Friday, December 21, 2012

PBS on Spending and Saving


Spending their way to joy and prosperity?

The PBS Newshour showed an interesting, although somewhat oversimplified and misleading, segment on the spending vs. saving dilemma. Considering this question from the perspective of holiday buying, Newshour reporter Paul Solman looked at whether the health of the economy requires consumer splurging or austerity and saving. He identified the splurging side with the ideas of John Maynard Keynes and the austerity side with those of Friedrich Hayek. James Livingston, an economic historian at Rutgers University and author of the book Against Thrift, represented the supposedly Keynesian demand side, arguing that economic growth over the past century has been driven primarily by consumption and that private investment has been dropping as a percentage of the economy since the 1920s. Solman’ s brief interviews with shoppers and storeowners provided less theoretical support for spending. The savings argument received less backing, since PBS did not have an authority to counter Livingston, or individuals to testify about the benefits they received from thrift and investment. The program did explain the logic behind the savings side, though, explaining that delaying consumption can create greater productive capacity and enable future prosperity. Solman did, moreover, raise the question of debt with Livingston. 
James Livingston

The Newshour presentation is oversimplified, I think, because production and consumption are really not mutually exclusive choices.  At the beginning of modern economics, Bernard Mandeville and Adam Smith recognized what Keynes would later call “the paradox of thrift,” the idea that if everyone saves and invests and no one spends, there will be no market for goods and therefore no profit for investors. Hayek and the thinkers associated with him have also recognized the importance of consumption for an economy, concentrating on the importance of increasing investment in production of goods that will be purchased.
Keynes

The argument of Keynes was that productive capacities had outpaced consumption and economic downturns were therefore due to overproduction and underconsumption. Modern industries, according to Keynes, were pushed by their productive capacities to outgrow markets for goods. When this happened, industries would cut back on production and lay off workers. Unemployed and underemployed workers would lack buying power and this would further diminish demand, causing businesses to cut back even further. The Keynesian argument for governmental deficit spending was that government could boost demand so that private businesses would restore unused productive capacities and re-hire workers. The deficits incurred in difficult times would, presumably, be paid off through economic growth.
Hayek

The Keynesian view, although influential, has not been universally accepted. Milton Friedman and Anna J. Schwarz, for example, argued in their 1963 book A Monetary History of the United States that the Great Depression was a product of tight monetary policy preventing recovery from a temporary decline in activity, rather than a crisis of overproduction. Keynes did, though, recognize the importance of production and private investment, arguing that subsidizing demand could pull forward investments in industries. In both the Keynesian and more libertarian approaches, the question was not one of spending replacing saving, but of how to achieve the proper balance between spending and saving and of what role government should play in achieving that balance.
Now, in our present situation, I think our difficulties are the reverse of those that Keynes believed caused slumps, and this is precisely the problem with arguing that we should bring back the economy through spending. The very historical pattern James Livingston described in the program, the reliance on consumption as an engine of growth, has resulted in an economy in which consumption has outpaced our productive capacities. We do not face overproduction and underconsumption, but overconsumption and underproduction. It is a debt-driven economy. Solman raised the problem of debt, but only as a matter of government debt that could, theoretically, be resolved by economic growth increasing government revenues. Government debt is only part of our difficulty, though. Our economy has also become increasingly dependent on consumer debt, often subsidized by government debt. The kind of growth created by consumer debt is inherently unsustainable because it creates neither a present balance between production and consumption nor a plausible future balance between the two.



Tuesday, December 18, 2012

"Creating, Promoting, and Enforcing" Opinions in the Marketplace of Ideas

Crystal Dixon
I was disappointed to read that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth District has upheld the firing of Crystal Dixon from her position as interim vice president for human resources at the University of Toledo. Dixon, as I noted some time ago, was fired for publishing an opinion essay in the Toledo Free Press in which she argued that homosexuality should not be considered a civil rights issue.  Although Dixon wrote this as a private citizen and did not claim to represent the views of the university or even identify herself as a university official, the federal appeals court affirmed a lower court’s decision permitting her firing on the grounds that the opinions she expressed “contradicted the very policies she was charged with creating, promoting and enforcing.”
I find these very grounds for upholding the decision objectionable. Essentially, the court has not only ruled that a public university may declare some set of political and social opinions official doctrine, but that the university can charge administrators with promoting and enforcing the accepted way of thinking and require that those individuals conform in all public statements to the ideological program. Note that this is entirely different from saying that administrative employees should uphold policies by obeying laws or conducting themselves according to the rules of an institution, regardless of whether they agree with those laws or rules. This is saying that a university can designate someone as an enforcer of institutionally approved ideas and dictate what that person is and is not allowed to think (at least openly).

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Jonathan Israel’s Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650-1750

By the end of the European middle ages, a Christianized version of Aristotelian philosophy had achieved the status of the official interpretation of the world and of the place of human beings in the world.  According to Aristotelian scholasticism, things are made up of matter and form. Form comes from an essence or soul within all things that also joins each form inseparably with its substance.  The essence of each thing also determines how it develops and interacts with other things. Scientific thinking, from the late middle ages through the early modern period, generally involved classifying and explaining things according to their innate qualities. This view of the world, with its emphasis on essences, was consistent with the idea of souls in Christian theology and with the idea the universe is purposeful, consisting of movement toward ends created by divine design. It was also consistent with the established political order, because political inequality among people was the result of placement decreed by God according to inborn essences.

By the seventeenth century, though, new trends in scientific and philosophical thinking began to pose challenges to Aristotelianism. A growing number of thinkers saw naturalistic and mechanistic explanations of events as more accurate than vague references to essences. From a mechanistic point of view, if something moves or changes, it is because something else causes it to move or change.  This kind of explanation posed a problem for religious thinkers in the seventeenth century and after.  God seemed to be left out of an account of the world that attributed every event to the interaction of bodies. In addition, there seemed to be no room for human thought or awareness in the machine of the universe.

Descartes
French philosopher RenĂ© Descartes (1596-1650) came up with one ingenious and influential solution to the problems posed by mechanism. By carefully reflecting on his own thoughts, Descartes found that the world seemed to be divided into himself as a thinking being and the mechanistic objects outside of himself.  This managed to maintain both the supernatural and the scientific mechanisms of nature by splitting them apart.  The solution offered by Descartes was frequently viewed with suspicion by leaders of church and state, but there were still some radical thinkers, such as Benedict de Spinoza (1632-1677) who went even further than Descartes and discarded the supernatural altogether.

