Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Mr. Valiant-For-Groceries

I went shopping at the nearby grocery store and filled my shopping basket with a gallon of skim milk and three packages of marked down kosher wieners. With such a small number of items, I decided to use one of the self service checkout stations. I ran my customer discount card over the laser scanner and thought I heard the automated greeting say, "Welcome, valiant customer." This was a fine compliment. It made me lift my head and stand tall. I thought of the noble Mr. Valiant-For-Truth in Pilgrim's Progress, who bravely fought the highwaymen Wild-head, Inconsiderate, and Pragmatic.

I was deflated when I remembered that the automated greeting was actually the humdrum message: "Welcome, valued customer."

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Invisible Cities -- coda

At the end of Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, Kublai Khan expresses his fear that the future of his empire is tending toward ruin and corruption. He speaks of an emblematic destination that he calls the "infernal city".

Marco Polo answers:

"The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space."

These two ways of escape -- either accommodation or else resistance by promoting pockets of good within the inferno -- strike me as Stoic responses. Each is a means of enduring in spite of the power of the inferno. While most people view resistance as more noble than accommodation -- and I offer all honor to those trying to improve social conditions -- even resisting the inferno tends toward pessimism. The world as inferno ultimately exhausts and overpowers individuals, even the Great Khan of the Mongol Hordes. Pockets of good are often squeezed to extinction.

Christianity provides a different view of the world as inferno and offers its own guidance on how to respond. Accommodation is ruled out. This is seen in Paul's description of the cowardly Demas in 2 Timothy 4:10: "For Demas hath forsaken me, having loved this present world, and is departed unto Thessalonica." Also, according to my understanding, resisting the inferno by making the best of a bad situation and encouraging pockets of good within the inferno is also ruled out. Instead, the Christian is to be separate from the world in order to transform the world. The defining statement is from Christ's prayer in the Gospel of John (John 17:14-16):

"I have given them thy word; and the world hath hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth. As thou hast sent me into the world, even so have I also sent them into the world."

There is more here than I can fathom, but at least this much is clear: the christian, while too weak to contend with the world inferno by his own strength, is protected from the inferno's destruction, fortified with the truth, and then sent into the world as an emissary.


I'm fond of this big hummingbird sculpture. (It's hard to tell from the photograph, but its wings are nearly three feet long.) The bird makes me cheerful and doesn't burden me with extraneous associations. It doesn't cause me to think of the Decline of the West or modern suburban life or aesthetics of folk art or any other dreary intellectual stuff. It just is what it is. And that's mighty fine.

Invisible Cities

I just finished reading Italo Calvino's marvelous book Invisible Cities, wherein a young Marco Polo converses with Kublai Khan and tells him fantastic tales of the cities he visited during his travels through the Great Khan's empire.

The city descriptions are vivid as a dragonfly's wings and light as the slight breeze on the steps of the Great Khan's palace, where the conversations take place. Marco Polo's words are poetic and could just as well have been shaped into short cantos of verse.

Fifty five cities are described. Each city is given a woman's name, generally an exotic name: Diomira, Isidora, Dorothea, Zaira, Anastasia, Tamara, Zora, etc. My cousin Phyllis's name was given to a city of bridges and canals.

Here is Marco Polo's description of the city of Isidora:

"When a man rides a long time through wild regions he feels the desire for a city. Finally he comes to Isidora, a city where the buildings have spiral staircases encrusted with spiral seashells, where perfect telescopes and violins are made, where the foreigner hesitating between two women always encounters a third, where cockfights degenerate into bloody brawls among the bettors. He was thing of all these things when he desired a city. Isadora, therefore, is the city of his dreams: with one difference. The dreamed-of city contained him as a young man; he arrives at Isidora in his old age. In the square there is the wall where the old men sit and watch the young go by; he is seated in a row with them. Desires are already memories."

