The American Scene

An ongoing review of politics and culture


Which Authority Do You Love?

The problem with old-school blogathons is that you have to summarize the eleven posts you’re responding to and by the time you’re done you’re too tired to write anything else.

How do we convert in and out of religions, and worldviews in general? What roles do experiences, reason and revelation play? Here’s Scene Alum David Sessions, describing his own conversion from fundamentalist evangelical Christianity to secular materialist liberalism. Here is Scene Alum Noah Millman, responding with a great (as usual) meditation on how we deal with authority, also riffing off a post by TAS Overlord Ross Douthat. Here’s Rod Dreher.

The point David makes (violently compressed) is that while experience is the primary means by which we determine our worldviews, reason can and should play a role, and that experience-driven conversions that cannot be buttressed by reason are, to use a word David would I’m sure dispute, suspect.

As a Jew, this is a question Noah has had to wrestle with, and obedience to the law (or disobedience) is a dominant theme in both the Hebrew scriptures and the Jewish experience generally. In Judaism, or at least in a significant strand of it, there is, I think it is fair to say, an insistence that following the law is valuable for its own sake.

This is a question that also has a special resonance for the Catholic, because Catholicism is the faith where the authority has the strongest institutional component. Catholicism demands submission not just to a book or a tradition, but to—in Henry Cardinal Newman’s phrase—a “living voice.” The Church is “Mother and Teacher.” To be sure, most other faiths have clerics who speak with authority, but there are always ways to finesse this: there are different schools of thought; while these sometimes anathematize each other, more often there is room for legitimate disagreement within the same communion. In Catholicism, when the Pope speaks ex cathedra, that’s it—it is as good as the Word of God handed down on Mount Sinai. Allegiance to the Catholic Church is not just allegiance to an abstract worldview, it is also allegiance to a specific institution which is declared to have the same authority as God.

And so I think these words from the Catholic Eve Tushnet, talking about her discussions with other gay Christians, are of relevance here:

We need not only models for respectful sharing of life experiences, but also models for respectful disagreement–since at the end of the day, we do in fact disagree. At times I felt as though my Catholic faith was a gaucherie or an obscenity which must be hidden from the eyes of those it might scandalize.

But notice that I said “my Catholic faith,” not “my beliefs about gay sex.” This is the other reason I think mere sharing-stories “dialogue” is insufficient on gay Christian questions: It tends to make us think that our disagreements are primarily about homosexuality. But in my experience the deepest source of disagreement is authority. Which sources are authoritative for you, and when they appear to conflict, how do you rank or reconcile them?

My own “conversion” story might be of interest here, and it is a fundamentally Catholic one. I was brought up Catholic, but clichédly enough as a teenager I moved away from the faith. Oh, not very far. You see, from when I was young I had basically two ambitions for when I grew up: I wanted to have lots of children, and I wanted to be involved in Christian ministry. Obviously, for a Catholic, there’s a tension there. (If only I’d known about Marcial Maciel then, things would’ve been much easier!) I always figured that the Holy Spirit would one day point me in the right direction.

But hey—there was a way to square that circle: I could become a Protestant minister, and have my cake and eat it too. The entrepreneurialism (and Americanism) of Evangelical ministry definitely appealed to my character, as those who know me can imagine. There was a vocation that could combine it all: Christian ministry, entrepreneurialism, and a large family (not only allowed, but encouraged!). For a while there, my role model was basically Rick Warren.

Much more seriously, as I began to study the issue of justification, I found myself drawn heavily to the Protestant doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone, which seemed to me to be much more in accord with what I knew of Jesus’ message, and I was repelled by what I took to be the Catholic doctrine of justification by works (it tells you something about the state of modern catechesis that a literate cradle Catholic could think the Church taught salvation by works!).

As you know, I did not, in fact, become a Protestant minister. So what kept me in the flock? Was I convinced by the Catechism’s view of justification? That only happened much later.

What, in fact, kept me in the Catholic faith was the Eucharist. I might conceivably be sold on the idea that the Church was wrong about justification, or priestly celibacy, or sexual ethics, or anything else. What I found myself absolutely, utterly unable to renounce was the belief that the Eucharist is the Real Presence of Christ. As much as I wanted to, I absolutely could not stop believing in the Eucharist.

And if the Eucharist is the body of Christ, then the Church that “performs” this sacrament has to be the body of Christ as well, and if the Church is the body of Christ, then I have to be joined to it and obey it. So I put aside my qualms about justification (it would only be many years later that I would investigate the issue deeper and actually be convinced by the Catholic doctrine of justification) and let go of my dream of evangelical ministry.

Now, as far as reasons for joining a faith, this is inexplicable. In fact, I can’t explain it. At that point, I had never had any sort of mystical experience relating to the Eucharist. I have no idea whence the strength of this belief—which polls indicate is lacking in many Massgoing Catholics—originated. All I know is that I believe it, and I believe it with all my heart.

I think that for many Catholics who believe in the Eucharist, they believe in it because they believe in the Church and/or the Gospel. For me, it is exactly the other way around. It is because I believe in the Eucharist that I believe in the Church, and it is because I believe in the Church that I believe what it says about the Bible and the person of Jesus Christ.

I recognize how absurd this seems, or is. There is actually a fair amount of empirical evidence for the proposition that the man Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead. The empirical evidence for the proposition that bread and wine are transubstantiated into the body, soul and divinity of Christ is—the Church cheerfully admits—zilch.

I say all this because I am not sure how this all fits in the categories of “experience” and “reason” and “revelation” that David and Noah and Rod have been talking about. As I said, when I decided that the Eucharist was the one belief I could not part with, I had no specific mystical or religious “experience” to point to as justification for my belief (or my belief in my belief, so to speak). And the doctrine of the Eucharist is, by “design”, quite impervious to rational explanation. The doctrine of the Eucharist says that it is an incomprehensible mystery, so that if you claim to understand it (which I certainly do not) you are in fact in error. (In the small-t traditional phrase, the concept of transubstantiation explains the “what”, but not the “how”, which is incomprehensible.) I do not have any reason to believe in the Eucharist. I can certainly defend it. I can certainly explain (in inadequate words) why the Eucharist fits most sublimely into everything we know about the arc of the Bible and Christian revelation. But that is not ultimately why I believe.

Which is why, circling back, I found myself nodding along with Eve Tushnet’s words about authority:

authority is primarily an aesthetic movement of love rather than a rational movement of adducing evidence. (Adducing evidence can be a part of how we come to trust an authority–that was a part of Leah Libresco’s conversion, for example–and reasoned argument aimed at clearing away misconceptions was a big part of my own conversion. But overall, authority is what we love, not what we understand.)

I think this might be the missing piece of what we’ve been talking about. Experience, reason, yes, they are parts of it. But as Eve puts it, assenting to authority is “primarily an aesthetic movement of love.” I love the Eucharist—I crave it, I cherish it, I need it. I don’t know whether this belief is fully described as “primarily an aesthetic movement of love” but that does seem to me to be a better descriptor than the ones I’ve seen heretofore.

This notion of authority is also, I believe, important, because it is ultimately what this is about. When you are adopting a “world picture,” you are assenting to an authority. You are putting yourself under an authority. And while the various things that this authority says about the world might be defendable on their own terms, ultimately you assent because you assent to the authority they flow from. And it does sound right that choosing/being chosen by this authority is, yes, primarily an aesthetic movement (and experiential and/or rational second) and, certainly in the case of Catholicism but arguably for any authority, a movement of love. I would even go as far as to use this as an apologia for the Catholic faith, because Catholicism is the faith that makes this movement most explicit. As DFW immortally put it, in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there are no atheists. We all worship something. All we can do is choose what we worship. And Catholicism is most explicit about not only the choice but its implications.

I don’t know if this meditation is useful. But it might be.

In One Socket, A Revival

First it was Hesiod Amazonson, the 125-year-old bad boy of Elderporn, who sported one in his Super Bowl halftime performance. Then teachers noticed a certain glitter when they surveilled their adolescent MOOC students, particularly students in their rebellious early thirties. Finally, Jaden knew it was a trend: “monocles are back,” he says.

Jaden, who like most oligarchs uses only one name, owns the hereditary patent on circular objects. “The number of people licensing our geometric intellectual property to print monocles at home has doubled in the past two HBO seasons.”

Trend-watchers attribute the new fad to a desire for a sense of propriety, as the pendulum swings back from last season’s craze for provocative surgical augmentation. Asked about monocles, Dr HashtagTeachingIt, Professor of Awesome Studies at TheUniversity said, “IMHO after ‘face-ticles’ jumped the shark, ppl r looking 4 a new thing that has not jumped ne sharks. This new thing is a new thing that has not jumped ne sharks.”

This efflorescence of personal expression has its dark side, though. One America Prime customer, who chose to remain nameless as he negotiates his book deal, recounts taking a shortcut through an America Classic district, where the Classic customers, seeing his monocle, began to violence him with hatespeech. Fortunately, the customer had boosted his chillmeds before walking through the Classic district, and their hatewords had no triggering effect. The customer, whose insurance plan includes pre-emptive security, called a Prime Customer Support Detachment to administer corrective stimuli to the offending Classic customers, and escaped with his eyepiece intact.

Myhrvold's Gulch

Recently some friends and I were discussing the left-intellectual move of noting positive state economic institutions and arguing from there that the state is constitutive of the economy and therefore what the state giveth, the state taketh away. From my disciplinary perspective as an economic sociologist, a field that was greatly influenced by Polanyi, it strikes me as self-evident that all economic activity is shaped by institutions like the state enforcement of property rights. The right has it’s own version of this which underlies suspicion of cronyism and monetary policy. So basically, you didn’t build that.

However, the thing is that most of the time I think the state basically does it right, and in particular that enforcing (natural) rights is different from creating (positive) rights. However, it gets interesting when you think the state institutions are really really bad and so allocations of wealth are based on terrible institutions. There’s a big difference here between the Yglesias “neoliberal + T&T” types and the Myerson “#fullcommunism” types in that the former support our basic institutions but occasionally use their contingent nature as one of several justifications for the welfare state, whereas the latter would ideally like to radically reshape the institutions themselves. Aside from the punitive laicite, I would be pretty happy in a Yglesias utopia (I’ve visited Scandinavia, it’s nice) but in the Myerson utopia I plan to live in the mountains with my high school football team and shout “Wolverines!” after ambushing the Bolivarian Guard convoys.* However there’s something logically consistent about the #fullcommunism view of let’s change the institutions vs the “you didn’t build that” non sequitur to justify Medicaid expansion.