Jonathan Israel argues, in this comprehensive and detailed volume, that the naturalistic radicals did not merely exist at the fringes of Enlightenment thinking. Although repeatedly denounced by church and state officials and frequently given only covert support even by their followers, the radicals played a central part in the creation of a modern view of the world.  The radicals made substantial contributions both to the naturalistic perspective of modern science and to democratizing trends in politics.

Earlier studies of the Enlightenment frequently approached the period as a matter of national politics. Insofar as these studies have understood the Enlightenment as a European occurrence, they have portrayed it as the projection of a single nation’s influence. Those who place France at the center of the events of the time have seen Europe revolving around the writings of the philosophes from Montesquieu to Rousseau.  Those in the English school have argued that the empiricism and materialistic philosophies of Locke, Newton, and their colleagues established the current of the era. Israel does acknowledge the importance of French thinkers, although he also maintains that the development of the French Enlightenment was hampered by the hostility of the court of King Louis XIV (ruled 1643-1715). Israel also recognizes that English thinking was widely influential, particularly during the “Anglomania,” the fashion for English ideas and styles that swept through European intellectual life in the 1730s and 1740s.  However, he sees the Enlightenment as a continental phenomenon, a set of challenges to received views and social hierarchies that arose in all parts of Europe and took varied forms in response to varied conditions.

Spinoza
 Insofar as Israel gives priority to any country in setting the pace of the times, he gives it to the Netherlands. This may, to some extent, be a matter of the author’s professional bias. He specializes in early Modern Dutch history and the academic’s inclination toward seeing his own field as the center of the world may have led him to emphasize the importance of things Dutch. Nevertheless, there are two reasons to accept his argument for Dutch centrality. First, the Dutch Republic was one of Europe’s two freest societies, along with England. Many of the books that more repressive governments attempted to censor and repress elsewhere in Europe were produced in the Netherlands. Second, the greatest intellectual radical of the seventeenth century, Spinoza, was Dutch. Spinoza was an enormously influential figure, who corresponded with Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716) and many of the other foremost thinkers of the time. Spinoza, also, according to Israel, was one of the foremost proponents of freedom of thought and expression in his age.

 Israel’s approach to the Enlightenment is topical rather than chronological. He begins by looking at developments that set the stage for philosophical radicalism. He considers the rise of Cartesianism and its reception by governments in Central Europe, in Scandinavia and the Baltic, and in the Italian states. He discusses the urban social milieu and the changing social institutions that fostered both political and philosophical radicalism. He also describes the relative emancipation of women (at least privileged women) that marked the beginning of the modern period.  These efforts at social history, while interesting, may be the weakest part of the book.  Israel never seems to make a convincing argument about just what urbanization or women’s increased participation had to do with philosophical radicalism, or to make it clear whether he sees social change as cause or consequence of new thinking. He also gives little attention to the great economic changes of the era, or to how shifts in popular mentalities may have been related to the ideas of intellectual elites. He is on much stronger ground when concentrating on more traditional concerns of intellectual history, and he gives good accounts of how the rise of diversified libraries and the circulation of learned journals assisted the spread of ideas.

In looking at the rise of philosophical roots of modernity, Israel makes his case for Spinoza’s central position. He describes some of the outstanding political and religious figures of the time, many of whom had personal ties to Spinoza. These included Spinoza’s teacher, Franciscus van den Enden (1602-1674), an ardent proponent of democratic republics who was hanged for conspiring against the French King Louis XIV; the brothers Johannes Koerbagh (1634-1672) and Adriaen Koerbagh (1632-1669), who were put on trial for expressing Spinozistic ideas in popular Dutch rather than scholarly Latin; and Lodwijk Meyer (1629-1681), who attempted to use a rationalistic philosophy to interpret Scripture. Israel looks at how Spinoza’s officially banned ideas spread throughout Europe, often secretly published and circulating in books with false title-pages.

Vico
 Israel places the major intellectual controversies in Europe that followed Spinoza’s death in the context of the rise of naturalistic ideas and he examines the reaction to radicalism in the early eighteenth century.  Finally, he discusses how the thoughts of the Radical Enlightenment made quiet progress throughout the nations of continental Europe and England up to 1750.  One of the most interesting sections of this last part of the book is in the chapter in which he looks at the radical impact in Italy.  The Italian philosopher of history Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) has been something of a cult figure among those interested in cyclical theories of history.  Twentieth century writer James Joyce is often said to have used Vico’s ideas as the basis for Finnegan’s Wake (1939).  Vico, who argued that human societies go through set phases determined by irrational human impulses, is generally seen as deeply conservative and anti-modern. Israel makes a good case for seeing Vico as influenced not only by Enlightenment ideas, but as directly influenced by Spinoza’s works.

 Israel also manages to show the pervasive influence of Spinoza on English deism. The deists accepted the existence of God, but saw little room for divine operation in the world, which they saw as functioning according to naturalistic processes of cause and effect. Although it is recognized that Spinoza corresponded with Henry Oldenburg (1620-1677), the secretary of the London Royal Society, historians often portray English and Irish intellectual life as largely isolated from continental Europe. Israel acknowledges that the English tended to be inward-looking and suspicious of foreign influences. Nevertheless, he points out that Spinoza’s ideas were widely debated in England and he identifies Spinoza’s impact on such English radicals as John Toland (1670-1722), Anthony Collins (1676-1729), Matthew Tindal (1657-1733), and Bernard Mandeville (1670-1730).  The English chemist Robert Boyle (1627-1691) discussed Spinoza’s ideas with Henry Oldenburg and the great English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) had all of Spinoza’s books in his library and may have met with followers of the Dutch radical.

 At the end, Israel moves beyond his historical period to look at the consequences of the Radical Enlightenment, in the form of the French Revolution. Most historians would regard this event as the defining moment of the beginning of the late modern world. Israel argues that the radical ideas of the mid-seventeenth century through the mid-eighteenth century helped to make the revolution, but that the revolution, in a sense, also helped to re-make those ideas. The revolutionaries and those opposed to them looked back at Spinoza and the other radicals and re-interpreted the thinking of those earlier philosophers. One of the consequences was that many of the early radicals were over-shadowed by the figure of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), who derived many of his ideas from the earlier philosophes, but who came to be seen as the chief intellectual symbol of the Revolution.

