Time Capsule, Pt. 2

I was moderately disappointed on Christmas Eve that I no longer felt the wide-eyed enthusiasm for Christmas morning that I used to, when I would wake up at 4 a.m. to be begin a second-by-second countdown until 6 a.m., when my parents agreed to be woken up to open stockings. Three days later, that feeling of excitement is back: I leave for Thailand in just an hour (and am arriving in just thirty-nine)!

I can’t imagine I will have much time to post updates while I’m in Thailand. In the meantime, here are my ten favorite books.  Some of them I might even recommend you read:

1. Animal Liberation – Peter Singer
“Will our tyranny continue, proving that morality counts for nothing when it clashes with self interest? Or will we rise to the challenge and prove our capacity for genuine altruism by ending our ruthless exploitation of the species in our power? The way in which we answer this question depends on the way in which each one of us, individually, answers it.” There is only one book that I can genuinely say continues to have an observable, daily impact on my life years later. This is it. While I don’t much like the idea of forcing everyone in the world to read one book, I do think that everyone should force him or herself to confront the ethical implications of their diet, and in that respect, Animal Liberation is a good place to start.

2. Cry the Beloved Country – Alan Paton
“I have one great fear in my heart, that one day when they are turned to loving, they will find that we are turned to hating.” As this list betrays, I am not really one for novels, and I have never been very good at appreciating fiction. The non-non-fiction books that do capture me are those that pull broad social justice issues down to a human scale. Looking over it again, I realize that this tale of racism and humanity in South Africa is as poignant as ever.

3. The Perfect Mile – Neal Bascomb
“Now, bid thee run, and I will strive with thing impossible.” My parents gave me this book—the story of Oxonian Roger Bannister’s successful quest to run a four minute mile—for Christmas my senior year of high school. I forced myself to read only a chapter of it a night; by the end of twenty pages, my heart was usually racing and I wanted to go do a midnight track workout.

4. The Great Transformation – Karl Polanyi
“No society could stand the effects of such a system of crude fictions even for the shortest stretch of time unless its human and natural substance … was protected against the ravages of this satanic mill.” I’ve read many, many critiques of capitalism, and the majority of them are polemical and simplistic. This one is nuanced and creative. Polanyi’s historical account of how markets gradually erode human society and culture seems even more relevant 70 years later in the era of bank bailouts and mass consumerism.

5. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban – J.K. Rowlings
“You look in excellent health to me, Potter, so you will excuse me if I don’t let you off homework today. I assure you that if you die, you need not hand it in.” Now, I know that everyone says this, but I totally jumped on the Harry Potter bandwagon before the rest of society did (seriously, I remember buying the second book upon release…) Later installments were more epic, but I love this one because, for me, it marks the point where I realized the series was not just a collection of amusing children’s books, but also a literary masterpiece.

6. Possibilities – David Graeber
“I am drawn to anthropology because it opens windows on other possible forms of human social existence; because it serves as a constant reminder that most of what we assume to be immutable has been, in other times and places, arranged quite differently, and therefore, that human possibilities are in almost every way greater than we ordinarily imagine.” Denied tenure from Yale for spending his time organizing against the WTO with anarchists rather than publishing in reputable journals, David Graeber is, to me, a true example of the power of academics to go beyond ivory tower theory and have a real impact on the world.

7. Ishmael – Daniel Quinn
“Man’s destiny was to conquer and rule the world, and this is what he’s done–almost. He hasn’t quite made it, and it looks as though this may be his undoing.” This book is a mind-blowing challenge to the fundamental tenets of civilization and the value of “growth” and “progress.” I read this book at a time where it was gradually occurring to me that saving the planet meant changing a lot more than lightbulbs: no wonder it is a favorite among the freegans.

8. The BFG – Roald Dahl
“The matter with human beans is that they is absolutely refusing to believe in anything unless they is actually seeing it right in front of their own schnozzles.” Best children’s book ever, plus words like “whizzpoppers” and “Her Majester” come in handy when living in England.

9. Vita – Joao Biehl
“One wonders what kind of political, economic, medical, and social order could allow the disposal of The Other, without indicting itself.” Joao Biehl is a professor at Princeton who taught one of my all-time favorite courses, Anthropology of Globalization. His book exposes the way that the globalized world renders entire categories of people invisible, and he does it by revealing the single story of a woman living in a mental hospital in Brazil.

10. To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.” If I ever go to law school and become a lawyer, I want to be like Atticus Finch. It’s impressive when someone is both a role model and, well, fictional.

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Soundtrack: Chuck Ragan – California Burritos

Time Capsule: Pt. 1

If I actually kept careful track of how I spend my days, I am sure the result would be that I overwhelming pass through twenty-four hours by reading and listening to music (usually both at the same time). As I reflect on my rapidly-ending year, then, I figure the best way to capture this moment is to take stock of my all-time favorite albums and books. Aside from the sentimental value, there’s also the future hilarity of it: I can already look at my old journal and enjoy a hearty laugh at the crap I used to listen to (and how much of it is the same crap I still listen to). I’m also inspired into doing this by this really cool blog by the lead singer of the band Paint It Black, who is introducing his newborn daughter to punk rock with one seminal record per day.