I like to think about the social nature of economic institutions as a continuum. On the one hand you’ve got the fact that part of the reason I enjoy privacy in my home is because I could call the cops if squatters tried to force their way in, but aside from sophistry or freedom of association gotcha, who cares? On the other hand, it can be helpful to imagine situations where we have really awful institutions that have resulted in allocations of wealth.

Let’s call this the Myhrvold’s Gulch problem.**

Intellectual property law is much more obviously socially constructed than our other economic institutions if for no other reason than property rights to rivalrous goods are partially self-enforcing whereas property rights to non-rivalrous goods are very obviously positive institutions of the state (and in historical perspective look more like royal monopolies than property rights, as seen with the stationers’ guild, etc). Moreover, they result in great wealth, and it is easiest to see this not in companies like Disney or Microsoft that benefit from the Bono Act and trade diplomacy to suppress foreign piracy but also created incredibly useful art and software, but with companies like Intellectual Ventures that are purely parasitical and whose only useful purpose for society is to give a more concrete focus to our musing on the nature of positive economic institutions as a sort of Lisbon earthquake of economics.

So what is to be done? Do we say that Nathan Myhrvold’s legal but unjust wealth means that we should let him continue to extract it but the state will apply confiscatory taxation? Or maybe the kludgeocracy version of the same thing, which is to not tax him but mandate that Intellectual Ventures cross-subsidize socially useful and/or redistributive activities? Or even vaguer but more realistic versions that since Myhrvold benefitted from bad laws that therefore all rich folks should be taxed more heavily or that all companies should pay at least $10/hour to unskilled workers? This is essentially the logic of you-didn’t-build-that-ism. However it seems like if you’ve got a problem with our IP institutions (as I most certainly do), the more logical thing is to reluctantly let Myhrvold keep his millions, but reform patent law so that we don’t have problems with patents going forward.

* I didn’t actually play high school football. However, I’m hoping though that there will be some group of athletic young people who will accept a man in his late 30s in mediocre shape with minimal outdoors or firearm experience as one of their own. ** I shudder to make an Ayn Rand reference even in jest. I’m not an objectivist, I’ve never read any of her books, I had to look up the “Galt’s Gulch” reference, and I frequently chuckle thinking about nasty things that Whitaker Chambers said about Ayn Rand decades before I was born.

A Sermon on the Trinity

The excellent Elizabeth Stoker (whom you should follow) was recently asked to deliver a sermon on the Trinity. Since this is a topic I often think about but have never really written on, her excellent sermon has inspired me to take a crack at the exercise. Here goes, and thank you to Elizabeth for inspiring me…

We don’t talk about the Trinity often enough. We don’t think about it often enough. We often have a tendency to think about it as an abstruse, technical theological concept that has little relevance to our daily lives as Christians.

The Incarnation—the fact that Jesus Christ is both completely a man, and completely God, the ruler of the Universe—is an equally incomprehensible mystery, but it seems more “relatable.” In our daily lives as Christians, we can take comfort in the fact that, in the Patristic phrase, “God became man so that man could become God.” The Incarnation tells us that whatever suffering we encounter, the God-Man takes it on for us. The Incarnation tells us that the God we worship is a God of total self-giving in love who invites us to share in His love. The Incarnation tells us that God, who is greater than we can conceive, can and wants to be united with us as humble bread and wine.

But what does the Trinity tell us, in our daily lives as Christians?

To answer that, we have to ask what the Trinity tells us about God. Perhaps the most important Biblical passage about the nature of God is Exodus 3:15 when God, appearing to Moses as the burning bush, describes himself with the mysterious tetragrammaton, the sequence of letters we translate as “Yahweh” or “I am the one who is.” According to the Tradition of the exegetes, here, God describes himself not as a being, but as Being with a capital B. God is Being itself. He is the sheer act of being, the one who sustains all existence, the one who is the very nature of being.

Of this Biblical One God, who is Being itself, the apostolic Christian Tradition tells us something else: this one God is also one in three divine Persons. God is Father, God is Son, God is Holy Spirit. And yet God is one. What are we to make of this mysterious idea—an idea that the Tradition of the Church tells us is a fact?

One way to understand it that has been really helpful to me was explained by then-Cardinal Ratzinger in his book Introduction to Christianity. If we keep in mind the Biblical idea that God is the nature of being itself, we see that the Trinity tells us that the nature of being itself is being-in-relation. Being, all being, is being-in-relation.

This is radical and transformative.

As Ratzinger writes, this turns on its head twenty-five centuries of philosophy. From Socrates to Sartre, philosophers have debated the nature of being, and they have always described being as (to use non-philosophical language) that which is basic, autonomous. If it is in relation to something else, then it is not being itself. The doctrine of the Trinity flips that on its head.

But nevermind the philosophy. If Exodus tells us that God is the nature of being itself, and if the Trinity tells us that God is a being-in-relation, then it means that the nature of all being is being-in-relation. You. Me. We are all beings-in-relation. Our relationships are not things we do, they are not outside of us, they are part of us. Our very nature is to relate to other persons, because the very nature of being itself is being-in-relation. We are made for—in every sense of those words—relationship. Relationship with the Triune God, who is the very act of being itself, and relationship with all other beings.

I don’t know about you, but that has completely changed my daily life. Once this idea of the nature of being as being-in-relation hits you, it’s like stepping out into the world after hours in a dark room. Everything is brighter, the colors are more vivid. Everything that exists is made for relationship. And so am I! And so is the God who sustains it all!

Of course, the divine Persons of the Trinity are not just in any relationship. They are in a relationship of complete and eternal self-giving. They are one, even as they are separate. Another way to express this is that God is Love. God is Being itself, and Being is being-in-relationship, and this relationship is self-giving in love.

It turns out that the chorus of the Blues Brothers song—“Everybody needs somebody to love/You, me, everybody”—is a profound, and profoundly true theological statement. Everybody. Needs. Somebody to love. Love isn’t a nice thing to have. Relationship isn’t a nice thing to do. It’s the very nature of being itself. You, me, everybody. Including God, since that’s why He created us in the first place.

Far from being an abstract theory with little relation to our daily experience, I have found that the doctrine of the Trinity profoundly changed how I look at God, at the world, at my brothers and sisters, and at myself. Because the Trinity reveals to us the most profound truth about the nature of all being.

There’s another bishop who has profoundly influenced my view of the Trinity. It’s a little something that was said by the Orthodox theologian Kallistos Ware. He was talking about prayer. And he said—I’m paraphrasing—I pray to Jesus Christ. But why is it that I pray to Him? Because He is the Son of God. And how is it that Jesus is not just a figure from the distant past, but is present in my daily life? Through the Holy Spirit.

I find this very profound. In particular, I find it tells us two very important things about the Trinity.

First, it tells us that Jesus is the Way. In the famous parable, Jesus described himself as the Good Shepherd, but in the same parable he also described himself as the gate through which the sheep pass. Jesus is the gate through which we can begin to walk into the Trinity. Jesus makes the Trinity manifest for us. Because the Father is one with the Son, and the Son is one with the Father. Because wherever there is Jesus there is the Holy Spirit, and wherever there is the Holy Spirit there is Jesus. Our relationship with Jesus, through His Word, through the Sacraments, through prayer, is a relationship with the Trinity, and Jesus is the Way to intimacy with the Trinity.

Second, and perhaps most importantly, it tells us that the way we can relate to the Trinity is not just through abstract thinking, but through prayer. Maybe the fancy-talk about being-in-relationship impressed you as much as it did me, maybe not. But one thing is certain, which is that a prayerful relationship with Jesus Christ draws you into intimacy with the Trinity. Through simple prayer, through this awareness that whenever we commune with Jesus Christ we also commune with the other persons of the Trinity, and the way we understand them as they are reflected through Jesus, we can have an intimacy with the Trinity which is greater than any philosophical treatise. Through prayer, through the sacraments, we walk with the Trinity and the Trinity walks with us.

Because this is the fundamental, radical truth of Christianity. God doesn’t just want us to serve Him. He doesn’t even just want us to love Him. He wants intimacy with us. God doesn’t love us, He is love. He is mad love. Love unto dying of the Cross. Love unto being consumed as bread and wine. He is love because He is being-in-relationship, and because He is all being, we are beings-in-relationship, called to be the love that the Triune God is.

Rather than the Benedict Option, the Francis Option

French Catholics are outraged at new sex education curricula in French public schools. I think the outrage is largely misplaced, but I wrote a post (in French) arguing to my fellow French Catholics that they should realize they’re a (tiny) minority now and they shouldn’t be surprised when the majority enacts public school curricula that disagree with their worldview. My advice to French Catholics, in a nutshell, is to, instead of agitating for more Christian-compatible curricula, take their kids out of public school and build true Catholic schools that are a sign of contradiction against the prevailing culture, rather than carbon copies of public schools, as most French Catholic schools are at present.

That got me to wondering if I wasn’t advocating a version of what’s been called “The Benedict Option” as a Christian response to the secularization of the West. The Benedict Option, named for Saint Benedict, encourages a retreat from secular life to build alternative societies. The explicit analogy is that the West is undergoing a similar decline as the Roman Empire did; by retreating from the decline, this narrative goes, the monks saved all that could be saved of Western civilization and eventually restored it. In general, I tend to be highly critical of the Benedict Option. I don’t think the West is as far-gone as “Benedict-ers” seem to think, and I also think Christians have a duty to serve the world and be in the world. (By the way, you should read this excellent and largely sympathetic story by Rod Dreher on the Benedict Option as it’s currently being practiced.)

But if I’m advocating retreating from public schools rather than trying to improve them, aren’t I backing the Benedict Option?

I don’t think so. But I do think we shouldn’t dismiss the Benedict Option out of hand. I think we should take the best of it, but rather think of a Francis Option, rather than a Benedict Option.

Obviously talking in these terms is attractive because it allows a parallel not just between two of the greatest monastic founders in history but also our two living Popes, with Benedict generally being thought of as sympathetic to the Benedict Option and Francis having a very different pastoral view.

Indeed, while our scribes scrutinize every of Francis’ words for doctrinal innovation, it seems they’re missing the big picture of his pastoral emphasis. The by now common refrain we hear from Francis is of a Church that goes out “on the streets”, “to the peripheries” (a favorite expression of his), a Church that “goes out of itself.”

