Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Is There a Perfect Gift?

Christmas is over. Gifts have been given and received. Our family is lucky – everyone has a job they like and we can afford to give each other gifts. Since many of us gather to celebrate together (10 this year, an unusually small number), there were many presents to open. We open one by one, with lots of oohing and ahhing, taking time to appreciate each gift.

That made me wonder – what makes a perfect gift?

A perfect gift might be on your Christmas list. I hoped for a hand-held Dremel tool for my home refinishing projects. My daughter Mae put books at the top of her list. Much to our delight, both were under the tree. Not much surprise, but Christmas wishes fulfilled.

My wife Liz had put warm pajamas on her list, and was very happy to receive a pair. But much better was the photograph of a Wisconsin barn from our children and their partners, framed in barn wood, bought in Indiana and transported to Minneapolis. It was wrapped in the biggest package under the tree, which occasioned much comment and anticipation. Even before it was opened, the gift was already a hit. Since Liz loves pictures of barns, that present was pretty near perfect.

There might be something that you haven’t put on your list, but for which you have your fingers crossed. Maybe it costs more than you could ask anybody to spend. Or it would be best as a surprise. Mae’s grandmother Janet gave her a cast iron pot, too expensive to put on a list or maybe even to hope for, but perfect for a young household where cooking is important.

Perhaps perfection lies in the effort of the giver. My nieces Jane and Helen and my sister-in-law Pat pickled peppers and made flavored mustards. Long after Christmas, even into warm summer days, I will taste their love and generosity.

Practical gifts can be perfect, too. Marti, my brother-in-law’s mother, gave me LED light bulbs, still expensive but the wave of the future. They’ll last for years and perhaps shift my bulb-buying habits.

One of the first gifts opened was a book on making pies for Jane, a talented and enthusiastic baker. Every time I looked at her, she was reading another recipe, lost in an imagined world of sweet smells and beautiful desserts. She didn’t ask for it, nor need it. When we taste one of those pies some time in the future, we’ll all remember that gift, how it united two people in the shared joy of Christmas giving.

These thoughtful gifts, and many others, brought us all together in appreciation of our good fortune and of each other. Perfection does not require expense or size. The best gift might be anonymous. Dropping coins into the Salvation Army bucket or writing a check to another charity which supports the poor is especially important this season, when more Americans are in great need than at any time since the Depression. Charitable givers just have to imagine the joy of those who might be able to buy a warm coat for a child or put a festive meal on the table.

Unfortunately, a recent poll showed that Americans plan to give less to charity this holiday season, due to the economy. Perhaps that attitude is reflected in the recent Congressional decision not to extend unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed. Christmas giving can be selfish, too.

Marti gave me a tiny book of Chinese wisdom. More than two thousand years ago, before Christmas and Christ, Lao Tse wrote about the perfect gift: “Kindness in giving creates love.”

Steve Hochstadt
Minneapolis, MN
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, December 31, 2013

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

What Kind of Post Office?

The unthinkable has happened: the Canadian government has announced that home delivery of mail will soon cease. For hundreds of years mail has been delivered to individual addresses. Over 150 years ago, governments in Europe created the modern postal service. Senders of mail paid a small fee, mail was carried by government workers to its destination and delivered in person to the exact address. The imperative to deliver the mail encouraged the building of railroads, the expansion of air travel, the penetration of roads to every house.

In my lifetime, the cost of sending a letter has spiraled upwards. From the 1880s to 1958, the cost of sending a one-ounce letter rose one time, from 2 cents to 3 cents. Then it rose a penny every five years until 1968, then by 2 cents every three years. After 1975, rates were raised about every other year, then almost every year since 2006, to 46 cents at present. That may sound like an outrageous rise in cost, but most of that was caused by the general inflation of prices. Not all, though – postal service costs have consistently risen faster than inflation during Republican and Democratic administrations.

Despite this rise in cost, postal service in the US is a bargain. Mailing a normal letter in Canada costs about 59 cents. The German postal service, by our standards incredibly efficient, charges 79 cents for a letter; in France the rates are very similar, and in England a letter costs nearly a dollar.

From personal observation, as a temporary postal worker myself and frequent sender and receiver of packages, the Post Office’s parcel post service was incompetent. I watched employees treat packages like footballs in the 1960s, and since then have received far too many destroyed packages. The inevitable result of poor practices and inadequate supervision was the expansion of UPS and FedEx as a more reliable choice for individual senders of packages.

Conservatives often claim that privatization of public services should be our ideal. But UPS and FedEx are not ready to take over mail service. There are about 5 times as many post offices as UPS and FedEx locations in the US. The infrastructure of daily delivery of small pieces of mail for under one dollar only exists in the Post Office.

The age of the letter is over. Telephones replaced letters long ago as the primary means of keeping in touch with family and friends. Email has made regular mail into snail mail. Enterprises of all kinds are trying to get customers to stop mailing letters and do business electronically.

