Brooks, on The Machine

February 28, 2010

David Brooks, The New York Times‘ token conservative, recently wrote an opinion called “The Power Elite” which was published in that newspaper on February 18 of this year. In it, he accurately plots the trajectory of America’s confidence in its leadership and establishments as the composition of those institutions “progresses” …or rather, fails to. It’s worth a read, and presented here, below, sans editing. Mr. Brooks is on to something. 

One of the great achievements of modern times is that we have made society more fair. Sixty years ago, the upper echelons were dominated by what E. Digby Baltzell called The Protestant Establishment and C. Wright Mills called The Power Elite. If your father went to Harvard, you had a 90 percent chance of getting in yourself, and the path upward from there was grooved in your favor. 

Since then, we have opened up opportunities for women, African-Americans, Jews, Italians, Poles, Hispanics and members of many other groups. Moreover, we’ve changed the criteria for success. It is less necessary to be clubbable. It is more important to be smart and hard-working. 

Yet here’s the funny thing. As we’ve made our institutions more meritocratic, their public standing has plummeted. We’ve increased the diversity and talent level of people at the top of society, yet trust in elites has never been lower. 

It’s not even clear that society is better led. Fifty years ago, the financial world was dominated by well-connected blue bloods who drank at lunch and played golf in the afternoons. Now financial firms recruit from the cream of the Ivy League. In 2007, 47 percent of Harvard grads went into finance or consulting. Yet would we say that banks are performing more ably than they were a half-century ago? 

Alas...

 Government used to be staffed by party hacks. Today, it is staffed by people from public policy schools. But does government work better than it did before? 

Journalism used to be the preserve of working-class stiffs who filed stories and hit the bars. Now it is the preserve of cultured analysts who file stories and hit the water bottles. Is the media overall more reputable now than it was then? 

The promise of the meritocracy has not been fulfilled. The talent level is higher, but the reputation is lower. 

Why has this happened? I can think of a few contributing factors. 

First, the meritocracy is based on an overly narrow definition of talent. Our system rewards those who can amass technical knowledge. But this skill is only marginally related to the skill of being sensitive to context. It is not related at all to skills like empathy. Over the past years, we’ve seen very smart people make mistakes because they didn’t understand the context in which they were operating. 

Second, this new system has created new social chasms. In the old days, there were obviously big differences between people whose lives were defined by “The Philadelphia Story” and those who were defined by “The Grapes of Wrath.” But if you ran the largest bank in Murfreesboro, Tenn., you probably lived in Murfreesboro. Now you live in Charlotte or New York City. You might have married a secretary. Now you marry another banker. You would have had similar lifestyle habits as other people in town. Now the lifestyle patterns of the college-educated are very different from the patterns in other classes. Social attitudes are very different, too. 

It could be that Americans actually feel less connected to their leadership class now than they did then, with good reason. 

Third, leadership-class solidarity is weaker. The Protestant Establishment was inbred. On the other hand, those social connections placed informal limits on strife. Personal scandals were hushed up. Now members of the leadership class are engaged in a perpetual state of war. Each side seeks daily advantage in ways that poison the long-term reputations of everybody involved. 

Fourth, time horizons have shrunk. If you were an old blue blood, you traced your lineage back centuries, and there was a decent chance that you’d hand your company down to members of your clan. That subtly encouraged long-term thinking. 

Now people respond to ever-faster performance criteria — daily stock prices or tracking polls. This perversely encourages reckless behavior. To leave a mark in a fast, competitive world, leaders seek to hit grandiose home runs. Clinton tried to transform health care. Bush tried to transform the Middle East. Obama has tried to transform health care, energy and much more. 

There’s less emphasis on steady, gradual change and more emphasis on the big swing. This produces more spectacular failures and more uncertainty. Many Americans, not caught up on the romance of this sort of heroism, are terrified. 

Fifth, society is too transparent. Since Watergate, we have tried to make government as open as possible. But as William Galston of the Brookings Institution jokes, government should sometimes be shrouded for the same reason that middle-aged people should be clothed. This isn’t Galston’s point, but I’d observe that the more government has become transparent, the less people are inclined to trust it. 

This is not to say that we should return to the days of the WASP ascendancy. That’s neither possible nor desirable. Rather, our system of promotion has grown some pretty serious problems, which are more evident with each passing day.


Dartmouth Rugby Preps for Spring

February 26, 2010

The Dartmouth Rugby Football Club, coming off a post-season Northeastern semi-finals upset by the University of Syracuse Orangemen after a 13-game winning streak, are regrouping this week as Spring practice begins and the Club readies itself for its annual Spring Tour. During the regular Fall season, the DRFC crushed opponents by an average of 55 points per game.

The Dartmouth Rugby Football Club.

“That game was really a statistical anomoly,” said Dartmouth head coach Alex Magleby ’00, of the Syracuse upset. “In the Fall, we had a fantastic season. You can’t control the wins and losses – you can only control the process. As cliched as it sounds, we played and trained well.”

Still, Coach Magleby and the DRFC are hardly packing it all in: though most Sophomore and Junior team members are off-campus for the Winter term, coaches are at work preparing Spring training schedules and working with Freshmen development squads. The Spring season will include 13 matches, in addition to the Tour, which will be a circuit of Arkansas and Texas teams.

