Clause 61: The Pushback Blog

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Posts Tagged ‘education

Thank You for Protecting Me from Myself

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Two very helpful persons at the Brookings Institution, Jonathan Rauch and Benjamin Wittes, have written a paper calling for more professionalism and less populism in American public life. The title of the paper claims, “voting makes us stupid.” Really?

Of course, Donald Trump is a walking testament to the stupidity of voters. But their argument goes beyond this. Let’s examine the points in detail.

More Participation Will Not Be Beneficial

The authors go back to, of all people, the Founders as a source of the idea that the Constitution was set up to limit participation. This is true. The Founders feared mob rule almost as much as government tyranny.

Drawing upon ample historical experience, they worried that democracies were vulnerable to demagoguery and prone to instability. Although they insisted that republican government required direct public input, they also constrained and balanced that input.
— Rauch and Wittes

So can we look forward to a shift in the policy of the Brookings Institution to call for a reduction in open primaries and restoration of the selection of Senators to the states?

The People are Incompetent

This is always going to be a seductive idea to a think tank that considers itself a repository of public policy expertise, but leave that aside for now.

This argument actually goes back to Walter Lippmann. In Public Opinion (1922), Lippmann attacked “the doctrine of the omnicompetent citizen.” Lippmann called for a structure modeled on his idea of the British foreign service, where disinterested and independent experts provide policy options to elected officials.

However, there is no such thing as a disinterested expert. The regime Lippmann visualized quickly degenerates into a system where the experts exercise political control because they control the menu of options under discussion.

In practice, the British foreign service wasn’t that great a model. It really worked out like this:

[Bernard] was concerned that the FO [Foreign Office] produces only one considered view, with no options and no alternatives. In practice, this presents no problem. If pressed, the FO looks at the matter again, and comes up with the same view. If the Foreign Secretary demands options, the FO obliges him by presenting three options, two of which will be (on close examination) exactly the same. The third will, of course, be totally unacceptable, like bombing Warsaw or invading France.
Yes, Prime Minister

That is what is going to happen when unelected experts are in control of the policy menu. Even Lippmann had lost faith in experts by 1925, when he wrote The Phantom Public:

[Government] is also subject to the same corruption as public opinion. For when government attempts to impose the will of its officials, instead of intervening so as to steady adjustments by consent among the parties directly interested, it becomes heavy-handed, stupid, imperious, even predatory.

There is really no such doctrine justifying public participation in politics as based on an “omnicompetent citizen.” The authority of the people is not contingent on them passing some sort of civics test. The legitimacy of the government is derived from the consent of the governed. It is not derived from the consent of that subset of the governed that those governing consider qualified.

We have the right to grant or withhold consent, not because we are omnicompetent, but because we have skin in the game. We live with the consequences of government actions. It’s our blood and treasure on the line.

  • In 1953, an Anglo-American effort in Iran instigated the ouster of Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh. This was undertaken primarily because Mossadegh wanted to extract more concessions from the British. The participants in the American government believed that the British economy was unable to withstand these concessions. However, the end result included both the breakup of the British monopoly on Iranian oil trade and a price increase to show the Shah was not a puppet of the west. Thus, for all the broken china, this foolish misadventure did not even accomplish its original intention. Did the American people really want what was done in their name?
  • In 2016, the Obama administration committed the United States to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 18% under the Paris Agreement. This commitment was made by executive order, bypassing the Constitutional requirement for treaties to be ratified by the Senate. The commitment, which has been revoked by Donald Trump, would have necessarily increased energy costs for American citizens in order to comply with the targets. Why did we want this? The Obama administration knew we did not, which is why it evaded review by our representatives in the Senate.

The People are Irrational

Sure, they are. But the professionals are people, too. How are they not any less irrational than the public at large?

There is a reason that David Halberstam titled his history of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations in Vietnam The Best and the Brightest. The best and the brightest can also go wrong. And when they do, the move in greater unison than the public at large. They largely drink from the same wells of information and have similar outlooks. Groupthink is particularly prevalent among professionals.

The authors quoted Lee Drutman: “Informed, individualistic rationality is a chimera.” Actually, rationality in public life in general is overrated. One of the most rational politicians of the past hundred years was Neville Chamberlain. It is perfectly rational to want to avoid going to war to interfere “in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing.” But history demonstrated it was a bad idea.

The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.
— G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

More Education Will Not Be Helpful

More than what? In 1918, the National Education Association completed Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education. This report called for seven objectives of secondary education, including Civic Education:

For such citizenship the following are essential: A many-sided interest in the welfare of the communities to which one belongs; loyalty to ideals of civic righteousness ; practical knowledge of social agencies and institutions; good judgment as to means and methods that will promote one social end without defeating others; and as putting all these into effect, habits of cordial cooperation in social undertakings.
Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education, p. 13.

Yet, here we are 99 years later. Every year students are reported to be in greater ignorance of civics, politics and economics than last. Rauch and Wittes cite a survey showing that most respondents cannot name the three branches of government, identify the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court or locate the entity with the power to declare war. Moreover, they cite the common belief that the government spends more on foreign aid than on Social Security or Medicare.

So how is this not an indictment of the existing education establishment? How has the education system delivered on the 1918 goals?

In Public Opinion, Lippmann famously wrote:

It is because they are compelled to act without a reliable picture of the world, that governments, schools, newspapers and churches make such small headway against the more obvious failings of democracy, against violent prejudice, apathy, preference for the curious trivial as against the dull important, and the hunger for sideshows and three legged calves. This is the primary defect of popular government, a defect inherent in its traditions, and all its other defects can, I believe, be traced to this one.

The education system has had a century to remedy the “preference for the curious trivial as against the dull important.” It has not done so, and we can only conclude that it does not want to. Better to keep people in their state of supposed ignorance, and then tell them to leave public policy to the professionals. This is a scam.

It is manifestly unfair to fail to educate people to be effective citizens and then tell them that they can’t participate in political life because they are living in civic ignorance.

The Return of Intermediaries

Rauch and Wittes make the case for intermediaries in public. Political intermediaries can be elected officials or representatives of political parties. What they call a substantive intermediary has specialist knowledge of a policy area, such as health care.

