Something Wrong with the Math

September 25, 2012

I have a good friend, an economist by training, and the former head of a hedge fund, who is always giving me grief about my liberal economic views.

I like this guy. We usually get together a couple of times when our vacations in Maine coincide and we sit down over seafood dinners and laugh our heads off about things.

By unspoken agreement, we don’t talk about politics and economics and stuff like that because our conversations could easily turn into food fights. I’d lose  because I eat more than he does and I’d run out of ammo sooner.

On Facebook, however, Bob is sometimes driven to near apoplexy by my opinions. (Sometimes that’s because, in my enthusiasm, I sometimes forward postings that are not factually accurate. It drives me crazy when I do that, and I feel really stupid afterward.)

That said I have to say that the charts and graphs and figures that Bob posts are very likely correct; He’s good at math, apparently; my own math skills double when I’m barefoot.

My problem is that I can’t help but think that somehow we’ve taken math and conjured it into a tool of oppression.

Let me see if I can explain.

The way we’ve been figuring our economic structure for the past several hundreds of years, it always ends up with a sliver of the population having jars full of cookies, while the larger portion, having created the avenue for those cookies to get in the jars, wind up with crumbs. Or less.

Recently we’ve heard a lot of noise about those on unemployment, Social Security, Medicare, and other programs being a burden to the society and to all those decent, hard-working people who comprise it. But aren’t most of the people who are at least partially supported by those programs also part of that class of decent, hard-working people who paid for those programs?

Oh, sure: There are welfare cheats, and the unemployed who try to extend their Unemployment Compensation benefits as long as possible before really looking for a job. Just as there are people who vote without being eligible (four in Pennsylvania, where I live, in the recorded history of the Commonwealth, I believe.)

First we have to ask 0urselves if the numbers of people who game the system are of sufficient number to be more than a nuisance. I can’t think that anyone would seriously shut down or cripple those programs because there are cheats. The real answer is to tighten rules and enforcement to stem the seepage.

It doesn’t help that we have a party in the U.S. who, in the same breath, will complain about high unemployment and suggest that those on UC and Welfare “should just get a job.”

Right. There seems to a failure at play, either of thought or heart. Incidentally, minimum wage is currently $7.25 per hour. Do the math. Don’t forget to take out taxes. Just sayin’.

And why don’t we hear more about the people at the other end of the spectrum, whose own wealth is, if not caused, then augmented because they know how to game the system. Nobody argues that being able to hide one’s money from the taxman in the Cayman Islands is illegal … it’s not. But is it right? That’s a question the answer to which is more tenuous.

It seems to me that the folks who floated to the top pay loud lip-service to the work ethic while looking down their collective nose at those of us who actually have to do it.

What the hell is going on here? We are well on our way to being a feudal nation of serfs and royals; we are not the wealthiest nation in the world –not even close. Our infant mortality rate is shameful, as are our scores in literacy, math and science. How else to explain the fact that a high percentage of people in the United States believe in the Biblical theory of creation and deny the scientific explanations discovered first put together  Charles Darwin?

I can tell you, from nearly 30 years of covering school districts, that their board memberships included significant number of well-meaning and frustrated board members who nevertheless were less-well educated than the students whose tutelage was their ultimate responsibility.

No, paragraph above is not off-track. Funding for public schools has dwindled steadily, and a lot of subjects are either not touched upon or merely skimmed. It all comes down to money. Public schools in wealthy areas and tony private schools are doing a much better job. The relatively new science of ecology applies to just about everything: Just as causing the extinction of one species can cause devastation to an entire ecosystem, so can pinching off the blood supply to something as important as the care and feeding of a large portion of a culture’s inhabitants.

So, my friend can fume all he wants. I still believe we’ve somehow been putting square pegs in round holes, and too many of us have been trying to convince the rest of us that it’s a good fit.

A math whose vectors result in most of the wealth clogging the heights while those below, including workers with so-called “good jobs,” struggle to choose between owning a home or eating well, or between having healthcare or getting more than a threadbare basic education for their children, or choosing between a second or third job and having somebody home when those kids come home from school -– is simply insufficient.




This is not a book that will teach you how to garden, or fish, for that matter.

If you are worried about thrips and nematodes or where best to plant your okra, or how to hook a prize bass, you won’t find a lot of help in these pages.

On the other hand, if you want to discover Moon Goose crying on the water at midnight, and that it is perfectly all right to let your imagination come along on a year in one ordinary man’s garden on a hill above a creek full of music and wonder, well, this might be just the book for you.

