Readers debate the lessons of the Great Recession; examine the legacies of Barack Obama and Antonin Scalia; share memories of Kartemquin Films and its founders Gordon Quinn, AB’65, and Gerald Temaner, AB’57; tell us what they know (“not much”); and more.
It was an even greater than usual pleasure to open your magazine (Spring/16) and see the first letter, from Charles Greene, SB’49, SM’50, PhD’52, and to note how much we have had in common. He was slightly ahead of me in chemist Frank Westheimer’s group, and my wife and two kids made our home for two years in the veterans’ housing on Woodlawn across from Rockefeller Chapel. (I had a medical discharge from the Army infantry due to a shrapnel wound.) After running a small business in Chicago, I took a position as a research assistant under a grant from the National Institutes of Health at my other alma mater, Pomona College, developing computer-aided drug design methods for the pharmaceutical trade. This morphed into the BioByte Corp., which I now serve as president.
I am also in my early 90s, and I envy Charles’s ability to still play a game of tennis doubles. A few years ago I was doing that and hyperextended my right knee and banged up a shoulder in a way that ended my tennis days. I also serve as a Eucharistic minister in our Catholic parish and have taught in adult confirmation classes (evolution is compatible with religious faith!). It appears that both Charles and I have much to be thankful for in the “formative years” spent at UChicago and for the excellent tutelage of Westheimer.
Albert Leo, SM’49, PhD’52
Diagnosing the crisis
John Paul Rollert’s (AM’09) essay “Of Morals and Markets” (Spring/16) is, at once, quite interesting and very misleading. It talks engagingly about teaching values and ethics to students at a major business school since the Great Recession. But it is misleading because of the major assertion that the “ideological integrity of the [capitalist] system was called into question by the 2008 financial crisis.”
Of course, many people and organizations in the private sector, motivated by profit, did some very bad things that made the financial crisis worse than it might have been. And, yes, the depth of the crisis clearly had a profound effect on many of those who lived through it.
The Great Recession, however, did not invent greed, or, arguably, even produce the worst examples of bad behavior in the history of business or financial markets. Greed is a constant factor in human existence, which is why it needs to be regulated and why it has been a ripe subject for discussion with MBA students over the decades.
Why then should Rollert assert that what transpired in the financial crisis was, somehow, a unique event that called into question the ideological integrity of the capitalist system itself? What made it that different and significant? The answers to these questions are not obvious, even if we grant that the depth of the crisis was profound. All things considered, history tells us that the system is far superior to any of its available alternatives.
As for the “subprime derivatives contracts” that Rollert discusses, it is important to note that such contracts required the existence of subprime mortgages in the first place. And the development of subprime mortgages and their obscene growth, which really accounted for the depth of the crisis, did not come out of some nefarious, capitalistic plot. It came from Washington, DC, as part of a planned public effort to foster home ownership, especially among the lower class.
From time to time prior to 2008, certain well-known members of the Wall Street community actually pleaded with people in Congress to reconsider this effort, predicting that it would ultimately lead to exactly what happened. In response they were told, in effect, “Mind your own business.” And this is what they did, sometimes with more than a dollop of personal avarice included.
In the end we had the Great Recession. But whatever else happened, capitalism did not create it and the ideological integrity of the capitalist system was never in doubt, at least among those who understood what really happened.
As for the future, let us hope we live in times when governments themselves, however well motivated, do not do things that encourage the private sector to take actions that can ruin the economy. For when they do, capitalism can pay a high price, even as governments use the opportunities to overregulate and undermine market forces. But that is another subject for another time.
Richard R. West, MBA’63, PhD’64
Sun City West, Arizona
John Paul Rollert responds: As an ethicist, I take no position on whether, in the words of Alan Greenspan, the financial crisis indeed revealed a “flaw” in the system of capitalism, for I believe that matter is best left to those, like Richard West, who are trained in the science of economics. Similarly, I don’t challenge the technical proficiency of those students in my class whose belief in capitalism has been shaken by the crisis any more than those whose faith remains complete. Instead, I lead them through a reappreciation of the ideological underpinnings of capitalism, from Adam Smith onward, and leave it to them to decide for themselves whether an abiding faith in free markets is still warranted after the crisis and, for that matter, to what degree.
