Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Day 1 Road Trip, April 24, 2012

Road Trip, Day 1

I thought I'd keep a log of a sort of my days on the road so that future historians might mine them for treasures of historical understanding of our life and times and how history is being made as I eject my few humble utterances. So at 8 am on April 24th, when I had planned to leave at around 7am, my wife--here named Sharon, which is code for Sharon--woke me by telling me it was 8 and had already left and driven for 20 minutes till she remembered I was to go with here.

She says she thought about it and decided, finally, after weighing a number of pros and cons, to go back and get me. At her clarion summoning, I neck sprang out of bed at 8:23 am, spent 10 minutes soothing the sprain in my neck from the spring, and then packed, dressed, washed up, had a bit of a bite, loaded my car, and at 9:15 am we were on the road again.

This first leg of the trip proved uneventful. It seemed to take forever to get out of Ontario and into the great state of New York. I seem to have met up with everyone known to drive a truck in and to Ontario. The U.S. border guy looked formidable packing heat and wearing his Cool Hand Luke, prison guard Ray Bans. Naturally, I was as polite and timid as I could be, not letting on my intent was to change history. Eventually he let us pass but not without the subtext that we had better "watch it." I mentioned these impressions to Sharon. She thought, as she usually does, that I was out of my mind.

We drove South to where the 190 meets the 90 and then headed west towards Pennslyvania and turned south on the 179 just before Erie and drive and drove. I talked Sharon out of stopping at mallish conclave of restaurants and gas stations and we drove some more looking for a similar mallish conclave but found none and finally turned off the road for some gas and a bite, got the gas but the fast food choices in dirt track Southern Pennsylvania were so depressing that sitting in a MacDonalds for even 15 or 20 minutes was 15 or 20 minutes were never going to get back, no matter how many lifetimes we lived. So we got our boot heels wandering outta' there.

We were past Pittsburgh anyway. Getting past it breaks the back of the trip from Toronto to West Virginia, so it was, so to speak, all downhill from there. So we turned east a spell and finally got to the beautiful rolling hills and forest clad piedmonts of West Virginia and at around 4:45 pm got to our first destination, Morgantown. But I have to backtrack a bit.

What's a road trip without attending to what you're listening to. We alternated among sometimes plummy and sometimes Rachel Maddowish perky NPR, classical music and some fifties Doo wop until we listened to a 55 minute CBC Ideas interview with David Frum and then another one with Deirdre (formerly David) McCloskey.  Frum of course is a fairly well known in certain circles, as Grace Paley would say, as a moderate, thoughtful Republican commentator, thinker, pundit and writer. He traced his own movement to conservatism from his own very liberal parents, trying to put flesh on the thesis he borrowed from Robert Skidlesky that we are, if we think try to think through the world, affected more by our times than by the immediate intellectual environment of our growing up. 

Frum came of intellectual age in the seventies, he recounts, when the big liberal solutions augured in by the reaction to the Depression and the end too of World War 11 were starting to fail domestically and internationally, and the intellectual ferment was on the right. One example he cites was the victory of Friedman's monetary policy approach to Keyne's governmental spending approach to deal with the seventies stagflation.

Frum argues that intellectual policy currents move from problems to problems, solving one set of problems, inevitably ushering new problems in their consequence, requiring then new policy solutions and so this kind of proaction reaction dynamic goes on. Frum says now the intellectual ferment seems on to be on the left but holds that ideas on the right--limited government, individual initiative, innovation, entrepreneurial genius fueled by markets, the bourgeois virtues,  strong national defence and the like- are best for the long term. Frum said the reason he doesn't move to Canada is that he's steeped in the American debate and fulfills himself arguing for, and trying to lend his influence for, his conception of a moderate conservatism and Republicanism.

From Frum to McCloskey is a natural transition. She's a plain spoken full professor at the University of Illinois teaching, what a bouquet, economics, English, communications and history. She was at the University of Chicago in the days when the monetary policy Frum describes took began taking hold. She's a self described libertarian of the motherly type, not each for himself type but one, like Hayek, wants a social safety net to buoy the worst off but insistently wants to escape the tentacles of a entitlement prone, welfare society. So she doesn't have, as Frum doesn't have, doctrinaire views about keeping taxes excessively low on the wealthy or about never raising them. 

She makes two specific arguments of note, the first enhancing the conditions for the second. More, I suspect, economic historian than pure economist, her first point is that even before the enlightenment Northern and Western European countries made what she calls the " bourgeois deal." Under it society increasingly accorded farmers and laborers and tradesmen dignity and freedom to do as they would in all the "lys"--personally, culturally, socially and economically. Other areas of the world had comparable economic conditions to Northern Europe but no such deal was then struck. The deal was a unique and contingent happening. It arose, inverting Hegel and Marx, in virtue of the increasing rhetoric of freedom and individual humanity. Her argument is that that, and any such, rhetoric comes into the culture via the arts and given the proper contingencies prevails. So the deal was struck: the according of dignity and freedoms to the bourgeoisie led to there payment in return: the unleashing of their innovative genius. Innovation is

McCloskey's second point. It is unleashed by the space given to them by their side of the bargain and as described by the classical liberalism. Innovation, and hence it's enabling conditions, form McCloskey's "golden goose." She is optimistic about its possibilities today and heralds Schumpeter's idea of "creative destruction."  While expressing compassion for those bearing the brunt of economic transformation in the lessened need American need for "strong back labour," she sees relentless innovation as the engine of broadening economic possibility. 

Her argument continues that the bourgeois deal led to the growth of what she calls the  "bourgeois verities," values such as thrift, trustworthiness, enterprise, diligence, risk taking, innovating and the disciplined forbearance to implement innovation and like virtues which are necessary to productive commerce and capitalist success. Hence her recent book, the densely argued The Bourgeois Virtues.

In heralding them, she joins Frum's extolling of the values and ideas which he argues underlie conservatism and neo classical liberalism. Finally,  consistent with her argument, she fears the present public rhetoric of doom and gloom as holding within itself the seeds of a self fulfilling prophecy. Andy like Frum she sees herself as fighting the doom and gloom, as fighting for a buoying art of optimism and as a voice in the army fighting for a burgeoning future.

Thus endeth the backtrack.

We wound up in Morgantown's best hotel, absolutely nice enough, settled in, went for an introductory walk about and went up and down High Street, the town's main street. There was a mix of students walking about, the legions of fast and cheap food places, mixed with a seeming impoverished citizenry, predominately white, poorly dresses, many obese, and the downtown reinforcing my impression of West Virginia as a poor state, and one particularly devastated by the recession and the loss of laboring jobs, McCloskey's arguments notwithstanding.

Overarching theory is one thing; the harshness of consequences are something else. We had a bite to eat on a deck overlooking the Monongahela River and then headed back to our hotel and not long after, around 10:30 pm were asleep afte an incredibly full day.

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