Category 1. American Culture

The Progressive Pravda

To my frequent sorrow, I still read The New York Times. It’s an old, old habit, and one I have tried to give up – but most mornings, after the Beloved Spouse has finished the crossword puzzle, the paper stares at me from across the breakfast table and I just can’t resist picking it up. Reading The Times, I tell myself, will give me a chance to understand the way the other side looks at the world.

My efforts bear only small amounts of fruit. The paper does provide me with daily doses of progressive invective, occasionally even bolstered by carefully curated facts, but in truth, I always pretty much know what their take will be on whatever happened yesterday before I begin perusing the paper’s printed rehashes...

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Blurred Lines

A few years ago, while the Beloved Spouse and I were visiting friends in southwestern Texas, our host observed that the most fundamental distinction represented by the border is that on one side there are property rights and the rule of law, on the other, not. Other than that, he said, it’s the same land and people.

I found my friend’s comment memorable for its simplicity and for the clarity with which it illuminated two characteristics of American law and culture that are among the most essential building blocks of our society’s successes.

What attracted – and still attracts – millions to our shores? The chance to abandon the stations of their births and build new lives and identities based on their own efforts...

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A Society Out of Balance

Last night, just as the Beloved Spouse and I were settling into sleep, one of our daughters called seeking reinforcements. Her husband was traveling for work and one of their two children was vomiting aggressively and had come down with the kind of red-hot fever that only little ones can bear – and they miserably. We jumped out of bed, got back into our clothes and headed to their apartment. By this morning all was well again, but the long night had reminded me just how hard parenting can be.

And, apart from being exhausting, child-rearing is so punishingly expensive that it’s a wonder that anybody – especially those who are middle class – decides to do it. Let’s consider the context in which these decisions are made:

According to data from the US Department of Agriculture, fo...

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Failing Gatekeepers

I attended Phillips Exeter and Princeton. As an undergraduate, I majored in English and studied three other languages – one living, two dead. I loved most of my courses.

As I recall, in the late 1970s standards were quite high in Princeton’s English Department; I worked very hard at my studies and achieved only the level of being slightly above average in my departmental ranking. I did not graduate with honors. At the time, I excused my undistinguished academic record as having been caused by my participation in – and an excessive focus on – varsity athletics, but as many others have shown, that’s a lame excuse.

My loves of reading and writing, nurtured through my formal education, have followed me through life; I would also like to think that my course of study – which bo...

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About the Suburbs

In the immediate aftermath of WWI, commuter train lines were built reaching up into Westchester County. An area just outside the city’s limits that had been countryside became the town where, many decades later, the Beloved Spouse and I would raise our children and spend much of our lives. Within the space of a few years after what’s now our train line went in, the land was cut into quarter-acre and half-acre lots, thousands of houses were built and a suburb was born.

Initially, many of the homes were nearly identical. The house that we bought 32 years ago and lived in for our first ten years here has a twin just a block away. Other houses on the street also have twins a block away...

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System Failures

That international trade is strongly positive in its over-all effects is the strongly-held, consensus view among both economists generally and my social class in particular. I have no doubt that the economists’ perspective is correct, as far as it goes – meaning, that trade increases global wealth by making the best use of different nations’ comparative advantages – but it has nothing to say about those who lose out as a result of the improved efficiencies.

Global trade, like migrations and the constant, churning changes inherent to capitalism, disadvantages some while benefiting others. Creative destruction is the very engine of a free market...

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What the Iconoclasts Forget

Years ago, a friend who doesn’t eat meat told me that he thinks that in a few generations people will remember their carnivorous forbears – like me – with the same sense of shame now felt by the descendants of American slave owners. His comment didn’t convince me to change my eating habits but it did set me thinking about how societal norms sometimes undergo radical changes.

Until late in the eighteenth century, slavery was more or less universally accepted as the way of the world. Every empire-building conqueror and even the thought-leaders among the great ancient civilizations took the buying and selling of human beings for granted...

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Two Americas?

It was a beautiful day today, so I went for a long bicycle ride with three friends. We covered sixty one miles of the Connecticut countryside east of New Haven.

Nearly every pedal stroke took us past scenes of real, if understated, beauty. Spring is in full bloom, of course, and its colors are hardly understated, but the homes, farms and small towns that we rode past spoke of a quiet prosperity.

It struck me, though, that not too many miles to our west was New Haven, much of which presents a starkly different aspect. In that city’s poorer neighborhoods, you would think you were in a different country. I expect to walk through some of those neighborhoods on The Big Walk, which I hope will take place next month.

That there are two Americas is one of our President’s favorite themes...

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Trust

Trust is far more important than law.

Think of it: how many times have you sued somebody, or been sued? Have you ever been arrested? Each of us interacts with many others in numerous ways every day, and recourse to the law is exceptionally rare. Our actions may be constrained by certain laws; but usually they are far more limited by the expectations of those with whom we are dealing.

If you were unwilling to trust others, it would be next to impossible to accomplish anything. Once, when I was a young banker, I was asked to hand deliver a package containing $10 million in fully negotiable securities to a major corporate customer...

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