I want to linger on that last expression because it exemplifies what I think a “Francis Option” would learn from the Benedict Option. Sorry for the semantic gymnastics, but if you want a Church that “goes out of itself”, you need an “itself” for the Church to go “out” “of”.

In other words, yes, I think the Church should try to build these “alternative societies,” but always in a concern of going out of them, of ministering, of serving the world. This is consonant with what I’ve called “the fundamental Christian dynamic”: first, you realize you’re a sinner; then, you realize that God loves you anyway; and then, this love propels you to love your fellow men equally sinful and equally loved. The fundamental Christian dynamic involves this indwelling with God (the dwelling of God among us being one of the dominant Biblical themes) as equal with service to others. It is the meaning of the Ite Missa est.

We need both halves. I do think we need to build alternative structures to the prevailing culture (before we are forced to?) so that the Church can be a body, but these structures need to also be put at the service of the prevailing society. Similarly, the Franciscan order is conventual, but it is also resolutely ordered towards service to the society around them.

If we want to think of a mode for Catholic engagement in 21st century postmodern culture, the Francis Option might be a good frame. I’ve been very influenced in my thoughts on this general topic by the following lectures by Tim Keller and Jonathan Sacks (yes, non-Catholics—not coincidentally, I think).

Because (Behavioral) Science!

A few days ago in Slate, Barry Schwartz posted an article on how the psychology of anchoring means that raising the minimum wage from X to X’ won’t just benefit folks whose current wage is less than X’, but will probably end up cascading through the lower tier of the labor market. That is, if somebody is making $10 and we raise the minimum wage to $9, they might still get a raise if they and their employer think of their wage less as $10 than as 133% of the minimum wage. That is, the piece is a mix of gee whiz social psychology and political mood affiliation flattery that together we can call “because (behavioral) science.”

Since Jim Manzi doesn’t post much around here no more, let me take this one.

Let’s put aside all the usual minimum wage debate shtick about how to value transfers, what year to use as the baseline, appropriate deflators, whether it’s all teenagers and ex-cons, etc., and focus on Schwartz’s main point about anchoring. Let’s furthermore stipulate that we can take the upshot of Schwartz’s argument as “behavioral science proves that raising the minimum wage is even better than you thought.”

Okey dokey, but are there any ways that behavioral science proves that a minimum hike is worse than we thought?

Of course there is, and not only that, but the micro-mechanisms are closely related to anchoring. There’s a general problem for why companies pay more than they really have to and the assumption is that they have to be getting higher productivity out of it which is why this issue is called the efficiency wage. One of the models for an efficiency wage proposed by Akerlof 1982 is that the firms pay more than they have to as a gift to the workers. Gifts imply a debt of reciprocity (this is why charities send you return address labels before asking you for money) and the workers reciprocate through greater work effort. Basically, high wages are good for morale and morale is good for productivity. Or rather higher wages are good for morale because it only works if the employer could be paying less and the employees know that with a less munificent employer they would be making less. That is, it only works if the employees see themselves as having a boss who is more generous than those poor souls working for the skinflint across the street. If the boss is required by law to pay X then you don’t feel grateful for getting X. Likewise if the law changes from requiring X to requiring X’ and you had been making 1.5X but the anchoring effect is only partial so your new wage is only 1.4X’ you might actually feel less grateful to your boss since you’re now making closer to the minimum. The upshot is that a minimum wage hike would probably undermine the efficiency wage and so decrease productivity. There you have it, a minimum wage hike is bad because (behavioral) science says so. QED.

Now, to be candid with you, while I like Akerlof and I’m really really really really into gift exchange, I think gift exchange is an implausible micro-mechanism for efficiency wage. Partly this is an intuitive hunch and partly it’s because Gneezy and List 2006 have shown that the gift exchange efficiency wage effect demonstrated in experiments only lasts as long as the typical experiment and if you follow-up even a few hours later people aren’t grateful (or hard workers) anymore. (Hey, look, a hedonic treadmill, that’s a social psych concept too). (For broader critiques of generalizability of economic games with college students see Levitt and List 2007 and Henrich et al 2010). However, skeptical as I am of my own argument about gift exchange and efficiency wage, is it really any less plausible than this anchoring business? Moreover, there are a lot of models for the efficiency wage and many of them are a lot more plausible than gift exchange. The thing is though that pretty much all of them involve micro-mechanisms that would be undermined by wage compression from a price floor.

The really broad point is that when you’re dealing with really high causal density and subtle mechanisms, it’s pretty easy to pick out things that make your side’s policy pitches look good, and not only good but good in the fashion of distinctly #aspenideas / #slatepitches kind of counterintuitive erudition. However it is ultimately pretty selective and less about what the science shows than how we can draw on the literature to make ourselves feel more sophisticated than those troglodytes so ignorant as to disagree with us.

A Criticism Of Pope Francis

Ok, so I’ve been playing a little bit the role of Pope Francis’ Busiris* and, I think, appropriately so, but I’ve always left the door open to criticism, and here I am going to do that.

No, Pope Francis is not a Marxist. He is not a free marketer either. But what he gives us in his latest interview is an example of why these categories are not necessarily the most useful in looking at Petrine Chair’s economic magisterium.

Here’s what Pope Francis said about world hunger:

With all the food that is left over and thrown away we could feed so many. If we were able to stop wasting and start recycling food, world hunger would diminish greatly. […] If we work with humanitarian organisations and are able to agree all together not to waste food, sending it instead to those who need it, we could do so much to help solve the problem of hunger in the world.

(Pope Francis is so easy to love because this stuff is interspersed with such a lovely story of encouraging a mother to breastfeed.)

Here’s the thing: the reason why so many go hungry is not that people in the West throw away food. That’s just not the reason. The reason is not free market capitalism. The reason isn’t even socialism (or only marginally, these days). The main reason—and I’m pretty sure this is something all serious observers of this question would agree with—is quite simply corruption. Everyday corruption of functionaries. Corruption in the broader sense of war. Corruption.

This fact, if it is a fact, makes Francis’ words disheartening, and this for many reasons.

First, its pollyannaish quality. No, it’s simply not true that if we in the West stopped wasting food kids in Africa would have it. It wasn’t true when my parents told me so** to make me clean my plate, and it’s still not true. And pretending it is is, well, infantile. And not in a Matthew 18 way. And we can “rescue” this Francis comment by elevating it to the theological level, by saying that by wasting food we are, in a powerful sense, being ungrateful towards God’s good creation and being selfish. And that perhaps if we rid ourselves of this ungratefulness we will be made holier by grace and better able to follow Jesus’ command to feed the hungry. And I believe this is true! But that’s not what Francis is saying or, at the very least, it’s not only what he’s saying.

Second, it shows that so much can be accomplished at the level of social doctrine without getting into econo-philosophical debates about “free markets” and “trickle-down economics.” You don’t need to reform or reinterpret or innovate Catholic social doctrine to say that corruption of government officials is scandalous.

Third, because if there is any institution in the world that should put this issue front and center, it’s the Catholic Church. First because, as I’ve said, it’s already well within the bounds of Tradition and flows naturally from the Gospel. Second, because it has a unique legitimacy and presence in doing so. Who else has both the moral language and the on-the-ground presence in so many of these countries to be able to denounce corruption forcefully and effectively? The World Bank? The UN? How much great would be done if, every day, every bishop in sub-Saharan Africa and India and other places saw his number one pastoral priority as denouncing and combatting corruption by government officials, instead of (I’m sorry) bloviating platitudes about wasting food? Isn’t this something the Vicar of Christ should exhort the other bishops to do?

How much good this would do not only to the world, but to the Church! Bishops becoming signs of contradiction against corruption in the developing world would be a great evangelical sign. (And yes, I am sure that many today already do this.) And, of course, it would raise up the Church to a higher standard since a Church that crusades against corruption must therefore be all the more exemplary with regard to its own corruption. And to do so, it must be holy, because you can be sure that if bishops start all of a sudden denouncing corruption day and night, some will be shot and earn the crown of martyrdom.

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

Matthew 14:24-25

★ In Jean Giraudoux’s comedy The Trojan War Will Not Take Place Busiris is a lawyer who gives an airtight, brilliant legal argument that the Greeks are justified in going to war against Troy. Hector then threatens Busiris’ life, and Busiris then immediately gives an equally airtight and brilliant legal argument that the Greeks are unjustified in going to war against Troy.

★★ They didn’t tell me so.

The problem isn't that rich kids get off prison, it's that poor kids don't

I can’t believe this even has to be said. Everyone is in uproar over the kid who drove drunk and killed four people and “got away” with a suspended sentence and rehab, in part by arguing (with the help of psychologists) that his wealth was what drove him to drink and exonerated him.

The outrage here isn’t that a rich drunk driver is getting a suspended sentence and rehab, which seems to me to be exactly appropriate (I might add garnished wages and/or community service). The outrage is that poor kids don’t.

I fail to see how anyone is helped by destroying a kid’s life (which is what prison is, in many cases, certainly in America) just because other lives are destroyed, and this should be true for all across the income spectrum. I fail to see how it would be justice.

God pray for all of us.

Serious Christians Should Abstain From Theology-Via-Media-Quotes

Remember when Pope Francis gave that interview? And he said something heretical-sounding? And all orthodox Christians blew a fuse? And it turned out the interview wasn’t proofread and Francis never said that?

Good times.

One of the people who blew a gasket was the Southern Baptist Convention’s Russell Moore, calling the Pope’s interview a “theological wreck.” (Ecumenical best practice?)

And remember how, just a few days later, Moore was profiled in the Wall Street Journal and described as calling for a “pull back” of Evangelicals from politics, causing conservative Evangelicals to blow their own gaskets? And then he had to issue a clarification and say no no no, that’s not what I said at all? He who lives by the media-misquote…

By the way, I don’t think I’ve seen Dr. Moore apologize to the Pope.

Lest you think I am calling out motes without noticing the beam in my own eye, I am writing this because I fell for this too. In appraising Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber I critiqued a statement of hers I found unorthodox. My source for this was a Washington Post article. And of course it turns out that the quote was wrong.

Of course religious people are accustomed by now to the idea that the media covers religious topics absurdly. But it is a statement of our dark, pharisaical hearts that we still treat media accounts of religious people as authoritative when it gives us ammo to denounce someone.

From this succession of fiascos we should draw a simple rule: serious Christians should never, ever, EVER rely on media (at least mainstream media) accounts of a person’s theology to get an impression of that person’s theology. Please. Are y’all with me?

And of course I apologize to Ms Bolz-Weber.

