Huge “Green” Homes are “Monuments to Sanctimony”

(p. W9) In North Carolina, the owners of a 4,600-square-foot home that cost $1.2 million wanted it to be as “green” as possible, so they spent $120,000 on solar power.

In Colorado, using recycled materials, an architecture professor built a 4,700-square-foot home that uses geothermal heating and cooling and was on the market recently for $930,000.
And in Southern California, a husband-and-wife architect team who say that they “came of age during the ’60s and ’70s at U.C. Berkeley” also relied on recycled materials — in building a second home six hours from their primary residence.
By now these environmentally conscious “green” houses are a staple of home design magazines, where they are presented as exemplars of both good taste and good intentions. The Colorado house, for instance, has won awards from the state and the Colorado Renewable Energy Society and has appeared in the Washington Post and on Home and Garden TV.
The question, of course, is what on earth are all these people thinking? How “green” can huge and, in many cases, isolated houses be? Wouldn’t it be better to risk traumatizing the children by squeezing into a 3,000-square-foot home, especially one close to shopping, schools and work? How many less affluent, less guilt-ridden Americans can afford to build such environmental show houses?
These houses aren’t just ridiculous; they’re monuments to sanctimony.

For the full commentary, see:
DANIEL AKST. “Green House Gasbags.” The Wall Street Journal (Fri., January 13, 2006): W9.

Mickey Mouse: “A Little Fellow Trying to Do the Best He Could”


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(p. 17) After a fond, lingering look at “Shall We Dance” — Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire in the spotlight, romancing to songs by George and Ira Gershwin — Dickstein sums up expertly: “Each number is a miniature of the movie, moving from singing alone, dancing alone, dancing with the wrong person, or dancing to the wrong music to making beautiful music together.” With his next breath he roughly reminds us of the context: “It’s the music, the dancing, that saves all this from familiar romantic cliché. As photography documents the Depression, dance countermands it.” And then he takes one more step back to give us an even broader view: “The culture of elegance, as represented by Astaire and the Gershwins, was less about the cut of your tie and tails than the cut of your feelings, the inner radiance that was one true bastion against social suffering. They preserved in wit, rhythm and fluidity of movement what the Depression almost took away, the high spirits of Americans, young and modern, who had once felt destined to be the heirs and heiresses of all the ages.” Sheer delight, pure escapism, serves its cathartic purpose — and it means something, too.

Which makes the omission of Walt Disney (his name doesn’t even appear in the index) all the more perplexing. Even if one rejects the provocative claim by the historian Warren Susman that “Mickey Mouse may in fact be more important to an understanding of the 1930s than Franklin Roosevelt,” it’s hard to deny Disney a place in the pantheon of the decade’s movie­makers, if only for “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and “Fantasia.” Whether or not the cartoons that delighted ’30s audiences are complex works of art, they would have slotted nicely into several of Dickstein’s chapters. On the lookout for a cultural artifact that served to “lift sagging morale and stimulate optimism about the future”? Try any one of the dozens of animated shorts featuring that cartoon collective, Mickey, Donald Duck and Goofy. Every gag is an explosion of energy, and the whirligig of slapstick invention always ends happily, thanks to the orchestrated efforts of our heroes. Mickey, described by Disney as “a little fellow trying to do the best he could,” may have been born in the late ’20s, but he grew up a pure creature of the ’30s.

For the full review, see:
ADAM BEGLEY. “Side by Side .” The New York Times Book Review (Sun., September 27, 2009): 17.
(Note: the online version of the review is dated September 25, 2009.)

Book reviewed:
Dickstein, Morris. Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2009.

“Would You Exchange Places with a Typical Person Living in Any Year Before Your Birth?”

(p. 80) Consider a thought experiment. If the means existed, would you exchange places with a typical person living in any year before your birth? Exchange places permanently–not, say observe the Battle of Hastings and then rematerialize in the present. You could pick the year and place in the past, but could not specify trading places with someone specific like Catherine the Great or Leonardo da Vinci, and you could not specify that you would he a lord or lady or hold some similar advantage. In this deal you’d he transported back to the year and society of your choosing to live out the rest of your life as an ordinary person.