I would like to invite you over for a visit. Put on some old clothes and a hat to keep the sun out of your eyes.

A note of clarification. This book is loosely based on newspaper columns, stories, and journal entries from a number of years. They are strung together chronologically by month and date, but not by year. So, if in one day I speak of drought and in the next of a flood, it doesn’t mean I’ve lost my mind. I lost my mind long ago when a nightmare crawled out of a dragonfly’s head, but that’s another story.

I wanted to start my tale with winter, because that season is the most remarkable to me, given that I was raised in the South, where winter is a dank, miserable, half-hearted thing with temps in the 30s for the most part, and a lot of rain. I feel colder in Southern winters than I do in the winters of Pennsylvania. Here it gets cold enough for the water to freeze out of the air.

There is also the sense of starting from a dead stop. Winter seems dead for some, though it really is anything but. It’s a huge coiled spring of life just waiting to crack through the ice and take off, and the marsh stoneflies come out, and our snowdrops, winter aconite and lesser celandine are suddenly up and blooming.

My garden lies on a ridge above Marsh Creek, just to the south of the town of Gettysburg. The creek snakes through some of the country’s most historic ground, then makes its way south and east to join with other creeks and trickles to become the Monocacy and then the Potomac.

I don’t write much about the battle that took place here all those years ago, though it permeates everything. Maybe that’s why.

It is not that I don’t think about the battle. I discovered a few years ago that I had cousins who charged across that heartbreaking ground with Pickett. When I drive through the park where that fight happened, I feel differently than I did before I knew about the role of the Burger boys from Fincastle, Va.

They were grandsons of Heinrich Burger, who was a Hessian soldier whose unit was rented by his prince to King George. When the war was over, Heinrich stayed behind. He lived for a time somewhere a few miles to the west of the new town of Harrisburg, and then moved with the family he would eventually marry into down the great valley to Botetourt County in Virginia, where he farmed and began peppering the landscape with progeny.

But I still don’t write much about the battle, even though Union troops camped right here where I live. One neighbor who owns a metal detector comes up with the occasional buckle or Minié ball.

The garden is another thing. The time I spend when I’m not writing for a living I like to spend in the garden. The garden is where I keep in touch with the basic rhythm, with the beat that was here before us and will surely outlast us.

My neighbors sometimes see me standing in the garden, leaning on a hoe and staring at nothing. It’s not what they think. Well, not usually. I’m writing, or thinking about a thing that will be written. Trust me, it’s harder than it looks.

My home is a little frame house on a high bank perhaps 20 feet above the creek. The house is one of a group of weekend get-away houses built in the 1920s and 1930s by assorted businessmen, doctors and attorneys as a place to get them and their families away from the swelter of town in the days before air-conditioning. I like to say that it was Gettysburg’s Riviera.

At one time the neighborhood, called Marsh Creek Heights, was full of kids, who swam and fished in the creek, and played cutthroat baseball in the field across the creek. This was no simple sand lot, but a prepared field with grandstand and bleachers. Neighbor Dan said you used to be able to stand a dime up on edge between the blades of grass, the field was that smooth.

The field has gone to weed, and the amenities are simply gone. The owner mows it once a year, probably because of township regulations. As I write this, the only man-made things in the field are a picnic table, a bright pink ice-chest, and a red pickup truck stuck in the mud roughly in the position of shortstop.

My house sits upstream from an ancient dam, built to power a mill that is also long since gone. The creek here is maybe 100 feet wide, and usually tranquil. The dam is of the variety called “low-head,” meaning that it is less than six-feet high. The state, for a number of reasons, is slowly working its way around to removing all the low-head dams in the state. There has been a dam here since as early as 1817, depending on who you ask. The dam, with some tweaks over the years, remains sound, but it really is an unnatural barrier. Even so, I hope I am gone before they get around to this one.

From my deck I can watch the carp patrol when the sun is still in the east. Later in the day, the creek throws back only sky, and there’s no telling what is going on down there. I can’t stay away. It calls to me with its fogs and fumes, it’s shimmering stillness, roiling floods, and with its giant carp lurking, bronze blimps just under the surface, or churning with crazy passion during the mating season.

The creek throws up a smorgasbord of sounds. The whine of the four-lane highway more than a mile away rolls upstream. On still nights you can year the rasp of the little green heron, and in the heat of the day the croak of the great blue, the caws of crows, cries of osprey and red-tail hawks, and the splash of carp throwing themselves out of the water during their rut.

We begin, then, in winter, when everything is cold, and seems dead. But we know better…


T.W. Burger,

On Marsh Creek,

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania,

Spring, 2012