Dream Diary: Topiary Dentist

A neighbor chastises me for mispronouncing the word “topiary.” “It’s topi-ah-ree or to-pee-a-ree, not to-pi-airy.”

A dentist is skeptical when I tell him my teeth are falling out. I show him the places in my mouth where the teeth used to be, but he insists that since I cannot find the teeth, I have not really lost them.


Dream Diary: ISIS

After capsizing my ambulance in Riyadh, I was kidnapped by ISIS.

On the whole, conditions in the prison camp were not as bad as I had expected. They had opened a small shop where the inmates could buy shorts. ISIS had its own version of the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration), which they called the EFAA (the “E” stood for “Evil”) There were group calisthenics. We were each given cats. For the first time in my life, I was truly happy.

But then, at Movie Night, I accidentally left my cellphone on and it began to ring during the film. For this, I was rightly beheaded.

The Eternal Return of the Same Damn Thing Over and Over Again

Because people of every era deal with most of the same problems, most of what ought to be said about anything important has been said better by others before. Reading old works of political economy is therefore dispiriting, because even long-forgotten figures have expressed my thoughts far better than I am capable of. Such is the case with John Ruskin, whose 1860 work Unto This Last offers a criticism of mainstream economics more pithy and potent than almost any of those that emerged post-2008. Ruskin precisely diagnosed the way that the soulless premises of economics lead to irrelevant, inhuman results:

I neither impugn nor doubt the conclusions of the science, if its terms are accepted. I am simply uninterested in them, as I should be in those of a science of gymnastics which assumed that men had no skeletons. It might be shown, on that supposition, that it would be advantageous to roll the students up into pellets, flatten them into cakes, or stretch them into cables; and that when these results were effected, the re-insertion of the skeleton would be attended with various inconveniences to their constitution. The reasoning might be admirable, the conclusions true, and the science deficient only in applicability. Modern political economy stands on a precisely similar basis.

Ruskin also has a lovely passage expressing the way the existence of wealth is necessarily dependent on inequality:

An accumulation of real property is of little use to its owner, unless, together with it, he has commercial power over labour. Thus, suppose any person to be put in possession of a large estate of fruitful land, with rich beds of gold in its gravel, countless herds of cattle in its pastures; houses, and gardens, and storehouses full of useful stores; but suppose, after all, that he could get no servants? In order that he may be able to have servants, some one in his neighbourhood must be poor, and in want of his gold—or his corn. Assume that no one is in want of either, and that no servants are to be had. He must, therefore, bake his own bread, make his own clothes, plough his own ground, and shepherd his own flocks. His gold will be as useful to him as any other yellow pebbles on his estate. His stores must rot, for he cannot consume them. He can eat no more than another man could eat, and wear no more than another man could wear. He must lead a life of severe and common labour to procure even ordinary comforts; he will be ultimately unable to keep either houses in repair, or fields in cultivation; and forced to content himself with a poor man’s portion of cottage and garden, in the midst of a desert of waste land, trampled by wild cattle, and encumbered by ruins of palaces, which he will hardly mock at himself by calling “his own.”… What is really desired, under the name of riches, is, essentially, power over men; in its simplest sense, the power of obtaining for our own advantage the labour of servant, tradesman, and artist; in wider sense, authority of directing large masses of the nation to various ends (good, trivial, or hurtful, according to the mind of the rich person). And this power of wealth of course is greater or less in direct proportion to the poverty of the men over whom it is exercised, and in inverse proportion to the number of persons who are as rich as ourselves, and who are ready to give the same price for an article of which the supply is limited. If the musician is poor, he will sing for small pay, as long as there is only one person who can pay him; but if there be two or three, he will sing for the one who offers him most. And thus the power of the riches of the patron… depends first on the poverty of the artist, and then on the limitation of the number of equally wealthy persons, who also wants seats at the concert. So that, as above stated, the art of becoming “rich,” in the common sense, is not absolutely nor finally the art of accumulating much money for ourselves, but also of contriving that our neighbours shall have less. In accurate terms, it is “the art of establishing the maximum inequality in our own favour.”

There is a common strain of argument among free-market types that inequality doesn’t matter so long as everyone’s wealth is growing. I think Ruskin shows beautifully why this argument fails; one’s riches have no power unless they carry the ability to make one’s fellow human beings subordinate and compel their labor. Because wealth is one’s relative power, a single person’s wealth cannot be examined in isolation from its relationship to that of others.

In Defense of Alcoholic Teachers

The spectral figure of the Alcoholic Teacher roams ominously through debates over public schools. Among the education reform crowd, who take for granted that the nation’s public schools are infested with bad teachers, tales of the Alcoholic Teacher make for a high fraction of the horror stories. Teachers who drink are used as case studies in school failure, not only in alarmist conservative outlets like Fox News and the Daily Caller, but in leftier publications like The New Yorker and NPR. That the tenure system keeps such people employed is deemed prima facie evidence of its absurdity.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof is the latest to deploy the trope. In a recent column ostensibly softening his stance against labor unions, Kristof made clear that while he had come around on the benefits of private-sector unions, their public-sector counterparts (such as teachers’ unions) were still rife with intolerable practices. “The abuses are real,” Kristof wrote, giving the example of “a union hailing its defense of a New York teacher who smelled of alcohol and passed out in class, with even the principal unable to rouse her.” No matter how sympathetic to labor unions we might be, Kristof suggests, surely we can all agree that these teachers should be rooted out.