Hopefully, with an early start, 2 year old Claire (my niece) will not listen to crap music [photo taken by Abby, age 6

1. Bad Religion – Suffer
What other band in the world could write these lyrics and still sound cool: “I am just an atom in an ectoplasmic sea / Without direction or a reason to exist / The anechoic nebula rotating in my brain / Is persuading me, contritely, to persist”? Although the fact that this album spawned literally hundreds of So-Cal punk bands counts too, I think the use of “anechoic” earns it a place in and of itself.

2. Against Me! – Reinventing Axel Rose
“Let’s make everybody sing / That they are the beginning and ending of everything / That we all are stronger than everything they taught us that we should fear.” With their recent major label 10-track-long-vomit-attack, Against Me! are now betraying their own commitment to relentlessly DIY music, but that still hasn’t ruined this cowboy/anarcho/acoustic-fusion punk album for me.  If I ever drove off a cliff, I’d want to be listening to track three: “We Laugh At Danger and Break All The Rules.”

3. Bouncing Souls – How I Spent My Summer Vacation
“I’m no good / You’re no better / Wouldn’t we be perfect together?” Although the Bouncing Souls are a solid twenty years older than me, I feel like we’re growing older together: songs I used to think were juvenile now strike me as heartfelt and profound. They capture perfectly the tension between becoming more mature and thoughtful and wanting to stay a goofball. It’s also hard for me to separate their music from how genuinely loveable they are onstage.  So rad!

4. The Unseen – State of Discontent
“Stumble and fail or reach the sky / You’ll never know unless you try / Dealt misery while some are blessed / Who measures failure, what is success?” This may rank, to the lay-person, as the most unlistenable of my favorite albums (you should hear their earlier stuff…). The first time I heard this album, I was driving through the desert and could afford to crank the volume up to near maximum. It remains a fantastic scream-along for all those moments when the world just deserves to be yelled at.

5. The Gaslight Anthem – Sink or Swim
“As heard by my wild young heart / Like directions on a cold dark night, Sayin’, ‘Let it out… You’re doin’ all right.’ / And I carried these songs like a comfort wherever I’d go.” Gaslight’s lead singer, Brian Fallon, has an eternal place in my heart for a) mentioning several Northeast Corridor Jersey Transit stops in a single song and b) taking Jackie’s song request during his acoustic set.

6. Propagandhi – Supporting Caste
“A piece of advice / If you’re cast on thin ice / You may as well dance.” Propagandhi pulled off a perhaps unparalleled feat in their recent album by singing about anarchism and not seeming stupid while doing it. They also wrote a song about (humanely) killing and eating Michael Pollan and Sandor Katz, two prominent advocates of post-vegetarianism. I’m pretty sure that’s the secret fantasy of most frustrated vegan activists.

7. Rise Against – Revolutions Per Minute
“In a world void of feeling or heart / I know that we are the torches in the dark.” My freshman summer, Matt, Joe, and I half-seriously attempted to start a band in my garage, without a proper drum set, amps, or a microphone. I did it in part with the hope that someday I would be able to play songs like Rise Against and have the impact on a crowd of kids the way they impacted me. I didn’t discover them early enough to say they were the soundtrack to my growing up, but I wish they had been.

8. Conflict – Deploying All Means Necessary
“When life’s not making any sense and you’re filled with anger and resent / Remember love can conquer all / It is the start of state hates’ final fall.” Get this: I moved to the United Kingdom about fifty percent because I got a scholarship to study something that fascinates me at a renowned university, and fifty percent because I wanted to go see Conflict live. And yet, somehow, shortly before my arrival, Conflict—a punk rock institution that has transcended line-up changes and state repression for 30 years—broke up. Bullocks.

9. Andrew Jackson Jihad – People Who Can Eat People Are The Luckiest People In The World
“Rejoice despite the fact this world will kill you / Rejoice despite the fact this world will tear you to shreds / Rejoice because you’re trying your best.” AJJ get points for the ridiculous band name, possibly more ridiculous album name, and simultaneously absurdly pessimistic and heartening lyrics. The fact that a guy with an acoustic guitar singing about god backed up by another guy with an up-right bass can be considered a “punk band” is, in my opinion, a true testament to the scene.

10. Rancid – …And Out Come The Wolves
“Destination unknown.” Tim Armstrong wins the award for simultaneous worst / best / no, actually worst voice in punk rock. And yet somehow, between the mumbled lyrics and Tim’s apparent unwillingness to play his guitar onstage, they totally rock.

Hono(u)rable Mentions: Strike Anywhere – Iron Front, Subhumans – Worlds Apart, NOFX – The Decline, Bomb the Music Industry! – Goodbye Cool World, Minor Threat – Complete Discography, Alkaline Trio – Goddamnit.

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Oh! Also, in an effort to improve this blog’s procrastination utility (for me, that is) I have decided to add in the “feature” of my old live journal – current music! This will provide more irrelevant information no one cares about (is there any other kind on here?).

