Is the Government a Machine?

I’ve had a running argument with a coworker on the subject of qualifications.  We both are or were Bernie supporters (it is a long time until November), but he likes to point out that Hillary Clinton is one of the most qualified candidates in recent memory, and I always take issue with that.  Then the other day the great Louis C. K. weighed in with a bit in which he compared Hillary to a qualified airline pilot, Bernie to the guy who wants the plane to stop at every house, and Trump, I guess, to the random asshole who wants to grab the controls and do barrel rolls.  I’m honestly interested if anyone wants to help me with my problem understanding qualifications.

First of all, when someone says that Hillary’s qualifications are the best, I have a hard time seeing how that’s not the same thing as an endorsement.  Yet my friend maintains that it is not the same thing, and that I should recognize her qualifications despite supporting the other candidate.  We’ve argued round and round about how years of experience in the Senate should be weighed against executive branch experience in the Department of State and in the White House.  It doesn’t help that I don’t actually know much about what the Secretary of State does.  In any case, it seems to me like the notion of qualifications is, in this case, so subjective that it makes as much sense to choose a president based on ideas as on years spent in various branches of government.  It makes sense to choose someone with a DDS to work on your teeth.  The notion of particular qualifications in politicians makes less sense to me.

Louis C. K.’s bit included a phrase that, I think, clarifies some of what I am concerned with.  He said that the government is a “dangerous mechanism”.  A plane, no doubt, is a dangerous mechanism.  But is our government a mechanism?  A plane is something that takes off and goes to a certain place.  Is that what our government does?  The government is powerful; the government is dangerous.  Where is it going?  Others (Calvin Coolidge?) have compared the government to a business. Perhaps what the government does is too important, too much its own thing, to compare in such a cavalier way with a plane or a grocery store. 

Unfortunately, I have to use analogies to back this up.  The notion of a government as an airplane, or a ship, to use an example that surely goes back at least to Plato, reminds me powerfully of arguments over the mind and the brain.  Is the mind like a clock, a piece of biological mechanism, evolved in a clearly material way, and no different from the dead matter surrounding it?  From certain directions this notion seems incontrovertible, and yet we always seem to lose something when we stop talking about souls and ideas.  Perhaps a countervailing and equally distorting tendency exists in descriptions of the world in terms of mere information.

I want to resist the tendency, which seems to me inherent in the notion of qualifications, to deciding political matters in a reductive, mechanistic way.  This reductiveness could manifest itself in checking boxes like “Department of State, worked in”, or in drawing lines that say “it’s over, time to support x candidate”, or in drawing conclusions like “taxes up, bad”.  What suggests itself to me is a Tocquevillian vision of American greatness resting upon the combined efforts of millions of mediocre, unqualified citizens participating equally in the business of running the country.  Yet how are millions of engaged citizens different from a bureaucracy?  This post is really not about who to vote for, but about how we decide, and about what analogies help us make our decisions.  I want to know what people think about this highly appealing and funny idea of the nation as a machine.


Area Family not Suckered by Barbecue Dream

BOSTON, MA – A majority of the Walsh family celebrated the breakdown in talks aiming to bring a large barbecue to the area family’s suburban residence.  The “massive end of summer bash” was deep sixed when father Matt Walsh recognized his overriding responsibility to protect his family from undue expense or inconvenience. 

Clearly ambivalent, Walsh Sr. explained that he admired the family pride and ambition that wife Shirley and youngest daugher Emily brought to planning the get together.  “Obviously a big cookout is a great thing to bring family and friends together.  We even talked about inviting some of the neighbors.  We’d have a reason to put our volleyball net up in the side yard, and there’s the patio out back.  With the grill going and a couple of coolers of beer and soft drinks, something like this could be a real catylst for bringing the neighborhood together.”  Shirley Walsh brought up the possibility that most of the food arrangements would be covered by a “pot luck” system, and that it would be easy to open up space in the fridge and make the oven available for guests with hot dishes. 

