Two new podcasts

I’ve added two new links to podcasts I’ve recently started listening to.

The first one is “Backstory with the American History Guys.”  I initially discovered this when I was teaching American History at Chamberlain-Hunt and looking for classroom resources. The podcast didn’t work for that and got put on the back burner at the time. Recently I’ve started catching up with historical episodes that iTunes has on file. The podcast is great fun and informative.

The second is “Freakonomics.” I’ve listened to the short bi-weekly segment that the Freakonomics boys do on Marketplace (a program on public radio) with Kai Ryssdal for a long time. The banter between Ryssdal (the Marketplace host) and Dubner (the Freakonomics podcaster) is always fun and sometimes hilarious. My niece, Kelly, mentioned in passing that everything she knows she learned from Freakonomics. (I don’t believe her by the way, I suspect that some of her vast knowledge may have come from Google, or as unlikely as it seems, the School of Mines.) That got me motivated to check out the podcast.

Given the fact that Dubner (the journalist host) and Levitt (the trained economist) are typical American-style economists (that is, totally materialist in their explanation of things), their perspective is certainly reductive. But aside from that, it’s one of the greatest sources of interesting macro-trivia I have ever run across, and endlessly entertaining. (I have their back episodes loaded on my mp3 player, and I can spend a whole afternoon listening to them without getting restless.


Mr. B and the Three Musketeers

When I was a sixteen year old – I had just gotten my driver’s license, so I could drive to the farm – Mr. B hired me, along with another kid (we’ll call him “AD”) one year younger, to work on his farm. One of Mr. B’s sons (“RB”) was my age, and the three of us were his primary hired hands that summer. We were managed by Mr. B’s oldest son, who eventually took over the farm. As “RogWBru” (who happens to the “RB” of this story) described it in the comments to the previous post: “It still amazes me that my dad hired a bunch of kids to drive his new $40,000 (it was the 70s) tractor.” (According to, that tractor would cost $200,000 in today’s money, if you’re curious.)

And indeed, I spent most of the summer driving that $40,000 $200,000 tractor. AD thought it was way more manly to operate the swather, and RB, having grown up on the farm, was more experienced with the bailer. (At least, this is how I remember it – it’s my essay and I’m sticking to it.) Neither the swather nor the bailer had a sealed cab with air conditioning, so those were hot, dirty jobs. Most of the time I got “stuck” with the tractor, a Versatile (that’s the brand name, pronounced with a long “i”) center-pivot, all-wheel drive monster that had AC which worked so well you could frost the windows on a blistering July evening. I pulled a cultivator that was so big the edges disappeared over the horizon. (Okay, I made that part up. Maybe RB remembers how big that cultivator was.)

It was the cushiest job on the farm and I made a point of making myself look dusty and worn out after a hard day in that air conditioned cab with the padded shock absorber seat and the really great radio that picked up CHAB (our local top 40 station out of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan) with better clarity than my car. It was important to look tired, dirty, hot, and generally worn out at the end of the day, because I didn’t want to lose that cushy job. AD and RB were out in the hay field, after all, suffering under the burning sun.

But the point of this essay is not my driving a tractor in circles for hours on end – which I was pretty good at. It’s about all the other things that went terribly wrong. The one that looms largest in my memory is the day someone (either AD or me) bent the frame of the cultivator. That had to be a $20,000-30,000 piece of equipment in today’s money (maybe more). It never pulled straight after that. That is an unbelievably big and costly mistake. Probably the next most expensive is when the three of us were fencing and one of us accidently left the pickup in neutral. (I won’t mention any names, but we weren’t on the highway, and the one of our little band that didn’t have a driver’s license insisted that he drive when we weren’t out on the road.) It rolled 20 or 30 yards down a hill. Fortunately the only serious damage was a dent in the door and a hole in the gas tank.

And then we were assigned the task of putting in a gate big enough for the cultivator to pass through without raising the wings. This was no small task and included setting four railroad ties as posts. We built the gate a few feet too narrow and whoever drove the cultivator the next year still had to raise the wings to get it through that gate.

(And there were other incidents … but you get the idea.)

