Friday, December 19, 2014

Steinbeck's "The Moon Is Down"

Somehow, I hadn't heard about this book until recently. An excellent, easy read; provocative on war as empire; rough on idealists, especially with respect to war; powerful on freedom vs. statism-- from both a community and individual perspective; strongly satirical and well-crafted in style.

Favorite quotes: 


-"Doctor Winter was a man so simple that only a profound man would know him as profound...Joseph was elderly and lean and serious, and his life was so complicated that only a profound man would know him to be simple." (14-15)

-"Tonder was a dark romantic with a vision as wide as his experience." (46)

-"These were the men of the staff, each one playing war...Major Hunter thought of war as an arithmetical job to be done so he could get back to his fireplace. Captain Loft as the proper career of a properly brought-up young man; and Lieutenants Prackle and Tonder as a dreamlike thing in which nothing was very real. And their war so far had been play-- fine weapons and fine planning against unarmed, planless enemies...Only Colonel Lanser knew what war really is in the long run." (46-47)

-"On nights like this, the feathered steel spindles came whistling down and roared to splinters." (148)

-“They think that just because they have only one leader and one head, we are all like that. They know that ten heads lopped off will destroy them, but we are a free people; we have as many heads as we have people, and in a time of need leaders pop up among us like mushrooms.” (175)

-“The people don't like to be conquered, sir, and so they will not be. Free men cannot start a war, but once it is started, they can fight on in defeat. Herd men, followers of a leader, cannot do that, and so it is always the herd men who win battles and the free men who win wars.”  (185-186)

-And of course, the idea that “flies conquer the flypaper.” 

Monday, December 15, 2014

is it easier to have had something and lose it?

With respect to X (something of significant/profound value), is it more challenging to: 

a.) not have had X; to know something of X and its value-- but have no hope to have X

b.) not have had X; to know something of X and its value-- and have hope for X but be routinely disappointed about X
c.) have had X and to have lost it
d.) have had X strongly and now to have a (far) weaker version of it

Does it depend on what X is--e.g., power, freedom, money, sex, quality of life, etc.? 

Discuss.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Truth vs. Logic

Peter Leithart (in Touchstone):

"Truthful" implies "logical", since a fully truthful person will not contradict at noon what he said over breakfast. Still, truth and logic are not the same.

Truthful men and women don't contradict themselves, but they don't simply repeat themselves either. To speak truthfully is not simply to speak timeless p's and q's. A truthful person's speech fits the circumstances. To be truthful is to be timely.

Truthfulness is judged differently than logic.  A statement is logical if it meets criterion of intellectual consistency, but the test of truth is pragmatic.  A truthful person keeps commitments.

God is "Truth", not "Logic". He speaks a word in season, and the ultimate proof of his truthfulness is his performance of his promises. The ultimate proof of divine Truth is the Cross.

Walden Two

I don't remember why I picked up B.F. Skinner's novel from the library. (Something prompted me, but I've gotten rid of it.) I started to read it last week and almost stopped after a few chapters. Then, I decided to keep going, but at a quicker pace. (I didn't skim it, but I didn't study it thoroughly either. Hopefully, I have a strong sense of what Skinner was trying to convey. If not, let me know!)

Walden Two (WT) is an effort to describe a utopia-- a form of communal living based on an extension of Thoreau's individualistic Walden. Skinner's Utopia emphasizes science, progress and efficiency. And it relies on an interesting combination of assumptions about the power of social influences and the general benevolence of internal motivations. (It then applies those assumptions to governance and everyday life in WT.)

Skinner believed in the power of social norms and rules-- and saw them as useful to tweak flaws in human character toward conformity with universal standards. Near the beginning, Frazier (the leader / tour guide) explains the use of electric fences initially-- but eventually, merely, string-- to constrain sheep from wandering. The inference from the analogy is that people (are sheep who) can be influenced by external rules and norms, but require less and less of that as they are conditioned. Of course, in practice and even in theory, this would be a tough cycle to establish: How do benevolent, knowledgeable elites emerge who know how to construct these rules ably and with pure motives?

More broadly, WT is Genesis 2 without Genesis 3-- Eden without the Fall (at least, yet). It's Acts 1-4 without Acts 5-6-- the beauty of the early church without its first warts. It's Revelation 21-22 with at most a deistic God-- Heaven as city and Eden without the (overt/relevant) presence of God.

WT is also reminiscent of Acts 2 and 4 in that it advocates a voluntary, small-scale "socialism". Not socialism of the usual earthly/worldly sort-- coercive/governmental and large-scale, with the attendant ethical and practical problems (riddled with crony capitalism, motive problems and profound information limits). Instead, Skinner portrays socialism of a beautiful and other-worldly sort-- say, in a Sunday School class that has vibrant community and ministers to its own.

One key difference: the socialism of WT is largely insular, whereas the socialism of a Sunday School class should be communal in a far larger sense. I did not catch whether Skinner would casually conflate the two. One troubling sign is that he dismisses the (small-scale) family structure from a primary (although not universal) role-- in favor of a fully-communal structure to raise children (as the caricatures of "It takes a village").

