Why We Fight: A Film Discussion Guide


Why We Fight is a documentary film directed by Eugene Jarecki. According to the DVD cover, this film “launches a nonpartisan inquiry into the forces—political, economic, and ideological—that drive America to fight.” Why We Fight was awarded the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 2005.

I’ve screened this film in my course on “Faith, Film and Philosophy.” Here are the discussion questions I developed for use in discussing this film: Read more of this post

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Gearhead Philosophers


Book Cover.Crawford.Shop ClassWhat would you expect from a book by a trained philosopher who quit his job as a Washington think tank shill (I almost said “tankard”) to work as a motorcycle mechanic?

If you know anything about the academic job market, you might think I have things backwards. It wouldn’t surprise to hear that a professional philosopher ended up—or rather, started out—rebuilding motorcycle engines. But philosophers do strange things. And Matthew Crawford, with a Ph.D. in political philosophy, is a good example.

Crawford is the author of  a new book called Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work. I learned about his book from a “Tweet” (i.e., a Twitter post) linking to a review of the book by a  Slate contributor named Michael Agger. The article, titled “Heidegger and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” praises the book and suggests that a copy be given to everyone you know who is graduating from college and about to “commence real life.” (Never mind that a majority of college graduates postpone commencing real life, some of them indefinitely.)

Every year, grads take jobs they’ve dreamed about, then become so absorbed in them that they are absorbed by them, little noticing that their work is not particularly absorbing in the sense that matters most. Crawford’s book is supposed to get office grunts, from secretaries to CEO’s, to consider more carefully the work they’re doing.

Of course, this year a much higher percentage of college graduates will look in vain for jobs that they believe will satisfy. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe they’ll have time for some profitable reading. A book like this could help them get their heads together. Soulcraft versus bank draft. It’s an interesting contrast. Leave it to a philosopher to subvert the values of our age.

Two questions. What does any of this have to do with motorcycle maintenance? And what does it have to do with Heidegger?

The first question, presumably, is answered in the book. Crawford the philosopher became Crawford the disillusioned “knowledge worker,” which led him to become Crawford the motorcycle mechanic. And Crawford the motorcycle mechanic, who had apparently dropped out of the knowledge enterprise, learned what was of real value where life intersects work.

The answer to the second question isn’t obvious from reading the Slate article. There’s no attempt in the article to tie Crawford’s ideas and conclusions to the work of any philosopher named Heidegger. One naurally assumes that Agger is thinking of the Heidegger, as in German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976). But Agger doesn’t connect the dots. Maybe he just latched onto the name of the first philosopher he thought of. Heidegger is not known for his luminosity—nor for motorcycle expertise. So Agger’s choice of a title may be bad in more ways than one. On the other hand, there’s the possibility (admittedly remote) that Crawford draws valuable concrete lessons for life from one of the most austere philosophers of the past 100 years.

So far I’ve only read about the book. But I’m definitely interested. And if Crawford leaves Heidegger out of it, even more so.

***

Notes:

  1. Michael Agger is also playing off the title of Robert Pirsig’s 1973 classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Maybe there’s a subtle connection between Heidegger, Zen, and motorcycle maintenance that escapes me just now. If so, my apologies to Michael Agger.
  2. As I write this, Shop Class as Soulcraft is #30 in sales rank at Amazon.
  3. Kudos for Crawford’s book include the following by Harvard professor of government, Harvey Mansfield: “Matt Crawford’s remarkable book on the morality and metaphysics of the repairman looks into the reality of practical activity. It is a superb combination of testimony and reflection, and you can’t put it down.” (Source: Amazon.com)
  4. As long as we’re onto Heidegger here, I should note that there’s an interesting BBC documentary on the man that’s available on YouTube, starting with this 8-minute installment here.

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“Chicago Tea Party”? Don’t Think It Can’t Happen


Rick Santelli was riled today when he reported on CNBC from the trading floor in Chicago. On national television he said he’s about ready to organize a Chicago-based tea party. This in response to the federal budget plan to subsidize the mortgages of fiscally irresponsible Americans using the tax money of solvent Americans. He makes a good point. Several good points, in fact.

First, fiscally responsible Americans don’t want to pay the bill for borrowers who can’t keep up with their mortgages.

Second, fiscally responsible Americans shouldn’t have to pay the bill for borrowers who can’t make their payments.

Third, this plan doesn’t rob the rich to give to the poor. It takes from every tax-paying American and turns it over as free cash to people who can afford to rent but can’t afford to buy.

Fourth, there are ways to get the federal government to pay attention, ways the government is totally unprepared for.