Why would somebody like Mr. B keep us three misfits around for the whole summer and still actually pay us after all the damage we caused and chaos we created? The cynical answer is that RB was his son (hard to fire your son), AD was the son of one of his best friends, and I was the preacher’s kid. (So how do you fire the son of your pastor?)

But I suspect that is not the correct answer. Mr. B didn’t have that sort of wimpy personality. If he would have fired me, my dad would have supported him all the way. I know the same is true of AD’s father. They were all honorable men and if what the boys needed was a good firing, a good firing is what they would have received.

But Mr. B didn’t only hire a couple of hands to do summer farm work, he was teaching and shaping boys into young men. Of course the farm work had to get done, but I suspect he felt he had a responsibility to help shape the next generation. Nothing like a summer of back-breaking and difficult work (how else would you describe driving an air-conditioned tractor with a really cushy office seat and a great stereo system?) to shape the character of three boys on the cusp of childhood and manhood?

AD’s father was the only Sunday school teacher I remember. (That was probably Junior High, but I don’t even remember that part.) He wasn’t merely telling the Bible stories and making us learn the timelines, etc. Somehow his Sunday school class was also self-revelatory: Here’s my Christian life, failures and victories, disappointments and joys, and here’s how those experiences, both good and bad, are reflected in scripture and become teachable examples in the light of scripture.

It may seem like a jarring change of subject to go from RB’s dad hiring me for summer farm work to AD’s dad teaching Sunday School. But those two men in my life chose to take on a responsibility to shepherd me from childhood to manhood. At the time it didn’t seem like a big deal. In retrospect, I suspect it was something that was absolutely formative and transformative in my life without my ever being aware of it at the time.

And the most amazing part is that the Mr. B was willing to have his very expensive cultivator bent, his pickup damaged, his fence line ripped out, his brand new gate set at the wrong width, etc. In order to take on the responsibility of helping those three musketeers become men. If he had any inkling how much that summer was going to cost him, I wonder if he still would have hired AD and me?

I suspect he would have.

Bad Television

There were only a couple of things on t.v. tonight. One was a James Coburn movie called “In Like Flint.” The other was the State of the Union Address. The one was a parody, and like most parodies, was badly written, unbelievable, and included a lot of really stupid lines copied from other places. The Coburn movie, on the other hand, was at least bearable to watch.

And finally. Did the following dialog come from the “State of the Union” or “In Like Flint”?

Person getting on to a fancy airplane: Empty all the ashtrays?

Employee: Nah, I got you a new plane.

Person 1: Ah, beautiful! Let’s go.


M L King Day: The Quintessential American Holiday

[Below is an essay originally published on the JAJ site on ML King Day, 2004. Other than the reference to Jesse Jackson at the end (he has, fortunately, disappeared for the most part, in the last eight years), it still hold’s true, so I thought I would republish it this year:]

Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday seems to be an also-ran among American holidays. This is unfortunate because King’s birthday should (arguably) be seen as the quintessential American holiday. Unfortunately it has been hijacked by those with an agenda that contradicts King’s vision. Because this agenda is at best silly and worst offensive it is easy to dismiss the third Monday in January as a soap box for the whiney. But before we do that, let’s take another look.

Although the controversy has subsided, it is without doubt a controversial day. Two presidential birthdays were subsumed into a single celebration when Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthday were transformed into Presidents Day. King, on the other hand, was not only not a president, he never held elected office. Furthermore, he was far from perfect. His sins and failures have been paraded out often enough that we need not hang out that dirty laundry again. In short, he is an unlikely figure to be the figurehead of a civic celebration.

But is he the appropriate unlikely figurehead? Let’s consider his life again.

King stood for the triumph of the individual against all that de-individualizes people. In King’s case, the issue was equal rights for blacks. King’s message was that blacks were people too and it was time that they stood up and acted like it, in spite of the reality that the laws of his day said th at blacks, as a class, were second rate, and the culture of his day treated them as a bloc rather than as persons. (The latter problem hasn’t changed a great deal over the years.)

If we strip away the cultural particularity of Martin Luther King Jr, he could be in England or Holland, ready to board the boat to the new world, or standing before the Continental Congress explaining why, in light of the evils of the British empire, this new union needed to be formed.

