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Posts Tagged ‘New Deal

“Books are a uniquely portable magic”*…

 

librarian

A “Pack Horse Librarian” returning for a new supply of books

 

The Pack Horse Library initiative, which sent librarians deep into Appalachia, was one of the New Deal’s most unique plans. The project, as implemented by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), distributed reading material to the people who lived in the craggy, 10,000-square-mile portion of eastern Kentucky. The state already trailed its neighbors in electricity and highways. And during the Depression, food, education and economic opportunity were even scarcer for Appalachians.

They also lacked books: In 1930, up to 31 percent of people in eastern Kentucky couldn’t read. Residents wanted to learn, notes historian Donald C. Boyd. Coal and railroads, poised to industrialize eastern Kentucky, loomed large in the minds of many Appalachians who were ready to take part in the hoped prosperity that would bring. “Workers viewed the sudden economic changes as a threat to their survival and literacy as a means of escape from a vicious economic trap,” writes Boyd.

This presented a challenge: In 1935, Kentucky only circulated one book per capita compared to the American Library Association standard of five to ten, writes historian Jeanne Cannella Schmitzer,. It was “a distressing picture of library conditions and needs in Kentucky,” wrote Lena Nofcier, who chaired library services for the Kentucky Congress of Parents and Teachers at the time…

Unlike many New Deal projects, the packhorse plan required help from locals. “Libraries” were housed any in facility that would step up, from churches to post offices. Librarians manned these outposts, giving books to carriers who then climbed aboard their mules or horses, panniers loaded with books, and headed into the hills. They took their job as seriously as mail carriers and crossed streams in wintry conditions, feet frozen in the stirrups.

Carriers rode out at least twice a month, with each route covering 100 to 120 miles a week…

A New Deal program brought books to Kentuckians living in the most remote areas: “Horse-Riding Librarians Were the Great Depression’s Bookmobiles.”

* Stephen King, On Writing

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As we check it out, we might send shocking birthday greetings to the enfant terrible of French letters, Arthur Rimbaud; he was born on this date in 1854.  In his adolescence and early adulthood (he wrote his final work when he was 21), and with his buddy, Symbolist poet Paul Verlaine, Rimbaud was a leader of the Decadent Movement; fueled by absinthe and hashish, he succeeded in shocking a literary establishment that was nonetheless awed by his visionary verse, which influenced modern literature and arts, inspired a number of important musicians, and prefigured Surrealism.

All known literature is written in the language of common sense—except Rimbaud’s   – Paul Valéry

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“Thus did a handful of rapacious citizens come to control all that was worth controlling in America”*…

 

history-of-capital-ai

The evolution of capitalism (“the capital AI machine”) as a series of levels that were unlocked by new “learning” APIs to humans

 

Consider capitalism as a highly efficient objective function (or “AI”) with its parameters optimized for the satisfaction of our short term desires rather than our long term interests.

Paranoia about runaway feedback loops – in consumer capitalism, artificial intelligence, mass media, ‘Wrestlemania politics,’ etc – ultimately stems from the inscrutability of the emergent behavior of these complex systems to the individual actors and observers operating within them.

Rather than responding with Luddite / anarchist nihilism, we should remember that technological and social systems like these have dramatically reduced our exposure to the unpredictability of the natural world and greatly improved living conditions on a number of dimensions over the past few centuries.

At the same time, we should not ignore warning signs of a dystopian future, nor should we hope that a ‘personnel change’ of institutional leaders will solve our problems.

Because the problems at hand are complex systems problems – where the root causes are not the actors themselves, but the ill-designed structures and incentives that dictate their actions – we should think about redesigning the rules and incentives of social, political, and economic systems as the path forward…

Andrew Kortina explains modern capitalism as a system– one that, for all of its all-too-manifest faults, should be saved; then he starts the conversation about how to do that salvaging: “History of the Capital AI & Market Failures in the Attention Economy.”  Mildly geeky, but richly provocative– which is to say, useful, whether one buys his suggested solutions or not– it’s eminently worthy of a read.

* “Thus did a handful of rapacious citizens come to control all that was worth controlling in America. Thus was the savage and stupid and entirely inappropriate and unnecessary and humorless American class system created. Honest, industrious, peaceful citizens were classed as bloodsuckers, if they asked to be paid a living wage. And they saw that praise was reserved henceforth for those who devised means of getting paid enormously for committing crimes against which no laws had been passed. Thus the American dream turned belly up, turned green, bobbed to the scummy surface of cupidity unlimited, filled with gas, went bang in the noonday sun.  – Kurt Vonnegut, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

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As we wonder about the water in which we swim, we might recall that it  was on this date in 1933 that the Agricultural Adjustment Act came into force.  A central piece of New Deal legislation, the AAA aimed to aid farmers devastated by reduced demand for their crops by creating price supports via a series of government purchases (of crops and livestock) and subsidies (essentially payments not to plant/grow).