The web Kartemquin weaves
I was thrilled to see the article on Kartemquin Films and Gordon Quinn, AB’65 (“Documentary Vision,” Spring/16). I first met Gordon in 1979 when he was filming the UE/Wells documentary (and it was 1979, not 1975 as stated in the article). I did not realize that Gordon and Jerry Blumenthal, AB’58, AM’59, were also University of Chicago graduates until I read the article. The story of the Wells organizing drive was that I got a job there in 1977 specifically to attempt to organize the workers into a United Electrical Workers (UE) local union. While we had a number of important successes, as documented in the film, the organizing drive was ultimately a failure as a slowing economy in 1980 led to massive lay-offs and a defeat for the union.
Personally, since I was laid off from Wells, I took time to visit Nicaragua for the first anniversary of the Sandinista Revolution in July 1980. I then got involved in solidarity work with Nicaragua. Finally I returned to UChicago and received my PhD in Latin American history. I am currently teaching history at Northeastern Illinois University, where I remain an active union member as part of the chapter executive board of the University Professionals of Illinois, American Federation of Teachers Local 4100. NEIU students are mainly working class and I have shown UE/Wells several times in my classes. To my surprise, several students have recognized relatives of theirs who had worked at Wells. It’s a small world. I occasionally still run into Gordon and will now be able to reflect on our UChicago backgrounds.
Richard Grossman, AB’74, PhD’96
I was a graduate student in philosophy and a friend of Gerald Temaner, AB’57, the “tem” in Kartemquin. Jerry had made a recruiting film called The College, in which Charlie Wegener, AB’42, PhD’50, has his feet up on one of those magnificent four-part oval tables in the not-yet-renovated Cobb Hall and blows cigarette smoke up toward the sign forbidding eating and smoking as he makes his point to a humanities class.
I was at the campus showing of Home for Life, where I offended the resident psychiatrist by speaking of it as a metaphor for all of us. He denied that he had ever met an existentialist in a retirement home, and I quipped back that I had in mind The Nicomachean Ethics, I, 10. Jerry, who helped me choose an essay topic in Richard McKeon’s course on Aristotle, was more interested in art than philosophy (Philip Glass, AB’56, was a friend), although it might be more accurate to say that his idea of cinema verité was about art as a means both to express truth and make it come to be—as in Quinn’s idea that “you get people to change their thinking” by approaching them “on an emotional level.”
Quinn’s reference to the conception of the artist as journalist in The Public and Its Problems echoes John Dewey’s point in Art as Experience that truth, goodness, and beauty differ only in the place in the thinking process on which emphasis is laid. Jason Kelly’s article reflects an intellectual culture that was in no small measure due to humanities dean Richard McKeon, a student and then colleague of Dewey’s at Columbia before Robert Maynard Hutchins brought him to Chicago to lead the development of the courses for which the College became famous.
Eventually I earned a PhD, with McKeon as dissertation director, in the Committee on the Analysis of Ideas and the Study of Methods. On the defense of my dissertation (in Goodspeed Hall, I believe), law professor Philip Kurland was the first to congratulate me after Wayne Booth, AM’47, PhD’50, informed me that I had passed. Kurland was working at a desk in a common area, with his sleeves rolled up, for senator Sam Ervin (D-NC), on the Nixon impeachment papers.
I have been teaching philosophy at York College of the City University of New York since September 1969. The first president of that new senior college was Dumont F. Kenny, PhD’53, another doctoral student of McKeon’s.
Howard Ruttenberg, AB’60, PhD’73
New York City
Immigration and inequality
Judging by the Magazine’s account (“Three Views on Inequality,” Winter/16), the academic heavyweights who fretted about US economic inequality last November all missed the blue whale in the room: immigration.
The rate of legal immigration to the United States is approximately one million per year, not counting guest workers (or illegal aliens), and these inflows substantially degrade job opportunities and life prospects for tens of millions of American citizens.
The Center for Immigration Studies noted last year—based upon the census department’s Current Population Surveys—that from 2000 to 2014, an aggregate 18 million legal immigrants and illegal aliens settled here, while the native-born population of working age increased by 16.5 million. Only 9.3 million jobs were added during the same period.