For example, what do you think would happen if 30% of all Americans with an income of $50,000 or more organized to do the following two things:

  1. Convert all of their assets held in the stock market and at banks and credit unions into cold, hard cash (or gold bars holed up in their bank’s safe deposit boxes)?
  2. Refused to pay income tax for 18 months (or indefinitely)?

The second action might provoke the government to garnish their assets and leave them all out on the street without food and shelter. But would the government go that far? It would surely compound a crisis.

What about the first option? Why shouldn’t Americans start cashing all their payroll checks and keep minimum deposits in their accounts to write checks as needed? Maybe their money is safer under the mattress at home than it is in the coffers of large banks.

For good measure, they could pledge a moratorium on unnecessary spending. They could close their credit card accounts. They could cancel subscriptions to everything there is to subscribe to, including cable television. They could reduce their use of cell phones to one per family. They could buy groceries instead of eating out. They could stay home and work in the garden instead of taking vacations. They could limit their use of gasoline to what they need for getting back and forth to work.

Heck. They could get to know their spouses and children. Maybe even some of their neighbors. They could have more BBQs. They could find more creative ways to entertain themselves—like read a few of the books they’ve purchased over the past ten years. They could listen to all the “crazy right-wingers” who dominate the airwaves—at least until radio stations are no longer able to pay their bills because nobody can afford to advertise what nobody’s buying.

Some Americans already feel like the President’s “stimulus” package is tantamount to garnishing their assets. When it comes to elections, economic concerns trump most other concerns. People vote to preserve their capital, or to get a slice of the capital earned by someone else. But what do the People do when they’ve just had a general election and the next opportunity to vote is four years away—and they’re scared to death?

The answer might depend on how far the President goes with his apocalyptic pronouncements about the economy and how much fear it causes. There’s no telling what people who fear for their economic future might do.

Was Rick Santelli serious? Maybe. Maybe not. But the stock market is at a six-year low as of today. So things are happening, even without a concerted effort.

Note: I attended a small gathering for one of our U. S. senators today. The senator commented on the recently passed stimulus bill. The bill was well over 1000 pages long, and senators were allowed eight hours to digest its contents and vote. At today’s gathering, the senator suggested that this was deliberate. So sponsors of the bill got what they wanted. But I wonder, will they get what they bargained for? In due course, the bill will be digested and re-digested. It will be subjected to close examination and the truth will be outed. And it won’t be too late for a vigorous electorate to experience rage, even with the President’s signature on it.

Is Living High Pie in the Sky?


Despite the ouch-factor of the economic downtown, Michael Shaffer’s hand-wringing seems a tad over-wrought. Click here for his article titled “Only Yesterday,” where he invokes the motif of FrederiOnly-Yesterdayck Lewis Allen’s 1930s bestseller to draw dire parallels between the stark days of October 29, 1929 and our recent decent into economic chaos.

Yes, many 401(k)s have been depleted by 25-50%, and home equity has followed suit. True, the worst may not be over. I’ve joked without feeling humored that I might be working for the rest of my life. Fewer Americans are eating out, having their cars washed, or seeing a movie on a Friday night. Some have all but abandoned aspirations for a leisurely retirement, a college-education for their high school kids, or mortgage-free ownership of their home. Last night on main street in Yorba Linda, California, for the annual holiday festivities, classic cars were lined up along both sides of the street; but this time, an alarming number of the spiffy machines was for sale. We’re being squeezed and we don’t know when it will be safe to loosen the tourniquet.

Still, it’s too early to draw confident conclusions that happy days are gone for good. We need the reminder that wealth is no guarantee of satisfaction. But there also are reasons to expect reversals in the other direction. Home prices will plateau at a level that’s more realistic, and then rise from there. The stock market will bottom out and trend upwards as always. Paying into a 401(k) hasn’t been this cheap in ages. Colleges and universities have to have students, so prices will adjust, as their administrators take stock of their priorities. Heck, they might even devote more effort to delivering an education, something parents will want to be sure their dollars are paying for when money is in short supply.

And, of course, the government will start printing money. How else are they going bail out every ailing mega-company in America? The value of that money should hold up for awhile, since we’re hardly facing inflation at the moment.

I doubt if anybody really understands how the bottom rusted out of our giant economy while nobody was looking. But what happened this fall is different than what happened the fall of 1929. This time around, one man pulled the fire alarm and scared the bajeebers out of everyone. That man was Hank Paulson, Secretary of the Treasury. The most incompetent action of his career was his inexplicable announcement that the sky would be falling effectively immediately. He was right. And with that announcement he helped bring it to pass. Dumb, dumb, and more dumb. Would it have happened anyway? Not the way it did. That much is for sure.