Motorcadias

I met a traveller from LaLa land
Who said: ` Two vast and carless roads of concrete
Stand in the westside. Near them, at Saban’s house,
Half sunk, a shattered approval lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer against clingers,
Tell that its handler well those pollsters read
Which yet survive, stamped on this second term,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And to the bundlers these words appear —
“My name is Obama, orator of orators:
Look on my historical presidency, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The stacked up cars stretch far away.’

"You Can Keep Your Plan" And The Liberal Failure Of Moral Imagination

Obama lied, people lost their healthcare!

I want to put forward a more generous interpretation of the “If you like your plan, you can keep your plan” lie. Obviously in the first sense it is a lie, given that the Administration knew plans would be cancelled and pretended otherwise.

But I think there’s a well-intentioned way in which the people who conceived this lie could tell themselves that it wasn’t a lie. People have focused on the second clause “you can keep your plan”, but I think the key is the first clause: “if you like your plan.”

The entire premise of the Affordable Care Act is that the best, most awesomest form of healthcare coverage is comprehensive insurance, with an emphasis on the “comprehensive.”

Most of the plans that are getting cancelled are of the “non-comprehensive” variety (although many of them are far from the stingy, just-catastrophic, doesn’t-really-cover-anything picture of liberal propaganda). I think there’s a certain sort of White House who thought that if someone had a non-comprehensive plan, surely that person couldn’t possibly like it. And so, sure, that person’s plan would get cancelled, but the promise of “If you like your plan, you can keep your plan” would be fulfilled.

Of course, the reality is much different. There are a lot of people who really did like those non-comprehensive plans. Some of them are outraged because they have to pay more for the new plans replacing the old plans, perhaps because they’re just above the cutoff for subsidies under the ACA, and so the new status quo is a bad financial deal for them. But some of them are outraged because they don’t want comprehensive insurance. They understand that comprehensive insurance is, well, comprehensive, but that’s something they’re not interested in. Maybe they like the, ah, freedom, and control, of not having to go through an insurer for routine medical procedures. Maybe they object philosophically. Maybe they’re hubristic “Invincibles.” Whatever!

The point is that there was a failure, here, of what I can only call moral imagination. Of putting yourself in another person’s shoes. Clearly, judging by the liberal indignation since the ACA’s unraveling that no, you don’t understand, this really is better for you, a lot of the supporters of the law just cannot imagine that other people might want different things for their healthcare needs than what the law says they should have.

I found it interesting because it not only speaks to the progressive’s lack of humility in the face of complexity, but also to a certain lack of empathy. And this is interesting to me, because I happen to think, because of Christian premises, that empathy is the first and most important political virtue.

Now, this points to a contradiction, because, in a Haidtian sense, progressives as a group tend to be more empathetic than conservatives. But there is a certain kind of progressive empathy (not the only kind! But a certain kind, often present), which I can only characterize as a false empathy, because it oversimplifies the object of the empathy.

To take a grossly oversimplified example: no, actually, what poor people need isn’t just a handout, and a check. Poor people are, first, people, and they have all sorts of needs and emphases and their lives are complex, and they also need things like dignity, the self-realization and self-actualization that often comes from work, the fulfillment that comes from building a stable family, etc. In this sense, the drive that views in increased social spending a simple and obvious poverty cure is, while animated by a feeling of empathy, no real empathy at all. It can be more of a kind of “let them eat cake” moment. It can be. Which, of course, leads to frustration in some people when opposition to increased social spending is seen as a moral litmus test, and evidence of a lack of empathy.

Of course, none of what I’m saying is original.

The Bloomberg Hedge Fund Poker Game Is Everything That Is Wrong With Wall Street

Poker, as many other things that have a certain macho flair in our culture, is a fairly popular pastime on Wall Street, and that’s fair enough.

But when Bloomberg TV hosts a celebrity poker game with hedge fund titans, strongly implying that there is a big overlap between the qualities required to be a great poker player and a great fund manager, we are looking at a paradigm of everything that is wrong with Wall Street.

Yes, poker is a gambling game, and investing is a form of gambling (don’t let anyone tell you different).

But if we think about what makes poker such a fascinating and enthralling game (and I was a relatively serious poker player in law school—playing mostly with finance types), it has very little to do with odds. In fact it’s the things that don’t have to do with odds that make poker interesting. Calculating the odds of a poker hand is trivial.

What makes poker interesting is that it’s a game of a) incomplete information; and b) psychology. By design, in poker, you don’t have all of the information, and you must take other players’ psychology into account to win.

Of course, at least in theory, our financial markets are designed to work precisely the other way around. In the game “financial markets”, all players have complete information, and decisions are supposed to be purely rational and numbers-based.

I would suggest that poker is a pretty good game for entrepreneurs, precisely because to be an entrepreneur is to deal mainly with the psychological, and to always have incomplete information. But for public markets investors, this is completely backwards.

Of course, it’s possible to be a great poker player and a great investor, just like it’s possible to be a great physicist and a great swimmer, but no one would suggest that what makes you a great swimmer would make you a great physicist or vice versa. But this is clearly what we’re led to believe with TV programs that put hedge fund managers together for a poker game, asking them for poker tips the way they’re usually asked for stock tips.

One exception aside*, poker will teach you all the wrong things about investment. A world where we ask our investment managers to be poker players is a world where we’re asking to be fleeced.

I guess it’s no coincidence Warren Buffett plays bridge.

(* What’s the one good thing about investment that poker can teach you? It’s this: what I would call psychological endurance. Once you’ve been playing poker for many hours, you will find yourself much much more likely to make an irrational, big bet. One which you know is irrational but, having had your psychological endurance worn down by many hours of stressful playing, you still do. Being able to keep your head when all about you are losing theirs is useful both in poker and in investing, and playing a lot of poker can help you with that.)

This Quartz Post Going Viral Right Now Is Everything Wrong With Education Reform, Neoliberalism And America

God have mercy on all of us.

This post on Quartz is going viral right now on Twitter, and it is a perfect snapshot of everything that’s wrong with the worldview of a set of people. I just have to write it up. I only have half an hour.

It is wrong in a particularly pernicious and perverse manner, because it is actually filled with a lot of right and important stuff.

Right and important thing 1: hard work and diligence pays off!

Right and important thing 2: everyone has the capacity to learn math at at least a high school level (even French high school level, which is like a collegiate level in the US).

Right and important thing 2 is absolutely right and absolutely important.

Right and important thing 1 is also right and important, though the authors’ insistence that this constitutes some sort of bold, contrarian truth telling is…bizarre.

They are also absolutely right that our tendency to convince ourselves that we’re “not a math person” is both empirically wrong and absolutely disastrous at both an individual and a societal level.

But this is precisely why this post is so infuriating. It gets so much right, and yet it is so, so wrong.

Here is the pernicious problem with that post: its prescription for helping more kids learn math more better-er is… hard work!

Uh, no.

The reason why kids don’t learn more math better isn’t that they don’t work hard enough.

The reason is that math education is awful.

And the reason why math education is awful is because it is based on antiquated, awful 19th century principles.

Awful principles…that the authors of the article trot out as that which we should emulate!

The authors venerate East Asian education where the authoritarian focus is on hard work and perseverance through difficulty. The authors specifically endorse criticism and punishment as good ways to get kids to learn more math.

The problem with that is that it’s wrong. Not in the sense that it’s morally wrong, though it is, but in the sense that it is absolutely not the way to teach kids math, or anything else. The reason for that is that there is an overwhelming, abundant body of research that very very strongly suggests (if I was as rigorous as most pundits I would say proves) that the best determinant of learning is intrinsic motivation, not extrinstic motivation.

Do you want kids to learn math? Make learning math rewarding. Not with gold stars and grades and sticks and carrots.

This is true of all subjects, but it is particularly true of math. I’m going to assume the article’s authors were themselves “math people” and were schooled in the United States.

Since they appeal to their own personal experience, let me appeal to mine. I went to school in France, whose system is roughly as authoritarian and as math-focused as those in East Asian countries. And I was the prototypical “I’m not a math person” kid.

Here’s the thing—and it is bewildering to me that the authors won’t acknowledge this—if you want to learn a math subject and you’re “stuck”, no amount of “hard work” will help you. What will “unstick” you is being able to view the problem in a different light until you can “grok” it. The problem of math education in authoritarian systems is that it assumes that once a concept is explained, if you don’t succeed it’s because you’re not working hard enough. It’s like pushing at a door that says “PULL.” The problem isn’t that you’re not pushing hard enough.

For example, here’s how I was taught trig. I was taught to memorize the formulas to use to derive sines, cosines and tangents. Because I am a human being (worse, at that point, I was a preteen human being) I found it very hard to memorize these things that I didn’t understand. I was stuck. I had terrible grades.

But I was lucky enough to have a tutor, who actually not only had a solid grounding in mathematics but tutorial skills, and this tutor explained to me the unit circle. Once you understand the unit circle, all of trigonometry magically falls into place. Deriving sines and cosines and tangents doesn’t just become possible, it becomes pleasurable.

You could have said that my problem wasn’t that I wasn’t working hard enough because, well, maybe if you’d whipped me enough I would have memorized the formulas (in my specific case, I highly doubt it, but in the case of most people, maybe). But the real problem was that I had been taught trigonometry wrong.

Of course, an emphasis on rote memorization without thinking is one of the hallmarks of traditional authoritarian schooling. And it’s bullshit.

Let me give you another story. When I was in 7th grade, instead of doing homework, I watched Star Trek. Because dubbing in France is terrible, I watched it in English. And because I watched a lot of Star Trek (because I was a huge nerd), I quickly found myself able to speak English.

Now, I had English class in school, during which I mostly dozed. One common test was a quizz on irregular English verbs, of which there are plenty. Because I “wasn’t” “studying” English—like an idiot, all I was doing was learning it—most of the time I didn’t get a perfect score on those quizzes. More like 80-90%. Meanwhile I had a classmate who learned all of the forms of the irregular verbs by heart. He got 100% every time. And I still remember, petty soul that is mine, the burning pride and jealousy I felt when, each time the teacher would hand in the test results, I got some backhanded compliments and he got effusive praise. Of course, he couldn’t string an English sentence together. But hey, he got better grades than me! I guess he won in the end.