A good guess is that hardly anyone in the United States or the European Union today would accept a one-way ticket to the everyday life of the past. The physical beauty of the world would be greater then, before the mixed blessing of development. And most moments in the past would be quieter than ours, though not necessarily less stressful–the lives of pioneer farmers for whom a crop loss meant destitution, or of seamstresses working fourteen-hour days in early industrial-era sweatshops and unable to afford more than tea and bread, were hardly (p. 81) serene. Nor was the quiet, small-town atmosphere of the past, which many today idealize, necessarily ideal. Everyone knew your name, but everyone also knew your secrets; men and especially women enjoyed much less personal freedom in small-town life of the past than is typical today.
For essentially all of human history until the last few generations, the typical person’s lot has been unceasing toil, meager living circumstances, uncertainty about food, rudimentary health care, limited education, little travel or entertainment; all followed by early death. (Keep in mind these remain the conditions under which more than a billion people live in the developing world today.) Even if you could somehow carry the benefits of modern medicine with you into the past–health care alone would make almost everyone decline the one-way ticket backward–the toil, low living standards, and isolated lives of past generations would seem awful to us compared to the sorts of things we complain about today.

Easterbrook, Gregg. The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse. Paperback ed. New York: Random House, 2004.

Affluence Has Made America More Libertarian


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(p. 16) Various scolds and worrywarts have exclaimed, with Wordsworth, that “getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.” To such Jeremiahs, Lindsey provides an essentially cheerful, although not altogether so, counterpoint: affluence has made America a more libertarian, and hence a nicer, place.

First came material improvement. Until very recently, he notes, when people prayed for their daily bread, they often were praying for just that. Not so long ago, many ordinary lives of quiet desperation ended especially dismally: about 10 percent of burials in New York City in 1889 were in potter’s fields. In 1900, 1.75 million children between the ages of 10 and 15 — almost one-fifth of all children in that age cohort — were in the work force. Children provided one-fourth to one-third of the incomes for working-class families, which spent more than 90 percent of their household earnings on food, shelter and clothing. In 1900, Americans spent nearly twice as much on funerals as on medicine, and less than 2 percent of Americans took vacations.
. . .
Affluence, Lindsey writes, has provided “a mad proliferation of choices — and what, in the end, is freedom but the ability to choose?”

For the full review, see:
GEORGE F. WILL. “Land of Plenty.” The New York Times Book Review (Sun., June 10, 2007): 16-17.
(Note: ellipsis added.)

Book reviewed:
Lindsey, Brink. The Age of Abundance: How Prosperity Transformed America’s Politics and Culture. New York: HarperCollins, 2007.

Father of Cornhusker Kickback Is Named “2010 Porker of the Year”

(p. 6A) Sen. Ben Nelson can’t shake the “Cornhusker Kickback.”
This week, a government watchdog group named the Nebraska Democrat its “2010 Porker of the Year,” based on an online poll.
Citizens Against Government Waste included Nelson in the poll, citing his role negotiating a pro­vision of the federal health care bill that would have exempted Nebraska from paying the added costs of the law’s expanded Med­icaid coverage. That provi­sion was later dropped in fa­vor of relief for all states, which Nelson has said was his goal all along.
Nelson cast the decisive 60th vote for the bill in late 2009.
. . .
Mark Fahleson, chairman of the Nebraska Republican Party, said Nelson was trying to rewrite history. “The fact is he’s the fa­ther of the Cornhusker Kick­back,” he said.

For the full story, see:
MICHAEL O’CONNOR. “Nelson rejects group’s ‘Porker of Year’ label.” Omaha World-Herald (Fri., March 4, 2011): 6A.
(Note: ellipsis added.)

U.S. Holds “Edge in Its Openness to Innovation”


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(p. 24) Judging by Charles R. Morris’s new book, “The Tycoons,” it takes about 100 years for maligned monopolists and “robber barons” to morph into admirable innovators.

