Archive | December, 2018

Confessions of a Mouthpiece for an Elite Charade

30 Dec

In 2011…Georgetown found itself with a $1.5 million pot of money intended for student activities that the administration no longer wished to administer. It allowed students to vote on how to use the money. Out of several proposals, they chose one to create a “student-run endowment that invested in student and alumni innovative ideas that do good in the world.”…It was a perfectly laudable and well-meaning initiative, and it spoke to how many young people had been trained to think about change in an age dominated by a market consensus: as a thing that could be pursued by investment committee as much as by social and political action.

–Anand Giridharadas, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World

For the first time I’m in my life, I’ve received an indirect mention in a highly acclaimed work of non-fiction. As the public relations director for the Georgetown student government that helped push through the Social Innovation and Public Service (SIPS) fund mentioned in the above quote, I’ll be updating my résumé with a line that reads “Mouthpiece for the Elite Charade to Change the World.”

All joking aside, Anand Giridharadas’s new book came to me at a vital time as I re-think my role as a person on a road to a reasonably comfortable career that seeks to create positive change in one little corner of the world. Winners Take All opens with a chapter that follows a Georgetown student two years behind me (no acquaintance) who, while groomed for a by her financier of a father, also developed a strong urge to do good in the world, in part thanks to Georgetown’s devotion to Jesuit ideals and an Aristotelian philosophical tradition. (The book name-drops two Jesuit priests, Frs. Matthew Carnes and Kevin O’Brien, who I’d cite as mild influences on my life, and major influences on a few friends who did a better job of getting to know them.) As a result, she was drawn to a career at McKinsey, the elite management consulting firm that pitched her on a chance to be a change agent. As she settled in, however, her doubts began to grow: her clients were mostly wealthy corporations, and any public benefit to her work was often tangential at best. Is this really the best way to effect positive change in the 21st century? Or is that claim just a convenient ruse for people who want money and prestige to claim some broader benefit for their work?

Winners Take All takes no prisoners as it examines these do-gooding elites. Giridharadas’ primary targets are not the greed-is-good purveyors of unrestrained capitalism who led the neoliberal rise, but instead the liberals who quietly accept its premises (wittingly or unwittingly) and try to soften the edges. It blasts Silicon Valley in particular for its unctuous claims about changing the world while operating in ways that are blithely indifferent to, if not actively destructive of, the human lives on the other end of the screen. Giridharadas sits down with some philanthropists and social impact investors, who struggle to varying degrees to justify their work and the system that makes their wealth possible. He spends some time with the “thought leaders” from TED talks and Davos lectures who claim to have simple answers as opposed to the old ideal of the public intellectual who sees complexity and pokes holes. No one who tries to “do well by doing good” gets off unscathed, though some certainly emerge as more admirable than others.

Giridharadas concludes with Bill Clinton, the Georgetown alumnus who started his political career as an Arkansas populist before becoming the Third Way triangulator-in-chief as President and the founder for the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI), an echo chamber for wannabe world-changing elites who get together to network with one another. (In one of the book’s high points, Giridharadas skewers several CGI panels designed to reflect on rising opposition to high-minded globalists and their seeming loss of touch with the masses that consist only of high-minded globalists.) Giridharadas lingers on Clinton’s closing address at a CGI conference: “All that worked in the modern world was private, donor-financed world-saving, full of good intentions, unaccountable to the public, based on win-win partnerships initiated by companies and philanthropists and other private actors, blessed (sometimes) by public officials…The only problem-solving approach that worked in the modern world, according to Clinton, was one that made the people an afterthought, to be helped but not truly heard.”

While Winners Take All effectively highlights the mixed motives and questionable efficacy of world-changing elites, the quote on Clinton illustrates a perhaps a more serious threat of market-focused theories of social change: the way in which it undermines democratic norms, and indeed the entire public realm as a sphere of human activity. The recent populist turn in American politics will likely make some elites even more comfortable with the idea of some aristocracy operating above the supposed dirty work of day-to-day politicking, which feeds a cycle of bitterness and division. The book makes little effort to offer up an alternative save a return to a more redistributive system, which one senses is insufficient to counteract the market-based thinking that has suffused so much of the dialogue. Perhaps simple recognition is an adequate start.