Political intermediaries are necessary. Here is one Rauch and Wittes omitted: states. The several states are a necessary counterweight to federal power. It is more than time to rediscover the role of states in our political process.

The specialist intermediary would be of value. No one without specialist knowledge is going to make sense of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act; I tried. It would be great to have intermediaries who could help the citizen navigate the issues.

The first logical candidate might be the media. Try spending a little less time on having two groups of mouthpieces talk over each other, and devote that time to providing information on how a segment of the economy works. If that seems scary, put on segments at 4 in the morning, when no one is watching anyway, and let us record them.

Want to discuss pricing of prescription drugs? Go through the history of the FDA and the decisions that were consciously made to make sure that new drugs were introduced in the US first. Follow the economic consequences of those decisions. Discuss the new drug application (NDA) process that generates enough paper to fill a semi-trailer. Visit ambulancechaser.com (I am not going to give them free publicity by using their real domain name), where people seeking victim status can be gathered into a class to launch a lawsuit.

Corporatism hated intermediaries and sought to get rid of them at every opportunity, leaving the individual citizens alone with the all-knowing, almighty federal government. We need intermediaries that Brookings hasn’t even thought of.

However, we also need to be able to trust the intermediaries. We require that they are giving us all the information, not just a limited and purposeful set of options (two of which are identical and the third totally unacceptable). We need intermediaries to watch the intermediaries.

Yes, the world we live in requires tradeoffs and choices from among the unpalatable and the disastrous. The belief that ordinary people cannot understand these issues in a nuanced way is a piece of received wisdom. Populism is a rebellion against this, an assertion that legitimacy derives from the consent of the people, whether or not the people express themselves in a way pleasing to those who would wield power over them. Thank God the American people have the sand to push back on the professionals who would undermine them.

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Meritocracy and Its Discontents

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I have had a couple of signals that made me reflect on the influence of meritocracy, or what passes for it, upon current political events.

The first was an article this week, “What So Many People Don’t Get About the U.S. Working Class” by Joan C. Williams in the Harvard Business Review.

One little-known element of [the class culture] gap is that the white working class (WWC) resents professionals but admires the rich. Class migrants (white-collar professionals born to blue-collar families) report that “professional people were generally suspect” and that managers are college kids “who don’t know shit about how to do anything but are full of ideas about how I have to do my job,” said Alfred Lubrano in Limbo. Barbara Ehrenreich recalled in 1990 that her blue-collar dad “could not say the word doctor without the virtual prefix quack. Lawyers were shysters…and professors were without exception phonies.” Annette Lareau found tremendous resentment against teachers, who were perceived as condescending and unhelpful.
— Williams

The interactions that working class people have with professionals are a source of friction:

For one thing, most blue-collar workers have little direct contact with the rich outside of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. But professionals order them around every day.
— Williams

And the professionals are often not very gracious about it.

The other was David Brooks on Meet the Press this morning. He identified several items that he felt he needed to do some rethinking on as a result of this election outcome, and one of them was meritocracy. I realize that David Brooks is a subject of discussion all by himself, and I do not intend to venture into that subject here.

Two points define a line, and I starting thinking about that line.

Seniority

When I was growing up, seniority was much more important than meritocracy. There were many instances in the working world that were ruled by seniority. People didn’t care how smart or capable someone supposedly was; he waited his turn like everyone else.

Starting in the mid-80s, as the employment relationship began to be radically redefined in practice, seniority was displaced as a criterion for evaluation, advancement and even retention of employees. In the eyes of many people, this was a betrayal.

Certainly, the people who had put in the time and were due, under the seniority system, to finally get their reward had the rug yanked out from under them. But there was a larger issue many of us missed. One of the promises of the seniority system was that, no matter who you were, you had a chance to rise if you followed the rules and put in your time. A system based on merit does not offer this.

I acknowledge that I was not a supporter of the seniority system and was happy to see the back of it. I expected that I would prosper under a merit-based system, where I would be blocked under a seniority system. But there was another issue I had not reckoned with.

Who Determines Merit?

Those of us who come up through engineering, technology or other skill-based vocations often have several romantic notions about our participation in these vocations:

  • The difference between being good and being God-awful is reality observable, not only to ourselves but to others;
  • The difference we emphasize in skills should be emphasized by others as well, particularly by those who pay the bills.

An example of this is the saying that “a great software developer can be 10 times as productive as a bad software developer.” However, there is no agreement on what makes a great software developer, although there are plenty of ideas on what is a bad software developer. Furthermore, how many employers who are not in the software business could even take advantage of that incremental productivity?

The point we tended to miss was that merit was going to be determined by other people, often having their own agendas. While, under seniority, the criteria were out in the open, merit systems are wide open to manipulation by those in charge of the criteria.

The College Degree

When I started working, you could get a good job in a Fortune 500 corporation having a degree in anything. Sociology, comparative religions, art history — it really didn’t matter. You had proven you could adapt yourself to the standards of an organization and meet its requirements, and there was every reason to expect you would be able to do so again. The company would carry you for the two years or so you needed to unlearn the norms of college, learn the norms of the workplace and become a productive employee. People recognized that a college graduate was not a finished adult and employment was the final step in a person’s education, although they didn’t talk about it much.

The people you had to pass through to get that degree could be arrogant as all hell. How many people had to sit through classes by tenured teachers who were indifferent to whether they were even comprehensible to the students? “You have to get past us to get your degree,” their attitudes said, “and you will take anything we dish out.”

But, starting around 1985, corporate downsizing began in earnest. By 1990, there was more job growth in women-owned companies than in the large publicly-traded companies. The companies that were doing the hiring were smaller and didn’t have the slack to carry new hires for two years while they learned how to carry their own weight. With leaner management structures than the Fortune 500 had, there was no one to learn from. It was a completely changed work environment.

Among other formative experiences gone missing, there was no one to take a snotty 22-year-old aside and point out that, “your success depends on the voluntary cooperation of the people you clearly look down on.” There was no explain the facts of corporate life to people, the way my elders had done for me. If you withhold information from the new hire, maybe she will be behind you on the performance curve in the next round of layoffs. Now the forward edge of that age cohort is in their early 40s, working its way through management.

