so much that of the shortness of the term of planning or of shortsightedness as it is of ecological and agricultural ignorance and a sort of moral blindness. The problems we ought to be dealing with are not problems because they are going to cause us trouble in the future. They are problems because they are obviously and clearly causing trouble right now. We ought to be doing our best to solve them right now.

If politicians and journalists want to know about the problems of agriculture, they are not likely to go out into “rural America” to observe the condition of the fields and the waterways or to talk to the farmers and the ex-farmers, the ex-merchants of the small towns, or to talk to the mayors and county judges of rural counties. Instead, they are very likely to talk to academic and bureaucratic experts, who are tightly bound within the industrial structure of agriculture, agri-science and agribusiness.

Alan Guebert was right when he said in one of his columns that this farm bill will be much like the last one insofar as it will not address the real problems of agriculture. Those problems, as you know, are soil erosion, soil degradation, the pollution of waterways by sediment and toxic chemicals, various ecological damages, the elimination of small farms, the destruction of the cultures of husbandry and the ruin of country towns and communities. And maybe we should add specifically the curse of overproduction, which at present, as often before, is the major and the cruelest problem.

Those problems could be summed up as the triumph of industrialism and industrial values over the lives of living creatures, and over the life of the living world. The preferences and choices of industrialism do not imply a limit of any kind. They rest instead upon the premises of limitless economic growth and limitless consumption, which of course implies limitless waste, and finally exhaustion.

Nothing can take form except within limits. No cure is possible, either in policy or practice, except within understood limits, which is to say within a correct diagnosis. This requires patience. A good solution has to begin with a description of the problem that is full, clear, and reliable.

I appreciated Berry’s blunt response to Olmstead’s later in the interview asking about how to create a more equitable agricultural economy: “I distrust entirely the terms ‘free market’ and ‘level playing field.’ Those phrases are intoned as if they were the names of gods, but what do they mean?” He goes on to provide a rich answer, but first rejected potentially ideological thinking.

College, debt, and impotence

Tunku Varadarajan’s recent interview with George Gilder addresses American higher education. Gilder aligns himself with the Bernie Sanders crowd on the issue of loans, but in a way that I can probably get behind, namely tying across the board debt forgiveness with a some sort of punitive tax on colleges:

America’s university system, says Mr. Gilder, is “incredibly corrupt and ideological.” How did it come to be like that? Surely, I observe, it wasn’t that way when he graduated from Harvard in 1962. “It was beginning to get that way,” he says, as he revs his engines for a fresh sortie. “The rise of affluence through the 1960s created this kind of amazing irresponsibility that resulted in a whole generation losing track of reality.”

The pithy aperçu is Mr. Gilder’s forte. He tells me here that “human beings have a propensity to believe in leftism”—in the idea that government can “answer all of their problems, guarantee their future, and relieve them of the challenges of life.” The idea of a “completely providential government” arose in America, and a “whole generation of young people were given college loans in a fabulous national mistake, in which the Republicans participated.” These loans were used by the university system to “increase perks and tenured luxuries and ideological distractions”—all of which led to the “diversity campaigns and CO2 panics” that currently dominate university faculties.

The only way to undo this “vast blunder,” says Mr. Gilder, is to forgive student loans across the board and “extract the money from all the college endowments and funds that were used to just create useless departments and political campaigns.” More than $1.5 trillion in student-loan money is outstanding, according to the Federal Reserve. That money, Mr. Gilder says, “wasn’t deployed to improve education. Not a scintilla of evidence has been adduced that learning has been improved. It was used entirely to lavish on bureaucracies that, in turn, paid tribute to government and leftist nihilism.”

The impact of these loans, and of the academic ecosystem they engendered, has been catastrophic, in Mr. Gilder’s view. “The result was to destroy the entrepreneurial optimism of a whole generation of young people, to drive them toward socialism, which they now tend to favor, and to even dissuade them from marriage.” The last is a consequence of debt, “which cripples them for the future.” Any benefit that education might confer on the young is, in Mr. Gilder’s dark view, nullified by the economic burden inflicted on them, which “leaves these kids impotent in the world.”

If it’s true that Gen Z tends to be as deeply committed to financial security as it’s purported to be, this sort of maneuver might become politically practicable in the next decade.

Nike and Kaepernick

Katherine Miller riffs on Nike and its Kaepernick campaign:

Nike is the capitalist god of destruction.

Their omnipresence subsumes, like the above, and co-opts everything from John Lennon to racial justice campaigns. Nike is so big and vast — 25 pairs of shoes per second sold — that the brand undercuts all other considerations. If you go find a group of teens on the street right now, they’re probably wearing one of only a few sneaker brands: the old-school, black-and-white Vans; white Adidas Superstars; Converse (owned by Nike); throwback Jordans (owned by Nike); or black Nikes with the white swoosh. It’s like breathing capitalism. The only question that really matters, and the only one that will tell us something about Nike, the NFL, and Trump is simple: Will Nike hold?

Because, traditionally, Nike works best when the vibe is all-encompassing domination. The colors are usually the same (stark black and white in matte, neon oranges and yellows, cool blues and grays), and the messaging is usually built around the idea of true exceptionalism, emerging from pain. …

The early ’90s Charles Barkley “I Am Not a Role Model” campaign carries that intensity. “I am paid to wreak havoc on a basketball court,” Barkley says, directly to the camera, in black and white, the aesthetic predecessor to Nike’s latest campaign. …

Nike has unveiled an ad campaign with the league’s essential iconoclast. And if the Kaepernick ad doesn’t exactly fit the singular athletic greatness aspect, it does fit within the singular, absolutist, carved-from-salt message that Nike has been pushing for decades.

This is why the ad is so striking, and eclipses all the normal considerations: We intuitively know that Nike never, ever, ever backs down. They are so corporate and so vast that every decision they make feels final. So, when you consider that understanding of Nike, isn’t this the firmest sign of NFL entering into decay and decline there’s ever been? When their own uniform maker has launched a marquee campaign with the player suing the NFL?

Brilliant of Nike to embrace Kaepernick in this way; the reactions so far are exactly what you’d want if you were Nike corporate. Yes, there’s Nike’s opportunism here, and there’s an amorality in its ignoring social concerns over its manufacturing processes, but to whatever extent that the “Nike v. NFL” fight is between two titanic symbols of American culture, it’s likely both will emerge better for it.