Soundtrack: Strike Anywhere – Postcards from Home

If I actually kept careful track of how I spend my days, I am sure the result would be that I overwhelming pass through twenty-four hours by reading and listening to music (usually both at the same time). As I reflect on my rapidly-ending year, then, I figure the best way to capture this moment is to take stock of my all-time favorite albums and books. Aside from the sentimental value, there’s also the future hilarity of it: I can already look at my old journal and enjoy a hearty laugh at the crap I used to listen to (and how much of it is the same crap I still listen to). I’m also inspired into doing this by this really cool blog by the lead singer of the band Paint It Black, who is introducing his newborn daughter to punk rock with one seminal record per day.

U.S. vs. U.K. – Head to Head

After much exhaustive research, I have come to some definitive conclusions about the relative superiority of British and American culture. My anthropological training has prepared me to handle such a delicate issue with both grace and cultural sensitivity, so there are no sweeping generalizations made below.

vs

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Food: On the one hand, I appreciate that in the U.K. vegetarian items are labeled on menus. On the other hand, I do not appreciate that most grocery stores have fourteen different flavo(u)rs of breadcrumbs but only one crappy brand of tofu. Also, “It’s getting better” is not an appropriate defense of a national cuisine.
Advantage – U.S.

Politics: Most right-leaning Tories would be considered tree-hugging gay-loving tax-and-spend bleeding-heart knee-jerk-liberal socialists in the U.S.
Advantage – U.K.

Size: The U.K. is comically small, and they don’t even know it. When I explain that the United Kingdom is the same size of my state, the typical response is, “Wait, aren’t there like fifty of those?”
Advantage – U.S.

Music: Everyone knows the Sex Pistols wiped the floor with the Ramones.
Advantage – U.K.

Weather: Initially, I found great comedic value in waking up to a beautiful clear sunrise (at 9 a.m.) and then, by the time I managed to get dressed and out the door, having to face an endless grey drizzle. That said, I have been to many places in the U.S. and never, ever found a place where the weather is even half as shitty. Hey, at that latitude, I guess I should be grateful it’s even habitable.
Advantage – U.S.

Socialized Medicine: They have it, we don’t.
Advantage – Canada.

Beer: I am fairly certain that most of the English undergraduates, in a blind taste test, could not correctly identify Milwaukee’s Best or Natural Ice as “beer.” Actually, I don’t think that they would think it was beer even if it weren’t a blind taste test. I think that tells us something.
Advantage – U.K.

Use of the(u) Engli(u)sh La(u)nguage: “Naff”, “Faffing”, and “Lergie” are all excellent words that I’m going to have to make happen in the U.S. upon my return. On the other hand, those extra “u”s—shockingly—don’t really add or clarify anything. I think the final deciding point for me is the fact that “rising bollard” and “humped zebras” are hilarious terms that the English have managed to work into traffic signage.
Advantage – U.K.

Grading System: When I got back my first paper with a “68” written on front, I panicked, calculating that this roughly worked out to a “D+.” I was subsequently told that’s actually a good grade. While all grading systems are arbitrary, what’s the use of a 100 point grading scale when you only use the range between 60 and 70?
Advantage – U.S.

Monarchy: is stupid.
Advantage – U.S.
Tea: is still tasteless.
Advantage – U.S.

Living in a state of denial: People in the U.K. don’t believe their island is part of Europe. Half of Americans don’t believe in climate change or dinosaurs.
Advantage – U.K.

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In my rigorous process of swapping writing about thing I like / annoy me about the United Kingdom, I have shockingly wound up with more “Advantage U.S.”, which is completely terrifying. However, the beer in the U.K. is a lot better, so I’ll call it a tie. I guess they’ll just have to fight it out 1812 style.

Merry (Happy in the U.K.) Christmas everybody!

Indulgences

“We could live off of dumpsters if we have to
Sell our blood by the pint to make rent
This kind of dignity doesn’t come easy
But you’ll never find it for sale”
- Against Me!

One of the things that surprised me in Uganda was that there were no beggars. I expected Kampala, the capitol city of the seventeenth poorest country in the world, to have exponentially more panhandlers than New York, but it didn’t. In fact, I think I only ran into one during my entire time in Uganda, but the experience has stuck with me.

I was rushing around the busy downtown district, trying to patch one of the many leaks in the perpetually sinking ship that was our project. I practically stepped on him: a kid, no older than three or four, draped in a dirty oversized t-shirt, sitting square in the middle of the sidewalk. His hands were cupped and arms outstretched. It was such a clichéd image, except it was real: it could have been part of an appeal from a Christian Children’s Fund television commercial, except the backdrop was so incongruous. Businessmen and women wearing crisp suits and yammering into cell-phones were charging past on either side, washing around him by just enough to avoid stepping on him. The setting was Kampala at its most modern, but the kid was practically an archetype of the sort of African poverty that Western bleeding-hearts find so gut-wrenching.

Frantic and sleep-deprived as I was, I still felt like I had to do something. I reached into my wallet, pulled out a thousand shillings, plopped it into his hands, and hustled off. An hour later, I was coming back. The kid was still there. The bill was crumpled in his hands, and he was just staring at it. There were many things I could have done at that moment—taking my money back and using it to buy him some food would have been a good start—but I was in a hurry. I put him behind me and settled into the throng walking by. To this day, I can’t imagine why I thought one thousand shillings would be enough to buy myself a clear conscience.