I was struck that his governance structure was quite similar to the New Testament church as well. His leadership structure is elders and deacons. It relies on a "benevolent dictator"-- with the main character Frazier in the god-like role. (Politically, Skinner is appropriately rough on democracy!)

But it's not clear how far Frazier's benevolence extends-- and where Skinner intends to leave us with all of this. One of those on the "tour" is cynical about Frazier's motives-- and Frazier certainly comes off as a bit creepy in terms of the "control" he exerts. (Or maybe we've just been conditioned to be unnecessarily cynical?) Another clue is that elders/Planners have a ten-year term limit which was not yet become binding. Two concerns here: 1.) Would Frazier (and the others) step down at the appointed time or find/seek loopholes? 2.) Why a term limit at all? Its existence points to implied concerns about what power could do to someone.

Skinner vaguely praises Christianity and sees favorable parallels. I didn't catch whether he was (quite) hostile to "organized religion"; he seems to see it as at least potentially innocuous or even beneficial. Frazier argues that Christianity has rarely been tried/seen (p. 281). But this overlooks/ignores its innumerable (but more subtle) successes to focus on its failures. Ironically, by the same metric, one would reject utopias out-of-hand far more easily-- surely, not what Frazier means (perhaps Skinner intends this ironically).

Frazier praises progress throughout-- and details gains in progress and efficiency. Of course, one of the funny things about progress is that one admits not having done it as well in the past. Utopia here is, very much, a work in progress. One wonders whether the likelihood of past flaws in other areas-- say, governance-- would undermine the entire project. To note, if Frazier and the elders are not perfect in their governance from the outset, does the entire project fall apart because of their well-intentioned mistakes?

As one would hope from a portrayal of a utopia, Skinner's book is helpful in that it calls us to dream but also to be realistic, to be idealistic but not be a dupe, to compare what we have to what we might have instead.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

"If the biggest sinner you know isn't you, then you don't know yourself very well."

"If the biggest sinner you know isn't you, then you don't know yourself very well."

-- John Larroux (h/t: Kyle)

Thursday, November 6, 2014

review of "The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry"

I've read snippets of Wendell Berry here and there. But I haven't really read his work enough to say anything useful. Now, I've read a good chunk *about* him-- through a volume edited by Mark Mitchell and Nathan Schlueter. And I now feel modestly equipped to engage Berry-- at least indirectly-- through the eyes of others who care about him and respect his approach. (For the record, I would not feel comfortable if it was critics writing about him!) 

In addition to being a strong thinker, Berry is an effective and well-respected writer-- and in a number of mediums: poetry (see: Luke Schlueter's ch. 15), non-fiction, essay, short story, and novel. I'm still not sure how much I'll read him, but I'm more impressed after reading the Mitchell/Schlueter volume and now more likely to pick up one of Berry's novels.

An overview
I've been impressed by Berry from afar-- given what other respectable people have said about him. It seems clear that he's a thinker on topics that are important to me: from politics to society, economy to environment, religion to business. His approach is impressive: holistic in his interests and generally strong in terms of his analysis-- a broad and thorough sense of (more subtle) costs and benefits. He avoids reductionism of complex personal choices and social phenomena. He avoids univariate analysis and lame statistics.

And to his immense credit, Berry has lived out what he professes, including a number of what outsiders might easily see as (net) sacrifices. Berry left a nice job as a professor to operate a farm, live in a small community, and focus on his writing. (In this, I'm reminded of Ron Sider who wrote a popular but incoherent book on Christianity and economics, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. Later editions of the book were improved, as Sider read and listened to those who knew more about economics and the Bible. Sider should be commended for his biblical focus on justice and wanting to find what God says about defining and dealing with injustice. Perhaps most important, Sider descended from the ivory tower of academe to live among those he wants to help.)

There is much in Berry which is difficult to define, to put in a box. In that, I feel a kinship with him. I'd imagine that we share the same freedom in avoiding boxes-- and not feeling a need to defend so many worldly institutions. But I'd guess we share the same frustration at others (often fundamentalists) who insist on seeing the world in rigid boxes and then putting us (incorrectly) into boxes.

The editors open: "Although Berry is often associated with the political Left, it is our conviction that his work is profoundly conservative", given his avid support for "decentralization, a robust civil society, respect for tradition, hostility to the welfare state, and opposition to abortion, promiscuity and divorce." (p. x; see also: D.G. Hart's ch. 10) In Wallace Stegner's public letter to Berry (used as a prologue in this volume), he notes that Berry's "books seem conservative [but] they are actually profoundly revolutionary." (4)

"Berry, however, is more than the sum of his positions on the issues." (p. x.) He cannot be claimed by any one camp and is often insistent on avoiding labels. "The work of Wendell Berry resists any system that might be imposed upon it." (92) He "stands against all isms that would reduce the whole to one of its parts or dissolve all of the parts into one universal whole. He is for piety against pietism, intellect against intellectualism, individuality against individualism, community against communitarianism, liberty against libertarianism." (xiii)

Berry "has a public record of cooperating with those who fight for causes he himself fights for..." (50) But "distrustful of movements and organizations, Berry has tended to go his own way..." (50) In particular, he's avoided the environmentalist camp (see: chapter 6, esp. p. 50-54), even criticizing it-- as focusing on effects rather than causes (51), using misleading terms (e.g., "environment"-- as if it can be separated from us; or "conservation" for its unanswered question-begging about what is to be conserved), and relying on arguments that are reductionist, materialist, and dualist.

