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Falling Behind the Joneses in Tertiary Education – Part II

In Specific Facts on December 17, 2009 at 1:00 pm

Tuesday, I discussed how higher education as a whole is probably a normal good, with some degrees of both qualitative difference and conspicuous consumption that are both less influential than commonly believed.  However, Robert Salomon of NYU’s Stern School of Business has a qualification:

(T)he market for a college education is, without a doubt, subject to the forces of supply and demand…It’s just that there are anywhere from three to five times as many applicants at the “traditionally” elite universities as there are spots. Because elite private universities are oversubscribed several-fold, they are less likely to feel the impact of the recession on the demand side (although they have certainly felt the haircuts to their endowments).

For private universities without the strong brand recognition (or the endowments) of the more storied programs, the reality is likely to be quite a bit different. Private universities without well-established brand names will be forced to make a stronger case for their value proposition vis-a-vis the public alternative.

Could this mean that the market for higher education is actually increasingly two markets: one of which involves public competition with lower-tier private schools and a possible price-war in the future; and one of which, still far below market equilibrium, threatens skyrocketing tuition costs with decreased endowments and increased international branding efforts? 

Probably not in an extreme form or permanent, though probably to some degree and driven by the recession.  As Salomon points out, branding plays a strong role in the top-tier schools’s budget maintenance.  Schools with brand names have to spend money on maintaining their brands vis-a-vis “the rankings” and other measures of prestige via expensive research, equipment, sports teams, marketing, etc., all of which mean they have to spend more money than the average university.  Normally, they can accomplish most of this through donations, which allows them to charge the same tuition as other less-prestigious, smaller-budget private universities.  Salomon therefore suggests two different markets, yet I would go a step further and say that there is such a wide range of costs and services that the market for tertiary education in the U.S. is more like several markets, or a continuum of markets.     
 
Tertiary education in the U.S. is the world’s best because of an extremely delicate balance of prestige, a range of qualities and services suiting various means, abilities, and desires, the profit motive’s still being there but not taking prominence, and a certain spirit of egalitarianism (scholarships, need-blind admissions, etc.).  Basically, all of the above provide services corresponding to a disparate number of complex desires, from those of people who have no options but to take on debt and be provided room, board, and education in exchange (like prison), to those of people who seek to maximize their own utility via traditional cost-benefit analysis, to those of people who go to college because it’s the “thing to do”, to those of people trying to accumulate cultural capital, to those of people who basically throw down massive amounts of money, perhaps in the form of donations, in exchange for prestigious degrees for their progeny, to those of people who think of college as the step before law school.  I think the fact that higher education in the U.S. provides many options and disparate services and is not standardized and cannot be compressed into a single market for economic analysis allows for a flexible system that maximizes what people can get for their money in a utilitarian fashion, no matter what it is they want.  This is doubtlessly a strength.

However, with a recession, the profit-motive in higher education takes on a stronger role.  It is ironic that when people are poorest and the economy is deflationary, the cost of tertiary education increases.  This most likely represents a shift from the other ways universities maximize utility, such as research, prestige, and branding, to more conventional cash-seeking behavior, as generally occurs during recessions.  It also reflects the long-term desires of top-tier universities below market-clearing equilibrium to continue financing the activities on which they built their brands in the first place, while shifting the costs of branding (ever-so-slightly) from their shrinking endowments onto their own students.  It is unfortunate that this shift takes away from higher education’s egalitarianism and disproportionately affects the people already hurt the most by the recession.  However, high tuition costs, while excluding the poorest among us from top-tier education, help pay for the things, like particle accelerators and cloaking devices, that make the research and innovations produced by America’s universities the world’s best.  And as important as I think universal healthcare is, I can’t help but notice healthcare’s parallels with higher education in this regard.   

Deflation, Savings, and Where We Go Next

In Specific Facts on December 17, 2009 at 12:34 pm

 

The Japanese media has recently been obsessed with defure, or deflation.  The September annualized rate of deflation for Japan was 2.24%, compared to September annualized deflation rates of 0.18% in the U.S. and 0.80% in China.  Canada, the U.K., Australia, and the European Union had very low rates of annualized inflation in September.  Why does the media panic about anomalous low-single-digit deflation while ignoring the well-documented effects of seventy-five years of chronic inflation?  The rationale for the panic is that deflation can lead to a liquidity crisis (government stimulus is rendered impotent) and/or a deflationary spiral (hyperdeflation); yet, blind to the lessons of history, inflation is considered a necessary evil, and the possibility of an inflationary spiral is underserved. 

First, an explanation of the relevant terms.  Originally, inflation meant an increase in the money supply, and deflation meant a decrease in the money supply.  However, modern understandings of the terms are more nuanced; now inflation and deflation are related more to purchasing power and price levels.  Because when there is more of something it becomes less valuable, inflation is now understood as a devaluation of currency.  Deflation is when a currency becomes more valuable.  Usually during economic booms, there is a robust rate of inflation as people move their collective wealth from cash-based resources into assets; there is more cash around, so people treat it with less respect and tend to spend frivolously.  During recessions, people tend to value security over potential profits, and attach more value to cash-in-hand; a dollar is worth more as a result.  Deflationary periods indicate increasing aversion to risk among the population, but not necessarily recession: in the late nineteenth century the U.S. experienced both persistent deflation in the absence of a central bank and high rates of economic growth.

Some regard the Great Depression as an example of a deflationary spiral, but the concept is largely confined to theory and controversial: there has never been an instance of hyperdeflation in recorded history.  From 1929 to 1933, prices in Great Britain fell 33%, but this was in linear – not hyperbolic – fashion.  On the other hand, there have been many documented instances of hyperinflation, especially in the twentieth century in countries with central banks and often associated with war and/or ethnic cleansing.  In the years during and immediately after World War II, Greece, Hungary, and China experienced rapid devaluation of their currencies.  In July 1946, prices doubled every fifteen hours in Hungary.  Other examples of devastating hyperinflation include that of the Weimar Reichsmark in 1923, leading to the rise of Hitler, Yugoslavian hyperinflation in 1994, and the 2008 hyperinflation in Zimbabwe.

