Sunday, November 22, 2015

"The Men Who Built America" Series

     The stereotypical leftists cry, "We need to impose strong government regulations on the greedy capitalists, so they won't screw over the working class!" "Government is a meddling tyrant that will destroy the economy if they pass another regulation on capitalists," the stereotypical right-wingers reply. In the midst of these polarizing views, it's difficult to find a balanced piece of information that will help clarify what the role of government should be in business. Capitalism is still part of a fierce debate even after it outlasted communism in the Cold War and Communist China is slowly adopting our ways. So, how can we objectively judge which side is more accurate about communism? I suggest that we all go back to a time in American history when laissez faire capitalism mostly reigned: the period between the Civil War and World War 1 covered by the History Channel's series The Men Who Built America.

     Each episode stars a different industrial titan in the same era. They come from a common background with the exception of J.P Morgan: the poor, working class boy with little parental support. I love how the episodes give us the personal history alongside their stunning accomplishments because you really start to empathize with these capitalists and understand the mindset that got them to where they are. Yet when you get to the next episode and see their competitor's perspective, you see the disturbing character flaws in that same person. In addition, the episodes also show the working class's perspective which gives you an idea of how these capitalists affected American society. Overall, the series does a great job of giving credit where it's due to the capitalists who raised standards of living and made the United States a superpower. At the same time, it is brutally honest about the moral pitfalls that the capitalists fall into and how they hurt the average American.

     After watching this series, I gained a more nuanced perception of capitalism that will hopefully inoculate me from the radical claims of either political party. The industrial titans are truly admirable people. All of them constantly risked their livelihoods to pursue the next big thing even if they came from a rich background. If they don't constantly look out for innovations, they will easily get overtaken by competitors and lose everything they worked for, so the idea that capitalists have easier lives than their employees isn't true. At the same time, the working class do have justifiable grievances against these capitalists. Some of the most moving scenes were the ones where the working class people suffered. One worker in Carnegie's steel mills was burned alive in an explosion, and it was due to Carnegie allowing his co-partner lower standards of safety in order to increase profit margins. As for government, there were some positive effects of its involvement in industry. For example, the trial of John D. Rockefeller did break up the monopolies that formed during laissez faire capitalism and allow new entrepreneurs such as Henry Ford to break into industries that were controlled by cartels. However, don't expect government to properly punish wrongdoers. John D. Rockefeller was charged for bribing politicians and treating his workers unfairly. All of this is true, but he's really a scrape goat because many of the others who had done the same thing were never tried. In addition, he did lose his company Standard Oil, but he ended up richer than before by buying stock in the companies that formed from the breakup of Standard Oil. Still, government's ineffectiveness turned out to be a great thing because many of these retiring capitalists turned their competitive energy to philanthropy which resulted in many institutions that still benefit the public.

     Based on what I have learned, I favor a minarchist government that is primarily focused on keeping companies transparent and enforcing standards of safety. I don't believe that government can create social programs that function as well as the individual philanthropists' efforts. Generally government social programs require taxation which decreases economic activity while philanthropy require consumer spending, especially by rich people, which increases economic activity. That's excluding other variables such as government debt and job creation, but philanthropy for the most part has more net economic benefit than government programs while achieving the same goals. Lastly, I find that the actual risk of government intervention is that it falls prey to crony capitalism. It takes a politician with an unusual amount of integrity such as Theodore Roosevelt to regulate industry heavily without succumbing to bribes. For now, it seems best to maintain the same separation between industry and state that is between state and religion.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Quick thought: Needing Better Literary Classes

How many of us were subjected to high school english classes that did more harm than good to our critical thinking skills and appreciation of literature? My high school experience was reading obscure and depressing novels, listening to lifeless discussions, taking literary trivia quizzes, and writing apathetically for assigned essay prompts. The work I did in those classes were lackluster and I believed that I was a terrible writer and I couldn't create a coherant argument. When I started college and took a literary course called Human Situations at the University of Houston, I felt free for the first time in a literature class. I love our classic readings from the Odessey to the Gospel of John. Multiple professor gave our class lectures, many of whom were compelling and enjoyable to listen to. In my classroom discussions, I find it easy to participate and I have learned to hone my arguments there. For the first time since eighth grade, I have an instructor who would teach me how to write effectively and help me improve. When it was time to work on the essay, I can make an original argument and write passionately about it.