Each of the authors in the edited volume discuss a particular theme in Berry's writings. Much of the book is devoted to themes connected to economics, politics, and political economy. But again, Berry's larger social concerns are within and surrounding those discussions. 

Berry on Government, Governance, and Politics
His general approach to politics (Patrick Deneen and Rod Dreher in chs. 7, 17) is the same: he is critical of "the partisan alignment of contemporary politics" and "eschews inevitably narrowing involvement in specific movements" (73). He is "mistrustful of narrowly conceived political 'solutions' to problems that he understands to transcend the normal approaches of politics." (74) 

Most of his vision of government is negative; he presents "no positive vision of formal mediating institutions" (228), including government. In Port William, his most prominent fictional setting, there is no local government-- and outside government serves only to disrupt or destroy some aspect of the common good (228). 

With the (surprising) absence of other mediating institutions (e.g., the church), Nathan Schlueter (ch. 14) describes Berry's vision as "rational anarchy" where culture and community are "established and preserved purely on the basis of cooperation and consent" without (formal) political or religious institutions. (228)

Schlueter observes that this seems to fly in the face of Berry's usual critique of romanticism. But Schlueter concludes that Berry is describing an Edenic/ideal state rather than an idyllic/realistic state. "The idyllic imagination is based upon a false understanding of human nature itself; it is not only impossible, it is unimaginable" for those with a more realistic understanding of human nature (229). In contrast, Berry's Edenic vision hearkens to "our deeper, our truer selves" (229). "Eden therefore provides the imaginative ground for making sense of man's fallen, historical state. More important, it keeps alive in the midst of history what is truest about human beings and their relationship to nature and to God." Moreover, Port William is not even remotely Edenic as Berry depicts work, marriage and family (231).

Similarly, Berry sounds downright libertarian and Pauline/evangelical when talking about the importance of self-governance: "Free men are not set free by their government; they have set their government free of themselves...It is a matter of discipline. A person can free himself of bondage that has been imposed on him only by accepting another bondage that he has chosen. A man who would not be the slave of other men must be the master of himself-- that is the real meaning of self government. If we all behaved as honorably and honestly and industriously as we expect our representatives to behave, we would soon put the government out of work. A person dependent on somebody else for everything from potatoes to opinions may declare that he is a free man, and his government may issue a certificate granting him his freedom, but he will not be free...Men are free precisely to the extent that they are equal to their own needs. The most able are the most free." (88)

He takes a similar angle with pacifism (see: Michael Stevens' ch. 9), describing a protest that is more private than public-- to "live in protest" (113). This reminds me of counter-culturalism in general and Christian variants in particular. To abstain from "worldly" practices-- whether biblical-morality examples such as divorce or sex outside of marriage or biblical-practical, context-specific examples such as alcohol, home-schooling, one-income married households, and consumerism-- is to live in quiet but presumably effective protest against the World system.

Another angle on these "private" decisions: without enough of them, markets and governance become intractable. For example, if people want to live dishonestly, then all of the legal and market constraints in the world will not be effective. If people want pursue unhealthy lifestyles, neither the current dog's breakfast of government regulations and subsidies-- nor various efforts at reform (whether more or less government)-- will be effective. But the converse also holds: if men are angels, then much of both the need for governance and concerns about governance become superfluous.

Marriage, Family and Education
Anne Burleigh discusses marriage (ch. 2). Berry does not see marriage as (purely) "private" given its immense connections to the well-being of children, witnessed by and responsible to a community, crucial to a country and civilization. Berry also talks about the importance of fidelity in marriage-- and of course, fidelity in one area of life will be related to fidelity in other areas of life.

Allan Carlson has a related chapter (3) on a Berry essay called "Rugged Individualism"-- which takes to task both the Right and the Left on the rugged individualism of their views on property and the human body (20). As Carlson notes, "the comedy begins when these extreme forms of individualism meet." The Right celebrates family values but ignores advertising, materialism and ungainly profit. The Left sees sin as a private matter and defends the environment-- while focusing on material needs and ignoring human communities and broken families (21). On abortion, Berry notes that "If you can control your own body only by destroying another person's body, then control has come much too late." (24) And he sees it as "the most primitive form of warfare" (117). He is also critical of the (now-largely-archaic) idea of "over-population", asking "who are the surplus?" (26)

Richard Gamble (ch. 4) discusses Berry on education. Not surprisingly, Berry is highly critical of busing, given what it does to neighborhood and community. "There can be no greater blow to the integrity of a community than the loss of its school or loss of control of its school-- which always means loss of control of its children." (34) Of course, there are strong arguments against busing-- from a negative view (what are the ethics and practical results?) and from an individual basis (harm done to individual families/children, including those it purports to help-- as in Louisville with the case eventually overturned by the Supreme Court). But Berry's arguments are strictly communal and quite compelling. (Berry is also critical of higher ed, saying that the only serious "major" in college is "upward mobility" [37].)