However, oldest daugher Sara and twins Mike and Jack put up a surprisingly early, well organized, and persistant resistance to the idea of a “big do” on Spruce Street.  “Everyone knows,” Sara said patiently, “That these things never work out in favor of the hosts.  People blow off their RSVPs; people mooch shamelessly.  You can forget about them bringing good beer.  I just know that even if we shell out for microbrew we’re going to end up with a cooler of Budweisers floating in tepid water.  Dad says he’ll take care of all the shopping beforehand, but he’ll have to send me out at the last second to buy more steak or something.  Yeah I could save the receipt, but what guarantee do I have that he won’t forget to pay me back?”  Shirley Walsh reluctantly conceded that if friends didn’t take their leftovers right back with them that night, they’d be sure to leave only their ugliest, most awkwardly shaped tupperware behind.  “I’d probably take it to work in the trunk of my car, forget it for three months, and then guiltily try to return it, only to find that they didn’t want it back.” Her husband furrowed his brows and appeared to ponder this statement, but not before an expression of neurotic anger flashed across his face.

Emily Walsh was looking forward to finally inviting her friends to swim in the Walsh’s above ground pool, which has been covered all summer, only to see her most powerful argument turned against her by her brothers.  Said Mike Walsh, “If opening the pool is such a big priority for Emily, she should just open the pool.  She probably hasn’t priced out pool cleaning and chemicals for a while.”  Added Jack, with a significant look, “We know whose shoulders this is going to fall on: clearing off the patio, digging everything out of the basement… and when’s the last time you saw Dad pushing the lawn mower?  Then the cleanup.  All for leftover bean salad?”  Sensing an irretrievable disarray in the pro-parties party’s party-planning, Sara Walsh pushed hard on the question of infrastructure.  “I distinctly heard that there was going to be volleyball in the side yard, but now Mom’s offering to sacrifice her hydrangea to allow cars to get in there.  We can’t do both.”  Mom insisted that talks with the Hatchers for next door parking rights were “progressing”.

Several times during the fraught family meeting, the Walsh paterfamilias offered to put matters to a vote, but the no partisans saw the advantage of letting things drift into a stalemate.  With rational decisionmaking off the table, they began needling their father  with the concession that they would support any family activity he wished as long as he offered them blanket immunity from any personal sacrifices or alterations of their routine of any kind.  Finally Walsh snapped, “We probably just aren’t the kind of family that has parties.”  Emily Walsh later sniffed, “Now that we’re not doing it, our friends will probably go party with that redneck Johnson family that likes to set off illegal fireworks and always starts a brawl.  Or even with the Smiths; you can’t leave your car in their neighborhood.”

Egil’s Poetry

Borges is right to make so much of the Norse poets’ way with metaphor.  I am more firmly convinced of this after reading Egil’s Saga.  Egil has a case for being the quintessential viking.  His father Skallagrim left Norway for Iceland among the earliest settlers, rather than submit to the ascendant King Harald Fairhair.  Like his father, Egil raided and fought as a mercenary before settling down somewhat as a farmer.  On one of his journeys he fought for Aethelstan of England against the Scots.  Years later, he found himself in York, facing execution at the hands his enemy Eirik Blood Axe.  Though Egil was a berserker who killed his first victim when he was seven and sometimes bit his enemies to death, this time he saved himself with poetry, using a night’s reprieve to write an ode to King Eirik.  Afterwards he joked that

Ugly as my head may be,
the cliff my helmet rests upon,
I am not loathe
to accept it from the king.
Where is the man who ever
received a finer gift […]?

Poetry comes naturally among the viking’s exploits.  “The ship raced along, and Egil spoke this verse:

With its chisel of snow, the headwind,
scourge of the mast, mightily
hones its file by the prow
on the path my sea-bull treads.

In his old age, Egil’s spirits were revived by composing laments for the death of his friend Arinbjorn, and for two of his sons, in an episode that might bear comparison with the story of Job.

I have piled a mound
of praise that long
will stand without crumbling
in poetry’s field.
Snorri Sturluson, perhaps the author of Egil's Saga

Snorri Sturluson, perhaps the author of Egil’s Saga

I’ve been reading Bernard Scudder’s translation, in a Viking hardcover copy of The Sagas of Icelanders that is one of my favorite books.  It’s only a selection from a five volume translation of the Icelandic sagas, supposedly complete, that was published in Iceland in 1997.  One day maybe…

Do you need another reason to read the sagas?  The Middle Ages will never seem more immediate or relevant.  Tenth century Europe was a cosmopolitan place, its rulers more like businessmen than national institutions. Eirik Blood Axe was ruling in York because he had extorted it as a kind of compensation from Aethelstan, who helped his brother take over Norway.  He was like a defense contractor that is never out of work, or like Scott Brown maybe.