I wonder what Marco Polo would have thought about my own city, which sometimes fills me with a feeling of unreality when I take the short stroll to the nearby park and look west (photograph above). I live on the rim of an expansive office center where architects – or, more accurately, geometers – have designed huge cubes and pegs of glass and steel to efficiently enclose accountants and financiers for the engineering industry. I find it oddly appropriate that simple geometric shapes, in place of real human architecture, contain workers that manipulate words and numbers, which are the tokens representing the sweat and dirt of real industrial production in far-off mines, oil fields, and construction sites. My city seems more sign than substance.

My city is for adult office workers. Other human life isn't invited. No children laugh and chase each other along the pathways between the office buildings. No young lovers promenade among the carefully tended shrubs and flower beds. No old men sit and reminisce in the shining lobbies of glass and chrome.

My city is more connected to the great financial centers of New York, Dallas, Los Angeles, and Houston than it is to nearby traditional, full-service cities a short drive away. When I consider this, I imagine a great spiky four dimensional hyper-city complex that materializes upon the surface of the Earth as a set of individual, widely separated cities. (Picture this in three dimensions like a tangled mass of clothes hangers touching a table top at isolated points.) I imagine my city as one fractional piece of this hyper-city that has happened to materialize near my townhouse.

A long park was built to give the office workers a refreshing view of greenery on their way to and from the office. When I walk in the park at dusk, I often feel that I'm an interloper. After all, I'm not one of the workers in the hyper-city. I just chose to live here because the area is safe, clean, and pretty. In some ways I'm like one of the innumerable rabbits that have made their home in my neighborhood and laze about enjoying the lush grass.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Summer Solstice Tidings

The etymology of "solstice" was a puzzle to me. The "sol" part refers, of course, to the sun. No problem there. However, I had to look up the derivation of the "stice" part.

"Stice" comes from the Latin word for stopping or standing. Therefore, a solstice means a stopping of the Sun. In particular, the summer solstice marks the northernmost extreme that the Sun reaches in the sky before the Sun appears to stop and reverse its direction.

The "stice" part of the word seemed unfamiliar to me until I realized that the word "armistice" means the stoppage of arms or armed conflict during a war.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Mourning Doves and SUVs

Today when I parked my Volvo at the office, I looked at the row of cars in front of me and noticed a mating pair of mourning doves perched on a Chevy SUV. One was on the roof; the other was balanced on a side mirror. As I sat and watched, the dove on the mirror grew restless, hopped to the SUV's hood, and went skittering along the hood's smooth surface. This was unsatisfactory footing, so the dove left the hood and flew down the row of cars to land on the roof of a Toyota SUV, passing en route over a sedan, a pickup truck with a topper (relatively SUV-like, you might suppose, but not close enough to please the bird), and a sports car. After a minute the dove grew lonely on the Toyota SUV and flew back to join its mate on the roof of the Chevy SUV.

I have seen many mourning doves in my life, but I have never seen one perch on a vehicle. Moreover, I would not have guessed that a dove would prefer SUVs over other vehicles. There seems to be a lesson here but I'm not sure what it is.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Quigley on the Rise and Fall of Civilizations

I am impressed with historian Carroll Quigley's commonsense economic framework for explaining the rise and fall of civilizations. Applying his analysis, I would place the current development of Western Civilization at the cusp of Quigley's Age of Expansion and his Age of Conflict, when the wheels start to come off.

From The Evolution of Civilizations
The pattern of change in civilizations presented here consists of seven stages resulting from the fact that each civilization has an instrument of expansion that becomes an institution. The civilization rises while this organization is an instrument and declines as this organization becomes an institution. By the term "instrument of expansion" we mean that the society must be organized in such fashion that three things are true: (1) the society must be organized in such a way that it has an incentive to invent new ways of doing things; (2) it must be organized in such a way that somewhere in the society there is accumulation of surplus -- that is, some persons in the society control more wealth than they wish to consume immediately; and (3) it must be organized in such a way that the surplus which is being accumulated is being used to pay for or to utilize the new inventions. All three of these things are essential to any civilization. Taken together, we call them an instrument of expansion.