Food and the Environment
Matt Bonzo discusses food-- and indirectly, the environment-- in chapter 5. He notes Berry's full-blooded sense of Genesis 2's call to "dominion": "The land has a story...And when the soil does give forth...the appropriate response is to give thanks because you have not so much manipulated or controlled the land for your purposes as learned to cooperate with the land." (42)

Moreover, this extends to consumers who should "eat responsibly", realizing that we play an integral "role in the economy of food": "Parallel to the farmer's intellectual work is the partaker's work of selecting, cooking, and eating her food." (43). Instead, often, "we treat farm animals as future processed meat products" (46). (See: Killheffer in First Things for an excellent essay on a Christian approach to animals rights.) 

The broader context: "If nature is viewed as indifferent or even hostile to human flourishing, one will approach it as an adversary to overcome...conquering nature for the relief of man's estate and the consumerist economy will closely follow. If, on the other hand, human beings are part of a nature that has an intrinsic value, then human beings much learn to live humbly and even joyfully within these limits." (224)

Jason Peters discusses the environment more directly in chapter 6. Here, we see Berry criticizing the environmental movement for its materialism, consumerism, and for ignoring constraints as if we can have "everything we want and a clean environment" (55). He blasts their frequent hypocrisy: they "want governments and other people to do something...[but have] no real interest in getting serious about their economic lives or reducing their standards of living." (55) He ridicules the "hybrid-driving environmentalist"; he wonders about environmentalists who don't at least garden; and he trashes the corn-for-ethanol-versus-food policy (58). With these critiques, it all seems a bit much; one wonders if Berry is himself aware of the constraints and trade-offs that individuals face. But surely he is right in noting the irony that those on the Left often want to externalize costs onto others, rather than internalizing them.

Technology
In chapter 8, Caleb Stegall discusses technology and the frequent drive for efficiency and profit maximization. His fictional contrast of corporate farmer Bill Meikelberger and an Amishman is powerful (90-91). Berry doesn't trash technology, per se, but instead notes that "utility, freedom and membership" can all be diminished or enhanced by our tools (94). As such, he asks "whether any particular tool making and using represents a dismemberment or...a profound amplification of what it means to be human." (93)

In this, Berry is on solid ground, by asking provocative and important questions whether then providing sure, dogmatic, legalistic answers. (As I've often said, asking the right questions is more than half of "the right answer". And Berry seems more focused on questions than "answers".) He believes that a pencil is better than a word processor (95) and, more compelling, that a scythe is better for small-scale lawn-keeping than the far-more-popular alternatives, given its quietness (97). He eschews horsepower for horse, but is not a "pure" Luddite (whatever that would be), seeing the farm horse "as a conduit for magnifying what is human" (98).

I really enjoyed Stegall's next-to-last paragraph (105): "Man was made for tools. Man was made to magnify himself and his maker in his maker's gift to this world. But man was not made to be a tool; neither to make of himself a tool for his own greed and pleasure, nor for him to be made a tool by others for their greed and pleasure. Berry says, walk with me and I'll teach you the difference. The difference between a Weedwacker and a scythe; between a pixel of light and a stick of lead; between horsepower and a horse; between a hook and a hand [from his fiction]; between a living death and the death that is life."

Economics and the Market
In Chapter 11, Mark Shiffman provides an intro to economics as oikonomia-- decisions within a household, a term first used by Plato and Zenophon and defined precisely by Aristotle (148). The concept of the household supersedes the idea of purely individualistic decision-making; all decisions have public (and often, extended-private) implications. Likewise, economics is a "social science"-- with all this entails. Christian thinkers would later contribute the similar ideas of "sphere sovereignty" (Kuyper / Protestant) and "subsidiarity" (Catholic)-- in a word, the idea of different levels of responsibility and (ideal) autonomy, starting with the household.

Shiffman also notes that the first English use of the word "economy" comes from Hobbes in Leviathan, turning it into a non-household concept and envisioning the household and the family as an artificial construct (152-153)! (As an aside, Shiffman narrows the field of economics to money terms and then complains about his own reductionism. "Economics claims to be a neutral player in human moral life and in our human self-understanding, but...by default has to measure and compare in terms of value, which ultimately means by the medium of money." [155] Huh?) 

In chapter 12, Mark Mitchell lays out what he sees as Berry's defense of "a truly free market"-- within Berry's critique of "market ideology", a corporate (often crony) capitalism, and a "modern industrial economy [that] is anti-human, anti-community, and unsustainable." (167) 

Given his concerns, Berry says we should not "delegate responsibility to organizations about which we know very little" (168). As a consumer, this is difficult and personally costly-- and if lived out consistently within an economy, has its own social costs in the [localized] monopoly power that would often obtain. 

As an investor, Berry is critical of portfolio diversification (e.g., mutual funds) that removes us from understanding the entities in which we invest (170). "The very scale and remoteness of the enterprise makes careful monitoring difficult" (170-171). This is a valid concern, but such a limited investment strategy would dry up opportunities for even local businesses. 

