Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Economic Equivalent of War

"The Moral Equivalent of War" is one of William James’s best known essays (much more so than his “A Culinary Equivalent of War,” a meditation on Mother James’s appallingly bad meatloaf that William and his brother Henry suffered through as children).

In it, James notes that war is horrific, despicable, sinful, and evil, as are most of the things it brings out of people who participate in it directly or indirectly. But it also elicits bravery, sacrifice, and a commitment to something greater than the self.

How wonderful it would be, mused James, if we could do away with militarism altogether, but find something that could elicit the selflessness and will to collective action that war did.

Even James, a psychologist of the first order, had difficulty coming up with a concrete vision of what a moral equivalent of war would be. Perhaps we’ve made some steps in that direction with the Peace Corps and Teach for America, but James’s search continues.

A more modest quest we might have more luck with is to find an economic equivalent of war.

A few weeks ago as I drove home after work, I listened to a gentleman on the radio railing against what he saw as the mistaken economics of John Maynard Keynes (and, by association, the Keynesian aspects of Obama’s economic policies).

This wasn’t Rush, Hannity, or any of those guys. Oddly enough, it seemed to be some church service. At any rate, the preacher/economic guru was talking about what a mistake it was to praise the ideas of Keynes (specifically the use of government spending to spur the economy) as what lifted the U.S. out of the Great Depression. With a great deal of self-satisfaction, he said something along the lines of, “Perhaps those who think government spending was the solution should pay more attention to their history. After all, the nation didn’t truly come out of the Depression until late 1941. This might be news to some folks, but that’s when something called the Second World War started. And the government wasn’t spending money paying government employees or creating ‘infrastructure.’ No, America was equipping G.I.s, building tanks, planes, and ships to fight fascism.”

This line drew appreciative cheers and applause from the congregation, apparently sincere.

I found it a bit hard to take this all with much seriousness. From a purely economic perspective, what, I wondered, were G.I.s, but government employees? What would you call tanks, planes, and ships if not infrastructure? Heck, the Manhattan Project was the biggest “make work” government investment in history.

Among those who like denigrating FDR’s fiscal policies during the Great Depression, it’s taken as an article of faith that it was WWII that actually brought the economy back. What these people seem not to realize is that to the extent this might be true, it’s true because it radically expanded and accelerated government spending beyond FDR’s wildest dreams.

There is nothing magical about spending money to kill human beings that makes it more economically stimulating than spending money to heal, educate, house, or feed them. To the contrary, war is inherently (and obviously) destructive. You’re building stuff that won’t be used for anything other than to obliterate things and people.

Take a moment to imagine what the world might be like if the United States (and everyone else involved in WWII for that matter) had been in a position to spend all the money that was spent on bombs, bullets, and planes on things like houses, trains, roads, power plants, medical research, etc. What if we’d managed to take the Great Depression as seriously as a threat to the national welfare as we did Pearl Harbor?

We’d have had the post-war “boom” without the war, without the destroyed cities, without so much brainpower spent on ways to kill rather than heal, without the tens of millions of human beings killed. Talk about a peace dividend.

I’m no economist myself, but it seems a difficult argument to make that government spending is a boondoggle, and use as proof of this is the fact that massive government spending in the fighting of WWII was what “really” got us out of the Great Depression.

Unfortunately, just as it’s difficult to evoke the degree of bravery and self-sacrifice from an individual as one finds in war, it’s also difficult to evoke the commitment to collective investment in our national well-being as one finds in war.

More’s the pity.


Friday, October 16, 2009

Class Covenant

I thought this might be a good venue to share something I've done with one of my freshman composition courses.  I've said I wanted to do some political commenting on this blog, but have it be a bit more holistic in terms of various things that happen to be going on in my world, so here I go.

I've been trying to make my courses more collaborative, with students having more input as far as what we spend time learning and doing in class, as long as the overall goals of the course are getting met.

One book that was a source of this desire is Life Enriching Education by Marshall Rosenberg who suggests that pedagogy in line with a peaceful world is one that focuses on shared goals rather than unilateral instruction. 

I'm still working on this, but one way I thought I'd make a step in that direction is to have a "class covenant" where I asked students to brainstorm qualities they feel are present in successful, fun, good classes, then come up with a plan for how to make our own class meet these criteria.

So, I we came up with a lengthy list of what a good class was and wasn't.  We then winnowed this list down to five terms we could all agree on.  After that, I had them come up with ideas for how each of them as individuals, I as the instructor, and us as a collective group could make the class live up to these terms.  The question I asked is, "How will we know that our class is . . . .?"  The idea was to not just say what we *hoped* the class would be, but to articulate *how* we'd get there.

I've given the results of our efforts below.  Almost all the language and suggestions come from the students themselves.  I only provided the framework and a handful of ideas.  How well this works has yet to be seen.  I'm hopeful.  On the other hand, although the students themselves identified that they needed to not be talking while something is going on in class, I've already had to get people to quiet down when I've been fielding a question from a student sitting four feet away and I couldn't hear her! 

I'll keep you posted on how this little experiement goes.