People still talk about college like it’s middle-class finishing school, but often it is not. Moreover, the role of the first employer in completing the young adult’s education has gone unfilled. The result is employers reluctant to bring in recent college graduates. Employers also find college graduates to be lacking in engagement. Thirty-five years ago, there were not an abundance of focused and driven college graduates; there was a system that could accept, steer and direct them. That system is gone.

I am not discussing the fact that the cost of a college degree has increased at twice the rate of inflation over the period because that increase in costs does not seem to have slowed down college attendance. There are more people than ever with whom one has to compete. A college degree is no longer a differentiator. What to do?

Credential-ocracy

When I started working, there was something called a Certified Data Processor. That was not a device; it was a credential. Many people I worked with lived in blissful ignorance of its existence. Those of us who knew about it didn’t take it seriously. Some people did, and obtained the certification. I never saw a job ad that required it, or even one that said “certification preferred.”

Now, credentials have exploded. The bad economy of the past 15 years scared a lot of people, who invested in credentials. Hiring is now completely credential-happy. People are even trying to float credentials for economists.

Yet success in obtaining credentials has not got any closer to success in applying knowledge to solve problems than it was in the early days of the CDP. I have worked with many people who want to use their credentials to build themselves into overhead positions as armchair quarterbacks, telling the rest of us how we’re doing it wrong. Just because a person has a credential, it does not follow that the person can use the body of knowledge for which the credential claims mastery to solve a real-life problem.

Paul Krugman offers specious, politicized explanations of where worker productivity went. I lived through the change, and I can tell you: when you’re carrying a whole lot of credentialed overhead, it won’t be good for productivity.

This was not the way we thought meritocracy was going to play out. Like a lot of the changes since 1985 — eliminating layers of middle managers springs to mind — this has been a massive disappointment.

Even when you win the rat race, you’re still a rat.
source unknown

What did we get from this supposed movement to meritocracy? The people who couldn’t keep up got pushed aside into the underemployment ditch. The rest of us got a treadmill of credentials and continuing education requirements, mostly at our own expense. We got a career tournament, a negative-sum game. We got a work environment where careers are mean, solitary, nasty, brutish and short.

 

Written by srojak

November 13, 2016 at 12:18 pm

Conserve Exactly What?

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I wanted to write something about what Conservatism is and where it is going before the Election Day, so that I was not perceived as being wise after the event. Evidently I was not alone in thinking this way, because I have seen three major thought pieces in the last month:

For context, the reader may also want to refer to these links:

All quotes are from the above.

Continetti

The Continetti article is a good place to start, both because it launched the discussion and because the author attempts a historical review of conservatism. He identifies four waves of conservatism:

  1. The Old Right initially organized against the original progressivism of Teddy Roosevelt and Wilson, and were always marginalized.
  2. The 1950-s era wave of William Buckley, James Burnham and Russell Kirk (among others), who were, in Continetti’s words, “elitist, pessimistic, grimly witty and academic” — and still politically marginal.
  3. The 1970’s New Right, full of political fire and brimstone, who took credit for bringing Ronald Reagan to power (more on that later).
  4. The religious right, whose fire and brimstone is not confined to politics.

Here is the first major problem that I have with Continetti’s analysis. Are the religious right really conservative? Well, it depends on how you define Conservatism, doesn’t it?

The relentless quest for votes.

The relentless quest for votes.

Back in the high summer of collectivism, between 1930 and 1963, Conservatism was not really a vote-winning political brand, so it was easier to keep the definition clear. I don’t believe that you ever would have seen a yard sign claiming a candidate was a Texas Conservative before 1963. Now, because of the perceived success of the New Right, conservatism is a label that can win votes, so we see dilution. As a result, we are not really sure what conservatism is anymore.

The Old Right did organize in opposition to Progressivism — not in reaction to it, as progressives would have you believe, but in principled opposition to its expansive tendencies. They did not accept the claim that human society could be perfected along rational lines. They rejected the expansiveness of Progressivism. If you’re not clear on what I mean by expansiveness, consider the slogan, “Yes, we can,” which is the ultimate expression of expansiveness. That opposition to expansiveness is the real unifying principle of Conservatism. Not, “No, we can’t,” but, “Should we?”

People on the religious right, who want to bring about the New Jerusalem, who want to achieve the Kingdom of God on Earth, are themselves expansive. I don’t want to disparage their beliefs, just to point out that there is nothing “conservative” about them. Conservatives can make common cause with them — or anyone else — but do not mistake the religious right for Conservatives.

So, having established that Continetti really doesn’t have a good working definition of Conservatism, it is hardly surprising that he is willing to grant conservative credentials to Donald Trump. If the religious right can be accommodated, can’t the populists?

Continetti concludes:

 The triumph of populism has left conservatism marooned, confused, uncertain, depressed, anxious, searching for a tradition, for a program, for viability. We might have to return to the beginning to understand where we have ended up. We might have to reject adversarianism [sic], to accept the welfare state as an objective fact, to rehabilitate Burnham’s vision of a conservative-tinged Establishment capable of permeating the managerial society and gradually directing it in a prudential, reflective, virtuous manner respectful of both freedom and tradition. This is the challenge of the moment. This is the crisis of the conservative intellectual. What makes that crisis acute is the knowledge that he and his predecessors may have helped to bring it on themselves.

I am not sure if Continetti meant adversarianism as a portmanteau of adversarial + Arianism = heresy, especially given his use of other religious terms (e.g., chiliastic).

More to the point, isn’t accepting the progressive vision of corporatism and the welfare state as an objective fact what Republicans have more or less been doing, with infrequent lapses, since Richard Nixon? Is this not just another go-along-to-get-along tactic that has fueled frustration with the Republican establishment?

Gerson

Michael Gerson is an evangelical and a neo-conservative. He was George W. Bush’s chief speechwriter from 2001 to 2006. This makes him a somewhat suspect advisor for conservatives, but let’s see what he has to say.