Still, he is right to be concerned about market transactions where "the personal connection is gone" and "our relationship is stripped down merely to market forces" (169) "We have become, by and large, a nation of wage earners and the owners of mutual funds." (181)

In terms of public policy, Berry critiques government regulation for its usual favoritism toward large-scale vs. small-scale enterprise-- sometimes implicit but other times through cynical lobbying that restricts competition (171). As a result, "economic centralization and political centralization feed off one another. Far from being antagonistic, they are natural allies." (174)

Berry critiques "the universalization of competition" since it "divides rather than unites" (186). But this ignores the cooperation inherent in economic markets. Ironically, producers compete with other producers-- for the opportunity to cooperate with consumers. Moreover, the extreme opposite of competition is monopoly-- which presents a false unity. Perhaps we should invoke Babel here as a critique of Berry's view: the odd thing is that the messiness of competitive markets is preferable-- philosophically and practically-- to the alternative of significant monopoly power for producers.

Berry worries that competition "creates nomadic wage seekers" and "destroys community" (186). But there is no necessary relationship between competition, markets, and such outcomes. To the extent that such results obtain, it is a function of the underlying preferences of individuals whose values are somewhere between out-of-whack and what Berry envisions. 

Likewise, Mitchell quotes Berry on "the ideal of unlimited competition" as "proposes an unlimited concentration of economic power" (186-187). This misunderstands competition and relies on an incoherent definition of "power". Further, it ignores the alternative-- "limited" competition, typically through government policies that benefit interest groups at the expense of society. 

Still, Berry has a point: markets differ when they operate "within a broader framework of social, moral, and religious commitments where the virtues are inculcated and practiced." (187-188) Mitchell cites Wilhelm Roepke (174, 187), who is very helpful on these questions. (For my review of Roepke's A Humane Economy, see: p. 13-14 of this link).

Local vs. Global, and Mutually Beneficial Trade
A clearer problem: Berry and other localists can be downright silly on "local trade". Ironically, at least for Berry, the analysis is typically reductionistic. And its application is typically incoherent: how local can one buy and sell products and services? Why should "local" producers purchase inputs from outside the locality? Berry does ask, reasonably, whether there "should be other considerations in addition to price", asking "Is there a price to focusing only upon price" (186). But how does one apply the principle, consistently or at least, well?

Berry saw "global free trade" as more troubling than terrorism post-9/11 (116). Pre-9/11, he said that "what we call 'the economy' or 'the free market' is less and distinguishable from warfare" (117). (Perhaps he meant crony capitalism, but it seems doubtful.) Berry imagines that "family-owned concerns" are "forced to shut their doors" (185). 

William Fahey's ch. 13 extends the point further in drawing connections to the "distributionists" (including most prominently, G.K. Chesterton, and the C-J's London correspondent, Herbert Agar [194]). Fahey (209): "The localism of the distributists and Wendell Berry is not separation; it is rather a traditional framing of the social life of man.". I think I understand what he means, but how far does this extend? When does localism become provincialism? 

Fahey frames his essay with a fascinating example of a local apple festival in New Hampshire using "non-local" apples from New York. What is a local apple festival intended to celebrate? To what extent should the apples and the relevant labor come from X miles away? To what extent would local consumers have been willing to pay higher prices (or accept lower quality) from more-local apples?

Economists find all of this a bit odd, at least in our politically correct times. Our first model for these sorts of decisions is discrimination-- when people use criteria other than "productivity" to make decisions. Here, localists would ask consumers to discriminate against non-locals and exhibit favoritism for locals. One can certainly make a case for such behavior, but it's an odd calling in a time when we are generally encouraged to avoid such approaches to decision-making.

Haley is correct in citing Chesterton on the potential for reductionism within market activity-- that "a system based entirely on the division of labor is in one sense literally half-witted. That is, each performer of half an operation does really only use half of his wits." In contrast, the self-sufficient peasant (such as he really is) lives "not merely a simple life, but a complete life." (205) Then again, this too is oversold. One imagines that the husband/wife peasant pairs-- and others within the community-- engage in their own forms of specialization in comparative advantages, engaging in trade. 

An "Integral Imagination"
In chapter 14, Nathan Schlueter describes Berry's "integral imagination"-- an integrated, holistic approach to thinking through worldview and everyday life. If God, life, society, etc. are complex matters, then why would one imagine that reductionism is a sane outlook. Reductionism certainly has its place in understanding life-- for example, through models and statistics-- but the reductions should never be conflated or confused with the whole. Schlueter cites Machiavelli's criticism of imagination, but the fundamental issue is whether one's imagination is real or unreal-- or the extent to which it is true to "reality". 

Adding to the confusion, we moderns imagine that imagination has been relegated to a back seat by our modern ways and our modern ways of thinking. Instead, "imagination plays a more powerful role in our lives than ever before, yet we are largely unaware of this fact. Modern science thus conceals its own poetic ground." (214) One sees this in those who imagine that evolution provides a comprehensive explanation for the development of life as we see it today. But the extent of the "explanation" is exceedingly modest, infinitesimal compared to what would be required to "explain" the infinite number of steps from A to Z. Instead, these harder-core evolutionists have embraced a scientifically-flavored story, a scientific skin stuffed with a narrative. 

