Friday, October 31, 2008

Spirits of the Dead

Thy soul shall find itself alone
'Mid dark thoughts of the grey tomb-stone;
Not one, of all the crowd, to pry
Into thine hour of secrecy.

Be silent in that solitude,
Which is not loneliness — for then
The spirits of the dead, who stood
In life before thee, are again
In death around thee, and their will
Shall overshadow thee; be still.

The night, though clear, shall frown,
And the stars shall not look down
From their high thrones in the Heaven
With light like hope to mortals given,
But their red orbs, without beam,
To thy weariness shall seem
As a burning and a fever
Which would cling to thee for ever.

Now are thoughts thou shalt not banish,
Now are visions ne'er to vanish;
From thy spirit shall they pass
No more, like dew-drop from the grass.

The breeze, the breath of God, is still,
And the mist upon the hill
Shadowy, shadowy, yet unbroken,
Is a symbol and a token.
How it hangs upon the trees,
A mystery of mysteries!

Edgar Allen Poe, Spirits of the Dead

Thursday, October 30, 2008

"All The Mavericks In The House Put Your Hands Up!"

For those of you who have been watching SNL, Amy Poehler did a great skit a couple of weeks ago where she rapped, "All the Mavericks in the house, put your hands up! All the plumbers in the house, pull your pants up!" I thought it was great and hilarious. On Tuesday night, 7,500 central Pennsylvanians showed up at Rec Hall to watch a Maverick not only put her hands up but also raise her voice in defense of conservative principles and policies.

Sarah and Todd Palin came on stage around 9 p.m. to a crowd that was energized by Zombie Nation and shouting, "WE ARE PENN STATE." I think they weren't sure what to expect that late at night in Happy Valley, but one thing is for sure . . . the Valley wasn't sleepy!

Due to my husband's insistence upon getting in line very early (thank you, honey) we got GREAT seats and were able to shake hands with the Palins as they walked onstage. It was an honor to shake hands with the second female VP candidate in American history. I missed Geraldine Ferraro in 1988, that was 20 years ago. Let's hope this isn't a once-every-twenty-years phenomenon, right ladies?

One picture shows me handing the Governor a notebook to sign for a little boy who was standing behind me while my husband looks over my right shoulder. The other picture is of Todd helping the Governor sign paraphernalia. The white shirt under her arm is a Lady Lions jersey. She was thrilled to meet them, being a basketball player herself, and posed for pictures with the team.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

In Praise of University Towns

University towns consistently rate high whenever a magazine or other entity releases a list of 'best places to live' in the United States. It is not hard to see why. Cultural and sporting events, intellectual exploration, bucolic surrounds and annual renewal are just some of the soul-affirming attributes of the university town gestalt.

I traveled this week from State College to the even-more-venerable university town of Princeton, for the purpose of attending the 101st gridiron meeting between the Harvard Crimson and the Princeton Tigers (Harvard won, 24-20). Among other things, the trip afforded me the opportunity to reflect on the standard virtues of university towns (see above), and on some of the more charming characteristics of State College and Princeton.

During the academic year in Princeton, you are daily likely to encounter central-casting-egg headed professors making their way through campus and town on bicycles, sporting tweed jackets and embarrassing extra-large helmets (risk the head injury, doctor). Some professors walk to campus, as the retired John Forbes Nash (of A Beautiful Mind and game theory fame) still does from his nearby home. I have on two occasions sat next to Professor Nash: once in the erstwhile Bucks County Coffee Shop in Palmer Square and again in the Princeton Public Library. Both times he was writing out complicated equations on napkins, oblivious to his surroundings. It was a strange thing to be so close to an intelligence that differs from mine not in degree, but in kind.