There are actually many arguments in favor of a liberal, sometimes deflationary currency: one is that deflation makes necessities more affordable, thereby reducing poverty along with the length and severity of a particular recession.  Often, as in the Japanese case, an active central bank policy is the only thing preventing natural deflation.  Let us not forget that currencies deflate all the time – relative to other currencies.  Why are they not allowed to deflate relative to soy beans or new cars?  In Japan, after World War II, the exchange rate was fixed by the occupying authority at 370 yen to the dollar as a way to foster the development of a cheap Japanese manufacturing exports industry.  When Nixon ended the gold standard in 1971, thereby ending the era of fixed exchange rates, the yen took off, reaching a high of 80 per dollar in 1995 before the Japanese central bank began purchasing dollars en masse to save Toyota et al.  During this period of Japanese yen deflation against the U.S. dollar, Japan experienced one of the more rapid rates of economic growth in world history and developed a quintessential middle-class economy.  A similar devaluation recently occurred with the British Pound; at the same time London usurped New York as the world’s principle banking center. 

The most obvious argument in favor of allowing small rates of deflation in a spirit of cautious optimism is that deflation is the currency market’s attempt to correct for chronic undervaluation.  A culturally-appropriate Japanese metaphor for this would be building a dam against the flow of a very powerful river.  It had been the policy of the Japanese government for nearly fifteen years of stagnation to purposely devalue the yen to make Japanese exports more attractive to foreign consumers by buying U.S. dollars.  When Yukio Hatoyama’s Democratic Party of Japan took power this past year, Japanese currency policy changed: the dollar dam fell into disrepair and the river’s water began gradually leaking through.  As such, the Democratic Party of Japan seems to believe the maintenance of the dam – i.e. persistent purchase of U.S. dollars to artificially devalue the yen – is more costly than letting the dam be overrun by the force of the river and adjusting to the effects of a flooded valley.

It is often suggested that deflation encourages savings over investment or consumption.  This is because as the value of currency rises, or, as people notice the value of currency rising, they forego unnecessary purchases like new automobiles and that extra Christmas present, and instead save, that is, do not invest and do not consume.  This analysis makes sense logically at first glance, however, the impact of deflation largely depends on the decisions of hyper-rational, economically competent individuals relative to an awareness of persistent deflation.  If individuals were rational in an aggregate sense, they might hold on to their money, but most people are too excited about ten-dollar DVDs and supermarket sales to wait for prices to get even lower, nevermind notice low, single-digit deflation.  Plus, if there is 0.18% deflation now in the U.S., is that really enough to reverse 75 years of persistent inflation? Most people would notice little change in prices at the supermarket.  This kind of analysis is why economists are often the butt of academic jokes.

Were we to think about currency like any other commodity, getting into currency makes sense during periods of deflation.  Foregoing unnecessary expenses, making deposits to savings or CD accounts, being more wary about stock investments, and thinking twice before purchasing property are encouraged by a deflationary economy.  Those are terrible things, right?  Don’t Americans need to be out buying Cabbage Patch Kids, self-help books, and unaffordable mortgages?  Aren’t we supposed to solve the credit crisis with more spending? (On the contrary, economist Irving Fisher believed that deflationary spirals could occur when there was excess debt.)  Or does it make sense to weather the effects of the economic pendulum’s swinging back to a rational equilibrium?       

For many years in the U.S., saving money has been the ultimate sucker’s bet.  (In the past, saving was often the only recourse for low-income-earners, but for several years now, there have been companies like E*TRADE and Charles Schwab, whereby investing small amounts of money is possible.)  If you deposited 30,000 1964 dollars into a typical compound-interest-yielding bank account in 1964 (just under 3% compounded annually), you would have over 100,000 2008 dollars today; but in real terms, you would have actually lost over 100,000 2008 dollars to inflation.  If, on the other hand, you put your 30,000 1964 dollars into a piece of property on the outskirts of a major city or along the new interstate highway system in 1964, you would have profited by over 800,000 2008 dollars.  No wonder Americans don’t save!  We’re finally starting to get it.  Saving is totally illogical in a chronically inflationary economy.  The wealthy, more than anybody, know this, and put their money in assets, like real estate or businesses, immune to chronic currency inflation.  Like the lottery, inflation is essentially a stupid-tax, and, if you’ve had a large bank account not tagged to inflation all these years, the joke’s on you. 

Nevertheless, all these years of inflation came back to bite us when too many people putting their money in assets resulted in an asset bubble that exploded dramatically over a year ago, because we had nothing to fall back on and instead had to refinance the macroeconomy.  It seems a significant savings parachute would be prudent to protect us from aggregate mistakes in the future.  Ironically, a deflationary economy renders central bank monetary policy impotent, which may suggest a conflict of interest. (However, the Federal Reserve and Congress hedged against this by spreading the stimulus through several years.)  Whether one believes in the efficacy of a central bank-led, top-down monetary policy or not, perhaps allowing the deflationary river to break through the dollar dam and adjusting to it is best for now.  Everything in moderation prevails: When the credit crisis hit over a year ago, Americans had a near zero saving rate.  Now, they are starting to save a little, and saving a little is good for the macroeconomy; we have something to use on a rainy day as well as money to start new businesses, invest, or treat ourselves to something nice once in a while.  For now, with the stock market rising at a moderate rate, and unemployment still a major problem, a modest, deflation-based reallocation of resources could be good for us.

This is not to say that we should allow deflation to continue unchecked.  It will eventually be necessary in the future to return to growth and restore some elements of consumption, but this will not be through some top-down tinkering or massive government-led job giveaways, but through bottom-up regrouping and restoration of creative enterprise.  Nevertheless, let’s examine the problems of the current economic crisis, what we’ve done, and where we are now, and see if we can ascertain the most effective policy solution.

First the problem: too much across-the-board debt and financing of purchases with nothing.  With the sub-prime crisis, banks were lending money to people they had no business lending to and then collecting assets when those people defaulted.  When the assets then declined massively in value, the banking crisis occurred.  Lehman Brothers was the first casualty, then others, across the board with few exceptions.  When finance started feeling it, lending/investment stopped, the markets crashed, people were fired, and individual consumers who had based mortgages and other purchases on the assumption that they would not be fired found themselves unable to pay back the huge amounts of debt they had taken on.  Since nobody had any savings, there was nothing to fall back on. 