Using math as an analogy to speaking English, what we want is not kids who can recite irregular verbs, but kids who can hold a conversation. Even after “grokking” trig, I bet if you’d timed me doing problem sets next to a kid who’d memorized everything, I would do worse because I would probably start by scribbling a unit circle and re-deriving everything before applying the formulas. But as anyone who’s done math in a serious way knows, the latter is actually an infinitely better way. Of course, if you want to, at that point you work hard so that the rederiving becomes essentially muscle memory and becomes easier. But the key thing is the grokking. And if you have the grokking, the motivation to do the hard work will come easy.

The reason why this post is so awesomely, perversely wrong (despite being so right in some key ways!) is because it fails for the same reason “education reform” fails, which is that it fails to question the basic structure of how “education” is done in most modern countries, a way which is just contrary to how research says the learning mind works—didactic and extrinsic.

This is the problem of neoliberalism in a nutshell. To grossly oversimplify, while conservatism says “the poor suck, and they deserve it” and liberalism says “the poor are awesome”, neoliberalism says “the poor suck, and it’s not their fault” If only we could explain to minorities the value of hard work through targeted intervention and tweaking the incentive pay of teachers! Then they could pull themselves up by their bootstraps and do some linear algebra. Give me a break.

The authors start from a very good finding of fact (hard work pays off in life! Everyone can learn math!) to recommendations that make education worse like more authoritarianism, more homework, and so forth.

“Treat people who work hard at learning as heroes and role models.” LOL.

And the tragedy is that we already have very good ways of teaching kids, but we just pretend they don’t exist.

Think of replacing pi with tau as the circle constant.

Think of the flipped classroom.

Think of this clever binomial equation hack.

Think of the Montessori algebraic cubes.

Man, if only there could be a method, field tested, to teach kids math.

Oh wait, there is, and the authors seem completely innocent of it. It is called the JUMP Math curriculum, and from what I’ve seen, it Just. Works. Of course, its philosophy doesn’t say what the authors of that article pretend at all.

Of course, the authors could be excused for not having heard of JUMP Math, because society as a whole seems to be engineered to hide education alternatives and to be allergic to experimentation overall. Even though the lack of bottom-up experimentation is why education is so awful to begin with.

PS: If all I’m saying is true, how come kids from East Asian countries score so well in math?????? Because whipping people works to some extent. Kids at one end of the distribution will do better in math. Of course, kids at the other end will kill themselves. Yay!

Of course Healthcare.gov calls the liberal project into question

First of all, kudos to liberals for being reality-based. After some equivocation, most liberals have succumbed to facts and admitted that the Healthcare.gov launch is a disaster—not glitchy, but a disaster.

As sure it is that the Sun rises, conservatives have pounced on the Healthcare.gov disaster to argue that it shows that the entire liberal project is made not credible.

And as sure as it is that the Sun sets, liberals have responded with a chorus of “Nuh-huh!”

The representative example is Matt Yglesias, who makes the facile point that bad websites notwithstanding, we find that plenty of countries and plenty of locales have functioning social insurance systems, so it’s silly to say that a bad website discredits the whole liberal enterprise.

Meanwhile Josh Barro notes (sorry for lumping you with the liberals, Josh!) that some DMVs are awful, but some DMVs are not and are pretty good. The implication is that there’s nothing intrinsic to being run by government that makes a system be crappy. Some government systems are badly managed, some are well managed.

There’s an obvious sense in which this is correct, at least superficially (but not unimportantly). Yes, Germany had a social welfare state in the 19th century. Yes, empirically, we do find that reasonably well-run government services can exist. And yes, conservatives should pay particular attention to the latter point, in the Tea Party and post-Bush era, because given that the welfare state won’t go away overnight they ought to pay particular attention to managing it well, and not just pruning it.

But, in the immortal words of Cyrano de Bergerac, “That’s a bit short, young man.”

How do I put this?

My main frustration with moderates and neoliberals is that even though they’ve reconciled themselves to the idea that some sort of capitalistic system is necessary in any worthwhile society, they seem to have expended no effort in understanding why capitalism works (with “works” defined as “being the worst economic system except for all the others that have been tried”).

They seem to take that as an inexplicable fact of life, and asking why it works would be akin to asking a mountain why it decided to sit there and not somewhere else. Okay, fine, the neoliberal seems to sigh, capitalism exists, it’s the least-bad thing there is, and we ought to make our peace with it, and advance with our liberal project anyway as best we can. In a way, this is an admirable posture, made of both pragmatism and fidelity to strongly-held moral instincts. And for obvious reasons I would much rather hand the reins of government to a neoliberal or a social-democrat than to a Communist; in fact I would much rather hand them to a smart neoliberal than to a dumb libertarian.

But to some advocates of free markets, the success of capitalism is not some bizarre, inexplicable fact of nature, it is something that tells us (or ought to tell us) important things about human behavior and patterns of organization that lead to collective success.

To some of us, what the success of capitalism shows, and the reason why capitalism works, is, basically, that humans are pretty much hairless monkeys who are not just greedy and quarrelsome but not very smart. Because us monkeys are dumb and proud, we can only assimilate a little bit of information, and we are terrible at communicating with each other. This, in turn, means that us monkeys are pretty lousy at two important tasks: planning and coordinating. We really are terrible at it.

Now this happens to have some pretty significant consequences for how you might help a tribe of monkeys achieve some progress in material welfare. If your tribe of monkeys works by having one Head Monkey tell the other monkeys what to do, the problem with that is that any monkey, being bad at assimilating information, will give the other monkeys really dumb instructions. And since the head monkey (and the other monkeys) are not only dumb but craven and quarrelsome, you will soon have chaos.

Paradoxically, if you let most of the monkeys mostly just do what they want, actually, they will bumble and stumble and grope their way towards a much more advantageous state of being.

You see where I’m going with this, right?

One problem with current society is that we take many things for granted when we shouldn’t. Everyone “knows” that Communism doesn’t work and capitalism at least sorta-kinda works. But this is a superficial realization. Understanding why is actually profound.

Central planning fails, and spontaneous order arises, because central planners never have enough knowledge, never have enough insight. Meanwhile, because humans are limited in their use and transmission of information, those humans who are closest to the thing they’re doing will have a much better understanding and be able to use these resources much more effectively. And, again, because humans are dumb, we find that decentralized means of aggregating information (whether commodity markets or Wikipedia) actually work much much better than centralized means, and are very precious.

In fact, if we look around at the Universe, we find that for some reason decentralized bottom-up innovation is a very very powerful force.

One of the many lamentable consequences of the Creationist movement has been that among educated elites it has become a kind of shibboleth to not only affirm faith in evolution by natural selection but to sort of scoff at any doubt that evolution by natural selection might not be obviously, self-evidently true.

But it’s worth it for just a minute to take off our cultural blinders and note how shocking to intuition and common sense evolution by natural selection really is. When a Creationist says “How could something as intricate and complex as an eye have evolved?” our first instinct is to get angry because we might be educated monkeys but we’re still monkeys, but we really should appreciate how, on its face, it really seems absurd that you could postulate the evolution of an eye through a totally unguided, bottom-up process. How much more intuitive, how in fact extremely compelling is the idea that something as complex, as awe-inspiring, as intricate, as glorious as an eye, or a tree, or a flower, or a hummingbird just has to be the direct product of an intelligence.

But in fact, we do know that eyes come from this unguided process, because for as much as humans can build rockets to space and stuff, we basically don’t even understand what makes a cell divide. Through our top-down, knowledge-intensive monkey way, we can build a rocket, but in terms of complexity and sophistication, a rocket to Mars is basically as advanced as a flint arrow, compared to an amoeba. And it takes all of human intelligence to build a rocket, but literally zero intelligence to build an amoeba!

That’s some wild shit, man. So wild that even though we actually know this is true, we totally ignore it.

We see this superiority of bottom-up trial-and-error over central planning all over human affairs. Tim Harford wrote a whole book about this, you really should read it.

We see it in the scientific method. Aristotelian science was a kind of scientific central planning, where scientists used reason to acquire “knowledge of the ultimate causes of things.” The problem is that because we’re dumb monkeys, we can’t actually know the ultimate causes of things. And because we’re not only dumb monkeys, we’re proud monkeys, it’s very hard for us to actually convince ourselves that we can’t know these things. And so science was basically just derp for roughly two thousand years; even though, and this is crucial, early scientists were actually really intelligent people! The point isn’t that they were dumb; the point is that they weren’t. But they were still monkeys.

Then we invented the scientific method, which could really be called “knowledge for monkeys.” Don’t actually try to know very much. Just do experiments, and see what works. Keep your experiments as simple as possible. Repeat your experiments as much as possible.

Again, because of the benefit of hindsight, because its benefits are all around us and have been all our lives, we take it for granted that it’s obvious that the scientific method is superior, and it is, but it’s also worth pausing for a second to note how bizarre it is.

You’re telling me the way to know more about the causes of things in the Universe is to actually stop looking for them? That to understand natural phenomena I shouldn’t actually try to understand them? What are you, some cut-rate Zen master or some shit?

(Yes, I know that things are a little bit more complicated than that, because science evolves through experiment within theoretical paradigms and not merely by bottom-up experimentation. But the point that bottom-up experimentation is crucial is true—in fact, it’s only bottom-up experimentation that changes paradigms.)

In fact, this is so hard to understand that we still don’t understand it, or else anyone who sees a headline with the words “studies show” would instantly projectile vomit. Most people on the street think science is this weird machine that somehow produces “truths.” Heck, even scientists think that science creates capital-t Truths instead of limited, small-t, contingent truths subject to experimentation, otherwise Richard Dawkins would have taken a vow of silence. It’s a testament to the power of the scientific method that even people who don’t understand it can use it profitably.

As Feynman said, “science is the belief in the ignorance of experts”, and yet most people today believe that science is the belief in the knowledge of experts. Because we’re monkeys who are dumb and proud, and because we’re proud we refuse to acknowledge that we’re dumb. In the past, we took priests of a religion that proclaimed the value of property and turned them into wealthy princes (and monkeys that they are, they gladly obliged), and now we take priests of a religion that disregards capital-T truths and turn them into purveyors of capital-T Truths (and monkeys that they are, they gladly oblige).

Another point about monkey-knowledge (aka, science) is that the scientific method is only successful on a relative scale. The scientific method is stupendously superior to Aristotelian science, and yet most science experiments fail. Most results are highly contingent, and limited, and even the promising results turn out to be non-replicable.

But that’s the thing about bottom-up, trial-and-error experimentation: most of it fails. In fact, it’s if you don’t have failure that you have a problem. The key thing is that you have a process that identifies success (in science, replication) and that lowers the cost of failure (so that you can run more experiments).