But in fact, we can’t all agree. I can’t agree, because the best teacher I ever had was an alcoholic and drug addict. He was that teacher worth remembering: he got me started in debate, taught me half the words I know, and introduced me to the Beatles’ Rubber Soul. I never knew anyone who so completely respected his students, who was more genuinely interested in what they thought, or more confident in their capabilities. Yet this great man had human failings, and years after I left school, when he had his 2nd DUI arrest and it became clear that he would finally be kept from teaching, he killed himself.

When my teacher was arrested, the online comments section for the local newspaper was filled with denunciations that echoed the reformist line. “Why was he allowed in a classroom?” “Why did it take this long to get rid of an obvious alcoholic?” and so forth. They took these questions for unanswerable indictments of the school system, but I can unashamedly reply to both of them. He was allowed in a classroom because he was a beloved, generous, and brilliant man. And it took so long because a teacher’s union was there to protect him from having his livelihood taken.

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Dream Diary: Serial Killer

In the diner, she wept.

“I’m pregnant with your child,” she confessed to me through tears.

“Oh, well, that’s alright, I suppose,” I replied nervously.

“But I’m also dating a serial killer. And he knows about the baby. And about us. And he’s on his way here.”

“Ah. Well, in that case, I… I think I’ll be heading off now,” I said, backing out the door.

“No, don’t go. Do you hate me? Is that it?” I reassured her that that wasn’t it.

Marcos (the serial killer) found me as I was trying frantically to unlock my bicycle. He wore a bowtie and a six-gun. I did not even make it to the edge of the parking lot.

“The first point to which I would like to draw your attention is the general tendency toward étatisme, by which democracy, while trying to achieve its nature, devours itself. This is a fate which, I believe, it is hard for democracy to escape. A democracy is in duty bound to assist the masses, and even capitalists when they are in trouble; and this it can do only by overloading the old liberal institutions with an ever greater number of tasks. The result everywhere is an increase in areas of power, of a kind and a quantity that no political democracy can control. Thus the so-called sovereignty of the people is more than ever reduced to a fiction. The State budget reaches monstrous proportions, which not even specialists can make head or tail of. Real sovereignty passes into the hands of the bureaucracy, which by definition is anonymous and irresponsible, while the legislative bodies begin to look like gatherings of old windbags squabbling over trifles. As the legislative function declines, it is inevitable that the average moral standard of the legislator will also decline. Members of Parliament no longer care about anything except getting re-elected. In order to repay the favors of the pressure groups on whose support their re-election depends, they need the good will of the administration. The organs of local government, the so-called intermediary powers, all traditional and spontaneous forms of social existence die out .Or if they survive, they are rendered meaningless.” – Ignazio Silone, School For Dictators (1938, rev. 1963)

Dream Diary: The Beheading

The judge ruled that I had caused the housing crisis, and must therefore be beheaded.

“Don’t worry,” whispered my lawyer. “She’s bluffing.” She did not appear to be bluffing.

Ultimately, the news of my death sentence gained me 400 new Twitter followers.

Well, What Did You Expect?

“Well, what did you expect?”

“I expected it would be better!”

“And that was foolish of you, wasn’t it?”

“But it’s a horror!”

“Well, that’s capitalism for you…”

“I just…I don’t see how you can simply accept it like that.”

“I’m not accepting it. Au contraire. I loathe it. However, I simply did not expect it to be otherwise. At a certain point, you must be realistic. You cannot be surprised by events that follow naturally from the operations of a system.”

“Must we give in to resignation, then? Is that all that is left? Must we lose our capacity to be terrified by the terrifying, nauseated by the nauseating? Do we gaze listlessly as the casualties mount, with ‘What did you expect’ on our lips? Are we not capable of mustering some scrap of emotion? I, for one, never cease to be astonished by the cruelties of this world, and can never accept them as ordinary. Perhaps that makes me childlike, a starry-eyed fool destined to have my optimism punctured daily by circumstance. But I could not live otherwise.”

Dream Diary: The Array

Just as I had finished putting the last flower in its array, they strode through the door.

“I am so glad you could make it!” I told them. “It will be $100 per night.”

He appeared surprised. “But I thought you had invited us to come and stay with you.”

“No,” I said. “I am the manager of a hotel. What you received was an advertisement. It is nice to see an old friend again, though.”

“This is my wife,” he said, realizing he had not introduced her.

“I didn’t think you could get married,” I said.

“Oh, she’s not really my wife,” he clarified. “She’s just some woman I met on a train today.” The woman glared at him, disgusted.

“Well, I’ll show you both to the suite.” I pointed the way.

But it turned out I had got the wrong room, and we all soon found ourselves being escorted from the building.