Next: what we’ve done: in September 2008, when the economy appeared in hindsight to have already reached a crisis point, both John McCain and Barack Obama had incentives to support corporate bailouts, despite a decisive opposition among the public.  The decisions of each candidate can be modeled as a typical prisoner’s dilemma.  If either candidate did not support stimulus, it would allow the other candidate to take on the role of hero and win the election no matter what the result.  For instance, Barack Obama chooses not to support the stimulus; John McCain does; the stimulus does not pass; the economy is still bad and McCain gets to say “I told you so.”  the stimulus passes, and McCain gets to say he saved America with a big, public celebration.  The effects of the stimulus are so far beyond Election Day that whether it works or not is irrelevant to getting elected.  Hence, both candidates and both political parties supported an overwhelmingly unpopular stimulus package.  Massive amounts of dollars were printed and distributed to banks with the provision that they submit themselves to government inspection, and, in many cases, direct ownership.  Even banks that reportedly did not have financial problems were forced to take stimulus money.  The rationale for the stimulus was that trickle-down economics would eventually help everybody by lowering the unemployment rate.  The opposite has happened and the dollar has started deflating, despite the unprecedented inflation in the classical sense, which means we’re either still waiting for the trickle-down and/or inflation to happen, or that, despite the massive stimulus, it simply wasn’t enough.  The Fed had to walk a fine tightrope of expertise to save the economy, and it seems like, either it’s still walking, or it fell off, and we didn’t notice. 

Where we are now: the stock market and banks are doing all right, and why wouldn’t they be?  They were saved by taxpayers.  The people on the other hand are still dealing with unemployment above ten percent.  Nevertheless, we’ve started to correct for some of the irresponsible behaviors that exposed us when shit hit the fan last year: saving has gone up ever-so-slightly and new restrictions have been set for the banking sector, probably to little effect and mostly as lip-service to the zero-sum worldview majority, the Federal government is deeply in debt, fighting two wars, and considering passing an expensive healthcare overhaul.  The stimulus is spread out over several years, we have several more years committed in Iraq and are escalating hostilities via the Afghan surge, and our financial and military overextension is apparent to would-be-troublemakers.  Basically, the U.S. government has made it as difficult as possible to make it to the black within the next ten years.  Even if we cut here and there, we’ve already committed to several expensive causes that we can’t just get rid of overnight without dire consequences.  Despite all of its difficulty, the next task for the Democrat-controlled Congress is a Bill Clinton-esque move to the right of the Republicans: it must find ways to reduce government spending while simultaneously paying for our current commitments, which also include entitlements for retiring baby boomers.

Where we go next: raising taxes is unpopular, however, it must be done in some way given the fact that we’ve already committed to so many things.  Nevertheless, here is where we can really kill an entire flock of birds with one stone: we need to gradually implement a self-sustaining, simple, fair consumption tax system, like a value added tax, to increase government revenues, reduce government loss and expenditures (IRS budget, tax-dodgers, offshore accounts, business expenses, slush funds, etc.) that follow from the professional manipulation of our current, Byzantine system, end coerced taxation via the income tax, and encourage savings and investment over consumption. 

Of course, it would be easier if lawmakers did not make unnecessary financial commitments, and American citizens held them to higher standards of accountability instead of voting for whichever candidate gives them the most free stuff.  This can be accomplished by supplementing a new consumption-heavy tax code with a moderately-structured balanced budget amendment.  During times of economic growth, the tax system should take in more than it pays out, to be saved and then used in times of economic stress.  In no way does this mean that something like healthcare overhaul cannot or should not be passed; rather, Congress will have to weigh the costs and benefits of invading a third world country posing no threat to the United States against those of providing healthcare for the poorest American citizens.   

For now, the government should not legislate any additional bailouts in order to stimulate the economy, because the solutions to the problems that got us to our current situation have nearly broken the camel’s back, as well as disproportionately benefitting the wealthiest Americans.  In the medium-term, however, our economic problems can be corrected by gradually shifting taxation from income to consumption.  At present, with a deflationary economy, is the time to implement a consumption tax, say at a rate of 2% a year, because widespread price-increases will not be felt by consumers.  In ten years, we will have raised enough government revenue to pay all of our debts, provide services for a disproportionate number of elderly, and we can effectively neuter the income tax, thereby giving people control over more of their own money.  A consumption tax with a balanced-budget amendment will solve our current economic problems in the medium term while encouraging making and keeping money – not borrowing and spending it – both for American citizens and lawmakers.

Joe Lieberman or Arrow’s Impossibility Theorum in Action

In Specific Facts on December 16, 2009 at 7:08 pm

Joe Lieberman’s recent threats to kill Health Care reform if it includes either a public option and opt-in Medicare haven’t made him very popular on the internet or my email in-box.  It doesn’t help that pretty much everyone left of center hates him already; he is Benjamin Linus as far as I’m concerned: not trusting him isn’t enough, just having him around means he’s probably going to ruin it for everyone.  The health care bill was already such a mess that I’ve avoided writing about it because it just depresses me, but now Tricky Joe steps in and kills two of the more interesting parts of the bill.  However, rather than simply bemoan Lieberman’s existence, I thought I’d point out that this is a tailor made example of Dr. Kenneth Arrow’s Impossibility Theorum.

Arrow won the Nobel Prize in Economics for, among other things, mathematically proving that it was impossible to devise a voting system that can correctly “convert the ranked preferences of individuals into a community-wide ranking while also meeting a certain set of criteria with three or more discrete options to choose from.”  In other words, voting does not, and can not, perfectly express the will of the population if there are multiple options.  There are five criteria of an ideal voting system:

1. No Dictator: No one person can dictate societal will.

2. Universality: All voting preferences should be accounted for, completely ranked and deterministically defined so that the outcome does not change if it is presented again.

3. Independence of Irrelevant alternatives: The ranking of other issues should not affect the outcome of the defined subset.  A change in opinion on blue, should not affect green.

4. Positive association of individual and societal values: No individual should be able to hurt the outcome of an issue by ranking it higher.

5. Non-imposition: Every societal preference should be determined as the sum of individual preferences.

Dr. Arrow proved that these conditions were mutually exclusive in any system with at least three outcomes.  The proof – omitting all the math that, ya know, acutally proves it – was that at some point as the voters of a society changed their minds about a certain issue there would be a pivotal voter whose preference would actually determine the outcome of the society.  This voter in effect became the dictator.  As horrible as it is to believe, right now the dictator is Joe Lieberman.

Even worse, Joe is the sort of dictator that does not believe in any of the other premises of a fair vote.  For one, he believes that a procedural vote to bypass the filibuster is equivalent to a legislative vote, which violates non-imposition since the minority can overrule the majority.  Second, he knee-jerk opposes anything that liberals advocate, which means that liberals actually hurt the bill by advocating for it, violating the positive association of individual values.  He also changed his mind about the Medicare opt-in, so he doesn’t do universality either. 