That is not to say, though, that money cannot assuage guilt. I knew my twin flights home and to Thailand over this break were bad from an ecological point of view, but I didn’t realize how bad until I actually calculated it. With disconcerting precision—factoring in the type of ticket, layovers, and type of jet—I was able to determine the precise footprint of my trips: ten-thousand kilograms of carbon dioxide.  In forty hours of flight time, I am responsible for four times the amount reduced by an entire year of my being vegan, five times the sustainable yearly output for each person on the planet, and one-hundred times the average emissions of a sub-Sahran African.

I can do more than just quantify my guilt: I can put a price on it. I really hate the idea of carbon offsets. There is something painfully cavalier about it, the arrogance of believing we can continue to drive SUVs and build huge houses and think that, at the end, we can make our sins invisible with a credit-card transfer. But, acknowledging that I can’t undo my trips—and don’t really want to—sending some money towards reforestation in Brazil and clean energy in India seemed like the least-bad option left.  Indeed, for a few extra dollars, I could go above and beyond simply offsetting my flights, towards actually reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. I guess sometimes dignity can be bought.

I still feel bad about that kid, though.

Desert Island

For the past three years, I haven’t asked for anything for Christmas. Partly, this is just an inevitable consequence of gradually maturing beyond the age where the prospect of a gigantic Lego set is enough to keep me up on Christmas Eve. In part, though, it’s also because I’ve consciously been rejecting the idea of presents—not just because I resent that Christmas has been co-opted by consumerism (I think a lot of people do), but because I resent consumerism in general.

In a moment of Grinch-inspired eco self-congratulation, I was thinking about the possessions I would really want if I were stranded on a desert island, and figured it’s a fairly limited list. I’d be content if I could have some seitan and tempeh, a few (boring, academic) volumes of sociology, my bass guitar, and a few photos. If you add in a few pints at the pub a month, you actually have a reasonably good accounting of the things I actually still buy. My vices are (vegan) food, books, and the occasional album off of iTunes.

At least in the Al Gore, twenty-little-things-you-can-do-to-save-the-planet sense of being environmentally conscious, I think I am doing pretty well. I’ve gotten to the point where I am so plastic-bag-phobic that I will walk around Oxford with an absurd number of groceries in my hands if I left my cloth bags at home. I make loads of passive aggressive comments about the pile of disposable coffee cups my fellow students burn through during our mid-seminar breaks, and make sure to bring my re-usable mug. I’m militant about turning off the lights, taking short showers, and maintaining a low-carbon-footprint diet. And, of course, I try not to buy a lot of useless crap.

Someone in my department sent me a nice e-mail the other day, stating that she thought my commitment to living my principles was admirable. I really appreciated it, but I can’t help feel like a bit of a fraud. As with many things in life, though, I feel like winning small battles doesn’t change the outcome of the war. Author Derek Jensen crunched some numbers of the greenhouse gas reductions that would occur if every American did the little things were supposed to: changed light bulbs, cut car miles, recycled, switched to low flow showerheads, turned down the thermostat, etc. His final figure is that—even in the most optimistic scenario—it would only cut our greenhouse gases by about twenty percent.

I calculated my carbon footprint every night and—despite registering the most pro-environmental practices possible on everything from recycling to diet—we would need to have six earths to support six billion me’s. It’s disheartening because it makes me realize that my big impact comes just through my existence: the little things don’t matter so long as I live in a big house, wear clothes made in factories, and fly home for Christmas. The problem is that I’m a white, Western male, not that I’m a conscientious or unconscientious one.

In short, I realize that in reality, the only way for me to live in accordance with my principles is to go live on a desert island.

Killing Off “Dead Aid”

The book Dead Aid is totally hot right now.

Now, I realize this statement isn’t actually true, and that most people have no idea what I’m talking about.  While Dead Aid may have cracked twenty-ninth on the New York Times bestseller list, and its author Dambisa Moyo was labeled one of 2009’s most important figures, it would probably be an overstatement to say the book has taken the world by storm.  From my vantage point within the development community, though, it might as well have.  Dead Aid has caused loads of hand-wringing among development experts, given anti-aid pundits cause for celebration, and even prompted an angry response from Bono.  And, as you might have guessed, it is the subject of this post (and, I should note, about a zillion others on other blogs about development… but what’s the harm in one more?)

Moyo’s book starts with a bold hypothetical scenario.  What if, she asks, every African government received a phone call from its current donors, announcing that the pipelines of foreign aid would be shut off in the next five years?  Apparently everything in Africa would be better!  Her argument is, basically, that foreign aid has not just failed to fix Africa’s problems—practically everyone acknowledges that—but that aid is the problem, and that without it, conflict, corruption, and poverty would abate and gradually disappear.