While it is loosely organized, and often skips abruptly from one topic to another, Radical Enlightenment is an impressive work of scholarship.  Erudite and expansive in its scope, the book provides an outstanding survey of trends in intellectual history during early modern times. It clarifies the connection between philosophical materialism and opposition to traditional political hierarchies. It also provides support for a new perspective on Spinoza’s role in the Enlightenment. In his recent biography, Spinoza: A Life, Stephen Nadler argued that the Dutch philosopher was not the social isolate that many have considered him, and that Spinoza was deeply involved in the intellectual networks of his day. Jonathan Israel has convincingly maintained that Spinoza was actually at the center of those networks, not only in the area around the Netherlands, but throughout Europe.

Friday, December 7, 2012

A Response to Scott Cowen on Universities and the “Fiscal Cliff”

Scott Cowen
Scott Cowen, the president of my university, has an opinion piece on the “fiscal cliff” issue on the Huffington Post website. Among his other qualities, President Cowen is certainly indefatigable, and I can’t imagine where he finds the time in his breathtaking schedule to write editorials. As I read this one, I found that I agreed with parts of it and disagreed with others.
President Cowen essentially argues that technological innovation has been an essential part of the American economy since the Second World War, that much of this scientific and technological advancement has come out of universities, and that future prosperity depends on federal financial support for institutions and students. The U.S. President and Congress, accordingly, should adopt the bipartisan “collaborative approach” to problem solving recommended at the annual summit of the Bipartisan Policy Center, recently held at Tulane.
I agree that technological innovation has been a big part of American economic growth in recent decades. It should be acknowledged, though, the history of this growth has been a bit more complicated. At least since the 1970s, the growth of our economy has been fueled as much by the expansion of the financial sector as by the contributions of technology. Indeed, the two have been connected, since the emergence of new techniques and knowledge, most obviously in communication but also in areas such as pharmaceuticals, has stimulated the rush of investments into the American marketplace. An investment oriented economy has both concentrated wealth and produced a series of financial bubbles. So, I think part of our historic problem is that we have become too dependent on injecting innovative amphetamines into the national bloodstream rather than maintaining a slower but stable and healthy metabolism based on steady industrial productivity.
President Cowen cites the numerous technological contributions of our university to support the argument that universities are important for advancements in applied science. He is, of course, factually correct on these contributions. Moreover, acting as number one cheerleader for the university is part of his job and I’m happy, but not surprised, to see that he’s doing this. However, I think he may exaggerate the extent to which universities are immediately responsible for discoveries and inventions. It is certainly true that uneducated scientists would not be very effective, and universities are the places where they receive their specialized educations. But it is also true that much of late twentieth and early twenty-first century innovation has been created outside of academia, by industry and by maverick techno-entrepreneurs. It is not clear that technological change requires maintaining the government-academic complex at its current size and expense.
The impact of federal subsidies to higher education institutions and students is also open to question. As institutions have received more federal dollars, they have become dependent on the federal government. This means that government increasingly tends to steer research, to shape what should be done and how it should be done. Subsidies also tend to drive up the cost of higher education and are at least partially responsible for the dramatic rise in tuition costs.
Whether federal subsidies should go to students and, if so, in what form, are issues that cannot be answered simply by asserting, as President Cowen does, that “federal aid for students must remain a top priority for Congress and the president.” If that federal aid does drive up tuition costs, then it is to some extent self-defeating. Federal aid to students at present also comes in two forms: the out-right grant and the loan. The most common type of grant is the Pell Grant, a needs-based form of funding that gives no consideration to academic ability. Pell Grants tend to encourage college attendance by the under-prepared and thus water down the quality of college educations. These grants also usually do not cover all of the cost of education, so both low-income students and others rely heavily on loans. The “aid” then not only drives up tuition costs, it also helps to overproduce under-educated college graduates while creating heavy debt burdens.
On this last point, I agree completely that “educated workers are vital to long-term economic growth.” I don’t agree, though, that this necessarily means college educated workers. We still do need unskilled laborers (we are increasingly importing them), but many of the semi-skilled and skilled laborers required by our economy have the kinds of educations that people do not get in college. From a purely economic perspective, we don’t need to push more people into higher education; we need to enable more people to attend vocational and technical schools. Whether this should be done by federal initiative or by local efforts is a question for consideration and debate.
Finally, it is almost a truism that any efforts to deal with our current economic challenges will require bipartisan collaboration. I’m not sure that anyone has good ideas on exactly how to get to this collaboration.  But it would require returning to many of the practices that Americans have traditionally disliked about politics: compromises, horse-swapping, and backroom deal-making.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Deterministic Free Will of Daniel C. Dennett


Daniel C. Dennett

One of the greatest philosophical dilemmas posed by the development of the modern scientific view of the world concerns the place of human beings in this view. Scientific thinking is based on determinism, an understanding of all things as material objects linked in chains of causes and effects. Anything that happens must happen because something has caused it to happen. If human beings live inside such a chain, though, then all the things that people do are consequences of other events, such as environmental or biological occurrences.  To many thinkers, such a perspective implies that humans cannot choose to do anything because both their actions and the apparent choices behind these actions are determined.

One answer to the dilemma is to argue that people are in some way outside of any chain of causation. This was the strategy of René Descartes, who presented the non-human world in terms of the interactions of material objects, but who argued that human consciousness was a special kind of spiritual entity, influencing the objects but existing outside of them. Another answer is to simply accept that freedom is nothing but an illusion, and that all of our actions are nothing but results of the influences on us.

Both answers have problems. The response of Descartes is not supported by any evidence on the working of the brain and it is hard to see how a spiritual being could move a physical body. The anti-freedom response not only raises the question of how people can be held responsible for anything, it also seems to refute itself, because we would not be free to come to any meaningful conclusions about ourselves, including our own lack of freedom, if we were not the agents of our own thoughts. Both answers have also been criticized by philosopher Daniel C. Dennett. In Consciousness Explained (1990), he offered a detailed criticism of the Cartesian view of human consciousness. In Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting (1984), The Intentional Stance (1987), he defended ideas of choosing and goal-seeking. Dennett is a scientific materialist, though, and one who bases much of his own philosophical work on Darwinian evolution.  In Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life (1995), he described evolution as fundamental to the contemporary scientific perspective. Freedom Evolves (2003) attempted to bring together the ideas in these earlier works and I think we can take it as a summary of Dennett’s thinking on the free will problem.  Determinism, according to Dennett, is entirely consistent with the concept of free will, which he argues, somewhat paradoxically, is a result of evolutionary determinism.

