Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Better thoughts: If only I were younger

Old comedies may do to help with boredom, but tonight I have thoughts more important to me.
Drew Faust and Susan Hockfield, respectively Presidents of Harvard and MIT, appeared together this evening on Charlie Rose.  A new interview with Felix Rohatyn completed the program.
It is so easy to get caught up in the Battle of the Congress, in the eruption of volcanoes, in the plethora of negative trash in the News (not to mention the dreadful miscarriage of justice reported tonight on Frontline) and in sympathy for young scholars in the humanities whose disciplines are daily disparaged, even trashed, and the first to have their funds cut, for whom their finest hopes seem to have vanished.  And, old and retired without a glorious legacy, either, all I can do is offer good advice, sure at least that it is good: when you have to abandon your progress to a doctorate (it is hard enough to believe that its attainment will allow you to support a young family!), the important thing is to keep learning, learning systematically, so that when things change you haven't died as a scholar.  It is bound to be good advice, because learning will keep you mentally and spiritually alive, no matter what happens.
Faust and Hockfield made me want to go back and start again, get back into things in this great age—yes, great in many respects; at least, I shall try to keep up with computers for classicists and art historians.  If I were 25 years younger again, I swear I WOULD go back, do anything if only I could devote myself wholly to creative learning.  I can't.  My healthy old body demands, meaning that willy-nilly it takes, a midday nap, and my joints aren't worth much anymore.  As it is, I can do what I can to stay mentally alive in Baton Rouge: believe me, there are worse places to have ended up in.  But an MIT which understands the importance of humanities (it always did, really) is so damned appealing.  And a Harvard that wants to teach compassion as well as impart a passion for the pursuit that is one's attrait is so comforting to hear.  You say, but all university presidents talk that way.  Maybe.  And not all, to tell the truth.  But these two were giving the ideals a concrete context  such as alone makes them credible, and they also made clear the inseparability of advanced teaching and advanced research.  No cute formulas for backbenchers.  Sometimes people still repeat, did we ever expect to see a person of color as president?  And I would retort, maybe not, but I certainly didn't expect for the presidents of both Harvard and MIT to be women.
As for Mr. Rohatyn, I'd been reading him for years and admiring him.  All the time that my colleagues on campus told me that my complaints about Wall Street (and I didn't even know then about Europe's participation, though history should have told me), as no more than a Las Vegas, only proved that I was economically superannuated, I knew that such as Felix Rohatyn were on my side.  When he urges an investment bank for infrastructure, I'm all with him; and the idea that comprehensive new infrastructure is NOT just more crippling debt, but just the opposite, makes very good sense to me.  I am old enough to remember what electrification and (yes) dams—the actually important ones—did in my childhood and what the Interstate did in my adolescence, and Mr. Rohatyn is six years my senior.  Industry and business flourished along the Interstate, rapidly, too.  It isn't only that building things makes real jobs and develops real skills (obviously I don't mean only road and rail building and airport improvement but the power grid and IT, etc., too), but the new skills and new optimism are good for the IRS and, if anything can help to fund the VA and Social Security and other necessary entitlements to make sure that in case of emergency we have a healthy nation, it will be to have new skills in new industries producing new goods that we clever Americans born on so many continents will create.  Of course, we might start by cobbling at least some of our own shoes...
Susan Hockfield is right, too, that we must show the rest of the world, as it develops, that a democratic capitalism is still the best in the 21st century, not to be abused by making it a casino and turning Iceland into (as one wit said) a hedge fund with geysers (no, I didn't say that...).
In any case, it is good to know that one is not too old to be inspired.
One last apology.  It's only a decade that I realized how important and interesting economics is.  I never took a single course in Econ in college, even.  But I've been working on the vocabulary and the workings of it ever since Enron showed that I ought.  I really do believe that, for me at least, it is besides the arts only economics that can make things intelligible.  Theoretical physics is too difficult for me: I can't read math.  I'm a pre-Sputnik baby, after all.