Inventiveness depends very largely on the way a society is organized. Some societies have powerful incentives to invent, because they are organized in such a way that innovation is encouraged and rewarded. This was true of Mesopotamian civilization before 2700 B.C., of Chinese civilizations before A.D. 1200, and of Western civilization during much of its history.


"Accumulation of surplus" means that some persons or organizations in the society have more wealth passing through their control than they wish to use immediately or in the "short run." This is so necessary to expansion that it means that some persons must have more than they need, even if others must have less than they need.


This surplus-creating instrument is the essential element in any civilization, although, of course, there will be no expansion unless the two other elements (invention and investment) are also present. However, the surplus-creating instrument, by controlling the surplus and thus the disposition of it, will also control investment and will, thus, have at least an indirect influence on the incentive to invent. This surplus-creating instrument does not have to be an economic organization. In fact, it can be any kind of organization, military, political, social, religious, and so forth. In Mesopotamian civilization it was a religious organization, the Sumerian priesthood to which all members of the society paid tribute. In Egyptian, Andean and, probably, Minoan civilizations it was a political organization, a state that created surpluses by a process of taxation or tribute collection. In Classical civilization it was a kind of social organization, slavery, that allowed one class of society, the slaveowners, to claim most of the production of another class in society, the slaves. In the early part of Western civilization it was a military organization, feudalism, that allowed a small portion of the society, the fighting men or lords, to collect economic goods from the majority of society, the serfs, as a kind of payment for providing political protection for these serfs. In the later period of Western civilization the surplus-creating instrument was an economic organization (the price-profit system, or capitalism, if you wish) that permitted entrepreneurs who organized the factors of production to obtain from society in return for the goods produced by this organization a surplus (called profit) beyond what these factors of production had cost these entrepreneurs.

Like all instruments, an instrument of expansion in the course of time becomes an institution and the rate of expansion slows down. This process is the same as the institutionalization of any instrument, but appears specifically as a breakdown of one of the three necessary elements of expansion. The one that usually breaks down is the third --application of surplus to new ways of doing things. In modern terms we say that the rate of investment decreases. If this decrease is not made up by reform or circumvention, the two other elements (invention and accumulation of surplus) also begin to break down. This decrease in the rate of investment occurs for many reasons, of which the chief one is that the social group controlling the surplus ceases to apply it to new ways of doing things because they have a vested interest in the old ways of doing things. They have no desire to change a society in which they are the supreme group.


The process that we have described, which we shall call the institutionalization of an instrument of expansion, will help us to understand why civilizations rise and fall. We shall divide the process into seven stages, since this permits us to relate our divisions conveniently to the process of rise and fall. These seven stages we shall name as follows:

1. Mixture
2. Gestation
3. Expansion
4. Age of Conflict
5. Universal Empire
6. Decay
7. Invasion

Every civilization, indeed every society, begins with a mixture of two or more cultures. Such mixture of cultures is very common; in fact, it occurs at the boundaries of all cultures to some extent. But such casual cultural mixture is of little significance unless there comes into existence in the zone of mixture a new culture, arising from the mixture but different from the constituent parts. The process is a little like the way in which a mixture of chemicals sometimes produces a new compound different from the mixing chemicals.


If the new society born from such mixture is a civilization, it has an instrument of expansion. This means that inventions begin to be made, surplus begins to be accumulated, and this surplus begins to be used to utilize new inventions. Eventually, as a result of these actions, expansion will begin. The interval before such expansion becomes evident, but after the most obvious mixture has ceased, may cover generations of time. This period will be called the Stage of Gestation. It is Stage 2 of any civilization.