Dennett maintains that determinism is often confused with inevitability. However, few events are inevitable in our complex world. Any present state of affairs may result in a variety of future states. Some natural entities, moreover, can obtain information from the environment to anticipate futures and to act in a way that is likely to lead to one future, rather than to others. According to Dennett, this proves that there can be such a thing as “evitability” in an entirely deterministic world. There are also random and therefore uncaused events that are still determined, such as the results of the flipping of coins.

Some philosophers have argued that freedom requires philosophical libertarianism, a point within the decision maker where the decision is undetermined. Dennett responds that we cannot identify this point and that freedom can be more readily identified as intentional responses to imperfectly predictable occurrences outside the decision maker. He then moves on to evolution and argues that being able to foresee possible outcomes and to respond to these can provide an evolutionary advantage to organisms. Further, beings that can respond by cooperating with each other have special advantages. Human culture, then, should be understood as a product of evolution.  Because culture consists of communication, the evolution of human culture gives rise to the emergence of pieces of communication that pass from person to person and survive or go extinct as genes survive or go extinct.  Drawing on evolutionary speculation about culture, Dennett refers to these pieces of communication as “memes.”  The moral ideas that guide choices about behavior are memes, patterns of thought that have been selected by environmental pressures.

The use of communication by human beings as a way of surviving together makes humans a special kind of animal in a way that is significant both for freedom and for moral responsibility. Dennett maintains that communication makes possible conscious thought as well as communication.  This is because language makes possible reflection. The social relations involved in communication through language entail imagining ourselves in the positions of others in order to predict what kinds of results when we communicate with them in different ways. This imagining means creating sets of social relations within ourselves (a view that those of us in the social sciences will immediately associate with George Herbert Mead). Therefore, to communicate effectively with others, we must be able to communicate with ourselves, or to be conscious. 

Because we are conscious, the rules that we have developed for cooperating with others are internalized.  This means that we do not follow the rules only when other people are looking and we do not follow the rules blindly. Moral ideas form part of our relations to ourselves, as well as part of our relations to other people. The fact that we consciously hold those ideas means that we reflect on them in communication with ourselves and in communication with other people.

Reflection on moral ideas, which are particular kinds of memes, result in what Dennett calls “benselfishness,” a word coined from the name of Benjamin Franklin, who famously advised the signers of the U.S. Declaration of Independence that “we should all hang together, or, most assuredly, we will all hang separately.” “Benselfishness” is the realization that one’s own well-being is, in the long run, inseparable from the well-being of others. Dennett takes this as the basis of altruism, of concern for other people.

Human culture enables us to engage in “bootstrapping,” in raising ourselves to ever greater levels of freedom and responsibility. Our interactions with other people lead us to give our reasons for acting as we do and to reflect on our reasons. This means that we discuss our reasons both with others and with ourselves. Freedom, in Dennett’s view, does not depend on the absence of causal influences on us but on how we share ideas with each other in order to be led toward greater responsibility for our acts.

Although Dennett’s “deterministic free will” argument is deft, I do not find it convincing. Ultimately, in this author’s view, the threats to human freedom do not come from claims about the position of humans in a chain of causation, but from political and social sources. As we learn more about how human beings make decisions, he argues, we have the responsibility to devise systems of government that are consistent with scientific evidence on our nature. This conclusion, though, suggests that Dennett’s version of free will is simply putting a contemporary happyface on Comtean positivism. Scientific evidence has to be interpreted; and those who interpret it do so within their own set of moral predispositions. The experts too often eagerly represent their own social and political preferences as scientific truths.

One of the difficulties with Dennett’s argument concerns the idea of moral responsibility, a central aspect of freedom of choice. When one claims that an individual is responsible for making a choice, one is claiming not only that the individual can choose, but that there is a morally right choice and a morally wrong one, not just a useful way of acting from an evolutionary point of view. To say that humans have evolved to be altruistic to some extent is only to say that they frequently tend not to rob and kill one another for the sake of their own  long-term ends.  The evolutionary argument does not address the question of whether people should rob and kill each other, or even cheat on their spouses or income taxes, and it therefore gives us little help with the responsibility part of free will.  An explanation of human morality in terms of evolution may be able to provide an account of why morality exists, but it cannot provide a justification for specific moral beliefs.

Dennett does suggest that some moral ideas, such as egalitarian views of distributive justice, have a tendency to survive and spread among people.  He cites, as an example of moral evolution, a thought experiment in which people dividing up chocolate cakes gradually develop a fair-minded morality, in which they realize that each individual will get the most cake in the long run if the cakes are equally divided. This particular example may, however, only demonstrate the problem with using adaptability to an environment as a justification for moral principles. The strategy requires selecting a setting that will select the desired kind of morality. Very few real environments involve simply coming across cakes and deciding how to divide them up. It may be argued that all cakes must be made and that making them requires skill and dedication.  It looks as if Dennett has chosen his example of an environment based on the moral ideas he already values, a classic example of an expert presenting his own social and political perspective as a scientific truth.  Given the variation in environments, we cannot expect adaptation to them to lead us continually closer to an American professor’s preferred norms.

It is also debatable whether “evitability” and intentionality imply freedom, as Dennett suggests. An event may not be inevitable because the causes of it are too numerous and complex to allow us to predict the event. We cannot say that it is inevitable that it will rain on a given day next year because long-range weather conditions are notoriously unpredictable. Few people would say that this gives any amount of free choice to the clouds. Unpredictability is a limitation of the predictor, not a characteristic of the thing predicted. If we cannot predict the rain, or which side of a coin will be up after flipping, this is because we cannot obtain enough information. Probability is a matter of having incomplete information. The more information we have, the more an occurrence approaches certainty, or inevitability.

Even if evading an outcome or changing an outcome is a matter of purposive action on the basis of possibilities, this would not necessarily mean that either the action or the purpose were free. We can program a computer to weigh a variety of responses to a situation and to choose the response most likely to lead to a desired end. This means that we have a machine that is acting efficiently, not one that is acting freely. Making the machine much more complicated and giving it the power to incorporate previous actions and outcomes into its programming would improve both its efficiency and unpredictability, but the improvements would not push it toward greater levels of freedom.  .