The main point of Gerson’s article is that:

Bush represented a fundamentally different option (still embraced, in more modern form, by many Republican governors). His appeal included the aggressive promotion of economic growth, expressed in support for broad tax cuts. A commitment to compassionate and creative social policy, demonstrated by No Child Left Behind and his support for faith-based social services. A belief in ethnic and religious inclusion, shown by his proposal for comprehensive immigration reform and by his defense of American Muslims after the 9/11 attacks. An internationalist foreign policy, which included not only the war against terrorism but also the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. And a tolerant version of traditionalism, based on moral aspiration rather than judgment. (It is an approach I helped frame while working for candidate and then President Bush.)

Given how post-ideological Bush the man appears to have been, I can understand why Gerson might want to defend the merits of the Bush Administration. The ideas of the Administration might well have been more properly the ideas of key advisors, including Gerson.

A fundamental problem with neocons was their “internationalist foreign policy,” prominently featuring a misguided belief in nation-building. To summarize concisely, neocons originated as disillusioned leftists, such as Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz, who were alienated by the attitudes of the 1970s Left toward Israel, the Soviet Union and the exercise of power by the United States. All that would be understandable, but the neocons kept their expansive Wilsonian approach to foreign policy.

Nevertheless, Gerson has a point when he says:

But here is the reality: There is no reconstitution of conservative influence or the appeal of the Republican Party without incorporating some updated version of compassionate conservatism. And conservatives need to get over their aversion to the only approach that has brought them presidential victory since 1988.

But what we need to do is pick through the agenda Gerson outlines and understand what is worth having and why. David Frum illustrated the problem on the ground:

Owners of capital assets, employers of low-skill laborers, and highly compensated professionals tend to benefit economically from the arrival of immigrants. They are better positioned to enjoy the attractive cultural and social results of migration (more-interesting food!) and to protect themselves against the burdensome impacts (surges in non-English-proficient pupils in public schools). A pro-immigration policy shift was one more assertion of class interest in a party program already brimful of them.

How do we get ethnic and religious inclusion while ensuring that the costs of these policies do not land on the people who are least able to bear them? How do we turn education reform into a meaningful program that prepares Americans for the realities of the 21st century, rather than an empty slogan that affects nothing in the real world?

Domenech

Ben Domenech wrote directly in response to Continetti, and also has some rejoinders for Gerson:

From Reagan through George W. Bush, conservatives largely agreed on the traditional three-legged stool of the fusionist GOP: national defense, limited government, family values. All of that blew up in the aftermath of the Bush years. Conservative intellectuals perceive what’s happening now as a crisis because the political universe has changed so dramatically thanks to Iraq, the Wall Street meltdown, and the lackluster growth that’s followed. But a good part of that crisis mentality could be due to the fact that they still haven’t come to grips with how much the Bush presidency damaged perceptions of conservatism, even among Republicans, and made the old frame of fusionism impossible.

But that fusion was always weak and strained. As explained earlier, there was common cause with the religious right on national defense, limited government and family values, but the religious right had an expansive approach to family values that was not compatible with conservatism or with Gerson’s “moral aspiration rather than judgment.” Meanwhile, there are also the libertarians, who do not buy into the conventional understanding of “family values” at all. Libertarians want more autonomy than the religious right is prepared to grant. Libertarians also want nothing to do with an internationalist foreign policy.

The Republican party from 2008 to 2015 was an uneasy coalition of libertarians, the religious right and Chamber-of-Commerce types. Then Donald Trump came along.

Ask yourself why so many of Trump’s voters, even the middle class ones, are willing to listen when he says even something as big as a presidential election can be rigged against them. All this is happening because American society is in collapse, and no one trusts institutions or one another. It is due to the failure of government institutions, largely stood up by the progressive left, to live up to their promises of offering real economic security and education and the promise of a better life. It is due to the failure of corporate institutions, who have warped America’s capitalist system to benefit themselves at the expense of others. It is due to the failure of cultural institutions, like the church and community organizations, to help the people make sense of an anxious age.

All this is true, but doesn’t tell us how to go forward. And many conservatives have been more than willing to prostitute themselves, by being pro-business rather than pro-market, to green-light the efforts of corporate executives to “warp America’s capitalist system to benefit themselves at the expense of others” by fobbing risk off on others while keeping the reward for themselves. Libertarians have been especially susceptible on this issue.

So, while the institutional problems Domenech cites are very real, institutions are composed of people, who in turn are animated by ideas. Conservatism needs to do the soul-searching, to examine its ideas.

Buckley

Francis Buckley looked at thought leadership on both sides of the political spectrum and found a lot to dislike.

We had thought the Great Chain of Being washed away by the rise of science, by 18th-century philosophes such as Voltaire, by Jefferson and the Founders. But we were wrong. As long as there are elites, there will be people who think they deserve their place atop the greasy pole, that resistance is futile, that the underclass must learn where they naturally belong. And that’s what many of our left- and right-wing elites have come to believe.

Buckley’s criticism of the left is beyond the scope of this essay. His criticism of the right begins with a review of the criticisms made of the Trumpkins.

For George Will, they were “invertebrates.” For Charles Murray and Kevin Williamson, the story is one of white working-class vice, of drug use, divorce, and unwed births. If the underclass wasn’t working, that was its fault. After looking at one town, National Review’s Williamson wrote, “the truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. … Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin.”

I find that Williamson has a point when he says:

If you spend time in hardscrabble, white upstate New York, or eastern Kentucky, or my own native West Texas, and you take an honest look at the welfare dependency, the drug and alcohol addiction, the family anarchy — which is to say, the whelping of human children with all the respect and wisdom of a stray dog — you will come to an awful realization. It wasn’t Beijing. It wasn’t even Washington, as bad as Washington can be. It wasn’t immigrants from Mexico, excessive and problematic as our current immigration levels are. It wasn’t any of that.

If they are victims of anything, they are victims of a progressive education system that said it was OK to dissipate your disposable time on leisure and hitch yourself to the consumption-debt-repayment treadmill. People in the credentialed white-collar middle class who think they don’t have to confront the same problem have another think coming. At the same time, why should the white working class be exempt from the self-examination they would dish out to others: how long are you going to keep on being a victim? At what point do you stop being a victim of your upbringing, your culture and your education and assume moral responsibility for your own continued participation in it?