Class Covenant for ENGL 103-01, Fall Semester, 2009-10

We, the members of ENGL 103-01 (both students and instructor) want this class to be excellent. We have identified the following traits as the most important qualities of a great class: it is interesting, everyone in it shows mutual respect, everyone feels motivated, the class is interactive, and everyone communicates clearly and effectively with one another.

We commit ourselves to doing our best to make these qualities part of this class. To do this, we’ve identified things each member of the class can do to help us achieve our goal. We have also identified ways we’ll know if we are meeting this goal.

To make sure the class is interesting, we believe that individual students should try to find something about each assignment that interests them, even if the assignment as a whole doesn’t. We believe the instructor should include hands-on activities and games as much as possible. Bringing snacks wouldn’t be a bad idea either. We believe the class as a whole should volunteer ideas for games and experiential learning whenever possible.

If the class succeeds in this, we will be able to tell because everyone in the class will be happy and will want to come to class. People won’t skip or be late.

To make sure the class shows mutual respect, we believe that individual students should not talk to neighbors when other people are talking, even if that means not sitting by a close friend to avoid the temptation to talk. We believe the instructor should listen to students, give them a say in assignments, and keep Brittany from having too many Cokes. We believe the class as a whole should pay attention, not get off topic, and not wear their hearts on their sleeve, especially when getting feedback from others during workshopping.

If the class succeeds in this, we will be able to tell because we’ll all get along, we won’t have to remind each other to be quiet, there won’t be any interruptions, and feedback will be given and received freely.

To make sure the class is motivating, we believe that individual students should be ready for class, have assignments done, look for what’s useful or interesting in each assignment or reading, and keep in mind that you need to pass this class to graduate. We believe the instructor should offer kind guidance and positive reinforcement, respect various learning styles in the class, and give honest and direct feedback. We believe the class as a whole should offer each other kind guidance and encourage one another to do their best.

If we succeed in this, we will be able to tell because we will all know one another and feel comfortable interacting, we will get assignments done for class, everyone will participate, we will feel like we are working together rather than competing, and we will feel like a cohesive group.

To make sure the class is interactive, we believe that individual students should always come to class with something to say or ask. We believe the instructor should come up with creative activities and put students outside their comfort zone. We believe the class as a whole should be active in class discussions.

If the class succeeds in this, we will be able to tell because everyone in the class will feel out of their comfort zone (in a good way), students will enjoy the class and volunteer easily, and there won’t be “ping pong” questions between the instructor and the students.

To make sure the class shows good communication, we believe that individual students should not be afraid to ask questions and listen to each other and the instructor. We believe the instructor should put stuff on Blackboard and give clear directions on assignments. We believe the class as a whole should check email regularly, be active in class, feel free to come to office hours outside of class, and talk as loud as Brittany whenever possible.

If the class succeeds in this, we will be able to tell because students will set up conferences outside of class, students won’t be afraid to make comments, and Brittany will feel okay about belching freely after drinking a 20 oz. bottle of Coke.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Obama and the Nobel Peace Prize/Goad

I just heard about President Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize.

My first thought was, “Wow! Cool!”

My second thought is, “I hope he earns it.”

In the five minutes it’s been since first hearing the news, the few comments I’ve heard, both in pro and anti Obama camps, is puzzlement about why the president would receive this award after being in office only a few months.

I’ll throw out one possible answer, one that I think makes some sense.

I suspect the award is meant more as a goad than as a reward. Obama’s vision for the world and America’s place in bodes well for a move toward a more peaceful planet where even the most entrenched enmities might be transcended. At the very least, we can hope that we try for such transcendence before relying on the half-measure of compromise or the utter failure of war. Peace is no longer a dirty word, as it often has been in this country of late.

Having said that, Obama is considering ramping up troop levels in Afghanistan. The occupation of Iraq continues. Abolishing nuclear weapons is something that’s talked about, but hasn’t been done.

A few months into office, Obama is now having to make the actual decisions that will determine whether the reality of his presidency lives up to the rhetoric. I think the Nobel Prize committee knows this. By giving him the award, the committee also has placed a heavy burden on Obama’s shoulders: to live up to the epithet “Nobel Peace Prize Winner.”

While not impossible, it will be harder for “Nobel Peace Prize Winner” Barack Obama to send more combat troops to continue an occupation of a foreign country than it would for merely “President Obama.” It will be harder for “Nobel Peace Prize Winner” Barack Obama to cave in to pressure to deploy expensive and pointless weapons systems around the world than it would for “President Obama.” It will be harder for “Nobel Peace Prize Winner” Barack Obama to turn a blind eye to extraordinary rendition and torture than it would for “President Obama.”

To those who think that this prize is givens way too early, I agree insofar as the prize is meant to reward past actions. But if we see this action for what (in my opinion) it is, a persuasive act aimed moving Obama to fulfill the promise of peace he’s spoken about, I think the award, coming at just the time when the rhetorical rubber is hitting the road of reality, potentially does more to foster peace than it would if given for actions done five, ten, or twenty years ago.