Related to this, Mitchell (177) points to an "optimistic view of the future that marks the modern mind". As a result, "such a person is alienated from the present as well as the past. The past was, after all, a backward place inhabited by benighted, miserable wretches. What could they teach us?" 

Schlueter observes: "The result is a culture deeply divided between science without poetry (i.e., scientism) and poetry without intellect (e.g., romanticism)." (214) In this, we have returned to the ever-seductive dualism of mind and body, as we try to separate the head and heart and end up with an unhealthy combination of dreamers and fundamentalists-- both of many and varied stripes. "Romanticism and modern science share a preoccupation with the new, and hostility for the old and for tradition." (216) Meanwhile, religious fundamentalists embrace tradition without poetry. Neither position is impressive. 

On the limits of politics
In chapter 17, Rod Dreher depicts Berry as a "latter-day" St. Benedict and compares him at length to Alasdair MacIntyre. Dreher quotes the final paragraph of MacIntyre's After Virtue, referring to it as "the Benedict Option" (283). MacIntyre praises the decision to quit "shoring up the Roman imperium" and identifying "the continuation of civility and moral community with" its maintenance. Instead, the Benedictines focused on "the construction of new forms of community within which the moral life could be sustained...[to] survive the coming ages of barbarism and darkness." MacIntyre calls for the same thing today-- and is echoed in this by Berry and Dreher. 

Dreher notes that "the Benedictine order more or less saved European civilization in the Dark Ages." Dreher points to their stability, laying down roots in community, as the key: "Peasants knew that the monks were not going to abandon their posts, or them, come what may. So they settled near the monasteries and learned from the monks. Over many generations, those monasteries became towns and great cities...the monks stayed and bore witness. In so doing, they showed a lost and scattered people how to be more fully human. In a time of great chaos, their decision to remain fixed points converted and saved an entire culture. Such is the power of a creative minority." (286)

A negative assessment of contemporary culture and politics leads to the same prescription-- that culture is struggling and both major political parties are somewhere between unimpressive and eminently self-serving. On economic policy, at least at the federal level, crony capitalism is common and the most impressive part of our approach to such things. Meanwhile, key issues are ignored and social policy is mostly for scoring cheap rhetorical points. Berry says they are "helplessly subservient to each other's rhetoric" and "have now become so self-righteous and self-defensive as to have no social use" (275). And that was back in 1970! 

MacIntyre advises the rejection of politics "not primarily because they give us the wrong answers, but because they answer the wrong questions" (281). From Dreher: "Conventional politics is a weak bet for the kind of cultural reformation adequate to the crisis." (281) In other words, politics is not adequate to the task. Or from Berry, both culture and politics are jacked-up and politics is limited in its effectiveness; his "critical insight [is] that we have disordered politics because we have disordered souls." (284) 

On humility...
One closing thought: Over time, our amazing ignorance has become an increasingly important theme to me. It's a key within economics-- undergirding the existence of entrepreneurs, the cause of significant problems in some markets, and pointing to the limits of public policy. It's also a key to a variety of other issues-- e.g., our faith-filled interpretations of historical events and the staggering gap between what we have in hand and what we need for anything approaching a comprehensive explanation for the development of life. (Many people want/need/imagine that Evolution of this larger sort has moved much beyond pure narrative.) 

Berry notes that our ignorance should lead to humility. People should "learn to act with respect for what they do not know." Berry calls this recognition "the way of ignorance" and says it is "born of wonder, expressed in reverence, and rooted in faith." (xii) and is based on an "awareness of our limits" (218). May we follow in his path-- worried more about asking good questions than finding airtight answers; looking at life holistically rather than reductionistically; seeking to partner with Creation and others to make the world a better place and to walk humbly with our God.  

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

ACA and college students

Here is my op-ed with Linda Christiansen. (It inspired this blurb and then, this essay which cited a list of [at least] 122 colleges impacted by the ACA-- a nice bit of investigative reporting...)

_________________________

This is a story about four college students who have similar family situations. Whatever the intention of politicians, all four were harmed by the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as "ObamaCare."

Student No. 1 is a young graduate student still fully covered by both parents' health-insurance plans. He works as a graduate assistant (five hours per week for a small tuition discount and a little more than the minimum wage). He also is enrolled in the university's health insurance with no premium payments. He now has redundant insurance coverage from three plans. Surely, the university sees those premiums as part of his compensation. He derives no benefit from their health plan, however, and does not have the option to be paid more money instead. This is a lose-lose situation since the employer is paying an expense that the employee would prefer as cash.

Student No. 2 is an undergraduate putting himself through college and covered by his father's health insurance. He works as a resident's assistant (RA) helping in the dorms to pay his room and board. He was also working in the campus Internet Technology (IT) department. This is his major so it offered both compensation and relevant work experience. But because of ObamaCare's requirement to provide health insurance for those working more than 30 hours per week, the university forced him to choose between the two jobs. Since his RA job was so important to his current living costs, he dropped his IT job despite its value for his future.

Student No. 3 also is an RA with health insurance through both parents. The university requires RAs to report their work hours each week — to stay under the ObamaCare mandate on hours worked. Yet, during the weeks before classes she is "required" to work long days with no off days for training or student move-in — even though those hours are not counted for the purposes of ObamaCare.