The Wawa Way – What?

I don’t normally read business books, much less promotional corporate histories.  I don’t like advertising and I don’t friend companies on Facebook.  That’s why I found myself vaguely unsettled as I gulped down The Wawa Way. 

“What?  What’s a Wawa?”  Within a fairly well defined area of South Jersey and southeastern Pennsylvania, the question is unthinkable, but now I hear the question all too often.   Since I no longer live in Wawaland, being sent The Wawa Way was the next best thing to getting a sub and cappuccino in the mail. 

Wawa is a convenience store, a place to get milk, eggs, sandwiches, gasoline, but it’s more than that.  It’s wildly successful.  Newer, bigger stores appear closer and closer together.  They stay busy and inspire unusual loyalty.  There’s a wide selection of good food and you can fix your coffee yourself.  Since they really took off when I was at the susceptible stages of getting hooked on coffee, starting to pitch in with the driving on family trips, and taking aimless late night spins with friends, I think the chain might be a defining part of my generation.  When I think of Wawa, I remember my dad buying me cappuccino there after I missed the school bus, and our gratitude as Wawa added one store at a time to our long southern road trips.  I don’t know anyone from back home who doesn’t happily jump out of the car at Wawa and head for their personal favorite items. 

Reading about the history of Wawa was like reading the history of my hometown.  I remember many of the changes as they happened: the advent of breakfast sandwiches, the coming of the gas station Wawa, the new coffee pots that still rankle.  That was fun.  I cruised through a lot of the business talk, but a few more substantial things stuck.  Wawa is still a private company, but, as I learned, it came very close to going public about ten years ago.  The author, former Wawa CEO Howard Stoeckel, argues that public control would have worked against the company’s strategy of expanding slowly and never franchising.  Instead of selling to Wall Street, the company sold stock to its employees. 

As I hinted above, I have a jaded, if ignorant, view of business in general.  “Free enterprise” is too vague an idea to be per se great for everyone.  The Wawa Way makes a case for Wawa being one of the good companies, but other than the story of employee stock ownership, it’s a little vague.  Stoeckel says that cashiers are the most important people in the business, but doesn’t say how much they are paid.  He touts programs that are in place to help employees in need, but one doesn’t get a sense of whether employees struggle to pay their share of some more traditional health plan.  He makes much of Wawa’s being closely connected to communities and knowing neighbors, and that’s plausible enough, although off the top of my head I don’t know many Wawa workers.  But for all Wawa’s impression on the local culture, I can say that South Jersey is hardly a hotbed of radical labor empowerment. 

When I looked at the book I was reading and examined my feelings about Wawa, I realized that while scoffing at advertising and corporate spin has definite appeal, a better appreciation of what business does well can also give one a better sense of its limitations.  The best Stoeckel can offer is that Wawa felt really bad over their decision to cut the price of cigarettes.  Soon we may be thinking about gasoline and the car culture that Wawa epitomizes so gloriously in the same way.  Wawa may be my favorite big business, and it won’t save us from tobacco, sprawl, or global warming.  Maybe when our representatives do their jobs and get on these problems, Wawa will turn its attention from the overhyped, underregulated Sunshine State and do something about the sad state of convenience food in New England.

Democracy in America

My latest big reading project has been Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.  I picked it up because I felt obligated to get serious about American history and I wasn’t able to think of a better place to start.  A fabulous library can actually be an embarrassment if you haven’t read the fundamentals.

Tocqueville is not really writing American history at all.  He is as interested in understanding the continual revolutions in France (this was published in 1835 and 1840).  Furthermore, he sees France and America as instances of a growing equality which is irresistable and even providential.  Hence Democracy in America is a work of political and social theory, and many times I wished he would include just one example of the (very plausible) generalities he was expounding.

It should be impossible, but I have the nagging sense that Tocqueville’s thought has such a distinctive bent that it might be possible to sum up this long book.  He seems to see in everything American a kind of golden mediocrity.  American education was not sophisticated, but it was widespread and suited to American life.  American laws were not particularly inspired, the leaders not particularly powerful, but many, many Americans took energetic part in making and remaking them.  Perhaps most importantly, the United States, though not long independent, had a long tradition of local government to counter the dangerous centralizing tendency of democracies.