Charleroi, PA is 21 miles south of Pittsburgh. The town has experienced intense economic distress as a result of the decline in manufacturing in southwest Pennsylvania, The people there want to have their way of life protected in the face of these changes. OK, but if we are going to do that, would we do that for the people who live in the Core City neighborhood of Detroit? If not, where is the justice in that? Would that be racism? It is sure going to look racist to the people in Detroit. The Economist called it, “compassion for us; conservatism for them,” and rightly so.

I have my own take on this. I would have liked to continue to live in northern New Jersey, where I grew up, but I couldn’t afford it. So I had to make choices, and I did so — I moved. Staying is also a choice. You takes your choice, and you pays the price.

There is one more consideration, and it comes from David Wong:

If you don’t live in one of these small towns, you can’t understand the hopelessness. The vast majority of possible careers involve moving to the city, and around every city is now a hundred-foot wall called “Cost of Living.” Let’s say you’re a smart kid making $8 an hour at Walgreen’s and aspire to greater things. Fine, get ready to move yourself and your new baby into a 700-square-foot apartment for $1,200 a month, and to then pay double what you’re paying now for utilities, groceries, and babysitters. 

So it is a complex and messy issue with two parallel dimensions:

  • The ethical dimension, at the individual level, where I am more inclined to side with Williamson;
  • The political dimension, at the community level, where I am more receptive to Buckley. At the community level, there are also public policy issues. Do you want whole communities being abandoned because of economic dislocation? Where do they go?

Even though the specific issue here is more complex and muddy than Buckley probably has in mind, and even though I don’t think it fair to pick on Williamson, his main point is still valid:

Williamson reminds one of the unfeeling strain in contemporary conservatism. It’s something we’ve seen in Mitt Romney, Ted Cruz, Randians, and not a few libertarians. What Romney and Cruz communicated was a perfect fidelity to right-wing principles and an indifference to people.

As they sales proverb goes, “I don’t care how much you know until I know how much you care.” Politics is a people business. Ideas animate people, but the ideas come second to people.

In the interest of not making a long story even longer, I am going to skip forward to Buckley’s conclusion:

My atheist friends who themselves adhere to the highest codes of duty and honor might nevertheless want to consider how often they’ve observed antique republican virtue on display on college campuses or on television. What they’ve seen instead, for the most part, is the detritus of a culture that has lost its religious anchoring and with it any semblance of a moral culture.

They have dispensed with God and for their sophistication ask to be accepted by the intellectuals of the left as fellow members of a privileged elite in our Great Chain of Being. But in abandoning the religious tradition of the West, in their contempt for the invertebrates, the OxyContin sniffers, the takers, they reveal the icicle lodged in the conservative heart.

Before Conservatives can overcome any left-wing bias in the media or any other true-but-incidental issue in being heard, we have to overcome this. The vast majority of the electorate sees “the icicle lodged in the conservative heart,” and wants no part of it.

Is There Anything to Conserve?

What does the term Conservative even mean here in the US anymore? In Britain, at least, they are rigorous about their labels: Liberals were almost completely displaced by the Labor Party by 1924. Here, we are more sloppy with our words, and we pay a price for that.

After eighty-some years of Progressive government (it depends on what you count Herbert Hoover as), there is precious little left to conserve. Meanwhile, we have to come to terms with urbanization, specialization, autonomy and deep pluralism.

We need an ideology that really cares about people, not just one that does a bad job of trying to appear like it cares. We need to put all the productive people first, not just those who can be donors. Sheldon Adelson spent $150 million in 2012 and whiffed completely. His money did not help Romney defeat Obama, and he went 0-for-5 in congressional races. It’s still one person, one vote.

We need to be clear on the difference between pro-market and pro-business policies. We need to remind everyone constantly that a moral foundation of capitalism is that the people who bear the greatest risks have the greatest upsides. There will always be people who want to ditch the risk and keep the reward; it is bad public policy to let them do it.

That means that people who choose to earn a wage or a salary have chosen a lower-risk, lower-reward life. It is unethical to leave them exposed when trade policies change so that others can reap all the rewards in terms of profit and lower-cost consumer goods.

The majority of adults with whom I have spoken do not want those who genuinely cannot take care of themselves pushed to the wall. We need to lead the conversation on what “deserving” means. We are going to have to rebut the schoolmarms who want to take the side of whomever cries first.

We are going to have to face up to intellectual bullies who tell us, “Everyone knows John Rawls said …” We are going to have to push back more and take pushback better. We are going to have to control the language battlefield, or we will always be on ground of someone else’s choosing.

We need to stop the appalling waste of human lives that progressivism encourages. We have a drug problem in this country because we have the demand for drugs. We have a population insulated from risk living lives devoid of meaning, having no higher purpose than consumption and leisure, so they make problems for themselves. Did you ever see those videos on YouTube where they say that, by some year in the near future, India or China will have more honor students than we have students? We can’t afford our current levels of wasting people’s lives in such a world.

We can’t afford to tell people, “We’re not interested in what you can contribute because you have the wrong plumbing.” Or the wrong skin color. We can’t afford to have people who hate to go to work because they expect to be groped or humiliated or ridiculed for being who they are. Actually, we make people hate to go to work for a whole lot of reasons, but that is another essay for another day.

We need to humanize the costs of progressive policies. On Wednesday, the election will be over, but the problems will not. Progressives make more promises to more people, with continually less ability to make good on those promises. A regime based on redistribution will only lead to more intense and ugly fighting over a shrinking pie. A focus on production and the people who make it possible is the only way forward.

Written by srojak

November 6, 2016 at 8:02 pm

The Informed Celebrity Test

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There are many celebrities who appear to be confused. They think that they have a pulpit to pronounce on economics and politics because their celebrity status gives them access, whether or not they actually have any backing for their opinions.

Celebrities do not have a monopoly on being ill-informed. However, they have an ability to be heard that ordinary private citizens do not enjoy. They have a ready platform to get their message out and attempt to influence others. This platform is not available to the rest of us.

To compensate for the access advantages a celebrity has over any other citizen, I offer this simple test for celebrities to take before they tell the rest of us how we ought to vote. The positions taken are not as important as the support offered for them.