In Princeton you may have to order your hot chocolate from a Che Guevara-festooned pin cushion of a barrista The favorite downtown coffee shop in Princeton seems to manufacture these types, and whatever their charm, they seem to be constitutionally incapable of holding the whipped cream. Try it sometime. They will even repeat the words, "no whipped cream". Minutes later they present you with the non-compliant thing and not even the look of consternation on your face will bring the barrista back in time to its cause. I have considered that their fondness for Guevara goes beyond his physical likeness: perhaps the barristas remain aware of the instruction but, knowing whipped cream to be an unqualified good, and, not having the option to summarily execute the patron suffering from false consciousness, they simply ignore the apostasy.

Princeton has more of the enduring hippie than does State College. They can be seen most weekends along Nassau Street, manning the barricades against the Iraq War, for example. Long after their contemporaries figured out that they could enter the offending institutions and change them from within, this rear-guard nurses its ideological purity and continues to cast stones from without. These too are in the coffee shops, stopping in for an espresso after the protest and leaning their home-made signs against the wall. On their grizzled and wistful faces you can see the recognition that their halcyon days have gone; and too the Revolution's. But their young companions in the struggle are yet undaunted, talking about the protest scheduled for next weekend and the TV lineup for the coming week.

One thing that Princeton does not have that State College does is a Bible Man. When he appears it is on the sidewalk on the campus side of the intersection of Allen St. and College Ave. He is not New Age, going on interminably about damnation. If I were interested to render his mission more successful, I would suggest he change his messaging. As it stands, he is preaching to a bunch of kids who think they are immortal that bad things are going to happen to them when they die. Even if a few of these kids give weight to his pronouncements, they are as likely to double-down on debauchery in the short term as they are to change from Saul to Paul on the spot; figuring either that they might as well make hell and damnation worth it or else that they will have plenty of time to repent later (in this regard they would be no different than St. Augustine in his youth, who reminisced in the Confessions, "Lord give me chastity and continency- but not yet.").

State College also has the Creamery, a local institution; and which in this financial environment and given its sales would fail to surprise if it were to announce its pending purchase of Bank of America. Folks in central Pennsylvania cling not just to religion and guns, but also to supremely outsized ice-cream cones.

And of course State College has Joe Paterno, to whom the kids might actually listen were he to sub for Bible Man.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


Apropos of Dave's post, I thought I would share a Navajo prayer that a friend recently shared with me. As it was explained to me, the Navajos believe that a sickness can be healed by reconnecting with Beauty. To the Navajos, Beauty encompasses concepts such as morality, goodness, perfection, happiness, aesthetic, and blessedness. To connect with Beauty is to be in harmony with the world and to find balance in one's life. To walk in Beauty (the Beautyway), is to be at peace both internally and externally. Beauty is, I believe, God's prescription for pain and suffering. Beauty heals our souls and pierces our hearts; it speaks to us when words cannot.

In beauty may I walk.
All day long may I walk.
Through the returning seasons may I walk.

Beautifully will I possess again.
Beautifully birds . . .
Beautifully joyful birds.

On the trail marked with pollen may I walk.
With grasshoppers about my feet may I walk.
With dew about my feet may I walk.

With beauty may I walk.
With beauty before me, may I walk.
With beauty behind me, may I walk.
With beauty above me, may I walk.
With beauty below me, may I walk.
With beauty all around me, may I walk.

In old age wandering on a trail of beauty, lively, may I walk.
In old age wandering on a trail of beauty, living again, may I walk.

It is finished in beauty.
It is finished in beauty.
A Navajo Indian Prayer of the Second Day of the Night Chant (anonymous).

Saturday, October 18, 2008

In Re: The Katz Building

We are past the day, if ever it dawned, when humanity could speak with one voice as to what is beautiful and what grotesque. Yet it seems possible we are capable of coming to a rough consensus whether something is, on the whole, closer to one pole or the other. To test this hypothesis, I offer for public determination the aesthetic status of the new Katz Building, which will be the architectural expression of the Penn State Dickinson School of Law on the University Park Campus of Penn State University (pictured above).