The French sociologist Jacques Ellul makes an excellent case that one of the key messages of the Bible is that “The City,” “Babylon,” “organized human culture” (whatever you want to call it) is fundamentally dehumanizing. As a result of sin, politics is transformed from the art of governance into the rule of tyranny. One of the fundamental human struggles, east of Eden, is the struggle to overcome the tyranny of those in control. The dilemma of course is that the tyranny of anarchy is far worse than the tyranny of government. Thus we come to this sublime experiment in democracy that seeks to play these evils off one another in order to achieve a balance that is essentially good.

But the balance is never perfect. The state inevitably dehumanizes in its efforts to bring order. So it is always necessary for someone outside the state to stand up and say, “Enough!” Those outsiders are often later lifted up to be monarch or absolute ruler (such as George Washington – fortunately he refused). In the case of Martin Luther King, Jr., he was murdered before anyone had an opportunity to do this. As a result, from this day forth his voice, always outside the mainstream, can be heard saying, “You are human! (… even though the state doesn’t treat you that way.) Step up to the plate and take your place in the batting order! This is what America is all about.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. could not have been Martin Luther King, Jr. if he were an elected official, an insider wielding the dehumanizing power of the state. The very nature of this holiday demands an outsider.

Unfortunately, an essay in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. cannot be finished without a nod to Jesse Jackson, the great co-opter of this grand tradition. What Jesse Jackson has done to this holiday is abominable. He has taken it and turned it on its head. His message is that we cannot be human without the state and we must therefore turn to the savior state to redeem us from the namelessness of non-recognition by the state. (And he dares to call himself a Christian leader!) That is as far from Martin Luther King’s vision of American civil rights (and Christian religion) as you can get.

So be a good American. Get out and celebrate on the M L King Jr Birthday celebration … but only because you’re human, not because the federal government declared it a holiday and told you to do it.

Poor People’s Food, Peasant Food … and Meatloaf

I’ve never much liked meatloaf. Ditto with meatballs. (After all, they’re simply tiny meatloaves disguised with a sauce.)

On the other hand, over the years I’ve had meatloaf and meatballs that were very good. But I knew those experiences were anomalies because I knew I don’t like meatloaf.

Somewhere over the years it began to dawn on me that a good meatloaf not only tastes good, it’s unique in the meat spectrum. A meatloaf is a cousin to a sausage, except it’s not aged. Grind meat and cook it and one has meatloaf (or meatballs, or hamburgers). Grind meat – especially pork – spice it, and leave it set for a couple of days and one has breakfast sausage. Smoke that same product and let it cure and one has dauerwurst (or some other hard sausage). It’s a continuum.

But it wasn’t until Tony Bourdain made a passing comment on one of his shows about the jacked-up prices of peasant food served in trendy restaurants that it occurred to me what was happening with meatloaf (and I suspect, sausages) over the years.

Meatloaf was a way for poor people to stretch the protein budget. Take a tough cut of meat, grind it, add some oatmeal, onions, allspice, and maybe a bit of carrot, or even cabbage or potatoes (and here we get into the realm of pasties and bierocks – a bit beyond the scope of this essay) and a poverty stricken cook can stretch a small, tough piece of meat as a meal for the whole family.

That’s the sort of meatloaf on which I grew up. At least I suspect it was hamburger, oatmeal, onion, salt and pepper, and a bit of ketchup on top. It was a good meal for a poor family, but it didn’t taste particularly good – little flavor, very dry (mom was a “well done” sort of cook) and a bit dreadful the second time around. But it stretched the food budget.

But when the “poor people’s food” that mom cooked is remembered fondly by her children (or at least her three children that didn’t have particularly well developed taste buds), it becomes “comfort food” in their own kitchens and dining room tables. When that same “poor people’s food” gets a makeover from a chef and is served in a restaurant, it becomes the oh, so chic “peasant food.”

Compare mom’s meatloaf to the peasant food (Alton Brown) or comfort food (Martha Stewart) of the modern culinary superstars and there’s hardly any comparison. Alton Brown’s all beef recipe has a dozen different ingredients (and I haven’t seen that episode of Good Eats, but it probably requires a trip to the local Williams Sonoma to purchase the required cooking equipment). Martha Stewart’s meatloaf includes those dozen ingredients, plus a couple more, and is a mix of beef, pork, and veal. I haven’t tried their recipes (I still don’t cook the stuff!), but they’re both highly rated recipes and look rather tasty.