The whole bill is the exact opposite of the independence of irrelevant alternatives.  Instead, every part of the bill is linked together so that support for the public option, which is popular nationally, is contigent on abortion bans, mandates and subsidies.  Nothing is discussed in a vaccuum and even with a super majority the Democrats have to kow-tow to Joe Lieberman, Susan Collins and Ben Nelson.  They are all dictators, but Joe is the only one who is arbitrary with his power.  In 2012, if he even runs again, I foresee a coup.

Flash Tourism in Kyoto – Part IV

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on December 15, 2009 at 6:00 pm

 

at the southern end of Kyoto Imperial Gardens

Immediately, I decided it was time to leave Ryouanji and move on to other sites.  This time I took the path straight out of the main hall: elegant stone steps brought me through more peak foliage, and I made my way to the main gate, where I thanked the man with the clipboard and turned left towards the road.  The stop for the bus back to Kyoto was a bit beyond where I had disembarked earlier.  This allowed me to walk past a dark, dense Buddhist cemetery hidden behind a fence on my left.  I wondered how old the graves were, if this cemetery was even part of Ryouanji, and if so, was this obscure, modest place where the seven Hosokawa Emperors were buried?  While I waited for the bus, I pushed my face up to the fence and cupped my hands around my eyes to block out the sun, but still, I couldn’t see much.  There were a few nondescript gravestones, some altars and miniature shrines for burning incense, and what I can only describe as a moai, among thick forest, like some scene from a Miyazaki Hayao film.     

The bus came, I hopped on, and the seats and standing room alike gradually filled with high-school students, seemingly unaware of the treasures that lay along their daily commutes.  I passed the Golden Pavilion, noting that I still had time to see it if I wanted to, but decided at the last possible second to skip it in favor of other sites.  When I got to the Kyoto Imperial Palace, I quickly pressed the purple button next to my seat and made my way past the throngs of students, put my 220 yen in the box, and stepped off the bus.  The first thing I noticed was the sheer size of the grounds.  The Imperial Palace property is almost one square kilometer.  I planned to zigzag through the gardens, skipping the tour of the inner palace, which required reservations several weeks in advance and was therefore not conducive with how I conceived my trip.

Kyoto Imperial Palace, like many of the more important structures in the city, dates from the Heian Period (794 to 1185).  And like many important Japanese buildings, the main palace was destroyed several times by fire.  The current structure dates from 1855.  Nevertheless, in 1869, the capital of Japan (and hence the emperor) was moved to Tokyo, and the Kyoto Imperial Palace has since been preserved largely for ceremonial purposes, such as the coronations of the Taishou and Shouwa (Hirohito) Emperors.

I entered the property from the north and noticed immediately that it was filled with wide, empty, dirt boulevards, even wider fields on which children played, amateur photographers taking advantage of the season, and many patrol cars slowly circumnavigating the walls of the palace.  It took me nearly forty-five minutes to do the same, during which I contemplated the manpower it took to build such a thing.  Our modern marvels dwarf the relics of the pre-industrial world, something which the gigantic, metallic labyrinth that is Kyoto Station makes very clear to visitors when they first arrive.  But in terms of the sheer amount of planning and coordinated human activity, our machine-built, iron towers have nothing on the pagodas and palaces of Asia.

I made my way slowly through the Imperial Gardens, admiring the foliage and occasionally exchanging pleasantries with dog-walkers or businessmen on bicycles, and then exited through the southern entrance.  I looked at my map.  It was about a twenty minute walk to Nijou Castle and, just across the street, Nijou Jinya, an old, off-the-beaten-track house that was filled with secret rooms and hidden passages and had once been a ninja training ground.  I looked at my map.  It had recommended walking routes marked with dotted lines, one of which led from the Imperial Palace directly to Nijou Castle.

At this point I noticed my camera’s battery was dying.  The camera was just over two years old, but had already gone through two batteries in taking over 15,000 pictures and hundreds of videos in all sorts of adverse weather conditions.  Batteries for my camera were no longer available in most stores, so I had gotten used to short photography outings.  I had planned on buying a new camera as soon as I managed to save enough money, and had hoped the current battery would suffice for this one-day event in Kyoto, but now I started to worry.  I would need to be frugal with my shot selection from now on.  I hoped I could still get some good pictures.

Nevertheless, I walked down back streets full of hidden shrines and machiya – old-style, wooden townhouses that burned to the ground throughout most of Japan as a result of U.S. firebombing in the closing months of World War II.  Kyoto’s machiya were conspicuously still standing since Kyoto had been spared firebombing.  This wasn’t out of love: Kyoto was being saved for the first atomic bomb in order to maximize the psychological impact on the Japanese civilization and compel surrender.  However, U.S. Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, had gone to Kyoto for his honeymoon, and in a complete display of bureaucratic abuse, removed Kyoto from the list.  Little Boy struck Hiroshima instead.

Despite my desperate battery sitch and the fact that I was only through a third of my day, I splurged on pictures of the secret shrines and machiya I walked past on my way to Nijou.  When I arrived at Nijou Jinya, it appeared to be just another machiya, and I almost missed it.  I read the plaque on the wall outside, walked through the open gate, and heard a buzzer go off, but no one came out.  Maybe they’re in the middle of a tour? I thought.  Tours of Nijou Jinya require reservations to be made at least an hour in advance.  I had planned on walking in, making a reservation, going to explore the huge Nijou Castle across the street, maybe eating lunch, then coming back to see some cool ninja stuff in the early afternoon. 

I waited for a few more minutes and finally decided to approach the main door.  It was locked, so I walked around through the garden.  It seemed I was the only one on the property.  I slid open a glass door.  “Hello?” I said.  Crickets.  Suddenly an elderly woman opened a sliding panel on the wall to my left and poked her head out.  “Is this Nijou Jinya?” I asked, surprised.  “I’d like to make a reservation for the next tour.”  “I’m sorry,” the woman said.  I could see through the sliding panel that she was knitting what appeared to be a scarf in a quiet, sun-filled study.  “We’re closed right now for renovations until 2011.”  I was crushed.  I had been looking forward to the ninja house almost more than anything else.

I resolved to get lunch and decide what to do with the extra time I now had.  There weren’t any traditional Kyoto restaurants in the area, so I went into a nearby coffee shop.  I was still tired from my long bus ride and a good deal of walking and on a tight budget, and Japanese coffee shops usually have lunch specials.  There were no other customers there, and the staff was very kind and friendly.  Light streamed in through the floor to ceiling windows, and I was at an excellent table for people-watching.  I ordered a grilled ham and cheese sandwich with fries and iced coffee.  The food was delicious and the coffee was good and strong.  It was a quiet late morning, and Nijou Castle, notable for its size, complexity, and brashness, lay in my line of sight in the distance, past a crowded street, and a moat.