The program was controversial in its time– it made previously independent farmers dependent on the government– but it worked; average farm income rose 50% from 1932 to 1935.  It’s elements– government purchase and subsidy– survive to this day, evolved into (many of) the provisions of the Farm Bill, passed by Congress every five years or so… even though the constituency of small farmers the Act was intended to serve has largely given way to an agricultural landscape dominated by a handful of gigantic corporate players.

farmer

A Roosevelt County New Mexico farmer and a County Agricultural Conservation Committee representative review the provisions of the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) farm program to determine how it can best be applied on that particular acreage

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“…what remains after one has forgotten everything he learned at school.”*

A guest post from Scenarios and Strategy (here, with an almanac entry)…

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reminds us that it’s smart to stay in school:

But as Calculated Risk reports, while unemployment among the best educated is still lowest, it’s increased as much in percentage terms for them during this current recession as for any other group.

click to enlarge

One notes that all four groups** were slow to rebound after the 2001 recession– not an encouraging reminder if one is hoping for a brisk employment-led, consumption-fueled recovery this time around.

But in some ways more striking is a difference we might expect, but that hasn’t yet emerged.  Calculated Risk:

I’d expect the unemployment rate to fall faster for workers with higher levels of education, since their skills are more transferable, than for workers with less education. I’d also expect the unemployment rate for workers with lower levels of education to stay elevated longer in this “recovery” because there is no building boom this time. Just a guess and it isn’t happening so far … currently the unemployment rate for the highest educated group is still increasing.

Clearly, from an individual’s point-of-view, it’s still smarter to get more education than less.  But the perturbations of past periods remind us that the gearing between between academic degrees and financial success isn’t always perfectly tight…  Indeed, those with sharply-defined professional credentials in fields– e.g, finance– that are unlikely even in the intermediate term (if ever) to recover their bubble-fueled growth rates, may find their advanced degrees at best unhelpful; at worst, downright prejudicial.

Economic recovery and growth will be driven to some large extent by innovation; that innovation will create new– and new kinds of– jobs.  Looking even just five years out, much less ten, one has to admit that it’s just not possible to predict what these emergent jobs, nor their requirements, will be.  (Consider, e.g., the hottest topic– and job category– in marketing/advertising these days: “social media marketing”…  which wasn’t even a glimmer a decade ago, and was just being born five year ago.)  This is a challenge for those new to the work force, who have to wrangle the product of their schooling and their personal experience into a shape that can fit the entry-level positions they seek.  It is a much bigger challenge for those  mid-career who find themselves needy of making a move:  these more mature folks have not only to learn new fields, they also have to re-direct the considerable momentum of perception and habit that characterized their old– and they have to do those things, usually, in ways that justify salaries way north of entry-level.

All of which underlines for your correspondent the extraordinary value of a liberal arts education.  When one is faced with a “working adulthood” that is one transitional challenge after another, no skill is more valuable than the capacity to adapt.  And no capability is more central to that adaptation than the ability effectively and efficiently to learn.

This is precisely what, at its core, a liberal arts education is about:  learning to learn.

There are many, many other reasons, rooted in personal and societal benefits, to pursue a liberal arts education, and top support a strong foundation of liberal arts in higher education.  But the lessons of the last couple of years– indeed, of the last several decades– suggest that the economic rationale is plenty strong as well…

And besides, it’s fun.

* “Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything he learned in school.”
– Albert Einstein

** To put these cohorts into perspective, the Census Bureau suggests that, of these folks “25 yrs. and over” (in 2008):
– 13.4% had less than a high school diploma.
– 31.2% were high school graduates, no college.
– 26.0% had some college or associate degree.
– 29.4% had a college degree or higher.

UPDATE:  Reader JK directs our attention to another treatment of the data, in the NY Times. As he suggests, even more dramatic.

As we revisit our course catalogues, we might recall that it was on this date in 1933 that Congress passed the Emergency Banking Act, the first major legislative step in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal  program.  The sense of urgency was sufficiently high– four days earlier Roosevelt had declared a “Banking Holiday,” closing all of the nation’s banks– that most legislators passed the Act without even reading the single copy that was available for review.  The EBA gave the government authority to shutter insolvent banks; that, coupled with the Federal Reserve’s informal-but-explicit pledge to guarantee the deposits of banks allowed to reopen (de facto deposit insurance), eased the crisis of public confidence:  within two weeks of banks’ re-opening on March 13, Americans had re-deposited over half the cash they’d withdrawn and hoarded through the period of bank failures that marked the first chapter of the Great Depression.  Later that year, the (more considered and embracing) Banking Act of 1933 replaced the EBA, and established such lasting practices and institutions as the FDIC.

Roosevelt signing the Emergency Banking Act

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