Friday, November 30, 2012

Commencement Controversy

The Dalai Lama
There is a very small but symbolically interesting controversy at my university over this year’s recently announced commencement speaker, the Dalai Lama. The controversy does not concern religion, but international politics. It seems that some of our Chinese students have expressed concern over the choice, either because they agree with their government’s classification of the Tibetan Buddhist leader as persona non grata or because they are worried about whether their government will recognize degrees granted at a ceremony involving him.
The reason that I say this is symbolically interesting is that I think this little issue reflects the growing entanglement of our country with China in ways that go far beyond trade. Immigrants from China constitute one of our largest sources of population growth. Nearly 600,000 people from that country gained admission to the United States in 2011 alone, according to the Yearbook of Immigration Statistics. China also sends more students to our institutions of higher education than any other countries except our neighbors, Canada and Mexico. In 2011, well over a quarter-million individuals from China (277,742) entered on student and exchange visas.
Both the immigrants and the students bring financial benefits to this country. Certainly many universities actively seek to pull in tuition dollars from China. One can safely predict though, that Chinese political and social issues will loom much larger in our future.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Was That Really Prosperity?

During the recent presidential election and in our current “fiscal cliff” debates over tax and spending policies, I’ve heard frequent reference to the economic boom years of the 1990s. Many have pointed out that the United States had higher tax rates and also high economic growth under the administration of President Clinton. If only we could go back to Clinton-era policies, the argument goes, we could return to prosperity. However, it seems to me fairly obvious that the economic benefits of that earlier decade were not produced by tax policy and that many of our current problems have their roots in the artificial prosperity of that time.
To some extent, the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War boosted the American economy just as President Clinton came into office. More importantly, though, two bursts of speculation pumped up temporary national well-being. First, the “dot.com” bubble took off, as the United States became a center of new communication technology and investors rushed to put their money into this new industry, inflating stock values. This bubble didn’t really burst, since investment in communication technology did not disappear, but it did contract suddenly. However, another bubble was expanding at that same time. Housing prices jumped in the early 2000s, but the rapid growth in the price of houses began in the middle of the 1990s.
If we look for Clinton-era policies that affected the economy, we should probably focus on housing and mortgages, rather than taxes. The Clinton administration took aggressive steps to end and perceived discrimination in housing, making lenders more reluctant to refuse to make loans. More importantly, the administration encouraged mortgage lending to lower-income borrowers in order to promote more widespread home ownership. In 1995, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD enabled Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to get affordable housing credit for buying subprime loans that often went to low-income borrowers. This encouraged the mortgage industry to extend loans to those most likely to default. The growing industry absorbed investments from all over the world, and the values of homes and the increasingly sophisticated financial instruments that carried debt shot up.
The two bubbles helped transform the American economy into one that was based heavily on finance, concentrating wealth, even while the mortgage bubble pushed poorer Americans into unsustainable debt. This type of speculation was clearly not a sound basis for an economy. Also, governmental efforts to increase home ownership became a classic case of unintended consequences: egalitarian policies that ultimately increased income inequality, created a greater burden of debt for poorer people, and helped transform the economic structure into one that offered opportunities for investors rather than for workers.
I don’t know whether we will go over the cliff and see taxes immediately go up and government spending immediately go down or not. But regardless of what happens at the end of this year, the ultimate goal should be to build an economy based on sound economic activity and not on speculation. Nostalgia for the Clinton prosperity is like waking up with a bad hangover after a drunken spree and saying, “gosh, I’d feel great if I were only soused again.”

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Missiles in the Middle East


Rocket from Gaza

I recently received a call from the Tulane Students forJustice in Palestine for a candlelight vigil "to remember and honor those who have died or been injured in the recent Israeli bombings of Palestinian land." What struck me as strange about this call is that the Palestinian organization Hamas had been firing missiles into Israel for weeks before the Israelis finally responded. If the Students for Justice in Palestine ever protested the Palestinian bombings of Israeli land, I wasn't aware of it. This is an odd sort of justice, in which one party is assumed to have the right to strike at the other with impunity.

The death of civilians always presents a moral challenge to the use of military force. But before condemning Israel, one should consider the alternatives. Israel could have simply allowed Hamas to continue its attacks, something no other nation would have been expected to endure. The Israelis could have immediately invaded the Gaza Strip and re-occupied it, but most analysts believe that would have entailed even more civilian deaths.  Or, Israel could have done what it did: fire back in the hopes that this would dissuade Hamas and make the more radical step of an invasion unnecessary. Logically, it seems to me that if anyone is going to protest Israeli action, one would have to argue that the Israelis had some better alternative. And  they don't.

Hamas can, at any time, stop the Israeli missiles by ceasing their own attacks. But the organization continues to use the densely populated region of Gaza as a base. The leaders of Hamas probably want to provoke Israeli retaliation because it intensifies anti-Israeli feeling in the population of Gaza and encourages popular reactions against Israeli in other Arab countries, as well as among foreign groups prone to seeing the conflict as a simple dichotomy of Palestinian victims and Israeli victimizers. That cynical willingness to sacrifice one's own people is what we should really recognize and remember.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

A Philosopher Defends Favoritism

Philosopher Steven T. Asma
Steven T. Asma has an interesting article on fairness versus favoritism at The Chronicle of Higher Education website. Favoritism, acting on behalf of our friends, neighbors, and kin, is a deeply rooted human instinct, Asma points out, and one that contradicts abstract ideas of fairness. “Ethical philosophies of every stripe – egalitarian, utilitarian, Rawlsian, cosmopolitan,” he writes, “have tried to level people with a grid of uniform impartiality, but our favorites cannot be encapsulated in the grid. They loom too large in our moral geography.”
One of the reasons this struck a note to me is that in my own research on educational policy, I have consistently found that the actions of parents undermine programs aimed at redistributing resources and opportunities to achieve uniform “fairness” in American schools. Even when parents sincerely believe that every student should have exactly the same benefits and opportunities, they do everything they can to maximize the opportunities of their own children. Since some families are better able to realize their goals than others, families promote inequality of opportunity. They are, Asma might say, devoted to favoritism. This, I think, is as it should be. Parents who don’t want to promote the best interests of their own children over goals of abstract equality are, to put it bluntly, bad parents.
Fairness should always be part of our decision-making and considerations of fairness should limit our tribalism. But putting the family member over the friend, the friend over the neighbor, and the neighbor over the stranger is valuing real social relations over abstractions; it is treating people as human beings with whom we have connections and not as interchangeable units in a system. So, it isn’t just that favoring our own over others is a fundamental part of our human nature, which contains evil as well as good. Favoritsm is, within limits, a positive virtue.
So, I am in substantial agreement with Asma. He does not ask an important question, though. Who will decide what is fair and when and whether we should favor some over others? The big problem with fairness today, it seems to me, is that it is so often coerced. Indeed, in the version of “justice as fairness” proposed by the philosopher John Rawls, the quest for the just society is a prescription for universal coercion.
As a side note, the motto of my university is “non sibi, sed suis” (“not for oneself, but for one’s own”). These days, this is always presented as an institutional affirmation of some sort of limitless altruism, but it sure sounds like tribalism to me.
A Call to Tribalism?