But there are good reasons not to abandon the mail. Electronic communication allows electronic snooping. We have learned only recently how much of our electronic lives the government and private companies have been spying on. It would be much harder for the NSA to read our mail, or even to gather the “metadata” about whom we correspond with. Amazon doesn’t know what you buy when you send checks by mail. Mail, handled out in the open, turns out to be more private.

What kind of postal service do we want? These days that seems like a radical question. We are constantly told that we must reduce every kind of public spending. The politicians who insist that the only thing we ought to think about is the deficit never ask us what kind of services we want.

Do we want Saturday delivery? How much would we save if we let that go? Do we want a more reliable parcel post service? Should mass mailers get such a large discount? Do we want to go the way of Canada or are we willing to pay what Germans pay?

I think the budget screamers are afraid of the answers. Thinking about postal service shows that we have been trying to answer questions about public services backwards. Instead of asking what we want, we look first to the bottom line. The Canadian government’s decision to end mail delivery in the near future should be a warning to us. We need a better national conversation about what public services we need and want. Cost is one of the issues, but not the only one. We are a rich country and should be able to afford excellent services. A reliable national postal system should be one of them.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, December 17, 2013

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

How History Has Changed

A while ago I ran across a 43-year old issue of the “American Historical Review” (AHR), the most important scholarly journal for historians in the US. Dated October, 1970, this compilation of the best, and most famous, American historians offers a revealing glimpse at the structure of the history profession, and more generally at the whole American academy.

The title page lists some of the most prestigious historians of the time, who served as the Editor and on the Board of Editors. They were all white men, 10 of them. A few women are also listed on the title page, all assistants in the editorial process.

The AHR’s purpose is to publish the best research articles and review the best books about any historical subject. Six articles were published in that issue, all written by men. 117 books were reviewed: among the authors were 119 men and 11 women, about half of whom were co-authors with their husbands. Each issue of the AHR also carried advertisements by publishers for their latest books. I examined about one-quarter of them closely: books by 80 male authors and 6 female authors were displayed.

In 1970 women rarely appeared as historians. They showed up even more rarely as subjects for historians: of the 117 books reviewed, only one had a woman’s name in the title, and none of the titles included the words “women”, “gender”, or “family”. Men’s names appeared in about one-third of the titles. Other significant historical subjects were also absent: although there were many books about war, no books about slavery or Native Americans were reviewed and only one book concerned race, a volume about South Africa. The only book about an African American was an early biography of Martin Luther King, Jr., who had been murdered two years before.

This 400-page volume is not just a snapshot of the American historical profession near the end of the civil rights era, but also a study of what history was. History as written about, taught in universities and schools, and understood by the public was the study of great men, writings about war and politics and diplomacy, analyses of male thinkers and doers by other men. Except for books about other parts of the world, history was white.

Since 1970, much has changed. The unquestioned dominance of white men in America is long gone, in our national life as a whole and in the history profession in particular. After over 100 years of male Presidents of the American Historical Association, the primary organization for historians which publishes the AHR, the first woman was elected in 1987. Since 1996, half of the Presidents have been female. The most recent issue of the AHR was produced by a very different group of historians: the Editor is male, but the Board of Editors has 7 men and 6 women. Three of 5 articles were written by women, one about family in colonial America. Most books being reviewed are written by men, but the ratio is 2:1 instead of 10:1. Advertisements for books show a similar ratio.

Those data show that complete equality between men and women in the history profession is approaching, but has not been achieved. The proportion of women among those who earned a PhD in history has increased gradually and steadily from about 25% in the late 1970s to 45% in 2010. Once they went on the job market, however, women appear to have had equal success with men. About half of each gender had a job lined up when they received their degree. Women were as likely as men to land jobs at 4-year institutions. Promotions from assistant to associate to full professor, and the job security of tenure, were equally likely for men and women.

Historians are more diverse than ever before. The dominance of the sons of well-established families of northern and western European background has given way to greater ethnic variety: many more historians are the first in their families to have attended college, come from families who immigrated to the US from all over the world, are openly homosexual. The proportion of history PhD’s earned by minorities has risen from under 10% in the 1980s to 19% in 2010.

Just as historians are different, so is history itself. There are still many books about politics, war, and great men, but also many about great women or which analyze gender, both female and male. Native Americans and African Americans, and the racial issues behind their unequal treatment by white America, are no longer uncommon subjects.

These remarkable shifts in my profession are one example of the larger processes which have transformed American society over the past few decades. The data point to further movement in the future toward even more equality, in gender, in race and ethnicity, in sexual orientation. Perhaps paradoxically, the more equality within the history profession, the more our history of inequality will be discussed and written about. Both changes make some old white men uncomfortable. But they’ll have to learn to live with them.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, December 10, 2013