The Stage of Expansion is marked by four kinds of expansion: (a) increased production of goods, eventually reflected in rising standards of living; (b) increase in population of the society, generally because of a declining death rate; (c) an increase in the geographic extent of the civilization, for this is a period of exploration and colonization; and (d) an increase in knowledge. There are intimate interrelationships among these four. Increase in production is aided by expanding knowledge; the growth of population helps to increase production as well as to extend the geographic area of the society; the exploration and colonization associated with this extension of the society's geographic area is made possible by the growth of production and the growth of population, both of which permit people to be released for what are, at the beginning at least, nonproductive activities such as exploration; the same factors allow people to be released to seek knowledge of various kinds or to engage in nonmaterial activities such as artistic or philosophic activities, while the geographic expansion in itself leads to substantial increases in knowledge. This period of expansion is frequently a period of democracy, of scientific advance, and of revolutionary political change (as the various levels of society become adapted to an expanding mode of life from the more static mode of life prevalent in Stage 2).

As soon as the rate of expansion in a civilization begins to decline noticeably, it enters Stage 4, the Age of Conflict. This is probably the most complex, most interesting, and most critical of all the seven stages. It is marked by four chief characteristics: (a) it is a period of declining rate of expansion; (b) it is a period of growing tension of evolution and increasing class conflicts, especially in the core area; (c) it is a period of increasingly frequent and increasingly violent imperialist wars; and (d) it is a period of growing irrationality, pessimism, superstitions, and otherworldliness. The declining rate of expansion is caused by the institutionalization of the instrument of expansion. The growing class conflicts arise from the increasing tension of evolution, from the obvious conflict of interests between a society adapted to expansion and the vested interests controlling the uninvested surpluses of the institution of expansion who fear social change more than anything else. Usually there is a majority of the frustrated struggling against the minority of vested interests, although usually neither side has any clear idea of the real issues at stake or what would give a workable solution to the crisis. All programs for sharing the surplus of the few among the discontented many are worse than useless, since expansion can be resumed only if the three necessary elements of an instrument of expansion are provided, and the dissipation of surpluses among a large mass of consumers will not provide any one of these three necessary elements. On the contrary most revolutionary programs, aroused by the failure of the third element (investment), will merely make the crisis more acute by destroying the second element (accumulation of surplus).

The only sensible or workable solution to the crisis of the civilization would be to reform or circumvent the old institution of expansion by establishing again the three basic elements of any instrument of expansion. Since the disgruntled masses know nothing about such things, and since the vested interests do not know much more and are usually concentrating their energies on an effort to defend their vested interests, a new instrument of expansion, if it appears, usually does so by accident and through the path of circumvention rather than by reform. If a new instrument of expansion does come into existence, the civilization begins to expand again, the tension of evolution and the crisis subside, and the civilization is once again in Stage 3.

The Age of Conflict (Stage 4) is a period of imperialist wars and of irrationality supported for reasons that are usually different in the different social classes. The masses of the people (who have no vested interest in the existing institution of expansion) engage in imperialist wars because it seems the only way to overcome the slowing down of expansion. Unable to get ahead by other means (such as economic means), they seek to get ahead by political action, above all by taking wealth from their political neighbors. At the same time they turn to irrationality to compensate for the growing insecurity of life, for the chronic economic depression, for the growing bitterness and dangers of class struggles, for the growing social disruption and insecurity from imperialist wars. This is generally a period of gambling, use of narcotics or intoxicants, obsession with sex (frequently as perversion), increasing crime, growing numbers of neurotics and psychotics, growing obsession with death and with the Hereafter.