This meditation on meatloaf actually began somewhere around Thanksgiving during a trip to Montana and culminated a few days ago at my niece’s dining room table.  I stopped into a tiny sandwich shop in Bozeman for lunch and the daily special was the meatball sub. Possibly it was oxygen deprivation from the thin mountain air which led to such odd decision making, but I ordered the special. Turns out, it was a good choice. They were the best meatballs I have ever had. (Okay, I admit that I haven’t had a lot of meatballs in my life, but from among that paltry selection, these were the best I’ve ever had.) According to the college kid working behind the counter, it was the owner’s family’s recipe brought over from Italy.

As I thought about that heavenly sandwich on the way back to the car, I justified my feelings by telling myself that what I was just served was not really a meatball at all; it was more closely akin to a fine Italian sausage served warm on a toasted bun with marinara sauce. (Eureka! This was probably the beginning of my hamburger to dauerwurst continuum theorem mentioned above.)

Just the other night we had a very fine dinner that my niece served. (Thanks for a great meal, Kelly.) The main dish was two different flavors of meatloaf – Mexican and barbecue. They were very good. (No, really! I’m not just being polite.) But they had little in common with the poor people’s food I grew up with. Whether you classified them as comfort food or peasant food doesn’t matter, what does is that it was served primarily because it tasted good, and was good for you, instead of merely being a protein stretcher. Once again I was forced to rethink my assumptions about meatloaf.

So am I going to start making meat loaf on a regular basis? Probably not. But I do like other “poor people’s foods” that have been transformed into either comfort food or peasant fare, such as bierocks (which I have already raved about here) or shepherd’s pie. One of these days I’ll probably even order the stuff in a restaurant … when I’m feeling wealthy enough to be able to afford what Anthony Bourdain calls “peasant fare.”

Immigration and Liberty

In my previous post I poked a stick at the immigration issue. It’s easy to say what’s wrong (or at least to point out how silly the debate can occasionally get); it’s a bit more challenging to say something constructive about an issue as intractable as immigration. But since I poked a stick at the bear I figure I should at least take a shot at the subject. But rather than merely say I’m for it or against it, and why, I would like to put immigration into the context of liberty.

And not only liberty, but the ideas of place, limits, and liberty (three terms I borrowed from Front Porch Republic).

I am actually a big fan of limiting immigration and having everyone stay put unless they’ve got a very good reason to go somewhere else. This is the concept of “place.” As much as I’d like (in my imagination) to be one of those so-called “world citizens,” and just travel around from here to there and back again, I know that such an existence is untenable for a real human being. We are creatures of place. We need to be a part of community to fully become what we were meant to be. We need to have our identity planted in a locality in order to have the ability to become expansive. (The same principle applies in child rearing; give a child solid limits and that child then has the ability to grow far beyond the expectations of the parents. Give the child no limits, and he tends to become withdrawn and far less than what was possible.)

Open borders and unlimited immigration implies that “place” is unimportant. Furthermore, open borders and unlimited immigration results in a bland, cultureless society which is a hodge-podge of all that is. (Something that can hardly be called a “place.”) In that environment the genius of any one culture is lost in the competing variety of every other culture.

But while I’m a big fan of closed borders and strict immigration control, the reality is that such a position is untenable in an empire. Alas, the American empire requires porous borders and the free movement of both goods and the labor force. So my love of immigration control is strictly theoretical.

But I ought to define that idea of the American empire. America is not an empire in the same sense that Rome, Babylon, and Egypt were empires. The American empire actually transcends the nation. While it is rooted in America, it is driven by multinational corporations. But without a strong American military and cooperative interrelated governments (such as the European Union, the G8, NATO, SEATO, NAFTA, etc.), multinational corporations wouldn’t have the freedom to homogenize the world as they do. Conversely, without multinational corporations, there would be far less need for all the various treaty organizations. And the engine which continues to drive this interrelationship between government, commerce, and military might is the engine of the United States. It is in that very specific and rather narrow sense that it is proper to refer to an American empire.