On a more personal level, I’ve been wrestling with questions like this since my DC days. I went to a few recruitment and orientation-type events for a McKinsey competitor, but decided I’d rather spend my first two years out of Georgetown failing to write novels instead. It would be a stretch to say my decision was a noble rebellion against the elite charade, but I was certainly skeptical of any claims about the overarching good that work could achieve, a sense cultivated in part by my critical tutors in academia and back home in Duluth and in part probably just based in my temperament. If I was going to end up in a career with pretensions of world-changing, it would look very different.

Even so, it’s fascinating to see how some things come full circle: I now work for a consulting firm with a stated social mission. My firm has little else in common with the McKinsey machine; it is a nonprofit, it does not drape itself in overwrought claims of influence, and its efforts are largely grounded in service to a place and its people instead of a vague ethos of excellence. Even so, I now get the sense that I could have thrived in that high-end consulting world, to say nothing of what it would mean for my wallet and sense of prestige. I’ve taken an odd path to where I am now, with an eclectic writing life and an idiosyncratic urban planning master’s degree, and while I’ve wondered some over the past two years if I wouldn’t have been better off with a gaudy MBA as a credential of broader expertise, I am also independent enough that I will always relish a chance to view my chosen field from some distance and play the loyal opposition, if not an unabashed critic.

As for my own complicity, I will make no apologies for the SIPS program: there were limits on what we could do with it, and it has gone on to do some very laudable work, including funding for low-income Georgetown students to spend their summers in DC. I also take pains to emphasize the blurriness of class distinctions, and that sometimes those who have seen the belly of the beast are the most qualified to critique it. (Giridharadas, for example, is a McKinsey alumnus, and many of his interview subjects are contacts from his days in that world.) Those of us who brush into these circles at certain points in our lives must acknowledge our place within these larger debates, and be able to step out and reflect on our roles. The dynamics of power and class and democracy will always be fluid, but a commitment to self-examination and transparency need not be.

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Waiting on Miracles

25 Dec

Greetings from the tail end of my annual whirlwind Christmas tour. As usual, it included the raucous, loving excess of Maloney Christmas in Chicago, the still quiet of Schuettler Christmas on a snowless plain in Wisconsin, and a small blended gathering back home in Duluth. I had designs of putting out a short Christmas story on this blog, but this time of year is always horrid for diligent writing effort, and while I’ll continue to plug along on the story, it’s far from ready.

This holiday is exhausting, and I enjoy the travel rush and have relatively few people to buy for. For whatever reason, organizing myself for the whole giving and receiving side of Christmas gets harder with time. As someone who leads a largely secular existence, I have some questions about what this holiday really offers for the non-churched aside from an excuse for rampant commercialism, over-the-top decorations, and a lot of corny nostalgia that I have less patience for every year. That leaves me with some great parties and family reunions, but I don’t think there’s any need to confine those to late December. Something, clearly, is missing.

So, to find some meaning behind what this all means for me, I’ll settle for a quote from the woman I’ve been quoting a lot lately, because somehow a Jew who never had kids can best encapsulate Christmas:

The miracle that saves the world, the realm of human affairs, from its normal, “natural” ruin is ultimately the fact of natality, in which the faculty of action is ontologically rooted. It is, in other words, the birth of new men and the new beginning, the action they are capable of by virtue of being born. Only the full experience of this capacity can bestow upon human affairs faith and hope, those two essential characteristics of human existence which Greek antiquity ignored altogether, discounting the keeping of faith as a very uncommon and not too important virtue and counting hope among the evils of illusion of Pandora’s box. It is this faith in and hope for the world that found perhaps its most glorious and most succinct expression in the few words with which the Gospels announced their “glad tidings”: “A child has been born unto us.”

–Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition

Merry Christmas.

Reload Mode Hounds

12 Dec

A few games into the high school hockey season the hype phase begins to fade and reality sets in: we begin to learn what teams actually have, and how far they might go. The preseason puzzle on the east side of Duluth tried to figure how the Greyhounds would reload in the absence of Garrett Worth, Luke LaMaster, Ian Mageau, and a number of other members of a deep senior class. Fresh off a return to their perch atop 7AA, a victory over Edina in a memorable clash of goliaths, and the bitter taste of a state championship game loss to Minnetonka, northeast Minnesota’s hockey bluebloods are looking to fill those gaps and take care of some unfinished business.

The 2018-2019 Hounds are off to a solid, if not exactly flashy, start. This is in part to due to their opponents—White Bear Lake and Wayzata both look tough in the early going, to say nothing of a front-line Andover team—and in part due to Mike Randolph’s coaching system, which always looks for consistent control instead of gaudy scorelines, especially as the team tests combinations and works its systems in the early going. Since a near-disaster in the first three minutes of the season against White Bear they’ve been stout defensively, and stayed that way throughout a back-and-forth affair with now-second-ranked Andover, which ended in an overtime loss in front of a packed house at the Andover Community Center on Saturday.