Student No. 4 attended college for a while but decided to work and take time to think about what he would like to do in the future. He works part-time for a grocery chain and wants to work full-time. Although management thinks he is an excellent employee and might have a fine career with the company, they could not offer him more hours since the company can only afford a few full-time employees. In the meantime, he is covered by his parents' insurance.

All of these are perverse and largely-ignored consequences of ObamaCare. None of these students needs health insurance but all of them have been penalized by the legislation.

We see the same sort of outcomes throughout the economy. Three surveys by the Federal Reserve branches in Philadelphia, New York and Atlanta indicated remarkably consistent results: About 20 percent of firms are cutting jobs; 20-30 percent are shifting jobs to part-time; and about 20 percent are shifting higher insurance costs to employees.

From the employee's perspective, a recent National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) paper by Casey Mulligan indicates that 6 million-11 million workers can increase their disposable incomes by reducing their work hours.

Thanks to ObamaCare, there are many more contexts in which working less — and hiring people to work fewer hours — has become financially attractive. Aside from the amazingly slow pace of the economic recovery by historical standards, all of this also explains why we've had so much growth in part-time work and so little in full-time work.

The government has been heavily manipulating the markets for health care and health insurance for decades — subsidizing insurance through the workplace, restricting health care and health-insurance options, giving away a lot of "free" health care and so on.
ObamaCare did nothing to reduce the problems created earlier by the government. Instead, in its attempt to help some people, it extended those problems and added new ones — by multiplying and complicating the links between health insurance, work and family.

When we use unwieldy federal legislation to manipulate a complex, messed-up system, it's not surprising that the results are a very mixed bag.

Linda Christiansen is a professor of business at Indiana University Southeast in New Albany; D. Eric Schansberg is a professor of economics there and an adjunct scholar for the Indiana Policy Review Foundation.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Thomas Sowell: Race and Culture

I finally got around to reading Thomas Sowell's classic book, Race and Culture.

Often a provocative and difficult/controversial topic, I appreciate the scholarly approach Sowell brought to the project, looking at various angles through separate chapters on culture (through migration and conquest) and race (and its connections to economics, politics, intelligence, slavery and history). He opens by poking at a predominant "social science" model that largely (and ironically) ignores various social factors (choosing to focus on a few, simple, favored hypotheses).
In our time, a similar irony is that we're often told about the importance of individual biology-- while we're told that aggregating individual biology to groups is somehow automatically troublesome.

One of the huge over-arching questions in play is "environment vs. culture". Sowell notes, "While we can all agree on the influence of 'environment' in some very general sense, there is a vast difference between (1) regarding groups as being shaped by immediate circumstances, including the people and institutions around them; and (2) regarding groups as having their own internal cultural patterns, antedating the environment in which they currently find themselves." (x). The value of international comparisons in this context? When we see patterns which recur across many countries, then we can more easily see what's internal vs. external (x). As such, the purpose of the book "is to demonstrate the reality, persistence, and consequences of cultural differences (xii).

As one might expect/hope, Sowell provides a ton of examples on differences (e.g., p. 2-4) and why culture matters (e.g., p. 85). On the former, see: the prevalence of Jews in the apparel industry, Germans with pianos, Italian fishermen and architects, India's entrepreneurial Gujaratis, Scots' medical knowledge, and the difference between particular subgroups of Scots who settled in Appalachia. On the latter, Sowell notes the differences in Jewish and Christian Sabbath practices and the implications for operating a factory while avoiding/engaging in "discrimination".

Sowell even wrestles with "cultural superiority". One should be careful-- and judgments might be contingent-- but at times, it should be safe to say that X is superior to Y. "Arabic numerals are not merely different from Roman numerals; they are superior..." (5) The punchline, as opposed to cultural relativism: "It is not necessary to claim that a particular people or a particular culture is superior in all things or for all times...but neither is it necessary to deny the greater effectiveness of particular cultures for particular things at particular times and places..." (6a, 225).

On "conquest", Sowell cautions against a simplistic view of conquest for purely economic/financial motives (73-75). Certainly, those motives are in play at times, but Sowell notes the importance of political motives, even at the expense of economics/finance. "The reductionist notion that economic motives can be automatically inferred behind conquests of the modern capitalist era is ironically applied to a period-- the 19th and 20th centuries-- when non-economic influences were especially strong, particularly in the case of much of sub-Saharan Africa. European officials responsible for the public treasury were often opposed to the development of a colonial empire in Africa, which they correctly saw as having little capacity to repay the cost of conquest..." (74) In terms of outcomes, Sowell notes the abuses of the colonists, but also that exports and imports grew dramatically during the colonial era.

Sowell also discusses "statistical discrimination"-- a term used by economists to describe the inevitable/universal stereotyping of people and situations, given highly-imperfect and costly-to-obtain information. For better and for worse, members of the "good" (bad) group will tend to be viewed (un)favorably-- at least until more accurate information emerges about the individual.