So if you’ve been following me all around this roundabout way, you will see where it leads back to capitalism and to theories of government. It turns out that we’re dumb monkeys who are not only dumb, but too proud to admit to ourselves that we’re dumb. But it turns out that, because we’re dumb, proud monkeys, the least-bad way we’ve got to achieve some process is through bottom-up trial-and-error experimentation, because that’s the thing dumb, proud monkeys do the least bad at. And even though bottom-up experimentation will be very messy, very imperfect, very problematic, it will still be much, much superior to central planning because monkeys are even much much worse at that. But because we’re monkeys who are not only dumb but proud, we refuse to acknowledge our dumbness.

We acknowledge the superiority of the scientific method because we are forced to, but we refuse its epistemological implications. We take the success of science to mean that we can have knowledge after all, but what the success of science actually means is that we can’t.

And we acknowledge the superiority of free-market capitalism because we are forced to, but we refuse to acknowledge its human and social implications. If free markets really work better than central planning, then we really are dumb and proud monkeys and we should really start organizing as such. But because we’re dumb and proud monkeys that’s a really really hard pill to swallow.

In fact, some advocates of free market capitalism make this mistake too. Capitalism works, they say, because capitalists are (somehow) super heroes with super awesome ideas that come fully-formed out of their thigh and that, in their great generosity, they allow us to have for just $9.99. And capitalists are not just awesomer-er, some versions of this argument go, they’re better.

No! Monkeys, the lot of them! Jobs, monkey. Bezos, monkey. Musk, monkey. Edison, monkey. Ford, monkey.

So here’s what I’m driving at. It’s a reasonable generalization, I believe, to state that the liberal project rests on a (largely unspoken) assumption, which is that planning can work. Or, perhaps more accurately and charitably, that to have successful planning is only moderately difficult.

Thus the DMV argument. Sure, some DMVs are bad, but some DMVs are good, and if you put good people in charge of the DMV, then the DMV will work.

The problem with that isn’t that the DMV can’t work.

The problem with that is that the overwhelming record of history shows that it’s highly unlikely that the DMV can work in any sort of sustainable way.

The reason for that is that planning is much, much harder than we are inclined to think.

Planning is very hard because we are dumb monkeys.

And we are strongly inclined despite all evidence to the contrary to believe that planning can work because we’re not only dumb but proud monkeys and we don’t want to admit to ourselves that we’re dumb monkeys.

And when I say planning I mean planning.

I don’t mean “the market” versus “the gummit.” I mean planning.

All planning is extremely difficult.

In some sense, it’s utterly baffling that CEOs of big companies think the private sector is more efficient than the government, because boy, are big companies utterly awful. Big companies are notoriously awful at planning. If big companies were good at planning, no startup would ever succeed, and yet not only do startups succeed, they succeed all the time.

Conservatives like to grouse at the perverse incentives of tenured public school teachers, but any big corporation is a tangled mess of awful, destructive incentives.

It’s monkeys all the way down.

99.9% of science experiments fail, and yet that is still so much better than anything else.

This understanding of the role of limited information and our own limitedness is really, really, really, deeply counter-intuitive, but it is also really important. Because we are dumb, proud monkeys, we think we know a lot more than we actually know. And so we make big mistakes. We invade Middle Eastern countries. We think we can centrally plan an industry that’s 20% of GDP. And when the car ends up in the ditch, we say “Guess the plan was wrong!” No, you chimp! The plan wasn’t wrong. A plan is impossible. We’re willing to admit our plan was wrong. It is much, much, much harder to admit that planning itself is impossible.

Donald Rumsfeld is actually an extremely talented and competent guy. Just like Bob McNamara before him. Just like Cass Sunstein. Just like you-name-it. The point isn’t that these people are dumb and if we got smart people instead they would do better. The point is the opposite. The point is that these people are very smart, but you’re still asking them to do something that is impossible.

When we see a company fail, we reassure ourselves that we aren’t monkeys by declaring that the people who run the company are stupid. It’s much harder to admit the truth, which is that in most cases they’re actually very smart.

The point isn’t that a well-run DMV is a physical impossibility. The point is that if you assume a well-run DMV as a crucial part of your plan, then you are basically rowing against the laws of history and human nature. You are raising a middle finger to God in an Old Testament story where God routinely smites people who tell him to f off. But hey, you might get lucky! But “This extremely unlikely thing that basically only ever happens intermittently and in very specific circumstances just needs to happen for this extremely ambitious and far-reaching initiative to work” is a very very poor rationale for public policy. And yet it’s the rationale we always employ! We don’t put it that way of course, least of all to ourselves.

The reason why Healthcare.gov puts in question the liberal project is because you do not build something like Healthcare.gov unless you have a delusional confidence in the possibility of planning.

As Yuval Levin pointed out, Healthcare.gov is not a bad website selling a good product, Healthcare.gov is the product. There is now a non-trivial chance, acknowledged even by liberals now, that Healthcare.gov’s malfunctions could put the entire American individual insurance market on a death spiral. Whoops. If Healthcare.gov doesn’t work, all of Obamacare could implode, and with it the US healthcare system. Whoops. The overwhelming record of history shows that websites such as these are extremely extremely hard to pull off (and if you think that’s hindsight talking, talk to anyone involved in large-scale IT projects, they could’ve told you). The point isn’t that it’s impossible for any government to make a website that works. The point is that the kind of people who are so confident in their ability to make a good website that it’s a crucial part of their plan against all good judgement should not be trusted with the levers of public policy, because they are dangerously delusional. And we have a word for that kind of people, and that word is “liberal.” A prerequisite of being a liberal is having a faith in the possibility of planning that, when put together with the evidence of monkeyness, is exposed as a delusion. A highly understandable, a highly natural, delusion, precisely because our monkeyness makes us delusional. But a delusion nonetheless.

Ok, so when does planning work?

Answer A: Almost never.

Answer B: When it does, it almost only ever works in very limited and partial ways that involve a lot of bottom-up experimentation.

Ok, but what about World War II/the Manhattan Project/the Apollo Project/DARPA/that DMV that runs good?

Yglesias points to the fact that NASA can put a robot on Mars as evidence that the government can do stuff. Of course, for a country that sent a probe to the outer Solar System 45 years ago, putting a roomba on Mars is laughably pathetic.

It’s not the space equivalent of Healthcare.gov, because the roomba does get to Mars instead of crashing on the White House lawn, but it’s very much the space equivalent of right-wing-talking-point-DMV. Compare the evolution of space technology to the evolution of information technology over the past 50 years. Which one was driven by government? Riiiiight. Now read the essay A Rocket to Nowhere and have a good cry. When the space industry really gets into gear, the wretched state of what passes for space exploration will become as glaring as an internet.

But, ok, ok, the government does do cool stuff once in a while.

That being said, when you understand, actually understand, deep-down understand our monkeyness, and understand the difficulty of planning, you understand that the instances of successful government planning actually prove the case for monkeyness, just like the failures of private-sector corporations do. The point isn’t that there’s some awesome magic thing that makes the private sector efficient and gummit bad, the point is that we’re monkeys. If you think private sector good, gummit bad, you still think that there’s a place where there’s no monkeys. Monkeys everywhere, you monkey. Repeat it every time you go to bed.

As I wrote about DARPA inventing the internet, the way the government invented the internet was through bottom-up innovation. DARPA hired a bunch of hippies and gave them free rein to screw up tons of things. It was totally unbureaucratic. It was, in fact, all more than a little bit insane—the way most startups are insane.

I don’t think I’m descending into Rush Limbaugh-ism when I say that this is quite far from being the “default setting” of government. The success of DARPA calls into question the liberal project for the same reason as the failure of Healthcare.gov does, because it shows the futility of planning, and the virtues of bottom-up experimentation. It shows the futility of “markets good, gummit bad” which is another version of rejecting monkeyness. It shows the validness of embracing monkeyness. DARPA is the exception that proves the rule—not in a facile idiomatic way, but in the profound way that it stands out precisely because it is so unlike the way government normally operates.

Again, the point isn’t that there is some inherent property to government that makes it sucky, the point is that the way government is set up makes extremely unlikely that our monkey natures will be oriented towards good outcomes.

When writing about the scientific method I showed that one thing that makes these systems work, besides bottom-up experimentation, is clarity of a definition of success (in the case of science, reproducibility) and a possibility of failure leading to re-experimentation.

The Manhattan Project and the Apollo Project exhibited those traits. First, the definition of success was abundantly clear. Make a bomb make a really big boom. Put a man on the Moon and return him safely. (Compare with, say, education and healthcare, where it is quite literally impossible to define success adequately.) Second of all, the possibility of experimentation was there. Really really smart people were taken and written blank checks. (Note, again, how unlike the normal operation of government this is.) Finally, there was enough political will that failure was taken in strides. When some of the Apollo rockets blew up, Congress didn’t all of a sudden decide that NASA would be run by lawyers, because everyone was scared shitless by the Soviets’ early lead in space. Again, contrast this with the mess that NASA is today.

Tom Ricks convincingly described how, during World War II, most US Army generals failed, and were very quickly removed when they did. For all the top-down-ness that is inherent in the US Army, necessity being the mother of invention led them to, in spite of themselves, create some bottom-up innovation. Individual corps commanders who performed were rewarded, those who didn’t were culled. There was much unfairness to the system—not infrequently, genuinely talented commanders were unlucky and removed nonetheless. Just like many talented entrepreneurs experience failure. But it still made the system much healthier overall. Ricks aptly contrasts this with the ineptly bureaucratic way the US military now functions.

True fact: which was the first large organization to experiment with making employees rate their superiors? The Wehrmacht. Yep. (Source: Wikipedia, so it’s gotta be true.)

What we find is that top-down planning can kinda-sorta occasionally work under basically the following conditions: 1) clarity of objective (invade Europe; make plutonium go boom; land on the Moon; make money); 2) effective urgency, by which is meant that either necessity (kill the Germans or they’ll kill us; release a great new personal computer or go bankrupt) or a great political will (“we choose to go to the Moon”; the iPhone will be ready to ship by June) which seems to get the monkeys to be somewhat less awful at grokking and sharing information and letting their pride get into the way of collaboration; 3) extensive bottom-up experimentation within the top-down framework (and sometimes causing change/abolition of the top-down framework).

We find that these conditions quite rarely obtain, and that these conditions seem to be necessary but not sufficient. Top-down planning fails plenty even when these conditions are met.