Luke Kron’s game-winner was a key moment for the Huskies, who had never beaten East before in their history. Their goaltender, Ben Fritsinger, is the real deal, while the top line of Kron, Charlie Schoen, and Nick Dainty had its moments of dominance. They are a deep group on a mission for their first Tourney berth. But from an East perspective, the loss is hardly cause for concern. It was an overtime loss in December; their lineup is less settled than the highly experienced Huskies, and as the game built and the bench shortened, it was the Hounds who carried more of the play. If the top line can finish its chances and the defensemen can rein in floaters who sneak in behind them, they’ll be tough to beat. History tells us the Hounds will improve as the season goes along; will they stay true to form, and how does Andover counter?

Randolph’s typical tinkering will likely continue into January, but the early returns do little to seed any doubt that the Hounds are right back among the state’s best despite their graduation losses. Deep programs often do better than observers might expect after graduating a very successful senior class, in large part due to the quality of many players who were buried on the depth chart the season before. The early contributions of a junior like Charlie Erickson, who would’ve seen a regular shift on any lesser team a season ago, or of a senior such as the giant Jonathan Jones, are an immediate testament to that maxim. The Hounds are playing four lines with regularity, and cycling through a host of defensemen as they look for the group that will get ice time in February and perhaps beyond. With no shortage of options, they are right among the state’s top teams in a season where few to no AA teams look like the East, Edina, and Minnetonka super teams of a season ago.

Mike Randolph has played goaltender roulette and started three different tenders over the first four games. Back around the start of the decade, Randolph’s handling of his goalies was a subject of some criticism, and not without some justification. The goalies, often left on an island watching action at the other end of the ice for long stretches, were often called upon to make only a few saves on breakaways, and their performance in those moments—and mental makeup as they tried to withstand them—could lead to swift hooks and cratering confidence. In recent years, however, Randolph seems to have gotten the goalie game right.Seniors like Gunnar Howg, Kirk Meierhoff, and Parker Kleive weren’t guaranteed anything, but won their respective jobs in open competition and were the no-doubt starters down the stretch and through strong playoff runs. Whether the wheel finally stops on veteran Lukan Hanson, upstart Konrad Kausch, or the unheralded Brody Rabold, someone will need to seize the opportunity.

Aside from a goaltender, the players who will be most essential to East’s rise over the course of the season will be its remaining front-line stars. The team boasts a top-notch defensive pair of Carson Cochran and Frederick Hunter Paine, as tenacious a net-front presence as the state can offer in Ricky Lyle, and of course Ryder Donovan, who has a chance to join the pantheon of East all-time greats. Donovan is projected to go in the first three rounds of the NHL draft, which would be the highest position of any Hound who played his senior year at East since Rusty Fitzgerald in 1991. (A very achievable 50-point season would put him in the top five Hounds since we have statistics; a difficult but not impossible 75 would get him into third, behind the possibly untouchable pair of Chris Locker and Dave Spehar.) The bevy of quality players and the steadiness of the system will ensure that East continues to look like one of the deepest teams in the state. But to truly separate themselves, the Hounds need a huge season out of Donovan, and his breakaways and laps skated around opponents need to turn into points. Lyle and Brendan Baker will be his wingmen, and with Jack Fitzgerald’s expected return from injury against Cloquet, the lower lines should fall into place.

This team’s potential reminds me of past Hounds editions such as 2012-2013 or perhaps even 1997-1998: groups that had graduated more top-end talent the season before, but still had a couple of major stars, and still had the customary program depth to make a deep run into March. Solid team defense, quality special teams, and steady improvement can turn dreams into reality. If the top line scores the way it can, the second line, anchored by Logan Anderson, should be productive as well. A couple of inexperienced defensemen will need to take steps forward; after a few scary opening minutes against White Bear Lake, the early returns on the rebuilt blue line corps, particularly its top four, are encouraging. (Jayson Hagen waits in the wings as a reinforcement when healthy, too.)