Falling Behind the Joneses in Tertiary Education – Part I

In Specific Facts on December 15, 2009 at 1:00 pm

 

Recently, tuition for tertiary education has increased dramatically, when college and graduate-school enrollments are also at all-time highs.  Jay Diamond suggests for a Bloomberg article that recent increases at Harvard and Princeton, et al. justify a classification of higher education as a Giffen good.  

In economics, a Giffen good is something that becomes more desirable as it increases in price, counterintuitively.  Giffen goods are seen as theoretical, and there is little empirical evidence for their existence, although various econometric studies have suggested kerosene, gasoline, prostitutes, rice, wheat noodles, bread, and shouchuu (a variety of Japanese sake distilled from wheat or potatoes) may be Giffen goods.  It is believed in some quarters that potatoes took on properties of Giffen goods during the Irish Potato Famine, but there is only anecdotal evidence to support this.

The main conditions for something to be considered a Giffen good are that there can’t be differences in quality to account for price differences, and the good cannot be subject to the forces of conspicuous consumption, whereby people buy more and more expensive things to show off their wealth.  Examples of conspicuous consumption abound, but typically luxury automobiles are cited.  While Mercedes certainly makes a good product, is it worth paying double when a Suzuki (or the bus) is just as capable of bringing me to work?  Do people choose Mercedes over Suzuki simply because it carries more prestige, or because they honestly believe the Suzuki will break down and thereby justify a cost difference of $20,000? 

It’s long been debated whether college enrollment suffers from some degree of conspicuous consumption.  If one looks within higher education, at the differences between public and private schools, there seems to be a prestige gap.  This is complicated by the fact that the rankings* are based on prestige (or popularity or starting salary for graduates or number of Fortune 500 CEOs or number of Nobel Prize winners on the faculty – all things largely irrelevant to quality of undergraduate education and incapable of isolation from mitigating factors).  However, if one looks at the real differences between Harvard (#1) and UC Berkeley (#21) affecting undergrads, they are all microscopic except for price: Harvard’s tuition is about $37,000; UC Berkeley’s is just over $8,000 if you’re in-state, meaning that the education a typical undergrad receives from Harvard must be at least 4.63 times better than the education a typical undergrad receives from Berkeley in order to justify a student from California selecting Harvard over Berkeley if admitted to both schools.  (I’m reminded of the bar scene from Good Will Hunting at this point…as well as this list of autodidacts.)

The economy is still very much in full-blown recession, even millionaires are panicking that they can’t afford their children’s tuition, conspicuous consumption has decreased across the board (and should continue to should the government impose a long-awaited value-added tax), yet college tuition has increased dramatically.  Public colleges raised tuition this year by an average of 6.5%, while private colleges raised tuition by 4.4% according to a College Board survey, this at a time when the consumer price index dropped 2%.   

Community colleges and graduate schools have also seen record enrollments as more and more young people are out of work and out of options.  Conventional wisdom holds that recessions are good times to go back to school, and this suggests an increase in demand for education across the board, thereby resulting in higher tuitions across the board, which means that education is not a Giffen good, but a normal good: with a shift in demand, both price and quantity go up.  The paltry difference between public and private university tuition increases could suggest that branding, i.e. conspicuous consumption, does not play as strong a role as thought across the board, this compounded by the fact that public universities depend on bankrupt state governments for the vast majority, if not all, of their funding.

   

 

 

*All rankings from U.S. News and World Report 2010  

 

Flash Tourism in Kyoto – Part III

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on December 14, 2009 at 2:00 pm

 

A salaryman contemplates the Zen sand gardens at Ryouanji.

The land that is now Ryouanji was originally an estate of the Fujiwara clan, which married into the imperial line and dominated Japanese politics from roughly 794 to 1185.  Hosokawa Katsumoto controlled the property during the Ounin Civil War from 1467 to 1477, which ushered in the Japanese Warring-States Period that eventually ended in the Tokugawa Shogunate around 1600.  The Fujiwara estate was destroyed in the Ounin War, and Hosokawa Katsumoto declared in his will that it be converted to a Zen Buddhist temple.  Seven Hosokawa emperors are buried on the property.

The Ryouanji temple complex’s most famous site is its Zen sand garden, featured in the journal Nature in 2002.  Researchers Gert van Tonder and Michael Lyons used a shape analysis program to describe the garden.  The researchers discovered that the shapes and positions of the rocks at Ryouanji are implicitly aligned with the temple’s architecture; the garden is designed to appeal to the viewer’s unconscious visual sensitivity to axial-symmetry skeletons of stimulus shapes, and several axes converge at what are traditionally believed to be the best viewing points.  Essentially, the researchers cite the sand garden of Ryouanji as an example of the entopic phenomenon in art and archaeology, whereby objects are “where they should be”.  Whatever that means.       

When I arrived at the Ryouanji parking lot, it was 8:30, and I noticed only one tour bus, which meant the temple wouldn’t be very crowded.  It appeared that several members of the tour were already exiting the temple complex, which was on the smaller side.  The tour group members were probably on a typically tight schedule and only had time for the famous sand garden, the main draw of Ryouanji.  I continued past the bus and walked down a long stretch to the main entrance.  A man with a clipboard stood at the far end smiling nervously at me.  I assumed he was with the tour, but when I approached nearer, he opened his mouth to signal he had something to say and politely invite me to make the first move.  

“Is this Ryouanji?” I asked, knowing the answer and knowing that he knew I knew the answer.  “This is Ryouanji,” he said, “However, the temple is currently undergoing renovations.”  My chin dropped, and I wondered if, after all my research, the temple was closed.  The man continued, “I am so terribly sorry if the noise and equipment disturbs your contemplation or alters your experience.” His face flushed, and he looked genuinely ashamed.  “I understand perfectly if you choose not to enter, and again, I am so very, very sorry.” “No problem,” I said, completing the ritual, “Of course I would still like to enter.”  In actuality, I was relieved the temple wasn’t closed.  I had traveled for thirteen hours just to get to this point.  There was no way a minor inconvenience would cause me to turn back. 

I turned right and made my way towards the main gate, which was small and underwhelming, yet pleasant.  I purchased a simple, unadorned ticket from the window on the left side of the main gate: it was a sepia pen and ink sketch of the sand garden.  I walked into the complex, pausing to look at a map displayed on a sign to my right.  The temple consisted of three sections: a large reflective pond lay to the south, a manicured maple forest was to the northwest, and the main hall and sand garden occupied the northeast quarter.  Signs were posted recommending visitors approach the main hall and sand garden first, but I decided to build anticipation with a leisurely stroll around the pond and through the maple forest.  Ryouanji was a lot smaller than I had imagined, and I would certainly be ahead of schedule by the time I saw everything.  I had budgeted three hours of my time for just this one temple, and, from the looks of the map, it would take me about half of that time to see everything exhaustively.