We also find that while these conditions obtain rarely overall, they obtain vanishingly rarely in the government sector. Meanwhile they obtain less rarely in the private sector, because the private sector is by its nature more (not completely, not intrinsically, but slightly more) oriented towards bottom-up innovation, creating failure and bounceback, and providing clarity of objective.

I think this is also why founder-driven companies consistently outperform professional manager-driven companies. It’s not that they’re genuises who have this great vision, or at least it’s not just that. Yes, having a better top-down plan helps. But in the end they’re monkeys too and they screw up all the time. It’s that they provide the (2), the effective urgency which breaks down our innate, monkey tendency towards bureaucracy, and waste, and stupidity, and focuses us.

Again, I want to emphasize the extent to which the private sector is by and large an enormous engine of bureaucracy. Most large companies are only slightly more efficient than the proverbial DMV, and many may be less.

But as a prudential rule, assuming that the government can’t plan things makes a lot of sense, exceptions notwithstanding.

It’s a prudential rule, and it’s a good one. Just like when we prevent banks from having almost no capital, we’re not saying it’s impossible for a bank to have almost no capital and still succeed. But we still don’t allow that because we recognize that a) it’s still very unlikely; and b) when it fails the consequences are catastrophic. It’s possible for a financial institution to be totally reckless and succeed, even without bailouts, but the grain of the Universe goes against it. It’s possible in the same way that kayaking upstream of a torrent is I guess maybe possible sometimes? I know nothing about kayaking. It’s possible only when a bunch of stars that almost never align align. And even when it’s possible, history teaches us that it’s only possible for a time. Again, the analogy with government planning works. NASA once pushed the frontier of human exploration and knowledge, and now it’s building rockets to nowhere. And when you say we should stop building rockets to nowhere and unleash some entrepreneurial innovation, you’re accused of hating America and pissing on everything. But the Apollo Project! Precisely. Monkeyness tells us the Apollo Project is possible, and also not repeatable as such.

The law of monkeyness is to human affairs as the law of entropy is to the Universe. Once/if Healthcare.gov is up and running again, we will see plenty of longread post-mortems in our nation’s greatest journals, and plenty of earnest wonks will inweigh on the specific mistakes that were made and say: “See? If we hadn’t made specific mistakes X, Y and Z, it would have been fine!” The wiser, monkeyness-embracing realizes that by the nature of the thing mistakes will always be made. And in some complicated way that is impossible to forecast a priori, the attempt to prevent mistakes X, Y and Z will lead to mistakes A, B and C next time around. Such is the way of dumb, proud monkeys.

If you add monkeyness to the nature of modern democratic government, you quickly realize why monkeyness makes successful government planning highly unlikely not just in abstract, but now. As we’ve said, two necessary conditions for functioning central planning include tremendous political will and a tolerance for failure. These are the things that are absent from modern democratic system. And for good reason. It’s great for humanity that Steve Jobs terrorized Apple employees into making gorgeous phones, but the idea of Steve Jobs in control of the FBI makes Nixon look like a Quaker.

Democratic government is a government for monkeys, and that’s why it works. It’s a government for monkeys because monkeys get arbitrarily fired and replaced by other monkeys at regular intervals, which means there is some learning-through-failure that goes on. But it’s a government for monkeys because it’s full of checks and balances. The whole idea of checks and balances is that politicians are craven and proud and dumb and are going to spend time fighting each other instead of fighting the people. And it’s wonderful! It embraces monkeyness.

But the checks on government, particularly in the modern era, aren’t just checks of the constitutional variety. Popular opinion is also a great (perhaps the most important) check on politicians. And it’s easy to see how the influence of popular opinion makes planning impossible. Absent Sputnik scaring the crap out of the Nation, if you’re the monkey who decides to make NASA go to the Moon and your rocket blows up killing a photogenic astronaut, a Congressmonkey will give you a proctology exam on national TV. As I wrote, bottom-up experimentation is glorious over the long haul but incredibly messy up close, and the nature of politics ensures that all of the messy experimentation and failure is going to look awful and be a huge political hit. Which explains why the successful examples of government planning happened as a result of World War II or the Cold War, where the existential threat upon the nation briefly and partially suspended the normal rules of politics.

That’s the impact of broad popular opinion, but there is also the impact of narrow popular opinion, ie special interests. NASA is probably, net-net, a waste of resources at this point, but seriously reforming it is politically impossible at this point because too many entrenched interests are at play.

Now if you’re a conservative, this is okay, because monkeys are monkeys. A democracy is a regime for monkeys and this is good (or, less bad than the alternatives). A market is a regime for monkeys and this is good (or, less bad than the alternatives).

But plenty of liberals sometimes realize that the (or, more accurately, a reason) reason why it’s so hard to have Government-Planned Projects is because of this messy business of politics and checks and balances. Or, in other words, democracies. And so plenty of liberals, with the best of intentions, find themselves really really craving more power for the central government, so that we can finally get those big projects gone. Now I’m not saying all liberals are closet fascists, or even some of them (well, maybe some of them), but, again, we are proud monkeys. Proud monkeys crave power, and because they are proud, they need to reassure themselves that they are craving power for other reasons than the love of power. And I don’t think it’s unfair to say that liberals have an impulse towards increasing the power of central government.

And this is where conservatives start thinking about Second Amendment remedies. Because, of course, it’s not only deeply unwise (politics is only the proximate cause of the failure of planning; see: Soviet Union. No, really. See it. ), it’s also very dangerous and deeply morally wrong. It would be good if we could give lots of power to a benevolent non-monkey, but, again, we’re monkeys. And monkeyness means not only that we’re very awful when we get power but also that we’ll never learn to not crave it anyway, even with the best of intentions.

Meanwhile, markets, because they encourage bottom-up experimentation, because they have mechanisms for aggregating information which are necessary for our stupid monkey brains, because they provide failure-bounceback mechanisms, because they provide (some) clarity of objective, tend to be preferable to central planning whenever they can’t work. Not because they don’t suck. They do. Because they’re just an organization of monkeys. But they just suck slightly less. And that slightly less happens to make a very big difference.

Okay, so where does that leave us?

To the complicated and counterintuitive point that the overwhelming record of history is that bottom-up innovation produces the best outcomes, particularly for groups of monkeys such as ourselves. That monkeyness makes planning extremely hard. That planning should be resisted not only because it’s very unlikely to work but because proud monkeys will always overestimate their own skills at planning. That government planning in particular should be resisted because not only is it even more unlikely to work than other forms of planning, but because the consequences of failure of public sector planning are much more likely to be catastrophic than the consequences of private sector planning failure.

And if you want an example of that, look no further than Healthcare.gov.

Libertarian Provincialism

Let me speak in broad over-generalizations.

Libertarians who live in America look around them and see cops shooting unarmed pedestrians, people getting arrested for growing pot or selling (delicious) raw milk, taxes and government spending and debt going ever higher. In short, disaster. And all of these things are bad and it is very good that we have libertarians railing against them.

But where it leads them astray is that they are often taken to make the following sorta-syllogism: “America has terrible policies. Most of the people around me are either for them or just not up in arms about them as I am. The combination of most people being dumb and democracy produces terrible policies.”

Thus the venerable Ilya Somin in this month’s issue of Cato Unbound. (And of course Bryan Caplan wrote a whole book about this.)

The only problem with that is that if you take a little bit of a broader perspective (both geographically and historically) you realize that democracies are actually really awesome and that they kick the sh** out of all other forms of government. I mean, it’s not even close! On every front: protecting civil liberties, developing markets, etc.

Almost all the countries that have the best policies are democracies. It’s really quite lopsided. The only exceptions are either short-lived affairs (Chile) or exceptions that prove the rule (Singapore).

Libertarians who bash democracy are really sawing off the branch that they’re sitting on because to criticize democracy for those reasons is really to undermine markets. The idea that voters have to be experts to make good choices is like the idea that consumers have to be experts to make good buying decisions. Consumers are stupid, but markets nonetheless work for a bunch of complicated reasons, but at bottom because markets are a decentralized trial-and-error process and that in a highly complex world decentralized trial-and-error produces more robust outcomes. This is why Ayn Rand is so dumb: markets work not because of supermen, but because of millions of idiots making mistakes. If only people with an economics degree were allowed to participate in markets, all the markets would break down (except the market for economists). Over the long run, millions of lemmings make spontaneous order.

Because the feedback mechanisms of pulling the lever on the wrong guy are more diffuse than the feedback mechanism of making the wrong decision in the marketplace, it takes longer for the benefits to emerge, but if you look at the broad sweep of history and the planet today, it’s just no contest. Democracy works because it fires people who produce bad outcomes. And over the past centuries, democracy has led to more libertarianism than ever. Median-voter-pandering presidents and prime ministers have legalized trade and gay marriage and cut taxes and abolished Prohibition and and and and. The march of liberty goes on at an excruciatingly slow pace, but it does go on. Because your neighbors are dumb. Not you, of course. No. You’re the smart one.

Announcing The DeLong Club

My main contention about the healthcare system in the United States is that the main problem/opportunity is a lack of bottom-up, consumer-driven innovation.

Many economists, wonks and pundits have over the years advocated the idea that the way to have bottom-up innovation in healthcare while also achieving social justice goals is through the medium of health savings accounts (HSAs). A portion of your income every year would be put on such an account, which you would use to consume healthcare services.

HSAs aren’t perfect*, nor is any healthcare system, but many people who understood the trials of healthcare reform as encouraging both fairness and innovation thought that HSAs should be part of any healthcare reform.

This has become important now, of course, because of the healthcare reform act, which takes a centralizing approach to reform the healthcare sector, and basically sees no role for HSAs. I believe this is a grievous error.

The idea of HSAs is chiefly associated with the political Right in the US, but over the years countless economists, wonks and pundits associated with the political Left have advocated HSAs as a way to reform the US healthcare system. One of the most prominent is Berkeley economist and superblogger Brad DeLong.

As the ACA rollout moves from trouble to trouble and as the Right inchoately stumbles and gropes towards some sort of alternative proposal, I think it behooves people of good will on both sides of the political divide to think in good faith about positive reforms to the healthcare system.

THEREFORE, inspired by Greg Mankiw’s Pigou Club of “economists and pundits who have publicly advocated higher Pigovian taxes, such as gasoline taxes or carbon taxes” I am starting the DeLong Club, an elite group of Left-wing economists and pundits who have advocated health-savings accounts as a part of healthcare reform.