When a universal empire is established in a civilization, the society enters upon a "golden age (Stage 5)." At least this is what it seems to the periods that follow it. Such a golden age is a period of peace and of relative prosperity. Peace arises from the absence of any competing political units within the area of the civilization itself, and from the remoteness or even absence of struggles with other societies outside. Prosperity arises from the ending of internal belligerent destruction, the reduction of internal trade barriers, the establishment of a common system of weights, measures, and coinage, and from the extensive government spending associated with the establishment of a universal empire. But this appearance of prosperity is deceptive. Little real economic expansion is possible because no real instrument of expansion exists. New inventions are rare, and real economic investment is lacking. The vested interests have triumphed and are living off their capital, building unproductive and blatant monuments like the Pyramids, the "Hanging Gardens of Babylon," the Colosseum, or (as premature examples) Hitler's Chancellery and the Victor Emmanuel Memorial. The masses of the people in such an empire live from the waste of these nonproductive expenditures. The golden age is really the glow of overripeness, and soon decline begins. When it becomes evident, we pass from Stage 5 (Universal Empire) to Stage 6 (Decay).

The Stage of Decay is a period of acute economic depression, declining standards of living, civil wars between the various vested interests, and growing illiteracy. The society grows weaker and weaker. Vain efforts are made to stop the wastage by legislation. But the decline continues. The religious, intellectual, social, and political levels of the society begin to lose the allegiance of the masses of the people on a large scale. New religious movements begin to sweep over the society. There is a growing reluctance to fight for the society or even to support it by paying taxes. This period of decay may last for a long time, but eventually the civilization can no longer defend itself, as Mesopotamia could not after 400 B.C., as Egypt could not about the same time, as Crete could not after 1400 B.C., as Rome could not after A.D. 350, as the Incas and Aztecs could not after 1500, as India could not after 1700, as China could not after 1830, and as Islam could not after 1850.

Stage 7 is the Stage of Invasion, when the civilization, no longer able to defend itself because it is no longer willing to defend itself, lies wide open to "barbarian invaders." These invaders are "barbarians" only in the sense that they are "outsiders." Frequently these outsiders are another, younger, and more powerful civilization.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Carroll Quigley and Institutions

I recently read The Evolution of Civilizations by Carroll Quigley (1910-1977). Quigley was a brilliant Georgetown University history professor with the contrary outlook of a feisty Irish Catholic in an academic setting dominated by Protestant Anglophiles. His gift was the ability to analyze how civilizations work in very practical terms. I enjoyed his concise comments about how human social instruments harden into self-serving institutions.

I have wandered through academia, the energy industry, and the military-industrial complex and have observed many instances of "empire building" where an institution diverts most of its resources to self perpetuation at the expense of carrying out its original mission.

(with minor editing)
[The gamut of human needs may be] divided into six levels, in a rough and approximate fashion. These divisions are arbitrary and imaginary, and even the order in which we list the levels is partly a matter of taste. These levels are, from the more abstract to the more concrete: (plus the needs that these levels address)
(1) intellectual - the need for understanding
(2) religious - the need for psychological certainty
(3) social - the need for companionship
(4) economic - the need for material wealth
(5) political - the need to organize interpersonal power relationships
(6) military - the need for group security

To satisfy these needs, there come into existence on each level social organizations seeking to achieve these. These organizations, consisting largely of personal relationships, we shall call "instruments" as long as they achieve the purpose of the level with relative effectiveness. But every such social instrument tends to become an "institution." This means that it takes on a life and purposes of its own distinct from the purpose of the level; in consequence, the purpose of that level is achieved with decreasing effectiveness. In fact, it can be stated as a rule of history that "all social instruments tend to become institutions." The meaning of this rule will appear as we discuss its causes.

An instrument is a social organization that is fulfilling effectively the purpose for which it arose. An institution is an instrument that has taken on activities and purposes of its own, separate from and different from the purposes for which it was intended. As a consequence, an institution achieves its original purposes with decreasing effectiveness. Every instrument consists of people organized in relationships to one another. As the instrument becomes an institution, these relationships become ends in themselves to the detriment of the ends of the whole organization. When people want their society to be defended, they create an organization called an army. This army consists of many persons with different duties. Each person takes as his purpose the fulfilling of his duties, but this soon leaves no one in the organization with the purpose of the organization as his primary purpose. The purpose of the organization — in this case, to defend the society — becomes no more than a secondary aim for everyone in the organization. Defense becomes secondary to discipline, keeping authority in channels, feeding and paying the troops, providing supplies or intelligence, and keeping visiting congressmen, or the people as a whole, happy about the army, the personal comforts of the soldiers, and so on.