Surely being frozen out of jobs or having one’s wages stagnate because of competition from imported cheap labor has a strong bearing on inequality. Harvard labor economist George Borjas has long backed up the point with his work on the “immigration surplus,” which is the economic benefit to us native borns from the presence of the foreign-born population.
In 2013 Borjas wrote, “The immigration surplus of $35 billion comes from reducing the wages of natives in competition with immigrants by an estimated $402 billion a year, while increasing profits or the incomes of users of immigrants by an estimated $437 billion.” So immigration pumps up the incomes of the relatively few (capital) at the expense of the many (labor). Those concerned about inequality might consider this while recognizing that immigration is public policy, not a force of nature.
Paul Nachman, PhD’78
Re: Carrie Golus’s (AB’91, AM’93) article (“What Do You Know?” Course Work, Spring/16). There can be but one response to the heading, and it is: “Not much—you?”
Vern Krider, MBA’62
Palm Coast, Florida
During President Barack Obama’s recent return to his home state of Illinois to speak to students and faculty at the University of Chicago Law School, I would hope the citizens of Illinois took the time to reflect on his presidency, his accomplishments, and the qualities that he brings to the office. In Barack Obama we find the best of what this country has to offer. He has displayed traits that most Americans have always admired in their fellow citizens: he is intelligent, articulate, poised, compassionate, thoughtful, levelheaded, and a loving family man. He is not prone to make rash decisions, nor to shoot from the hip.
I think President Obama will in time be revered for not only being our first black president but a president who possessed great skill and competence. Some highlights will include shepherding the country through financial meltdown, providing insurance to millions of uninsured, forging alliances to handle conflicts in the world, and breaking the impasse with Cuba. One shortcoming will be the failure to bring the federal government to bear on the gangs that are making Chicago the murder capital of the country.
There are those who oppose his policies based on the fact that he is a liberal and belongs to the opposing party. This is understandable. Then there are others who oppose anything he stands for because of deep-seated feelings about his race and background. They are blind to the traits mentioned above.
Ned McCray, AM’61
Tinley Park, Illinois
Another view on a journey
The facile manner in which Ronald L. Hammerle, ThM’68, DMN’69 (Letters, Spring/16), speaks of elective abortion reminds one of Machiavelli’s doublespeak in praising the virtue of Agathocles (Prince, chapter 8).
Lynn Varco, AB’95
St. Paul, Minnesota
Remembering a justice
In the obituary of former UChicago law professor and Supreme Court associate justice Antonin Scalia (Deaths, Spring/16), the Magazine published the statement, “A staunch advocate of interpreting the Constitution as the founding fathers would have, Scalia helped ... ” Justice Scalia may have been a brilliant jurist with a keen analytical mind; however, he was not present at the founding of the country nor interacted directly with the founding fathers. A more accurate and truthful statement would be: “A staunch advocate of interpreting the Constitution as he believed the founding fathers would have, Scalia helped … ”
Gregory J. Watson, AB’92
Remembering a friend
I was saddened to read of Samuel Golden’s (AB’45, JD’49) passing (Deaths, Spring/16). In the 1969–70 school year, I was business manager of the Chicago Maroon, which had a contract with an agency that solicited advertising from large Chicago businesses for area university newspapers. That year they proposed a new contract with a bigger take for them and incredibly onerous terms. Since the ads did not bring major dollars to the Maroon, I was prepared to tell them to go several blocks east and enjoy Lake Michigan, but the business manager of the Daily Northwestern was quite upset, since his paper was more dependent on the income. The new contract would cause serious losses at the other papers too.
Dean of students Chuck O’Connell, AM’47, had referred me to Sam Golden, who read the contract, shaking his head and laughing out loud occasionally. Sam said he would be delighted to draft a much more favorable contract, at no cost to the Maroon. I shared it with the other business managers. As a result, we all enjoyed better revenue and more acceptable terms from the agency.
Before and since, I have worked with lawyers from sole practitioners to those at multicity international firms to municipal bond counsels in several states. Unlike too many in the legal profession, Sam was a true delight to work with, quickly grasped my objectives, and implemented them very efficiently. Most important, his work was not challenged nor changed.
Emmet Gonder III, MBA’71