The DRFC is the oldest continuously touring rugby club in America; past Tours have been around the United States and through Ireland, South Africa, and England. “A trip away from campus and the other priorities in our lives is always good,” says Magleby. “Team culture is the key in any sport. When a team works well together, respects each other, earns these opportunities together, they’re certainly on the right track towards wins.”


The Sun Also Rises

February 24, 2010

Allison Parker manages operations at Legal Placements, a recruiting firm which deals mainly with contract attorneys (lawyers who work on temporary ad-hoc legal teams or who are contracted with for particular matters, not lawyers who specialize in contract law).

Although she admits it’s still a buyer’s market with respect to legal services, the “pendulum is beginning to swing back,” Ms. Parker says: a moderate economic recovery is taking place across the legal landscape and firms are trying to “build capacity fast” as they start to find themselves back in the black again.

In the meantime, says Ms. Parker, temporary and contract lawyers are in high demand because they’re flexible and eager to work.

Allison Parker, pendulum aficionado.


Your Name Here!

February 22, 2010

A quick scan of any “Top 10” list having to do with web logs (“blogs”) reveals some really awful writing. Authors either ramble aimlessly or don’t make any sense at all, can’t correctly spell five words in a row to save their lives, and generally attack proper grammar like it’s a grizzly bear going after their first-born.

Astounding, then, that these people make money from their blogs. Or not, given the state of our public schools. How many sophisticated readers are we really turning out every year? Judging from the popularity of Perez Hilton, not many. Blogs hailed as “revolutionary” certainly aren’t anything like it, at least not in the American sense: the leaders of that Revolution knew how to spell.

With that in mind, this web log is offered for sale to anybody at all. Its normal editorial staff will keep content current and entertaining, though maybe not “revolutionary.” All a buyer needs to do is send a monthly check, and then advertise whatever he wants, whenever he wants, wherever he wants on these pages. Honestly, the heavy lifting has already been done: a lot of sentences have been made out of English words and then organized into paragraphs here, which is more than most blogs manage.

A literate, informative blog… with pictures!… is within your reach! Price is negotiable. No reasonable offer will be refused. Interested parties should contact the editorial staff via the “Comments” function on this page.

Really, it’s better than most of the other crap out there. A lot of sentences here even have periods at the end. 


The Most Dangerous Game II

February 21, 2010

Punching cheetahs, contrary to what’s suggested below, is not the toughest thing a person can do with regard to punching dangerous animals in their faces. It might not even qualify… because cheetahs aren’t dangerous. Punching a cheetah in the face might be the silliest thing a person can do with a cheetah, or the most likely to start a tickle-fight, but that’s all.

Punching a gorilla is a much tougher thing to do.

Whatever, cheetahs.

Let’s walk through two hypothetical scenarios: in the first, it’s 1936 and you’re walking around Berlin when you bump into famed sprinter Jessie Owens. He’s upset at being bumped into but, because it was really his fault for not watching where he was going, you take offense at his upset and punch him in the face.

In the second and equally likely situation, the year is 1990 and you’ve just stepped out of a rickshaw in Tokyo and bumped into “Iron Mike” Tyson. He’s just lost his belt to Buster Douglas and he’s in no mood for bumping. Tyson is no sprinter, but he’s six feet tall and weighs 220 pounds, and all of it (in 1990) is solid muscle. He’s the youngest man to ever win boxing’s World Heavyweight Championship and he won his first 19 professional bouts by knockout… 16 of those coming in the first round. His overall record remains 50-6, with 44 of those 50 wins coming by way of knockout. You punch him in the face also.

"You punch him in the face also."

Rewind: it’s 1936 again. Assuming you’re a good-sized guy, a fight with 157-pound Jessie Owens will likely go your way. He’s a world-class sprinter but he has very small fists and, in a close tie-up, his speed won’t help. You beat him handily and are transported back to 1990, where Mike Tyson immediately breaks your face open with one punch, just for living.

Sounds like cheetahs and gorillas.

Consider Noah’s four points in favor of cheetahs:

Cheetahs are fast, and gorillas are easily distracted. This is half-true: cheetahs have learned to be fast because they often have to run away from tougher animals, like ducks. And gorillas aren’t easily distracted, they just have little patience with anything that isn’t as tough as they are, which is everything. If a gorilla ever walked away from a cheetah, it was because the cheetah wasn’t tough enough to be worth his time. The gorilla probably went looking for a worthy opponent, like a tornado.

Cheetahs have knives attached to their hands and feet. This isn’t entirely accurate either. Cheetahs do have knives attached to their hands and feet, but only plastic picnic knives. Gorillas don’t need knives because weapons are for cowards, and gorillas fight with honor.

Cheetahs don’t respond to trash talk. This actually is true, but only because cheetahs aren’t tough enough to engage in it. They’re never exposed to insults because they spend all of their time watching Lifetime Channel movies or knitting.

Cheetahs don’t hunt in packs, like wolves. This is also true, but only because cheetahs are too afraid to hunt in packs, or to hunt at all. They mainly just order their food from vegetarian restaurants, and they only ever finish half of it.