There is plenty of room for nitpicking individual elements of Dead Aid. For example, Moyo validly points out that foreign aid short-circuits the usual relationship between states and citizens, since aid-dependent states are ultimately more beholden to donors than taxpayers.  It’s not clear to me, though, how Moyo’s panacea-of-choice, private investment, would fix that: is it better to be beholden to Goldman Sach’s than the IMF?  Her celebration of the wonders of international finance runs into a classic chicken-and-egg problem: no foreigner wants to invest in Africa, she points out, because most countries in Africa lack a functioning government and have decaying infrastructure.  How does she propose to fix them?  Foreign investment!  I could go on.  There is a cheap shot to be made against the book’s fatuous celebration of “benevolent dictatorship” as the ideal form of government for ramming through development programs (well, duh, but dictatorship is rarely benevolent), and the rest of the book is rife with factual errors.

My biggest criticism, though, stems from the very statistic at the heart of Dead Aid: that one trillion dollars has been given to sub-Saharan Africa in foreign aid since World War II, and yet Africa is still poor.  Without question, $1,000,000,000,000 is a lot of money: with that many dollars, you could bail out America’s banks, finance two wars in the Middle East, or (not) reform the U.S. health care system.  Still, relative to the size of Sub-Saharan Africa’s GDP, one trillion dollars over the course of a half-century is not that much: in fact, however poor we think sub-Saharan Africa is, it’s 700 million inhabitants produce more than a trillion dollars in output per year.  To put aid flows in perspective, the U.S. has given more aid to South Korea alone since World War II than to all of Sub-Saharan Africa combined.

It is difficult to find accurate numbers on yearly aid, but for the sake of argument, I’ll use Moyo’s.  Aid, she states, comes to a “staggering” $20 per capita per year in Africa—but that’s only about 2% of income.  Personal savings and foreign investment are, by comparison, much more significant components of the economy.  My own impression, from my time in Uganda, is that the reach of foreign aid is really quite limited.  While Kampala—Uganda’s capital city—is crawling with non-profits and aid organizations, in the countryside, most people have never been touched by a development project.  When compared to the reach of coca-cola, the catholic church, or telecommunications corporations, aid-finance development programs seem localized, scattered, and scarce.

While criticisms of how aid has been used may very well be valid, aid is, in truth, only a small part of the equation in Africa.  The urgency of Africa’s problems inevitably prompts the search for simple, actionable solutions, which requires a clear scapegoat.  Capitalism, corruption, AIDS, the IMF, tribalism, climate, colonialism, and foreign aid—all of these have, at one time or another, been considered the single root of Africa’s problems.  The reality, of course, is that all probably play a part.  To blame foreign aid for all of a continent’s woes is to miss entirely this complexity.

What then is—and should be—the role of foreign aid?  I am inclined to agree with Oxford economics Paul Collier that while aid may not have solved many problems, the situation in Africa would probably be far worse without it.  It is no coincidence that in the ’80s and ’90s, as foreign aid dropped by a third, Africa slid backward on a whole host of development indicators and experienced negative growth.  Whether or not aid has brought development, in the last decade, it has certainly delivered food aid, anti-retrovirals, and mosquito nets–and there is value to saving lives, whether or not it has come with industrialization and development.

Aid has not delivered prosperity to Africa, but as Jeffrey Sachs points out, “It is no surprise that there is so little to show for the aid of Africa, because there has in fact been so little aid to Africa.”  It should be a shock to no one that the .2% of GDP we transfer to developing nations per year is not sufficient to create development in a continent that has so many economic, ecological, and historical factors stacked against it.  While I think we should be cautious about the power of aid—and skeptical that it can achieve much without a radical reconfiguring of the global economy and a drastic reconsideration of how it is delivered—I don’t think we can blame aid for Africa’s problems when we have never, seriously, tried it.

Some Meta-Blogging About Blogging

Yeah! Dental surgery enthusiasm!

I am excited to report that I am back in the United States and even very nearly healthy.  My parents decided to celebrate my return by scheduling me to have my wisdom teeth out, despite my protestations that pre-historic (or, pre-dental surgery) humans must have had some way of surviving with their wisdom teeth firmly lodged in-mouth.  Immediately post-operation, I declared to my mother that surgery was “the best experience of my life,” though my positive assessment has diminished somewhat as the anesthetic has worn off, my cheeks have swelled to outrageous proportions, and I begin to go insane for lack of exercise and / or solid food.

Still, being home is a welcome respite from some of the things that have been causing me to feel so confused and directionless.  I’ve spent most of the last two days curled up in bed, watching The Office with my geriatric toothless Chihuahua by my side, or (voluntarily) reading books on development that I haven’t had a chance to get around to considering.

Willy's inability to keep his tongue in his mouth makes me feel a lot less stupid looking.

I had a strange experience the other day.  Wordpress has this feature where it provides a graph of the number of hits a blog receives per day.  I try to avoid looking at it, but curiosity got the better of me.  To my shock, I discovered that some people actually read what I’m writing. I’m not quite at a Daily Kos level of readership, but I seem to be getting more hits a day than can be accounted for by my girlfriend and parents. This is, on reflection, kind of disconcerting.

I kept a blog in high school, but stopped writing when I realized it had just become a chronicle of my teenage angst.  This summer, as the nostalgia of graduation started to hit me, I spent some time looking over my journal, and realized that there are entire portions of my college career of which I have no record.  I regret that these times are, in a sense, lost.  The angst is, in retrospect, kind of fun to read about, and in periods like this, even gives me a sense that everything will turn out okay, since I’ve felt this way before.

