A Depressing Day, With Some Hope

The election is over and, in large measure, the populace once more voted to continue voting itself funds taken from “other” people. Oh, sure, in some areas like Florida, the flood tide was temporarily stemmed with Rubio-type sandbags. But the waters will keep rising; the sandbags will not hold.

As Tocqueville told us long ago, “A democratic government is the only one in which those who vote for a tax can escape the obligation to pay it.” I would amend that to read “those who vote for a tax think they can escape the obligation to pay it.”

And then this, a quotation so well known that we now here it as we hear a Christmas carol; we nod our head to the music, but we no longer attend to the meaning of the words:

A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the majority discovers it can vote itself largess out of the public treasury. After that, the majority always votes for the candidate promising the most benefits with the result the democracy collapses because of the loose fiscal policy ensuing, always to be followed by a dictatorship, then a monarchy.

This quotation is a prediction and, for all you Popper fans out there, a falsifiable one. Which is not to say a false one. If there is anything problematic with Tocqueville’s forecast, it is that he didn’t say when, how long? Two hundred years, three, more?

For we shall hear of budget deficits and rumors of budget deficits, but the end is not yet come. We still have some life left, but I think not much; perhaps another century, at most two. Ah, too far away to care about.

Californians must have been humming Tocqueville’s tune as they made their way to the polls. They happily pulled the lever for Jerry Brown, a man well known to the indigenous populants, and a man who promised to stop all the “cuts” that his predecessor and his challenger touted. By which he meant, he would discover new and improved rhetoric to describe how he will provide largess out of the public treasury.

Californians really do believe that the spending to which they have been accustomed over the past thirty years can continue indefinitely. They had the choice to tighten fiscal policy, but they rejected the idea as anathema. In a way, the blind faith Californians have is touching. The really do feel that the money is out there somewhere, just waiting to be plucked from the air.

New Yorkers are not much different. Even Charlie Rangel—a man who served honorably in Korea, once a gentleman, now a white-collar thief—was returned to office, held high on the shoulders of the voters of his district. Those voters wanted more of what Rangel had been giving them: other people’s money.

What made this all worse, was that yesterday in class I was describing an experiment ESPN Magazine conducted to test the ridiculous Power Balance bracelet. This is a trinket into which is embedded one of those little holographic stickers of the type you have on your credit card. The manufacturers claim that this sticker is “tuned” to “human frequencies.”

“What is it supposed to do?” one student asked. I said it was meant to make the wearer stronger, more virile. Can you guess what happened next? If not, glance again at the first part of the title of this post. The student asked, “What’s that mean?”

“What’s what mean?” I responded.

“I don’t know that word.”

Virile? You don’t know what virile means? Are you kidding me?” I stood speechless for a moment. I spelled the word on the white board. “How many of you don’t know this word? Come on, don’t be shy.” A good thirty voters raised their hands, many voices saying “Never heard of it. What’s it mean? Etc. Etc.”

Jules Verne BeardAll I could get out was, “You guys don’t read enough.” What made it worse was that this episode came after I gave my example of the deleterious effects of constantly wearing a thinking suppression device (I did an experiment on the F train, noting what proportion of men, and what of women, wore them; so-called test of difference of proportions). Most of the students bristled under my nomenclature. Don’t pick on my music!

Yet there is still some hope! Beards might be back. The fearless New York Post is reporting beards are busting out all over New York City. What we need in this country right now is more men that look like Jules Verne, and fewer like Harry Reid. At least we can go down looking like men.


  1. Speed

    Not everyone uses their “thinking suppression device” for music.

  2. JH

    It seems to me that Californians don’t like Whitman’s record on spending. I wondered if America is not a democracy but a plutocracy.

  3. Briggs


    Most do.


    I repeated the “virile” experiment for this morning’s Algebra Sans Algebra course. Nobody knew.

  4. Adam H

    Sometimes I get the feeling that your students mess with you. Perhaps they find it amusing to keep you on your toes. I just can’t believe that 30 of your students have never seen ‘virile’ written down. I mean, I’m SURE that word is in Twilight, if not Harry Potter.