I had to use the bathroom at this point and noticed on my right that there was one restroom for Japanese and one restroom for foreigners.  I’ve been living in Japan long enough to know that this isn’t a form of segregation, but actually a response to myriad complaints from Westerners who don’t know how to use Japanese toilets.  Still, some knowledge of American history and a little tact would probably help the Japanese overcome their largely undeserved reputation as racists.    

I turned left after the bathroom and walked around the southern end of the pond.  I passed some members of the tour group.  Old men in suits said hello to me and then giggled like children.  The pond reflected the silver-blue of the sky and was covered with the first fallen leaves of the season.  I had timed my trip to Kyoto to coincide with peak foliage, hoping that leaves would start falling while I was there.  The many trees between the path and the water did not so much obscure the pond as frame it.  I saw a family of ducks cut through the tranquil surface and a variety of small docks and rowboats hidden along the shore.  I made my way around the pond until I found myself on an island with a Shinto shrine, despite the fact that Ryouanji was a Zen Buddhist temple complex: adherents of various religions in Japan do not so much murder each other for political gain as embrace each other for political gain.    

I continued around the west side of the pond, past a closed teahouse, and into the maple grove.  The leaves were brightly colored and numerous, and a few early-fallen ones lay on top of a mossy floor.  I continued along the path through this forest.  I almost didn’t notice that there were two young women there as well, taking pictures with their cell phones.  I reached a white, plastic marker, which jarred with the otherwise natural landscape: like the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, it was dedicated to Japanese troops who died while defending Japan’s overseas territories in World War II.

At this point, I had been slowly making my way through Ryouanji’s famous foliage for the better part of an hour and had arrived at the main hall.  I entered and began exploring.  There was no one else around.  I passed the famous Ryouanji tsukubai (water basin for ritualized rinsing of the hands and mouth) and contemplated it for quite some time.  There is a riddle written on the face, which I won’t spoil.  I was impressed with the coolness of the floor (I had removed my shoes before entering the building) and pleasant darkness of the main hall.  And then, I suddenly found myself at the famous sand garden, by myself, bored, and confused.  I couldn’t see why the garden was so special.  I kind of understood the science behind it, and tried a variety of viewpoints, but none really impressed me.  I stepped back, and tried viewing the garden from faraway.  I wondered if the noise and equipment from the renovations really did ruin the experience, like the man at the main gate had suggested, or whether the bright fall foliage had spoiled me.  Maybe it would have been better off if I had followed the temple’s advice to see the sand garden first.  And just then a small tour, a middle-aged Salaryman, and a large group of high school boys came in and noisily congregated in front of me, breaking the Zen silence with announcements, loud personal commentaries, and distractions. 

I was suddenly more fascinated by the people than the garden itself.  I wanted to know where they were from and why they came here: was the salaryman looking for some confidence before a big presentation?  Were the high school boys preparing for examinations?  Or just wasting time before school?  And why weren’t they in school?  It was almost ten o’clock.  Then suddenly the frustration and anxiety I had felt at being unable to appreciate the sand garden was replaced with a soothing wave of understanding.

How to Lose an Arm’s Race in One Year

In General Principles on December 14, 2009 at 4:14 am

Herbert Block’s “Speak Loudly and Poke them with a Big Stick”A recent Harvard simulation of the next year of diplomatic wrangling over the Iranian nuclear program concluded with a startling result: Iran succeeded and in the process strained U.S. diplomatic relations with Europe, Russia, China and especially Israel.  In the scenario, which featured senior diplomats and academics role-played as various heads of state, the U.S. initially focused exclusively on implementing broad sanctions.  Iran ignored the sanctions entirely and continued its program apace.  Eventually, China and Russia balked at the sanctions and secretly offered to help Iran.  The U.S., realizing that it was incapable of stopping Iran diplomatically and unwilling to intervene militarily, decides to adopt a policy of containment based on its earlier experience in the Cold War.  Israel, however, refuses to accept a nuclear Iran and the U.S. threatens to publicly condemn an attack on Iran by Israel.  The game ends with Iran gaining strengthened ties to Russia and China, and hard break between Israel and Washington.

Noah Pollack’s analysis of how that break might occur, suggests “a major effort by the administration to keep the Israelis, not the Iranians, in check”:

It’s clear at this point that the Obama administration has reconciled itself to a nuclear Iran and even, I think, convinced itself that this won’t be such a bad thing. After all, China opened up to the West after it went nuclear. We dealt with the Russians after they went nuclear. The Indians and Pakistanis haven’t nuked each other, despite Kashmir and all the terrorism. Neither has Israel used nukes, for that matter.

The president is perfectly capable of muddling through the nuclearization of Iran. What would create huge problems is an Israeli strike. Obama would have to use the military to keep the Strait of Hormuz open. The “Arab street,” which he has worked so hard to befriend, would burn him in effigy from Algiers to Islamabad. The Zionist-Crusader axis would be denounced around the world. “Optics” are very important to Obama, quite more so than substance, and he would look as though he had completely lost control of the Middle East (which would be true). And once again, the world would descend into the kind of brutal struggle for power that is not supposed to happen during the Obama Era.

Netanyahu is not the Prime Minister Obama needs if he plans on soft pedalling on Iranian nukes and Obama isn’t the President Netanyahu needs if he plans on going Operation Orchard in Iran.  Netanyahu was elected primarily because he is hard-nosed about Iran and Palestine and President McCain would have probably invaded Iran for Israel.  Despite the snark of Mr. Pollack’s description of Obama and optics, accepting that the only country capable of stopping Iranian nuclear ascendancy is Iran is the only realistic option.  The best strategy would be to stop pursuing sanctions in favor of engaging Iran on as many diplomatic fronts as possible.  Gary Sick, the diplomat who led the Iranian team in the simulation, explained the possibilities of that approach:

Just as we largely ignored the ineffective pressure tactics originating from the US, our own words and vulnerabilities were equally ignored by most of the other players. Why did no one go back to the Iranian offer of a negotiating agenda presented in 2003? Or the more recent catalogue of issues introduced as part of the Geneva/Vienna meetings? The reason seems to be the all-consuming obsession with the nuclear issue and the apparent belief that Iran’s  words, in whatever form, are irrelevant. The nuclear issue is indeed important, but AfPak, Iraq, Hezbollah, Persian Gulf stability, etc. are also not to be dismissed out of hand. And Iran over the years has offered some interesting suggestions that have never been explored. Why not use the meetings with Iran to create some working groups to explore the possibility of progress on issues other than the nuclear one? By broadening our scope, we might actually improve the  environment for constructive work on the nuclear issue.