  1. The Department of Labor has announced changes to the regulations under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), to go into effect on 1 December 2016. Specifically, the earnings limit for salaried employees who must be paid overtime will be raised to $47,476/year, with an automatic adjustment every three years (at this writing, the limit is $23,660/year).
    1. Should a salaried employee receive overtime? Why or why not?
    2. What is the principle that guides your answer to the previous question?
    3. Under what constitutional authority is this change to the law being made?
    4. What are two regulations regarding labor and wages that the original FLSA, passed in 1938, established?
    5. Name two employer practices relating to wage payments for adult workers that used to occur before the 1930s and caused people to want federal labor law.
    6. The same change sets the income level of a “highly compensated employee” at $134,004/year, which is obtained by finding the 90th percentile of full-time salaried workers across the nation. What multiple of that number did you make last year?
  2. The Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case [558 U.S. 310] involves the regulation of political activity by organizations.
    1. The case was appealed when a lower court declined to provide injunctive relief to Citizens United. What was the Federal Election Commission doing that Citizens United sought an injunction to stop?
    2. What was the majority finding of the court?
    3. In the dissent authored by Justice Stevens, what differences between a corporation and a human person did he identify?
    4. Where do you put the boundary between free speech and “electioneering communication”? Does it matter who is doing the speaking? Explain.
    5. How does Congress direct and control the actions of the Federal Election Commission, including assertion of accountability by commissioners for their actions?
  3. The Kelo v. City of New London case [545 U.S. 469] involved a particular use of eminent domain by the City of New London, CT.
    1. What was the twist on eminent domain particular to this case?
    2. What was the majority opinion?
    3. In the dissent written by Justice O’Connor, what was her point?
    4. Must there be a public use to be a public purpose? Why or why not?
  4. There have been various public discussions this year as to whether one or the other of the major party candidates is unqualified to be President.
    1. What are the qualifications given by the Constitution for a President?
    2. What other qualifications would you assert? On what grounds?
  5. The US national debt is, at the time of this writing, $19.6 trillion.
    1. What is the difference between the debt and the budget deficit?
    2. About 88% of the federal budget is consumed by six major items. Name four.
    3. What are the three ways available to finance government operations?
    4. Do we ever have to pay down the debt? Could we just keep running it up for the foreseeable future? Explain.
    5. The Federal government has the exclusive authority to coin money? Could the government just print its way out of debt? Why or why not?
    6. If the Federal government just repudiated the debt, what would happen? Who would be affected?
  6. In most elections, including this one, there have been discussions about what the candidates will do to create jobs.
    1. What direct authority does the President have to create jobs?
    2. What means are available to the President to influence the creation of jobs?
    3. In the 1930s, several programs were created to put people to work during the Great Depression, most notably the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Do you think such programs could be used to effectively reduce unemployment on a permanent basis? Why or why not?

You have all the time you need.

Written by srojak

October 13, 2016 at 8:38 pm

Imagining American Studies

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I went out looking to see what college students are studying. I chose the University of Texas, whose students are sufficiently educated to walk around in public carrying dildos; besides, as a Texas taxpayer, I have some skin in the game here. I visited the American Studies course offerings, where I found courses on American history, and also courses like these:

AMS 311S • America’s Reality TV

30545 • Kantor, Julie
Meets MWF 2:00PM-3:00PM BUR 436A

Reality Television is the most ubiquitous and popular programming on American Television, garnering 50 percent of prime time viewers in 2013. Though most Americans claim hatred of reality shows, the influence of the programming and its reflection of American culture is undeniable; the shows’ mediated narratives reverberate with American’s desires, fears, and showcase our discourses and discursive production. Through the study of reality television, we can understand ideals and forms of American citizenship, race, gender, sexuality and class. This class will use a variety of disciplines, including American studies, media studies, anthropology, sociology, psychoanalysis, and theoretical lenses, such as affect, performance, and Foulcauldian genealogy to unpack the narratives produced by and around these shows. The class will look at a variety of reality programs, including makeover, identity-based (i.e. The Real Housewives, Shahs of Sunset), competition, and therapeutic shows (Hoarders, Intervention, Couples Therapy) to ask questions about American social life and culture. This class will also explore realms of culture and life where we can follow the bleed over of reality television; that these reality stars’ real lives are continually followed on and off the shows speaks to cultural obsessions and fixations that are a part of the reality of American lives.

This is porn. Students can watch reality TV and then come to class and signal their virtues by unpacking the narratives with the appropriate attitude of Foulcaudian disdain.

AMS 311S • Imagining Public Education

30565 • Pinkston, Caroline
Meets MWF 1:00PM-2:00PM BUR 436A

The last sixty years have been a remarkable and tumultuous period for American public education. From the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision to desegregate schools to the more recent controversies over charter schools and high-stakes testing, public education has spent much of the last half-century right in the middle of national debates about equality, justice, and democracy. A recurring narrative in these debates is that our public schools are failing, and that fixing them is crucial to solving other longstanding issues of poverty and racial injustice.

Where does this narrative come from?  What stories and images contribute to the way we understand the importance of public schooling and its apparent failures? What’s at stake when we imagine a “failing” public school – or, for that matter, a successful one?

This course will examine contesting representations of public school in American culture from the 1960’s to the present day.  This will not be a course in the history American education. Our main purpose, instead, will be to investigate cultural perceptions of the state of public education, in pop culture, in the news, and beyond. What’s the relationship between the stories we tell about public education, the policy that determines what happens in schools, and broader cultural anxieties about race, childhood, and social justice? We will consider sources including film and television, policy briefs & journalism, nonfiction texts & memoir, children’s literature & school curriculum.

Well, then a course in the history of American education is a necessary prerequisite, to provide some context for evaluating the various cultural perceptions rather than simply cataloging them and engaging in bull sessions about them.

AMS 321 • Bad Lang: Race, Class, Gender

30640 • Garza, Thomas
Meets MW 11:30AM-1:00PM CLA 0.126
(also listed as C L 323, LIN 350, MAS 374, REE 325, WGS 340)

Maledicta: (Latin. n., pl. maledictum, sg.), curse words, insults; profane language of all kinds.