We can’t predict the fallout of this numbscull decision. We should be wary of our elected officials and their appointees. Who doesn’t know that now? But let’s hang in there and keep our prophetic powder dry. I believe Michael Schaffer’s jeremiad is premature . . . even if we’re all unlucky enough for him to be right when the time comes.

Note: Frederick Lewis Allen’s book Only Yesterday is a good read. Schaffer is right about that. You can enjoy it here for free. Or, you can buy it here. There’s a Kindle version, too, for a couple bucks less right here.

Drill Now, or Pay More Later


I used to wonder why the United States didn’t work vigorously to free itself from dependence on “foreign oil.” It seemed like a good idea to me “back then”—during Jimmy Carter’s presidency. Popular opinion was that there wasn’t much oil to be found outside the OPEC region. After all, “OPEC” is the acronym for “the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries.” And who were the petroleum exporting countries? The original five members of OPEC were Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudia Arabia, and . . . Venezuela.

Do you see a pattern here? Four of these countries were and are dominant Middle East players. Venezuela, it should be recalled, is the heavy in South America, led today by Hugo Chavez—no friend to the United States. And Venezuela took the initiative originally to establish OPEC, by approaching the just-mentioned nations of the Middle East.

There are now thirteen member states in OPEC. Guess who’s not on the list? The United States. And why not? Because the United States does not export oil. On the contrary, for decades, the United States has been the chief importer of oil.

Why doesn’t the United States export oil? Because it doesn’t have enough oil to export. It doesn’t even have enough oil to meet its own demand. That makes us dependent on foreign oil. And that’s reason enough for us to be entangled in Middle Eastern politics and subject to the whims of blame-America-first terrorists born and bred in the Middle East.

At the outset of the war in Iraq, there was loud speculation that President Bush was making a grab for Iraqi oil. This speculation was interlarded with denouncements of the merit of such a motive.

And where do we find ourselves today? Gas at the pump where I live in southern California is very near the $5 mark, and the price of oil has just topped $140 a barrel, a new high. Market watchers are hyper-ventilating this afternoon. At CNBC, Maria Bartiromo is high on adrenalin as she reports the news.

What’s wrong with this picture? The United States has waited too long to tap its own oil resources. Do we have oil? Yes. And, no. We don’t have much oil for use, much less for export. But there’s oil out there, on the continental shelf and in ANWR. And it’s been there throughout our dependence on oil. And there’s lots of it. Enough there for us to tell OPEC we don’t need them anymore.

Imagine what it would mean geopolitically if we ended our dependence on oil in the Middle East. Setting aside the legitimate interest we have in protecting Israel, we might be able to sustain a responsible form of “protectionism.” As long as our economy runs on oil, we’ll continue to be enmeshed in worldwide conflicts that are fueled by oil dependence.

What are the primary objections to drilling the oil resources we have?

First, we’re being told that “we can’t drill our way out of the current crisis.” One element in this rhetoric is right: we are in crisis. The crisis goes deeper than the prospect of paying $5 and more per gallon of gasoline.
But that prospect is the sort of crisis that has Americans paying more than the usual degree of attention to political maneuvering in Congress and among the presumptive nominees for President, Barack Obama and John McCain.

Obama is the most visible opponent of drilling. He talks about developing alternative forms of energy. But that won’t address the crisis, either. Why? Because the crisis is at the pump. And most of us are stuck with pumping gas for the foreseeable future. It will take a few years to begin extracting crude oil from the ground. Will it take longer than the development of alternative energy forms? Almost certainly not.

Any major delays to drilling going forward will be due to obstructionist politics, mostly on the part of Democrats, and chiefly on the part of Barack Obama, if elected President. Obama could not now reverse his view about the wisdom of drilling without appearing to be the worst kind of flip-flopper. So he’s backed himself into a corner. What’s in the economic interests of the country is at odds with Obama’s interest in becoming President. Whose interests will command his attention? You know the answer. So ask yourself if that’s the sort of person you want to have as President.

What most Americans want is short-term relief at the pump and a long-term solution to our energy crisis. If the establishment of a drilling infrastructure—directed at the most promising locations off-shore and in ANWR—were to begin in earnest by the end of this year or early next year, we wouldn’t have to wait for the oil to make it to the corner gas station for prices to come down. The prospect of such a radical change in supply and demand within three to five years would place immediate pressure on current suppliers (i.e., OPEC) to do something about prices. John McCain has started making this point, and he’s right. How does Obama respond to that? If Americans elect John McCain, who favors drilling, OPEC will get the message before the end of the year. We’re only about four months away from sending that message.

Second, there’s the green-jerk reaction to drilling. “Drilling offshore and in ANWR is going to be environmentally catastrophic.” Show me the evidence.