  5. Briggs

    Adam H,

    No sir. They are sincere in their ignorance of that word.

  6. You could show them a recent pix of Jerry Brown and tell them “this is what it ain’t”. And you talk about depression. I’m a Californian. The best thing I’ve got going is a remote expectation the next “big one” might make us an island, with a potential gain in the valuation of our newly created ocean front property that implies.
    Maybe I could move to Jesusland. No offense intended but I’m tired of living in the United States of Canada.

  7. Bernie

    I am from Massachusetts and I am depressed. So much money spent on college tuition, so little commonsense.

  8. clazy8

    “Thinking suppression device” — I must admit, it often serves that function for me, otherwise the constant noise and crowding in this town, your town, might drive me mad. Other times it actually facilitates thinking, as when the constant jabbering of the people in sales assaults my mind like some kind of cognitive EMF device: sound-isolating earphones and William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops are my Faraday cage.

  9. Briggs


    Just tested with a third class. Not one knew “virile”, nor could even guess its context.

  10. clazy8

    We must consider the possibility that these poor kids have been protected from the existence of virility by their politically correct teachers, hence their ignorance of the term.

  11. John A

    Not knowing “virile”, at least from having encountered it in context. Sad. But I realise that I have not seen it in use for quite a while, at least in fiction novels.

    California. Claire has some graphic representations of a few of the votes which demonstrate why we have (well, had, at the start) a Senate as well as a House and an Electoral College – city dwellers and rural (and today suburban) folk do not see things the same ways, and city outpopulates rural –

  12. Re neutered students and voters: not stupid, just ignorant. Mushroomized. The capacity for intelligence is there, just not the actualization of it.

    Another hundred years? Not at this rate. Two, maybe three.

  13. SteveBrooklineMA

    So are you going to tell us what “verile” means or not?

  14. Bernie

    “Verile”? I have not a clue. But “virile” is essentially the opposite of “effeminate”.

    I was going to make a crack about the Massachusetts’ election results, but decided not to.

  15. John A. Thanks for the link.
    SteveBrooklineMA. Be careful. If he explains the word you might not be able to handle it.

  16. Briggs

    Bernie, 49er,

    I have another exam coming soon. For an “extra” section, I was thinking of including a vocabulary list; words which are non-trivial but which we can all agree are necessary for a college-educated person to know.

    I welcome suggestions, either by email or in comments.

  17. responsible, conscientious and punctual would be brilliant words and concepts to comprehend.

  18. “quotidian”

    Nobody will get it, even though it’s a commonplace word. But if they don’t know “virile” then you better start with easy words, like “shoe” or “cat”.

  19. AJK

    Take 10 words from the GRE vocabulary section:

    1) loquacious

    2) assuage

    3) corporal

    4) erudite

    5) feign

    6) precipice

    7) sanguine

    8) insular

    9) venerate

    10) banal

  20. Briggs

    Uncle Mike,

    I’m scared to.

  21. Luis

    And you were talking to them about “deleterious” effects?

  22. Katie

    Will vocab be for extra credit? If you didn’t cover it in class, the material doesn’t exist.

  23. Doug M

    If they don’t know virile then I guess they don’t know fecund either. I would have put virile at 8th grade vocabulay.

    Does the power braclet work better than the ‘tornado’ necklace that was so popular around MLB this offseason?


  24. Bernie

    Assuming that the words should be connected in some way to a probabilistic, quantitative and logical way at looking at things – here are my 10 suggestions, though I assume that some are actually covered in your lectures


    It also may be interesting to look at the most frequently used words in the GREs, GMATs, LSATs, etc.

  25. Bernie

    Oops, make that 11 suggestions.

  26. Briggs


    Not bad; but I think I want to use more “general purpose” words. I don’t want anybody to look at my results and say, “Well, you have to know probability to know those.”


    Nice list. I may just use this directly. I can’t see any words on there that looks rare.

  27. Bernie

    OK, though it will be interesting to see how you incorporate the list in the exam.