That should be the U.S. strategy on relations with all countries; engage as much as possible when vital interests are at stake, no matter how distasteful some aspects of the country are.  A realist conception of foreign policy is that all states are self-interested, not that they are necessarily participating in a dichotomy between good and evil.  The U.S. has interests in everything and so has many opportunities to constructively engage the countries it has contentious relationships with.  Iran could, and has at times, played an important role in stabilizing Afghanistan for example.  The impotent histrionics directed at any country that we disagree with only makes it less likely that common ground can be reached.  I am reminded of the condemnation thrown Russia’s way during its invasion of Georgia, even though there was absolutely nothing anyone could or would do about it.  Russia remains one of the most strategically important countries in the world and we soured relations without substantially improving the situation for Georgia.  Measured responses allow graceful reconciliation, empty bluster invites rogue behavior. 

Teddy Roosevelt said: speak softly and carry a big stick.  After years of shouting so that no one with notice our twig, it might be time to use our inside voices if we want to avoid a tough year in Tel-Aviv and D.C.

Flash Tourism in Kyoto – Part II

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on December 11, 2009 at 2:00 pm

 

roof of the entrace to Ryouanji

I boarded the night bus for Kyoto at 19:30 in Sendai, an hour north of my residence in Fukushima: one-way cost 7,800 yen, a major improvement over the 10,500 yen fare from Fukushima.  I noticed immediately there was no bathroom on the bus, which ruled-out massive consumption of coffee or beer to stave off the boredom of an eleven-hour ride.  Accordingly, the bus was kept hot and dry, like the cabin for an international flight: customers who don’t use the bathroom are good customers, but they’re also customers who wake up with heat stroke and solidified green boogers stuck to their faces. 

I planned on researching sites in Kyoto for my one-day trip during the bus ride, but the interior lights were turned off at 19:40, and this being the cheapest mode of transportation available, there were no personal reading lights.  This left me in a cramped, black desert for eleven hours.  Luckily providence had recently given me an iPhone, and while there still aren’t air-conditioner or humidifier apps, it meant I could do my research on the internet.  But after five hours of reading everything I could about Kyoto on wikipedia, I had used up more than half of my battery and decided I should get some sleep.

I started drifting off around midnight, but me being a light sleeper, the desert-like climate of the bus, the darkness, and frequent stops at rest areas complete with mariokart-esque muzak, loud announcements, and the sudden turning on of bright interior lights made sleep a formidable task.  Time crept, anticipation mounted, I tried a variety of positions – none producing the desired effect – and I began to get hungry between attempts at sleep.  The bus stopped at a rest area at 0:50, and I got off to buy snacks and Java Tea.  With new energy coursing through my veins, I definitely couldn’t fall asleep, and suddenly it was 6:00, and we were in Kyoto.

I gathered my bearings and made my way inside Kyoto Station, searching for a restaurant open at this hour.  I found an information service and asked the man if he had a map of the city.  He handed me an English guidebook with a cute, cartoon map with no north indicated.  I asked if I could get one to scale and indicating north in Japanese. (English cartoon maps are pretty useless in countries where signs are not written in English and things are real.)  The man looked at me like I was crazy and said no without providing a reason.  I figured a cartoon English map is better than none and headed to a diner I spotted at the end of the hall, the only eatery open at this hour. 

The hostess said nothing to me, pointed mouse-like to a seat at the counter, and handed me an English menu with tastefully-done pictures of everything.  The diner was staffed by part-time college students and empty, with middle-aged, fat fry cooks behind the counter.  I ordered the pancake breakfast to the surprise of my waitress, who expected me to just point at a picture and grunt, like most English-speaking travelers in Japan.  The food was good, but I was too focused on trying to decipher my map to savor the western cuisine of the only restaurant open at 6:00. 

I was occasionally interrupted by shouting: one of the cooks continually talked down to the waitstaff, calling them idiots, then wiped snot from his nose with his hand before grabbing a fistful of processed cheese (perhaps thereby inadvertently creating a new variety?).  The cook reminded me of a boss I had had at a part-time job in middle school, and I sympathized with the young waitstaff.  I knew what it was like to take shit from someone older, larger, and more powerful than me, simply because I was too young and inexperienced to consider the possibility of standing up for myself.  I wondered if the cook’s physical repulsiveness accompanied a wicked and nasty temperament, like an archetypical Roald Dahl villain, or whether he was just uncharacteristically hungover and grumpy.  He shouted at my waitress, and I felt like defending her honor with a blunt and witty retort or a glove slap, but did nothing; I was relatively grumpy myself and concentrating on planning as best as I could the fifteen hours of travel ahead before I had to repeat the ordeal of an eleven-hour desert bus. 

I finished my meal and made my way to the main station area.  It took ten minutes or so of walking through the massive Kyoto Station to reach the JR (Japan Rail) main gate.  During my research, I had discovered that Ryouanji (Temple of the Dragon’s Peace), a Zen Buddhist temple with a famous rock garden, opened an hour before other sites and was apparently beautiful and not crowded in the morning.  I resolved to go there first and to get there when it opened at 8:00.  I didn’t really know where Ryouanji was relative to Kyoto Station—only that it was not within walking distance and to the Northwest—and this lack of clear knowledge unsettled and vexed me.  I decided to take public transportation and finish my plan for the day while en route.  I asked a woman at the JR information desk of Kyoto Station how to get to Ryouanji.  She recommended I take a JR train to the Keihan junction, then the Keihan line to Sanjo Station, where I could catch bus 59 to Ryouanji. 