Of course it’s hard to refrain from comparing Tocqueville’s often awed perceptions of America with our own.  (I wish I knew what to make of the idea that 170 years later, these perceptions should still carry some weight.)  He thought that individualism was a danger to a country in which people are generally alike and no hierarchy exists to connect people step by step to society at large.  If Americans are no longer civically engaged to the degree that so astounded him, then we may have lost a great bulwark of freedom.  This is probably the strongest impression the book left on me.  We also can’t take the ever increasing equality Tocqueville saw for granted.  He saw industrial labor as the one (then exceptional) factor against rising equality; I have no idea what he would have made of the service economy.

Tocqueville seems to have gotten the Civil War almost exactly wrong.  He believed that the North was indifferent to slavery, that race war would inevitably follow any emancipation, and that the question was to what degree the North would aid white southerners in the event of a slave rebellion.  I suppose it isn’t strange that misconceived fears would play a big part in the build up to disaster.

What will I read next?  To me there are few obvious classics of American history per se; I suppose this says more about how the canon is formed than about Americans or history.  Thucydides and Herodotus are the classics, but they are also simply the earliest long narratives we possess in the West, and it’s not even clear to me that the events they describe are as unique or self contained as I sometimes imagine.  What classics of American history am I missing?  Does Common Sense count?  The Federalist is surely too narrowly focused?  Is it necessary to widen our scope a little?  What about novels like The Red Badge of Courage?

The Best Place in the World

The other night I logged on to my library account to see whether I had anything coming due, and up popped a survey.  I answered the questions as well as I could, but was left feeling that I could have said a lot more.

I submit that the best buildings in the world are public libraries.  A library serves humanity at its essential best.  Being open and not prescriptive, it does so more broadly than a school or theater or museum, and is prior to these.  While I am no impartial judge, and can think of many great libraries, I think that mine, in Boston, may be the greatest.


That monumental inscription runs high along the entire length of the neoclassical main building on Copley Square.  I couldn’t say it any better.  I believe in the power of public things to make our lives better and gladly contribute my share.  I wish that weren’t such a controversial position these days.  When I go in this way, I always read the inscription, and then I glance at the hundreds of names of famous authors and scientists carved in smaller letters underneath the windows.  I know most of them, but Goldoni? Massinger?  Which Ford is that?  Someday I’ll have to make a study of them.


Once I’ve passed the iron and bronze entryway and the marble floored and tile vaulted lobby, I generally head for the circulating collection in the adjoining building, but I have a choice:  I can stay on the first floor and skirt the fountained courtyard, a route that drops me off in front of new nonfiction, where I’m sure to spend a few minutes.  Or I can head up the stairs, between the lions (older than New York’s I read somewhere) memorializing Civil War infantry units and the towering Chavannes murals.

small room

Though it’s out of my way, I’ll stop in the dark and usually empty room where Edwin A. Abbey’s dreamlike series of grail murals decorates the higher portions of the walls.

small grail

This upper route leads to the second floor of the new building where the reference and circulating nonfiction books normally reside.

So what do I actually use the library for?  My notes tell me that I’ve read more than forty books from the library in the two and a half years that I’ve been here, over a third of the books I’ve read in that time.  I remember checking out Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, Neal Stephenson’s Reamde, Laxness’ Independent People, volumes of Livy, Plutarch, and Sallust, and of course Shakespeare.  A pretty good mix, I think.

I’ve checked out other books repeatedly without reading them, and I don’t feel guilty about that.  Chaucer and a book on backgammon shared that fate.  On the last trip I agonized over whether it was time to tackle the last volume of Livy, but I finally decided I had enough to read already.  I feel like I could make better use of the library.  There’s a lot besides circulating books.  I’ve requested books from delivery, but only rarely.  I’ve barely glanced over the list of available databases.  On the other hand, there’s no sense worrying about having a lack of books to read or pretending to have given the ones I have the attention they deserve.

For someone who believes he’s in the greatest place on earth, I could really stand to pay more attention to what goes on here.  Right now the library is in the midst of a major renovation, and for all I know they could be getting rid of all the books and replacing them with video games.  That’s a worst case scenario, obviously.  I duly filled out my survey, expressing my opinion of the importance of buying books and maintaining the collection.  My sense is that it’s reasonably up to date and investments are being made in the right places.  When I read about a hot new title in The New York Review, I can usually find it.