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Hobbes: A Biography, by A.P. Martinich

Thomas Hobbes
Aloysisus P. Martinich, who holds an endowed chair in philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin, is an internationally recognized authority on the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes. His previous works include The Two Gods of Leviathan: Thomas Hobbes on Religion and Politics (1992) and A Hobbes Dictionary (1995). Martinich is best known for having pointed out the importance of religion in the thinking of Hobbes, who has sometimes been seen as a purely secular or even anti-religious theorist. In Hobbes: A Biography, Martinich has provided the most complete and readable biography of Thomas Hobbes currently available. The author’s painstaking research, based on both published and unpublished sources, makes the book an outstanding source for political scientists, professional philosophers, and historians. The clear, non-academic writing style makes it an excellent introduction to Hobbes for students or general readers.  Martinich even displays a wry wit that one does not normally expect to find in works on early modern philosophy. For example, in responding to Hobbes’ portrayal of Oxford University as a decadent place characterized by “drunkenness, wantonness, gaming, and other vices,” Martinich observes: “Drunkenness, wantonness, gaming, and other vices were certainly part of my undergraduate experiences and those of my friends at various universities, and nothing has changed much over the past forty years, judging from the experiences of my students and my children. Of course, there are degrees of drunkenness and wantonness, but without better evidence, I am reluctant to judge that Oxford in 1605 was worse than Oxford (or the University of Texas) in 1998.”

Martinich takes up the story of the philosopher’s life with the birth of Thomas Hobbes in the village of Westport, just outside of Malmesbury. The circumstances of his birth and early life were modest, considering the lasting renown Hobbes would later attain. His father, an apparently bad-tempered, semi-literate clergyman also named “Thomas”, deserted the family when Hobbes was still a child. His mother, whose name was probably either “Alice” or  “Anne”, is said to have given birth to the future philosopher prematurely. Fear of the invading Spanish Armada, according the account of Hobbes himself, caused this premature birth. Fear, which Hobbes called his “twin,” would be present in his thinking throughout his life.

After his father’s death, Hobbes and his family were supported by Hobbes’ uncle Francis, a maker of gloves. Hobbes, apparently, a good student, went on to study at Oxford, at about the age of fourteen, somewhat younger than other students. After his graduation, he became a tutor and companion for the young William Cavendish, of the wealthy and powerful Cavendish family. Ties with the Cavendish family helped connect Hobbes to England’s political and intellectual elite.  Throughout the philosopher’s life, he would defend power and social order.

De Cive
Hobbes was no child prodigy. He was a late bloomer and had he died young, instead of surviving into his nineties, the now familiar adjective “Hobbesian,” which describes a universal state of conflict, would not exist. Martinich discusses the possibility that Hobbes was the author of some anonymous essays published in the 1620's, but if Hobbes did write these, they were little more than preparation for his mature works. Martinich dismisses claims that Hobbes wrote some of the essays of Sir Francis Bacon, for whom Hobbes served as secretary in the early 1620's. Hobbes became a member of intellectual discussion groups, most notably the Great Tew Circle in the 1630's, but he was already much older than the other participants. His first major published work,   the Latin De Cive (“On the City” or “On the Polity,” published in English translation as Philosophical Rudiments Concerning Government and Society in 1650) when Hobbes was already 54 years of age.

King Charle I
 De Cive was intended to be the third part of a philosophical trilogy, entitled Elementa Philosophia (Elements of Philosophy). Logically, the first volume of the trilogy was De Corpore (“On the Body,” published in 1655) and the second part was De Homine (“On Humankind”, published in 1658.  According to the usual scholarly view, Hobbes put the third, political volume of the work first because conflict between England’s Parliament and the English King Charles I and the outbreak of the English Civil War (usually dated 1642-1651) lent a special urgency to political questions. However, Martinich also suggests that Hobbes had difficulty working out some parts of his philosophy and that this delayed his finishing the first two volumes.

Even before the publication of De Cive, another volume, The Elements of Law, Natural and Politic, began circulating in manuscript form in 1640, although it was not actually published until 1650. The Elements of Law presented a thoroughly materialistic view of the world and of humanity. It was divided into two parts: the first part concerned human psychology and the natural laws governing it and the second part concerned government. Hobbes rejected the idea of immaterial spirits. Even God, from his point of view, is a body. Martinich shows that Hobbes’ psychology is in many ways a precursor to modern neurological views, because for Hobbes mental activities were physical motions in the brain brought about by motions outside the body. Hobbes also laid out the basics of his political theory in The Elements of Law, and he would continue to adhere to this political theory throughout his life.

The idea of a “Hobbesian state of nature,” usually associated with the philosopher’s most famous work, Leviathan (1651), makes its appearance in The Elements of Law and in De Cive. This “state of nature” is often thought of as an actual state of human affairs at some historical period before human government and society emerged. Hobbes has been criticized because there are no known groups of humans who do not have some sort of political and social organization. Martinich argues that the “state of nature” was actually what we would today call a thought experiment, and not a claim about how social order really came into existence. “Hobbes does not intend his description to capture the historically earliest or most primitive condition of human beings,” Martinich writes. “Rather, by beginning with the way human beings live in any society, he asks the reader to consider what life would be like if all laws were abolished. He is taking his readers through an intellectual exercise, a thought experiment, in order to get them to see the desirability of setting up a government.”  Presented in this way, Hobbes’ thought on the nature of political and social order takes on a renewed relevance for modern readers.