Opponents of offshore drilling exploit vernacular associations with the word “offshore,” as if America’s beaches will be cluttered with unsightly oil rigs. What’s the truth? Deep-water oil and gas platforms will be so far offshore that they couldn’t be seen from our beaches. We’re talking fifty to two hundred miles offshore. I could kayak the entire California shoreline and not be able to plot a single oil drilling site offshore. It would take an hour or longer to travel by helicopter to a typical offshore platform.

ANWR is another acronym (pronounced “Anwar”), short for “Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.” It’s located in the extreme northeastern region of Alaska and encompasses some 19 million acres. It includes what is literally the most remote territory in the United States. A portion of the region contains rich sources of petroleum. In contention is the effect drilling there would have on the habitat of diverse forms of animal life. ANWR is remarkable for its inclusion of six distinct biozones. But the petroleum rich subsection of ANWR is part of a 1.5 million acre extension of the refuge made in 1980. The move appears to have been as much an effort to protect this resource for possible future drilling as it was for any other environmental objective.

A very small percent, then, of ANWR is even considered attractive for oil-production purposes. And yet the resource is thought to be incredibly rich. And though approval by Congress is required to begin drilling in that area, it has, from the beginning, been regarded a potential source of oil production to be used under the right conditions.

Americans need to be educated about the potential for oil production in ANWR, the politics surrounding the possible use of this resource, and alternatives to drilling in ANWR. For the time-being, offshore drilling appears to be more imminent than drilling in ANWR. This is in part due to political vicissitudes. But off-shore production may also be more cost-effective. In any case, ANWR need not be the bone of contention that it has been, with such impressive resources closer to hand, both geographically and politically.

The emerging market demand for oil worldwide could position the United States to be a major exporter of oil. This demand will be so substantial by 2030 that prices for a barrel of oil could inflate to unimaginable levels. But by then, the United States could be online as a major oil producing country.

Meanwhile, by all means, we should be heavily invested in research and development for alternative forms of energy. And Americans should become better informed about the affordability, safety, and cleanliness of nuclear energy.

Music Mania and Doing Good: Big Things Come in Small Packages


The iPod. The iPhone. Nifty little devices for packing huge inventories of favorite music. In the world of technology, small is BIG—at least some of the time. But today we find out just how BIG small can be. Apple, the people who invented the iPod and the iPhone, announced today that they are #1 in music retail in America. Wal-Mart has left the building; Apple is the new elephant in the room.

How big an elephant are we talking about? Apple has sold 4 billion songs (give or take) to more than 50 million people in this country over the past five years. Let’s do some math. Four billion divided by fifty million equals eighty. So, on average, American customers have purchased 80 songs from Apple. Since tunes go for 99 cents in most cases, that’s roughly $80 per customer, over five years. So $16 per year. Doesn’t sound like much, right? But fifty million customers cranks that figure up to nearly four billion dollars since Apple opened the iTunes music store. A nominal expenditure of financial energy on the part of a sufficient number of people yields an enviable cache of, well . . . cash.

Only 16% of all Americans achieved this result. Sixteen people for every 100 hundred Americans spent $16 on tunes each year for five years, and Apple garnished $4 billion.

Big things come in small packages, if you have enough small packages. But “enough” small packages can be a relatively small percentage of the total pool of possible contributors. In this case, Apple can generate an influx of $4 billion dollars from a relatively small percentage of Americans who love their music to the tune of about $80 each.

One lesson in this is that when enough people care just a little bit about something, and they show that they care with a modicum of energy, big things can happen. Apple has literally been banking on that.

I’ll go out on a limb here and say that most Americans, when they click for a new iTunes purchase, are not thinking, “I sure hope there are a bunch of other Americans out there doing the same thing; otherwise, this just wouldn’t be worth my trouble.” They act for a limited good over which they have considerable control. But because lots of other people do the same thing, Apple is a big winner.

How often do we consider performing some action that would produce only a limited good (something we value), but we refrain simply because the good we can produce by ourselves seems too puny to bother? What if we interpreted our action differently? What if we decided to act for the limited good over which we have some significant control? What if we forgot about whether anyone else cares as much as we do about realizing that good? If we all did that, maybe big things—good big things—would happen.

Having a new three-minute tune to tickle my tympanic membrane is a limited good. I’ll shell out 99 cents for that, now and then. Budgeting $16 a year for this is within reason for most Americans. We manage our music mania pretty well. But it’s only music, after all, piped in through our iBooks, iPods, or iPhones. Surely there are greater goods we could each achieve with the same modicum of expenditure. So what are we waiting for? What good thing would you do, if only enough other people would do it, too?

Tell you what. I won’t wait for you, if you won’t wait for me.

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