I started writing this blog mostly to chronicle the ups and downs of graduate school in a foreign country, assuming that if I made it public I would feel more inclination to actually write something.  The opportunity to vent politically and (attempt to) improve my writing skills is a bonus.  And thus was born this eclectic mix of overly personal soul-bearing and off-the-deep-end political screeds.  I suppose that anyone reading this thing regularly can probably find cause to think less of me for it!  At the very least, this will serve to ensure that I can never, ever, ever run for public office in the U.S., which is probably for the best.

That said, thank you to any of you reading this.  It’s flattering that someone out there thinks I have something to say, and I am always grateful when you comment and respond.  This sort of thing is incredibly self-indulgent, but it has also been rewarding.  Being home doesn’t provide much fodder for interesting posting, but I’ll be writing up some thoughts I have on development over the next few days.

And now, back to The Office.

A wholly unsatisfying (for the reader, that is) treatise on the NHS

Great Britain’s National Health Service is (choose one):

  1. A shining example of the power of government to provide health care for everyone.
  2. A bloated and sclerotic bureaucracy which demonstrates the impossibility of effective socialized medicine.
  3. Both

As the debate over health care reaches new heights of absurdity—with the label “socialized medicine” continuing to be the ultimate insult—I figured its time I share my experience with Britain’s National Health Service.  Given that the NHS has been characterized as anything from “evil and Orwellian” to one of civilization’s “greatest achievement,” I am cognizant that I am not able to add anything profound to the debate.  And, to some extent, the fact that I can’t offer anything of substance is, at least obliquely, the point of this post (read on!)

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Although I very much want to be a believer in socialized medicine, I had heard stories about the NHS—byzantine bureaucracy and endless waits—before I came here.  As a result, I was a bit tentative when the time came for my first encounter with the fabled system.  This cross-cultural experience came when my I was down to just a few weeks left of my medication, I decided to walk over the surgery (British for doctor’s office) affiliated with Worcester College.  I went to the desk asking for an appointment, expecting that, with luck, I might get an appointment for the next month.  To my surprise, the medical assistant booked me for that afternoon.  I was keenly attuned to notice any differences, anything with which I wasn’t familiar, but up through seeing the doctor, I couldn’t much tell that I wasn’t at home in the U.S.

After I saw the doctor, I returned to the front desk.  After standing for a few seconds, awkwardly, the clerk turned to me and asked if she could help me.  I said something to the tune of “I’d like to pay now.”  She clearly didn’t understand what I was talking about, so I prompted, “Will you send the bill to my address?”  While I knew that health care in the U.K. was publicly subsidized, I found it hard to imagine that I – not an English taxpayer and not a resident – could possibly get off so easily.  Despite my best efforts, though, I left without spending a penny.  Nonetheless, I figured that the charges would hit me when it came time to fill my prescription.  I walked to the chemist, and handed over my script.  I asked how much it would cost and—without even bothering to check what medicine I was ordering—the clerk told me £7.20, the price of nearly all medications in the U.K.

I can’t help but draw some comparisons to the United States, where I am, supposedly, one of the “winners” of the private health care system.  I’ve been on my parents’ high quality insurance before I was born, and have never thought twice about medical care because of cost.  For me, though, the contrast between health care in the U.S. and U.K. is both quantifiable and undeniable: what cost me £7.20 in the U.K. would have cost me $160 in co-pays in the U.S. (insurance covers a whopping $26—thank you Aetna!)  While my insurance isn’t paying for my medication, they are busily sending me notices attempting to get me to help them sue the insurance company of the guy who I ran into during reunions at Princeton, which is idiotic.  Moreover, I’m getting my wisdom teeth out over break—which is totally unnecessary at this point in time—because come my 23rd birthday, I will be off my parents’ insurance and have no coverage when I am in the U.S.

In short, my experience with the NHS was unambiguously positive, both absolutely and relatively.   The only tell-tale sign of the NHS supposed sclerotic inefficiency was a brochure I picked up during my short stint in the waiting room.  The cover advertised a bold new plan to reduce waiting times between doctor referrals and evaluations by a specialist.  When I opened it up, it announced that most patients would now wait no more than eighteen weeks! Bear in mind, that’s the wait for an evaluation—not treatment.  Still, this didn’t strike me as particularly significant, until I friend of mine got sick.  She went to the doctor in extreme, debilitating pain.  While she got to see a General Practitioner promptly, this was hardly any solace: she left with some pain relievers and an appointment to see a specialist—in February. For her, public health care clearly wasn’t working, so she traded what she described as a decrepit NHS hospital with overworked doctors for a private one, where she got prompt and state-of-the-art treatment, all paid for by her American health insurance.  Even as a progressive advocate of a government role in health care, like myself, she had to admit that being treated by the NHS didn’t exactly leave her enthusiastic about socialized medicine.