I stipulate the administration’s great efforts to bring this building to fruition and the continuing value the building will confer on PSULaw. I anticipate the thing will be a functional marvel. At issue here is purely outward aesthetics (such a judgment on the innards of the building awaits the day they are experienced).

It seems PSULaw professors will be hard pressed to be objective. They may regard the Katz building, whatever its appearance, as the thing that will emancipate them from the cinder-block mausoleum where their offices are currently housed, and from storm-lashed travel between classrooms in PSULaw's extant multi-building campus, and so find it beautiful.

Those of us who are PSULaw students may have our own trouble with objectivity, seeing the Katz building as responsible for the upward revision of at least one left-side decimal place holder on our student loan statements.

Still, the profession of law frequently requires objectivity; we are all capable, with a conscious effort, to bring it to the present question.

Third party judgments are of course both welcome and sought-after.

I will not come right out and state my aesthetic judgment on the building. Rather, I offer this observation that conveys my conclusion through implication: just as one can only run 1.5 miles into a 3-mile thick patch of woods before one in fact starts to run out of it, so, it seems, a thing can only become so ugly before it begins, progressing in the same direction, to become by degrees first ‘endearing’ then ‘interesting’ and, finally, beautiful.

There is this consolation to those in the PSULaw community who feel strongly that the building is unlovely. Find comfort in the fact that you soon will be going inside the building everyday, and in so doing will be making incidental use of Guy de Maupassant’s coping mechanism for dealing with unsightliness. Guy de Maupassant was a Parisian writer of the late 19th century. Unreconciled to the appearance of the new and omnipresent Eiffel Tower, Maupassant had lunch at the base of the structure nearly everyday. He had lunch there not for the quality of the food, but because it was the only place in Paris from which M. Eiffel’s offensive spawn couldn’t be seen.

Similarly, and even more in keeping with Maupassant's inspiration: for Katz-detractors in its line of sight but outside the PSULaw community, I note the Katz building will have a cafe.

Finally, and not as an indictment of the structure’s appearance, it seems worth noting that there is a non-negligible danger that an occasional plane intended for the University Park airport will land beside either end of the Katz building and attempt to off-load passengers.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Red Lion Reports Welcomes David Hutchinson

Welcome our new contributor, David Hutchinson. Dave is a member of the PSULaw Class of 2009. As for personal information about Dave, you'll have to draw inference from this: he resents utilitarian explanations for the lovability of dogs.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Suddenly Under Water

The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that nearly 1 in 6 homeowners is "underwater"-- they owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth. How does it feel to be underwater in your own house? Well, you don't feel like shoppping at the mall.

About 75.5 million U.S. householders own their homes. About 12 million householders, or 16%, owe more to their mortgagee than their homes are worth, according to Moody's Among those who financed their homes in the past five years, 29% are under water. (In 2006 about 4% were under water. Last year the rate rose to 6%.) Moody's Chief Economist, Mark Zandi, noted: "it is very possible that there will ultimately be more homeowners under water in this period than any time in our history."

The water is not equally deep everywhere. The WSJ online hosts a cool interactive map showing regions in the US that are knee deep, swampy, and bone dry.

It's Only Bankruptcy

The other day, Alison quoted from economist Jeffrey Miron who suggested that the current financial crisis might best be managed by letting troubled financial institutions seek refuge in bankruptcy. In today's Washington Post, columnist David Ignatius made a better point. Instead of firm by firm failure and either bankruptcy or bailout, wouldn't it be fantastic if the whole world economy could seek relief under Title 11 of the US Code?

Although the word bankruptcy is scary, the analogy to bankruptcy process is quite comforting. Ignatius writes: "Bankruptcy doesn't mean a company has run out of good people or ideas, or that it's going to stop making products. It means that it's out of money and must seek the protection of the government to continue operating. Bankruptcy, if properly managed, is a workout process that provides a pathway back to solvency. A company seeks protection from its creditors through bankruptcy court, which appoints a trustee to supervise an orderly unraveling of its debts and other obligations. Sifting through the claims can take years and creditors often receive less than full value, but there's a reliable process. Companies often reemerge from bankruptcy healthier than before; often, some assets are sold to other companies that can make better use of them."