The English Civil War affected Hobbes personally, as well as intellectually. His writings made it clear that he favored the established social order under the king, and his royalism may have put him in danger from those on the side of Parliament. From 1641 to 1651, Hobbes lived in exile in Paris. There, he made contacts with other exiled intellectual figures, worked slowly on his philosophical trilogy, and wrote a book that continues to be read in political science classes today, Leviathan; or the Matter, Forme, and Power of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiasticall and Civil (1651). Martinich identifies some subtle, but important differences between the political philosophy expressed in Leviathan and that of De Cive. In De Cive, he had argued that the church hierarchy must obey the sovereign in secular matters, but that the church hierarchy was independent in religious matters. Leviathan presented the king or other sovereign as supreme in all matters, religious or secular. Any independence threatened the social order. This position led Hobbes to present the Catholic faith in a strongly negative fashion. This was dangerous in Catholic France. Hobbes had fled England for France because of his royalism, and he was now forced to flee back to England because of his anti-Catholicism.

Leviathan was also accused of being less royalist than the earlier works.  The apparent acceptance in this book of any sovereign who can impose order, whether descended from royal blood or not, led some of Hobbes’ critics to accuse the philosopher of trying to curry favor with the Commonwealth government that had executed Charles I in 1649. Martinich convincingly argues that this was not the case. Hobbes had presented Charles II with a handwritten copy of Leviathan, which he surely would not have done if he had been trying to ingratiate himself with those who executed the father of Charles II. Nevertheless, Martinich does point out that there is an ironic twist to Hobbes’ absolutism. Hobbes does not favor absolute sovereignty on the basis of the divine right of kings, the conventional perspective of supporters of royal power. Instead, absolute sovereignty is rooted in a kind of democracy for Hobbes. Fearing the war of all against all that results from a society of equals each seeking self-interest, members of a society give up their own rights to the sovereign in order to be protected against one another. Thus, Martinich maintains, one of the most interesting aspects of the philosophy of Hobbes is the way he reached conventional conclusions from radical premises.

Martinich does identify some of the weaknesses in Hobbesian political philosophy.  In the theoretical state of nature, Martinich observes, every individual has a right to everything, including the lives and property of other people. Political and civic rights, including property rights, only come into existence with the establishment of a concrete political order. However, it is not clear what Hobbes means when the philosopher says that people give up their rights to all things when they accept a sovereign. Does he mean that they give up some of their rights, so that they no longer have a right to everything? Does he mean that they give up all of their rights, so that they no longer have any rights at all, even the right to self-preservation? The biographer suggests that the writings of Hobbes tend to shift from one position to another. Hobbes generally seems to favor the view that people give up all of their rights, since only this would support the concept of absolute sovereignty. If this is true, though, then people do not have the right to self-preservation, and self-preservation is the justification for having a sovereign.

Martinich follows the life of Hobbes to its long end, following the controversies and contentions that seemed to continually accompany the philosopher. In his own day, Hobbes was sometimes accused of being a anti-religious thinker, or even an atheist. Even today, the theorist’s religious beliefs are sometimes called into question. Martinich counters these accusations by demonstrating that Hobbes was a genuinely and sincerely religious thinker. Still, the biographer may overlook the fact that religion can be important for a philosopher in two quite different ways. For some, religious beliefs offer fundamental premises that lead to philosophical conclusions. For others, however, sincerely held religious beliefs may be in conflict with their own philosophical views, leading to efforts to reconcile the irreconcilable. Hobbes, with his materialist view of human psychology and nature, was probably the second type of religious philosopher.

Many of the questions that Thomas Hobbes raised continue to be important for people in our own society. How does social order emerge from individual pursuit of self-interest? What establishes the legitimacy of governments? How are the rights and obligations of individuals related to the existence of political institutions? A.P. Martinich’s fine biography is an outstanding introduction to these questions, as well as an excellent and approachable study of one of the founders of modern social and political thought.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Youssef, Nakoula, or Bacile? Man of Many Names Goes to Jail

Who is that Masked Man?
Mark Basseley Youssef, also known as Nakoula Basseley Nakoula and best known as Sam Bacile, has been sentenced to a year in jail after admitting that he violated his probation in a 2010 bank fraud case. Whoever he really is, he achieved notoriety when his film The Innocence of Muslims sparked protests in a number of Muslim countries and was initially blamed for the attack on the U.S. embassy in Libya, although it has since become clear that this last event was a planned terrorist attack.  I am glad to see that the U.S. attorney’s office did not pursue probation violation charges directly related to the making of the film, because it is important to keep Youssef’s legal transgressions separate from the issue of his freedom of speech. Some of the actors in the film are complaining that he deceived them and damaged their careers when he lied to them about the nature of the project and dubbed their lines with new dialogue. However, I think it is more appropriate that these actors sue the filmmaker for damages they believe they have suffered than that Youssef’s dealings with them be included in the probation violation charges.
Anthea Butler
During the controversy over the film, I was shocked to see some Americans arguing that Youssef/Nakoula/Bacile should be prosecuted for the film itself. One of the most conspicuous, if confused, calls for his imprisonment came from University of Pennsylvania religious studies professor Anthea Butler, who wrote that “if there is anyone who values free speech, it is a tenured professor!” Apparently not, because Butler went on to compare the film with the controversial Last Temptation of Christ, saying that “the difference is that Bacile indirectly and inadvertently inflamed people half a world away.” In this view, the act is made criminal by the response to it. Do you face imprisonment for your statements? That depends on how people respond to them. Not only does that contradict the idea that an offense should be objective in nature and should lie in the act itself, it turns censorship into retroactive justice, punishing people for actions that were not violations of the law at the time they committed them.
For my part, I support the multi-named fellow’s right to say whatever he pleases about Islam or anything else, but not to commit bank fraud or violate his probation.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