Moreover, as a second reason why every instrument becomes an institution, everyone in such an organization is only human and has human weakness and ambitions, or at least has the human proclivity to see things from an egocentric point of view. Thus, in every organization, persons begin to seek their own advancements or to act for their own advantages: seeking promotions, decorations, increases in pay, better or easier assignments; these begin to absorb more and more of the time and energies of the members of an organization. All of this reduces the time and energy devoted to the real goal of the organization and injures the general effectiveness with which an organization achieves its purposes.

Finally, as a third reason why every instrument becomes an institution, the social conditions surrounding any such organization change in the course of time. When this happens the organization must be changed to adapt itself to the changed conditions or it will function with decreased effectiveness. But the members of any organization generally resist such change; they have become "vested interests."


This situation appears in every social organization. Workers join together to get better pay and working conditions. The organizations they form, labor unions, soon take on a life of their own, and the workers begin to wonder if they are not now as much the slaves of the union as formerly they were slaves of the management. The kings of England, long ago, created a representative assembly to consent to taxation. Soon that assembly (Parliament) took on life of its own and ended by decapitating, removing, and ruling kings. A political party was organized in 1854 to protect freedom in the United States and to prevent the extension of slavery. By 1868 it was an organized machine of vested interests, a functioning spoils system, whose chief aim was to perpetuate itself in office and whose chief method for achieving that aim was to end the freedom of the whites in the South. A church is organized to bring men psychological security by linking them with the Deity. A century later it has become a vested institution with wealth and power, and its chief aim is to preserve and expand these valuable prerogatives. A college is organized to train youth in practical and humane achievements; later it has become a whole tissue of vested interests in which standards are lowered and admission qualifications relaxed in order to secure a flow of tuitions that go to meet the institution's expenses. Within its hallowed walls, professors intrigue for promotions and appointments for themselves and their disciples, while a condition of undeclared war goes on between departments and schools to get larger student enrollments in their courses and thus justify bigger slices from the annual university budget.


When instruments become institutions, as they all do, the organization achieves its function or purpose in society with decreasing effectiveness, and discontent with its performance begins to rise, especially among outsiders. These discontented suggest changes, which they call reforms, just as we see happening in American elementary and secondary education today. When these suggestions are not accepted or are rejected by the established groups who control the criticized organization, conflicts and controversies begin, the discontented seeking to change the organization, while the vested interests seek to maintain their accustomed methods of operation.


The strain between the two groups engaged in a struggle such as this will be called, in this book, "the tension of development." From this tension and its ensuing controversy, there may emerge any one (or combination) among three possible outcomes: reform, circumvention, or reaction. In the first case, reform, the institution is reorganized and its methods of action changed so that it becomes, relatively speaking, more of an instrument and achieves its purpose with sufficient facility to reduce tension to a socially acceptable level. In the second case, circumvention, the institution is left with most of its privileges and vested interests intact, but its duties are taken away and assigned to a new instrument within the same society. This second method is much used by the English. The king was left covered with honors, but the task of governing England was taken over by Parliament and ultimately by a committee of Parliament.

When an institution has been reformed or circumvented, there is once again an instrument on the level in question, and the purpose of that level is achieved with relative effectiveness. But, once again, as always happens, the new instrument becomes an institution, effectiveness decreases, tension of development rises, and conflict appears. If the outcome of this conflict is either reform or circumvention, effectiveness increases and tension decreases. If the outcome is reaction, ineffectiveness becomes chronic and tension remains high.