Game over.


The Most Dangerous Game

February 17, 2010

The following essay was written by Noah Goldkamp, a graduate of Chaminade College Preparatory School and a student at the Saint Louis University School of Law, in response to the question: Why is punching a cheetah in the face awesome, and would it be more awesome to punch a different animal in the face (for instance, a shark or a gorilla)? 

Noah’s comprehensive defense of cheetahs is published here, edited slightly for space constraints. A second, opposing essay will be posted soon by contributors to this web log, in a point/counter-point style. 

(Note: Your editor is decidedly not in the cheetah camp.

Recently, I was made aware of the fact that not everyone thinks punching a cheetah square in the face is the ultimate act of manliness. I am twenty-seven years old, so I am aware that not everyone shares my views on various hot-button issues. But, I truly believed that all of America, whether Republican or Democrat, Jewish or Gentile, even rich or poor were united in at least one belief—that punching a cheetah is the pinnacle of manliness. Poor, poor pitiful me, how naïve I was.  

Cheetahs, admittedly sweet.

After spending the better part of the afternoon arguing over the topic with friends, I saw that our disagreement boiled down to one argument. The reason punching a cheetah in the face was not awesomely manly, according to them, was that a cheetah is not that tough when compared to other animals. 

They seemed to subscribe to the Neanderthal, meathead definition of the word tough. Like all meatheads, they associate big and muscular with toughness and manliness. Call me biased (I am only 5’3’’), but I believe being tough has a lot more to do with attitude than size. The “size equals toughness” argument can easily be crushed with one word: chimpanzee. This animal is so crazily vicious it will scratch off your face and bite off your fingers, while taunting you with allegations about your sexuality. (While it has not been scientifically confirmed, I believe the chimpanzee is one of the most homophobic species in the animal kingdom.) So, clearly size plays no part in whether an animal is tough or not, because the chimp is small, yet incredibly dangerous. 

During the argument, another proof was given for why cheetahs are not that tough. This proof basically boiled down to “cheetahs never attack humans.” My response to this point is—exactly. Assassins and ninjas don’t have their names in the papers, announcing their sweet kills. No, they silently go around and snipe their victims. In fact, the better they are at their job, the less you hear about them.  

Also, as a second response to this point, if you look at the cheetah’s natural habitat, there is not really a whole lot of human population there.  Bears, for instance, live in fairly close proximity to humans, thus they have more opportunities to meet and eat people.  A cheetah may go his whole life and not see a human.  Also, cheetahs are not idiots. It is common knowledge that humans taste horrible; why bother with a human, unless you have a good white wine that complements the human taste? Come on, where is a cheetah going to find a corkscrew in the middle of the desert? Plus, cheetahs are too tough to like white wine anyway. 

Now that I have rolled up and smoked all the points made by the other side, I will state my case as succinctly as possible.  

 Cheetahs are awesome.  Why?  

  1. They are super fast. So there is no way you are going to punch one in the face and get away with it. We have all heard the saying, “dumb as a gorilla.” You could punch a gorilla in the face, and then yell “look, a blonde on the Empire State Building,” and the gorilla will look away.  The ten-second head start will give you that essential time that you need to escape.
  2. Cheetahs basically have knives attached to their hands and feet.
  3. Cheetahs don’t respond to trash talk in the same way as a shark.  (It is easy to get into a shark’s head.)
  4. Cheetahs don’t hunt in packs like wolves. It goes its own way, not following the crowd.  I mean, look at what the cheetah wears, cheetah print has been out of style since the 80’s but the cheetah is still rocking it. I mean, do you want to tell the cheetahs they are out of touch with modern fashion? I know I don’t. 

Her Majesty’s Blazers

February 15, 2010

There’s an old story which isn’t true, but should be:

In 1837 the commander of the H.M.S. Blazer, a frigate in Her Majesty’s employ, caught wind that a young Queen Victoria would soon be inspecting his charge and, intent on impressing Her Majesty, replaced his crew’s usual decrepit togs with short blue jackets. The jackets were fitted out with Royal Navy brass buttons and,  in some versions, the jackets were striped in navy and white also. In others, there are no white stripes. Regardless, the young Queen was so taken with the jackets that she required them of all men sailing under her colors, ever after.

Another, equally unverified story is that 19th century Brits took to emblazoning their blue jackets with the crests and decorations of clubs, schools, and military units.

In either event, the blazer was born and it was blue and had brass buttons. In fact, the blazer is the only men’s jacket which is allowed brass buttons. All others take horn, leather, shell, or plastic.

Scrubbed down, the moral is this: blazers are blue (with few exceptions, notably the green blazers worn by alumni of Dartmouth College and some very good golfers) and they come with brass buttons. Jackets which are patterned, textured, or fitted with buttons made of anything but brass aren’t blazers; they’re sport coats. The difference is a matter of arcane minutiae, true, but it’s the type of thing by which the wheat is seperated from the chaff, and the initiates from novices. And anyway, if you’re going to wear clothes, you ought to know what they are.   

The Duke of Windsor's double-breasted blazer.