Tuesday, March 10, 2009

And now for the good news...

So, I had some fun tonight.  I read some National Review (February 23, 2009 issue).  I saw an ad from the Cato Institute that warmed the ventricles of my heart:

"There is no disagreement that we need action by our government, a recovery plan that will help to jumpstart the economy."  -- President-Elect Barack Obama, January 9, 2009.

"With all due respect, Mr. President, that is not true.  Notwithstanding reports that all economists are now Keynesians and that we all support a big increase in the burden of government, we the undersigned do not believe that more government spending is a way to improve economic performance.  More government spending by Hoover and Roosevelt did not pull the United States economy out of the Great Depression in the 1930s.  More government spending did not solve Japan's 'lost decade' in the 1990s.  As such ,it is a triumph of hope over experience to believe that more government spending will help the U.S. today.  To improve the economy, policymakers should focus on reforms that remove impediments to work, saving, investment and production.  Lower tax rates and a reduction in the burden of government are the best ways of using fiscal policy to boost growth."

Below this statment are the signatures of over 100 academics who are standing together to counter the then-president-elect's hyperbole.  I got curious: were there any professors at my school that had signed on?  I started underlining the names of profs from campuses I felt in any way connected to, happy to see the names of the faithful.  And then I saw someone from my campus!  Yippee!!!!!!

I've found that it's very important to avoid The Elijah Complex, wherever you are in life.  Y'know, The Elijah Complex: the thought that you're the last one doing what should be done, the last of the faithful left in your whole (choose one: company, campus, clique).  Oh, no my friend.  You might think you're the last one, but trust God -- you aren't. 

This same issue had a list of 25 Best Conservative Movies from the last 25 years.  Here's the titles and two quotes that either made me think or almost set me rolling.  (I've put an "x" next to any title I wouldn't be interested in seeing).

1. The Lives of Others (2007)
2. The Incredibles (2004)
3. Metropolitan (1990)
4. Forrest Gump (1994) x
5. 300 (2007)
6. Groundhog Day (1993)
7. The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)
8. Juno (2007)
9. Blast from the Past (1999)
10. Ghostbusters (1984)
11. The Lord of the Rings (2001, 2002, 2003)
12. The Dark Knight (2008)
13. Braveheart (1995)
14. A Simple Plan (1998)
15. Red Dawn (1984)
16. Master and Commander (2003)
17. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe (2005)
18. The Edge (1997)
19. We Were Soldiers (2002)
20. Gaataca (1997)
21. Heartbrak Ridge (1986) x
22. Brazil (1985)
23. United 93 (2006)
24. Team America: World Police (2004) x
25. Gran Torino (2008) x

The Lives of Others (2007): "'I think that this is the best movie I ever saw,' said William F. Buckley upon leaving the theater (according to his column on the film).  The tale, set in East Germany in 1984, is one part romantic drama, one part political thriller.  It chronicles life under a totalitarian regime as the Stasi secretly onitors the activities of a playwright who is suspected of harboring doubts about Communism.  Critics showered the film with praise and it won an Oscar for best foreign-language film (it's in German).  More Buckley: 'The tension mounts to heart-stopping pitch and I felt the impulse to rush out into the street and drag passerby [sic] in to watch the story unfold.'"

Master and Commander (2003) "This naval-adventure film starring Russell Crowe is based on the books of Patrick O'Brian, and here's what A. O. Scott of the New York Times said in his review: 'The Napoleonic wars that followed the French Revolution gave birth, among other things, to British conservatism, and Master and Commander, making no concessions to modern, egalitarian sensibilities, is among the most thoroughly and proudly conservative movies ever made.  It imagines the [H.M.S.] Surprise as a coherent society in which stability is underwritten by custom and every man knows his duty and his place.  I would not have been surprised to see Edmund Burke's name in the credits.'"

The Dark Knight (2008): "This film gives us a portrait of the hero as a man reviled.  In his fight against the terrorist Joker, Batman has to devise new means of surveillance, push the limits of the law, and accept the hatred of the press and public.  If that sounds reminscent of a certain former preisdent -- whose stubborn integrity kept the nation safe and turned the tide of war -- don't mention it to the mainstream media.  Our journalists know that good men are often despised by the mob; it just never seems to occur to them that they might be the mob themselves."

Ghostbusters (1984): Thsi comedy might not get Russell Kirk's endorsement as a worthy treatment of the supernatural, but you have to like a movie in which the bad guy (William Atherton at his loathsome best) is a regulation-happy buffoon from the EPA, nad the solution to a public menance comes from the private sector.  Thsi last fact is the other reason to love Ghostbusters: When Dr. Peter Venkman (Bill Murray) gets kicked out of the university lab and ponders pursuing entrepreneurial opportunities, a nervous Dr. Raymond Stanz (Dan Aykroyd) replies: 'I don't know about that.  I've worked in the private sector.  They expect results!'"