When is a word “bad”? Why can one person use a “bad” word with impunity, and another cannot? What marks such usage as acceptable or not?  How do race, socioeconomic class, and gender play into the use of “bad” language in the US? This course undertakes the examination of modern usage of language that has been designated as “bad” through social convention. Usage of forms of obscenities and profanity in popular usage will be examined in an attempt to come to an understanding of how the products of US popular culture portray maledicta in situational contexts. Through an examination of various texts culled from print, film, and music, participants will study the context and use of “bad” language and attempt to determine the underlying principles that dictate its affect and determine its impact on the audience. Though the majority of texts and usage will be taken from English-language sources, several non-English examples of maledicta from Mexican Spanish and Russian will also be examined for contrast and comparison.

NB: This course examines texts that contain usage of obscenities, profanity, and offensive language. Students who do not wish to be exposed to such language in use should not sign up for this course.

From this you make a living?

If American Studies is meant to encompass contemporary as well as historical subject matter, I fail to see how it can be complete without understanding the area that is central to most Americans’ lives: working. In this light, I have some courses I would like to see offered that may deepen the students’ practical understanding of contemporary America:

AMS 330 • Crap Jobs

Students will work in retail and experience a rotating shift schedule, and will be expected to move their other commitments around to meet the demands of their assigned shifts. Students will interact with the public, reporting to sets of assistant managers with a variety of skill levels in management and personal interaction. The student must be employed at the job at the end of the term to receive a passing grade.

AMS 340 • The Job Site

Summer only

Students will work directly with skilled tradespeople in an open-air job site under the hot Texas sun. Students will experience the culture of the job site, where they will be outnumbered by people who do this for a living, and learn how the tradespeople transmit, uphold and enforce their cultural and behavioral norms on newcomers.The student must be employed at the job at the end of the term to receive a passing grade, and the workers will be aware of this.

Courses such as this might cause college students to learn a new meaning of the word privileged: being in college, you are privileged to have options other than these to look forward to for the rest of your life.

 

Written by srojak

August 28, 2016 at 11:50 am

Bad History

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This picture came my way on Facebook. It was too bad not to hang on to.

.. when you did what?

.. when you did what?

What’s wrong with it? Well, let’s review.

Ending the Depression

Roosevelt did not end the Depression; World War II did. See this article for the actual unemployment data.

Unemployment was never under 10% from the time FDR took office until war spending began in earnest in 1940. The economy went into a relapse in 1937, as Roosevelt’s Second New Deal created uncertainty and investment slowed. Amity Shlaes summarized it this way:

The story of the mid-1930s is the story of a heroic economy struggling to do recuperate but failing to do so because of perverse federal policy.
— Shlaes, The Forgotten Man, p. 392.

This is not a story you will hear on PBS specials or read in a high school textbook. But both the statistics and the memory of the generation that lived through the Depression substantiate it. My mother and others of her age cohort used to say that wars were good for the economy. That is obviously untrue: in a war, you take wealth out into a field and blow it up. But that is the way their generation experienced relief from the Great Depression.

Creating the Middle Class

In what universe do people making minimum wage constitute the middle class? The middle class as we came to know it by 1970 was created by World War II and the economic boom that followed it.

At the end of the war, it was not clear at all that there would be economic prosperity. The outcome considered most likely was inflation once prices were free to rise and money earned in wartime production that could not have been spent during the war was loosed to bid up prices. This did not happen, and the fact that it did not was the accomplishment of Harry Truman and Federal Reserve Chairman Marriner Eccles.

Ending Elderly Poverty

I reckon that this claim is factual, as far as it goes. Over the next 80 years, Social Security did end elderly poverty — by transferring wealth from the young. If this scheme were managed by a private enterprise, it would be fraud; but since the government is in charge, everything is just dandy.

Was Roosevelt a Socialist?

Many of his opponents accused Roosevelt of being a socialist, but the evidence does not really stack up.

You know I am a juggler, and I never let my right hand know what my left hand does … and furthermore I am perfectly willing to mislead and tell untruths if it will help win the war.
— FDR to Henry Morgenthau, 1942. Quoted in Fleming, The New Dealers’ War.

Before the war, Roosevelt was willing to mislead if it would help perpetuate him in office. Even if he had left a body of political thought, it would be risky to put too much stock in it. Roosevelt has to be evaluated on his actions.

The actions of the Roosevelt administration were fundamentally corporatist. Under corporatism, government, business, labor, education and social organizations would work together to plan the economy and implement these plans. What’s wrong with that? For starters, plan the economy is a pleasant euphemism for plan your daily life.

At the time, the smart money believed that planned states had inherent advantages over liberal republics because the former could realize cohesive action. This was augmented by the work of Ferdinand Tönnies (1855-1936), one of the early thinkers in sociology. Tönnies distinguished between the Gesellschaft and the Gemeinschaft. To give a quick-and-dirty distinction, think of the Gesellschaft as a market town or bustling port, whereas the Gemeinschaft is closer to a rural village with deep traditions, where “everybody knows everybody, and everybody looks after everybody.” Also where everybody sticks their nose into everybody else’s business, but some people like that.

 The 1930’s are remembered as the Red Decade. Democracy itself appeared to be inadequate to the task of managing the modern nation. The idea of Gemeinschaft was in vogue, and in Italy, Mussolini appeared to be having success implementing his vision of corporatism — if you didn’t look too closely or ask what happened to people who didn’t get with the program.

The form of U.S. corporatism was thus gradual, incremental, societal corporatism, not the abrupt, authoritarian state corporatism of so many of the interwar European countries. And it was “loose”: pragmatic, piecemeal, nonideological, pluralist, with few sanctions or tight controls, and very American. It tended to be advisory rather than compulsory, but that changed over time.
— Howard Wiarda, Corporatism and Comparative Politics, p. 138.

Corporatism offered Roosevelt limitless avenues to expand his power. The government could sit as mediator and honest broker in disputes between two large industries, or between big business and big labor.

However, World War II permanently associated corporatism with fascism, and the National Socialist implementation of Gemeinschaft led to war and genocide. That did not mean the methods had to be abandoned, just that they needed to be rebranded and repositioned.

Why Don’t People Know This?

Why should children believe what they learn in American history, if their textbooks are full of distortions and lies? Why should they bother to learn it?
Luckily, … they don’t.
— James Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me, p. 297.