  28. j ferguson

    Rather than burdening your students with the angst of recognizing the words we would think are essential to a thoughtful citizen, why not ask them to write a list of ten words which they think critical? You might forbid the appearance of “totally” on their lists.

  29. SteveBrooklineMA

    Yipe spelled it wrong! That’s what I get for being a smart ass.

  30. Bruce Foutch

    Please consider:


  31. Matt, do your students read your blog? Do they know about it?

    Hello Students of Dr. Briggs. Are you there?

    If so, I highly recommend that you buy the book.

  32. Bernie

    Vocab redux:
    Used tonight at Climate Audit to describe Jones et al’s study of UHI in China: legerdemain

    This is a word that all who read studies using statistics need to know!

  33. Rob

    But.. But.. I LIVE in California and, in his ads, Jerry said we HAVE to live within our means!

  34. Rob. You misunderstood moonbeam. He said “mains”. Live within our mains.

    He was talking about the local storm drains. He wants us to camp out there. It’s easier for the bus to find us when our time arrives.

  35. Briggs

    Uncle Mike,



    Through my university account, I received this email last night (names have been changed):

    virile |ˈvirəl| adjective (of a man)
    having strength, energy, and a strong sex drive. See note at male: having or characterized by strength and energy : a strong, virile performance of the Mass.

    Sorry, I figured that I would let you know I looked it up. Have a good night, see you friday for class.

    Sally Jones
    MWF 11-11:50
    STA 101


    I had a momentary panic over “armscye”, but it passed quickly.

  36. John

    “Yet there is still some hope! Beards might be back.”

    Good news indeed! as it paves the way for a beard tax, introduced in England in the 16th Century and Russia in the 18th.

    Based on length of growth and social status, it is ideal for those voting for more spending of others’ money.

    Next a window tax.

  37. Bruce Foutch


    You’re being a good sport about all this and I thank you for taking the time to respond to my list. Your good humored response provides us proof that all is, in fact, not lost with our youth as Mr. Briggs implies.

    Good luck in Mr. Briggs class and in all your remaining classes as well. Just knowing that there are students out there with a spirit like yours, I can take Mr. Briggs comments a little less seriously and trust that the future will be in good hands.

  38. Bruce Foutch

    Mr. Briggs,

    I see it was you and not Sally who commented on my list, but that does not change my response to Sally. You should give her some extra credit points, although I suspect she is one of the students in your class who doesn’t need them.

    I will try harder next time to best ‘armscye’… 😉

  39. Bernie

    Bruce –
    Thanks for adding a brand new though minimally useful word to my vocabulary. I have a pocket Collins Dictionary that I received nearly 50 years ago. I keep it to hand constantly – largely to check my spelling which has been destroyed by the American distortions of the Queen’s English. Since “armscye” is not in that dictionary, I feel you must withdraw that word from your list unless you can find it in an article from a mass circulation newspaper from the last 10 years – articles on Scrabble and Crossword competitions, knitting and dress-making do not count.
    Of course, one might argue that this word could gain greater usage if it became a euphemism for another kind of hole.

  40. Bernie

    I do not understand the example from the anonymous Sally: “a strong, virile performance of the Mass”
    Surely something is missing? “in B Minor” , perhaps? Otherwise, one would need to contact the local DA and Church authorities.

  41. Bruce Foutch


    Perhaps Sally will be euphemistically using ‘armscye’ as you describe on ratemyprofessors.com after taking Briggs’ course… 😉

  42. Earle Williams


    Putting it in a context your students are sure to understand, you could explain to them that Smiling Bob is virile.

    Re Jerry Brown: This is the same guy who said that the teachers union didn’t need a raise because they were being paid in psychic bucks? The recovery of California’s economy is assured.

  43. Alex Heyworth

    The bizarre aspect of the fiscal situation in California and New York is that, if you described cargo cults to the voters in those states, nearly all of them would agree that they (cargo cults) are crazy. Yet they cannot recognize the same behavior in themselves.

  44. Alex Heyworth

    Matt, you should warn your students that if they continue on their current path of ignorance they will, indeed, end up in The Matrix.

    Try them on floccinaucinihilipilification.

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