It's clear to me that I could not (unless God wants me to be) be an academic.  A while ago, my mom mentioned how wrong it was for the government to fund agencies such as the NIH and NSF.  At the time, I bristled and defended the two institutions I then saw as the cornerstones of modern science.  But, like most episodes of intense disagreement with Mom, after several weeks of reflection, I agreed with her more violently than I'd originally disagreed with her.  Science funding isn't a role the Constiution allows the federal government to take on.  So what's the deal?  And wouldn't it be great it folks could get their PhD through a private company, instead of feeding at a trough filled with money ripped from private citizens' pockets?  But sadly that's not an option right now.  What is an option is the decision to stop feeding off of "public" funds as soon as possible.

Sure, there was the Meet-the-Speaker session where the academic told us that the best-of-the-best-of-the-best go into academia.  But he offered us no proof of this beside his own personal opinion.  Come to think of it, wouldn't everyone like to think that there were in the club of the best-of-the-best-of-the-best?  Now don't get me wrong: I'm not trying to say that the best-of-the-best-of-the-best only and always go into industry.  What I am saying is that the best-of-the-best-of-the-best very likely go into both industry and academia. 

Case in point: Ralph Bader, the co-founder of the Aldrich (now Sigma-Aldrich) Chemical company.  Dr. Bader graduated from Harvard in 1950, and *horrors* entered industry, not academia.  And guess what: he was a success.  He went up against the then-monopoly of chemical supplies, and started a company with an initial investment of $250 of his own and $250 of his co-founders.  Now the company's netting billions.  Hmmm... is he just a fluke? 

In closing, I heard Dr. Bader give an acceptance speech at Pittcon on Sunday.  He echoed a thought I first heard from Solzhenitsyn: that events you often think of as being devastating often end up being the biggest blessings of your life.  As a Jewish boy of 14, Dr. Bader fled Vienna for the safety of Britain.  Just two years later, however, he was deported to Canada as a POW because his loyalties were suspect.  Naturally, he was extremely sad.  And yet, it "just so happened" that many intellectuals were also in the camp with him.  These intellectuals formed a school in the camp.  Dr. Bader took their examinations and was admitted.  He received an excellent education there, and said that were it not for this school and this chance at an education, he would never have become a Chemist.  When the time came for college, the first school he applied to were impressed at his placement exams, but then asked if he was Jewish.  When he said that he was, they told him that they were maxed out with Jewish students for the year, so would he just come back next year?  He must have been devastated, but the good news came from another school that accepted him that same year.  Zipping a few more years through his life, once he had finished his undergraduate and graduate studies, he started working at a glass company as a chemist.  He saw severe limitations in the current chemical supply pipeline.  He decided that it was time to start a company to compete with the major supplier in the field, but his boss tried to discourage him.  They're a monopoly!  You haven't got a chance!  Still, he asked his boss if he could work on a startup company when his regular work was done during the week and then on Sundays.  His boss told him he could do whatever he wanted to during his free time.  And so he started.  Later, when he was looking to expand the business, he approached a businessman and asked him to invest $25,000 in the fledgling company.  This would involve an initial $5,000 or start-up funds, and then $1,000 monthly for 20 months.  If at any time the businessman decided he didn't want to support the company any longer, he could tell them, and they would pay him back within two years.  All went well for 7 months, but the businessman decided he wasn't going to be able to recoup his money.  They paid him back -- and went on to build a billion-dollar business.

Near the end of his speech, he said that there are two leitmotifs in his life.  The first is his "A, B, C's": "Art, Bible, and Chemistry."  The second is that it really only takes a little bit to live off of.  He and his wife Isabel love helping those with most need and the ablest.

And yes, you are perfectly entitled to say that this is just one data point, and I've hardly got a trend.  But is Bader's life an outlier?  Or is it possible that good chemists sometimes choose to step out into the marketplace of industry instead of staying in the cloisters of the academy?   (And, this just occurred to me, so I'll add it here: is anyone else struck by the competitive nature of science funding, in contrast to the stifling, unrewarding, penalizing system that socialism would impose?  Can anyone imagine a world where education was set up along similar competitive lines, and both education and science funding were completely privitized?)

1 comment:

api said...

My observation is that innovation is only possible in a free society. Controlled economies and lives lead to copying and squashing the underdog and seeing threats in every jump in understanding or expression of possibilities. Innovation and creative thinking come in surprise packages and irregular situations.

Tonight the kids at the Center were doing chalk art out on the sidewalk. Oh, what fun we had. The youngest one told me to come see what he had made. He had drawn a man with a cap - a very good man. I asked him what the dot was in the center and right before my eyes he transformed it into a hand on the man's chest. Ten minutes later he told me he had made a cactus. I wandered over and he had transformed the man with a cap into a barrel cactus complete with spikes ----- and a
cap. This description does not do his work justice. It was very beautiful and amazing. Accident - no. He thought of something he wanted to create and somehow he did it.

In the Wrinkle in Time world of sameness all the children would have been drawing the same exact tree.

I know this comment is off the subject in a way but I love your concern with "academia". There is a prideful mindset there that refuses to recognize the genius built into each human. We really can learn from one another - the Doctor of Philosophy in Physics can really learn a thing or two about even his own subject matter from the thoughts of a wondering child. We adults can lose or sense of wonder. Become as little children is not a nice catch phrase it is an important reality in recognizing the need to stay humble and open to ideas.