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Our wildly different experiences are not easy to reconcile.  In fact, it’s somewhat hard to believe that we were both served by the same system, and so it’s hard to look at the two and come up with any useful lessons for the health care debate.  Basically, our two stories perfectly capture a fairly reasonable evaluation of the trade-offs endemic to socialized medicine.  In one system, you have universal and quality primary care.  In another, you get cutting edge technology and specialization.  It’s good to live in one system over the long term; it’s better to get sick in another system.  One rations health care based on minimizing costs and maximizing the good of society; the other rations it based on ability to pay and gives no-holds-barred treatment to those who can.

The social scientist in me, though, is left unsatisfied; I hate the idea that, in answer to my quiz above, the answer is inevitably option three, “both.”  I find it hard to accept that all systems are simply “equal but different.”  There are always trade-offs, but I like to believe that, occasionally, there are “facts” about societies which are indeed “knowable.”  And so, in that spirit of inquiry, I poked around and found a few facts about health care in the U.K. and the U.S:

-         For all the talk of avoiding “government-run healthcare” in the U.S., we already have it—it’s just terribly inefficient.  The United States government pays for over half of all health care in the United States—but manages to cover only one-third of the population in doing so.  The United Kingdom’s government spends less per capita, but covers essentially everyone.

-         Overall, the United Kingdom pays around 40% as much per capita as the United States does.  For that price, the get the same number of doctors, substantially more nurses, and a greater number of hospital beds.

Ultimately, of course, the inputs of health care (doctors, money, technology) are irrelevant—what matters is outcomes:

-           There’s been some political hay made over the fact that the U.K. has higher death rates from cancer, as a result of failure to adopt high-tech treatments.  Overall, though, the U.K. still does fine: they have a lower infant mortality rate and a slightly higher life expectancy.*

-         My own personal experience, from talking to Europeans from all sorts of different countries, is that pretty much everyone thinks their health care system is flawed.  But Britons are certainly more satisfied with their health care system than Americans are.

What occurs to me as I watch the debate over health care reform in the U.S., though, is how little these kinds of statistics and comparative analyses actually matter.  No one really seems persuaded by the “fact” that the U.S. ranks near Cuba in health care or that France covers more people for less cost.  What politicians, pundits, and the public do seem to find convincing our stories.  We care about narratives: Barack Obama talks about the woman with terminal cancer being booted off of her insurance plan; lefty magazines relate the sad tale of a father of three joining the army to get healthcare for his wife; Republicans claim that the NHS would have let ultra-genius Stephan Hawking die.  Somehow, these isolated anecdotes are more convincing than the statistics I cited above.  And, while I like to think of myself as a rational person, I get it; I am far more convinced of the merits of nationalized health care by my thirty minutes in an NHS doctor’s office than I am by any article, however well researched, I could ever read.

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I promised at the outset that I would come to a disappointing conclusion, and I will not fail to disappoint.  From a political perspective, I find the un-convincing nature of statistics and data to be somewhat terrifying: it worries me that more American’s believe in angels than anthropogenic climate change, or that people can seriously claim undocumented immigrants don’t learn English when by the 2nd generation 95% of them do. From my place in academia, though, there is something reassuring and validating about the strange and irrational way people come to decisions about the world around them.  Ethnography often seems to be the stunted stepchild of social research, an inferior method that lacks the rigor of numbers and statistics.  And yet, while qualitative research is often dismissed as mere storytelling, the fact is that personal experience have an incredible power to frame how we understand in the world, a power which graphs and tables lack.  The stories we tell matter, however partial, disjointed, and unrepresented they are.  And so, I beseech you, support universal health care, because if you do, all our medication will only cost £7.20 and the receptionists will be way nicer.  It must be true, because it happened to me.

* As an interesting aside, the life expectancy at 65 in the U.S. is higher.  That is to say, Americans overall don’t live longer, but they DO live longer if they make it to retirement.  Probably not by coincidence, retirement is when Americans get universal, government-run health care, of the kind Joe Lieberman just decided the rest of us don’t deserve.

And at that, I reiterate, fuck you Joe Lieberman.

Grad Student

Graduate students are all really smart.  Everything graduate students write is of publishable quality.  Graduate students don’t bathe frequently, but only because they are busy writing brilliant dissertations.  Graduate students can read volumes in a day and quickly grasp complicated theories.  When they speak in class, what they say is profound.

Graduate students don’t have time for the activities of undergraduates; in fact, any nostalgia they have for their undergraduate years is subsumed beneath their contempt for undergraduate immaturity.  They go out, but as far as I know, they don’t get drunk.  Graduate students are at university for a single reason, and don’t have much time for social distractions.

Graduate students know what they are doing with their lives.  They have direction and purpose.  Graduate students don’t cry and they don’t get lonely.

Graduate students are, in summary, grown-ups.

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There are some things in life you know can’t be true, but believe nonetheless.   As middle school wound down, I figured that when I entered ninth grade, I would magically know how to talk to girls.  My senior year of high school, I told myself that, by the time college rolls around, no one has acne anymore. And, before I came to Oxford, I thought that by the time I entered graduate school, I would be more mature, more self-confident, and more “intellectual.”