That doesn't sound like a global financial crisis of historic proportions. That sounds like bankruptcy litigation, and entirely within the province of lawyers -- bankruptcy lawyers to be specific.

Sadly, there is no bankruptcy court that can take jurisdiction over the global economy. For the U.S. financial system, the equivalent of the bankruptcy court is the rescue operation cobbled together and headed by the Federal Reserve and the Treasury. Ignatius notes that these bodies traditonally supply liquidity where it is needed to lubricate a balky system. This problem, however, is bigger than just a little unexpected friction in the machine. Ignatius recommends a bankruptcy trusteeship as a new metaphor for the solution: "the task of trusteeship -- of supervising the orderly clearing of debts in an economy where trust has vanished, as is often the case in an ordinary bankruptcy."

The global economy has no ready trustee. Ignatius notes that the institution that was supposed to protect the global system, the International Monetary Fund has been "utterly impotent in the crisis." He calls for the establishment of a "Global Clearinghouse, a public-private consortium of the biggest financial institutions and central banks, that can ensure that trades get completed and losses are covered while the system works its way out of bankruptcy."

Monday, October 6, 2008

The First Monday in October

This is the first Monday in October and the first day of a new Supreme Court term. This is a fact worth remembering in unsettling times - following the Judiciary Act of 1789, the Court's first term was 1790, beginning an unbroken committment to the rule of law.

The first case on today's docket is Altria Group, Inc. v. Good, docket no. 07-562. The issue is an interesting one of federalism and pre-emption: "Whether state-law challenges to FTC-authorized statements regarding tar and nicotine yields in cigarette advertising are expressly or impliedly preempted by federal law." Forty-seven states and DC filed an amicus brief on behalf of respondents private plaintiffs seeking to sue in Maine state court under state law. The ABA is hosting the briefs in this case and, on a rolling basis, all others to be decided this term by the Court.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Law and Collective Responsibility

Tonight the PSU Law and Philosphy Society will meet to take up the question of collective responsibility for the current financial crisis. I regret I cannot attend the meeting set for 6:00 PM at Webster's Cafe on Allen Street. My role in collective responsibility for kids, dinner and laundry interfere with my freedom to sip coffee and talk about philosophical implications of just about anything.

If I could be there, I'd add to Plato's reflections, those of columnist George Will on the financial crisis appearing yesterday in the Washington Post and elsewhere. Will observes that "[w]e are waist deep in evasions because one cannot talk sense about the cultural roots of the financial crisis without transgressing this cardinal principle of politics: Never shall be heard a discouraging word about the public."

The public, he notes, typically admonishes government to run its budget the way households supposedly do, matching expenses with income. This time, though, the public decided "it would be jolly fun to budget the way the government does, hitching outlays to appetites." This time, it is painfully clear that all of us not-so-secretly delight in deficit spending, both for our household budgets and for our collective big one.

The usual populist riposte to government action, to contrast the virtue of the people with the vice of some unpopular minority, falls flat. The rhetoric that would in the past elevate the wisdom and thrift of Main Street above the greed and excesses of Wall Street belies the new truth that the folks on Main Street have been just as greedy and excessive. They bought real estate on speculation with borrowed money for more than they could afford. They knew exactly what they were doing. Now their only pretense at preserving virtue is the last defense of scoundrels, the devil made us do it.

This time, we are all in it together, the collective and the individual. The proposed legislation snaking through the House of Representatives today marks what may be a new era in our understanding of justice, freedom and the scope of government relative to individuals.

Best wishes Law and Philosophy Society. May the wisdom of the ages be with you.