But the empire comes at a great cost. The ability of multinational corporations to ship fresh food around the world means that there is an artificial demand for tomatoes in Missoula and Montreal during the winter. And this artificial demand results in huge tomato farms from Southern Baja to Sinaloa in Mexico. In turn these huge agricultural cooperatives, which cater to the multi-nationals, fundamentally change the local economies, inadvertently displacing Mexican workers.

Meanwhile another group of multinationals is buying and butchering beef, then shipping it around the world in quantities that the economy of Siouxland simply cannot support. So it is that Mexican workers, displaced in Southern Baja, migrate to Siouxland to work at factory jobs that the local economy (without this infusion of outside labor) simply can’t support. But arcane and contradictory immigration laws make it such that these factories need far more workers than can legally come to the United States to work. The result is a steady flow of illegal immigrants, which forces the wages which the multinational corporations must pay lower and keeps the prices of the final product lower. The simple fact is that while this system is unfair to some people caught up in it (in this case, the Mexican workers on both sides of the border), it brings the largest economic benefit to the greatest number of people. So it is tolerated.

In short, the modern world could not function without the sort of immigration which exists today. I would argue that the modern world could not function if immigration was made fully legal because of the likelihood of wage increases which would make the price of the final product high enough that it would bring the whole system to a grinding halt.

From a Libertarian perspective, this is all good precisely because it brings the largest economic benefit to the largest number of people. And this brings us from “place” to “liberty.” (We’ll get to “limits” in a moment.) The Libertarian understanding of “liberty” as liberty without limit is the standard definition of liberty today in American political debate. True liberty, in this contemporary American sense, is the liberty to have sex without consequences, the liberty to eat tomatoes in January in Missoula and Montreal without consequences, the liberty to drive from Nebraska to Mississippi and back again twice (with a possible trip from Mississippi to Arkansas to Mississippi again in the middle) without consequences. (I’m thinking ahead to my springtime plans and family obligations.)

Of course all of these things do have consequences. The fact that I’m able to pay for the consequences (an abortion, a dozen tanks of gas, $3 per pound for the tomatoes, $5 per pound for asparagus) is the very essence of American liberty in the world of the American empire (… the whole process oiled by international banking … but that’s another subject entirely).

But it’s not nearly as simple as this. My liberty to have sex, unlimited mileage, and fresh salsa to go on my BLT for Martin Luther King Day, impinges on the liberty of the aborted baby, the Saudi citizen oppressed by the House of Saud emboldened to oppress by an American government that does nothing for fear of losing a source of crude oil, and the Mexican migrant forced to come to Sioux City to work in a packing plant because of the tremendous agricultural disruption in Mexico.

I would therefore propose that liberty without limits is no liberty at all. This sort of liberty is the subjection or servitude (or in the case of the unborn baby, the death) of the invisible parties involved. One cannot have true liberty (in contrast to selfish liberty) without “limits.” But without “place,” “liberty” within the context of “limits” is rather meaningless. But in the context of the American empire, “place” has little or no meaning.

So as long as we live in the context of the American Empire, semi-open borders with purposeful confusion as to just how open they actually are, is absolutely essential. Citizens protecting their property from illegal aliens becomes a threat to the American ideal of liberty without limits. States like Alabama and Arizona, which have imposed strict immigration laws, are considered downright medieval, and people who barter for milk from an actual cow who was probably chewing her cud and watching you drive up the lane to pick up a gallon or two from the farmer, are considered illegal, highly dangerous, and just a little bit crazy.

So, call it crazy, but there is no liberty without place and without limits. Liberty is circumscribed while oppression has few limits.

Illegal Aliens

Down in Texas they have a group called “Border Watch”.” It’s an ad hoc group of citizens doing citizen justice trying to protect the United States from illegal aliens.

Today Brenda and I took part in such an effort up here, just south of the Great White North. This part of the U.S. has been overrun by illegal aliens from the north. Snowy owls are severely short of food this year up in Manitoba and a lot of them have crossed the border, travelling as far south as Iowa and Nebraska in search of food.