Here’s the list I’ll start with:
- Brad DeLong
- David Goldhill
- Dylan Matthews
- Matt Miller
- Jason Furman (Hat tip to Michael Hendrix )

I’m sure there’s more. Give me nominations (with sources, preferably).

O Lord, save your people, the remnant of true conservatism!

I would call the now decisively failed government shutdown / default brinksmanship a Hail Mary pass except that it’s actually possible that a teammate could catch a wild pass and score a goal whereas this whole political CF never had a plausible route to success. Rather the best metaphor I can see for the recent actions of the suicide lemming caucus and their Tea Party fans is as a civic religion equivalent to remnant apocalypticism.

Megan McArdle likes to draw on South Park’s underpants gnomes model of causation in business/politics/whatever but the original underpants gnomes model is apocalypticism, which typically works like this:

1. Recommit ourselves to God
2. ????
3. Utopia (eg, the Kingdom of God, restoration of the Davidic line, etc)

In apocalypticism the first step is premised on collective theodicy in which the travails of God’s people are punishment for the apostasy of the royal family and/or the nation and in which the purity of the apocalyptic community can reconcile the nation with God. Similarly, in the far right mentality if the post-colonial socialists are taking over it’s only because of the perfidious RINOs. In apocalypticism, penitence often involves a sort of one-upsmanship of purity, illogical rejection of common sense, and ostracism. For instance the Essenes lived apart from society and had rather radical purity taboos, even by Jewish standards. Apocalypticism often, but doesn’t always, go together with remnant theology and heretic hunting rather than “big tent” thinking.

Of course the “????” step two in apocalypticism is divine intervention which at least has the virtue of making sense on its own terms. (Note that attempts to provoke divine intervention not only include innocuous ascetic virtue but also more antagonistic “heighten the contradictions” tactics like mass suicide, provocative political theater, etc). However plausible or implausible it may be to count on divine intervention to slay the seven headed dragon, it strikes me as more internally coherent than political notions that pushing a radical agenda will somehow win the next election on turnout, give the electorate a choice not an echo, or any of the other obvious bullshit you hear from median voter theorem denialists in the derp industrial complex.

A Licensing Opportunity

1st of March, 1600 Anno Domini

To his majesty Felipe Hapsburg III,

His majesty Christian den Fjerde, king of Denmark-Norway, sends you greetings and congratulations on your recent ascension and wishes your reign to extend peace and prosperity to Spain.

We are writing to alert you that your realm’s “New Spain” project infringes on methods belonging to the Kingdom of Denmark-Norway. We wish to offer you an opportunity for licensing, including back-royalties for past activities of New Spain.

In particular, the kingdom of Denmark-Norway lays claim to various patents and other intellectual property stemming from its “Vinland” project with various filings contained in the Íslendingasögur. Although the Vinland project is no longer an ongoing project, in bankruptcy its assets have reverted to the crown and among these are various techniques infringed upon by New Spain. The most important of these patents is for “Growth in Commerce and Enrichment of the Realm Through Expansion to Lands Across the Ocean.” However New Spain also infringes on various other of the Vinland patents, including “A Method for Enslavement of Skrælingjar” and “Export of Agricultural Commodities Derived From Exotic Plants.”
We would therefore like to offer you the opportunity to license the Vinland patents to cover your activities in New Spain. A licensing deal must account not only prospectively but retrospectively for all such stuffs exported back into Christendom. It has come to our attention that New Spain has to date exported approximately 17,000 tons of silver in addition to several hundred tons of gold and many more tons of exotic useful things such as tabac, maize, cocoa, and various spices.

Please send an embassy to discuss licensing terms and royalties immediately so as to avoid a cease and desist on all activities of New Spain.

His Majesty King Christian IV
Frederiksborg Palace
Copenhagen, Denmark-Norway

[cross-posted to Code and Culture]

Bleg: Great Books For Your Child

The Internet is currently abuzz with David Bowie’s list of 100 must-read books and justifiably so—it’s a great list.

This brings something to mind. Our current plan (which is always subject to modification) for educating our children is to put them in Montessori school from 3 to 12, and unschool them thereafter. It’s not going to be a full unschooling, however. There will be some things that will be mandated of them.

In particular, I want to put my kids through a Great Books tutorial, and put together a list of books that I want them to read between 12 and 16/18. So I’m trying to come up with my own list of Great Books to put them through.

I know the lists that are currently in existence, but I want our own list to be slightly different. I want the books to cover disciplines outside the traditional liberal arts (e.g. economics; business) and cover more temporary topics. I also want the list to include literature.

But the idea is to give my kids a broad and deep exposure to the liberal arts, human (Western (?)) thought from the pre-Socratics to today.

With that in mind, I’d love to have your suggestions for books for inclusion in the list.

Here are some tips on what I have in mind. Please refrain from suggesting books that are already on most “Great Books” lists, as I’m already aware of them (an exception to this rule would be to say something like: “You really can’t do without, e.g. The Gorgias because XYZ”). A bleg-within-the-bleg is that I’m utterly ignorant of Anglo and particularly recent American literature and I’d like some of that stuff in there. Another tip is that I’m eager to include in the list what I’d call “secondary” material; meaning, I’d e.g. rather have my kids read the best book on Kant’s philosophy than force them to slog through the Critiques which are really technical and abstruse—but that requires that the “secondary” book be really outstanding and that’s one of the things I need help on. More generally, it seems that most “Great Books” list include books based on their historical importance rather than what a reader may get from them. Is the best way to understand Newton’s Principia Mathematica to read it? I don’t think so, actually. And I certainly don’t want to inflict Das Kapital on them, though they will certainly read The Communist Manifesto. Another thing is that, to an extent, I’m willing to define “Book” broadly; for example, on the list are Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose series and Leonard Bernstein’s lectures, even though they’re video, so if you have some great ideas for non-book material that would fulfill the purpose I have outlined, let me know. I’d also like to include a “meta” book like How to Read a Book, though I know TAS Alum Alan has criticized that one. I’m also open to “lifehacks” books (like How to Win Friends and Influence People and such) if they’re really good.

With that in mind, to further guide you (and spark discussion!) here are some ideas of the books I’m considering for inclusion, bearing in mind that there’s no final list (and there might never be):
- The Didache
- Books by Church Fathers not named Augustine (I am so ignorant! Give me the recs! Especially the Orthodox contingent! (You know who you are))
- Good books on/of Jewish theology
- F.A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty (?)
- Milton Friedman, A Monetary History of the United States (?)
- François Varillon, Joie de croire, joie de vivre
- Marc Bloch, The Strange Defeat
- Sigrid Undset, Kristin Lavransdatter (shocking, I know)
- Charles de Gaulle, France and Her Army, The Edge of the Sword, Memoirs of War, Memoirs of Hope
- Kierkegaard (which one?)
- John Paul II, Dominum et Vivificantem, Redemptoris Mater, Centesimus Annus, Evangelium Vitae, Ut Unum Sint, Ecclesia de Eucharistia
- Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus trilogy
- Therese of Lisieux, The Story of a Soul
- Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Eichmann in Jerusalem
- Alain Besançon, A Century of Horrors
- Primo Levi, If This Is A Man, The Truce
- Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
- Amar Bhidé, The Venturesome Economy
- Clayton Christensen, The Innovator’s Solution
- Eliyahu Goldratt, The Goal, The Choice
- Andy Grove, High Output Management, Only The Paranoid Survive
- Charles Baudelaire, The Flowers of Evil, Small Prose Poems
- Eric Cobast, Leçons particulières de culture générale
- Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time (?)
- Vladimir Volkoff, The Turnaround, The Angel Chronicles, The Moods of the Sea, Disinformation, Towards a French Metric
- Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, America at the Crossroads
-

I could go on, but I think I’ve given you an idea. There are so many pieces that are missing here: art history; the Middle Ages; Catholic doctrine and mysticism; etc. Not enough fiction, not enough poetry…

…In any case, the floor is yours! Please help me. This should be a good discussion.

A Hermeneutic Of Pontiffs

I remember that one day I produced a theological musing on Twitter. One of my tweeps responded with something like “If you take that to an extreme, that’s [Heresy X].” I thought about that for a second and my response was “Well, don’t do that, then.”

I often think about that moment because whenever we write about theology there is a great room for interpreting anything anybody says, because the terms we use are so imperfect, and perhaps because Christian theology contains so many carefully (un?)balanced paradoxes.

It seems to me that this should lead to a general principle of, well, charity in interpreting what people say in this arena. If I am an orthodox Catholic, and I say “X” and some version of “X” is heretical, then you should probably assume that that’s not what I meant.

I say this, of course, because whenever Pope Francis says something, some Catholics have what seems best referred to as a hissy fit. And these hissy fits, invariably, seem to be based not on what the Pope actually said but what he seems to have said.

So for example, when the Pope says “Everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them”, that could be interpreted as a brief for moral relativism. Of course, the only problem with that interpretation would be that it would be arrant nonsense. Because, you know, he’s the Pope, and also an orthodox Catholic, as he has demonstrated on countless occasions.

What’s striking is that the same people who always wish to interpret the Pope in an unorthodox fashion are always so prompt in explaining why, say, the media are interpreting a Pope’s comments wrong.

The problem here, as always, is pride. We think like politicians. We parse words for whether they help the Republican Party of the Church or the Democratic Party of the Church, whereas we should be humbly receiving the teachings of the Vicar of Christ. When those teachings seem shocking to us, common sense alone dictates that, instead of rending our garments, we should, with humility and charity, check ourselves to see what we can learn.

So, for example, in his most recent interview, when the Pope criticizes proselytizing, is he criticizing evangelization? That’s what some people on Twitter seemed to think. It also doesn’t make sense, because the Pope later praises the Jesuits’ missionary work and, you know, more generally, he’s a Catholic bishop. It seems to make more sense if we understand his criticism as applying to pointless, antagonizing grandstanding (which is so often the form “evangelization” takes), and as calling us to an ethic of love in addressing unbelievers.

The wrong interpretation is particularly sad in this case, and missing the forest for the trees, since in this case the interview itself is an inspiring example of evangelization, with the Pope inviting (with striking humility!) a secular atheist journalist to a candid conversation. You think the Pope doesn’t care about evangelization? He is showing you how to do it! Note that his interlocutor leaves, while not converted, absolutely in awe, which is a pretty good first step. Note how the Pope speaks to his interlocutor in terms he can relate to—terms which might irk you, if you are a “conservative Catholic”, but terms which might bring people to the flock.

We really have to learn from the Pope.

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