I thought I was the only person who felt stunted by high school english, but the student panelists at today's Human Situation class also said that they had to deal with teachers expecting them to be conformists and were underprepared at college because they lacked the critical thinking skills. High school english classes don't educate students at all in the four hours per week that students spend there. My english teachers used to justify making us students suffer by telling us that college will assume that you can write at their level and they are trying to prepare us to meet those expectations. In reality, my college professors assume that high school has neglected to teach us how to write well and think independently. So far, college has been a lot more effective at teaching those two skills and they only needed an hour per week for the writing labs. 

I think the problem with high school english classes stem from teachers' being unwilling to teach students to think critically before beginning to write. They may have assumed we know how to think already, perfer us to be conformists, or doubt that there's time in the curriculum for that. Whatever the excuse, they failed to teach a skill that is more necessary and valuable than writing or reading. In a democracy, it almost dangerous to have so many students graduate high school who can't think critically. People would also avoid so many mistakes in their personal lives if schools were better at teaching this lesson. For students who will graduate from these high schools and attend higher education, I suggest that you make quality humanities courses a priority when picking out colleges. Even if you are a STEM major, an education with some liberal elements will greatly benefit you. It will mold you into a more insightful, broadminded, interesting individual. Then, education would have an actual meaning. 

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Bread Making for Busy Students

Back in high school when I was completely concerned with body image like most American girls, I read a book called French Women Don't Get Fat by Mireille Guiliano. The advice is really common sense: eat less to lose weight. But, it turns that hard fact for Americans into an aesthetic value practiced by the classy French people. They regularly eat wine, bread, and chocolate without weight gain because they find the satisfaction in quality instead of quantity. One chapter was devoted to bread, and Guiliano complained of the blandness of American store brought bread compared to French bakery breads. Today, bread is demonized by some diet groups as the cause of obesity. Guiliano points out that bread is one of the foods Americans over consume because we can't get satisfaction from it because it's devoid of nutrients and flavor. Here in the United States, I really could not find decently priced, delicious, nutritious, additive-free bread in the grocery stores. So, I resorted to baking it myself as a hobby.

Perks of Bread Baking

  • Fills the room with delicious smells
  • A great break from school work
  • It's much cheaper than low quality store bread
  • You have complete control of the ingredients
  • You can get creative with artisan breads

Misconceptions I Had before

  • Yeast is tricky
  • The only thing I really needed to learn was use lukewarm water to get get the yeast started and let it grow in at least 70 degrees Farenheit which is very easy to do in Houston. It doesn't need any other special conditions.

  • You need a bread maker
  • Doing it without a bread maker isn't much more complicated thanks to no-knead techniques.

  • You need to grease the pan
  • This deterred somewhat because baking bread requires the oven to be up to 450-500 degrees Fahrenheit which means I would need to use highly refined oils. However, I found many people coating the dough in flour to prevent it from sticking to the pan and that has worked well for me. 
  • It's time consuming
  • Aside from the 30 minute prep time, the rest of the time spent to make bread is on letting the bread rise and baking. Since this is passive time, I managed to fit bread baking in-between homework assignments and other household chores fairly easily.

Easiest Recipes I've Found

Both recipes are no-knead techniques that require 12-24 hour fermentation time. For both of them, I've used 100% whole wheat flour which may have resulted in breads that are less fluffier than the white bread pictures of the original posters.

Cold Fermented Bread

      This recipe involves cold fermentation which means you'll store it in the refrigerator for hours before you start baking. You can store this dough in the fridge for up to three weeks, and you'll get a stronger flavor the longer you store it. It's very good for when you want fresh baked rolls in the morning. Just take out small chunks, flatten them, and bake for 15-20 minutes in a toaster oven. The bread is definitely an acquired taste for those of us who are used to milder tasting breads. I would say the taste closely resembles rye bread.

Miso Sourdough Bread

     This is a sourdough bread that uses miso instead of a sourdough starter, so you don't need to spend weeks caring for a puddle of yeast for this recipe. It has a slightly shorter prep time than the other bread and requires no refrigerator time. The bread came out very salty, probably because of the extra sodium in the miso. So, I'll cut out the added salt next time. Otherwise, it definitely does tastes very close to sourdough, though I am not sure if it has all of the health benefits asscociated with "authentic sourdough". For that, you would want to make sure your miso is unpasteurized.

From my bread baking adventure, I learned to appreciate and be connected with the foods I eat. I developed a minimalist attitude both by savoring each serving of bread I eat and by finding new ways to get better bread for less effort. American culture seems to lack this healthy relationship with food, and a great remedy for this would be for all of us to start making our own food again.