A few days ago a friend of Brenda’s called her up to see if she wanted to go in search of snowy owls this morning. Her husband had a good lead on where several might be. So off to the corner of 310th St and Eastland Ave (before you get the wrong idea, that’s two gravel roads out among the corn fields) to the east of Sloan, Iowa, binoculars and cameras in hand, we began our search for those illegal aliens, the snowy owl.

We never did see any today. Just a few red tailed hawks and another bird I initially thought was a marsh hawk, but was probably a rough-legged hawk. (It had a white butt instead of a dark one — Cornell University says that’s how you tell the difference between a marsh hawk and a rough-legged hawk. So, if that’s the case, why don’t they call it a white-butted hawk? Just wondering.)

Well, we never did see our snowy owl, but that doesn’t mean that American resources shouldn’t be saved for Americans. So we prayed for all the poor little field mice, hoped that American culture might stay as pure as the white butt on that hawk, and then went over to La Salsita restaurant to get some authentic tacos and stuff — none of that imposter food like they have at Taco Bell for us, after all.

About those Conservative Defenders of Liberalism

Jerry Salyer, over at Front Porch Republic, has written a great essay about what he calls “the Conservative Defenders of Liberalism.” I have been trying to say something intelligent on this topic for some time, especially in my posts categorized under “liberty,” but Salyer says it so much better than I can. Here’s a taste:

Carter’s attack [in an article in First Things] makes clear why I find it increasingly difficult to sympathize with conservative defenders of liberalism, who praise mass culture yet fret over socialism, who worry about relativism for a living yet dismiss concerns about uglification as reflecting the mere opinions of elitist aesthetes. A conservative liberal is somebody who encourages the prevailing progressive view that the past was benighted and is best forgotten, but then demands respect for the Ten Commandments and the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution — and to boot casually drops ten-dollar words like “polis” with unintended irony.

The whole article can be found here.

Phone solicitation

Here’s the downside to keeping my old cell phone number (which has a 712 area code, from back in the days when I lived on the Iowa side of the river).

I got a computerized call a couple of hours ago encouraging me to attend the Iowa caucus and to make sure and vote for …

oops, I hit the “delete” and “Add to reject list” buttons before I found out who I was supposed to vote for. Maybe I just better stay home and watch the Sugar Bowl instead.


I can’t say that I was rooting for South Carolina, but by the fourth quarter I was glad that Nebraska was going to lose their bowl game, which they certainly didn’t deserve to win. The coach has become an embarrassment, and as the coach goes, so goes the team. One cannot ultimately be a winner without self-control. If you can goad your opponent into losing his cool, your chances of success increase dramatically.

Over the last few years I have watched Bo Pelini, coach of the football Huskers, with increasing distress. As he stalks and fumes along the sidelines, he demonstrates week after week that he is a man with little self-control. And he has passed this gift on to his players. One thing you can count on with the Huskers of the last few years is that when the going gets tough, the pressure will get to them and they will melt down with penalties and turnovers. That’s a problem of self-control.

This fundamental flaw was even more pronounced as I watched the contrast between Pelini and Steve Spurrier, coach of the South Carolina Gamecocks. I haven’t followed his career closely, but from what I have seen, he appears to be a class act. Both teams received some bad calls, and while Pelini went nuclear on the officiating staff and then pouted the rest of the game, Spurrier seemed to understand it’s part of the game – human officials that make human mistakes.

I became an ardent fan of Husker football back in the day when Coach Osborne produced young men who were for the most part good citizens, good sportsmen, and as a result, good winners and honorable losers, when they did lose. I became an ardent fan when I realized that Husker fans were of the same stock as Coach Osborne and his student athletes. Pelini, on the other hand, has every appearance of being the caricature of a jock: full of himself, and no patience (complete with a little temper tantrum) when he doesn’t get his own way. I have watched with increasing distress the childish antics of a selfish and seemingly out-of-control coach. I’ve watched as he has taught his players to act in much the same way.

I hope Tom Osborne, the Athletic Director, was watching with the same alarm. And I sincerely hope that the Huskers can find a coach who is an honorable man. Whether that comes about through a conversion of character with Bo Pelini or a new coach who actually respects sportsmanship, it doesn’t matter. Until then, I will continue to watch with muted and embarrassed support.