Morris skillfully assembles a great deal of academic and anecdotal research to demonstrate that Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Jay Gould and J. P. Morgan did not amass their fortunes by trampling on the downtrodden or ripping off consumers – . . .
. . .
Though Morris only hints at it, the truth is that the real heroes of the American industrial revolution were not his four featured tycoons, but the American people themselves. I don’t mean this to sound like a corny burst of patriotism. In the 19th century, the United States was still young. Most families had either been booted out of Europe or fled it, and they didn’t care about tradition or the Old Guard. With little to lose, they were willing to bet on a roll of the dice, even if it was they who occasionally got rolled. Europe was encrusted with guilds, unions and unbendable rules. Britons took half a day to make a rifle stock, because 40 different tradesmen poked their noses into the huddle. American companies polished off new rifle stocks in 22 minutes.
The United States still holds an edge in its openness to innovation. In 1982, French farmers literally chased the French agriculture minister, Edith Cresson, off their fields with pitchforks because she suggested reform. By contrast, back in the late 1850’s, Abraham Lincoln was a hot after-dinner speaker. Was he discussing slavery? No. The title of his talk was “Discoveries and Inventions.” The real root of economic growth is not natural resources or weather or individual genius. It’s attitude, not latitude. The Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter called innovations gales of “creative destruction.” Americans, not Europeans, had the gall to stare into those gales – with optimism.

For the full review, see:
TODD G. BUCHHOLZ . “‘The Tycoons’: Benefactors of Great Wealth.” The New York Times Book Review (Sun., October 2, 2005): 24.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the title “‘The Tycoons’: Benefactors of Great Wealth.”)

Book under review:
Morris, Charles R. The Tycoons: How Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Jay Gould, and J. P. Morgan Invented the American Supereconomy. New York: Times Books, 2005.

Middle-Class Today Live Better than 99.4% of Humans Who Ever Lived

(p. 80) In his extraordinary book Mapping Human History, the science writer Steve Olson estimates that 80 billion “modern” humans–from the first beings recognizable as our forebears to the advent of Homo sapiens sapiens, our official name–have walked the earth down through the millennia. Supposing this number is correct, the men and women at middle-class standards or above in the United States and the European Union now live better than 99.4 percent of the human beings who have ever existed.

Easterbrook, Gregg. The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse. Paperback ed. New York: Random House, 2004.

The Olson book mentioned is:
Olson, Steve. Mapping Human History: Discovering the Past through Our Genes. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2002.
(Note: italics in original.)

Autos Give Us Autonomy

OpenRoad2011-03-10.jpgThe open road. Source of photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. 60) I’ve been converted by a renegade school of thinkers you might call the autonomists, because they extol the autonomy made possible by automobiles. Their school includes engineers and philosophers, political scientists like James Q. Wilson and number-crunching economists like Randal O’Toole, the author of the 540-page manifesto ”The Vanishing Automobile and Other Urban Myths.” These thinkers acknowledge the social and environmental problems caused by the car but argue that these would not be solved — in fact, would be mostly made worse — by the proposals coming from the car’s critics. They call smart growth a dumb idea, the result not of rational planning but of class snobbery and intellectual arrogance. They prefer to promote smart driving, which means more tolls, more roads and, yes, more cars.
. . .
(p. 65) . . . Macaulay . . . observed in the 19th century that ”every improvement of the means of locomotion benefits mankind morally and intellectually, as well as materially.”
. . .
In an essay called ”Autonomy and Automobility,” Loren E. Lomasky, a professor of political philosophy at the University of Virginia, invokes Aristotle’s concept of the ”self-mover” to argue that the ability to move about and see the world is the crucial distinction between higher and lower forms of life and is ultimately the source of what Kant would later call humans’ moral autonomy. ”The automobile is, arguably, rivaled only by the printing press (and perhaps within a few more years by the microchip) as an autonomy-enhancing contrivance of technology,” he writes. The planners determined to tame sprawl, Lomasky argues, are the intellectual heirs of Plato and his concept of the philosopher-king who would impose order on the unenlightened masses.

For the full commentary, see:
Tierney, John. “The Autonomist Manifesto (or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Road).” The New York Times Magazine (Sun., September 26, 2004): 57-65.
(Note: ellipsis added.)

The Lomasky essay is:

Lomasky, Loren E. “Autonomy and Automobility.” The Independent Review
2, no. 1 (Summer 1997): 5-28.

The Macaulay quote is from:
Macaulay, Thomas Babington. “Chap. 3, State of England in 1685.” The History of England from the Accession of James II. 1848.

The O’Toole book is:
O’Toole, Randal (sic). The Vanishing Automobile and Other Urban Myths: How Smart Growth Will Harm American Cities. Camp Sherman, Oregon: The Thoreau Institute, 2000.

The Wilson essay is:
Wilson, James Q. “Cars and Their Enemies.” Commentary 104, no. 1 (July 1997): 17-23.