UCLA's Latest Display of Outrage

UCLA's Version of Rational Discourse
UCLA law professor Richard Sander has been the target of student protests at his university this week. Sander, a critic of affirmative action, published a report that argued UCLA’s supposedly “holistic” admissions process was quietly including race as a prominent factor in deciding who would be admitted to the university. Based on his analysis of admissions data, Sander argued that while UCLA’s holistic process, which included factors such as socioeconomic disadvantage in deciding who would be accepted, was not racially discriminatory by itself, admissions officers did not strictly follow the process and made offers to students who not only had relatively weak academic backgrounds, but even low scores in the holistic ranking. These offers, according to Sander, went disproportionately to black students. If Sander is correct, then UCLA’s admissions office has been surreptitiously violating California law, which prohibits the state’s universities from considering race in admissions or hiring.
The report, according to the website Inside Higher Ed, “infuriated minority student leaders at UCLA (not to mention administrators).” The students perceived it as “offensive” and described themselves as being “under attack.” UCLA Associate Vice Chancellor for Enrollment Management Youlanda Copeland-Morgan had not reviewed the statistics in the report and therefore could not judge the report’s accuracy, but nevertheless described Professor Sander’s analysis as “hurtful and unequivocal attacks.”
Professor Richard Sander
As I read through the Sander report, I could see no attempts to “attack” or “hurt” anyone. He makes an argument, based on evidence. One may disagree with his argument or, after having reviewed his evidence, conclude that the facts do not support it. But other than making vague claims that somehow the holistic process includes considerations that cannot be measured statistically, apparently no one has made any serious efforts to rebut Professor Sander’s reasoning. In an interview excerpted by Inside Higher Ed, Sander, who had attended the protest against his report (brave man), observed that "Some fairly cynical leaders saw an opportunity to create a cause ... and they are milking it to the full. There was no rational discussion. There was no identification of any mistakes in my report, and no concern about what it would mean if the analysis were correct."
I have no argument with the right to peaceful assembly and it would be perfectly legal for people to gather to protest the laws of physics, if they should choose to do so. Still, I find the events at UCLA appalling. A university should be a place where we encourage careful, dispassionate reasoning. Shouting slogans and shaking fists in the air do not lend themselves to the cultivation of rational analysis. While Professor Sander does not appear to be intimidated by outraged crowds, this kind of emotional display does make it more unpleasant to express unpopular views and therefore undermines the openness to intellectual diversity that should be the essence of university life.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Remembering the Work of Jacques Barzun

Jacques Barzun
The great teacher, cultural historian and social critic Jacques Barzun died yesterday (October 25, 2012) at the age of 104. The French-born Barzun’s father, Henri-Martin Barzun, was a civil servant in the French ministry of labor, but the elder Barzun was also a writer and many prominent authors and artists visited the family home.  In 1917, the French government sent Henri-Martin Barzun on a mission to the United States. The young Jacques went to the United States in 1920. Still a teenager, Jacques Barzun enrolled in Columbia University in New York City in 1923.

Barzun took his bachelor’s degree from Columbia in 1927 and then began teaching and graduate study at the same institution. He received the Ph.D. degree in 1932. His dissertation was published as his first book, The French Race: Theories of Its Origins and their Social and Political Implications Prior to the Revolution (1932). In this book, Barzun examined how the idea of race had developed historically in French thought and how this idea had shaped political and social behavior. This theme of the historical emergence of the idea of race, an idea that Barzun saw as misleading and dangerous, became the basis of his second book, Race: A Study in Modern Superstition (1937).  These two books were timely in their topic because the Nazi Party had risen to power in Germany during these years, advocating racial doctrines derived from the historical influences described by Barzun.

While teaching at Columbia, Barzun came into contact with prominent New York intellectuals. The literary critic Lionel Trilling became his friend and collaborator when the two taught a “Great Books” class in 1934.  Barzun and his first wife, Marianna, frequently socialized with Trilling and his wife, Diana, also a renowned literary critic.

Barzun’s third book, Of Human Freedom (1939), also treated the historical currents of his day. Written on the eve of World War II, the book offered a defense of democracy in the face of the absolutist doctrines of Nazism and Fascism. The political ideas in this book were inspired by the late nineteenth century American psychologist and philosopher William James, who formulated a version of the philosophy of pragmatism and saw American democracy as an imperfect but sound way of meeting the challenges of political life.

Darwin, Marx, Wagner: Critique of a Heritage (1941) was Barzun’s first best-seller. It was a skeptical examination of three nineteenth century figures who had shaped much of the modern era’s approaches to biology, politics and society, and music, frequently in ways that Barzun found troubling. Barzun’s interest in education led him to publish a number of works on teaching, including The Teacher in America (1945), The House of Intellect (1959), and The American University (1968). In these books, he was critical of progressive education and supported the ideal of traditional schooling in the liberal arts.

Although he always considered himself primarily a teacher, Barzun’s interest in shaping intellectual life went beyond his own classroom and even beyond his own books. Together with his Columbia colleague Lionel Trilling and the poet W.H. Auden, Barzun formed The Reader’s Subscription book club in 1951.  The three men of letters made selections of recent historical and literary works and made these available to club members at discount prices. Each month, one of the three would write an essay on the club’s main selection and the essay would be printed in the monthly newsletter.

Barzun served Columbia as Dean of Graduate Faculties from 1955 to 1958 and Dean of Faculties and Provost from 1958 to 1967. He was named Seth Low Professor of History in 1960. In 1975, he finally retired from Columbia’s active faculty and became an emeritus professor. In his retirement, though, he took up a second career as literary consultant to the publishing house Charles Scribner’s Sons, Inc.

The prolific Barzun managed one of his most impressive achievements when, at the age of 92, he published From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present (2000), an massive overview of five centuries of Western cultural history that he had begun writing when he was 84. In this book, he regarded the modern period of history in the West as having begun in the sixteenth century. He divided this era into four stages. The first stage lasted from the Protestant revolution sparked by Martin Luther to the scientific revolution of Sir Isaac Newton at the end of the seventeenth century. The second stage began with the rise of the nation state during the time of French king Louis XIV and ended with the French Revolution and the Enlightenment. The third stretched from the Romantic reaction to the Enlightenment to the appearance of Cubism in art and thought in the decade before World War I. The fourth and last stage lasted through the World Wars through the opening of the twenty-first century.  Barzun argued that by the time at which he was writing, the modern culture of the West had spent itself and had become empty, self-defeating, and decadent.  Even critics who disagreed with the representation of historical periods as having definable beginnings and endings thought that Barzun had written a masterpiece, and Barzun was often compared to the great historian Edward Gibbon.

While working on From Dawn to Decadence, Barzun finally left New York and moved to his final home in San Antonio, Texas with his second wife, Marguerite, who was a San Antonio native. Barzun became an active part of the cultural life of his new city, giving lectures and interviews. Through most of his life, Barzun had been in the public eye less than other New York intellectuals, such as his friend and colleague, Lionel Trilling. Nevertheless, he had maintained a consistent reputation as an elegant and insightful historian, an independent and clear-headed observer of higher education, and an incisive critic of modern culture. For my part, I regard Dawn to Decadence as the greatest achievement in a lifetime of great achievements. Reading or re-reading it may be the best way to memorialize Jacques Barzun.