Such decision-making is regrettable at some level, but unavoidable given the limited info at hand. As a result, all of us discriminate in this way. We rely on generalizations that are, generally, true-- to help us make relatively effective decisions in a low-information world. For example, we tend to have more respect for the intellect of a Purdue grad in Engineering with a 3.5 GPA than an Indiana State grad in a social science with a 2.5. And so on.

On occasion, these measurable/proxies can be gender or race-- when that attribute correlates with success or failure. Sowell provides examples-- e.g., 19th-century Irish with alcohol problems, saying it was common for employers to routinely and openly discriminate against the Irish based on this generalization (89). And he quotes WEB Dubois on the same thing with respect to blacks in late 19th century America-- that the group's low productivity on average was hurting the perception of productive individuals (90).

On the minimum wage, Sowell notes the theory and empirical work of its impact on unskilled labor, which has been disproportionately minority. In 1950, the minimum wage jumped up considerably and has been much higher since then (in real terms) with more extensive coverage. Sowell observes that the black and black teen unemployment rates were comparable with whites until then-- and diverged sharply after that (94-95). Of course, there are many reasons why workers are unskilled-- from education to family structure/stability. (And there are many causes of unemployment that might vary by race-- at least in theory.) But increasing the cost of unskilled labor should be expected to decrease the number of unskilled hired-- and thus, to disproportionately cause unemployment among groups with more unskilled workers.

On the politics of race, Sowell makes three prescient observations: First, it's ironic that we claim to want to see individuals as individuals-- but we measure success by group outcomes. Second, democracy alone is not nearly enough (124-125). Third, discrimination-- even when a secondary factor-- will often be an attractive hypothesis politically, in comparison to the hard work of dealing with thornier and more sensitive primary causes. "Factors such as inter-group differences in demographic characteristics, geographical distribution, skill levels, or cultural values tend to be ignored, however demonstrably important they may be in a cause-and-effect sense. Thus, while the black population in late 20th-century America suffered greatly from soaring rates of violent crime, from having much of its newborn generation raised by [single] teenage mothers, and from widespread drug addiction, its political leaders have focused their efforts on correcting the failings (real and presumed) of the white population..." (139-140)

On race and intelligence, Sowell opens by noting the difficulty in discussing the topic dispassionately and in measuring race or intelligence (156). His discussion was helpful although surely out-of-date on at least the data. I did find one thing quite helpful: moving away from incendiary references about general intelligence (e.g., an IQ test) to narrower examples: the Chinese over Jews and blacks on "spatial conception" (162, 169).

On slavery, Sowell is helpful in promoting a broader understanding-- in particular, that's it not simply (or even primarily) a Western or U.S. institution. Arguably, it's most interesting in the West, given our supposed political values! But "the irony of our times is that the destruction of slavery around the world, which some once considered the supreme moral act in history, is less well-known and less-discussed among intellectuals in either Western or non-Western countries, while the enslavement of Africans by Europeans is treated as unique-- and due to unique moral deficiencies in the West." (222)

Moreover, focusing on slavery solely in the West will almost certainly lead one into various errors (219). For example, one is more likely to imagine that contemporary problems for African-Americans are largely caused by the "legacy of slavery". But this doesn't stand up to empirical analysis or anything beyond simplistic, univariate analysis (220).

Sowell notes that slavery was long viewed by "both the secular and religious moralists of societies around the world ...as something requiring no special moral justification" (186). It was done in Africa-- and by Africans trading with Europeans (188). North Africans and Middle Eastern nations dominated the trade for centuries before the Europeans got involved (189). There are contexts where families preferred "slavery" for their daughters rather than a life of poverty but "freedom" (208). (This is reminiscent of the mass immigration to South Africa by blacks, even with Apartheid.) He describes the end of slavery (in the West!) as the result of "moral revulsion" by those in the West, particularly Christians (210-211) and military might (212-214), with the English imposing their moral standards on others, particularly the Ottomans (222, 250)


Finally, Sowell also has an interesting section on the impact of geography (235-240)-- on everything from resource availability (as a secondary cause of prosperity, at best), transaction costs (e.g., the wide-open U.S. vs. countries geographically-bound by mountains or land-locked by political boundaries). Although he does not tease out many particulars, he notes that it would not be surprising if such constraints and opportunities did not shape individuals and societies-- in terms of culture, work ethic, etc. "It would take an almost miraculous coincidence for all these factors to balance out..." (240). If so, then we would expect to find cultural differences.


Other related work on the complicated relationship between biology, culture, etc.:

1.) WSJ article on autism by ethnicity and birth nation

2.) Sue Shellenbarger in the WSJ on the interplay between language (part of culture) and math (comparing English and Chinese, in particular).

3.) Nicholas Wade in the WSJ and a longer essay in Time on race and biology-- as excerpted from his book, A Troublesome Inheritance. (Try googling the article's title, "Race has a biological basis" to get the full WSJ article.) Wade argues that evolutionary theory requires race to be a consideration-- if not a significant factor. (Here's a snarky reply with two deeper cites from PZ Myers; h/t: Chris L. Maybe it's proper to dismiss it, but it doesn't seem like it can be this easy. And if it is that easy, why is that not a problem for the comprehensive-Evolution narrative folks?)