Before March, however, is Cloquet: on Thursday, East renews its longtime rivalry with the Lumberjacks, and rarely has this never-predictable rivalry been more up in the air. Cloquet opened the season hyped as a third highly-ranked 7AA squad beside East and Andover, but the early returns have been an utter disappointment. The Jacks are 1-5, and while most of the losses have been fairly close games with good teams, they have not looked in sync in any facet of their game. East went winless in the teams’ two meetings a season ago, and this rivalry has a way of flattening any talent gaps and erasing any momentum. It will be an instructive game for how both teams handle a chaotic, playoff-like atmosphere, and could invite the emergence of some unsung heroes. As the tinkering continues, the real tests begin to mount, and we’ll learn more about where these Hounds truly stand.

The Powell Mindset

2 Dec

My latest reading adventure down a rabbit hole (a slot canyon?) took me to southern Utah. A recent New Yorker article on the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and a re-read of my account to my trip to Zion this past spring led me to a blogger’s tale of a hike on the Hayduke Trail, a little-known hiking route named for an Edward Abbey character. The Hayduke is less a trail than a string of paths and backcountry suggestions brought together into a guidebook. It is a brutal 800-mile path that connects six national parks, one national monument, and a bevy of other designated public lands across southern Utah and northern Arizona, from Canyonlands to Bryce to the Grand Canyon to Zion. After 65 days on trails and rafts, this traveling party found the jaunt up to Angel’s Landing in Zion a lazy jog up an overcrowded molehill. I am in noway ready to go on a hike like this, but it’s fun to dream.

This southern Utah kick led me to pick up a book I’ve long wanted to read from an author who has been on my mind often this year: Wallace Stegner’s Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, a biography of John Wesley Powell. Powell is best known as the one-armed Civil War veteran who was the first man to sail down the Colorado River. His journey began at Green River in modern-day Wyoming and made its way down through countless canyons before going through the Grand, every day an adventure down rapids in uncharted territory. If Powell’s story ended there, he would be an explorer second only to Lewis and Clark in his importance to the story of the American West.

Powell, however, was much more than that, and over half of Stegner’s account is devoted to his life on dry land. He brought a nineteenth century encyclopedist’s  enthusiasm to his pursuits, with a fervent belief that he could collect enough information to build a better understanding of his world and thereby guide it toward more sane. His first ventures west were eclectic expeditions of family and students that just collected every specimen he could manage. He was the godfather of the U.S.Geological Survey, that meticulous attempt to understand the land and it bounties, and his efforts laid the foundation for the Bureau of Reclamation,which devoted itself to making much of the West as inhabitable as possible while preserving the rest. Powell’s pet interest in ethnography—the recording of details of the indigenous peoples of the West—was a staple later in his career,even when political winds in the west blew against him. His resistance to a  that the West could be settled seamlessly made him his share of enemies.

Beyond the Hundredth Meridian sets out to puncture the mythology of the American West. Over half of those supposedly hardy pioneers failed and moved back east or faced worse fates. And that was in the more fertile Midwest, before white settlement reached the 100 degree longitude line beyond which rainfall became far rarer. “[T]he romanticizing of the West…led to acute political and economic and agricultural blunders, to the sour failure of projects and lives, to the vast and avoidable waste of some resources and the monopolization of others,” Stegner writes. “There was too little factual corrective, too little allowance for swiftly changing times, and trouble ensued when people ignorant of the West and needing to know a lot about it mistook imagination for observation and art for life.”

In spite of his recognition of nature’s limits, Powell was no Malthusian convinced that humans were doomed in the face of nature. On the contrary, he was at his core a believer in science and progress: “The revelation of science is this: Every generation in life is a step in progress to a higher and fuller life; science has discovered hope,” Stegner quotes from an 1882 lecture by Powell on Darwin. Blind optimism on this order suffered significant setbacks beginning with the First World War, but both Powell and his twentieth-century interlocutor seem aware that political roadblocks and the vagaries of human nature do not undermine the logic behind the path toward understanding and better politics.

There is a middle ground between naïve hope in human progress and resignation to human limits. It recognizes that humans can adapt and even tame nature, but never in full. It sees in humans a capacity for works of both incredible construction and incredible destruction, of genius and idiocy. It seeks complete understanding, even when it recognizes the impossibility of achieving it. This is the Powell mindset, the Stegner mindset, and a mindset that is not hard to inhabit at the tail end of an arduous hike through canyon country, a simultaneous sense of awe at the nature that surrounds the hiker and a sense of conquest upon summiting peaks. (John Muir: “Double happy, however,is the man to whom lofty mountain tops are within reach.”) Yes, it is somewhere in this realm that happiness lies.