Very few people want to hear that FDR’s programs were not effective in defeating the Depression. In part, this is because Progressives have a preponderance of control of the education system and the media, but there is a more basic reason. If it took a global war to see off the Depression of the 30’s, what will it take to defeat the next one? The fact is that we don’t know how to cure a large-scale economic depression, which is why government policy has been focused on making sure another one does not happen.

Books about the Roosevelt administration typically concentrate on what historians call the First New Deal, which ended in 1935 with the Schechter decision that voided Title I of the National Industrial Recovery Act. Jonathan Alter’s The Defining Moment focuses on the first Hundred Days. Adam Cohen’s Nothing to Fear contains one chapter that covers the time after 1933; it summarizes the standard legislative achievements that are revered among Progressives, including the Social Security Act, but does not discuss their effectiveness. Only Amity Shlaes stands out as a historian of the entire Depression.

The reason why we need to get the history right is simple. If we don’t even understand the history, we have almost no chance of learning from past mistakes. If we tell ourselves that the actions were not really mistakes, there is nothing to learn from.

Written by srojak

June 5, 2016 at 12:34 am

The Saturated Citizen

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How do We the People let this happen? Every presidential campaign appears worse than the last. The debates are largely content-free exercises in posturing. Very little time is spent on serious issues that are important to the future of the country.

Well, how would we change it? Most of us have lives. We have to earn a living and function. Let’s look at where the time goes.

We’ll start with eight hours of sleep a day. Some people need more, some less.

If you have a salaried job, your employer didn’t put you on salary to only get 40 hours a week from you, but to get more than that at a fixed price. Let’s say our citizen works 45 hours/week, plus an hour for lunch.

The average commute is around 22 minutes/day one way, so round up to one hour a day spent commuting.

Add in some time for daily preparation, other meals and tasks to operate the household. Here is the full picture:

Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat Sun Total
Sleep 8 8 8 8 8 8 8 56
Work 9 9 9 9 9 45
Lunch 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 7
Commute 1 1 1 1 1 5
Daily prep + breakfast 2 2 2 2 2 2 2 14
Dinner 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 7
Household 1 1 1 1 1 4 1 10
Sub Total 23 23 23 23 23 16 13 144
Total Available Hours 24 24 24 24 24 24 24 168
Discretionary Hours 1 1 1 1 1 8 11 24

I haven’t even considered kids in this model. Kids will blow this all to hell.

Discretionary hours are those not already committed, and include:

  • Having a marital relationship;
  • Worship;
  • Social activities;
  • Reinvestment in your career (you had better, if you want to be able to compete for jobs ten years from now);
  • Continuing education requirements for any professional certifications you may have;
  • Personal interests;
  • Volunteer work;
  • Citizenship;
  • Entertainment.

That leaves 24 hours a week, on a week in which nothing goes wrong that you have to manage the project of fixing. Five of those hours are on weekdays; they will be the first to be dissipated when you come home from work completely fried and can’t concentrate on anything. So our model citizen has 19 quality hours a week to allocate among all the competing claims.

Yes, there are optimizations you can do. You can eat your lunch at your desk and read, unless your co-workers consider you fair game for interruptions as long as they can find you. You can learn to read faster. You can work on getting by with less sleep. But there are many people who don’t have these options.

Let’s say you want to understand more about the 2008 financial crisis. You’ve heard about The Big Short by Michael Lewis, so you decide to read that. It’s about 290 pages long. If you’re typical, you can read 20-30 pages of a non-technical quality paperback an hour. Lewis is readable and accessible, so his writing won’t slow you down further. Still, you are looking at between ten and fifteen hours to read the book. If you have to spread that over multiple weekends, the amount of information you retain drops off. It’s worse if you have to spread the reading out over a couple months.

And once you’re done, what are you going to do with your newly acquired learning? Are you doing to hear the detailed plans of the presidential candidates for managing systemic risk in banking? Forget that noise. Are you going to hear financial policy issues discussed in accurate detail on cable TV news? Not likely.

Where are you going to get the information you can use now that you have this new processing apparatus? Do you have contacts in the Federal Reserve or the Treasury that can tell you what’s really going on? If not, what are you left with? I mean, besides a spouse who is mad at you for “blowing two days reading that stupid book.”

Or, how about taking some time to learn more about the Middle East. Where do you start? How do you tell the belligerents apart? How do you get oriented? Do you remember hearing anything in school about Mohammad Mosaddegh, the Suez Crisis, the Six-Day War or Black September? The people who live in the Middle East have deep, if biased, knowledge of these matters. Like Art Spiegelman, their fathers bleed history.

So if you’re an ordinary person having to earn your own way and solve your problems without a personal assistant or a graduate student, how do you manage this cyclone of data with its appallingly low signal/noise ratio? Under the circumstances, withdrawing or making surface judgments on perceptions are rational responses within the guidelines of the problem. Confronted with limited access to information, untrustworthy sources and limited time to invest in a situation over which you have little influence anyway, what other choices do you have?

It takes a lot to blast people out of this zone of indifference, and when it happens, the people to whom it happens are usually rather angry. If they weren’t angry, they would still be off living their lives and paying no attention to politics. Many of the people who have come out to Tea Party rallies never saw themselves as politically involved. They became politicized because they found the political situation of the country increasingly intolerable to them, until it tripped a switch and caused them to reallocate their discretionary time. Like any people who are newly politicized, sometimes they say questionable things. I’m sure that, if you dug up a recording of me in my twenties speaking, some of the things I said would make me wince uncomfortably.

Politicization is a process. People who are already in the political process have staying power, and they count on those who would challenge them losing interest. Anyone remember Occupy Wall Street?

Time is a scarce resource, just like money. People have to make economic decisions how to allocate their time. Look at their positions as economic agents and consider their alternatives.

Citizen involvement is a difficult problem. The Republic requires the consent of the governed, and does not work right if the governed do not understand what it is to which they are consenting. The solution is not clear, but it does not include blaming ordinary working people for failure to devote time they don’t have to digesting information that is not available to them to make a more informed choice among bad alternatives.

Written by srojak

April 9, 2016 at 1:47 pm