The last question on the survey was an open ended ‘what would you like to tell us?’  Well.  The trouble is, I hesitate to share my most outlandish fantasies about what a great library could be.  With apologies to my many friends in primary and secondary education, I often find myself contrasting the current state of public schools with my dreams of what a library could be.  I don’t mean this to reflect badly on teachers; I think it says more about our ideas of education as a society.

A large city might spend billions of dollars on public schools.  What do we get?  The bitter struggle with which children are forced to attend school is matched by the bitterness of the controversy over who should teach them and what.  The solution, so far, has been more testing.  Those who voluntarily continue their education fork over at a rate that increases far beyond inflation.

Now I would never, ever suggest that it would be a good thing to actually defund the public schools and invest the money in libraries.  But just imagine what we could do with that money.  Or with the money we might save if we decided that we didn’t need to invade two countries on the other side of the earth at once, or secretly keep track of every electronic message.  That’s what I’d like to see.  I picture a colossal open stack library accommodating every collection of works ever dreamed up, open twenty four hours.  It’s a possibility: it is high time that America saw another architectural and engineering milestone, a wonder of the world.  It would be the kind of place people would go willingly, as they already do, in droves, to our underfunded and vanishing libraries, but worthy of their most admirable self improving impulses.  Add a Roman bath and I would go homeless for such a place.  At the very least, the true public spiritedness and endless possibility embodied in our libraries should be the model for all of our public endeavors.

First photo is by Fcb981 (Eric Baetscher?) via Wikimedia Commons, CC Attribution Share Alike, the rest are the author’s own.

The Dueling Censors

A fun part of reading Livy is puzzling out the working of the Roman state.  What’s a pro praetor?   A plebeian aedile?  Sure, I could read Wikipedia or even a book, but that would mean less time reading the war with Hannibal.  Besides, how do historians figure out all that stuff?

One of the highest Roman offices was the censorship.  At first, the two censors were charged with carrying out the census, but it appears that under Rome’s democratic but not egalitarian system the power entailed in counting the citizens and enrolling them in the proper electoral list brought the office closer to what we now understand by “censorship”.  The censors were involved in a strange episode towards the end of the Second Punic War, but I have to go back a little way to describe it.

Right in the thick of the war, the consul Marcellus suggested that he and his fellow consul Crispinus take a few horsemen and ride out to reconnoiter some hills near camp.  They were caught in an ambush; Marcellus was killed and Crispinus mortally wounded.  It was an ignominious end for the general who had taken the rich Sicilian city of Syracuse and inadvertently killed one of the great mathematicians of all time.  Rome found itself in need of military talent.

As Livy tells it, they turned to Gaius Claudius Nero first, and then, seeking to balance his wildness, sought out the disgraced ex consul Marcus Livius.  After conviction on unspecified charges he had exiled himself in the country and only returned a short time before, when he was still so angry he wouldn’t change his shirt until he was made to.  Nero was affronted and Livius felt it.  Somehow Livy gives him an underdog appeal; I admit I was cheering for him when the senate went out of its way to reconcile them, and later when Nero with a rapid march up much of the length of Italy combined forces with him to inflict a fatal defeat on Hannibal’s brother Hasdrubal.

So the two won a famous victory and later were elected to the censorship.  Apparently they had a falling out again, and this is where, for the first time in Livy, I found myself almost laughing out loud on the subway.  While revising the list of knights, Nero, who as censor must have had power over such technicalities, forced Livius to get rid of his horse.  Livius did the same to him.  Then Nero demoted Livius to the lowest class of citizen (aerarii), whereupon Livius

declared the entire Roman people, thirty-four tribes of them, as aerarii because they had unjustly condemned him, and then, despite the condemnation, made him first consul and then censor

Then Livy opines:

As a squabble between the censors… this was a most improper proceeding, but as a sharp criticism of popular frivolity, it was in the true tradition of the censors’ office and worthy of the high seriousness of those days.

I don’t really know what to make of this.  I’m afraid of taking it too seriously.  Livy doesn’t seem to make many jokes and this would be a good one.  If it isn’t, I guess it goes to show just how seriously he took the impossible task of the censors.  It’s tragic.  It always seems like public morals are declining and the electorate deserves a rebuke, but who can deliver it?