It shouldn’t be – and in a sense, isn’t - surprising that none of these predictions have come true, and in the eight weeks I’ve been a graduate student, I’ve realized that pretty much nothing I said in my opening paragraphs has turned out to be true.  While deep down, I knew that four months out from graduation, I wasn’t going to become an entirely new person, I’m left disconcerted by how little seems like it has changed.  While it would definitely be taking it too far were I to say that my first term has felt like a repeat of freshman year of college, I have some of the same doubts.  I wonder whether I am really qualified to be in my program.  I question whether my comments in class are suitably “smart” for my elite peers.  I ask myself daily why I seem to be the only one without a thesis topic, and fret that I don’t already run a non-profit in a Third World country.  I worry that I am failing to meet the high bar set by the previous people on my scholarship.

Ultimately, much of my stress stems from the fact that, all in all, grad school doesn’t feel that different from undergrad school.  I spend most of my days reading and writing, and, despite the change of scenery, I don’t particularly feel like my reading and writing is much more profound and advanced than it was a few months ago.  To some extent, I feel the same because graduate school hasn’t required me to change. While when I first received my syllabi, I figured that I was going to be crushed with work, I’ve actually been doing less work than I did at Princeton.  As other people in my program panic about how many essay we are assigned, I can’t help but note that I wrote less for my four classes here than I did for a single 300 level class my senior year.  My diminished workload has opened up all sorts of opportunities for me—rowing, running, protesting, cooking, and writing this blog, to name a few—but my enjoyment of them is diminished by the sense that, if I’m not acting the way I figured graduate student do, I must be doing something wrong.

In high school, it was always enough to justify what I was doing by the fact that it would help me to get into a good college.  As an undergraduate, I knew to work hard so I could get into a good law school or graduate school.  While I could spend my time at Oxford working to get into a good PhD program, there must come a day of reckoning when I have to figure out not just what I stand for, but how my work serves my ideals and vision.  It’s not enough to simply say “I am getting an education so I can help people” forever; at some point, I’m going to actually have to figure out who those people are and what exactly I want to do to help them.  It would be nice to have that kind of direction already; it would be acceptable to feel like that sense of purpose was developing.  At the moment, however, I feel a bit lost.

Lost Soul in All Souls

College hopping.

On Friday, two friends from my department and I decided that we would use our post-examination freedom to explore some of Oxford’s more ancient, beautiful, and storied colleges.  Most of them have rather austere exteriors, perhaps intended to ward off the legions of tourists crawling around the city, but gorgeous interiors.  We walk past them every day, but for eight weeks, I haven’t made the time to go see Bill Clinton’s dorm room in Univ, Victoria’s statue in Queen’s College, or Merton’s cathedral-like chapel.  None of them disappointed, even in the slightest.

By 3:20 p.m., daylight was fading fast.  High on gothic beauty and winter air, we decided to finish our college crawl at All Souls College (Formally, The College of All Souls of the Faithfully Departed of Oxford) on High Street.  All Souls is an all-fellows* college, and as far as I know, undergraduate and graduate students are not allowed inside, except by invitation.  The main quad is guarded by a looming, golden gate, and you rarely if ever see anyone inside while walking by.

Golden Gate, a la Willy Wonka.

All Souls’ mystique in the minds of Oxonians is built up by its fabled admissions process.  The top one or two graduates from each department each year are invited to sit for an entrance exam.  Questions, apparently, often consistent of a single word.  If the word is “purple”, a candidate needs to be able to discuss the religious significance of purple to the Romans, its aesthetic value in art history, and symbolism within modern social movement.  Another rather broad prompt I heard of was “harmony”, with answers traversing from music theory to political science.  In other years, All Souls has simply provided a Latin text, and asked to candidates to translate it into as many languages as possible.  Eight different tongues is, apparently, a baseline for consideration.

This viva voce examination is, naturally, only a preliminary.  Those that survive the first round are invited back to interview in front of the entire membership of the college, around sixty individuals.  In the oral examination, fellows can ask anything about their own area of specialty.  Since fellow are drawn from all of Oxford’s hundreds of degrees, it’s a pretty wide array of specialties.  It’s actually pretty amazing that one or two people per year actually manage to get in.

All Souls, seen from the proletarian grounds of Queen's College.

If it’s not already obvious, All Souls has essentially one criterion for admission: you have to know everything.  In fact, candidates are expected to study for seven years prior to taking the test, traveling the world picking up, well, all the knowledge that there is.  As one friend pointed out to me, this may have actually been a realistic expectation when the college was founded in the middle ages, as the number of books and languages in the civilized, Western world was finite and manageable.  It’s a bit ridiculous that the requirement of near-universal knowledge for All Souls membership remains in place in the modern era, but it’s kind of cool to think about these ultra-geniuses accumulating knowledge just for the sake of it.

It was naive of me to think that photograph could do the place justice.

We managed to make it into All Souls, rather effortlessly, in fact.  Using a strategy that has helped me score countless meals in eating clubs of which I was not a member, we simply walked calmly and confidently past the porter, as if we belonged there.  The quad was certainly beautiful, perhaps even the finest in Oxford.  While I know I’ll never be a member of All Souls, it’s was cool to bask in the place.  I don’t know why, but it helps me to see value to being in Oxford, even while I wonder what I’m doing here.

Hopefully the look on Aaron and Emily's faces will convince you that All Souls is really pretty.

* That is, only people-with-PhDs, not only dudes.