The ride on the JR train took about fifteen minutes, then I transferred to what I thought was the right Keihan train, but when I started seeing places I knew to be south of Kyoto Station, I grew confused and got off.  I asked the stationmaster if I was south of Kyoto Station and he said yes.  I decided to get on a train headed in the opposite direction, but first thought it would be best to ask the stationmaster if he had a real Japanese map of Kyoto.  He said no, but gave me a cartoon Japanese map of the Keihan line.  I asked him if I was close to Sanjo Station and he said it was just a little bit more.  I grew confused again.  “Which way is north?” I asked.  He pointed in the direction I had been going.  “So the train I got off was actually going in the right direction?” I was now more confused than ever.  I looked at the cartoon Japanese map of the Keihan line again, and noticed that I had traveled six cartoon stations in the wrong direction on the JR train: like any good tourism representative in hard economic times, the woman at the JR information desk had recommended I travel in a correct, yet completely roundabout way to maximize my fare.  I asked the stationmaster when the next train came, and he said ten minutes.  I bought Georgia Black coffee from a vending machine, sat on a bench, and spaced out waiting for the next train.  I looked at my phone and noticed it was already 8:00.  Ryouanji was officially open, and I was not there, despite a two-hour head start.

Altogether, it took me an hour to get to Sanjo Station by train, when I could have walked there from Kyoto Station in twenty minutes.  Antsy, I made my way to the bus terminal.  The 59 to Ryouanji came almost immediately, and I hopped aboard.  I paid careful attention to the streets we travelled down and traced a corresponding line with my pen on the English cartoon map I had received at Kyoto Station.  The bus passed the old Imperial Palace and the Golden Pavilion, two famous Kyoto landmarks, and finally arrived at Ryouanji.  I walked to the front of the bus and asked the busdriver if it was true that all bus fares in Kyoto are 220 yen.  He stared at me blankly with his mouth open.  “Is the fare 220 yen?” I asked—blank stare.  “Look,” I said, “220 yen.”  I showed him my coins.  “I’m going to put it in the pay-box now.  Thank you.”  The bus driver said nothing as I exited the bus and beheld the empty parking lot of Ryouanji.  I wondered if maybe I had had some of the cook’s snot stuck in my teeth. 

Flash Tourism in Kyoto – Part I

In Dispatches from the Wild Wild East on December 10, 2009 at 2:00 pm

Beyond those trees lies Kyoto’s Imperial PalaceInternational air travel is a totally mind-fucking experience without cause or mercy, for which the human psyche has evolved nothing to cope: drive a few hours to the airport, sit in a chair in a cramped room at ten-thousand feet, be served a mediocre meal, watch a few movies to fight the boredom and restlessness, look out your window occasionally to see nondescript white masses of clouds or nameless mountain ranges, take a nap, and wake up at the center of an another civilization.

We’ve read the narratives of ancient explorers, from Democritus to Marco Polo to James Cook to Richard Burton, and we use these narratives to fill in the gaps in our understanding of the foreign and distant lands which now lie within a few hours and which we have not seen.  In the old days, travelers gave up their lives, fortunes, health, and families for their curiosity; modern travel is pathetic by comparison: modern explorers need only sacrifice a few paid vacation days and a small percentage of their salaries to visit the Taj Mahal.  The image of boldly venturing forth to explore new worlds is cheapened by the familiar fast food restaurants and motels offering base modernity: our egos take a hit, but we accept our unequal treaty, because there’s nothing else we can do.  We even eat at the fast food restaurants and stay at the hotels.  We realize we’re not the intrepid explorers of yesteryear, but lazy nobodies with cameras in an orgiastic mass of lazy nobodies with cameras.  We are left confused, bitter, angry, and often solipsistic.

In a world where cinematic travel is becoming more and more impossible, alternative forms of tourism are springing to life: adventure tourism and eco-tourism are just a couple ways modern people try to fool themselves into thinking they actually experienced something magical or romantic: these are forms of Bokononistic self-deception in the face of nihilistic truth.  But why fight the changing world?  Why not embrace its glibness?

This was my motivation for a recent one-day, as-cheap-and-fast-as-possible trip to Kyoto, a city notoriously cruel to the unprepared traveler, like a labyrinth of both time and space, where suspension of belief is actively sought after and elusive.  It’s difficult to find the wabi-sabi among the neon and concrete monuments of saccharine Japanese modernity, but in the nooks and crannies of this organic city, zahirs can be found and appreciated.

Famous Epitaphs

In Uncategorized on December 10, 2009 at 1:00 pm

Edmund Blackadder – “Here lies Edmund Blackadder, and he’s bloody annoyed.”

Mel Blanc – “That’s all, folks!”

Nicolaus Copernicus – “Stand, Sun, move not”

Rodney Dangerfield – “There goes the neighborhood.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald – “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Werner Heisenberg – “He lies here, somewhere.”

Jesse James – “Murdered by a traitor and a coward whose name is not worthy to appear here”

Thomas Jefferson – “Author of the Declaration of American independence of the statute of Virginia for religious freedom and father of the University of Virginia”

John Keats – “This Grave contains all that was mortal, of a Young English Poet, who on his Death Bed, in the Bitterness of his heart, at the Malicious Power of his enemies, desired these words to be Engraven on his Tomb Stone: Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.”

Benjamin Franklin – “The Body of B. Franklin, printer
 Like the Cover of an old Book
Its Contents torn out
And stripped of its Lettering & guilding
Lies here food for worms
For, it will as he believed appear once more
In a new and more elegant edition
Corrected and improved by the Author.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. – “Free at last. Free at last. Thank God Almighty I’m Free At Last.”

Brandon Lee – “Because we do not know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. And yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, an afternoon that is so deeply a part of your being that you cannot conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four, or five times more? Perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless…”

Jack London – “The Stone the Builders Rejected”

H.P. Lovecraft – “I am Providence”

Rob Roy MacGregor – “Despite them”

John Laird McCaffery – “John
Free your body and soul
Unfold your powerful wings
Climb up the highest mountains
Kick your feet up in the air
You may now live forever
Or return to this earth
Unless you feel good where you are!
—Missed by your friends”

H.L. Mencken – “If after I depart this vale you ever remember me and have thought to please my ghost, forgive some sinner, and wink your eye at some homely girl”

Matthew Mudd – “Here lies Matthew Mudd,
Death did him no hurt;
When alive he was only Mudd, But now he’s only dirt.” 

Robert Louis Stevenson – “Under the wide and starry sky
Dig the grave and let me lie,
  Glad did I live and gladly die
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be.
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.”

The Unknown Soldier – “Here Rests in Honored Glory An American Soldier Known But to God”

Kurt Vonnegut – “THE ONLY PROOF HE NEEDED FOR THE EXISTENCE OF GOD WAS MUSIC”

George Washington – “Looking into the portals of eternity teached that
The Brotherhood of Man is inspired by God’s Word;
Then all prejudice of race vanishes away.”

H.G. Wells – “I told you so, you damned fools.”

Johnny Yeast – “Here lies
Johnny Yeast
Pardon me
For not rising”

William Butler Yeats – “Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!”